I haven't trapped around Russell Lake for more than twenty-five years. I quit the life to go mink ranching soon after I got married and now I'm too old for it. Even my partner, who has kept at it until he is close to eighty, will finally have to give it up. Unless, like some, you want to die by yourself in a lonely cabin up North and be found next spring by the Mounties or a couple of roving natives, you have to come out and stay out at last. I know, though, that the happiest years I ever had were the twenty-five I spent in the bush of northern Saskatchewan, tramping over my traplines in the snow with my dogs and camping out wherever night found me. Every young man ought to try that life. It's the best there is.
Well now I sit and think how it was and talk over old times with the few men left who remember. When any of us old trappers, fishermen or freighters from the North meet in Prince Albert, as we do now and again, we empty a case of beer and the hotel room fills with tobacco smoke while we swap yarns about what used to be. Maybe you would like to hear about those days too. I can tell you lots of things I remember.
I was just a youngster when I first drifted North. It was back in 1924 when I was still trying to settle on my life's work. My father was CNR section foreman in Sturgis, Saskatchewan -- the first there when steel was laid in 1912. I grew up in Sturgis and worked with him on the section for a time. But of all the things my father taught me, I liked trapping the best.
In those early years we used to trap muskrat and beaver along the Assiniboine River which runs through Sturgis. I tried harvest work on local farms, too, pitching bundles in the hot August days. I worked in lumber camps. But always I came back to the joys of trapping. It was the freedom of the life, I think, that appealed to me. With my cousin Fred Darbyshire, I trapped in the Peepaw Hills of the Porcupine Reserve around Usherville and Endeavour. As we followed our traplines, we would startle an occasional deer or moose, and sometimes a brown bear would wander that far south. It was a life that delighted both of us.
In the fall of 1924, we headed for Big River, Saskatchewan, which was then a little lumbering village that seemed to us the outpost of civilization. Beyond it lay a vast territory that was unmapped except in the minds of migratory Chipewyan and Cree -- an unknown wilderness teeming with fur.
There were white men in the far North of Saskatchewan long before the turn of the century, of course -- explorers, missionaries, Hudson's Bay Company men, who delivered supplies to the scattered trappers (both native and white) and took in fur from them every spring. We were by no means the first white men to come there; but when we came, the land was still uncharted.
We named for ourselves many rivers and lakes choosing the names sometimes for people we had known or something that happened to us there. Later, these got other official names when maps were made. For our first trip, we depended on the advice of people who lived in Big River (photo right) and had been farther north. Most of all, we observed the natives and learned from them. Our experience led us to many difficulties, but we were lucky too. Not only did we survive our first winter - we lost our hearts to the North Country and could never stay away from it again with any peace of mind.
Without the native people I doubt if we could have made it through that first winter. No one ever stumbled hungry into a Chipewyan camp and left before his belly was full. No one ever asked advice about camping, fishing or trapping without getting generous help. They were fine people, those migratory Chipewyans, following the caribou as their ancestors had done for countless generations, crossing and crisscrossing the territory between Cree and Wollaston Lakes. I have known them often, coming on my trapline in their travels, to hang furs up out of reach of marauding animals where I would eventually find them safely suspended from trees. All of us left any kind of valuable gear lying about in the North until it was convenient to pick it up again. Everyone respected the other man's property. We trappers red or white, were a brotherhood then, before civilization caught up with us and southern hunting parties, flown in from another sort of world, began to vandalize and ransack.