H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

The great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory online

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Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 15 of 24)
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a window fronting a well-traveled highway the queer vehicles
as they pass; and if the reader chooses to occupy one-half
of our lookout, we can study the shifting panorama at leisure.
The picture before us is framed by the window-sash, and
has a dreary perspective of prairie, covered equally with snow


and mud-bordered pools of water. The first object that comes
into the foreground is the Red River cart. This vehicle
figures prominently in all these northern scenes. It is a
national institution, so to speak, and boasts of great solidity.
No springs of any kind disfigure it, or alarm the passenger
with their giddy and uncertain motion. He knows just
when the wheels strike the ground, and understands exactly
where he is. These carts are all of uniform shape, and are
constructed entirely of wood, the axles and rims to the wheels
forming no exception to the rule. Although this at first
sight might appear to be a disadvantage, as denoting a want
of strength, yet it is really the reverse, as in the country
traversed by these vehicles, wood is always to be had in
sufficient quantities to mend any breakage which may occur.
The only tools necessary, not only to mend but to construct
a cart, are an axe, a saw, and an auger ; with these the half-
breed is independent so far as the integrity of his vehicle is
concerned. Indeed, the cart may be described as a light
box-frame poised upon an axle connecting two strong wooden
wheels. These are of more than the usual diameter, and are
enormously dished. As seats in vehicles are a superfluous
luxury, only demanded by the effete civilization of the East,
the half-breed eschews them altogether. The passenger sits
on the bottom plank, usually the hardest one about the cart ;
and as the bed of the vehicle is lower than the shafts, his
heels are somewhat higher than his hips, which gives him the
greater benefit of the inequalities in the road over which he
may pass. When, as is often the case, the cover is low and



narrow, so as to make necessary a forward inclination of the
head toward the feet, it is easy to imagine the comfort of the
posture as a whole. Frequently the passenger, after becom-
ing weary of this position, and alternating it with an attempt
to keep his balance on a carpet-bag or other bundle, takes
his place with the driver on the shaft. He may sit opposite
Antoine, back to back, or immediately behind him ; the first-
named position being the most satisfactory to the olfactories,
the last-named illustrating the brotherhood of races without
any appreciable loss of space. With this vehicle, however,
the native is independent of the rest of the world, and indif-
ferent to the length of his journey. He straps a raw-hide
over it at night and makes of
it a tent ; he straps a raw-hide
under it and makes of it a
boat in which he crosses any
stream he may meet. There
are no stones to injure its
wheels, and the prairie sod
bears up the weight of the

broad wooden felloes where an iron tire would break through.
Huge trains of these vehicles are used in freighting over the
northern plains; and they furnish the chief means of land
transportation in the country.

The single cart kept by each half-breed instead of a
buggy, and devoted to the conveyance of his wife and family,
is, however, much more elaborately gotten-up than those des-
tined for the commoner uses of freighting. The wheels and
shafts are shaved down to more delicate proportions ; the


body is decorated with certain mystical emblems m red and
yellow ochre, supposed to represent flowers ; while over it is
stretched a covering of oil-cloth or dressed skins to protect
the fair traveler from the inclement weather. It is drawn,
too, by the best pony in the half-breed's herd, and becomes
as legitimate a subject of rivalry as the equipage of her more
highly civilized sister. Like the freight cart, its wheels
are always guiltless of grease. The creaking that results
the natives are very proud of, having no wish, as they say, to
steal upon people unawares, like a thief in the night. A
perfectly new cart is seldom seen ; each being in a greater or
less condition of fracture and dislocation, and splintered
and bandaged with raw-hide thongs.

Every cart is drawn by a single pony or ox ; the latter,
which is most affected for freighting purposes, will draw a
load of nine hundred pounds at the rate of twenty-five miles
per day. The steed is fastened between the shafts by means
of a rude harness, generally made of dressed ox-hide. We
have seen this same harness, however, made in a much more
novel fashion. In buffalo-hunting, when the harness gives
out, it is the habit of the half-breed, always fertile of re-
source, to manufacture a new one made all in one piece.
Killing a buffalo bull, he skillfully marks out his harness
on the hide of the fallen animal, then strips it off with his
knife. A few hours' exposure in the sun dries it, a string or
two supply the place of the necessary buckles, and it imme-
diately does duty on the back of pony or ox. The long
lines called shaganappi, that are used for so many purposes


in the country, are all made in a similar fashion. They are
carved out from the hind-quarters of a bull, by forming a
series of spirally-enlarging circular cuts, passing the knife
under them, and lifting off the hide exactly like the skin of a
well peeled apple or orange. The ends are then attached to
two stakes, between which the strips being tightly stretched,
soon become a straight and perfect line.

In traveling with carts — the common method of summer
locomotion on the northern plains — generally as many ponies
run loose alongside as are worked in harness. These loose
horses, one might fancy, would be prone to gallop away when
they find themselves at liberty to do so. Nothing seems
further from their thoughts; they trot, along beside their
harnessed companions as if they knew all about it. When
the shaft animal tires, to change horses is the work of but a
moment. Out comes one horse; the other is standing close
by and never stirs while the hot harness is put on him ; in he
goes into the rough shafts, and, with the crack of the driver's
whip across his flanks, starts away with the rest. The fact
that the pony may never have been in harness before makes
no sort of difference to the driver. At first the animal re-
fuses to move an inch ; then comes loud and prolonged
thwacking from half-breeds and Indians. Whips, raw-hide
lines and sticks are freely used, when, like an arrow from a
bow, away goes the pony ; suddenly he makes a dead stop,
gives two or three plunges high in the air, and falls down flat
upon the ground. Again comes the threshing, and again

up starts the pony and off like a rocket. Ox-hide harness is


tough ; a broken cart is easily mended ; and for all horses
the native has this simple method of persuasion.

In fine contrast to this method of locomotion appears the
native horseman just passing. Mounted on a little wiry ash-
colored pony, he rides with that free, swinging motion pecu-
liar to the practiced equestrian. And he is, perhaps, one
of the finest horsemen in the world. His long dark-blue
capote, and jaunty fur cap with pendent tassel, impart some-
thing of a military air to his appearance. He sits squarely
upon a small pad of deer-skin, and rides with a long stirrup.
Every motion of the horse, guided more by the pressure
of the knee than the bridle-rein, is anticipated and met
intuitively by the rider. There is no half-way gait with this
impulsive horseman ; he goes either at a walk or a mad
gallop, and seldom exchanges this method of locomotion
save for the canoe, the snowshoe, or the dog-sledge. Com-
mon pedestrianism is to him a lost art. The fact that he
could walk to his next neighbor's door never seems to occur
to him.

His little lithe, sinewy ponies are faithful beyond descrip-
tion, yet a fine-looking one is seldom seen. They stand
about the dooryards with a discouraged, heart-broken air,
and will take considerable pounding without much exhibi-
tion of life. Yet they endure privations and hardships bet-
ter than their more delicately-nurtured brethren. True, if
you ride them about the settlements, you are at first nearly
pitched over every gate and fence you come to. When your
pony catches sight of one of these he makes for it, and sud-


denly stands stock still, as a hint to you to dismount and tie
him up — an illustration of the gossiping habits of his late
owner. But out on the plains the daily distance compassed
by these ponies without breaking down altogether under it
seems scarcely credible ; still less does it appear possible
upon the food which they have to eat. Neither hay nor oats
is given them — nothing but the prairie grasses, often dry
as tinder, and eaten only during the frosty hours of the
night. From forty to fifty miles a day, stopping only for
one hour at midday, and going on again until late at night, is
but average travel.

Of course the stranger journeys on in constant fear lest
the game little limbs will grow weary and give out ; but.
no, not a bit of it. An Indian pony does not die of hard
travel. His shaggy coat roughens, and his flanks grow a
little thinner, but still he goes on as pluckily as ever. If very
tired he sometimes lags behind until his companions have
disappeared behind some distant ridge in the prairie ; then he
begins to look anxiously around, whinnying and trying to
get along after his comrades, and suddenly breaks into a
wild dash down the trail until he regains his fellows — far-
away specks in the great waste before him. When the night
camp is reached the little animal is stripped, the thong of soft
buffalo-skin untied from his neck and twisted well about
his forelegs as a hopple, and he jumps away into the darkness
to find his night's provender. He feeds and lodges himself
and carries his master ; all he gets in return is a water-hole
cut in the ice for him in winter, and not always even that.


Trotting briskly into the foreground comes a diminutive
pony in harness. A moment after appears the long pair of
shafts to which he is attached, and, just when you have given
over all hope of ever seeing their end, comes the vehicle of
which all this is the propelling power. It does not come
straight into the scene, like any other well-conducted vehicle,
but zigzags into it, winding from one side of the road to the
other, as if it had a drop too much. It acts as a sort of peri-
patetic pendulum, of which the diminutive pony is the pivot ;
even the hinder parts of that animal partaking of the vibrat-
ing motion of the vehicle, so that he seems certain only as to
where his forelegs are going. This conveyance looks like a
ship set on runners. It is very low amidships but very lofty
as to poop and forecastle ; it is broad in beam, and, the
runners being not more than six inches high, there is always
a pleasing uncertainty as to when it will capsize. It inevi-
tably must, sooner or later, but just when is the conundrum.
There are two seats, one low down amidships, the other high
up in the stern of the craft. The driver sits forward, yells
constantly at his pony and pushes on the lines to increase its
speed; the passengers sit aft, with anticipation written on
their countenances, and the sensation of being whirled alor>g
without any visible motive power — the horse being so far
distant as seemingly to bear no relation to the vehicle. It is
the cariole, native to the country, and the best equipage for
general love-making we know of. Darby and Joan take a
seat in the stern of the craft ; the driver sits in the bow and
looks at his horse alone, heaping on it plentiful profanity



discreetly veiled in the heathen tongues. The back seat,
following the shape of the sledge, gravitates toward the
centre; so do Darby and Joan, until they really seem to


assimilate, so to speak. In fact, they are in a manner obliged
to hold fast to each other, as the sledge overturns at the
slightest provocation. It is a pleasant spectacle to see the
well-freighted carioles, gay with gaudily-lined robes and
wraps, careering along the highway ; but it is still more
pleasant to sit on that back seat and slowly gravitate toward
Clarise or Angelique.

There comes midway into our picture the figure of a man
moving over the surface of the snow with a swinging move-
ment, like that of a fen-skater. Evidently he has sometliing
attached to his feet — something that clings to the toes, yet
drops from the heels, and trails upon the snow as he raises
a foot. Ah, he is a snowshoe runner !

To walk well on deep snow, to follow the dogs, to run
down the moose, there is nothing like snowshoes. These are
composed of a light wooden frame, about four feet in length.


tapering from a width of about fifteen inches at the centre
to points at either end, the toes being turned up so as to pre-
vent tripping. Over this frame a netting of deer-skin sinews
or threads is stretched for the foot of the runner to rest
upon. The object of this appliance is by a thin network to
distribute the weight of the wearer over so large a surface of
snow as will prevent him from sinking. The credit of the
invention is due to the Indians, and, like that of the canoe
and other Indian instruments, it is so perfectly suited to the
object in view as not to be susceptible of improvement by the
whites. On snowshoes an Indian or half-breed will travel
thirty, forty, and sometimes even fifty miles in twenty-four
hours. It is the common and indeed the only available mode
of foot-travel away from the public highways in winter.

But here comes the winter vehicle of the Fur Land ! The
traveler who lingers long at any season of the year about a
Hudson Bay Company's fort will be struck with the unusual
number of dogs lying about the square court during the day,
or howling and fighting underneath his windows at night.
To leave his door oi)en at any time is only to invite an in-
vasion of the wolfish brutes, who come crowding up, and
seem inclined to take possession of the apartment. During
the summer season they do nothing for man, but pass their
time in war, love, robbery, and music, if their mournful howls
can be dignified by that name. And yet, neglected as are these
noisy, dirty animals in their months of idleness, unfed, kept
in bare life by plunder, the mark for every passer's stick or
stone, they are highly prized by their owners, and a team of



fine, good, well-trained dogs will bring a handsome price when
the winter season approaches. Then two well-broken dogs
become as valuable as a horse ; then it is the dogs that haul
the sledges and that perform, in fact, nearly all the work of
the country.

Hudson's bay dogs.

These animals are mostly of the ordinary Indian kind,
large, long-legged, and wolfish, with sharp muzzles, pricked
ears, and thick, straight, wiry hair. White is one of the most


usual colors, but brown, blue-grey, red, yellow, and white
marked with spots of black, or of the other various hues, are
also common. Some of them are black with white paws,
others are covered with long rough hair, like Russian setters.
There are others of a light bluish-grey, with dark, almost black
spots spread over the whole body. Almost all of them have
black noses, but with some of the lighter-colored ones this
part is red, brown, or pink, which has a very ugly effect.
Most of them are very wolfish in appearance, many being
half or partly, or all but entirely, wolves in blood. One
frequently sees dark-grey dogs which are said to be almost
pure wolves. Seen upon the prairie, it is almost impossible
to distinguish them from the ordinary wolf of the middle-
sized variety ; and their tempers are spoken of as a match for
their looks. Indeed it often happens that the drivers of such
dogs are obliged, before harnessing or unharnessing them, to
stun them momentarily by a blow on the nose, on account of
their savage natures. Many of the others, moreover, are
nearly as bad, and need a touch of the same rough treatment.
In some instances the worse animals are emasculated, with
a view of improving their tempers without rendering them
unfit for work.

It sometimes happens, however, that among this howling
pack of mongrels there may be picked out a genuine train of
dogs. There is no mistake about them in size or form, from
foregoer to hindmost hauler. They are of pure Esquimaux
breed, the bush-tailed, fox-headed, long-furred, clean-legged
animals, whose ears, sharp-pointed and erect, spring from a


head embedded in thick tufts of wooly hair. Or there may-
be a cross of Esquimaux and Athabascan, with hair so long
that the eyes are scarcely visible. These animals have come
from the far-northern districts, and have brought a round sum
to their owners. They are of much more equable temper than
their wolfish brethren, and frequently have a keen apprecia-
tion of kindness. To haul is as natural to them as to point is
natural to a pointer. Longer than any other dogs will their
clean feet hold tough over the rough ice. But it is with dog-
driving as with everything else ; there are dogs and dogs, and
the difference between their mental and physical characteris-
tics are as great as between those of average men.

The vehicles to which dogs are harnessed in the Fur Land
are of three kinds — the passenger-sledge, or dog-cariole, the
freight-sledge, and the travaille. A cariole consists of a very
thin board, usually not over half an inch thick, fifteen to
twenty inches wide, and about ten feet long, turned up at one
end in the form of a half circle, like the bend of an Ojibway
canoe. To this board a light frame-work, resembling a coffin
or a slipper-bath, is attached, about eighteen inches from the
rear end. This frame-work is then covered over with buffalo-
skin parchment, and painted and decorated according to
taste. When traveling, it is lined with buffalo-robes and
blankets, in the midst of which the passenger sits, or rather
reclines ; the vehicle being prevented from capsizing by the
driver, who runs behind on snowshoes, holding on to a line
attached to the back part of the cariole. The projecting end

or floor behind the passenger's seat is utilized as a sort of boot


upon which to tie baggage, or as a platform upon which the
driver may stand to gain a temporary respite when tired of

The freight-sledge is of more simple construction. It is
made of two thin oak or birch-wood boards lashed together
with deer-skin thongs. Turned up in front, like a Norwegian
snowshoe — scarcely a quarter of a circle — it is from nine
to twelve feet in length, and sixteen inches broad. It runs


over hard snow or ice with great ease. Along its outer edges
a leather lashing is run, through the loops of which a long
leather line is passed to tie down tightly to its surface what-
ever may be placed upon it. From the front, close to the
turned-up portion, in both baggage-sledge and cariole, the
traces for draught are attached.

Dogs in the Fur Land are harnessed in a number of ways.
The Esquimaux run their dogs abreast. On the coast of
Hudson's Bay they are harnessed by many separate lines
into a kind of band or pack ; while in Manitoba and the
Saskatchewan they are driven tandem. Four dogs to each
sledge form a complete train, though three and even two
are used, and are harnessed to the cariole by means of two
long traces. Between these traces the dogs stand one after
.the other, with a space intervening between them of perhaps a


foot. A round collar, passing over the head and ears and
fitting closely to the shoulder, buckles on each side to the
traces, which are supported by a back-band of leather. This
back-band is generally covered with tiny bells, the collar
being hung with those of larger size, and decorated with
party-colored ribbons or fox-tails. In no single article of
property, perhaps, is greater pride taken than in a train of
dogs turned out in good style ; and the undue amount of
beads, bells, and ribbons, frequently employed to bedizen
the poor brutes, produces the most comical effect when
placed upon some terror-stricken dog, who, when first put
into harness, usually looks the picture of fear, resembling
a chief mourner clad in the garb of Pantaloon. The ludi-
crous effect is intensified when the victim happens to be
young in years, and still retains the peculiar expression of

The rate of speed usually attained in sledge-travel is about
forty miles per day of ten hours, although this rate is often nearly
doubled. Four miles an hour is a common dog-trot when the
animals are well loaded ; but this can be greatly exceeded when
hauling a cariole containing a single passenger upon smooth
snow-crust or a beaten track. Very frequently extraordinary
distances are compassed by a well-broken train of dogs. An in-
stance is recorded where a young Scotch half-breed, driving
the mail-sledge between Fort Garry and Pembina, was desir-
ous of attending the wedding of his sister, which was to occur
at seven o'clock of the morning following the evening of his
regular departure for the latter place. To do this he would


have to make the journey in a single night. Leaving Fort
Garry at five o'clock in the evening, he reported again with his
return mail at a quarter to seven o'clock the following morn-
ing, having compassed a distance of one hundred and thirty-
five miles in a single night with the same train of dogs. This
remarkable speed is capable of ample verification. Sixty
to eighty miles per day is not infrequently made in the way
of passenger travel. Mr. McFarlane, a company's officer,
made the journey down from Mackenzie River, a distance of
twenty-one hundred miles, in forty-six traveling days, using
the same dogs the entire way. An average train of four dogs
will trot briskly along with three hundred pounds' weight
without difficulty. Trains loaded to travel short distances
with a barrel of liquor and two sacks of flour, or about six
hundred and eighty pounds avoirdupois, are not an uncom-
mon sight. This weight is exceptional, however, and only to
be hauled when the roads are perfect.

When light showers of snow fall in minute particles, as
if it were frozen dew, from a sky without a cloud, and the sun
shining brightly, the winter traveler in the Fur Land knows
just what degree of cold he may expect. He knows that
masses of ice, the size of a man's fist, will form on his beard
and mustache, from the moisture of his breath freezing as it
passes through the hair ; that his eye-lashes will have to
be kept in rapid motion to prevent them from becoming
permanently closed ; that his hands can scarcely be exposed
for a moment ; that his bare fingers laid upon a gun-barrel
will stick to it as if glued, from the instantaneous freezing of


their moisture ; that the snow will melt only close to the fire,
which forms a trench for itself, in which it sinks slowly to
the level of the ground ; that the snow, light and powdery,
will not melt beneath the warmth of his foot, and his mocca-
sins will be as dry on the journey as if he had walked through
sawdust ; that a crust of ice will form over the tea in his tin-
cup, as he sits within a yard of the roaring fire ; that he will
have a ravenous appetite for fat, and can swallow great lumps
of hard grease — unmoulded tallow candles — without bread or
anything to modify it. So he dresses accordingly — that is,
the white traveler.

He first puts on three or four flannel shirts, one of duffel,
and over all a leather one, beaded and fringed to suit the
taste ; his hands are encased in mittaines, or large gloves of
moose-skin, made without fingers, and extending well up
toward the elbows ; loose enough to be easily doffed on
occasion, and carried slung by a band about the neck to pre-
vent being lost ; his feet are swathed in duffel, and covered
with enormous moccasins ; his legs are encased in thick duffel
leggins, until they resemble a severe case of elephantiasis ; his
ears and neck are protected by a thick curtain of fur ; and
yet, with it all, he is hardly able to keep warm with the most
active exercise.

With his Indian or half-breed companion it is different.

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Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 15 of 24)