Manitoba History: The Hudson Bay Railway Survey, 1910-1911: A Memoir by W. H. Hunt (Part 2)
William Harold Hunt (1884-1976) wrote this memoir in 1967. It recounts his adventures as a surveyor on the planned route of the Hudson Bay Railway between May of 1910 and March of 1911. Part 1, which appeared in the Spring/Summer 1999 issue of Manitoba History, began with the author’s departure from Winnipeg for northern Manitoba in 1910 and left off as winter approached at the survey party’s camp southwest of Split Lake. Part 2 picks up the narrative with Hunt and the survey party preparing to break camp near Mink Falls at the north end of Witchai Lake. “The Hudson Bay Railway Survey, 1910-1911” was edited for publication by John David Hunt. William Hunt’s photographs of the survey party appear courtesy of his daughter, Margaret Carter of Winnipeg.
Two Tales of the North
At this camp [Witchai Lake], we lost two of our good St. Peter’s men, Joe Diamond Johnson and his close pal, Isaac Sanderson. Hearing of a York boat crew moving south from Split Lake Post to Norway House, they managed to catch a ride on it at the portage at Grand Rapids, at the south end of Split Lake. Joe and Isaac had supplied the camp with music on Sundays. Joe played the accordion and Isaac the mouth organ. Unfortunately, our Chief of party hated accordion music and one day when in a bad mood, he three the instrument into the Grassy River. This broke the musicians’ heart, so they both quit.
On Friday afternoon of the week we moved to the high bank immediately north of Mink Falls, on the Grassy River, all our axemen, expecting to return to line cutting after the camp move was accomplished on Saturday, left their axes stuck in a tree at the end of the cut line. I, being a superstitious Irish person, suggested to them that it was unlucky to leave an axe stuck in a tree overnight. They laughed at me and left the axes stuck in the tree. Well, on the following Monday, we started out for the end of the line. The ice along the shore was quite thick, so we had to break our way in to shore, and did our canoes no good by doing so. The packers, who still had supplies to tote from our last camp took all the canoes, promising to leave them on the shores of Witchai Lake, so the party could paddle home. The packers carried out instructions, but overlooked the fact that a fair-sized river flowed into the lake between the end of our line and camp. They also expected that we would finish line-cutting further north than we actually did. They left the canoes as promised, but not at a place where the survey gang could get at them or even find them.
Well, in the morning we disembarked and following our transitman Charlie Bruce, struck east for the end of the line. Unfortunately, Bruce kept too far to his left and took the whole gang miles east of the axes struck in the tree. We wandered back south and west, expecting to hit the line somewhere. Before we hit it we were back at our old campsite.
We hit north again to the lines end and the axes. By the time we started line work again, it was three-thirty. As we had not stopped for lunch, we had it then. Two sandwiches each is about what most of us packed in our kerchiefs for noon lunch. At four o’clock, as it was already beginning to get darker, Tom and I set off to find the canoes. We followed the shore line after we reached it, but as we rounded bay after bay, no signs of any canoes were found. The country through which we travelled had been burned over, and was covered with deadfalls, so we had to jump from one dry pole to another to make any progress. Finally it got dark, so we went out on a point and built a fire, hoping the packers, who were actually back at camp, would see our signals and pick us up. We needed the fire, too, for there was a cold wind. Tom and I froze on one side and roasted on the other all night.
When grim daylight came, we started hiking. After going around two or three more bays, we looked back and saw Charlie Bruce and his party rounding a point behind us. They caught up to us, looking just like we felt, pale, wan, and very hungry. About that time we reached the river month which being partly frozen, could not be crossed by a raft, yet the ice would not bear a man’s weight. So we wandered upstream until a place was found where George Williams, the only man with a good axe on him, was able to fell a tree on which we all crossed. Fortunately by this time we could hear the roar of Mink Falls in the distance, so we kept going. I stopped hying to keep up with anybody. My feet refused to be lifted high enough to go over a log eight inches off the ground. My belly was empty, so I ate some of the blueberries that grow in that country. They look like the ordinary berry, except they are pear-shaped. Eventually I reached the shore opposite camp, and hollered. One of the boys ferried me across in a canoe, and I crawled into the cook shack, where Neil McKenzie had lots of oatmeal porridge. He told me afterwards that it was amusing to see me eat. I was so weak and shaky that I could not find my mouth with the porridge spoon.
Tempting Fate: A Brave Man Dies
The end of the line in a few days reached our new camp. After we had cut another three miles northward, the chief decided to move camp to the north side of the Odei River, but not before more misfortune hit us. After the camp at Mink Falls was established, our cookie, Bob Scott, got a bad tooth ache. The Chief wanted to send a message to Split Lake, so sent Jack LaBelle, Bob Scott and Gilbert Smith to Split Lake where the English clergyman, Mr. Fox, had forceps for tooth extraction.
Well, as we worked north from Mink Falls we used the canoes to take us to work and always made a practice of portaging at a place called Snake Rapids, which at that time of the year was so dangerous that the local natives never tried to shoot it. On the day of our worst misfortune we went to work as usual, and made a portage at Snake Rapids and at another fall which had a straight drop of six or eight feet.
When Jack LaBelle and his crew reached Snake Rapid, Gilbert Smith, who was at the bow, pulled the canoe toward a landing place above the rapid at the top end of the portage. Before Jack LaBelle left the canoe, he suggested that they shoot the rapid. At the middle of this swift water there is a kink in the stream and a large boulder stands out from the shore forcing the white water to curl and form an eddy below.
Gilbert Smith was the only one of the three who could swim. Not wishing to appear cowardly, he consented to the running of the rough water. As soon as the canoe passed the projecting rock, the canoe upset. Jack and Bob hung to the gunwales and Gilbert put the tow rope in his teeth and started to swim back up the eddy towards shore. Suddenly he threw up his hands and sank. He must have had a cramp. The water was icy cold. He was never seen again.
Bob and Jack got the canoe back to camp, but poor Bob did not get his bad tooth pulled for two months as rivers and lakes froze over shortly afterward. The whole party, excepting the cook, dragged the river for three miles below the rapid for three days but found no body. It was discovered on the shores of Split Lake during the following summer, and like that of Semore (Simard) it had been molested by timber wolves.
Shortly after the accident our camp was moved to the north bank of the Odei River. The canoe route followed was down the swift water of the Grassy almost to the Grand Rapid on the Nelson, to a portage into the Odei, thence west up the Odei to a point near the mouth of the Burntwood River, where the line was supposed to cross. So no error would be made in set, we followed our projected courses and after a walk of 8 or 10 miles we came in sight of the Odei River.
Warmth of a Northern Hearth
As we left the bush we were greeted by the barking of dogs, and presently a cabin loomed up ahead of us. The native who lived here had at least a dozen dogs, and they were fierce. Tom and I grabbed sticks and kept them away. On entering the house we were received with hospitality. The lady of the house had a fire burning in the fire place. In front of the fire were two muskrat carcasses, hanging by their tails. A youngster about three years of age walked around on the well-scrubbed floor, took a carcass from the fire hook on which it hung, peeled off a strip of cooked flesh and hung the rat’s carcass back in its place.
In front of the fire were two frying pans containing bannock, standing on their sides facing the fire. After we received from our host a cup of good tea, we proceeded to locate our party, which had already started to set up camp on the other side of the river. As time went by, this woman was happy to launder our clothes, and I believe became quite friendly with the cook, Cookee, and draughtsman, Mr. Alex Morris.
A few days after our arrival, while Charlie Bruce was triangulating to obtain the distance across the river a short distance downstream from camp, I was asked to take the chief engineer across the stream in his small canoe. This I did and was just about to reach the north shore on my return when a gust of wind caught the tipped-up front end of the canoe, almost upsetting it. I was quick enough to spring out and to be able to land on my feet in water up to my waist. I felt a bit sheepish at having made such an ass of myself.
From this camp on the north shore of the Odei, we worked for another fortnight, by which time the ice on Lake Assean was strong enough to bear our weight. As we at that time had no dog team or toboggans we made sleds from poplar poles with which we were able to move our kit all the way of Lake Assean. The ice was glare, so that after pulling our sleighs with their loads all day our hip muscles were very sore and stiff, and they so remained for several days after the move.
The next camp was also accomplished with our hand-drawn sleighs. After that we had dogs, and toboggans with which to do our toting. When the dogs arrived we also received snowshoes and our winter kits, which had meanwhile been stored at Landing Lake Cache. At this time also came rubber boots and lumberman’s socks to replace the leather ones we had worn all season. My own boots were so badly worn that my big toes stuck out of both of them This was not so comfortable in the snow and ice.
In making the camp moves between Assean Lake and Omattoway (Crying) Lake, we were following the old Churchill Trail which Franklin used on his last trip north from which he never returned [sic]. The country in this area seemed more rugged than that through which we had previously passed. It looked like a land where suitable ballast for roadbed construction might be found. Signs of game were much more in evidence than they had been further south. We never saw any game because of the noiseof the axemen, but in this northern part we saw plenty of moose and lynx tracks.
Hunting and Fishing
While working further south during the summer and fall, although the party was supplied with a .303 Savage rifle and a fish net, our packers and canoemen were always too busy to take time off to fish or hunt. We did, however, while camped at Armstrong River have one treat of fresh fish. Here the packers put out our only net and with it brought in the largest fish I had ever seen. It was a sturgeon, over seven feet long and so strong that it tore the net all to pieces. For a few days we had wonderful feasts of caviar and sturgeon steaks.
Early in September, while on one of his journeys to Landing Lake, Jack LaBelle shot a she-bear. Neil McKenzie, our cook, provided a surprise meal of fresh meat. No one questioned where it came from until Alex Lyons announced that it was the most peculiar-tasting deer meat he had ever tasted. Then the cook confessed. Most of us were happy to eat more, but Alex could not get away from the thought of the animal’s claws, and had to satisfy his meat tastes with kookose (pork). I was fortunate in being able to get possession of the bear hide, which I salted and scraped until dry enough to use on top of spruce bows under my bed roll. It was very useful during cold weather, particularly for the first few nights’ sleep in a new camp.
The Comfort of Spruce Boughs
Throughout the job we never suffered from an uncomfortable bed. When we worked from shunt camps, where no tents were available, most of us packed a canvas ground sheet about eight feet square along with our bed roll. As previously stated, we usually moved camp on a Saturday. On arriving at a new campsite we cut branches from spruce trees, arranging them on the ground in a bed seven feet long, four feet wide, and about 12 inches thick, free from limbs and sticks. In dry weather we just spread a ground sheet over the spruce mattress, put down the bed roll and were ready for a night’s rest.
In inclement weather we laid the ground sheet over a pole resting on two upright forked sticks and pegged down its sides. By making a wall of spruce limbs and branches at the end of the bed, which was headed away from the fire, we eliminated any draughts of wind. Of course, in the months of June, July and August we had to make use of our mosquito bars. Regardless of the weather, the general practice was to place a log at right angles to the axis of the bed, for a foot log. This provided something to sit on, and kept the ground in front of it clean of debris. When sleeping in tents that were 10 by 12 feet in space, with four-foot walls, there is ample room for four men to sleep side by side, with heads away from the tent door, leaving space for the stove and wood pile between the foot log and the front of the tent.
After winter weather set in and frost got into the ground, the first operation in setting up camp was to scrape away, with snowshoes as shovels, as much snow as was possible. The kicking log laid and spruce bough mattress constructed, a hunt started for good dry wood. It usually took all day Sunday, with good fires in the stove, to drive the worst part of the cold out of the spruce boughs, and about three nights of occupation before cold stopped coming up through the spruce matters from the frozen earth. Having taken all these precautions one was sure of a good night’s rest, providing no sleigh dogs were about to make the night hideous with their music. I doubt if any man has been so fatigued that he could completely ignore the nightly chorus of those animals.
The Sled Dog Chorus
Our dogs always had plenty of corn meal and tallow which, due to lack of fishermen to catch fish for them, was their standard diet. At night, each dog was provided with a spruce bed of his own beside which was placed his daily ration of corn meal and tallow. Often after a day’s journey the dogs were so tired they could not eat. Yet next morning after being hooked up in harness the tough little fellows would trot along behind the leader without a murmur. To me they seemed to behave like their native masters when making a portage. They did not want the other fellow to take a heavier load than theirs, or to think they were unable to do all that was required. The bigger the load the Hudson’s Bay boys could carry, the happier they were There is, however, a limit even to a dog’s endurance, and it was not surprising to sometimes see a dog after a long day’s exertion lie down in his harness—just all in.
Their masters, particularly the native ones, had no mercy on a played-out animal. They would grab the nearest stick no matter how large and without mercy belabour the poor dog until he got up onto his legs to do another five or six miles. I used to wonder why those animals thought it necessary to howl all night On a cold clear night, when the poplar trees crack and bang with frost, one lone dog would howl just when we were about to fall asleep. When he stopped, two more would start a chorus. They would stop for two minutes, then three or four would take up the cry. In seven or eight minutes the whole dog population would be whooping it up. Suddenly the noise would cease, but not for long, for some one of the flock would feel he must give vent to his feelings—and the performance would be repeated. In the fall, before our dogs arrived, we often were kept awake by the nasty howl of timber wolves, shouting to their mates. We would hear a howl in the south, which would be answered by his mate at a distance north of camp. There were, however, never enough timber wolves around to keep us awake at night.
Tom Christianna and I worked together. On move day we used to try to get our toboggan loaded and get away ahead of the rest of the gang. On moves we never had to break trail because this task was always carried out by our packers and dog skinners. One of our best men was Lazerus Gitchegisuk. That man could keep to a course so well that when he went ahead to break trail the transit line would follow his toboggan marks for half a mile at a stretch.
Caribou and the Chiefs Gramophone
While making our last camp move before we hit Clifford’s line at Mattawai Lake, Tom and I were travelling in the lead team on a short portage between two lakes. As we reached the high ground south of the north lake shore, a wonderful sight greeted us. Out there on the ice not more than 300 yards away stood about 100 caribou, or coast deer as the natives called them. At first they paid no attention to us, but in about five minutes they began to move and disappeared into the bush. While the rest of the party were setting up camp that afternoon, Johnny Harper and Andrew Pruden took out our .303 Savage, trailed the flock, and brought back four carcasses. The meat was delicious. It was so fine-grained and juicy. It made a very acceptable change from sow belly and kookoosh.
One of the few factors that cheered our labours was the music which reached our ears when we were in the vicinity of the office tent. Chief Moffatt had a gramophone which was brought out of storage at Landing Lake Cache when the dogs arrived. It was provided with a large sound horn and could be heard for some distance in the bush. It was said to have cost 200 dollars and was eventually given by Moffatt to Mrs. Fox, the wife of the missionary at Split Lake. The two favourite tunes were “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” “Down Where the Big Bananas Grow,” and “It’s Summer All the Time.”
In December, the daylight was short. We got out on line right after seven o’clock. After reaching the end of the line, the axeman cut quite a few stations before there was sufficient light for the transit man to see by; therefore the leveller party never had to hurry in the morning because we could easily catch up to the transitman. In this part the country was fairly level, so we could take good long sights, and were able to quit ahead of the transit party As a consequence Tom Christiana and I very often broke trail for ourselves and for the rest of the party in making shortcuts from the end of the line to camp.
The Great Circle Route
All my life I have prided myself in my God-given sense of direction, but on this occasion my efforts in making a beeline through the bush were not up to par. It was still daylight when we left the line and, without looking at the compass I had in my pocket, I hit off through the bush breaking the snowshoe trail for Torn. After a while Tom took his turn at breaking trail, and a little later asked me for my compass. He put it in his pocket and continued.
After I had followed him for another quarter. of a mile I said, “Tom, I think you are going too far to the left.” He said nothing but continued straight ahead. Then I called, “Torn, you can keep on going that way if you want, but I want to go to camp.” Well, it was getting dark. I had no compass, but felt no need of one. After I had travelled for some time I came upon a snowshoe track which crossed at right angles the course I was following. At first I thought, “That must be the transit party trailway.” I followed it for about five minutes and to my surprise noticed a piece of paper which I myself had thrown away half an hour before. Then I knew that instead of following Tom’s circle to the left, I had made a circle myself, to the right. Well, it was not getting any lighter, but by then I knew where I was, and properly oriented. Mad at myself for being so stupid, I pushed off as fast as I could in the direction of the cook shack. I moved fast, too, knowing that if I failed to hit camp Tom would have a good laugh on me. Inside 20 minutes I reached Tom’s tent and lifting the fly I saw Tom sitting on the foot log, shaking the snow off his moccasins. He had apparently circled just as I had, only in the opposite direction. We never discussed the situation, but from that time on, I never let him have my compass. In my opinion no one with any brains would ever travel in the bush without one.
A Guided Tour South
When we were working towards our most northerly camp, from where we at last tied onto Clifford’s line to Churchill, we had visitors. This camp, like the one on Matoway (Crying) Lake, was situated on the Churchill trail. Our visitors, who stopped for a short time only, comprised two groups. One consisted of a geographical, or hydrographical, survey party who had been gathering data, probably relative to harbour conditions, at Fort Churchill. The men of this party were hardy Canadians use to roughing it, and were good snow shoers.
The other party was a group of Newfoundland sailors who had lost their ship in Hudson Bay. Both parties were being conducted to Winnipeg by a Mounted Police officer, Sergeant Nicholson, and his able assistant, an Esquimo named “Pork.” They had a tough trip ahead of them. The sailors had never before used snowshoes. Some of them had badly swollen ankles. They were a cheerful bunch and fairly happy, except the cook of the hydrographical party. After the day’s travel, he had lain down and had to be pulled on a toboggan while the other boys did the usual dog-trot behind the dog-drawn toboggans. The cook’s companions really hated his guts, but brought him along just the same.
These men made their own bivouac at night, just as we had to do ourselves. [...] They had a much longer hike ahead then we ever had. Almost one month later, Sergeant Nicholson and his man Pork spend an evening with us when on their way back north. They had delivered both parties safely at Winnipeg. Sergeant Nicholson was afterwards made an inspector with headquarters at Ottawa. He was a very fine man.
Another Northwest Mounted Policeman we met later at Split Lake was Constable Godsell. He afterwards became a sergeant, and after retirement lived in Fort Garry, Winnipeg. He wrote many stories of the north for magazines like Rod and Gun. He, too, was a good soul.
Christmas at Split Lake
So, in due course we tied onto location engineer W. J. Clifford’s trial line to Churchill at a point in the vicinity of Matowai Lake. On the day following, we loaded everything on to toboggans and headed for Split Lake on a trail which appeared to be a well-travelled. Knowing we had at least 25 miles to go, I carefully tucked my 12-foot levelling rod under the lashings of Johnny Harper’s toboggan load. Chief Moffatt saw it there and ordered me to take it off, and to carry it myself. He may have been right, but at that time I did not agree with him. Anyway, I shouldered the thing and carefully carried it all the way to Split Lake on my shoulders. The move was not a long one and everyone except Alex Morris, our most excellent draughtsman, who had to spend most of his time at his draughting board, felt in good shape at the journey’s end. I am sure Scottie Morris was very tired that night when we arrived at our destination.
At Split Lake we did not set up our tents. Chief Moffatt stayed with the Rev. G. H. Fox, who acted as our cache keeper at that place. The rest of the party was billeted in Hudson’s Bay buildings, which Chief Factor McLeod was kind enough to permit us to use. We stayed at the post for one week, during which time we enjoyed seeing new faces, and having new experiences.
On Christmas Day after breakfast, George Williams who had won the camp’s entire supply (two caddies) of smoking and chewing tobacco, and said, “Help yourselves, boys. This is my Christmas present.”
One evening, we had a square dance, in a company warehouse. It was very warm inside. We had a local native fiddler who knew the Red River jig and square dances galore. I had never tried to do a square dance before but, with the help of Alex Lyons and Tom Sutherland, I was pushed and shoved through the dizzy whirls. Most of the dancing, particularly the Red River jig, consisted of thumping the feet—thump, pause, two thumps, repeat. Sacks of flour and bacon sitting on the cabin floor all around the walls served for seats for the onlookers.
I remember Factor McLeod’s two daughters, also one Black Aggie. The latter was quite a noted character. She was very dark complexioned and smoked a long-stemmed briar pipe. The men I particularly remember were Lazerus Gitchegisick and Joe Morris. Lazerus was the son of the chief of the local band and a most wonderful bushman. Joe Morris was the champion dog skinner in the country north of Norway House. The cabin we slept in was also the quarters of the Mounted Policeman, Constable Godsell. Godsell was afterwards posted to Norway House, and I later met him at Lac du Bonnet, in 1946. I met Mr. McLeod at Pine Falls in June, 1945. He then was a retired Hudson Bay servant.
On Christmas afternoon we had a football game, Natives vs. Engineers. The natives had no idea of any rules or regulations and just milled around in circles. But the snow was deep, so we got lots of exercise. [...]
After Christmas, word came to the Chief from Winnipeg instructing him to take the Party to Thicket Portage, in order to run final location from that point southward. As the weather was not moderating and my right knee had bothered me on the trip from Matoui Lake, I was a bit worried about the prospect of a 125-mile hike in January weather. My knee, injured in a hockey game in 1909, had received another blow on the same spot from a freight canoe hidden in grass at Manitou Rapids. However, as we were hired for tough guys, we all had to play the part. So I went to the post and bought two bottles of Perry Davis’ Painkiller and a couple of sticks of black Irish twist tobacco. If the pain got unbearable, I could deaden my senses with the mixture.
New Year’s On the Trail
On the morning of January 1st, the caravan set off for Thicket Portage. There were, as I remember, eight dog teams, including our own and several Split Lake teams for toting supplies, and about 30 men. No sooner had we got away from shelter, out on the ice of Split Lake, than a bitter west wind cut our faces like a knife. To make matters worse, most of us had allowed our mustaches to grow during the past months. Instead of being a protection, the hair on our faces (some of us had whiskers) caught the moisture and covered the whole face with a coat of ice. Fortunately I had a round, heavy Yager wool balaclava cap with a flap I could pull over my face, leaving only a small opening for my nose and for my eyes. This helped some. We found out afterwards that the thermometer stood at 50-below that day.
After we had made about eight miles, we hit a spot where water was pushing up through a crack in the ice, flooding the surface. The thin top ice was not strong enough to bear our weight so most of us got wet moccasins. About noon we passed a couple of native cabins on the west shore. We hiked up to them, got warmed up, dried our wet moccasins a little, and with a pair of scissors, cut off our whiskers and mustaches. As it was New Year’s Day, in keeping with northern customs, we kissed the women who had befriended us, and hit out again.
That night most of the men were able to squeeze into a fish cache shack in which there was a stove. As the floor space was limited after our bed rolls were spread, there was no room to move around. Unfortunately, the floor of the shack was made of poles so that the wind came up through the cracks, much to our discomfort. Beside me slept an Indian boy of about 15 or 16. The poor kid had only one blanket. I could feel him shiver, and tried to persuade him to take one of mine. He refused, and so we slept till morning. After taking a little nourishment and coffee served by our cook, we bundled up and resumed our journey, long before daylight. As our only lights were candles, it was difficult to see anything in the shack clearly. By the time the dog skinners got out of the way, I discovered that the mitten for my right hand was missing. Well, as I could not travel barehanded, I pulled a sock from my kit and covered the hand. It broke some of the wind, but I had to keep rubbing it to keep it from freezing.
Cold Comfort at Lunch-Time
On that morning it was 52-below and the same wind was blowing on the shelterless lake. At noon hour, we reached Grand Rapids, now the site of a powerhouse supplying power to Thompson. Here a cloud of steam was rising from the fall and from the swift water below. Moreover, there was little wood to be found with which to build a fire. Over the years all dry wood had been used up on the portage. Well, the Indians got a fire going, mostly with green wood, It threw out no heat, and the Indians stood so thick around it that, to thaw out the biscuits the cook had handed out at breakfast time for our noon lunch, I had to cut a long pole, impale the biscuits on its end and shove it through the legs of those around the fire. After the dog skinners left, we got warmed up and proceeded on our way up the mouth of the Grassy River, passing by on a winter trail the swift water in which we had dragged for Gilbert Smith’s body in October.
On the afternoon of that day I was able to borrow a mitten from Billie Gillespie. it helped a lot. It was still 25-below but the weather seemed quite a bit warmer, besides we were then in sheltered country protected by bush. On reaching our old campsite below Mink Falls, we removed the cover of tents from our toboggans, set them up, arid put a good fire in them. In that way we got a good night’s rest and were raring to go after breakfast next morning.
During the night, however, the hoodoo that had haunted us at this campsite in October, returned. When we started to load up again in the morning, we found that during the night the waterfall had for some reason flooded the ice on which we had left our toboggans. The ropes and canvas coverings were covered with frozen water. We had to chop down about three inches to get them loose. While we retrieved the ropes on one side of the toboggan, the ropes on the other side froze in again. Eventually, we got going again and after three more nights in the bush, where we made temporary bivouacs and good fires, we finally arrived at Thicket Portage.
Secrets of a Good Night’s Sleep
Our bivouacs were comfortable so we were able to sleep like babes [...1. We made a practice to stop travelling at about four o’clock, at some spot where both good spruce boughs and lots of dry wood was to be found; first scraping off snow, then placing our spruce mattress. Then we built sides on our cleaned-out area by laying young spruce trees lengthwise, high at the back, and lower at the front. We built a spruce-tree wall at the back of the shelter about four feet high. The sides sloped forwards far enough to protect from wind the fire at the foot of the spruce mattress. With lots of good dry wood, many willing hands and lots of spruce trees handy, in half an hour the night’s bivouac was all set up and fires burning so that the cooks could boil their kettles, cook their porridge, and fry their bacon in comfort.
The distance between Split Lake and Thicket Portage by winter trails is about 125 miles. We made the trip in five days and had our tents set up at Thicket Portage on the evening of the fifth day I will never forget the morning after our arrival. Everybody, particularly the cooks who were not used to travelling, was tired. I got up and looked into the cook tent. Not a sound could be heard. I was hungry so I quietly got the cook stove going and the tent warmed up. Presently poor old Neil McKenzie crawled out and put the porridge pot on the stove, Oatmeal was all that was left of our supplies. I knew, because the night before after the engineers each got a bowl of porridge, I sneaked over to the Indian’s camp. Those boys had plenty of our Bluenose butter, lots of bannock and lots of moose meat.
Well, as soon as the packers could get away to Landing Lake they brought flour, butter, bacon and plenty of supplies for the cook’s use. They also brought a good supply of corn meal and tallow for our dogs, Meantime, Billy Gillespie and I built, at Charles Bruce’s instruction, a cache consisting of four poplar poles forked at the top so that logs could be laid across. The poles we froze into the ice and made a platform about eight feet above the ice When supplies arrived, we piled them on the elevated floor.
Presently, along came our well-fed Split Lake men. Bruce stood on top of the cache and they surrounded him, shouting “butter boy ... butter boy.” Bruce got mad, because he knew they had hidden about 80 pounds of tallow. He threw some tallow at them, saying: “Take that you sons of b****.” Bruce also gave them a sack of corn meal to go with the tallow.
On the following day, our camp was completely organized again, and we tied on to our last falls work and proceeded to work south on the final location. Slowly the days lengthened, temperatures became more moderate. Now that we were working towards The Pas and Winnipeg, I think everyone felt a bit more cheerful. We were close to the Landing Lake cache, in which the supplies were getting low. For quite a spell we ate, slept, and worked well.
Torture Test on the Trail
Although the Split Lake-Thicket Portage journey by dog team created some discomfort for all, to me it was a test of endurance never before nor since experienced. My stiff knee was a handicap. My two bottles of Perry Davis’ Pain Killer, taken full strength, was all gone, with half the Irish Twist.
While we were travelling Split Lake at 50-below-zero temperatures, with a wind, I was kept so busy trying to keep my fingers and nose from freezing that the knee’s pain seemed insignificant.
On that day, all our men’s cheeks and noses were frozen, particularly our noses. My nose at Thicket Portage became one sore lump. For a few days I wondered if the thing would drop off. In a fortnight’s time it healed up but was sensitive and peeled for a long time. After that trip my fingers and thumb nails all turned blue. With proper mitts, this would have been avoided. Frostbites showed worse on men with even a small amount of native blood in their veins than they did on whites. While the white lads’ frost-bitten skin turned red during the healing process, the skin of our Métis scarred black, and so remained for several weeks.
The thing that impressed me most about that north country was the relentless persistence of Nature. Travelling behind a dog team in 45-below weather on a clear, starry night, when the poplar trees cracked with frost, and the ice on the lakes boomed and Aura Borealis lights hovered overhead, knowing that one must just keep on going on and on, or paddling a canoe for mile after mile in swift and turbulent waters or travelling alone in a strange bush country, either in extreme heat without water, or breaking trail in deep snow in 20-below weather knowing that a wrong turn or a sit-down for rest might mean disaster gives one a great respect and reverence for God’s Universe. Like flying in a plane over mile after mile of endless forest, a mere human being gets a very strong sense of his insignificance After all these experiences, one does get the impression they have made him a better man.
The Chief’s gramophone was heard no more. It was left with Mr. Fox at Split Lake, but like the music of Joe Diamond’s concertina which the Chief threw away into the Grassy River, we never greatly missed its melodious strains.
South from Picket Portage
In our work from Picket Portage south, normally we were in a country in which more survey work had been carried out, and of which some sort of maps were available. At no time were we ever very far away from the preliminary lines run previously by other parties. We moved camp regularly every other Saturday and rested on Sundays. To protect their necks and shoulders from snow that fell from trees, the axemen got permission from the Chief to cut up the canvas of an old tent to make hoods and parkas for themselves.
The months of January and February passed quickly. Exclusive of minor afflictions, like boils from which some of the party suffered, everyone was healthy and happy. The boils, caused no doubt by a diet of sowbelly, were in two cases cleared up by an application of a mixture of soap and sugar.
Our last camp was located on the shore of Setting Lake. Eventually, our supplies ran low. The Chief daily expected to receive word from The Pas as to our future operations. As a matter of fact, a dog team with a messenger (one of the Isbisters) was sent from The Pas to advise the Chief the party must remain in the field, and that a new cache had been established at Cormorant Lake, from which we were supposed to obtain fresh supplies. Unfortunately, the runner with his team of dogs never did reach us. So we ran out of grub. Moffatt had no alternative but to hit out for The Pas.
We abandoned the camp, leaving tents and stoves standing. With an old trapper, Jack Still, as a guide, we pulled out following for the first day the old cut line. It was full of stumps that hindered progress and breaking trail. Further south we were able to follow trappers’ trails along the Mitisto River and Dyce Lake The Mitisto River was as crooked as a snake and at times we were travelling northward on it. From Dyce Lake south, the trail was fairly solid, so we could get along most of the time without snowshoes.
When we left our ghost camp at Setting Lake, the south end of our line was in the vicinity of Kiski Lake. A few days after we started out, when we were travelling on the stump-filled line, we followed Jack Still with his toboggan and dogs. The stumps frequently upset his toboggan. Jack got mad because the lead dog was not more careful. He was carrying his .303 Savage rifle. He tried to strike the animal with the rifle butt, missed the dog but struck a stump, breaking off the rifle stock. We wanted to laugh out loud.
Working Up an Appetite
By the time we hit Mitisto River, the grub we had been able to obtain before leaving Setting Lake got low. All we had to start with was one slab of biscuits twelve by fourteen by three inches thick, a half-gallon can of molasses, half full, one quarter sack of flour and about a quarter pound of tea wrapped in a handkerchief.
Finally we got away from the River out onto Dyce Lake where the trail was well packed and where we could walk without snowshoes. By this time the bannock supplied by the cook on the morning we abandoned camp was all eaten up. We still had tea left, but the part tin of molasses was devoured, so we decided to get up a bit early to make bannock with our few pounds of flour. Using my canvas ground sheet for a mixing bowl, we mixed water and flour together and roasted the batter in front of our fire. It contained no baking powder or salt but the batter filled the void in our stomachs.
We thought that our next meal might be the fourth dog which after our first day refused to be harnessed as he had done before, but had followed us at a distance. He must have heard what we said, for we never saw him again. Well, at noon on that day we just kept on hiking, hoping to overtake the other teams. As luck would have it, we discovered a trapper’s cache containing half a ham. We sliced off a couple of chunks each and put the remainder back.
About five o’clock that day imagine our surprise when we came to the north end of Cormorant Lake to see a log cabin from which smoke was issuing. We thought we might be able to scrounge a bite to eat, and perhaps a spot of tea, so we drove up to the cabin. Two men, cache keepers, came out, one an Englishman with long whiskers. We asked if they had seen any of our party. “Oh yes,” said the whiskered one, “just over the portage.” He pointed to the narrows between Little Cormorant and Cormorant Lake proper. Then he caught the leading dog by its collar and led the team out of the yard. We said nothing more to him but really had some hard thoughts.
Towards The Pas ... and Home
We hit out again. On reaching the point he had referred to as “the portage,” we looked southward across Cormorant Lake to the south shore, a good twelve miles away There was a good trail which we followed until about nine o’clock, when we saw the other party’s campfire. We were hungry and really tired but here the boys had plenty to eat, and Neil McKenzie quickly heated a can of beans for each of us and produced some of his good bannock. We rolled into our bedrolls and slept soundly.
We were then only about thirty miles from The Pas, and were able to keep up with the rest of the party. We had a good breakfast and at noon came to another cache, where we all sat down to a good square meal. We had all we could eat. Among the luxuries offered were canned green peas, lots of butter and good bread.
That afternoon we reached the Saskatchewan River. We had been following a well-beaten trail through the Big Eddy Indian reserve on the east side of Reader Lake. We arrived at The Pas just in time for supper. From Setting Lake to The Pas by our trail was about 220 miles. We made it in seven days.
As we crossed the Saskatchewan River I remember hearing Bob Scott say: “There is the new railway bridge, and over there is Tom Finger’s sawmill.” I looked, but could see naught but what seemed like a blue haze. The bright sun’s rays reflected from snow had made those of us who had no snow glasses half snow-blind. We were bleary-eyed for a week after the journey but experienced no lasting effects. To this day, though, bright sun on snow still makes my eyes water. This effect always disappears as soon as the grass gets green.
We stayed at The Pas Hotel overnight, and on the day following entrained for Winnipeg. On arrival at Etomaumi Junction we had to wait a few hours for the main-line train from the west. During that period we found W.J. Clifford’s party lodged at the local hotel, waiting for the chief who, by the way, never did arrive, having apparently suddenly decided he would work no longer on that project. Some of the epitaphs which members of his party left behind on blazed trees on portages indicated some of his men did not love him. He left behind him a most excellent example of a well-located straight and narrow line between Thicket Portage and Fort Churchill Harbour. Rumour had it that his party moved camp every other day, and that they stopped for nothing. Had the route he laid out been followed, instead of the Nelson route, millions of dollars would have been saved.
I will never forget the funny look on my good mother’s face when she opened the door at 128 Colony Street, our home. She failed to recognise the tanned and red mustached face of her oldest son Harold, with his bleary, watery eyes. It was not until I had a good soaking bath, a change of clothes, a haircut and a shave, that any of my friends recognized me.
George Williams, one of our best axemen, was a short, thick-set Yankee who had spent a number of years in Western Canada as a lumberjack. He was a hard and steady worker, and also a wonderful card player. George usually finished up an evening’s card game with a small pile of plug chewing or smoking tobacco as his winnings.
As there was no silver in circulation in those parts, and as twenty-five-cent shin plasters and one dollar bills were not too numerous, the camp’s supply of tobacco was always used as a medium of exchange among the poker players, George gradually accumulated both of the only two caddies of plug tobacco in camp. As a result, he was not too popular.
But on Christmas Day, when the party was housed in the Hudson Bay Post at Split Lake, George brought out all his winnings, laid them on a table in the centre of the room and said, “Help yourself boys, she is all yours.”
By this time jealousies and envy had built up among the boys, and a dislike for George, due to their suspicion that he did not play fair. They may have been right, but not likely. At any rate, George must have felt bad about it.
A few days after we had finished our long hike from Split Lake to Thicket Portage, George complained about not having enough food to make a proper noon-day to take for consumption out on the line. Because of a shortage of supplies, there was nothing but bread and sowbelly. He swore at the cook and wanted to know why there were no cookies. The cook quietly told him there was no sugar in camp for cookies, and that what the other boys had to eat, he would have to be satisfied with. Thereupon George promptly went to the office tent and quit the job.
Some way or another he must have received word that a dog-team soon would be leaving for Norway House. At any rate, he got away and did go to Norway House with an Indian and his team. It was a long hike, but George must made it because later we heard a story about how, while at that Post, he fell into a water-hole someone had cut in the ice on the river.
After leaving Norway House, George apparently connected himself with some of the Metis around Manigotagan. In 1964, George’s son and grandsons were numerous at the Hole River Indian Reserve.
One of the most remarkable characters we encountered in Hudson Bay Railway country was a trapper and prospector called Jack Still. Jack’s cabin was on Setting Lake. He first connected himself with Peter Gordon’s party when they first started work at Manitou Rapids. He worked with Joe Irvin, cutting topography lines.
A few days after he started work, Joe heard a shout down one of his lines. On investigating he found Jack sitting on the ground groaning and holding his leg. “I cut my leg, I cut my leg ... Oooooh.” He refused to take his hands off the supposed wound, and kept on groaning.
Well, Joe told him to go to camp and get the cut dressed. Jack went back to camp, tied a rag around his leg just below the knee, but he was unable to go to work. He would let no one see the supposed wound. Well, Gordon got tired of feeding him and told him to get out.
Jack appeared at our camp after freezeup with a small toboggan and a couple of dogs. The Chief hired him for a fisherman. Jack loaded up his toboggan with supplies for a couple of weeks—bluenose butter and what not, three or four days later he returned with his supplies missing and three fish on his toboggan. The fish he fed to his dogs that night. Then our Chief gave him a job as assistant bull cook. “Oh, no,” said Jack. “You cannot put a whiteman out into the bush in the winter in this country.”
“Well,” said our Chief, “get to hell out of my sight, and keep away.” From that time on, old Jack lived in a pole wigwam he built a hundred yards or so from our camp. He ate what Neil McKenzie gave him and was still hanging around when we had to make our trek from Setting Lake camp. He accompanied us into The Pas in March. I never saw him again, but there was a rumour he and a German doctor shared a cabin on Setting Lake, and that they had found mineral in the vicinity. One day when the doctor approached the cabin, Jack stood outside and threatened to shoot him if he did not clear out. Any man who lived in the bush as long as old Jack did is bound to get ‘bushed.’
Jack died in St. James, Winnipeg, about 1946.
Jack LaBelle, a six-foot-four French-Canadian, was born in the Mattawa district of Ontario. Before he started to work on the Hudson Bay Railway surveys, he worked in northern Quebec and Ontario with engineer F. P. Moffatt. He was a very casual character. He seldom spoke unless he had to. He was an excellent bushman, canoeman, and poker player. Although Jack could not swim, he never hesitated to shoot any rapid he found along his water route. This propensity on several occasions caused considerable inconvenience to himself and to others.
On one occasion, whilst making a trip between Witchai Lake portage with Johnny Harper, and a canoe load of provisions, he got caught in an eddy, upsetting the canoe, dumping out all the cargo. They had to go back to the cache for another load.
And there was the incident in which Gilbert Smith drowned at Snake Rapid on the Grassy. Jack was the one who suggested they shoot it instead of making the portage, even though it was dangerous at that time of year.
On another occasion, Jack was detailed to accompany Chief Moffatt and a student, Russell Lesley, who wanted to return by York boat to Winnipeg via Split Lake. Jack acted as stemsman in descending the Grass River, which at that time was new territory to Jack and the Chief. Russell Lesley sat in the bottom of the canoe.
As they rounded a bend in the stream, tree tops loomed ahead, indicating a fall. Chief Moffatt suggested they should portage. “I fink she be ar’right,” said Jack, and plied hard on his paddle. As they neared the fall, the Chief yelled, “We should portage, Jack ... too much drop.” Jack grunted, spat out a gob of tobacco juice and said: “I fink she be ar’right.” Well, they hit the fall square on. The canoe shot straight out over a big drop and landed right side up but half-filled with water. They pulled ashore, dumped out the water and went on their way.
Russell caught the York boat and arrived in Winnipeg in time to register for another term in the university. He became Dr. W. R. Lesley, superintendent of Morden Experimental Station, noted for his weekly articles on horticulture, “Over the Garden Wall,” which appeared for many years in the Winnipeg Free Press.
Jack went overseas in the First World War then returned to Hudson Bay Railway country where he made a living by toting supplies to railway contractors. Eventually he found himself a native wife, and now somewhere in the north there must be some very strong and courageous French-Cree stock, perhaps around Split Lake. One of Jack’s favourite tunes was “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”.
Honesty of Natives North of The Pas and Norway House
In all our dealings with the native people we met on our survey task, we found them to be very hospitable, good-natured, and above all, honest. Their word was as good as their bond. We never lost anything by theft. Everybody respected the other fellow’s property and rights.
Tools, traps, food, canoes, boats, or anything a bushman might require in his operations, if left unguarded, were as safe as if they were locked up.
As an example, for several months I packed around a .45-Colt revolver and a big knife my brother Frank had given me. One day a Norway House Indian, I think his name was Spence, called at our camp. The weather was cold. He had a nice pair of moose hide gauntlets, which I coveted. They were lined with Hudson Bay blanket and tied with a long cord for use over one’s back. I showed him my revolver. He wanted it for killing moose, he said. Well, we agreed to trade. I gave him the revolver and the heavy knife in barter for a good pair of moose hide moccasins, the heavy moosehide gauntlets (both of which he turned over on the spot) and anew moosehide coat, to be delivered some time at our camp.
By the time I got home in March I still had not received the coat. I suppose he had to get someone to make the coat. I didn’t know how to get in touch with him but eventually, I wrote to the Northwest Mounted Policeman at Norway House. Inside a few weeks, I received the coat. I sold it later because I needed the money. But I still have a moose skin jacket I bought from Andy Pruden.
Of all our packers, teamsters and axemen, Johnny Harper was, in my opinion, the finest. He was born and brought up on the Peguis reserve on the east bank of the Red River, five miles north of Selkirk. (At one time there was a Harper’s Ferry opposite Denaro.)
Johnny had travelled all over the north country and could speak several native dialects. He twice made trips as a guide and canoeman with J. B. Tyrell when that great explorer travelled up Chesterfield Inlet on the west side of Hudson Bay. He also, in 1905, travelled with Tyrell all over the Setting Lake and Grassy River country, and west of Nelson House.
On another trip, Johnny acted as guide and councillor for an English gentleman who wanted to check on the habits of Musk Ox. This took them west from Hudson Bay and north into the Arctic Circle, down the Coppermine River into Bear and Slave lakes, thence south to Edmonton. They returned to Winnipeg via Edmonton.
When I could manage it, I always travelled with Johnny on our long treks. He was quiet and unassuming. He had a leader on his dog team, a black and white animal who was a wonderful worker and who understood what ‘Yew’ and ‘Haw’ meant.
Johnny talked to Minty often, and Minty always understood without being yelled at. I remember hearing him apologise to Minty because he had made Minty keep going when Minty wanted to answer a call of nature.
Johnny died at Selkirk around 1950.
Joe Diamond Johnston / Isaac Sanderson
Joe and Isaac were the two axemen/packers who left our party over the trouble with the concertina. They were both from St. Peters Reserve and were close friends. Both had been previously employed on lake boats and were familiar with all the places on Lake Winnipeg.
They were happy characters but when Chief Moffatt stole the instrument from Joe’s tent and hurled it into the Armstrong River—that was too much. As soon as they could, they took off for the south.
For many years afterward Joe Diamond was a well-known character in the town of Selkirk. He was still living there in 1930.
Isaac Sanderson eventually got back to the Hole River reserve where he died in the 1950s. By 1930 he had a large family of his own and numerous grand children. Many of his descendants now live at the Hole River Indian Reserve. His nickname was Poo-Ka-Ka, whatever that means. He was always happy.
Page revised: 13 June 2014