The Twenties in Northern Manitoba
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 34, 1977-78 season
It was nearly 56 years ago - in 1922 - that I first went north. I travelled by train from Winnipeg to The Pas, a trip lasting 24 hours. At that time the Hudson Bay Railway was completed only to Gillam, and Port Nelson was still supposed to be its terminus on Hudson Bay. Once a week the Muskeg Special, as the train was known, would run as far as Mile 214. If a railway car jumped the tracks, all the passengers turned out to jack it back on with poles cut from the bush. Though the Mandy mine had been staked some years before, Flin Flon did not yet exist, and it was to be another six years before the railway from The Pas extended that far. Snow Lake, Lynn Lake and Thompson mines were still dreams.
Transportation north of The Pas, apart from an unfinished railway, was by canoe in summer and by dog team in winter. Stern-wheelers hauled freight on the Saskatchewan River. In the winter, horse teams supplied freight to remote settlements. The Ross Navigation Company had upwards of 400 teams freighting into the north in long swings of sleighs preceded by horse-drawn snowploughs. The Caterpillar tractor was unknown.
In the fall there was always an influx of lumberjacks on their way to logging camps 100 miles up the Carrot River. Each spring these same lumberjacks invaded The Pas with their winter earnings in their jeans, ready and anxious to paint the town red. Many were the ladies of pleasure who came from down south to entertain them and relieve them of their hard earned wages. It fell to Sergeant Grennan of the Royal North West Mounted Police to shunt the ladies southward again, but in the meantime the lumberjacks were queued up in the long corridor upstairs in the Derby House, each with a dollar bill in his hand, waiting his turn.
Such was the north country as I first knew it. The saying, "There ain't no law of God nor man goes north of 53°," was common among northerners in those days. They were almost a subspecies of the Genus Homo, living by their own standards and somewhat contemptuous of the south and southerners. But I was destined to live in a very different atmosphere.
The McKay Indian Boarding School, some six miles upstream on the Saskatchewan, was run by the Indian and Eskimo Commission of the Church of England in Canada. In my letter of appointment it had been suggested I might "take up a course of instruction under Reverend E. A. Minchin, Principal of the School to fit you for a wider sphere of usefulness later on." This I suspected would lead to a clerical collar and I had no intention of that.
I was to be the Farm Instructor and conduct a mixed farming operation to produce milk, beef, pork and vegetables to feed 100 Indian children and to help make the school self-supporting. While at the school I had the distinction of operating the first binder to be used north of 53° and also of operating the first experimental plots at that latitude for John Bracken in the year he became Premier of Manitoba.
One of my most embarrassing moments as a young man occurred at the staff dining table one day. The table was lined with a dozen missionary ladies. One of them asked what I had been doing that morning and I said I had been measuring cordwood cut by the boys and had had a lovely morning, as the woods were just full of wild concubines. The hushed silence was deadly until I stammered out "I mean wild columbines."
During my stay at the school I got to know many Indian people and to like them. One who befriended me was John Harris, a kindly old man, short of stature, pigeon-toed, with long black hair plaited over his shoulders, a bit stooped but full of vigor and a renowned hunter. He used to come to the school to sell moose meat. It took fifty pounds of meat per meal to teed the Indian children. We got to know each other and, since I had no small canoe, John offered to teach me how to hunt out of his small birch bark craft beautifully made by himself. It was only twelve feet long but had a vide beam and was so light it could be hooked on one elbow and carried over a portage. It was also very tippy. John accepted me as a senior partner in duck hunting since I had a double barrel hammerless shotgun, while he had only an old muzzle loader.
It was fascinating to watch old John reloading that muzzle loader. Before the cloud of black smoke had cleared away out came the ramrod and down the barrel it went to remove any sparks before the next charge of black powder was put in. Wads cost money, and John didn't have very much so the wad to cover the lead shot was made from the pith in the stem of the soft-stemmed bulrush. A wad was kept inside his left cheek ready for use. In his right cheek was the next charge of shot. Saliva would hold the shot together, said John. Standard procedure was to spit the shot down the barrel, out of the right corner of his mouth, swing over to the left-spit-and in went the wad to be plunged down with the ramrod. Long practice had made this a surprisingly quick operation.
For three years we hunted together and enjoyed each other's company. John was one of nature's gentlemen, quiet but full of humour and quick to smile. But in the hunting of moose he could be stern and a hard taskmaster.
I often used to visit John and his wife in their small plaster-covered log home on the Indian Reserve and was welcomed with courtly ceremony. We would drink tea together and talk of hunting and the nature of the hunted. The house, with its adzed-pole floor and little curtains at the windows, was always scrupulously clean but carried a faint and delicate odour of skunk. Tracing this down I found a bottle of skunk oil kept on the window sill. It was John's firm belief that skunk oil was better than white man's medicine for any and all human afflictions.
I was intending to return to England for a visit. John heard this and came over to the school to see me.
"I hear you are going across the big water," he said. "Yes, John, I am." "You will come back?" "I'm not sure, John, but I think so." "I hope so," he said as he reached into his haversack and produced a Bull Durham tobacco bag. It contained Kinnikinik, his homemade tobacco made from the inner bark of the red osier dogwood-or red willow as it was generally called.
Bowing, he handed it to me with the words, "Here, take this. Don't smoke it all at once, but when you do, think of me." With these words he turned and left me, not willing to show any emotion.
From Halifax I sent him a picture postcard of the S. S. Andania on which I was to cross the big water.
It was eighteen years before I returned to The Pas. My old friend John Harris had long gone to his happy hunting ground. Gone, but never to be forgotten! He taught me many things.
After less than three years at the school I became disillusioned with a program which kept Indian boys away from home all during their formative years when they should have been learning how to earn a living from the natural resources in their home territory. Instead they returned home at age 18 knowing little about it. When I was given the opportunity to join an exploratory canoe survey charged with mapping the 2000-mile shoreline of Reindeer Lake, I left the school to experience and enjoy the real north.
The twentieth century was almost one quarter gone and still there were few detailed maps of Canada's north country. Main rivers had been traversed by geologists, topographers and men of the Dominion Lands Survey, and their actual canoe routes plotted with some accuracy, but detail within sight on either side was only sketched in, and was often highly inaccurate. In between these traversed rivers huge areas on the maps were blank and merely marked "UNEXPLORED."
World War I had hastened the development of aircraft and the Royal Canadian Air Force was formed shortly thereafter, many of the first pilots being veterans of the R.A.F. Now aerial photography was to be tried in conjunction with ground surveys to fill in all detail of land and water. In the summer of 1924 an exploratory shoreline survey of Reindeer Lake was to be made by ground survey. An aircraft, a Vickers Viking amphibian, was to fly up from The Pas in mid-summer and photograph the islands. The ground survey party was to freight 5,000 gallons of gasoline by canoe from Cumberland House, where it was delivered by a stern-wheeled river boat, to Brochet, the trading post and Indian village at the north end of Reindeer.
The flight to Reindeer was considered with almost the same detail and seriousness as a flight to the moon today. The pilot Basil Hobbs had every item weighed in to the aircraft. Bob Davidson, the navigator, thought it might he pretty cold flying that far north in an open cockpit aircraft and was wearing two pairs of pants. When the pilot discovered this, Davidson was compelled to remove one pair to reduce weight!
Since existing maps were very inadequate there was fear that the village of Brochet would not be located and the ground survey party was instructed to see that a large bonfire was built and an Indian hired to listen and watch for the aircraft which would be like a Gitche Seeseeb - a big duck that flew in the sky. He was then to throw gasoline on the log pile and make as much smoke as possible.
It was a Sunday morning in August. Everyone except our Indian fire watcher was at Mass, for Father Egenolf was a stern disciplinarian. It was a lovely job for our old Indian hired to start the fire. All he had to do was to sit by the log pile all day and listen, then look. He didn't even have to go to Mass! He lay there on the shore with his hat over his eyes, half asleep, for it was a warm sunny day. Mosquitoes bothered him a bit, and one seemed to make an unusually loud buzzing noise. He flipped his left ear, he flipped his right ear, but still the buzzing kept on and grew even louder. Could this be the Gitche Seeseeb? He opened one eye and looked down south. There in the sky was a ,mall black dot. He watched it and it grew bigger and the noise grew louder. Indeed, it must be the Gitche Seeseeb! Forgetting all about the fire he jumped up, ran to the church and whispered through an open window, "Gitche Seeseeb coming." Around the church echoed the whisper Gitehie Seeseeb Gitchie Seeseeb Gitehie Seeseeb.
Father Egenolf was at the altar with his back to the congregation, intoning his prayers. One by one the Indians picked up their tin can spittoons kept between their moccasined feet, and quietly pussy-footed out of church. When Father Egenolf turned around his church was empty!
In the meanwhile the entire settlement, men, women and children had gathered at the lake shore and excitement was high. The pilot of the aircraft was jubilant; he had found Brochet easily, fire or no fire, smoke or no smoke. Forgetting that none of those people down below had ever seen an aeroplane before, he dove straight at the crowd, pulling out only at the last minute. Excitement turned to terror, and everyone disappeared in the bush. It was ten minutes before the men began sheepishly to reappear and a full half hour before the women and children returned.
Father Egenolf was angry, both with his congregation and with the pilot. It was necessary to placate him, and curiosity soon got the better of his anger. He was dressed up in flying helmet, goggles and lifejacket, seated in the co-pilot's cockpit and encouraged to manipulate rudder, ailerons and elevators: this he did like a child with a new toy.
But his anger at his flock was not as easily assuaged, for on the next Sunday morning he stood in the door of the church and refused entry to those who had deserted him a week earlier.
In the summer of 1925 activity shifted to the territory east of Lake Winnipeg. The settlement of Little Grand Rapids on the Berens River, near the Manitoba / Ontario border was to be the operations air base. Five thousand gallons of gasoline had to be freighted by canoe one hundred and ten miles inland from Lake Winnipeg, over fifty-three rapids and falls. An Indian crew was hired and five trips made up the Berens. We had three 2½ h.p. Evinrude outboard motors but none of the Indians knew how to run them, much less get them started again if anything went wrong. As the only member of the party who knew anything about those early outboard motors, I had first to select and teach two Indians how to start, steer and slow down or accelerate the motors. Then, when we started out and throughout the five trips up river, I had to hang behind the canoe flotilla ready to change places with anyone with motor trouble, get his motor running, and then catch up. My bowman was John Ross and at first I relied completely on him what course to follow and when to run ashore and track the canoe up a rapid. It seemed to me there were many places we could use the motor, but at first I said nothing while John signalled every move we should make. The third time up the river John had gained some confidence in me and my engine. On one occasion he was asleep in the bow as we approached a rapids up which I felt sure we could go with the engine, so up the rapids I went. With the unusual motion of the canoe John woke up. A look of terror crossed his face, and grabbing his paddle he pulled for shore. The engine was stronger than his paddle, and I kept on. After that he was more content to let me run other rapids. John always took his shoes off when in the canoe and went barefoot as he had no socks. With new confidence he lay back against a pack sack and put one foot over the gunwale on either side. If at any time I was in doubt just where to steer and called out, "Which way, John?" one or other big toe would waggle indicating the way to turn. In swift water he no longer grabbed his paddle but lay back watching the shoreline. As long as he could see we were making some headway, however slowly, he would not move.
Whenever possible we spent the week-end at Little Grand Rapids for Johnny Moar, the H.B.C. post manager had four daughters, and Johnny played the fiddle. Saturday night dances to the tune of the Red River Jig and Little Drops of Brandy were a wonderful break from portaging gasoline.
The year before, in 1924, the Department of Indian Affairs had decided to use aircraft in making Treaty payments at remote reservations, and Johnny Moar told me the story of that first attempt. There had been no trouble in finding Little Grand Rapids as it was easy to follow the Berens River upstream from Lake Winnipeg. The next port of call was to be Deer Lake over in northwest Ontario on another watershed. The plane took off but maps were of little use, and the party could not find Deer Lake. With half their fuel used up they returned to Little Grand Rapids. That night they consulted Johnny M oar about the route. Now Johnny knew every canoe route within a hundred miles, for he had spent his whole life in the area. He merely shut his eyes, lay back in his chair, and described in detail the whole canoe route to Deer Lake. "If you know it that well," said the pilot, "why not come with us tomorrow and show us the way?" Johnny agreed, though he had never been in an aircraft and indeed this was the first one he had seen.
They took off, with Johnny sitting in the open bow cockpit and Johnny pointed out the way to start, but within half an hour they had travelled as far as a canoe could go in a whole day. Johnny's mind could not keep up with the speed of the aircraft, and he too became hopelessly lost. Again, with half their fuel gone, they had to turn back but this time they didn't find Little Grand Rapids. With only a few minutes fuel left they were forced to land, not knowing where they were. Johnny knew every large lake in the country, but dropped out of the sky, he couldn't recognize this one. He decided to walk the shoreline looking for something he could recognize and found an Indian crave. He knew every Indian who had died in the past fifty years. If he could just think of the right name he would know where he was and, if necessary, find his way home. He sat by that grave for three days repeating to himself the names of dead Indians, but still the right name would not come to him.
Unknown to all was the fact that a party of moose hunters from Little Grand Rapids had been on the lake when the aircraft landed. The Indians saw the plane go down behind an island, heard the hull hit the water and thought it had crashed. They were too afraid to go and see, so they high-tailed it back to Little Grand Rapids and told the Hudson's Bay Company clerk of their fears. Emergency food and a first-aid kit were loaded in the canoe and back they went, the clerk with them, to search for survivors.
Johnny was sitting by the grave when he saw a canoe rounding a point a mile or so away. He waved his shirt and the canoe approached. As soon as it as within hailing distance Johnny shouted, "Whose grave is this?" Across the water came the reply, "Josiah Partridge." "Oh, hell!" said Johnny, "this is Dogskin Lake," and immediately he knew the way home.
After he had told me this story he said flatly, "They'll never get me in a plane again, not as long as I live." When it was suggested that air travel was the coming thing and would get him in to Winnipeg in a couple of hours instead of a week by canoe and lake steamer, he finally relented with the words, "Well, not unless they allow me to take five pounds of shingle nails, a crooked knife ( farrier's knife used for shaping canoe ribs) and enough canvas to make a canoe. Then, I don't care where they drop me. I'll make a canoe and find my wav home."
Johnny Moar was quite a remarkable man. He, and his father before him, were post managers at Little Grand Rapids for some eighty years. So that his sisters could be sent "outside" for an education he, as the eldest, went to work for the Company. The Hudson's Bay Company never had a more faithful servant, yet on his death near Selkirk (where he had gone in retirement) not one representative of the Company was present. With no formal education and hardly able to write his own name, he had to rely on the clerk to keep the hooks, but he knew the debt of every Indian down to the last cent.
We had expected to meet Little Grand Rapids canoes coming down to Berens River Post for freight on our first trip up the river, but on arrival found that as there was no rope for the canoes the freighters had been reluctant to go. I found many large balls of fish twine in the warehouse, and asked Johnny why he did not make rope. No one knew how to do this so I volunteered, given two Indians to assist, to show them how to do it. I think that just about everyone in the settlement watched the procedure. Using a hand-made twisting device, eighteen strands of fishing twine were used and twisted into three strands of six each. These three strands, when twisted together, made an excellent and strong canoe rope. Six 50-foot ropes were soon made, and away went a happy crew of freighters.
The clerk at the Post had ordered a radio, which the freighters later delivered. No one had ever seen a radio before and no one knew how to install it. By this time our freighting was finished, the photographic crew had arrived and the surveyor and I were waiting for the finished aerial photos from which to pick out the best canoe route across country to Hudson, Ontario. With time to spare, I volunteered to install the radio. The bright copper aerial strung between the store and the dwelling house caused much consternation among the natives. It was thought to contain an evil spirit which would harm the settlement, and they didn't like walking underneath it. With installation finished and A, B and C batteries connected, we turned the dial and tuned in to a church service in Chicago. Johnny and family listened in rapture. The sermon began but very shortly there was the rattle of a walking stick against a pew and someone could be heard getting up to leave. The parson was much disturbed at the noise, no doubt feeling the importance of being on the air. The sermon halted and the preacher asked, "Will anyone else who wishes to leave the church please do so now before I continue my discourse."
Later I suggested that one of the older Indians be brought in to listen and the earphones were clamped on his head. There was no change of expression as he listened to music. When told in his own language that the music was coming through the air, not even from Canada but from far to the south in another country, he merely shook his head in disbelief. Pressed for an answer as to where the music came from, he pointed to the radio and said "Out of the box." He thought it was the same as the old Victoria with the cylindrical records, which the Indians knew.
Finally, through an interpreter, I asked how he could be convinced I was telling the truth. After some thought he replied, "Tomorrow I hunt moose. If this machine is as wonderful as the young white man says it is, let it tell me where I shall find a moose then I shall believe."
The aerial photos taken were flown out to Kenora, Ontario, shipped to Ottawa, developed, printed and three big suitcases of pictures sent back to us. Our job was then to sort out the pictures showing the best canoe route diagonally across the area photographed. These we took with us to travel by, and sent the bulk of the pictures back to Ottawa.
We were to put in the ground control as we travelled, by triangulating between points identifiable on a picture, and thus provide an accurate scale for plotting the final map. At 40 to 50 mile intervals latitude and longitude observations on time stars were taken to determine exact pinpoint locations which would enable any plotting errors to be distributed across the map, instead of accumulating as plotting progressed.
The load of instruments, photographs, tent, bedding and supplies was too much for one 17-foot semi-freighter canoe and we hired two Indians with a second canoe to accompany us and help with the portaging. We promised to take them to Gitchi Karweagamuk (Big Round Lake), a lake on the Bloodvein River from which they knew the regular route home. All went well for the first week, then we noticed the Indians were uneasy and they said they thought we were lost. To prove otherwise, I showed them a picture of the lake on which we were camped, pointed across the lake and told them that over there was a short portage to the next lake, as shown on the picture. They talked this over, then off they went to see if I was telling the truth. They came back satisfied and on we all went. Two days later at an ungodly early hour we awoke to hear the Indians making breakfast. As soon as we appeared they said they were going home, nor could we dissuade them. They were given enough grub to get them home, a pay chit on the H.B.C., and off they went in a hurry-we knew not why. There was a one-mile portage immediately ahead of us, to be scouted and then cut. Beyond was some 50 miles of country with not an axe mark, portage trail, old camp fire or other human sign to be found. Beaver, otter, and other fur animals were in abundance, and it all seemed strange to us.
Two years later when back at Little Grand Rapids I asked Johnny Moar if he could explain why the Indians left us and why no one was trapping the unusual abundance of fur animals. He laughed and told me this story.
Many years ago a party of Indians left Little Grand Rapids for their spring trapping, taking their canoes along on the dog toboggans. They camped on the shore of a narrow lake on the opposite side of which was a high rock cliff.
One night soon after break-up of the ice there was a violent spring thunderstorm. A rift in the top of the cliff had been widened through the years by ice forming in the cleft and gradually pushing the rock forward. Reverberation of the thunder had been enough to topple the delicately balanced rock, and huge masses of the cliff were plunged into the lake. The resultant tidal wave swept through the Indian camp, drowned some of the people, drowned most of the dogs chained to trees along the shoreline, smashed some of the canoes and generally wrecked the camp.
Believing that the Weetigo (evil spirit) was responsible, the survivors hurriedly salvaged what they could and high-tailed it for home. Word of the tragedy soon spread and none of the Indians of Little Grand Rapids, Pikangicum or Red Lake would enter the area. We were going to pass right through it, and that was why our Indians had deserted us.
Later when we turned up the Bloodvein towards Red bake we almost experienced our own tragedy. There was a rapid up which we thought we could track the canoe along the shoreline. We started up with the surveyor pulling the bow line and myself with a slack stern line. Unnoticed by me, Knox McCusker, the surveyor, had tied the bow line round his waist. He was not a canoeman and had done most of his surveying in the Rockies. His favourite remark as he threw his load off at the end of a long portage was "This is packhorse work - no job for a human being!" Part way up the rapid the bow began to swing out and I yelled to McCusker to slacken his line. Only then did I realize that it was tied round his waist. I can still see him leaping back downstream and trying to untie the knot at the same time. The canoe was tipping over and water was pouring over the gunwale. With the knot finally untied I yelled to him to let go. The canoe righted and swung around with the how downstream. Desperately I tried to halt its speed and pull it to shore with what had been the stern line, but the pull was too strong for me, and finally hip-deep in water, I had to let go. Down the rapid bobbed the canoe, and down the shore I ran. Fortunately, it did not strike a rock and remained upright though there was only two inches of freeboard. As it drifted into calmer water below the rapid I ran ahead, stripped off a few clothes, dove in and pushed the canoe to shore. We were camped there for three days drying everything out. Syrup poured from the sugar bag as it was lifted ashore, the flour bag oozed a thin gruel-like mixture; the bedrolls and pack sacks weighed a ton, everything was soaking. Worst of all, we only saved a package each of our tobacco supply and for the next six weeks had to content ourselves with one small smoke after supper when the day's work was done. I made Indian tobacco from the dried inner bark of the red willow, but McCusker couldn't stomach this.
As we crossed the height of land between the Bloodvein and Red Lake we met a party of Indians going out to their trapping grounds. That night at the end of a long portage we reached a small muskeg lake. There was only one dry spot to camp and the Indians had camped there the night before. We always avoided Indian campsites for fear of what we might pick up but we were tired and there seemed no choice. All old brush and debris was burned up and new spruce boughs laid down, but next morning we were both lousy.
Three days later on my birthday, October 3rd, 1925, we arrived at Red Lake Post hoping to get new clothes, as this late in the season we only had those we stood up in. There was no one to greet us at the shore which was unusual; the store was locked so we went to the house and were greeted by Mrs. Jabez Williams, the widowed housekeeper for the H.B.C. manager. From her we learned that almost the entire settlement was presently drunk on potato homebrew, including the manager who was out cold on his bed. We explained our predicament and our need for clean clothes so she disappeared into the bedroom, took the keys from the manager's trouser pocket and opened the store for us. We both needed a bath before changing. so kettles and pails were put on the kitchen stove to heat while I played Rock of Ages, Son of My Soul and other old-time hymn tunes on an old accordion, to the joy of Mrs. Williams who sang them all lustily in Cree as she prepared supper.
After supper, when the water was hot, a large galvanized tub was put in a spare bedroom and McCusker bathed first, then I refilled the tub and sat down. Two pails of warm water had been left on the kitchen stove as unneeded. Hardly had I started washing while McCusker dried his back when, without any warning, the door opened and in marched Mrs. Jabez Williams with the two extra pails of water. Putting one pail down she poured first one then the other over my shoulders, picked up the empty pails and walked out. McCusker stood rooted to the ground, his mouth agape, the towel still behind his back. Not a word had been said!
Next morning it was snowing and weather remained unfit for travel for three days. The Manager sobered up and told us that only a few weeks earlier the Howie boys had staked a group of mineral claims and had gone out to record them. He invited us to go with him, tie on to the discovery claims and then use our instruments to survey them immediately. McCusker said that as a D.L.S. he was not allowed to stake, but that we could soon fix that. Turning to me he said "I'll fire you for the day, you're not much good anyway, then you can stake for both of us. Then I guess I'll have to hire you back again as I can't take the canoe out alone."
All was arranged but as the weather cleared it turned bitterly cold. The Chukuni river had much slack water and we didn't want to be frozen in at Red Lake. Loading the canoe we headed out for civilization and went right past the claims without stopping. The H. B.C. manager did stake later and was offered $50,000 cash for his claims. He thought he should get a lot more, quit his job with the Company, and finally ended up broke.
We had been told at Red Lake that there was a fishing station near the west end of Lac Seul from which we might get a ride out to Hudson in a cabin boat. At the outlet of Lac Seul was the Pine Ridge H.B.C. post. We called in there to learn the exact location of the fishing station. As we tied up at the dock we saw a figure leaning against the door of the store, smoking a pipe. Coming down to meet us'? Apparently not! This was almost an affront in these days of few travellers. We walked up the hill and were greeted with a stony stare as McCusker introduced himself as a Dominion Land Surveyor. When asked for the location of the Fish Camp Mr. Halverson, for that was his name, took the pipe out of his mouth and replied, "What the hell do you think I am, a bleedin' encyclopedia'?" When we made several purchases at the store Halverson wanted to charge us native prices and was very miffed when McCusker produced a letter addressed from the Head Office H.B.C. to all post managers requesting all courtesies and goods at cost-landed plus ten percent. I had seen the colour rise on McCusker's neck at Halverson's first words to him, and knew he was really angry at our reception. Never before had he or I had anything but the finest treatment from H.B.C. men.
We did not linger but pushed on to find the fish camp and travel the rest of the way to Hudson in relative comfort. Over our heads as we chugged up Lac Seul, passed the first plane to start the gold rush to Red Lake; aboard was Jack Hammel, well-known mining promoter. A few months later over 2,000 claims were staked, and when we returned to Hudson in the spring it was a hive of industry.
The next spring we started out from Hudson, again taking 5,000 gallons of gasoline into the back country, this time to Lac St. Joseph. The route lay up Lac Seul to the east end and then up the Root River to its headwaters from where there was a half-mile height of land portage over to Lac St. Joseph. This was a well established freight route of the H.B.C. and to our joy we found pole rails laid like a railroad track across the portage and an iron-wheeled flat car ready for our use. Tumplines and canoe ropes were attached to the flat car, gasoline loaded and with the entire crew pulling on the ropes short work was made of the portage.
Several more trips were made before the job was completed. On the final freighting trip we took in all the summer's supply of food for ourselves and two air crews. With our Indian crew paid off and sent back to Hudson, we built a log shack as a cache for the supplies.
Our next job was to scout the west end of Lac St. Joseph for a good camp site and aircraft harbour. An excellent sheltered base camp site with sand beach was located some miles up the lake. The air crew were expected shortly and were to look for us in that vicinity. While waiting we moved gasoline from the height of land portage to the campsite. As soon as the planes were heard we ran our canoe out to open water and kept circling around until we were spotted and the aircraft landed beside us, then we led them in to the chosen campsite.
While air photographs were being taken we made sorties out in every direction and travelled the full length of Lac St. Joseph to Osnaburgh House where we made an observation at the rapids tumbling out of the lake to form the Albany River.
Every week or so one aircraft was flown in to the railway to take in exposed film, pick up mail and bring in fresh meat, oranges, grapefruit and fresh vegetables. The tent camp was improved by building a unique structure using material at hand. One wall was made from upright poles stuck in the sand and chinked with moss. The opposite wall was made from the wooden cases which had each held two four-gallon tins of gasoline. These also supplied the nails. An end wall was made of the tins, cut up and overlapped like shingles. At the opposite end an automobile type tent was erected and the front flap used to partially form the roof, the rest being covered with a canvas tarpaulin. The tent became the storehouse and inside the walls were the kitchen and dining room.
We were sorry to leave all this luxury and return to trail grub and nightly pitching of a new camp but, when prints of the air photos arrived, perforce we must depart and make the ground control survey. We travelled north up the Cat River and beyond to the headwaters of the Severn River. At Kapikik Lake we met a lone and very self-sufficient trapper. His canoe was completely covered with a fitted canvas cover fastened under the gunwales and allowing him to travel in almost any weather.
Two years later I was standing on the dock at Berens River some two hundred miles from Kapikik Lake, when a canoe came in. I thought I recognized the trapper and called out, "Hello, Jack!" The response was quite unexpected. Jumping up on the dock Jack came over and said, "For God's sake don't say you know me, or tell anyone my name." Such a request needed some explanation and I wheedled the story out of him.
The previous winter he had outfitted at Cat Lake and persuaded a halfbreed girl, one of five children and the product of a common-law union, to accompany him as "housekeeper" for the winter. The inevitable had happened, and the girl was pregnant. In the spring he had made the excuse that he could not overload the canoe and must make two trips. Taking the girl and some of the fur he left girl and fur with her mother and returned to camp, ostensibly to bring in the rest of the fur. Instead he loaded up and headed across country for the headwaters of the Berens River and down to Lake Winnipeg. He did not want to be saddled with a half-breed wife and child. Of such was the North made in those days!
The post manager at Cat Lake passed us with a load of freight while we were on the Cat River. Some two hours later the canoe returned. Lying in the canoe was an Indian who had cut his foot badly with an axe while chopping wood. Had we a first-aid kit?
Topographical survey parties always carried good kits, so out ours came. The wound was deep and under the instep. It was obvious suturing would be necessary, but we had no anaesthetic. "I've got something just as good," said the manager. Rummaging in the canoe he brought out a one-gallon tin of straight alcohol. While I scrubbed up and sterilized needle and suture material, the Indian was given first one and then a second cup of strong alcohol, and before I was ready he was singing gaily and continued throughout the operation. I had never used a needle on human flesh before nor had I realized how tough the human hide was, particularly under the foot of an Indian. I was scared but the job had to be done. Five stitches were put in after the wound was cleansed, and the Indian never flinched or moved his foot. Padding, strapping and bandaging finished the job. The patient was told on no account was he to remove the bandaging for at least a week unless swelling on the inner leg or armpit occurred, and if this happened he was to bathe the foot in hot, salted water at frequent intervals until the swelling subsided.
Six weeks later when at Cat Lake Post I was happy to see my patient walking with only the use of a walking stick. Everything, he told me, had gone well. In relating the story to a doctor some months later I learned that I should probably have used nine stitches instead of five!
With snow behind us we arrived back in Hudson, Ontario, late in the fall. There was only time to quickly store material before the train left for Winnipeg. Prospectors and trappers had cleaned the store out of pants and shirts, so we boarded the train in dirty trail clothes. There had been no time for supper and we were hungry. The surveyor was reluctant to go to the dining car in his dirty garments, but finally consented if I would lead the way. The waiter virtually threw the menu at us while looking down his nose (and probably holding his breath). He had to be told to bring us serviettes, but after that looked after us better. When he brought the finger bowls I felt like drinking out of mine just in spite.
It was not until after we checked in at the old Empire Hotel where our belongings had been stored in the spring that we had the chance to clean up and put on the garb of civilization.
The use of aircraft in detection and suppression of forest fires in Manitoba began in the early 1920s. The base for the eastern portion of the province was first established at Victoria Beach, Lake Winnipeg. This proved to be a poor harbour and in 1927 the air base was moved to Lac du Bonnet. From there we patrolled the Whiteshell area and northward on the East side of Lake Winnipeg to Poplar River. Natural resources were still in the control of the federal government and the flying was done by the R.C.A.F. I was now employed by the Dominion Forest Services.
Air-to-ground radio was still experimental and seldom worked more than ten miles from base. Most aircraft used carried no radio equipment. Open cockpit flying boats were the type generally used.
A large flock of racing pigeons was kept at the base with a pigeoneer on staff to train and look after them. His office was with the Royal Canadian Signal Corps which operated radio between Lac du Bonnet, Winnipeg and northern bases such as Cormorant and Norway House.
Every flight leaving the base on forest patrol carried two pigeons. These were brought to the dock in a wicker container by the pigeoneer, and placed aboard. In a pocket inside the lid was a message pad of rice paper, carbon paper, pencil and two leg clips with a small aluminum message tube attached. Birds were used for two general purposes. If a fire was spotted, its location and spread would be noted together with the time spotted, written on the message pad, and the message clipped on the leg of one of the birds. It was not necessary to land if the bird was properly released. The drill was to slow the aircraft to just above stalling speed, hold the bird on its back with head forward and throw it downward over the side. To release it in any other way would probably have resulted in a broken wing.
The second use was in case of engine failure or accident. In this case the cause of engine failure or result of accident would be reported together with time and location. If two birds were still available a carbon copy would be made and used for the second bird. There were two cardinal rules to observe in making a release: never release both birds together, as companionship might lead to dawdling along the way; and never release a bird unless it could easily reach base before sunset. To stop and roost on the way was dangerous to it.
When birds were sent out with a patrol flight the pigeon cote at base was closed, but there was a little vestibule-type trap which an incoming bird would enter in trying to join the other birds. Its weight on a treadle both shut the door behind it and rang a bell in the Signal Corps office. The pigeoneer removed the message capsule and delivered it to the duty officer, saluting smartly as he did so. If it concerned a fire it was then brought over to us of the Dominion Forest Service. Information on fires was only sent in by pigeon when the aircraft was outward bound. I kept a complete record of pigeon service flights in 1928, and in every instance one or other of the birds came safely back to base.
Flying in those early days was an adventure. All aircraft seemed to be underpowered. On a calm day or when the air was soggy it was often necessary for the R.C.A.F. crash boat to run out at full speed and create a wave, the aircraft following behind to take off on its wash. Many were the times we sat out on the wings to let the engine cool down after trying to take off when away from base.
The observer's cockpit was a round hole in the nose of the Vickers Viking and Vickers Vedette flying boats. If you stood up you were out in the wind from the waist up. If you were wise you kept your toes tucked under a small inside nose brace to prevent being ejected should the aircraft be subjected to a sudden downdraft, often wrongly spoken of as an air pocket. You had to be careful too on take-off, particularly in cold weather, as spray frequently came in over the nose. A piece of canvas was kept in the front cockpit and you ducked down, throwing it back over head and back, and holding on tight until airborne. Flying suits, warmly lined, helmets and fur-lined goggles were provided for all flights and even at that, long flights in fall weather would leave you half frozen.
The carburetors on some of the engines, particularly as I remember the Lynx radial engine, were not designed for use in cold weather and sometimes we were forced down to the tree tops or even to a forced landing and warm-up before they would function properly. On one occasion the engine quit cold when half way over a 15-mile dry hop east of Lake Winnipeg. The utter silence was frightening while the pilot jiggled the throttle and I looked over the side trying to decide whether it was better to stick with the ship or parachute to the muskeg before we got too low. It seemed an eternity but I don't suppose it was actually more than twenty seconds before the engine spluttered, caught and returned to normal revs.
Magnetos too were often a source of trouble. One day when on patrol with Pilot Officer Hickson at the controls of a Cyrus Mark II Moth, the whole aircraft started to shake and shudder till I thought it would fall apart. A glance below showed Happy Lake a few miles to the north. With throttle pulled back we glided down towards it, but it soon became evident that we would end up in the trees before reaching it. The only alternative landing was a small, normally very unattractive muskeg lake, and in this the aircraft was safely set down. Getting out on the pontoons we found the lake shallow and so full of muskeg muck that even by paddling hard we could only move forward by inches. The muck merely spread out in a brown mass behind us. A paddle, pushed straight down and your arm after it could not reach bottom, and there was no more resistance to the effort than if it had been made through water only.
There was only one small rock point on the lake; towards it we struggled but made mighty little progress until we reached a large bed of water lilies. Feeling for the roots and pressing on them we finally reached shore after taking over half an hour to make a quarter mile.
The trouble determined, the appropriate message was written in duplicate and the two pigeons released, the second twenty minutes after the first. In the message we said we would walk over to Happy Lake and await rescue there.
Next morning a Vedette flew in with the Lac du Bonnet commanding officer aboard. When he saw the situation of the aircraft he sent the pilot back to base with instruction to bring in Sgt. Pilot (Egghead) Elliot-the lightest pilot on the station. In the meanwhile everything movable was taken out of the Moth and only five gallons of gasoline retained in the tank. It was then pulled along the shore to the bottom of a small bay, pulled back against the muskeg and the tail tied to a small spruce. A new magneto was installed and the engine tested.
The far shore of the lake looked ominously close and we all wondered how Elliot could safely make the take-off. When he walked over from Happy Lake he obviously didn't like the look of things, but orders were to "Fly it out." Elliot climbed aboard, the prop was swung over, the engine started and warmed up to take-off temperature. At full throttle, while still held back by the tail rope, the pontoons lifted high in the water. At a given signal from Elliot the rope was cut and away went the Moth. We watched with hearts in our mouths while the pontoons seemed to be reluctant to leave the water. Finally the plane was airborne and gathering speed low over the lake. At the last minute the pilot jerked back on the stick and jumped the plane fifty feet to skim safely over the muskeg spruce and land in Happy Lake - a happy but trembling man.
Indians from Little Grand Rapids were frequently called on to turn out and fight forest fires on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. As late as 1927 no Indian would fly. They insisted on travelling by canoe, and this generally meant a large fire by the time they reached it. Time and again I tried to persuade them, but to no avail and this led to much unnecessary fire damage.
A minute or two later a small fire was spotted within twenty minutes flying time from the settlement. To reach it by canoe would take 2½ days. We landed at Little Grand Rapids and as usual everybody came down to the dock to watch the plane come in, including Johnny Moar, the H.B.C. post manager. Jumping out on the dock, I shook hands and explained the need for quick action to him. "Can't we possibly get these men to fly?" I asked. Johnny smiled and said, "There's one man over there who was telling everyone he wished he had the chance." Then he addressed the crowd, saying "You all heard Moses Owen boasting, and now is his chance."
Now Moses was a man of some substance in the community. He was the official dog-killer when feasts of dog meat were organized. He looked most uncomfortable as everyone turned to look at him. If he now refused he would permanently lose face, and this he feared more than the risk of flying, so reluctantly he agreed to go. We could only carry one extra man plus tools and supplies. Moses was put in the front cockpit and I asked Johnny to tell him to crouch down and cover himself during take-off as it was quite rough. We took off, but at 500 feet there still was no sign of Moses. I nudged the pilot, pointed forward and spread my hands to indicate "What has happened to Moses?" The pilot grinned pulled back the throttle and put the aircraft into a short but steep dive. Up came Moses like a jack-in-the-box, looking very scared but my smiles quickly put him at ease, and he began to look around. A few minutes later he pointed downward and excitedly mouthed words to me I could not hear. He had recognized Night Owl Rapids on the Berens River. Within a few minutes he was leaning so far out of the cockpit we were afraid we might lose him. He had been told we would leave him and the equipment at the fire and, hopefully, go back for more men. Then the horrible thought came to me that if we returned without Moses and with no message from him, all the Indians might think he was dead or had been spirited away and would never return. I found a birch tree, cut some bark, took out a pencil and handed both to Moses saying "Musiniagan Nitche" which roughly meant "Write a letter, brother." The birch bark was covered with writing in the Cree syllabics and handed back to me. Armed with this, I handed it out back at Little Grand Rapids and it was passed around for everyone to read. What Moses had said I never knew, and often wished I had obtained a translation of it. It must have been good, because there was then no difficulty and never was again - every man wanted to fly. Today the situation is completely reversed, and no one will go by canoe if flying is possible.
In the summer of 1928 there was a bad fire east of Lake Winnipegosis. The ranger had no experience of using aircraft and persisted in using the forestry patrol boat, wasting much valuable time. I was sent in to correct this situation.
Pilot Officer Hickson and I left Lac du Bonnet early on a Saturday evening, flew to Victoria Beach, topped up the fuel tank and stayed the night. We took off again at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning. As we passed over the Meadow Portage between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipegosis I leaned out of the front cockpit to look at the ground. It was a beautiful sunny morning with not a cloud in the sky but, as I leaned out, my goggles were spattered with moisture. This was a puzzle and I began looking for the source. Out from under the engine cowling there was a long red streak from which drops of ethyl gasoline were torn off into the wind. I hastily wrote a note to Hickson, "Bad gasoline leak, better land," and gestured toward the red stain. We landed at a little sand beach on the first island in Winnipegosis, pulled the aircraft up on the sand as far as we could, lifted the engine cowling and found the leak.
There was a small gasoline lead passing directly from the fuel tank to the engine primer. This had broken as a result of long vibration in the wind, and a thin stream of gasoline was pouring out. The broken pipe was pinched shut with pliers and we both contributed our wads of chewing gum to plaster over it as added protection against further leak.
Next, we measured the remaining gasoline in the wing tank by thrusting a stick down through the filler opening. There was approximately two inches of fuel in the bottom of the tank. It was only some ten miles further to the air station on Snake Island which was our destination, and Hickson thought the two inches of fuel would suffice.
We pushed off and drifted away from the island to save fuel. When in position for take-off I climbed down on the float, swung the prop, and away we went.
Neither of us had landed at Snake Island before. The water in the bay looked shallow and there appeared to be scattered rocks below, so we circled to look. The "rocks" turned out to be underwater weeds, so we passed up wind over the island to circle again and come in for a landing.
By this time there was a fair breeze blowing. About half a mile north of the island when at about 200 feet Hickson began a steep turn to starboard. Halfway through the turn, with the wind on our beam, the engine quit. We stalled, the aircraft dropped and there was insufficient height to recover from the stall so into the lake we crashed. There was actually a little gasoline left in the tank but in making the steep turn it had all run away from the fuel line to the carburetor.
The starboard float broke in half, the port float was leaking badly, a main strut of the undercarriage had broken and the jagged broken end came up through the fuselage between Hickson's knees to neatly take a piece out of his Air Force breeches. Had it been two inches to the right, his knee would have been smashed. As it was, neither of us was really hurt. I was waist-deep in water in the front cockpit, but Hickson was high and dry behind. Fortunately, there was a crash pad on the front edge of the cockpit, or I would have had a split forehead at least.
We expected the aircraft to sink at any moment and watched the shore of the island for signs of rescue activity. It was still very early on that Sunday morning. When we passed over the island everyone was still in bed. The air base was on the south side of the island, and we were on the north side. It was a long way round the shore, and might be some time before a rescue boat could reach us. Then, joy to behold, a group of pyjama-clad figures dragging a big skiff emerged from the bush and launched the skiff. There was a narrow neck in the middle of the island, and to save time the boat had been dragged over.
We had both been wearing lifejackets. I had always been impressed that a jacket should be blown up by mouth and the cylinder of compressed air only pierced in case of emergency. Apparently, I had not considered this an emergency as I had blown up the life jacket by mouth!
Hickson and I were taken ashore and I returned to help tow in the aircraft while he deflated the jackets and opened up the parachutes to dry. When we returned to shore Hickson was laughing and said to me, "There's nothing wrong with your lungs; your lifejacket was as hard as a football!" It was an A-1 crash and the little Moth aircraft never roamed the sky again.
In 1930 the federal government transferred natural resources to the province and the R.C.A.F. then ceased flying forest patrols in Manitoba. In 1931 Western Canada Airways did the flying on contract. In the meantime consideration was being given to formation of a Manitoba government air service. The federal government transferred four Vickers Vedettes to the province and on June 2, 1932, Jim Ulman arrived at Lac du Bonnet with the first of these flying boats. The spring fire season was bad. Roy Brown of Wings Limited had been hired to fly on forest protection until the M.G.A.S. arrived, and was still flying for us because of the number of fires.
On June 11th Roy Brown and myself were flying east of Lake Winnipeg and stopped in at the ranger station on Sasaginnigak Lake for lunch. On taking off again later we spotted a small smoke near the Manitoba-Ontario boundary, and flew over to investigate. The fire was in Ontario, on a portage along the Dogskin River. It had obviously just started, as a result of a camp fire left burning. A short distance down stream we located two canoes travelling towards Little Grand Rapids. There was nowhere to land so we flew on to Little Grand Rapids where I instructed Alf Disbrowe, fire ranger, to go to the mouth of the Dogskin River and apprehend the canoeists when they reached that point.
On return to Lac du Bonnet I telephoned the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, Kenora, advised them of the fire and asked if they wished to prosecute the offenders. The answer was "Yes," so arrangements were made.
Two Little Grand Rapids Indians, John Flatstone and John Bones Flatstone, were to be held under house arrest at Little Grand Rapids. They would be brought to Boundary Island on Moar Lake (Eagle Lake) east of Little Grand Rapids at noon June 16th, and there we would meet the Ontario officials and turn over our prisoners.
On the morning of June 16th Corporal Stewart of the R.C. M.P. was flown to Little Grand Rapids where he picked up the Indians and we all then continued to Moar Lake, landing almost exactly at 12:00 o'clock. As we taxied towards Boundary Island the Ontario plane came in sight through the smoky atmosphere and landed behind us.
Magistrate Dyner (Ontario) then selected a good rock on the boundary line, on which to sit. Ontario officials lined themselves behind him. The Manitoba prisoners were marched up to the boundary line by Corporal Stewart and turned over to H. S. Johns, Ontario Provincial Police. The Court was called to order and formally declared open. The charge was read to the accused and interpreted by Alf Disbrowe. A plea of guilty was entered. The facts of the case were given by Roy Brown and myself, and we explained that as John and John Bones Flatstone were the last to leave the portage (their course was some distance behind the lead canoe) they were responsible for leaving the camp fire burning.
Both men were sentenced to three months in the common gaol at Kenora, put into the Ontario plane and taken south. This we thought would be a good lesson to the people of Little Grand Rapids. Little did we realize that the men would become romantic figures in their community.
At that time, in 1932, the Indians of Little Grand Rapids were not used to the White Man's world nor his modern conveniences. When, three months later, John and John Bones returned to the settlement via Lake Winnipeg and the Berens River they held the people enthralled by their stories, acted out with many a gesture, of how when it got dark they pulled a string and - presto - the sun shone up on the ceiling. Were they thirsty or did they want to wash, they merely walked over to a tub on the wall, turned a little handle thus - and out flowed water. Most wonderful of all, when Nature called there was a bowl to sit on, with water down below. When finished you pulled a chain with a little handle on the end of it, and with a roar like Night Owl rapid, down came a flood and everything but everything - disappeared.
Thus was the White Man's penalty thwarted, and the two men turned to being heroes of the day. There is little doubt they received many presents of tobacco (niggerhead twist) for telling and re-telling their story, for many moons thereafter.
These stories of northern Manitoba, northeast Saskatchewan, and northwest Ontario are just a few of those that can be told about working conditions and the local inhabitants in that era of half a century ago. The airplane was just coming into use in the detailed mapping of remote territory by aerial photography. Forest fire protection through use of aircraft had begun. The ancient method of canoe travel and transport of goods was still in vogue but was soon to give way to aircraft and the Caterpillar tractor.
A decade slipped by before I was again north of 53°, this time as Supervisor of Game and Fisheries for the province. Even in that time many changes had taken place as the north was opened up.
Today many settlements have their own landing strips, carved out of the forest. Some have regular telephone and radio telephone communication. All weather roads are reaching far into the north, mining towns have sprung up, railways have been extended, schools have been built and nursing stations established. The mighty Nelson and Churchill rivers have been harnessed for electricity. Many changes are for the better but in some respects change has been too rapid. Old customs and the old way of life are disappearing fast. Much of the real romance of the north is gone.
A chapter in history covering this transition period in the north has been largely neglected. Those who recall that period have reached their three score years and ten. Time is running short if first-hand accounts are to be gathered, recorded, and preserved.
Page revised: 22 May 2010