Project Canterbury

The Far and Furry North

By the Rev. A.C. Garrioch

Manitoba: no publisher, 1925.

Chapter 10. Mr. Bernie at Fort Simpson

After having enjoyed a winter in the district fort, or as one might say, the capital of Athabasca, with its special facilities for acquiring a knowledge of life in the North, Mr. Bernie was now to have the advantage duplicated by the opportunity of putting in his next winter at Fort Simpson, the head fort or capital of the MacKenzie River district. Mr. Snow, who was now in charge of the Anglican Mission, was in a position to make such an arrangement, and it suited Mr. Bernie admirably, who wished to put in a winter in what he regarded as the heart of the North, before going elsewhere. Accordingly he joined the MacKenzie River brigade when it returned from Methy Portage on its way northward.

The officer in charge of the brigade was a well educated gentleman of a genial disposition, and he invited Mr. Bernie to take his meals with Mr. McKinistry and himself, and to share their sternsheets in the day and their tent at night. As it happened the three of them could play the violin; so there was no lack of music on the way.

Among the voyageurs there was a chance man of English, Scottish or French extraction; but nine-tenths of them were Slavie, Dogrib or Tukudh, and these were arranged like the cargoes--with a particular regard to the fort to which they might happen to belong, an arrangement which saved unnecessary changing and re-assorting, and also gave a crew a special interest in their own boat and its contents.

At Fort Simpson Mr. Bernie made or renewed acquaintance with five missionaries, and double that number of Hudson's Bay officers, all of whom were stationed in various parts of the MacKenzie River district. As he listened to some of these gentlemen giving their experiences of the North, he felt that though their lives may have been somewhat monotonous, they had at any rate been varied with some worthwhile adventures and useful work.

While staying at Fort Simpson Mr. Bernie never had occasion to practise the culinary art, as there were two ladies in the Mission, and a manservant and a maid. With a fine library placed at his disposal, and a quiet study all to himself, he studied to advantage, under Mr. Snow, the Beaver Indian language, the Greek Testament and theology. In return he assisted Mr. Snow in his pastoral duties and took full charge when his itinerating work called him northward early in the spring.

Mr. Bernie made the discovery that the farther North one went the more did the question of an adequate food supply force itself to the front. At Fort Simpson, as at some other Missions, the daily ration of meat, fish or fowl had to come chiefly from the Company's store, and the Company's store was replenished mainly from ,he vast herds of caribou which every winter shortly before Christmas passed southward on the east side of the MacKenzie River. Until this southward trek of the caribou took place the daily ration consisted of fish, pounded meat or rabbits. The nearest fishery was at Great Slave Lake, and the fish which reached Fort Simpson from that source were of the kind known as "hung fish." These are caught in autumn in open water and hung up on stages by their tails for future use. The Fort Simpson assignment was thrown into a York boat just before freeze-up and floated down the MacKenzie to their destination. Their condition by that time might be described as stale or high, although in the vulgar tongue of the less thankful of the inhabitants it was not infrequently spoken of as rotten. When rabbits were plentiful, rations supplied from that source, especially if mixed in with a little grease, were more acceptable to the uninitiated than the fish. Unfortunately rabbits are subject to an epidemic which reduces their numbers every seventh year within ten per cent, of extinction, and this approach to annihilation had occurred the year before Mr. Bernie wintered at Fort Simpson. Therefore the only other food which the officer in charge could supply for the relief of stomachs rebelliously inclined was dried caribou--caribou more stale than the fish, for it was caribou returned to dust--by an artificial process it is true. That is to say the more fleshy parts of caribou had been sliced thin, dried and then pounded to dust in very strong leather sacks, and very appropriately named pounded meat. Mixed with grease, this pounded meat became pemmican; but in the far North the grease was often not to be had, in which case the inhabitants had to get the dust down the best way they could; and somehow the swallowing process did not seem to be made much easier by stewing or boiling--the thing called for grease, and that winter mostly called in vain. However, the sawdust-like pounded meat gave forth no unpleasing odour, in which respect it may be said that it didn't rank as high as the hung fish, and then again, in all fairness, it may be said that it ranked higher.

In order to bring about some amelioration of food conditions as far as the Mission was concerned, Mr. Bernie turned his skill in hunting to some account by setting snares for rabbits and lynx along the paths where he was wont to take his daily exercise on snowshoes. In this manner the Mission people were supplied with an occasional meal of rabbits, and on more rare occasions with the much greater luxury--a piece of roast lynx.

A lynx, it must be frankly admitted, is neither more nor less than a cat; and in those days it was usually spoken of in the North as a "wild cat" or pissio (cat in Cree). The lynx is about six times the size of its domestic relative. It may sound strange to the reader, nevertheless there can be no more sane or truthful statement made in this or any other book, than that the flesh of the lynx makes most delicious eating, very much resembling that of the finest turkey both in colour and flavour. The ladies of the Mission party had but to get one good taste of lynx flesh, and then any prejudices they may have had against it were gone forever. Mr. Snow, however, was rather puzzling over this matter, for considering that he had boarded for a whole winter with the Eskimo, it was to be expected that there would be few kinds of food eaten in the North which he would call common or unclean, and perhaps after all, it was only a camouflage of his unselfishness when he said to the ladies that they were welcome to his share, as he had little use for cats dead or alive.

Very soon after the caribou reached the vicinity of Fort Simpson in their movement southward, the fact was made known by Slavics who arrived with fresh venison, including two great delicacies of the North--caribou tongues and marrow fat. The latter was brought in raw and just as it was taken from the bone, and being frozen stiff when it was handed in, it did not look unlike long sticks of candy. To use these sticks, the common practice was to warm them enough to take out the frost, and eat them with lean meat in lieu of fat or with bannock in place of butter.

As soon as the deer arrived five men with as many dog-trains were assigned the work of hauling in meat for the fort.

The toll taken out of the caribou herds that winter by the Slavies trading at Fort Simpson must have mounted into the tens of thousands. One day when the deer hunting season was past, Mr. Bernie happened to stray into the Company's provision store and there he beheld a pile of caribou tongues five or six feet high and thirty or forty feet in circumference; and, tongue-tied for a little, at the sight, he found himself speculating on the probable size of a hill which might be made up of the caribou tongues taken in the North.

Mr. Bernie himself, by way of a holiday, went on a deer hunt just before Christmas. He was accompanied by the Mission servant, a young Tukudh named John Tindle, who, like himself, felt the lure of the chase when word reached the fort that deer were numerous at no great distance.

John could speak English after a fashion, and he often visited Mr. Bernie in his room to hear of things going on beyond the confines of his own little world, and in return he gave Mr. Bernie much interesting information about how his people lived in their distant part of the North.

John's chief work for the Mission was to haul enough cordwood to keep the four Mission fires burning. For this purpose he was provided with a train of four dogs, the oldest of which was well known as Grog, and the other three, which were said to be Grog's grandchildren, were always spoken of by John as "the puppies."

It was nine o'clock one morning when Mr. Bernie and John set out on their deer hunt. So short are the days in that latitude that it was after ten o'clock when the sun made its appearance. At the time of starting the thermometer stood at fifty below zero; but owing to the absence of wind it did not seem very cold.

The journey was in an eastward direction and began by the crossing of the MacKenzie River, which at this point is exactly a mile wide.

Although the travellers had a well beaten path they used their snowshoes, because snowshoes give one the advantage of an even footing and a slight spring, and necessitate long steps, resulting in easier and faster travelling. The speed that day was quite four miles an hour. After travelling nine miles they stopped for lunch, then went six miles farther and camped. They were then fairly into the country over which the caribou had passed, and the snow in every direction was trodden down as hard as a board. As Mr. Bernie looked over these indications of a vast herd of creatures having moved over this country only a few days before, it seemed almost incredible that he and John in travelling all day to reach the place had seen only two live things besides Grog and his progeny, viz., a mouse which crossed their path some miles from the river, and a whisky-jack, which after the manner of its kind seemed to spring from nowhere, and had sociably joined them in their noon-day meal.

As they advanced the country became increasingly barren, and they were glad when at sunset they found themselves beside a hollow where a scrub growth of jack pine, birch and willow promised shelter and fuel sufficient for a good encampment.

The next morning they started at day-break to search for a stray herd of caribou, leaving Grog and the puppies to take care of the camp. To Mr. Bernie's question as to whether the dogs might not leave if left untied, John replied, "No fear, sir. Grog he's ver wise dog and the puppies aloos does same as Grog he does."

When the hunters had gone southward about three miles they swerved to the left to ascend a ridge from which they might scan the surrounding country, and on reaching its crest and looking on the hollow below they saw a herd of about thirty deer feeding near some clumps of scrub. By making a detour so as to get the scrub between themselves and the deer they succeeded in approaching unseen to within fifty yards of them, and there, standing side by side, they raised their guns and took aim, and at a word from Mr. Bernie they fired together. Two deer fell and the rest scampered away without being followed by another shot, it having been agreed beforehand that no more than two deer were to be killed.

After assisting Mr. Bernie to place the deer on their backs--the proper posture for skinning--John went after the dogs and sleigh, and returned before Mr. Bernie had finished skinning the second deer. John claimed that he had cut up hundreds of caribou in his time, and the manner in which he dissected these two clearly showed that he was no novice at the business.

Although legs, heads and other appurtenances were left behind, the load was a heavy one for Grog and the puppies, and John had to stop them several times for a breathing spell. At such times he would make them some such speech as the following, "Never mind, Grog, you and your grandchildren going to have a big feast tonight. You'll fill your bellies good and tomorrow the load not be near so heavy." Later on it will be seen that John practised what he preached.

The camp was reached as the sun was setting, and the first thing that John did was to fulfil his promise to Grog and the puppies by giving them all the meat they could hold.

After a good supply of wood had been collected, and everything made snug for the night, John proceeded to get tea, and as they had not eaten since morning, they were very hungry. John had frankly owned to Mr. Bernie before this that he ate too much, and that gentleman was aware before he made the confession, that, dividing the food used by the Mission party of six adults into as many parts, five of the party used three and a half of the parts and John put away the other two and a half, and that he sometimes made up for the insufficiency of the two and a half parts by catching loche under the ice of the MacKenzie River. The locks is a scaleless fish which resembles the eel in appearance and flavour, and it has a large and delicious liver.

When John sliced off six large steaks from a caribou thigh and fastened them on as many ponasks, he fittingly remarked, "Me too, I feel I help to make the load light."

As Mr. Bernie looked at the six or seven pounds of venison roasting before the fire he smiled and remarked, "Fine looking meat that, John, and lots of it."

"Yes sir, and I hope you hungry. Me, I just starved."

When the steaks were done, John planted three of them before Mr. Bernie, and retained the other three for himself. Mr. Bernie took a steak and placing it on the tin plate before him divided it into five pieces, one of which kept him well employed while John was polishing off a whole steak. When he had finished his three, Mr. Bernie handed him another, which he accepted with a show of reluctance but nevertheless sent after the others without any sign of failing appetite. After this, John paused for a minute and then said, "I not so hungry now; but I nearly aloos hungry. I eat, and I eat, and I eat, and then I hungry again. The doctor, he say it becos I have worroms." Then he said to Mr. Bernie, "Why you not eat the other steak, sir?" And Mr. Bernie replied, "Thank you, John, I have all I want. I expect that my doctor was cleverer than yours and that my worms are dead." Thereupon John leisurely proceeded to demolish steak number five. On the following morning the dogs were not given the chance to lighten the load any more, as dogs when working are fed only after their day's work is done; but their driver laboured under no such disadvantage, and he put away nearly as much venison as on the evening before. When the dogs started out on the homeward haul they stepped out in such fine style that John laughed and exclaimed, "Wah-wha, sure 'nough the load is lighter!" However, though the load was unquestionably lighter, going in took them three hours longer than coming out, and it was six o'clock when they arrived at the Mission, which at that season in that latitude is four hours after sunset.

Among other acquaintances formed by Mr. Bernie at Fort Simpson was that of the man previously mentioned as having aided in the building of the beautiful church at Stanley Mission. He was a good man. His trade was that of carpenter, and he had built many houses and York boats for the Hudson's Bay Company. Having grown old in the service and spent a good many years in the North, he was able to give Mr. Bernie much interesting information.

One evening Mr. Bernie visited him with a list of the most northern trading posts, extending all the way from Fort McPherson southwards right into the Ile a la Crosse district. Sitting with pencil in hand he jotted down such important facts as the following: the place each fort was situated; name of officer known to have been or at present in charge of the post, also assistant officer or officers, if any; also stating the nationality of each officer and whether married or unmarried, and giving the nationalities of the wives also.

Going over the information thus obtained Mr. Bernie was able to tabulate the following interesting particulars: of the fifty officers named, known to have been or at the time known to be stationed at the respective posts, twenty-five were married. In regard to nationality, thirteen came from Great Britain, of whom three were English and ten were Scottish, six were French Canadian, and thirty-one were of English or Scottish extraction and hailed principally from the Red River Settlement. Of the twenty-five wives, two came from Great Britain, of whom one was English and one Scottish, two were native women, fifteen were of English, Scottish or French extraction and were born in the North, and six were of English and Scottish extraction and came from the Red River Settlement.

Considering the heterogeneous character of the occupants of the Hudson's Bay establishments, it is wonderful that they got along as harmoniously as they did. Perhaps it was that after squabbling or feeling in the right frame so to do, they who were so afflicted went out and breathed the pure air of the vast open stretches of the North, and when their disturbed spirits communed with the good angels who frequent those regions, their troubles, real or imaginary, evaporated and they returned whence they came, prepared once more to be kind, tender-hearted and forgiving. There is no doubt, however, that domestic and community strife was largely thwarted by the practical bagothara chok, district manager, to whom cases of misconduct or insubordination were bound to be reported, and who could generally contrive to make changes which lessened the danger of mischief-making in his district. Considering that the arm of the law could hardly be said to extend to the North in any but a theoretical or imaginary sense, the residents there were highly to be commended for living together as peaceably as they did. During the good many years that Mr. Bernie lived there, there were no cases of bloodshed except on the rare occasions when an angry man might with his fist draw a little blood from the nasal appendage of some refractory brother.

When troubles did arise the missionary was very liable to hear of it, for the rule, "if thy brother offend thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone," was no better observed in the North than in the South, the East or the West, and all kinds of brothers were liable to be told before the right one; and sometimes, when the church was told, it was as a first instead of a third resource. Thus, on one occasion, Mr. Bernie had to listen painfully to the complaint of an offended wife, and when he tremblingly approached the husband, the old scamp simply laughed and said, "Don't you worry, Mr. Bernie, she gets like that periodically. She'll get over it!" And that was the end of that.

Another woman was continually lashing out with her tongue at her husband, who was a most estimable man, until being utterly unable to stand it any longer, he gave way to the old Adam, and letting her have it square between the eyes, sent her reeling to the floor, whence she picked herself up, a bawling and very much astonished woman.

In the following instance the balance of power was with the wife. Her husband was a feather-weight while he was a well-knit heavy-weight. One day her husband in the presence of a boat's crew dared to say something to her about keeping her place, whereupon she very soon put him in his. She threw him down, and pulling off her legging rubbed it over his mouth, the greatest humiliation, it was considered, that any man could suffer at the hands of a woman.

As a final instance showing that the people of the North did have their little troubles, we take the case of two men, who, with their little families, occupied together a one-roomed house. One of these men was saying things to his wife which the other considered unbecoming, and to which he ventured to object, saying that if he had as good a wife he would treat her better than that. The interference being resented, a fight ensued, in which the interfering man downed the other, and getting hold of his head, sounded the floor several times therewith, and their wives meanwhile, strange to say, acted as neutrals, though they must have been very much interested.

Troubles of this kind in many other parts of the world might have led to divorce. In Mr. Bernie's time a case of permanent separation was extremely rare, and was most likely to occur after the dissatisfied parties had left the North and gone to where there was less time and space in which to cool off after one of their periodic tiffs.

On one of the evenings when Mr. Bernie was chatting with the good old carpenter referred to a little way back, he asked him for his opinion as to the kind of marriages which had worked out most happily in the North, where, necessarily, marriages were of such a mixed character; and the answer which he gave at considerable length, Mr. Bernie afterwards found agreed in the main with his own conclusions, which, briefly stated, were as follows: Of all mixtures the least desirable is that of a marriage between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant. As regards a mixture of nationalities, there was none happier than a marriage of an Englishman or a Scotsman to a Cree woman, but the time was come when such marriages were not to be encouraged, neither the intermarrying among themselves of the hybrid races. Such would be acting in the best interests of their progeny were they to go back to the superior of the races whence they sprang, by marrying Whites, thus aiding nature to work out its beneficent law of the survival of the fittest.

Unfortunately, however, this is not a matter in which men and women can always do what they know would be best, and therefore have to be satisfied with doing the best they can, and when they honourably stay with that, come what will, they will never have just cause for self-reproach either in this world or the next. The truth of this statement, at least as far as one's experience extends in this world, will be strikingly illustrated before the end of this book is reached.

While he was at Fort Simpson an aged Postmaster told Mr. Bernie some interesting stories about the Sikanni Indians who live on the banks of the rivers so named--north of the Liard and west of the MacKenzie. They are the one tribe who have strenuously objected to the exploitation of their country by the Whites, claiming that it would mean spoliation. The following story impressed Mr. Bernie as justifying the suspicion that the attitude of the Nahannis towards the Whites was one of bitter hostility. This is the aged Postmaster's story:

"An Englishman by the name of Dan Hardy arrived one spring at Fort Liard. He had been trading, trapping and prospecting for some years among the Sikannis west of the Rockies, and he could speak their language quite well. I was in charge of Fort Liard when he arrived there, and when I found that he intended going up the South Nahanni River to prospect for gold, I told him of the serious risk he would incur in doing so. However, he would not be advised, and he placed some more ammunition, tea and tobacco in his dugout and went on. He was a likeable fellow and a regular gentleman, and I would give a good deal to know what became of him. I asked the Nahannis about him until I found that they did not like it. One old Nahanni, who was really a fine fellow, admitted having seen him, and that he could speak Nahanni like one of themselves; that he knew he had given medicine to a sick child who had soon recovered. He admitted that he was a good man and that he liked him and had sold him some moccasins: but he plainly showed that he did not want to be questioned, and although I have seen him several times since, the subject has never been resumed. One thing which Dan Hardy said to me just before we parted came to my mind when the old Nahanni spoke of his giving medicine to a sick child, and that he liked him. It was this--'Once the Nahannis get a taste of my medicine and listen to my lovely Nahanni lingo, I think we shall get along together.'"

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