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Manitoba History: Crossing Lake Winnipeg by Dogs

by Alexander McArthur
with Introduction by William Barr,
Department of Geography, University of Saskatchewan

Number 26, Autumn 1993

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Introduction

Alexander McArthur is probably best known in Manitoba as one of the founders, in 1879, of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, precursor of the Manitoba Historical Society, and for his publications in the Society’s transactions. These included articles such as “The cause of the rising in the Red River Settlement, 1869-70,” published in 1882; [1] “A tragedy on the plains: the fate of Thomas Simpson, the Arctic explorer,” published in 1886; [2] and “Our winter birds,” published in 1887. [3] A Winnipeg businessman, a City Alderman for a term (elected in 1879) and first secretary-treasurer of Winnipeg General Hospital, [4] McArthur suffered heavy financial losses when the Winnipeg boom collapsed in 1882-83. A few years later, in June 1886, he suffered a traumatic personal tragedy when his wife and a son died within a few weeks of each other.

Alexander McArthur
Source: Archives of Manitoba

A keen amateur ornithologist, McArthur decided to try to forget his personal troubles by focusing on ornithology and specifically by mounting an expedition to the Arctic to study and collect birds. Aiming to start north in the spring of 1887 he began his preparations in August 1886. An initially promising correspondence with Dr. Spencer Baird, director of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington [5] ultimately came to naught in terms of financial or material support. [6] McArthur then approached Dr. Robert Bell [7] and Dr. George M. Dawson, [8] both of the Geological Survey of Canada, for support and advice. The former, although fairly free with his advice, was less generous with support; the latter was much more obliging, providing advice, a loan of instruments and funding to the amount of $200. [9] On the basis of having earlier worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company McArthur was able to persuade Donald Smith (Lord Strathcona) to provide a letter of credit to the amount of $500, on which McArthur could draw at any Company post. [10] In preparing for his expedition McArthur also sought (and received) advice and/or support from an impressive list of arctic experts. They included Dr. John Rae, [11] who had explored large sections of the arctic mainland coast, and, over 30 years earlier, had found the first clues as to the fate of the missing Franklin expedition; Robert McFarlane, [12] veteran Hudson’s Bay Company factor and arctic naturalist, who in the 1860s had established and operated Fort Anderson on the Anderson River; and John Murdoch, [13] naturalist with the American station of the First International Polar Year at Point Barrow, Alaska, 1881-83.

Having hired an assistant, Mr. W. H. Young, [14] McArthur set off northwards by horse-drawn sleigh from Winnipeg at 10:20 p.m. on 13 February 1887; [15] his stated goal was Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic! At Rabbit Point on Lake Winnipeg the two men switched to toboggans pulled by dogs and driven by Indian drivers. Continuing via Berens River, Mossy Point and Poplar River they reached Norway House on 3 March. [16] Here, totally exasperated by Young’s incompetence, McArthur fired his assistant [17] and sent him back south. On 8 March McArthur set out for Oxford House alone but turned back the same day and then started south for Winnipeg on the 17th. He was back in Winnipeg by 30 March. [18] His stated reason for turning back was that he had heard that the Inuit no longer came south to Churchill (he had been relying on travelling north from that point with the Inuit) and that hence he would have been stranded at Churchill for the remainder of the winter. He maintained that he had not abandoned his project but would shortly be setting off again by a different route. His ultimate goal had not changed: he intended “to pass a winter on the Arctic coast for the purpose of collecting ornithological specimens and prosecuting natural history studies, and secondly, if the conditions were favourable, of adding something to the geographical knowledge of the world by exploring the west coast of Grinnell Land [Ellesmere Island] which is as yet unknown country.” [19]

Map showing the part of McArthur’s proposed route which he actually covered.

But this plan never came to fruition. After a brief illness McArthur died in his room in the Grand Union Hotel on 21 August 1887 [20] and he was buried in St. John’s Cemetery on the 23rd.

Objectively, this sorry attempt at an Arctic expedition must be evaluated as an exercise in futility. However, there was one interesting byproduct. On the basis of his trip to Norway House and back, McArthur completed a fairly rough draft of a manuscript entitled “Crossing Lake Winnipeg by Dogs.” [21] Although barely legible in places this document provides a detailed description of the Indian technique of dog-driving, of the organization of camps, and of camp cuisine, as practised in the Lake Winnipeg area in the late nineteenth century. This document is here reproduced in full as a tribute to one of the founders of the Society.

Notes

1. A. McArthur, “The Causes of the Rising in the Red River Settlement, 1869-70,” Transactions of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, 1 (1882).

2. A. McArthur, “A Tragedy on the Plains: The Fate of Thomas Simpson, the Arctic Explorer,” Transactions of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, 27 (1886).

3. A. McArthur, “Our Winter Birds,” Transactions of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, 28 (1887).

4. J. Ingram, “McArthur, Alexander,” in: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. XI, 1881-1890 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), p. 538.

5. For example, S. F. Baird, Letters to Alexander McArthur, 5 August and 24 November 1886. PAM MG 14 C20, f 34 and 42.

6. S. F. Baird, Letter to Alexander McArthur, 20 December 1886. PAM MG14 C20, f 51.

7. R. Bell, Letter to Alexander McArthur, 15 December 1886. PAM MG14 C20 f 48.

8. G. M. Dawson, Letter to Alexander McArthur, 27 January 1887. PAM MG14 C20, f 62.

9. G. M. Dawson, Letter to Alexander McArthur, 7 February 1887. PAM MG14 C20, f 71.

10. D. A. Smith, Letter to Alexander McArthur, 18 January 1887. PAM MGI4 C20, f 57.

11. J. Rae, Letter to Alexander McArthur, 12 November 1886. PAM MG14 C20, f 41.

12. R. McFarlane, Letter to Alexander McArthur, 21 December 1886. PAM MG14 C20, f 52.

13. J. Murdoch, Letter to Alexander McArthur, 12 January 1887. PAM MGI4 C20, f 55.

14. W. H. Young, Letter to Alexander McArthur, 1 February 1887. PAM MG14 C20, f 67.

15. A. McArthur, Diary, February 13 - March 8, 1887. PAM MG14 C20, f 79.

16. Ibid., 4 March 1887.

17. Ibid., 5 March 1887; drafts of letter to W. H. Young, March 1887, PAM MG14 C20, f 67.

18. Manitoba Daily Free Press, “Back again,” March 31, 1887.

19. Ibid.

20. Manitoba Free Press, “Alexander McArthur,” August 22, 1887, p. 1.

21. A. McArthur, Crossing Lake Winnipeg by Dogs. PAM MG14 C20 f 115.


Crossing Lake Winnipeg by Dogs

There are many ways of crossing a lake particularly when no other means is afforded but [that] which a coating of ice 3 to 4 ft. thick. In my own experience I have navigated Lake Winnipeg in almost every conceivable fashion. Besides the modern steamboat I have used sailing vessels—schooner, pleasure boat and York boat. The birchbark canoe is a common conveyance while the dugout is [illegible] and dangerous although I have had one a long distance from the shore. Fishing skiffs are used also along shore as is also the hunter’s canvas boat. Red River flat boats, while ugly and dangerous, I have been compelled to use more than once as well indeed as the flat-bottomed light-draft lighter-built stern-wheel river steam boat. As compared with the latter a canoe was comfortable and secure. That we did not have our boiler pitched overboard, top-heavy, unstayed and unstable was the wonder, when a breeze struck us. Long, heavy, unwieldy, shallow, ill-constructed rafts of lumber, sometimes sailing, sometimes being poled near shore, sometimes moved with sweep oars is by no means unpleasant in fine weather as you can walk from end to end, but when the wind rises and drives you on shore in three feet of water and you have to wade to land in a cold October day with a north wind you note it intolerable. But when chill Novr.’s surly blast comes navign. is at an end and the beginning of December you may go from end to end of this long, irregular lake and not see a drop of water.

Then your means of travelling becomes restricted. You can don moccasins and go on foot, or take a cariole and dogs—the husky (Eskimo) dog—trained to the work and doing it thoroughly. Five of these strong, handsome brutes will draw yourself and your bedding and baggage and make day after day forty miles—a total weight of say 300 lbs. and when the road is good your driver will get on behind, light his pipe and smoke it out without a perceptible diminution in the rate of speed. They often bound along at a rate of 6 miles an hour but with detentions, fixing harness, rests, etc. this is reduced to an average of about 4 miles, so that 10 hours on the road is required to make 40 miles. On a forced march to make home particularly, six hours more can be got out of them making a run of 64 miles. This leaves but little out of the 24 hours. The camp fire breakfast and hitching up take an hour and a half and to start at 5 the drivers must be up at half past three. During these early hours the dogs are allowed their own time pretty much and at 1/2 past nine the dogs are allowed a rest, the fire is made and the kettle boiled.

“Boiling the kettle” means filling the tin or brass pan with snow or ice, the latter always when it can be got easily. Snow requires solid packing and refilling the kettle as soon as space is made by the thawing of the first lot of snow, and even a third filling will not bring the water to the brim. The under crust thawed in the sun or solidified with a shower of rain or sleet is used when it can be got and only a partial refilling is then required. The drivers produce their provisions bag and the frozen pork, without bone and 9/10ths fat is cut with the axe and placed in the frying pan. The frozen bannocks of flour are placed near the fire to thaw and in half an hour or less everything [is ready].

The tin cups are dipped in the tea kettle and each one helps himself. In an hour everything is replaced, pipes lit, the ends of the burnt sticks are thrown on the fire & a blaze made, mitts warmed, and we are off again. This is repeated in four or five hours, say about 2 o’clock, as points of timber can be made and little before dark a larger fire and better camp are made and a longer rest—say of 2 hours—is taken. The patient dogs share the latter only and when these forced runs are made they know by the preparations that they have still some work before them ere they get supper and somewhere about midnight shelter is reached. There is no camp, no fire to make. The fish is thawed by the side of a blazing open fireplace and in a half hour each dog gets up to 9 to 12 lbs. of substandard white fish and then to sleep.

To see the cariole service in the completest form you have now to get your outfit at the north end of the lake: strong dogs, well-formed, active drivers, carioles that will go the whole journey of three or four weeks without a break. To obtain this you should place yourself in the hands of the great fur trading concern, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the only political survivor of the old monopoly charters and of the merrie monarch’s reign. Indian dogs are mongrels and fish they may or may not have, but the Company keep up the breed of dogs and in the fall at each post lay in a supply of dog fish. In the summer the dogs of each fort are sent to some island in a lake where fish are plentiful and there kept until winter comes on. Before their first trip they are given two white fish a day and when it can be done this is continued on the journey; but if the fish have to be carried and the loads are heavy this is reduced to one large fish each. These are invariably given at night when the day’s work is over.

The dog drivers have been accustomed to dogs from childhood and all have been accustomed to driving. As a rule they are tall well-made men, the legs alone showing a slight bend from the habit of squatting. They run and walk with great ease and with much more of grace in their movements than is seen among white men. They have their legs completely under command and, looking at the upper part of the body you could not tell whether they are running on a smooth beaten track or dipping into six or seven inches of snow. The arms are but slightly raised and but slightly moved while running. A slight swing corresponding with the motion of the body is all that is noticed.

These Indians have little of the aborigine in their dress. Ordinary civilized suits are worn by them but for travelling the capot coat is used, the hood on stormy days being thrown over the head. No vests are used—the flannel shirt taking its place. The coat is left open at the breast, the coat being brought together above the hips by a sash tied around the body. Moccasins are favoured for the feet and the more sprightly youths wear long outer stockings, the upper or open ends of which are turned back until below the knee. Others wear leggings, close fitting, coming up over the knee and nowadays made of light canvas are used. Fur caps, usually imported and sometimes mutches are used for the head. Leather mitts for the hands and the description is complete. The capot coats are short and when the [illegible] belt is tied the front is thereby raised a few inches higher than the back. The costume is by no means ugly and is well adapted for running.

Making a Camp

To have a good camp the first requisite is a point where there is plenty of spruce or balsam and abundance of dry wood for the fire. Sometimes such a point is not to be got and then the camp is a poor one—small fire, light poor and exposure to wind. But I will suppose that a good spot has been got. The dogs are unhitched and allowed to roll themselves in the snow, which they do as horses do on the grass or sand and then look [illegible].

The men (3) each seize an axe and proceed to cut down the nearest evergreens giving the preference to balsam whose branches are smooth and lie flat, while the spruce leaves are in whorls almost. When a dozen trees of 30 feet or so have been cut these are again cut into lengths of about 10 feet. These are then placed to form a back to the camp until it is c. 4 feet high in front; the snow c. 2 ft. thick is kicked away. On each side of the back other shorter lengths of evergreens are placed but the front is allowed to come down to nothing. The axe is then applied to the branches on the side next the fire and the bush is thrown underfoot for a bed and floor to stand on while supper is being taken. If the walls of the camp do not afford enough carpeting a few small trees are cut and their branches are also laid on the camp floor. For four people the length of the camp is about 10 feet (this will hold a half dozen as well) and it is about 8 feet from the back to the fire. The position of the camp is always regulated by the wind, the fire being in front and in lee of the shelter afforded by the back wall of the camp. In addition, however, to this shelter the evergreen trees in rear afford protection from the wind. While one remains trimming the camp the other two go on cutting down trees for the fire. None of your bits of sticks but whole trees 12 to 18 inches through if they can be got. And there is a trick in this. Some kinds of wood burn longer and give more heat when cut green; others when partially dry and others again when a fire has a year or so before burned the bark and left the tree to decay slowly. The trees when felled are cut into lengths and when enough for the night’s fire are so obtained they are carried on the shoulder to each side of the camp. In the meantime small dry wood is gathered near and the fire is set agoing with the bark of the birch or the lower, small decayed branches of the spruce with their long, pendant dry moss parasitic adherents. On top of this first fire are then thrown the 8 or 10 foot lengths of trees and a quarter of a cord of wood is soon in a blaze in the middle. Such a camp takes from 1 /2 an hour to an hour to finish; much depending on the quantity of firewood being found close and very much on the depth of the snow. Snowshoes are very useful where the snow is over 3 feet deep and where it is 5 feet they are absolutely necessary in order to obtain wood for a fire.

A group of dogteams during a halt on the trail near Lake Winnipeg, photographed by Colonel W. H. Gilder, 1887.
Source: Special Collections, Baker Library, Dartmouth College.

As soon as the 1st fire is laid preparations are made for the supper -- the dogs first. For 3 trains of 4 dogs each, 12 large white fish are taken from their place on the cariole and stuck head-down in the snow in front of the fire. In about 15 min. they are turned and in 10 more with a good fire they are cooked; that is the frost is taken out of them sufficiently to enable the driver to bend them right to the bone. These fish are caught in the spawning season before the lake is frozen and they are pierced with sticks until a dozen are on when they are hung on stages erected for the purpose. Over these are placed branches of spruce or balsam to keep the sun off, and when the ice takes sleds are sent out for them and they are taken to the posts along the lake. Even in the coldest season there are warm days and the fish thaw and decay slightly. When thawed before the fire this gives them a relish which dogs appreciate; indeed fresh fish caught under the ice they neither like so well nor work so well on.

When the supper for the dogs is ready each driver takes his fish and calls to his dogs and to each one is given its requisite portion with which it walks hastily away a short distance. In the meantime if the weather is cold beds are provided for them of spruce branches and most of them soon retire to these; but dogs have individual traits of character just as men have. One dog is always hungry no matter how well fed; he has a craving apparently in the stomach and he comes smelling and sniffing around the camp until supper is over. He manages sometimes to pick up a good deal of refuse matter.

Another is of a thievish nature and lurks about trying to steal from the provisions bags or boxes but when such a dog is about these are taken into the camp—not always in time, however, for a frozen roast of beef he manages, when all are asleep, to eat his way into and in the morning there is a hole in the sack to show what he has been about. The culprit is always detected when he has stolen pork as next day on the march he is constantly lapping snow to quench his thirst. That night he is deprived of fish. But well-fed, well-trained dogs never steal; they come to look for their food to their drivers just as the city dray horse does.

After the dogs the men get their own supper—a similar meal to that already described—pork, pork grease, bread and tea. The Ogoma or chief has one of the three drivers to cook for him using a separate frying pan in which canned meat, ham or any other handy thing is cooked or warmed. His bread is always baked before leaving the last post and is of fine wheaten flour and having soda as an ingredient is soft and easily thawed. The diet is always simple, consisting of meat, bread and tea but once in a while when camping early and when the weather is fine variety is obtained by making beef tea or soup from the concentrated fluid of beef. Before the tea is made a large cupful of boiling water is got from the kettle and in this a couple of teaspoons of the fluid, first partly thawed at the fire, is put, and if you are lucky enough to have parsed vegetables you make a soup fit for the Gods—that is if the Gods had been travelling at 40 below zero on plain pork fare morning, noon and night, for much depends upon the surroundings &conditions of travelling. The written notes state to boil the b. tea after the liquid is put in but when you have only one kettle and the tea has been made in it, these notions are tantalizing. As to the “seasoning with pepper & salt to suit” the thinking is that some one has put powdered sugar in the salt bag and the pepper bag was a camp or two ago most carefully cleaned of the “dust” it contained and was now filled with an airy nothing. But if you have salt, pepper and vegetables you really, “sans boiling” have an excellent soup and care little for the dessert of ham and venison which is to follow. But your Indian cook thinks pepper is an offensive article of diet; in fact quite unsatisfactory. You cannot eat it in cakes or boiled, and take all you can of it, it won’t sustain life. Some raw youths mistake it for dust as I have noted.

Supper finished smoking follows—and the hour of the 24 comes which is always looked forward to with pleasure. You sit with your feet to the fire, a pleasant glow suffering the whole man from the combined effects of warm from fire and food—and rest. The difficulties of our struggle today are recounted, the conduct of the dogs criticized, threats dire and fearful made about individual dogs if improvement is not found tomorrow. All the same their shoes are produced (that is the dogs’ shoes) and as carefully dried before the fire as those of the men.

The drying process deserves some notice. After supper and when the drivers have got all the wood for the morning carried to the fire and the work for the day is over, moccasins, socks and duffle are taken off and hung on a slender pole, the thick end of which is implanted in the snow at the far end of the fire. With a slight slant it hangs some six feet above the fire and on this are placed the wet things. If there is time these dry things are all put on again before going to bed; if not they are allowed to hang until morning. Of course accidents happen; the fire blazes up after everyone has turned in and something gets burnt. The wind may blow them down.

It often happens that no bread is ready when the men start and each night they proceed to cook some for next day’s use. Flour is taken from the sack and placed in a frying pan and pork grease poured on, after which [it] is kneaded so that when cooked it is from 3/4 to an inch & a quarter in thickness; of course it does not rise. This forms strong bread and is as indigestible as strong. It is baked by placing it sloping in the pan to the fire; but it is also placed slanting on sticks as the kneading is a quicker process than the cooking. Water is often preferred to grease and this makes quite a palatable cake, the crust being hard & sweet. When bread baking is over fresh wood is put on the fire; tea is made, a smoke taken, & then the men turn in. This is not nearly so long or so tiresome a process as the “retiring to rest” of civilization. Anything lying about is taken for a pillow, a rabbit-skin robe is produced from a bag, the owner wraps himself in the robe and lies down; no blanket is used, just the one robe. But one rabbit robe means warmth equal to 2 or 3 pairs of blankets. It is made in a peculiar way. The skin of a rabbit is very thin and brittle and so easily torn. It would never do to sew them together in the usual fashion or they would never stand the rough usage they get. The pelt is dressed clean of fleshy matter of all kinds and then twisted; long ropes of these are formed and intertwined until they become of considerable strength. The whole robe is thus intertwined until the necessary size is produced, all the way from a child’s to a size equal to the largest blankets. Now although this is so warm you can put your hand through it anywhere, the weaving being loose although the skins themselves are twisted until they can stand no more strain. The fur side of the rope is always kept out so that both sides show nothing but fur. Although 100’s of skins go to the making of [a] robe they are by no means dear, the value of single skins being in many places below a cent apiece. The great objection to their use is that the fur comes out so fast, but this can be remedied to a great extent.

The dogs are managed from behind by the voice and by sticks thrown at them; but once in a while the driver comes to the front and beats one of the dogs severely about the head and gives the others a blow or two by way of reminder. This beating is given twice a day depending on temper of men or dogs but from all my observations I have concluded that it is wholly unnecessary if the dogs are well trained, well fed and not overwrought. If the Indian wastes away the best part of the day and then gets hungry later on, the dog is compelled to make camp quick whether heavily laden or not. Whips are seldom used on Lake Winnipeg. When leaving camp in the morning a stick is got and it is thrown from behind at the head of the dog which is lagging; as the driver passes he picks it up and uses it this way until it gets broken in pieces. On one occasion I heard an unusual whizzing over my head and found the driver had taken a frozen fish of c. 5 lbs. and used it as a stick, the short, pointed nose coming down on the middle of the dog’s head.

The travelling is almost wholly over the ice and a trail is seldom used unless there is a constant stream of travellers. Only to boil the kettle do they go into the woods and then only at the points. The snow gets driven about so by the winds that it packs and gets into compact size so that a trail is not truly a necessity; only after a fresh and heavy fall, and before any wind, does it present much difficulty to travel.

A good train of 4 dogs on an average road will take a load of about 400 lbs. and one day’s supply of fish. If more has to be carried the other weight must be reduced. With this they will travel about 32 miles day after day, occupying about 9 hours in actual running. They are harnessed in single file in collar, traces and saddle. The chief calls to them are the same as right and left but when the day’s work is to belong the leading driver is incessantly hurrying them up using a mixture of Indian and French with an occasional oath in English. The dogs are also abused for laziness or trickery.

When the camp for the night is known a great run is made for the last 20 minutes or so and the dogs go on up the bank to the timber without urging, until stopped by upsetting.

The cariole used is made of oak 3/4 inch thick, about 15 feet long, narrow as well, and curled up in front. The width is about 18 inches. On this the whole is put. Along the whole length on each side a strip of raw hide is run and fastened to the oak every 2 feet. To these are attached strong cords with which the load is kept in place, a cover of strong canvas being first put over everything. It is impossible to lose anything out of this. It is surprising after the load seems completed to see what a number of other things room can be found for.

No attempt is usually made to guide the movements of the cariole; it is allowed to swing as much as it pleases except where the slope is such as to cause an upset or where in going through the woods a stump might disturb the load. If a halt is made for any cause, the dogs will not move until the driver moves the cariole. This he does by taking the curled-up front and pulling it to him.

It is great for going through the woods where the trail is rough and narrow if the dogs are going fast. Here you surmount a snow-covered log, there go down a sheer descent where a tree at the bottom threatens to smash all to pieces but as in the case of a boat going down the rapids, the cariole at the nick of time swings clear of it. Not always, however, and then there is an upset when the dogs stop and you lie helpless till the driver takes you or sets the toboggan on its legs again.

It reminds one of Southby’s (?) rhyming in the Falls of Laure(?):

You get bumped & thumped,
Battered and shattered,
Tumbled & jumbled,
Hustled & bustled (crumpled),
Crushed & thrashed (tattered).

It might seem strange to talk of the inconvenience (?) of being cov[ered] with snow which is in danger of thawing as it gets in at openings in the clothes (?) on a perfectly clear day but this is the case. The snow drifts or rises three or four feet but this is high enough to cover the traveller (?) with snow.

The scene at the camp fire in the pine woods as seen from a short distance has often been described but in these northern regions with snow above ground and the branches of the spruce & balsam covered with it.

After all the good appetite & [illegible] the traveller is only too glad to take shelter under the first roof he comes to, however humble, and a bed or the rough floor is always preferred to going out and making a camp.

One of Colonel Gilder’s camps on the trail during his journey at the same time and through the same area as McArthur’s trip.
Source: Special Collections, Baker Library, Dartmouth College.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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