Project Canterbury

The Far and Furry North

By the Rev. A.C. Garrioch

Manitoba: no publisher, 1925.

Chapter 9. Some Happenings of the Next Fifteen Years

When the Findlays went to the North the Hudson's Bay officers were getting fairly well reconciled to interference with the fur trade by American traders who came from British Columbia via, the Fraser and Peace Rivers, and by other traders who came from Edmonton via the Athabasca River and Lesser Slave Lake. These traders were usually referred to by the Hudson's Bay Company as "the opposition."

This opposition annually sent out a goodly number of packs of valuable furs, which not only reduced the number sent out by the Company, but had the more regrettable effect of quickly reducing the supply of the more valuable fur-bearing animals, especially bear and beaver. This was due to the greater inducements the Indians had to hunt, in the higher prices received for their furs, and to their being able to find a market even for furs procured out of season.

During the two centuries the Hudson's Bay Company was in control of the country, in the rare instances in which it changed its policy, it could always be said that it did so for good and sufficient reasons, and when its control ended with the transfer in 1870, changes amounting to reconstruction became inevitable. This was particularly the case regarding methods of transportation. In the course of a few years the open York boats were of necessity replaced by steamers which operated on the Athabasca, Peace and MacKenzie Rivers.

The cause of missions shared in the benefits of this change, and in a few years the Anglican staff of workers advanced from three to twelve, and the Roman Catholic also showed equal benefit from the change.

Among those who came in to strengthen the staff of missionary workers was a Mr. Charles Bernie, who was encouraged to do so by the Rev. Charles Snow.

Mr. Bernie was a young man of medium height and build, and in his own estimation was medium in other respects. Yet notwithstanding his modesty, he had unbounded confidence in the ability of the ordinary man to accomplish extraordinary things through the power of dogged perseverance, and he held that the latter quality and a liberal supply of common sense had been bestowed on him as some compensation for lack of superior talent. Without being a fatalist or a predestinarian, he believed that every man was sent into the world with his own particular niche to fill, and that he would succeed in doing so to the extent that he looked upwards and did his best. And any man whose religious pretentions savoured of a claim to perfection of living, did not appeal to Mr. Bernie as a perfect man, but rather as a perfect enigma.

This young missionary made the first part of the journey to the North as one of a party of missionaries who travelled over the prairie taking their goods along in ox-carts, he and two other young missionaries being each placed in charge of an ox and a cart by the Rev. Mr. Dyers, who was in charge of the party. There was also a young American by the name of Ferris, who accompanied the party as far as Qu'Appelle, who also drove his ox and cart, in return for which he received shelter and board.

According to Mr. Dyers' arrangement there were two "messes." The ox-drivers who were also missionaries sat at the first table with the missionaries who were not drivers; but Mr. Ferris, although the equal of the missionaries as regards education, being on this trip only as ox-driver, he was assigned a place with the other ox-drivers. By the time the party reached Qu'Appelle, something in the nature of a friendship had sprung up between Mr. Bernie and Mr. Ferris, and the former was rather pleased when shortly before parting the latter set forth his American views respecting the Rev. Mr. Dyers' funny distinctions between his ox-drivers. He spoke with the genuine American twang after this fashion:

"I reckon that your boss finds the principles of the Great Missionary Leader a little too stringent, or he would have arranged to have a small party like this in one circle at meals as well as at prayers. Looking at it all round now, and answering on the square, don't you think, Mr. Bernie, that it would have been more consistent?"

"Well now, Mr. Ferris, I'll do my best to fit a square peg into your square hole, and to begin with, I don't mind admitting to you that in my opinion the Great Leader to whom you have referred exemplified the grandest kind of socialism which, somehow, his followers 'can't get on to.' Nevertheless, I believe that I can prove to you that Mr. Dyers was justified, according to the teaching of the said Great Leader, to arrange as he did about the meals for this party."

"Wa-al now, I'd just like to hear you try."

"Very well then. It's like this: the man who drives an ox is an ox-driver, isn't he?"

"No getting out of that, sir."

"Very well, that was the position which you accepted, and have very creditably filled for the past few days. Now in the days of the Great Teacher, plowing was done with oxen, and the hired man drove the oxen as well as guided the plow, therefore he was an ox-driver."

"No getting out of it, sir."

"Very well. What happened to this ox-driver when he went home about supper time? Listen and I'll read it to you. 'But which of you having a servant plowing (or feeding cattle) will say unto him by-and-by, when he is come from the field, go and sit down to meat? and will not rather say unto him, make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself and serve me till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?' You may therefore see that Mr. Dyers actually stretched a point when instead of asking you to wait on him, he allowed you to go direct from your ox-driving to your meals."

Mr. Ferris laughed, and after apparently making a hurried calculation on his thumb-nail, said, "I reckon that since those words were spoken which you have just read, this here old world has turned round 700,000 times, and we have turned round too and become more progressive, so that we can't be bossed any more in that way."

"Well, Mr. Ferris, as we are to part here let me express the hope that you may soon find a position more commensurate with your abilities than ox-driving; but when you get on a level with Mr. Dyers I hope you won't try to get even also."

"Not at all. Should he and I ever meet again, I shall be very happy to enjoy with him pleasant reminiscences of this journey."

Mr. Bernie's journey by ox-cart ended at Green Lake, from which point, thanks to the Hudson's Bay Company, he was enabled to proceed to Ile a la Crosse in a birch bark canoe manned by four men including himself.

On his arrival there he was informed by the officer in charge that the best he would be able to do to help him forward on his way would be to furnish him a passage on a boat which would be leaving for Long Portage at the end of a week.

While waiting here for this opportunity of continuing his journey, Mr. Bernie's sporting proclivities came very near costing him his life. Near the fort was a slough or marsh in which were a few ducks, and on its nearer shore, about twenty-five rods from the fort, there lay a lopsided dugout. Mr. Bernie used this craft on three different afternoons in going after ducks, and each time succeeded in getting two or three; but on the fourth occasion all he got was a ducking. The swamp was full of reeds, which in places were penetrated by narrow inlets. Where there were no reeds, weeds grew so thick that it was an extremely difficult matter to turn the dugout end for end. By way of improving on this, Mr. Bernie decided he would turn his body only and paddle out prow forward; but in attempting to do this both he and the boat were turned upside down. This happened in four feet of water under which was a treacherous bottom. Providentially this swamp had masses of floating sod covered with grass. One of these was within easy reach, and grasping it with both hands, he sank it under foot. The safe footing thus obtained was much needed, for the canoe was full of water and went right under when he attempted to lift himself in, so that it was necessary to raise it so as to empty at least part of the water back into the swamp.

After succeeding in this he fished up his gun from the bottom of the slough and then he performed the gymnastic feat of re-entering the dugout without getting another spill. Let anyone who thinks that was not much of a trick try to accomplish it under precisely the same conditions. Once in, Mr. Bernie stood up and with the paddle quickly emptied out the remainder of the water. He got back to the fort richer in experience; but his suit, which was the better of the only two he had, never recovered: it lasted, however, until the next autumn. It had to.

The next stage of the journey extended to Methy Portage. This was made in the company of Patrice Lamareaux, Postmaster at that place, who had come to Ile a la Crosse in a boat to get his winter outfit.

At their first encampment the travellers made their evening meal on fried whitefish, potatoes and bread and butter. Mr. Bernie particularly enjoyed the fish, which he freely seasoned with a mixture of salt and pepper, which Mr. Lamareaux kept in a small caribou leather bag. Suddenly he was taken bad with a deathly sickness, which brought to mind an experience of some twenty years before when as a bad little boy he had indulged in his first and last smoke, thereby seemingly causing the laws of gravitation to be reversed so as to irrevocably seal his doom.

On the present occasion he placed a hand over his stomach as if to aid the law of gravitation, and looking helplessly at Mr. Lamareaux, he said, "Mr. Lamareaux, I am sick"; and that gentleman said, "A-a-h, dat is de salt. Eet is vary strong. Drink your tea and dat will soon melt it." Mr. Bernie took his advice, and in two minutes the nauseating sensation was completely gone.

It transpired that this remarkable salt was a product of the North, being obtained in a crystallized form from springs on the Salt River; and all the salt used in the North up to that time and for some years afterwards, was taken from these springs, where it was annually shovelled up into sacks for distribution among the various trading posts of the country. It was regarded by the Company's people as perfectly wholesome. It was, however, considered necessary, in order to make it suited for table use, that it should first be passed through a coffee mill or pounded in a piece of dressed leather. In the sample through which Mr. Bernie became acquainted with the peculiarities of the salt of the North, the pounding had evidently not been thorough.

Some more surprises awaited Mr. Bernie when he arrived at the post of which Mr. Lamareaux was in charge, for he found that he lived in a mud-washed, two-roomed house with a wife and fourteen children. The number of children is given on the authority of the parents, and not from actual count, for they were so incessantly on the move that it was too difficult to count them. Mr. Lamareaux was a French Canadian, but his better half was country born and only half French. Physically she was much more than his better half, being about double his size. They were good Roman Catholics, but that did not prevent them from treating their guest with becoming courtesy during the two days he was with them.

In the outer room of the two mentioned there was to be seen what was very common both for use and ornament in many houses of the North, viz., a fiddle on the wall.

On the matter of religion Mr. Bernie had to be discreetly and politely silent; but that did not commit the violin to silence, and being an amateur performer of no mean order, and knowing that with a violin he could talk religion to the hearts of nine hundred and ninety-nine Metes in a thousand, he took down this particular violin from time to time, and treated the Lamareaux to music both sacred and secular, ranging all the way from Red River Jig to The Song of the Virgin Mary. Seeing the Protestant teacher under these felicitous conditions, Mrs. Lamareaux seemed to be drawn towards him as though he was one of her own brood, and when the hour to continue his journey had arrived she expressed her good-will in a small contribution of Northern delicacies, accompanying the same with a nice little speech in her best English. She said, "I pray le Bon Dieu, He keep you good in all de place where you go." To this Mr. Bernie replied with an ingenuousness which went well with her own, "Merci, Madame Lamareaux. I came to you a stranger. I go away a friend, and when I pray to le Bon Dieu I shall remember you and the family."

Mr. Bernie then stepped into a birch bark canoe manned by two Chipewyans hired by Mr. Lamareaux to take him as far as Fort Chipewyan. Of the six tribes of the North the Chipewyans are the heaviest in build, and are also fairly tall. They had been represented to Mr. Bernie as the most stolid and selfish as well. The sample with which he had to do on the journey were unselfish enough to furnish him with a paddle, which they encouraged him to use so that he might accelerate the rate of travel to his heart's content, and the sooner reach his objective.

The older Indian, named Gillibois, who was about fifty, took charge as steersman, and the other, named Antoine, who was a sturdy young fellow of about sixteen, took charge at the bow. When Mr. Bernie had seated himself in the centre he found a paddle placed suggestively to hand, and seizing it he plunged it into the water simultaneously with the others, and keeping stroke, the three paddles propelled their canoe down the Clear Water River at a flying speed.

After keeping this up for about twenty minutes, Mr. Bernie placed his paddle across the gunwales and lay back for a brief rest. When he had enjoyed this and the scenery for a. few minutes he was suddenly startled with fearfully guttural sounds proceeding from the throat of the Chipewyan behind him--"Ghur-rah, ghur-rah, ba-goth-a-ra, pimisca, pimisca" (ghurrah, for the English hurrah; bagothara, the Chipewyan for master; and pimisca, the Cree for pull or paddle).

Mr. Bernie's feelings at being thus gutturally commanded were at first those of surprise, next of indignation, and finally of amusement. Then he calmly reflected that he had to maintain the reputation of an Anglican missionary; and knowing that any attempt to explain to his companions in any language understood by them all, that he paddled as an act of grace and not of obligation, would only be a waste of time, he quietly resolved to go on paddling as he had intended--industriously but not slavishly; so after resting a few minutes longer to impress the fact upon Gillibois that he was more of a bagothara than a servant, he suddenly sprang to a sitting posture, and adopting a classy pose BO as to catch the exact stroke, he once more deftly plunged his paddle into the Clear Water River, saying as he did so, "Ghurrah, ghurrah, bagothara, pimisca, pimisca." If his paddling was effective the little speech was more so, for presently Antoine's shoulders began to shake and he burst out laughing, and Gillibois himself had to join in. Often afterwards down the Clear Water and then the Athabasca this guttural little speech was repeated, and doubtless helped the travellers to a better understanding of each other's ways and wishes.

At the first night's encampment the travellers tried to get up a conversation in Cree, when they were pleased to find that by persevering they could understand each other much better than at first seemed possible. Mr. Bernie taught the Chipewyans how to pronounce hurrah like an Englishman, and in return they taught him how to pronounce bagothara like a Chipewyan. After the, travellers had spread out their bedding on the bosom of mother earth, the two Indians, before lying down, repeated the rosary together. It was a perfectly starlit night in September, and as Mr. Bernie listened to Gillibois' remarkable Latin, he raised his eyes to the starry worlds on high, and thought, He who presided there and hears prayer, knows just what this Latin means, and if the spirit that prompts it is that of a little child, perhaps it will be like that other child's prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep; And should I die before I wake I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take.

In the middle of an afternoon the travellers arrived at the mouth of the Athabasca, and early as it was they had to camp, owing to a strong wind which rendered the crossing of the lake unsafe. After saying ayimun, it's hard, about half a dozen times, Gillibois settled down stolidly for a good smoke. "Now then," said Mr. Bernie, "bagothara, pimisca, pimisca." The old gentleman did not seem favourably impressed with the joke, so Mr. Bernie soothed his nerves with a few tunes on the violin.

By morning the wind had subsided, but there was still considerable swell on the lake. However, Gillibois decided to take a risk, and a start was made. Once fairly out in the open he showed that even a Chipewyan can get excited, and the words, ayimun or pimisca, pimisca, often escaped his lips. That morning the Indians seemed pretty sure of being able to make the traverse in safety, for they had preened themselves with unusual care, and after scrubbing their faces and liberally anointing their crow-black hair with pomatum, had donned their Sunday pants and clean shirts, and put on new moccasins. Now that Gillibois was so greatly excited, the recollection of that recent regard for his personal appearance afforded Mr. Bernie some confidence, as showing pretty conclusively that the old gentleman, who was a man of experience in navigation by birch bark, had quite made up his mind to reach Fort Chipewyan alive and in presentable condition.

At length Gillibois seemed satisfied that the danger had been passed, and when about a half mile from the fort the paddles were laid down, and while the canoe was being "rocked on the cradle of the deep," the paddlers wiped the perspiration from their faces and the Indians once more smoothed down their raven locks. Then when Gillibois said "Hao, hao!" (Now, now!) paddles were again seized, held in position for an instant, then plunged into the water simultaneously, and the canoe shot forward, arriving at the landing in a few minutes with that ├ęclat which was the regular way in the North for men good and true to arrive at a Hudson's Bay fort.

The population at Fort Chipewyan was about sixty and all but two families were Protestant. There were four officers, of whom one was Mr. Churchill, still in charge of the district. Mr. Thomson, the friend of the Findlays, was also here still, and he and Mr. Bernie at once became friends. On the day after their arrival Mr. Bernie learned from him that Gillibois had been Bounding his praises through the fort, saying that he knew it was dangerous to cross the lake as he had done, and that he would not have taken the risk had he not been sure of the men who were with him. "He further nays," went on Mr. Thomson, "that you cannot pray like a priest; but he would back you up against the best of them with a gun, a paddle or a fiddle."

"Thank you and him very much," said Mr. Bernie.

This remark was followed by two laughs, one of which was spasmodic.

A little later the confiding disposition of Mr. Thomson led him to tell Mr. Bernie the story of his love affair with Miss Blain, which he wound up with the remark that it was no doubt presumption on his part to have ever dreamed of marriage with a person of Miss Blain's attractiveness.

"Most likely," said Mr. Bernie, "you are over-rating her merits, and you are certainly under-rating your own."

"I don't think so, and at any rate, I am now a modest young man, and the aching void that is here" (putting his hand over his heart) "can be filled by any respectable maiden who is passably fair."

Then followed that laugh, which though normal, did sound as though it might have come from a broken heart.

When Mr. Bernie arrived at Fort Chipewyan he found that a married missionary of the Anglican church had been placed in charge of the work about a month before, and he was occupying the only house Mr. Churchill could spare--a small one only large enough for himself and his wife. It being too late in the season to go elsewhere, the missionary in charge and Mr. Bernie agreed to divide the work, the former continuing to fulfil the duties pertaining to his appointment, while the latter was to start a school whenever a building for the purpose could be found.

In entering upon this arrangement, Mr. Bernie knowingly let himself in for considerable manual labour as well as scholastic work; but the thought of building himself a dwelling place strongly appealed to his pioneering instincts. The Hudson's Bay Company had already donated a piece of land adjoining their own enclosure, as a site for missionary buildings; so it was agreed that Mr. Bernie should make a beginning by building his house thereon.

The cutting and hauling of the material needed was the work of Mr. Bernie himself; but Mr. Churchill generously contributed all the sawn lumber that was needed--about two hundred feet. He also allowed two of the Company's servants to assist for four days. In this manner the house was completed and occupied just three weeks from the day he first swung his axe against a tree with intent to build.

This first Mission house was fifteen feet by twelve. In its north-east corner was an open fire-place; in the north-west corner was a bed which was fixed to the wall; in the south-west corner was a cupboard which contained less than a dozen cooking utensils and dishes--all that were used in the place. The other furniture was a small book-case, three forms, a large table, a trunk and a chair. In this building Mr. Bernie not only lived and boarded himself, but taught school as well. The daily attendance was made up of twelve boys whose ages ranged from seven to fourteen. Of the year spent by him in teaching these boys he was afterwards heard to say that it was the happiest of his life, chiefly because the parents of the children and others with whom he had to do so thoroughly appreciated his work.

Mr. Bernie was not the sole occupant of his school dwelling-house, as he had brought with him a black water-spaniel all the way from Manitoba, and many were the pleasant tramps which he and Funny took together in quest of ptarmigan and rabbits over the rocks and through the bushes and swamps of Athabasca.

With spring there arrived grey geese, speckled geese and wavies by the million, and for a month Mr. Bernie did not have to draw on the Company for a meat ration. Standing at the door of his house, or in a drift-wood stand only forty rods distant, he succeeded in bringing down all the wavies that he needed.

Some grey geese nested in the vicinity of Fort Chipewyan, and the Indians sometimes brought in goose eggs and those of other water-fowl, which they disposed of in barter to the people of the fort. One forenoon a Chipewyan called on Mr. Bernie at the seminary while he was in the midst of his scholastic duties and made him a present, Indian fashion, of a few goose eggs, and in return Mr. Bernie presented him with a cake of toilet soap, as his outward appearance plainly showed that such an article would be useful.

Mr. Bernie had a scant supply of just three luxuries--flour, sugar and dried apples, and on Sundays and gala days he indulged in pancakes, the ingredients in which were simply water and flour. The Indian's present of goose eggs was, therefore, very suitable indeed, as much so as the soap; and as Mr. Bernie stowed them away in the article of furniture in the south-west corner of the seminary, "Now for it," thought he. "As soon as I am through with these boys, there are going to be some pancakes made and eaten in this establishment--pancakes made with eggs."

Teaching was resumed. Suddenly a very tiny squeak, coming from where nobody could tell, caused one of the boys to exclaim, "Mah!" the Cree equivalent to hearken. For a minute everybody looked up and down and around, but as nothing more was heard, work was resumed again. No sooner, however, was that done, than the sound was repeated a little louder than before. Then the children looked at the cupboard and from it to their teacher, and one whispered, "apukoosisuk" (mice), and another, "piyesisuk" (birds), but it was the third boy who hit the nail on the head when he whispered, "wawa" (the eggs). Then there was a laugh in which the domino joined, but his heart was not in the laugh, for as he walked to the cupboard to examine his audible eggs, there was fading from his mind the vision of a feast on pancakes made with eggs.

When spring had merged into summer the boats arrived from Fort Simpson, and among those on board was Mr. McKinistry, an old college friend of Mr. Bernie's, who was now a clerk in the Company's service. He lost no time in calling upon Mr. Bernie, whom he found busy at the open fire-place preparing tea; and he accepted his invitation to stay and help him dispose of some pancakes and birch syrup. As they chatted and laughed over former experiences, the stage was reached where the first pancake was ready to be turned. This fact Mr. Bernie announced to his guest with the remark: "I have acquired one or two valuable arts since leaving college which we did not study there. This is one of them. See here!" And shaking the pancake to make sure that it was not adhering to the pan, he tossed it upwards so that it nearly touched the roof-poles of his humble abode. When it came down it lit for a little while on the farther edge of the frying-pan, whence, before it could be secured by the cook, it overbalanced into the fire. When Mr. Bernie had raked the defaulting pancake on to the hearth, he made a poor attempt to join in the laughter which was almost convulsing his guest, while Funny, the other witness of the mishap, looked first at the pancake and then at her master with an expression which plainly said, "I think that's for me," and Mr. Bernie, pushing it towards her, said, "All right, Funny."

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