Project Canterbury

The Far and Furry North

By the Rev. A.C. Garrioch

Manitoba: no publisher, 1925.

Chapter 3. Grand Rapids to Methy Portage

The brigade which arrived at Grand Rapids consisted of twelve boats. Among the officers on board who were returning to their respective districts, after having attended the annual meeting of the council, were the three district managers, Chief Factor Daniel Ormond, of Ile a la Crosse; Chief Factor Oliver Churchill, of Fort Chipewyan, Athabasca District; and Chief Factor Walter Bayard, of Fort Simpson, MacKenzie River District.

The Hudson's Bay Company was at this time introducing improved methods of transportation for supplying the aforenamed districts, as well as those of the prairie country of the south. The outfits for these districts were now being brought in via St. Paul, U.S.A., being forwarded from that point by Red River carts, which sometimes came through to Fort Garry or made connection with steamers which plied up and down the Red River. Promptly following the importation of supplies over the new route, the Company commenced using steamers on the northern water stretches. It showed wise foresight in thus promptly adapting itself to the requirements of civilization which was advancing from the east and south. No doubt the strain of importing supplies via Hudson's Bay had become too great. Long enough already had men carried two hundred pounds on their backs, over portages, and waded in water, dragging and lifting York boats over rocks and through shallows. Such things had to be at that time for the general good; but now it was different, so these men took to the dry land and the Company took to steamboats and it was better for both.

It was on the second day after the arrival of the boats from York Factory that the united brigades, now numbering fifteen boats, resumed the voyage. To the satisfaction of those concerned, it was arranged that there was to be no change in the personnel of the passengers in Mr. Stait's boat until arriving at Fort Chipewyan. Mr. Stait probably well expressed the sentiments of the others when he said that they had "hit it off" so well together that there seemed no occasion for making a change any sooner. When Mr. Findlay playfully asked his friend Kidd how the arrangement suited him, he replied, "I am glad to find that there is to be no change. It must be quite perceptible that since joining this company my manners have improved, and should I ever again have the honour of taking a Bishop anywhere by dog-train, I shall scorn the idea of deceiving even a dog by the use of a make-believe name."

It is a formidable undertaking to propel fully loaded York boats hundreds of miles against current, and when the brigade of fifteen boats left Grand Rapids, this was the task that confronted it. It meant that one hundred and fifty men would day after day have to pit their strength against water power, one of nature's terrific forces. It chanced, however, that on both the Saskatchewan and English Rivers, the wind--another of nature's great forces--lent its aid to the crews, and was sometimes more than a match for the current. There were, however, a good many portages on the latter river, and at such places winds were of little avail. Generally at these portages the entire cargo had to be carried over. At one place the boats also had to be hauled overland. This was done by placing rollers under the keel; then, while a sufficient number of men on each side kept the boat balanced, another supply of man power applied to a long rope, drew it over.

The "carrying strap" used by the men was of tanned hide, and about ten feet in length. It resembled a huge sling, the middle part of which was three or four inches wide by about eighteen inches in length. A man's load consisted of two packages weighing together about two hundred pounds. The carrying strap was fastened round the ends of one of these in such a manner that when it was placed on the back, and the broad part of the strap was slipped over the forehead, the upper side of the package was slightly below the level of the shoulders. Then the steersman placed the second package on top of this, so that the forward side rested against the carrier's head, where he contrived to retain it in position without its being fastened. The gait favoured by the carrier of such a load was a swinging trot, it having no doubt been ascertained from long experience that "slow and sure" in such a situation was a sure way to burden one's back with two hundred pounds for an unnecessary length of time; and, besides, every man had to think, and did think, of the reputation of himself and the crew to which he belonged.

Perhaps it might be thought that it would be distressing to travellers on a voyage such as this, to be the witnesses of the laborious efforts which the boatmen so frequently had to put forth to overcome the difficulties of the way; but, surprising as it may seem, it had quite the opposite effect, and this no doubt, because of the cheerful, courageous and clever manner in which they went forward against all odds. It made the onlooker of the stronger sex feel elated as he reflected that he also was of the genus homo, and when by means of a strong rope the boats had to be hauled over a tough place, he took hold with the rest and shouted loud as any, "Yo-heave! Yo-heave!" However, the passengers had no occasion to exert either their muscular or vocal powers in any such manner until the voyage had extended over two hundred miles north-west of Grand Rapids. First there were sixty miles of good sailing up a deep stretch of the Saskatchewan and across Cedar Lake to Fort Chimawawin situated at its north-west corner; then ninety miles more of the Saskatchewan brought the brigade to the Pas, where a stay was made just long enough to land the officer in charge and his outfit. The next seventy miles were made under equally pleasant conditions and brought the passengers to Cumberland House, situated at the northwest end of Cumberland Lake.

As the boats sailed over this lake, Mr. Snow remarked that Cumberland House, the post they were approaching, had a decidedly more English sounding name than Chimawawin. This remark and some guesses as to its early history induced Mr. Findlay to say that when the Hudson's Bay officer, Mr. Hearne, established the fort and gave it the name of Cumberland House, he was likely trying to make himself feel at home, and get the better of Kuskeyihten.

In the remarks that followed the story was told of how this plunge of Mr. Hearne's from the Hudson's Bay into the interior in the year 1774, marked an important change in the Company's policy. Up to that date the Indians had been obliged to come great distances to trade with the Company at the Bay; but when the Frobisher brothers and other traders from Canada travelled to the Saskatchewan, and delivered their goods to the Indians at their very doors, the Hudson's Bay Company found it necessary to do so also in order to retain their trade. Hence the establishment at Cumberland Lake, and soon after, of others planted farther westward and northward.

There was an Anglican missionary stationed at this point, and he and his wife were quietly doing a good work among the Indians. Mr. Snow called on these fellow-labourers, and the few evening hours they spent together were undoubtedly mutually cheering and encouraging.

When the brigade resumed the journey next day, it left behind not only Cumberland Lake but the Saskatchewan River; and for the next one hundred and thirty miles, that is, as far as Pelican Narrows, the route lay due north through a succession of lakes and rivers, which in reality are a continuance of the river flowing out of Ile a la Crosse Lake, variously named English River, Churchill River and Missinnippi. The scenery as studied from the boats was diversified and often very beautiful. Land and water seemed to be equally divided, and often rock, bush and muskeg were alike plentifully in evidence. So curious in some places was the combination of rock and water that a boat going some distance in advance of the others would seem to have approached a solid rock only to be swallowed up whole in some concealed cavern; but on approaching nearer, an opening would suddenly be revealed which was much wider than necessary for the passage of a York boat.

The rocks are in many places specked with garnet, encouraging speculation as to pockets full of gold which might be concealed in other places; but some of the passengers found it more immediately profitable and interesting to angle for goldeye, perch and other fish which abound in these waters, while others searched around the rocks for something more immediately useful than garnet, and were usually rewarded with the discovery of one or other of the following kinds of wild fruit, viz., raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, moss-berries and eye-berries.

One night when the travellers were sitting round the camp-fire, the nature of the country through which the English River flows came under discussion, and various opinions were given as to the character of the country lying farther back, and of the probable percentage which would some day be regarded as fit for cultivation. Mr. Ormond, being an old timer and in charge of the Ile a la Crosse district, was considered the most competent to speak on this subject, and he gave it as his opinion that while there were some fine stretches of timber, and other localities where some thousands of acres might be called terra firma, taking it all through it was a badly mixed up country, of which possibly one half might some day be found adapted for mixed farming, or more than half if furs, fish, ducks and wild fruit were to be included in the mixture.

On another evening an interesting discussion took place as to the character of the sites upon which the Hudson's Bay Company's forts were built. Of one or two it was remarked that they would seem to have been selected mainly with a view to shelter from wintry storms; but of most of them it was conceded that a conspicuous position and fine scenery had most likely much to do with their location.

Mr. Bayard, who had some experience in locating some of the Company's out-posts, looked at Mr. Snow with a broad smile, and remarked that it was fitting that when one built a house in any part of the "Great Lone Land" it should be placed where from afar it might speak of good cheer to the traveller. Perhaps it was a case of telepathy, when following Mr. Bayard's smile, Mr. Snow quoted the lines:

"As when the weary traveller gains
The height of some o'er-looking hill,
His heart revived if 'cross the plain
He eyes his home though distant still."

Mr. Bayard, being asked to state further what he considered the main factors in deciding the location of some of the important forts of the North, replied as follows:

"I do not think I should be far out were I to assert that when the Indians selected a rendezvous hundreds of years before the Hudson's Bay Company set foot in this country, they were thereby doing what plainly pointed out to the Company when it did arrive, the most suitable place for a fort; for, as a rule, in the selection of these great camping grounds, the Indians gave preference to conspicuous and picturesque places, always provided that besides being easy of access both by land and water, they were also centrally situated in a district rich in game and other products of nature which afforded them a livelihood. And since the soil that produced these things a thousand years ago has not been interfered with by the Indians, and the physical features of the country are not materially changed, the place that was suited to be an important rendezvous at that time should continue so until now and for generations to come, even though there may be many changes in the manner of obtaining a livelihood. Therefore, when the Hudson's Bay Company placed a fort on an Indian camping ground, it showed a wise regard for the past, the present and the future."

On a beautiful evening there were sighted Stanley Mission and the neighbouring Hudson's Bay post, the two separated by about a half mile of lake-like river, and surrounded by very picturesque scenery. The entire brigade landed at the fort, and while the crews were getting their tea and making camp, a party arrived by invitation from the Mission, consisting of Rev. Mr. Smith, his lady and the school-teacher, Miss Linden; and they and the officers of the party and Mr. Snow accepted the hospitality of the officer in charge and his lady.

This meal was called tea, but it might have been called by any other meal-name except breakfast, for the officer in charge and his wife had evidently not been taken by surprise, and their table was laden with the products of the chase and the garden; and there were also handed round generous helpings of that most delicious delicacy, raspberries and cream, which in the opinion of many persons of good taste, does not take second place to any other, not even excepting strawberries and cream.

Immediately after tea there was a general dispersion. It was the regular custom at Stanley Mission during summer to call the Indians together for daily evening prayers in the church. The practice was feasible because it was appreciated by them, also because many of them found a livelihood in the vicinity.

In the large centres of civilization, a call to busy men and women to attend daily evening or morning prayer is apt to appear to them as inexpedient or non-essential piety; but here, somehow, though these fur-traders and boatmen could also have made excuses, they put from their minds the hard journey up the Missinnippi that was to be renewed on the morrow--or, perhaps deeming it the most fitting preparation--they listened to the sound of the bells coming sweetly to them over the water like an echo of the invitation of old--"Come ye yourselves apart and rest a while," and soon every boat and canoe available was rippling the water in the direction of Stanley Mission.

Entirely apart from religious considerations the sight of such an edifice as Stanley Church in such a remote locality, never failed to surprise and interest the observant traveller. To Mr. Snow, coming fresh from England, the sight of this fair-sized church built in a pronounced English cathedral style, standing there that beautiful evening on a verdure covered point of land which sloped down gracefully to the water's edge, there was nothing lacking to impart the feeling that he was truly on English River, or even to have conveyed the impression that he was in England itself.

The missionary who came from England, and who by building this church may be said to have put the finishing touch to a beautiful English picture, was fortunate enough to have the assistance of competent and sympathetic helpers. One of these was George Sanderson, an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company for many years, who assisted throughout. He also had the experience and fine workmanship of two carpenters attached to one of Sir John Franklin's expeditions, who, being obliged to pass a winter in the neighbourhood, were pleased to employ their time in this profitable manner.

After the evening service in this church, Mr. Snow and George Kidd remained at the Mission, the former being naturally interested in Missions, and the latter--just as naturally interested in Miss Linden. Fortunately for Mr. Kidd he had had a speaking acquaintance with the Smiths in the Red River Settlement, and something more than that with Miss Linden, for they were old schoolmates.

Miss Linden was an attractive young lady, slightly over middle height and very graceful in form and movement, while as to disposition, she was as bright and cheerful as Kidd himself. Very much alike in several respects, there was this difference between them: she lived up more strictly to a high ideal, and though she did so with all the modesty consistent with courage, she had unintentionally impressed her friend with a sense of his short-comings. However, meeting thus tonight, so far away from home, amid the environments of the lonesome North, they felt simultaneously drawn towards each other, in a manner that all persons of a friendly disposition will understand without further explanation or detail. Of Mrs. Smith it may be remarked in passing, that she showed herself to be quite human, and apparently not unmindful of her spinster days, for she contrived to allow the young people the exclusive use of the sitting-room with the door open or closed as circumstances might require, so that it will be readily believed by experienced people that they spent a very pleasant and profitable hour.

Mr. Kidd had paid the Lindens a visit before leaving the Settlement, and was, therefore, able to supplement the news Miss Linden had received by letter with his version of how nicely her folks were getting along, taking care to bestow particular attention on her mother, whom he described as being as strong and jolly as ever, causing Miss Linden to say, with the tears not very far, and with an ineffably tender modulation of her voice, "Dear mother!"

After that their conversation became of a more personal and intimate character. Miss Linden admitted that she occasionally found the solitary life a little depressing, but that by keeping busy and falling back on Mrs. Smith when it came to the worst, she managed to do very nicely. Kidd turned this remark to advantage by remarking: "That's where Mrs. Smith with her husband has the advantage over you. She gets so much comfort out of him that she has some to spare for a less fortunate sister."

"I am not complaining," said Miss Linden, "neither do I covet anything or anybody belonging to my neighbour."

Kidd laughed, and she adroitly changed the subject, asking him about his prospects in the Company's service. Encouraged thus with an innocent starter, that gentleman straightened up himself, cleared his throat, and assumed an air of great importance as he replied: "Miss Linden, you see now before you one who is destined shortly to be enrolled as an officer of the Honourable Hudson's Bay Company."

"George, let me suggest that you substitute the words Chief Factor for officer."

"Thank you for your assistance," he replied, and then he told her of his contract with the Company, and noticed with satisfaction that she acted as a very much interested listener.

Later he told her that he believed he had the makings of a fairly successful fur-trader; but that he was perfectly unsuited for the life of a hermit, and that for that reason no sooner had he completed his contract with the Company he intended to look around these particular parts for some lone spinster whom he could rescue from the ennui of the solitary life of the North.

Looking significantly at him, she replied, "The worst of you, George, is that one can never tell when you are serious."

"Well, Gertrude, it's myself that is a serious man this very minute, and unless, out of the goodness of your heart, you give me a little help, I shall be seriously hurt."

At this Miss Linden made an attempt to look dignified as she asked, "What in the world do you mean?" The discerning eye of George Kidd saw that her real feelings were but thinly veiled, and the only effect of her question was to cause him to draw his chair nearer to hers so that they were separated from each other by only a small corner of the table, and seated thus, and looking into each other's faces, there doubtless occurred some telepathy from the corners of their eyes which was not displeasing to either of them.

Replying to her question--"What do you mean?" he said, "Let me tell you seriously what I do mean. When I arrived at Stanley Mission this evening I looked forward with pleasure to the chance of a chat with you before going on northward with the boats tomorrow morning--nothing more, I assure you; but now that I have seen you, while there is still upon me the old feeling that you are too good for me, you have inspired me as never before to the ambition to be worthy of you. But for my respect for you, I think I might have told you before that I love you; but, respect or not, I tell you so now; and I ask whether you will be willing to marry me, if, in a year or two, I make good in your opinion and my own?"

"George, I have no doubt that if ever I do as you are asking, you will then discover that if Gertie Linden is the angelic person you took her to be, she is nevertheless afflicted with feet of clay. As to my answer, that were easy enough were I to consult my feelings only, as I feel towards you as you feel towards me; but this is a serious matter, and I consent only on the condition which you have named; but, conscious of the feet of clay, I would amend this condition, substituting the words, 'such time as we are mutually satisfied that we are fit,' for you know that we must think of others besides our two selves."

"Quite so! Quite so! Ahem! Thank you!"

"George! Do be serious! I would not like to make the mistake of a very dear girl friend of mine who married a drunkard, and, as far as I can see, has nothing to look forward to but shame and misery for herself and her children. And do you know, I have been told that you were seen drunk on one occasion at least."

"You told me just now that it was hard to know when I was serious. Well, you have got me very serious now. I admit that on one occasion I was very drunk, and I confess to you that I am not sorry, for I can now speak from experience and warn my innocent friends of the awful effects of imbibing four glasses of Hudson's Bay rum. If there is such a thing as a gold-cure I got it that time, for ever since then I seem alike bereft of the inclination or power to repeat the performance. And no wonder, for the thing is utterly idiotic. A friend told me shortly afterwards that for once in my life I had looked to be perfectly sober which, you must admit, goes to show that appearances are very deceiving."

"Perhaps so, and perhaps you do have a lot of seriousness just a little beneath the surface. At any rate, George, I intend to trust you."

"Thank you for your confidence; and at the same time I would say that I do not resent your remarks. Your scruples are justified. I should be serious; and as to drink, one cannot be too careful, and I regard him as a wise man who guards against a growing fondness for it by carefully avoiding its habitual use."

Just then a clock struck ten, the hour agreed upon for returning to camp, and as the lovers stood up they intuitively placed hands on each other's shoulders and the man said: "It may be a year before we meet again," and that was the prelude to their first kiss; and the man said again: "It might be two years," and they kissed again; and the girl caught on and said: "It might be three," and they kissed a third time, and then proceeded to look innocent before meeting the others.

Leaving Stanley Mission early next morning the brigade continued its journey, and after crossing some more portages, and passing more delectable river and lake scenery along the next three hundred miles, they came to Ile a la Crosse Lake, at the southern end of which is the district fort which bears the name of the lake. As Mr. Ormond was manager of this district, he and two of the boats' crews ended the voyage here.

A stay of three hours was allowed at this place, which permitted of Mr. and Mrs. Ormond keeping up the Company's reputation of being generous feeders of passing travellers. There was the usual bounteous spread, which was all the more appreciated because the food provided was fresh and seasonable, being in this respect a pleasant departure from the substantial but too monotonous fare of the travellers. The boatmen also enjoyed the benefit of a change of diet, for during their short stay they enjoyed a lively trade with the Ile a la Crossians, bartering off a meal or so of their pork and flour for the game, fish and berries of the residents.

On leaving this fort the boats were propelled by sail or oar for the next few days, first to the north end of Ile a la Crosse Lake, then up the La Loche River into La Loche Lake, to the post on the north-west of the lake, where all cargoes were discharged.

The brigade had now travelled nine hundred miles up-stream from Grand Rapids at the mouth of the Saskatchewan and arrived at the watershed or height of land commonly called Long Portage--or in the French--Portage la Loche. It may be said that there is presented to view at this point a small portion of the rim which separates two huge basins--that to the south and east through which flows the Saskatchewan, Nelson and Churchill Rivers, and that to the north and west through which flows the MacKenzie River with it many convergent streams.

This rim or divide is twelve miles across, hence the name Long Portage. Until within a few years of the date of this voyage the boats had to be hauled over by man-power, an undertaking which was all the more formidable owing to the road passing over extensive beds of pure sand. At the time of our story, however, things were not quite so bad, as the goods were taken across by means of oxen and carts, and placed aboard other boats at the north end.

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