Project Canterbury

Pioneer Work in Algoma

By Eda Green

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1915.

Chapter VI. Through the Snow.

WHAT is the actual work required of Algoma missionaries in winter and summer, among Red men and White?

To begin with the former, for the last forty years the Rev. Canon Frost has worked among the Indians and interpreted their speech to others till his mind seems to see things almost from an Indian point of view. His little book, bound in imitation of birch-bark, and called 'Sketches of Indian Life,' is full of little vignette word-pictures which throw much light on the subject. In these stories he tells not only what the wigwam and the log-hut are, but how you get to them.

In one chapter, called 'The Stormy Sunday,' he describes how the wind sometimes blows as if it would blow itself away; there seems a fierce conflict in the air, and a sound as if the elements were trying to rend everything in pieces.

A missionary generally has several different stations to serve at a distance from each other, so he must needs do a great deal of Sunday travelling whether it is fine or not; but Canon Frost gives an account of one Sunday in his early days which stands out from the rest.

For several days the storm had raged without ceasing, but on the Sunday morning it seemed to have somewhat abated, and he started from the Indian village where he lived, and where he had held the first service of the day. He wanted to cross a long low hill to a band of Indians who lived on a Reserve on the other side of it. On the top of the hill there was a level plain where the forest had been burnt off so clean and short that it seemed like open prairie-land; there was no shelter there, but you could see before you as you cannot in the forest. As he left his home, an old Indian who was shovelling away the snow from the door of his hut called out to him a warning, 'You can't do it,' but Canon Frost thought he could do it because he ought. The love of those Indian souls constrained him and made him hopeful.

He reached the hill without any special difficulty; there were deep snow-drifts in places, but his pony got him safely through them. There was one place which in autumn was a sort of sticky swamp of clay and dead leaves, specially to be dreaded, and which now was equally conspicuous by its drifts. In the course of the morning the missionary reached a small farm-house, where he left his horse and put on his snow-shoes, for he knew there were worse drifts to come, through which no horse could p'unge. At last he was more than half-way there, and only a mile or so off the descent of the hill. Without his horse he was not obliged to keep to the road, but could make straight on wherever the snow was least difficult. Still it was slow work; for the snow was ever falling, and the wind blew it confusingly in his face. The cold of the stinging blast was intense, and yet he had to take off some of his heavy clothing, as it was simply impossible to carry the weight of it against the wind.

At length he reached the Reserve. Here the road ran through the woods and was more sheltered, so the drifts were less, and in due time he arrived at the cabin where the service was to be held. It was so late and so stormy that the Indians had ceased to expect him. However, there were enough huts close by for a good congregation to assemble when his black figure was seen against the universal whiteness. Tired as he was, his experience in that journey had made him all the more able to join heartily in the hymns of thanksgiving, to which the howling storm made a wild accompaniment, and to feel the service a very solemn one, and well worth coming for.

The Indians were very grateful. The old men, Mukkadabin and Sahquabinans, were very much distressed about his journey through the snow, and the woman at whose house the service had been held, whilst making him eat the much-needed dinner she had got ready, sent for her son that he might go back with Canon Frost as far as the farm where he had left his horse.

The storm was still raging when they left the hut, and although on the Reserve they were somewhat sheltered from it, it was fearful on the bare table-land at the top of the hill. However, they reached the farm in safety, and having seen his charge so far, the Indian went home, leaving the missionary with the old couple and a son who lived with them, to wait till the tempest abated.

The old mother was sitting reading her Bible. Canon Frost read to them the lessons for the day, and they joined in evensong. Then came supper, after which they looked out at the weather again. It had ceased snowing and the moon shone brightly, although the wind was so strong that it whirled the drifts about like smoke and made it hard at times to distinguish anything.

It was quite too late now to get back for the evening service near his home, and to venture out was dangerous; so the fanner and his wife begged their guest to stay the night. He knew, however, that his wife would be anxious about him, and he decided to try and get home by moonlight though it was very heavy work. At last, on the lonely plain, he thought he saw an Indian coming towards him, and the horse seemed to see him too, and shied out of the way. But when he turned to ask the man what was the state of the road ahead there was nobody there.

Probably it was some effect of snow dazzle, for nothing could have been hidden on those white plains; but the Indians tell many stories of such queer sights, and though the Canon was not afraid of ghosts, the strangeness of the thing made the storm and loneliness seem more dreadful.

As he went on the drifts got larger, and the way was altogether worse than when he came. Then he saw, and heard, a sleigh and horses coming towards him and this time was thankful to find it was not fancy. In the deep snow it took a very long time to pass each other; but after that, Canon Frost, for a little while, had the advantage of the other's track, though it took only about a quarter of an hour for the wind to cover it up again.

At last, near midnight, he reached the settlement. 'You never got there,' said the Indian who had warned him, appearing round a corner, 'I did.' 'You never got there with the pony.' 'I did not, but I got there, and that is the chief thing.' The Indians had gone to bed and he was glad to follow their example, and he felt that after such a Sunday he should take a calm one as a blessing to be thankful for all the rest of his life.

Such is a specimen of an Algoma missionary's work on land; but there are other experiences when he has to go across the ice to visit his flock.

Once it happened that Canon Frost had to cross the ice to visit an Indian village on the banks of a large river a long way from home. He had travelled safely across a stretch of many miles of ice when he reached a station of the Hudson Bay Company, where the traders entertained him hospitably and set him on the right way.

The road now led through bush, then over an inland lake, then through a rocky region, another lake, another plain, till at last he reached the river where his Indians dwelt. He had never been there before, but they were not all strangers, for some of the people had come to him in his own village to be taught and baptised, and when he reached his journey's end he was cheered to find that one of their number, having learnt the glad tidings himself, had carried them on, and that five others had been brought by him to wish for Holy Baptism.

In the small cabins of that riverside village the missionary met, talked, and prayed with these children of the wilderness and felt it a joy to worship the true God with them and to minister to their spiritual needs. As the short winter day was ending he bade them goodbye. They pressed him to stay, but he had promised the people at the Hudson Bay post to give them a service; the wife of the manager was an invalid and could not take a long journey to get to church. This was her only chance of service till some clergyman had time to come again, and that might not be for long, the station being far out of the way.

Crossing the small lake and some hills, he came to the large lake as night was closing in and a storm threatening. He lost his bearings and travelled in a circle. The wind increased to a gale, and at last he had to dismount and feel step by step whether the snow beneath that now falling was hard or soft--it took hours, but in this way he was able to find the traces of his own morning track. Once in the woods, the way was not so difficult to find, but it was lonesome and eerie. The lake-ice in frosty weather cracks with explosions like artillery, and the noises at night in the woods sound most unearthly and are quite inexplicable.

On one occasion, when Canon Frost had crossed fifty miles of ice and was far from home, the ice broke and his horse fell through. He managed to get it out; but it was so chilled and strained that it was never of any use again, and its owner had to do his work on foot till such time as he could afford to buy another steed--no easy matter out of a missionary's stipend.

On the two journeys described above there was more than enough wind, but another time Bishop Fauquier and Canon Frost would have been thankful for half a gale. The Bishop was crossing to the Manitoulin Island to spend Sunday at one of the Indian Missions. A sailing-boat was to carry them the last ten miles; suddenly, only two miles from shore, the wind dropped. Across the bay they could see the Indians assemble, go into church and come out again after service. Again, in the afternoon, they gathered, hoping the Bishop would be there and wondering at his delay. The boat was too far off for them to see that he was waiting the whole day in vain in the little vessel they watched riding becalmed on the water.

In these days of steamers and gasolene launches there is no fear of being becalmed; but a steamer may break down, or get stuck in the mud, or for some reason may not put in at a particular port where bishop or clergy are waiting for her; and however important the engagement across the water may be, there is nothing to be done but to wait on. Trains once in twenty-four hours, with the possibility of a 'wash out' where the line is carried away, or a collapsed bridge, and boats which may be the day before yesterday's, do not help to the keeping of appointments. Still, these delays are accidental, and the trains, and even more the boats, are far superior to ours. The lake steamers, fresh and clean in their light paint, with dainty single or two-berth cabins, and meals well served, spoil one for the ways of English Channel boats.

Not only in getting to the Indians have the clergy in Algoma to face hardships. The snow is just as whirling, the drifts just as deep, the ice just as rotten, yes, and the mud in the thaw just as sticky, when White men have to be reached. Constantly have the missionaries to dig their horses out of drifts, to move fallen trees off the road, to cross ranges of hills in a drive of twenty or thirty miles through dark forests dripping overhead with melting snow; to work themselves on a hand-car down a railway track, to 'board' a moving train as it passes one of their stations where it is not timed to stop, or to take that most tiring of all exercises, a long walk along the line. Yet year in, year out, the work goes on, and you hear the folk in isolated settlements tell, with a ring of true gratitude in their voice, that they can always count on their parson coming, for no weather makes him fail them.

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