North to Cree Lake

Pimiyakun.


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

In my trapper's journal I noted each day a particular highlight that had happened on that date. As I look over the entries I find mentioned certain sightings and hearings of passing aircraft. They are recorded thus: "Heard a plane," or "Saw a plane." One entry reads: "Heard a plane-in this weather!" It happened that it was snowing heavily at the time. In those days the bush planes carried no two-way radio, there were as yet no detailed maps available of the area over which the plane was flying and the pilot, in this case, was flying "by the seat of his pants" as the saying went. Junkers Aircraft. With the coming of aircraft into the bush country, a new word was introduced into the Cree language. Pimiyakun became the word for an aeroplane and when aircraft became common in the country it became a word that was heard often wherever Crees conversed together. They had all seen many aircraft and although many had never seen an automobile, they accepted and took for granted the bush plane as part of their life. It meant that when pimiyakun came to the trading post, immediately there was a new supply of trade goods on the trading post shelves.

Pimiyakun had been coming and going for so long that the feeding bull moose gave scant heed to its drone overhead, it merely turned an ear toward the sound and went on feeding. The plane must pass over at very low altitude before it caused the red squirrel to chatter and bark from its perch in the Pinetop or the beaver to crash-dive where it cruised in the quiet waters of a flooded swamp.

In the early 1930s, the Royal Canadian Air Force had a number of flying boats (Vickers Vedettes) based at Ladder Lake near Big River. Aircraft at Ladder Lake. After most of these units had crashed into the bush at various times, they were abandoned as unsuitable to northland flying. It was then that the cabin monoplane made its appearance; float-equipped in summer, it was readily converted to ski landing gear after freeze-up. Now certain commercial ventures began to freight fish out of the North, to bring in supplies, and to carry passengers. The firm of Mason & Campbell began a freight and passenger service from Prince Albert. No schedule was established but the planes moved on a charter basis. Another of the original pilots was a short stocky fellow who worked with a single plane of his own out of Big River. His name was Cecil N. ("Cece"), MacNeal.

A few years later Canadian Airways Limited established something like a regular schedule between Prince Albert and Goldfields on Lake Athabasca's Northern shore.

At Ile-a-la-Crosse we saw a flying boxcar, a heavy Junkers aircraft that was used especially to freight heavy mining machinery into Goldfields. This plane made in Germany had a German mechanic who flew with the craft at all times.

Ab and I made it a point to be at our Cree Lake cabin one day in mid-January. In previous summer in Big River, we had arranged with MacNeal to deliver some freight to our cabin on this day. The bill of lading was to read: 300 lbs. flour, 100 lbs. sugar, one quart Hudson's Bay Co. rum.

As the day drew near we marked out for him a runway between two rows of spruce tree markers on the lake ice so that he would not encounter the river channel and trouble.

Sure enough, in the early afternoon of that day MacNeal circled the cabin and came down on the ice before we could harness the dogs.

Then we took the freight off the aircraft, loaded it into the toboggan and MacNeal came up to the cabin with us where we had a short visit over a drink of rum. A few hasty news items were exchanged and he was away, just clearing the spruce ridge that separated his recent landing strip from the wide reaches of Cree Lake.

In the months of November and December bush pilots were bedevilled by fogs that were thick and persistent. Ice conditions caused planes to land on unfamiliar lakes where ice build-up was assessed and if possible removed. Slush under the snow was a hazard and a worry to pilots landing on the ice. The great weight of heavy snowfall caused the ice to crack and water seeped under the snow unseen so that aeroplane skis could become stuck in slush. In summer sudden violent storms buffeted the light planes about.

I talked with MacNeal nearly all night at Cree Lake Outpost where he had brought in Alex Ahenakew, the Hudson's Bay factor from Patuanak who was an Indian and making an inspection of the outpost. MacNeal was a great talker, liked a funny anecdote, and gave me a general idea of the perils of bush flying.

"I was flying Slavic John and his outfit into Black Lake last August," began MacNeal.

"When we were out somewhere beyond the north shore of Cree Lake a great black summer storm cloud appeared ahead. Rather than waste a lot of time and fuel in circling the storm, I headed straight into it and disappeared like a mosquito into a cloud of smoke. Then the instruments went haywire, it became dark as night. When we came out of the cloud and into bright sunshine we were flying straight up! I levelled out and looked at John who sat relaxed and unconcerned-first trip for him and he thought everything was normal. Then we came into black Lake, and while unloading John's outfit I noticed the door was bowed inward as was one side of the fuselage."

One summer at Ile-a-la-Crosse, I heard MacNeal talking to another bush pilot. Said Ernie, his friend, "I'm flying this crate with a welded piston because we can't get a replacement part."

Later that day we took off for Meadow lake with MacNeal. He warned us beforehand that one of the floats was leaking and had taken on water making the aircraft list a little on that side.

"She'll drain out as soon as we're airborne," he assured us.

After an easy take-off over the waves of Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake, we were soon over Big Island. My first flight. I was amazed at the thinness of the bush from above. Each tree, stump, and deadfall stood out as a single unit. There was no blending of trees as seen from the ground. Every path and game trail could be seen. An ant-sized horse grazing on the island lifted its head as we passed over. Then we were over the long and winding Beaver River where we had toiled with our wooden boats when we first entered the country. I could see rocks and water boiling over them where we were later to have trouble with one of Henry Weitzel's riverboats. I could see the swampy backwaters where we had been attacked by hordes of mosquitoes as we had camped on shore on a hot steamy summer night.

MacNeal put the plane down at Beauval. From here he had to make a side trip to Dore Lake while we hung around the Hudson's Bay Company store, now with bare shelves for it was spring-time and most of the trade goods had been sold in the previous winter. In a short time, our plane had returned to the river. Our first take-off was blocked by the curving riverbank. MacNeal cut the motor with a few seconds to spare. The second run bore fruit for the riverbank slipped away below us at the last moment. MacNeal got considerably more altitude for this leg of the trip to Meadow Lake. A vicious crosswind ripped at us from the east and the ride became bumpy.

A considerable conflagration was developing between Dore Lake and Lac La Ronge, and the high winds were now obscuring much northern scenery by scattering a smokescreen from extensive bush fires, for with the coming of spring and drying winds there is ever the danger of forest fires. I looked east towards Rat Lake but all was hidden by smoke. Suddenly MacNeal banked sharply and we came down on a small lake near the town of Meadow Lake. In a Chinese restaurant over a cup of coffee, I asked MacNeal if he had considered it rough going up there. He answered very seriously that the ride had been unusually rough.

Another summer at Ile-a-la-Crosse, we watched a bush plane light on the lake and taxi to the dock. From where we sat we saw the pilot, a young, tall man, climb down on the dock and walk toward the Hudson's Bay Company store. Even from a distance, he looked familiar. "He looks a lot like Ron Baker," I said to Ab. Ron had been one of Ab's classmates at school and we had heard that he had taken up bush flying. We went up to the store then and had a long chat before he took off. Ron later rose to be one of Air Canada's top-flight engineers.

On a summer day at Big River I watched an overloaded plane make a desperate take-off attempt down Crooked Lake. The pilot tried time after time but failed even to get on "the step" which acts as a water ski. Finally, he taxied back to the dock. There I helped him unload several large cases of beer. Then he took off and was lost to view in the haze of the north. We were not long to the realization that the purpose of most northern flying in those days was to freight in booze to slake the blast-furnace thirst of northern residents.

From deep in the northern wilderness when we observed passing aircraft it was certain that they flew generally on a south-to-north course when coming or north to south on the return trip. As the 1930s drew to a close we became aware one summer from our Cree Lake cabin that pimiyakun flew east and west and west to east at unusually high altitudes and on clear calm days. We thought this strange and discussed it at some length. The full realization of the purpose of these flights was not made known to us until the next summer.

We learned from Martin Brustad who had met a ground-survey party that an aerial photography project of the Government of Canada had photographed the Cree Lake country strip by strip and was presently mapping in detail, the scale four miles to one inch. The map that was later printed included the area of latitude 56 degrees and longitude 106 degrees and 107 degrees, with Cree Lake the main geographical feature. Pimiyakun had made it possible, along with the ground-survey personnel, to compile a map that showed for the first time in minute detail every bend in the rivers, all potholes, lakes, muskegs, the islands in the lakes, and the location of many cabins!

The Cree Lake map, which I did not see until after I had left the Northland, was pleasantly redolent with familiar names and memories. The mapmakers, probably not aware of the local names of rivers and lakes, had renamed many of the lesser lakes, bays, and rivers. Stony Narrows was designated as such, as was American River where Frank Fisher's trapping grounds were located. A large bay on Cree Lake's east side was named Lazy Edward Bay. There was Holgar Lake, Timson Creek, Weitzel Lake, and Engmann Lake. Caribou Lake, where I had done much travelling was now Abraham Bay. Brustad Lake and Brustad River had been Muskeg River and Muskeg Lake when Matt and Johnny had spent a sojourn in hell.

Ab and I had been singularly honoured. The river upon which our home cabin had been located was named Karras River and far upstream on lake two of the ubiquitous shoreline was printed the name Karras Lake.

Pimiyakun was instrumental in the very best deal we ever made for our annual fur catch. We had mushed the dog team over to Cree Lake Outpost to visit with John Lawrie, the replacement for Jim Buchan who had transferred to Fort Laird. Toward sundown, a light ski-equipped plane lit on the lake ice below the outpost. MacNeal had brought in Alex Ahenakew on an inspection trip. That night Alex learned that we had made a good catch of foxes. Alex said that there had recently been a sharp rise in the fur market. He insisted that MacNeal take Ab and himself to our cabin. They took off at daylight.

Based on prices received in the previous year we had estimated our catch to be worth something like five hundred dollars. After two hours they returned. Everyone was smiling when Ab showed me a Hudson's Bay Company draft for just under one thousand dollars, more money by far than we had possessed at one time in all our lives.

Ab told me later that Alex wanted a couple of caribou to take back to his home larder. While MacNeal streaked the plane over the ice parallel to a fleeing caribou herd, Alex opened the fuselage door and handed Ab his rifle. Ab, lying on the floor on his belly, opened fire. He continued to shoot until the herd attained the sanctuary of a wooded island. Ab was puzzled for a time that he had hit nothing at all, as were MacNeal and Alex. A bit of thought on the matter solved this puzzle. The plane had been travelling at a greater speed than the caribou so that Ab's aim should have trailed his target rather than leading it as he normally would have done. He had forgotten that he was not stationary while shooting.

Pimiyakun took us out of the North for good. A gradual build-up of certain events had forced the decision. We had been in the same location for four winters and the trails had become too familiar and monotonous. After seven years in the bush, we decided that it was probably time to get reestablished, Besides things were brightening Outside and we had been offered employment. The idea of a steady monthly paycheque seemed attractive. as did the possibility of finding a good wife. The episode at Muskeg River had made the whole business seem futile.

The final blow was struck ominously in the spring of 1939. Our entire fur catch, an excellent one, brought three hundred dollars. We reeled under the blow and made a decision. We quit the country with a great deal of regret. Arrangements were made for Frank Fisher to take over our traplines. On a journey to Cree River, we had left word to be picked up at our home cabin, our destination, Prince Albert.

Bill Windrum put his bush plane down on Cree Lake ice a mile below the cabin. When we joined him we found aboard several hard-rock miners from Goldfields, sporting fat wallets and on their way Outside for a holiday. The co-pilot was communicating with his base via two-way radio, the first such apparatus we had seen.

Airborne in a short run, we headed southeast in the brilliant spring sunshine. I looked from the windows, noting in fleeting glimpses some familiar landmarks. I saw from the air the island where I had seen the many wolf tracks. Back over my right shoulder, Long Bay stretched white and empty. Then we climbed rapidly over Stony Narrows with Martin Brustad's camp and trails visible. We climbed higher so that such details were no longer visible. We were slipping along at an airspeed of 185 miles per hour according to an indicator mounted under the plane's wing. Over to the west, a snowstorm shone starkly white in the sun. The country, still in winter's grip though it was April, was a white and green panorama in all directions. I found that a tremendous amount of woodland had been burned over in recent times.

We travelled a straight course across Haultain River, Foster Lake, Churchill River. When we put down at Lac La Ronge we had been flying for an hour to cover some 170 miles from Cree Lake. La Ronge was only a trading post at that time, having yet to be discovered as a sport-fishing attraction.

After we left it seemed no time at all until we were over rectangular-shaped patches in the bush, a sure sign that we were on the fringes of the settlements and the homesteader's domain. Windrum put us down at Prince Albert on the ice of the North Saskatchewan River, near the heart of the city. Such was his mastery of the aircraft that I was not aware of the contact of the skis on the ice. That same evening, Ab and I sat drinking beer in the "licensed premises" in the Avenue Hotel.

Our trip Outside was something upon which to contemplate. What a contrast was this journey to others we had made to Prince Albert from remote Cree Lake! Other trips had involved several days of planning and preparation even to get underway. Out on the windswept Cree Lake ice we had to hold the canoe against the wind lest the whole outfit be rolled and the canoes smashed on the ice as the top-heavy sled was hauled by the dogs as far as Stony Narrows. We constantly had to watch that the dog's feet did not become ice-cut and the trail become blood-streaked, as was the lot of the Indian's dogs. Then it was weeks of travel and portaging until eventually, we arrived at the government dock in Big River from where we hired a car to run us into Prince Albert.

We called for another round of beer. Good-tasting draft. We had not had any since the previous July.



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"Date Modified: 2019, January 24."


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