In the spring of 1934 the muskrat hunt had been good at Rat Lake. We were astonished to find that muskrat prices had risen sharply over the previous year so that we had enough cash to take a holiday at our home on the prairies. We found the wide-open, flat, colourless land somehow foreign. We felt that we were not in step with this country. Economic conditions were, if anything, worse than on my visit of the previous summer. We could not get back to the north woods fast enough.
We returned to Big River in July and purchased a summer grubstake. We returned to Rat Lake in Chris's sailboat via Stoney Lake and Stoney Creek. Stoney Creek, we found, was a fine navigable stream that ran through a heavily wooded, generally flat country where we paddled past feeding moose and deer and where songbirds sang us to sleep in the long twilight and where the waterfowl hatched their young in the backwaters and swampy grasslands at the creek's edge. Here ducks could be heard chuckling away in the reeds and talking it up with one another one of the happiest sounds I know. It was on this trip that we witnessed the phenomenon called will-o-the-wisp or swamp fire. We paddled down Rat Lake by night while the waters were calm, having been delayed most of the day by unfavourable headwinds. It was nearly midnight as we paddled along the west shore opposite a vast swamp, a light that resembled a hurricane lantern seen at a distance. The light did not bob or weave but appeared to drift away and then vanish.
We spent part of the summer on Stony Lake where we worked for Joe Sheppard, a squat, ageing Englishman who had a history as a cook for the Hudson's Bay Company at some of its northern posts. Joe operated on Stoney Lake, a stopping place for winter teamsters who travelled back and forth, occupied with hauling fish from as far away as Buffalo (Churchill) and Snake (Pinehouse) lakes. We remodelled his big log house. Ab, as ever, handy with tools, renovated the place to Joe's liking.
A few years earlier Chris Timson had worked for Joe and took as part payment two weanling pigs which he boated down to his cabin on Rat Lake to supply pork for the coming winter as a change from venison. He fashioned a pole pen for them and planned to feed them on ground oats he had brought along and fish from the lake. The shoats had become wary and wild, and as soon as they were released from the sack they climbed over the pole walls of the enclosure and vanished into the bush. Chris tried to call them back and even put out food to lure them in. As a last resort he set traps, but they never returned. He decided that they had been killed by coyotes.
The summer passed and early fall found us once more established on Rat Creek. All was as we had left it. Apparently, no one had travelled the creek while we were absent for more than a month. At this time we set up the old-style radio receiving set purchased from Chris. We had brought in new tubes and the cumbersome dry batteries which were vital to its operation. We strung up a copper wire aerial on two long spruce poles and raised them to hold the wire strung across the clearing. It was growing dusk when the operation was completed. We each donned a pair of earphones and plugged them into the wooden box. I turned on the switch. We heard organ music, the familiar "beautiful Ohio" came in loud and clear. Thereafter we spent the evenings listening to a wide selection of stations. Radio reception here was free of interference and static noises. The set would not receive during daylight hours, but by nightfall, we could pick up a range of stations from Winnipeg to Vancouver and stations in the central United States right down to the powerful transmitters on the Mexican border, particularly one used by Dr Brinkley to promote a health clinic.
We had the whole area to ourselves now that Chris Timson had moved north. However, we did have company in the form of several whiskey jacks and a red squirrel that came into the cabin and took bits of bread from our fingers.
A great, waddling porcupine scrambled over the sill of the open door one day and I had to chase him out with the aid of a stick. When we were no longer bothered by mosquitoes and sandflies we took long hikes through the woods to hunt and just enjoy ourselves in the October woods where wet poplar leaves gave off scented vapours where they lay on the damp earth. On certain trails that skirted big muskegs, the aroma of decaying vegetation resembled the smell of coffee, particularly where we stepped into hummocks to pick red cranberries.
We began trapping operations a few days before the lake froze over. Ab in the sailboat plied the entire lake setting traps in the best locations. By freeze-up, we had a dozen foxes and coyotes, for, at last, we were getting our traps to work, thanks to some conversation I had heard from a drunken trapper in Big River. We now knew something of how to bait traps and where and when to set them. We had all the meat we needed and a good supply of store food. We lived the life of Riley.
I laid out a new trapline. Across the creek through the bush east and north of the cabin, I blazed a trail through the trees, through country hitherto unexplored by ourselves. I skirted the big muskegs near Voisin Lake and in tall timber, I climbed a great white spruce from which I could see the white expanse of Sled Lake in the distance to the north. From this point, I circled back to the creek to make a big loop that completed a full day of travelling to work the line. I experimented with traps and several snare sets.
From the cabin one day, I heard a tremendous coyote chorus to the east of the creek. Not only the usual howling but interspersed were yelps and snarls as one might expect them to make around a kill. A few days later I came upon a concentration of coyote tracks in the snow which led me to a spot where they had killed and eaten a porcupine. Here was a bit of knowledge until then unknown to me, for I had considered a porcupine to be invulnerable to coyotes. Later on, I trapped a large male coyote in this vicinity. When I took off the pelt I scratched my hand on something sharp in the black nose. I found a long porcupine quill embedded just below the nostrils, two inches straight into the fleshy part of the nose, only the tip protruding. No swelling was noticeable, yet my tawny victim would have been in for a rough winter had his career not come to an abrupt end in my trap. A few days later I gathered in a prime red fox caught by the hindfoot in one of my trail sets.
Meanwhile, Ab was having considerable success trapping mink along the lakeshore between the cabin and Timson's old headquarters. A strain of off-coloured mink that resembled somewhat the colour of a groundhog were playing merry hob in the muskrat runs all along the shore. Each den had been systematically entered by these diminutive assassins who burrowed through the earth straight down into the access tunnels. Each entrance hole had been later sealed by the muskrats by pushing up mud through the hole. After Ab had trapped four mink all signs and tracks of them vanished. The full effect of their depredations, however, would be felt later on. Down on Rat Creek, I caught a fine dark mink to add to our fur harvest. The weather was not unduly severe and the snowfall so light that we could range far and wide without snowshoes. We were already in the happy hunting ground where the Indian expects to go when he dies. The cabin was clean and comfortable, the radio received clearly in the evenings, and we had a supply of good books and magazines. We felt robustly healthy.
Christmas was nearly upon us when we walked to Big River. Since the snow was not deep we legged it down Rat Lake, crossed over frozen swamp and meadow and sparse tree growth south of the lake. We were tougher and more seasoned now. We crossed over to the westward and struck the Crooked Lakeshore near Craddock's ranch. We made it to Ed's homestead ten miles out of Big River by nightfall.
We had met Ed the previous winter when he had freighted in by horse team and sleigh the winter supplies for Chris Timson and they had come up to our cabin to visit. Yes, agreed Ed, he would freight in our supplies from Big River. A deal was made and we rode the sleigh into the village the next day.
We were aware of more than a little interest in the size of our fur catch by the fur buyers and the other people in the village. We shopped about and sold to the highest bidder. Our circumstances were changed now as we rode out of the village, the sleigh piled with flour, sugar, lard, and dozens of items to make life more pleasant for us in our already Utopian existence-Utopian for men who can adapt to this kind of life.
We were impressed by the warmth and friendliness of the homesteaders along the way when we stopped to deliver mail and a girl passenger from the village. All were interested in things farther north and they asked many questions. We were favourably impressed with this brush with civilization, although we both picked up severe head colds which were absent when we lived alone and out of contact with infection.
The weather for the return trip held fine and we found it most enjoyable to ride on the sleigh, getting off only when we felt chilly, to trot alongside until we warmed up. At dusk, we pulled up in the little clearing on the hill in front of the Rat Creek cabin.
Ed was good company and a great talker. He stayed over an extra day to visit and rest the horses. It turned out that Ed was interested in cutting railroad ties. He questioned us closely if there might be a suitable stand of jack pines in the vicinity where he might set up cutting operations. We assured him that there was a likely spot just a couple of miles east of the cabin where my trapline cut through a narrow belt of mature trees. We timber-cruised the area with him and he undercut several big trees with his double-bitted axe. We found that certain trees are overage and subject to rejection by the railway company buyers.
Ed decided that enough prime jack pine and tamarack existed in the vicinity to warrant a tie-camp operation. He convinced us that we could make more money by helping him than we could from our trapline operations. The foxes were becoming "rubbed" and the pelts would soon be worthless. Ed and his two partners, Alex and Charlie would supply the outfit and food. Ab would be hired for logging for he had experience in logging. I would be camp cook.
The turning point had come. We gave up the regimented life of the trapper and accepted the busy routine of the tie camp. Axes rang to the east of the cabin where Ab, Ed, Charlie, and Alex built a bridge over Rat Creek with big poplar logs and crossed the stringers with smaller logs to make a corduroy bed to allow the teams and sleighs to cross over. Next, a road was cut into the jack pine stand. Finally, a crude barn was built to shelter the six horses before the business of cutting trees could begin.
Ab took charge of felling operations. "Timber", called out in the cold winter air signified that the treetop quivered as the tree was about to come down. The rest of the crew acknowledged that he was the most adept of the lot at felling trees.
Ed began to swing his broad axe. This tool was fashioned, said Ed, after the headsman's axe used in olden times for executions. Ed, I discovered, was expert in its use, for standing on a jack pine log, he slabbed off both sides with such skill that few score marks were to be found, and the cut surface resembled wood that had been sawn and planed in a mill. Back along the access road, the pile of ties grew as the days slipped by.
Charlie and Alex, although inexperienced in logging, were seasoned teamsters and at first assisted by cutting out access roads and piling the finished ties. Charlie, cutting out deadfalls from a logging road, sank his axe into a rotten birch. The outer bark was intact which deceived him into thinking the log was sound so that the axe blade cut through and plunged into the snow under his foot. Examination back at the cabin showed that the sharp blade had cut through his rubber, insole, sock, moccasin, and sock in that order leaving the last sock intact. He shrugged it off, but I shuddered to think of the consequences had the blade come up an inch or two! Sometime later, Ed in crowded quarters reached up with his sharp double-bitted axe to lop off an overhanging branch-and split open the back of his leather cap.
The men brought up the carcass of a prime two-year-old steer. Flour, sugar, rolled oats, and canned goods were stacked along one cabin wall. I rose each morning before daylight and prepared sixty sourdough hotcakes to which all had taken a liking. Along with small steaks, gravy, and coffee this was the usual breakfast. I was left on my own until the men arrived at noon for the next meal. Noonday meals ran strongly to fried steak or beef roast, sourdough bread, stewed dried fruit - prunes, apples, and raisins - or such pastry as I might bake. Pies were my speciality. A popular dessert was a slab of cake covered with a sweet sauce, maple flavoured and thickened with corn starch. We all thrived.
Sundays found the men resting on their bunks, playing cards, or, at night, listening to the radio. I then ran my trapline, picking up a few coyotes that fell victim to my snares and the stray mink that I trapped. This was a welcome diversion from the demanding routine of tie-camp cook.
Ed announced one day that in order to cut the number of ties contracted for in the time left before spring he would have to cease using the broadaxe. His time would be better spent in cutting the logs the proper length and have the slabs sawed off at the mill in Big River. Although his agreement called for finished ties, he made this revision.
In early February the quota of cut logs had been reached. A road was cut through the woods six or seven miles west of the cabin to the shore of Crooked Lake where the ties were to be staged onshore and floated to Big River as soon as the ice was out.
Ab directed the men as to the best and shortest route, and the road became a reality. Cut through poplar stands, tamarack swamp, willow and alder groves, a strip of mighty white spruce, through birch and muskeg, it ended abruptly on the shore of Crooked Lake.
Hauling the logs began at once. The winter, moderate so far, descended on the land with a vengeance. New snow fell heavily and the temperature dropped. The teamsters, making two trips a day reported that the moose and deer had become so accustomed to the passing sleighs that they stood and watched as the sleighs moved by, not bothering to bolt for the protecting cover of the thick brush.
We made a trip to Big River at this time to replenish the supplies and clothing, leaving Ed to look after the camp. We outfitted with new parkas, socks, mitts, shirts, and woollen underwear along with food supplies - all drawn against the tie-camp operation from Godin's store which financed the entire venture. Loaded with our supplies, hay and oats for the horses, and another beef carcass, we arrived back at the cabin without misfortune.
The log hauling continued. The hours of daylight increased, but the cold weather returned. The horses, though fed adequately, were overworked so that they grew thin and occasionally stumbled and fell to their knees. I was concerned that some of them would die, but the last of the logs were sledded out by the end of February.
One day just before the tie camp was disbanded, two-horse teams with a number of Indian hunters arrived at our cabin from Green Lake. Suddenly, made aware by the "moccasin telegraph" that a road had been cut through from Crooked Lake to Rat Creek, they had come to hunt moose. Next day another party joined the first group. Since the moose had accepted as harmless the moving logging sleighs, the Indians shot from their sleds the moose that stood looking at them. Then the Indians fanned out, and we heard shots ring out from several directions. Our teamsters were outraged. With a spirit of game protection often found in loggers, they felt a responsibility for the welfare of these moose. Charlie told me that a big pile of meat lay at one point along the road. He was by nature a dour man and not given to making jokes.
"I should have spread some strychnine on that meat," he said darkly. The Indians were safe since we had no poison.
The logging operations ceased and Ed, Charlie, and Alex left with their equipment and the three teams for their homesteads. This date, March 1, coincided with the opening of the muskrat trapping season. Now people from Green Lake came in ever-increasing numbers. They loaded the open creek with traps. Their dogs sniffed out all the pushups that were snow-covered before we could find them when the snow melted. We found that the Indians were breaching the muskrat tunnels as the mink had done earlier. We realized that their numbers had been decimated by mink and would be almost wiped out by such extensive trapping.
Too late we learned that by cutting the road in from Crooked Lake we had done our trapping grounds irreparable harm. The area was now open to all and sundry for the game laws gave each Saskatchewan resident who bought a license the right to trap on any unrestricted lands in the province.
The Indians, we knew, preferred to hunt and trap in any area they could reach with their horse teams. Each season would see a repetition of their hunting and we would be outdone in the trapping grounds.
We ended the month with twenty-five muskrat skins. To the west, we then set up camp on an unnamed lake and gathered another twenty pelts before two Indians arrived and competed for what was left.
After the ice had left the lakes, we boated into Big River with our meagre muskrat catch. We talked to Godin in his store and he indicated that the tie-camp venture would probably be a financial failure since many of the ties would be rejected for red heart and the extra cost of sawing the logs would likely put the operation in the red. At this point, he did not know if there would be any profit to meet the balance of our wages.