North to Cree Lake

Preface.


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

After my book "North to Cree Lake," an account of my trapping experiences in Northern Saskatchewan, was published, I received many letters asking me to write another book on the North. I began to cast about for suitable material when I remembered two men whom I had met casually in 1937. Fred Darbyshire, I met in the northern frontier village of Big River, Saskatchewan. Short in stature, lean, sinewy and tough, he has been actively engaged in trapping up to and including 1973. Not a man who cares to live near civilization, he had sought out the most secluded and hard to reach area of Northern Saskatchewan, the country that lies between Cree and Wollaston Lakes. Map. Also in 1937, I camped overnight with Ed Theriau and several other trappers at Highland Portage on the canoe route to Cree Lake. Ed, in those days, was powerfully built, of medium height, rugged, agile and strong enough in my estimation, to have wrestled with a bear. Fred and Ed were first cousins. Until 1952, when Ed gave up trapping, the two men had an arrangement whereby they travelled to and from their trapping grounds together. Once there, they trapped separately and rarely saw each other. Until 1940, they had divided the season's catch equally between them every spring.

My own story had interested many readers, yet it was the account of only seven years spent as a trapper. How much more there might be to interest the reader in the story of these two unusual men, and of their friends and fellow travellers! There just had to be a story in the lives of two out-doors-men who, between them, had spent something like seventy-five winters in the northern wilderness.

How would I get the material I needed? I would have to track down Ed and Fred if they were still alive, and anyone else who might give me some information about them. I need not have been overly concerned. With my fan mail, there came letters from many northern trappers, several of whom wrote letters of two thousand words or more. They poured out, unasked, just the information I needed.

The first of these letters came from George Nelson who, with his brother Fred, was trapping at Black Birch Lake when I left the North in 1939. As a result of this letter, I met with George and his wife in Saskatoon. George had retired and was in an indifferent state of health. I asked him about his brother Fred, thinking I might well get more grist for my mill.

George looked sad. "Fred Nelson died after prospecting in the Nahanni Mountains in the Yukon. He had found a lead strike and while working on the mountain, had drunk water from pools containing lead compounds. He died in hospital of lead poisoning."

I asked about Frank Fisher, my neighbour at Cree Lake in the 1930s. "He is at Black Bay on Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake, where he has been mink ranching for some twenty-five years. Why don't you go up there to visit him?"

It was late September in 1970 when I took the bush highway out of Big River for the 160-mile drive to Ile-a-la-Crosse and most of the leaves had turned a vivid yellow that I remembered so well. (I heartily recommend this drive in mid-September.) That night I visited with Kurt George, an old-timer in the north, a trapper for a good many years, a mink rancher and currently post-master in Ile-a-la-Crosse.

The next morning I had the good fortune to catch a ride on the powerful cruiser belonging to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The constable in charge had other business down the lake and left as soon as he had put me and my baggage ashore at Frank's place.

A squat, heavily built man with white bushy hair stood on the shore. He had had no previous warning that I was to arrive. It had been more than thirty years since I had last shaken his hand.

"Frank, do you know me?" I began.

He looked me up and down. "No, I don't know you."

"Frank, I am Art Karras."

"For goodness sake, come up to the house!"

We spent the next three days together at his house. A remarkable man, he is retired from mink ranching, lives alone as he has done for forty years, and goes to the village once a week for his mail and supplies. He has a television set energized by his own power plant and a large, home-made telescope with which he studies the stars. He owns a speed-boat and a power toboggan for lake travel in both summer and winter. His home is well stocked with good books.

During that first night a large bottle of rum disappeared between us. The conversation never let up. The days that followed were spent in the pleasant reminiscence of two old trappers long parted.

I had learned that Fred Darbyshire and Ed Theriau lived just across the lake, about twenty miles distant. I kept dropping their names into the conversation. I was made aware that they were not close friends of Frank's, yet he did give me some useful information about them. One fact of particular interest was that Fred had, that fall, been flown into his trapping base camp at Poorfish Lake (now renamed Russell Lake, and so designated on Saskatchewan maps). Frank told me, too, that Fred was somewhat reserved, and not given to communicating with strangers.

My quest for material led me next to Victoria, British Columbia, to find Holgar Peterson, another trapper I had known at Cree Lake. The address George Nelson had given me turned out to be near the city's busy five-corner intersection. I was walking up the street to find the apartment building when I saw a tall, old man far down the block, walking toward me. He carried a white cane which he tapped against the curb from time to time in order to find his way. I recognized him immediately, primarily because he still carried himself erect, as a military man does.

"Pardon me, sir. Are you Holgar Peterson?"

"Yes"

I introduced myself. He paused for some seconds. "I am on my way to the bakery down the street. Come with me and from there we will return to the apartment."

Our two-hour conversation recalled much of the old wilderness life in northern Saskatchewan. If Holgar's eyesight was failing, his mind was still keen, and his memory, remarkable. He even repeated some of the exact words I had said to him in 1939, on the occasion of our last meeting.

"Holgar," I asked, "if you had your life to live over again, how would you want to live it?" "I'd have it no different," he answered without hesitation."I am eighty-three years old, I live alone and I am blind but I'm not lonesome. I have so many pleasant memories that I keep myself entertained with them."

I questioned him about Fred Darbyshire and Ed Theriau, who had operated to the east of his own base camp at Holgar Lake. "I knew them both about as well as I ever knew anyone," he began. Then he was off, telling me many stories of their travels together and of their mutual friends. Twice I noticed tears flowing down his cheeks. That day I became convinced that enough material for a book existed, provided I could collect it all.

Now it was time to approach Fred Darbyshire. What if he backed off? One who has lived most of his life alone is apt, indeed, to mistrust an almost complete stranger.

I wrote him a letter, explaining who I am and my purpose, and reminded him that we had once met. I also mailed him a copy of "North to Cree Lake." I suggested that my own story was only that of an amateur, compared to his experience as a northern trapper for almost five decades; that his experiences should be recorded and that it would be a shame if his story was lost.

Mail service from Fred's home is a bit uncertain, but in a surprisingly short time, I received his well-written reply. Yes, he would assist me in any way that he could. Just let him know. My book, he wrote, he had found "most interesting and accurate." Coming from Fred Darbyshire, this has to be the most solid tribute I could have received. Somehow, I felt that if he had not read the book he would have turned me down.

In further correspondence I asked for diaries, letters, maps or photographs that might be of use. In due course, Fred did send me his diaries. Photographs, he said, would have to wait until we could arrange a meeting. In the meantime, he was flying by chartered aircraft some two hundred miles north for the spring beaver hunt. This man was at the time seventy-one years old!

When I unwrapped the parcel he sent, I found a collection of black, cloth-bound notebooks of the sort that indicates each day of the year and gives a few ruled lines for short notes. These were the records of Fred's career as a trapper from 1939 to 1971. I noticed that there were no diaries prior to 1939: the first 16 years were missing. One book had gotten wet by some accident: the writing was blurred but still readable. Some passages were in good, legible writing, while others, dated to the winter months, were difficult to read. I later confirmed with Fred that these entries had been made at lonely winter campfires when his hands had been cold.

The diaries had about them a rich aroma-the mixed smells of conifer gums and woodsmoke, of animal fat and scent glands, of prepared scents for luring animals, of fish and tobacco and dogs. I recognized it for what it was the heavy, heady incense of the North.

I read the books through, then re-read them. The first records are scanty: daily entries contain only a few words: "January 11-down Hill River; January 12-Hill River; January 13-made the crossover; January 14-shot a caribou; January 15-to Tamarack Creek; January 16-fur for the trip: 11 mink, 2 otter, 1 red fox."

As the record mounts over the years and decades, short paragraphs appear, like the wry entry of May 22, 1950: "When going on a trip in May in this country, dress warmly and you won't be disappointed!" In the story that follows I have made many direct quotations from Fred's Diaries. I cannot by changing them, make them more poignant.

Now I had part of my story. The balance would have to wait. My man was at the time, 100 miles north-east of Cree Lake, amidst a labyrinth of lakes, rivers, hills and swamps, with no link to the outside world. Fred never thought it essential to take in a two-way radio.

Late in the spring of 1971 we exchanged letters again, agreeing to meet in Kelvington, Saskatchewan, where Fred has relatives. Then I lost all contact. The month of August and the date of our rendezvous slipped by while I waited for word. Desperately, I appealed to him by letter.

At last his reply: "I have been laid up with a lung infection for the past month. Meet me in Prince Albert on October fifth. I am not going North this fall-don't feel up to it." When I checked into the hotel that afternoon I asked the clerk at the desk if there was any message for me. Nothing. Would he come?

That evening, in the company of an old northern friend, Fred knocked at my door. Fred is about five foot three and weighs some 140 pounds. In his diaries, Fred makes references to being frost-bitten about the face. I studied his face now, expecting to see scars. Except for a thickening of the skin above the cheekbones, his face was unmarked. Clear, blue eyes met mine as we shook hands. I detected at once that he was hard of hearing.

I found him frank, but somewhat reserved. I wondered if I could draw him out. His friend, a great talker, paved the way so that Fred's reserve slowly melted away. We talked for several hours, and before they left I invited Fred to have breakfast with me the next morning. I realized that I had gotten more out of Fred than most people might have done. Apparently, we spoke the same language or as they say now-a-days, we identified with each other.

The next day, back in my room, I posted maps on the walls and we marked the exact locations of all the various rivers and lakes mentioned in his diaries. It is not difficult for me to lead the conversation to subjects I needed to cover. I had previously made extensive lists of questions so that nothing would be missed. Apparently trusting, neither did he refuse to answer any of my questions, nor were his answers evasive.

He brought out an old photograph album and we went through it together. There were a number of snapshots of people we both knew. A remarkable day! My questioning went on and on.

"Fred are you getting tired of all this?"

"No, Art, it's okay."

Fred's speech has a curious sound of the woods' Indian's. As I closed my eyes for a moment while he talked, I might have been listening to an old Cree hunter, the voice intoning: "I-set-a-trap-there" or "I-called-up-a-moose-that-night"-each syllable clipped off with a distinctive rhythm.

"What do you think of today's world?"

"I don't think the world today is as good a place to be as it was when I was young."

"What do you think of paying welfare to persons sound of mind and body?"

"It's no good. It takes away people's ambition and independence."

"Will you do a moose call for me?"

He cupped his hands about his mouth. "Oh-Uh! Oh-UH!" I recalled the genuine sound I had heard back in the willow-fringed swamp one autumn, a low-key call, difficult to associate with a moose. Then Fred made throaty grunts, like the sound of air being forced through a moose's massive blubbery nostrils. His imitations were expert.

Out on the street that night, we saw a full moon, cold and clear over the city.

"A fine night for calling moose," I commented.

"Yes, it's so bright and still. I'm going moose hunting as soon as I get back to Ile-a-la-Crosse."

It was time for Fred to go. "Take care," I said. He nodded and left.

Ed Theriau contributed a great deal to this book. He contacted me by letter after reading "North to Cree Lake," offering to supply material. I arranged a meeting with him in Prince Albert in February 1972.

As a result of our discussions, Ed supplied me with a handwritten record of his life. It was no mean task for him, he told me: "This winter is the first writing I have done since I left school and I didn't do much then. I am not putting down any dates because I never knew what day it was when I was alone up North." I am also indebted to Ed's wife, Evangeline, who re-wrote his journal for me.

I would like to thank Adolph Grewatch, who now lives in the vicinity of far-away Fort St. John, British Columbia, for his vivid descriptions of the country bordering Fred's and Ed's traplines on the south, and for his observations on the habits of wolves.

Other contributors to the text are: Mr. Rex Potter of Spirit River, Alberta ; his brother, Dr. Fred Potter of Rosetown, Saskatchewan; Mr T.D. Michel of Big River, Saskatchewan; Mrs Martha Waite, also of Big River; Mr Charles McCullough of Cree Lake; Nora Darbyshire, Fred's wife.

Special recognition is due to the Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources for information and maps supplied to me, and to the Geographical Survey of Canada for permission to quote from survey reports.

I have used local names for many lakes, rivers and creeks; where these have since been officially re-named, I have given the official name in parenthesis. My own comments, when included in material quoted from others, are given in brackets. Where necessary, the identities of individuals have been deliberately disguised.



"Travel in the area is by float-equipped aircraft, on foot or by boat. Only the main rivers are navigable by canoes or rubber boats, but even these are cut by numerous rapids and waterfalls...The area is covered with glacial and alluvial deposits and particularly good examples of drumlin fields occur....The ice appears to have crossed the area in a south-westerly direction. This area can be reached by air from Uranium City, 200 miles to the north-west and from La Ronge, 160 miles to the south. Except for some fishing camps temporarily occupied, the region is uninhabited."

A.J. Baer in
"Pre-cambrian Geology of the Geikie River"
Geological Survey of Canada, 1967.


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