H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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Inured to the climate and accustomed to winter travel, he is
comfortable under a meagre weight of clothing. He relies
upon vigorous exercise for the development of caloric, and
is constantly in motion. A pair of corduroy trousers, a cotton


shirt, a capote, moccasins and a fur cap, constitute his winter
costume. His hands are encased in mittaines, but in Heu of
underclothing he ties his trousers tightly about the ankle,
and the sleeves of his capote closely about the wrists. This,
with the gaudy sash always wrapped around his waist, divides
his clothing into two air-tight compartments, as it were. If
it becomes cold in one, he always has the other in which to
take refuge ; or, he can loosen his belt, thus turning on a
supply of caloric, which equalizes the temperature in both
compartments. Lightly clad, he is in excellent trim for run-
ning, and seems warm and comfortable while his more heavily
appareled companion shakes and shivers on the slightest halt.

Next in importance to personal clothing on the winter
journey is transportation ; and as the snow is too deep for
horses to travel, the only available vehicle remaining is the
dog-sledge. Upon this is placed the blankets and pemmican,
together with the paraphernalia of the camp. Tents are not
used for winter travel, as the huge fires necessary for com-
fort and even safety could not be made available. In fact,
unless it is desirable to make a long halt in any one locality,
tents are only an incumbrance to the traveler, without adding
proportionately to his comfort. Well sheltered by timber,
and with an enormous fire blazing at his feet, sleeping in the
open air is generally feasible enough.

As to dogs for his sledge, the traveler follows the custom
of the country and takes the best he can get. Every canine
in the Fur Land, without regard to age, sex, or previous con-
dition of servitude, hauls a sledge in the winter months ; so


that he has an unlimited opportunity of selection ; any one
he may take being only the choice of a greater or less evil.
He is always careful, however, not to select too many yellow
dogs for service in the same train. The fact is, that in haul-
ing the dog is put to a work from which his whole nature
revolts ; that is to say, the ordinary yellow dog. The result
being, that just when one imagines everything to be going on
swimmingly, and after he is well wrapped in robes and fairly
seated in the sledge, the four yellow dogs in front of him
suddenly stop, face about in harness, seat themselves calmly,
and with tears in their dark-blue eyes, break forth into howls
of regret at their inability to proceed farther. There have
been men distinguished for kindness and humanity toward
their fellows, and yet who, when placed in circumstances like
these, gave way to a sublimated and lurid profanity which
would have curled the hair on a bronze idol. For mere dress-
parade the yellow dog may do very well, but he is not to be
relied upon as a steady and persistent hauler. The experi-
enced traveler generally inclines to a large raw-boned canine
of a grisly-grey color, and possessing many of the distinguish-
ing characteristics of the wolf. This fellow is hard to manage,
treacherous, and a fierce fighter. When near the settlements,
the safety of young calves and pigs necessitate his being
securely tied ; but he is a strong, untiring, and steady hauler,
and his temper can be kept in subjection by the lash.

To assist his own locomotion, the traveler ties on his
largest pair of snowshoes, say five feet long and fifteen
inches wide. A man can walk much faster on snowshoes,


with a fair track, than on the best road without them ; but
when the trail is frozen perfectly hard, the traveler casts
them off, and runs behind the dogs, who are able to gallop at
great speed along the slippery path ; and in this manner the
most extraordinary journeys have been made. With a crack
of the whip, and a harsh command to the dogs, the train
moves off. After that, a perpetual shouting and cursing
cracking of whips and howling of dogs, seems necessary to
keep the cavalcade in motion. And it is scarcely to be
wondered at when one comes to consider the conduct of the
dogs at the very beginning of the journey.

The start is generally made at a very early hour in the
morning ; for the traveler invariably accomplishes a good
portion of his day's tramp before breakfast. It is, say, two
long hours before daybreak when the dogs are put in har-
ness. It is a morning of bitter cold ; a faint old moon hangs
low down in the east ; over the dreary stretch of snow-covered
plain a shadowy Aurora flickers across the stars ; it is all as
wild and cheerless a spectacle as the eye can look upon ; and
the work of getting the unwilling dogs in their harness is done
by the half-breeds in no very amiable mood. In the haste
and darkness of the time but scant attention is given to getting
the cowering brutes into their proper places in the traces. In
consequence, when the traveler assumes charge of his sledge,
an ominous tendency to growl and fight tells him that some-
thing is wrong in his train. It is too dark to see plainly, but
a touch of the cold nose of the leader informs him that the
right dog is in the wrong i lace. It is too late, however, to



rectify the mistake ; the half-breeds are already off, and the
sound of their dire anathemas grows fainter and fainter upon
the ear. So the whip is mercilessly applied, and, amid the

yells of the unhappy brutes, the sledge grinds slowly off
through the frozen snow.

But the memory of that mistake rankles in the breast ot


the foregoer ; and just when a steady pace is attained, and
peace seems to have returned to the train, he suddenly coun-
termarches in the harness, and prostrates the unoffending
steerdog at his post. The attack, too, is made with so much
suddenness and vigor that the wondering victim — who is
perfectly contented with the change, having thereby won the
easiest place in the train — instantly capitulates, and " turns
a turtle " in his traces. The trouble might end here but
for the fact that the unlooked-for assault is generally accom-
panied by a flank movement on the part of the two middle
dogs, who, when there is any fighting lying around, are pretty
sure to have a tooth in on their own account. And having
no particular grudge to take out, but only mad on general
principles, they are equally indifferent in attacking the head
of the rear dog or the tail of the one in front. This condition
of things naturally leads to fearful confusion in the train ;
they jump on one another ; they tangle their traces, and
back-bands, and collar-straps, into inextricable knots and
interlacings, which baffle the stiffened fingers of the angry
traveler to unravel. Frequently they roll themselves into
one huge ball, presenting the appearance of a hydra-headed
dog, with multitudinous legs and innumerable tails. The
rapid application of the whip only seems to make matters
worse — conveying the idea to each infuriated dog that he
is being badly bitten by an unknown antagonist. The trav-
eler, having tried everything else, and with patience entirely
gone, at last in sheer despair, but unwittingly, follows the
example of the poet of Perth, who " stoode in ta middle of


ta roade and swoore at lairge ; " having a faint idea, neverthe-
less, that he is in no way capable of doing justice to the
subject. The effect, however, is magical ; the confused train
straightens out under illimitable imprecation, with a celerity
clearly illustrating the manner of its early training. As for
the bewildered traveler, he has unwittingly discovered the
true secret of dog-driving.

By the time the mistake is rectified, however, and the dogs
are tugging at their moose-skin collars in peaceful equanimity,
the traveler's half-breed companions have disappeared in the
distance. . Extreme cold has a tendency to make men un-
social ; in a fight with the elements, it is each man for him-
self ; and the traveler knows he will be left alone until the
camping-place is reached — possibly till night.

Traveling thus day after day through the intense stillness
and solitude of the snow-clad plain, without meeting a sign
of man, and rarely seeing a living creature, strikes strangely
upon the mind at first. The half-breed or Indian delights in
wandering alone ; but the traveler who first tries the experi-
ment, finds the silence and loneliness so oppressive as to be
unbearable. He often journeys over a space where no tree
or shrub breaks the monotony of the sky-line ; only the un-
ending vision of snow and sky, the vague, distant, and ever-
shifting horizon ; the long snow-ridges that seem to be rolled
one upon another in motionless torpor, or, in a storm, moving
like the long swells of the ocean ; the weird effect of sunrise
and sunset, of night limiting the vision to almost nothing, and
clothing even that in a spectral, opaque grey; of morning slowly


expanding it to a hopeless, shapeless blank ; the sigh and
sough of the ceaseless wind, that seems an echo in unison
with the immeasurable solitude of which it is the sole voice ;
and, over all, the constantly growing sense of lonely, never-
ending distance, which deepens upon the traveler as morning
after morning dawns upon his onward progress under the
same fantastic, ever-shifting horizon of snow and sky.

All this becomes doubly intensified to the traveler left
alone to shape his course for the day. But the reality of the
storm, drift, and desolation, has the excitement of the very
pain which they produce. To be lost in the blinding haze
of a " poudre day ; " to have a spur of icy keenness urging
him on to renewed effort ; to have the dead weight of that
dread inertia, which always accompanies the traveler on
northern plains, keeping him down with an iron grasp ; to
have Despair constantly suggesting the futility of further ex-
ertion ; to seek with dazed eyes and sickening fears, hour
after hour, for the faint print of snowshoe or moccasin upon
the snow ; to see night approaching, and not a thing of life
or shape of shelter within the scope of vision ; to urge the
tired dogs with whip and voice to fresh exertions, to greater
effort in gaining some far-off aspen bluff, or willow copse,
ere night shall wrap the dreary scene in darkness ; all this is
but the reiterated recital of the traveler's daily misery.

In the face of a cold, the intensity of which it is difficult
to imagine, he must keep on. Right in his teeth blows the
bitter blast ; the dogs, with low-bent heads, often face about
in the traces, and can only be induced to proceed by repeated


thrashings ; the half-breeds, with blankets wrapped tightly-
over their heads, bend forward as they walk against the wind.
To run is instantly to freeze ; to lie upon the sledge, even for
a moment, is to chill the body through to the very marrow.
Under these circumstances, the traveler is apt to wonder if
the game is worth the candle. He compares himself with all
the other adventurers who have gone on fool's errands since
the world began, and finds the result very much to his own
disadvantage. Like Touchstone, he is sorry he came.

" Ros. Well, this is the Forest of Arden.

Touch. Ay, now am I in Arden ; the more fool I ; when I
was at home, I was in a better place ; but travelers must be

Small wonder when, after such a day of toil and hardship,
the traveler sees through the gloom the haven he so long has
sought — it may be only the camp-fire in the aspen-clump, or
the dull glow of a chip-fire in a snow-drift — he hails with in-
tense joy the gleam which tells him of a resting-place. And
yet, as he stretches his weary limbs in the snow, or on the soft
broom, he laughs at the fatigues and fears which, one short
hour before, were heart-sickening enough. Yet so it is.

When the light begins to fade over the silent plain, and
the greyish, opaque pall settles slowly down upon the frozen
landscape, the traveler looks about him for a good camping-
place. A poplar thicket, or a pine bluff, supplies all his re-
quirements — a few dead trees for fuel, a level space for his
fire and his blankets, and broom for his bed. Every one sets
to work as quickly as possible. One unharnesses the dogs


and unpacks the sledges ; another collects dry logs ; a third
cuts pine chips and starts the fire ; while a fourth shovels
away the snow in front of the fire with a snowshoe, and
strews the cleared ground with the pinebroom. Then all
squat down, smoking and superintending the cooking of sup-
per, the hungry dogs seated around anxiously waiting for their

A pipe and smoke follow, then the blankets and robes are
spread out for the bed. The operation of undressing is re-
versed, and the traveler literally dresses for the night ; cover-
ing head and all, and placing his feet as near the fire as
he dares. All huddle together as closely as possible, and
when silence reigns, the dogs creep softly in toward the fire
and lie at the sleepers' feet. Then begins the cold. The
mercury in the thermometer placed at the bedside sinks
down — down, till it disappears in the bulb, and may be used
as a bullet. The traveler is tired with his forty-mile march
on snowshoes. Lying down with blistered feet and stiffened
limbs, sleep comes to him by the sheer force of fatigue ; but
the dim consciousness of that frightful cold never for an
instant leaves his waking brain ; and, as he lies in a huddled
heap beneath his robes, he welcomes the short-haired, shiver-
ing dog, who, forced from his cold lair in the snow, seeks
warmth on the outside of his master's blankets.

Strange as it may appear to those who, living in warm
houses and sleeping in cosy rooms from which all draughts
are zealously excluded, deem taking one's rest in a poplar
thicket, at such a temperature, next to an impossibility, it is


quite the reverse. The men who brave such dangers are
made of sterner stuff, and do not perish so easily. On the
other hand, it frequently occurs that when, before dawn,
the fire again glows ruddily, and the cup of tea is drank
hot and strong, the whole discomfort of the night is forgotten
— forgotten, perhaps, in the dread anticipation of a cold still
more trying in the day's journey to come.

Day after day the same routine of travel is pursued. To
rise at three o'clock of the bitterly cold mornings, to start
at four, and plod on till dark, halting twice for an hour
during the day, is the dull history of each day's toil. No
literary skill is able to enliven the dreary monotony of the
journey. In front goes a train of dogs, floundering along
in the deep snow ; then the other trains wind along upon
a firmer footing. As the day wanes, the dogs begin to tire,
but still go on as gamely as ever. At sundown the trains
have straggled widely apart, the weaker ones dropping far to
the rear. The dogs begin to look wistfully back at the driver
running behind the sledge, who, " filled with strange oaths,"
only responds to their pathetic appeals Avith fiercer impreca-
tions. Dogs and men seem to go forward from the mere
impulse of progression. All have been tired long since ; not
partially so, but regularly weary ; yet, somehow, the sense
of weariness seems to have passed away ; the step forward
upon the snowshoe is taken by a mere mechanical effort,
destitute alike of sense or feeling. Where all is a wilderness,
progression means preservation ; and sick or sore, weary and
blistered, the traveler must push on.



'T~^HE most expert hunters and trappers of fine furs in the
•*- Hudson's Bay Territory are the Wood-Indians — Crees,
Beavers, and others — and from them are traded the greater
portion of the peltries exported by the company. They are
of different habits and dispositions from their relatives, the
Plain-Indians — a sort of solitary hunters and trappers on foot,
contrasted with a race of gregarious horsemen. Generally
very peaceable, they pride themselves upon an honesty un-
known to their lawless brethren of the prairies ; and although
great beggars, and inclined to importune one to give them
different things to which they may take a fancy, yet they
never offer to dispute one's right of ownership. Expert
hunters of moose, and occasionally seeking the buffalo, when
they enter the skirts of the timber in winter, yet they confine
their labors in the main to trapping the smaller furs. As a
consequence, they are better clothed and equipped than
the Plain-Indians, being able to obtain what they require
at the trading-posts in exchange for furs. On the other
hand, they often suffer severely from starvation, owing to
the increasing scarcity of the larger animals ; while the Plain-
Indians, following the buffalo, seldom lack food, although


they possess but little marketable property wherewith to
buy clothes and luxuries at the forts.

Upon the arrival of the summer and autumn boat-brig-
ades at the different posts throughout the Fur Land, bring-
ing supplies of merchandise for the trade of the ensuing year,
it is the custom of the company to issue to their hunters and
trappers goods up to a certain amount, to be returned in furs
at the end of the season. These advances are generally all
made by the month of November, so that the hunters may be
in readiness for the season's work.

The different methods by which the Indian succeeds
in snaring and trapping animals are many. But as by far
the most numerous of the more valuable of the fur-bear-
ing animals of the territory are the marten and mink, to the
capture of the former of these two — the sable of the trade — •
the exertions of the trappers are principally directed. By the
beginning of November the animals have got their winter
coats, and fur'is in season, or "prime," as the phrase is ; and
the Indian trapper, who has taken up his residence in some
favorite locality, now prepares to lay out his trapping-walk.
As he has a long tramp before him, and the temperature is
below zero, he attires himself in the winter costume of the
trapper : a large deer-skin or duffel capote, very much over-
lapped in front, and fastened about his waist by a brilliant
worsted sash, protects his body from the cold ; a small rat or
fox-skin cap covers his head, while his legs are encased in
the ordinary blue-cloth leggin ; large moccasins, with two or

three pairs of duffel socks — simple squares of blanket cloth —


clothe his feet ; and huge mittaines, extending to the elbow,
complete his costume. Into his belt he thrusts a small axe
or hatchet, which serves as a balance to the huge hunting-
knife and fire-bag hanging from the other side. His pack is
prepared in the following manner :

In the middle of his blanket he places a piece of pemmi-
can, sufficient for five or six days' consumption ; as much tea
as he can get ; a tin kettle and cup ; and, if he be rich, some
steel traps, and a little sugar and salt. A gun and ammuni-
tion complete his outfit. Doubling the blanket over all, he
ties it down upon a small hand-sledge, or tobogan. This
hand-sledge is a thin flat slip of wood, from five to six feet
long by one broad, and turned up at the end in a consider-
able curl. It is very light, and the Indians always use it
when laying out their walks, or in visiting their traps, for the
purpose of carrying their provisions and hauling home the
animals or game they may have caught. Tying on a pair of
snowshoes, he throws the line of the hand-sledge over his
shoulder, and starts alone into the gloomy forest.

A sky of darkness is above, bleak Avilds and frozen lakes
before him ; the recesses of the forest, the icy margins of
the lakes must be traversed, for there are the haunts of the
sable. Silently forward he trudges ; for the trapper can never
enliven the solitude of his journey by whistling or a song.
The cold is below zero, but the fur will prove all the finer.
Nerved by necessity, and stimulated by the love of gain, on
he presses. Fatigue and cold exhaust him ; a snow-storm
overtakes him ; the bearings and landmarks are obliterated


and forgotten ; sometimes provisions fail, and he who has
promised a speedy return is seen no more.

The trapper, be he white man or Indian, of necessity leads
a solitary, desolate, and dangerous life. To be alone in the
trackless forest demands a courage and endurance of no
ordinary kind. The lone trapper knows not the emulation,
the wild dash and hurrah of the soldier, as he marches up to
the deadly breach ; he cannot feel that powerful incentive to
be brave arising from the knowledge that a gallant deed will
be handed down, with this name, to poserity ; he has no
opportunity for display before his fellows ; alone with nature
and his Creator, he is self-dependent, and his indomitable
courage can only spring from a firm reliance on his own

As he penetrates the forest, his keen eyes scan every mark
upon the snow for the tracks he seeks. The perceptions of the
Indian or half-breed are so nice, his attention so constantly
on the alert, and his conclusions so rapidly formed, that he
draws inferences from general signs with great readiness and
accuracy. As a consequence, he reads signs left behind by
a passing animal as readily and truly as if he had been per-
sonally present and witnessed the whole scene. It matters
little whether they are fresh or half obliterated ; he never
makes a mistake in his perusal of the language of tracks —
marks left printed in that book the hunter knows so well —
the face of Nature. When he observes the footprints of
marten or fisher, he unstraps his pack, and sets to work to
construct a wooden trap in the following manner :



I Having cut down a number of saplings, he shapes them
into stakes of about a yard in length. These are driven into
the ground so as to form a small circular palisade or fence,
in the shape of half an oval, cut transversely. Across the
entrance to this little enclosure, which is of a length to admit
about two-thirds of the animal's body, and too narrow to per-
mit it to fairly enter in and turn around, a thick limb or thin
tree-trunk is laid, with one end resting on the ground. A
tree of considerable size is next felled, stripped of its branches,
and so laid that it rests upon the log at the entrance in a
parallel direction. Inside the circle a small forked stick
holds a bit of dried meat, or a piece of partridge or squirrel,
as a bait. This is projected horizontally into the enclosure,
and on the outer end of it rests another short stick, placed
perpendicularly, which supports the large tree laid across the
entrance. The top of the trap is then covered over with bark
and branches, so that the only means of access to the bait
is by the opening between the propped-up tree and the log
beneath. It is a guillotine with a tree instead of a knife.

The marten or fisher creeps under the tree and seizes the
bait. Finding himself unable to pull it off, he backs out, still
tugging at the forked stick to which the bait is attached.
Just as the centre of his back comes under the fall or tree, he
loosens the baited stick, which lets slip the small supporting
one, which in turn lets fall the large horizontal log. Down it
comes on his back, killing him instantly, but doing no injury
to the fur. j Wherever marten tracks are plentiful m the
snow, a deadfall is erected ; an expert trapper being able to


make forty or fifty of them in a day. These he scatters over
a long line of country, it may be ten or fifteen miles in length.
Once a week he starts forth to visit this line of deadfalls,
gathering the furs taken, repairing the broken traps and setting
them again.

The numerous lakes and swamps in the forest are always
sought by the trapper, not only because they enable him to
travel more rapidly, and penetrate further into the less hunted
regions, but also because the edges of the lakes and the por-
tages between them are the favorite haunts of the fox, the
fisher, and the mink. Where the lakes are shallow, the water
apparently freezes to the bottom, except in the deepest parts,
where air or breathing holes exist in the ice. The Avater in
these holes is crowded with myriads of fish, most of them of

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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 16 of 24)