It was February of 1937. Since we had completed our fox trapping for the season, we were becoming a little bit bored with mid-winter inactivity. One day Ab slipped over to the Hudson's Bay Company outpost to see if any mail had arrived there for us and to have a chat with John Lawrie, the successor to Jim Buchan of the previous winter. He returned the next day with startling news. Our legislators away down the Saskatchewan map at Regina had seen fit to open the season on beaver! The take was to be rigidly controlled, however, with a limit of ten pelts to each trapper and each pelt to have affixed an official tag. Ab had the necessary permits and tags tucked in his pocket. Due to the extreme scarcity in the northland, the Saskatchewan Government, a few years earlier, had closed the trapping season on beaver. We were astonished that it had been reopened so soon and we assumed that pressure groups had prevailed upon the authorities to do so.
It would be necessary that we seek out the beaver. In all our travels in the Northland thus far we had never discovered a live beaver lodge. Occasionally, a well-aged beaver-gnawed stump was found along the river. In the three winters spent down at Rat Creek I had seen a single old beaver-cut stump. On the lower Deer River, in the previous summer, we had seen our first fresh beaver sign. That was all.
We had heard the story that was circulated by moccasin telegraph around Cree Lake of how Black Alex, the Chipewyan hunter, had shot a lone beaver near our home cabin that first spring after we had left for Outside. Since there was no fresh sign about, we reasoned that this beaver had travelled downstream from the headwaters of the river that emptied into Cree Lake where Black Alex had shot it to feed his wife and several children. Ab and I now made preparations to make an extended exploratory expedition as far as necessary to locate beaver.
A long day of travel by dog team put us into fine green-timber jack pine country south of the great desolate burned-over area northwest of lake two. In a secluded bay, we pitched our tent not far from the extreme south end of the lake. Here, where there was a southern exposure for daytime warmth from the sun and plenty of wood and shelter, we prepared a base for our operations. Using snowshoes as shovels we cleared a space slightly larger than the perimeter of the tent by digging away the four-foot depth of snow right down to the reindeer moss. Here the tent was raised among the jack pines and tied to the trees for rugged support.
The tent walls were weighted down with logs and sealed to the earth with packed snow. Selected spruce boughs were laid carefully a foot deep to cover the entire tent floor except for one corner where a small sheet metal stove was installed, the smoke pipe was stuck through the metal pipe support that had been riveted in the canvas. Over the spruce boughs, we laid a large tarpaulin. Quarters were made among the trees for the dogs before we retired to our bedrolls for the night. We doffed our outer clothing; the stove gave off plenty of heat and its sides glowed for a time. As the wood burned out, we slept the night through as usual without awakening.
Next morning we trekked to the southern limits of the uneven shoreline of lake two. As at the north end, the lakeshore here led into many small bays and backwaters, through narrows and past small islands and around points. We were seeking the elusive river mouth which we thought must be near the south end of the lake. We discovered a small creek but the flow of water was too meagre to be the mainstream. We would return here later because fresh otter tracks were visible below a small open rapid just a short walk upstream.
We found the river mouth late that afternoon. Hidden by screening willows the river flowed through a small swamp and joined the lake. Here, too, a large beaver lodge was discovered. It was covered with frozen black mud and towered seven feet above the ice. There was much evidence of freshly gnawed wood all about the vicinity. Two sets were made under the ice before we returned to the tent at dusk.
Now that the river had been located, together with the large beaver lodge, we became highly enthused with the possibilities of gathering our limit of beaver. We were off at dawn to ascend the river to wherever it might lead. The travelling was easy for the many caribou trails had packed down the snow on the river ice. We followed its winding course and found it free of rapids and slow of current so that there was no danger of breaking through the ice. The river had a swampy shore with much willow and another brush-prime beaver country.
A few miles up the river I spotted a cabin back in the bush and almost hidden from the river. From the state of weathering of the newest axe marks, we judged that it had been unoccupied for three or four years. The structure was of moderate size but crudely built and the builders appeared to have been neither skilful or careful. The cabin was empty save for a small notebook stuck between two logs of one wall. I read it with interest from cover to cover, a day-to-day diary of only a few words for each day. The author, it seems, had been illiterate and his spelling was so bad that some entries were unreadable. One day's notation of three words read incongruously, "pig bred today." I had no trouble interpreting the true meaning as "baked bread today." The diary's owner had not signed his name.
It appeared that the cabins occupants had been the last humans in the area until our arrival, for nowhere had we seen new axe marks. The beaver, left unmolested in this interval, were making a comeback, and continuing on our way we located another, much smaller lodge. As the day wore on we snowshoed on upstream until we reached a small lake. By sighting our position according to the direction of the sun, we judged that we had made a large half circle and could cut off some miles by striking back through the woods, taking a direct line back to the tent. After breaking trail for a couple of hours, we arrived "home." We camped that night in high spirits for prospects were getting better every day. Ab even played a few renditions on his mouth organ.
Out early next morning, we doubled back over the newly broken trail, the dogs making good time on the packed frozen path until we reached the small lake. We found the river mouth along the north shore and followed its winding course. The river was becoming smaller by the mile now, being little more than a small creek at this point, but still navigable by canoe in summer. From a long way off we saw the felled and peeled jack pines that littered the entire sloping side of a hill the formed the riverbank. From a distance, it looked as if a gang of loggers had been at work. Trees up to eighteen inches at the butt had been knocked down to form the food supply for a beaver colony. The lodge stood near the riverbank.
Strangely, the lodge had a steaming hole at its top. We examined this carefully and found that the occupants of the lodge had opened it from the inside. Although it was winter weather the ice was covered with water, for the spring-fed stream was flooding the ice in this section of the river. The beaver had made an escape hole to avoid being drowned by flooding. Ab widened the hole by chopping it out with his belt axe. the hole exuded a dank and woody odour, Ab peered intently into the hole for a few minutes. Then he whispered, "hand me the twenty-two rifle."
I passed it to him, loaded and cocked. Deliberately and slowly he shot into the hole four times. Then he put his mitt back on his hand, reached far into the hole, and dragged out one after the other two very large and two medium-sized beaver, all shot neatly through the head. We gazed dumbfounded at the brown furry heaps, the first beaver we had ever seen. We would sell the four for eighty dollars.
The fat heavy carcasses were rolled onto the toboggan. The dogs strained with the dead weight as we made for the sheltering bush to skin out the pelts. Neither one of us had skinned a beaver before. We knew that a beaver is skinned open but we made the error of splitting the skin of the legs as a deer is skinned. This brought a hearty laugh from Harvey MacDonald, Hudson's Bay Company factor at Ile-a-la-Crosse when he bought our skins that spring. He sobered as he examined the balance of our catch for we had recognized our mistake right off.
"You sure learned how to do it properly," he then commented. We had discovered the large castoreum glands near the anal region of the beaver as we skinned them out.
This was the source of the heavy woody smell that is reminiscent of the scent of crushed buds of poplar and willow, a blend of the scents of various woody plants on which the beaver feeds throughout its life. We knew this was the scent that had lured beaver to the point of extinction even in the remotest areas of the country, for a set doped with the castoreum is sure to attract any passing beaver. So heavy is its scent, that it is used as a base for expensive perfumes. Now we lived in excitement and with the expectation that the farther we travelled upstream, the more beaver we would find. Next day was spent in travel far up the dwindling watercourse, the entire way through swamp, willow, black spruce, and various kinds of brush, all excellent beaver habitat. After a full day of long hard travel, we camped amid a desolate tangle of snags in muskeg country where there was not a single beaver sign. The area was flat, swampy, and given to casual water that flooded the swamps so that a great many trees were dead or un-thrifty in appearance. It was decided that we were on the wrong track. In the morning we backtracked to the tent.
If there were more beaver in the country we must locate them away from the river. On one of a string of small lakes, we found another big lodge and still another on the last small lake. The perimeter of our operations was thus established. Rounds of the five known beaver lodges were made at regular intervals while we took turns every ten days to drive the dog team to the home cabin more than twenty miles distant to get food and inspect otter traps on our other regular traplines.
In all we took fourteen beaver that season. We deliberately did not take all the animals of any lodge, for we recognized this to be sound management if we were to continue to operate in the area. We also knew by now that the opening of the beaver season by game authorities had been a stupid blunder. In this region, a country of excellent beaver habitat, the beaver was only beginning to make a comeback. Here had been the seed to re-populate this land with hundreds of busy rodents which the land could easily support. We were destroying this seed, yet if we did not take them someone else surely would. This fact was demonstrated to us very dramatically.
On a bush trail of our beaver trapline one day, our dogs picked up their ears and began to yelp with excitement. We were then met head-on by two dog teams. Oscar Petit and Art Olson, trappers from far-off Ile-a-la-Crosse (actually residents of Buffalo Narrows), while hunting likely beaver country, had come upon our trail in the swampy headwater country of the river and had followed it all the way down to locate us.
The visit was memorable and unique. The element of surprise and being suddenly brought face to face with strangers had a singular impact upon us, for we had been isolated from other humans. I experienced a certain shyness and self-consciousness which was not completely dispelled until, right there, we kindled a blazing fire and boiled the tea pail. As we all squatted about the fire and relaxed, our tongues loosened and we had a very cordial and good-natured visit. We exchanged information about mutual acquaintances and inevitably the reason for us all being there was discussed-the beaver. I questioned them closely as to their success at beaver trapping. They indicated that in the hundreds of miles they had travelled they had not seen enough sign of beaver to establish a camp. After a couple of hours, they rose, shook hands, and departed the way they had come. We never saw them again. They had left with an unspoken message which we understood. In withdrawing from the area, they were showing the standard courtesy that one white man usually showed to another in those days. It was our territory, but had we not been present, they would have taken the beaver that was there.
Chance encounters did not always end as had this one. Sometimes a ranging trapper located where other men were active. The resulting competition ended in the annihilation of beaver in vast areas, for he was the most vulnerable of all fur animals. For this reason, I had advocated registered traplines as early as 1938.
We knew well the possibilities had the season remained closed for beaver for a few seasons longer. By that time lodges would have mushroomed all the way down the river to the home cabin. This, of course, was not possible under the game regulations of the day. As if this were not enough, incredibly, the season was reopened the following year. We made one long sweeping foray as far as the headwaters of the Clearwater River, cruising new country of lakes and streams where countless beaver could have thrived. We found so few scattered lodges that we decided to stand up and be counted for fur conservation. We withdrew and took no beavers at all that spring. In the next year, we discovered that as many lodges existed as to when we began our activities there in the year of the first beaver hunt. That first beaver hunt had some profitable sidelights. In the small creeks we trapped three otters and Ab, lying in wait at a creek rapid on a bed of spruce boughs, shot two more with his usual deadly aim from the screening bush
The numerous timber wolves that kept us under surveillance were my particular target and I set good snares for them, sometimes in my own trail which they chose to follow from time to time. They always eluded me and I never learned the secret of taking them. One chance encounter surprised a small pack as I drove the dogs from the bush onto a small lake. They streaked for the trees on shore with a smooth effortless gait.
All the traps were lifted on a warm sunny day in May. The snows had been settling in sodden masses all along the southern slopes of the hills. Camp was broken and everything was loaded into the worn and battered toboggan, the curved hood of which had been split on striking a rock and had been reinforced by wrapping with rawhide. The toboggan had encountered many a tree and rock that winter, but being made of tough native birch was still in fair condition. Our snowshoes were worn of frame and patched of webbing. The long hair of the dogs was bleached now from the combination of bright sun and reflecting snow. Our own faces were as tanned as any Indian's except for a bar across the eyes from the dark glasses we had constantly worn to avoid snow blindness.
With parkas shed and shirts open at the neck; we waded through soft snow and onto the now snow-free surface of lake two. That night we camped on a tiny island, not much larger than the base of our tent and containing a few trees for firewood. The night was very mild; we rolled out our bedding under the stars and slept in comfort until we were awakened by mosquitoes that had come alive and hungry even though the island was locked in solid ice. We were quite unprepared for them, so we were on our way at daylight after spending a rather miserable night listening to their whining wings and feeling their sharp stabs. We crossed lake two from south to north on the solid ice until the lake narrowed and formed the river.
Since our old trail led over rotten sections of ice and into open water a new trail must be made through the bush and the safety of solid ground. The toboggan dragged over bare ground and rocks at times but we made Albert's House before night. This small out camp stood strangely tall now because the deep snow had all melted away; the out camp stood on a southern exposure of a hill. I saw mallards swimming happily and stretching their wings in the open reach of the river just below the cabin. We camped at evening to the sound of quacking ducks and the whistling of their wings as they passed overhead. During the winter, Ab's short fishnet had become frozen in the ice where he had set it in the eddies below the rapid. We retrieved it now that it was melted free. Surprisingly, it contained two large and very lively whitefish. We enjoyed a large fish fry that night, a most welcome change from our steady diet of caribou meat. These two very fresh fish taken from water very near 32 degrees were among the best and choicest fish that it has been my privilege to eat. We reached the home cabin before noon on the following day. Time was taken now for hot baths, laundering clothes, darning socks, sewing up ripped outer garments. We fished at the river mouth and once again enormous pike and lake trout were taken. After a few days rest, we strung out a line of muskrat traps. We caught thirty and then the traps would not produce.
It was that time of year once more when we loaded our gear for the long trip Outside. The way led far down the Deer River to the trading posts at Patuanak on the Churchill and to Ile-a-la-Crosse to sell the spring catch. Then through the commercial forest country until we encountered the first settlements, to the small towns and the cities of Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Regina to be reunited for a short while with relatives and old friends.