The Fur Trade Today, 1935
The tremendous part played by the Hudson's Bay Company and North West Company in the exploration and development of our Dominion of Canada, and particularly of Western Canada, is well known. The Fur Traders were the first white men to set foot in this vast country and they ruled it for many years. Any reference to the Fur Trade automatically carries most people back to the days of such men as Henry Kelsey, Samuel Hearne, Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson and a host of others, and there is little doubt that theirs was the most interesting and romantic period in Fur Trade History.
Very few people, however, realize that the Fur Trade is stronger than ever today. Its fur collecting posts are flung farther afield than ever before, while the relations of the Hudson's Bay Company with the Indians and Eskimos are as cordial as they ever were in the days when the Company's record of just handling of the natives rendered possible the settlement and civilization of the country with a minimum of bloodshed and strife. The Company has adapted itself to the times with its splendid stores in our Western cities, and the Fur Trade posts have also been adapted to modern times in the far North.
The use of fur pelts as a covering for the body dates back to the earliest history of all Northern tribes and nations. These fur pelts were not a barbarous expedient only, to be discarded when civilized men produced the wonderful textiles which we have today, but they are as much a necessity now among the more northern peoples as in the days of barbarism, and people living in the Arctic zones, including both Eskimos and white people leading similar lives, still dress in skins during the severe winters in preference to any other garb, as experience teaches nothing else provides so efficient an insulation against cold.
Furs were first of all sought then for this purpose only, namely, as a covering, but by degrees they grew into an object of barter and traffic, and when they came into the hands of inhabitants of more temperate climates they became an article of ornament and luxury. During the history of their use in the warmer countries furs have at different times been extremely valuable, particularly the rarer sorts, but through their abundance and the employment and manufacture of cheaper varieties, they have in modern times come within the reach of people of moderate incomes. In this connection it is interesting to note that raw Silver Fox pelts have sold in London as high as $2628.00 in 1910 when there were some 4,000 skins marketed. During 1932, however, 295,000 skins were marketed at an average price of less than $40.
The Fur Trade is chiefly indebted to the fair sex for the modern demand for fine furs. Their love of adornment and their constantly changing fashions which, with modern transportation and communication facilities become known in short order to the ends of the world, keep Fur Traders, Fur Farmers and Trappers hard at work year in and year out, undergoing terrible hardships, desperate privation, exposure and isolation in order to supply their wants and fill the demand.
A large quantity of these furs comes now from fur farms, an increasingly important source of supply, but by far the largest portion comes from the hunting activities of Indian, Eskimo and White Trappers, and is bartered for merchandise at Northern trading posts. It is to the trade at such posts that attention will be directed. I have selected the Mackenzie River and Western Arctic areas as the basis of my remarks, having been privileged to visit them annually during the past eight years on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company.
This area covers all that portion of the country East of the Rocky Mountains between the Province of Alberta and the North Pole taking in the Mackenzie Basin, Great Bear Lake, and the Arctic Coast from Alaska to Boothia Peninsula, Northwest of Hudson Bay. It extends over hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest, lake and stream and is populated by Indians, Eskimos and a handful of Whites. It is over 2,000 miles from Edmonton to the Arctic or as far as Winnipeg to the Gulf of Mexico and some 1,500 miles from the Alaskan boundary on the Arctic Coast line to Boothia Peninsula or the same distance as from Winnipeg to Vancouver.
In this territory are located scores of trading posts and outposts devoted almost exclusively to the gathering of furs in exchange for merchandise. All the main points are covered by the Hudson's Bay Company with usually one or more competitors present to share in the trade. The old days when the Company had a monopoly of the trade are definitely a thing of the past and there are now very few posts, even in the most remote sections of the country, where free traders or those sent out by other Companies are not located.
These posts are mostly situated on the mighty rivers and lakes which are the highways of the North, being located at points where other rivers fall into them which later the Indians use to penetrate the interior to their hunting grounds. On the Arctic coast the posts are situated where there are good harbours for small vessels and where adequate fresh water supplies are available, which points must also be convenient for the Eskimos with whom the trade is conducted. There may be anywhere from half a dozen buildings at a small post to forty or fifty in the larger centres. The Hudson's Bay Company's buildings usually comprise a dwelling house for the manager and his family if he has one, a trading store the equivalent of any country town general store, a warehouse for the storage of goods and furs and a small house for the interpreter if any, besides a smaller building for storage of fish, oil and other country produce. A powder magazine is located at a safe distance from the other buildings where powder and cartridges, so essential in the Northland, are stored out of danger. All Company buildings conform to a uniform colour scheme; white walls with green trim and red roofs. These are most attractive colours in the wilderness and give a bright and picturesque appearance to the settlements. The buildings are now mostly of frame construction, having superseded the old log buildings. At a great many of the posts there are detachments of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, their buildings also painted red and white. The establishments of other traders and houses of Indians are not usually as elaborate as ours, and frequently built of logs chinked with moss, mud or lime.
Aklavik, situated near the mouth of the Mackenzie River and 200 miles beyond the Arctic Circle, is a post which can bear a little closer description, being in a sense the metropolis of the North. Here is the meeting place of Indians and Eskimos and a resident white population of fifty to sixty. The Hudson's Bay Company has an important trading post at Aklavik, while the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Missions each have comfortable, well equipped hospitals, the latter also maintaining a large 3-storey boarding school for Indian children. These are up-to-date buildings with central heating, and electric lights while the hospitals are equipped with ex-ray machines and other modern equipment. The Department of the Interior maintains a resident doctor with a wide reputation as a surgeon and there are, of course, qualified nurses. The daily press last week reported a man who was wrecked on Great Bear Lake just before freeze-up and suffered greatly from exposure and frost bite; he was flown to Aklavik instead of to Edmonton for treatment, although the distances are much the same for the aeroplane. The reason for this at first sight incongruous action is that the far north is solidly frozen up and there are safe landings everywhere for ski equipped planes, while farther south rivers were not yet safe and winter flying had not begun. The Department of National Defence keeps a Radio Station here manned by four non-commissioned officers who maintain constant communication with the outside world. Northern Traders Limited, which has several trading posts along the Mackenzie River, is also represented at Aklavik, while there are other small traders and even a couple of restaurants. Aklavik has its own radio broadcasting studio and station UZK broadcasts programmes and messages for the benefit of neighbouring posts and trappers. Few people realize what a busy up-to-date town Aklavik is, although situated over 1,600 miles from the railroad.
The Hudson's Bay Company posts on the Arctic coast are not quite so elaborate but each consists of from three to five buildings of modern frame construction. These posts are beyond the limit of trees and, therefore, completely exposed to the Arctic gales, but the houses are warmly built and in winter banked high with snow so that the men are comfortable enough through the long dark months.
Comparing the present situation with that of 100 years ago, we find that there were then five posts in the Mackenzie's River District as it was then called. These were Fort Simpson, Riviere Aux Liard, Fort Halkett, Fort Norman and Fort Good Hope. The buildings were, of course, of log construction and were not pretentious, while the trade outfits of those times were small indeed. We read in the minutes of the H.B.C. Fur Trade Council held at Red River Settlement on June 1st, 1833, where it was resolved that about 250 pieces of goods forwarded in four boats from York Factory constitute the current outfit for Mackenzie's River. The "piece" was a package of goods weighing about 90 lbs. the weight which could be most conveniently transported by the canoe and boat brigades of that day. Those 250 pieces of goods would thus mean about eleven tons for five posts, a little over two tons each and most of the posts would now get two or three times that much sugar alone, while the eleven tons have now become closer to 2,000.
The transport methods of those days were picturesque. The supplies for Mackenzie's River were brought from England to York Factory by sailing ship. From there they were despatched the following year by brigades of canoes and York boats to Norway House where we find they usually wintered again. The following summer they were forwarded by Lake Winnipeg, the Saskatchewan River, Frog Portage beyond Cumberland House and the waters of the Churchill River to the divide between the Mackenzie Basin and the Hudson Bay Watershed, where Portage la Loche was reached. They were then carried on men's backs and by oxen across the height of land to the Clearwater River near the present end of steel north of Edmonton, from which point the long and tedious journey down the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie Rivers was commenced. Imagine how isolated were the men in those days. It took two seasons to come from England to the posts on Mackenzie's River. Consider how long it took to get news of the outside world and how long the proprietors of the business had to wait before they got returns in furs traded for the goods forwarded in any given year. Five years was a fast return and the average time a year or two longer. How the interest charges must have mounted up and small wonder if the Company was then obliged to charge high prices for its goods.
Modern transport facilities to the far north are the very antithesis of these former methods. The railway from Edmonton reaches 300 miles North to Waterways close to Fort McMurray, from where fast H.B.C. steamers carrying passengers and freight and pushing large barges loaded with freight make several trips to the Arctic and back in one summer. Where trade outfits spent a matter of years on the road before they spent a matter of weeks only nowadays. In fact, goods can be despatched early in the summer and proceeds in furs received in civilization the same fall; the new season's catch in the far North is frequently on the market by Christmas time after having been brought out by aeroplane. The slow letter packets of the old days are replaced by fast air mails today, Aklavik and intermediate points getting a minimum of six deliveries per annum by plane. One of our men at Aklavik last summer got a letter posted in England only two weeks before, and in case you forget Aklavik is 1,600 miles beyond the farthest north rail point in Alberta.
Present post managers of the H.B.C. are intelligent, up-to-date educated men, trained in their jobs, ready and anxious to give service to their customers, and usually of a very fine type. The Company has found in the past that the most suitable material for the posts is to be found in the north of Scotland where life is not so very different to that in Northern Canada. Lately the experiment has been tried of engaging lads in Winnipeg.
There are very few posts, however, where the employees are not fully occupied during the working day from one year's end to the next. There is plenty to do each and every day with a store to be attended, goods to be unpacked, priced and placed on display, furs to be traded, the natives to be talked with, their language and individual characteristics studied, books to be kept, outdoor jobs to attend to such as cutting wood, hauling water, fishing and any number of other chores, of which we living in civilization would never dream. Many of the men are single and consequently have to attend to their own housework as well. All this leaves little leisure in which to become lonely.
For diversion in-doors the men have their radios and usually plenty of reading matter, while there are very few places where there are not sufficient people to get up a game of bridge. Altogether it makes a most attractive life and one which very few of the men would give up for office life. At the posts they are their own bosses and occupy an important position. They have a free and easy life, if a busy one, with few of the restrictions of the city.
It is an established fact that efficiency cannot be maintained if there is not a regular system of routine followed in the performance of all the daily tasks. People who only rise when they feel like it, eat when they are hungry and go to bed when they are tired soon drift into slip-shod ways of doing things and there is plenty of encouragement for this in the north if a man does not rule his life by a definite plan. Consequently all our men rise early, have meals at regular hours and adhere to regular periods for work. This is one of the most important factors in keeping up the moral.
The radio has made a wonderful difference in the North and instead of being in the dark as to world happenings the men are up-to-date. Reception in the North is usually excellent and posts on the Arctic Coast receive London and other European stations and also many Asiatic stations, as well as North American. Compare this with the silence of centuries which existed up to only a few years ago. The radio is used extensively for sending instructions regarding changes in fur prices and personal messages are broadcast every week from relatives and friends to the men in the North.
In actual trading, transactions with the natives are fraught with much interest. One has to deal with all kinds from simple trusting, honest folk to others who are suspicious, hard to deal with, demand the last cent and are sometimes none too trustworthy. Generally speaking our men prefer dealing with the Eskimos to the Indians, the former being more outspoken, straightforward, self-reliant and of a vastly more cheerful disposition. However, not all Eskimos are easy to trade with, and even they can tax the patience and skill of the trader.
Much business is still done on the credit system, the natives being advanced goods in the fall and pay afterwards when they have made their hunts. At first sight it may seem all wrong to encourage or allow primitive people to purchase before they get the wherewithal to pay. There is a very important object in this, however. Very few natives are able to keep furs over from the winter hunt with which to buy supplies the following fall to take them to their hunting grounds and keep them during the hunting season. If they cannot get supplies they are obliged to stay and trap in the vicinity of the post so that they can purchase goods from time to time, as the fur is secured. This means they are bunched together near the post where the trapping is poor and as a result very little fur would be caught, the natives and the Company suffering accordingly. Consequently, reliable natives are advanced a sufficient outfit to enable them to go off to their regular hunting grounds and to maintain them there for a reasonable length of time, or for the whole season according to whether the post is near enough to visit during the winter or not. Thus the debt system helps both the native and the Company to secure better fur collections.
This does not mean all debts are paid, as such is sometimes not the case whether for the reason that the native is unable to get the fur on account of sickness, scarcity or laziness or where he has made a catch and traded it with other traders in fraud of his agreement. If a native wishes to be dishonest and avoid paying his debts, it is easy enough for him to do so and he cannot be compelled to pay. However, once fooled, twice shy, and the native cannot usually play this trick more than once on each trader in the settlement. On the whole they like to preserve their reputations as they know it is a great advantage to be in good standing and be able to get their outfits every fall. Records go back many years and help to guide the post manager in the handling of advances. If a native gets on the black list with every trader it is too bad for him.
Eskimos very seldom deny their debts or attempt to evade payment, although on occasions payment may be postponed a considerable length of time. Thus we have had Eskimos come to our post managers and hand them fur in payment of debts incurred years before when there was possibly another manager in charge, there being no record on the books now. This might be explained to the Eskimo but he would insist nevertheless, that he owed the debt and insist on paying it.
Some Eskimos dislike getting into debt at all and are particularly careful to take as little as possible and to pay up at the very first opportunity. Many have a fear of dying in debt and when this happens the sons or relatives will often take over the obligation and pay it off. Wherever we can we encourage the natives to get ahead of the game and there are instances where we have opened bank accounts for some so that they will have money to tide them over hard times and possibly help to support them when they become too old to trap to any extent.
The outfits which the natives receive in the fall usually consist of flour, lard, baking powder, tea, sugar, tobacco, matches and ammunition, and the understanding is that these goods will be paid for on their next visit to the post. Usually this would be Christmas time when they all like to gather at the settlement for celebration. Their catch up to that time is then brought in, debts are paid in most cases and where it is necessary another small advance given to the native to return to his trapping grounds. He may come in again at Easter or remain away until open water. Some natives hunt so far away from the post that it is impracticable for them to visit it except once a year and consequently they receive larger outfits than the other natives.
When furs are brought to the post they may be handed over to the post manager in one lot, the native accepting the trader's figure for the whole, or the native may enquire the prices of the different kinds of fur and haggle over them. The native may again turn in just enough fur to pay his debts, and any surplus he will barter in the store from time to time until he returns to his trapping grounds. The usual system, however, is for the native to turn in all his fur and have the proceeds credited to his account, after which he will draw against it in the store from time to time, as he desires, until it is used up.
Most Indians and many Eskimos understand dollars and cents, know the price of each article and the value of each skin and all dealings are carried on with them in dollars and cents. At more remote posts, however, the Eskimos deal only in white foxes and goods are valued according to the quantities which are traded for a fox or the number of foxes which it might take to purchase a given article. Thus when the native leaves in the fall with his outfit advanced on credit, he knows that he owes ten foxes, let us say, and when he comes back with his catch the first ten foxes go to settle his debt. He will then trade the balance of his skins, possibly purchasing two foxes of flour, 1 fox of ammunition, half a fox of tobacco, a quarter of a fox of matches, and so on. But if these remote Eskimos do not know the meaning of dollars and cents they know exactly the quantity of staple merchandise which each fox skin will purchase, and that is all they are interested in as they have no use whatsoever for dollars and cents, and they know that any extra foxes for which they may not wish to purchase goods right away are quite safe in the Company's hands and can be drawn upon at their convenience.
In order to help the native grasp the relative value of his purchases we frequently employ trade tokens which are made of aluminum or tin and intended to represent coins. Thus a man may be given twenty tokens for each fox and will then make his purchases with these tokens, passing the tokens back across the counter as the goods are handed to him. In this way he can learn the comparative value of articles, knows exactly where he is at and can regulate his spending. When all the foxes and tokens are used up he will have a pile of merchandise on the counter beside him and on looking it over may find that he has forgotten to purchase a few yards of calico for his wife to make herself a new dress. This is an awkward situation, as any man might know, and in order to get around the embarrassment of arriving home without this important article he is obliged to turn back two or three boxes of cartridges with which to purchase the dress length. Then he may remember that he requires a new knife but as he has spent everything he has to trade back a tin of tobacco or something similar. The primitive Eskimo does not come into the store with an exact list of goods but relies a lot on seeing what he wants in the store, and frequently this trading back of goods purchased goes on to quite an extent. When he has taken his goods away he will often come back and beg for something more in addition to the payment he has already received for his fur. It is often difficult to refuse this but the post manager must be careful not to accede to too many of these requests and yet retain the good-will of the native, as once presents are given it is difficult to draw the line and the natives will soon learn to take advantage of softness.
The post manager must study his natives. He must know those who are worthy of debts and those who cannot be trusted to pay up. He must maintain cordial relations with them or otherwise the other traders will get the business, but he must not let them get the better of him, instead combining diplomacy with firmness.
Some natives are up to all kinds of tricks. Frequently in the Arctic, foxes are skinned and the skin immediately rolled up in a ball while it is still wet. It then freezes stiff and is brought this way to the post to trade instead of having been dried and properly stretched as is the usual practice. As it takes a long time for the pelt to thaw out so that the whole skin can be examined and the native may wish to trade it immediately, the post manager being unable to examine it and must sometimes take a chance on the fox being a good one and the pelt unspoiled, as dishonest Eskimos have been known to bring in a poor fox in this condition on purpose to fool the trader. Arctic hares at first sight resemble a white fox except that they have no tail to speak of. Instances have been known where the tail of a fox had been sewn on to the pelt of a hare and the latter traded as a fox. Of course, it is only a careless trader who would not detect this but it has been done. Eskimos are not in the habit of trying to trick the traders however.
The story is told of an Eskimo who was known as a bully and trouble maker in his tribe and boasted to his people that he could get all the goods he wanted for nothing. He said the trader was afraid of him, that he would go to the store and with his rifle force him to hand over whatever he demanded. Under the awed gaze of his tribes people he marched truculently off in the direction of the store. The other Eskimos were fearful of what might happen as they liked the white trader and wanted no harm to come to him but they were afraid of the bully who by now had disappeared into the store where the trader was arranging his goods. Once in the store the Eskimo's attitude changed and in a cringing tone he begged for a little oil with which to oil his rifle. This explained the presence of the rifle in the store. After he had oiled it he begged the post manager for a little baking powder explaining that his wife had plenty of flour at home but no baking powder with which to make bannock. The post manager gave him a small tin out of the goodness of his heart and the man left the store quietly, but once outside adopted his swaggering attitude and exhibited his baking powder as evidence of how he could extort goods from the white man at the point of his rifle.
Trading with the natives thus requires skill and knowledge on the part of the trader. He must be absolutely fair, as so much of the business is built on the confidence of the native and once this is lost it is regained only with great difficulty. The post manager must be a friend and adviser to the natives who are very much like children in many ways. The following is taken from the Company's standing instructions to its post managers and illustrates the importance placed in sympathetic handling and understanding of the natives: "It should be borne in mind by every employee that our business is derived from our customers, whether they be 'White', Indian or Eskimo, and that the success of the business must, of necessity always bear a close relation to the success and well-being of the customers. This applies particularly to native customers who, through over two and a half centuries, have looked largely to the Company for the necessary guidance and assistance in adapting themselves to steadily changing conditions and the degree of helpful interest still taken by many post managers and other employees in the affairs of the natives attached to their posts is usually reflected very markedly in the improved conditions of the people and in the results of their posts."
The H.B.C. post manager must always be ready to minister to the sick and the hurt to the best of his ability. He is constantly being called upon to pull a tooth, dress a wound or bathe eyes suffering from snow blindness. Frequently he can do little towards alleviating pain and suffering but these simple folk continue to come in for his help and anything he does is appreciated.
No account of the Fur Trade would be complete without at least a brief description of those wonderful people, the Eskimos, and I want to tell you a few of the outstanding characteristics of the dwellers in Arctic night who lead one of the hardest existence known today. The Eskimos of the Western Arctic lead two distinct types of lives. Those in the Western Section near the mouth of the Mackenzie are comparatively civilized through long association with white people, while those in the Eastern part are very much more primitive and adhere more closely to their old customs and manner of living. Taking the more modern type first we find that they have been in touch with white men continuously for upwards of fifty years, and as a result, most talk English and are quite conversant with the white man's customs and mode of living. Furthermore, as they live either in the Delta of the Mackenzie River or on the coast nearby they have a plentiful supply of timber, while the river casts up large quantities of driftwood on the beach for a couple of hundred miles East and West of the mouth. The Eastern natives have been in contact with white men to a limited extent only for fifteen or twenty years while their economic existence is greatly influenced by the fact that they have no wood whatsoever either for building houses or for fuel, except for a few tiny willows available in some parts in small quantity.
The Western Eskimos are a prosperous lot of people, though their prosperity is not today what it was four or five years ago. They all have more or less comfortable houses built of logs frequently covered over with sod, or earth or snow in winter, while many also own large schooners equipped with gasoline engines and purchased in more prosperous times. All have gramophones and sewing machines while some even go in for typewriters and radios. They are a cheerful, happy lot of people and make their living hunting the various kinds of fur bearers found in the Delta or the white foxes obtained farther afield on the barren coast line. Caribou, fish and white whales form a considerable part of their food and are much preferred to the white man's supplies. These people use caribou skin clothing and sealskin boots but also white man's clothing in addition.
An entry in my diary describing an evening spent in an Eskimo's house in the Mackenzie Delta while I was travelling from one point to another gives an idea how they live in this particular locality: "I am sitting on the floor in Noel's house, writing to the strains of the gramophone while all the Eskimos are playing cards. They are a happy contented crowd. The house is as warm as toast and brightly lit with gasoline lamp. The children are playing around or watching me write.
A short time ago Norman came in with his dogs, after looking at his muskrat traps. He had eight muskrats. He was followed a little later by Oven, a great, cheerful, strapping swashbuckler with twenty-three rats. The children run out to see what they have on their sleds and the older girls make tea for them. They eat muskrat meat, fish, bread, jam and butter-apparently any quantity. They have opened a second large tin of jam since we arrived and use good creamery butter. The card players are seated in a circle on the floor, playing a sort of Eskimo rummy, chaffing each other and laughing, the young girls are sewing. This is really the best Eskimo house I have seen, real flooring, oilcloth walls, a couple of real beds with mattresses and several bunks, all kinds of fur clothing, calico parkas, bright coloured blankets. Duffles and moccasins are drying on lines over the stove."
The Eastern or more primitive Eskimos lead far harder lives than their brothers near the Mackenzie River. They dress almost entirely in garments of deerskin and sealskin of their own making, live exclusively in snow houses in the winter and in tents of canvas or skins in the summer. The majority of them will not pass a night during a whole winter with any covering over them other than a snow house. However, the marvellous construction of these and the employment of plenty of caribou skins for bedding and clothing enable the natives to keep as comfortable in their opinion, while their wonderful seal oil lamps provide heat for cooking.
These natives depend on sealing to no small extent for their livelihood, the seal providing food for the Eskimo and his dogs, leather for his boots and oil for his fuel. Eskimos situated in localities where seals are plentiful are always considered very well off. They are extremely clever in hunting seals. When the sea freezes over in the fall the seals will keep open a number of breathing holes in the ice and prevent them from freezing, since they must come to the surface to breathe every few minutes. As soon as the snow covers the ice the holes, which need only to be very tiny, are easily kept from freezing over and the snow also hides all trace of the place where the seal comes regularly to breathe. He may have quit a number of these breathing holes and does not necessarily visit the same hole regularly, in fact, there may be some holes which he will visit once a day only. Nevertheless, the Eskimo has evolved a scheme of hunting which enables him to locate a breathing hole although the ice is covered by four or five feet of snow and though it may be only a couple of inches across. He will spear the seal at the exact moment it comes to breathe although he can see nothing of it. Dogs are used to locate the holes and the Eskimo starts off in the morning across the level white expanses of frozen ocean with his seal dog on a leash. The dog knows his duty well and noses about on the end of the leash eagerly sniffing the surface of the snow. Immediately he comes over a seal hole he stops and by his excitement and efforts to dig through the snow indicates the breathing hole is not far away. The Eskimo then produces a long thin piece of bone or iron and probes with this through the snow near the area indicated by the dog until the tip of it finds the seal hole. The snow must not be cleared away otherwise the seal will not come to the hole so sensitive is it to any change. With the breathing spot located the Eskimo cuts himself a few snow blocks to act as a seat and shelter from the wind and seats himself beside it with his harpoon and line ready to take up at the slightest indication of the arrival of the seal to breathe. This is usually indicated by the noise of the animal exhaling before taking a large breath preparatory to diving away again. As soon as the Eskimo hears this he drives his harpoon straight down through the snow and the small hole in the ice below and into the head of the seal. The seal is then held by the line attached to the harpoon head while the snow is cleared away and the hole in the ice enlarged sufficiently to draw the seal out. This method of seal hunting requires the very greatest amount of patience but Eskimos of necessity possess this in great abundance, not to mention skill and training. A man may sit patiently in front of a hole for an entire day without a seal showing up. He must not make the slightest movement otherwise the noise or his shadow on the snow might scare the seal just as the opportunity for which he has waited is presenting itself. It would be difficult for a white man to wait patiently sitting on a snow block on the frozen surface of the sea for a seal which may never come, but the Eskimo is brought up to it from childhood.
These Eskimos simply live from day to day and have little concern for the morrow which is left to look out for itself. Instead of trapping hard when the foxes are plentiful or striving to get a large collection of seals together when they are easy to hunt, a great many will not work any harder than they happen to feel like at the time.
All over the north we hear nowadays that the good old days are gone and the country not what it used to be, wireless stations dotted here and there, radio receiving sets in every house, aeroplanes bringing officials and mail; news, orders, instructions, constantly interrupting the even tenor of the Northerner's ways. Certainly it is a drastic upheaval from the time when isolated posts received outside visitors once a year only, mails came once or perhaps twice a year, and there was absolutely no other source of news from the outside world. But to say romance is gone and adventure unknown is a little wide of the mark.
Who is too prosaic to get a thrill when he sails down the Mackenzie River and contemplates that swift flowing expanse of water with its ever changing banks, its borders of forest and mountains, its ramparts and gorgeous sunsets, realizing they were identically the same when Alexander Mackenzie came hither in 1789 and was the first white man to glory in the marvelous scenes swiftly unfolded before his excited gaze. Here in civilization history is hidden below the veneer of modern progress but in the north we are close to nature and history is less remote. Nature's changes are slow and the sun has set for centuries on scenes man's hand cannot alter. Consequently we feel closer to those famous explorers who have preceded us into this vast Northland.
I have stood at Bloody Falls on the Coppermine River and contemplated the sport in 1771 Samuel Hearne's Indians massacred in cold blood the peaceful encampment of Eskimos. Today, we fly across the country from Great Bear Lake to Coppermine where in 1821 Captain, afterwards Sir John, Franklin's party suffered such incredible hardships resulting in the death from starvation and exposure of so many members of his party. As we sit comfortably in the aeroplane and see below the country across which these brave men struggled so valiantly the progress of science in this brief span of time is vividly brought home to us. There is no end of romance in the North for those who have read and been interested in the remarkable stories of the first comers.
When one considers the length of time involved in Samuel Hearne's return from the mouth of the Coppermine River to Fort Prince of Wales near Churchill, viz: from July 17th, 1771 to June, 1772, and the terrific labour and hardship involved, it is some indication of modern progress to note that this fall we were able to journey from the same spot, namely the mouth of the Coppermine, to Edmonton in twelve hours of comfortable flying. Actually we did this over a period of four days one of when we spent at Great Bear Lake.
The H.B.C. has always conveyed the trade supplies to its Western Arctic posts by ship from Vancouver, the route lying across the North Pacific Ocean to Dutch Harbour in the Aleutian Islands, thence across the Bering Sea, through Bering Straits, Northwest along the cost of Alaska to Point Barrow, the most northerly point of this continent, around it and then along the Canadian Arctic Coast to the various posts as far as Victoria Land from which point the vessel returns home by the same route. There is ordinarily nothing hazardous about this voyage provided the vast ice fields which encompass the Alaskan coast around Point Barrow for eleven months a year break up about August 1st as they usually do, and leave a channel for the ships to proceed along the coast into and out of Canadian waters before they close in again early in September and the next winter sets in. Thus we reckon normally on a period of navigation of a month or six weeks each year.
Fur Traders still have adventures and even if a ship is lost the Fur Trade must go on. All the world wants furs and just how badly is illustrated by the fact that any small fur farmer who has a reasonable silver fox will have half a dozen buyers call on him wishing to purchase the pelt for $40.00 cash, whereas to realize the same figure from his other farm produce he must deliver himself to market three or four of his best two year old steers, or a whole wagon load of sheep, hogs or turkeys.
This reminds us that Fur Farming is an important industry in Canada today. If territory for taking the wild animal is becoming more restricted, at least those areas from which settlement is driving it can be utilized for raising fur bearers in captivity. In Manitoba today, there are 328 Fox Farms while one ranch in Alberta, the largest in Canada, boasts 7,500 live silver foxes. Even in the south of England wonderful silver foxes are being bred. And Fur Farming is not restricted to these animals, experiments are also being conducted with mink, fitch, fisher, marten, beaver, muskrat, 'badger, skunk and raccoon.
As for the Northern Fur Trade, no one can hazard a guess as to its ultimate function. This much cannot be overlooked, however, the Northern regions are vast and so cold and inhospitable that the probabilities of man ever occupying them to the exclusion of the fur bearers may be considered as fairly remote. Besides, governments and other interested authorities are continually taking steps aimed against the extinction of the animals.
So that while territories are becoming restricted and none are as :emote as they were before man's aeroplane shattered the silence of centuries and although Hudson, Kelsey, Hearne, Mackenzie, Dease, Thompson and Fraser are now only names standing for tremendous exploits in its past history, we may fairly safely conjecture that the ancient and honourable Fur Trade will continue for a very long time. I am also going to prophesy that the Hudson's Bay Company, old and dignified but young and virile, will continue in the lead of this great Canadian industry.
Page revised: 22 May 2010Back to top of page