After spending ten days in Winnipeg with Bea and the family and attending to necessary chores at District Office, I tackled the western half of my district. From La Ronge, I flew a little more than one hundred miles northwest to Patuanak post. It was built on a long tree-clad bit of land formed by the Churchill River making a U-turn from the north end Of Ile-a-la-Crosse. It was given post status in 1921. The Roman Catholic Mission stood next to the post and the settlement buildings were scattered along the lakeshore. It was known as Patuanak to the Cree, named from the rapids on the river as it entered the lake. For some reason, the company maintained the name 'Pine River' for many years although the original Pine River outpost, which is now closed, had been located on the Churchill River about thirty miles east by canoe.
Jim Kirk, a young married Canadian who had served overseas in the Royal Canadian Air Force was in charge. Although the main revenue came from fur, the local natives also did a bit of commercial fishing and Jim was most confident that this part of the business could be greatly developed. We discussed it at great length and I promised him that I would look further into the matter.
From Patuanak, we flew seventy-five miles northwest to Portage la Loche. Built on the east side of Lac la Loche (or Methye Lake), the start of the mighty Churchill River system, it was only a few miles away from the historic seventeen-mile long Methye Portage, which crossed the height of land from Lac la Loche to the Clearwater River. Every year, the fur trade canoe brigades from Norway House met the brigades from the Athabasca and MacKenzie rivers. Incoming loads of trade goods were transferred one-way across the portage and outgoing bales of fur the other way. When the exchange was completed, there was the usual regale and after a week-long celebration, the voyageur's left on their return journey.
Composed mainly of Chipewyan and a few Cree, Portage la Loche had an imposing Roman Catholic mission, a hospital and a school which were both operated by the Sisters, and a Department of Natural Resources officer. John Blackhall, the post manager came from Peterhead in Scotland and was within a few years of retirement. Most of his life with the Company had been spent in Ungava in the Fort Chimo area. His post was run by the book and he insisted that everything be shipshape at all times. He was strict with his apprentice clerks but any young man who served under John Blackhall got a first-class training. Whether he knew it or not, John was referred to by his clerks as 'Mr. H.B.C.' His wife, Bertha, was part Eskimo, and a member of the Labrador Ford family. She had been parted from her own two daughters while they were still young, as John insisted that they are sent to his relatives in Scotland to be brought up and educated in civilization. Bertha sorely missed her girls and as a result, she tended to mother any apprentice clerks. Sometimes John 'harrumphed', complaining that it was not good for discipline but Bertha calmly went her way claiming that since she was denied the pleasure of rearing her daughters, it was her privilege to treat each clerk as her son.
And the young men loved it. Every clerk who served under John Blackhall has fond memories of Bertha.
Portage la Loche was a poor place--poverty-stricken and disease-ridden. For years the natives suffered every disease from tuberculosis to syphilis--the inevitable inheritance of the annual regale of the canoe brigades. Only Herculean efforts by the federal and provincial governments succeeded in overcoming these diseases and cleaning the place up. As the post never made much profit, it had been bandied back and forth between Athabasca and Saskatchewan districts. Post managers hated it and dreaded being posted there. It was the hell-hole of the fur trade where you were sent to vegetate until retirement.
John Blackhall might have been one of those managers but he refused to accept his fate. The secret of his eventual success was the lowly squirrel. From being 'squaw fur' worth a nickel or a dime, squirrels had increased in value over the past ten years to fifty cents and then to $1 or more per skin. And the spruce-covered country around the post was crawling with squirrels. Even though we shipped out anything from 35,000 to 50,000 per year, their numbers never seemed to diminish. John encouraged the natives to go after them and gave them small debts. Gradually, he regenerated their interest in trapping and they stayed away from the village, catching mink and foxes as well and soon Portage la Loche was on its way to becoming one of the most profitable posts in the district.
Instead of using .22 rifles to shoot the squirrels, the Indians used coils of cable steel snare wire--meant for trapping foxes and wolves. Each coil was made up of 20 or 24 strands of tightly twisted steel wire. They cut the coil into lengths, then painstakingly separated the strands and made them into small individual snares. Four to five snares were attached to poles about five feet long and two or three poles were propped against the bole of a spruce tree. The squirrels scampered up and down the tree trunks, especially on sunny days, and so fell victims to the strategically placed snares.
My next stop was Buffalo Narrows, some sixty miles south, built at the narrows between Peter Pond Lake and Churchill Lake. Our course took us over the La Loche River, which wound like a serpent for miles between Lac la Loche and Peter Pond Lake. Some dilapidated buildings, known as Bull's House, at the mouth of the river caught my attention. Latterly, oxen had been used instead of manpower to haul freight over the Methye Portage and as there was a plentiful supply of marsh hay nearby, the oxen were wintered in the buildings. Hence the name 'Bulls' House'.
Two-thirds down Peter Pond Lake, a narrows was formed by a peninsula jutting out from each side. The western peninsula was known as 'Old Fort Point' possibly because a fur trade post had been located there at one time. To the locals, Peter Pond Lake was known as Big Buffalo Lake and Little Buffalo Lake, while Churchill Lake was called Clear Lake. Buffalo Narrows was of comparatively recent origin and owed its existence to Waite Fisheries Ltd. of Big River, Saskatchewan. They made it the focal point of their commercial fishing operation in northwest Saskatchewan and in 1943 erected a modern fish filleting and freezing plant. Our store was established in 1942 by Tom Scurfield when he was a manager of the district because most of the natives at our former post at Clear Lake moved down to Buffalo to take part in the commercial fishing. The Clear Lake post was then closed down. In addition to the native population, there was a large contingent of Scandinavian fishermen who sold their catch to Waite Fisheries.
Besides our store there was a hotel run by a Chinese man, Der Tom; a telegraph office; nursing station and a Roman Catholic Mission and school. Our local opposition was an Armenian, Kelly Shatilla who also had the post office. W.D. (Doug) Johnson, our store manager, was a born salesman, keenly interested in merchandising.
'This man is too good to be left at this post for long,' I thought. 'He can handle a much bigger operation than Buffalo Narrows.'
Doug introduced me to all the local people including Bill McLean, the local telegraph operator.
Communication on the west side of the province was easy. A provincial government telegraph line ran from Meadow Lake north through Green Lake, Beauval, Ile-a-la-Crosse to Buffalo Narrows, with a fully qualified operator at each point. From Buffalo, a telephone line extended north along the east shore of Big Buffalo Lake and up the La Loche River to Portage la Loche. At Bull's House at the river mouth, an extension ran south down the west side of Big Buffalo Lake to our post at Dillon, so our post managers at Dillon or Portage la Loche could ring up the operator at Buffalo Narrows and transmit their messages by telegraph, a far cry from the isolated posts of my days in the 1930s.
Waite Fisheries was an extensive operation. They bought fish winter and summer, processed it at the local plant and shipped most of it as frozen fillets to the United States. During the summer their fish boat went around the fishing grounds on the various lakes and purchased the newly netted fish daily.
In the winter, when the fishermen set their nets under the ice, Bombardier snowmobiles were utilized to pick up the catch. As a by-product of the fishing operation, a most successful mink ranching business sprang up, using offal from the fish plant as mink food. Mr Waite himself had a large mink ranch, as did several of his employees and many of the white fishermen. By 1956, there were thirty-three mink ranches in the area with a combined total of 21,000 mink.
"Credit for the success of the ranches has to go to Mr. Halvor Ausland who owned a large ranch on Deep River, a few miles east of Buffalo Narrows. From the start, he became interested in genetics and did a lot of experimenting to produce new mink strains. He originated the 'palomino' strain, a light brown or dark orange colour. In fact, he made more money selling breeding trios, two females and one male, than he made in producing mink pelts. He was more than generous with advice and assistance to other embryo ranchers and was always quick to lend a hand when requested."
The company's fur sales department in Montreal took a deep interest in Buffalo Narrows and, once a year, after the season's litters were born, they sent Fred Mehmel of the Winnipeg Raw Fur Department up to do business with the ranchers. Based on pelt production, each rancher was offered an advance payment depending on the state of the current market. In return for a contract, the pelts would be consigned to the Hudson's Bay Company's Montreal auction and when they were sold, a final payment was mailed to the rancher--less the Company's handling commission. A supply of knockdown cardboard shipping cartons was supplied to the post and once pelting time was finished, the post manager was extremely busy filling out the forms, packing skins and forwarding them by air express to Montreal in time to catch the first sale, when prices were usually at their best.
Inevitably ranch mink escaped from their pens and interbred with wild mink. The result was a nightmare for the post managers. Trappers brought in skins of every hue and naturally expected to be paid at wild mink tariff price. It created a problem for the managers and my answer was to supply them with a ranch mink tariff which was lower than wild mink, with the injunction 'when in doubt, buy them as ranch mink and don't worry if you lose some of the crazier skins. Let the free trader buy those.' Jock Holliday, a fellow student at the Montreal Fur School spent some time one winter at Buffalo Narrows as a relief manager. When I met him, he just shook his head in bewilderment over the odd-coloured pelts. 'I thought I had seen everything,' he exclaimed, 'but those strange mink at Buffalo Narrows just drove me crazy.'
To return to the business of fishing, Doug Johnson didn't miss a trick. He had a scow fixed up as a store and, under the charge of a clerk, had it towed by the fish boat under the command of Big Louis Morin, all around Clear Lake to the various fishing grounds. In this way, we were able to supply the natives with their basic supplies on the spot. Special orders for dry goods or hardware were sent by letter to the post and the customer received the merchandise on the next fish boat run. In the winter, the old Clear Lake post was opened as a wintering outpost in charge of a clerk. The same routine applied except that the vehicle was a snowmobile. Since running the outpost was a trial run for clerks before being promoted to the charge of a post, I was surprised at the reluctance of promising clerks to accept the wintering assignment. It was only thirty miles away from Buffalo Narrows, was in direct communication by short-wave radio and the clerk could come down most weekends by snowmobile. My surprise ended when I visited the outpost that winter. The old post manager was being used as a combined store and dwelling but no maintenance had been done in years. Most of the plaster between the logs was loose or had already fallen out and the place was cold as charity. Whenever a storm blew in and that's just what it did, it blew right into the house! I didn't take my parka off the whole time I was there. The following spring, Rupertsland Trading Company designed and built a prefabricated combination store and house which was heated by an oil heater and from then on, I had no difficulty in getting clerks to accept the Clear Lake winter posting.
Dillon, on the west side of Big Buffalo Lake, was only a fifteen-mile hop by plane. Steve Preweda, a Winnipeg boy just back from frigate duty with the Royal Canadian Navy, was manager of his first post. His wife Aggie was the sister of Bill McLean, the telegrapher at Buffalo Narrows. Steve was a good, sound post manager who worked with the local Chipewyans extremely well.
Situated at the mouth of the Dillon River, the post was tiny with only the Company's building and a Roman Catholic Mission. Formerly known as Buffalo River, it was operated as a wintering outpost from Ile-a-la-Crosse since around 1888 and was raised to post status in 1916. The natives were predominately fishermen and not very good trappers. Fortunately, there were lots of squirrels in the area and we purchased a respectable number each year, although not nearly half as many as at Portage La Loche.
Hunters would only go away for two or three days at a time, being what we called "pot hunters". The average amount of debt given out at one time was $3.00 to $5.00; anyone who received $10.00 was a big man. The debt was just enough to give the hunters a couple of boxes of .22 shells, tea and tobacco. They didn't use snares, just shot the squirrels through the head with their .22s. Although I have said that the natives were a shabby lot, to visit Dillon on a midsummer evening, you would think they were the most carefree bunch in the world. Having sold their fresh fish to the daily fish boat and spread out their nets on the grass to dry, they sat around, happy as kings, feasting on canned sardines, tinned peaches and soda crackers.