H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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certain death, with calm and peaceful face turned up to the
sky, and form hard and unimpressible as if carved from
granite, within a period whose duration would expire in the
few hours of a winter's daylight if there were no fire or means
of making it upon the track.

Suppose, too, that the gently-undulating motion of the
sledge, in accommodating itself to the inequalities of the
frozen surface, which seemed so suggestive of a canoe floating
cork-like upon rippling water, felt, now that one is seated in
the sledge, like being dragged over a gravel-walk upon a sheet ;
or that the track has been completely snowed up, and the
wretched dogs are unequal to the emergency. Mistatim, the
leader, is willing, but young, thin, and weak ; the middle one,
Shoathinga, is aged and asthmatic ; and the shafter, Kuskita-
ostiquarn, lame and lethargic. From morning till night the
air resounds with howling and the cries of their drivers anathe-
matizing Shoathinga and Kuskitaostiquarn. The sledges
constantly upset from running against a stump or slipping
over a hillside ; and, when one hauls and strains to right them,
the dogs lie quietly down, looking round at him, and not offer-
ing to pull an ounce to help. When the driver, aggravated
beyond endurance, rushes up, stick in hand, and bent on
punishment, they make frantic exertions, which only render
matters worse, resuming their quiescent attitude the moment
he returns again to haul at the sleigh ; and all this time, per-



haps, the unfortunate passenger lies, bound and helpless, half
buried in the snow. Under these conditions the scene changes,
and the envious spectator of the poetry of motion retires with
more sympathy for those old voyageiirs of the fur-trade, who
used to pay stipulated sums to the happy inventors of new and
strange oaths.

The fall of snow on land being insufficient for sledding
purposes, we followed the frozen channel of the river as a
track, the six trains gliding smoothly over the first stage of
their journey. Harnessed in tandem fashion, one after an-
other, the twenty-four dogs and accompanying sledges formed
a long line, and presented a gallant spectacle. Fresh from a
long rest, they trotted gayly along, affording their drivers but
little pretext for blows or imprecation in the breath-taking
pace they attained. True, the gaunt Cree dealt Whiskey a
merciless flick, from time to time, and urged upon Brandy the
necessity of minding his eye ; but I fancy it was owing more
to a desire to keep his hand in play, and his vocabulary of
invective in memory, than from any defect in their work.
Nevertheless, such casual and indifferently-bestowed abuse
revealed the fact that, of the eight animals who were doing
their best individually and collectively, to haul me and my
baggage over that waste of ice, five rejoiced in the names of
Brandy and Whiskey, while the remaining three distributed
Coffee and Chocolate between them. This knowledge was a
blow under which I reeled. An apostle of temperance sweep-
ing past lonely dwellings, and dashing with a wild scurry
through Indian camps, shrieking for strong drink, and followed
by a wild retainer opposing his demands with suggestions of
coffee and chocolate, would likely convey to the startled


dwellers on the plain the idea of a migratory delirium tre-
mens, or a peripatetic advertisement of " The Bar-tender's
Own Book." Upon inquiry, however, my misery was found
to have abundant company ; for, of the sixteen dogs attached
to the packet-trains, no fewer than eleven reveled in an
alcoholic nomenclature. The reason assigned by the drivers
for so general use of spirituous appellations was, that the mere
sound of these names was suggestive of warmth, comfort, and
good cheer ; from which the wearied driver doubtless derived
a satisfaction equal to washing

" . . . . his hands with invisible soap,
In imperceptible water."

Still, upon second thought, it may be held that, as certain
colors are suggestive of warmth and comfort — a stove painted
red about the base ofttimes deludes the casual visitor with the
idea of heat — so may the influence of certain names be pro-
ductive of like genial effect upon the imagination. How-
ever it may be, I know that if such nomenclature be adopted
without well-founded reason on the part of the dog-driver, it
is the only thing in the many curious phases of his life that
is so accepted. Not a thread in the web of his existence but
has its use.

Twenty miles below our point of departure, and perched
upon the lofty and precipitous bluffs of the river, we caught
sight of one of those impossible pictures of mediaeval fortifi-
cation which so often adorn the lids of snuff-boxes, or the
pages of ancient albums. There were the same peaked roofs,
and turrets, the same bleak view of unadorned stone-wall, with
bastions, ramparts, gates, and all, as in the original. But no


plumed knight or trusty squire issued from its portals, nor
double-handed sword or glittering armor decked its halls. It
was the abode of Dives, and Dives trades in beads and gilt, in
furs and tobacco, in cattle and calico. As a company's *
trading-post it proved a somewhat extensive collection of resi-
dences, shops, and stores. These were all inclosed within a
stone-wall, pierced throughout its entire circuit with loop-
holes, so arranged as to suggest the inquiry whether, in the
extremely improbable event of the place being besieged, they
would present greater facilities to the defenders of the estab-
lishment, or to the assailants in firing through them at the
garrison within.

The banks hereabouts were high and densely wooded.
Some miles below, however, the woods disappeared, and the
banks, which gradually sank to a lower level, were covered
with long, reedy grass. Indian tents, surrounded even at that
late season by nets hung up to dry, indicated the pursuits of
their owners. The stream, after reaching the low country,
split into numerous channels, through several of which its
waters found their way into Lake Winnipeg.

At the outlet of the main channel our sledges were run
ashore. The bank here was a long strip of shingle running
out into the lake, the frozen waters of which extended north-
•w^ard out of sight. We had accomplished over forty miles ;
the night was closing in, and this was the last available camp-
ing-place before setting out upon the long stretches from islet
to islet, or point to point, of the lake's shore. So the drivers
loosed their dogs, and proceeded to gather drift-wood for the

* The Company referred to here, and elsewhere throughout the book
where the word occurs, is invariably the Hon. Hudson's Bay Company.


night. The twenty-four dogs, meanwhile, surveyed each
other grimly, discovered points of etiquette upon which they
could not agree, and fell into a general fight, threatening dis-
astrous consequences until the loaded whip-stocks of the men
separated them.

The snow having been cleared away by the aid of a snow-
shoe used as a shovel, and our own supper prepared and
eateti, we turned our attention to the dogs who had borne the
burden if not the heat of the day ; for the sledge-dog's day is
one long tissue of trial. Put to a task from which his whole na-
ture revolts, he is driven to the violation of every instinct by the
continual lashings of a driver's whip. Before Night has lifted
her sable mantle to shroud the stars, the sledge-dog has his
slumbers rudely broken by the summons of his master. Close
by the camp, under the protecting lee of stump or fallen tree,
he has lain coiled in the roundest of balls during the night.
Perhaps, if his lines are cast in pleasant places, he has en-
croached upon his driver's blanket, and contributed his vital
heat to the comfort of that merciless functionary. Perhaps,
too, the fast-falling flakes of the snow-storm have covered him
in their soft folds, adding to his sense of warmth, and reveal-
ing his presence only in the shape of a rounded hillock of
snow. He may, perchance, dream the dreams of peace and
comfort, or imagine that his soft covering will render him
undistinguishable from the surrounding mass of white ; to be
awakened from his delusion by blow of whip-stock, a kick of
the driver's foot, and the stern command to find his place in
the gaudy gear of moose-skin and bells awaiting him — an
ornamented and bedizened harness that mocks the pathos of
his whip-marked face and trembling figure. Then comes the


start. The wooded copse is left behind, and under the in-
cipient dawn he plods along through the snow. The sleepy
driver seeks to dissipate the morning cold by rapid motion,
and mercilessly urges the dog to his utmost effort. The crisp
air resounds with the crack of his whip and the echoes of his
dire imprecation. The dog, not yet nerved to his uncongenial
labor, cunningly takes every advantage to shirk, refusing to
pull when it is most required, and showing wonderful speed
and alacrity, rushing off with the heavy sledge when the dis-
tracted driver comes near to punish.

The day dawns, sun rises, morning merges into mid-day,
and it is time to halt for a dinner in which the hauling-dog
cannot share ; then on again in Indian file, as before. If
there be no path in the snow, the driver travels before to beat
one W' ith his snow^-shoes, and the " foregoer," or leading-dog,
follows close behind. But if there be a track, however faint,
the animal follows it himself ; and when lost to sight by wrack
and drift of tempest, his sense of smell enables him to keep it
straight. Thus through the short hours of the winter's day
they travel on, in withered woods through which the wind
howls and shrieks, or on the endless expanse of snow, the
glare of whose unsullied whiteness blinds the vision of the
lake-traveler ; through solitudes which, save when the occa-
sional dog-sledge with its peals of bells in winter, or the
swiftly-passing boat-brigade resonant with the songs of the
summer voyageurs, intrudes, with its momentary variation,
upon the shriek of the all-penetrating wind, the ripple of the
stream, the roar of the thunder-toned waterfall, or the howl of
the wild beast of the w^oods, are abandoned to the undisturbed
possession of the Indian hunter and his prey.


When the winter's day draws to a close, and the twilight
landscape has warned the traveler to choose his resting-place
for the night, the sledge-dog finds relief from his harness, and
his day's work is at an end. His battered and disfigured
face loses in some slight degree its rueful look, to assume an
air of expectation. He stretches and rolls in the powdery
snow, then lies down to watch the preparation of the evening
meal, in faint hope that some meagre portion may slip from
his master's hand, or be left a moment unguarded. Soon,
however, his watch merges into unconsciousness, and he
sleeps. But the termination of his master's meal, follow^ed by
the sound of the axe striking the block of pemmican, or the
unloading of the frozen white-fish from the provision-sledge,
at once wakens him to life and vigor. He leaps quickly up,
an alert, vicious animal, with every instinct centred in an
eager craving for food. In the plain-country a daily ration
of two pounds of pemmican is thrown him ; in the region of
forest and stream, where fish forms the staple food, he re-
ceives two large white-fish raw. In his diet he prefers fish to
meat, and betrays its superiority in his work. His one daily
meal is soon despatched ; no pleasures of deglutition are his.
A quick snap, followed by a moment's rapid munching, and
the pemmican has disappeared ; the same short snap, a few
cojivulsive throes, and the frozen fish is bolted almost whole,-
and the wistful eyes turned up for more. Not finding it, he
indulges in a season of growling and snapping at his fellows,
then lies down out in the snow to sleep, or, perchance, to
dream of that day, which never comes for him, when the whip
shall be broken and hauling shall be no more. Thus he re-
mains till morn, unless some old shafter, grim and grey, rising


at midnight on his haunches, inaugurates a chorus to the
skies ; or a pack of wolves, seated like sentries in a huge
circle about the camp, challenge him by quick barks to renew
their hereditary feud.

The preparations for repose were of the simplest descrip-
tion. As the wind swept down the lake from the north, our
heads were placed in that quarter, with feet in dangerous
proximity to the fire. On the summit of the heap of snow
formed in digging out our camping-ground were placed, as a
protection against the fierce blasts, the inverted dog-sledges,
which assumed amid that dreary landscape the likeness of
head-stones, marking our resting-place with a rude " Hie
jacet." Descending into bed from the surface of the snow,
and muffled in unlimited bedding, the sensation given by the
surrounding banks and overhanging sledges was that of sleep-
ing in a gigantic four-poster with a highly-decorated head-
board. The three drivers lay close together, but for certain
sanitary reasons their freight chose to form a single spoke in
the wheel, and reclined at an angle of his own.

Sleep comes soon to the traveler in arctic winters ; but a
beautiful dream of a little maiden who was wont to disport
upon my knees was rudely broken by a visible perception of
peril — a consciousness of the hovering presence of evil. How
to describe these feelings I know not ; but as, if the eyes of
a watcher are steadily fixed upon the countenance of a sleeper
for a certain length of time, the slumberer will certainly start
up, wakened by the mysterious magnetism of a recondite
principle of clairvoyance, so it was that, with closed eyes and
drowsed-up senses, an inward ability was conferred upon me
to detect the presence of danger near me — to see, though




sleep-blind, the formless shape of a mysterious horror crouch-
ing beside me. And, as if the peril that was my night-mate
was of a nature to be quickened into fatal activity by any
motion on my part, I felt in my very stupor the critical neces-
sity of lying quite still ; so that, when I at last awoke and felt
that, as I lay with my face to the sky, there was a thick,
heavy, shivering thing upon my chest, I stirred not, nor
uttered a word of panic. Danger and fear may occasionally
■dull the sense and paralyze the faculties, but they more fre-
■quently sharpen both ; and when I say that the whole of my
chest and even the pit of my stomach were covered with the
heavy proportions of the thing, its considerable size will be
acknowledged. A cold sweat burst from every pore. I
could hear the beating of my heart, and I felt, to my in-
creased dismay, that the palsy of terror had begun to agitate
my limbs. "It will wake," thought I, "and then all is
over ! "

At this juncture there sounded above my head a prolonged
howl, caught up and reiterated in varying chorus by a circle
of hoarse voices surrounding our couch. And upon this the
thing rose up on my chest with a quick start, and joined the
dismal refrain with a barytone of remarkable power ; while
the voice of my protecting Cree rang out in sudden anger :
" Whiskey, marche ! Sacre chien, passe partout ! " and the
warmth-seeking Whiskey shrank quickly from his living ped-
estal to join his brethren of the mystic circle on the snow
above. Thus relieved from the weight of the sledge-dog, who
had presumed upon a gentler nature to increase his own com-
fort, I peered cautiously up and beheld a scene the most


Seated upon the highest inverted sledge, with a look of
utter dejection and overpowering anguish of soul, sat the aged
leader of a packet-train, lifting up his voice in a series of
heart-rending howls in deep bass. Seated in a like manner at
regular intervals about him, and forming a huge circle inclos-
ing the camp, were the remaining twenty-three dogs, taking
their cue from the leader, and joining the chorus in dismal
tenor and rasping soprano. The weird melancholy of that
howling brought a sense of utter loneliness and desolation.
The echoes reverberated over the lake, and died away in
mournful, wailing cadences on the night-wind. The isola-
tion seemed to deepen, and become palpable. Above, the
sky was spangled with such myriads of stars as are only seen
in northern latitudes ; around lay a dreary waste of greyish
white, empty, desolate, and void of life ; no sound save the
dismal howling of the dogs. Soon, however, there was inter-
mingled with it much heathen profanity and objurgation, de-
livered in various tongues. The chorus had awakened the
drivers, who were endeavoring to quiet the dogs by impreca-
tions, in order to avoid the necessity of rising and using the
whip. " Brandy ! Brandy ! sacre demon ! " " Coffee ! ye ould
■sinner, pren' garde ! " " Chocolat, crapaud that ye aire,
Chocolat ! " "Whiskey! ah, sal-au-prix ! " "Whiskey!"
" Ah, Coffee ! you will catch it presently ! " " Capitaine !
Mistatim ! " "Brandy ! 'ere demon ! " Then followed an out-
burst of profanity, and a hasty, furious shout to the whole
circle, resembling a call for mixed drinks which has had no
equal since the " opening " of the first bar on the Pacific slope.
All this, however, proved of no avail, and the distracted drivers
■were finally forced to leave their warm beds and grasp their


whips, upon which the wretched animals darted off in agonies
of fear.

Three hours before dawn we arose and prepared for de-
parture by eating a fat breakfast and swallowing a great many
cups of tea. Then my uncivilized driver of dogs, who joined
the second-sight of a weather-seer to his other accomplish-
ments, took an inventory of the weather, and predicted a
storm before nightfall. However, the morning was as favora-
ble as one could wish, and, incased in robes and blankets, 1
slid into the shoe-like sledge and was off, the central figure of
the six sledges and a herd of howling dogs and drivers. The
point at which we had encamped became speedily undistin-
guishable among the long line of apparently exactly similar
localities ranging along the low shore. On in the gray snow-
light, with a fierce wind sweeping down the long reaches of
the lake ; nothing spoken, for such cold weather makes men
silent, morose, and savage.

Lake-travel, though rapid, is exceedingly harassing on
account of the high winds which perpetually sweep over the
immense plain of their frozen surface, intensifying even
moderate cold to a painful degree. The ice is always rough,
coated with snow of varying thickness, or drifted into hillocks
and ridges, alternating with spots of glass-like smoothness,
which are constantly upsetting the sledges. And this same
upsetting, a trifling matter enough on shore, is likely to prove
a serious annoyance where the hardness of the ice nearly
breaks one's bones. The same hardness, too, increases the
fatigue of sledge-travel, which at its best may be likened to
sitting on a thin board dragged quickly over a newly-macad-
amized road. Then, too, the pedestrian on a frozen lake


labors under peculiar disadvantages. Where the snow lies
deeply, the crust gives way at each step, precipitating the driver
to the bottom with a sudden jar ; where it lies thinly on the
surface, or is drifted away, the hardness of the ice injures
even the practiced voyageurs, causing swellings of the ankles
and soles of the feet, and enlargement of the lower bad
sinews of the legs. Again, the winter traveler speedily dis
covers that very slight exercise induces copious perspiration,
which in the most momentary halt, gets cold upon the skin ,
in fact, in a high wind, the exposed side will appear frozen
over, while the rest of the body is comparatively warm and
comfortable. Once cold in this way, it is almost impossible
to get warm again without the heat of fire, or the severest
exercise ; and, should the latter be adopted, it must perforce
be continued until a camping-place is reached. Moreover, to
a strong man, there is something humiliating in being hauled
about in a portable bed, like some feeble invalid, while the
hardy voyageurs are maintaining their steady pace from hour
to hour, day to day, or week to week ; for fatigue seems with
them an unknown word.

Toward noon there were indications that the prophetic
skill of my heathen driver was about to be verified. The
wind still kept dead against us, and at times it was impos-
sible to face its terrible keenness. So great was the drift
that it obscured the little light afforded by the sun — which
was very low in the heavens — through a cloudy atmos-
phere. The dogs began to tire out ; the ice cut their feet,
and the white surface was often dotted with the crimson
icicles that fell from their bleeding toes. The four canines
hauling the provision-sled turned back whenever opportunity


presented, or faced about and sat shivering upon their
haunches. Under these circumstances the anathemas of the
Cree grew fearful to the ear ; for, of all the qualifications
requisite to the successful driving of dogs, none is more neces-
sary than an ability to imprecate freely and with considerable
variety in at least three different languages. But, whatever
number of tongues be employed, one is absolutely indispen-
sable to perfection in the art, and that is French. Whether
the construction of that dulcet tongue enables the speaker to
deliver profanity with more bullet-like force and precision, or
to attain a greater degree of intensity than by other means, I
know not ; but I do know that, while curses seem useful ad-
juncts in any language, curses delivered in French will get a
train of dogs through or over anything. For all dogs in the
North it is the simplest mode of persuasion. If the dog lies
down, curse him until he gets up ; if he turns about in the
harness, curse him until he reverts to his original position ; if
he looks tired, curse him until he becomes animated ; and,
when you grow weary of cursing him, get another man to con-
tinue the process.

As the education of the Cree, so far as regarded the French
language, had seemingly been conducted with an eye single to
the acquirement of anathemas, which long practice enabled him
to use with such effect that the dogs instinctively dodged them
as if they had been the sweep of a descending lash, our speed
at first was not materially affected by the attempted baitings of
the weary animals. But, as the storm increased in violence,
and the swirl of powdery snow swept in their faces, the dogs
turned about more frequently, and seized every opportunity
of shirking. Then ensued that inhuman thrashing and varied


cursing, that howling of dogs and systematic brutality of dri
vers, which make up the romance of winter-travel, and degrade
the driver lower than the brutes. The perversion of the dog
from his true use to that of a beast of burden is productive of
countless forms of deception and cunning ; but a life of bond-
age everywhere produces in the slave vices with which it is
unfair to blame him. Dogs are often stubborn and provoking,
and require flogging until brought into subjection ; but lash-
ings upon the body while laboring in the trains, systematic
floggings upon the head till their ears drop blood, beatings
with whip-stocks until nose and jaws are one deep wound, and
poundings with clubs and stamping with boots till their howls
merge into low wails of agony, are the frequent penalties of a
slight deviation from duty.

Of the four dogs attached to the provision-sledge, three
underwent repeated beatings at the hands of the Cree. By
mid-afternoon the head of Whiskey was reduced to a bleeding,
swollen mass from tremendous thrashings. Chocolat had but
one eye wherewith to watch the dreaded driver, and Brandy
bad wasted so much strength in wild lurches and sudden
springs, in order to dodge the descending whip, that he had
none remaining for the legitimate task of hauling the sledge.
But one train of dogs out of the six sledges fared better, and
that one was composed of animals of the Esquimaux breed.
Fox-headed, long-furred, clean-legged, whose ears, sharp-
pointed and erect, sprang from a head imbedded in thick tufts
of woolly hair, hauling to them was as natural as to watch is

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 2 of 24)