H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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eling costume. These changes made, the ensemble of the
crews became rougher, but more picturesque. Corduroy
trousers, tied at the knee with beadwork garters, encased
their limbs ; capotes were discarded, and striped shirts open
in front, with cotton handkerchiefs tied sailor-fashion round
their swarthy necks, took their place ; a scarlet sash encircled
the waist of each, while moose-skin moccasins defended their
feet. Their head-dresses were as various as fanciful — some
trusted to their thickly-matted hair to guard them from the
sun and rain ; some wore caps of coarse cloth, others twisted
colored kerchiefs turban-fashion round their heads ; while
one or two sported tall black hats covered so plenteously
with tassels and feathers as to be scarcely recognizable.
They were a wild yet handsome set of men, as they lay or
stood in careless attitudes round the fires, puffing clouds of
smoke from their ever-burning pipes.

At the command of the sfuide, however, thev fell to re-


adjusting the cargoes of the boats for the passage of the lake,
and the portages immediately beyond. For on the waters
traversed by these brigades navigation is seriously interrupted
by rapids, waterfalls and cataracts, to surmount which the
'boats with their cargoes have to be landed and carried round
the obstruction, to be relaunched at the nearest practicable
point. Again it occurs that a height of land is reached,
across which the boats and merchandise must be dragged in
order to descend the opposite stream. In either event the
process is technically known as " making a portage," and con-
stitutes the hardest feature of the voyageur's labor.

It is owing to the vast amount of handling, necessitated
by the numerous portages intervening between the depot-forts
and even the nearest inland districts, that the packing of mer-
chandise becomes a matter of so great importance. The
standard weight of each package used in the fur-trade is one
hundred pounds, and each boat is supposed capable of con-
taining seventy-five " inland pieces," as such packages are
called. It is the method of reckoning tonnage in the coun-
try. The facility wuth which such pieces are handled by the
muscular tripmen is very remarkable — a boat being loaded
by its crew of nine men in five minutes, and presenting a
neat, orderly appearance upon completion of the operation.

In crossing a portage, each boatman is supposed to be
equal to the task of carrying two inland pieces upon his back.
These loads are carried in such a manner as to allow the
whole strength of the body to be put into the work. A broad
leather band, called a "portage strap," is placed round the


forehead, the ends of which strap, passing back over the
shoulders, support the pieces which, thus carried, lie along
the spine from the small of the back to the crown of the
head. When fully loaded, the voyagcur stands with his body
bent forward, and with one hand steadying the pieces, he
trots nimbly away over the steep and rock-strewn portage, his
bare or moccasined feet enabling him to pass briskly over the
slippery rocks in places where boots would inevitably send
both tripman and load feet-foremost to the bottom. In the
frequent unloading of the vessel, the task of raising the pieces
and placing them upon the backs of the muscular voyageurs
devolves upon the steersman ; and the task of raising seventy-
five packages of one hundred pounds' weight from a position
below the feet to a level with the shoulders, demands a greater
amount of muscle than is possessed by the average man.

Winnipeg, like all other great lakes, is liable to be visited
with sudden storms, which, taking a boat by surprise while
in the process of making a long traverse, might be attended
with fatal consequences. The coasts, generally speaking,
offer only a limited number of harbors for small boats, but
these fortunately within a few hours' sail of each other. In
the event of a boat being overtaken by a sudden tempest, it
is sometimes necessary to make for the nearest land and
" beach " her, carrying herself and cargo ashore by main
force, over a considerable length of breaker-washed shore.

It was for this reason, perhaps, that our guide marched
solemnly to and fro upon the shingle, curiously examining,
with twisted neck and upturned eyes, the signs of the


weather ; and presenting, with his long blue great-coat and
cautious gait, a somewhat quaint and antiquated spectacle.
Having with some difficulty satisfied himself that the weather
would hold good until we could reach the nearest harbor, he
recalled the crews — who had scattered along-shore, smoking
their pipes — and loosed from land. The lake, changeful as
the ocean, was in its very calmest mood ; not a wave, not
a ripple on its surface ; not a breath of air to aid the untiring
paddles. The guide held his course far out into the glassy
waste, leaving behind the marshy headlands which marked
the river's delta. The point at which we had dined became
speedily undistinguishable among the long line of apparently
exactly similar localities ranging along the low shore.

A long, low point reaching out from the south shore
of the lake, was faintly visible on the horizon, and toward it
our guide steered. The traveler, seated comfortably on the
deck of the boat, indulged alternately in reading and smoking ;
the whole style of progress being more like the realization of
a scene from Telemaque or the ^-Eneid, than a sober business
voyage undertaken in the interests of a trading company of
the present day.

The red sun sank into the lake, warning us to seek the
shore and camp for the night, as we reached the point toward
which we steered. A deep, sandy bay, with a high background
of woods and rocks, seemed to invite us to its solitude. The
boats were moored in a recess of the bank, or drawn bodily
upon the beach ; sails brought ashore, and roofs extemporized
as protection against possible storms. Drift-wood was again


collected, and active preparations for the evening meal ensued.
Each boat's crew had a fire to itself, over which were placed
g}-psy-like tripods, from which huge tin kettles depended ;
while above them hovered numerous volunteer cooks, who
were employed in stirring their contents with persevering
industry. The curling wreaths of smoke formed a black
cloud among the numerous fleecy ones arising from the
steaming kettles, while all around, in every imaginable atti-
tude, sat, stood, and reclined the sunburned savage-looking
voyageurs, laughing, chatting, and smoking, in perfect happi-

Meanwhile, the bedding of the traveler, after being un-
wrapped from its protecting oil-cloths, was spread upon the
ground. Bedding consists of, say, three blankets and a pil-
low. The former are folded lengthways, and arranged on the
oil-cloth, which, when camp is struck in the morning, is so
rolled about them as to form a compact, portable bundle,
when properly corded, practically impervious to weather.

All occupations ceased at the call of the cooks, and the
crews gathered round the camp-fire with their scant supply of
tinware. The bill-of-fare was limited, as before, to pemmi-
can and tea. As the brigade penetrates the interior, however,
wild-fowl become abundant, and the stews more fragrant and
savory. Supper over, half a dozen huge log-fires are lighted
round about, casting a ruddy glow upon the surrounding foli-
age, and the wild, uncouth figures of the voyageurs, with their
long, dark hair hanging in luxuriant masses over their bronzed
faces. They warm themselves in the cheerful glow, smoking


and chatting with much good-humor and carelessness of the
day's adventures, or rather of what are regarded as such — un-
usual good or ill-luck at fishing or hunting, the casual meet-
ing of some aboriginal canoe, or the sight of some lone In-
dian's leather lodge. Only the dense swarms of mosquitoes,
which set in immediately after sunset, remind the traveler that
he is not realizing a scene from tropical life.

To be appreciated, the pain and inconvenience caused by
the attacks of these little insects must be felt. They swarm
in the woods and marshes, and, lying amid the shade of the
bushes during the heat of the day, come abroad in the cool
of the evening and make night hideous where no grateful
breeze blows for the protection of the traveler. They form,
in fact, the principal drawback to the pleasure of summer
travel in the Fur Land. The voyageur, after working hard
through the long, hot day, simply spreads the single blanket
he is allowed to carry on the ground, and with no other cov-
ering than the starry firmament above him, sleeps undisturbed
till dawn ; only occasionally brushing away, as if by way of
diversion, the most obtrusive of the little fiends. But the
more refined and less case-hardened traveler suffers severely.
In vain are trousers tied tightly about the ankles, and coat
sleeves at the wrist, while mosquito veils surround the head.
The enemy finds his way in single file through apertures un-
seen by human eyes, and bites without mercy ; while his
personal escape is secured by the impossibility of hunting
him up without making way for the surrounding hosts of his
confreres. For the victim, feeding under such circumstances


is no easy matter. Independent of the loss of appetite occa-
sioned by the nature of the situation, the veil must be removed
to obtain access to the mouth, and the hands must be un-
covered to work knife, fork, and spoon. Sleep is also to be
obtained only for a few short, feverish moments at long inter-
vals. Any attempt to gain repose by concealing one's self
beneath the blankets is in vain ; and long before sleep can
come, the baffled experimenter is compelled to emerge, half
smothered, to breathe the sultry air.

The traveler can, however, often have an awning fitted up
over the stern-sheets of the boat, and sleep on board. By
this arrangement, in the event of a favorable breeze blowing
at daybreak, the crews can pursue their journey without dis-
turbing him. On the other hand, the traveler is often called
upon to give up the boat to the men- during the night, so that
they may be further removed from the mosquitoes, and better
prepared for work on the ensuing day, when the passenger
can make up for the night's sleeplessness. Under this system,
then, the steersman occupies the stern-sheets, while the crew,
by arranging the mast and oars lengthways over the boat, and
stretching oil-cloths over the framework so formed, turn the
vessel into one long, snug tent, in which they can rest in com-
fort. This device is called a "tanley," the word being cor-
rupted from the French " tendrc-le."

In the early morning, before the mists had risen from the
waters, the loud " Leve I leve ! leve ! " of the guide roused the
camp. Five minutes were sufficient to complete the trav-
eler's toilet, tie up his blankets, and embark. The prows of


the boat-brigade swung into the lake, and the day's voyage
began. Usually a short sail is made until a favorable camp-
ing-spot is reached, when the boats are again beached, and
the breakfast prepared. Then succeeds a renewed plying of
the oars, or, if the wind prove favorable, the sails are set, and
the little fleet glides smoothly upon its way. When the wind
is fair and the weather fine, boats make very long traverses,
keeping so far out that, about the middle of the run, neither
the point from which they started nor the one toward which
they are steering is visible. In calm weather, howev^er, when
the oars are used, it is usual to keep closer in-shore, and make
shorter traverses. The pursuit of game and wild-fowl, daily
indulged in, tends to vary the monotony of the voyage. Oc-
casionally the breeding-places of the latter are found, in which
event the crews lay in a stock of eggs and young birds suffi-
cient for the voyage. Again, returning boats are encountered,
and a short season devoted to the exchange of news and com-

The wind springing up, the guide ordered all sail set, and
stood far out into the lake. The boats of the brigade proving
very unequal sailors, from difference of build and diverse
lading, the white sails soon lost all semblance of line, and
straggled over the placid waters of the lake, each upon its
own tack. Nor did they meet again until we entered the
mouth of Winnipeg River, shortly after mid-day, and prepared
to encounter its twenty-seven portages, the first of which began
but eight miles above the company's fort, at its delta.

The Winnipeg River, with twice the volume of water the


Rhine pours forth, descends three hundred and sixty feet in
a distance of one hundred and sixty miles. This descent is
not effected by a continuous decline, but by a series of ter-
races at irregular distances from each other, thus forming innu-
merable lakes and wide-spreading reaches, bound together by
rapids and perpendicular falls of varying altitudes. It was
over this pathway of rock and stream, of terrace and lagoon,
that the course of the boat-brigade now lay. To describe the
forcing of one barrier is only to iterate that of the one pre-
ceding or following it.

Passing through lonely lakes and island-studded bays,
there sounds ahead the rush and roar of falling water ; and,
rounding some pine-clad island, or projecting point, a tum-
bling mass of foam and spray, studded with rocks and bor-
dered with dark-wooded shores, bars the way. Above the
falls nothing can be seen ; below, the waters boil in angry
surge for a moment, then leap away in maddened flight,
threatening to toss the well-laden boats like corks upon their
sweeping surface. But against this boiling, rushing flood
comes the craft and skill of the intrepid voyageurs. They
advance upon the fall as if it were an equally subtile enemy
with themselves ; they steal upon it before it is aware.
The immense volume of water, after its wild leap, lingers a
moment in the huge cauldron at the foot of the fall ; then,
escaping from the circling eddies and whirlpools, sweeps
away in rushing flood into the calmer waters below.

But this mighty rush in mid-stream produces a counter-
current along-shore, which, taking an opposite turn, sweeps


back nearly, if not quite, to the foot of the fall. Into this
back-current the stealthy voyageiirs steer their well-laden
boat. On one side the rocky bank towers overhead, slender
pine and fir-trees finding precarious foothold in its crevices ;
on the other, ofttimes but a yard from the advancing boat,
sweeps the mad rush of the central current. Up the back-
current goes the boat, driven cautiously by its oarsmen, until,
just in advance of its bow, appears the whirlpool in which it
ends, at the foot of the fall. To enter that revolving mass
of water is to be wrecked in a twinkling ; to turn into the
broad current of the mid-stream is, apparently, to be swept
away in a moment of time. What next ?

For a moment there is no paddling, the bowsman aSid
steersman alone keeping the boat in position, as she rapidly
drifts into the whirlpool. Among the crew not a word is spoken,
but every man is at his utmost tension, and awaiting the in-
stant which shall call every muscle, nerve, and intelligence
into play. Now the supreme moment has come ; for on one
side begins the mighty rush of the mid-current, and on the
other circle and twist the smooth, green, hollowing curves
of the angry whirlpool, revolving round its axis of air with a
giant strength that would overturn and suck down the stanch
whale-boat in the twinkling of an eye. Just as the prow
touches the angry curves, a quick shout is given by the bows-
man, and the boat shoots full into the centre of the rushing
stream, driven by the united efforts of the entire crew, supple-
mented by extra oarsmen from the other boats. The men

work for their very lives, and the boat breasts across the


Stream full in the face of the fall. The waters foam and dash
around her ; the mad waves leap over the gunwale ; the voy-
ageurs shout as they dash their oars like lightning into the
flood ; and the traveler holds his breath amidst this war of
man against Nature. But the struggle seems useless. Man
can effect naught against such a torrent ; the boat is close
against the rocks, and is driven down despite the rapid
strokes of the oarsmen. For an instant she pauses, as if gath-
ering strength for her mad flight down the mid-channel. The
dead strength of the rushing flood seems to have prevailed,
when, lo ! the whole thing is done. A dexterous twist of the
oars, and the boat floats suddenly beneath a little rocky isle
in mid-stream, at the foot of the falls. The portage-landing
is over this rock, while a few yards out on either side the
mighty flood sweeps on its headlong course. A^voyageurledi])?,
out on the wet, slippery rock, and holds the boat in place
while the others get out. The cool fellows laugh as they sur-
vey the torrent they have just defeated, then turn to carry
the freight piece by piece up the rocky stairway, and deposit
it upon the flat landing ten feet above. That accomplished,
the boat is dragged over, and relaunched upon the very lip of
the fall.

But slightly different was the ascent of many of the rapids
encountered from time to time. Upon arriving at one, ad-
vantage was taken of the back-current near the banks to run
up as far as the eddy would permit ; then the bowsman rose
from his seat, and craned his neck forward to take a look be-
fore attempting the passage. Signaling the route he intended


to pursue to the steersman, the boat at once shot into tlie
chaos of boiling waters that rushed swiftly by. At first it
was swept downward with tlic speed of an arrow, while the
mad flood threatened to swamp it in a moment. To the trav-
eler, unaccustomed to such perilous navigation, it seemed
utter folly to attempt the ascent ; but a moment more
revealed the plan, and brought the stanch craft into a tempo-
rary harbor. Right in the middle of the central current a huge
rock rose above the surface, while from its base a long eddy
ran, like the gradually-lessening tail of a comet, nearly a score
of yards down the stream. It was just opposite this rock
that the voyageurs had entered the rapid, and for which
they paddled with all their might. The current, sweeping
them down, brought the boat just to the extreme point of the
eddy by the time mid-stream was reached, and a few vigor-
ous strokes of the oars floated it quietly in the lee of the
rock. A minute's rest, and the bowsman selected another
rock a few yards higher up, but a good deal to one side.
Another rush was made, and the second haven reached. In
this way, yard by yard, the boat-brigade ascended for miles,
sometimes scarcely gaining a foot; again, as a favoring bay or
curve presented a long stretch of smooth water, advancing
more rapidly.

In rapids where the strength of the current forbade the
use of oars, progress was made by means of the tracking-line.
Tracking, as it is called, is dreadfully harassing work. Half
the crew go ashore, and drag the boat slowly along, while the
other half go asleep. After an hour's walk, the others take


their turn, and so on, alternately, during the entire day. As
the banks about the rapids were generally high and very pre-
cipitous, the voyagcurs had to scramble along, now close to
the water's edge, again high up on the bank, on ledges
where they could hardly find a footing, and where they re-
sembled flies on a wall. The banks, too, composed of soft
clay and mud, increased the labor of hauling ; but the light-
hearted voyageiirs seemed to think nothing of it, and laughed
and joked as they toiled along, playing tricks upon each
other, and plunging occasionally up to the waist in mud and
water, with a reckless carelessness all their own.

So, day after day, the boat-brigade journeyed on ; through
island-studded bays, over long reaches of limpid water whose
placid surface not a ripple stirred, over turbid floods thick
with the ooze of muddy banks, breasting fierce rapids, climb-
ing thundering waterfalls ; sometimes making a fair day's
travel, again, after a day of weary toil, bivouacking almost
within sight of last night's camp-fire.

One day the traveler became aware of an undue bustle
and excitement among the swarthy crews of the brigade.
The pointed prows were turned shoreward and run upon a
pebbly beach, affording easy access to the limpid water, and
facing the warm rays of the sun. The voyageurs brought
forth all the soiled clothing worn upon the journey, and a gen-
eral scrubbing took place. Soon the bushes in the vicinity,
the branches of the trees, and the flat rocks, bore plentiful
burdens of gaudy-colored apparel, waving in the breeze to
dry. Copious baths were next administered to their persons,





capped by each man donning the bravest garments of his out-
fit. Ribbons were braided in the hair, flashy sashes encircled
their waists, and moccasins of bewildering beadwork encased
their feet. Then, with a dash and wild chorus of boat-song,
the oars were plied with quickly-measured stroke. Soon the
sharp point of a headland was turned, and the Mission of the
White Dog appeared, perched upon the precipitous banks of
the stream. It was the end of the traveler's journey. A few
huts, a few Indians, a company's trading-store, and an aroma
of decaying fish which, amalgamating with the slight mist from
the river, surrounded the traveler's head like an aureole.




" I ^HERE have now almost disappeared from the vast
-*- buffalo- ranges extending between the Missouri and
Saskatchewan Rivers the last vestiges of what were once the
most perfectly-organized, effective, and picturesque periodi-
cally-recurring hunting-excursions known to any nomadic peo-
ples. They came within the lists, too, of what are technically
known to sportsmen as " pot-hunts " — forming the almost en-
tire support of certain well-defined border communities.

For over half a century regiments of men — with avast fol-
lowing of retainers and impedimenta — have swept over the
plains twice annually, bearing slaughter and destruction to its
shaggy denizens ; the product being sufficient to maintain a
large colony with its various dependencies in plenty, and even
in comparative luxury, for the remainder of the year. These
hunts formed an almost certain means of livelihood, and, for
the amount of labor required, offered inducements far superior
to those of agriculture, or, indeed, any other pursuit which the
scope of country presented. Moreover, they were especially
adapted to the class with which they obtained — a class
which, by reason of eminent fitness and efficiency, seemed
particularly designed by Nature for the congenial calling.


Suggested first by the necessities of a meagre handful of
half-starved immigrants, they became at length the main-
stay of a considerable population, and an important factor
in the commerce of the world. Wherever a buffalo-robe is
found, particularly in European markets, there may be seen
the business-card of this vast pot-hunt ; sometimes repre-
sented by the robe itself, again by certain hieroglyphics deco-
rating its tanned side. And this (to many) cabalistic adver-
tisement suggests the matter of the present chapter.

In the year 181 1 the Earl of Selkirk purchased of the
Hudson's Bay Company the ownership of a vast tract of land,
including, as a small part of the whole, the ground occupied
by a colony known, until its recent purchase by the Dominion
Government, as Red River Settlement, near the foot of Lake
Winnipeg, in British North America. On this territory Earl
Selkirk had formed the Utopian idea of settling a populous
colony, of which he should be the feudal lord. A compul-
sory exodus of the inhabitants of the mountainous regions
of the county of Sutherland, Scotland, taking place about
that time, to make way for the working of the sterner
realities of the system of land management which prevails
on great estates in this prosaic nineteenth century, an op-
portunity of easily obtaining the desired colonists for the
occupation of his new purchase was thus presented. The first

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 9 of 24)