By Martin Hunter
In the winter of 1876-77 I was out with a party of Hudson’s Bay men, watching an opposition party that had venturesomely penetrated our country in quest of furs.
I had followed them up in the fall by canoes and after the lakes and rivers froze we continued on foot, with dogs to haul our supplies.
We overtook the people we were in search of exactly on top of the land between Hudson’s Bay and the shores of Lake Superior. They had, long before our arrival, erected their shanty and log storehouse, and our orders were to pitch alongside of where we found them, it was up to us to fell trees and build our own shelter.
It is rather a disheartening task to tackle in December, when the glass seldom rises above zero, to clear away the snow from the frozen ground and start to build one’s habitation. But we were all young, strong, and in perfect health, and the world ahead of us had no terrors. We looked on it as a matter of course and went at it with a will.
Our first important work was to get the trees felled and the logs drawn to place while we had the use of the dog teams. Dog food was a serious item and the sooner I could send most of them back to our nearest post the better. In fact, I was merely following orders, which said: “ As soon as you can, after you catch up with these people and get your log hauling done, send all the dogs but one team back.”
This I carried out, sending two men with three teams to Nipigon House and keeping four men and one team with me.
Our opponents had made such a substantial camp that it told us plainly they intended remaining there till the opening of navigation. We, therefore, made ourselves as comfortable as circumstances would allow.
A man in the bush without an axe is useless and can oly stand around, but the five of us had axes and each one knew how to make use of it. The log walls of our shanty and storehouse went up by the run. The roof and chinking the open space did not take long.
Of course, we had no stove, not even a tin one. The only thing to do was make a stove and clay chimney. This took us considerable time, as everything had to be melted with hot water and the clay and long grass for torch making was only to be had at considerable distance from the shack site.
However, perseverance, with a strong pull and a pull together, does wonders, and we were each of us interested to have the work completed with the utmost dispatch. The 20th of December saw us housed and all in order, with two days firewood at the door.
“Now, boys,” I said, “we will take a much required rest.”
Since leaving Nipigon House a hundred and twenty miles south, we had been strenuously on the jump, walking, sleeping and working in the bitter cold with never a let up. Now I was allowing them and myself forty-eight hours of solid rest and inaction. The delight of that respite, which ended all too soon, for our imported provisions alone would not support us, our dependence, in great measure, must be what the country would produce.
We brought with us guns, ammunition, snaring twine and fish nets, - these we must use, and with effect, to economise our flour and pork.
As all my men were real bushmen, I could vary their line of activity. One was sent off to set nets under the ice, a second to set rabbit snares, another to hunt game, partridge, deer, or whatever eatable and shootable crossed their path, while the fourth man cut and hauled firewood and did the cooking.
I kept changing about from week to week, thus their duties never became monotonous ; in fact, it developed a kind of rivalry between them. Should the rabbit man be unlucky and fail to bring in a goodly number, the man getting that job next week would kink his leg muscles trying to surpass his predecessor.
Thus the days and weeks went by. As far as watching the opposition was concerned, our duties were nil, for there was no likelihood or probability of them running outlying Indian camps until the days became longer and milder with the approach of Spring.
About the 10th of February, hunger for news of the world and private letters commenced to draw at my heart strings. I had left the last post office on the Frontier in September, and since then had had no tidings of any kind. To send out and get letters would be good, but no matter what letters I got I could not answer them. No, the better way was to go out myself to the first post-office, get my mail and answer it there on the spot.
Decide first, Act afterward. This was my motto. Our team of four dogs had had pretty easy times, merely to draw our firewood down from the mountain to the door. They had not been highly fed, but then, it takes very little to keep a dog about the door, with little exercise; our dogs, therefore, were in good condition.
That evening, after the fire, I unfolded my plans to my young assistant, or second in command.
He said, “Why, certainly; go by all means, Mr. Hunter. I can manage here all right with two men. Take Stephen and the dogs and get away before we have another snow storm.”
That fixed it. The next day we started in the afternoon. I made this late departure on purpose, not to surprise the dogs too much at the offset.
We made about twenty miles and camped for the night.
From our shanty to the outlet of the Norwest River at Nipigon Lake, the distance is about ninety miles. The going was pretty deep all the way down, as the lakes are small and the rivers narrow. However, we reached the lake at four o’clock the third afternoon.
There we dried our snowshoes, scraped the toboggan and made all preparations for a night crossing to Nipigon House, right straight across that big inland sea, fifty-five miles from shore to shore is a pretty serious proposition.
Even if one leaves the shore in a calm and apparently settled weather, yet things may alter very much before one reaches the further shore. Such a sudden change befell us that night, and were it not for the sagacity of our leading dog, in all probability we would have perished out on that terrible expanse of ice.
Everything being ready at eight o’clock, we pointed out from our camp fire, which was amongst the rocks on the beach. We took on board the sled split-up kindling and birch bark enough to boil our tea-kettle about midnight. The dogs had had four hour’s rest and were in good condition and spirits.
Our fire showed bright astern for half an hour, shortly after that it either went out or the land fall prevented us seeing it any longer.
The surface of the ice was in the best of condition and our dogs making good time. There was hardly a breath of air when we started; by the time I am writing about a slight breeze began to play on my cheek. Ah, what was that? A flake of snow? Yes; only too true, and then another and more in quick succession.
I turned my head and consulted Stephen, who stood on the tail end of the komitic.
“Will we turn back, or continue on? Now is the time to return to the shore if we are going to have a storm,” I exclaimed.
Being young, he was optimistic, and did not relish the idea of retracing our steps.
“Oh, no,” he said: “the dogs are good and Shoo-fly (our leading dog) can find the way.”
I could say no more. He was the driver and guide and ought to know what was possible to perform.
By that time the wind was steadily increasing, and with it the dry, salty snow – snow that flayed the face when we looked to windward. Every now and then I heard Stephen calling an encouraging word to the leader, but never, after we had pointed him straight when we left the shore, did he attempt any direction of course. Everything was entrusted to the dog’s instinct and sagacity to carry us through.
The storm became so great that even the dog nearest the sleigh was not discernable, and yet that noble leader kept right at his work, forging into the face of the blinding gale.
On that level, storm swept expanse, there was no stopping; it was push on or perish. All at once we appeared to run into a calm and then the dogs stopped.
Stephen ran forward to ascertain the cause. He came back and said we were at the lea of an ice ridge, and now was our time to have our midnight lunch.
Nipigon is noted for its ice upheavals. We were at the back of one and in shelter while we remained there.
I chopped up the ice to form water in our kettle, while Stephen started the fire. The blaze revealed the poor dogs encrusted with snow, and now they had come to a standstill, they were each busy clearing themselves of ice.
While the flare lasted, Stephen examined the ridge to find a crossing. Very little time was wasted eating our snack, and dogs and men clambered over the shoved up ice barrier and once more we were away.
It seemed cruel not to feed the dogs, but Stephen said it would make them useless for further service did we do so. Dogs in the North are only fed once in twenty-four hours. Ours had been fed on the beach as soon as we camped and now they would only eat when we reached our destination.
Neither of us carried a compass and our pulling through successfully depended on the leading dog. Stephen said it was all right and nothing remained for me to do but accept his word, and on and on we continued, mile after mile.
Ensconced in my warm blanket and laced up to the chin in the komitic, I must have dosed, or even slept. Stephen shook me by the head and enquired the time. Unlacing a part of the top, I managed to light under cover and found it was four o’clock.
My guide ventured the opinion that we could not be much more than eight or ten miles from shore, and in an hour or an hour and a quarter we ought to smell it if not yet daylight. He surmised the distance by the rate we had been travelling - a sort of bushman’s “dead reckoning.”
Day broke and revealed the fort right ahead of us, not a mile off. The storm was at its last blow and we arrived under a clear sky.
What bedlam! Our dogs began to bark when they saw the buildings, to be answered by all the dogs within the stockade. As we struck the shore the gates were swung open and there stood Henri, Count de la Ronde, to welcome us.
I looked at my watch; it was six o’clock. Fifty-five miles in ten hours. We must have come as straight as a string. I flopped on the snow and took that “Shoo-fly” in my arms.