Lost Land of the Caribou

Travel in the North

Trapper with dog team. Trapper with dog team.

During the winter travel in the North was always by dog team and toboggan, but from the time the ice went out in the spring until freeze-up in the fall, everyone used the waterways. A glance at a map of northern Saskatchewan will show you how that part of the province is laced and interlaced with lakes and rivers. Travel was often difficult because of long portages around rapids, but there were big lakes where sailing was possible too. In the days that I remember, every native had his canoe for there were no other means of summer transportation. All the Indians were good canoe men, skillful at hauling freight over difficult rivers broken by many rapids. Although we loved the life and were eager to return North every fall, my partner and I were always in a hurry to get out in the spring. As soon as the lake was free of ice, we would set out for Prince Albert. In those first years, we paddled our big eighteen-foot freighting canoe from Russell Lake to Big River, letting our dogs run until we came to a lake when we would load them into the canoe. Upriver from Russell Lake, our dogs scouting the woods along the edge, we came first to Highrock, a good-sized lake, very deep. That was our route for seven years and every spring we found ice on the lake, but it was moving ice and not strong enough to hold us. Sometimes we had to make portages at points on that lake, going a long way around. We were always glad to leave Highrock Lake because we knew we had then seen the last of ice until the fall. Portaging a canoe Seven weary portages lay ahead of us before we reached the Foster Lakes. There we would begin to meet native trappers, some from as far away as Wollaston Lake, on their way to Lac La Ronge. Some might have their families with them, or there could be several families camping together, fishing to vary their dried meat diet. As we went along, more and more men would begin to come into this main route from their various traplines - some from up the Churchill River, some from other northern Hudson's Bay Company posts. Then came the Foster River, the worst river I ever travelled on. It had many, many rapids that couldn't be run by canoe and it had dangerous falls. One of us had to walk ahead to check each rapid before we ventured into it because once in, a canoe was committed to the whole course. We counted nineteen portages on that river, some of them long ones. Finally, we came to the Churchill River, the main waterway of the country. There used to be a native village there that they called Fish River. Here a lot of natives would be waiting for friends and relatives to come in from their winter trapping grounds. When they were all together, they would canoe down the Churchill and on to Lac La Ronge.

My partner and I travelled the other way, up the Churchill. A day's travel would take us to a Hudson's Bay Company post called Souris River. We always left our dogs there to be chained for the summer. On our return trip north, we would stop there a week or two to lay in supplies and pick them up again. But we spent very little time in that post on our way south. We would hurry on our way up the Churchill River. It has a lot of rapids, too, but most of them can be run. I never made more than two portages on that part of the trip. The Churchill is mostly big lakes, and the chief trouble is knowing where the river leaves a lake. Too, we might be held up for a day or two by a headwind. Three days would bring us to Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake, where the headwaters of the Churchill are. It is a big river even there, fed by a lot of smaller streams. Poling a Canoe We had forty-five miles of Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake, pleasant sailing before we hit the Beaver River. By this time we would have plenty of companions as most of the white trappers were also heading for Prince Albert in the springtime. The Beaver River is nearly one hundred miles long, all upstream, very hard paddling for a canoe, and it has no lakes to give us a sailing break. Moreover, it contains several rapids. As time went on, we learned from the natives how to navigate rapids using slim poles, one man in front and one behind, each with a pole. Poles were difficult to make. They required a lot of planing and scraping with a piece of glass. Some of the natives, once they had prepared poles to their satisfaction, would paint them. Once we had mastered the art, we always carried poles in our canoe and considered them every bit as important as paddles. On the Beaver River, our poles would get stuck in the mud, and the canoe would have to stop until we could pull them out again.

Poling up rapids is, I think, the hardest work there is in the North. There is a place on the Foster River where a man has to pole all day long. When he has done that, he can't sleep at night for the pain in his arms. I have poled those rapids with many different men that I met on the river, and I always admired the way the natives handled their poles. Poling up rapids is tricky. Two men handle the canoe, one in the front end and one in the back. When the canoe approaches a rock where the frontman has to turn the canoe out into the current, the man behind must get the back end out promptly. If he doesn't do this, the current will swing the front into swift water and nobody can hold the canoe on course then. In very swift water the canoe must be kept close to shore with the back end furthest into the current.

Coming back to our trip south: We used to make a fifteen-hour day on the Beaver River coming south in the spring. That way we could get over it in two days. Another day's travel would take us the length of Cowan Lake. Then we docked at Big River, an old logging town which was at that time the end of steel. Big River would be full of trappers and fishermen who had already been to Prince Albert and were returning north, the fishermen to their cabins around the big lakes in the Buffalo Narrows country. We used to spend a couple of days every spring swapping yarns with these men before going on to Prince Albert.

In later years, I used to leave an outboard motor on the Churchill River and pick it up on my way out in the spring. Then, of course, I didn't have to paddle from there on to Big River. It was a five-horse outboard motor. With the help of a man using a pole in front of the canoe, we could get over rapids that weren't too big and rough. I was always cautious about running rapids. In particular, there was one on the Foster River that had a lot of rough water and big rocks and even a steep falls, and I liked to portage around that. However, one spring I was travelling with a native partner who had trapped with me all winter. He said I shouldn't worry about smashing up my canoe; He had never broken a canoe, he said, and he never portaged there. So I decided to run the rapids with him. We got through all right, too, although our canoe was half full of water when it was all over. With that man, I ran a good many rapids and never damaged my canoe. He was very adept.

Fred and I stuck with the Foster Lake-Churchill River route for several years, though from the first, natives had told us that the Cree lake route was much easier. We hated to leave all the friends we had made along that first route of ours - but finally, we decided to try the other way. Natives told us that north and east of Cree Lake there were only one four-mile portage and three shorter ones and only five on the Mudjatik River. Once we tried the Cree Lake route we adopted it for good.

Coming back in the fall, we tried to reach our trapping grounds by September 15. When we first came into the country, there were hundreds of canoes going north up the many rivers. One was Deer River, a very fast current that required the use of poles because it was too swift for paddles. Many times I have travelled the Deer River to Cree Lake. It was one of the better rivers with not many rapids or portages until you got quite close to Cree lake. Then there were three portages, one short and two nearly a mile long. Also, there was one really bad stretch of creek. It might take a man two days with a heavy load. Once I got to Cree Lake, though, there was a waterway to Stoney Rapids, Lake Athabasca and even the MacKenzie River. A man could travel any place in the North with canoes because there was so much water.

When we reached Cree Lake, my partner and I went up it about forty miles and then east. Our portage was four miles long. Then we had many portages and many rapids before we reached our destination, Russell Lake.

There is another river that comes from the North that I have never been up, but natives used to go a long way up it, and at one time a white man was trapping along it. It comes in on the Churchill at the end of Elbow Lake. That was a good trapping country. Another route that we used to take was to go down the Churchill River to a place we called Fish River and go up the Foster River into the Foster Lakes. There are other routes, too. Two rivers run out of Wollaston Lake that comes into Reindeer Lake fifty miles from the north end. They call that the Swan River route.

One winter - maybe it was 1928 - Fred didn't come with me. I took along a young native named Thomas Clarke in his place, and we had a load of freight destined for Highrock Lake. We had about eight hundred pounds of freight, but we had just come out from the North and had done a lot of paddling and portaging and poling in rapids, and so we were in excellent shape. That was a trip I like to remember. It didn't take us long. The days were long and we travelled nearly all the daylight hours. We were both in the prime of life and never seemed to tire. Thomas was good at portaging and poling and we poled all the rapids that could be poled. We took no time to get to Highrock Lake. Coming back down the Foster River, we ran all the rapids we could, and over the portages, one of us carried the canoe and the other the grub box, bedding and rifle. We reached the river, then followed the Churchill down to Lac La Ronge, running rapids as we went. I had never been to Lac La Ronge before, but Thomas had travelled that route all his life, likely having been born on one of the portages or Foster Lake.

Thomas's father had been in the Yukon during the gold rush days, and he had many tales to tell. He married a girl from Stanley and raised a large family that, like Thomas, trapped the Foster Lake country. At La Ronge, I stayed with some trappers that I knew, then made a trip to Stanley and there met some more old trappers and trader friends. Back at La Ronge, we got ready to go to the Fish and Foster Rivers. From Thomas, I learned many northern skills. The trapping, calling of moose and poling in rapids that I describe in these pages would hardly have been possible for me without his example. Freighting was big business in the North. When I came into the country, the York boats were a thing of the past, but I talked with men who had worked on them. Portaging Freight at the Rapids These York boats used to take fur from northern posts to the port of Churchill and bring back lumber and other supplies, so they were freighting both ways. These boats were handled by three men - one on a rudder and two on oars sitting side by side. They were equipped with sails for use when weather was favourable. It was hard work rowing. Added to that, sometimes some rapids could not be run. York boats did their portaging using rollers which would be left on the spot from year to year, only a few new ones needing to be made from time to time. When I came into the country in 1924, I saw some of these rollers that had been used forty years and more before that. The York boatmen used to send a young man to climb the biggest tree near the portage and limb all but the top branches (this was called a lobstick). That way it was possible to tell from a long distance where the portage had to be made. Some rapids could be navigated using poles and a long rope. Two men in the boat would use poles to keep it off the rock and hold it to the centre of the rapids. That required a long rope. Sometimes they had to unload part or all of their load when they came to a portage.

On a long portage the load was transported by the use of a tumpline. That was a two-inch strap that fitted a man's head, and two narrow straps about eight feet long sewed to the two-inch band were used to tie on a box or two fifty-pound sacks of flour. A man could be loaded up in this way. He usually held the strap with his two hands. I used this system of carrying my gear over portages for twenty-five years once I had watched the natives do it. Generally, the man that was packing the load would tie whatever he meant to carry in the strap and two men would load him up and two unload him and put his load into the boat again. A man could carry three or four hundred pounds in that manner. They were always in a hurry with the freight. Once unloaded, they would run back for another load, grinning as they ran. The Reindeer Lake men usually stayed together, but not too many boats would come at a time because that would mean too much waiting at the portages.

When the York boats would dock at the port of Churchill there were big warehouses where the fur was stored until the ocean-going ships came to take it to market. There was a lot of rivalry among the boatmen when they got together in their numbers there. Each crew would pick its best men and there would be fights until one emerged the victor. He, of course, was the best man and he represented the best crew. The man that held the belt for top man in these Churchill brawls was still alive when I came into the country. He lived on Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake near Beaver River. Actually, he was a small man but he must have been very quick.

Soon it would be time to load up the York boats for the return journey up the Churchill River. A crew would work all night to keep ahead of the others, for if two boats were unloading at the same portage, it was easy to get supplies mixed up. Many men were loading the boats and boats were leaving on the return journey every day. Most would be going to Ile-a-la-Crosse where one of the Hudson's Bay Company supply posts was situated. There some of the heavily-laden boats would leave their cargo. Others would travel to different outposts of the Company. York Boats Portaging There were many big lakes that York boats could navigate without the need of portaging, big lakes on whose shores outposts were situated. If the wind was against them, they would have to sit it out, but with a fair wind, they could sail. Less accessible outposts were reached by canoe. In the wintertime, men called camp traders took supplies in by dog trains. These traders freighted in supplies they knew trappers needed and brought out furs to a Hudson's Bay Company post. They would try to visit each trapper two or three times during the winter. All these trappers worked on credit, and the trader was supposed to collect part of the debt in this way. It was not an easy life for the camp traders. The trappers and their families - they were mostly native people - lived in tents and kept on the move all the time. After a big storm, it was hard for the trader to locate his trappers. Some trips were really tough, with dog feed running low, but a man who knew the way of life could always get by. These traders travelled by dog team all winter and by York boat all summer.

When I came into the country, the men who had led this life were all old, but I was told of seven who, as young men, came to Ile-a-la-Crosse by Red River cart from Winnipeg. They were boat builders. Only two of these original seven were left in 1924, but they had all married and raised big families in the Ile-a-la-Crosse area. Most people there today bear their names.

They ate a lot of dried meat and pemmican on those long-ago trips. It was buffalo meat that they brought in on Red River carts. If the natives travelling to Churchill on the York boats couldn't get fish or meat enroute they would eat dried meat and pemmican. They never used flour or sweets, but they did use berries in season. All of the summer freighters that came into the Churchill River from the North had their own dried meat and pemmican made from caribou meat.

The day of the York boats ended with the laying of steel to Big River, Then it was cheaper for the Hudson's Bay Company to get its freight from the railroad since there was a good waterway from Big River to the Churchill. Scows would be built in Big River, usually eight feet wide and forty feet long. One scow could carry twenty, thirty or forty tons of freight, depending on the stage of the water. Scow on Beaver River About five of them would leave Big River together. It was usually fishermen who took the scows because they had their own gear to transport as well as freight for the Hudson's Bay Company. First, they had to go down the forty-five mile length of Cowan Lake. At the mouth of Cowan River was a dam put in by the Big River Logging Company. Word was always sent to natives at Green Lake as to when they would reach the dam and how many men they needed there. There were a great many moose on Cowan Lake. The Green Lake men would borrow a canoe from one of the fishermen, find a spot where the moose came down each night to drink (for they always came to the same place), and there they would lie in wait. By killing a moose they would have fresh meat on the trip downriver. They would cut it thin and lay it on the racks in dense smoke. With all the men helping, it didn't take long to get a supply of smoked meat for the trip. Of course, smoked meat keeps longer than fresh meat. They would open the dam that night (the same dam that gave so little water to Fred and me when we first came into the country), and by morning the water would have a good start ahead of them. If the scows caught up to the water, they would have to wait before they could navigate the rapids. In low water, men had to get into the river and pry the scow off the rocks with poles. That was all right in warm weather, but when ice is forming it is a different story - and generally, the water is low toward fall. Many times the men had to make a fire along the shore to get warm again after a period in that cold water. With good water, though, a scow could get through the Cowan in a day. It doesn't take long at all with canoes. Then came the Beaver River with more water and bigger rapids. It was easier going then. Then the scows reached the foot of Grand Rapids. That was where the Green Lake men left for home again to wait for the next scows to take downriver.

From the foot of Grand Rapids, scows can go for two hundred miles without getting into any more rapids, so they travelled with small crews then. In fact, one man might take two scows from there with one engine. Though five men usually travelled with five scows, they would tie two together and so get by with three engines. It was all downstream to Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake.

A lot of freight was brought into the North this way during the summer. On the big lakes, they did a lot of night travelling and unloaded supplies at different Hudson's Bay Company posts. As soon as the fishermen had the scows unloaded, they would sell them. Whoever bought them would tear them apart and use the lumber for floors and roofs of log cabins.

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"Date Modified: May 6, 2024."

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