Furs and Traders: (From a Pre-War Diary)

THIRTY-TWO days! It seems incredible, but here is the date in front of me. ‘Twenty-ninth of November,’ the day when I scrawled my last few lines.

A whole month has gone by. I remember the little frontier town, at the end of the railway — ‘at the line,’ as they say in the West. The absolute fringe of civilization. Just a few wooden shacks built alongside the tracks, with a long board walk undulating above the snow. A poolroom. The general store, displaying proudly the sign, ‘His Majesty’s Mail.’ A deserted sawmill. The tiny depot, the only brick building in the community, with its huge water tower, all out of proportion with anything around it. Stray dogs roaming between the houses. A dismal background of burned timber. A gray sky with low-flying clouds and a small flock of black ravens wheeling aimlessly back and forth.

A picture of utter desolation, under the staggering icy breath of the far North.

Yes, I was there a month ago. Where am I now? I do not know exactly. I should say about six hundred miles north of the line — that is, if I can rely on what I think was our daily mileage during the last thirty-two days.

I have reached a fur-trading station. The man in charge has been here fifteen years. He is my boss for the time being. But he told me yesterday that I should have to go on soon, farther north.

Somewhere farther north! It sounds simple, but it means such a lot here.

The man’s name is McL— and he was born in the Shetland Islands. I always thought that those islands were famed only for their small ponies. I know now that they have also a breed of dour men who can reach well over six feet in height and who are not so easy to get on with.

McL— came to this country and the North when he was eighteen years old, and I should judge him to be at least sixty now. He does not seem to know what a map is and he always refers to the South as Canada, which is rather confusing.

I have tried to find out exactly where he intends to send me. ‘North,’ is the only answer.

I never knew the North extended so far. When I reached the end of the railway, I thought I was pretty far up. (They call it ‘down’ here, because the rivers flow down to the Arctic Ocean.) Later on, after thirty-two days of walking from morn until night behind a dog sleigh, I was certain that I had reached at least the end of the trees. Thirty-two days! It’s a long, long spell, especially when there is nothing to see during the whole trip — just a howling wilderness of frozen lakes and rivers, with snow-capped spruce trees. And here, in this trading station, they still speak of going north!

There is nothing very thrilling about this fur post. Just a log hut called a store, with a dwelling fifty feet away, built exactly the same way, two small warehouses, and a dog corral.

The only difference between the store, where business is supposed to be conducted, and the living quarters is a stove. The latter is in the house, and it is kept red-hot twenty hours out of twenty-four.

The store — for economical reasons, I suppose — is never heated, and when one has to go there to handle any kind of merchandise one hardly dares to take one’s fur mitts off.

Yesterday the thermometer inside showed fifteen below zero. I was trying to cut bacon in thin slices and to weigh the result accurately. It was not so easy as one would think. When I had finished, McL-said that it was mild for this time of the year!

All the Indians are away hunting. No one has remained behind except a few old widows and cripples whom the post keeps round the place for odd jobs such as cutting wood, bringing in water, and fishing for dog feed through the ice of the lake.

I am supposed to rest here for a few days before I go north. My nose was frostbitten coming here. So was my left ear. Both are swollen to three times their normal size. But having been treated at once, on the way up, by ‘snow rubbing,’ they are expected to cure rapidly. I hope so!

My feet are in bad shape. For thirty-two days the strap of my snowshoes rubbed and bit into the flesh at the base of my toes. Caribou fat seems to be the one and only known remedy.

Two weeks have gone by and I really feel all right again. During all that time I don’t think McL— has said ten words to me a day. I wonder if that is the result of forty years in the North. I feel more lonely with that man in the room than if I were camped alone in the middle of the lake on the ice, without even my team of dogs to cheer me up.

Second of February. I have left McL—— and I am supposed to be ‘on my own’ here.

What is ‘here’? A tiny log hut, ten by sixteen, a stove, a wooden plank supported by four sticks on which I sleep in my fur robe, a biscuit box for a seat, and all my trading outfit hanging from nails on the walls and from the ceiling. Behind the shack, in a lean-to, the heavy stock, such as pork, flour, traps, beans, and lard.

I don’t know yet exactly where I am. ‘Northwest Territories of Canada’ is the pompous title on my trader’s license.

What I am certain of is that it took me seventeen days of hard walking to get here. Also that I am very near the Barren Lands, close to where the trees cease to grow, on the hunting grounds of the Chippewayan Indians, and near enough to trade occasionally with the ‘Inland’ Eskimos, if the latter come south. This, of course, means that there is still ‘a lot of North’ for me to ‘go down to.’

My trading station — they call it an outpost — is on the crest of a small hill which is used as a two-mile portage by the natives going north and south. The river, flowing fifty feet below and right in front of my door, curves around to the east, then disappears toward the north between two gray cliffs of granite, in a series of wild rapids, to emerge behind me, on the other side of the portage.

At this time of the year everything is frozen solid, except the rapids, which I cannot see from the shack.

In the calm of the evening, when the thermometer has gone down and down to forty below, if I stand outside of my door the silence is deathly. On the other side of the river I can see the faint outline of the hills, half a mile away, with spruce tops showing dark through the snow. Not a living thing in sight.

Suddenly a whisper reaches me faintly through the air. In a second it grows and grows into a muttering groan, then finally into a dull, booming roar. After that it dies out suddenly — utter and absolute silence reigns supreme again. Every few minutes the weird sound returns over the frozen land, then goes out again completely. It’s the eternal sobbing of the rapid, — unfrozen, twirling free of the grip of the ice, unconquered, wild, lashing its frantic way through the rocky canyon, — the everlasting moan which the last breath of shifting wind wafts here and there, toward me, then away from me, as I stand all alone on my doorstep.

I have been here three weeks, and I have n’t seen a living soul. No Indians are expected this way before a month. The afternoon is drawing to a close. My five dogs are tied to their posts, whining with hunger. I have no meat here. The cache is two miles away, on the other side of the portage. I am weak with loneliness. I must go over there, but I will not harness the team. I’ll walk there alone and bring back just what we want—the dogs and I.

Half an hour of weary plodding along the trail, clear and hard with my three weeks’ footsteps — a narrow, one man’s trail, winding its way through small scrub brush, coiling itself like a huge snake on the snow. The meat — caribou meat — is lying on a platform ten feet high, each of the four poles entwined with barbed wire. When I reach the place, my eyes rest a second on the snow below. Tracks — heavy, wide pads — wolf tracks. A pack of six or seven ‘timbers’ have been there, under my meat, a few minutes before. The frozen powdery snow is still trickling downward on the sides of each track. A strong throat-racking smell is still floating about, the unmistakable wolf smell of a hunting pack.

Not a sound anywhere. Not a movement in the bush. Just snow, snow everywhere, and a few gray boulders scattered about, grim, in all sorts of weird and fantastic shapes.

Slowly I raise the ladder from the ground, climb up to the platform, and cut the meat, the blows of my axe echoing through the stillness of the evening. Before I get down my eyes search the surrounding country. Nothing in sight. Packing my load, I turn back toward ‘home.’

The light is failing. No sunset tonight reddens the northeast. The sky has suddenly turned dark gray. A fewlight streaks to the southeast herald the northern lights.

Halfway back to the shack I suddenly stop, shuddering slightly. I have not seen or heard a thing, but I have the feeling that I am not alone. Turning round, I see three gray shadows standing motionless on the trail, a hundred yards from me. In a second I am again on my way. Another quarter of a mile! I must look back. Five gray shadows: three on the trail, two on the right side, in the deep snow, much nearer. One of the shadows moves slightly, its head down, and the light in its eyes, for a fraction of a second, flashes in the gathering shadow’s.

A last effort — a steady walk, with no apparent haste, and here is the shack. My dogs are whining, far down in their throats. Hunger? Welcome? I think it is fear!

A last look round. Six wolves are standing motionless, fifty yards away, silent as ghosts.

A second more and I am able to grasp my rifle. A spluttering flame, a shattering roar, with the whining of the bullet skimming through the low bush, and then silence. Nothing! The six wolves have vanished completely.

For two days and two nights a blizzard has been raging without a sign of lifting. My dogs have disappeared. They were off their chains when the bad weather came. They must have burrowed behind some rock, letting the snow cover them up. There they will remain, snug and warm, until the storm is over.

As I sit beside the little stove I can hear the hissing of the powdery snow lashing one side of the hut, while tiny little streams, like white sand, trickle between the cracks down to the floor and melt there in a few seconds, leaving ugly black puddles of water. The beams, under the roof, are creaking like the timbers of a sailing ship at sea, and now and then the whole shack shudders as if it were being torn away from its foundations.

It is already noon of the third day. Amid the howling wind I suddenly hear the sharp yell of an Indian. In a second my door is opened and a small, thickset man tumbles in. Covered with snow, entirely wrapped in caribou skins, he is hugging to his breast a large fat fur bag, which he promptly lays down on the floor. With one sweep of his arm he tears his coat off; then, paying no attention to me, he kneels down, unties the cord, and slowly but gently extricates from the bag a small boy about six or seven years of age.

The child is rather thin, but does not seem the worse for what he has been through. He blinks at the lamp, then at me. Satisfied, he grins at the redhot stove, then, turning to the man, asks for food.

In a few minutes my two visitors are eating the remains of my pork and beans and drinking the tea which I hurriedly brewed as soon as the boy spoke.

In a little while the child goes to sleep, and the man, filling his pipe from my pouch, turns at last to me and starts talking slowly in Cree. He is a full-blooded Chippewayan, but he knows that I cannot speak his language. Very few white men can. He is an old man, sixty-five years old at least, and the boy is his grandchild.

His family is camped fifty miles or so away from here. His sons are trapping. Tea was short and there was no more tobacco; so he decided to go down to McL—. He did n’t know the outpost was opened.

He started on his journey before the blizzard came. He had been camped, ‘storm bound,’ on the other side of the portage since the day before yesterday, waiting for the bad weather to blow over, and had heard me chopping wood in the shelter of the shack. So he came at once. His dogs are all right, like mine, hidden somewhere in the bush.

Why did he take the child with him on the trip? Just for company. And then, after all, it is good for a boy to learn how to travel when he is very young.

Yes, he is glad I am here. He has skins. He will trade them for tea and tobacco and return to his people much more quickly than if he had been obliged to go right down to McL—.

For forty-eight hours the strange pair remain with me, and I am very happy to have them. The child hardly ever speaks to me, but he plays about the room. His chief amusement seems to be the setting of a few small mink traps which are lying about, then the springing of them with the end of a stick.

The old man smokes a great deal of my tobacco and talks quite freely. His appetite is terrible. He must average six meals a day.

When the time comes to say goodbye, at the end of the portage, the child is placed, sitting in his fur bag, in the middle of the sleigh. The old man asks me to visit his camp, which I promise to do shortly. His last words are ‘ I will feed you well, but you must tell me which part of the caribou you like best.’ I answer, ‘The feet,’ meaning ‘The ribs.’ My Cree is not what it should be. I do not realize my mistake at the time and my Indian friend takes it for granted that I know exactly what I am saying.

So off they go north, both politely waving good-bye, while I remain on the hill, watching the sleigh dwindling away on the ice of the river.

A week later. I have not seen a soul since my two new friends, young and old, came to visit me with the blizzard. I am restless. Furthermore, I must try to get some fur. I am going to them to-morrow at daybreak.

A little hollow between two sandy hills, curving exactly like a horseshoe. North is the highest part of the ridge, sparsely covered with spruce and tamarack. South, in the opening, lies a very small lake, frozen solid.

In the centre of the hollow, at the foot of the incline, five huge caribouskin tepees, which cluster respectfully round a tiny log hut. Here and there meat platforms and dog corrals. Everywhere, on the snow, discarded deerskins which the dogs have torn into shreds.

On one side, a huge pile of firewood, neatly cut up. On the other, a dead tree, shorn of its branches, on the trunk of which are nailed innumerable skeletons of all the animals trapped by the Indians. Marten, wolf, fox, wolverine, and mink.

My arrival causes a horrible sensation. My dogs are glad to reach camp, but the Indian dogs resent the presence of strange huskies. Before I am able to leave the back of my sleigh, every stray dog in the camp has piled on top of my team and I am in danger of losing it. Happily, in a few seconds all the Indians, — men, women, and children, — hearing the noise, are out of their tents. A minute goes by in confusion. Fur flies, dogs snarl, and the loud whacks of wooden clubs and fish floats echo sharply through the air. Then silence.

The attacking huskies have been driven away, and my dogs, sore, ruffled, and bloody, lick their wounds, waiting to be taken out of harness and tucked in for the night.

My old friend — ‘Grandfather,’ as I call him to myself; his name is Kasimir — is waiting for me in the shack. His wife is there. So are three or four other women. The boy is in a corner and recognizes me dutifully. We shake hands all round.

While I begin talking to the old man, the women start boiling something in the lean-to outside of the shack. They are using an enormous copper kettle. I can hear the crackling of the firewood and smell the boiling meat.

After a long time the kettle is brought in and placed on the floor. My host politely tells me to select my portion. With my clasp knife I am able to fish out my share. It is the leg of a caribou, from hoof to knee.

Suddenly I remember the word in Cree for ’ribs’ and realize my mistake of a few days ago.

It is too late now to say anything. Furthermore, the kettle contains other legs — in fact, nothing but legs.

After all, pigs’ feet are considered a delicacy. Why should n’t reindeer feet and legs be the same?

Everyone gets his portion and starts eating. The legs are good, well boiled and tender. But the cooks, for some reason or other, have not bothered to skin each long thin shank, and the whole kettle is a mass of floating brown and gray hairs.

Hungry as I am, I stop a second and look around. Everyone seems most unconcerned. I have to follow suit. But while I eat — I mean gnaw at the flesh around the bone — I feel a thick mustachio of caribou hair settling all around my mouth like fresh paint.

Twenty-fifth of April. The winter is nearly over. Although the rivers and lakes remain frozen, the snow on land is melting. Two days ago I heard for the first time the gurgling of a little creek somewhere in the bush. This morning, at dawn, I saw two sheldrakes flying over the tree tops.

The geese will be coming soon, and their honking will trumpet all over the land the news that spring at last is here.

I have been fairly successful with my trading. Kasimir’s band gave me rather a lot of fur. Skin by skin, hour after hour, day after day, I have been able to secure a good part of their hunt. Six times have I had to journey back and forth from my post to their camp. I am glad that this part of the job is over now.

I have sent the furs south to McL—, neatly bundled up in waterproof sheets, in the care of two Indians who were going over there to visit some relatives.

The North is a strange country. The natives will try to cheat you at any time. They will borrow and never repay. They will attempt to change skins on you, to give you the wrong number of pelts, to fool you on the weight of the flour, sugar, tea, tobacco, shot, which they are receiving from you in exchange for their furs.

But when it comes to plain robbery, that crime is unknown here. One can just as well entrust an Indian with thousands of dollars’ worth of furs to transport from one place to another as one can leave one’s watch hanging in a portage from the branch of a tree. Neither fur nor watch will ever be stolen.

I have left my outpost and I am camped now two hundred miles to the southwest, with a big band of Crees who are still hunting beaver, muskrat, and otter. McL— sent me a nice new outfit of trading goods and I have pitched my tent a few hundred yards from the Indian tepees. I have been here twenty days and I know everyone in the tribe. The men are all away in the bush and only return for two or three days at the end of each week.

The squaws are friendly, and each one feeds me in turn one meal. It’s a great thing for me, as I need n’t cook my own food, except coffee in the morning when I get up. I never know each day who is going to be my hostess, but toward noon and six o’clock I sit expectantly in front of my tent. Suddenly one of the squaws comes out of her tepee and shrieks, ’Mitsoo! (Food!)’ That’s my signal. I promptly go to that tent and eat whatever is prepared, generally whitefish, sometimes caribou, often porcupine, which I detest. I always take with me the dessert, more often prunes, sometimes jam or honey, and of course a handful of tea, always.

My work, ‘trading,’ starts as soon as the men return. But when they are away time hangs heavily on my hands.

I have struck up a great friendship with a little boy about nine years old. I call him ‘Papoose,’ but his real name is David Butterfly. I am not prepared to explain exactly how he happens to have such a family name. I suppose it is a direct translation of the native language by some local trader. But his Christian name is certainly of ‘the Clergyman’s choosing ’— the Clergyman who lives at the big fur-trading village where the Mission is, three hundred miles away.

Papoose’s parents, although they do not speak a word of English, are Protestant Methodists. I mean by that that they selected years ago, for private or business reasons of their own, to enter that, fold instead of surrendering to the Roman Catholic competitor who also runs a mission in the same locality.

Papoose is the only boy of the family. His parents love him with the fierce love of the Northern Indians, to whom, as in the Far East, the male child is the only thing that counts.

To be truthful, I am afraid that he is utterly spoiled, and his manners are atrocious. But he is very useful to me.

First, he keeps me posted on everything that goes on, especially as far as the quantities of fur brought into the camp are concerned. I have of course to bribe him heavily for that, with sweets, tobacco, jam, pocketknives, and what not.

Secondly, he keeps me company during the long weary hours of waiting for the hunters’ return.

To look at, Papoose is quite out of the ordinary.

He is a thin, long-legged little human animal, with the healthy purplebrown complexion of the Canadian savage. His coarse black hair rests like a round cap on the top of his skull, his last ‘haircut’ having been accomplished by his mother, with a pair of straight shears, all along the edges of a kettle clapped beforehand on his head.

His eyes are really enormous, velvety black, and as sharp as needles, but they are always half screened by drooping eyelids which slant away on each side of his face, right back to his ears.

He wears a pair of soiled canvas trousers, reaching halfway down to his ankles, sustained by a leather string which starts from his right hip, reaches across his chest over his left shoulder, and finds a final hold somewhere behind in the centre of his loins.

His shirt, made out of an old caribou skin, is torn open at the neck, while his feet are shod with real moose-hide moccasins.

He always wears on his wrists a pair of thin bracelets, in leather and beads, interwoven with small porcupine quills — which look exactly like a pair of multicolored handcuffs without chains.

Papoose smokes a pipe, like a man, and when he does not he wears it thrust, bowl upward, in a slit in his shirt, on the left side of his chest.

When he smokes he spits, and his skill at spitting is just short of miraculous. He never moves his head one way or another — and his aim is unerring.

He dearly loves dog fights and I have caught him several times coaxing two huskies to come to grips by rubbing their noses against one another.

His great joy in life is to shoot, at anything, with a bow and blunt-head arrows. As in spitting, his skill is amazing. Inside of forty feet he can hit anything he aims at, including your tent guide rope and the small knob on the lid of your kettle when the latter is boiling merrily over the camp fire.

Another favorite pastime of his is to throw a short axe, holding it by the handle, at a given target. As long as he is aiming at something large and consistent, such as the trunk of a tree, I don’t see much harm in the game. But when he tries to hit the snow birds in camp, especially when the latter are hopping on the ground in close proximity to my tent, I cannot help feeling a bit nervous.

He knows and can imitate the call of any wild animal. His masterpiece is the laugh of the loon, but he can honk a flock of geese three miles out of their course.

Papoose docs n’t know how to read or write, even in Cree, but his sense of location is uncanny. The north is stamped in his brain wherever he is. Blindfold him, twirl him around for a minute, stop him, and ask him where the north is. Invariably his hand will point. ’true north.’ I have never known that experiment to fail.

He has traveled this year alone, either in a hunting canoe or on foot in winter, twenty miles from any camp which his family has pitched. He is nine years old, mind you! Nobody here seems to think it very remarkable.

He loves to sing, all to himself. Funny Indian songs — half Cree, half Chippewayan. I have listened to him an hour at a time, but I can’t make out what the whole thing is about. I can only catch a word now and then. There is no tune to speak of—just,\ a plaintive singsong which never seems to end. But now and then he strikes a high note and his whole little self seems to give way to it. He sways back and forth, beats the air up and down with the palms of his hands, and keeps up the note until his very breath stops.

In the pitch-darkness of a winter night, right under the northern lights shivering in the sky, on the edge of a camp fire shooting weird thin sharp shadows across the snow, his little Indian song grips and scares your heart.

Fifteenth of June. For two weeks I have been traveling south, transporting my precious bundles of fur by canoe.

To-night is my last camp. I pitched it after sunset, a few miles from the line. To-morrow I shall have reached civilization again. At last!

As I write these lines on my knees, close to the glimmering flames of the fire, I can hear nothing, not even the sighing of the breeze in the poplars above my head, while the river, at my feet, flows without a murmur, shining in places where the light of the full moon touches it through the trees.

For eight months I have listened each night to the utter silence of the North, sometimes in awe, often in dread.

But to-night I wonder at myself, for here, at the end of the long, long trail, I find myself listening and listening to it, with a feeling of regret; more than that — with a pang in my heart which must be love. My whole being seems to crave that peace and quiet against which I have been fighting unconsciously.

Just at this moment, suddenly, a long wailing screech shatters the night. It comes from the south, far away. Startled, I look up toward the tree tops, across the river. Angrily I strain my ears. Here it comes again, twice in succession, followed a second later by a last short blast.

I recognize the sound in disgust. It is an engine whistling on the railway track, a few miles away.