North to Cree Lake

Nora Darbyshire


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

As early as 1933, Fred had bought a house in the village of Big River. Some years it was rented, other years it stood vacant; Fred's brother, Howard, lived in it for a time. Fred used to spend the short summer season in the village, and he became well known among all the village folk and the people from the surrounding farms and homesteads. He owned an automobile, which he stored in a small garage beside the house when he was in the North, and he used to drive regularly to Kelvington, Saskatchewan, a small town where he had relatives. Fred and Nora Darbyshire. In those days the homesteaders of northern Saskatchewan were having problems. They lived off the land as much as possible, eating berries, game and fish. Of course, the prevailing fish and game laws could not always be observed. The two-game wardens at Big River could not enforce all the regulations and, although aware of what was going on, they often closed their eyes to what, in those days, was necessary to stay alive. Ernie Over, a local game guardian, was once called out to check a complaint that a homesteader was fishing for pickerel out of season. This complaint, of course, had to be investigated and reported on. After a rough, jolting ride with a team and buggy, Over arrived at a remote log cabin and proceeded to put the required questions to the suspect. This homesteader stoutly denied that he had ever fished out of season, or that he had any fish in his possession. The questioning went on at length. Then Over checked his list, gave the farm a cursory inspection, and reported to his supervisor that the complaint was unfounded.

A routine check, completed and filed; but what Over had not reported was that, during the questioning, the homesteader's wee son had been tugging at his father's pant leg and saying over and over, in a shrill, piping voice, "Daddy, daddy, lots of 'pickle' in the box!"

The children of the first homesteaders were taught self-reliance at an early age. There was little pampering and each did his share of the work. Automation was in its infancy, there was real labour in clearing land, cutting wood and toting water. The girls worked alongside the boys.

Nora Lueken was the daughter of a Big River homesteader. (Photo above with her husband, Fred Darbyshire and his sleigh dogs, Reindeer Lake 1945.) She was about twenty years younger than Fred Darbyshire, and it is certain that he had seen her around Big River from time to time when she was growing up. When he met her in 1938, she was a striking, honey-blonde Scandinavian beauty. Fred began courting her that summer.

Fred and Nora were married in 1940. By this time, Fred had decided that he would have to live in civilization. In partnership with his brother Edgar, he bought a sawmill near Flin Flon, Manitoba. Fred and Nora spent the next five years there, Fred doing his stint among whining saws, clouds of sawdust and piles of lumber. He worked at logging and at towing booms to Beaver (Amisk) Lake, where the sawmill was located.

But, married or not, the trapline was always beckoning him, and Fred could not rest. Especially in the fall, when the leaves turned and the geese flew overhead, heading south, it was about all that he could stand. He remembered the fat bull moose and the fur animals getting prime, and here he was working long hours every day, and for small rewards, since the mill was having a rough time financially. Fred left the sawmill in the summer of 1945. When I asked him to explain, he said simply, "I resigned at the first opportunity."

So, the late summer of 1945 finds Nora and Fred on the canoe route from Beaver Lake to his former trapping grounds. Fred's diary begins again after five years. He mentions only how far they have come each day and of course, what the weather is like.

Nora told me of her reactions during this trip; "Everything was new to me. As we drew farther and farther away from civilization and from people, I got to wondering if I would be able to take it all. Also, I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about canoeing in the rapids or travelling on the winter trail. Would I be able to be of any help to Fred, or would I be a millstone around his neck? The rapids looked dangerous, but Fred seemed to run through them as though he could have done it with his eyes shut. I grew to respect his judgment, and of course, he did not let me down. As we travelled farther and farther north, I was taken with the clear water everywhere, the fine autumn colours of the woods. It was a beautiful season of the year and I enjoyed the trip."

The canoe trip from Beaver Lake to Close Lake, the end of the trail, is no picnic. The route leads up the Churchill River to the Reindeer River, then up the Reindeer to the great expanse of Reindeer Lake, with its great bays and uncounted islands, Fred was well acquainted with this route, having travelled it several times with Ed Theriau, both in summer and in winter. He easily found the channel to Swan River, which enters Reindeer Lake just west of Bedford Island, and his way up the Swan and over portages into Compulsion Bay at the south end of Wollaston Lake.

Now Fred and Nora made a large half-circle across the south end of Wollaston Lake and took the Geikie River to its junction with the Poorfish River, and the Poorfish up to Poorfish Lake. From here they were on Fred's well-established canoe route, Close Lake. This trip, end to end by canoe was close to 300 miles long.

Nora's initiation was over. She had already proved herself an asset. At the overnight camps, she showed it was nothing new for her to gather wood, fetch water and cook. She was strong and active and willing to learn. On the portages, she had done as well as some men Fred had known. She had done her stint with the paddle when necessary and was quickly learning the art of canoeing.

Fred always a stickler for a tidy camp, set out to build a new cabin. His old one, last seen in 1940, was untenable now, the roof had fallen in. He built a snug new cabin to serve as home base.

When the trapping season began, Fred was anxious to be off on his long trips. Nora did not go with him on all of these trips, and she felt loneliness more and more as the winter set in, the days short with little sunshine. She passed the days knitting, reading, going for walks, cooking and cleaning and doing other camp chores. The living in the bush she could abide, but the loneliness bothered her. Fred always indicated the day he would return to the cabin and, of course, she waited eagerly and anxiously.

One night he failed to return on schedule. Just before dark she walked out on the ice of the lake and looked to the north the direction of his departure a week earlier. Dog Team. The lake had only a few dots here and there, resting caribou. Fred did not arrive that night. The next afternoon Nora was back on the ice. There was only one dot out there today, a single caribou she thought. She looked again, and the dot changed shape, grew nearer and then resolved itself into six tiny dots in a row. She recognized the distant specks as the four dogs, the toboggan and Fred trotting behind, becoming visible as they veered to one side to skirt a bed of slush. After this experience she did not worry, reasoning that, with Fred's knowledge and abilities, he would always return, even if some days, overdue.

One day in midwinter, Ed Theriau paid Fred and Nora an overnight visit, the only one they received that winter. Ranging through the country to the north of Close Lake, Ed had crossed a fresh toboggan track, recognized it as Fred's, and followed it to the cabin. Nora's reaction was similar to that of most northern dwellers; after several months without seeing anyone but her husband, she felt, at first, self-conscious and ill at ease. But, by the time Ed left next morning, the feeling had vanished, and she realized she had enjoyed his visit, for Ed is an interesting talker, out-going and entertaining. To Nora, Ed was something of a paradox, since he obviously enjoyed human company, yet chose to lead a solitary life. The fact that he might well see no one in an entire, long northern winter seemed to bother the man, not at all.

That spring, when the weather moderated, she travelled with Fred again. There were fine days spent in the warm sun and snug nights in their tent, it was a good life. But waiting for spring breakup was something of a trial, it seemed the ice would never leave the lakes. And such had been her loneliness that winter, that Nora chose to stay with her family in Big River through the winter of 1946-47.

A few days after Fred's arrival in the North in the fall of 1946 he writes in his diary: "I miss Nora so much. The creek is good and high but the damned flies are as bad as ever." Another entry says, "I am very lonely." It was during this winter, waiting for Ed to return with his mail, including letters from Nora, that Fred noted, "Ed didn't arrive from Cree Lake. He has had enough time to have gone to New York!"

"Being away from Fred was worse than being isolated in the North," Nora has said. In 1947 she was back with Fred at Close Lake. "I was on the trail a lot after that," Nora told me. "I did not like to be left alone." She became efficient with the dog team and it is said in the North that she could drive dogs with all the authority of a seasoned dog driver.

That winter too, she had her "baptism" as a dog driver. Driving the dogs across a lake, with Fred following behind, she suddenly broke through the ice and fell right up to her neck in the water. Fred rushed to the toboggan to untie a trailing rope and throw one end to her. But when he got the rope undone and turned to Nora, she was already out of the hole and crouching on the ice. "She bawled me out for not helping her out of the hole," Fred recalls. "Anyway, she was pretty wet and you could not blame her very much."

I asked Nora what she found most disagreeable while she was in the North. Her reply: "tramping in six or eight inches of snow on thin ice."

Another day on the trail, they came upon a wolf pack; Fred grabbed his rifle and followed the retreating wolves. He was gone for half an hour, leaving Nora alone with the dogs. "She was not too well pleased with me," Fred told me.

One winter Nora made pets of five caribou that wintered close to their camp. She saw that the dogs were tied up when the Tame Caribou. caribou were around, and they stayed close to the cabin for some weeks. She apparently used great care and patience with the caribou, for they are very rarely tamed, perhaps because very few people have ever tried. She has one snapshot of a caribou bull, taken late in the season when his antlers had been cast off. The picture was taken through the cabin window when the bull was standing just a step or two away from the glass. The house in Big River became a valued asset. In summer, Fred and Nora were in town, and Nora lived close to her many friends and relatives. From year to year, Fred indicates in his diaries that they are spending some time repairing or painting the house. The car stored there was another summertime asset: the diaries indicate that they did considerable travelling in central Saskatchewan at this season. On a trip to Greenwater Lake, at that time an obscure and undeveloped summer resort, Fred has recorded in these words: "We went to Greenwater Lake, there was a large crowd there, too many for comfort.

In the fall of 1955, there is no mention of Nora in the diary at all. Fred is busy as usual. Then there are two entries that indicate that something unusual has happened. One day's record is: "Received the news by plane." And a few days later, "Received the rest of the news on March 13th." A short while later, Fred has flown out to Prince Albert, where Nora is in hospital, having just given birth to twin boys. They were named Leonard after Nora's brother and Howard, after Fred's.

That fall, Fred returned to the North alone. Back on Close Lake, his comments take on a new tone. On October 31, 1956, He writes: "The silence is complete tonight. I have the place all to myself. Gad, it's lonely." He is in a lethargy and depressed, sometimes he is too uninterested to hunt.

The fact is Fred is struggling with himself. Responsible now for Nora and the two boys, he has concluded that he will have to give up the trapline next year and go into a more regular line of work, mink ranching. Fred is not elated at the prospect. He has already looked over some mink ranches at Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake (whereby this time Ed Theriau has been raising mink for some years) and found them rather squalid layouts, stinking of rotten fish and mink manure, drawing places for swarms of flies every summer. To give up the free trapping life for that seems a gruesome future for Fred. However, it appears that he has no other choice.

In fact, the commitment to mink ranching to which Fred was forced in 1957 turned out not to be a permanent exile from the life he loved. By 1961, he is back in the bush for the spring trapping season, and he trapped off and on, (and more on than off) ever since.

It was, however, the end of the trapline for Nora. When the mink ranch was finally established near Ed Theriau's, Nora did her share along with the family chores, and Fred has indicated that she was active in the Fur Breeders' Association at Ile-a-la-Crosse in the days when mink ranches were numerous around the lakes.

How does she look back on those long, hard seasons in the bush? "After I had spent all those winters in the North, it had really got me and I was hooked on it, I guess. It was pure adventure. I have no regrets at all." - this from notes Nora sent to me.


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"Date Modified: 2019, October 18."


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