Lost Land of the Caribou


Aircraft. Aircraft. Fifty years ago the hundreds of square miles of Saskatchewan lying north of settlement were uncharted and unknown. Today that whole area has been photographed from the air and mapped, all its prominent features given official names. A young adventurer who wanted to go in there today would find many of the hardships that I faced cleared from his path. The few who still follow the old way of life no longer have to chop out trails when they must portage, and no longer pole their way over rapids or paddle endlessly up meandering streams. Instead, a bush pilot will fly a man to any spot he chooses, transporting his dogs and his equipment in a matter of hours, and returning at an appointed time to fly him out again when his furs are ready for market. Should he discover that he has forgotten something vital, he won't necessarily have to improvise a substitute; should he have a serious accident, he is no longer days or even weeks from the nearest help. Today he has his two-way radio. If he sends an SOS, a plane will come promptly to his aid.

Because of such changes, it is unnecessary and, indeed, I think impossible today to do what I did fifty years ago. There is a river leading into Cree Lake that I am sure would not be navigable today, though in my day twenty or thirty canoes went up it every fall and came back down every spring. Since then, though, fire has levelled trees in the area and many would have fallen across the river, choking it. Even in the old days, there was a lot of chopping to be done spring and fall to clear a canoe path. Now, with canoe traffic ended, no one could likely use that river as a canoe route at all.

Similarly, the old trails that laced and interlaced the territory between Cree and Reindeer Lakes -- once familiar as the northern lights to traders and trappers who used them continually -- are now overgrown and forgotten. Caribou trails, dog train routes, canoe waterways and portages -- these exist and are travelled today only in the minds of the few old men who remember how it used to be.

It is the same whether they be Crees, Chipewyans or white men. Even the natives have forgotten the old ways -- or perhaps it is truer to say that the old men are past living the life they once knew and the young men have never learned it. Timber Wolf Howling Government-built houses with oil heat and electric lights have lured young men away from learning the lore of the wild that sustained their ancestors for so many generations. Welfare handouts have demoralized a once proud and independent race. The great caribou herds are gone, and the nomadic tribes that followed them are gone too. Still, just because changes have come, the good life does not necessarily have to go. It is still possible to live as a trapper in northern Saskatchewan today. A few are still doing it. Once a plane has dropped a man, his dogs, his traps and other equipment at some chosen spot, he is on his own even today in a wonderful land that is hospitable to anyone who will take the trouble to learn its ways. If two men go in together, so much the better. All they need are two trains of dogs (ten in all), two nets for fish, a .22 rifle for small game, and two big rifles. If they set out their nets every night in the fall, they will get enough fish to keep the dogs working all winter. Once the trapline is set out, one man can look after it and the other can snowshoe off to find caribou.

Men who are in the bush all the time soon learn its ways. They can always get some big game to keep themselves well-fed. Moose and bear are still there, and it isn't necessary to go clear to the barren lands to find caribou. When the hunter returns to camp, he can take his turn on the trapline and free his partner for a while. A winter passes quickly when men are busy hunting and trapping. A man must, of course, be young to be successful at that life, especially if he goes up with a partner, he will enjoy freedom and self-reliance that are beyond price.

If only I were seventeen again instead of more than seventy, I would turn my face northward today. With jackpine and white moss around me, a pack of timber wolves howling a successful kill under a cold, bright moon, even with blowing snow rousing me from sleep beside my campfire at some narrows, I would have again the freedom and contentment that only a trapper knows. It's the best life there is.

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"Date Modified: May 11, 2020."

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