North to Cree Lake

To Find The Caribou.


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.
During their first winters in the bush Ed and Fred lived together in the cabin at Poorfish Lake. In those years they enjoyed the good fortune each winter to be located in the path of the oncoming caribou migration. The animals came by the thousands then, streaming southward for the winter. In fact, there were days when there were too many caribou: they interfered with the partners fox traps by walking over them and setting them off. Then there was an abundance of meat for both the men and their dogs. Caribou. This annual migration eventually gave Fred and Ed a false sense of security. They had been hanging many hundreds of fish each autumn as emergency dog food-a heavy, time-consuming and cold task which sometimes necessitated fishing all night in late September. Later, the caribou would come and much of the stock of fish was not used. One fall they decided not to hang fish since the caribou they thought were certain to return. In mid-September Fred shot a fine, fat bull moose. They lived well on its meat for a time, waiting for freeze-up and the return to their traplines but the cold weather was somewhat late in arriving that fall and the moose meat was all consumed by the time the trapping season began. Fred and Ed travelled far on foot and by canoe trying to get another moose; Fred called from all the places that he knew moose usually frequented in the mating season; yet it seemed that there was no moose in the country, and their efforts were fruitless. When the lakes began to freeze over they both travelled far afield, setting the first traps of the season. By the law of averages they should have run across a moose or a woodland caribou but, again they had no luck.

The few fish they had put up for the dogs had all been eaten. They now re-set their fish nets under the ice that covered the lake. The first time they lifted the nets they were shocked to find only four fish-not enough for one good feed for the dogs. The fish, so numerous in the early fall, had moved, Fred and Ed knew not where. The fact was, the partners did not have the proper equipment for winter fishing. Commercial fishermen use a device called a "jigger" which pulled by a string, creeps along the underside of the ice and spreads out the nets beneath the frozen surface. Owning no jigger, Fred and Ed had to cut holes in the ice about ten feet apart and thread the nets along between them with long poles.

The lakes were frozen and it was time to begin trapping. Each man took his dogs and travelled his separate lines, generally in a northerly direction, hoping to meet the caribou. Once on the trail the dogs got only the carcasses of foxes, which they ate with reluctance; they quickly assumed the unhappy, untidy appearance of starving sleigh dogs. The men returned frequently to Poorfish Lake cabin to lift the nets and feed the dogs.

By the last half of the month of December there was still no sign of the caribou. By this time, the trappers realized, the migrating herds had reached the southern limits of their migration for this season and would come no farther.

One day Ed lifted the net and did not catch a single fish. Something must be done to feed the dogs. He and Fred formulated a new plan: Ed would travel far to the north in a desperate attempt to find the caribou. He would leave the dogs in Fred's charge and walk north alone, if necessary for ten days. He would leave even his bedroll to save weight, and pack only his canvas tarpaulin, some traps, bait, and what little food there was to take. As long as he had his rifle and belt axe there was little chance that he would starve: he could shoot enough partridges to keep himself fed if other food was not available. Ed set out on snowshoes, his big packsack on his back, following at first a faint, snow-filled trail made by the dogteam earlier in the winter. Snowshoeing. The woods were silent and there was no trace of big game; yet there were numerous fox tracks and lots of mink and otter signs on the creeks and rivers. Ed's first interest was still the trapline. He made his sets at likely locations and would see them all on his return trip. Five days out from Poorfish Lake cabin he camped in a thick jackpine grove bordered by a thicket of black spruce. There was plenty of dry wood here; he cut a large supply and piled it neatly. He cleared a spot for his campfire, shovelling the deep snow away until he struck the caribou moss where he kindled the fire. Then, by its light, he scraped a trench in the snow near the fire and laid down a mattress of spruce boughs on which he spread his tarpaulin. He prepared the one partridge he had shot that day and placed it on a spit so that it roasted over the fire. He knelt on the tarpaulin near the fire, warming his hands and watching the full moon rise over the distant hills back in the direction from which he had come. He was startled by the sound of a tree cracking with the frost. Trees crack occasionally when the temperature drops to minus forty degrees and more frequently as it becomes colder still. The trees were cracking quite persistently as the night wore on. Ed guessed it was fifty or sixty degrees below zero and would probably get colder toward dawn. (In this country the lowest readings occur at sunrise on cold, clear mornings.) Ed noticed that the temperature was falling as he had come north. There were certain places where he had seen steaming open water in former years; on this trip he found these holes frozen over and the ice surfaces decorated with hoar-frost rosettes. There were signs that mink and otter had been on the ice but the signs were not fresh, for the holes where they had surfaced were also closed. These animals were now snug in their dens and would not emerge until the weather moderated. Campfire. Ed finished the partridge and drank tea he had brewed in a small tin pail. Strange how quickly the tea cooled tonight! He piled a quantity of dry wood on the fire and when it was blazing he added some green logs. He wrapped the tarpaulin around himself and lay down facing the fire. He would doze for a short time; then, as his back began to feel cold, he awoke, replenished the fire and lay down again, this time with his back to the fire. This he did many times during the night. Late that night Ed half awoke, lying in a fetal position on his side facing the fire. He vaguely remembers that the fire was rather low, with only a small bed of red coals still visible. Strangely, he felt quite warm and comfortable. He realized that he should be piling wood on the fire once more, but he dozed off again for a time. Finally he looked toward it again. The fire was out!

He moved his legs downward and straightened his back and he was shocked into a full awakening. He threw off the canvas and stood up. His fingers were numb inside his mitts and he discovered that his nose and chin were frozen-when he touched them there was no sensation at all. He flung his arms around his body time after time to quicken the blood circulation. He ran up and down the trail, stamping his feet and flailing his arms. It was found that several of his fingertips were frozen too. They hurt dreadfully as circulation was restored.

Ed had to get that fire going again. It was one thing to build up a fire from a bed of red coals; it is quite another to start a fire with a match on a night such as this. Ed was shivering as he had never shivered before, his jaw chattering so that he could not stop it. His fingers were painful, clumsy and shaking. Fumbling in the dark for kindling material, finding a match, striking it and holding it to the tinder, nourishing the first tiny flame-all this would require tremendous concentration and self control for a man in such a state. In his favour was the fact that he was a veteran woodsman.

Ed does not elaborate on the methods he used that night. Obviously, he had some dry, seasoned jackpine in a handy place, and some birchbark in his pocket against just such an emergency. Resinous jackpine slivers will burn with a lively, sputtering flame, like a fuse, when lit with a match and birchbark is one of the best firestarters you will find. Eventually Ed had a tiny blaze going which he built up gradually, placing small sticks in the proper place to catch the flame. He built it up into a roaring fire, soaking up its warmth and thinking things over. It had been a very close thing.

Ed was now about 100 miles north of Poorfish Lake, further by the return trail. There had been no sign of caribou; probably they had veered eastward toward Manitoba. He would have to return to camp for he had come as far as he dared. It was one of the few times that Ed was ever turned back by fear.

There were many traps to attend to and he would be four nights and five days on the return trip. Ed was on his back trail long before sunrise that morning and he had made a good distance before the sun rose. His breath streamed out on the cold air, and when he pursed his lips and forced the air out of his lungs the white vapour shot out in long plumes. As he crossed a small lake his snowshoes squeaked on the frozen crust of snow, leaving only the imprints of the moosehide lacings that are hitched around the frames in the centre of snowshoes.

That day he found a frozen bush rabbit, caught in one of his lynx traps, and tucked it gratefully into his packsack. Late that afternoon he expertly shot the head off a ptarmigan, one of a flock feeding on willow buds along a small creek.

When he camped that evening he again laid out a good supply of firewood,it would be another cold night. He was still a little shaken and not as confident as he had been. In fact he was afraid to go to sleep, and sat by the fire, roasting in turn the hare and the ptarmigan, drinking tea and stretching out the meal. He missed the dogs. It was a comfort to have something alive and responsive to a spoken word. If he wanted to talk now, he had to talk to himself; he did not like the idea so he did not speak at all. Probably if he had had the dogs the previous night they would have wakened him sooner, for they often get up from their spruce bough beds, shake themselves and curl up another way. They, too feel the cold. In any event, they would have taken him over the back trail a lot quicker.

That night, when he lay down by the fire, he was determined to keep himself awake. He lay awake all night and rose to tend the fire more often than he had before. He had three more nights to camp out before he would reach Poorfish Lake.

He carefully checked his traps on the return trip and succeeded in gathering some mink and otter. Both species were inedible as far as Ed was concerned, but he was never worried about starving: as long as he was able to travel he would shoot enough partridges to keep himself going. At the next camping place he forced himself to stay awake all night again. It was a night as cold as the others had been and he was on his way again as soon as it was light enough to see the trail.

The third night he fell asleep for a few minutes. He awakened with a start. The fire was still going so that was no problem. Then he sat up facing the fire, his parka hood buttoned tight and the canvas covering him like a shroud. He passed the last night in this same fashion. That half hour nap was all the sleep he had had for four nights.

Fred Darbyshire happened to be in camp when Ed arrived. He was shocked to see Ed's frostbitten face. However, when he saw the amount of fur Ed had brought back, he remarked that Ed had done very well. Ed replied with some warmth that he would never make another trip like that for all the fur in the north country. But at the end of his record of this episode Ed comments: It does not matter how many hardships one endures in a winter, when you go "Outside" in the spring you are only there for about a month and all you think about is going back.

No barrenland caribou were seen at Poorfish Lake that winter and the men were seriously curtailed in their ability to travel. Much time had been spent tending fish nets, snaring rabbits, shooting ptarmigan and hunting moose or woodland caribou on the infrequent occasions when their tracks were seen. It is, therefore, easy to understand that after this the partners spent much time and effort in the fall to assure themselves an adequate supply of dog food for the days on which their mobility was defendant. There are many references to fishing in Ed's journal and Fred's diaries and Ed frequently describes one location where he could put up 1000 fish in a single night at a certain time of the year.


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"Date Modified: 2019, October 21."


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