The animal that suffered most in the North, being unsuited to the climate and the terrain, was the horse, and yet men brought horses there during my time. It must have been in the 1930s, the Depression years, that many farmers and homesteaders left the southern settlements where they could no longer make a living, and came north to do freighting with their horses. The railroad had not yet come from Prince Albert to Big River and supplies needed by the various Hudson's Bay Company posts and by northern fishermen had to be freighted in by other means. Some Hudson's Bay Company supplies came to Green Lake (a small body of water southwest of Dore Lake) by Red River cart from Winnipeg, where it was brought by York boats down the Beaver River to Ile-a-la-Crosse. From there it had to be distributed throughout the North. From Big River and Ile-a-la-Crosse these desperate men, using teams of horses accustomed to a gentler climate, freighted provisions in the wintertime to various outposts and to fishermen scattered along the lakes of the Churchill River. This was a gruelling and sometimes a tragic experience.
As soon as the ice was strong enough to travel on, they would load up their sleighs, not only with freight but with enough baled hay and oats for the round trip. Often a man would drive one team and trail another, and there might be twelve teams and six men travelling together. They had stopping places from twenty-five to forty miles apart from where they had built barns large enough to hold at least twenty teams (for these horses were not used to spending winter nights in the open). As well as a barn, each stopping place had a cookhouse and a bunkhouse. Sometimes it was necessary to let the horses rest over a day at one of these way stations. When they reached the last stopping place on the route, they would travel on next day far enough to pick up a load of whitefish for buyers in Big River and return to that stopping place to spend the first night of the return journey. There was not a great deal of money in fish at the time, but the freighters were able to carry a payload both ways and so to make a living.
Even on this return-trip route, which was the easiest of their travels, there were many hardships. Sometimes there were blizzards. Sometimes the ice on the lakes would be weak enough to let water through, and the horses would get stuck with their loads. When such delays happened, it might be necessary to spend a night out in the bush. Then the men had to make great fires to dry their horses so that they would be in condition for the rest of the journey.
Toward spring when the regular freighting was done, there was still a trip to be made into Pinehouse Lake on the Churchill River to a Hudson's Bay Company outpost which was run from Patuanak. That trip must have had the quality of a nightmare. The snow would be at its deepest then, and it would be necessary to leave the main road and follow a trail in from Lac La Plonge. Most years, two men on snowshoes walked ahead of the horses to break trail. To ease the trip further, they would pull an empty sleigh ahead of the train and take in a snowplow to use on the lakes. At the end of a day on that trip, the men would have to gather enough wood to build up huge fires to dry their sweating teams. That journey from Big River to Pinehouse Lake took two weeks. I used to talk with some freighters who made it and they usually said they would never again put their horses on such a trip -- but every year there was some outfit that would try it.
When freighting by horses was established to Lac la Ronge and Stanley Mission, the Hudson's Bay Company wanted to extend it to the northern end of Reindeer Lake. A train of freighting horse-drawn sleighs once tried this ambitious journey. Leaving Stanley, they cut across the bush with their heavy loads, over terrain where there were no trails and where big rocks blocked their passage. Horses can't go far breaking trail through deep snow before they are exhausted, and their drivers exhausted with them. The worst part of that journey was through the bush, but when they finally reached the south end of Reindeer Lake where the Hudson's Bay Company post was, they still had the one hundred and fifty-mile length of that lake to travel. There are said to be twenty-five hundred islands on Reindeer Lake.
They gave men and horses enough trouble, but in the big open stretches on the lake, there would be immense snowdrifts. The horses would struggle up one of those, then break through and flounder helplessly.
The freighters did have a snowplough. They had a long, strong pole running between the two horses of the lead team. It was hooked to the plough and pushed by three other loaded sleighs. This helped a good deal. Eventually, they reached the north end of the lake with their supplies, but by this time they were running out of hay. as much as they dared, they had been rationing what they brought, but there was a limit to how much a man can cut down the feed of working horses. Moreover, these animals had been used to shelter at night. The cold weather and the shortage of hay had thinned them down pitifully. They were growing weaker by the day, and the men realized the situation was desperate.
One man, who owned one of the smaller teams, had been gathering willows every night to feed his horses, and at every opportunity during the day, and he had managed to keep them in comparatively good condition. A team of mules were still strong, too, for mules are hardier than horses by nature. Realizing that they could not save all the horses and that even their own survival was a matter of question, the men abandoned all but the one good team and the mules and set out to cover the many dangerous miles of the return journey. Eventually, they struggled into Stanley where they were able to get feed for the exhausted animals and so to continue to Prince Albert.
A few years ago I talked with the man who had saved his team by gathering the willows. There are not many of the men still alive who made that fateful trip, but as long as there are storytellers in the North (and the North is a land of storytellers), their adventure will never be forgotten.