The Solomon of the Traplines
Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1976, Volume 21, Number 2
Too often, the achievements of individuals, accomplishments of benefit to their fellowmen and to their country, go unhonored and unsung simply because the memory of man is short. This is the story of the benefits resulting to the Province of Manitoba and many of its citizens through the ideas and efforts of one man, Harold Wells.
Born in Kent County near Chatham, Ontario, Harold went overseas in World War I with the militia of that city. Later released from military duty because of defective hearing, he came west to Moose Jaw where he worked on the ranch of his brother-in-law. Finding ranching too tame for his adventurous spirit, he joined the R.C.M.P. in 1918 only to find that here too his career would be circumscribed by his hearing problem. Learning that the Finger Lumber Company at The Pas was looking for men, he decided to go north.
The Shield country with its trailing fringe of bushland has exercised a hypnotic effect on many a man since the days of the voyageurs. Vast, unconquerable and incredibly ancient, its spell is such that those who fall under it are never again completely free. It demands the utmost in resourcefulness, courage and endurance from those who choose to live within it. Harold was a very young man when he first encountered it and for him, it was a case of love at first sight. Until his retirement, he lived and worked in Manitoba’s northland leaving behind his own unique contribution to that rugged country and its inhabitants. The Registered Trapline System, in which he was the prime mover, has been a boon to all who engage in that demanding enterprise and equally of benefit to Manitoba.
Upon first arriving at The Pas, he was sent to the Carrot River Valley. An accident sent him into town on the day of the annual Dog Derby, an event of some importance in the north, and on that day Harold’s fate was sealed. Here was the color, excitement and promise of adventure for which he had been looking. Progress always exacts some penalties. The snowmobile of today is faster and vastly more comfortable than travel by dog team. But a well-matched team is a lovely sight; the alert heads and tails like plumes; the eagerness with which they press against the colorful harness; the high yelps as they dash away across the crisp snow create a special kind of excitement. The spectacle that day was an added inducement to the young man who already felt that this was the country for him. `The true north strong and free’ is more than a line in our national anthem. It is a positive force in the lives of many Canadians.
So Harold joined the Provincial Police at The Pas and learned the lore of the land on long patrols from The Pas to Sturgeon Landing to Flin Flon by canoe in summer and dog team in winter. In 1922, he went to the Dominion Forestry and was stationed at Moose Lake as assistant to C. T. Mitchell. The Forestry office was later moved to Cormorant Lake where the R.C.A.F. had a summer base. Their planes, Avros, Vedettes and HS 2-II’s, provided the first aerial forest patrol. Among the pilots who were stationed there at that time were Sandy McDonald, Lee Stevenson and Carr-Harris. Harold’s sixteen years with the Forestry, fourteen of which were spent at Thicket Portage (mile 185 on the Hudson Bay Railway) gave him further valuable training in the ways of the aloof country.
In those days, employment with the Forestry was on a seasonal basis and during the winter months Harold turned to a variety of other work. One year he attended the University of Idaho. Another year was spent teaching in an Indian school. For many years he worked for Tom Lamb at Moose Lake becoming overseer of the muskrat ranch there. When the Provincial Government took over its Natural Resources in 1931, Harold joined the Game Branch where his intimate knowledge of the country, the people and the fur trade, together with his police experience became a tremendous asset. When, in 1935-6, the Department of Mines & Natural Resources developed the Summerberry muskrat ranch, Harold was in charge of the highly successful venture.
From the beginning of the white man’s invasion of Manitoba, fur and the wealth it represented had been the lure. In modern times, for a $2.00 license fee, a man could roam wherever he chose, trapping at his own discretion. This led, in time, to indiscriminate practices i.e. the use of poison bait, carelessly left snares which sometimes trapped valuable animals accidentally whose pelts were wasted, and a disregard for the rights of others. In 1940, while he was patrolling in the vicinity of the Hudson Bay Railroad, it occurred to Harold that if each trapper had his own defined area in which to trap many of the difficulties would be solved, both for the trapper and the Department. He submitted a report setting forth his ideas to Inspector L. Phinney at The Pas who, sensing the merit in the proposals, took it up with Departmental authorities in Winnipeg. In time, The Game, Lands and Surveys Branches became convinced the plan should be tried. It was put into effect on an experimental basis among the white trappers at Wabowden, Pickwitonei and Thicket Portage under Harold’s supervision. He devised a plan for defining the individual boundaries which were shown on a map attached to the license. This success-fully overcame one of the chief obstacles to the assignment of individual traplines.
The plan was an immediate success. The trappers were pleased, the necessity for the enforcement of Game laws was greatly reduced and the economy of the Province benefited by the increased harvest which meant increased revenue. The trappers asked for an expansion of the plan which the Department was now convinced was practicable. The Department of Indian Affairs sent a representative to investigate the usefulness of the plan as it might be applied to the Indian population. Accompanied by this representative, the late Hugh Conn of Ottawa, Harold made a complete survey of the needs of the Indians throughout northern Manitoba, visiting every reserve and settlement explaining the project. A glance at a map of Manitoba north of ‘53 will give an indication of the truly prodigious effort required to cover such a vast territory, a seemingly endless pattern of bush and water. The survey would have been impossible without air trans-port which was provided throughout by the Manitoba Government Air Service.
The resulting Registered Trap Lines system (which became known as the RTL) was gradually put into effect throughout the territory north of ‘53. In the four districts which were mapped out, there were 19 community trapping areas containing 2,126 trappers of which 1,637 were Treaty Indians. When this had become a Federal-Provincial project, it was administered by the Provincial Department of Mines & Natural Resources under the jurisdiction of a Fur Advisory Committee. Harold became Inspector of Registered Traplines.
The RTL was the first project undertaken by the Government to assist and improve the lot of the trappers. The multi-million dollar fur industry, of vital importance to Manitoba’s economy, had never been given the attention and assistance received by the fishing and agricultural industries. The benefits which the RTL conferred on the Indian population moved The Winnipeg Tribune to say in an editorial, “It (the RTL) is probably one of the most constructive steps ever taken in this country toward the solution of the old problem of how to fit the native population for full citizenship.” From the first, the plan had the enthusiastic support of the Indian trappers. Similar plans were soon put into effect in other provinces.
The RTL provided side benefits in conjunction with its primary purpose of conservation and increase in the fur trade. Of great importance was the increased alertness regarding forest fires maintained by the individual trappers to whom fire was catastrophe and through these same individuals it was possible to keep a rough census of the various fur-bearing animals’ population. Control of the beaver catch through the RTL saved our national emblem from near extinction in this province. In 1940, the beaver population was at an all-time low. The story of our beaver, its resurgence, its antics and cunning, is a story in itself. An aerial survey had been made of the beaver and it is enough to say here that through the RTL and the transplanting of beaver into suitable areas where they could thrive, carried there by truck and aircraft, the beaver catch, from the 1939-40 low of 6361 pelts, rose dramatically to the high in 1963-64 of 51,318 harvested and the current projection is for an even higher figure.
The trappers south of ‘53 requested the extension of the RTL system to their areas. In 1949, a Federal-Provincial agreement was reached for a twenty-year development plan with the Federal Government paying sixty percent of the cost. Three additional areas were developed: the country east of Lake Winnipeg, the inter-lake area between Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, and the Duck-Porcupine area from the lakes to the Saskatchewan border. Harold was appointed to organize these new districts, operating out of Lac du Bonnet. It was not his first visit here. In 1935, Harold had made his first trip to Lac du Bonnet riding horseback the 650 miles from Thicket Portage.
The organization of the three areas south of ‘53 consumed Harold’s time until shortly before his retirement. The time intervening was spent as a member of the Grand Rapids Fore Bay Commission charged with re-locating the Indian population in that area which was made necessary by the Grand Rapids Hydro development.
It would require a book to do justice to the full story of Harold and his beloved project in which there is a wealth of story and anecdote. In 1952, during the organization of the eastern Manitoba RTL, a banquet for all the trappers of the area was held at Ernie Newsham’s Bakery and Cafeteria in Bissett. It was a unique affair, well covered by the Winnipeg papers, which included an exhibition of furs and trapping equipment and entertainment by `trapper clowns’ and a fearsome Medicine Man in wolf skin sounding, as one Winnipeg reporter put it, “as Harold Wells might sound if Harold were a Medicine Man.” The menu featured beavertail soup, which Harold had introduced at the first Trapper’s Festival in The Pas, roast beaver, crisply fried flying squirrel and an assortment of jellies sent down by the famous Ma Kemp of Berens River, including her rose petal jam for which she is noted. The evening was a tremendous success.
Since Harold’s retirement other hands carry on the work which he began. A new generation of trappers has grown up knowing no other way of life than the RTL system, unaware of the difficulties which once plagued their fathers or the effort necessary to overcome them. But the older folk remember and among them Harold’s name is still a byword. A visiting writer once referred to him as ‘The Solomon of the Trap Lines’ because of his skill at settling contentious problems among the trappers. Wells Lake in northern Manitoba, east of Reindeer Lake, was named in his honor for ‘Outstanding work in Wildlife Conservation throughout nearly thirty years of service.’
Page revised: 20 July 2009