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Saddle, Sled and Snowshoe
Chapter I
Old Fort Edmonton—Early missionaries—Down the Saskatchewan by dog-train—Camp-fire experiences —Arrival at home—Daily occupations


IN my previous volume, "FOREST, LAKE AND PRAIRIE," which closed with the last days of 1862, I left my readers at Fort Edmonton. At that time this Hudson's Bay post was the chief place of interest in the great country known as the Saskatchewan Valley. To this point was tributary a vast region fully six hundred miles square, distinguished by grand ranges of mountains, tremendous foot hills, immense stretches of plain, and great forests. Intersecting it were many mighty rivers, and a great number of smaller streams. Lakes, both fresh and alkaline, dotted its broad surface.

Over the entire length and breadth of this big domain coal seemed inexhaustible. Rich soil and magnificent pasturage were almost universal. But as yet there was no settlement The peoples who inhabited the country were nomadic. Hunting, trapping, and fishing were their means of livelihood, and in all this they were encouraged by the great Company to whom belonged the various trading-posts scattered over the wide area, and of which Fort Edmonton was chief.

For the collecting and shipping of furs Edmonton existed. For this one definite purpose that post lived and stood and had its being. A large annual output of the skins and furs of many animals was its highest ambition. Towards this goal men and dogs and horses and oxen pulled and strained and starved. For this purpose isolation and hardship almost inconceivable were undergone. For the securing and bringing in to Edmonton of the pelts of buffalo and bear, beaver and badger, martin and musk-rat, fisher and fox, otter and lynx, the interest of everyone living in the country was enlisted. Thirteen different peoples, speaking eight distinct languages, made this post their periodic centre; and while at Edmonton was shown the wonderful tact and skill of the Hudson's Bay Company in managing contending tribes, yet nevertheless many a frightful massacre took place under the shadow of its walls.

This was the half-way house in crossing the continent. Hundreds of miles of wildness and isolation were on either hand. About midway between and two thousand feet above two great oceans—unique, significant, and alone, without telegraphic or postal communication—thus we found Fort Edmonton in the last days of the last month of the year 1862.

Edmonton had been the home of the Rev. K T. Rundle, the first missionary to that section, who from this point made journeys in every direction to the Hudson's Bay Company's posts and Indian camps.

Following him, later on, the Roman Catholic Church sent in her missionaries. These, at the time of which I write, had a church in the Fort, and the beginning of a mission out north, about nine miles from the Fort; also one at Lake St. Ann's, some forty miles distant. When the Rev. Thomas Woolsey came into the North-West, he too made Edmonton his headquarters for some years, and, like his predecessor, travelled from camp to camp and from post to post.

Even in those early days, one could not help predicting a bright future for this important point, for in every direction from Edmonton, as a centre, Nature has been lavish with her gifts. The physical foundations of empire are here to be found in rich profusion, and in 1862, having gone into and come out of Edmonton by several different directions, I felt that I would run but little risk in venturing to prophesy that it would by-and-by become a great metropolis.

The second day of January, 1863, saw a considerable party of travellers wind out of the gate of the Fort and, descending the hill, take the ice and begin the race down the Big Saskatchewan; Mr. Chatelaine, of Fort Pitt, and Mr. Pambrun, of Lac-la-biche, with their men, making, with our party, a total of eight trains. There being no snow, we had to follow the windings of the river. For the first eighty or ninety miles our course was to be the same, and it was pleasant, in this land of isolation, to fall in with so many travelling companions.

It was late in the day when we got away, but both men and dogs were fresh, so we made good time and camped for the night some twenty-five miles from the Fort. Climbing the first bank, we pulled into a clump of spruce, and soon the waning light of day gave place to the bright glare of our large camp-fire. Frozen ground and a few spruce boughs were beneath us and the twinkling stars overhead.

There being at this time no snow, our home for the night is soon ready, the kettles boiled, the tea made and pemmican chopped loose, and though we are entirely without bread or fruit or vegetables, yet we drink our tea, gnaw our pemmican and enjoy ourselves. The twenty-five-mile run and the intense cold have made us very hungry. Most of our company are old pioneers, full of incident and story of life in the far north, or out on the "Big Plains" to the south. We feed our dogs, we tell our stories, we pile the long logs of wood on our big fire, and alternately change our position, back then front to the fire. We who have been running hard, and whose clothes are wet with perspiration, now become ourselves the clothes-horses whereon to dry these things before we attempt to sleep. Then we sing a hymn, have a word of prayer, and turn in.

The great fire burns down, the stars glitter through the crisp, frosty air, the aurora dances over our heads and flashes in brilliant colors about our camp, the trees and the ice crack with the intense cold, but we sleep on until between one and two, when we are again astir. Our huge fire once more flings its glare away out through the surrounding trees and into the cold night. A hot cup of tea, a small chunk of pemmican, a short prayer, and hitching up our dogs, tying up our sled loads and wrapping up our passengers, we are away once more on the ice of this great inland river. The yelp of a dog as the sharp whip touches him is answered from either forest-clad bank by numbers of coyotes and wolves; but regardless of these, "Marse!" is the word, and on we run, making fast time.

On our way up I had found a buck deer frozen into the ice, and had chopped the antlers from his head and "cached" them in a tree to take home with me; but when I told my new companions of my find, they were eager for the meat, which they said would be good. I had not yet eaten drowned meat, but when I came to think of it I saw there was reason in what they said, and so promised to do my best to find the spot where the buck was frozen in. As it was night—perhaps three o'clock—when we came to the place, I was a little dubious as to finding the deer. However, I was born with a large "bump of locality" and a good average memory, and presently we were chopping the drowned deer out of the ready-to-hand refrigerator. This done we drove on, and stopped for our second breakfast near the Vermilion. We were through and away from this before daylight, and hurrying on reached our turning-off point early in the afternoon, where we bade our friends goodbye, and, clambering up the north bank of the Saskatchewan, disappeared into the forest.

Taking our course straight for Smoking Lake. the whole length of which we travelled on the ice, we climbed the gently-sloping hill for two miles and were home again, having made the 120 miles in less than two days.

When I jumped out of bed next morning my feet felt as if I were foundered, because of the steady run on the frozen ground and harder ice; but this soon passed away. Mr. O. B., whom we had left at home, was greatly rejoiced at our return. He had been very lonely. I described to him our visit, and told him of the nice fat, tender beef on which the Chief Factor had regaled us on Christmas and New Year's day; and surely it was not my fault that, when the portion of the meat of the drowned deer which had been brought home was cooked, he thought it was Edmonton beef, and pronounced it "delicious," and partook largely of it, and later on was terribly put out to learn it was a bit of a drowned animal we had found in the river.

Holidays past, we faced our work, which was varied and large: fish to be hauled home; provisions to be sought for, and, when found, traded from the Indians; timber to be got out and hauled some distance; lumber to be "whipped," —that is, cut by the whip-saw; freight to be hauled for Mr. Woolsey, who had some in store or as a loan at Whitefish Lake—all this gave us no time for loitering. When, horses, dogs, all had to move. Moreover, we had to make our own dog and horse sleds, and sew the harness for both dogs and horses. That for the dogs we made out of tanned moose skins; that for the horses and oxen, out of partly tanned buffalo hide, known as power flesh," the significance of which I could never comprehend, unless the sewing of them, which was powerfully tedious, was what was meant. Turn which way you would there was plenty to do, and, from the present day standpoint, very little to do it with.

Mr. Woolsey and Mr. O. B. kept down the shack, and the rest of us—that is, Williston, William, Neils and myself—went at the rest of the work. First we hauled the balance of our fish home, then we made a trip to Whitefish Lake and brought the freight which had been left there. Mr. Steinhauer and two of his daughters accompanied us back to Smoking Lake, the former to confer with his brother missionary, and the girls to become the pupils of Mr. Woolsey. The opportunity of being taught even the rudiments was exceedingly rare in those days in the North-West, and Mr. Steinhauer was only too glad to take the offer of his brother missionary to help in this way. The snow was now from a foot to twenty inches deep. The cold was keen. To make trails through dense forests and across trackless plains, to camp where night caught us, without tent or any other dwelling, and with only the blue sky above us and the crisp snow and frozen ground beneath, were now our everyday experience.


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