Pioneering on Peace River

FORT VERMILION, ALBERTA
January 6, 1931
JOE, the boy who came to us on Christmas Day, is still here and seems to want to stay. Karl has never been so happy. He has always wished for a brother, and now at last he has one.
Already the boys are planning a cabin of their own before another winter rolls around. They really need it, for it is crowded in here. Then, too, Daddy cannot stand the noise that boys can and should make when they are happy. In a cabin of their own they could jump and wrestle to their hearts’ content, and it would relieve me if they had a place to entertain the trappers who come to see them.

April 15
The boys took their twenty-twos along with them yesterday morning to shoot ducks on the slough below the barn. The ducks all flew awray, so they went to the barn to clean it up and to feed the horses, hanging their guns up high on the nails they use for their lanterns in the winter when it is dark inside. As they were thus busily working, one at each end of the barn, Joe’s hayfork struck against a twenty-two and it wTent off and shot him. The bullet went through the upper arm, making two holes, then entered the forearm and lodged somewhere near the wrist. It was a mushroom bullet, so it is a terrible-looking arm.

The ice on the river was reported to be moving and very rotten, but we had to get him across to the Mission Hospital at once and have the young doctor remove the bullet. Poor Joe was weak from the loss of blood, and the pain was intense. Karl hitched the team to the old buggy and I hastily gathered Joe’s clothes together and helped to put a mattress and some blankets in the back of the buggy.
Karl drove, and Daddy went along to take care of Joe — he has seen so many accidents in his life, he nearly always knows what to do. They had gone about six miles when a wheel of the buggy broke all to pieces. It is a very old buggy and the trails in here have been rough on it. We hope every year to be able to buy a new buggy, but it would cost about $175, so is out of the question.
It was a front wheel that broke, and Daddy told Karl to cut a long, heavy pole and tie it to the front axle, and then let it go under the hind axle to support it while he removed the hind wheel and put it in place of the broken wheel in front. Dragging this long pole, they went on again until they overtook a half-breed coming out of the bush. His home was on the other side of the river and he said he was going to cross before the ice went out. He agreed to take Joe to the hospital, so Joe and the mattress were transferred to his wagon and Daddy and Karl came home.

April 29
Two weeks have passed and we have not heard a word from Joe or the halfbreed. We do not know whether they crossed the river safely or went under the ice. We can only hope that all is well and go about our daily work with a prayer on our lips.
The ice is moving, and there is a jam below somewhere, probably against one of the large islands, for the river is coming up fast. It rose seven feet last night in a few hours. We have seen an ice jam raise the water ten feet in six hours, and it has been known to rise as much as fifteen feet. It is a dangerous river when the ice is going out, as the ice is very thick — usually about four feet if the winter has been severe.
We can only wait and hope that the young doctor is successful in finding the bullet. There is no X-ray to help him, so he will have to probe for it in the old-fashioned way.
It is lonely without Joe. Karl is all broken up about it; he was so happy over his chum and partner. Now all the spring work falls on his young shoulders.
He said to-night, I will have to dig in so Joe will have something to eat this winter.’ He thinks only of his chum. This friendship is a good thing. It develops real happiness in spite of the suffering and trouble which nourish it now.
It will be months before Joe will be able to use his arm. We can only hope he will regain the full use of it. It would be a pity to have it stiff or the cords cut so it would be helpless. We cannot tell how it will come out, so there is no point in worrying over it now. The boy is in good hands at the Mission. The young doctor will do his best, and the Sisters are gentle nurses and are used to these accidents.

May 6
The river cleared yesterday, and today a river man came along in a scow that had a small engine to run it. He brought Joe with him to our landing to see if I could scrape up enough money to send him out to a hospital to have the bullet removed. The young doctor could not find it, and all the Sisters could do was to try to keep gangrene out of the wound. Joe has suffered now for three weeks waiting for the river to clear. He looks so thin and white and patient, poor boy. I have n’t much money, but gave all I had, and he is gone to the outside. Once more we shall have to wait patiently until he comes back to us again.

May 10
We are now busy putting in the garden and Karl is ploughing the potato land. He has his hands full these days and hardly takes time to eat. He thinks only about Joe and wonders what Joe will say w hen he comes home and sees all he has done and how much he has planted. ‘Joe will like this,’ and ‘Joe wants me to do this,’ he says as he digs away. Does anyone work without an incentive, and is not love the greatest?

May 26
Karl was kicked in the face by a horse this morning. His right cheek was laid open and smashed up. Daddy undertook the job of fixing it himself, as he is experienced in such matters, and I waited on him. It was exactly two hours by the clock before he had it cleaned and shaped back into somewhat the right way to grow into a cheek again. Karl never said a word through it all, but when it was finished I felt so weak I had to go to bed for a little while. We did not have a crooked needle and the straight ones would not catch the flesh, so Daddy put on strips of adhesive tape to hold it in place. It will make quite a scar, but we are thankful the horse hit no vital spot.
Joe is not back from the hospital outside, so we feel pretty bad about these accidents happening to both the boys this spring. No grain is in yet, though Karl now has the ground ready for it. It will not ripen, but it will make feed for the pigs and horses. We shall have to buy some grain to make into flour. So much bad luck!

May 28
Joe is back. He floated down the river on a raft. He is thin, but it is good to see his freckled face and battered old cap coming down the trail once more. I gave him every cent I had when he went out, and the hospital asked him for it and he let them have it, so he had nothing left to come home on. A man there gave him a handful of spikes and he made his little raft of logs and floated dowm the three hundred miles on the raging spring flood water of this mighty river. We are thankful he came home alive.
The operation was successful and the bullet is out. He will not be able to use the arm much this summer; one of the cords was cut almost off and he must be careful if he is to regain the full use of the arm. Karl is in much pain from his cheek. It is terribly swollen. He can take nourishment only through a glass tube. But both boys are safe, and that is the main thing.

July 10
One day last winter Karl came in, eyes aglow with the spirit of the North and cheeks frostbitten. Other lads of his age are in school all over the world. ‘Karl,’ I said, ‘you ought to go to school, and when my ship comes in you are going.’
‘Mother, I would die in a schoolroom. I could never stand the confinement.’ He continued: —

’In a schoolroom all day long,
Never, never, never.
Listen to me, mother —
In the spring the ducks would fly,
In the fall the geese go by
When ice runs in the river.’

He often talks in poetry, but does not know it.
‘Some day you will wake up and want to go,’ I answered. He said nothing, but a far look came into his eyes and he was thinking of his beloved woods and river, of the long trails that lead to where the deer come down to water, of the tangled wilds where the moose yard up for the winter.
It is a shock to me to have him take this attitude toward an education outside, but it is inevitable and brought on by letting him run wild in this open country. Karl thinks children should be free to grow untrammeled by schools and teachers. To a certain extent he is right, but not wholly. At home they can be taught to enjoy books, but in the cities the home is to many only a tent or tepee to take shelter in from the rain and to sleep in.
We have been reading about the state’s raising children in nurseries and schools, thus relieving parents entirely of their care and education. It did not meet with the approval of the boys at all. ‘I would not want to be raised wholesale,’ said Karl. ‘Retail for me,’ said Joe. It depends on the homes, of course, and also on whether a large increase in population is desired. If I wanted to raise chickens for market I would buy an incubator.
Said Karl to Daddy to-day: ‘Daddy, what would you do if you were invited to dinner with the King? There would be so many forks and spoons by your plate you would n’t know which one to use for the different courses.’
Daddy laughed. ‘Karl, you have been reading English novels. I would say to the King, confidentially, as I picked up my spoon, “What signifies a spoon or two ’twixt you and me?”’

October 15
I put up a box of lunch for the boys and tucked in a funny paper they had not read yet. I saved it as a surprise for them. All young people love the funny section of the newspapers and a friend sends them to us. Won’t the boys enjoy their lunch to-day out there in the woods?
There is a hope in my heart that somewhere there is a school for Karl, and a teacher who will teach him all he wants to know. A school that will not hamper him with entrance examinations he knows nothing about. A teacher who will take him as he is — a soul in need of knowledge to be of service to the world.
He sees the world with a wiser mind than mine and is really more practical in some ways. When trouble comes we talk it over together, and as a rule he decides what to do; later it usually turns out that his way was best. He has learned to live in a world of men. No college for me, only for Boy. Is it defeat to lose the dream? I live in the boy. It is better than wanting things for myself, who will, in a few short years, be resting on the hill.
To go out in the world where people may never understand him will be hard. To be whittled down till he fits into the small hole that he may not be able to evade — not that, not that! Let him do what he wants to do. Surely there is some work that needs to be done where he can still call his soul his own. To be a wage slave is worse than death, whether in office or factory. I have talked to many such people and their lives seem to be dwarfed. What will Karl make of himself? It is too early for him to decide now.

November 2
When I come to an article in the Atlantic Monthly that I do not understand I read it aloud to Daddy. He can usually explain it in simple words. If it is too deep for him, I read it to the boys. They listen intently, and if they too fail to grasp the idea, we lay it aside for the boy to take to college with him.
The article Karl likes best is in a very old Atlantic. It speaks of ‘that restlessness of April days in city offices, that longing for distance and wildness.’ The boy repeats over and over the phrase, ‘the deadly sense of boredom in the suffocating heart,’ and also, ‘Socrates, who had no forest, roamed the streets.’
‘The steady ache of a settled occupation’ pleases him, but best of all to his mind is ‘How fast the cities dwindled in population, how the inhabitants spread out, first into breathing room, then into elbow room, and lastly into comfortable spaciousness.’ It is plain to see that the Atlantic Monthly, on which Karl has been nurtured, is partly to blame for the problem of his education now confronting me. When I say ‘school’ to him, he quotes the Atlantic to me, and I capitulate.
Daddy says this sentence from the same article speaks to him: ‘We sent broken men and women into the noble natural sanatorium of the woods, and they came back with the live coal of prophecy on their lips.’

May 18, 1932
A dream is ended — the new neighbors are gone. They did not like the climate here, — too cold in winter, — so they have gone back to their old home in the United States. They had children still to educate, and it was for the best that they should go w here the schools are. But their leaving is a shock to me.

September 12
Daddy went for a walk to-day and did not come home for his dinner. Karl took his pony and went to look for him. He found him sitting on a log contentedly waiting for someone to come after him. Karl let him ride the pony and walked home. I was quite worried, but thought an old-timer like Daddy would not go off the trail. He had only walked one mile, but, as the old proverb says, ‘The mile is long to him who is tired.’
The hens are shut in their little house. The frozen ground is too cold for their feet now. The pigs are loose to run as long as they wish. They pick up any grain that falls when the boys feed the cows and horses. They love to be free.
The garden is brown and frozen. The gate is open for the sheep, and they are cleaning up the dead flower stalks. Everything has a desolate look with winter here, though as yet there is no snow. The only bird I saw to-day was a black buzzard flying low looking for food.
In the cabin there is warmth. On the window sills are bowls of everlasting or straw flowers, and the curtains are bright and cheerful. Daddy is tired, has not been up this afternoon. The walk was a little too much for him. To-morrow he will feel rested and talk to me over his tray. It is pleasant to converse with him. He has lived a long time in this world and seen many changes.

October 5
Daddy is very ill with the flu, and the crisis will soon be here. His heart is weak and the pulse slow to-night — I can hardly feel it under my finger. The boys are tired from the day’s work and asleep in their cabin, and alone I sit through the long night hours. There is nothing to do but wait and hope.

October 7
Daddy is still very ill and lies very quiet. He is about the same as yesterday. Joe sat with him this morning till noon, and I slept on the cot, tired to exhaustion. A dream woke me. I seemed to be walking beside the river in flood time. Suddenly the ground melted under my feet; without warning I sank into the turbulent flood. There was time for only a hurried ‘good-bye,’ and a picture of Daddy flashed across my mind as I sank forever. Then my hand caught a willow and I opened my eyes. Death had come for me in a dream, and I was not afraid. It proves that my soul is schooled to leave Karl, but not Daddy. The boy is grown; he will not need us.

October 8
The sun is shining through a thick fog. It is a chilly morning and looks as if it might snow before night. The boys are hauling wood and took their lunch with them, so Daddy and I are alone. The crisis came last night, and he is better but very weak. From now on he needs only careful nursing.
We are happy once more. Daddy’s birthday has occupied our thoughts lately and we are going to celebrate it ‘with a bang,’ as the boys say. Not to many does life give the wonder of eighty years. He wants a very large cake, one to last at least a week. That pleases the boys, for they love cake. The twenty-fourth of February is the day, and by that time the hens will be laying, so there will be plenty of eggs for the cake. A large milk pan will be about right to bake it in. It is to have three layers, each one different.

October 16
Life on the frontier is emotional, especially for a mother. One never knows what the day will bring forth. There is the scar on Karl’s face, and the first joint gone on his pointer finger, to remind me that anything may happen to a boy.
Last Sunday the boys were out on their ponies looking for the two-yearold red steer, which had failed to come home. Both the boys have very poor and old saddles. Karl rides on an old English one without horns, and the leather is rotten. A bear scared the pony, which jumped suddenly and threw the boy, dragging him a short distance in the bush until the strap providentially broke and let his foot loose. When he got up, scratched and bruised but not hurt much, Joe caught up with him; and Karl said Joe was as white as a sheet, and I don’t wonder. Those boys think a lot of each other, and they had sober faces this morning as they fixed the broken strap. Joe said, ‘Next time it won’t break, and then something will happen.’
Then they talked cheerfully of how they wished to be buried, all through breakfast. They decided to be wrapped in red wool blankets and to have fullblooded Indians as pallbearers. Karl would be buried on the hill behind the cabin so as to be near his home, but Joe wanted his grave in the tiny cemetery at the Fort because it would be more cheerful. Only cowboy songs and some extra-choice hillbilly songs were to be sung, and the half-breeds were to do the singing, as they have splendid voices.

October 30
It is my birthday to-day. Fifty-two years have passed over my head, but the time seems short. We had a cake with two candles on it, for we celebrated the birthdays of two mothers — Karl’s and Joe’s. Joe’s mother is far away in Manitoba, but it would n’t have been fair for Karl to have a mother-birthday and not Joe. The cake was soft, and the candles were so tall they would not stand up straight but leaned toward each other in a most affectionate way, as if exchanging confidences about their boys. It made the boys laugh, and we had a very jolly time.

December 24
It is Christmas Eve, and very cold. All are asleep; alone I sit beside the stove and write.
The boys brought me a load of spruce boughs to decorate the cabin, and we turned it into a fairy bower with the green branches. It is like living inside a Christmas tree. Three Atlantic readers sent Christmas candles in the mail, and when they are lighted here and there in the greenery the effect is wonderful and beautiful.
Christmas — we all love this day of days. For the boys there will be new beaded moccasins and beaded gauntlet mittens made of moose hide with warm knitted wool mittens inside. There are some Christmas gifts that came by air mail, too, under my bed waiting for the stockings that are hanging in a row. Even Daddy hangs up his stocking in the hope that Santa Claus will remember him with warm knitted socks and slippers and a new book or two.
If no candles had come I was going to fill every cup with butter and put butter-bitches1 all over the cabin. The effect would have been startling anyway.

January 4, 1933
We ate our last rice pudding today. It appears to be our favorite dessert and we shall miss it this winter. Daddy is always cheerful. He would be the same if he had only bread and water. ‘Eat your rice pudding, boys; when it’s gone there’ll be no hankering,’ said he. That is how we score on the depression.
You must either use your brain or lose it when you live on the frontier. Karl said to me to-day that he often wonders how it would feel to be somebody else. He said: ‘I am the centre of the world around me. I stand on this centre and look at the world and wonder about the other centres, for all people are centres.’ He is young. Some day, through much reading and contact with these other centres, he will know more about them. It is something that he can see he is not the only centre. I am glad he wants to understand people.
He is not worried about his soul at all. He asked me if I was sure he had one. Was it his brain, he wanted to know. I did not answer him, for I was afraid I might give him a wrong idea.

February 22
So many letters have come that many are yet unanswered, though I am slowly wading through the box of them that accumulated when Daddy was so ill. I have almost given them up, as I have little time now. In a way my diary is the answer to the many questions people ask me. Now I will answer some that have come.
Daddy has proved up on his homestead and has received title to it. There are thirty acres under cultivation. He has been repatriated and is once more a citizen of Canada. We all thought his papers would automatically make me a citizen also, but we have just learned that I must apply myself; so I mailed my application to the Secretary of State very recently.
When Boy found that he automatically became a citizen when Daddy was granted his papers he was pleased. Joe was born in Canada and says proudly, ‘I am a Canadian.’ When we sat down to breakfast, Karl said, ‘Canadians, all except Mother. She is nothing.’ So here I am with my household full of full-fledged Canadians, and I without a country.
We still live in our one-room cabin. Three times I have had the money in my hand to buy lumber for floor and roof for another cabin, and each time some great need has arisen unforeseen and no lumber was bought. I still live in hope that some day I shall have my kitchen. I have planned for it a long time, and would have it now but for the depression.
In regard to the recipes people ask about, I could not sell my diary to be printed without including in it the one on sugar. Hundreds write to me for it, and I tell them to wait for the diary. So: —

Pully off the coat, boys, and rolly up the sleeve,
For Jordan am a hard road to trabel, I believe.

That is the way you have to go about it if you want to make sugar from sugar beets.
First, the beets must be trimmed of roots and the tops cut off, including the part of the beet that is green. To keep the top of the beet from turning green it should be hilled up when it is growing.
Then soak in cold water and scrub each beet with a brush if the soil sticks to it. Next slice it thin with a sharp knife, laying the beet on a board or on a table top. For large quantities the farm root cutter, slicer, or pulper may be used.
The slices are then covered with boiling water and placed over a fire or on the stove and allowed to come to a boil. Only aluminum or scoured copper or enamel ware should be used to boil them in. We do not know what the effect would be on the beets if iron were used, but some day we shall try to find out, for we have a large vat made of planks with a sheet-iron bottom nailed on.
When the beets have come to a boil, they are set aside and kept well covered to steam for about an hour. This is to draw the sugar out of the beets. This juice is then strained through cloth, for there is always some sediment from the beets no matter how carefully they have been scrubbed. We use four thicknesses of heavy flannel, as flannel never becomes clogged as cotton does. We boil down the sweetened water or juice till it is a thick molasses, and then cool it. Then we put it into a wooden candy pail in which we have made small holes for the molasses to drain off.

February 25
I planned it this year so that the sugaring off would come on Daddy’s birthday. He was eighty years old yesterday, and last night he had the time of his life sugaring off, for it brought back happy memories of the old home in Quebec and of the sugar bush where he helped his father make maple sugar so many times. Not many octogenarians celebrate their eightieth birthday in this fashion. He stood over the kettles with a big spoon and tasted the boiling syrup, and told me stories as the memories crowded back on him.

The old recipe called for bone charcoal pounded into lumps the size of a pea and sifted to exclude the dust. These were to be put into the boiling syrup to raise scum, which, when skimmed off, would leave the syrup clearer and of a lighter color. Hardwood charcoal can be used, but will not bleach it. As we had so little syrup to experiment with, we did not put in any charcoal, because we wanted to use the scum, which is very sweet, in gingerbread. We are short on sugar this year; even the scum is precious.
‘It is wonderful,’ says Daddy, ‘to have a sugaring off almost on the arctic circle.’ I brought in a cake of river ice and he poured a little of the boiling syrup on it, and it resembled taffy when cooled. It should not be boiled into taffy, of course, if sugar is the end in view.
And now that the work is ended, —

Our eighty-year-old Daddy sits in his chair
And sails uncharted seas
With two Bibles on his knees.
‘I never liked the word “inherited,”’ says he;
‘It is linked with death.
“Possess” is the better word —
It means much more to us.’
His voice comes like a benediction
As from the new translation he reads:
‘Blessed are the humble-minded,
For they shall possess The Land.’
  1. In the December issue, ’Christmas at the Ranch,’ Mrs. Rose described this quaint but satisfactory lighting device. — EDITOR