North to Cree Lake

The Unfortunates.


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

Whenever Fred and Ed were in the wilderness, unusual dangers lurked in the background. Storms on lakes, rapids on rivers, thin ice, loaded firearms, and extreme cold, these were constant hazards that could not be underestimated. And, of course, if an accident occurred, they had to cope with it by themselves, with very little hope of outside help. Even so, Fred and Ed would say they lived a safer life than the residents of "Outside" who risked death on the highways and violence from their fellow man. Caribou. Fred has said that in their younger days he and Ed took many chances which they later learned to avoid. Vivid in his memory are nightmarish crossings of large lakes over too-thin, new ice. Once, during a snowfall, the ice cracked and shuddered under him, but did not give way. Fred kept on walking and reached the other side in safety. Yet he knew that big lakes do not always freeze over in their entirety on the same cold night; some open holes are left to freeze over later. He might well that day have walked out onto very thin ice, covered by the concealing snow, and fallen through. Alone on Close Lake one fine fall day, Fred shot a very large bull moose in a bay that was on the other side of the lake from his cabin, and about five miles away. He loaded the entire carcass, head and hide into his small hunting canoe. When he climbed into the stern of the canoe and shoved off, he had only two or three inches of freeboard. He made the long paddle across the glassy lake without incident; but this is a land where strong winds can come up suddenly to swamp an overloaded canoe, and, in retrospect, Fred thinks that this was a foolish thing to have done. Any foolhardiness was gradually eliminated from their behaviour as the two trappers became wiser in the ways of the North.

Once, when the ice had just formed on the lakes, Ed had an unnerving experience. Driving his dog team over the new ice, he encountered that season's first herd of barren-ground caribou. When the inevitable wild chase by the dogs ensued, Ed had no choice but to ride it out on the tailboard. The ice began to crack dangerously, and the dogs realizing their folly hesitated for a few seconds. At this moment Ed stepped from the toboggan and scrambled, over ice that crackled and bent like rubber, to safety on thicker ice nearby. The dogs plunged on after the caribou and managed to cross the lake to the far shore, where the toboggan tangled in the trees at the spot where the caribou had vanished.

Ed was often a night-time traveller. He had observed that a good lead dog will remember a trail for a year or longer, be it through the bush or across a large lake. Since the nights were a good deal longer than the days in a northern winter, he regularly avoided some boredom and covered extra miles by travelling in the dark.

One evening, as he travelled north for a visit with Fred, he arrived at the south shore of Close Lake on a moonless night so dark that he could just make out the shape of his lead dog at the head of the train. But the dogs had been over the trail in the previous season, and Ed was so confident that he climbed in the cariole and bundled himself up in his sleeping bag as they headed north over the ice. Fred turned out not to be at home; he was plying his trapline somewhere to the northeast. Disappointed, Ed stayed in the cabin that night. The next morning it was snowing heavily and a vicious wind was blowing from the south-west; since it was futile to try to cross Close Lake in such weather, Ed spent the day in the cabin, reading old magazines. The following morning he left a note on Fred's table, harnessed the dogs, and set out on the return trail.

Close Lake was not visible from the cabin. When he arrived at the shore of the lake, Ed was aghast at what he saw: the entire lake was free of ice, and white-capped waves crashed against the shore. To this day, Ed gets uneasy when he talks about it. That night, out there in the dark, there had remained a great open space of ice-free water. Perhaps the dogs skirted it. The gods had smiled. But never again did Ed travel the big lakes after dark during the freeze-up season.

If the gods that dwell in the north woods looked kindly on the activities of Fred and Ed, they permitted the Cree devil "Wetigo," and the Chipewyan devil, "Dishlini," to deal more harshly with many of the white men who later came to the Poorfish Lake country. One summer two white trappers moved into the country to the east of Cree Lake. They coveted the rich fur-producing area where Fred and Ed were operating. Ed heard about them while he was as far away as Big River: there were rumours that they would shoot a large number of caribou in the spring, and leave them to rot, reasoning that the carcasses would attract foxes to breed in their territory. That was enough for Ed; He was not anxious to have them come to Poorfish Lake.

At Cree Lake, the Chipewyans told Ed that the two strangers had asked how to get to the country to the east by canoe, and where the portages were located. The Indians had been evasive and gave only vague answers. The newcomers had left for the east, and as far as the Chipewyans knew, were camped on Bear Lake. Ed reasoned that they had probably not gone beyond that lake, where the first portage must be made. He was quite right: the new arrivals had not found the portage; they were waiting for Fred and Ed to appear, so they could follow them into the country.

When Fred and Ed paddled into Bear Lake that fall, it was late in the evening and already quite dark. They muzzled their dog's and paddled quietly to the first portage. Silently, they glided into shore, and carefully unloaded their goods, taking care not to strike the gunwale of the canoe and send a drumbeat out across the still lake. They even removed some small, blazed trees that marked the portage. The men who were waiting on the far shore of the lake heard and saw nothing that night.

The rest of the story eventually got around the North. The two men waited day after day for Fred and Ed to appear. Finally, they decided to look for the portages themselves. At last, they found the first portage, a long hard road to traverse with their sizable load of supplies. The trial ended on the shore of a lesser, oval-shaped lake, about two miles wide. With reloaded canoes, the men now skirted the west shore, seeking the next portage. When they found a small creek, flowing generally south-west, they decided that they were on the headwaters of the Poorfish River. The creek proved to be shallow, and full of rapids and large rocks, an even more formidable obstacle than the back-breaking portage. The course of the creek was so crooked that they lost track of the direction in which they entered a much larger lake. They paddled along the shore for a short way; toward evening they noticed a bit of shoreline which appeared familiar. As they drew closer, it slowly dawned on them that they were back at the beginning of the portage on the first lake. The difficult creek had only drained the small lake, by a very roundabout route, back into Bear Lake, at a point near the start of the portage.

Ed records: "Those fellows never did find any more portages, and they wintered at the first one. Fred and I did not come out via Cree Lake that winter, so they could not follow us back. That spring they left this part of the country and relocated somewhere down the Cree River."

Another new-comer who was defeated by this country was an acquaintance of Ed's who was known as "Slavic John." "Slavic John came into the Hudson's Bay Company outpost at Cree Lake one spring. I was camping there at the time along with two other trappers. At this time I owned an outboard motor, and I had been towing two canoes as we travelled southward. John wanted to know my price for towing his canoe also. I asked him to buy me a gallon of gasoline from the trading post store. Gasoline was selling there for two dollars a gallon. John said my price was too high and offered instead to give me half a gallon of kerosene which he had not used in his lamp that winter. I refused, John had an excellent fur catch and could well have afforded my price. If he had bought that gallon of fuel I would have towed him all the way to Ile-a-la-Crosse.

"The rest of us pulled out, made good time, and arrived at Ile-a-la-Crosse without any problem. John, meanwhile, had set out paddling. He missed the canoe route and became lost in the large bays on the west side of Cree Lake. I had been in the village for three weeks before he came paddling in. He told me that he had wished many times that he had bought that gallon of gasoline. That was John's problem. He was too set in his ways and too bull-headed for his own good. You never could tell him anything; he knew it all.

"That same summer he set out for the Clearwater River. The canoe route is a very difficult one, with many shallow creeks, waterfalls and long rapids where he had to portage everything. As he proceeded upstream, alone he encountered a wild rapid. He studied the channel and decided he could line up his canoe with a rope attached to the bow. He had just portaged around a big waterfall and reasoned that by lining the canoe up the rapid he could save considerable work.

"First he must lighten the load. He placed on shore his .22 rifle, fifty pounds of flour and a few odds and ends; the remainder of his outfit he left in the canoe. He stood on shore above a spot where the river channel shot out at an angle from a large boulder and began to pull the canoe into the rapid. If there had been two men working at such an operation, one can push the stern of the canoe into the current and so keep the craft steady. John was alone, however, and could not handle the cross-current at the boulder, which gripped the bow of his canoe and thrust it out into the raging main channel. The gunwale dipped and the canoe was at once filled with water. John hung on to the rope for a time, he was a very strong man, but inevitably he lost his hold. The canoe was taken down the rapids and then over the falls below. At the foot of the waterfall, John found a few small pieces of the canoe. That was all.

"That winter he could not do any trapping for he had lost his traps. He had also lost his axe, without which it is most difficult to get along in the North. He found signs that a dog team had passed this spot the previous winter, axe marks where the trail had been blazed, and bark missing from trees where the toboggan had struck them. He decided to wait until another dog team passed along the trail, and built a crude shelter nearby. He had some cartridges for his small-calibre rifle and was able to shoot some caribou. From their hides, he fashioned some clothing and moccasins.

"John had a long wait. In the dead of winter, some Indians from Buffalo Narrows found him and brought him out. He never went into the North again." The story of Helmuth, another of Ed's European friends, is a more terrible and tragic one. Helmuth was a young German,  Martin Lake. one of the many immigrants of the 1920s who became trappers in the North. Ed remembers: "One February, after my usual visit to Cree Lake trading outpost, I stopped in at Helmuth's cabin on Martin Lake to have a talk and see how he was getting on. I was with him for two days. He said he was not feeling well. He did not look too good and he seemed to be worried. He asked me to stay there with him until spring. I had no wish to stay since there was not much fur in that country. However, I made a deal with him that, when I came out in the spring, I would travel with him and help him over the portages to Cree Lake. He thought this was a good suggestion, and I returned to my camp at the south end of Poorfish Lake, where I put in a very good season. "Just as soon as the ice was out of the river, I headed for Cree Lake. I came a bit earlier than usual, for I was concerned about Helmuth, whom I had not seen for three months. When I reached the spot that Helmuth camped to do his spring trapping, the camp where he was supposed to wait for me, he had already gone. I think he got tired of waiting for me. There are three portages between that camp and Helmuth's cabin on Martin Lake, all very rough ones. When I got to the first portage, I found where he had killed one of his dogs. Then he had hauled his big canoe over the portages with his remaining three dogs. I noticed where the canoe had upset several times, and where some of his things, some traps, a small axe and his tin teapail, had fallen out. He had not bothered to pick them up.

"I took my small hunting canoe across those portages to Martin Lake. The lake ice was out, but there was a big wind blowing, so that I had to leave my canoe and walk overland to Helmuth's cabin. When I arrived there I found the cabin door standing open and his dogs running loose. In the winter his dogs had been cranky with me, but now they were very friendly; they had not been fed recently and expected me to provide some dog food. Helmuth was nowhere to be seen. I called his name several times, but the wind was too high for the sound to carry very far. His canoe was gone, so I knew he was up-lake somewhere. It was getting late; there was a sleeping robe in the cabin so I went in and stayed there all night.

"In the morning I noticed where he had fired about ten rifle shots through the cabin wall. I think he had fired at some sound he had heard outside during the night. He had also thrown a handful of dough at the window. I suppose he had seen his own reflection and thought someone was looking at him.

"I did not like the look of things, and by now I was beginning to worry desperately about Helmuth. I went and got my canoe and dogs, then I set out to look for him up-lake, leaving a note on the table saying I would be back the next day. Instead, the wind came up again, and I was stormbound on the shoreline a few miles from the cabin. But when I returned the next day there had been no one at the cabin in my absence.

"In the morning Fred Darbyshire came in from Poorfish Lake with his wife, Nora, and we all camped there that day. The following day Fred and I decided to search the lakeshore with Fred's canoe and outboard motor. I asked Nora to stay at camp and bake some bannock for us while we were away. She gave me a look and said, "Ed, I wouldn't stay here alone for all the fur in northern Canada!" so she came with us.

"We spent a long time cruising near shore, looking for Helmuth's canoe, until we had used up nearly all our gasoline. We had just enough fuel left to reach Cree Lake, so we decided to go and get Thor, another trapper, to help us search.

"When we arrived back, toward evening two days later, we saw Helmuth's canoe pulled up on a little sand beach not far from his cabin. It had not been there when we left the place. In the canoe was a beaver and some muskrats, but the skins had not been taken off in time and they were spoiled.

"We went back to the cabin, made a fire outside, and sat beside it for the rest of the night. That night seemed to last forever. We thought Helmuth was not very far away, perhaps just outside the circle of the firelight, watching us. It was one of the very few occasions that I was ever afraid of anything. We felt like sitting ducks beside that campfire.

"As soon as daylight came we resumed the search. We found where Helmuth had ripped up some paper to mark a trail up a hill. When the paper ran out, he had scattered some loaded cartridges along the trail. Then the trail ended. We spread out about fifty yards apart and advanced in the direction he had gone.

"It did not take long to find him. In the last minutes of his life, he had smoked a cigarette. The butt lay on the caribou moss beside him. Then he had fired a shot, for the cartridge lay there too, shining brassy in the morning sun. Then he had turned the rifle on himself.

"We got a canvas from the cabin and covered him up. Our next step was to return to Cree Lake to get word out to the RCMP. It was Fred and Nora who finally reached a radio transmitter that was in working order, at the north end of Cree Lake, and broadcast the bad news.

"Just as soon as they returned, Thor and I went back to Martin Lake. At Helmuth's camp, there was some lumber that he had planned to use to build a boat. Now we used it to build his coffin, which we hauled by canoe to where his body lay. Right beside him, we dug the grave. The soil was very sandy and the frost was out of the ground, so we had easy digging.

"The authorities flew in the next day and we showed them where the corpse was. The pilot returned to Cree Lake to bring in some additional men to view the remains. (This is one of only two references to aeroplanes in Ed's journal.) An inquest was held, and they decided that it had been suicide. Everything was in order, so they all left.

"Thor and I buried him. We marked the grave with a wooden marker and blazed the back trail to the lake, marking it well in case anyone wanted to visit the grave. It was the saddest thing I have ever come across in the North, even though I had only a passing acquaintance, at best with the man."

Ed's last story of tragedy in the North woods concerns a young man who was more than an acquaintance, one who was, for a time, Ed's neighbour on Poorfish Lake. Ed was always one to seek out human company. In 1937, he made friends with Arvid, a young Norwegian immigrant. The young man apparently asked to go North with Ed; "Of course," replied Ed, "Come along if you wish, the country is big enough." This was a typical reaction for Ed, whose record clearly shows that he helped many less fortunate than himself.

That fall, Arvid built a cabin on Poorfish Lake, halfway between Ed's camp and Fred's, which were more than thirty miles apart. Arvid adapted to the country quickly, and it was assumed that he was permanently established on the lake. That spring, Arvid, Ed and Fred left Poorfish Lake together. At Stony Narrows, at the south end of Cree Lake, they encountered four other white trappers, also bound for Ile-a-la-Crosse, Big River and "Outside." For all these trappers, taking their dogs out posed a problem, and it was eventually decided that Ed should stay, for a time at Stony Narrows, where there was always plenty of fish, and look after all the dogs. The other six would leave for the South, but Arvid would return after one month to relieve Ed.

Ed was lonely after the men left. He missed the springtime visits with his friends and the excitement of the return to civilization. Soon after, the Chipewyans passed through on their way to Patuanak, stopping only long enough to share a pail of tea with Ed and look over the more than twenty dogs in his charge.

After a few days Ed readjusted to the solitary life. The sun shone warmly, the birches were putting out their leaves and, on the conifers the buds swelled, the coverings fell away and the new shoots appeared. Ed observed for the first time the small amount of new growth on the jackpines and black spruce and understood why these trees grow so slowly in the North. The fishing in the narrows was superb. He set the long nets and caught all he required for himself and for the dogs. Mallard and baby ducks. Often he caught his own dinner by trolling for lake trout and jackfish. The ducks had hatched their eggs, and a mother mallard which nested nearby daily tried to lead him away from her brood with the old broken wing trick. The course she took happened to coincide with Ed's route out to the fishnets, so every morning he played along, pretending that she was taking him in. With the warm weather, the mosquitoes came out in their legions. Ed slept under his mosquito bar to escape their stings. The dogs were losing much of their long winter hair and suffered from the mosquitoes until Ed re-tethered them near the lake shore, where the wind blew strongly by day. At night he kindled a smudge fire and let the smoke ward off the bugs. Then Ed ran out of tobacco, a serious development, for he loved his smokes. Next, the flour gave out, and he was reduced to eating fish, like the dogs. It was now August, and still, Arvid had not returned. Ed did not know what to think about it.

One day Martin Brustad, one of the trappers who had left his dogs with Ed, returned from "Outside" to his cabin at Stony Narrows. He had leisurely worked his way back from Big River and had been on the road for nearly a month. But he had not called in at Ile-a-la-Crosse, where Arvid had been going, and hence had no news of the missing young trapper.

"One day we heard a 'plane coming up from the south. (This is the only other entry in Ed's journal that mentions an aeroplane.) When we first sighted it, we noticed that it was coming down and banking as if it would light on the water. Then the pontoons touched the water and slid to a stop. I was not long paddling out there in my canoe.

"The pilot was Bill Windrum, on his way to Lake Athabasca. He had been instructed by Harvey MacDonald, the Hudson's Bay post manager at Ile-a-la-Crosse, to carry a message to me. The message was that my friend, Arvid had drowned while canoeing in the bay a mile out from the Hudson's Bay Company store at Ile-a-la-Crosse."

Ed's journey to the South that year, alone in his small hunting canoe, must stand as a canoeing record. Before dark that night he was well down the Deer River. He dozed occasionally during the short night, and let the canoe drift with the current. In a few days he was in Patuanak and in a few more days he had paddled into Ile-a-la-Crosse, where Arvid waited lying beneath a granite stone in the old cemetery, just outside of town.



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"Date Modified: 2019, January 24."


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