North to Cree Lake

Evangeline Theriau


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

Evangeline Russell had grown up in the city of Prince Albert, and Ed Theriau had known her family there for many years. Evangeline came to Ile-a-la-Crosse in the 1930s at the time of the measles epidemic in the North, and she came not to follow the bush trails but to nurse the sick who filled the little hospital in the village. Moose. Over the years, Ed and Evangeline became friends, meeting from time to time as Ed stopped in the village on his way in or out of the North. It was not until 1950 that Ed and Evangeline were married neither in the Mission church in Ile-a-la-Crosse, nor in the family church in Prince Albert, but in Vancouver, where Ed's parents were living in retirement. Ed was accompanied to the west coast by a fellow trapper, George Nelson, who acted as guide, councillor and matrimonial secretary to Ed, who had never been west of Saskatoon before this trip. By early fall Ed and Evangeline had returned to Big River, where Fred and Nora Darbyshire were waiting for them. They loaded two big, motor-powered canoes and headed north on Crooked (Cowan) Lake, starting a voyage all members of this party had taken several times before. In due course, the canoes put in to dock at Ile-a-la-Crosse, and the two couples spent some days in the village, visiting friends and shopping for a few last items. Then the expedition set out again, bound for Cree Lake and for the Poorfish Lake country beyond.

As they travelled the waterways northward, Evangeline and Nora walked the river portages while the men ran the canoes down the rapids of the Churchill. The women carried over the portages the paddles, poles, pots, saucepans and other gear that might prove awkward to the men as they packed the canoes and other heavy freight. It is much better packing when there is nothing on the load that will drop off or catch on a tree as you make your way through the bush.

After many days they arrived at Cree Lake, where they camped on its clean sand beaches, fished for dog food and picked blueberries on the hillsides. To Evangeline, it seemed that they were already a great distance into the wilderness, and there was still a long way to go to Ed's cabin at the south end of Poorfish Lake. Around the campfires at night, the four had long talks; with these veteran guides, Evangeline was getting the guided canoe tour of her life.

When, after passing over the long portages, through the many small lakes, and down the Poorfish (Wheeler) River, they finally reached Ed's cabin, Fred and Nora did not linger there. Fred was, as always, anxious to get on, and he and Nora left almost at once for their own cabin on Close Lake. Ed and Evangeline were left alone at the camp that had been Ed's base for so many years. Cabin. The cabin was as Ed had left it in the spring, but looking critically at it now, he saw that it was no palace to which he brought his bride to live in isolation for ten months. Because he had lived in the cabin only occasionally during his years on the trapline, he had not been all that particular about maintaining it. The old cabin, built many years ago of unpeeled black spruce logs, had a rough surface both inside and out. The ends of the logs had been left untrimmed. One very small window, facing the south, had been sufficient for his needs. The roof was of unpeeled poles, covered with moss and a thick layer of sand, adequate for winter, but leaky during rainy weather. Ed opened the door and they both stepped inside. Ed had been living as a bachelor for more than twenty years and his housekeeping had tended to worsen as he went along.

Mice had been attracted by food left in the cabin; their faeces were now scattered over the floor and the small square table nailed to the wall under the window. The cabin roof had leaked a great deal in the summer rains and there was much mildew in dark corners. Under the pole bunk, a small sack of forgotten dried meat was now watersoaked and full of maggots. The whole place had about it an overpowering, rotten smell, the smell of death.

Evangeline was sick at heart. She had left all of life's comforts, and all her friends for this. For this, she had suffered the tortures of sandflies and mosquitoes, and the oppressive heat on the portages. It was appalling to think that, for the next ten months, this was to be her home. In his journal, Ed sums up Evangeline's reaction in this fashion: "Evangeline did not think much of the camp."

The next day, it began to rain. By this time Evangeline had cleaned out the cabin and washed down the table and stove, and Ed had a fire going. It became pleasant to sit in the warm cabin while cold rain fell steadily outside.

The rain came down for three days, and the roof began to leak that first night. Ed solved the problem as he always did, by setting up the tent inside the cabin. The roof dripped steadily all the while it was raining, and it dripped for four days after the rain had stopped as the sodden roof drained. By then, however, they had moved the tent outside and were camped in it, there is nothing more depressing than sitting day after day in a cabin when the roof is leaking badly.

After the storm, Ed decided that it would be good for Evangeline to have a change of scene. Besides he wanted to do some hunting. His journal records: "We went up the river to hunt. I put the tent in the canoe and we paddled upstream to where I wanted to camp, at the top of a low hill where I could look around for game. I had just begun to set up the tent when I saw a bear in some burned-over country, about a half a mile off.

"I struck out over the hills after the bear. I told Evangeline to finish setting up the tent and get the camp in order while I was away. I was gone for a long time. To begin with, it was slow going over rough country, lots of deadfall and rocks. Then I had to stalk the bear, which was feeding on blueberries on the exposed side of a hill. I made a fine stalk and killed the bear. I cut up the meat and got it ready to pack out to the tent the next day.

"It was after dark when I got back to the tent. Evangeline was sitting crying. She was certain something had happened to me and she had been left alone."

Back at the cabin, later the next day, they found that the roof had finally stopped dripping. Ed put on a good fire and dried the place out. He processed the bear meat and rendered the grease for winter use.

It was already time to make other preparations for winter. Ed had not forgotten the two seasons he had passed in this country when the caribou migration had failed, and he set about putting up an adequate supply of fish to carry Evangeline, himself and the dogs through the winter if necessary. They were in good country for fishing, near that favourite spot Ed knew where the whitefish come to spawn, so thick that one man could not clear the nets before they were filled again.

Ed was always a good shot with a rifle. That fall, his journal records: "Evangeline and I were out one day when I saw this partridge sitting in a tree, out on a bare limb. It was a windless, sunny day. I said to Evangeline, 'I am going to knock its head off.' I sighted for its head, a speck against the sky. When I shot I was surprised as she, to see it fall. I can't prove the range, but it was several hundred yards. It was the best shot I ever made. We had that bird for supper.

"I could do that fairly consistently at a range of one hundred yards. Your rifle must have a perfect sight to do it. Our rifles did not get the best of care, they were roughly handled at times while travelling with canoe and toboggan. But I have a rifle that I have used for thirty years and it still shoots well."

When the lakes began to freeze over, it was time to begin the work on the traplines. Ed did not wish to leave Evangeline. So he laid out short lines that winter, and she accompanied him on some of his overnight journeys. "We travelled up Burnt River, spending two tough days on the trail. Our second night out, toward morning, three wolves paid our dogs a visit. I heard the dogs yelping, looked out of the tent and saw wolves among the dogs. I wanted it a bit lighter before I shot at them, for I was afraid of shooting my dogs. They left before it got light, they did not hang around until daylight as a rule."

"We made it back to camp in one day as we had no load to bring back. Since I now had to change my pattern of trapping, I broke out short traplines to Cree Lake (To help to get to Henry Weitzel's trading post) and a line to High rock Lake. The Burnt River line was the longest. Evangeline accompanied me on this line. We had a tent with us and it was quite comfortable at night with the stove going. We were getting some fur, but not as much as if I were operating alone. I could not go out and be away for a long time, or travel as far as I would have liked."

Fred and Nora visited the Theriau's at least once that winter. Fred wrote in his diary: "we went to Ed's camp. He and Evangeline were home. I don't think Ed is travelling very far, as he does not have his usual good fur catch. They are both sleek and fat. I guess it is their honeymoon year."

The caribou came that winter. There were not as many as in days gone by, but with Ed's marksmanship, there was always meat on the table at mealtime. He introduced Evangeline to the favourite dishes of the North, to beavertail and moose nose, which she did not like, and caribou tongue, which she said was "all right."

"I made a trip to Cree lake that winter, Evangeline had never had to do without the essentials of life at any time, so I went for things like salt, sugar, dried fruit and tobacco. I was gone for three days. It was the first time I had left her alone. She took it pretty good."

Ed does not record Evangeline's feelings as she waited in the cabin for his return, the long looks down the trail, the long nights alone, trying to sleep or reading and re-reading the magazines and books they had brought with them. Finally, late on the night, he was due, Ed arrived out of the darkness, and the joy of having him back, and her delight over the supplies, the north country news and incredibly, a packet of letters, wiped out her hours of concern.

"We put in a good winter," Ed writes. "In the spring Evangeline travelled with me in the canoe. We travelled from stream to stream trapping muskrat, beaver and otter. There were lots of ducks and geese around. It was fine weather and Evangeline enjoyed the country once the weather had warmed up."

Ed was already laying plans for the next winter. Late that spring, he cut and peeled enough jackpine logs to build a new cabin. He was in no hurry: he was waiting until Fred and Nora arrived from the North, and he knew that they would wait again at his camp until they judged that the ice was out of Cree Lake. Ed and Fred did not want to travel over rotten ice with Evangeline and Nora, had they been alone, they would have risked it, as they had done so many times before.

Fred and Nora arrived on schedule, and the two men spent four days working on the new cabin. They notched the logs and fitted them together to form the walls, and they cut out openings for the door and window. Ed would finish the building when he returned in the fall. Meanwhile, Evangeline and Nora had a good deal to talk about, and the time passed quickly.

The trip out to civilization was routine, and Ed does not go into details about it. He only mentions that some time was spent at Ile-a-la-Crosse, where he and Evangeline visited their old friends. Most of that summer they passed in Prince Albert.

"We got back to our camp on the fifteenth day of September, and I immediately began to finish up the construction of the new cabin. I had brought in a good plane and I laid a floor of hewn logs and planed it smooth. I took great pains with the roof, I was determined that it should not leak. I split logs and laid them on the roof so that they overlapped and would act like shingles to carry the water off, something similar to 'shake roofs' that I had seen in British Columbia. That was a good roof and we had no more trouble with leaks.

"To make it warmer inside, I built extra walls around the lower part of the cabin, and filled the space between the two walls with sand; that eliminated any draft on the floor. You can do a good job if you take your time. Then I went to work on the woodpile, cutting and stacking enough fuel for the winter.

"Everything came our way that fall. The weather held sunny and fine. On my first hunting trip, I shot a fat moose. As usual, there was wonderful fishing, and I had my dog food put up in good time. Also, I got a fat bear just as the bears were about to den up.

"We had everything done now, and waited for freeze-up. This was an ideal fall in every way. There was enough snow in the woods for good dog-sleigh travel and after it snowed during a cold spell, the lakes all froze up tight. We were ready to travel the north line.

Evangeline travelled with me on that first trip. We had planned that we would travel together until the very cold weather set in when she would stay in camp. She had a pet dog, 'Tippy', not a sleigh dog, and we had also brought in a radio, so she thought everything would be fine in camp, new cabin and all.

"We left for the North one morning, intending to travel as far as we could, laying out the traps which I had cached all along the line the previous spring. Camp. If we did not meet the caribou, we would have to return sooner than we expected. We took some dog food, but not too much. The dogs were too fat to work well, it would not hurt to thin them down a little. "We went farther than we expected on the first day. We met the caribou and I shot one, something I never did when I travelled alone. We had a tent and a stove and we were quite at home, camped there in the wilderness, a hundred miles from the cabin. Evangeline was doing well on the trail, but her dog 'Tippy' was hopeless in the harness so we let him tag along behind and even put him in the toboggan on occasion."We travelled north for another five days, then we made another one-day camp. Then we returned to the cabin, the whole distance in five days. After we got home, we broke out another, shorter trail to the south. We were five days on that trip. I later broke out a third line, we covered more much more territory than in the preceding year. My wife made one more trip on the north line with me. Although the caribou had been scarce the winter before, they were in the country by the thousands that winter and we travelled through the woods on their trails for days."

When the weather turned really cold, Evangeline stayed in the cabin, and Ed travelled the traplines alone. One morning in mid-January, he left before daybreak with the dogs. He would be away for ten days. The day dawned clear and sunny, deceptively sunny, for when Evangeline stood in the doorway, the morning seemed pleasant, almost warm, but on the north side of the cabin, in the shadows, the temperature was below zero and would be all day.

Accustomed to being outdoors a great deal with Ed, Evangeline decided to take a short walk. She dressed in her trail clothes and with 'Tippy' the pup, set off into the bush. The caribou trails were hard-packed, so she did not take her snowshoes. She walked for some distance; then as it grew colder, she decided to return to the warmth of the cabin.

But the return trail was confusing, for her mocassins had left no imprint on the hard-packed snow. In very short order, she was lost, trapped in a maze of caribou trails with no idea which one had brought her here. Her first impulse was to run. But Ed, she remembered, had warned her against that; she began to wander from trail to trail, desperately seeking the cabin or a clear path back.

She had a sudden hope: surely the dog would get cold and lead her back to the cabin. Instead, it came to her, holding up one hind paw that was cold, whining and asking her to keep him warm. Followed by the pathetic pup, Evangeline wandered back and forth all afternoon, growing colder and more hopeless, trying desperately not to panic. The brief daylight began to fade. She had no matches, no axe no food; she could not possibly survive the night without a fire, it would probably go down to minus forty degrees during the night.

In the dusk she walked slowly, head down, almost without hope. Then, at her feet, the outline of a fresh toboggan track crossing the caribou trail caught her eye. She ran to it: Ed's trail!- which she could back-track to the cabin. She began to follow the trail in the fading light, fortunately starting out in the right direction. At last, she made out the cabin in the gloom, stepped inside and flung herself on the bunk. It had been a close thing, and she did not tell Ed about it until a long time afterward.

When the winter ended, Ed had been on the trapline for twenty-five years. Now he decided that it was time to give it up and go into mink ranching. He and Fred acquired the property where they now live, seven miles east of Ile-a-la-Crosse, and Ed built a house there that summer. He and Evangeline were not to occupy it that winter however, Ed returned to Poorfish Lake and Evangeline resumed her old position as a nurse at the Ile-a-la-Crosse hospital. Ed would trap for one more winter, then go South, establish the mink ranch, and settle down there permanently.

"I trapped my line all alone until spring," Ed writes, "and I did very well. But I was very lonely and I certainly missed Evangeline after having her with me for two years.

"At the end of March, Evangeline came to Poorfish Lake (by aeroplane). We had a wonderful spring together, just the two of us. We made a very good fur catch. Before that year, every time the river opened up in the spring. I could hardly wait for the ice to go out in the lakes so that I could proceed 'Outside.' Now I felt quite differently. We lingered and were reluctant to leave.

"I knew I would never trap here again, and would likely never see this country again, where I had chosen to live for so many years. As a result, it was hard to load up the canoe and set out from the cabin for the last time. I am not a sentimental person, but I had some feelings of regret that day. The North had been good to me."


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"Date Modified: 2019, October 18."


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