In the days before aircraft began to freight commercial fish catches out of the remote lakes, all hauling had been done by horses. The old winter freighting routes had stretched hundreds of miles into the north, from as far south as Prince Albert all the way to La Loch in the north-west and to the fishing camps on far-away Reindeer Lake in the north-east. Hauling was done with "swings" of twenty or more teams, travelling, wherever possible, on the lake ice with a push-type snowplough in the lead to clear the road. Where lake travel was not possible, the trail led through as much open country as possible, through river backwaters, meadows and muskeg. Elsewhere, the trail had to be cut through the bush, which ranges in density from tall virgin timber to willow scrub.
At thirty-mile intervals on these winter roads, there were "stopping places," with horse barns to hold up to forty animals or more, a cook shack and a bunkhouse. Often the teamsters encountered horrible slush conditions on the ice, and so did not reach the stopping place where they had planned to spend the night. Then they had to make for shore and camp overnight in the bush. There sheltered from the wind, they kept large fires going all night to dry off the sweating horses and in severe weather, to keep themselves from freezing to death.
By comparison, making it to the stopping place for the night was sheer heaven. The horses were then all placed under shelter and fed well on oats and hay. although the inside walls and ceiling of the barns became encrusted with rime, the heat from the horses' bodies maintained a warm humid atmosphere in the barns that dried the hoar frost and sweat from their heavy-hairy winter coats. Meanwhile, the men proceeded to the cook shack for the evening meal, which was usually substantial and filling, and was tasty in relation to the talents of the camp cook. Afterwards, in the bunkhouse, clothing was dried around a wood-burning stove, made from a forty-five-gallon oil drum, bedding was brought in and spread over the hay-filled bunks and, if another swing was also in camp, the visiting and poker-playing by the light of a kerosene lamp might well last until dawn.
Ice conditions are difficult to judge when the ice is covered with snow. On the ice, and especially at lake narrows, there were many accidents in which horses broke through. The drowning of horses was a fairly common occupancy, causing the teamsters a good deal of financial loss, to say nothing of the distress they felt at the loss of fine horses that had served them well.
On one occasion, a twenty-team swing was making its first trip of the season north out of Big River. It was a fine, sunny winter day in early December, and the horses were easily pulling the light loads and the empty fish racks across Delaronde Lake, with the teamsters relaxed and comfortable. The swing had at first spread out in a long line to distribute their weight over a wide area, for the ice was not yet very thick. Gradually, as they made their way across the lake, the teams, unnoticed, drew closer and closer together. Their weight, now concentrated in a much smaller area, caused the ice to crack and give way so that suddenly the whole swing was in the water. Fortunately, there were several experienced hands in the group, so that out of the melee of struggling horses, floating sleighs, and cursing men, all of the men and most of the horses were hauled out onto the ice before they could be claimed by the cold dark water.
There is one old man still living in Prince Albert who was a member of some of the first swings ever to reach far-away Reindeer Lake. Pete, as he is called, a close friend of Ed Theriau, told Ed the story of the first swing to try to reach Reindeer Lake from Stanley Mission on the Churchill River. I was unable to ascertain the date of this journey, but it is likely that it took place in the winter of 1910 before the railroad was built from Prince Albert to Big River. Pete was a teamster in the swing that left Stanley Mission that winter, in desperately cold weather.
At that time, there were no stopping place facilities north of Stanley Mission. For this swing, contracts had been let to cut hay in the meadows the previous summer, and stack it at designated sites along the route to Reindeer Lake. After a good deal of hardship and after camping in the bush for two nights, the swing reached the site of the first hay depot and discovered that the hay cutters had put up only a little hay, not enough to for one good feed for sixty horses. Next morning, the swing moved north once more. At the next hay supply site, there had been no hay cut at all. When the third site was found, it also was empty. The hay cutters had reneged on their contract.
The plight of the horses was now desperate. The oats they had freighted in were almost exhausted. The teamsters took some of the best horses and all the remaining oats and made a sustained return journey to Stanley mission, where there was horse feed. Eventually, they made there way back to Prince Albert, their starting point.
Meanwhile Pete had been left in charge of the remainder of the swing. The owner of the horses, before he had left with the other men, had handed Pete a rifle and some cartridges, with instructions to return the animals to Stanley mission. It this could not be accomplished, he was to shoot the horses.
Pete and the horses were left at the edge of the forest, near a large meadow where course slough grass grew in summer but was now covered with three feet of snow. A few of the horses were wise enough to paw away the snow and eat the grass, but others, even though starving, would not paw for the grass at all. Pete, who did not give up easily, cut willows for them, something which some horses will eat. Then he had the idea that he should cut hay for the horses that would not dig for themselves. The only implement he had for this purpose was a butcher knife, and in telling Ed his story, Pete stressed that it was hard work indeed to dig through the snow and then cut, with a single knife, enough grass to feed a herd of starving horses. Nevertheless, the horses were able to hold their own that winter with Pete's assistance. A new menace developed when a large pack of timber wolves began to show interest in the herd of horses. Pete watched carefully for his chances and shot several wolves as they prowled close at dusk and again at dawn.
When March came, warmer weather prevailed, and Pete began to move the horses by easy stages from one meadow to the next, taking all the time he needed to let his charges feed and to cut some grass with his butcher knife. Finally he, too, reached Stanley Mission and eventually, Prince Albert, about one month after the advance party arrived there.
At the mouth of the Beaver River is the site of one of the teamsters' original stopping places. It had been a large one, with several horse barns and the usual facilities for the men. When Ed left his traplines for the last time, he and Evangeline acquired this site for their mink ranch. By that time, horse freighting had long been superseded by aircraft; the stopping place buildings were in a state of advanced decay, and Dick Kirby, the original owner, had been dead for some years.
Ed had been attracted to this spot by its good location and by nostalgic memories that lingered for him here. Both he and Fred had had many contacts with the proprietor, Dick Kirby, over the years and were his fast friends. When the trappers had travelled the river on their way to and from the North in the early years, Kirby's stopping place was known far and wide throughout the country. In his mind's eye, Ed could see the trappers and river scow men gathered around Kirby's table on a summer evening. Kirby, himself, would be holding forth, a man who, when irked, could give another the exceedingly rough edge of his tongue, and whose diction was the most colourful of any man from Prince Albert to Lake Athabasca. He would repeat the tales told by travellers, tales of adventure and hardship, the gossip of the entire North, and stories to pale the modern sex novel. When Ed bought the place, there were still many momentous of those days, abandoned and broken horse sleighs, rusting sleigh runners and the metal parts of horse harnesses.
The place is neither wilderness nor is it settled country; it exists in a limbo between the two. Therefore, when Ed finally put down roots, the transition was not overly abrupt. To the west, he could look out over the wide expanse of Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake and see the buildings in the village of the same name, seven miles away across the lake. Fish can be netted for mink feed and there is game in the woods behind the ranch house. There is excellent duck hunting on the river. There is no road to the site; Ed uses a motorboat for access to the village and stores his car for occasional trips to the South.
Unbelievably, after twenty-five years on the trapline spent, for the most part, in pursuit of wild mink, Ed found, when he began to raise them, that he knew almost nothing about mink; he was totally untrained as to feeding, breeding and caring for mink in captivity. He asked for help from two old friends, former trappers: a husband and wife who had abandoned trapping some years earlier and had taken up mink ranching.
From these two, Mr and Mrs Walcer, Ed bought his first breeding stock. Marcella Walcer, locally known as "Muskeg Mary," had been in the North for more than twenty years. Originally, she had been an office secretary in a large city but had come North, married a trapper and run a trapline in her own right. She was a remarkable and versatile woman; she had given birth to her first child alone in a cabin in the wilderness; later, out of food, she killed with an axe a bull moose which had been trapped by breaking through the lake ice. Now she had become successful in raising mink, and it is to her assistance that Ed attributes his own success as a fur farmer.
As Ed began his new vocation, he was bedevilled by the urge to return to the North., if only for a few months. The first autumn he was almost overwhelmed by a desire to return to Poorfish Lake. It was all he could think about for a time so that the mink ranch was in danger of being abandoned. Soon, however, he was involved in so much work in connection with his new venture that he did not brood about the trapline, he did not have time.
Ed's dogs, which he had brought to the ranch after his last trapping season, fared worse than he. One dog he gave to a friend in Ile-a-la-Crosse village. Every time Ed went to the village, this animal sought him out and followed at his heels until he left. As Ed pointed his boat homeward, the dog would swim after him as far as it dared, then return to shore. In the end, this dog was killed by a roving pack of other sleigh dogs. The four other members of Ed's dog team did not thrive. When the first snow fell they began to move restlessly, testing the wind as if they looked forward to the harness and the trail. They lived on to the next summer, but they were not well and eventually they all died. Ed thinks it was the change in drinking water from the clear, unpolluted water of the North to the murky water of the Beaver River, the backwaters of which are loaded with algae in midsummer, that undermined their health. Perhaps one other factor was involved, that of nostalgia.
Ed tackled mink farming by working hard and putting in long hours. His trapping days engrained in him the habit of maximum effort, a virtue which was responsible for the increase in his stock, after a few years to 2,000 mink. As his operation expanded, he hired people from Ile-a-la-Crosse to help at the ranch.
Then Ed's fortunes suffered a sudden, drastic decline. First, he fell ill, was rushed to Saskatoon by air ambulance, underwent surgery for stomach ulcers and lost eighty pounds in the process. A year later he underwent a similar operation; he survives, but he has never regained his former robust appearance. At the same, distemper broke out in the mink pens. Ed fought the scourge with vaccine, a hard and losing battle. After the disease had died out, he estimated his losses at 50,000 dollars.
He was well on his way to rebuilding the stock with new, imported strains when the final stroke fell and killed the mink ranch: Ed's employees of many years discovered that they no longer needed to work to live well in northern Saskatchewan. A succession of benevolent governments had directed the full force of their generosity to northern residents. Cottages were built for many people in Ile-a-la-Crosse, electric generators were set up to provide power and light, fuel oil was shipped in to take the place of wood. Ed does not blame the people for not working: it is too easy to obtain government money.
With a decline in the prices paid for mink pelts, all the mink ranches in the area closed down. Ed Theriau has retired. "I do not think of raising mink any longer," he said to me. "All I have to think about now is the North country and my former trapping territory. I recall such details as the bends in the rivers, the cutbanks at certain places in sandy country, and well-known locations to set traps that never failed to produce at some time in a given season. On many of the lakes I travelled, I recall the shorelines, the bays and the points. "I think of the duck that, for several years, built her nest between the layers of a double roof on my cabin. I used to wonder how the ducklings got down to the ground, but I was always on my way south before the eggs hatched, so I did not witness the event.
"I also recall the days when I was in wonderful shape physically and did not worry about cold weather. One winter I was visiting some commercial fishermen at Cree Lake. One February morning, I left their camp, bound for my cabin on Poorfish Lake, fifty miles away. Years later, one of the men told me it was sixty below zero that morning.
"I think back to the early days when, if you went North, you went on your own, no 'planes, no radios, no people whom you would make contact in a season. It separated the men from the boys.
"I have time to consider some things I would do differently and better if I were trapping now. Funny that I never thought of these things when I ran the trapline. When I see Fred Darbyshire leave for the North, I get blue for a few days. I would love to go back for just one more season, but at my age, I could not take it.
"Once or twice a year I drive to Prince Albert, stay for a few weeks and visit some of the old northerners who are retired and living alone. Nothing can please them more than to have someone from the North come and visit. There are very few of these chaps around any more.
"Nearly all the old-time trappers I knew are now dead. Some of them kept going until they did not show up in the spring; then the police investigated, and usually, they were found dead in their cabins. That is what happened to Regnier Johnson, a close friend of mine with whom I travelled many times. A few of these men nowadays do their business with aircraft bringing in supplies and taking out fur. They never go 'Outside' any more. They, too, will one day be found dead in their cabins.
"The country around Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake where I live is a fine productive area. Good gardens will grow anywhere on well-drained soil. I have good crops of vegetables and small fruits at the ranch. Cattle do well here, and there was a time when the people kept many of them: but today there are none. It is too easy to get welfare. The government has been so good at supplying their wants that the farmers no longer bother with cattle. There are very few gardens. It is good country for hunting and fishing and trapping, but no one needs to work here.
"It is a shame to see the young men standing about in the village with nothing to do. They are not interested in trapping, they say they do not know the remote areas. Indeed, they do not know the land, and the few surviving old-timers are too old to go trapping. It is too bad that some of these young people could not be taken out and shown the country and become self-supporting. There is as much fur in the North now as there was when I was there.
"To my knowledge, there are only three dog teams in this country today, one at Ile-a-la-Crosse and a couple at Cree Lake. A few people set traps around the shores of the big lakes with the use of power toboggans. To my way of thinking, the power toboggan is not practical for use by the professional trapper. If it breaks down or runs out of fuel you are on foot and may have trouble walking home. You can always get home with a dog team, even if you are out of dog food. I would never have gotten anywhere with a power toboggan at Poorfish Lake.
"The old canoe routes into the remote North are unknown to the younger generation of Indians. The portage trails are overgrown with trees and have otherwise vanished with time. The old portages we used to get from Cree Lake to Poorfish Lake cannot be found. I believe that Fred Darbyshire and I were the last people to travel by canoe from Poorfish Lake to Ile-a-la-Crosse via Cree Lake, nearly twenty years ago. Part of that route, a narrow waterway called Snag River, is now choked with fallen, fire-killed trees and is no longer navigable. Most things change.
"Fred has had no need to use that route since, as he now travels by air. He is slowing up. He has become very hard of hearing, and one foot gives him a lot of trouble. Recently he was not feeling too well prior to the trapping season. I asked him if he would go North that fall and he said, "A man of my age should not travel too far from a cemetery." A few days later, he packed up and was flown to Poorfish Lake.
"If I had my life to live over, certainly I would spend it in the North. I am free to return there right now, but I know Father Time has caught up with me."
A group of pioneer northern residents
photograph was taken at Deep River Fur Farm in 1948.
From left to right:
Unidentified, possibly Eugene Chartier, Dave Lechasseur, Mary Walcer, Joe Walcer,
Tom Pedersen, Jack Gibbons (RCMP), Halvor Ausland, Violet Bradley, Unidentified,
Ed's Theriau's wife Evangeline (far right)