We camped the first night in
a pine forest, but so near the great plains that the influence of these had
brought the rich grasses they produce in amongst the trees. Here we had
shelter and food, and felt comparative safety. Nevertheless, we watched in
turn, "trusted in Providence, and kept our powder dry." This had been the
principle of our action and service, and we were keeping this up to the
measure of our strength and ability. With the approaching dawn, we were
away, for with horses in the winter, where there is no settlement, you are
handicapped. When travelling with dogs, we would have started many hours
before daylight. As we went north the snow deepened, and we took turns
breaking a trail. Now and then a few bulls had broken the crust for a little
way, but we struck straight as we could, and the unbroken snow was before us
most of the time.
When night came we were on
the edge of a wide bay of prairie, and as it was Saturday night we took
extra care to camp where we could not be seen, unless by someone near at
hand. The smoke of a campfire is hard to manage; but if you use quick, dry
wood there is not nearly so much smoke cloud made. Here we spent the
Sabbath. Many good men have criticized our course in these early years in
thus spending the Sabbath in absolute isolation.
"Far better," said they, "to
be moving on and making progress in your journey."
However, notwithstanding the
charge of "Legalism," and "Pharisaism," and "Fanaticism," we religiously
kept the Sabbath, counting this from 12 p.m. Saturday night until 112 p.m.
Sunday night. We did so now, David, the trader and guide and natural-born
traveller and instinctive pioneer, giving way in this, as in many other
matters, to his missionary brother.
We kept up the fire. We read
and talked. We watched our horses and camp. We dreamed of the inevitable
changes we saw coming. "When would these come?" was the perplexing thought.
This great country must become peopled, but as yet humanity was afar in the
distance. Railroads must be built, and all Canada was sparsely settled. The
far East had but a few people. Who will come and occupy this immense fertile
region? These were the thoughts which, when we had time, floated through our
minds; and here, at the moment, there were but two of us, and the primeval
Monday morning we were away
early, and made straight across the plain, snow growing deeper as we were
working out of the Chinook range. During the morning we discovered a war
party of Black- feet, and when they saw that we knew of their presence they
came straight for us. We picked a knoll which gently sloped on every side,
and awaited their approach. They were in the strong majority as to numbers,
but David and I were well armed and felt strong in the righteousness of our
cause. As the warriors came near we saw they were well equipped for horse
stealing. Their belts were full of lines and quirts and moccasins. I offered
my hand to the leader, but he was in a quandary, as his ready-cocked gun was
in his right hand. I then gently bantered him as to his suspicions and
badness of heart. I said that though we were but two we were not afraid. All
men were our friends; and thus I let loose all the Blackfoot I was in
possession of. He asked me if my name was "John," and when I told him it
was, he smiled and spoke to his following, and they nodded assent, and went
on their way; and we took our steady course north, and went far before we
stopped for lunch.
Away in the south we saw the
smoke of many lodges, and felt we were safer at the distance. On we went as
fast as we could for the balance of the day, and camping in a secure spot,
as good as we could find, we stood guard in turns over our camp and horses.
It was a very cold night, and long and trying to us both. With the early
dawn we were away, and all day we travelled through the untrodden snow, and
camped that night near the present town of Blackfalls, and concluded that we
might relax our vigilance and rest and sleep. The further north we went the
more the snow deepened. We were following no trail, but going as straight as
we could towards our destination. We had hoped to reach Edmonton for New
Year's, but now saw this was impossible. The snow was too deep, the weather
too cold, and breaking the trail at every step made our progress slow. We
travelled through storm and heavy drift, and often for miles breaking the
way on foot, taking this in turn. Thus we struggled on, and were thankful
when, late New Year's evening, we came out on to a faint trail which was
coming north from the Buffalo Lake country.
The weather was now very
cold. We camped in a bluff and made ourselves as comfortable as possible.
Then we were away early the next morning, and it took us until 8 p.m. that
night to reach the mission on the hill at Edmonton. We had come from the
mountains, and, as the crow flies, about 225 miles, and, with the exception
of the war party, had not seen a human being. Truly, this was the great lone
land. We had passed the fort at Edmonton, and not even a dog barked; we had
crossed the flat and climbed the big hill, and were as a resurrection to our
friends at the Mission house. Father, mother, sisters, David's wife and
little ones—what a welcome we got! All day the north wind had been dead
against us. I had not looked after my ears as I should have done, and now
one of them was like a huge bladder on the side of my head. But what
mattered the cold and storm and hardship, such as ninety-five per cent. of
present-day Canadians know nothing of? What mattered all this? We were
welcomed as those of whose return there had been great uncertainty, and we
felt what it is to accomplish.
Our report was hailed with
delight by all the Edmonton population. "It is the opening up of a new
country." Only the very few pessimists said, "Can you keep what you have
got? Wait until spring, when the large war parties begin to move."
I suppose this sort of
humanity is needed; but I confess I do not see their need in a new country.
Optimism, large and free and full, is in its right place on the vanguard of
every enterprise and in the opening up of all new territories.
The few days we could afford
to spend with our friends at Edmonton passed quickly, and soon we were ready
for our return trip. In the meantime, winter had intensified, and the snow
had deepened; so we were careful in preparation. My brother was to take his
wife and child back with us. We bought and loaded some flat sleds, and I
bought a pair of snowshoes, and we started, with a little grain for our
horses. As we were leaving late in the day we tied on a bundle or two of hay
for our first night out. The country for the first forty miles out from
Edmonton, because of its flatness and scrub, was the hardest part of the
whole journey for horses to obtain grass from when the snow was deep. Beyond
this one could strike a hill, or a range of hills, where horses, with a
little pawing, could reach the grass. When we pulled into camp in the
40-below temperature that evening, we first unharnessed our horses, and at
once I took my axe to cut firewood. When I had begun I heard the sharp,
peculiar sounding of, "John, come!" Bounding through the snow, I rushed to
my brother, who had his little daughter in his arms, declaring she was dead,
the strong fatherhood ringing out in the anguish of his tones. Sure enough,
it seemed that my little niece was almost suffocated in the overmuch
wrapping and careful stowing away of the child in the carry-all at her
mother's feet. We did what we could, and gratefully watched the little
darling begin to breathe; but we all got a shock, and all the rest of the
long journey we took very good care not to run any more such risk. This was
my sister-in-law's first winter trip of any length, and to the uninitiated,
in such weather as we had then, it was a great change. All out-of-doors,
huge walls of snow immediately around you on three sides, and on the fourth
a great fire; frost, big and mighty, in strong evidence; thawing on one side
and freezing on the other. No languor in such an atmosphere. We live to live
in a northern winter camp. In this case both mother and daughter took to
this environment splendidly.