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A Heroine of the North
Memoirs of Charlotte Selina Bompas (1830-1917)
Wife of the First Bishop of Selkirk (Yukon)

With Extracts from Her Journal and Letters

Compiled by S.A. Archer

London: SPCK, 1929.

Chapter I. The Outward Journey
(May—September, 1874)

THE Bishop and Mrs. Bompas sailed for New York early in May, 1874. Their destination was Fort Simpson, a well-known Hudson Bay settlement for trading furs, which is situated at the confluence of the Mackenzie and Liard Rivers, and formed the most central and convenient point for managing the vast diocese.

"Travelling in 1874 was less simple than it is now, and the journey took four months—via New York, Chicago, St. Paul, Red River, Winnipeg.

"From New York they took the train for Niagara, and, having visited the famous waterfall, travelled on to Chicago and thence to St. Paul. After a tedious trip they arrived at the Red River, and took the heavy flat-bottomed boat bound for Winnipeg, as the village around Fort Garry was already called.

"At length Winnipeg was reached one Sunday morning, and the great-hearted leader, Bishop Machray, gave them a most cordial welcome.

"Ahead of them lay the long journey of two months open boat to Fort Simpson. They had missed the boats of the Hudson Bay Company, and after some difficulty another was obtained, in the hope of over-taking the former. It was a 'brilliant cloudless' June morning when they crossed the prairie towards St. John's Cathedral and sighted the 'river looking still and silvery in the morning light,' and found the boat, their home for weeks to come, 'moored just below St. John's College.' Farewells were said, the boat pushed off, and they moved on their way, leaving the Bishop of Rupert's Land waving his hand from the bank of the stream.

"It was a tedious journey, as day after day they glided forward.

"'I had come prepared for intense cold,' wrote Mrs. Bompas, 'and we were destined to endure tropical heat. All up the Saskatchewan, Stanley, and English Rivers the banks slope down like a funnel, and the July and August sun scorches with vertical rays the heads of the travellers. We were seated in open boats, each with a crew of ten or twelve men, who spread our sails when the wind was fair, and took them in when the wind failed us. Eighty-six was on some of those days our average temperature, and I had come provided with the thickest of serge dresses, as none of my friends had realized the possibility of anything but frost and cold in these northern regions. Besides this, we had to encounter swarms of mosquitoes, crowding thick around us, penetrating our boots and stockings, and invading our robabou soup and pemmican, etc. I remember the bliss it was in those days in camping time to escape from the rest of the party, and, getting rid of boots and stockings, to sit with my feet and legs in the cool water of the river to soothe the intolerable irritation of the mosquito bites.' " ["An Apostle of the North," pp. 158-160, 166.


July 17, 1874.

It was about six o'clock p.m., the sun still high, but a fresh breeze had sprung up and was filling the sail of our boat, and giving us comfort and refreshment after a sultry day. We were beginning to discuss our landing, wondering where our steersman intended to encamp that night, as all these details are left to his control and management.

Suddenly, as we were quietly sailing on, an exclamation was made by one of the sailors, and as suddenly all eyes were eagerly directed towards a line of thick wood which encircled a bay on our right. It would be impossible to give any idea of the intense eagerness which marked the gaze of our ten men. You must know something of the Red Indian's intensity of character and his love of sport to be able to understand and appreciate it. Our "fore-oar man," Charley, especially attracted my attention. Such a strange, tawny face as his was when passive, with long black hair hanging on each side of his face (as a disordered attempt at whiskers and moustache!) But now he stood with head stretched forward, one hand clutching nervously at his oar, the other shading his eyes, every sense, almost every nerve, in a state of tension. We longed to ask what object they saw which had so excited them, but scarcely ventured to do so, for silence had overspread our crew, and though apparently much was being discussed and important matters decided upon, yet it was all done by signs or in low, whispered accents. At last some conclusion was evidently arrived at, the sail was lowered, and our course altered in the direction of the wood in question; at the same time the Bishop ascertained from one of the men, and whispered to me the cause of all this excitement—namely, "a black bear!"

It needed the quick eye and ear of a Red Indian to detect the bear, if such it were, at the distance we then found ourselves from the wood and amid the countless shadows of those great Norway pines, or the grotesque forms of aged stumps and stones which edged the wood; and for some moments I felt that it was all a mistake. However, the men had full faith in their hero, though I had none, and so, still in dead silence, we moved steadily on, making for the wood at the exact point where the dark object had first been visible. It really was very striking, the way in which we drew up to shore and lowered our sail, and all with no more sound than would have awakened a sleeping infant. And now two of the men stepped ashore, having first possessed themselves of loaded guns; others followed with stealthy footsteps, and all soon disappeared in the mazes of the thick forest. One thing I could here observe for myself which laid my doubts to rest as to the fact of the bear having actually been seen—great spreading paw-prints on the sand!

The part left for us to play at this time was certainly less exciting and less interesting than that of our men. Close in to shore at that time of the evening mosquitoes invariably abound. This evening they positively swarmed, and in addition to this there were a number of sand-flies, so small that no veil could keep them out. Moreover, there was not much to look at beyond the tall pines and the little bay in which we so unexpectedly found ourselves, and we hardly even now ventured to speak, so fearful were we of injuring the interests of the chase. Suddenly there was the sound of a gun fired, which roused our interest and made us feel as if the game meant something in right earnest. Then another report was heard, and after a few moments' interval came shouts of triumph, with cries and screams such as only Red Indians can give.

Our boat party, in the meantime, being weary of the mosquitoes and becoming excited by the matter in hand, had gone ashore. We gathered sticks and faggots, and soon kindled a splendid fire, round which we closely gathered, thankful for the momentary relief from our insect tormentors, as no mosquitoes dare invade the region of smoke or fire. Soon was heard the sound of approaching footsteps—tramp, tramp, tramp, as of men marching under some burden; these were accompanied by the sound of merry voices, and then the party came in sight—the two foremost men carrying a stout pole, to which, with his legs tied together, hung the body of poor Bruin. The men brought up their trophy and laid it down at my feet, amid the ferns and bluebells and pretty golden tansy, for us to examine. A splendid bear he was, very fat—and with hair as sleek and glossy as if he had always been accustomed to bear's grease. Our young French Canadian, who had shot him, said that he had tracked the poor beast for some distance and then stood still till, in a few moments, he heard the rustle of leaves and breaking twigs and the slow tread of the four paws. When he came in sight one shot made him fall and another bullet did for him wholly.

That night—that very night—over our camp-fire a huge caldron was suspended, and joints of bear meat were cooked and eaten and, I presume, enjoyed by our men. I was thankful to be excused from sharing in the repast that evening, but a dish of bear steaks was presented to me next morning for breakfast, and, after having conquered a certain feeling of repugnance, I could not but pronounce them excellent.

[Poor Mrs. Bompas! The time came when she was only too thankful and delighted to hear of bear steaks for supper or dinner—a time when starvation stared her in the face. This occurred not once or twice, but many times.

On September 24 they came in sight of Fort Simpson, and much excitement was evident. The red flag of welcome was soon hoisted; Mr. Hardisty, Chief .Officer, as well as the whole settlement, came to the shore to meet them. So hearty was the reception that they did not perceive the shadow—the grim shadow of starvation that was hanging over the Fort and land.]

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