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The fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude online

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25' N. lat. and 114 W. long. The surrounding districts slope
down to it, and it completely fills a vast natural hollow. The
position of the lake in the very centre of the hunting districts,
once swarming with game, early attracted the attention of the
Company. Numerous streams either take their rise from it or
flow into it the Mackenzie, the Athabasca, <kc. ; and several im-
portant forts have been constructed on its shores Fort Providence
on the north, and Fort Resolution on the south. Fort Reliance is
situated on the north-east extremity, and is about three hundred
miles from the Chesterfield inlet, a long narrow estuary formed by
the waters of Hudson's Bay.

The Great Slave Lake is dotted with little islands, the granite
and gneiss of which they are formed jutting up in several places.
Its northern banks are clothed with thick woods, shutting out the
barren frozen district beyond, not inaptly called the " Cursed
Land." The southern regions, on the other hand, are flat, without
a rise of any kind, and the soil is mostly calcareous. The large
ruminants of the polar districts the buffaloes OP bisons, the flesh
of which forms almost the only food of the Canadian and native
hunters seldom go further north than the Great Slave Lake.

The trees on the northern shores of the lake form magnificent
forests. We need not be astonished at meeting with such fine vegeta-
tion in this remote district. The Great Slave Lake is not really
in a higher latitude than Stockholm or Christiauia. We have only
to remember that the isothermal lines, or belts of equal heat, along
which heat is distributed in equal quantities, do not follow the
terrestrial parallels, and that with the same latitude, America is ever
so much colder than Europe. In April the streets of New York



are still white with snow, yet the latitude of New York is nearly
the same as that of the Azores. The nature of a country, its
position with regard to the oceans, and even the conformation of its
soil, all influence its climate.

In summer Fort Reliance was surrounded with masses of verdure,
refreshing to the sight after the long dreary winter. Timber was
plentiful in these forests, which consisted almost entirely of poplar,
pine, and birch. The islets on the lake produced very fine willows.
Game was abundant in the underwood, even during the bad season.
Further south the hunters from the fort successfully pursued
bisons, elks, and Canadian porcupines, the flesh of which is excellent.
The waters of the Slave Lake were full of fish ; trout in them attained
to an immense size, their weight often exceeding forty pounds. Pikes,
voracious lobes, a sort of charr or grayling called " blue fish," and
countless legions of tittamegs, the Coregonus of naturalists, disported
themselves in the water, so that the inhabitants of Fort Reliance
were well supplied with food. Nature provided for all their wants ;
and clothed in the skins of foxes, martens, bears, and other Arctic
animals, they were able to brave the rigour of the winter.

The fort, properly so called, consisted of a wooden house with a
ground-floor and one upper storey. In it lived the commandant and
his officers. The barracks for the soldiers, the magazines of the
Company, and the offices where exchanges were made, surrounded
this house. A little chapel, which wanted nothing but a clergyman,
and a powder-magazine, completed the buildings of the settlement.
The whole was surrounded by palisades twenty-five feet high,
defended by a small bastion with a pointed roof at each of the four
corners of the parallelogram formed by the enceinte. The fort was
thus protected from surprise, a necessary precaution in the days
when the Indians, instead of being the purveyors of the Company,
fought for the independence of their native land, and when the
agents and soldiers of rival associations disputed the possession of
the rich fur country.

At that time the Hudson's Bay Company employed about a
million men on its territories. It held supreme authority over
them, an authority which could even inflict death. The governors
of the factories could regulate salaries, and arbitrarily fix the price of
provisions and furs ; and as a result of this irresponsible power, C-ey
often realised a profit of no less than three hundred per cent.

We shall see from the following table, taken from, the " Voyage


of Captain Robert Lade," on what terms exchanges were formerly
made with those Indians who have since become the best hunters
of the Company. Beavers' skins were then the currency employed
in buying and selling.
The Indians paid

For one gun, . . . .10 beavers' skins.

half a pound of powder, . .1

,, four pounds of shot, . 1

,, one axe, . . . .1

six knives, . . . .1

one pound of glass beads, . . 1

,, one laced coat, . , .6

,, one coat not laced, . . 5

one laced female dress, . . 6

one pound of tobacco, . . 1

,, one box of powder, . . 1

., one comb and one looking-glass, . 2

But a few years ago beaver-skins became so scarce that the cur-
rency had to be changed. Bison-furs are now the medium of trade.
When an Indian presents himself at the fort, the agents of the
Company give him as many pieces of wood as he brings skins, and
he exchanges these pieces of wood for manufactured articles on the
premises ; and as the Company fix the price of the articles they buy
and sell, they cannot fail to realise large profits.

Such was the mode of proceeding in Fort Reliance and other
factories ; so that Mrs Paulina Barnett was able to watch the work-
ing of the system during her stay, which extended until the 16th
April. Many a long talk did she have with Lieutenant Hobson,
many were the projects they formed, and firmly were they both
determined to allow no obstacle to check their advance. As for
Thomas Black, he never opened his lips except when his own special
mission was discussed. He was wrapped up in the subject of the
luminous corona and red prominences of the moon ; he lived but to
solve the problem, and in the end made Mrs Paulina Barnett nearly
as enthusiastic as himself. How eager the two were to cross the
Arctic Circle, and how far off the 18th July 1860 appeared to
both, but especially to the impatient Greenwich astronomer, can
easily be imagined.

The preparations for departure could not be commenced until the
middle of March, and 'a month passed before they were completed.
In fact, it was a formidable undertaking to organise such an ex-


pedition for crossing the Polar regions. Everything had to be taken
with them food, clothes, tools, arms, ammunition, and a nonde-
script collection of various requisites.

The troops, under the command of Lieutenant Jaspar Hobson,
were one chief and two subordinate officers, with ten soldiers, three
of whom took their wives with them. They were all picked men,
chosen by Captain Craventy on account of their energy and resolution.
We append a list of the whole party :

1. Lieutenant Jaspar Hobson. 11. Sabine, soldier.

2. Sergeant Long. 12. Hope, do.

3. Corporal Joliffe. 13. Kellet, do.

4. Petersen, soldier. 14. Mrs Rae.

5. Belcher, do. 15. Mrs Joliffe.

6. Rae, do. 16. Mrs Mac-Nab.

7. Marbre, do. 17. Mrs Paulina Barnett.

8. Garry, do. 18. Madge.

9. Pond, do. 19. Thomas Black.
10. Mac-Nab, do.

In all, nineteen persons to be transported several hundreds of miles
through a desert and irnperfectly-known country.

With this project in view, however, the Company had collected
everything necessary for the expedition. A dozen sledges, with
their teams of dogs, were in readiness. These primitive vehicles
consisted of strong but light planks joined together by transverse
bands. A piece of curved wood, turning up at the end like a skate,
was fixed beneath the sledge, enabling it to cleave the snow without
sinking deeply into it. Six swift and intelligent dogs, yoked two
and two, and controlled by the long thong brandished by the driver,
drew the sledges, and could go at a rate of fifteen miles an

The wardrobe of the travellers consisted of garments made of
reindeer-skins, lined throughout with thick furs. All wore linen
next the skin as a protection against the sudden changes of tempera-
ture frequent in these latitudes. Each one, officer or soldier, male
or female, wore seal-skin boots sewn with twine, in the manufacture
of which the natives excel. These boots are absolutely impervious,
and are so flexible that they are admirably adapted for walking.
Pine-wood snow-shoes, two or three feet long, capable of supporting
the weight of a man on the most brittle snow, and enabling him
to pass over it with the rapidity of a skater on ice, can oe fastened


to the soles of the seal-skin boots. Fur caps and deer-skin belts
completed the costumes.

For arms, Lieutenant Hobson had the regulation musketoons
provided by the Company, pistols, ordnance sabres, and plenty of
ammunition ; for tools : axes, saws, adzes, and other instruments
required in carpentering. Then there was the collection of all that
would be needed for setting up a factory in the remote district for
which they were bound : a stove, a smelting furnace, two air-
pumps for ventilation, an india-rubber boat, only inflated when
required, &c., &c.

The party might have relied for provisions on the hunters amongst
them. Some of the soldiers were skilful trackers of game, and
there were plenty of reindeer in the Polar regions. Whole tribes of
Indians or Esquimaux, deprived of bread and all other nourishment,
subsist entirely on this venison, which is both abundant and
palatable. But as delays and difficulties had to be allowed for, a
certain quantity of provisions was taken with them. The flesh of
the bison, elk, and deer, amassed in the large battues on the south of
the lake ; corned beef, \vhich will keep for any length of time ; and
some Indian preparations, in which the flesh of animals, ground
to powder, retains its nutritive properties in a very small bulk,
requiring no cooking, and forming a very nourishing diet, were
amongst the stores provided in case of need.

Lieutenant Hobson likewise took several casks of rum and whisky;
but he was firmly resolved to economise these spirits, so injurious
to the health in cold latitudes, as much as possible. The Company
had placed at his disposal a little portable medicine-chest, con-
taining formidable quantities of lime-juice, lemons, and other simple
remedies necessary to check, or if possible to prevent, the scorbutic
affections which take such a terrible form in these regions.

All the men had been chosen with great care ; none were too stout
or too thin, and all had for years been accustomed to the severity
of the climate, and could therefore more easily endure the fatigues
of an expedition to the Polar Sea. They were all brave, high-spirited
fellows, who had taken service of their own accord. Double pay
had been promised them during their stay at the confines of the
American continent, should they succeed in making a settlement be-
yond the seventieth parallel.

The sledge provided for Mrs Barnett and her faithful Madge
was rather more comfortable than the others. She did not wish to



be treated better than her travelling companions, but yielded to the
urgent request of Captain Craventy, who was but carrying out the
wishes of the Company.

The vehicle which brought Thomas Black to Fort Reliance also
conveyed him and his scientific apparatus from it. A few astrono-
mical instruments, of which there were not many in those days a
telescope for his selenographic observations, a sextant for taking the
latitude, a chronometer for determining the longitudes, a few maps,
a few books, were all stored away in this sledge, and Thomas Black
relied upon his faithful dogs to lose nothing by the way.

Of course the food for the various teams was not forgotten. There
were altogether no less than seventy-two dogs, quite a herd to pro-
vide for by the way, and it was the business of the hunters to cater
for them. These strong intelligent animals were bought of the
Chippeway Indians, who know well how to train them for their
arduous calling.

The little company was most skilfully organised. The zeal of
Lieutenant Jaspar Hobson was beyond all praise. Proud of his
mission, and devoted to his task, he neglected nothing which could
insure success. Corporal Joliffe, always a busybody, exerted himself
without producing any very tangible results j but his wife was most
useful and devoted; and Mrs Paulina Barnett had already struck up
a great friendship with the brisk little Canadian woman, whose fair
hair and large soft eyes were so pleasant to look at.

We need scarcely add that Captain Craventy did all in his power
to further the enterprise. The instructions he had received from
the Company showed what great importance they attached to the
success of the expedition, and the establishment of a new factory
beyond the seventieth parallel. We may therefore safely affirm that
every human effort likely to insure success which could be made
was made , but who could tell what insurmountable difficulties
nature might place in the path of the brave Lieutenant ? who could
tell what awaited him and his devoted little band?



| HE first fine days came at last. The green carpet of the
hills began to appear here and there where the snow had
melted. A few migratory birds from the south such as
swans, bald-headed eagles, &c. passed through the warmer air.
The poplars, birches, and willows began to bud, and the red-
headed ducks, of which there are so many species in North America,
to skim the surface of the numerous pools formed by the melted
snow. Guillemots, puffins, and eider ducks sought colder latitudes ;
and little shrews no bigger than a hazel-nut ventured from their
holes, tracing strange figures on the ground with their tiny-pointed
tails. It was intoxicating once more to breathe the fresh air of
spring, and to bask in the sunbeams. Nature awoke once more
from her heavy sleep in the long winter night, and smiled as she
opened her eyes.

The renovation of creation in spring is perhaps more impressive
in the Arctic regions than in any other portion of the globe, on
account of the greater contrast with what has gone before.

The thaw was not, however, complete. The thermometer, it is
true, marked 41 Fahrenheit above zero ; but the mean temperature
of the nights kept the surface of the snowy plains solid a good
thing for the passage of sledges, of which Jaspar Hobson meant to
avail himself before the thaw became complete.

The ice of the lake was still unbroken. During the last month
several successful hunting expeditions had been made across the vast
smooth plains, which were already frequented by game. Mrs
Barnett was astonished at the skill with which the men used their
snow-shoes, scudding along at the pace of a horse in full gallop.
Following Captain Craventy's advice, the lady herself practised
walking in these contrivances, and she soon became very expert in
sliding over the snow.

During the last few da^s several bauds of Indians had arrived at


the fort to exchange the spoils of the winter chase for manufactured
goods. The season had been bad. There were a good many polecats
and sables ; but the furs of beavers, otters, lynxes, ermines, and
foxes were scarce. It was therefore a wise step for the Company
to endeavour to explore a new country, where the wild animals had
hitherto escaped the rapacity of man.

On the morning of the 16th April Lieutenant Jaspar Hobsoii and
his party were ready to start. The route across the known districts,
between the Slave Lake and that of the Great Bear beyond the
Arctic Circle, was already determined. Jaspar Hobson was to make
for Fort Confidence, on the northern extremity of the latter lake ;
and he was to re victual at Fort Enterprise, a station two hundred
miles further to the north-west, on the shores of the Snare Lake.
By travelling at the rate of fifteen miles a day the Lieutenant
hoped to halt there about the beginning of May.

From this point the expedition was to take the shortest route
to Cape Bathurst, on the North American coast. It was -agreed
that in a year Captain Craven ty should send a convoy with provi-
sions to Cape Bathurst, and that a detachment of the Lieutenant's
men was to go to meet this convoy, to guide it to the spot where
the new fort was to be erected. This plan was a guarantee against
any adverse circumstances, and left a means of communication with
their fellow- creatures open to the Lieutenant and his voluntary com-
panions in exile.

On the 16th April dogs and sledges were awaiting the travellers
at the postern gate. Captain Craventy called the men of the party
together and said a few kind words to them. He urged them
above all things to stand by one another in the perils they might
be called upon to meet ; reminded them that the enterprise upon
which they were about to enter required self-denial and devotion,
and that submission to their officers was an indispensable condition
of success. Cheers greeted the Captain's speech, the adieux were
quickly made, and each one took his place in the sledge assigned
to him. Jaspar Hobson and Sergeant Long went first ; then Mrs
Paulina Barnett and Madge, the latter dexterously wielding the long
Esquimaux whip, terminating in a stiff thong. Thomas Black and
one of the soldiers, the Canadian, Petersen, occupied the third
sledge ; and the others followed, Corporal and Mrs Joliffe bringing
up the rear. According to the orders of Lieutenant Hobson, each
driver kept as nearly as possible at the same distance from the


preceding sledge, so as to avoid all confusion a necessary precau-
tion, as a collision between two sledges going at full speed, might
have had disastrous results.

On leaving Fort Reliance, Jaspar Hobson at once directed his
course towards the north-west. The first thing to be done was to
cross the large river connecting Lakes Slave and Wolmsley, which
was, however, still frozen so hard as to be uridistinguishable from the
vast white plains around. A uniform carpet of snow covered the
whole country, and the sledges, drawn by their swift teams, sped
rapidly over the firm smooth surface.

The weather was fine, but still very cold. The sun, scarce above
the horizon, described a lengthened curve ; and its rays, reflected on
the snow, gave more light than heat. Fortunately not a breath of
air stirred, and this lessened the severity of the cold, although the
rapid pace of the sledges through the keen atmosphere must have
been trying to any one not inured to the rigour of a Polar climate.

" A- good beginning,'' said Jaspar Hobson to the Sergeant, who
sat motionless beside him as if rooted to his seat ; " the journey has
commenced favourably. The sky is cloudless, the temperature pro-
pitious, our equipages shoot along like express trains, and as long
as this fine weather lasts we shall get on capitally. What do you
think, Sergeant Long ? "

" I agree with you, Lieutenant," replied the Sergeant, who never
differed from his chief.

" Like myself, Sergeant, you are determined to push on as far
north as possible are you not ? " resumed Lieutenant Hobson.

" You have but to command to be obeyed, Lieutenant."

" I know it, Sergeant ; I know that with you to hear is to obey.
Would that all our men understood as you do the importance of
our mission, and would devote themselves body and soul to the
interests of the Company ! Ah, Sergeant Long, I know if I gave
you an impossible order "

" Lieutenant, there is no such thing as an impossible order."

" What 1 ? Suppose now I ordered you to go to the North Pole ?"

" Lieutenant, I should go ! "

" And to come back ! " added Jaspar Hobson with a smile.

" I should come back," replied Sergeant Long simply.

During this colloquy between Lieutenant Hobson and his Sergeant
a slight ascent compelled the sledges to slacken speed, and Mrs
Barnett and Madge also exchanged a few sentences. These two



intrepid women, in their otter-skin caps and white bear-skin mantles,
gazed in astonishment upon the rugged scenery around them, and at
the white outlines of the huge glaciers standing out against the hori-
zon. They had already left behind them the hills of the northern
banks of the Slave Lake, with their summits crowned with the gaunt
skeletons of trees. The vast plains stretched before them in ap-
parently endless succession. The rapid flight and cries of a few
birds of passage aloi>e broke the monotony of the scene. Now and
then a troop of swans, with plumage so white that the keenest sight
could riot distinguish them from the snow when they settled on
the ground, rose into view in the clear blue atmosphere and pur-
sued their journey to the north.

" What an extraordinary country ! " exclaimed Mrs Paulina Bar-
nett. " What a difference between these Polar regions and the green
prairies of Australia ! You remember, Madge, how we suffered from
the heat on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria you remember
the cloudless sky and the parching sunbeams ? "

" My dear," replied Madge, " I have not the gift of remembering
like you. You retain your impressions, I forget mine."

" What, Madge ! " cried Mrs Barnett, " you have forgotten the
tropical heat of India and Australia ? You have no recollection of
our agonies when water failed us in the desert, when the pitiless
sun scorched us to the bone, when even the night brought us no
relief from our sufferings ! "

" No, Paulina," replied Madge, wrapping her furs more closely
round her, " no, I remember nothing. How could I now recollect
the sufferings to which you allude the heat, the agonies of thirst
when we are surrounded on every side by ice, and I have but to
stretch my arm out of this sledge to pick up a handful of snow 1
You talk to me of heat when we are freezing beneath our bear-
skins ; you recall the broiling rays of the sun when its April beams
cannot melt the icicles on our lips ! No, child, no, don't try to per-
suade me it 's hot anywhere else ; don't tell me I ever complained
of being too warm, for I sha'n't believe you ! "

Mrs Paulina Barnett could not help smiling.

" So, poor Madge," she said, " you are very cold ! "

"Yes, child, I am cold ; but I rather like this climate. I've no
doubt it 's very healthy, and I think North America will agree with
me. It 's really a very fine country ! "

" Yes, Madge, it is a fine country, and we have as yet seen none


of the wonders it contains. But wait until we reach the Arctic
Ocean ; wait until the winter shuts us in with its gigantic icebergs
and thick covering of snow ; wait till the northern storms break over
us, and the glories of the Aurora Borealis and of the splendid con-
stellations of the Polar skies are spread out above our heads ; wait
till we have lived through the strange long six months' night, and
then indeed you will understand the infinite variety, the infinite
beauty, of our Creator's handiwork ! "

Thus spoke Mrs Paulina Barnett, carried away by her vivid
imagination. She could see nothing but beauty in these deserted
regions, with their rigorous climate. Her enthusiasm got the better
for the time of her judgment. Her sympathy with nature enabled
her to read the touching poetry of the ice-bound north the poetry
embodied in the Sagas, and sung by the bards of the time of Ossian.
But Madge, more matter of fact than her mistress, disguised from
herself neither the dangers of an expedition to the Arctic Ocean,
nor the sufferings involved in wintering only thirty degrees at the
most from the North Pole.

And indeed the most robust had sometimes succumbed to the
fatigues, privations, and mental and bodily agonies endured in this
severe climate. Jaspar Hobson had not, it is true, to press on to
the very highest latitudes of the globe ; he had not to reach the pole
itself, or to follow in the steps of Parry, Ross, M'Clure, Kane, Morton,
and others. But after once crossing the Arctic Circle, there is little
variation in the temperature ; it does not increase in coldness in
proportion to the elevation reached. Granted that Jaspar Hobson
did not think of going beyond the seventieth parallel, we must still
remember that Franklin and his unfortunate companions died of

Online LibraryJules VerneThe fur country; or, Seventy degrees north latitude → online text (page 3 of 31)