North to Cree Lake

Lessons.


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

Fred and Ed spent very little time in Big River that summer. They knew exactly what they wanted in supplies and equipment. By the first day of August 1925, they had canoed to the Brush River cabin via the Churchill River-a for cry from the previous summer when they had toiled for weeks along dry watercourses to arrive at the same destination. Now they knew the route and the channels of the mighty rapids of the upper Churchill and would never have canoeing problems on that part of the river. Wolves. Late that summer Fred Darbyshire journeyed by canoe far into the northern wilderness to Poorfish (Russell) Lake in company with Tom Beeds. Ed Theriau at first remained at the Brush River cabin. That winter Ed, who had always liked company, camped with a man named (Frank) Nordstrom and extended traplines from Nordstrom's cabin on the Churchill River southward to Snake Lake and the Brush River country.

It was certain that the two partners had had a major disagreement, for they halved their outfit, a sure sign of a breach. Each took one canoe, two dogs and half of the equipment, traps and food. This is the first indication of Fred's tendency to leave Ed behind and strike out on his own. And it is the first evidence that the two partners were often in violent disagreement, and had personalities so different from one another that it is amazing that they maintained their working partnership by sharing their combined fur catch for a period of sixteen years.

In accompanying Tom Beeds, Fred dropped out of character. Generally, he preferred to work alone, and this is the only recorded occasion when he ever joined forces to trap with any man other than Ed. His reasons are obvious: first, to be guided into a reportedly lush, unoccupied trapping territory by an experienced and expert guide; and second, to learn woodcraft and bush know-how from the stocky half-breed.

When Fred and Tom Beeds entered the mouth of the Foster River, Fred was immediately introduced to the pole. Tom cut, from a stand of black spruce, two slender poles, each about ten feet in length. These he shaved down with his hunting knife until they balanced perfectly when the centre of the pole was laid in the palm of the hand. Then he showed Fred how to stand up in the canoe and drive it forward with the pole, through fast, shallow water. With Fred standing in the bow and Tom in the stern they poled up rapids which Fred would have hesitated to run had he been travelling downstream alone. Tom handled the pole like a superb athlete who makes all the feats seem easy.

Fred had a fair load of trapping gear, 100 pounds of flour, some lard, sugar and dried fruit, but little else in the way of food. Tom Beeds had a light load with practically no food supplies, a dangerous practise for all but the most experienced to emulate. Always within reach in the canoe, and always loaded, was Tom's battered shotgun. He demonstrated to Fred that it is a simple matter to shoot the ducks always present on the creeks and rivers in spring, summer and fall. Swimming muskrats and beaver are likely victims if you do not get ducks. And if these fail, they might shoot a porcupine, a hawk or a young bald eagle, fat and unable to fly from the nest. When they camped in the evening, Tom showed Fred where and how to set fish nets in the cross-currents below a rapid or in the eddying water bordering swift currents at a bend in the river. The yield was whitefish in quantity.

One evening, Tom paddled the canoe up the mouth of a small creek in the dusk and shot a bull moose. Bull Moose. Fred watched as Tom cut the meat into thin sheets, hung them on a rack over a fire and dried the meat in short order. The end product seemed unpalatable at first, but later Fred found it to be sustaining when eaten raw. Beaten into a powder and cooked in a frying pan with water and lard, it became an appetizing item after a long day with the pole. As Fred puts it: "Tom taught me how to live on practically no food that you buy in a store. The Foster River is one of the most difficult to travel of all the tributaries of the Churchill. It flows generally from north to south, but as you travel its length you head east, west, and actually south, in the long loops between the various lakes along the way. The river bed is broken by white-water rapids, waterfalls, and other cataracts. In its southern reaches, the ancient river valley is cut from the solid rock. In some places its walls are precipitous, and golden eagles nest among the fire-scarred rocks and snags which are remnants of forests burned and reburned throughout the years. On the first portages, Tom surprised Fred by carrying across his whole outfit in one trip. Attaching a tumpline to his pack, he piled on bags and boxes, then trotted off. Fred too would pack like an Indian from now on.

Their route continued well into pre-Cambrian rock country until they reached the place where the Foster River leaves Lower Foster Lake. For several days they paddled through the long and narrow Lower, Middle and Upper Foster Lakes. They were in an uninhabited wilderness, not seeing any other human beings, nor expecting to since the winter residents were camped along the Churchill at this season.

Late one afternoon, near the end of Upper Foster Lake, Tom pointed to a small sandy beach between two hills. "We camp here," he said. They had arrived at the Portage into Geikie River, which flows north-west to Wollaston Lake.

A long portage through swamp, rock outcrops and burned-over hills brought them to the river and eventually to its tributary, the High Rock River which they ascended to High Rock Lake. From this lake, there is another portage to a creek which flows through grassy swampland and numerous small lakes. When they emerged from the creek Fred saw Poorfish Lake, their destination. As the crow flies, the distance between Big River and Poorfish Lake is some 300 miles. By the canoe route which Tom and Fred had just completed, it is 100 miles more.

Tom pointed the canoe toward the north end of the lake. That first night they pitched their tent at Poorfish Narrows and the next day they set to work building a cabin there. Fred had developed a knack for this work so that when the structure was completed it had a professional look about it. Fred was to use this cabin for many years.

Tom decided they should hunt moose in late September-the rutting season when bull moose will come to a call produced with a birchbark horn. Fred learned this art too. He spent some nights in wait at likely locations while Tom did his imitations of the call of a cow moose. No moose came and Tom said it was too early in the season; the bulls were not interested.

The next night, under a full moon, they lay in ambush in black spruce cover on a sand spit that jutted into the lake. Open muskeg lay beyond their hideaway, giving an unobstructed view on all sides of the spruce thicket. Tom called twice in his natural talking voice, "Oh-Uh!" through the birchbark horn, rolling it toward the ground then lifting it sideways while repeating the sound.

The men listened intently but heard nothing. Tom repeated the call four times. They again waited. The snap of a dry twig alerted the hunters, then a prime bull walked out into the open. Fred felled it at a distance of about fifty yards.

Fred was learning that this was not the inhospitable North of scarcity and starvation, as he once believed. With a person of Tom's woodcraft and hunting knowledge, it had become a land of plenty where there was no danger of an empty larder. When Tom shot a fat bear the food problem vanished for the time being. They turned their attention to exploratory canoe travel, looking over the country in preparation for the trapping season.

Tom said they would need to put up 1000 fish for bait and to feed their four dogs. He made a fish cache of logs, built up like the walls of a cabin to a height of five feet, then covered with logs laid parallel to each other. He strung out his nets in Poorfish Narrows and hung the catch on sticks run through a slash in the tail of each fish, ten fish to a stick. Tom was very definite about the fish supply and kept at it until, in early October, the cache was full.

Tom made two pairs of snowshoes and traded one pair to Fred for a box of rifle cartridges. He made a birch toboggan to be drawn by the dogs, while the young white trapper watched carefully that he might make one like it. When the lakes froze over, Fred learned how Tom made his sets for foxes, mink and otter, and how he set snares in the ancient Indian manner for foxes and timber wolves. The barren land caribou migrated into the Poorfish Lake country in November, on schedule, and were followed by an influx of marauding wolves and scavenging foxes. The trappers were doing rather well.

Tom and Fred did not trap on a half-share basis; they worked and travelled independently. Tom demonstrated to Fred that it was not necessary that two men travel together on the trapline and that by going their separate ways more fur could be gathered. Tom also taught Fred to travel light. To the student's amazement, even in the coldest weather, Tom would sleep outdoors by his campfire. This permitted lighter loads, longer trips and greater mobility. Fred adopted Tom's techniques and continued them through seventeen winters.

One evening in early December Tom returned to the cabin in a state of agitation. Chipewyan Indians, he said darkly, had crossed his trail. He did not like it at all; they would come back, he was sure. He did not want to see them at all, he said with feeling - there had always been bad blood between the Chipewyans and his own Cree ancestors. But his fears proved groundless, for the Chipewyans did not return that winter. After a time the incident lost its importance to Tom.

Near the end of December, as Fred was returning to the cabin one evening, he thought that, incredibly, he heard the bells of Indian sleigh dogs in the distance. Cabin. As he stepped into the clearing around the cabin he found, not the Chipewyans he had half-expected, but Constable Horace MacBeth of the RCMP and an Indian guide. They had come all the way from Ile-a-la-Crosse, 200 miles over the winter trail, to tell Tom Beeds that family problems required that he rejoin his wife and family, hundreds of miles to the south, as soon as possible. Fred bought Tom's gear and soon a procession moved south, four men and three dog teams. Four days later they were travelling on the frozen Churchill River. At Snake Lake, MacBeth, his guide and Tom Beeds continued westward to Ile-a-la-Crosse. Fred turned southward for a meeting with Ed Theriau.

Fred reached Ed's cabin in early January. The disagreement they had the previous summer was resolved. As soon as he could. Ed made ready to return to Poorfish Lake with Fred. The trappers joined forces with two Indians who were freighting supplies to the Hudson's Bay Company post at Foster Lake and started north with four men and four dog teams. There was little snow in this part of the country that winter, and it was hard going in the hinterland, a country of lakes, rocky hills and swamps. The group took three days travelling to the outpost. With four men to share the work, they made good over-night camps in the bush, building large campfires out of full-length logs. In the dead of a northern winter, the men found the nights quite comfortable in their sleeping robes, a luxury easily achieved when there are many hands to do the work.

Fred and Ed left their companions at the outpost and struck out for Poorfish Lake. That night they camped in an old, empty cabin which had a crude fireplace built in one end. It was so poorly constructed that the smoke backed up inside and they decided that they would have been better off sleeping outside. Although they were to pass this cabin many times over the years, they never camped in it again.

The next morning they encountered heavy snow that slowed them down. That night they camped in the bush; in the morning they took turns at breaking trail on snowshoes so the dogs could follow. The trails had been all but obliterated by the heavy snowfall so that Fred had some trouble in finding the route by which he had come south. Late on the following day, they arrived at the Poorfish Lake cabin.

It was dead of winter. The men succeeded in breaking out several trails in the area known to Fred, and by following some of Tom Beed's old trails they ranged a good deal farther. Ed remarked that they did get a "fair amount of fur" during this period. In the spring the men trapped otter, beaver and muskrats using methods Fred had learned from Tom Beeds. When the warm southern winds finally melted away the deep snows in the woods, the rivers and creeks opened. When the lakes were free of ice they loaded the canoe and headed south.

Since Fred had made only one journey into Poorfish Lake he did not know the return route well and could not remember exactly where some of the portage trails were located a difficult task in a labyrinth of lakes, bays, creeks hills and swamps. Crossing the large lakes and re-discovering the portages consumed much time. At last, they were descending the Foster River with its many rapids. When they heard the roar of white water in the distance they pulled in to shore and one man walked downstream to look over the rapid in case it involved a waterfall or was otherwise too dangerous to run. Eventually, they reached the Churchill, in time to join two other trappers on their way to Big River.

Now Fred and Ed began to meet permanent residents of the country. Fred still preserves some snapshots they took at Souris, an outpost at the mouth of the Souris (Belanger) River. The Indian and half-breed residents appear to be healthy, happy and a thriving lot, their clothing neat and in good repair. In one picture Fred stands beside a beautiful Indian Girl, his arm encircling her waist. At Patuanak and at Ile-a-la-Crosse the visiting continued so that Fred and Ed became acquainted with all their "neighbours" over a very wide area.



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"Date Modified: 2019, January 24."


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