In the years after the 1914-18 war, and during the depression of the 'dirty thirties' there was an influx of white trappers into the North. These men, generally were only interested in making a stake for themselves; they trapped out an area and then moved on to find new grounds. The beaver is an easy animal to trap and the white men killed them methodically, going so far as destroying their dams and breaking down lodges, which was strictly against the law. Indians, on the other hand, are natural conservationists. When they go out to their traplines, they know how much debt they owe the Company and approximately how many skins it will take to pay this debt. After they have taken a sufficient quantity of fur to pay off their debt and purchase fresh supplies, they ease up on the trapping. They know that it is in their own interest to leave enough stock for breeding purposes so that their particular trapping grounds will continue to produce in years to come.
In those depression years, however, incensed by the white man's depletion of the beaver stock, they too continued to take beaver. Year by year, the beaver declined until the species was in danger of extinction. Then, most of the provinces, including Saskatchewan passed regulations forbidding the taking of beaver. By 1952, this far-sighted action was beginning to bear fruit. Natives reported more and more beaver colonies in their trapping grounds. There was even talk of over-population in some areas. The Department of Natural Resources, with the assistance of local natives, made detailed survey of the North by dogteam and by airplane, marking on large-scale maps the exact location of each beaver lodge. In the spring of 1952, a limited open season was declared on beaver with each native being given a quota of skins, depending on the number of lodges in his trapping grounds.
It was a hectic spring for me. Half of my post managers had never even seen a beaver, never mind buying one. So right after open water I was busy going from one post to another giving instructions. I asked each manager to produce the beaver he had bought to date and to grade them for me.
'You don't have to go through all that,' one bright fellow said. 'I can easily tell you how much I paid for them by checking the books.'
'Never mind the books. Just grade the beaver. Take all the time you need and give me a call when you're ready.' I went over each pile with the manager and either told him they were properly graded or showed him where he had made a mistake. Many of the skins were of first grade and I passed them easily. Most errors were in the sizing of the pelts. A well-stretched skin is practically oval and is measured by adding the length to the width to get the size according to the tariff. But if the pelt was not properly stretched, several inches have to be deducted to compensate. I showed them how to look for hidden damage inside of the skin: telltale marks which would indicate that the beaver had been scratched or bitten in a fight. On the whole, the men did a fair job and all the beaver sold at a good profit to the Company.
When I visited Stanley before break-up, Len Coates told me that the old chief, Nehemiah Charles, (photo below right) wanted to see me, and why. The Anglican Bishop from Prince Albert was due to visit Stanley that summer and the Chief was worried because the church was badly in need of painting. The old man spoke good English and I tried to put him at his ease. 'I understand that the Bishop will be visiting Stanley this summer,' I said. He nodded. 'And you are worried about your church?'
'Yes,' he replied, and went on with a long story about how much it would cost for the paint and how he didn't think he would be able to raise the money from the local band in time to get the paint job finished before the Bishop arrived.
'If you get the paint, Chief, would you be able to get enough men to do the work?' I asked.
'Oh yes, the men are willing to do the work but we don't have enough money for the paint,' said the Chief anxiously. Nehemiah Charles was not only chief of his band but also a lay preacher and a visit from the Anglican Bishop was an important occasion to him.
'Chief, Mr Coates has very kindly suggested that the Company provide the paint. Would you like that?' The old man was overjoyed and Len looked at me in surprise. He had suggested non such thing. The three of us discussed the quantity needed and I wired for it to be sent in by the first plane. That spring, even though there was a Saskatchewan Government trading store in opposition to us at Stanley, we brought more than 90 percent of the beaver turned in.
Being the farthest north, Southend and Brochet were the last posts to be visited. Although the main lake was still icebound, there was enough open water at each end where rivers flowed in and out to allow the plane to land on floats in front of the post. We were just finished dinner at Brochet when there was a knock at the door. It was the non-commissioned officer from the Signals Station.
'Sorry to interrupt your dinner but the control station at La Ronge wants to talk rather urgently to your pilot.' Rene Baudais left and we had finished our meal by the time he returned.
'We have a problem. La Ronge reports they have a very sick fisherman at Wollaston Lake and they want to know if I can evacuate him.'
'That's no problem, Rene. What is it -- about sixty miles northwest of here? We can leave now and pick him up.'
'The difficulty is that there's only a small piece of open water about a mile from the fish plant and they aren't sure that it's large enough for a plane to land and take off.'
'Oh, I see,' I said. 'And it's getting dark already.'
Rene looked out of the window. 'It's too late tonight. I wouldn't be able to check the landing conditions.' He sat down again and sipped his coffee thoughtfully. 'Here's what I would like to do, Hugh. We'll take out all our baggage and I'll leave you here. I'll take just enough gas on board to fly to Wollaston Lake and back. Then I'll pick you up, fill the tanks and we'll fly direct to La Ronge.'He grabbed a pencil and paper and did some figuring. 'They've promised to haul the man over the ice to the open water at first light. I'll have a good look when I get there and then decide whether I can set the plane down or not.'
And that's how it was done. On our way to La Ronge, I asked Rene how it had gone. 'Well, coming in wasn't too bad but taking off was a bit dicey. There wasn't much room so I just gunned the motor and prayed!
When our plane landed at the float-plane base at La Ronge, Mrs Spooner, the local nurse, was waiting and diagnosed acute appendicitis. The scheduled Anson which I was taking was due in from Uranium City so we loaded the patient in a van and, very carefully, drove out to the airport. The patient and I were the only passengers in the Anson and en route south, I checked on him periodically. With no one to talk to, I started to doze. The change of pitch in the engines woke me. I glanced over at the sick man and jumped up. He was turning blue and his breathing was difficult.
'Lack of oxygen,' exclaimed the pilot, Stu Miller. We descended quickly and hedge-hopped the rest of the way to Prince Albert where an ambulance was waiting. But being a hardy northerner, he survived the operation and in time, returned to Wollaston Lake. I never saw him again nor do I know his name but somewhere in northern Saskatchewan there is a fisherman who owes his life to the skill and bravery of Rene Baudais.
The work of a district manager was arduous and constant. As I flew over the broad expanses of the northern lakes or along the Churchill River, I envied the district managers of old who visited each post once a year, either by canoe in the summer or by dogsled, wrapped warmly and seated in a cariole, in the winter. They had two or three day's travel between each post with time to relax. By airplane, an hour or two at most was all that I had between leaving the problems of one post and encountering new ones at the next.
You have to be hardy to live in the North, but there are compensations. I still have fond memories of evenings spent fishing with Bill Garbutt at Brochet for the red-fleshed trout at the mouth of the Cochrane River; casting off the rocks at Nut Point at Lac La Ronge for trout in the spring with Bill McKinnie; and deep trolling for lake trout at Hunter's Bay in the summer. Pickerel fishing at the mouth of the Dillon River was always excellent.
I had promised myself that one day I would bring a shotgun for hunting in the fall. Bill McKinnie had a tent pitched on a fly-through between Potato Lakes about eight miles south of La Ronge. By arrangement, Rene Baudais would drop me in there on a Saturday evening and pick me up the following morning. Bill had a canoe ready and a spare shotgun for me so that I could enjoy the evening flight of the birds and the morning return flight at the crack of dawn. Boy, could he handle a shotgun! Paddling at the stern of the canoe, he'd drop his paddle, take up his gun and hit a rising mallard before I had time to get my gun lined up.
I made several enjoyable boat trips from Ile-a-la-Crosse to Beauval in the fall of the year, jump-shooting mallards as they rose from the reeds in the bays of the river. Bob Middleton and I spent many evenings duck shooting in the bays of Big Buffalo Lake.
In the wintertime, there were our music sessions. Rene Baudais was a skillful banjo player and, after a while, took his instrument with him as a matter of course. At Pelican Narrows, Andy McKinley played the fiddle; his wife Nora played the balalaika; and Father Chouinard, the local Roman Catholic priest, occasionally joined us with his clarinet. And there was Bill McKinnie -- a born musician, in addition to his skills as a hunter and fisherman. He could play anything from a piano to a zither. His local girl assistant played a mean accordion and Pete Pederson, the sub-Indian agent, joined in on the melodeon, so there were many musical evenings in La Ronge.
Bob Middleton at Buffalo Narrows was an expert violinist and we were often joined by Bill McLean, the telegraph operator, on his fiddle and by the local teacher with her accordion. Bob was very proud of his instrument. I took it out to Winnipeg to be checked over and have a new bridge, sounding post and strings installed.
'Could you have it appraised too, while your at it?' he asked.
Some weeks later, I brought it back. As he checked it over, he asked what the appraiser had said. 'It's a good violin, Bob, and worth a fair amount of money,' I told him, giving him the evaluation slip. 'But it's the bow that is valuable, not the violin.' With surprise and delight, he read the appraiser's report which stated that his bow was made by one of the famous Hill family of London, England, and was a collectors item.
We had a regular weekly bridge club at Ile-a-la-Crosse which included several Fathers from the Roman Catholic Mission. The priests were good bridge players and I enjoyed many bouts at the card table with them. The same situation prevailed at Portage La Loche and several times I was invited over to the Mission to make up a fourth.
With the exception of Montreal Lake, La Ronge and Stanley where the natives were all Anglican, the rest of my posts were predominately Roman Catholic and I made a point of getting to know the individual priests. I have nothing but the greatest admiration for these men who gave up the comforts of the civilized world and made it their life's work to carry their religion to the natives.
Father Engolf came from Germany, paddled up to Brochet in 1905 and there he stayed all his active life. He remained in the settlement on his retirement -- a small, grey-haired old man sitting in his rocking chair by the stove. He died in 1957 and is buried there.
Father Darveau, now the priest in charge, first came to Brochet in 1946 and on July 6, 1986 celebrated his 49th year there. A gruff-voiced man with a booming laugh, Father Darveau was a French-Canadian who kept himself aloof from the store. I found it difficult to get on friendly terms until the summer he was having difficulty with the mission tractor. The radiator kept leaking and when I sent over a tin of sealant, he thawed out and we became quite friendly.
Father Waddel, in charge of Southend in 1948, was a dear old man. Like most Irishmen, he loved a good story and always had a twinkle in his eye. I visited with him for an evening and it was obvious he was lonely.
'How would you like to visit the Fathers at Brochet?' I asked him one evening.
'Ah, that would be splendid, lad, but you know that I am just a poor priest. I cannot afford a plane trip -- not even to Brochet.'
'Well, Father, if you don't mind flying towards the heavens with a Scottish Presbyterian, you can come along with me to Brochet and I'll bring you back in a couple of days. You be ready tomorrow morning at nine o'clock.' Father Waddel was a big man -- quite stout and it was with the greatest difficulty that we got him hoisted into the back seat of the plane. He enjoyed his visit and during the next few years, until he retired, I was able to take him up to Brochet several times.
His replacement, Father Turcotte, was a completely different type. Where Father Waddel had been jovial, Father Turcotte was solemn and reticent and kept very much to himself. When I was cleaning up the mess left by Tommy Cockburn, I wanted to hire a local woman to scrub out the store and living quarters and asked the local chief about it. 'Oh, you must go to Father Turcotte about that.'
The priest was abrupt. 'Not one woman. There must be two,' he stated. 'I will send them to you.' No explanation -- just a flat statement.
The next morning two of the local ladies showed up and scrubbed for hours but they were never out of each other's sight. Side by side, on hands and knees, they scrubbed and polished floors, filled identical cartons with rubbish and washed windows. It was obvious that they had been warned by Father Turcotte to stay together at all times. For whose protection, I wondered? They certainly weren't in any danger from me but they had their orders and were obeying them. I chuckled quietly as I watched these two very stout women struggling to get into the two-hole biffy to scrub it out.
Father Fleury and Father Remy were the priests at Ile-a-la-Crosse who loved to play bridge. Both from France, they were jolly and full of fun, except when the bridge game was in progress. When Father Remy was transferred to another diocese, (Norway House, Manitoba) he spent some time in Winnipeg. He visited our home frequently and kept the kids enthralled with his tales of army life in North Africa where he had served his compulsory military service.
Father Ducharme had been in charge of Portage La Loche for years and he ruled his flock with a rod of iron. Women had to wear long dresses -- usually black or some sombre colour -- down to their ankles; black headshawls and black worsted stockings. Wearing slacks was absolutely forbidden. It was like stepping back fifty years into the past. I never met him but stories about the man abounded. When he retired about 1950 and Father Bourbonnais from Ile-a-la-Crosse took his place, all the old taboos were swept away. Steve Preweda, then post manager, was kept busy ordering modern, colourful clothing for which the women clamoured. Although still strict with his parishioners in religious matters, in the words of Steve Preweda, he was 'fair and just; occasionally hard-hearted. During my two years at La Loche I found that he was a true friend. If we had any problems he was only too glad to help us out.'
There was two other priests at La Loche -- Father Broggolio who looked after the operation of the buildings and Father Mathieu who was the missionary and made trips to Turnor Lake and all the small settlements in the area.
Father Clement was in charge at Dillon during the summer months along with brother John. They spent the winters at Buffalo Narrows and I didn't see much of them.
Father Moraud spent most of his priesthood at Patuanak. He was looked upon with awe and respect by the natives because, as a young man, he went alone by canoe from Patuanak to Pine River. It was his first visit there and either his ignorance of the country or his extreme good fortune, Father Moraud succeeded in running the Drum Rapids on the Churchill River. At certain times of the year not even the most skilled natives would attempt to run Drum Rapids. They always portaged around them. By my time in the area, the good father was quite an old man with a long flowing beard but he still went into the bush every day with his axe and bucksaw to cut firewood for the winter. It was said that he bathed every morning of the year at the bottom of the Patuanak Rapids where the water never froze. A hardy man indeed!
In northern Saskatchewan Nurse Josephine (Josie) Walz was fast becoming a legendary figure. The daughter of a Saskatchewan farmer, she was a trained public nurse and had dedicated herself to working among the native people of the area. She was not employed by the government but was sponsored by the Association of Commercial Travellers in the continuing fight against tuberculosis. Year in and year out, she travelled the north testing for this disease. Always on the trail, she made her way by plane, boat, truck or dogteam and, when necessary, on snowshoes. She was welcomed wherever she went and especially by the Hudson's Bay Company post managers who were bachelors. She darned and mended for them, cooked special meals and before she left, she always baked up a batch of goodies: cakes, pies and cookies. Always quiet and unassuming, Josie Walz was the first to deny that there was anything spectacular about her work. She was 'just doing a job', she claimed. But she holds a place in many northerners hearts.