Project Canterbury

The Far and Furry North

By the Rev. A.C. Garrioch

Manitoba: no publisher, 1925.

Chapter 2. The Journey Northward

It was nearing the end of July when Mr. Findlay and Mr. Thomson left for the interior along with a brigade of three boats in charge of Mr. George Stait, a senior clerk of the service, who after a year's furlough in Scotland was returning to the Athabasca district.

The boats used on this voyage were of the regular style and size of Hudson's Bay boat used all through the country, and were known as York boats. Its carrying capacity was five tons, and it called for a crew of from eight to ten men, which included the steersman or guide who was perched above the sternsheets, and the bowsman who pulled the oar next the bow. The boats on this voyage had full cargoes of provisions and other merchandise.

Besides the three gentlemen mentioned, a missionary of the Church Missionary Society, Mr. Charles Snow, was taking passage to the MacKenzie River district. He was one of the first missionaries to engage in evangelistic work in those distant regions in connection with the Anglican Church.

It may be stated to the everlasting credit of the Hudson's Bay Company, that it was closely associated with the introduction of Protestant missionary work in Rupert's Land, having paid wholly or in part the salary of the first missionary, Rev. John West, who came out under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society in 1820, and held the position of chaplain to the Hudson's Bay Company, as did also at least two other missionaries who succeeded him, viz., Rev. David Jones, who reached Rupert's Land in 1823, and Rev. Wm. Cochrane, who came out in 1825. And as late as the period of which we write, the Company continued to give missionaries free passage on their boats, including a place at the officers' mess if it could be conveniently arranged.

Thomas Link was guide for the brigade, and as such it was according to custom that he and Mr. Stait should occupy the same boat; for the head officer and head steersman or guide were regarded by the Company as conjointly responsible for the safety of the boats and contents, and it was desirable that they should be together for purposes of consultation.

The sun had been shining for about two hours over the future site of Winnipeg, when the Hudson's Bay officers stationed at Fort Garry passed through the east gate, accompanying the travellers to the boats moored along the bank of the Assiniboine a few yards from its junction with the Red.

On the occasion of a brigade setting out for the North the dominant feeling could not be otherwise than one of sadness, for some were leaving behind them parents or wife and children, and others their sweethearts; and the separations were sometimes for months or years, and, possibly for life. Then the road was long and rough. Among uncertainties was the food supply, and among things inevitable, cold and loneliness. These voyageurs were noisy enough once they got under way, and as usual mixed in gaiety and laughter with their toils; but they had the intuitive grace to keep rather quiet until the last kisses had been given and the general handshaking was over. Then they took their places at the oars and bravely shouted, "Good-bye! Good-bye!" while those on land as bravely shouted, "Bon voyage 1 Bon voyage!" The flow of the Assiniboine, aided with a few strokes of the oars, soon brought the boats amidstream in the Red River; and then both wind and current being favourable, oars were set aside, sails were made ready, and at the word "Hoist!" they were raised full height and full stretch in just twelve seconds. Then a calm and restful expression came over the faces of all as they settled into place, and congratulated each other on the pleasant beginning of their long voyage.

The bowsman in Mr. Stait's boat was Mr. George Kidd, son of a St. Andrew's settler. Young Kidd received the practical education which was given in the parish schools of the Red River Settlement, and left the one at St. Andrew's with the highest honours it was capable of bestowing upon him--the reputation of being a good and lively boy and as clever as the best of them. He was tall, well built and strong; in fact, so strong that boating was easy work for him, and being fond, like many others in his day, of roughing it in the open, he had made one or two long voyages in the Company's boats by way of a pleasurable outing. The Findlays and Kidds were near neighbours, and Wm. Findlay of this story and George Kidd had grown to be great friends. It was partly due to this friendship that the two young men were now sailing northward on the same boat. Kidd had entered into a five years' contract with the Company, stipulating that he was to be given the opportunity, subject to the approval of the District Officer, of qualifying under Mr. Findlay for a more important position than that of bowsman.

The Company cheerfully entered into this agreement, knowing from experience that anyone who was naturally and otherwise so endowed that he could help to keep their employees cheerful and contented, was a valuable acquisition to their service. This Mr. Kidd was fitted to be both by nature and by art, for he was witty and of a fun-loving nature. He was also musical, had a fine tenor voice, knew many songs and could handle a violin with any man in the Settlement. He was offered the position of cook for the officers, and readily accepted it, all parties knowing full well that officers' privileges could easily be tacked on to the position, making it a connecting link between Le Bourgeois and the rank and file.

As the boats approached St. John's Collegiate School, Mr. Findlay referred to it as the starting point and centre of missionary and educational work in the country, and Mr. Stait remarked that it looked as if Bishop Anderson and his assistant, Rev. Thomas Cochrane, with their easy-going methods, were turning out as good men as those who graduated under the stricter discipline of Rev. John McCallum. "I believe you are right," said Mr. Findlay. "The career of a good many promising birch trees was perhaps needlessly cut short to enable Mr. McCallum to carry out his disciplinary methods, yet, strange to say, I have never met an old boy who was feeling sore over the recollection of castigations received; so, after all, perhaps the birch wasn't wasted."

He then spoke to Kidd, asking him, "What is that story, George, that you have about the Bishop and the church caretaker?"

"This is the story, and it is perfectly true: Our church-keeper is a good old man who likes to give honour to whom honour is due, and being informed that it was customary to say 'My Lord' to a Bishop, he held himself in readiness; but when the good Bishop appeared at the church door the old gentleman got rattled and gave him rather more honour than he was entitled to, saying, 'Good Lord, my morning.'"

"Now, George, tell us about the trip you took with his Lordship, when you were his dog-driver."

"Bishop Anderson," said Kidd, "is a very good man, but as innocent as a child, and any fellow who is at all cute can pull the wool over his eyes. When I was assistant to his Lordship by taking him out on a missionary journey with my dog-team, I felt rather awkward at first; but I broke myself in to the proper style of address by mentally addressing an imaginary Bishop over and over again a great many times. Then there was another difficulty. My train consisted of only three dogs, and I felt that four dogs at least would be needed to haul a Bishop, so I was forced to buy another, and the man from whom I bought it was a fearful swearer. He was honest, however, and said to me, 'There ain't no better dog in the whole Settlement than Tooroo, but he won't suit on this trip because of the bad way I have trained him.'

"Now, although swearing is not among my failings, after a few moments' reflection I decided to buy that dog. I did so, and changed its name to Dan, which was as near a cuss word as I dared go, and whenever it shirked and I yelled out 'Dan you!' you should just have seen it stretch out! Thus did I fool Tooroo without hurting his Lordship's feelings."

As the boats sailed along, other points of interest were pointed out, chiefly for the benefit of Mr. Snow; also several anecdotes were told of one or another of the settlers whose places were being passed. Of one it was told that on a certain occasion he was giving his friends a feast, and after grace had been said, thus addressed them: "Now then, gentlemen, let me give you the advice St. Paul gave to his son Timothy--'Take a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities.' "

For the convenience of some of the voyageurs, it had been arranged that the brigade would stop for a short time at St. Andrew's Church. The buildings here consisted of a fine stone church, a large parsonage and a school-house, and as the travellers climbed the bank and viewed the buildings standing on the green sward and nestling cosily against a background of aspen trees, the call of the northern wilds was for a time hushed to silence.

Archdeacon Abraham Cowley was the clergyman in charge, and he met and invited them to the rectory. The stop there was just long enough to give the men time to make tea for dinner, which was to be taken sailing; and also to give others of them an opportunity to take leave of their friends. When the tea had been made, the Venerable Archdeacon and his visitors were noticed coming from the rectory, and all exchanges of a business, social or sentimental character were at once cut short by an order from Link, shouted in Cree--"Ahao, poosi! poosi!" the equivalent to the English "All aboard!" At that shout, every one did poosi or get aboard, except Mr. Findlay, who had arranged with Mr. Stait to leave the brigade at this point, and to rejoin it at night or in the morning, at a camping place agreed upon, near the Parish Church of St. Peter's. He had had his horse sent to this point, so as to enable him to spend some hours with his mother and sisters, and to finish off with a visit to the Blains.

That afternoon Mr. Findlay met many of the neighbours at his mother's place, and they, as well as people whom he met on the road and at the Stone Fort, generally speaking, remarked, "Sorry you are going away; we shall miss you." And he as generally answered that he also was sorry over the parting and that he would miss them.

While this was going on, Mr. and Mrs. Blain were approaching the aforenamed Fort in a buggy, and reached there a few minutes after the brigade had put in to "boil the kettle." The expression "boil the kettle" is a colloquialism used all through this country to denote the boiling of water for the purpose of making tea--that greatest beverage on earth for cheering and warming cold and weary travellers.

This chance meeting with the Elains suited Mr. Thomson very well, as it afforded the opportunity of bidding them farewell without the necessity of visiting them at their home. And they, likely knowing full well why he should prefer it so, accepted his apologies and did not unduly press the invitation that both he and Mr. Findlay should spend the evening with them. In expressing his regrets at being unable to comply, Mr. Thomson said, "I thank you both most sincerely for your kind expressions, and, believe me, my life in the 'Great Lone Land' will be made a good deal happier because of my being able to look back to many happy hours spent in your happy home; but this time, our mutual friend, Will Findlay, while acting for himself, will no doubt serve as a proxy for me."

Mr. Snow having been informed on the way down that Mr. Blain had been for some years in charge of a Hudson's Bay post in the remote North, and that he was therefore well acquainted with the Eskimo and Tukudh tribes, he availed himself of this opportunity to obtain Mr. Blain's views as to the prospects of their evangelization, and was glad to hear him say that they were both of a teachable spirit, and that he considered the Tukudh especially, the most intelligent and teachable tribe in the whole North country.

Mr. and Mrs. Blain had not been home many minutes when Mr. Findlay arrived on the expected visit, and received the usual all-round hearty welcome, especially from Mary, the youngest sister, who perhaps divined what would be pleasing to her eldest sister. Mary and the servant girl had that afternoon picked a gallon of strawberries, and on the strength of such a feat she made bold to say to Mr. Findlay in the Irish brogue which she often affected, "You shtay here me bhoy, it's meself that's goin' to give ya a faste of strawberries an' crame, agin ya are lost an' is found any more." Mrs. Blain, whose motherly heart enabled her to twig the hint in Mary's invitation, followed it up promptly with a pressing invitation to Mr. Findlay to stay for the night. This invitation he felt constrained to decline with thanks, as he did not care to risk delaying the brigade in the morning, and he had made arrangements with a young man to take him to camp that night with horse and buggy.

Mr. Findlay, being only just a man, it is quite possible the recollection of that feast of the unsurpassable delicacy, strawberries and cream, had something to do ever afterwards with the readiness of his thoughts to revert to the happy hours spent in the congenial society of these good friends; and if anything more was wanting it was supplied by Mr. Blain, who, after the feast was over, came out with the acceptable remark, and a very common one indeed in those days--"Now then, for a good smoke."

The proposed good smoke was enjoyed in front of the house, whither Mr. Findlay followed his host. Sitting there on rustic chairs placed on the self-planted lawn of knot-grass, they lit their pipes and conversed about life in the North.

They were quite agreed that ennui was the bane of existence in an isolated out-post, and Mr. Findlay asked his friend what he had found to be the most successful way of combating the demon when he was in the North.

"When I came out to this country and learned that Kuskeyihten--which, I suppose, is the Cree equivalent for ennui or 'thinking long'--was one of the evils to be guarded against in an out-post, it started me thinking wisely. And I was wisely warned by experienced men in the service to guard against the serious menace to the health of both mind and body which is bound to assail the Hudson's Bay officer during the long intervals of too little to do which occur in a lone out-post, and of which the result may be that the man called Ookimao--master--by the Indians, may fail to be master of himself. I have heard you say that in entering the Company's service you were treading in your father's footsteps. Keep on! The example of such men as your late father, Mr. Donald McTavish, Mr. Alexander Christie and others, can be safely followed.

"As for the methods adopted by me for overcoming that fiend, Kuskeyihten, I may say that I always spent the twenty-four hours systematically, seeking to exercise myself aright in religious, mental and physical duties. Then I had two fads which helped me out very considerably. These were sketching and mathematics, in one or other of which I could become so completely absorbed that, barring temperature, it would not have mattered much to me had I been leaning against the north pole or sitting astride the equator."

Just then Mrs. Blain appeared on the scene and was informed by her husband that he had been telling Mr. Findlay of how he had been saved from Kuskeyihten when in the North, by making a fad of the solution of mathematical problems. She replied, "Well Archie, we'll take your word for it, but you did not spend much time in solving mathematical problems after I came out there. Did you?" To this he replied, "Well, you see, my dear, from that time onward you kept me busy solving domestic problems." Thereupon she made a pretence of giving her lord a slap, which he smilingly received with open hand.

Just then the sound of the piano was heard, and Mrs. Blain informed Mr. Findlay that the girls had planned to sing some of his favourite songs to cheer him on the way. On entering the sitting-room they found the entire household assembled there, including the hired man and the servant girl. Everyone joined heartily in the choruses of the songs which were sung, and last of all, at Mrs. Blain's suggestion, they sang:

"O God of Bethel by whose hand
Thy people still are fed."

By the time this hymn had been sung, night was coming on, and through the open window there entered the sweet smell of wild roses mingled with that of sweet peas and the night-blooming stock.

Amid all this sweetness, it came natural to Mr. Findlay to give his arm to Nellie Blain, saying he would like her to pick him two or three of those sweet peas to take with him to the North as a souvenir of this last visit. As the pair moved towards the door Mary said, "Shur-r-re Nellie. Swate William and swate peas will go well together." Then William and Nellie moved out into the gloaming, and got in the garden what they wanted--each other all to themselves. As the bouquet was being made, bats flew overhead in their erratic fashion, and the fire-flies lit their lamps, and then a bird perched itself on the fence and cried out again, "Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!"

Much to their credit, it can be said that the remembrance of the duplex character of the love-making in which they had recently been engaged, made them shun protestations of love on the present occasion. Nevertheless, each knowing what the other knew, and feeling what the other felt, what happened in the garden was much the same as if they "plighted their troth either to other, and declared the same by the giving and receiving of a ring." Indeed, so firmly did they believe that their destiny was to be man and wife some day, that they intuitively joined hands and indulged in a kiss--only one, and their first at that--and considering that, as far as they knew, it would be five years before they would get a chance for another, their self-restraint was remarkable and greatly to be commended. After arranging to write to each other by every packet, which at that time meant four times in a year, they re-entered the house arm in arm, as they had left it, and immediately good-byes were said and Mr. Findlay took his departure.

The next morning at dawn the wind, which had subsided during the night, commenced to blow afresh, and Link, finding that it was still south, kindled a large fire and then shouted aloud, "Reveillez! Vent derriere!--Wake up! It's a fair wind!" Immediately a dozen men, each with a small copper kettle or frying-pan, were hurrying to make tea or fry bacon, while as many more were striking tents and rolling up bedding; and just twelve minutes after the guide had shouted out the order to rise, everything had been bundled into the boats, and while the now uncovered kettles were sending up their steaming columns, and the fragrant bacon was scenting the morning air, the voyageurs sat down to breakfast, congratulating themselves that wind and current were still combined in carrying them on their way.

Early in the forenoon the brigade put in at Willow Island, where tea was made and bacon fried, if possible, even more expeditiously than in the morning. By this time the wind was very strong, and before striking out into the open in the direction of Horse Island, which is forty miles from the mouth of the Saskatchewan, Link consulted Mr. Stait and also got the opinions of the other steersmen, and of Mr. Findlay and Mr. Kidd, both of whom had several times sailed across the lake in boats carrying full cargo as in the present instance. No one spoke lightly of the undertaking, and no one said that it was actually dangerous; but all agreed that it was a splendid wind and so the bows were pointed in the direction of Horse Island. Then, for the next six hours, whether or not the situation was serious, everyone acted as though it was, particularly when a wave would break against the low-lying gunwales and splash into the boat, freely sprinkling the faces of the travellers. Mr. Snow and Mr. Thomson both thought that the waves on Lake Winnipeg were higher than those on the Atlantic, which impression they may have received from the fact that the waves of the latter were safely passed, whereas they were still in medias res in regard to the former.

After what seemed to be hours without end the wind at length began to abate, and it did so more rapidly than it had risen. Then Mr. Kidd remarked that it was about time somebody laughed, and he set them an example.

Before sunset the wind had so subsided that the crews had to take to the oars. They pulled with might and main; but even so the light was beginning to fail when they caught the first glimpse of Horse Island still some miles away. As the heavens had become overcast with clouds, Link very soon had to bring into use a sort of supernatural sixth sense with which some of these ancient Hudson's Bay mariners seemed to be gifted. Without land-mark or sky-mark he steered on to where he would go. Whether he went straight or not, who can say? At any rate, he got there, and enabled the others to do so also, by setting birch bark ablaze immediately he had landed.

When the travellers were gathered before the camp-fire Link was asked how he had managed to make port in the complete darkness. He declared that he could not explain, except that he kept on saying to himself, " 'It's right there, right there, right there.' And sure enough, you see, it was."

"It was quite a nautical achievement," remarked Mr. Thomson. "Or was it a catical one?"

"Yes, it was decidedly lynxical," added Mr. Kidd.

On this night Mr. Snow commenced a custom to which he faithfully adhered to the end of his life. The custom was that when travelling with a brigade, he invited the Protestants, or as many as would come, to join him in or at his tent in a short religious service with expository remarks, and a few collects from the Book of Common Prayer.

On this occasion all were present, including a few Roman Catholics. Probably they all felt that having made the long stretch together in safety, it was only fitting that together they should make acknowledgment of thankfulness to their Strong Deliverer. After such a day as they had experienced, there was a beautiful fitness in the words of the hymn, "Abide With Me." Take for instance, the line, "Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies"; and in the selection of the 107th psalm, in which reference is made to the men who go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters, and see the wonders of the Lord. In his exposition Mr. Snow said, "We are making life's voyage together. We are making for the same port, and although darkness sometimes comes over us and we become storm-tossed pilgrims of the night, only let us believe that He is still near, 'Who plants His footsteps on the sea and rides upon the storm.' And He will stand by us until the morning breaks and the shadows flee away."

It took all of the next two days to reach Grand Rapids and to transport boats and cargoes to the head of the rapids. At this post there was a rather tedious wait of some days for the brigade from York Factory, during which interval the officer in charge, Mr. Barlow, extended hospitality to the three officers from the Settlement and also to Mr. Snow and Mr. Kidd.

The inevitable delay at this point Mr. Snow turned to good account by studying the Cree language and daily visiting at a camp in the vicinity. On these visits he was usually accompanied by George Kidd, who, besides acting as interpreter, gave him much valuable information about the characteristics of the Indians.

One day at the officers' mess Mr. Kidd caused some amusement by referring to himself as a prospective Chief Factor, although at present he was only chief factotum, being assistant missionary, cook, waiter, bowsman and fiddler.

Mr. Snow here had his first opportunity of studying some of the advantages to the Indians of books printed in the syllabic character. This system was first used for the benefit of the Crees farther east. It may be described as a system in which the smallest unit is not a letter or part of a syllable, but usually the entire syllable. For instance, in writing the Cree word peeh-too-ke (come in), nine characters are used; but in the syllabic only four would be required, that is, two for the first, which calls for the aspirate, and one each for the others. Fortunately, the Cree, and the northern languages and dialects, with the single exception of the Tukudh, have but few distinct sounds, and on that account lend themselves readily to the use of the syllabic system.

The day preceding the arrival of the York brigade was a Sunday, and Mr. Snow held both morning and evening services, using the large hall of the Company's establishment for that purpose. As the congregations were made up of English-speaking people and Crees, the service was rendered partly in the one language and partly in the other. Mr. Kidd acted as interpreter at the morning service and Mr. Findlay at the evening service.

Mr. Snow's evening address was on the parable of the prodigal son. Mr. Findlay read the story from an English Bible; but so perfect was he in the Cree, that no one knew it except Mr. Snow, whose Bible he was using. Mr. Snow was, like Mr. Findlay, a man of commanding stature, and like him, too, in being full of sympathy for others. When, therefore, two such men stood side by side and spoke on the greatest theme of earth or heaven, as it is presented in the inimitable parable of the prodigal son, they made a deep impression on their hearers, and long afterwards some of them were heard to declare that never before or since had they seen or heard anything so fine as when they looked on the young fur-trader and young missionary, and heard them deliver together their message of "oosakihiwewin Nioohtawinan," the love of our Father.

Project Canterbury