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A CONTINENTAL FUR FARM
AGNES C. 1AUT
REMEMBER it was not the hunter who exterminated the buffalo and the beaver and the seal and the otter. The poacher destroyed one group of sea furs, the railway and the farm supplanted the other. West of Mackenzie River north of British Co- • lumbia is a game region almost similar to Labrador in its furred habitat, with the exception that the Western preserve is warmer and more wooded. Northward from Ontario is another hinterland which from its very nature must always
be a great hunting ground. Minerals exist—as the old French traders well knew and the latter day discoveries of Cobalt prove—and there is also heavy timber; but north of the Great Clay Belt, between the Clay Belt and the Bay lies the impenetrable and—I think—indestructible game ground. Swamp and rock will prevent agricultural settlement, but will provide an ideal - fur preserve similar in climate to Labrador.
Traveling with Indian guides, it is always a matter of marvel and admiration to me how the Company have bred into the very blood for generations the careful nurture of all game. At one place we heard of a huge black bear that had been molesting some new ranches. "No take now," said the Indian. "Him fur no good now." Though we might camp on bare rocks and the fire lay dead ash, it was the extra Indian paddler who invariably went back to spatter it out. You know the white's innate love for a roaring log fire in front of the camp at night? The Indian calls that "a - no - good- whiteman - fire - scareaway-game."
Now take another look at the map. Where the Saskatchewan takes a great bend 300 miles northeast of Prince Albert, it is no longer a river—it is a vast muskeg of countless still amber water channels not twice the width of your canoe and quaking silt islands of sand and goose grass—ideal hidden and almost impenetrable for small game. Always muskeg marks the limit of big game and the beginning of the ground of the little fellows—waupoos the rabbit and musquash the muskrat and sakwasew the mink and nukik the otter and wuchak or pekan the fisher. It is a safe wager that the profits on the millions upon millions of little pelts—hundreds of thousands of muskrat are taken out of this muskeg alone—exceed by a hundred fold the profits on the larger furs of beaver and silver fox and bear and wolf and cross fox and marten.
Look at the map again. North of Cumberland lake to the next fur post is
a trifling run of 250 to 300 miles by dog train to Lac du Brochet or Reindeer Lake—more muskeg cut by limestone and granite ridges. Here you can measure 400 miles east or west and not get out of the muskeg till you reach Athabasca on the West and Hudson's Bay on the East. North of Lac du Brochet is a straight stretch of 1,000 miles— nothing but rocks and cataracts and stunted woods, "little sticks" the Indians call them—and sky colored waters in links and chains and lakes with the quaking muskeg goose grass and muskrat reed, cut and chiselled and trenched by the amber water ways.
If you think there is any danger of settlement ever encroaching on the muskegs and barrens, come with me on a trip of some weeks to the south end of this field.
We had been pulling against slack water all day, water so slack you could dip your hand down and fail to tell which way the current ran. Where the high banks dropped suddenly to such a dank tangle of reeds, brush wood, windfall and timbers drifted 1,500 miles down from the forests of the Rocky Mountains —such a tangle as I have never seen in any swamp of the South—the skeleton of a moose, come to its death by a jump among the wind fall, marked the eastern limit of big game; and presently the river was lost—not in a lake—but in a swamp. A red fox came Scurrying through the goose grass, sniffed the air, looked at us and ran along abreast of our canoe for about a mile, evidently scenting the bacon of the tin "grub box." Muskrats feed on the bulb of the tufted "reed like a tree," 16 feet high on each side: and again and again little kits came out and swam in the ripple of our canoe. Once an old duck performed the acrobatic feat over which the nature and anti-nature writers have been giving each other the lie. We had come out of one long amber channel to be confronted by three openings exactly alike, not much wider than the length of our Klondike canoe, all lined by the high tufted reed. MacKenzie. the half-breed rapids man, had. been telling us the endless Cree legends of Wa-sa-kee-chaulk. the Cree Hiawatha, and his Indian lore of stagnant waters now lured him into steering us to one of the side channels. We were not expected. An old mother duck was directly across our path teaching some twenty-two little black hobbling downy babies how to swim. With a cry that shrieked "leg it—leg it" plain as a quack could speak and which sent the little fellows scuttling, half swim, half run, the old mother flung herself over on her back not a paddle's length ahead of us, dipped, dived, came up again just at our
bow and flopped broken-winged over the water ahead of us near enough almost to be caught by hand; but when you stretched out your hand, the crafty lady dipped and dived and came up broken-winged again.
"You old fool," said Sexsmith, our head man, "your wing is no more broken than mine is. We're not going to hurt your babies. Shut up there and stop that lying."
Spite of which the old duck kept up her pantomime of deceit for more than a mile; when she suddenly sailed up over our heads back to her hidden babies, a very Boadicea of an old duck girl. When we drew in for nooning, wild geese honked over our heads near enough to be hit by the butt of a gun. Drift chips, lodged in the goose grass, kindled fire for kettle; but oilcloth had to be spread before you could get footing ashore. I began to wonder what happened as to repairs when canoes ripped over a snag in this kind of region: and that brought up the story of a fur trader's wife in another muskeg region north of Lac La Ronge up towards Churchill River, who was in a canoe that ripped a clean hole the size of a man's fist. Quick as a flash, the head man was into the tin grub box and had planked on a cake of butter. The cold water hardened it; and that repair carried them along to the first birch tree affording a new strip of bark.
Where an occasional ridge of limestone cut the swamp, we could hear the laughter and the glee of the Indian children playing "wild goose" among the trembling black poplars and whispering birches; and where we landed at the Indian camps we found the missionaries out with the hunters. In fact, even the nuns go haying and moose hunting with the Indian families to prevent lapses to barbarism. On one of these moose hunts for pemmican supply in the rock region north of this muskeg, the Revil
lons' manager succeeded in snap-shotting a sister rifle in hand. The good lady was panicky at thought of this representation of a peaceful missionary going out to the world. "Oh, by Gar, Sister,7' consoled one of the hunters, "you convert us all lot faster—me, I t'ink—wit' y'r rifle than y'r beads."
Again and again we passed cached canoes, provisions stuck up on sticks above the reach of animal marauders— testimony to the honesty of the passing Indian hunters, which the best policed civilized Eastern city cannot boast of its denizens.
"I've gone to the Rockies by way of Peace River dozens of times." declared the Revillon man, "and left $500 worth of provisions cached in trees to feed us on our way out, and when we came that
same way six months afterwards we never found one pound stolen, though I remember one winter when the Indians who were passing and repassing under the food in those trees were starving owing to the rabbit famine."
In winter, this region is traversed by dog train along the ice—a matter of 500 miles to Lac du Brochet and back, or 600 to Prince Albert and back. "Oh, no, we're not far," said a lonely faced Cambridge graduate fur trader to me. "When my little boy took sick last winter, I had to go only 55 miles. There happened to.be a doctor in the lumber camp back on the Ridge."
But even winter travel is not all easy in a 50 below zero climate where you can't find sticks any larger than your finger to kindle night fire. I know the story of one fur trader, who was running along behind his dog sleigh in this section. lie had become over-heated running, and had thrown his coat and cap across the sleigh, wearing only flannel shirt, fur gauntlets, corduroy trousers and moccasins. At a bend in the iced channel he came on a pack of mangy coyotes. Before he had thought, he had sicked the dogs on at them. With a yell they were off out of sight amid the goose grass and reeds. Those reeds, remember, are sixteen feet high, stiff as broom corn and hard on moccasins as stubble would be on bare feet. To make matters worse, a heavy snow storm
came on. The wind was against the direction the dogs had taken and the man h o 11 o o e d himself hoarse without an answering sound. It was two o'clock in the morning before the wind sank and the trader found his dogs; and by that time between sweat and cold, his shirt had frozen to a board.
Such a thing as an out and out pagan hardly exists among the Indians of the North. They are all more or less Christian with a curious mingling of pagan superstition with the new faith. The Indian voyageurs may laugh but they all do it—make offerings of tobacco to the Granny Goddess of the River before setting out. In vain we threw biscuit and orange peel and nuts to the perverse tempered deity supposed to preside at the bottom of those amber waters. The winds were contrary—the water slack, sluggish, dead, no responsive gurgle and flap of laughter and life to the slow keel.
One channel but opened on another. Even the limestone ridges had vanished far to rear; and the stillness of night fell with such a flood of sunset light as Turner never dreamed in his wildest intoxications. There would be the wedge shaped line of the wild geese against a flaming sky—a far honk— then stillness. Then the flackering quacking call of a covey of ducks with a hum of wings right over our shoulders —then no sound but the dip of our paddles and the drip and ripple of the dead waters among the reeds. Suddenly, there lifted against the lonely red sunset sky—a lob stick—a dark evergreen stripped below the tip to mark some Indian camping place, or vow, or sacred memory. We steered for it. A little flutter of leaves like a clapping of hands marked land enough to support black poplars; and we rounded a crumbly sand bank just in time to see the sevenbanded birch canoe of a little old hunter —Sam Ba'tiste Buck—80 years old he was—squatting in the bottom of the