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Forest, Lake and Prairie
Chapter XVII
From Norway House to the great plains - Portaging - Pulling and poling against the strong current - Tracking.

As the missions on the Saskatchewan were under father's chairmanship, he concluded to visit them during the summer of 1862, and to take me along. He arranged for me to go as far as Fort Canton on the Saskatchewan by boat, and he, at the invitation of the Hudson's Bay officers, went with them to Red River, and then rode on horseback across the plains to the same point.

Bidding mother and sisters and little brother and many friends good-bye, behold me then taking passage in one of a fleet of boats, the destination of which was the Saskatchewan country.

Our route was up the Jack River, across the Play-amen Lake to Lake Winnipeg, and then across the northern end of Lake Winnipeg to the mouth of the Saskatchewan River, and on up this rapid river to our objective point.

There were nine, and in some cases ten, men in each boat. There were perhaps a dozen passengers scattered through the fleet. I was alone in my boat, but nearly always at meal times and at night the fleet was together.

Favoring winds and fine weather in two or three days brought us to the mouth of the Saskatchewan.

Here are the Grand Rapids. They are about three miles long. Up the first two miles the boats are pulled and poled and tracked; then comes the tug-of-war. Everything must be taken out of the boat and carried across the portage. Then the pulling of the boats across comes next. This is done on skids and rollers, and all by man's strength alone.

The ordinary load is two pieces. These pieces average one hundred pounds each. The man carries one piece on his back, sustained by a strap on his forehead; then upon this the other piece is placed. This leans up against his neck and head and acts as a brace; and away trots the man, with his two hundred pounds, on a run across the portage. Mosquitoes and "bull-dogs," and mud, valley and hill, it is all the same a necessity; he must "get there."

Some men carried three pieces each trip, and thus got through more quickly.

The whole matter was slavish, and in the long run costly; for, after all, there is no greater wealth in this world than humanity, if properly handled.

The second day, in the evening, we were across and loaded up, all ready for a new start, which we made early next morning. Still the current was rapid and our progress was slow. Now poling, now pulling, then with a line out tracking, slowly we worked up the big Saskatchewan. Crossing Cedar Lake, we entered the steady current of this mighty river.

Here we were overhauled one evening by a couple of big inland canoes, manned by Iroquois Indians, conveying Governor Dallas, who had succeeded Sir George Simpson as Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, and who was now, in company with Chief Factor William Christie, as escort, on his way to visit the posts of the Company in the far north and west.

These big birch-bark canoes formed a great contrast to our heavier and clumsier boats. They were manned by stalwart fellows, who knew well how to swing a paddle and handle their frail barque in either lake-storm or river-rapid. With grace and speed and regular dip of paddles, keeping time to their canoe-song, they hove in sight and came to land beside us, and we camped together for the night.

Up and away they went early next morning to ascend the tributaries of the Saskatchewan which flow from the north country; then to make the "long portage," which would bring them to the head-waters of the great Mackenzie system; then up the Peace to the foot of the mountains, and from thence to return by the same route; while the dignitaries they have conveyed thus far will now turn southwards across long stretches of woodland prairie, and on horseback and with pack-saddles, will again come out on the Saskatchewan at Edmonton.

With a cheer from our crews, and a song from their lips as they bent to their paddles, they left us; but their coming and going had given us a unique experience, and a still further insight into the ways and means of transport and government which obtained in this great territory.

For days our progress was very slow. Our men had to ply their oars incessantly.

Many times in one day we crossed and recrossed the river, to take advantage of the weaker currents. From the break of day until the stars began to twinkle at night, only stopping for meals, our men kept at it, as if they were machines and not flesh and blood.

The sweltering heat, the numberless mosquitoes—who can begin to describe them? But if these hard worked men can endure them, how much more we, who are but passengers, and have just now nothing else to do but endure. For myself, I now and then relieved one of the men of the oar, or took the sweep and steered the boat for hours, letting my steersman help his men.

By and by we came to where there was a beach along the shore, and then our men gladly took to tracking instead of the oar. Four men would hitch themselves with their carrying- straps to the end of a long rope, and walk and run along the shore for miles, thus pulling their boat up the stream at a rapid rate. Then the other four would take the collars and our progress become faster. Sometimes we came to extra currents or rapids; then the rope was doubled, and all hands went on shore to pull and strain past the difficulty. Occasionally two crews had to come to each other's help, and take one boat at a time up the rapids, and though our men welcomed this as compared with the monotonous pull, pull at the oars, yet it was very hard work.

Along miles of rocky beach, then up and over steep-cut banks, now ankle or knee-deep in mud and quicksands, then up to the armpits in crossing snags and channels, and mouths of tributary streams; then, "All aboard," and once more bend to the oars, to cross over to better tracking on the other side of the river: thus in constant hardship did our faithful crews slowly work their way up this mighty river.


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