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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 IV. Two Journeys

ABOUT this time the Bishop said: "These extended travels prove inconsistent with domestic life, and Mrs. Bompas, being left alone in the rigorous climate, has lost her health from exposure to cold and insufficient food."

Mrs. Bompas's strength had indeed been sadly impaired by her serious illness during the winter of the year 1876. It was essential that she should return for a time to civilized surroundings, and with the opening of navigation in 1877 she therefore started on her long journey of over 1,000 miles to Winnipeg. Of this trip she wrote in the C.M.S. Gleaner, January, 1878:

I am thankful to have come to the end of my long journey from Athabasca, which, by God's mercy, I accomplished with less fatigue than I anticipated. I met with much kindness on my way at the various mission stations, and also at the Company's Forts, and I visited many Indian camps where one seldom fails to meet with a hearty welcome. Sometimes I had prayers with some of the women and children in my tent. They seemed to like to come, and enjoy singing hymns . . . My boat's crew from Isle a la Crosse to Cumberland was composed of Stanley men, and a more orderly, well-conducted set I never saw. They had a nice service every morning and evening among themselves, which I always attended. It consisted of a hymn, beautifully sung in parts, a few words of Scripture, and a few of the Church prayers. Some days the poor men were quite worn out with hard work at the portages, and for two days their provisions ran short and they were nearly starving, but they sang their hymn and had their prayers without fail, and when relief came in the shape of two canoes bringing bags of flour and pemmican, their shout of delight, I think, must almost have reached Salisbury Square.

I came with the Governor-General from the Grand Rapids. His Excellency and Lady Dufferin were kind enough to invite me to join their party, as they heard that I was anxious to get on. I am thankful to find all my powers gradually returning, and the state of woeful emaciation to which I was reduced giving way under the influence of milk and other luxuries, of which I was deprived in Athabasca. I deplore my having to leave my work so soon, but I earnestly trust in God's mercy to bring me back to it again in early spring.

[During this winter, 1877-1878, a terrible famine was being experienced in the northern home diocese, and the Bishop was most thankful that Mrs. Bompas was away. "Horses were killed for food, and furs eaten at several of the posts." This famine explains the delay in her leaving to return to the North until May 15, 1879.]


November 29, 1879.

We were a goodly party who started from Winnipeg on May 15 to commence our 1,500-mile journey across the prairies, by lakes and rivers to Athabasca. The weather was bright and beautiful, but cold enough to make us enjoy our equipment of winter wraps by day and deer-skin robes by-night. Our party consisted of one deacon for Peace River, one farmer, and a schoolmaster, with wives and families, myself and companion. We travelled in spring waggons, and in our rear came the eighteen ox-carts conveying our supplies and luggage, three or four horses, one mare, and one cow, who, good creature, travelled her twenty miles daily, and yet failed not to yield us a good supply of milk every evening—a special boon for the little ones of our party.

Before leaving Winnipeg we had the comfort of a nice dismissal service conducted by Canon G. and others of the St. John's Cathedral staff. Holy Communion was celebrated, and a considerable number partook of the holy Feast. To say one felt no anxiety or excitement in starting on such a journey would not be quite correct. Might we dare to hope that such a party would pass safe and unharmed through so many difficulties and perils as we knew lay before us? Could we help shrinking a little from the cold which might be, and from the fierce heat which in the short summer of these northern regions visits us with truly tropical rigour and severity? There were two more elements of discomfort in prospect—the rough roads, which, indeed, are not roads, but only tracks made by former travellers, trodden by countless oxen, and worn by heavily laden carts and waggons; these roads which at no time bear a very good character, were pronounced this year to be worse than ever owing to the recent rains which had fallen with unusual severity. The ruts were frequently more than a foot deep! The jolting one experienced was such that while lying in the back of my waggon I was frequently tossed up halfway to the roof of the same! Then there were swamps to be waded through, and pitiful it was to see how often the poor oxen stuck while trying to draw their heavy burdens through the swamps; but sticks and shouts and menace usually succeeded in the end, though on one occasion a poor ox died in the struggle, "all through stubbornness and obstinacy," as his driver declared. "Why need he go and put his head under the next cart, and so get his neck broken?" Even this misfortune, however, issued to our good, for the poor creature was soon cut up into beef, and made a welcome change from our salt pemmican.

Yet whatever faint-heartedness we may have had in starting, we soon picked up courage. With so many kind friends bidding us God-speed, and the remembrance of the Blessed Feast of which we had so recently partaken, we should have been sadly wanting in faith and trustfulness had we been otherwise than bright and cheery. It is singular how soon and easily, when once fairly off, one gets into the travelling routine, how possible, if not easy, it becomes to perform one's morning toilet in the little over five minutes from the moment when the "Lève! lève!'' rouses us from sound slumber, till the shaking and uprooting of one's tent pegs announces the removal of one's snug nightly shelter.

Our morning and evening services were very refreshing, Mr. G., the Chaplain of Peace River, conducting them. The morning prayers were frequently somewhat hurried, as our "freighter" would be standing by, whip in hand, ready and eager to be off, but in the evening, when once the horses were unharnessed and the tents pitched and fires lit, there was no need for haste, and we had our evening hymn, which sounded sweet and solemn in the deep silence of the prairies, and the prayers which so many of our dear friends had joined in at their Evensong some seven hours previously.

The scenery of the prairie is flat and monotonous, but the soil is for the most part excellent for farming purposes, although in some districts there is deficiency of water. The beauty and variety of wild flowers is truly wonderful. They formed a rich carpet on each side of us—a pleasing contrast to the rough roads on which we were jolted perpetually. The little ones of our party would often get out and gather rich bunches of flowers and bring them to me to adorn my waggon by day or my tent at evening. These flowers are wholly scentless, however, with the exception of the wild roses and a species of thyme. The leaves of the beautiful golden water-lily which grows in many of the swamps and streams are excellent as a vegetable when well cooked, not unlike spinach.

At one of our resting places where we camped for Sunday we had our first visit from some Indians. They came from the district where the renowned "Sitting Bull" holds his camp, and wore a tolerably warlike appearance. They were heathen Indians and highly painted and feathered, with axes and tomahawks, etc. They came and shook hands with us, however, in a friendly manner, and seemed highly delighted with a present of tea and hard biscuit. They tied up their horses and came and sat down with us, smoking their peace pipe, which was handed round with all gravity and decorum. We showed them a few sacred pictures and spoke to them a little about the crucified Saviour, and they listened with apparent interest and wonderment. We noticed on one of their horses a drum, or rather tambourine, which is used in their horrid art of medicine making, one of their most objectionable conjuring practices, in which the Indian works himself up to a state of frenzy and excitement as singular as it is horrible to witness.

We reached Carlton about six weeks after leaving Winnipeg, and here our party divided, some of them proceeding by the plains to Peace River, which they hoped to reach in six or eight weeks from that time. The rest of us, after a few days' quiet enjoyment of the hospitalities of Mr. and Mrs. C., of Fort Carlton, resumed our journey, which from Green Lake would be continued by boats and canoes to Fort Simpson.

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