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Saddle, Sled and Snowshoe
Chapter III
Scarcity of food—The winter packet—Start for Edmonton for the eastern mails—A lonely journey— Arrive at Fort Edmonton—Start for home—Camping in a storm—Improvising a "Berlin"—Old Draffan—Sleeping on a dog-sled en route—A hearty welcome home.


THAT trip with dog-train was enough for Williston. He did not want any more of such work, so I took an Indian boy who had joined our party and started out again. Later on I traded Williston to William for Neils, the Norwegian, who made several trips with me. During that winter the Indian camps at which we could obtain provisions were never nearer than about 150 miles, and were sometimes much farther away; and as we intended building the next spring on the site of the new mission, at the river, we had to make every effort to secure a sufficiency of provisions. When we had neither flour nor vegetables, animal food alone went fast. Then, besides the hauling of food long distances, we had to transport lumber and timber and other material from where we were living to the new and permanent site on the river bank, which was some thirty-five miles distant. Sometimes with the dog-teams we took down a load of lumber to the river and returned the same day, thus making the seventy- mile round trip in the day. The horses would take from three to four days for the same trip.

It was some time in February that, having started from our first encampment on the way out, long before daylight one dark morning we saw the glimmer of a camp-fire, and wondered who it could be; but as the light was right on our road, we found when we came up that it was the one winter packet from the east on its way to Edmonton. Mr. Hardisty was in charge of the party, and the reason they had stopped and made a fire on our road—which they should have crossed at right angles—was that through the darkness of the winter morning they had missed their way, and were waiting for daylight to show them their course.

Mr. Hardisty gave me some items of news from the outside world, and also told me, what was tantalizing in the extreme, that there were letters for Mr. Woolsey and myself in the packet, but that this was sealed and could not be opened until they reached Edmonton. How I did long for those letters from home and the loved ones there. But longing would not open the sealed packet box.

With the first glimmering of day we parted, the winter packet to continue its way through the deep snow and uncertain trail on to Edmonton; we to make our way out to the Indian camps. These were continually moving with the buffalo, so that the place that knew them to-day might possibly never know them again forever, so big is this vast country, and so migratory in their habits are its peoples.

In due time we found one of the camps, and trading our loads made for home; but as this was the stormy and windy season of the year, we made slow progress. Finally we reached Mr. Woolsey, and I importuned him to let me go for our mail, which he finally consented to do, but said he could not spare anyone to go with me. However, I was so eager that I resolved to go alone. My plan was to send Neils and the boy Ephraim out for more provisions, and I would accompany them as far as the spot where we had seen the packet men some two weeks before. Then I should take their trail, and try and keep it to Edmonton. Mr. Woolsey very reluctantly assented to all this.

About three o'clock one dark, cloudy morning found us at the "parting of the ways," and bidding Neils and Ephraim good-bye, I put on my snowshoes and took the now more or less covered trail of the packet men. I had about 250 pounds of a load, consisting of ammunition and tobacco that Mr. Woolsey had borrowed from the Hudson's Bay Company, and was now returning by me. I had great faith in my lead dog "Draffan," a fine big black fellow, whose sleek coat had given him his name, "Fine-cloth." In fact, all four of my dogs were noble fellows, and away we went, Draffan smelling and feeling out the very indistinct trail, and I running behind on snowshoes. It was my first trip alone, and I could not repress a feeling of isolation; but then the object, "letters from home," was constantly in my thoughts and spurring me on. By daylight I came to the snow-drifted dinner camp of the packet men; by half-past ten I was at their night encampment. I am doing well, thought I, and here I unharnessed my dogs and made a fire, and by melting snow boiled my kettle, but did not feel very much like eating or drinking. The whole thing was inexpressibly lonely. The experience was a new one and not too pleasant.

My dogs hardly had time to roll and shake themselves from the long run of the morning when I was sticking their heads into the collars again, and away jumped the faithful brutes, Draffan scenting and feeling the much-blinded road. On we went, the dogs with their load, and I on my light snowshoes, keeping up a smart run across plains, through bluffs of willow and poplar, over hills and along valleys. About the middle of the afternoon, or later, I noticed the snow was lessening, and presently I took off my snowshoes, and also my coat, and tying these on the sled, started up the dogs with a sudden sharp command, and away they jumped. We increased our speed, and went flying west,- ward toward the setting sun; for though I had never been over this country before, I had an idea that Edmonton was about on our course. On towards sundown I noticed a well-timbered range of dark hills in the distance, and said to myself, "There is where we must camp," and I could not help already feeling a premonition of great loneliness coming over me.

On we sped, the dogs at a sharp trot, with an occasional run, and I on what you might call two-thirds or three-fourths speed, when all of a sudden we came into a well-beaten road, which converged into our trail, and now, with the solid, smooth track under their feet, my noble team fairly raced away, making my sledge swing in good shape.

Thinking to myself that I might catch up to or meet some party travelling in this evidently well-frequented road, I put on my coat, seated myself on the sled, and my hardy team went flying on the best tracked road they had struck that winter. Presently we came to the edge of a great hill, which I found to be but the begining of a large, deep valley. Hardly had I time to get astride the sled, and with my feet brake or help to steer its course, when down, down, down, at a dead hard run, went my dogs. Then over a sloping bottom, and to my great astonishment out we came on the banks of a big river.

"What is this?" thought I; "surely I have missed my way." I had never heard of a large stream emptying into the Saskatchewan from the south side. While thus perplexed and anxious, my dogs took a short jump over a cut bank, and I was landed, sled and dogs and all, on the ice of this big river. Then I looked up westward, and to my surprise saw in the waning light the wings or fans of the old wind-mill which stood on the hill back of Fort Edmonton. I could hardly believe my eyes, but on sped my eager dogs. Soon we were climbing the opposite bank, and presently, just as the guard was about to shut the eastern gate of the Fort, we dashed in and were at our journey's end.

"Where did you come from to-day, John?" asked my friend, Mr. Hardisty. My reply was, "About fifteen miles north of where we saw you the other morning." "No," said he; but nevertheless it was true. They had travelled all that day after we had seen them, as they left us at the first approach of daylight; then they had started long before daylight the next morning, and it was evening when they reached Edmonton; while I had done the same distance and fifteen miles more—that is, I had made a good round hundred miles that day, my first trip alone.

Right glad I was at being thus relieved from camping alone that night, and with my letters all cheering, and the kind friends of the place, I thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of Old Fort Edmonton. It was Friday night when I reached the Fort. Spending Saturday and Sum- day with the Hudson's Bay officers and men, I started on my return trip Monday, about 10.30 a.m., and by night had made the camp where I had lunched on the way out. To some extent I had got over the shrinking from being alone, so I chopped and carried wood for my camp, made myself as comfortable as I could, fed my dogs, and listened to the chorus of wolves and coyotes as they howled dismally around me. Then the wind got up, and with gusts of wild fury came whistling through the trees which composed the little bluff in which I was camped. Soon it began to drift, so I turned up my sled on its edge to the windward, and stretching my feet to the fire, wrapped myself in buffalo and blanket, and went to sleep.

When I awoke I jumped up and made a fire and looking at my watch, saw it was two o'clock. The wind had become a storm. 1 went out of the woods to where I thought the trail should be, and felt for it with my feet (for I had grown to have great faith in Draffan and his wonderful instinct, and thought that if I could start him right he would be likely to keep right), and there under the newly drifted snow was the frozen track. I then went back to the camp and harnessed my dogs, and as I had little or no load, I made an improvised cariole, or what was termed a "Berlin," out of my wrapper and sled lashings, and when ready drove out to where I had discovered the track.

The storm was now raging, the night was wild, and the cold intense; but, wrapped in my warm robe, I stretched myself in the "Berlin," and getting as flat as possible in order to lessen the chances of upsetting, when ready I gave the word to Draffan, saw that he took the right direction, and then covering up went to sleep. With sublime faith in that dog I slept on. If I woke up for a moment, I merely listened for the jingle of my dog-bells, and by the sound satisfied myself that my team were travelling steadily, and then went to sleep again.

When coming up I had noticed a long side hill, and I said to myself: "If we are on the right track I will most assuredly upset at that point "—and sure enough I did wake up to find myself rolling, robe and all, down the slope of the hill. I was compensated for the discomfort by being thus assured that my faithful dogs had kept the right track. Jumping up, I shook myself and the robe, righted the sled, stretched the robe into it, and then giving my leader a caress and a word of encouragement, I put on my snowshoes and away we went at a good run, old Draffan picking the way with unerring instinct. Thus we kept it up until daylight, when we stopped and I unharnessed the dogs, and, making a fire, boiled my kettle and had breakfast. Then, starting once more, I determined to cut across some of the points of the square we had made coming up; and for about four hours we went straight across country, and striking our provision trail opposite Egg Lake, I took off my snowshoes and got into the "Berlin." My dogs bounded away on the home-stretch, we still having about forty or forty-five miles to go, and it was already past noon.

All day it had stormed, but now we were on familiar ground, and right merrily my noble dogs rang the bells, as across bits of prairie and through thickening woods we took our way northward. I was so elated at having successfully made the trip up to this point, that I could not sit still very long, but, running and riding, kept on, never stopping for lunch. Thus the early dusk of the stormy day found us at the southerly end of Smoking Lake, and some twelve or fifteen miles from home. Here I again wrapped myself in my robe, and lying flat in the sled, felt I could very safely leave the rest to old Draffan and a kind Providence, and- go to sleep, which I did, to wake up as the dogs were climbing the steep little bank at the north end of the lake. Then a run of two miles and I was home again.

Mr. Woolsey was so overjoyed he took me in his arms, and almost wept over me. He brought dogs, sled and my whole outfit into the house. The kind-hearted old man had passed a period of great anxiety; had been sorry a thousand times that he had consented to my going to Edmonton; had dreamed of my being lost, of my bleeding to death, of my freezing stiff; but now with the first tinkle of my dog- bells he was out peering into the darkness, and shouting, "Is that you, John ?" and my answer, he assured me, filled him with joy. He did not ask for his mail, did not think of it for a long time, he was so thankful that the boy left in his care had come back to him safe and sound. For my part I was glad to be home again. The uncertain road, the long distance, the deep snow, the continuous drifting storm, the awful loneliness, were all past. I had found Edmonton, had brought the mail, was home again beside our own cheery fire, and was a proud and happy boy.

In a day or two Neils and Ephraim came in from the camp, and we once more, a reunited party, made another start for more provisions, and, later on, yet another for the same purpose, never finding the Indians in the same place, but always following them up. We were successful in reaching their camps and in securing our loads; so that my first winter on the Saskatchewan gave me the opportunity of covering a large portion of the country, and becoming acquainted with a goodly number of the Indian people. I also had constant practice in the language, and was now quite familiar with it.


 


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