North to Cree Lake

A Winter With Howard


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

In the fall of 1931, Fred agreed to take Howard Darbyshire, Fred's younger brother, into the North with them. Howard had had some trapping experience near his home on a farm in the South but had never had to go short of supplies for he had always lived next door to the settlements. Ed warned him that before the coming winter was over, he would think that a piece of bannock tasted like a Christmas cake. That year, Fred decided to winter alone at his cabin on Close Lake Narrows. Howard and Ed would set up camp at Waterbury Lake, some fifty miles to the north-east. They parted company with Fred at Chip Point Lake, paddled down a river draining into Waterbury Lake and finally arrived at the small, crude cabin Ed had built there in the previous season. Trapper's Cabin. Howard and Ed had for supplies: fifty pounds of flour, some tea and small amounts of sugar, salt and tobacco. Ed knew that before the winter was over, these provisions would be exhausted; he wondered how the greenhorn would take to a diet of straight meat. They got a moose right away. Howard was a good man with a rifle and he shot it himself-which gave him a lot of encouragement, for even seasoned veterans sometimes have difficulty getting a moose in this country, where game can become very scarce for long periods of time. Often it is very difficult to get the first moose, but if you succeed you are apt to get another pretty soon-it just seems to work out that way. Shortly after that Ed shot a very fat bear. They now had a supply of food on which to begin trapping operations. At freeze-up Ed gave Howard a dog, a rather large beast that worked too hard in harness so that it got thin quickly. Howard would walk ahead of the dog on snowshoes and the dog followed along behind, pulling a small toboggan with Howard's bedroll, grub, the dog food and traps. Howard got along quite well, camping out two or three nights in succession. He had three rather short traplines. Ed had three dogs that winter and as usual, ranged over a very large territory. The two men arranged to meet at the cabin from time to time so that Ed could be sure Howard was all right.

As the winter wore on, they began to run out of supplies. The first item to disappear was the salt-all used up. It is miserable eating unsalted food, but it can be done. It is difficult to describe what a saltless diet can do to a person's morale, but if you eat your next meal with no salt at all you should get some idea.

The tobacco ran out next. They had divided all their tobacco in the fall, and when Ed's supply ran low he mixed it with the leaves of a plant called "neepua," by the Indians. This is a native plant that has small permanent green leaves which can be dried, crushed and mixed with tobacco. Neepua does not taste anything like tobacco: the smoke doesn't smell bad, but the taste is downright awful. Ed tried to convince Howard to extend his supply of tobacco by adding neepua: Howard tried one hand-rolled cigarette and threw it, half-smoked, into the campfire. "No, Ed, I can't smoke that damned stuff," he declared. The next time Ed met Howard he was smoking neepua, and he had no tobacco left to mix with it. He said it was not too bad a smoke, now that he had tried it again.

The men ran out of flour soon after that and began living on meat and bear fat, nothing else. In the beginning years, it had taken Ed some time to get used to eating this food, but now he could subsist on it for months. Howard, new to the diet, reacted violently: his bowels became so loose that he was almost like a man suffering from acute dysentery; he looked sick, lost weight and became quite weak.

Ed, on the other hand, felt fine and continued to be healthy all that season. Howard said that a straight meat diet was probably all right if you had good meat. There are many grades of meat in the North, and that winter they had the poorest; the caribou they shot were thin and full of parasites, warble grubs, lungworms and tapeworms. However, this was all the meat they could get. When Ed found Howard in this poor condition at one of their meetings he decided that something must be done. Dog Team. He knew that Fred had some supplies which he was to bring up to Close Lake from the original base camp at Poorfish Lake. Ed and Howard decided to make the long trip to Fred's cabin at Close Lake in the last days of a very cold January. They harnessed all the dogs to Ed's toboggan and struck out westward, toward Close Lake. Howard had trouble travelling in his weakened condition. For the first half-day, they were on Howard's trapline so there was a trail to follow. At the end of the trail, Ed began to break trail through four feet of powder-soft snow, in the awesome cold that froze the breath of the travellers with a whispering sound. For two long days, they struggled on, Ed tramping down the snow in front, the dogs labouring in the middle, and Howard staggering along behind. They stopped frequently to boil water for Howard to drink. Ed did not falter; he had broken trail for years on a diet of straight meat.

They arrived at Fred's Close Lake cabin at about ten o'clock at night on the second day. Fortunately, Fred had been down to Poorfish Lake and had brought all the remaining supplies. As it happened, he was in camp that night and he immediately began to prepare food-bannock, lard, some stewed dried fruit and some other store food he took from his meagre supply. They ate, and then over the first smokes of real tobacco Ed and Howard had had in several weeks, they talked all night and all the next day. Ed and Howard set out on the return trail.

Howard was feeling much better now that he had eaten bannock and beans and had drunk tea laced with sugar and powdered milk. Salt in his food seemed to effect a complete recovery in his morale. They journeyed back to Waterbury Lake in two short travelling days, making good progress with rested dogs on a well-packed trail. Howard could now travel to Fred's cabin any time he chose. He strung out a trapline in that direction and was in contact with Fred from time to time for the rest of the season. But Ed, whose expeditions into the bush could last for a month at a time, now saw Howard only rarely.

As spring came, Ed began the final round of his traplines, picking up his traps before leaving for the South. He was out of cartridges for his big game rifle and he had no food for himself or for his dogs. He asked Howard to get cartridges from Fred and bring them to the Waterbury cabin. But when he arrived there, he found no cartridges and no sign of Howard. Ed still had a lot of work and travelling to do, gathering his traps. Rather than waste four days going to Close lake and back for ammunition, he decided to rely on an ample cache of caribou meat he had made earlier in the season, only one days journey from Waterbury Lake.

He set out almost at once, only to be engulfed in a tremendous spring snowstorm. It snowed all night and all the next day. Ed had to make camp and sit out the storm-no problem except that there was nothing to eat. Now the trip for meat was absolutely essential; he pushed on, breaking trail in the heavy snow. The day was warm and he shed his parka as he wallowed in the fresh, wet snow, making a trail for his dogs to follow.

When he arrived at his cache, he found that his meat was gone; there was not a scrap left anywhere. Back in the winter when he had shot two caribou here, he had piled the meat on some logs and covered it with other logs. Usually, such a cache is safe for some months, but this time hungry timber wolves got at it and cleaned it out. Ed sat down on the toboggan and cried.

He was in one of the worst situations in which a man alone in the North can find himself. He was exhausted and his dogs were in little better condition. It was a full day's travel to Waterbury cabin and there was no food there either. He would have to return there, load his canoe on the dog sleigh, and haul it to Close Lake. With food, he could make it in four days, but he had no food at all. Yet if he stayed where he was, he and the dogs would surely starve.

Ed turned the dogs around and started back. One thing in his favour was the packed trail leading back to Waterbury lake. The dogs, bless them, were more than willing to head for the cabin. Ed does not know from where they drew their strength that night. He himself felt so done in that he followed the toboggan with difficulty and, as the night frost hardened the trail, he rode on the tailboard when they were travelling downhill. They ran into caribou herds on the lakes, and Ed could hear the animals running in the bush, but that was only a mockery and a tantalization to a hunter without ammunition. It was a long and hungry trip. Toward morning they arrived at the quiet, lonely cabin.

Now Ed was completely worn out. He took the dogs out of their harness and turned them loose. Then he took to his bunk bed, where he stayed all that day and all the next, too tired to move. He worried about the dogs; if they starved to death he was in very serious trouble. But when he forced himself to go out and look, he found them digging up and eating bones and pieces of hide buried in the snow around the cabin. They were doing much better than he.

The next morning at daylight. Ed loaded his canoe on the sleigh and set out in a final, desperate attempt to make it to Fred's cabin. This was normally a two-day trip, but he did not intend to stop along the way, except to rest for short periods of time. It was a rough trip, indeed. If it had not been for those wonderful sleigh dogs, Ed doubts that he could have walked the fifty miles to Close Lake in his starving condition. His morale, he says, was sustained by the dogs, who were working with all their power, even though starving. Ed was a bit on the heavy side in those days, but on this trip, he noticed that his clothing had become quite loose on his body. He knew he had lost weight, but he never found out exactly how much.

The miles seemed to get longer as the day came to a close and the darkness deepened. Ed was on Howard's packed, frozen trail, which saved him. It was fine travelling for the dogs, for there is little resistance to the sliding of the sleigh under such conditions. Sometimes toward dawn, he reached Fred's cabin. Here he learned why the cartridges he had been promised were missing; Fred and Howard had used the balance of the ammunition to obtain meat for themselves and their dogs. They reasoned that Ed would realize the situation and come over to Close Lake since it was, in any case, the time of the year when they should be moving out.

They fed up the dogs and Ed had his first meal in more days than he cared to remember. He was amazed how quickly food and rest restored him. He rested one day and night, then they were all on their way southward to Poorfish Lake. With two dog teams and three men, they made good time. Ed notes that he took his full share of the trail-breaking, even though he had been starving and worn out a day before.

Ed certainly appreciated being with people for a change. The three men had much to talk about: what they had done, where they had travelled, and the fur they had trapped. All had done very well-they could afford to buy their needs for another season and there would be money left over to put in the bank. They stayed around the Poorfish Lake cabin and trapped a few muskrats, beaver and otter while waiting for the snow to melt and the creeks to open up. As soon as possible they set out for the Churchill River. They passed through Poorfish Lake, south through the creeks to Highrock Lake, into the Geikie River and on to the Foster Lakes. There they ran into Douglas and Pete Isbister, two half-breed brothers whom Ed had met in other years.

Howard was anxious to get out to civilization, and he and Fred pushed on directly to the Churchill River, taking all the fur packs with them. But Ed knew that they would have to wait a week or ten days for the lakes on the route to Ile-a-la-Crosse to open up, so he accompanied Douglas Isbister back up the Geikie River to do a little beaver trapping. They got into good beaver country and did quite well for a while. Then Ed travelled south with the Isbisters and caught up to Fred and Howard at Snake Lake.

Howard never spent another winter in the North. The transition from civilization to the uncharted wilderness had been too much of a shock for him. He could not match the stamina and strength of Ed. Much less could he emulate his brother Fred, who would proceed by choice into the remote wilderness utterly alone for ten months at a time.


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"Date Modified: 2019, October 18."


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