We spent two weeks at Big River in a state of indecision. The realization that the Rat Creek solitude had been spoiled since the winter road had been cut through the bush had convinced us that we must move to another locality. I had been fascinated by thoughts of locating at Cree Lake, an area of Saskatchewan of which detailed maps were yet to be drawn. Far north of the Churchill River the Cree lies roughly 150 miles as the crow flies from Fort McMurray, Stoney Rapids, and Ile-a-la-Crosse, the nearest settlements. To spend a winter there would require a sizeable outlay of cash for equipment and supplies. We had heard ominous warnings about the dangers of going into this country to spend a winter. There were tales of trappers who had lost their outfits in the rapids. On the Crooked River there were said to be swamped boats and canoes in the "Bull Chute," a treacherous stretch of white water. Down on the Beaver River there was the formidable Grand Rapids. On the Churchill River the mighty Drum and Leaf Rapids must be negotiated. Beyond that we had no knowledge of the hazards to be encountered. Stories went around of trappers who had caught little or nothing in the way of furs in an entire winter. Men who were starved out, and trapping partners who fought each other and parted mortal enemies were spoken of around Big River as were accounts of unsolved murders, suicides, and trappers gone "bushed" (crazy). Old Joe Sheppard had warned us against "the north bug" as he referred to the lure to go ever farther north. He stated flatly that no good would come of it. We gave such warnings no heed at all, for we were young enthusiasts.
With the same enthusiasm we considered the location of Cree Lake. In this country Fred (Darbyshire) and Ed (Theriau) were making big catches of fur. Somewhere east of Cree Lake they travelled a remote land which they referred to vaguely as the Poorfish River country. Poorfish Lake, now (Russell Lake), could not be found on any published map of that time. Regnier Johnson was doing it big at Reindeer Lake. We felt that we now had enough experience, know-how, and seasoning to make the venture successful.
The deciding factor appeared in the person of Frank Fisher. We met him one morning busily building a boat near the government dock. Frank was short and powerfully built, with a heavy Austrian accent, a disarming grin, and a keen sense of humour. We liked him right off. He stated that he had spent last winter at Cree Lake and was now in the process of making ready to return.
We held a very important conference. Frank suggested that we travel together, he would lead the way. Our queries about the dangerous rapids were answered by assurance from Frank that he knew all the channels. I quizzed him about terrible Bull Chute on the Crooked River. He grinned and said it was dangerous but could be run by experienced rivermen.
The problem of money was discussed and considered from every possible angle. After a serious talk with O.P. Godin regarding the balance of our tie-camp wages he finally agreed to compensate us by supplying enough food and equipment to cover our equity. Then at Joe Freidman's store we obtained credit in the amount of fifty dollars. We were over the financial hurdle.
The sailboat was lying on the shore, but another craft was needed. Since the purchase of a canoe was financially impossible, we picked out and paid a few dollars for clear white spruce lumber from the sawmill stockpile near at hand. A fine riverboat was built; about sixteen feet long and pointed at bow and stern, she was painted standard canoe green. After a few days we were ready to depart.
We loaded our supplies at the government dock. Although our food supplies could be sufficient only to supplement living off the country and to give some assurance against starvation, we appeared to be well loaded, for the boats rode low in the water. There were case lots of raisins and dried apples (Ab refused to freight prunes, arguing that the stones constituted unnecessary weight). A case of lard, 100 pounds of rice, 120 pounds of beans, sugar, flour, tea, salt, and all the essentials that we knew must be available in winter made up the balance of freight.
We pulled away from the dock on a fine day in late June. Frank was to be delayed for a day or two but would join us on the Crooked River at Rat Creek Portage, the same trail used by Harry the moose hunter, and near the spot where we had once built the raft to find Ab's wounded bull moose.
Favourable winds and fine weather assisted us down Crooked Lake and we made the landing at Rat Creek Portage in three days. We walked across the trail to Rat Creek and followed it to the cabin, now deserted and forlorn looking. The dugout canoe was launched and loaded with all the gear that would be of use to us. To cut down on weight, we left everything that was not essential, limiting ourselves to one set each of knife, fork, and spoon, enameled plate and mug. We took guns, traps, snares, and tools. Left behind were the accumulated gatherings of three years-cabin furnishings, books, the cast iron stove, extra utensils, and wooden fur-stretchers. We paddled away without looking back, the wiskey jacks called as usual and the mudhens scurried and clucked away among the reeds. We packed across one load each before turning in.
Just after dawn the next morning I made a trip across for a load; coming around a sharp bend in the trail, through dense alders, I came face to face with a large, wooly, round-headed brown bear. We were but twenty feet apart when we both halted abruptly and stared at one another for a moment. It turned out that the bear was more startled than I, for in a few great leaps it vanished into thick cover and I could hear it crashing on its way and grunting at each gallop as pigs do when alarmed and running.
Frank joined us, paddling his trim riverboat which he had painted red. By this time all our equipment had been portaged across and stowed in the boats. The cargo was covered with waterproof tarpaulins and we backed away from shore and pointed northward with the river current. I paddled the new boat and she rode the river well. Ab rowed the sailboat, looking over his shoulder to get his bearings. Frank took the lead and we followed him in a line with my boat last in line. We soon encountered riffles and small rapids. Frank would stand up, find the channel by "reading" the current. This was my first experience travelling through white water and I worried about the dangerous Bull Chute farther downstream. The river was high as a result of heavy June rains. We passed the mouth of Rat Creek which seemed small and narrow now that we were on the broader Crooked River. The current was steady and we passed through many small rapids where suckers darted from the shallows as the boats passed over. After many miles we entered a stretch of deep quiet water, and after a long journey we entered Beaver River late the following day. I suddenly realized that we had run the infamous Bull Chute. If such a tremendous rapid existed, we had not seen it! I now understood that this was one of the north country jokes for the benefit of greenhorns.
As we paddled down the Beaver, we ran many lesser rapids. Many had winding channels where the line of our boats formed an s or a c or even a z as we followed one after the other down the rapid to straighten out the line again until the next rapid showed ahead.
In some rapids we saw were channels had been "improved" by government-sponsored work. Most of these channels had been dug when the water was very high and were now high and dry while the natural channels far from shore ran in deep water.
Ab and Art Karras with their canoe on the Beaver River.
We ran the Grand Rapids. By far the wildest water encountered thus far on our trip. We followed Frank down the channel with confidence, thrilling to the speed with which the boats glided down the long channel until we rested in the quiet water below the rapid. We could hear its roar for some distance as we paddled on. Near Beauval, at that time a Hudson's Bay Company post, we stopped for a noonday meal. Here we were visited by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable and the game warden, Fred Redhead, from Ile-a-la-Crosse. They checked our food supply, explaining that some trappers had nearly starved to death last winter because of too little food brought in. They left in their motor-driven canoe.
We paddled on toward Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake. Down the now placid Beaver through thick stands of poplar and spruce, the river widened out and had many large backwaters. Frank urged us on and we travelled into the night. Once we passed a dozen Indian tents on the riverbank. All were lighted even though it was well past midnight. Frank figured the Indians were playing poker all night so that they could sleep all day.
The weather had been ideal each day since we had left Big River. Sunny warm days with little wind had helped us to travel steadily through the long hours of daylight well into the night. Frank was worried lest we meet with head winds on the open river and kept us travelling by night since there was little wind.
Another day brought us to the big lake. I saw it first in the misty dawn, the water broken by waves, yet pulsating along the shore from ground swells of the waves rolling in the day before. The sun rose and burned away the mist. We could see water in all directions and places in the distance where the water blended into the horizon. We saw the white-painted Hudson's Bay Company buildings on the western shore at historic Ile-a-la-Crosse. It was the largest lake I had ever seen-there is one mighty stretch that runs over fifty miles from south to north. Since we had no business in Ile-a-la-Crosse and our overloaded boats were not intended for traversing wide expanses of water, we hugged the east shore which is relatively straight and lies nearly north-south directly toward our immediate destination-the Churchill River. Frank pushed ever northward since the lake was calm. I could well imagine what seas might be created here by strong winds that raked the lake from end to end.
We encountered many pelicans resting on lonely sandy points of land where they were not disturbed-massive and awkward looking birds with bills that seemed out of all proportion. They alternately flapped six-foot wingspreads and soared in flight. Terns and gulls were everywhere so that we felt that we might be paddling along a sea coast.
We made steady progress down the lake, hour after hour, with Frank as usual setting the pace and hurrying us along, ever fearful that the wind would get up and make the waters too rough for our loaded boats.
The wind did get up late that afternoon. It bore down on us from the exposed side, the northwest, down the great Aubichon Arm and whitecaps beat on the east shore. By now we had beached the boats and unloaded the supplies on shore. We were pinned down here for three days and nights, resting, eating, and sleeping while the surf beat upon the beach.
I woke early on the morning of the fourth day. There was an unusual quiet. The wind was down! I roused Ab and Frank. We made a quick breakfast, reloaded the boats and proceeded eagerly on our way after the long delay. We were not long under way when the wind rose again, but from the south and slightly offshore so that we were not hindered in our travel; but we did spend some anxious moments crossing some small bays along our course when the waves crested and splashed into the stern off my boat.
We paddled past poplars and spruce-covered land without misfortune all the way to the mouth of the Churchill River, the trip broken once when we met a party of Chipewyan Indians from some far northern trapping grounds, now on their way to Ile-a-la-Crosse. We shook hands all around, they smiled a great deal and uttered a few words of welcome in english and French. We parted and waved to them as the distances between us grew. At last we rounded a point of land and pointed the boats eastward. Almost at once the lake narrowed and we were drifting with the current into Shagwenaw Rapids, a mighty sweep of fast water over rocks buried deep in the high water. Frank piloted us confidently straight down the middle. We saw a group of white-painted buildings on the south bank along with many Indian tents. We were entering the trading post called Patuanak.
At a spot among some great grey willow thickets we made camp on a grassy flat. Ab and Frank left me to guard the outfit while they crossed the river in one boat to make last purchases. Patuanak was the last permanent human habitation which we were to encounter on our way to Cree Lake. Last items were purchased such as tanned moose hide and needles with three cutting edges so that we could make our own moccasins and mitts. Here we mailed last letters to the Outside. Patuanak was situated on a slope of the riverbank, denuded of every tree. A cluster of small buildings formed the Hudson's Bay Company post then managed by "Blooch" Belanger, a colourful and well known figure throughout the North. A Roman Catholic mission had been established there headed by Father Moraud, small in stature, bearded, and referred to as "Little Jesus" by those who would minimize his efforts in a difficult, lonely, and unrewarding parish. On this day the jumble of Indian tents buzzed with activity for most of the Chipewyans of the area were gathered here for the summer. From my lookout on the north bank I could see men, women, children, and dogs milling about. I saw one black-shawled squaw belabouring a dog with a large club while the most distressing howling could be heard along with a good deal of shouting from the children. All the sleigh dogs, now a nuisance to one and all, joined in the racket with their howling in sympathy for one of their number caught red-handed stealing food from a tent for they were all by nature the greatest of thieves. These were all typical sounds at an Indian summer meeting place, I was to learn.
We were happy enough to leave this rather depressing place and our swampy camping spot the next morning at dawn. The wind was calm all the way to the north end of Shagwenewa Lake where we re-entered the Churchill.
In this latitude we first noticed the great hard rock outcroppings that mark the southern rim of the Canadian Shield. Never before had I seen such massive rocks. Here is the storehouse of much of Canada's mineral wealth which then as now was largely undeveloped. In some areas the entire countryside seemed to be made up of continuous rock.
We were on the Churchill again and travelling with a strong current. Soon we heard the boom of Drum Rapid somewhere ahead. Frank piloted us in to shore at the head of the rapid where we unloaded some of the heavy goods to lighten the boats. Then we ran the rapid. Somehow I misjudged the channel. My boat passed through great white-maned waves which clubbed the boat from all sides. Luckily I made it to the bottom after taking a good deal of water aboard.
"You just about did not make it to Cree Lake," said Frank gravely.
After packing over the goods we had unloaded, we ran the Leaf Rapid, a long stretch of white water over which the river drops twenty-seven feet. Too far to portage, we ran her fully loaded-and with complete success. Here again Frank demonstrated himself a skillful riverman and pilot. Below this rapid there was the smell of fresh fish on the water and undoubtedly there was fantastic sports fishing here, had we taken the time to throw out our fishing lines. However, we were interested only in travelling and passed on down the river full of small eddies as the whole mass of moving water gathered its forces and, picking up the flow from the Deer (Mudjatik) River, plunged the entire accumulation into the Deer Rapids nearby.
Our entrance into the Deer River was not impressive. Leaving the mighty Churchill, we ascended a much smaller river whose waters were clear and of a light amber colour that we had not seen before. Our boats became stuck on a great sandbar at the river's mouth so that we had to wade the boats about until we found the main channel which was not more than knee deep. Unimpressive as it may appear the Deer River drains a tremendous acreage of pine covered terrain that reaches far to the north and whose headwaters almost meet those of the MacKenzie River that flows northward.
A copy Art Karras own map of the Mudjatik River route to his trapline at Cree Lake.
Thus began the ascent which was to last for twenty-two days. At the beginning Frank tied up his boat along shore near a stand of tall slim spruce where he cut and peeled three poles, about ten feet in length. Then we had to stand up in the stern of the boats and pole upstream, hard and steady work against the current every inch of the way. Much different from the downstream travelling we had done so far. We forced our way upstream with such effort that after each days travel we found the bottom of the poles had broomed out, so that they had to be trimmed off until the pole eventually became too short and had to be replaced. The southern half of the river is so crooked that continuous s-curves made it necessary to pole around bend after bend in the river. We came to places where we could see across a ridge and find a spot in the river which we had passed fifteen minutes before. Frank taught us to negotiate these loops by approaching the bend from the eddying side where the current was not strong, poling quickly across the current at the bend and approaching the next loop again from the eddying side and the whole process repeated countless times in a day.
We were now in sand country and frequently reminded of this fact by finding sand gritting between our teeth while eating our food. Careful as we might be the wind would whip a few grains of sand into the frying pan or any uncovered container around our campfires.
The poplars were fast disappearing and jack pine predominated with black spruce and scrub birch along the river's edge. Reindeer moss became more noticeable as a ground covering. We found many ideal camping grounds at which to set up our tents at evening where the moss-covered ground was free of underbrush, in country green, clean and unspoiled.
The weather held fine. Bright sunny days helped us in our work poling around endless bends of the river. Frequently, we bucked heavy winds so that our labours were doubled. The country was so green and so fresh that we were enchanted. When we suddenly entered fire-blackened country, we felt depressed until we reentered green country a few miles farther on.
We had poled, waded, or lined the boats up several rapids including Bear Rapid and Old Woman Rapid, and one still night we camped at a spot where we heard the roar of a distant cataract far to the east which Frank said was a rapid on Porter Creek.
At Grand Rapids we portaged everything including boats, and later repeated the process at Little Grand Rapids. We were in solid jack pine country now, parklike in mature stands where the trees stood further apart and were stunted in comparison to the jack pines at Rat Creek. The river flowed more gently, the sharp bends were no more and the riverbed ran straighter between jack pine-covered hills.
Day after day we poled on. We became lean and bronzed by the sun reflecting its light off the water. Arm and leg muscles became hard and strong. We reached the forks where the Gwillam (Ithingo) and Deer Rivers meet. Ole Jacobson's cabin (previously Halvor Ausland's trapping cabin from 1921 to 1925) stood there silent and deserted for Ole was still Outside on his summer vacation. We passed on and reached marshy open country where great blue herons rose in flight at our approach. Long grass waved with the current where it was anchored to the river bottom. The main river channel became vague. Frank took to his paddle and very often stood up scanning the distant riverbank. Eventually he found and pointed out a single black spruce trimmed of limbs except for a tuft left at the top, transformed into a lobstick and marking the channel. The swamp widened and we stowed the poles and took to the paddles. The river bottom was made up of several feet of decaying vegetation, which is called in the north by a common term that signifies loon excretment. Our poles had become discoloured, green, slimy, and stinking.
We passed through Sandy Lake and Little Sandy Lake, secluded and in solitude and a welcome change of scene from the monotony of the river. We entered a narrow waterway called Snag River for its thousands of fire killed-pines that had fallen into the stream. These had been axed out to let the river traffic through but we cut hundreds of new ones that had fallen since the last traveller had gone through.
Progress, of course, was painfully slow, Frank announced one morning that we were nearing Highland Portage but it was late afternoon when we made a landing at the place. Three miles overland would have put us on the shore of a small lake from which a navigable stream led northward, then joined with a larger watercourse that led to Cree Lake.
At the portage we pitched camp and rested. We cut each other's hair with the hand clippers-cut it all off. We bathed and washed our clothing. Before we turned in for the night and in the long twilight that blends into the dawn we made one trip across the first portage with heavy loads of traps about a mile to a small lake.
Early next morning the packing began in earnest. We carried over all the freight and dragged the heavy waterlogged boats across. Plodding loaded through soft pine sand, the sun scorching hot, the humidity high, the sandflies and mosquitoes attacking frenziedly at any exposed portion of our overheated bodies, we completed the first stage in one long day, crossed the small lake and got a start on the second stage, a short carry over a few hills into a second lake. After two more days of packing over some wicked topographical features, we camped at the edge of the final lake, exhausted, sore, but happy in the thought that our heavy labour had ended.
Near at hand, in a tiny emerald hued, cup shaped lake not twenty-five yards in diameter, we swam leisurely in the warm sunshine for a time to cool our aching muscled and lave our insect bites. The tiny lake was about twenty feet deep in the centred, the water so clear that we could see stones on the bottom at the deepest part. The water, we found, was too cold for prolonged bathing as are all lakes this far north.
Our boats loaded once more, Frank led us down to the lake and into a small creek where we paddled downstream, through swampy terrain until we emerged into Cree Lake's South Bay. At once I marvelled at the clearness of the water and the absence of plant growth along the lake bottom when we encountered the shallows. This was not a country for muskrats for there was little feed. The fact that we had not sighted a single big game animal on our entire voyage from Big River gave us some concern. Perhaps we would be starved out before next spring.
L-R - Roy Petch, Martin Brustad, Frank Fisher, and Art Karras at Cree Lake.
At Stony Narrows we discovered that Martin Brustad had arrived a few weeks earlier and was busy building a cabin of squared logs as a base for his trapping operations for the coming winter. We made his acquaintance, a reserved, slim Norwegian and a seasoned outdoorsman. We now parted company with Frank. He would follow the east shore of Cree Lake to his cabin on the American River. Ab and I would follow the west shore until we found a sizable river at the mouth of which we would build our cabin. We had no map of the lake, the only thing we could do was to follow the shore and search out a river.
We struck out northward of the narrows. For days we paddled in and out of great bays along the west shore, finding nothing that resembled a river. We were stormbound by gale-force winds from the east that kept us on shore for days on end. One day when the wind was down, we rounded an exposed rocky point. I threw out a fishing line. Immediately I felt a tug and thought I had snagged on a rock, but it turned out that I had hooked a lake trout that we estimated at ten pounds.
Coming out of a long bay, which we later named long bay, we turned abruptly around a high rocky promontory and there it was! We saw a long, clean, sandy beach dead ahead. From the centred of the beach flowed a big stream of clear water into Cree Lake. We entered the flow and found a mile-long lake at the far end of which a river entered.
Art and Ab Karras in their Canoe on Cree Lake.
A small rapid appeared on the river at this spot. We beached the boats and looked around. Jack pines large enough to build a cabin stood in abundance. We looked at each other and smiled. We had arrived home.