North to Cree Lake

First Winter


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

Fred and Ed lost little time in felling enough trees to build their cabin. After the logs were notched and set in place, Fred continued working alone on the roof poles, chinking them with sphagnum moss, and shovelling on a thick layer of earth to hold in the heat. Fred built well, and both men were rather pleased with the results. Forty-five years later, Ed learned that a trapper was still using this cabin. Meanwhile, Ed was packing food from the cache at the small lake near Lac La Plonge. He had to retrace the trail they had cut from Tippo Lake and then walk around the south shore of the lake, crossing hills, bogs, some thick second-growth bush rising out of tangled fire-killed windfall, and, finally, through a stretch of virgin timber where the walking was reasonably good. There was no way to estimate accurately the miles he covered, but it required four days for him to go and return with a fifty-pound pack. To cut down on weight, he carried no blankets but slept by the campfire at night. By sheer luck, roving bears did not find and clean out the cache of food; all the provisions were safely brought to the cabin by the time Fred had completed its construction. Moose. What the trappers saw of their new location pleased them greatly, The poplar, willow, birch and tamarack were ablaze with bright autumn colours, and by now the flies were about only during the warmest part of the day. Blueberries grew full almost any place they walked. Flocks of mallards and smaller numbers of other species of ducks fed on the river. Moose and deer were often seen, but were not shot for the partners thought it too warm to keep meat. When they walked along the Brush River, they saw in the sand the tracks of fox, coyote, lynx, bear, otter and mink, which raised their hopes for a good catch of fur in the coming winter. Also in the sand were the heavy prints of big moose, the dainty tracks of deer, and the trails of woodland caribou, all of which gave them a comforting feeling that meat supplies would be readily attainable.

The three pups were growing fast, taking on a long-legged rangy look in spite of the fact that, until the cabin had been completed, they had been fed only lightly and irregularly. Ed now provided for them by shooting the snowshoe rabbits that came to the cabin to eat the poplar bark from the firewood the partners had cut for the winter. The dogs also got the guts and trimmings from the partridges Ed shot with his .22 rifle. The dogs and the trappers got no fish that fall-no one had ever suggested to Fred and Ed that a fishnet is an important piece of equipment for a trapper in Northern Saskatchewan. But even if they had brought nets, the catch would have been small for, as the Indians in the area knew, there are few fish in the brush river in autumn. (This explains why the partners had met no Indians since leaving Beauval.)

One day in late autumn, just after the landscape had been transformed by the first snowfall of the winter, Ed was scouting along the brush river at a spot where a large, open muskeg was visible over some low scrub growing along the river bank. Ed detected movement among the stunted black spruce along the far side of the bog. Seven large animals slowly approached to within range of his hunting rifle. He shot the leader of the group; but when he walked over to the fallen animal, he could not identify its species. He was not far from the cabin and went to inform Fred. Caribou. They looked it over carefully, having never seen its like, it was not a moose; it had carried a towering rack of antlers; the hooves were grotesquely large; and its back was brown, with shades of grey on the lower body, blending to white on the belly and rump. They concluded, correctly, that Ed had shot his first woodland caribou. Suddenly the Brush River, which rises from springs and a slow-draining swamp, was frozen over. Winter was on the partners now and they set to work with enthusiasm. They made blind sets in game trails for fox and coyotes. Using meat for bait they constructed "A sets" in which the trap is set over buried bait inside three dry and weathered sticks placed around the set in the form of the letter "A." Fred constructed a toboggan of white birch boards, hewn from logs. He encountered a problem when he attempted to bend the boards to form the circular hood; he did not have a container big enough to immerse one end of each board in boiling water. He hit on the idea of digging a hole in the ground, filling it with water and adding rocks heated in a roaring campfire. This method was completely successful, and while the finished toboggan was somewhat crude in appearance, it served its purpose very well.

The three dogs were almost fully grown, fat and full of energy. Hitched to the toboggan, they took to the winter trail with very little trouble, following the men when they broke trail on snowshoes, and being driven in front on the return trail to the cache near Lac La Plonge and recovered the last of the equipment they had left there.

Indians made their first appearance at this time, traversing the area and setting traps. Ed met two Indian trappers and talked with them over the campfire and the steaming tea pail. They gave some valuable hints on the taking of foxes, including the fact that rotten fish makes the best fox bait. Ed had no fish, and no means of obtaining any, so he made a trade; a pouch of tobacco for four high smelling whitefish. After this, Fred and Ed began to make fox sets as the Indians had told them to do, using fish for bait, and they caught more foxes than before.

The partners travelled together, far up Brush River to its source, and downstream to the shores of Snake Lake, pitching their tent at night. To combat the intense cold, they used a light sheet-iron stove purchased in Big River. It was good country. They were never without meat that winter, and with the considerable quantity of store food they had brought, they put in a rather good season. They caught forty foxes that winter, along with a few lynx, mink, beaver, and muskrat. Although timberwolves were plentiful, they eluded the trappers completely. Two novices thought that they were doing very well, but looking back at that winter, Ed Theriau has stated that two experienced trappers with separate dog teams, should have caught 300 foxes in that region that winter.

Fred and Ed had yet to learn that it is not necessary for two men to travel together on the trapline; if they move separately, they can cover twice as much ground. They did not know that one can get along without packing a tent and stove-it is possible to sleep out by the campfire in the coldest of weather. They were to learn that mobility is the key to success in trapping.

In the spring, Fred loaded the entire fur catch into the small canoe, threw in his camping equipment, and paddled down the Brush River, heading for the Churchill. He was fortunate enough to join up with some travelling Indians, who gave him valuable assistance. After the party had travelled the Churchill River system to Ile-a-la-Crosse, Fred knew the rapids and the channels, and he could do them alone after that. He sold the fur catch at the old trading post at Ile-a-la-Crosse.

At the same time, Ed, with the three dogs, set out to walk overland to Lac La Plonge. He was to take the big canoe back to Beauval on the Beaver River and wait for Fred there. When he arrived at the Big lake, he found it to be full of last winters ice. It was mid-May, yet the only open water lay in small areas along the many sandy beaches. He would have to wait until the ice broke up before he could be on his way. And he realized that he had very little food for himself, and none at all for the dogs.

Ed walked up the shore a short way to look for the canoe. He was reassured to discover it where he had left it. But instead of lying bottom up on the pole stand where he had placed it in the fall, it lay open side up on the ground-someone had used the canoe the previous autumn. Water had accumulated inside the hull, had frozen and had split the canoe's light canvas covering. A rupture, four feet long ran along the keel.

Ed walked dejectedly along the beach at a loss to know what to do. At the far end of the beach, he discovered an empty cabin, which had been occupied for a time in the past winter. The occupant had insulated the walls by tacking up sheets of corrugated cardboard cut from packing cases. With his hunting knife, Ed pried out a handful of tacks. He cut strips from his tarpaulin, fitted it carefully under the split canvas on the canoe, and tacked down the torn outside edges. In the cabin, he found a can of partly dried-out paint, so thick that he smeared it over the entire break with his knife, as you would butter a piece of toast. This repair job proved good enough to last all the way back to Big River.

Ed had eaten the last of his food, a strip of dried moose meat. As he looked out over a patch of open water, he saw several floats of a fishnet along the edge of the ice. He went out in the canoe, which, he was glad to see, did not leak, and found an entire fishnet. It had been allowed to freeze into the winter ice and was then abandoned, probably by the same improvident user of the canoe. This net, set in the mouth of a small creek, yielded all kinds of fish in quantity. The famine was over.

Ed was enjoying the unfolding of spring. A song-sparrow and a white-throat sang alternately from the sunny forest close at hand. The spring migration of waterfowl was at its height. Loons called from open water where cracks widened in the shifting ice. It was pleasant to be paddling in the sun, the dogs dozing in the canoe-a welcome change from travelling on snowshoes all winter long. Ed shed his parka and paddled in his shirt sleeves.

Sometimes he let the canoe drift as he soaked up the sun. He rolled a cigarette and his thoughts went back to the rather severe winter just past. The snows had lain hip-deep in the woods from December through April, and low temperatures had been the rule. Although they had a thermometer, they had often heard the trees crack with the frost, a sure indication of deep cold. in contrast, today it was almost uncomfortably warm as he drifted close to shore, where the dense growth of poplars, already showing a tinge of green, cut off any breeze from the land.

It had been a long and eventful winter. Fred and Ed were not given to lying idle in the cabin for any length of time. They were not on the trail as much as possible and had covered a great deal of territory. There was always something of interest written on the snow in the form of animal tracks. And there was a definite fascination in approaching a good set to see what if anything had been caught in their absence.

The winter had been one of learning and adapting in order to survive in an often hostile environment-something the two young trappers had been able to do without much difficulty. Bear. They had explored the silent and ghostly wooded muskegs and learned the desolation of vast, open swamps. They had learned how to stalk moose and caribou, and something of driving dogs. In April, Fred had encountered a bear which, for no apparent reason, had charged him. To protect himself, he had calmly dropped it with a single rifle shot. The winter's experience had given them confidence in their own ability to survive in the wilderness. Ed paddled on until he reached the landing, then walked to Beauval, where Brother August once more obliged him by fetching the canoe with his team and wagon. Ed spent a week at the mission, visiting with the Indians and with a few white trappers who were also stopping there on their way South. When Fred arrived from Ile-a-la-Crosse, they proceeded up to Big River in a group.

There was no question Fred and Ed would return to the northland for the next trapping season. Financially, they had done no better than break even. In the outside world, the economy was buoyant and living conditions, for many people, were attractive. But all of civilization's attractions could not prevail against the lure of the North. Even the lack of female companionship, which had tormented their dreams and imaginations during the long winter, could not hold them back. The fact was, Fred Darbyshire and Ed Theriau had become hooked on the North, just as drug addicts become hooked on narcotics.


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"Date Modified: 2019, October 18."


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