Where the river flowed into the little lake was the site chosen on which to build our home cabin. The area was heavily wooded with black spruce standing tall and thick at the river's edge while jack pines of a suitable size for cabin walls grew all along the slopes of the river valley. The ground was covered in caribou moss so thick that when we walked among the trees there was the feeling that we travelled on a vast grey-green, deep piled carpet. The absence of underbrush, the fine green forest unmarked by humans, the fresh, clean appearance of the countryside gave us a sensation of enchantment so that we decided at once that this was where we wished to build our cabin. The presence of a small rapid in the river near the cabin was more than coincidental.
We had become accustomed to the idea of living beside flowing waters at Rat Creek where the current kept the ice from forming so that our water supply could be obtained very easily. We had learned that at a rapid there is always an easily accessible water supply. Even in the most severe winter weather a tap of the axe will collapse the covering ice shell and a pail can be lowered for swiftly moving freshwater. I have felt some compassion for people I had observed living in cabins on lakeshores in the grip of winter when they must breakthrough as much as sixty inches of solid ice to get stale water.
Our rapid gurgled and murmured and tinkled, depending on its mood and the season of the year. The breaks were not so great that a roar could be heard and there was no white water. It was what we termed a lesser rapid. The sounds it made were pleasant to hear and a relief from the profound silence of the wilderness. We knew well that its muted tone would be quieted completely by the winter frosts. The jack pines, in this latitude, rose only half as high as the Rat Creek jack pines of equal butt diameter.
Consequently, the logs tapered more sharply, but by laying alternately top end over butt end we put up a neat twelve-foot by eighteen-foot one-room cabin. A pole roof covered with moss, sod and sand completed the main structure with materials that we found at hand. A large window facing east and another on the south wall was made by installing sheets of roll celluloid purchased at Patuanak, an item usually available at the northern trading posts. Logs were carefully hewn to make a clean level floor when placed side by side. The top row of boards was removed from the green boat and made into a door. A stove box was built and filled with sand on which the stove and stovepipe oven were placed. Bunks were built of very slender, straight spruce poles that served as springs for our beds on which we hoped to place caribou hides for more warmth and comfort as soon as these animals might be shot.
A small dock, built-in deep water at the foot of the rapid proved to be most convenient and oft frequented place where we went daily to dip our drinking water, to clean fish or to wash clothing on a warm day. Here one might contemplate the fast-moving water and assure himself that this was the link by which he would eventually return to civilization. We had another direct line of one-way communication. A new radio receiving set, bought in Big River, functioned with awesome clarity and volume as soon as darkness descended on the northland.
It was mid-August when our cabin was completed. We rested and relaxed and took note of our new surroundings. Our old friends the whiskey jacks were with us, as numerous as they had been at Rat Creek. We saw kingbirds, robins, and crossbills in large numbers. Loons apparently in their true habitat, called weirdly among the islands of Cree Lake. Mallard ducks fed on the river, but their numbers were few in comparison to those at our former location. Spruce hens had been seen in small flocks and snowshoe rabbits had been flushed out of the thick cover along the lakeshore. Red squirrels were everywhere.
We were concerned with the complete absence of big game. Weathered moose-droppings were seen back of the cabin as were caribou droppings on the same game trails that were torn through the moss but that now held no tracks of any kind. Study of the long sandy beaches on Cree Lake showed occasionally a single fox trail on the smooth sand. Frank had described to us very vividly how the barren ground caribou migrated to this country so that the land swarmed with game and, yet, some years came not at all. Had we erred in coming here? Time would tell.
We prepared to ascend the river as far as possible on an exploration trip. On a still, sunny evening we had previously hiked the four miles to the falls whose roar could be heard from our cabin. Here the river fell ten feet from a flat rock ledge across its entire width as from the edge of a table. On this expedition, we portaged our green boat around the falls over an old but well-defined trail.
Progress upstream was easy since we were poling against the firm sandy river bottom a good deal of the way. The terrain was always the same long rolling hills and sloping valleys all covered with millions of jack pines. Black spruce grew up in swamps and rimmed the muskegs. An exceptionally high hill rose to the south of the river. After securing the boat, we climbed the hill to look over the countryside. As far as could be seen to the horizon in all directions in the clear air where the green pine with small blue lakes gleaming like gems between the hills with Long Bay of Cree Lake lying smooth and deep blue to the south.
Sandflies drove us back to the river. These bloodthirsty and diabolical creatures inflicted stinging bites on the face, ears, and neck so that we attached sheets of cloth to the backs of our caps in the manner of the Kepi worn by French Foreign Legionaries. The sandflies grew more and more voracious each day as summer drew to a close. I observed that they were present as long as the sun shone warmly by day even though the previous night had brought heavy frost.
A large lake was discovered in the late afternoon of our first day out. Here two days were spent building a fine small outcamp where the river entered and where there was again a lesser rapid. When the structure was completed Ab carved neatly in the log over the door the legend "Albert's house."
The lake lay shaped like a large hook and curved southeastward so that we reckoned that a great large circle could be made to join Long Bay to make up a circular route back to camp as a winter trapline.
The expedition continued up the river. About ten miles up, and after portaging around rapids, we entered a second lake, much larger than the first. Here we built outcamp number two. Although some hours were spent in an attempt to find where the river entered the lake, we were foiled by an extremely ubiquitous shoreline which led us in and out of dead-end bays. It was decided to continue the search on the ice after freeze-up.
Then we withdrew. Travelling with the current, running the lesser rapids and portaging where rapids could not be run, we made it back to the home cabin in one day of travel.
We had seen no big game. Other than a few fox tracks and one bear track no sign of large animal life had been observed at all.
But there was sign of animal life about the home cabin. Discovered by a medium-sized bear the place had been well looked over. Bear tracks covered the sand on the roof and the door bore several scratches. A large tin can that stood by the door showed teeth marks. It had spent some time at the windows, but these had been barred by spiking several poles across them before we left. We did not like to think of the havoc that would have been created in the cabin
had the bear been able to enter and entertain itself with our provisions!
It was September. Down at Rat Creek, the poplar and birch leaves would be turning autumn yellow. Since the only deciduous trees here where scrub birch that grew along Cree Lakeshore and on the islands, we missed the autumn colour show. However, the low brush along the river, made up of Labrador tea, turned Crimson.
Still missing till this point were any indications of big game. We had lots of fish for the taking but were thoroughly fed up with fish.
One day our hopes soared. Just beyond the main cabin, I saw the tracks of a large moose where it drew up sharply as it came upon the cabin, looked for a moment and then bolted down the game trail that paralleled the river. Its big hooves had splayed out and bitten deep into the sand leaving a trail that was well defined. The tracks led off to the northwest into country that we were not ready to explore.
There was other work to be done. We made a foray overland to the north. We walked past pine forests, muskegs, lakes, and hills to a place where a hill rose about two hundred feet above the average land height. Scanning from the crest the country to the north, we again saw the vast reaches of forested hills, the small lakes, and away off to the north, a large lake. After a long hike, we came out on the shore of this body of water amid a fine jack pine stand, bordered on the shore by a heavy cover of small spruce.
Here outcamp number three was erected. Set on a steep slope the site overlooked a large expanse of the lake. I pictured myself circling the lakeshore on the ice in winter and ascending the two creeks that entered the lake at right angles to one another at its western extremity. In this beautiful green country, the woods were again free of underbrush and travelling in the woods was easy and enjoyable.
Except for cutting the wood supply for fuel, we were ready for the coming winter. What did the future hold for us? The country, to all appearances, seemed still to be almost without big game or fur animals. Frank Fisher had suggested that foxes migrate to this land at freeze-up. We would just have to wait and see.
Our first diet had been heavily augmented by the eating of fish. Soon after our arrival, we had set a gill net one hundred yards long off a point of land on Cree Lake which we visited each day unless high winds prevented it. The net yielded large pike, lake trout, and whitefish. We prepared fish grilled, roasted, boiled, and in form of fish cakes. After a month the thought of eating fish became almost revolting. We found that big slabs of jackfish fillets were more appetizing when dried for a few hours in the sun and wind. We craved good red fat meat.
As September passed Ab left one morning at dawn to tour his proposed trapline. As usual, he took with him his long-barrelled.30 Winchester rifle. All-day I busied myself at the woodpile. At dusk Ab returned, grinning, and carrying on a forked stick the big heart of a moose.
Always, when Ab made a successful hunt, he recounted the event in every detail. It was the same on this occasion. Poling his boat on a stretch of river above the falls he saw the big tracks on a sandbar. His breath sucked in a little quicker as he noticed that the tracks were so fresh that the edges crumbled and slid into the depression as he looked. Beaching the boat, he grabbed the loaded rifle and ran on moccasined feet, silently on the wet moss, into the woods, tracking the moose as he ran. The trail was easily followed for the big hooves ploughed deeply into the wet sand. After a mile of tracking, he saw the bull and killed it in its tracks with one shot.
It struck me suddenly that Ab was becoming something of an authority on moose hunting.
Our position was now a good deal more secure. We rejoiced that our meat supply was assured for at least two months. Our time could be devoted to trapping.
The big-boled jack pines near the cabin were felled for firewood. Easily cut into stove lengths with a swede saw, the wood was split and piled in neat long rows for seasoning. The fuel contained much resin and dried quickly. It gave off plenty of heat but burned more quickly than the white poplar formerly used for stovewood. The importance of cut fuel was well known to us so that enough was made available to see us through the winter.
One day I looked down the trail from the cabin door and saw an undersized, starving dog come fawning toward the cabin. We recognized it as a typical Indian bitch, starved, abused, deserted, and lost. After a few days of good feeding, it began to fill out and its coat became shiny. Thereafter it remained close to the cabin and made a fine pet for it was clean and well behaved.
We had known for some time that Indians were about. From cabin number three, from my little lookout on the hillside, I saw their tents across the lake. A Chipewyan hunting party, the tents had disappeared on my next visit and I saw them and their owners no more that winter.
Blueberries grew everywhere. In the big pine groves the fruit was small, but in the burned-out country where new tree growth had already started,
the berries were large and grew in great profusion on the hillsides. Here we stripped them from the low bushes until we had all that we could eat. Made into deep pies or eaten with sugar and milk, blueberries proved to be a significant part of our diet from August to early winter. Temperatures had been gliding downward at night for some time now. Out on Cree Lake, when I went to unload the fishnet, I found ice on the branches that touched the water, so that the swells made them tinkle softly as they touched the water. One morning in late October, we found all the lesser lakes frozen over. It was time to set our traps. Working our own traplines, we went our separate ways stringing out the steel traps, blackened by a minute coating of paraffin wax that helped to prevent rust and covered man-scent. Likely-looking places were set along the river, on the shores of Cree Lake, long bay, and the lake to the north where my out camp stood. This lake, we discovered from the ice, was the northwesterly extremity of Cree Lake, joined to the main water body by a very narrow channel.
Our bait was lake trout. Hacked into convenient chunks these were buried in the sand, a V-shaped pen fashioned from weathered dead tree limbs, and the trap set at the entrance or on top of the bait, all camouflaged with caribou moss. We hoped that foxes would be lured to the putrefying fish which, even when buried in frozen sand, soon deteriorated into a green gangrenous mass that stank as an abomination to the highest heaven. Light snows covered all traces of the sets. The foxes migrated to our country. For a time fox tracks could be seen almost any place foxes frequent or on the lake ice.
These tracks crisscrossed the countryside in a great pattern that eventually led past the river and far to the south. They were not planning to stay, for, coming to open channels in the river, they plunged into the water, shook their fur dry on the other side and continued on their way. Soon the tracks diminished so that their fresh tracks were only occasionally seen. The big move had lasted for about two weeks. Our trapping success was beyond our fondest hopes. We "lifted" foxes until Christmas by which time we had collected thirty-seven foxes, five mink, and two coyotes. The awful-smelling bait attracted foxes from afar-for their tracks could be seen diverted from their normal course of travel-mesmerized so that they stupidly stepped into the traps. The sly fox of the children's storybook had been discredited.
We were financially stable for the next year. Adding to our good fortune, the barren-ground caribou arrived in their thousands, in November, assuring us a glut of meat, along with warm and thick-pelaged hides for sleeping comfort.
The time for our prearranged rendezvous with Frank Fisher was upon us, the place, Cree Lake outpost. we hiked the twelve miles across the lake ice which we judged had not frozen solidly until mid-November. Following Frank's directions of last summer, we skirted all the islands we encountered until we made for a larger island near the east shore.
We had no trouble finding the outpost. This Hudson's Bay Company establishment was under the charge of Jim Buchan, an Orkneyman, capable, congenial, and well-chosen for his lonely charge. He made us welcome in true northern style, plying us with good store food, hot coffee, and boiled caribou. Alex, his big assistant was half Cree, half white from Ile-a-la-Crosse way, a great talker and entertainer, with a fine sense of humour. We all spent a leisurely and most enjoyable two hours over the meal. We had not had the company of our fellow man in nearly five months.
Just before dusk Frank arrived from his cabin on the American River. He was fully bearded now, but with his ever-present grin, and we greeted each other warmly for we were all genuinely glad to see each other. The evening and most of the night was spent in lively conversation and good fellowship. Towards morning we rolled into our bedrolls and were so late in rising next day that we were persuaded to stay another day.
Ab and I had brought along all our furs in a large pack which we took turns carrying on the lake since our one dog was well loaded down pulling our bedrolls on a small toboggan that we had made. Our foxes were about sixty per cent reds, the balance crosses and one silver. Jim, we figured, would give us a fair deal, which he did. With part of the proceeds we bought an excellent nineteen-foot freighter canoe that Jim had lying on the shore, and even after paying for the trade goods we bought, we still had a few hundred dollars to spare.
Alex had a buff-coloured male pup for sale. Though fully grown, with a thick woolly coat, it was still too young for heavy pulling. We bought the dog for ten dollars and named it Snuff. When we took our leave Alex gave us a spare dog harness. When the dog was hitched behind the small bitch, we set out for Frank's cabin. the pup took to the trail like a veteran and after fifteen miles we arrived at Frank's place-without stop.
Frank had a snug little cabin, with, everything neat and clean. However, he had not done so well at trapping for he had gathered only a dozen foxes, even though, he worked hard and travelled far. Somehow there had been no big movement of foxes through his area. It turned out that Ab and I had made the best catch at Cree Lake that winter, according to Jim Buchan.
In two days the time for visiting ended. With two dogs to pull everything the whole distance to our cabin was made in one day's travel after a brief stop at the outpost.
Well into the season of long nights and low temperatures, we took a good deal of interest in reading our thermometer. A good quality Fahrenheit thermometer hung on a spruce near the cabin. This instrument was graduated down to -60 degrees with a blank space above the ball. One morning I stepped outside, pursed my lips and blew a breath into the tremendously cold air. The sound was similar to that of a piece of paper being torn in two. Curious, I went over to read the thermometer. The red mercury column ended well below the graduation marks. I estimated that the reading was -72 degrees or over 100 degrees of frost! Prince Albert, far to the south, has recorded a low of-70 degrees.
We knew that it was dangerous to travel in such weather. Fur-bearing animals knew it too, and their tracks vanished altogether for a time; holed up to keep from freezing. We likewise remained in our cabin. We rested and ate well from our store supplies and the flesh of caribou. Books and magazines had been swapped with Frank and Jim Buchan and were now read and reread. The radio receiving set continued to function flawlessly on cold clear nights. We tuned in to the "Northern Messenger," a program beamed to the North and by which we received many personal messages from our relatives in the south. Dr Brinkley still exhorted us very loud and clear on the virtues of his medical clinic from his powerful transmitter just across the southern United States border in Mexico. In this weather, our dogs were allowed at large, but they did not stray from the cabin.
The cold lessened after several days. Now the snow fell steadily until it lay four feet deep in the bush. Affected by an almost complete absence of wind, the snow clung in great blobs to the pines all winter long for rarely did we experience a winter thaw. Average temperatures were well below that of Rat Creek.
We were greeted by the croaking of ravens as we travelled our traplines. The big black birds were ever-present on the cold desolate scenes of mid-winter. They eyed us while flying just above the trees and sometimes lit on nearby trees for a closer look. One day as I worked on a fox set, a raven glided silently over and perched on a dry snag almost at arm's length, looking me over with black beady eyes. I was reminded of Barnaby's raven, but the resemblance was in appearance only, for this one was probably viewing its first human, possibly having mistaken me for a sick caribou and hoping I would lay down and die so that it could pick out my eyes. As I travelled on I saw the bird rise and disappear over the hills. We had to cover our meat well for one caribou carcass, hastily covered and left for two weeks, was stripped to the bones by the ravens although the meat was frozen rock hard. I have watched their flying antics which include the "loop-the-loop," I will always associate ravens with this land in the dead of winter-a country of wild and desolate beauty.
Ab was showing an increasing interest in something new appearing on the river. Small open holes in the ice showed the snow had been pushed back by some animal. Many springs fed the river and we saw tracks and mud along the edges of the open holes. Then we found two sets of tracks where animals had come from overland and entered the river. The newcomers where otters. We had no idea of how otters could be trapped. Having seen the remnants of an old otter set in the Deer River the previous summer,
Ab built one of a similar nature. A circular pen built by driving pointed spruce poles into the river bottom to make a circular enclosure about twelve inches in diameter with a six-inch opening facing the river centred. A fish was secured within the pen and a trap set at the opening. Lying on the ice and peering under cupped, mittened hands the set was visible in great detail under two feet of water. One day the trap was sprung and the bait stolen. Ab then reasoned that the trap must be placed to one side of the pen, for the otter must spread its front feet wide when pulling at a tied bait. Next time around he found the otter neatly caught by its front paw, very wet and drowned. He had discovered the key to successful otter trapping. All winter long the ptarmigan fed in the willows. Since we did not want for meat, we rarely bothered to shoot them except when we wished to eat fowl for a change. We would then roast one apiece in the stovepipe oven. Spruce hens were flushed from time to time in as we travelled in the bush but were not often taken for food.
We discovered that foxes remained in good condition much longer than at Rat Creek, due in part to the absence of underbrush in this area and consequently the fur did not become "rubbed" until late winter.
So the winter drew to a close. In mid-April, we heard crows for the first time. The south wind brought warm air and the thermometer reading was above the freezing mark for the first time in many months. The trees became unburdened as the great blobs of snow slid off the tortured branches of the conifers. The sky gave off a soft blue light. In a few days the north wind was back and out on the Cree Lake ice it was bitterly cold once again.
Caribou began to drift northward on their return migration. We wished them a safe return next winter; we had fared well because of their presence. Small herds passed by the front of the cabin and we had no need to shoot them; passing so near that we could hear the peculiar clicking sound of the foot bones. As the weather warmed they plodded through the heavy wet snow sides heaving in the unaccustomed warm temperatures.
The spring season was spent trapping otters and muskrats. This was a poor muskrat country, but a few were found in places where plant food was available.
Early May saw the river mouth open into Cree Lake. I strung out a short net in ten feet of water. Next day I had some three-foot-long trout and a longer pike. Fresh fish tasted delicious after six months of eating caribou.
It was May 15. A crude sled had been built and shod with iron strapping brought with us from Outside for this very purpose. Loaded on the sled was all the gear for the trip Outside. All traps and tools had been cached in an open muskeg, safe from fire.
The two dogs trotted effortlessly on the rough spring ice, the sled sliding easily on its iron strapped runners. Travelling in a direct line to the outpost, the dogs remembered the way and needed no guidance. Here we sold our furs, the big canoe we bought at Christmas time was loaded onto the sled and we headed south for Stony Narrows. There we found Frank and Martin preparing to leave for the south and civilization. We all travelled together.
The mode of travel to the river was to transport the loaded sleds over the ice until they were as near as possible to open water; launch the canoe, load everything into it including the sled and dogs; paddle across open water and pull the canoe out onto the ice on the other side where the process was reversed from canoe to sled. Finally, we reached the river and open water all the way to the highland portage. The river had wide, marshy areas between its banks so that it was alive with migratory waterfowl.
Among those present were ducks, geese, merganser's, herons, gulls, terns, loons, mudhens, sandpipers, and bitterns, with a good deal of noise of quacking, honking, calling, whistling, peeping and piping, with bitterns working their thunder pumps overtime in the twilight. A flock of Canada geese flew high overhead. Ab laid down his paddle and fired at them with his deer rifle. We heard the projectile tick an outstretched feather but the flock continued northward with no change in number.
Highland Portage was just as long and gruelling as before, but we travelled light now and found the big freighter canoe to be lighter than the waterlogged boats that we brought in. Where we had toiled up the rivers for weeks we passed quickly in days, downstream with the current, running most of the rapids, now running wild, deep, and strong with the spring thaw. We passed through Snag River, Sandy Lake, the long and twisting Deer River to the broad and powerful Churchill River. We poled up the Leaf Rapid and portaged the Drum, visited briefly at Patuanak, paddled down the now glassy Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake to the Hudson's Bay Company post on the west side. Here we bought a second-hand "kicker" - an Elto outboard motor. With it we crossed the lake, towing martin and Frank in Martin's canoe, to Beaver River, all the way to Crooked River, to Green Lake, and hired an Indian to transport us overland by wagon and horses to Crooked Lake Dam and so we got to Big River. We arrived early in June. Everything looked a bit unreal and Cree Lake seemed a long way off. Big River had changed little since we had last seen it. The sawdust burner stood solidly as before. A small sawmill worked steadily all day. Snipes waded on the lakeshore almost underfoot. We settled our account with Joe Freedman, the merchant, who did not bat an eye and accepted payment as if the debt had been incurred last week. We found that we could afford to take a vacation to our old home in the south. This was to be the pattern of our lives over the next three years.
Google Map showing Karras River and Long Lake,
where Art and Ab Karras built their trapping cabin.
Long Lake is at the bottom right of map opposite Cree Lake Airport.
Google Map showing Long Lake, location of Art Karras cabin.
Google Map showing northern part of Art and Ab Karras trapline.