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On Western Trails in the Early Seventies
Chapter XII
Camp in pine forest—Leave Chinook range—Relax our vigilance —New Year's Eve—With friends at Edmonton—Cold intense.


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 all around.

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.


 


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