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Forest, Lake and Prairie
Chapter IX
First real winter trip - Start - Extreme fatigue - Conceit all gone - Cramps - Change - Will-power - Find myself - Am as capable as others - Oxford House - Jackson's Bay.

DURING our first winter I accompanied father on a trip to Jackson's Bay and Oxford House. This is about 180 miles almost due north of Norway House, making a trip of 360 miles.

Our manner of starting out on the trip was as follows : William Rundle, father's hired man, went ahead on snow-shoes, for there was no track ; then came John Sinclair, the interpreter, with his dogs hitched to a cariole, which is a toboggan with parchment sides and partly covered in, in which father rode, and on the tail of which some of the necessary outfit was tightly lashed; then came my train of dogs and sleigh, on which was lashed the load, consisting of fish for dogs and pemmican and food for men, kettles, axe, bedding—in short, everything for the trip; then myself on snow-shoes, bringing up the rear.
Now, the driver of a dog-sleigh must do all the holding back going down hill; must right the sleigh when it upsets; keep it from upsetting along side hills, and often push up bids; and, besides all this, urge and drive the dogs, and do all he can to make good time.

This was my first real winter trip with dogs, and I very soon found it to be no sinecure, but, on the contrary, desperate hard work.

Many a time that first day I wished myself back at the Mission.

The hauling of wood, the racing across to the fort—all that had been as child's play; this was earnest work, and tough at that.

My big load would cause my sleigh to upset; my snow-shoes would likewise cause me to upset. The dogs began to think, indeed, soon knew I was a "tenderfoot," and they played on me.

Yonder was William, making a bee-line for the north, and stepping as if he were going to reach the pole, and that very soon, and Mr. Sinclair was close behind him; and I, oh! where was I, but far behind? Both spirit and flesh began to weaken.

Then we stopped on an island and made a fire; that is, father and the men had the fire about made when I came up. Father, looked mischievous. I had bothered him to let me go on this trip.

However, the tea and pemmican made inc feel better for a while, and away we went for the second spell, between islands, across portages, down forest-fringed rivers and bluffs casting sombre shadows. On my companions seemed to fly, while I dragged behind. Oh, how heavy those snow-shoes ! Oh, how lazy those dogs! Oh, how often that old sleigh did upset! My! I was almost in a frenzy with mortification at my failure to be what I had presumed to think I was. Then I did not seem to have enough spirit left to get into a frenzy about anything.

When are they going to camp? Why don't they camp? These were questions I kept repeating to myself. We were going down a river. It was now late. I would expect to find them camped around the next point, but, alas! yonder they were disappearing around another point. How often I wished I had not come, but I was in for it, and dragged wearily on legs aching, back aching, almost soul aching.

Finally they did camp. I heard the axes ringing, and I came up at last.

They had climbed the bank and gone into the forest. I pushed my sleigh up arid unharnessed my dogs, and had just got the collar off the last one in time to hear father say, "Hurry, John, and carry up the wood." Oh, dear! I felt more like having someone carry me, but there was no help for it.

Carrying ten and twelve feet logs, and you on snow-shoes, is no fun when you are an adept, but for a novice it is simply purgatory. At least I could not just then imagine anything worse than my condition was.

Snow deep and loose, by great dint of effort get the log on to your shoulder and then step out; bushes and limbs of trees, and your own limbs also all conspiring, and that successfully, to trip and bother, and many a fall is inevitable, and there is a great number of logs to be carried in, for the nights are long and cold.

William felled the trees and cut them into lengths, and I grunted and grumbled under their weight in to the pile beside the camp.

At Iast I took off my snow-shoes and waded in the deep snow.

Father and his interpreter, in the meanwhile, were making camp—this was no small job. First, they went to work, each with a snowshoe as a shovel, to clear the snow away for a space about twelve feet square, down to the ground or moss; the snow forming the walls of our camp. These walls were then lined with pine boughs, and the bottom was floored with the same material; then the fire was made on the side away from the wind. This would occupy the whole length of one side; except in the case of a snow-storm, there would be no covering overhead.

If the snow was falling thick some small poles would be stuck in the snow-bank at the back of the camp, with a covering of canvas or blankets which would form the temporary roof of the camp.

At last we were done; that is, the camp was made, the wood was carried, the fire was blazing. Then the sleighs must be untied and what you wanted for that time to take to camp, and then carefully must you re-wrap and re-tie your sleigh, and sometimes even wake a staging on which to hang it to keep it and its contents from your dogs.

Many a time when provisions were short, and our dogs were very hungry, I have had to hang up not only all eatables, but the sleighs and harness also, for these were largely bound and made of leather and rawhide, and the hungry dogs would eat all of this if they had the chance.

Now comes supper, and while this is cooking we stand our frozen white-fish around the fire in order to thaw them, before we feed them to the dogs.

These we feed at night only; the poor fellows must go the twenty-four hours on one meal.

The ration at this time is six white-fish to each train of four dogs.

Each driver takes his dogs apart and stands, whip in hand, to prevent them robbing one another.

Supper and dogs fed, those who smoke light their pipes, and we dry our moccasins and duffils if these need it, and accounts of old trips and camp storms, etc., are in vogue.

Our fire is a big one, but our room is a big one also, being all out of doors, and while your face and front are burning, your back is freezing, and you turn around every little while to equalize things.

While all this was going on, my legs, unused to the snow-shoes' strain and the long tramp, are every little while causing me great pain by taking cramps. I do not say anything about this, but I think a lot. I know father understands the case, but except a twinkle of his eye he does not say anything.

Presently we make up our beds, and sing a hymn, and have prayer.

We lie down as we travelled, except our belts —coats and caps all on—and in order to keep warm, we should lay perfectly still. The least move will let the cold in.

But how was I to remain still when my legs refused to remain quiet. Every little while a cramp would take hold and the pain would be dreadful, but with desperation I would strive to keep still, for I was sleeping with father. I could not sleep, and when my legs ceased to pain, and I was about to fall asleep, father lit a match and looked at his watch, and said, "Hurrah, boys, it is time to get up."

There was no help for it, and up we got.

The extreme cold and the dire necessity there was to brace up kept me alive that morning.

It was now about three o'clock, and we made a slight breakfast on pemmican and tea, had a short prayer, and tied on our bedding and camp outfit and harnessed our dogs—and mind you, this lashing and tying of sleds, and catching and harnessing of dogs, was hard on the fingers, and often very trying to the temper, for those cunning dogs would hide away in the bush, and sometimes we had to catch and tie the worst ones up before we made any move towards a start, or else they would run away.

It was now about four o'clock or a little after, and we retraced our track to the river and again turned our faces northward.

My companions seemed to leave me almost at once.

The narrow winding river, with its forest- clad banks, was dark and very cold and dreary. My legs were stiff, and my feet were already sore with the snow-shoe strings. My dogs were indifferent to my urging. They knew I would not run out of the trail to get at them with my whip. I verily believe each dog thought he had a soft thing in having this " tenderfoot" as a driver.

Many a time that cold, dark winter's morning I wished I was at home or in Ontario.

I became sleepy. Even my slow-going dogs would leave rue, and I would make a desperate effort and come up again, and thus the hours passed and we kept the river. After a long time, a terrible time to me, the day sky began to appear. Slowly the morning dawned, the cold intensified. I was in misery. I began to wonder where my friends would stop for breakfast.

Presently we came to a large lake. Out a mile or two, I could discern an island. Oh thought I, there is where they will stop. They were near it already, and I began to hope for transient help and rest. Again I looked, and straight past it William took his course, and away yonder like a faint streak of blue, was a point he was making for.

How my hopes were dashed, and it seemed for a little I would have to give up.

I was now a considerable distance behind my dogs, when, all of a sudden, a feeling took hold of me, and I began to reason in this wise to myself. What is the matter with you? You are strong, you are capable. What are you doing behind here, ready to give up? Come! be a man. And I stepped out briskly, I began to run on those snow-shoes. I came up to those lazy dogs, and gave them such a shout; "they thought a small cyclone had struck them." Soon I was up opposite the island, and I ran away to its shore, and broke a long dry pole, and after my dogs I went, and brought it down alongside of them with another shout, and made them bound off, and picking up the pieces of broken pole, I let them fly at those dogs, and away we went, and presently I was in a glow, and the stiffness in my limbs was gone, and soon I came up to my companions, and said, "Where are you going to have breakfast?" And they said, "Across yonder," pointing to the blue streak in the distance. "Well, then," said I, "why don't you travel faster, and let us get there?" 'William looked at me, and father turned round in his cariole, to see if I was in earnest and from thenceforth, on that trip, as ever since I was all right.

I had found the secret. I had the capability to become a pioneer and frontiersman, and now I knew this, what a change came over me and has remained with me ever since.

No more whining and dragging behind, after that. My place was to the front, and in all the tripping and hardship and travel of the years I have kept there.

When we stopped for breakfast, father smiled upon me in a kind, new way. I had come up in his estimation. I overheard William say to Mr. Sinclair. "John is all right, he has found his legs."

Across Lake Winnipegoosis, over the portages, through the forests, up and down rivers, steadily we kept on our course.

At one of our encampments we made a "cache" of some fish and some pemmican.

This was for our return journey.

The manner of our doing so was to rake away the embers and coals from where we had the fire during the night and morning, and then dig a hole in the thawed ground, and put our provisions in this hole, then cover with a few sticks, and put the earth back, until the place was full, then make a small fire just over the spot, and in going away kick some snow into the fire-place. This would soon freeze hard, and the ashes and embers would destroy the scent, and thus the cunning wolverine did not find our "cache."

We saw tracks of moose and cariboo. We saw few foxes, and hundreds of white partridge.

At the southerly end of Oxford Lake we found a single camp of Indians, and stopped with them for the night.

They feasted us on young beaver, which was an agreeable change from pemmican.

There were seventeen of us in that camp for the night. It was circular, and may have been twelve feet in diameter. On the ground we lay, with our feet to the fire.

During the night I felt my foot very hot, and springing up, found that my part of the blanket was burned through, and my duffll sock was on fire.

This was another "tenderfoot" experience.

These people were Christians, and delighted to see father, and listen to his counsel and exhortation.

The next day we reached Jackson's Bay, where we received from Mr. and Mrs. Stringfellow, the missionary and wife, a very hearty welcome.

If Norway House, with its one mail in six months and its small community of English- speaking people, is thought out of the world, where would you place Jackson Mission ? This little man and his good wife (and for a good part of the year many of the Indians away from the mission) and the Hudson's Bay Company's post, with its small company, are fifteen miles distant in winter, and, I should judge, twice that in summer.

Why, Norway House is on the front compared with this.

We spent Saturday and part of Sunday here. Mr. Stringfellow went with us to the fort, and father held a service in the evening, and Mr. Sinclair afterwards gave us this address, which was in English, to those who only understood Cree, almost verbatim—which seemed to me a remarkable feat of memory, seeing he had not taken other than mental notes.

We returned on Monday to Jackson's Bay, and left on Tuesday for Norway House; found our "cache" all right, and reached home on Friday afternoon, averaging forty-five miles per day, which, considering there had been a good deal of storm and our down track in many places not to be seen, was not bad time.


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