North to Cree Lake

The Seventh Cartridge


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

Ed's trapper friend Thor, who had helped to find and bury Helmuth, was himself once nearly killed in the North country where he chose to make his living. Sometime during the summer of 1934, Thor formed a partnership with old Frank Michel. That autumn they located on Bear (MacIntyre) Lake, at a spot on the west shore where the lake drains westward, through the Bear River, into Cree Lake. Ed Theriau and Fred Darbyshire passed through that fall, on their way to Poorfish Lake, and stopped for a short visit with old Frank and Thor, who were busy building a new cabin. A few days later, two Chipewyan hunters, Alex Wolverine and "Old Julian," appeared to hunt moose in Bear Lake's north bay. They got two large bulls, dried the meat over a fire, and then headed out for Cree Lake and their winter traplines, which lay to the north, toward Lake Athabasca. From that visit, until the ice went out in the spring, an interval of eight months, Thor and old Frank saw no other human beings. Bear Lake. Thor had been impressed by the Indians' hunting success, and by their advice that moose were plentiful around the north end of the lake. He and old Frank had been living on fish and on the blueberries that were to be found, in great abundance, throughout the land that fall. So one sunny afternoon in late September, Thor paddled out onto Bear Lake and pointed the canoe north. He did not know this country, having only recently arrived from a trapping territory south of the Churchill River. Old Frank had told him that the lake lay generally north and south, the shorelines being, for the most part regular. But no detailed maps of the Bear Lake country had been drawn, and Thor felt a sense of exploration as he rounded a point on the east side of the lake. As soon as Thor had paddled around the point, he saw a bull moose, standing belly-deep in the water, feeding in a water-lily bed. Even from a mile away, it looked huge. Each time the moose put its head underwater, Thor paddled, with long, heavy, quiet strokes. When the moose lifted its head, Thor drifted silently on the light west wind, closer and closer to the shore. Thor had never hunted moose under these conditions. The Cree Indians at his former cabin down south had explained to him how Moose in the Water. you can paddle right up to a moose feeding in the water, and almost stick your rifle muzzle into his ribs. But in that country much of the shoreline was screened by reeds; here there were no reeds, nothing at all to hide his approaching canoe. The wind freshened, and waves began to slap against the hull of his canoe, crowding him more and more into the shore. Thor decided to land the canoe on a nearby beach and to try for a better shot by sneaking along the shore on land, where there was some brush cover. The big bull fed serenely. Thor approached slowly, crawling hidden behind a mossy bank of muskeg. But when he peeped over the bank, he was surprised to see the moose looking directly at him, head held high, antlers towering and ears pointed forward. There was no time to lose. He fired quickly, twice, and heard the thud of a hit at the second shot. The moose vanished into the thick, black spruce forest which bordered the shore. Now Thor felt the hunting fever, the excitement of following the blood trail. On the clean caribou moss at the forest's edge, he found a few drops of blood. A little further on, there was more blood where the bull had stopped for a moment to listen for sounds of pursuit. As soon as it had heard Thor making his way through the trees, it had fled toward the north-east.

Thor followed the trail for several miles with relative ease. Although the traces of blood became fewer, and finally stopped altogether, there were still clear tracks where the thick caribou moss had been disturbed by the big bull's hooves. At one point, the trail took Thor over a ridge, where the trees were sparse and he could see the open sky. He looked briefly toward the sun to confirm his sense of direction, he was still moving east, and the wind was still blowing from the west. His thoughts were on the moose, and he did not see, on the eastern horizon, a blue-grey cloudbank covering the Poorfish Lake country and moving rapidly westward.

Thor spent all afternoon on that trail. Eventually, it led into second-growth jackpines, where the ground was harder and the caribou moss thin; the trail became uncertain here, but he picked out some blood smears on the young trees. Then the tracks entered an area of open muskeg and swampland, mingled with those of other moose, and were lost completely.

Thor gave up the hunt and began to plan his return to the canoe. He estimated that he was now five or six miles from where it lay on the beach at Bear Lake. The wounded moose had made a large half-circle in its flight, heading first north-eastward, then due east, and finally south-east. Thor reckoned that the canoe was due west of his present position; if he walked toward the setting sun, he was sure to strike the eastern shore of Bear Lake, probably quite close to where he had left it. He set out at a brisk walk, hoping to reach the lake before nightfall.

Thor had walked only a short distance when a heavy fog rolled in and blotted out the sun. It was the season of the year when the mixing of warm and cold air masses cause prolonged fogs, drizzling rains, and, sometimes, snowstorms in the North. He was in dense bush and rough terrain when he first became aware that the wind had become cold. But he did not notice that it had reversed its direction and was now blowing from the east. Thor cannot reasonably be faulted for this error; the sun was hidden, he had no compass, and he was making his way over and around a complicated series of hills in thick fog. But the result was a very serious one: he continued to face the wind, but now, instead of walking toward Bear Lake, he was moving steadily away from it. Thor hoped to reach the lake before dark, but as he proceeded through the murk, it became darker and darker. Well, it did not really matter. He would camp tonight and find the canoe in the morning.

That night by the firelight he took stock of his possessions. He had left camp with seven cartridges for his hunting rifle. Two had been expended on the moose; five were left. In his pockets, he had: an old-style cigarette lighter, which he had refuelled that morning: a small water-proof matchbox, packed full of wooden matches; a small tin of tobacco, half full, with a pack of cigarette papers inside; a piece of string; two small nails; and a button. Thor had never owned a hunter's compass. His hunting knife was hanging from his belt in its sheath. He was wearing denim pants, a sweater and, over that, a jacket of woven wool. Underneath he had the woollen underwear that is standard wear in this country for a good part of the year. His footwear was adequate, woollen socks, Indian moccasins and rubbers. His cap was a warm one that had ear flaps that tucked away when not in use.

He had brought no food, having planned to be away from camp for only a few hours. By the firelight he picked a few blueberries and chewed them thoughtfully, thank goodness they were plentiful this year. This would have to be his evening meal; by daylight, he would be feeling real hunger.

At daybreak, the fog still hung heavily among the trees like smoke. It was cold and raw, and he could see only a short distance in the gloom. He wet his finger in his mouth and held it up over his head testing the wind. The breeze, he reasoned, must still be blowing from the west; in reality, it was blowing from the east. Thor walked through the mist, facing into the wind, all that morning. When he came out on the shore of a lake he was certain that he had reached Bear Lake at last. But he still could see nothing of the far shore, and he decided to camp here until the fog lifted. On a sidehill, he fed on a sparse growth of blueberries to ward off his ever-growing hunger.

Later that day, the fog thinned out enough that Thor could see the far shore, only a few hundred yards away. This was surely not Bear Lake; in fact, as he discovered later, this lake was only about two miles long. It was then that he admitted to himself that he was lost, and lost completely as long as he could not see the sun to get his bearings. Thor's problem was that he was new in the country and did not know its physical features. There are certain high hills throughout the land which can be used as landmarks, but Thor had not been long enough in the area to have studied these direction finders.

In desperation, he fired his rifle into the air, on the outside chance that old Frank was within hearing distance. He listened for some time; then he remembered that Frank was a bit hard of hearing. Now there were only four cartridges left. There was no chance that anyone could help him now; he would have to save himself. To the east, there was only Ed Theriau's cabin at the mouth of the Burnt River, about fifty miles off, and Fred Darbyshire's camp at Close Lake, another fifty miles beyond. Thor's only hope lay in pushing westward. If he was, by now, so far off his course that he would miss Bear Lake, he should eventually strike Cree Lake, although he knew of no one who was camped on the east shore.

That afternoon he shot a partridge. After roasting it on a spit, he greedily tore it apart and ate the rich dark meat. After that meal he felt quite at ease, and confident that he could reach Bear Lake as soon as he could see the sun. There were now three cartridges for his rifle.

In the night, it began to drizzle. The rain came very lightly at first, but by the time it wakened Thor, his clothing was already wet. He got up and replenished the campfire. As he sat on his mat of spruce boughs, he could hear the raindrops hiss as they struck the red coals at the edge of the fire. The rain developed into a steady drizzle that lasted for three days, with intervals of thick, wet mists. Thor spent the time sitting in a crude shelter he had built by the fire, trying to keep himself reasonably dry and warm, or foraging along the hills for the blueberries that were now his only food.

Sometime after dark on the third day, the rain suddenly ceased. As Thor looked upward to the sky, he could see a few stars. In the morning there were patches of clear sky, and he could see the dawn colour the remnants of the clouds with rose. But the dawn was in the direction he had been thinking of as the west, the direction in which he had walked so many weary miles! Bear Lake, the canoe and the cabin, he realized with difficulty, were all behind him by many miles.

He picked up his rifle and struck out in the opposite direction, still unable to get used to the idea that he was now travelling west. He had not travelled more than an hour when he struck a big burned-over area. The entire countryside, as far as he could see to the west, had been burned off some years ago, and now the young second-growth jackpines stood a few feet taller than himself and "as thick as the hair on a dog's back," as they say in the North. If Thor was to proceed westward, he must enter this vast tangle, and cross it.

The trees were still wet from the rain, and his clothing soon became soaked. There were many old, fire-killed deadfalls interwoven among the new growth to make travelling slow and laborious. Thor tried to step from log to log to make better time, but the old trunks were free of bark and slippery, and he lost his footing from time to time. Once he fell heavily and tore the leg of his denim pants by snagging them on a dead branch. This was the first of many rips and tears to his clothing. When he reached the big jackpines again, late that afternoon, he immediately made camp. Again he constructed a shelter to keep off the rain, Squirrel. using dead poles from the burn and thatching the roof with young jackpines boughs which he cut with his hunting knife, It was miserable camping without an axe. As he gathered dry wood to build a fire he disturbed a red squirrel that went barking up a big jackpine. Thor shot it out of the tree and prepared to roast it. When he attempted to kindle the fire, he had trouble with his lighter. It was out of fuel; he would have to use his matches from now on. He had two cartridges left. The squirrel shrank in cooking and left very little to eat. Thor was beginning to worry about a growing weakness he felt; the blueberries were filling his stomach, but they did not give him the nourishment he needed. He fashioned a snare from the piece of cord he had in his pocket and hung it in a rabbit run at the edge of the burn, but without success. Ordinarily a heavy smoker. Thor had been hoarding the last of his tobacco. That night he could put it off no longer; he smoked two cigarettes by the campfire. There would be no more.

Thor's memory of the days that followed is somewhat vague. He remembers trudging through snow and crouching in the crude shelters he built trying to keep warm. The diet of berries left him weaker and more tired each day. He recalls that it was windy and cold, and that snow drifted in the open spaces in the bush. After a time the warm, clear days came again. Thor wandered slowly westward, cut off time after time by the open lakes that barred the way. He spent many days walking around long bays; once he was an entire day in skirting a great, open muskeg. Here he surprised two woodland caribou but missed with a hurried shot as they vanished into the bush.

That left only one cartridge. Thor was almost without hope now, and he decided that when he became so weak that he could no longer walk, he was not going to lie there and wait for the miserable end. He was saving the seventh cartridge for himself.

One day, Thor came to a creek which flowed toward the northwest. He had waded across many creeks since he had become lost, but they had all flowed east or south. This one he followed for some miles. He came to a small rapid where he found trees with weathered axe blazes on them and, nearby, some old, axe-cut stumps, the first signs of human life he had seen since he had left his cabin. Then he found an empty coffee tin, discarded by some trapper long ago. It was rusty and the lettering was faded out except where it had rested on the moss. But for Thor, it was a sort of talisman that he vaguely associated with civilization and his own survival, and he picked it up and carried it with him.

He continued downstream all that day. As the sun was setting, he came out where the creek flowed into a large lake. He began to follow the eastern shore northward. The next day was sunny and warm, and the sandflies appeared in swarms to torture him with their bites. That day, he saw a very large black bear, which looked at him and then lumbered off over the hill, its black pelt rippling in the sunshine. Thor watched it disappear. He knew that he was too weak to hold the rifle steady long enough to shoot straight. In any case, he was saving the last cartridge.

Thor spent another cold miserable night by a campfire, sitting with his back to a thick tree, his knees drawn up and his arms around them trying to conserve his body's heat. The night was without wind and very, very quiet. He began to hear a faint sound, a distant roar, rising and falling in intensity. He knew that sound: it was the pulsating roar of a far away rapid or waterfall, coming to him from the northwest.

Long before the sun rose that morning, Thor limped steadily northward, following the lakeshore. He was extremely weak now, and he had bruised his leg in a fall the day before, so it was a great effort for him to continue walking over the uneven ground. He was aware that he had been reduced to a walking skeleton, his bones were protruding under his tattered clothing.

Now he stumbled out of the woods and into a small clearing. First, he saw tree stumps, then the ruins of two old cabins. Hazily he recognized them as the buildings old Frank had said lay across the lake from the cabin they themselves were building. He was now on Bear Lake at last; the roar of the rapids he had heard in the night came from Bear Rapids.

Later that day, Thor used his seventh cartridge. A partridge sat in a nearby black spruce, eying him boldly. Thor leaned against a tree steadied the rifle over a limb and shot the bird's head off. He cooked it in the coffee tin that he had carried ever since he had found it up on the creek.

Late the next day, old Frank was putting the finishing touches on the new cabin. Thor had been gone for almost three weeks. In the beginning, Frank had fired shot after shot, but he could not go looking for him. Very likely, Frank concluded, his partner was dead.

Frank was startled to hear the clatter of a paddle being dropped into the bottom of an empty canoe. He turned toward the sound, then stood open-mouthed as a tall, bearded, dirty figure slowly crawled from the canoe. The clothing on the man's body was in tatters where it was not torn away completely. Frank did not at first recognize this sunken-eyed, hollow-cheeked face; only when he looked into the frightening eyes of this scarecrow did he recognize his friend and partner.


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"Date Modified: 2019, October 18."


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