Freighting and fishing have gone quite naturally together over the years as each needs the other for survival.
It was the good fishing prospects of the vast northland that brought the first fishermen to this area, back when most folks had their eye on the timber stands. Some commercial fishing was done in the very early years of Big River; however, in order to deliver the catch to the market, it was essential to have freighters. A few fishermen did their own fishing and freighting, but as the business became more popular, fisheries were established in the centers and freighting came into its own, adding a colourful and historic era to the history of the district.
There was never a fortune to be made in freighting with horses, but it did add a few dollars to the winter income which helped tide the families over during the hard times of the 1920 - 1930 slump. Men and teams came up from the prairies each year to join the local homesteaders for the winter's haul.
In order to collect full value for each trip, it was necessary to have sleighs loaded both going north and coming back down again. Depending on the destination, a round trip usually lasted two to three weeks. Sleighs carried about seventy fish boxes, each weighing one hundred and fifty pounds. Freighters were paid for the pounds delivered and at one time were only collecting one or two cents a pound. The whole trip might bring them three or four hundred dollars. Most freighters made about three trips during the winter.
Fifteen to twenty outfits generally loaded and set out at one time. Harness, horse shoes and sleighs were checked and re-checked to ensure as smooth and trouble free a trip as possible. A well matched team of horses was the pride of the swing and the envy of every freighter.
Ploughing snow for the freight swings.
As long as the freight swings were on the move the small but important business of stopping places was most necessary. Their job was to provide food and lodging for the men and horses of the trail at various points during the long haul. They proved a welcome sight following a long cold day of travel. The warmth of a wood fire to thaw out weary bones and the prospect of heaping plates of hot food, plus time for friendly chatter, made it a time to look forward to. Some of the stopping places provided bunks on which a bed roll could be tossed, others merely offered a friendly door. The freighters would make known the movements of other swings so that hot meals would be ready on their arrival. Often a fisherman would leave word at the stopping place advising that he had a load of fish ready to be hauled. It was word of mouth or moccasin telegraph kind of communication, but it seemed to work. The freighters depended on the hospitality of these remote lodges and they remained an important part of each swing that travelled the long, cold road.
The stopping places gradually faded out when the caterpillar took over from the horse drawn sleighs.
The freight haul from Big River to the north was practically all over the frozen lakes with a few portages over the muskeg or bush. Ice conditions had to be safe before the freighting began and snow had to be continually cleared from the trail, especially on the lakes where the wind had a clear sweep and drifting was severe.
Hauling logs with a caterpillar.
To accomplish this about eight horses were used to push a snowplough. the owners of the horses chosen to plough would have to look after a double load for a while but all would lend a helping hand and a watchful eye. When not in use, the snowplough was usually trailed in a small sleigh of its own, ready to be put to use whenever snow blocked the way. Once the trail was cleared each team and sleigh followed in single file and made as good as time as was possible toward their destination while the road was passable. This was one of the reasons for travelling in large groups, the one ploughing served them all but the road could drift in again in a short while leaving the lone traveller or the next swing with a ploughing job to be done once again.
We talked to several freighters who had all had stories to tell. Two who were in business for many, many years were Alonzo Gallant and Gaudoise Tremblay. Alonzo spent twenty-two winters freighting and in all that time he only lost one horse on the job. It was a winter when dangerous spots of thin ice showed up on the lakes and the horse fell through into thirty feet of water. The animals head appeared at the water hole and an attempt was made to get a rope around his body, but the hole was not large enough for this to be accomplished so a rope was put around the head of the horse and a team hitched on to try to bring the unfortunate horse up on solid ice. The pressure proved too much and the poor animal's neck was broken.
Mr. Gallant made two trips as far as Lac La Ronge and many, others to the lakes between. The last trip he made was in 1945 when he went to Smoothstone Lake to pick up fish for George Clarke. (Clarke Lake was later named in honour of George).
There weren't many tricks to the trade that Alonzo didn't know about freighting. He said it was a hard rugged life, but also a satisfying one where you were pretty well your own boss. Some of the freighters he recalls travelling with and remembers well as being good freighters working out of Big River were: Chester Cofield, Charles Michel, Ted Senum, Melvin Myers, Vernor Johnson, Albert Fortin, Clyde Allan, Eric Quinlog, Harry McRae, Axel Olson, Ivan Leach, Nap Chenard, George Dunn, Jim Sweeney, Frank Carr, Harold Headman, Gus Tremblay, Gaudoise Tremblay, Robert Klyne, Chris Cruso, Moses Martin and Alf Roberts. These are but a few as there were many more making up the freight swing crews in the shuttle between north and south.
The men of the swing would gather on a pre-arranged date in town and load up their freight and head for the first stopping place on Delaronde Lake. This was run by Jack and Alma Rae. The next place was Joe Sheppard's, about ten miles up the lake, then on to the narrows where Johnny Olson kept a stopping place. The north end of Delaronde had several different operators, but Jim Pace operated it for some time. There was also Frank Schloegal, Willy Tonge, and in later years, Mrs. Redhead. The freight swing would head on over the portage to Sled Lake and the stopping place there was that of Baptiste Mirasty. Later, his son, Narcise Mirasty operated it. The next stop was at Mrs. Skivek's place at the south end of Dore Lake - everyone mentions the excellent cooking of Mrs. Skivek. The Edson's ran a place farther up Dore Lake and at the north end of Dore was Vernor Johnson and Ronald Anderson. Farther along the trail at Beauval was shelter at Chris Erickson's, then Dick Kirby's at the mouth of the Beaver River where it emptys into Ile-A-La-Crosse lake. This is where Fred Buckley often worked. The Halvor Ausland ran a stopping place at Deep River, where Ile-A-La-Crosse runs out to Clear Lake. Reider Pederson was there to welcome those who reached Buffalo Narrows. Other Camps that the swings would haul from were Dillon Lake, Snake Lake, Patuanak, Buffalo River and Island Lake; indeed anywhere that a load was ready to haul would see the freighters make their way to pick it up.
Dinkey Engine with load, Big River, Saskatchewan.
A good many miles have been walked by man and horse to transport the vital supplies to the northern settlements and to bring out the fish for sale in the south.
While much can be written about the freighters and their colourful life style, very little is ever mentioned about the wives and mothers who stayed at home managing the homesteads during the time the men were away freighting and fishing. Raising a family with all its every day trials is no small job and to these women should go the honour due them. The fact that men could up and leave knowing the family was left in good and caring hands was indeed important. One would imagine the hardships and experiences encountered "back home" were often as daring and harrowing as the freighters themselves had to deal with.
Often the freighters had to cut roads in the portages. They tramped muskegs so they would freeze enough for them to cross safely.
Dinkey Engine with load and crew.
As the years went by, more mechanized equipment gradually replaced the horse drawn swings and "cat swings" began snaking their way across the frozen lakes. Each caterpillar had a crew of two or three and was able to travel day and night, thus reducing the time for each trip. A caboose was built on every "cat" which provided some form of comfort in heat and protection along the way.
Soon the stopping places were no longer needed and one by one they were abandoned, leaving only the empty shacks and the reminder of a different era and the important part they once played in the history of the north.
The dinkey was used to cut ruts down the center of the road for the horse and sleigh to follow. The dinkeys would plough the snow away to break trail. These machines burned coal and were steam powered.
As better roads pushed farther and farther into the bush, trucks took over the hauling and the cat swings became outdated. Finally, airplanes began the shuttle and fresh fish could be delivered to all parts of North America on a regular basis. Transport trucks still play an important role, however, in the haul of freight.
The days of the horse drawn freight swings are gone but in the minds of the hardy freighters who travelled the snow bound trails, they will never be forgotten and no history of Big River would be complete without their story.