Thursday, 10 January 2013


From: Unconventional Voyages by Arthur R.M. Lower
Ryerson Press

Chapter V
page 28- 34

(This is the last chapter we are typing. I found the description of the "northern sea-coast" quite an eye-opener.BB)

Having reached the "Sea of the North," I had to plan my summer's work. My instructions were to proceed up the coast, collecting information on the prospects for commercial fishing and in whatever way seemed practicable. Everybody at Albany stood ready to do what they could for me, though I was amused at the Scottish caution of the Hudson's Bay Factor, Mr. Gillies. Apparently he at first thought I might be an Ontario game warden and was careful to inform me that he had no furs about: he felt relieved, he said, when he heard of my arrival, to recollect that he had just sent them all over to the central depot, on Charlton Island, which, he dropped in incidentally, was in Quebec province. I was left to add for myself "and therefore out of my reach." When he found I was an emissary of the harmless government at Ottawa, come on an innocent quest for more information, he lowered his guard. After I got well acquainted with him, which in a spot like Albany naturally did not take long, although he continued cautious about giving out information that the Company might conceivably (though with difficulty) regard as confidential, he proved helpful and hospitable, a man of character.

I became friends with the Anglican missionary, the Rev. Mr. Griffin. He gave me free access to all the mission records, going back to the times of the good Bishop Horden in the 1880's. In their pages could be seen break-up and freeze-up, seasons of scarcity and seasons of plenty, rejoicings over Indians saved and grief over those who would not forsake their heathen ways. One entry recorded a trip out to Canada by way of the Albany, the Ogoki and the Nipigon to Lake Superior. The missionary of the time remarked, after passing through Lake Nipigon, on how pleasant and smiling a region it was and how easy life seemed there for the Indians compared with the stern James Bay: there are degrees of "north."

Life at Albany was unavoidably isolated but neither boorish or boring. The white community was small but its members were all of good calibre. It consisted of M. Pecodie, the assistant pot-keeper for Revillon Freres, his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Griffin, Mr. Gillies, his wife and married daughter and the Catholic priests and nuns. The Pecodies were two highly intelligent people and Mme. Pecodie one of the best cooks who ever invited me to a meal: the dinner she served was as elegant as if we had been in Paris. The griffins were good, kind people but I am afraid that the existence, in this remote outpost, of the same rigid wall between Protestant and Catholic as characterized my native county of Simcoe had to be put down in some measure to the North of Ireland origin of my friend Griffin. Talking about one of his Indians who had been seriously ill, and had been taken to the little hospital kept by the nuns, he said to me one day: " i stood it as long as I could, thinking of him lying there among crucifixes and with priests around him, and then I walked right in to see him: I just went right into the midst of them." The heavens didn't seem to fall either.

As a matter of fact, the Canadian priests I met in the north - all of them Oblates from Ottawa - seemed to me a very decent lot, men of fine manners and human feeling, and well-trained for their work. Their whole cultural pattern, of course, was very different from that of my missionary friend and from my own, and I can understand some of his instinctive feelings of hostility. Better education gave them a considerable advantage over the Anglican missionaries: this enabled them to learn the difficult Cree language more easily than did the Anglicans, to whom it always remained a stumbling block. But to say this is not to disparage any of the English-speaking missionaries I met, especially my friend Griffin and his wife, who could not have been better or more sincere people.

Mr. Gillies procured me a third man who knew all the camp-spots: he could pick out a little bluff or the mouth of a creek miles off shore when all I could see would be the occasional thin blue whisp in the distance. When Moses fired at a duck and missed, he always called out cheerfully "Very nigh," but when anyone else fired and missed, he would roar half derisively "No good!"

I got my training in west coast canoeing under Moses. James Bay represents the extension under water, and at the slightest possible angle, of the flat table land of Northern Ontario and Quebec. As a consequence, its banks are low and flat and the water for several miles off shore is extremely shallow. The tide rises vertically about twelve feet. Since the slope is so slight, the horizontal distance represented by twelve feet of rise is enormous. There are several miles between the edge of the sea at high water and its edge at low. Above the tidemark the shore takes another two or three miles to make up its mind whether it is really going to become dry land or not: this is a belt of grass and bullrush intersected by innumerable tidal creeks. Then low willow shrubs begin, and a mile or two  further on, the tree line, which quickly deepens into the dark spruce forest of the north. An exceptionally high tide will cover this foreshore and at low water the sea practically disappears below horizon. The intervening miles of tidemark consist of soft mud with the occasional hard ridge on which a man can stand without sinking up to his knees. The shore, such as it is, is just grassy bank, though here and there there are pebble beaches scraped up by wave and ice. The marshes are alive with the thickest clouds of the largest mosquitoes known to man. The only compensation for all this - and it is a  considerable one - is that these interminable rushes and reeds provide the best wildfowl shooting on the continent.

To paddle along this shore the Indians have developed methods which are as tedious as they are prudent. The day we left Albany, we paddled about three hours and then about three in the afternoon, Moses brought the canoe up on the shore. He indicated we were to camp for the night. I was rather annoyed, as, at that rate of travel, it seemed to me we would never get anywhere. However, within an hour or two, no water was to be seen, so it was evident that the alternative would have been to go on out beyond the tidemark until the tide came again at about two in the morning. Very sensibly, no Indian will do this. When the tide answers, it is possible to paddle for a few hours in the morning, "sit on the mud" from, say, ten to three, and then paddle for a couple hours after the afternoon high water. If the afternoon paddling period is stretched out too long, there is danger of having to pass the night "sitting on the mud" or paddling in the dark: weather changes are too sudden to risk that. I remember once making in to the shore on ebb tide, and finding the water draining out from under us with lightning speed; we had to step out into the mud, wading up to our thighs, and pull the canoe right through it before we got up to the "beach."

I made for the Kapiskau, the first large river north of the Albany. This stream has a narrow entrance but opens up into a good safe harbour. The Cree word means "the closed -up place", 'the narrows." The equivalent word to Kapiskau (phonetically Kaybesko) among the Indians of the St. Lawrence would be Kaybeko. This is the word that Champlain heard when he came through the narrows at the Island of Orleans into the first safe harbour up from the sea. Antiquarians have for generations wrangled over the meaning of the name of Canada's historic city but a little knowledge of Cree and Ojibway would have saved a great deal of ink. Kaybeko, or Quebec (pronounced, it is to be remembered, Kaybeck in French) is just "the closed - up place," "the narrows."

We camped at the mouth of the Kapiskau. That night the moon was gloriously bright and large over the grassy lands. It sparkled on river and on the distant sea; it lit up the dim line of the forest. Not a sound disturbed the still, keen northern night. It was a night, which, under the spell of the flooding moonlight, united man with all nature, a marvellous night. More marvellous still, there were no mosquitoes. But in the morning, there were other visitors, two of them: two husky dogs sitting patiently outside the tent, waiting for us to wake up. They had been left by their owners to shift for themselves during the summer. There was no human being within fifty miles, but the dogs, living on the country, were fat as butter. What is more, they were the only huskies I have ever encountered who were not shameless thieves. And were they glad to see us! And did they voice their grief when we paddled off! True gentlemen, both.

After the Kapiskau comes the Attawapiskat, a large river reaching back several hundred miles into the flat clay lands of the Ontario district of Patricia. In those days , Revillon Freres had a post there, but the Hudson's Bay Company did not. There was also a Catholic mission with a resident priest. Attached to the post were three men, two from Quebec and one, Tom Bates, born on the Bay. The four  white men at Attawapiskat were unique up there in that they were all Canadians. I did not meet a single other English Canadian during my sojourn on James Bay and only three French Canadians, apart from the priests. Everyone else had been born abroad. There were a few whites, of whom Tom Bates was one, who had been born on the Bay and had never left it. Technically, I suppose, they were Canadians.

Like so many whites up there, Tom Bates was married to a native. Should he ever see these lines, I hope he will forgive me but the story told about him and his lady does deserve rescue from oblivion, for few men can put up such a valiant struggle against matrimony as did Tom. Tom left Moose Factory and struck north to avoid the parson. But the parson was a determined man. He set out in pursuit. Tom moved on, past Albany, past the Kapiskau, with the parson still in pursuit. Tom came to Attawapiskat: the parson followed. There remained the uninhabited north: Tom struck bravely out. So did the parson. Finally on the banks of some remote creek he ran down his man, after full four hundred miles of chase, bundled him into his canoe, brought him back and demanded that he "marry the girl." Tom did.

Attawapiskat was an outpost, far in the bush, genuinely "backwoods" as compared with Albany. But I cannot say I found life dull there.

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