North to Cree Lake

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Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

When a man has spent twenty years or more living in the wilderness, he is spoiled forever for living in contentment 'Outside,' Ed Theriau has said to me. Such a man can never again find civilization compatible with his wants. Although he will mix with people, even take part in their activities and be involved with their way of life, he often does so only reluctantly. In him, there is a restlessness and a longing for the wilderness. Geese. The lure is most acute as the season changes from summer to autumn. The sight of a large flock of geese winging south will make him will with all his heart that he was heading for the land which the geese have just left. Such a man sometimes does not enjoy the food which he eats when he is among other people. If he has done without vegetables for many years, he loses the taste for them, or he may become very selective as to the kinds of vegetables which he will eat. At a friend's home, for instance, he may well enjoy potatoes or sweet corn; on the other hand, a serving of boiled cauliflower may well nauseate him, since he abhors the smell of it. Large towns, cities and crowds he dislikes especially. A tour of shopping malls and supermarkets make him dizzy, fatigued and very depressed. City smells are particularly revolting, and a trip to most public washrooms leaves him appalled at their appearance and stench.

The urge to return to the wilderness is so great that he may go back despite the pleadings of his wife, doctor and close friends, even against his own better judgment. He knows that many an old wilderness dweller has been found dead in his cabin, and he knows that the same fate may well be in store for him one day, but this does not deter him. Fred Darbyshire is such a man. The first time Fred saw an aeroplane in the North was in January 1933. He had just left his camp and was Bush Plane. proceeding along a trapline trail when he heard a sound. He stopped the dogs and listened until he heard it again and became certain. He had heard that sound before, when he had been 'Outside,' but never before in this part of the country. He saw it now, an aeroplane banking low over the cabin and lighting on the ice of the lake. The first aircraft known to have come to Poorfish Lake was piloted by Bill Windrum and guided by Howard Darbyshire. They had brought a fur buyer to bid on Ed's and Fred's fur catch. In telling me this story, Fred recalled ruefully: "We took quite a financial beating on our furs that year. When we got "Outside" that spring, we discovered that we had been paid about half the market value of our pelts. We sold mink for eight dollars while other trappers realized sixteen dollars for their mink."

In each succeeding year, Ed and Fred observed more passing aircraft as they became a popular means of northern transportation. In his diaries, Fred mentions Cecil MacNeal, Floyd Glass, Vic Pearsall and other pilots who flew into Poorfish and Close Lakes. He records one memorable visit from MacNeal, who called in just to visit with Fred on a flight from Aklavik, at the mouth of the MacKenzie River, to Winnipeg. He put his Norseman aircraft down near Fred's cabin door and stayed the night.

By the time Fred's diary begins in 1939, he has already chartered aircraft several times to take him in and out of his trapping grounds. By contrast, Ed seldom, if ever, travelled by chartered aeroplane. He preferred the canoe and outboard motor, and would even leave the heavy canoe and motor with Frank Mitchell and paddle his hunting canoe over the last long leg of the journey in silence so that the game animals were not disturbed. It can be assumed that Ed considered aircraft to be a disruptive influence in the North country. He seldom mentioned them in his journal or in his conversation with me.

Over the years, aircraft carried in the employees of governments, the limnologists, ecologists, game management people, mineral exploration personnel and Provincial Department of Natural Resources men. Smoke Jumper. They did their work, flew away to make their reports, and left the country as silent as before. Once, a government 'plane landed at Fred's camp to vaccinate his dogs against distemper, which unknown to him was sweeping all the camps in the North. And, on occasion, when Fred comes back into the country in the fall, he writes that firefighters and "smoke jumpers" have put out a forest fire, for he has seen their camping place and evidence of their work. He concludes this entry with the words: "Good for them." Aircraft also brought in other trappers. They had their cargoes unloaded at some remote lake in the area and set out to tap the proven fur resources of the area. In this, they were usually disappointed, for they did not know the lay of the land and did not travel far enough to be successful. As Fred has remarked, "It takes many years to find the best fur country." There was not another Fred Darbyshire or Ed Theriau in the lot, and these trappers soon left the land by aircraft, as they had come.

Occasionally their abandoned cabins came to the attention of Fred and Ed. Ed found one such structure in the vicinity of Little Cree Lake after he had not trapped in this area for some years. He had travelled far that day and was looking about for a camping place. He was quite surprised to catch sight of a cabin, set back on the shore of a small bay. The former owner had left many useful things there, a tin stove, candles, magazines and a well-built bunk and table. Ed records this was one of the most pleasant surprises he had ever experienced in the North.

One year, Fred was astonished to find two pre-fabricated cabins set up on the shore of Close Lake. It was, evidently, a private, fly-in, sports fishing camp, made to be used only in the summer. As soon as the cold weather came, the camp was closed up and the sports fishermen and their hosts disappeared for the season; Fred does not record ever meeting any of them.

The camp was listed thus in the Saskatchewan Travel Guide for 1971: "Close Lake--Two non-modern cabins to accommodate six persons. Package plan including, lodging, cooking facilities, boat, motor and return air transportation from La Ronge to camp--285 dollars per week. Guides available." Fred noted in his diary that the camp does not appear to have been used a great deal; "I don't think anyone has been here this past summer," is one entry.

Over the years, disparaging references to this camp appear from time to time in Fred's diary. "The tourist camp does not appear to have been used much this summer," he writes one year. That was the year that someone had forced entry into Fred's cabin--the first such incident in all his years in the North. He mentions empty and broken whiskey bottles scattered on the beach, left by his uninvited guests. Fred does not elaborate on his reaction to this incident, but one has the impression that he is seething with rage.

"Seven drums of gasoline are left standing in the open on a beach--where the bears can knock them over," Fred writes another time. A man who kept his own property stored as safely as possible, he looks with disdain on those who are wasteful.

From time to time after he was married, Fred tried desperately to adapt to civilization, but the North slowly but surely drew him back. After the sawmill venture, he and Nora were together in the wilderness until the twins were born. When Nora was hospitalized in Prince Albert, Fred comes out of the North to be with her. He is uncomfortable, restless and bored. "I went downtown this afternoon, not that there is anything to see," he wrote in his diary.

By this time Ed Theriau was well established in mink ranching, as were several other former trappers. That summer Fred writes in his diary that he is looking over mink ranches on Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake and has visited Martin Brustad, whose layout was located at the south end of the lake.

A year later, Fred established his own mink ranch close to Ed's. But Fred was never able to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to raising captive mink: for him, the North was always too great an attraction.

In Fred's mink ranching years, his diary is written up only occasionally. "I was breeding mink today. I don't care much for the job." "I pelted 290 mink. A hell of a lot of work and expense." "It is forty below today. Who cares? I am not going anywhere. How I miss the North." He records the various chores connected with mink ranching--fishing for mink food, building a freezing plant to keep the fish from spoiling, the drudgery of feeding his stock, cleaning the pens and disposing of vile-smelling mink manure.

Fred endured it all for two years. Then, in the fall of 1959, he is back at Poorfish Lake. "I arrived at PFL after a two-year absence. What I notice most is the silence."

In September 1961: "I returned to Close Lake. Everything is as I left it one year and eight months ago. I am very happy to be back. In this place, nothing ever changes, or the change is so slow as to be unnoticeable. In the span of two years, by the appearance of the cabin, I might have left here only yesterday. This is one thing among several others that I can find in no other part of the country. It is the same unchanged, unspoiled land. It is home."

Fred had another try at working for wages when the operator of a fly-in fishing camp at Cree Lake hired him as a guide for his customers flying in from another world. Fred keeps his diary posted through these weeks, but the entries suggest frustration and unhappiness. Usually, he states only to what part of the lake he took his charges, and the number of fish taken on each trip. Surprisingly, the fishing does not seem to be very good.

I asked Fred about one entry; "This party I am travelling with leaves a great deal to be desired." He told me that they were a group of bank directors. He had felt some apprehension on taking them out that morning as they had been drinking and were noisy and offensive in their language and general manner. They treated their guide like dirt. By noon he had had all he could stand. He made camp and roasted some fish for them over a campfire on a sandy beach. He deliberately made things as uncomfortable for them as he could. He let a roasting fish fall into the sand, shook it a bit and put it back on the roasting stick. They had sobered up considerably by the time he returned them to their liquor supply at the camp. Next morning they left quietly on a 'plane' for the south.

Fred has never accepted the idea that any person or circumstance created by others can compel him to abandon the North. Most white trappers, when they marry, leave the country for good. Many a man who has been hooked on the North has slipped into the snare and, voluntarily or involuntarily, has given up the free life after his marriage. Fred has always eluded that noose. Nothing, short of the collapse of his health or his death, can keep him away.

Since we know that he was born in the year 1900, we can easily calculate his age as we follow his written records. The first indication that he is growing old comes as early as the winter of 1951: "I must be getting soft. I feel the cold and it is only forty-five degrees below zero." Later there is a notation that the temperature has fallen another seven degrees: "I don't mind it after I get going on the winter trail."

Lone northern dwellers do not get the common cold or other contagious diseases as long as they do not come in contact with the 'Outside,' where these illnesses originate. Fred has always been plagued by colds as soon as he made contact with other human beings. In mid-January, 1952, the pilot Vic Pearsall dropped, as arranged, ten pounds of butter at Fred's camp on Close Lake. Someone who had recently handled the butter had had a cold and "I caught a first-class cold" is the diary entry a few days later. The following ten days Fred made no diary entries at all, which is most unusual and indicates the severity of the attack, The fact is, when a person has been out of contact with the common cold germ, his resistance drops drastically. Severe colds have had a wearing effect on Fred's health.

The occasional trips Fred took 'Outside' when Nora was sick bring comments on "the flu," a common, severe sort of cold with body aches, against which the medical profession is still helpless. During a midwinter visit to Prince Albert: "This disease is known in highbrow circles as the 'stomach flu'--anybody is welcome to it." The next year, in Big River, he is suffering from the same malady: "This is an unhealthy place in which to live."

The first serious admission of growing age comes when he is preparing to leave the North in the spring of 1957: "I dislike leaving as there is always the possibility of not returning, although I fully expect to--life and health permitting.

He does not return in the following autumn. That November: "I feel better today, perhaps I'll live to get out of here yet." By December, the entries have become more cheerful: "Fifteen degrees below zero tonight--lovely weather." Later that month: "I am tired tonight. I have done too much pushing and pulling in my lifetime."

In 1961: "I am feeling rather lonely tonight. It must be my age." And on the outside cover of the 1963 diary: Nora, in case of an accident, read this diary."

There is also ageing of the memory. Fred describes how he found, without too much trouble, a cache of traps he made fifteen years before, still in as good condition as when he first hid them away in a safe place under overhanging rocks. Yet he forgets to pick up his .22 rifle and must return to find it. Again, in 1965, "I went to Lynx Portage. I thought I might find my axe, but no luck."

There are some diary entries that complain of a strained back and other health problems. "I am not feeling fit. I am not the man I used to be. My eyes are not so good." But Fred is apparently overstating the decline of his faculties, for later entries of that season say "I shot two otters today" and "I made the trip from Poorfish Lake to Close Lake in two days." As Fred's trail is laid out, that is a distance of some fifty or sixty miles; to do that in two days on snowshoes would be a feat of endurance for a man of half his age. Apparently feeling his age one night, he wrote: "I camped up a creek below the hill. I camped there last in the 1940s. I do not remember the year. Nora came to Cree Lake that winter. It's a long time ago."

On December 1, 1970, after a trip from Poorfish Lake, Fred camped at the Close Lake cabin for what he considers the last time. He states as his reason the fact that the fires have burned out the country and he has no fur for his efforts. Probably the deciding factor is Fred's age. The old veteran is gracefully bowing out--now that he must, for obvious reasons, curtail his travelling. That night, alone in his cabin, he writes: "This will be my last night to stay in this old cabin. It is in a very poor state of repair, and cold. The snow drifts in through the walls. I have spent many happy days here, particularly when Nora was here. I hate to leave, knowing that I will never return...."

Early in the morning, long before dawn, he heads southward across the frozen lake, his inadequate dog team following the dragging tail of his snowshoes. It is a long walk to the far lakeshore where he enters the portage which leads overland to Chip Point Lake. He does not look behind him as he enters the bush, but when he has climbed the first hill, he stops and looks back. The shoreline is blurred and vague over toward the Close Lake Narrows where the deserted cabin stands, twelve miles away. Then he turns south, and his head, normally held erect, has bowed so that he sees only his feet and the snowshoes, roughening the new snow on the trail. In his diary that evening he writes: "Most things come to an end sooner or later."

In reality, Fred is a long way from the end of the trail. In 1971, he is back at Poorfish Lake for the spring trapping season. When the 'plane had departed after unloading his outfit on April first, Fred discovered that he had left at home a parcel containing all his tobacco and all his ammunition except for one box of twenty cartridges in his knapsack. He decided that he would have to give up smoking until the 'plane returned, seven weeks hence; the forgotten ammunition posed a more serious problem. However, there was mining activity at Wollaston Lake, aircraft passed over the cabin almost daily, and Nora arranged to have the parcel delivered only one week later.

Fred put in a good season. His catch was substantial, thanks in large measure to favourable conditions. He roughed it as much as ever, camping in the tent or sleeping by the campfire under moderate conditions. One diary entry reads: "I got back to the Poorfish cabin at 9 pm after travelling all day in the rain. I am wet and hungry, there is no grub cooked and no dry wood. I am having a grand time." This from a man seventy-one years old!

In the autumn of 1971, a letter from Ed Theriau indicated that Fred did not go North that season. I also learned that he did not move out in the spring of 1972. I assumed that the old trapper had quit for good.

I was, therefore, quite surprised to learn that Fred had returned alone to Poorfish lake and the trapline in the fall of 1972. In due course, he mailed me his diary for that season. One of the first entries reads: "The tourists who visited this place in my absence really made a mess. They searched through everything and did not bother to put things back where they found them, with the result that what the rain did not spoil, the mice and squirrels did. I had to throw out fifty pounds of flour and two fishnets."

There was a normal freeze that season, and Fred travelled widely. On October twenty-eighth he chopped a hole in the ice in the narrows and found it to be twelve inches thick. Fred noted that there had been, as far as he knew, no barren-ground caribou in the area for five or six years, but the timberwolves were as numerous as ever. A lone moose had crossed the narrows, but its tracks were accompanied by the trails of fifteen wolves, indicating hot pursuit.

One day Fred travelled south on the lake to visit some country he had not seen in twenty years. Toward the south end of Poorfish Lake, he discovered a large tourist camp built the preceding summer. It was quite a substantial establishment, with four cabins, four lake boats and two power toboggans. In the diary for that day: "There was no one around the place. It is quite civilized. The tourists have taken over the country. It is no longer the wilderness I knew."

Now Fred worked his way north, breaking out a trail and returning on it for supplies. In the end, he arrived again at his Close Lake cabin, which he found in fair condition after his absence of two years. He made a trip over to the fly-in fishing camp on the lake where he took a bag of potatoes left outside and frozen; he found them to be quite edible when placed in cold water and boiled. There is no record of any fur caught on this trip--it appears to have been a sentimental journey to the old cabin. Fred noted a great scarcity of fur animals in the country, in marked contrast to the many foxes that lived there in the days of the great caribou herds. There was much recent burn, which was totally barren.

Fred complained he was not able to travel as far or as fast as he once could. But I was not surprised when I received, in due course, his short record for the spring trapping season of 1973.

This season, Nora returned with Fred, her first trip to the North in eighteen years. They were at first delayed in organizing a trapping pattern. Commercial fishermen were camped in the south bay of Poorfish Lake. They visited the Darbyshire's at least three times in April, bringing a fine lake trout, which Fred could not catch in the narrows. When the fishermen picked up their nets and left for the season, quiet prevailed once more on Poorfish Lake.

Now Fred and Nora travelled through country where Fred had trapped thirty-five years before. Fred noted a place on a lake shore where he had cut his foot with an axe, thirty-six years ago. There was still evidence of some of his old trapping sets; axe marks and cut poles deteriorate very slowly in this country. At one lake, Fred found a discarded whiskey bottle, which he assumed had been dropped by a tourist, since trappers did not, as a rule, drink liquor on the trail.

They found many untouched beaver lodges in the country. Many of these lodges were uninhabited, the residents killed off by disease, which occurs, Beaver House. Fred has noted, when beaver became too numerous in an area. He found that only one out of six mature female beaver he trapped had young. There is a mellowing to be noted in Fred's methods this season: he does not trap any beaver from lodges near the cabin and releases unneeded fish caught in his nets. Fred and Nora returned to Close lake in the fall of 1973, for one trip in 1974, and again in the spring of 1975. Fred's letter reads: "Nora and I spent about two months at Poorfish Lake in the spring (1975): not much fur except rats, which were fairly plentiful. Met Mr Plaisted, owner of a resort, before he left to return to the USA."

Fred has not yet decided to go to PFL this fall. He would like to go up himself and pick up a few pelts and perhaps a moose. Nora does not seem to want to return, last year being such bad freeze-up-two tough years in a row. Last two trips, Fred had a D.N.R.-two-way radio, to communicate with Cree Lake, also with Plaisted's Camp which was fifteen miles from his own Poorfish Lake. "I wouldn't want to be without it. Good Insurance in case of accident or sickness, though never thought of such a thing twenty years ago." How many more seasons they will spend in the North is difficult to predict. If Fred's health holds out, it could be several.



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"Date Modified: 2019, October 18."


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