North to Cree Lake

The End Of Winter


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

It was April. The crows had just come up from the South, and their cawing was pleasant to Ed's Ears as he travelled. He was very much interested in the coming of spring; he always looked forward to it. Time to go south and drink beer; to tell the experiences of the winter; to see girls again. This spring Ed was trying something different. Most years he came in from his far-northern lines in March and trapped near his base at Poorfish Lake until the ice went out of the lakes and he could leave for the South by canoe. This year he was travelling north, his dogs pulling his small canoe on a sleigh over frozen lakes now bare of snow. He was on his way to a place Fred and he had named Island Lake, about half-way between Poorfish and Close Lakes, where he had discovered a flourishing beaver country during his winter travels. Here the beaver lodges dotted a vast area of lakes and connecting creeks. Ed would locate on Island Lake and work his way back through the beaver country, arriving at Poorfish Lake about the time the ice was going out. Ed Theriau and Canoe. Except for the occasional small herd still moving out, the barren-ground caribou had already migrated north, leaving their droppings scattered over the ice of the lakes. The black droppings absorbed the sun's heat more readily than ice and melted their way into the ice. In certain areas of clear ice, Ed could see the droppings embedded two or three feet below the surface; eventually, they would sink through five feet of ice into the water below. That night Ed camped on the bank of a small creek, a fine camping spot amid large jackpines where the spring sun had already melted the snow. Beaver Dam. The place had a southward exposure so that he would receive the full benefit of any daytime sun. He planned to use this camp as a base for his trapping operations, for this was good beaver country, and had been since ancient times. In this country there were dams that were hundreds of years old, made only of mud and stones, all the sticks had rotted away long ago. By the time Ed had tied his dogs and set up a temporary camp, dusk was coming on. The four dogs looked at him and whined, asking for their evening meal. Ed had a good deal of compassion for them, but nothing in the way of dog food. As a matter of fact, he had only some tea and salt himself and had not eaten since morning. He had relied on obtaining a caribou on the trip from Poorfish Lake, but he had not been able even to get a shot at the departing herds.

The long lingering twilight was an opportune time to shoot beaver. Ed launched his small hunting canoe on the creek, which was already open, and paddled a short distance upstream to a spot where he had discovered a large beaver lodge earlier in the winter. He pulled the canoe out on the bank opposite the lodge and the flowing water of the creek.

Holding his shotgun in both hands, muzzle pointed upward, he stood quietly behind the thicket and waited for about fifteen minutes. Strange thing about this country in early spring, in the daytime the wind blew constantly, and with savage fury at times, chilling him through and throughout on the lake ice. Now on this fine evening, in the shelter of the surrounding bush, it was completely calm and he felt quite comfortable.

It grew darker. Then suddenly, he saw a beaver surface just upstream from the lodge and begin swimming down with the current. Beaver Swimming. It was just as he thought: the beaver would come to the open water at dusk to feed, to cavort, and to enjoy their new freedom since spring had released them from the winter ice. The beaver was swimming just a few yards away and began to cross the clear field of vision Ed had through a parting in the willows. Ed could see the wake diverging from the side of its head, and one bright beady eye. He led the beaver, aiming just in front of its nose, and fired. Orange flame shot out in the semi-darkness, and a great roar split the solitude, the echoes rolling back from the surrounding hills. Back at camp the dogs at once began wild yelping and howling, excited as always to hear a gun go off. Ed had killed his beaver. Shot in the head, it drifted soft and limp downstream, still buoyant with air trapped in its thick fur. He retrieved it quickly with his canoe pole, grasped it by the tail and carried it, dripping blood and water, to the canoe. Fine. It was a large mature male, heavy with winter fat; there would be plenty to eat tonight for both himself and the dogs. By the light of a blazing campfire, he strung up the carcass to a jackpine limb, securing one of its hind legs with a length of cord. With his sharp hunting knife, he deftly slit the belly open, from the base of the tail to the chin. In a few minutes, he had stripped off the hide, the carcass swaying a bit as it hung from the tree, glowing a dark shiny red in the firelight. Then he cut the portions he would eat, the tail, thighs and back, and flung the rest, including the entrails, to the dogs.

He put the meat in a large pot he always carried on the trail, boiled it a short time, and ate it while it was still red inside, as he had seen the Indians do. Ed was a hearty eater in those days. That night he ate a large quantity of the meat and most of the tail, which contains a good deal of fat. Some white men did not like beaver; Indians, on the other hand, would eat beaver anytime, and considered it a delicacy. Ed had learned to prepare it, and to like it, too, several years before when he had camped with Thomas Clarke, a half-breed friend. It certainly was a lot better than going hungry.

It would not be much of a chore now to prepare for sleep. He thought he might make an oval frame out of willow branches, to stretch the green pelt, but he decided it could wait until morning. He had his down-filled sleeping robe and a tarpaulin to string overhead in case it rained or snowed in the night. The sky was clear, the stars were out; all there was to do now was to roll out the robe on the spruce bough bed and turn in. There would probably be white frost on the ground at daybreak, but he would be snug in the robe, and it would not be necessary to keep the fire going tonight.

In the night he began to dream of unlikely and terrible happenings. When a particularly shocking episode occurred in his nightmares, he awakened with a start. He felt desperately and deathly sick. He was in agony, his digestive system in turmoil. He was bathed in sweat and threw off the sleeping robe; soon his teeth were chattering uncontrollably with the cold, and he could not get warm until the heatwave returned again and the whole cycle repeated itself. (Webmaster: Ed was suffering from giardiasis, also known as beaver fever from eating a contaminated beaver. Drank water from the pond and that would have been contaminated as well.)

Ed cannot recall ever having been sick in his life before that night. Since he had never experienced illness, he did not know what to do about it. It did occur to him that he was having acute indigestion, or had been poisoned, and could not find relief by forcing his forefinger down his throat. He writhed and groaned for a long time. At last, as the first dayglow appeared in the east, something triggered a reaction in his system and he vomited violently, time after time until it was broad daylight and he had nothing more to bring up. Through all that morning, he was shaken by recurrent fits of convulsive retching that brought the tears streaming from his eyes. Eventually, the spasms ceased, and he lay back in the robe, beaten, exhausted and very, very sick.

He dozed off then, in a kind of twilight sleep, a kind of sleep he had never before experienced. Sometimes he felt both asleep and awake at the same time. He had weird and impossible dreams, in which he saw wild patterns and shapes. Several times he reached out toward an immense ball-shaped cloud; but when he touched it, he saw only a small grain of sand in his hand. Sometimes he knew he was dreaming, and at other times he would have sworn these happenings were real.

Now it was mid-day, the sun shone warmly on his face as he awakened, and his mouth and tongue were dry. He forced himself to stagger to the creek, only a few yards away. He took his tea pail and dipped it full of water so clear that it appeared to have been distilled. But when he drank deeply from the edge of the pail, he was at once retching again and throwing up the water. It had a most vile and disgusting taste that reminded him of the time he had eaten moose meat that had been carelessly dressed so that some of the digestive fluids had contaminated the meat. The taste in his mouth now was even more bitter and nauseous, like the taste of acrid tree bark, the bitter taste of willow buds or the essence of poplar sap.

In a way, Ed was fascinated by his illness because of its severity. He believed that he was going to die, and from time to time he wished he was already dead. Suddenly, that evening, he thought of his dogs. He made himself go and turn them loose. Chained to the trees, the dogs would starve if he died; now, at least, they were free and might wander back to the home cabin and further south, to be found, eventually by some Indian or white trapper. But Fred Darbyshire was not in the country that winter, so there was no chance that he could be of any help.

For three more days Ed drank water and vomited it up again. He could not understand why he was still alive. Finally, he took a drink of water that stayed down. From that moment he began to recover quickly, and by next morning he was back on his feet.

When he had released the dogs, they looked uncertainly at him for a moment, then disappeared over a low hill. Beaver and Young. Now they had returned to the campsite and appeared to be well fed. Curious, Ed walked over the rise and found the remains of a caribou, a winter wolf kill. The dogs had been doing just fine on their own, although the meat was sour and unfit for human use. There was some beaver meat left, but Ed was afraid to eat it. He had no idea why it had almost killed him, but he reasoned that it had been diseased, or somehow contaminated. He must find fresh food as soon as possible. He was weak and had some trouble loading the canoe onto the sled and harnessing the dogs. They hauled the outfit across a small lake and over a portage, heading back toward Poorfish Lake.

Later that day, Ed reached the bank of a small, grassy creek. He thought he saw the dead grass moving in the water; then he looked more closely and saw that dozens of jackfish were spawning there. He got his shotgun and fired into a cluster of spawning fish; four of them floated to the surface, their white bellies shining in the sun. Ed gathered them in and boiled them right there on the creek bank, his first meal since his illness. He drank deeply of the broth and heartily of the meat, without any nausea. Ed had recovered.

He camped there for one day; regaining his strength. It was a comfortable spot, for the fish that he needed for himself and the dogs were there for the taking. But he knew that he must move on and see to the beaver trapping. He broke camp, and the dogs pulled the outfit farther south across several small lakes.

On one of these lakes, an ominous overcast moved in and snow began to fall. A severe spring snowstorm was in the making, Ed knew, and he hurried the dogs along that he might reach the timbered shore and make camp before the storm broke. He ran up alongside the dogs to urge them on, and suddenly, where the new snow had covered a rotten spot, he crashed through the ice and into the frigid water below. Ed says he remembers hollering as he went under, but there was no human being within a hundred miles to help him. From the water, he looked up to find the hole in the ice, which was only as wide as his body. The dogs had stopped when he yelled and the sled was now on top of the hole! With some ingenuity, he broke out at the side of the sled and hung on. The dogs lunged forward at his command and helped pull him back out onto the ice.

Once on shore, he was safe, for his matches were secure and dry in the waterproof case he always carried in his pocket. The snowstorm increased in fury, and heavy wet snow covered everything. It snowed heavily all that day and all that night until a foot and a half of new snow covered the land, which had been bare when the storm began. Ed was caught here now, unable to travel on the rotten surface of the lake, and unable to make any real progress on land with the dogs. He would have to remain here until the wind took the ice out. In the meantime, he was out of food again, and he had to hunt to keep alive.

The next day it warmed up considerably. In the bright sunshine after the storm, he went out to hunt partridge. He found no birds at all but was able to shoot one red squirrel.

"Eating squirrel was about the same as eating nothing." Ed records. "After this 'dinner' I crossed over some hills and came to a small lake. I saw some gulls flying around over there so I made my way toward them to try and shoot one. On my way, I saw a black bear standing on a hill. I moved over in that direction as quietly as I could. It was open country, all the bush had been burned off recently, so I had to stalk this bear very carefully. I got in quite close, took a very careful aim, and that night I had fresh bear steak in my frying pan. This turned out to be a good bear with some fat on him. I was always able to eat bear meat and it agreed with me. The next day I ate well and so did my dogs, and spent time sleeping in the sun after my feed.

"Spring was well on the way now, it was really warming up. One day the wind finally took the ice out of that lake and it was time for me to move. I had already cut up the bear and loaded it onto the canoe. I paddled across the lake and crossed a short portage into another lake. Here I met a large moose. I had the bear, and I would be leaving the country soon, so I did not shoot that moose, but I certainly wished that I had seen that moose before I shot the bear.

"In time I worked my way south to a creek that took me all the way down to Poorfish Lake. Although the narrows here was wide open, there was still ice in this lake, for it is quite a large one. Canada Geese. The larger the lake, the longer the ice stays on it. There were lots of ducks and geese about. I am very fond of wild duck, and I was sorry I had killed the bear now, but I did not shoot those birds. "At an open hole, I saw a flock of wild geese and several otters playing as they like to do, and the geese going about their business. It would have made a beautiful picture, but I had no camera and there was no colour film on the market in those days. "This was the best time of the year. Now the wind and the weather were in my favour and there were all kinds of meat and fish for the taking. As soon as I reached my cabin I set the fishnet to feed my dogs. There was a no problem now in obtaining dog food.

I prepared to leave for the South. One day a strong wind blew from the North. I put my canoe, my gear and my dogs on a sled which I had shod with steel strapping. I put up a sail and we had a wild sleigh ride over the ice of Poorfish Lake. The wind took us twenty miles down the lake, a fine ride indeed. The dogs appeared to enjoy it as much as I did. We sailed right into open water at the south end. I looked back and saw that the lake ice was being washed out several miles back where I had sailed over it. There was more open water ahead. Spring had finally come to the North Country."



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"Date Modified: 2019, October 18."


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