North to Cree Lake

Seasons of the North Country.


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

Fred's diaries are filled with comments on the weather. The weather, of course, always affects the trapper, sometimes favouring his work, more often hindering it. Had the Government of Canada been aware of Fred's keen interest in temperatures, precipitation and winds of the North, they would surely have tried to recruit him to a weather station somewhere in northern Canada and put him on the payroll. There is some doubt in my mind that he would have accepted such an offer; there is no doubt whatever that, had he accepted, he would have soon resigned. Wolverine. The North is a windy country, and there are many references to wind throughout Fred's records. Most refer to the wind only in passing, "a brave wind out of the north-west today." The wind was his constant companion in his summer travels and there were few days when he could paddle across large lakes without encountering waves. There are many entries written in frustration, as: "Tried to look at the fishnets but turned back on account of wind." On another occasion: "the wind nearly blew me out of the canoe." as he lifted a fishnet. There were many times when the surf ran so high in the lakes that it carried away his nets or so entangled them that he had to spend many hours of work to put them back in service.

Sometimes the winds blew with fantastic force. In 1947, when Fred returned to his camp after a summer 'Outside,' he wrote in his diary: "September 28, the camp is a dismal looking place. Most of the trees are blown down over a wide area. This is the heaviest wind I've ever seen in the North. Must have been blowing seventy miles an hour in order to flatten the trees this way." Later that fall: "I am quite fed up with the damned wind, six days straight.!" This kind of weather vexed him sorely when he needed to travel, to fish or to hunt moose while it was still the mating season and the bull moose would still come to his call.

Some years the snow came as early as August; but it usually melted away again, and fine, warm days in September and October made life pleasant and travelling and hunting a joy. "October 16, 1963, Banana belt weather, I could have a sun-bath if I felt like it."

In 1961, the weather was particularly trying. The days suddenly turned very warm in November, and Fred records many terrible trips made through sodden, heavy snow that covers very thin, dangerous ice. Under these conditions, there was a constant danger of breaking through the ice on the lakes and rivers, and the slush that collected on the ice made travel with the dog team and toboggan impossible.

November 1, 1961: "Never have I felt so discouraged as I do today. It has snowed ten inches and the stuff is still coming down. I admit that I do not know what to do. Sometime in the future I'll read this page and remember just how it feels to be alone under such conditions. I do not expect to make expenses this season.....November 6, 1961: "I returned from Gun Creek. I would rather not record this trip. Twenty inches of new snow has fallen. Travelling is just about impossible, slush and snow no end." Nevertheless, Fred did manage to make a reasonable fur catch: his summary for the season states that he caught fifty-nine mink.

The heavy snows in this country always began deceptively lightly. A small flake was seen here and there, then the snowfall continued and increased hour by hour until it lay deep on the ground and Fred had to don his snowshoes and use them until April. This season coincided with the time that the fur became prime, so there was much travelling to be done on the snow. Occasionally the snowfall between trips was so heavy that the toboggan track was obliterated.

With winter there usually came a corresponding drop in wind velocities. Yet Fred often had to cross the great open reaches of the frozen lakes facing a biting north wind. "Nasty little north wind today, it is as sharp as a knife. I did get slightly frostbitten. I don't like that kind of wind."

There are also some winter entries which indicate that Fred is eager for wind. When, in early winter, the weight of the new snowfall cracks the ice, and water seeps under the snow, the loose snow cover insulates it from further freezing. The unwary traveller can blunder into slush and get his feet wet even in the most severe cold. At such times, high winds on the lakes will drift the snow to a hard surface and cause the slush to freeze. Then Fred's old toboggan tracks could be seen as elevated snow ridges, and his tracks, where he had run along beside the trail, sometimes took the shape of a half-grapefruit, round side up.

On rare occasions, there was heavy ice on the lakes before any snow fell. Then Fred travelled everywhere on bare ice, his toboggan shod with steel runners. Had he owned a pair of skates, he could have skated all over the North on the lakes and rivers. Inevitably the snow came to create normal winter travelling conditions again.

Fred carried a thermometer with him on his travels, and winter temperatures are faithfully recorded in his diaries. In all his records, there is only one mid-winter entry indicating an above-freezing temperature, in February 1954, when the thermometer one morning read thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. On rare occasions, he reports a freezing, mid-winter rain which causes land-set traps to become ice-covered and useless, nothing short of a disaster for the trapper. When the days are clear and cold, and the ice safe for travelling, the diary reads thus: "Thirty-two below, a fine day."

Fred did not practice the Indian method of mid-winter travel: crawling into his sleeping robe and having the dogs haul him in the toboggan. It is mentioned only once: I got into my sleeping bag to come home. If I had not, I would have frozen to death."

When Fred returned to Close Lake in the fall of 1965, after an absence from his traplines of two years, he found little noticeable change. No one had molested the old cabin, and there was no indication that any trapper had been operating in the vicinity during his absence. The season began with normal, good weather and Fred wrote that there would probably be an early freeze that fall and that he expected to be on the trapline in good time. On the contrary, that season proved to be one to tax all his patience, to say nothing of his physical endurance.

By mid-October the weather was still abnormally mild, contrary to the indications of the preceding summer which at Ile-a-la-Crosse anyway, had been unusually cool. One cold night, the lesser lakes froze over, as did the narrows on Close Lake. However, the next day it turned quite mild and began to rain. Then the wind came up and washed out all the ice, and Fred had to go on travelling by canoe. The freeze-up was so late that, on October twenty-third, Fred writes that there has been no ice formed on his canoe at any time that fall: in the first winter he and Ed Theriau had spent at Poorfish Lake, there had been a general freeze-up by October fifteenth.

Fred waited for cold weather with growing impatience. He had ordered the aeroplane pilot to pick him up on December the fifteenth: suddenly realized he had only six weeks left. By November first, the lakes were covered by thin ice, but it had begun to snow heavily. Now Fred encountered his old enemy: the thin ice cracked and slush appeared under the snow. He attempted to travel on the ice close to shore, but he broke through, so that, in this land of interlaced watercourses, he could make no headway at all.

Not until November eleventh did he make any real distance from the cabin. With the dog team, he reached a string of unnamed lakes twenty miles out from camp: then there occurred a sudden thaw. The slush was so terrible that he turned back. The return journey, as he records in his diary, is gruelling and dangerous. He takes chances crossing lakes to save distance, knowing that he might break through at the next step. Slush builds up on the toboggan and freezes. He and the dogs are exhausted when they finally reach the cabin. Fred's traps are empty, he writes, "as Mother Hubbard's cupboard."

Fred struggled through the balance of that season, fighting his way through slush to his favourite trapping grounds, Gun Creek, Wolf Creek, Horrible Lake and Chip Point Lake. A couple of cold nights assisted him in reaching even more remote country, but warm spells continued to bedevil him until the end of the season. Fred's journal gives the impression that the weather that fall was more suited to the State of Iowa than to Northern Saskatchewan. It would be quite normal to expect readings of fifty below zero, yet there is very little indication in the diary that there were any below-zero readings at all that fall.

After that season, Fred endured the mink ranch until the spring of 1969, when he was flown back to Close Lake. The cabin was still in fair condition, but odd-looking and noticeably weathered since he had seen it last. Fred, however, had no intention of passing the trapping season at Close Lake. He had last trapped the Poorfish Lake area fifteen years ago and, so far as he knew, it had not been trapped since; now he decided to return to that country.

He was at Close Lake long enough to net some fish for dog food; after a hard frost he set out southward with all his gear in the toboggan, drawn by his two dogs. His destination was fifty or sixty miles to the south, a trip he used to make in two days if travelling weather was good. This time, his dogs were willing but untrained, new to their master and without experience. Fred could not drive them; instead, he led and they followed along behind. They travelled easily over Close Lake until they reached the creek that drains it toward the south. The wide temperature fluctuations of early spring were having their effect on wildlife in the area. Otter. This day, although it was cold, a trio of otters that had been wintering in the creek surfaced and climbed out onto the ice. They tested the wind blowing gently from the south, and suddenly set out across the lake. As Fred reached the shore, he saw three small specks far out on the ice and immediately recognized them as travelling otters. He led the dogs in that direction; from past experience, he knew that he could not, at his age, run the otters down himself, but the dogs might do it for him. But these dogs turned out to be chasers and not killers. When they reached the first otter, a big male, it turned on them, bared its long teeth and gave a menacing hiss. At this, the dogs lost interest and ran back to Fred, and the otters escaped into a hole in the ice where a spring fed into the lake.

Fred remembered a dog Ed Theriau had, that used to run down otters on the ice. This dog had been trained to do the job, and his performance was something to remember. Once, though an otter had held him by the throat in a death grip, this dog continued his attack until Ed rescued him.

Fred moved on, and the two dogs easily pulled the loaded sleigh along behind him. But crossing overland from lake to lake was another matter, for new growth had hidden the trails of long ago. Fires had burned through over the years, small trees stood thick on the trails and Fred had to cut them to allow the toboggan to pass. That evening, just before sundown, he passed the mouth of the creek where Ed had been poisoned by eating the tainted flesh of a beaver.

Next morning, the breath of spring blew from the south. Soon the snow in the bush was a sodden mass, and travelling was almost impossible. Fred saw his first crows of the season; migrating ducks would be along any day now.

Fred was working his way across a short portage when a large black bear, just out of hibernation, was attracted by a strange and irresistible odour. Fred had been eating bacon for breakfast from a big slab he kept in his grub box, and now the smell of the bacon was on the dog toboggan and the packs. The bear was in a half-starved condition; there was nothing in his stomach and mighty little for him to find in the wilderness, where there seemed to be very little game of any kind, and where the ants and beetles were still dormant. Fred had just packed his grub box across the portage when he heard the dogs at the toboggan start to yelp. He rushed back in time to see the bear ripping open one of his packs. The bear disappeared; a little later it broke into the grub box at the other end of the portage. Finally, the bear returned a third time, and Fred his rifle ready now, sent a fusillade of shots after its shape disappearing in the thick bush. It did not reappear after that.

The next night he camped farther south, in the midst of his haunts of fifteen years before. The day had been warm, settling the snow a good deal. With the sunset, the temperatures began to drop, and when the moon rose it was freezing hard. That night a firm crust was laid on the snow. During the day a small pack of timber wolves had been watching a bull moose feeding in a little valley not far from where Fred would camp. They had been unable to travel in the deep, wet snow by day, but with the night, conditions were reversed and they ran easily on top of the snow. These were ideal hunting conditions for wolves, the sort when special kinds of mayhem are perpetrated by the hunting packs. Fred heard them howling back in the hills as he bedded down. He soon fell asleep, but sometime in the night, the chase began. The moose plunged along, breaking through the snow crust until it came to the lake. It followed the shore for a time and, in its flight, almost ran right over Fred's camp. Then the frenzied dogs made such a commotion that the wolves withdrew, Fred hoped that their retreat would be permanent, but he could not be sure that the moose had escaped.

Two days later, the weather turned extremely mild and it rained heavily. The snow was vanishing, first on the southern slopes, then on the flat valley floor where Fred must travel. The dogs were pulling over bare ground.

On April twenty sixth, Fred and the dogs arrived at Poorfish Lake, eleven days from Close Lake. The first thing he did was to check if the canoe, flown from Close Lake on the bush pilot's return trip, was safely delivered. Assured that it was, he looked around the old campsite. After his absence of fifteen years, very little remained but the ghosts of the past. There was no sign of recent human presence. A canoe, left when Nora was last here, was now a total loss.

Fred set out to re-explore the country which he had not seen all these years. He discovered beaver lodges on many of the creeks, otter in the river, and lots of mink sign, although the mink season was over for the year. But as soon as he began trapping, in May, the weather turned wintery, exactly the kind of weather he should have had for the journey from Close Lake. There was a heavy fall of snow, and the bad weather was one of the factors that contributed to a poor fur catch that season.

Fred was back at Poorfish Lake in the autumn of 1970, and again there were indications that a normal freeze-up was on the way. By October twelfth, thick ice had formed in the narrows, and Fred had put away his canoe for the season. Then a warm front moved in, and a strong south wind swept all the ice out of the narrows. On October twenty-fourth, Fred reported an Indian summer day with a temperature of forty-five degrees above. The fish he had hung in the fish cache for the dogs now began to stink, no calamity, for dogs will develop a taste for high fish. A moose he had shot he had earlier was also in danger of spoiling, so he cut the meat in strips and dried it over a slow fire.

It drizzled rain all the next day. Then Fred noticed "summer birds" about, mergansers feeding in the narrows and a flock of mallards circling overhead, most unusual visitors for this time of the year. Normally in this season, any rain will turn to snow, and when the sky clears, the temperature will drop drastically. Instead, when the rain stopped, the temperature returned to the mid-forties. "It seems to me that one spends about half the time waiting for the weather to become favourable. Today is another fine day," Fred writes in disgust. On the last day of October, Fred has taken his canoe down from its rack and is cruising along the shores of Poorfish Lake.

In early November, it continued mild; temperatures were still in the high forties by day. Fred wrote that he had never seen finer weather, in short, it was lovely if you are not anxious to get the trapping season underway. He set out again with the canoe, freighting the dogs and toboggan in case he should get caught in a freeze.

Finally, one night, the wind began to blow from the north, a cold front arrived and the open water froze over. But when Fred set out across the lakes on foot, he broke through near shore. He got out with nothing worse than wet feet and, after changing his footwear, he began to cross again. A long way out from shore the ice began to crack under his feet, with small cracks radiating out from where he stood like the spokes of a wheel. He turned back, managed to reach the shore safely and concluded that the lakes were still unfit for travel. He turned back to Poorfish Lake, and when he reached the shore, he climbed a high hill to ascertain that the whole lake was now frozen over.

He crossed to his cabin by following a crack in the ice, knowing from past experience that this was the safest way to cross new ice. Then Fred wrote in his diary that he was not as brave on new ice as he once had been. At last the ice was thick and safe for travel. The dogs were harnessed and the trek northward began. Aircraft. Half way to Close Lake, snow began to fall heavily, closely followed by the appearance of slush on all the lakes. Travelling became impossible and Fred was once again forced to return to his base camp. By now he knew that this trapping season would be a disaster financially, and he indicated in his records that he was very unhappy. Now there is recorded a temperature of minus thirty-four degrees. Fred is on his way to Close Lake again, and this time reaches the Close Lake narrows, only to discover that the whole area has been ravished by fire in the previous summer. There are no fur-bearing animals in the whole region, and as a result, no game. The bush plane picked Fred up just before Christmas. Of all his recorded trapping seasons, this is the worst one he ever experienced as a result of adverse weather.


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"Date Modified: 2019, January 24."


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