Part 3 out of 3
and unimaginable shapes. Here, also, the knives of passers-by had
carved numerous autographs, marring the majestic cliff with their
ludicrous incongruity. Are we not all sinners in this way? "John
Jones," cut into a fantastic buttress which would fittingly adorn a
wizard's temple, may be a poor exhibit of human vanity; but, after
all, the real John Jones is more imperishable than the rock, which
seems scaling, anyway, from the top, and may, by and by, carry the
inscriptions with it. It was hard to tear one's self away from such
a wonderful structure as this, the most striking feature of its kind
on the whole river.
Farther on, escarped banks, consisting of boulders and pebbles
imbedded in tenacious clay, rose to a great height, their tops
clothed with rich moss, and wooded with a close growth of pine,
the hollows being full of delicious raspberries, now dead ripe.
By and by we encountered the Long Rapids--Kaukinwauk Powestik--and,
some hours afterwards, entered the Middle Rapid--Tuwao Powestik--the
worst we had yet come to, full of boulders and sharp rocks, with a
strong current. Very dexterous management was required here on the
part of steersman and bowman; a snapt line or a moment's neglect,
and a swing to broadside would have followed, and spelled ruin.
It was evening before this rapid was surmounted, and all hands,
dog-tired with the long day's pull, were glad to camp at the foot
of the Boiler Rapid, the next in our ascent, and so called from
the wrecking of a scow containing a boiler for one of the Hudson's
Bay Company's steamers. It was the most uncomfortable of camps,
the night being close, and filled with the small and bloodthirsty
Athabasca mosquito, by all odds the most vicious of its kind.
This rapid is strewn with boulders which show above water, making
it a very "nice" and toilsome thing to steer and track a boat
safely over it, but the tracking path itself is stony and firm,
a fortunate thing at such a place. There are no exposures of rock
at the foot of this rapid; but along its upper part runs a ledge
of asphalt-like rock as smooth as a street pavement, with an outer
edge as neatly rounded as if done with a chisel. This was the finest
bit of tracking path on the river, excepting, perhaps, the great
pavement beneath the cliff at the Long Rapids.
In this region the river scenery changes to a succession of
cut-banks, exposed in all directions, and in almost all situations.
Immense towering hills of sand, or clay, are cut down vertically,
some facing the river, others at right angles to it, and others
inland, and almost inclosed by projecting shoulders of the wooded
heights. These cut-banks carry layers of stone here and there, and
are specked with boulders, and in some places massed into projecting
crests, which threaten destruction to the passer-by. Otherwise the
scenery is desolate, mountainous always, and wooded, but with much
burnt timber, which gives a dreary look to the region. The cut-banks
are unique, however, and would make the fortune of an Eastern river,
though here little noticed on account of their number.
It was now the 18th, and the weather was intensely hot, foreboding
change and the August freshet. We had camped about eight miles below
the Burnt Rapid, and the men were very tired, having been in the
water pretty much since morning. Directly opposite our camp was a
colossal cliff of clay, around which, looking upward, the river bent
sharply to the south-west, very striking as seen beneath an almost
full moon breaking from a pile of snowy clouds, whilst dark and
threatening masses gathered to the north. The early, foggy morning
revealed the freshet. The river, which had risen during the night,
and had forced the trackers from their beds to higher ground, was
littered from bank to bank with floating trees, logs and stumps,
lifted from many a drift up stream, and borne down by the furious
current. At one of the short breathing spells the water rose two
inches in twenty minutes, and the tracking became exceedingly bad,
the men floundering to their waists in water, or footing it
insecurely on steep and slippery ledges along the water's marge.
About mid-day the anticipated change took place in the weather.
Thick clouds closed in with a driving rain and a high raw wind,
presaging the end of summer.
It was now, of course, very bad going, and camp was made, in the
heavy rain, on a high flat about two miles below the Burnt Rapid.
Though a tough spot to get up to, the flat proved to be a prime
place for our camp, with plenty of dead fallen and standing timber,
and soon four or five "long fires" were blazing, a substantial
supper discussed, and comfort succeeded misery. The next day
(Sunday) was much enjoyed as a day of rest, the half-breeds at
their beloved games, the officials writing letters. The weather
was variable; the clouds broke and gathered by turns, with slight
rain towards evening, and then it cleared. As a night camp it was
picturesque, the full moon in the south gleaming over the turbid
water, and the boatmen lounging around the files like so many
Next morning we surmounted the Brule Rapid--Pusitao Powestik--short
but powerful, with a sharp pointed rock at its head, very
troublesome to get around. Above this rapid the bank consists
of a solid, vertical rampart of red sandstone, its base and top
and every crack and crevice clothed with a rich vegetation--a
most beautiful and striking scene, forming a gigantic amphitheatre,
concentred by the seeming closing-in of the left bank at Point
Brule upon the long straight line of sandstone wall on the right.
Nothing finer, indeed, could be imagined in all this remarkable
river's remarkable scenery than this impressive view, not from
jutting peaks, for the sky-line of the banks runs parallel with
the water, but from the antique grandeur of their sweep and
That afternoon we rounded Point Brule, a high, bold cliff of
sandstone with three "lop-sticks" upon its top. The Indian's
lop-stick, called by the Cree piskootenusk, is a sort of living
talisman which he connects in some mysterious way with his own fate,
and which he will often go many miles out of his direct course to
visit. Even white men fall in with the fetish, and one of the three
we saw was called "Lambert's lop-stick." I myself had one made for
me by Gros Oreilles, the Saulteau Chief, nearly forty years ago, in
the forest east of Pointe du Chene, in what is now Manitoba. They
are made by stripping a tall spruce tree of a deep ring of branches,
leaving the top and bottom ones intact. The tree seems to thrive all
the same, and is a very noticeable, and not infrequent, object
throughout the whole Thickwood Indian country.
Just opposite the cliff referred to, the Little Buffalo, a swift
creek, enters between two bold shoulders of hills, and on its
western side are the wonderful gas springs. The "amphitheatre,"
sweeps around to, and is cloven by, that stream, its elevation
on the west side being lofty, and deeply grooved from its summit
downward, the whole locality at the time of our visit being
covered with raspberry bushes loaded with fruit.
The gas escapes from a hole in the ground near the water's edge in
a pillar of flame about thirty inches high, and which has been
burning time out of mind. It also bubbles, or, rather, foams up,
for several yards in the river, rising at low water even as far
out as mid-stream. There is a level plateau at the springs, several
acres in extent, backed by a range of hills, and if a stake is
driven anywhere into this, and withdrawn, the gas, it is said,
follows at once. They are but another unique feature of this
For a long distance the upper prairie level exposes good soil,
always clay loam, and there can be little doubt that there is
much fertile land in this district. That night we slept, or
tried to sleep, in the boat, and made a very early start on a
raw, cloudy morning, the tracking being mainly in the water.
We now passed great cliffs of sandstone, some almost shrouded
in the woods, and came upon many peculiar circular stones, as
large as, and much resembling, mill-stones. Towards evening we
passed Pointe la Biche, and met Mr. Connor, a trader, with two
loaded York boats, going north, and whom we silently blessed,
for he brought additional mail for ourselves. What can equal
the delight in the wilderness of hearing from home! It was
impossible to make Grand Rapids, and we camped where we were,
the night cold and raw, but enlivened by the reading and
re-reading of letters and newspapers.
Next morning, crossing the right bank of the river, and leaving
the boat, we walked to the foot of Grand Rapids. Our path, if
it could be called such, lay over a toilsome jumble of huge,
sharp-edged rocks, overhung by a beetling cliff of reddish-yellow
sandstone, much of which seemed on the point of falling. This whole
bank, like so much of this part of the river, is planted, almost at
regular intervals, with the great circular rocks already referred
to. These globular or circular masses are a curious feature of this
region. They have been shaped, no doubt, by the action of eddying
water, yet are so numerous, and so much alike, as to bespeak some
abnormally uniform conditions in the past.
The Grand Rapids--Kitchi Powestik--the most formidable on the river,
are divided by a narrow, wooded island, over a quarter of a mile
in length, upon which the Hudson's Bay Company have a wooden
tramway, the cars being pushed along by hand. Towards the foot of
the island is a smaller one near the left shore, and here is the
larger cascade, a very violent rapid, with a fall from the crest
to the foot of the island of thirty feet, more or less. The
narrower passage is to the right of the island, and is called
the "Free Traders' Channel." The river, in full freshet, was
very muddy-looking, detracting much from the beauty of the rapids.
The Hudson's Bay Company have storehouses at each end of the
tramway, but for their own use only. Free traders have to portage
their supplies over a very rough path beneath the cliffs. Both
banks of the river are of sandstone, capped on the left by a wall
of cream-coloured rock, seventy or eighty feet in height, at a
guess. A creek comes in from the west which has cloven the sandstone
bank almost to the water's edge; and running along the top of these
sandstone formations are, everywhere, thick layers of coal, which
is also found, in a great bed, on the opposite shore, and about
three miles back from the river. The coal had been used by a trapper
there, and is a good burner and heater, leaving little ash or clinker.
These coal beds seem to extend in all directions, on both sides of
the river, and underlie a very large extent of country. The inland
country for some eight or ten miles had been examined by Sergeant
Anderson, of the Mounted Police post here, who described it as
consisting of wide ridges, or tables, of first-rate soil, divided
by shallow muskegs; a good farming locality, with abundance of
large, merchantable spruce timber. Moose were plentiful in the
region, and it was a capital one for marten, one white trapper,
the winter before our visit, having secured over a hundred skins.
On the 25th we left our comfortable spruce beds and "long fires,"
and tracked on to House River, which we reached at nine a.m. Here
there is a low-lying, desolate-looking, but memorable, "Point,"
neighboured by a concave sweep of bank. The House is a small
tributary from the east, but very long, rising far inland; and here
begins the pack-trail to Fort McMurray, about one hundred miles in
length, and which might easily be converted into a waggon-road, as
also another which runs to Lac la Biche. Both trails run through a
good farming country, and the former waggon-road would avoid all
the dangers and laborious rapids whose wearisome ascent has been
The Point itself is tragic ground, showing now but a few deserted
cabins and some Indian graves--one of which had a white paling
around it, the others being covered with gray cotton--which looked
like little tents in the distance. These were the graves of an
Indian and his wife and four children, who had pitched through
from Lac la Biche to hunt, and who all died together of diphtheria
in this lonely spot. But here, too, many years ago, a priest was
murdered and eaten by a weeghteko, an Iroquois from Caughnawaga.
The lunatic afterwards took an Indian girl into the depths of the
forest, and, after cohabiting with her for some time, killed and
devoured her. Upon the fact becoming known, and being pursued by her
tribe, he fled to the scene of his horrible banquet, and there took
his own life. Having rowed across the river for better tracking, as
we crawled painfully along, the melancholy Point with its lonely
graves, deserted cabins and cannibal legend receded into eerie
distance and wrapped itself once more in congenial solitude.
The men continued tracking until ten a.m. much of the time wading
along banks heavily overhung with alders, or along high, sheer
walls of rock, up to the armpits in the swift current. The country
passed through was one giant mass of forest, pine and poplar,
resting generally upon loamy clay--a good agricultural country
in the main, similar to many parts of Ontario when a wilderness.
We camped at the Joli Fou Rapids, having only made about fifteen
miles. It was a beautiful spot, a pebbly shore, with fine open
forest behind, evidently a favourite camping-place in winter.
Next morning the trackers, having recrossed for better footing,
got into a swale of the worst kind, which hampered them greatly,
as the swift river was now at its height and covered with gnarled
The foliage here and there showed signs of change, some poplars
yellowing already along the immediate banks, and the familiar
scent of autumn was in the air. In a word, the change so familiar
in Manitoba in August had taken place here, to be followed by a
balmy September and the fine fall weather of the North, said to
surpass that of the East in mildness by day, though perhaps sharper
by night. We were now but a few miles from the last obstruction,
the Pelican Rapids, and pushed on in the morning along banks of
a coal-like blackness, loose and friable, with thin cracks and
fissures running in all directions, the forest behind being the
usual mixture of spruce and poplar. By midday we were at the rapids,
by no means formidable, but with a ticklish place or two, and got
to Pelican Portage in the evening, where were several shanties
and a Hudson's Bay freighting station. Here, too, is a well which
was sunk for petroleum, but which struck gas instead, blowing up the
borer. It was then spouting with a great noise like the blowing-off
of steam, and, situated at such a distance from the shaft at the
Landing and from the Point Brule spiracle described, indicated,
throughout the district, available resources of light, heat and
power so vast as almost to beggar imagining.
Mr. Ross having obtained on the 14th the adhesion of the Crees
to the Treaty at Wahpooskow, it was now decided that the Scrip
Commission should make the canoe trip to that lake, whilst Mr.
Laird and party would go on to Athabasca Landing on their way home.
Accordingly Matcheese--"The Teaser"--a noted Indian runner, was
dispatched with our letters to the Landing, 120 miles up the river.
This Indian, it was said, had once run from the Landing to Edmonton,
ninety-five miles, in a single day, and had been known to carry 500
pounds over a portage in one load. I myself saw him shoulder 350
pounds of our outfit and start off with it over a rough path. He was
slightly built, and could not have weighed much over nine stone, but
was what he looked to be, a bundle of iron muscles and nerves.
On the 29th Mr. Laird and party bade us good-bye, and an hour
later we set out on our interesting canoe trip to the Wahpooskow,
a journey which led us into the heart of the interior, and
proved to be one of the most agreeable of our experiences.
The Trip To Wahpooskow.
Our route lay first up the Pelican River, the Chachakew of the
Crees, and then from the "divide" down the Wahpooskow watershed
to the lake. We had six canoemen, and our journey began by
"packing" our outfit over a four-mile portage, commencing with a
tremendously long and steep hill, and ending on a beautiful bank
of the Pelican, a fine brown stream about one hundred feet wide,
where we found our canoes awaiting us, capital "Peterboroughs,"
in good order. Here also were a number of bark canoes, carrying
the outfit of Mr. Ladoucere, a half-breed trader going up to
Wahpooskow. Mr. Prudhomme and myself occupied one canoe, and
with two experienced canoemen, Auger at the stern and Cardinal
at the bow, we kept well up with the procession.
Where the channels are shallow, poles are used, which the men
handled very dexterously, nicking in and out amongst the rocks and
rapids in the neatest way; but in the main the propulsion was by our
paddles, a delight to me, having been bred to canoeing from boyhood.
We stopped for luncheon at a lovely "place of trees" overhanging a
deep, dark, alluring pool, where we knew there were fish, but had
no time to make a cast. So far the banks of the Pelican were of a
moderate height, and the adjacent country evidently dry--a good
soil, and berries very plentiful. Presently, between banks overhung
with long grass, birch and alder, we entered a succession of the
sweetest little rapids and riffles imaginable, the brown water
dancing amongst the stones and boulders to its own music, and the
rich rose-pink, cone-like tops of the water-vervain, now in bloom,
dancing with it.
Our camp that night was a delightful one, amongst slender birch
and spruce and pine, the ground covered with blueberries, partridge
berries, and cranberries in abundance. The berries of the
wolf-willow were also red-ripe, alluring, but bitter to the taste.
It was really a romantic scene. Ladoucere had made his camp in a
small glade opposite our own, the bend of the river being in front
of us. The tall pines cast their long reflections on the water, our
great fires gleamed athwart them, illuminating the under foliage
of the birches with magical light, whilst the half-breeds, grouped
around and silhouetted by the fires, formed a unique picture which
lingers in the memory. We slept like tops that night beneath the
stars, on a soft bed of berry bushes, and never woke until a thin
morning rain sprinkling in our faces fetched us to our feet.
A good bacon breakfast and then to our paddles, the river-bends
as graceful as ever, but with fewer rapids. At every turn we
came upon luxuriant hay meadows, with generally heavy woods
opposite them, the river showing the same easy and accessible
shore, whilst now and then giant hoof-prints, a broken marge,
and miry grass showed where a moose had recently sprawled up
the bank. Nothing, indeed, could surpass the rich colour-tone
of this delightful stream--an exquisite opaqueness even under
the clouds; but, interfused with sunshine, like that rare and
translucent brown spread by the pencil of a master.
As we were paddling along, the willows on shore suddenly parted,
and an Indian runner appeared on the bank, who hailed us and,
handing over a sack of mail with letters and papers for us all,
sped off as suddenly as he came.
It was now the last day of August, raw and drizzly, and having
paddled about ten miles through a like country, we came in sight
of the Pelican Mountains to the west, and, later on, to a fork
of the river called Muskeg Creek, above which our stream narrowed
to about eighteen feet, but still deep and fringed with the same
extensive hay meadows, and covered here and there with pond
lilies, a few yellow ones still in bloom. By and by we reached
Muskeg Portage, nearly a mile in length. The path lay at first
through dry muskegs covered with blueberries, Labrador tea, and
a dwarfed growth of birch, spruce, tamarac, and jackpine, but
presently entered and ended in a fine upland wood, full of
pea-vines, vetches and wild rose. This is characteristic of
the country, muskegs and areas of rich soil alternating in all
directions. The portage completed, we took to our canoes again,
the stream of the same width, but very crooked, and still bordered
by extensive and exceedingly rich hay meadows, which we were
satisfied would yield four or five tons to the acre. Small
haystacks were scattered along the route, being put up for ponies
which haul supplies in winter from Pelican Landing to Wahpooskow.
The country passed through showed good soil wherever we penetrated
the hay margin, with, of course, here and there the customary
muskegs. The stream now narrowed into a passage deep but barely
wide enough for our canoes, our course lying always through tall
and luxuriant hay. At last we reached Pelican Lake, a pretty large
sheet of water, about three miles across, the body of the lake
extending to the south-west and north-east. We crossed it under
sail and, landing at the "three mile portage," found a half-breed
there with a cart and ponies, which took our outfit over in a
couple of trips to Sandy Lake. A very strong headwind blowing,
we camped there for the night.
This lake is the height of land, its waters discharging by the
Wahpooskow River, whose northern part, miscalled the Loon, falls
into the Peace River below Fort Vermilion. The lake is an almost
perfect circle, ten or twelve miles in diameter, the water full
of fibrous growths, with patches of green scum afloat all over
it. Nevertheless, it abounds in pike, dory, and tullabees, the
latter a close congener of the whitefish, but finer in flavour
and very fat. Indeed, the best fed dogs we had seen were those
summering here. The lake, where we struck it, was literally
covered with pin-tail ducks and teal; but it is not a good moose
country, and consequently the food supply of the natives is
We descried a few half-breed cabins and clearings on the opposite
shore, carved out of the dense forest which girdles the lake, and
topographically the country seemed to be of a moderate elevation,
and well suited for settlement. The wind having gone down, we
crossed the lake on the 2nd of September to what is here called
Sandy Creek, a very crooked stream, its thick, sluggish current
bordered by willows and encumbered with reeds and flags, and,
farther on, made a two-mile portage, where at a very bad landing
we were joined by the boats, and presently paddled into a great
circular pond, covered with float-weed, a very paradise of ducks,
which were here in myriads.
Its continuation, called "The Narrows," now flowed in a troubled
channel, crossed in all directions by jutting boulders, full of
tortuous snies, to be groped along dexterously with the poles,
but dropped at last into better water, ending at a portage,
where we dined. This portage led to the farmhouse of a Mr.
Houle, a native of Red River, who had left St. Vital fifty-eight
years before, and was now settled at a beautiful spot on the
right bank of the river, and had horses, cows and other cattle,
a garden, and raised wheat and other grain, which he said did
well, and was evidently prosperous. After a regale of milk we
embarked for the first Wahpooskow lake, which we reached in
This is a fine and comparatively clear sheet of water, much
frequented by the natives. The day was beautiful, and with a
fair wind and sails up we passed point after point sprinkled
with the cabins and tepees of the Indians and half-breeds. It
was perfectly charming to sweep up to and past these primitive
lodgings, with a spanking breeze, and the dancing waves seething
around our bows. Small patches of potatoes met the eye at every
house, making our mouths water with expectation, for we had now
been a long time without them, and it is only then that one realizes
their value. In the far distance we discerned the Roman Catholic
Mission church, the primitive building showing up boldly in the
offing, whilst our canoemen, now nearing their own home, broke
into an Indian chant, and were in high spirits. They expected
a big feast that night, and so did we! I had been a bit under
the weather, with flagging appetite, but felt again the grip
of healthy hunger.
We were now in close contact with the most innocently wild,
secluded, and apparently happy state of things imaginable--a real
Utopia, such as Sir Thomas More dreamt not of, being actually here,
with no trace of abortive politics or irritating ordinance. Here
was contentment in the savage wilderness--communion with Nature in
all her unstained purity and beauty. One thought of the many men of
mind who had moralized on this primitive life, and, tired of towns,
of "the weariness, the fever and the fret" of civilization, had
abandoned all and found rest and peace in the bosom of Mother
The lake now narrowed into a deep but crooked stream, fringed,
as usual, by tall reeds and rushes and clumps of flowering
water-lilies. A four-mile paddle brought us to a long stretch
of deep lake, the second Wahpooskow, lined on the north by a
lovely shore, dotted with cabins, the central tall buildings
upon the summit of the rising ground being those of the English
"Church Mission Society," in charge of the Reverend Charles R.
Weaver. Here we were at last at the inland end of our journey,
at Wahpooskow--this, not the "Wabiscow" of the maps, being the
right spelling and pronunciation of the word, which means in
English "The Grassy Narrows."
The other Missions of this venerable Society in Athabasca,
it may be mentioned, were at the time as follows: Athabasca
Landing, the residence of Bishop Young; Lesser Slave Lake, White
Fish Lake, Smoky River, Spirit River, Fort Vermilion, and Fort
Chipewyan, in charge, respectively, of the Reverend Messrs.
Holmes, White, Currie, Robinson, Scott, and Warwick. The Roman
Catholic Mission, already mentioned, had been established three
years before our coming by the Reverend J. B. Giroux, at Stony
Point, near the outlet of the first lake, the other Oblat
Missions in Athabasca--I do not vouch for my accuracy--being
Athabasca Landing, Lesser Slave Lake, the residence of Bishop
Clut and clergy and of the Sisters of Providence; White Fish
Lake, Smoky River, Dunvegan, and St. John, served, respectively,
by Fathers Leferriere, Lesserec, and Letreste; Fort Vermilion
by Father Joussard, and Fort Chipewyan by Bishop Grouard and
the Grey Nuns.
Mr. Weaver, the missionary at Wahpooskow, is an Englishman, his
wife being a Canadian from London, Ontario. By untiring labour
he had got his mission into very creditable shape. When it is
remembered that everything had to be brought in by bark canoes or
dog-train, and that all lumber had to be cut by hand, it seemed to
be a monument of industry. Before qualifying himself for missionary
work he had studied farming in Ontario, and the results of his
knowledge were manifest in his poultry, pigs and cows; in his
garden, full of all the most useful vegetables, including Indian
corn, and his wheat, which was then in stock, perfectly ripe and
untouched by frost. This he fed, of course, to his pigs and poultry,
as it could not be ground; but it ripened, he told me, as surely
as in Manitoba. Some of the natives roundabout had begun raising
stock and doing a little grain growing, and it was pleasant to
hear the lowing of cattle and the music of the cow-bells, recalling
home and the kindly neighbourhood of husbandry and farm.
The settlement was then some twenty years old, and numbered about
sixty souls. The total number of Indians and half-breeds in the
locality was unknown, but nearly two hundred Indians received
head-money, and all were not paid, and the half-breeds seemed
quite as numerous. About a quarter of the whole number of Indians
were said to be pagans, and the remainder Protestants and Roman
Catholics in fair proportion. In the latter denomination, Father
Giroux told me, the proportion of Indians and half-breeds,
including those of the first lake, was about equal. The latter,
he said, raised potatoes, but little else, and lived like the
Indians, by fishing and hunting, especially by the former, as
they had to go far now for fur and large game.
The Hudson's Bay Company had built a post near Mr. Weaver's
Mission, and there was a free-trader also close by, named
Johnston, whose brother, a fine-looking native missionary,
assisted at an interesting service we attended in the Mission
church, conducted in Cree and English, the voices in the Cree
hymns being very soft and sweet. Mr. Ladoucere was also near
with his trading-stock, so that business, it was feared, would
be overdone. But we issued an unexpectedly large number of scrip
certificates here, and the price being run up by competition,
a great deal of trade followed.
Wahpooskow is certainly a wonderful region for fish, particularly
the whitefish and its cousin-german, the tullabee. They are not got
freely in winter in the first lake, but are taken in large numbers
in the second, where they throng at that season. But in the fall
the take is very great in both lakes, and stages were seen in all
directions where the fish are hung up by their tails, very tempting
to the hungry dogs, but beyond their reach until the crows attack
them. The former keep a watchful eye on this process, and when the
crows have eaten off the tails, which they invariably attack first,
the dogs seize the fish as they drop. When this performance becomes
serious, however, the fish are generally removed to stores.
One night, after an excellent dinner at Mr. Weaver's, that grateful
rarity with us, we adjourned to a ball or "break-down," given in our
honour by the local community. It took place in a building put up by
a Mr. George, an English catechist of the Mission; a solid structure
of logs of some length, the roof poles being visible above the
peeled beams. On one of these five or six candles were alight,
fastened to it by simply sticking them into some melted tallow.
There were two fiddlers and a crowd of half-breeds, of elders,
youths, girls and matrons, the latter squatting on the floor with
their babes in moss-bags, dividing the delights of the evening
between nursing and dancing, both of which were conducted with the
utmost propriety. Indeed, it was interesting to see so many pretty
women and well-behaved men brought together in this out-of-the-world
place. The dances were the customary reels, and, of course, the Red
River Jig. I was sorry, however, to notice a so-called improvement
upon this historic dance; that is to say, they doubled the numbers
engaged in it, and called it "The Wahpooskow Jig." It seemed a
dangerous innovation; and the introduction later on of a cotillon
with the usual dreary and mechanical calls filled one with
additional forebodings. We almost heard "the first low wash of waves
where soon shall flow a human sea." But aside from such newfangled
features, there was nothing to criticise. The fiddling was good,
and the dancing was good, showing the usual expertness, in which
performance the women stooped their shoulders gracefully, and bent
their brows modestly upon the floor, whilst the men vied with each
other in the admirable and complicated variety of their steps. In
fact, it was an evening very agreeably spent, and not the less so
from its primitive environment. After joining in a reel of eight, we
left the scene with reluctance, the memorable Jig suddenly striking
on our ears as we wended our way in the darkness to our camp.
As regards farming land in the region, for a long way inland Mr.
Weaver and others described it as of the like good quality as at
the Mission, but with much muskeg. It is difficult to estimate the
extent of the latter, for, being more noticeable than good land,
the tendency is to overestimate. Its proportion to arable land is
generally put at about 50 per cent., which may be over or under
the truth, for only actual township or topographic surveys can
The country drained by the lower river, the Loon, as it is
improperly called in our maps, navigable for canoes all the
way to where it enters the Peace, was described as an extensive
and very uniform plateau, sloping gently to the north. To the
south the Pelican Mountains formed a noble background to the
view from the Mission, which is indeed charming in all directions.
At the mouth of the river, and facing the Mission, a long point
stretches out, dividing the lake into two deep arms, the Mission
being situated upon another point around which the lake sweeps
to the north. The scene recalls the view from the Hudson's Bay
Company's post at Lesser Slave Lake, but excels it in the larger
extent of water, broken into by scores of bayous, or pools,
bordered by an intensely green water-weed of uniform height,
and smooth-topt as a well-clipt lawn. Behind these are hay meadows,
a continuation of the long line of them we had passed coming up.
Upon the whole, we considered this an inviting region for any
farmer who is not afraid to tackle the forest. But whether a
railway would pass this way at first seemed to us doubtful. The
head of Lesser Slave Lake lies far to the south-west, and there
it is most likely to pass on its way to the Peace. What could be
supplied, however, is a waggon-road from Wahpooskow to Athabasca
Landing, instead of the present dog-trail, which passes many deep
ravines, and makes a long detour by Sandy Lake. Such a road should
pass by the east end of the first Wahpooskow Lake, thence to Rock
Island Lake, and on by Calling Lake to the Landing, a distance of
about one hundred miles. Such a road, whilst saving 125 miles of
travel by the present route, would cut down the cost of transport
by fully one-half.
Wahpooskow had its superstitions and some doubtful customs. For
instance, an Indian called Nepapinase--"A Wandering Bolt of
Night-Lightning"--lost his son when Mr. Ross was there taking
adhesion to the Treaty, and spread the report that he had brought
"bad medicine." Polygamy was practised, and even polyandry was
said to exist; but we had no time to verify this gossip, and no
right to interfere if we had.
On the 6th, a lovely fall morning, we bade good-bye to Wahpooskow,
its primitive people, and its simple but ample pleasures. Autumn
was upon us. Foliage, excepting in the deep woods, was changing
fast, the hues largely copper and russet; hard body-tints, yet
beautiful. There were no maples here, as in the East, to add a
glorious crimson to the scene; this was given by shrubs, not by
trees. The tints were certainly, in the larger growths, less
delicate here than there; the poplar's chrome was darker, the
willow's mottled chrome more sere. But there was the exquisite
pale canary of the birch, the blood-red and yellow of the wild
rose, which glows in both hues, the rich crimson of the red
willow, with its foil of ivory berries, and the ruddy copper
of the high-bush cranberry. These, with many other of the berry
bearers and the wild-flowers, yielded their rich hues; so that
the great pigments of autumn, crimson, brown and yellow, were
everywhere to be seen, beneath a deep blue sky strewn with
We were now on the return to Pelican Landing, with but few incidents
to note by the way, aside from those already recorded. But having
occasion to take a declaration at a cabin on our passage along the
first lake, we had an opportunity of visiting a hitherto unobserved
stratum of Wahpooskow's society.
The path to the cabin and its tepees led up a steep bank, beaten
as hard as nails and as slippery as glass; nevertheless, by
clutching the weeds which bordered it, mainly nettles, we got
on top at last, where an interesting scene met the eye.
This was a half-breed family, the head of which, a shrivelled
old fellow, was busy making a paddle with his crooked knife,
the materials of a birch-bark canoe lying beside him--and most
beautifully they make the canoe in this region. His wife was
standing close by, a smudged hag of most sinister aspect; also a son
and his wife. On stages, and on the shrubs around, were strewn nets,
ragged blankets, frowsy shawls, and a huddle of other shreds and
patches; and, everywhere else, a horde of hungry dogs snarling and
pouncing upon each other like wolves. Filth here was supreme, and
the _mise en scene_ characteristic of a very low and very rare type
of Wahpooskow life indeed--a type butted and bounded by the word
"fish." An attempt was made to photograph the group, but the old
fellow turned aside, and the old woman hobbled into the recesses of
a tepee, where we heard her muttering such execrations in Cree as
were possible to that innocent tongue. The hands of the woman at the
cabin door were a miracle of grime and scrofula. Her sluttish locks,
together with two children, hung around her; one of the latter
chewing a muddy carrot up into the leaves, an ungainly little imp;
the other was a girl of singularly beautiful features and of perfect
form, her large luminous eyes of richest brown reflecting the
sunlight from their depths like mirrors--a little angel clad in
dirt. Why other wild things should be delicately clean, the birds,
the fishes she lived on, and she be bred amidst running sores and
vermin, was one of the mysteries I pondered over when we took to our
canoes. For such a pair of eyes, for those exquisite features, some
scraggy denizen of Vanity Fair would have given a king's ransom.
Yet here was a thing of beauty, dropped by a vile freak of Nature
into an appalling environment of filth and ignorance; a creature
destined, no doubt, to spring into mature womanhood, and lapse, in
time, into a counterpart of the bleared Hecate who mumbled her Cree
philippics in the neighbouring wigwam.
On our return trip some detours were made, one of which was to the
habitation of another half-breed family at the foot of Sandy Lake,
themselves and everything about them orderly, clean and neat; the
very opposites of the curious household we had visited the day
before. They had a great kettle of fish on the fire, which we
bought, and had our dinner there; being especially pleased to note
that their dogs were not starved, but were fat and well handled. At
the east side of the lake we were delayed trying to catch ponies
to make the portage, failing which we got over otherwise by dark,
and camped again on the Pelican River. That night there was a keen
frost, and ice formed along shore, but the weather was delightfully
crisp and clear, and we reached Pelican Landing on the 9th, finding
there our old scow and the trackers, with our friend Cyr in command,
and Marchand, our congenial cook, awaiting us.
On the 11th we set off for Athabasca Landing, accompanied by a
little fleet of trippers' and traders' canoes, and passed during
the day immense banks of shale, the tracking being very bad and
the water still high. We noted much good timber standing on heavy
soil, and on the 14th passed a curious hump-like hill, cut-faced,
with a reddish and yellow cinder-like look, as if it had been
calcined by underlying fires. Near it was an exposure of deep
coloured ochre, and, farther on, enormous black cut-banks, also
suggestive of coal.
The Calling River--"Kitoosepe"--was one of our points of
distribution, and upon reaching it we found the river benches
covered with tepees, and a crowd of half-breeds from Calling
Lake awaiting us. After the declarations and scrip payments were
concluded, we took stock of the surroundings, which consisted, so
far as numbers went, mainly of dogs. Nearly all of them looked very
miserable, and one starveling bitch, with a litter of pups, seemed
to live upon air. It was pitiful to see the forlorn brutes so
cruelly abused; but it has been the fate of this poor mongrel friend
of humanity from the first. The canine gentry fare better than many
a man, but the outcasts of the slums and camps feel the stroke of
bitter fortune, yet, with prodigious heart, never cease to love the
There was an adjunct of the half-breed camp, however, more
interesting than the dogs, namely, Marie Rose Gladu, a half-sister
of the Catherine Bisson we met at Lesser Slave Lake, but who
declared herself to be older than she by five years. From evidence
received she proved to be very old, certainly over a hundred,
and perhaps the oldest woman in Northern Canada. She was born at
Lesser Slave Lake, and remembered the wars of her people with the
Blackfeet, and the "dancing" of captured scalps. She remembered
the buffalo as plentiful at Calling Lake; that it was then a mixed
country, and that their supplies in those old days were brought
in by way of Isle a la Cross, Beaver River, and Lac la Biche, as
well as by Methy Portage, a statement which I have heard disputed,
but which is quite credible for all that. She remembered the old
fort at the south-east end of Lesser Slave Lake, and Waupistagwon,
"The White Head," as she called him, namely, Mr. Shaw of the famous
finger-nail. Her father, whose name was Nekehwapiskun--"My wigwam
is white"--was a fur company's Chief, and, in his youth, a noted
hunter of Rabisca (Chipewyan), whence he came to Lesser Slave Lake.
Her own Cree name, unmusical for a wonder, was Ochenaskumagan--
"Having passed many Birthdays." Her hair was gray and black rather
than iron-gray, her eyes sunken but bright, her nose well formed,
her mouth unshrunken but rather projecting, her cheeks and brow a
mass of wrinkles, and her hands, strange to say, not shrivelled, but
soft and delicate as a girl's. The body, however, was nothing but
bones and integument; but, unlike her half-sister, she could walk
without assistance. After our long talk through an interpreter she
readily consented to be photographed with me, and, seating ourselves
on the grass together, she grasped my hand and disposed herself in a
jaunty way so as to look her very best. Indeed, she must have been a
pretty girl in her youth, and, old as she was, had some of the arts
of girlhood in her yet.
At this point the issue of certificates for scrip practically
ended, the total number distributed being 1,843, only 48 of which
were for land.
Leaving Calling River before noon, we passed Riviere la Biche
towards evening, and camped about four miles above it on the same
side of the river. We were not far from the Landing, and therefore
near the end of our long and toilsome yet delightful journey. It
was pleasant and unexpected, too, to find our last camp but one
amongst the best. The ground was a flat lying against the river,
wooded with stately spruce and birch, and perfectly clear of underbrush.
It was covered with a plentiful growth of a curious fern-like plant
which fell at a touch. The great river flowed in front, and an almost
full moon shone divinely across it, and sent shafts of sidelong light
into the forest. The huge camp-fires of the trackers and canoemen,
the roughly garbed groups around them, the canoes themselves, the
whole scene, in fact, recalled some genre sketch by our half-forgotten
colourist, Jacobi. Our own fire was made at the foot of a giant spruce,
and must have been a surprise to that beautiful creature, evidently
brimful of life. Indeed, I watched the flames busy at its base with
a feeling of pain, for it is difficult not to believe that those
grand productions of Nature, highly organized after their kind,
have their own sensations, and enjoy life.
The 17th fell on a Sunday, a delicious morning of mist and sunshine
and calm, befitting the day. But we were eager for letters from
home, and therefore determined to push on. Perhaps it was less
desecrating to travel on such a morning than to lie in camp. One
felt the penetrating power of Nature more deeply than in the
apathy or indolent ease of a Sunday lounge. Still there were
those who had to smart for it--the trackers. But the Mecca of
the Landing being so near, and its stimulating delights looming
largely in the haze of their imagination, they were as eager to
go on as ourselves.
The left bank of the river now exhibited, for a long distance, a
wilderness swept by fire, but covered with "rampikes" and fallen
timber. The other side seemed to have partially escaped destruction.
The tracking was good, and we passed the "Twenty Mile Rock" before
dinner, camping about fifteen miles from the Landing. Next morning
we passed through a like burnt country on both sides, giving the
region a desolate and forlorn look, which placed it in sinister
contrast with the same river to the north.
Farther up, the right bank rose bare to the sky-line with a mere
sprinkling of small aspens, indicating what the appearance of the
"rampike" country would be if again set ablaze, and converted from
a burnt-wood region to a bare one. The banks revealed a clay soil,
in some places mixed boulders, but evidently there was good land
lying back from the river.
In the morning bets were made as to the hour of arrival at the
Landing. Mr. P. said four p.m., the writer five, the Major six,
and Mr. C. eight. At three p.m. we rounded the last point but
one, and reached the wharf at six-thirty, the Major taking the
We had now nothing before us but the journey to Edmonton. At night
a couple of dances took place in adjacent boarding-houses, which
banished sleep until a great uproar arose, ending in the partisans
of one house cleaning out the occupants of the other, thus reducing
things to silence. We knew then that we had returned to earth. We
had dropped, as it were, from another planet, and would soon, too
soon, be treading the flinty city streets, and, divorced from
Nature, become once more the bond-slaves of civilization.
I have thought it most convenient to the reader to unite with
the text, as it passes in description from place to place, what
knowledge of the agricultural and other resources of the country
was obtainable at the time. The reader is probably weary of
description by this time; but, should he make a similar journey,
I am convinced he would not weary of the reality. Travellers,
however, differ strangely in perception. Some are observers,
with imagination to brighten and judgment to weigh, and, if need
be, correct, first impressions; whilst others, with vacant eye,
or out of harmony with novel and perhaps irksome surroundings,
see, or profess to see, nothing. The readiness, for instance,
of the Eastern "fling" at Western Canada thirty years ago is
still remembered, and it is easy to transfer it to the North.
Those who lament the meagreness of our records of the fur-trade
and primitive social life in Ontario, for example, before the
advent of the U. E. Loyalists, can find their almost exact
counterpart in Athabasca to-day. For what that Province was
then, viz., a wilderness, Athabasca is now; and it is safe to
predict that what Ontario is to-day Athabasca will become in
time. Indeed, Northern Canada is the analogue of Eastern Canada
in more likenesses than one.
That the country is great and possessed of almost unique resources
is beyond doubt; but that it has serious drawbacks, particularly
in its lack of railway connection with the outer world, is also
true. And one thing must be borne in mind, namely, that, when
the limited areas of prairie within its borders are taken up, the
settler must face the forest with the axe.
Perhaps he will be none the worse for this. It bred in the pioneers
of our old provinces some of the highest qualities: courage, iron
endurance, self-denial, homely and upright life, and, above all,
for it includes all, true and ennobling patriotism. The survival
of such qualities has been manifest in multitudes of their sons,
who, remembering the record, have borne themselves manfully wherever
they have gone.
But modern conditions are breeding methods new and strange, and
keen observers profess to discern in our swift development the
decay of certain things essential to our welfare. We seem, they
think, to be borrowing from others--for they are not ours by
inheritance--their boastful spirit, extravagance, and love
of luxury, fatal to any State through the consequent decline of
morality. The picture is over-drawn. True womanhood and clean
life are still the keynotes of the great majority of Canadian
Yet very striking is the contrast with the old days of household
economies, the days of the ox-chain, the sickle, and the leach-tub.
All of these, some happily and some unhappily, have been swept
away by the besom of Progress. But in any case life was too
serious in those days for effeminate luxury, or for aught but
proper pride in defending the country, and in work well done.
And it is just this stern life which must be lived, sooner or
later, not only in the wilds of Athabasca, but in facing
everywhere the great problems of race-stability--the spectres
of retribution--which are rapidly rising upon the white man's
For the rest, and granting the manhood, the future of Athabasca
is more assured than that of Manitoba seemed to be to the doubters
of thirty years ago. In a word, there is fruitful land there,
and a bracing climate fit for industrial man, and therefore its
settlement is certain. It will take time. Vast forests must
be cleared, and not, perhaps, until railways are built will
that day dawn upon Athabasca. Yet it will come; and it is well
to know that, when it does, there is ample room for the immigrant
in the regions described.
The generation is already born, perhaps grown, which will recast
a famous journalist's emphatic phrase, and cry, "Go North!" Well,
we came thence! Our savage ancestors, peradventure, migrated from
the immemorial East, and, in skins and breech-clouts, rocked the
cradle of a supreme race in Scandinavian snows. It has travelled
far to the enervating South since then; and, to preserve its
hardihood and sway on this continent, must be recreated in the
high latitudes which gave it birth.
MR. COTE'S POEM.
Sortez de vos tombeaux, peuplades endormies
A l'ombre des grands pins de vos forets benies!
Venez, fils de guerriers, qui jadis sous ces bois
Bruliez vos tomahawks, vos armes et vos carquois!
Que sur vos pales fronts l'aureole immortelle
Pour votre bienfaiteur s'illumine plus belle.
Neophytes, venez en ce jour de bonheur
Proclamer les vertus de l'illustre pasteur,
Qui pour vous ses agneaux, ses brebis les plus cheres.
Consacra sa jeunesse et ses annees entieres.
Venez, fleurs qui brillez au jardin de Bon Dieu.
Repandre les parfums qu'exhale le saint lieu
Sur l'illustre vieillard qui de sa voix benie
Vous fit epanouir dans l'hoeureuse patrie!
Tendre et venere pere, apotre magnanime,
Grand pretre du Seigneur, votre oevre fut sublime.
Des bords du Missouri jusqu'aux glances du nord,
Voyez, semeur beni, cinquante sillons d'or;
Voyez sur le versant de la montagne sainte
De votre charite l'imperissable empreinte;
Voyez cette legion d'ames regenerees
Portant par votre main les celestes livrees.
Quoi, muse profane, indigne chalumeau,
Oserais-tu planer sur un theme si haut?
Pour chanter du heros les fetes jubilaires
Descends de ces hauteurs a demi-seculaires!
Muse prosterne-toi. Hosanna! Hosanna!
Au ciel gloire au Tres-Haut. Jube, alleluia!
Hommage sur la terre a l'Oblat de Marie,
Qui dans son cycle d'or brille sur la patrie!