The New North
Agnes Deans Cameron
Part 3 out of 5
Slave stole a decoy duck and hunted with it for three seasons at the
river-lip, placing it among the sedges and pouncing on the lured game.
He was a serious-minded saturnine Scots-Slavi and told the story without
moving an eye-brow.
At Fort Smith we enjoyed a close study of the American White Pelican
_(Pelecanus crythrorhynchos)_ which in the Mountain Rapids of the Slave
finds its farthest north nesting-place. It, too, has the saving grace of
continuance exhibited by the grey wolf. Mackenzie, a century ago, came
across the birds here, and they have persisted ever since, although in
the direct line of the river-transit of the fur-traders. A wooded island
in the swirl of the rapids is their wild breeding-place, and while we
were there the young birds were very much in evidence. We found
something fascinating about this bird, so famed in song and story. The
plumage is white, relieved with rose and yellow. The pelican nests are
slight depressions in the sand, some of them softened with an algoid
matting. The eggs are white, rough-shelled, and equal-ended, with, so
far as we could see, only one to three in a nest. One by one the
illusions of childhood vanish. Some wretched historian proves without
shadow of doubt that Sir John Moore at Corunna met decent daylight
sepulture and was not "darkly buried at dead of night, the sod with our
bayonets turning." There arises one Ferrero who demonstrates with
conclusive exactness that Antony was attracted by Cleopatra's money and
his breast was not stirred by the divine passion. A French scientist
robs Benjamin Franklin of the kudos of his lightning-rod. I myself on
Vancouver Island have happened to be in at the death of two swans, and
neither gurgled a musical note but yielded the ghost in dignified
silence. And now candour compels me to report that the Slave River
pelican feeds her nestlings on prosaic fish without the slightest
attempt to "open to her young her tender breast." It is rank libel for
Byron to state
"Her beak unlocks her bosom's stream
To still her famished nestling's scream."
And, when Keats states so sententiously in _Endymion_, "We are nurtured
like a pelican brood," he merely calls the world at large, fish-eaters.
SLAVE RIVER AND GREAT SLAVE LAKE
"Wild for the hunter's roving, and the use
Of trappers in its dark and trackless vales,
Wild with the trampling of the giant moose,
And the weird magic of old Indian tales."
A double cabin is assigned us on _The Mackenzie River_ and the nightmare
that haunted us on the scows of wet negatives and spoiled films
vanishes. On Tuesday, July 7th, the new steamer takes the water.
Although, as we have said, we are in the latitude of St. Petersburg,
still twelve hundred miles in an almost due northwest direction
stretches between us and that far point where the Mackenzie disembogues
into the Polar Ocean. The Union Jack dips and all Fort Smith is on the
bank to see us off. On the Fourth of July we had improvised a program of
sports for the Dog-Rib and Slavi boys, introducing them to the
fascinations of sack-races, hop-step-and-jump, and the three-legged
race. The thing had taken so that the fathers came out and participated,
and, surreptitiously behind the tepees, the mothers began to hop. Having
no popcorn, fizz, or Coney-Island red-hots to distribute, we did the
next best thing,--became barkers and gave the calls that go with
festivities. So now, as the boat swings out from the soft bank, it is a
gay company of urchins who wave their caps and yell, "R-r-r-red
lemol-lade, everybody drinks it!"
There is only one Fort Smith! Established for three decades, it has as
yet seen no wells dug. The people still climb that steep bank, carrying
in pendant buckets from wooden shoulder-yokes water for the daily
drinking and ablutions. At four o'clock in the afternoon, should you
visit Fort Smith forty years from now, you will see the same daily
procession of women and kiddies bearing buckets,--the Aquarius sign of
the Fort Smith zodiac. A scoffer at my elbow grins, "Why should they
bother to dig wells? It's cheaper to bring out Orkney-men in sail-boats
from Scotland to tote their water up the banks."
[Illustration: The "Red Lemol-lade" Boys]
At noon we reach the Salt River, twenty-two miles up, which is one of
the most marvellous salt deposits in the world. The Salt River winds in
crescent curves through a valley wooded with aspen and spruce, and the
Salt Plains six miles in extent stretch at the base of hills six or
seven hundred feet high. The salt lies all over the ground in beautiful
cubes,--pure crystal salt. It is anybody's salt plain; you can come here
when you will and scoop up all you want. These plains have supplied the
North country with salt since first white men penetrated the country. At
the mouth of the Salt River are the shacks of the present
representatives of the Beaulieus,--a family which has acted as guides
for all the great men who ever trended northward. They have been
interesting characters always, and as we look in upon them to-day
neither Beaulieu nor salt has lost his savour.
[Illustration: Salt Beds]
The Slave River from where it leaves Fort Smith to its embouchure in
Great Slave Lake is about two hundred miles long, with an average width
of half a mile, except where it expands in its course to enclose
islands. The big boat behaves beautifully in the water, and on we slip
with no excitement until about five o'clock, when a moose and her calf
are espied, well out of range. Each in his narrow cell, we sleep the
sleep of the just and wake to find ourselves tied to the bank. The
captain fears a storm is brooding on Great Slave Lake; so, tethered at
the marge of the reedy lagoon, we wait all the forenoon. A corner of
Great Slave Lake has to be traversed in order to reach Fort Resolution.
To Samuel Hearne, the Mungo Park of Canada, belongs the double honour of
tracing the Coppermine River and discovering Great Slave Lake. Just one
hundred and thirty-seven years ago on Christmas Eve, Hearne got his
first glimpse of this magnificent inland sea which is cut through the
centre by the parallel of 62 deg., and which lies east and west between the
meridians of 109 deg. and 117 deg.. No survey of Great Slave Lake has been made,
but it is estimated to have a superficial area of 10,500 square
miles--just one-third the size of troubled Ireland, and as great as
Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined.
Great Slave Lake, lying wholly within the forested region, is three
hundred miles long, and its width at one point exceeds sixty miles. At
every place on its banks where the fur-traders have their stations
ordinary farm-crops are grown. Barley sown at Fort Resolution in mid-May
reaches maturity in a hundred days; potatoes planted at the same time
are dug in mid-September. The gardens of Fort Rae on the North Arm of
the Lake produce beets, peas, cabbages, onions, carrots, and turnips. As
Fort Rae is built on a rocky island with a bleak exposure, this would
seem to promise in some future day generous harvests for the more
favoured lands on the south and west.
The names given by the old fur-traders to their posts make the
traveller think that in these North lands he, a second Christian, is
essaying a new Pilgrim's Progress. At the south entry to the Lake we are
at Resolution; when we cross it we arrive at Providence; away off at the
eastern extremity is Reliance; Confidence takes us to Great Bear Lake;
and Good Hope stretches far ahead down the lower reaches of the
Mackenzie. Fort Resolution on the south side of Great Slave Lake, a
little west of the mouth of the Slave, lies back of an island-sheltered
[Illustration: Unloading at Fort Resolution]
The striking feature as we enter is an immense Roman Catholic Mission
school in process of construction, to supplement the existing church and
school of that faith. There is neither station of the Mounted Police nor
Church of England here; their places are taken by two independent
fur-trading concerns operating in opposition to the Ancient Company.
We had been told that the children down North had the kiddies at Fort
Smith and Chipewyan "all skinned" for politeness, and we find it even
so. The good nuns are trying to make reputable citizens of the young
scions of the Dog-Rib and Yellow-Knife nations and are succeeding
admirably as far as surface indications go. We approach a group of
smiling boys arrayed in their Sunday clothes, awaiting a visit of the
Bishop. With one accord come off their Glengarry bonnets, smoking caps,
and Christie stiffs, and a row of brown hands is extended to greet us.
Very trim the laddies look in their convent-made cadet-uniforms, as,
standing at "'Shun!" they answered our every question with, "Yes,
missus," "No, missus." When we ask their names, without tittering or
looking silly they render up the whole list of saintly cognomens. Here
they have once more their white brothers "skinned"; no civilised man,
woman, or child ever stood up in public and announced his full baptismal
name in an audible tone without feeling a fool. I have seen grizzled
judges from the bench, when called upon to give evidence as witnesses,
squirm like schoolboys in acknowledging that their godfathers had dubbed
them "Archer Martin" or "Peter Secord" or whatever it might be.
It is certainly Old Worldish. We speak with Father Laity who, all
unconscious of the commotion around him, marches up and down the trail
and reads his breviary. He tells us he is a Breton and that in an age
that is past he served as a drummer-boy in the Prussian war. The Father
came to this shut-in land forty-one years ago.
Great Slave Lake, which presents a formidable barrier to the passage of
the smaller land birds, is a breeding station of the sea-swallow. The
Arctic tern hatches on its shores, laying its eggs in the beach gravel.
The bird, with its slender body, deeply-forked tail, and
shrilly-querulous voice, is everywhere in evidence. Does the whole
family of lake birds show any more exquisite colour-scheme than the
pearly plumage, small coral feet, carmine bill, and black cap of this
tern? In a dell carpeted with silverweed and wild mustard, we come
across a nest of our persisting friend, the chipping sparrow. Afterward
we wander down to the shore and make the acquaintance of Pilot Julien
Passepartout, whose calling as Mackenzie River navigator allows him to
live out the largeness of his title, though I like best to think of him
by the cradle-name his mother gave him, Tenny Gouley, which means "_A
Down at the Treaty tent, Dog-Rib and Yellow-Knife are being handed the
five one dollar bills which remind each that he is a loyal subject of
His Imperial Majesty Edward the Seventh. The Yellow-Knives were so named
by Mackenzie far back in 1789 when he first saw them and their weapons
of native copper. Each head of a family is issued an
identification-ticket which he presents and has punched from year to
year. A father "draws treaty" for his olive-skinned branches until each
marries and erects a tepee for himself. Government Agent Conroy, big
bodied and big hearted, sits on a nail-keg, represents the King, and
gives out largesse; and Mr. Laird presides over the Doomsday book.
Inside the tent we take up a sheltered position and watch the fun. There
are marked zones of names as well as of vegetation. The _Fiddler Anns,
Waggon-box Julias_, and _Mrs. Turkeylegs_ of the Plains country are
absent here, in the Land of the Yellow-Knife, where neither
waggon-boxes nor turkeys flourish.
[Illustration: Coming to "Take Treaty" on Great Slave Lake]
_Mary Catholic_ comes along hand-in-hand with _Samuel the Worm_. Full of
animal spirits is a group of four--_Antoine Gullsmouth,
Tongue-of-the-Jackfish, Baptiste Wolftail,_ and _The Cat's Son_. A
little chap who announces himself as _T'tum_ turns out to be _Petite
Homme_, the squat mate of _The Beloved_. It would be interesting to know
just how each of the next couple acquired his name, for neither
_Trois-Pouces_ and _Owl-Plucked-Out-His-Eye_ bears evidence of abnormal
conditions. On a whole the names are more striking than our John Smiths;
Richard Roes, and Tom Browns, as for instance the next three--_Le Pere
des Carriboux, Geroux the Eldest, Alixi To-rong-jo.
The-man-who-stands-still_ is evidently a stand-patter, while one wonders
if it would be right to call _The-Man-Who-Walks-With-The-Red-Hair,_ a
_Carry-the-Kettle_ appears with _Star Blanket_ and _The Mosquito,_ and
the next man in line, who has the tongs from a bon-bon box stuck in the
band of his hat, rejoices in the name of _Strike-Him-on-the-Back,_ which
somehow suggests the match-box in the hotel hall-way. As the dignified
father, _Having-Passed-Many-Birthdays,_ claims five dollars each for his
four daughters, _Smiling Martin, My-Wigwam-is-White,_ and the twins
_Make-Daylight-Appear_ and _Red-Sky-of-the-Morning,_ we acknowledge that
here again, in the art of naming, the Yellow-Knife has his white brother
Birth, dowry, divorce, death, each must be noted on the treaty ticket,
with a corresponding adjustment of the number of dollar-bills to be
drawn from the coffer. If a man between treaty-paying and treaty-paying
marries a widow with a family, he draws five dollars each for the new
people he has annexed. If there is an exchange of wives (a
not-infrequent thing), the babies have to be newly parcelled out.
Through all the family intricacies Mr. Conroy follows the interpreter
with infinite patience and bonhomie. To the listener it sounds startling
as the interpreter, presenting two tickets says, "He married these three
people--this fellow." "O, he give dat baby away to Charles." When we
hear in a dazed way that "_Mary Catholic's_ son married his dead woman's
sister who was the widow of _Anton Larucom_ and the mother of two boys,"
we take a long breath and murmur, "If the angle ACB is not equal to the
angle ABC, then how can the angle DEF be equal to the angle DFE?" A
young couple, looking neither of them more than sixteen or seventeen,
return with a shake of the head five of the fifteen dollars proffered
them, and the interpreter explains, "Their little boy died--there's only
two of them."
Gregory Daniels in a Scottish voice, which cannot quite hide its
triumphant ring, pushes back his five dollars and demands forty-five. "I
got a wife and siven since last year, she's a Cree wumman." Another
half-breed asks anxiously if he would be allowed to send for a "permit"
like a white man if he refused to take treaty.
One man with long black hair and a cheese-cutter cap creates
consternation at the tent-door by claiming treaty for two wives and
seventeen children. Mr. Conroy, scenting an attempt to stuff the
ballot-box, produces seventeen matches, lays them at my feet on the
tent-floor and asks _The-Lean-Man_ to name them. He starts in all right.
We hear, "_Long Lodge, Little Pine, Blue Fish, Birdtail, Little Bone,
Sweet Grass, Ermine Skin_," and then in a monotone he begins over again,
"_Long Lodge, Little Pine, Blue Fish_," and finally gives it up, eagerly
asking the interpreter to wait "a-little-sun." The drama of paying and
recording has gone on for half an hour and we have quite forgotten
_The-Lean-Man_, when back he comes with _Mrs. Lean-Man, Sr._, and _Mrs.
Lean-Man, Jr_. Each spouse leads her own progeny. Seeing is believing,
and off _Lean-Man_ goes with a fat wallet. We wander into the stores to
see what purchases the Indians will make. One young blade is looking at
a box of stogies, and the clerk says, "He can afford to blow in his wad
on perfumes and cigars, that chap, he got a silver-fox last winter."
They tell the story of how old Maurice, Chief of the Chipewyans, put
his first treaty money in a cassette and kept it there all the year
because he had heard one white man tell another that money grows, and he
wanted to see if a white man lies when he talks to another white man.
Sometimes, though, the Indian scores one on the white. This was markedly
the case when the first treaty payments were made at Lesser Slave. Two
young Jews had followed the treaty party all the way in from Edmonton
with an Old Aunt Sally stand where you throw wooden balls at stuffed
figures at ten shies for a quarter. "Every time you hit 'em, you get a
see-gar!" They thought they were going to clear out the Indians, but it
took a bunch of Lesser Slave braves just an hour and a quarter to break
the bank at Monte Carlo. As an appreciative onlooker reported, "Them
chaps pinked them dolls every time."
As we leave Resolution in the evening through an open door, we get a
glimpse of a woman placing her hands in blessing on a boy's head. It is
the mother of one of our boatmen, Baptiste Bouvier, or "De-deed." The
lad in turn puts a hand on each of his mother's shoulders and kisses her
gaily on both cheeks, grabs the camera, and helps us down the bank. The
whistle toots impatiently. We both turn and wave our hands to the mother
at the open door.
Travelling all night, we do not go to bed, but merely throw ourselves
down for an hour's rest about midnight, for we must not lose the light
effects on this great silent lake. As the captain finds, amid shifting
sandbars, a fairway for his vessel, there comes offshore the subdued
night-noises of the small wild things that populate the wilderness.
Here a heavy tree, its footway eaten out by the lake-swirl round a high
point, slumps into the water, and joins the fleet of arboreal derelicts.
The raucous voice of a night-fowl cries alarm. Then there descends over
all a measureless silence. At three o'clock in the morning we haul into
the Hay River Mission, where the familiar mosquito-smudge greets us at
[Illustration: On the Slave]
This was by far the most attractive English Church Mission in the whole
North--although comparisons are odorous and yet illuminating. All Hay
River had been up over night, anticipating their yearly mail. Red girls
and boys of every tribe in the North are housed in this Mission,
learning how to play the white man's game--jolly and clean little bodies
they are. It looks like Christmas time. Parcels are being done up, there
is much whispering and running to and fro, and the sparkling of black
eyes. Would you like to see the letters that _The Teaser, The Twin,
Johnny Little Hunter_, and _Mary Blue Quill_ are sending out to their
parents? For the most part the missives consist of cakes of pink scented
soap tightly wrapped round with cotton cloth, on which the teachers are
writing in ink the syllabic characters that stand for each father's and
mother's name. The soap has been bought with the children's pennies
earned by quill-work and wood-carving done in the long winter nights.
The parcels will be passed from one trapper's jerkin to another, and
when, months afterwards, they reach their destination in far tepee or
lodge of the deerskin, _Mrs. Woman-of-the-Bright-Foam_ and _Mr.
Kee-noo-shay-o_, or _The Fish_, will know their boys and girls "still
One of the Hay River teachers is married to a Chicagoan who started ten
years ago for the Klondike, knew when he had found pure gold, ceased his
quest here, and lived happily ever after. Their children are the most
fascinating little people we have seen for many months. Life is quaint
at the Hay River Mission. The impression we carry away is of earnest and
sweet-hearted women bringing mother-love to the waifs of the wilderness,
letting their light shine where few there are to see it. We discover
the moccasin-flower in bloom, see old Indian women bringing in
evergreen boughs for their summer bedding--a delightful Ostermoor
mattress of their own devising. Dogs cultivate potatoes at Hay River in
summer, and in the winter they haul hay. The hay causes our enquiry, and
we learn that this Mission boasts one old ox, deposited here no doubt by
some glacial drift of the long ago. And thereby hangs a tale. Charlie,
an attache of the school-force, drove this old ox afield day by day. As
man and beast returned wearily in the evening, the teachers asked,
"Well, what happened to-day, Charlie?" "Bill balked," was the laconic
reply. Tuesday's question would bring the same response, "Bill balked."
And "Bill balked," on Wednesday. Thursday it is--"Bill didn't balk"; and
so the days divided themselves into days of blueness and red-letter
[Illustration: Dogs Cultivating Potatoes]
The mean July temperature at Hay River is 60 deg. Fahrenheit, and the
monthly mean for January, 18 deg. below zero. Vegetables of their own
growing, with whitefish from the lake, furnish almost the entire food
supply of this thrifty Mission, one season's harvest giving them a
thousand bushels of potatoes, fifteen of turnips, and five each of
beets, carrots, and parsnips, with two hundred cabbages and over ten
Hay River has never been explored. It is supposed to head near the
source of the Nelson and to flow northeast for three hundred miles
before emptying, as we see it, into Great Slave Lake. This river marks
the limit of those grassy plains which extend at intervals all the way
from Mexico northward. Bishop Bompas, years ago, descended a long
stretch of the river, discovering not far back from where we stand a
majestic cataract, which he named the "Alexandra Falls" after the then
Princess of Wales. He describes it as a perpendicular fall one hundred
feet high, five hundred feet wide, and of surpassing beauty. "The amber
colour of the falling water gives the appearance of golden tresses
twined with pearls."
Crossing Great Slave Lake, we think of Chant-la, Chief of the Slavis at
Hay River. Bishop Reeves was anxious to convert him to the Christian
faith, but had great difficulty in giving Chant-la a proper conception
of the Trinity. The old man would not say he believed or understood what
was inexplicable to him. Setting out once on a long journey, the cleric
adjured the Chief to struggle with the problem during his absence. The
Bishop returning, Chant-la came out in his canoe to meet him, eagerly
reporting that all now was clear. "It is like Great Slave Lake," said
the old man. "It is all water now, just like the Father. When winter
comes it will be frozen over, but Great Slave Lake just the same; that
is like the Son. In the spring when the ice breaks and the rain makes
the snow into slush, it is still Great Slave Lake; and that is like the
Beyond Great Slave Lake, forty-five miles down the Mackenzie, we reach
Fort Providence, as strongly French in its atmosphere as Hay River is
British. Our coming is a gala day. The hamlet flies three flags, the
free trader sports his own initials "H.N.," the Hudson's Bay Company
loyally runs the Union Jack to the masthead, over the convent floats the
tri-colour of France. Fort Providence is hot. We walk to the convent and
are hospitably received by the nuns. They call their Red flock together
for us to inspect and show us marvellous handwork of silk embroidery on
white deerskin. The daintiest of dainty slippers calls forth the
question, "Where are you going to find the Cinderella for these?" A
blank look is my answer, for no one in Providence Convent has ever heard
of Cinderella! But then, convents are not supposed to be the
repositories of man-knowledge (although a half-breed, on our passage
across the lake, did whisper a romantic story of a Klondiker who
assailed this very fortress and tried to carry off the prettiest nun of
the north). The garden of the Sisters is a bower of all the
old-fashioned flowers--hollyhocks, wall-flower, Canterbury bells, and
sweet-William--and down in the corner a young girl of the Dog-Ribs
discovers to us a nest of fledgling chipping sparrows.
As we landed from the boat, Tenny Gouley dressed in his Sunday best had
beamed, "Nice day--go veesit." And "veesit" we did. Mrs. Herron, of the
H.B. Company, has spent many years at Old Fort Rae, and her thoughts
hark back to one severe winter spent there. She turns to the wife of our
good Captain with, "Hard living, Mrs. Mills, dry suckers." It is a short
speech, but fraught with meaning. I honestly think a dry sucker (well
sanded) the least succulent of all the impossible fish-dishes of the
North. There are many young Herrons all as neat as new pins, the
last--no, the latest, enshrined in a moss-bag. Tradition tells that
once, when they were fewer in number, the father took the flock out to
Winnipeg to school. The children cried so at the parting that Mr. Herron
turned and brought them all back with him to the Mackenzie!
[Illustration: David Villeneuve]
The most interesting man in all Fort Providence is David Villeneuve, one
of the Company's Old Guard. He was anxious to be "tooken" with his wife
and grandchild, and over the camera we chatted. David goes through life
on one leg--fishes through the ice in winter, traps, mends nets, drives
dogs, and does it all with the dexterity and cheerfulness of a young
strong man. He tells of his accident. "I was young fellow, me, when a
fish-stage fell on me. I didn't pay no notice to my leg until it began
to go bad, den I take it to the English Church to Bishop Bompas. He tole
me de leg must come off, an' ax me to get a letter from de priest (I'm
Cat-o-lic, me) telling it was all right to cut him. I get de letter and
bring my leg to Bompas. He cut 'im off wid meat-saw. No, I tak' not'in',
me. I chew tobacco and tak' one big drink of Pain-killer. Yas, it hurt
wen he strike de marrow."
"Heavens! Didn't you faint with the awful pain?"
"What? Faint, me? No. I say, 'Get me my fire-bag, I want to have a
PROVIDENCE TO SIMPSON, ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILES DOWN THE MACKENZIE
"Never the Spirit was born: the Spirit shall cease to be never.
Never was time, it was not; end and beginning are dreams.
Birthless and deathless and changeless remaineth the Spirit,
Death hath not touched it at all, though dead the house of it seems."
We have just finished supper and are sitting reading on the upper deck
about seven o'clock, when a cry comes from below, followed by the
rushing back and forth of moccasined feet. In a flash Bunny Langford,
one of the engineers, has grabbed a lifebuoy, runs past us to the stern,
and throws it well out toward a floating figure.
It is De-deed, De-deed who had smilingly helped us aboard at Resolution
just twenty-four hours before. Finishing his turn at stoking, he had
gone to draw a bucket of water, leaned over too far, and fallen,
carrying the hatch with him. At first we think nothing of the incident,
as he is a good swimmer and the current is with him. As soon as the
startled people realise what has happened the steamer's engines are
reversed and a boat is lowered. We call out to De-deed to swim to the
buoy, but he doesn't see it or doesn't understand. The black head gets
smaller in the distance; it disappears, and comes up again. Down it goes
for the second time. A strange, constricted feeling comes into our
throats as we cry out, "Swim, De-deed, the boat is coming! They are
almost up to you!" The boat, pulling hard against the current, seems but
a dozen yards away. Will he hold up? As we look, the head sinks, _and it
does not come up_. Within a few feet of buoy and boat, the body of
De-deed disappears for the last time. We search for an hour or more with
grappling irons, but he is never seen again. A strange silence settles
down above and below deck, and all night long two faces flit before
us--the grave face of the mother calling down blessings on her boy, the
rallying smile of De-deed bidding her good-by and telling her all is
well. It is a brave and happy spirit which, in the "Little Lake" of the
Mackenzie, goes out with the current.
The Mackenzie River, "La Grande Riviere en Bas," as the people of
Resolution call it, on whose waters we are now fairly embarked, is the
greatest water-way in the British Empire, and of earth's great rivers
the one least traversed by man. Counting back from the headwaters of
either its more northerly tributary the Peace or its southern feeder the
Athabasca, the length of the river is three thousand miles. At Little
Lake, where it issues out of Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie is eight
miles wide, and its delta a thousand miles below here has an expansion
of fifty miles. The average width of the stream, as we traverse it from
source to mouth, is a mile and a half, widening out often in its sweep
to two and a half to three miles.
From Little Lake the current is somewhat sluggish, the river bank seldom
exceeding one hundred feet in height until we reach what is known as
"The Head of the Line." Before the advent of steam on the Mackenzie,
when the patient voyager made his way up south from the ocean, it was
at this point that the tracking-line was exchanged for oars. The plains
bordering the river here are forested with white spruce and broken with
muskeg and lakes. The statistician on board works out that the volume of
water the Mackenzie carries to the sea is half a million feet a second.
No one is wise enough to challenge his calculation, and we merely hazard
a wonder if this most magnificent water-power will ever be used for
commercial and economic purposes. There is surely enough "white coal"
rushing by us to turn the wheels of the factories of a continent. The
Mackenzie is the only river whose basin is cut by a thousand mile range.
The sources of the Peace and the Liard lie on the west side of the
Rockies, from where these giant feeders bring their tribute to the main
river through passes in that range.
At intervals all the way down the river to Fort Simpson we are treated
on our right hand to views of the Horn Mountains, which slope away on
their north side but show a steep face to the south. Along our course
the bluish Devonian shales are capped by yellow boulder-clay.
We awaken on Friday, July 10th, to find ourselves at Rabbitskin River
and everybody busy carrying on wood for fuel. By ten o'clock we are at
Fort Simpson in latitude 62 deg., the old metropolis of the North. Fort
Simpson is built on an island where the Liard River joins the Mackenzie,
the river being a mile and a half wide at this point. The foundation of
the fort dates back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it
was known in fur annals as "The Forks of the Mackenzie."
Simpson is essentially a has-been. We look upon the warehouses of its
quadrangle with their slanting walls and dipping moss-covered roofs and
try to conjure up the time long past when all was smart and imposing. In
those days when the Indians brought in their precious peltries they were
received and sent out again with military precision and all that goes
with red tape and gold braid. Surely the musty archives of Simpson hold
stories well worth the reading! We would fain linger and dream in front
of this sun-dial across whose dulled face the suns of twenty lustrums
have cast their shadows, but we begrudge every moment not spent in
fossicking round the old buildings. We seek for threads which shall
unite this mid-summer day to all the days of glamour that are gone. In a
rambling building, forming the back of a hollow square, we come across
the mouldy remains of a once splendid museum of natural history, the
life work of one Captain Bell of the Old Company. It gives us a sorry
feeling to look at these specimens, now dropping their glass eyes and
exposing their cotton-batting vitals to the careless on-looker, while
the skeleton ribs of that canoe with which Dr. Richardson made history
so long ago add their share to the general desolation. In a journal of
the vintage of 1842 we read an appeal for natural history exhibits sent
to Fort Simpson by an official of the British Museum. He writes,
[Illustration: Hudson's Bay House, Fort Simpson]
"I may observe that in addition to the specimens asked for, any mice,
bats, shrew-mice, moles, lizards, snakes or other small quadrupeds or
reptiles would be acceptable. They may either be skinned or placed in
rum or strong spirits of any kind, a cut being first made in the side of
the body to admit the spirits to the intestines."
Of all the rare humour disclosed in the old records, this entry most
tickles my fancy.
I think of the little group that we had forgathered with at Chipewyan,
driven even in this year of grace to lavender-water and red ink, when
permits run dry. One turns back the clock to the time of the Chartists
and the year of the nuptials of the young Queen in England. We see up
here on the fringe of things the dour and canny but exceedingly humorous
Adam McBeaths, John Lee Lewises, and George Simpsons, the outer vedette
of the British Empire; and, seeing them, get some half-way adequate
conception of what a modicum of rum or "strong spirits of any kind"
meant in the way of cheer at old Fort Simpson in those days. When we try
to get a picture of one of these Hudson's Bay men gravely opening a
shrew-mouse, mole, or "other small quadruped," while his chum pours in
the _aqua vitae_ or precious conversation water, we declare that science
asks too much.
An outer stairway leading to the second story of a big building invites
us. Opening the door, we find ourselves in the midst of an old library,
and moth and rust, too, here corrupt. We close the door softly behind us
and try to realise what it meant to bring a library from England to Fort
Simpson a generation ago. First, there arose the desire in the mind of
some man for something beyond dried meat and bales of fur. He had to
persuade the authorities in England to send out the books.
Leather-covered books cost something six or seven decades ago, and the
London shareholders liked better to get money than to spend it. We see
the precious volumes finally coming across the Atlantic in wooden
sailing-ships to Hudson Bay, follow them on the long portages, watch
them shoot rapids and make journeys by winter dog-sled, to reach Simpson
at last on the backs of men. The old journals reveal stories of the
discussion evoked by the reading of these books afterward as, along with
the dried fish, deer-meat, and other inter-fort courtesies, they passed
from post to post. Was never a circulating library like this one. And
now the old books, broken-backed and disembowelled, lie under foot, and
none so poor to do them reverence. Everything is so old in this North
that there is no veneration for old things.
It is but a few years since the founder of this library died, and his
son now sits in his saddle at Fort Simpson. If you were to wander across
the court, as I did to-day, and look into the Sales Shop, you would see
the presentation sword of this last-generation Carnegie, ignobly slicing
bacon for an Indian customer. _Sic transit gloria mundi_!
What are the books which this sub-Arctic library sent out? We get down
on the floor and gently touch the historic old things. Isn't it Johnson
who says, "I love to browse in a library"? Judging by the dust and
cobwebs, there hasn't been much browsing done among these volumes for
years. Present-day Simpson has seldom "fed on the dainties that are bred
in a book." Here is a first edition of _The Spectator_, and next it a
_Life of Garrick_, with copies of _Virgil_, and all _Voltaire_ and
_Corneille_ in the original. A set of Shakespeare with exquisite line
drawings by Howard shows signs of hard reading, and so does the _Apology
for the Life of Mr. Colly Cibber_. One wonders how a man embedded in
Fort Simpson, as a fly in amber, would ever think of sending to the
_Grand Pays_ for _Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy_, yet we find it here,
cheek by jowl with _The Philosophy of Living or the Way to Enjoy Life
and Its Comforts. The Annual Register of History, Politics, and
Literature of the Year 1764_ looks plummy, but we have to forego it. The
lengthy titles of the books of this vintage, as for instance, _Death-Bed
Triumphs of Eminent Christians, Exemplifying the Power of Religion in a
Dying Hour_, bring to mind the small boy's definition of
porridge--"fillin', but not satis-fyin'." Two more little books with big
titles are _Actors' Budget of Wit and Merriment, Consisting of
Monologues, Prologues and Epilogues_, and _The London Prisons, with an
Account of the More Distinguished Persons Who Have Been Confined in
But the book that most tempts our cupidity is _Memoirs of Miss A---- n,
Who Was Educated For a Nun, with Many Interesting Particulars_. We want
that book, we want to take it on with us and read it when we reach the
Land of the Eskimo, where the Mackenzie slips into the Arctic by all its
silver mouths. We lift the volume up, and put it down again, and we
hunger to steal it. Jekyll struggles with Hyde. At last the Shorter
Catechism and the Westminster Confession of Faith triumph; we put it
down and softly close the door behind us. And ever since we have
regretted our Presbyterian training.
At Fort Simpson, it is like walking across a churchyard or through an
old cathedral. Here men lived and wrought and hoped, cut off from their
kind, and did it all with no thought of being heroic. We walk along the
shore to watch Indian women busied in making a birchbark canoe and in
washing clothes with washboards--the old order and the new. A little
dive into the mosquito-ridden woods discloses a wonderful patch of
Pyrola and a nest of Traills' flycatcher, and makes us wish that the
minutes were longer and the mosquitoes fewer. What a beautiful tiling
this Pyrola is, with its inverted anthers and the cobwebby margins of
its capsule! Its bracted, nodding flowers run through all shades of
white, pale yellow, and dark yellow.
Down on the beach we chat with a prospector and his son, a lad of
fifteen, who are building a skiff in which to ascend the Liard, hunting
gold. Yesterday a Mr. and Mrs. Carl and a Mr. and Mrs. Hall passed us on
the river. Outfitted for two years, they will prospect for gold in the
Nahanni Mountains and toward the headwaters of the Liard. One of the
couples has just come out from Glasgow and this is their honeymoon. We
half envy them their journey. Can anything compare with the dear
delights of travelling when you do not know and nobody knows just what
lies round the next corner?
[Illustration: A Slavi Family at Fort Simpson]
The dogs at Simpson are "wicked." Picking our way among them, I
particularly approve this term of the natives, attributing as it does a
human conception and malice aforethought to these long-legged wraiths.
The first articulate sound an Indian child of the Mackenzie learns to
make is "Mash!" an evident corruption of the French "_Marche_." This is
what Shakespeare meant when he speaks of "a word to throw at a dog." A
brown baby just emerged from the cocoon stage of the moss-bag toddles
with uplifted pole into a bunch of these hungry mongrels and disperses
them with a whack of the stick and the lordly "Mash!" of the superior
animal. For our own part we are "scared stiff," but follow along in the
wake of our infant protector to a wee wooden church which staggers under
the official title, "The Cathedral of St. David."
[Illustration: A Slavi Type from Fort Simpson]
We have had occasion to speak of the splendid service rendered to
Northern and Western Canada by the Hudson's Bay Company and by the Royal
Northwest Mounted Police. A third factor through the years has been
building Empire with these. Are we not as a people too prone to minimise
the great nation-building work performed by the scattered missionaries
in the lone lands beyond the railway? Ostensibly engaged in the work of
saving souls, Canadian missionaries, both Roman and English, have opened
the gates of commerce, prosecuted geographical discovery, tried to
correct social evils, and added materially to our store of exact
science. Through their influence, orphanages have been founded, schools
established, and hospitals opened. Creeds take a secondary place to
deeds in this land, and when you discuss a man, be he cleric or layman,
the last thing you ask is, "To what church does he belong?"
Incidentally, it does seem rather odd that with Scottish blood running
through the veins of nine-tenths of the people of this North as yet no
Presbyterian missionary has penetrated beyond the latitude of Edmonton.
The great Churches of England and Rome, north of the Athabasca, divide
the field between them.
The records of the whole missionary world show no more striking figure
than that of Bishop Bompas of the Anglican Church. We have already had
two glimpses of this young Cockney curate; once, hoisting his homemade
Union Jack on the ox-cart at St. Cloud, and, again, passing north as the
wild-fowl flew south in October, 1865, chronicled by the Chipewyan
scribe merely as "a Protestant missionary coming in a canoe from the
Portage." In the forty years of missionary life which intervened between
his coming into the North and his death in the Yukon just two years ago,
only twice did the Bishop emerge from these Northern fastnesses. It is
literal truth to state that no one on any part of the world's map has
ever made so many long and toilsome journeys as did this man. With his
sheep scattered over a country a million square miles in extent, we
might compare a parochial visit of this parson to a barge-journey from
London to Constantinople, replacing the European capitals by Hudson's
Bay forts, and substituting for Europe's vineyards and pleasant vales an
unbroken line of jack-pine and muskeg.
We are told that Bishop Bompas's father was Dicken's prototype for
Sergeant Buzfuz. A new vista would open up to the counsel for Mrs.
Bardell could he turn from his chops and tomato-sauce to follow the
forty-years' wandering in the wilderness of this splendid man of God,
who succeeded, if ever man succeeds, in following Paul's advice of
keeping his body under.
Bishops Bompas was one of the greatest linguists the Mother Country ever
produced. Steeped in Hebrew and the classics when he entered the
Northland, he immediately set himself to studying the various native
languages, becoming thoroughly master of the Slavi, Beaver, Dog-Rib, and
Tukudk dialects. When Mrs. Bompas sent him a Syriac testament and
lexicon, he threw himself with characteristic energy into the study of
that tongue. There is something in the picture of this devoted man
writing Gospels in Slavi, primers in Dog-Rib, and a Prayer Book in
syllabic Chipewyan, which brings to mind the figure of Caxton bending
his silvered head over the blocks of the first printing-press in the old
Almonry so many years before. What were the "libraries" in which this
Arctic Apostle did his work? The floor of a scow on the Peace, a hole in
the snow, a fetid corner of an Eskimo hut. His "Bishop's Palace," when
he was not afloat, consisted of a bare room twelve feet by eight, in
which he studied, cooked, slept, and taught the Indians.
They tell you stories up here of seeing the good Bishop come back from a
distant journey to some isolated tribe, followed at heel by a dozen
little Indian babies, his disciples for the days to come. Bishop Bompas
lived in one continent, but manifested in two, keeping himself closely
in touch with the religious and Church growth of the Old World. When the
British press had been given over to any particular
religious-controversial subject, and the savants had finally disposed of
the matter to their own satisfaction, travelling out by summer traverse
or winter dog-sled would come a convincing pamphlet by Bishop Bompas, to
upset altogether the conclusions of the wranglers.
There is one tale of this man which only those can appreciate who travel
his trail. An Indian lad confides to us, "Yes, my name is William
Carpenter--Bishop Bompas gave me my name, he was a good man. He wouldn't
hurt anybody, he never hit a dog, he wouldn't kill a mosquito. He had
not much hair on his head, and when it was _meetsu_, when the Bishop eat
his fish, he shoo that mosquito away and he say, 'Room for you, my
little friend, and room for me, but this is not your place: go.'"
We call upon the present incumbents of the little church of St. David.
They are young people, the Rev. and Mrs. Day, putting in their first
year in this Northern charge. Their home with its spotless floors and
walls papered with old copies of _The Graphic_ and _Illustrated London
News_ is restful and attractive. The garden of the parsonage shows an
amount of patient work on the part of some one. Potatoes eighteen
inches high and peas twice the height of this, with turnips and cabbages
and cauliflower are good to look at. There are records to show that,
years ago, Fort Simpson produced tomatoes and decent crops of barley.
[Illustration: Interior of St. David's Cathedral]
Entering the little church we see the neat font sent here by Mrs.
Bompas, "In dear memory of Lucy May Owindia, baptised in this Church,
January, 1879." Owindia was one of the many red waifs that the good
Bishop and Mrs. Bompas took into their big hearts. Her story is a sad
one. Along the beach at Simpson, _Friday_, an Indian, in a burst of
ungovernable temper murdered his wife and fled, leaving their one baby
to perish. It was not until next day that the little one was found,
unconscious and dying. The Bishop and Mrs. Bompas took the child into
their loving care. To the name Owindia, which means _The Weeping One_,
was added the modern Lucy May, and the little girlie twined herself
closely round the hearts of her protectors. When the time seemed ripe,
Owindia was taken back to England to school, but the wee red plant would
not flourish in that soil. She sickened and died. Hence the memorial and
the inscription we read this July day. Much history of militant energy,
much of endurance, and countless chapters of benevolence did the good
Bishop write into the history of the North before, off on the Yukon side
in 1906, "God's finger touched him and he slept."
Missionaries of the present day are not without their troubles. Mrs. Day
tells of potato-whiskey making in some illicit still back in the
mosquito-woods, the results of which she fears; and, even as we speak,
an Indian lunatic pokes his head through the palings of the
potato-patch. From far back in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, and from
Fort Liard, the Hudson's Bay men have come to make their reports to Mr.
Brabant at Simpson. They brought their wives and babies with them,
brought also a quantity of beautiful porcupine-quill work, Fort Liard
being one of the few places in the North where this art flourishes.
Tomorrow they will start back, tacking against the stream, as the
imported brides are doing before them.
To dive into the journals of the past, of which the loft above the
offices here at Simpson is full, is even more interesting than talking
with the people of the present. We take 1837, the year which saw the
accession in England of the young and well-beloved Queen, and from
these musty books unearth a running commentary of what is doing in Fort
Simpson in that year.
"_1837, January 1_. The people were brought into the Hall, and enjoyed
their meal with great appetites, being also treated to a glass of wine
and a fathom of tobacco and a pipe. Wind East."
"_1837, February 11_. Rabbits are numerous, but the ladies of the
Establishment make no great effort in snaring them."
"_1837, February 14_. Late last night arrived a woman, _Thawyase_, and a
boy, the family of the late _Thoesty_. They have all come to take refuge
here as they are starving. The woman at dusk decoyed old Jack away to
camp in the woods--and the old fellow has found a mate."
One wonders if either _Thawyase_, the decoyed Jack, or the old
chronicler was conscious of the fact that this was St. Valentine's Day.
"_1837, March 27_. Two geese have been seen to-day, the first this
"_1837, May 2_. _Marcel_ sowed some oats. Mosquitoes begin to become
"_1837, May 5_. Wild fowl are beginning to frequent the small lakes of
the neighbourhood. The willows and young trees are now budding forth
"_1837, May 18_. _Hope_ began to plough this morning with the bull, but
as this is the first time he has been yoked, the day's work is found to
be but poor."
"_1837, May 19_. Felix and Roderick McLeod made twelve bags of pemmican
_1837, May 21_. The Mackenzie River broke up to-day, and continued
drifting pretty thick till evening."
"_1837, June 18_. Some of the Indians killed a bear before the door and
it supplied us with a little fresh meat."
"_1837, June 19_. Flies so numerous that we are under the necessity of
putting our cattle into the stable, otherwise they will fall victims to
the cruel insects."
"_1837, June 20_. Weather very suffocating, thermometer 85 above at
three p.m., not as much as a cloud to be seen in the firmament and not
the least air to afford any refreshment; this along with the solitude of
the time is enough to make people dull. No Indian from any quarter: well
supplied with ammunition last spring, they forget us when they can get
their own mouths satisfied. Ashley grinding barley in the steel mill."
"_1837, June 21_. _Le Mari_ has just brought in some fish and a little
bearskin in order to get a chemise, he says he is not able to hunt
without a chemise, as there are so many flies just now. I have taken it
upon myself to give him the shirt on credit."
Here a new hand writes the records, untrammelled by any orthographic
"_1837, June 24_. Flys very numerus and trublsome to the Cattel."
"_1837, July 11_. Starvan Indians going and coming ourly."
"_1837, July 13_. Six squas arrived with plenty Bearrys--that's all they
subsist on in this part of the River."
"_1837, July 26_. Barley is getting ripe. But small birds nip off the
ends of the stalks as fast as it ripens."
"_1837, August 23_. Last night the bull broke into one of the gardens
where oats was sown and eat the whole up."
"_1837, September 18_. An Express arrived from Fort Norman with
despatches from the Gentlemen of the Arctic Discovery Expedition, and it
is most satisfying to learn that the first object of the Expedition was
successfully accomplished: on the 4th August the Company's flag was
planted on Point Barrow."
"_1837, September 19th_. _Louson_ put parchment in the window-frames."
"_1837, October 11_. Ice is forming since yesterday along the beach."
"_1837, November 1_. This being the holiday for All Saints, the men
though no saints celebrated it off duty. The weather cold but fine."
"_1837, November 2_. I have been these two days occupied with the
blacksmith in making an oven, and this evening it being finished we give
it a fair trial by placing a large trout in it for supper and it is
found to answer most excellently."
"_1837, November 3_. Strong northwest wind with drift and cold. About
one o'clock of last night the Aurora had a most unusual appearance,
seemingly black in place of the white commonly observed and forming an
arch from east to west, consisting of five streaks, here and there
"_1827, November 5_. Blacksmith making iron runners for our traineaux
from old gun-barrels."
"_1837, November 30_. This being the anniversary of the Tutelar Saint of
Scotland, we had in addition to our usual dinner a roasted swan and a
moose-nose, a rice pudding, a cranberry tart, and a glass of wine."
"_1837, December 1_. I was obliged to give four pounds of dried meat to
the dogs for there are some that are almost dead and they et all the
windows of the Forge."
"_1837, December 2_. Three of the Fort women fell into a fit of
insanity and kept all of the men at the Fort to hold them and prevent
them devouring themselves."
_December 25_. Thermometer 35 below the cypher this morning, this being
Christmas no labour done. Wind N.W."
"_1838, January 1_. The morning was ushered in by a salute fired by our
people at the windows and doors, after which they came to wish us a
Happy New Year--and in return, in conformity to the custom of the
country they were treated, the men with half a glass of brandy each, and
the women with a kiss, and the whole of them with as many cakes as they
choose to take and some raisins. One of our gentlemen who had a bottle
of shrub treated them to a glass, and after some chit-chat conversation
they retired, firing a salute on going out. In the evening they played
at Blind-man's-buff, concluding the fete by a supper in the Hall. I also
gave each of the men a fathom of twist tobacco and a clay pipe."
FORT GOOD HOPE ON THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
"With souls grown clear
In this sweet atmosphere,
With influences serene,
Our blood and brain washed clean,
We've idled down the breast
Of broadening tides."
--_Chas. G.D. Roberts_.
About ten o'clock on the evening of July loth, in broad daylight, we
push out from Fort Simpson, with the whole population, white, red, and
parti-coloured, on the banks to bid us good-bye. We have seen
present-day Simpson and opened for a little way the volume of the past.
We try to imagine what it is like in winter-time, and a picture pushed
into our hands at parting gives us another viewpoint, showing the hamlet
photographed by the light of the Aurora. As we leave Fort Simpson, the
Mackenzie's channel is a mile wide and it increases in width as we
proceed. For about seventy-five miles the course of the river is due
northwest, running four miles an hour. The banks look low, but when the
pilot takes us close in to shore, we see that it is the size of the
river which has cheated our eyes, and the cliffs that seemed so
low-lying will measure two hundred feet or over. At the Great Bend we
impinge against two peaks, Mt. Camsell and Mt. Stand Alone, and here the
Nahanni joins the Mackenzie. The great river takes a due north course
for another thirty miles, and the Willow River flows in from the east.
[Illustration: Fort Simpson by the Light of the Aurora]
At this point the Mackenzie enters the Rockies, this great spinal
mountain-chain of North America breaking into parallel ranges to allow
the mighty flood to flow between. We feel, as the boatman did on Lake
Athabasca, that a day is as long as you can go without stopping. A
ladder takes us to a seat by the side of Tenny Gouley in the
pilot-house, who merely drops the window to give us an unobstructed
view, and says nothing. Tenny Gouley is one of the rare people who
understand. Talk of civilising these half-breeds of the North! They have
that gift of repose which we know nothing of, which we may hope to
attain after we have lived through automobiles and air-ships and when
many incarnations will have allayed the fever of that unrest which we so
blatantly dub "progress."
It is an ancient something, this unmapped Mackenzie into whose silence
we intrude. Before man was, these waters had cut for themselves a road
to the ocean. These banks were once marked by the mammoth. Previous to
the Glacial Age, prehistoric man here hunted prehistoric prey; eons
passed; and when the Ice Age went out, willows and aspens occupied the
silt, delicate flower-growth flourished, and birds sang in the branches.
Three thousand miles of waterway, forest-fringed and rampart-guarded,
and of its treasures the world knows naught! They await man's
development and acceptance--banks of pitch, wells of oil, outcroppings
of coal, great masses of unmined salt, mineral wealth uncounted and
unguessed. Silent forests have followed us from where we entered the
Athabasca, and these woods persist to where the great river divides into
its delta channels. Of the mineral wealth of the Liard, the Peace, the
Nahanni, and the half hundred other waterways tributary to the
Mackenzie, practically nothing is known. There remain in these streams
hundreds of miles unnavigated, and channels innumerable known only to
the _inconnu_ and the Indian.
It is one hundred and twenty years since Mackenzie descended this stream
to its mouth, "discovering" a river along whose shores centuries before
had smoked the watch-fires and risen the tepees of an anterior race,
wanderers from Asia, who here, guiltless alike of onlooker or
chronicler, lived and loved and worked out their drama of life. Age
follows age, a new generation is evolved in the new habitat, and in time
these once-migrants from Asia are dubbed "the red men" and "the American
We watch out the night with Tenny Gouley. In the early morning, sharply
turning a corner, we flush a mixed family of water-fowl--gulls in great
variety, something that looks like a brant, and a loon with its uncanny
laughter. Snipe are on every batture, and sand-pipers, with kingfishers
and all the lesser waders. The boreal summer is short and if broods are
to be raised there is no time to waste. A riot of blossoms fringes the
banks--the uplifted magenta torches of the fireweed, tufts of vivid
golden-rod, the pink petals of the rose, and a clustering carpet of moss
dotted with the dead white of the dwarf cornel. Now and again a splash
breaks the silence, as great slices of the bank, gnawed under by the
swollen river, slip into the current, carrying each its cargo of
upstanding spruce. So the channel of the Mackenzie is ever being
modified, and no permanent chart of its course can be attempted.
Winter changes all this. With October the leaves fall and the waters
begin to crisp into ice, fishes and fowl part company, the birds fly
south to kinder skies, the _inconnu_ hurry northward seeking the sea.
Out of the sky comes the snow, the half-breed's "_Le convert du bon
Dieu_," silent, soft, and all-covering. The coat of fox and rabbit and
ptarmigan whitens, too. It is the coming of stern winter. Wandering
Dog-Rib, Slavi, and Loucheux, lone trapper, the people of each isolated
fur-post, must alike take warning. God pity man or beast who enters the
six months of a Mackenzie winter unfortified by caches of food or
unwitting of shelter.
According to Tenny Gouley there are but two seasons in this country: the
ice season and the mosquito season. He likes winter best. As he holds
the wheel in those clever hands of his, we fill and light his pipe for
him, and half a dozen of his illuminating phrases give us a clear-cut
etching of the winter story. From the lowest form of life to the highest
it is a struggle for existence. Sinuous as a serpent, the mink in his
man-envied coat winds among the willows on rapine bent, the marten preys
upon the field-mouse, the lynx hunts the hare, each form of life pursues
a lower while hiding from a higher, and all are the prey of the great
In these high latitudes it is the wind that is feared rather than the
intense cold. Before the coming of the missionary, the Indian of the
Mackenzie basin heard in the winter wind no monition. The storm spoke
not to him of Divine wrath or an outraged Deity. The wind was the voice
of God, but it assured the heathen Slavi of protection and power--the
Gitchi Manitou coming out of the all-whiteness to talk with his
Spring up here is but a flutter of invisible garments; even when one is
saying "Spring," full-blown summer is hot afoot. In high noon, in the
open places, pools of water form in the ice. With glee is hailed the
honk of the first wild goose, the coats of ptarmigan and rabbit thin and
darken. There is water on the trail of the kit-fox. The subsidiary
streams that feed the Mackenzie fill their banks and flush the rotting
ice. With a crash, the drift-logs, with pan-ice and floating islands and
all the gathered debris, roll headlong to the frozen ocean.
Do we wonder that Indians worship the great forces of Nature? Gloomy and
wide-reaching between her banks of tamarack and spruce, now opening into
a lake expansion, here narrowing between her stony ramparts, but ever
hurrying on and on and on to that far ocean of ice, the Mackenzie has
always been good to her own, the self-contained and silent people along
her banks. In this vast land men speak not of bread as the staff of
life; their unvoiced prayer is, "Give us our fish in due season." From
the waters of this river, since man was, have the Indians drawn and
dipped and seined their sustenance--inconnu, jack-fish, grayling,
white-fish, and loche. The wide bosom of the Mackenzie, in winter's ice
or summer's spate, forever has been the people's highway--a trail worn
smooth by sled-runner and moccasin in the ice-season, melting its breast
in the spring-time to open a way to the questing bow of the birch-bark.
Along these banks, forgotten tepee-poles, deserted fish-stage, and
lonely grave remain, a crumbling commentary of yesterday, a hint of
recurring to-morrows. Son succeeds father, race replaces race, but the
great Mackenzie flows on, and, as it flows, unwritten history along
these banks is ever in the making. Tragedy and triumph,
self-aggrandisement and self-obliteration, are here as well as in the
noisy world we have left. Lessons these are for us, too, if we bring the
keen eye and listening ear. Among Mackenzie tribes no Yellow-Knife,
Dog-Rib, or Slavi starved while another had meat, no thievish hand
despoiled the cache of another. A man's word was his bond, and a promise
was kept to the death. Not all the real things of life are taught to the
Cree by the Christian. Courage is better than culture, playing the game
of more importance than the surface niceties of civilisation, to be a
man now of more moment than to hope to be an angel hereafter.
About noon we reach Fort Wrigley, and are boarded by priests and
Indians all interested in the new steamer and impressed with its size.
One asks if it is a boat or an island, and another declares it is "just
like a town." Fort Wrigley is an inconspicuous post with a dreary enough
record of hunger and hardship. We find it rich in flowers and will
always remember it as the one place in the North in which we gathered
the fringed gentian (_Gentiana crinata_) with its lance-shaped leaves,
delicately-fringed corollas, and deep violet blue. The fringed gentian
is rapidly becoming a thing of the past in a great many localities, and
it gives us pleased surprise to find it far up in latitude 63 deg.. Purple
asters are here, too, and the heart-shaped seed-pods of shepherd's-purse
or mother's-heart. Wrigley adds to our collection the green-penciled
flowers of the grass of Parnassus, with wild flax, and both pink and
purple columbines already forming seed.
Below Wrigley rugged ranges border both sides of the river at a distance
from the shore-line of ten or twelve miles, and we come to Roche
Trempe-l'eau or "The Rock by the Riverside," an outcrop of Devonian
limestone rising on the right bank a sheer fifteen hundred feet above
the river. We come into view of the "boucans" or beds of lignite coal
which have been continuously burning here since Mackenzie saw them in
1789 and mistook their smoke for tepee fires. At this point of his
journey, had Mackenzie been a timorous man, he would have turned back,
for natives came to meet him and told him with great empressment that it
would require several winters to get to the sea and that old age would
come upon him before the period of his return. He would also encounter
monsters of gigantic stature adorned with wings. They added that there
were two impossible falls in the river, and described the people of the
Arctic coast as possessing the extraordinary power of killing with their
eyes. These Indians told Mackenzie of "small white buffalo" which they
hunted to the westward. Perhaps they meant the mountain sheep, the
_Sass-sei-yeuneh_ or "Foolish Bear" of the Slavis.
[Illustration: Indians at Fort Norman]
It is midnight in the midst of a howling wind-storm when we come abreast
of Fort Norman where Bear River, the outlet of Great Bear Lake, makes
into the Mackenzie. It is not an easy thing to handle the big steamer in
a swift current and in the teeth of a storm like this, and we have been
in more comfortable places at midnight. However, after running with the
current, backing water, and clever finesse, we come safely to anchor
against the shore opposite the Fort, under the lee of Bear Rock. This is
a fourteen-hundred foot peak which starts up from the angle formed by
the junction of the Bear River with the Mackenzie.
The water of Bear River is clear and its current swift through the whole
of its hundred-mile course. Great Bear Lake, known chiefly to the
outside world from the fact that Sir John Franklin established
winter-quarters here at Fort Confidence, is an immense sheet of water,
probably 11,500 square miles in extent, and bigger even than Great Slave
Lake. Five arms meeting in a common centre give the lake an unusual
shape, the longest distance from shore to shore being one hundred and
fifty miles. The south and west banks are well wooded, and we are
surprised to learn that the lake remains open at the outlet until very
late in the autumn and sometimes throughout the whole winter.
March sees the greatest depth of snow at Great Bear Lake, probably three
feet. In mid-April the thaws begin, and by May-day arrive the earlier
water-fowl. By the end of May the herbaceous plants begin to leaf, frogs
are heard, and there is bright light at midnight. The end of July brings
blueberries, and at this time stars are visible at midnight. September
is ushered in by flurries of snow, and by the tenth of October the last
of the wild-fowl depart; but it is often Christmas Day before the centre
of the lake freezes over.
When we awake it is Sunday, July 12th, Orangeman's Day, with no one
going round with a chip on his shoulder, and nobody to whistle "Boyne
Water." The wind falling, the steamer is turned and we bear away across
the river to Fort Norman, leaving the shelter of Bear Rock, the "Nest of
the Wind" of the Indian. Tradition and superstition hang round this
great butte, with its heart of coloured gypsum several hundred feet in
thickness, and on its face we plainly see the three beaver-skins that
the Great Spirit, "in the beginning," spread out there to dry. We find
Fort Norman a beautiful place in the sunshine of this Sunday morning,
the souls of its scanty populace well looked after by Roman and
Protestant missionary. Bishop Breynat is expected on the mission boat
coming up the river, and all is excitement among the sheep belonging to
his particular flock. The parson of the other fold is in his library,
and, visiting him, we duly admire his neat garden of potatoes and peas,
beets and turnips. The reverend gentleman owns up to finding Norman
lonely in winter and recalls with appreciation his last charge in the
outports of Newfoundland, where the tedium was relieved by tennis and
[Illustration: Roman Catholic Church at Fort Norman]
[Illustration: The Ramparts of the Mackenzie]
Seldom have we seen a more beautiful vista than the up-climbing path
leading from the shore to the Roman chapel at the head of the hill. It
is bordered by flaming fireweed and lined with the eager faces of
children dressed in their Sunday best, ready for morning mass and
awaiting the blessing of their Bishop. Wherever the willow-herb
flourishes there a Guadet is serving The Company. One was in charge at
lonely Wrigley, and we find his brother here.
Leaving Norman before church-time, we travel on, the glory of the
peerless day reflected in the face of every one on board. We float
between two spurs of the Rockies, and about eight in the evening pass
Roche Carcajou, looking in vain for the wolverine the name calls for.
The Indians would seem to be strangely inconsistent in this connection.
If there is one animal they fear it is the carcajou, and with him they
have an old, old pact: the Indian on his side promises never to shoot a
wolverine, and that cunning thief agrees to leave unmolested the cache
of the Red man. While this bargain still holds, since the day when
ammunition first came into the country no Indian has passed this rocky
replica of the carcajou without firing a shot at the face of the cliff.
It is an hour before midnight when we reach one of the two greatest
spectaculars of our whole six months' journeying,--the Ramparts. The
great river which has been running at a width of several miles, here
narrows to five hundred yards, and for a distance of five or six miles
forces its flow between perpendicular walls of limestone three hundred
feet high. Between the cliffs, scarped by Nature into turrets, towers,
and castellated summits, the great Mackenzie, "turned on edge," flows,
maintaining a steady rate of four or five miles an hour. The depth of
the water equals the visible height of the palisaded walls. In spring,
the ice jams the stupendous current. The dammed-up water once lifted a
skiff bodily, leaving it, when the flood subsided, a derelict on the
As we pass in silence we can but look and feel. One day a Canadian
artist will travel north and paint the Ramparts, some poet, gifted with
the inevitable word, here write the Canadian Epic. Awed and uplifted,
our one wish is to be alone; the vision that is ours for one hour of
this Arctic night repays the whole summer's travel. The setting of the
picture is that ineffable light, clear yet mellow, which without dawn
and without twilight rises from flowing river to starless heavens, and
envelopes the earth as with a garment,--the light that never was on sea
or land. We could not have chosen a more impressive hour in which to
pass the portal into the Arctic World.
[Illustration: Rampart House on the Porcupine near the Mackenzie Mouth]
A hundred yards from the entrance to the Ramparts, a group of Indians
has found foothold at the base of the escarpment. They have been waiting
for three days to signal our arrival, and as they catch sight of the big
steamer they cry out their greeting and fire a volley from their
old-fashioned rifles. The sound reverberates from rock to rock,
ricochets, and is carried on to waiting Indians on the other side lower
down. They repeat the salute, and others take it up. Signals are flashed
from each little camp, the lights being repeated in the dancing river;
and so it is by salvos of musketry and answering watch-fires that, at
midnight in broad daylight, we reach Fort Good Hope under the Arctic
The Arctic Circle! When we used to sit on uneasy school-benches and say
our "joggafy" lesson, what did that term spell for us? Icebergs, polar
bears, and the snows of eternal winter. Nine-tenths of the people in
America to-day share the same idea, and so far as they think of the
Arctic Circle at all, think of it as a forbidding place, a frozen
silence where human beings seldom penetrate. What did we find there?
Approaching the shore, we stand in the bow with the pilot and his
daughter, whose name suggests the Stone Age,--Mrs. Pierre la Hache.
Tenny wears his "other clothes" and a resplendent l'Assumption belt, for
this is his home. "It looks like a swan on the water," he says, when the
first white houses come into view. "You like it, do you not?" "Like it?
Good Hope is God's Country!" There is no place like home, even when it
is the Arctic Circle!
The populace look down upon us from the high bank, every wiggle of the
dogs' tails indicating the general impatience at the time it takes the
big boat to make a landing. Down the steps comes a stately figure, Mr.
C.P. Gaudet, the head and brains of Good Hope. Of the two thousand
servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, this is the man who has the
greatest number of years of active service to his credit. Mr. Gaudet has
continuously served The Company for fifty-seven years, and his ambition
is to put in three years more. The Company gives its employes a pension
after thirty years' service, and this veteran of Good Hope surely
deserves two pensions. The steps are almost precipitous, but the old
gentleman insists upon coming down to present in person his report to
his superior officer. Then the two climb up the bank together, the
younger man giving a strong arm to the older. We follow, and half-way up
the two figures stop, ostensibly for Mr. Gaudet to point out to Mr.
Brabant the view up river. We suspect the halt is to allow the Fort Hope
Factor to get breath, for the sky-line stairway is hard on asthma.
Reaching the top, we find the air heavy with the perfume of wild roses,
and we can scarcely make our way through the sea of welcoming Indians.
Old people grasp our hands as if we were life-time friends just back
from a far journey. Young men greet us as long-lost chums, the women
call to the children, and there seems to be a reception committee to
rout out the old beldames, little children, and the bed-ridden: it is
hand-shaking gone mad. We shake hands with every soul on the voting-list
of Good Hope, to say nothing of minors, suffragettes, and the
unfranchised proletariat, before at last we are rescued by smiling Miss
Gaudet and dragged in to one of the sweetest homes in all the wide
We meet Mrs. Gaudet, a dear old lady with a black cap, the pinkest of
pink cheeks, and the kind of smile that brings a choky feeling into your
throat and makes you think of your mother. She gives us home-made wine
and _galettes_, and as we smell the mignonette flowering in the
window-ledge and look around the walls of the "homey" room we wonder if
this really can be the "Arctic Circle, 23-1/2 deg. from the North Pole,
which marks the distance that the sun's rays," etc., etc., as the little
geographies so blithely used to state. On the walls are the Sunday
School tickets that the young Gaudets, now grey-haired men and women,
earned by reciting the Catechism when they were little boys and
girls--the same old tickets that flourish in the latitudes below. Here a
pink Prodigal feeds sky-blue swine in a saffron landscape, and off there
a little old lady in a basque leads a boy in gaiters and a bell-crowned
hat down a shiny road. They seem to be going on a picnic, and the legend
runs,--"Hagar and Ishmael her son into the desert led, with water in a
bottle and a little loaf of bread."
Thirty years ago when Miss Gaudet was a little girl she got her first
Scripture lesson from an R.C. Sister, the story of our old Mother in the
first garden. One Sunday was review day, and this question arose: "And
how did God punish Adam and Eve for their disobedience?" Quick came the
girlie's reply, "They had to leave The Company's service!"
Mrs. Gaudet thinks people rush very much nowadays. "We get a mail every
year without fail, and sometimes there is a second mail." This is to her
the height of modernism. That second mail is an interesting one. A
letter written in Montreal in winter and addressed to Fort Good Hope
crosses Canada by the C.P.R. to Vancouver, by coastwise steamer it
travels north and reaches the Yukon. Then some plucky constable of the
Mounted Police makes a winter patrol and takes the precious mail-bags by
dog-sled across an unmarked map to Fort Macpherson on Peel River. Thence
the Montreal-written letter is carried by Indian runner south to Good
Hope on the Arctic Circle.
We love to talk with Mrs. Gaudet, she is so dear. Mother-love and
devotion to The Company,--these are the two key-notes of her character.
Looking back through the years, she tells of a visit she made "outside"
to Montreal when she was a young mother--it was just fifty years
ago,--measles attacked her three babies and within a week they all died,
"_Le bon Dieu prit les tous, mes trois jolis enfants_!" Some years after
this at Macpherson an Eskimo woman stole another of her babies,
snatching it from a swing in the fort yard, and not yielding it up until
it was torn from her by force.
We wander out into the midnight daylight where with dogs and Indians the
whole settlement is still a stirred-up ant-hill. Splendid vegetable
gardens are in evidence here,--potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbages.
Should we reach the North Pole itself we would expect there a Hudson's
Bay fort, its Old World courtesy and its potato-patch. As we pass the
store of the "free-trader," he says, "Yes, Mrs. Gaudet is a sweet woman,
kindly, and dear, but she doesn't approve of me. She makes a point of
not seeing me as she passes here twice a day on her way to church."
"Why?" we ask, much surprised.
"Oh," with a laugh, "you see, I sort of trade in opposition to the H.B.
Company, and a fellow who would do this comes mighty near having horns
and a tail!"
We step into the "Little Church of the Open Door," and sit down and
think. The quaint altar and pictures, the hand-carved chairs, and the
mural decorations all point to the patient work of priests. We see
across the lane the home of the R.C. clergy, looking like a
transplanted Swiss chalet and carrying on each door-lintel the name of a
saint,--St. Matthew, St. Bartholomew, St. John. From the shrubbery
outside wafts in the sweet old-world perfume of wild-roses. Our thoughts
will often drift back to this restful little sanctuary, "Our Lady of
Good Hope," the mission founded here in the year 1859 by M. Henri
Grollier, R.C. missionary priest of Montpelier.
ARCTIC RED RIVER AND ITS ESKIMO
"Behold, I sing a pagan song of old,
And out of my full heart,
Hold forth my hands that so I would enfold
The Infinite thou art.
What matter all the creeds that come and go,
The many gods of men?
My blood outcasts them from its joyous flow."
--_A Pagan Hymn_.
"The Eskimo is a short, squat, dirty man who lives on blubber," said
text-books we had been weaned on, and this was the man we looked for. We
didn't find him.
It was at Arctic Red River, one hundred and ninety miles of river-travel
since we cut the Polar Circle, that we came upon our first Eskimo, the
true class-conscious Socialist of Karl Marx, the one man without a
master on the American continent. A little band of Kogmollycs they were,
men, women, and kiddies, who had come in to trade silver-fox skins for
tobacco and tea at the Post of the Hudson's Bay Company.
On the rocks they sat, waiting for the new steamer to make her landing,
and much excited were they over the iron bowels of this puffing kayak of
the white men. An Eskimo generally lets you know what he thinks, and
this is a basic difference between him and the Indian. An Indian is
always trying to impress you with his importance; he thinks about his
dignity all day and dreams of it at night. The Mackenzie River Eskimo is
a man who commands your respect the moment you look at him, and yet he
is withal the frankest of mortals, affable, joyous, fairly effervescing
with good-humour. His attitude toward the world is that of a little
half-Swiss, half-Chinese baby friend of mine who, in an ecstacy of
good-will when she saw her first Christmas-tree, clutched me tightly
round the neck with, "Everybody are my friend."
One of the Kogmollycs, rejoicing in the name of Wilfrid Laurier, strode
on deck with the swing of a cavalryman and signified his willingness to
trade. Loading down my hunting-coat with pictures, pipes, tobacco,
looking-glasses, needles, files, knives, I climbed over the cliffs with
him to his hut. Down on the floor we sat. Wilfrid put his treasures
between his knees before him, I sat opposite, and the barter began.
"What for this fellow, huh?" and he held up a piece of carved ivory, a
little triangular mincing-knife, a fur mat that his wife had made, or
the skin of a baby-seal. The first thing he asked for was scented soap,
the ring that I was wearing, and my porcupine-quill hat-band which
looked good to him; every exchange was accompanied with smiles, each
bargain sealed with a handshake.
Wilfrid Laurier is doing his part toward bridging the old chasm of
animosity existing between the Eskimo and their next-door neighbours,
the Loucheux Indians to the South. Wilfrid, in taking to himself a
Loucheux woman to wife, has done what the Seventh Henry of England did
when he married Elizabeth of York. Wilfrid's son and heir holds the same
place in Northern history as did Henry VIII, who united in himself the
claims of the rival Roses of York and Lancaster.
[Illustration: A Kogmollye Family]
Mrs. Ila-la-Rocko asked us into her hut, where we reclined on fur mats
while the whole family, wreathed in smiles, tumbled over themselves to
do us honour. One by one they danced for us, stopping to tell their
names and to ask ours. "Major Jabussy," "Missa Blown," they got the
names all right but applied them promiscuously, and then went into
roars of laughter at their blunder. The merriment was infectious. Let no
one waste further sympathy over the poor benighted Eskimo of this
Canadian North. The Mackenzie River Eskimo is, with perhaps the one
exception of an Arab I fraternized with in Chicago at the World's Fair,
the most splendid specimen of physical manhood I have ever seen; in
physique he stood out in splendid contrast to the Europeans and
Americans who were investigating him and his. Arrow-straight and six
feet tall, mark him as he swings along the strand. His is the carriage
and bearing of the high-bred Tartar. This man has "arrived"; he has an
air of assuredness that in the drawing-rooms "Outside" you seldom see.
The Eskimo of the Arctic foreshore are of two tribes: the Kogmollycs to
the east of the Mackenzie mouth, the Nunatalmutes, Dwellers in the
Hills, or Deermen, originally from the interior to the West, but now for
the great part making their home at Herschel Island, eighty miles from
the Mackenzie delta, attracted there by the opportunity of working for
the American whalers.
One of the striking figures of the North is Oo-vai-oo-ak, headman of the
Kogmollycs, living in dignified happiness with his children and his two
wives. This second wife was the cause of much comment among us. How did
she happen? It was this way. Mr. Oo-vai-oo-ak married Mrs. Oo-vai-oo-ak
the Elder when they were both young. Children were born to them, the big
seal was plenty, succulent beluga-steaks graced the board, and the years
followed one another as smoothly as glacial drift or the strip of
walrus-blubber that the last baby drops down its red gullet as a plummet
sinks in a well.
One day after a big hunt, as Mrs. Oo-vai-oo-ak placed before her lord
the matutinal mess of whale-skin boiled to that particular rubber-boot
consistency which was his taste, she said, "I'm not as young as I was,
you entertain much, the household cares are heavy, I'd like you to get
another wife to help me with the work." Chief Oo-vai-oo-ak chewed upon
the whale-skin and the suggestion of his spouse. Out in his kayak,
dodging the icebergs, he turned it over in his mind for half a day; and
as the outcome of his cogitations Mrs. Oo-vai-oo-ak the Younger, a
rollicking and comely maiden, joined the family circle.
How does it work out? For ten days I sat round their hospitable fire
trying hard for the viewpoint of each member of this Farthest North
family of fellow-Canadians. I have lived under many roof-trees, but
never have I seen a more harmonious family, nor a menage of nicer
adjustment. Mrs. Oo-vai-oo-ak the Elder, full of the mellow juice of
life, waggish and keen, "quick at the uptak'," as the Scotch say,
presides over her household with dignity, never for a moment relaxing
her hold on the situation. Chief Oo-vai-oo-ak wisely leaves the interior
economy of the household in the hands of the women. He is the quiet,
dignified gentleman with an easy manner that courtiers and
plenipotentiaries extraordinary might envy. His six feet two inches of
height, magnificent physique and superb carriage would mark him out as a
man of distinction at any race-course, polo-meet, or political reception
where men of the world forgather.
Observing the small, strong, exquisitely-formed hands and feet of the
Oo-vai-oo-aks, the almost-white complexions dashed with ruddy scarlet,
the easy grace that even the children have, and, above all, the simple
dignity which compels respect, one recognizes here an ancestry harking
back to Old World culture and distinction.
[Illustration: Roxi and the Oo-vai-oo-ak Family]
How does the young wife fit in? No suffragette need break a lance for
her, demanding a ballot, dower-rights, and the rest of it. She is happy
and busy. All day long she sings and laughs as she prepares the family
fish and feast of fat things, she pays deference to her co-wife, romps
with the children, and expands like an anemone under the ardent smile of
her lord. When the grave question was under discussion regarding the
exchange of her pendant bead-and-shell ear-rings for a pair we had
brought from the shops of the white men, the two spouses discussed the
matter in all its phases earnestly together, as chummy as two
The Oo-vai-oo-ak family was a puzzle to the on-lookers, who sought in
vain for some one of the three contracting parties to pity. They were
all so abundantly happy, each in his or her own way, that Walking
Delegate could find no crack here for the opening wedge of discord. If
no one is to be pitied, then surely for this new departure in matrimony
there must be some one for the virtuous to blame. But why?
Kipling declares, "There's never a law of God or man runs north of
fifty-three." The Eskimo has worked out his life-problem independent
quite from the so-called civilisations evolved to the south of him. He
is his own man.
In the rest of America and in Europe we have formulated a rule of "One
man, One wife," allowing an elasticity of the rule in Chicago and
elsewhere, so that it may read, "One man, one wife at a time." Are we so
sure of results that we are in a position to force our rule upon the
Following the animals that God has ordained shall be their daily bread,
in little communal bands they thread the silent places of the North. On
the Arctic foreshore we have a people different to all other peoples;
here is no inherited wealth, no accumulation of property. A man's skill
as a hunter determines his ability to support others, the pursuit of
seal is the pursuit of happiness; life and liberty belong to all. In
many of the little wandering groups or septs or clans the women
outnumber the men. A mighty hunter is able to kill seals at will and
provide blubber enough for two or even three wives. The Canadian Eskimo
is the direct antithesis of the French-Canadian in the matter of large
families; seldom are more than three children born to one mother. Now,
the crux of the matter is this: is it better for one man to marry and
provide for one wife and three children, leaving on the community a
floating sisterhood of unattached females, or is it more sane and
generous for the Northland Nimrod to marry as many wives as he can
comfortably support, and raise up olive-branches to save from
extermination the men of the Kogmollycs, the honourable people of the
The fact that the women prefer a vulgar-fraction of a man, an Eskimo
equity in connubial bliss, to spearing walrus on their own account is a
significant factor in the problem. And before we piously condemn either
the lord or the lady in the case, it is well that we adjust our judgment
to the latitude of 68 deg. North and take cognizance of the fact that no
seductive "Want Columns" in the daily press here offer a niche whereby
unappropriated spinsters may become self-supporting wage-earners as
chaste typewriters, school-teachers, Marcel-wavers, or manicurists. To
keep the vital spark aglow you must kill walrus and seal in your own
proper person or by proxy, for no other talent of body or grace of mind
is convertible into that sustaining meat and heating blubber which all
must have in order to live.
Economically, then, a woman must herself hunt or have a man or part of a
man to hunt for her. Ethically, it works out beautifully, for each
partner to the hymeneal bargain is fat and full of content, happiness
fairly oozing out of every oily pore. And is not happiness the goal of
human endeavour, whether a man seeks it amid the electric lights, subtle
perfumes, and dreamy waltz-music of a New York ballroom, or finds it
seated with his community wives on a hummock of ice under the Aurora?
I wouldn't like to picture our cousin the Eskimo woman as being always
content with a circulating decimal of a husband instead of a whole unit,
nor would such presentment be just. The shield, like most shields, has a
reverse. Last winter, at the Mackenzie Delta, one Eskimo bride of
seventeen took her fourth consecutive husband. She is dark but comely,
but truth will not carry the analogy further. I have yet to see the
Eskimo who is like a bunch of camphire in the vineyards of Engedi. Three
winters ago, at Baillie Island, the three-times-widowed one had both her
feet amputated as the result of exposure to cold.
In the latest wedding, the one that came under our notice (we hesitate
to call it the last), the much-sought one was given away by her
brother-in-law Su-pi-di-do, or Sour Potatoes. The wedding breakfast
consisted of seal-meat, frozen rotten fish, and muktuk (whale-meat). The
ceremony took place at the igloo of Su-pi-di-do, with fifty guests
present, and as the size of Su-pi-di-do's bungalow is ten by twelve, one
needs only suggest what the old hymn speaks of as "odours of Edom and
The festivities began to warm up about midnight. An old chap, with a
retrospective look in his left eye peering back through eighty midnight
suns and noonday nights, set the ball a-rolling by raising his hands
above his head and hopping about in the middle-distance. His wife, a
gay old girl of twice his age, lilted a song, and the guests joined in
the chorus; line by line in a minor key the wedding song was sung, the
air being confined to three notes. After each line came the chorus twice
"Ai, yea, yae! Yae, yae, ya--yae!"
Dancing was kept up to an early hour. Overcome by the air, respiratory
and vocal, we made our adieus to the crippled but captivating bride,
pushing our way through the ghostly dogs and sleeping babies at two a.m.
By natural gifts and temperament the Eskimo is probably the most
admirable, certainly the most interesting, and by circumstances the most
misunderstood and misrepresented of all the native races of America. The
Eskimo of any one group would seem within historic times to have known
but little of other bands than his own. Yet sometimes they met. There is
an island, called Barter Island, in the Arctic at the dividing line
between Alaska and the Canadian Yukon Territory, one hundred and fifty
miles west of Herschel. For years this was a trading rendezvous for four
peoples: the Kogmollycs or Mackenzie Delta Eskimo, the Alaska Eskimo,
and the Indians and Nunatalmute Eskimo whose habitat lay due south of
Barter Island. To this point the Cape Barrow Eskimo in the old days
brought their most precious medium of exchange,--a peculiar blue jade,
one bead of which was worth six or seven fox-skins. And thereby hangs a
tale. Mineralogists assure us there is no true jade in North America, so
the blue labret ornamenting the lip of Roxi must have come as Roxi's
ancestors came, by a long chain of exchanges from Siberia or from China.
This trading tryst at Barter Island was made an occasion of joy and
merriment. In imagination we see the chiefs in their kayaks, the old
men, the women, and the babies in the slower and more commodious
oomiaks, making their way across the lonely ocean to exchange gifts and
courtesies with their half-known kin. The barter consummated, these
Northland voyageurs had their yearly dance and sing-song and orgy of
delight. No shooting the chutes, no pop-corn, no pink lemonade, no
red-hots nor "fr-resh Virginia peanuts, l-large sacks and well-f-filled
and f-five a bag!", but the Arctic concomitants of these,--boiled
beluga-skin, luscious strips of walrus-blubber, and frozen fish that
smells to high heaven. Joy is the same, gastronomic and aesthetic, in
the latitude of Boston and the latitude of Barter Island. It is only the
counters that are different.
Meagre are the bits of knowledge of the Eskimo that have floated down
into our ken through the ages; on the icy edge of things this unique and
fascinating people worked out their drama, the world unknowing by the
world forgot. The white men who reached the Eskimo land from the south
were discoverers following to the sea the three great rivers that
disembogue into the Polar Sea: the Mackenzie, Coppermine, Back or Great
Fish. The first of these explorers was Samuel Hearne who, in 1771,
followed the Coppermine to the Frozen Ocean. For the northern natives
their first contact with white explorers was a disastrous one, for at
Bloody Falls on the Coppermine Hearne's Indians set upon the only band
of Eskimo they saw and almost exterminated them. Sir John Franklin in
1820 was more happy. He says, "The Eskimo danced and tossed their hands
in the air to signify their desire for peace; they exhibited no hostile
intention; our men saluted them by taking off their hats and making
bows." Back, who explored the Back or Great Fish River in 1834, has this
tribute of respect and appreciation. He says, "I called out '_Tima_'
(Peace), and putting their hands on their breasts they also called out
'_Tima_.' I adopted the John Bull fashion of shaking them each heartily
by the hand; patting their breasts, I conveyed to them that the white
man and the Eskimo were very good friends. They were good natured, and
they understood the rights of property, for one of them having picked up
a small piece of pemmican repeatedly asked my permission before he would
Through all these years, if we except the noble devotion of the Moravian
missionaries on the northeast of Canada and the splendid Christianity of
such men as Bishop Bompas who sought them from the south, no one visited
the Eskimo from the outside with the purpose of doing him good, but
rather with the idea of exploiting him. Yet, from the days of Sir John
Franklin and Sir Alexander Mackenzie to the recent voyage of Amundsen,
the spontaneous tribute of every man who has met them, talked with them,
and received their hospitality is the same. The Eskimo is generous, and
his word is worth its full face value. What we have done for the Eskimo
is a minus quantity; what he has done for us is to point a splendid
moral of integrity, manliness, and intrepid courage.
Indians beg and boast, the Eskimo does neither. With no formulated
religion or set creed, he has a code of ethics which forbids him to
turn the necessity of another to his own advantage. Amundsen's farewell
to his Eskimo friends sets the thoughtful of us thinking, "Goodbye, my
dear, dear friends. My best wish for you is that civilisation may never
The trite saying is that the Loucheux Indians forced the Eskimo north,
"keeping them with patient faces turned toward the Pole." But the Eskimo
has a better country than the Loucheux has, for it is less rigorous and
it produces more food stuffs. The Loucheux at Fort Macpherson knows what
it is to experience a temperature of 60 below Fahr., while at the coast
it doesn't drop below 55.
The Eskimo has two fields in which to hunt food,--the land and the sea,
with fish the great staple; and both fresh and salt-water fish are his,
that in the mouths of the great rivers being better than what the
Loucheux gets higher up. If the Eskimo wrote copy-book lines, the most
insistent one would be, "Lose your matches, throw away your guns, but
hang on to your fish-net."
Through the years there was bad blood and mutual distrust between Eskimo
and Loucheux. The last pitched battle occurred in the 60's, when of the
contestants only two Loucheux escaped and not one Eskimo was killed. The
Hudson's Bay Company officer at the close of the fight called together
the relatives of the slain Loucheux, upon whom rested the duty of
revenge, and out of The Company's stores paid in trade-goods the
blood-price of the slain. Since then both peoples have traded at Forts
Macpherson and Arctic Red River, maintaining a sort of armed peace, but
with no deeds of violence. The Loucheux Indian, his wives, his babies,
and his slab-sided dogs suffer from starvation almost every winter. In
the whole history of the Eskimo there is not an authenticated story of
one of this people having starved to death. Once more we protest against
misapplied sympathy. However it may have been in the past, the Eskimo
stays on the coast to-day because it is to him "God's country" and not
because any hostile Loucheux sends him there.
For the past twenty years the men on the American ships have employed
the Eskimo to aid them in the whaling industry, picking up different
bands all the way from Bering Sea eastward as they sail in from the
Pacific, and depositing each group at their individual beaches as the
ships take out their rich spoils of baleen and oil at the close of the
season. The Eskimo has proven a valued aid to this industry; how has the
intrusion of the whites into his ancestral sea-domain affected the
Within two decades the European population of this Mackenzie River delta
region has been cut down from two thousand to probably one-fourth of
that number. The causes? White men's diseases: scarlet fever,
consumption, measles, syphilis must account for most of the startling
decrease. Scarletina has killed many, consumption some, though
consumption is not nearly so fatal with the Eskimo as with the Indian,
measles perhaps more than all. Measles among the Eskimo is more fatal
than the Bubonic plague among Europeans.
What other changes is the yearly presence of American whalers among them
making in Eskimo evolution? Who shall say? It is so easy to be dogmatic,
so hard to be just. This intrusion of the whites has changed the whole
horizon here; we can scarcely call it the coming of civilisation, but
call it rather the coming of commerce. The whalers have taught palates
once satisfied with rotten fish and blubber to want coffee and tea and
molasses, yeast-bread, whiskey, and canned peaches. To the credit side
of the account, we must fairly state that the ships have brought the
Eskimo whale-boats, good guns, and ammunition.
The Eskimo population of the Mackenzie delta is becoming mixed by
marriages between the different tribes brought together to work on the
whaling-ships. Each of these intertribal alliances brings about its
changed culture characteristics. But as a more far-reaching result of
the coming of the whalers there is springing up on the edge of the
Arctic a unique colony of half-caste Eskimo children, having Eskimo
mothers, and, for "floating fathers," marking their escutcheon with
every nationality under the sun,--American, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian,
Italian, Portuguese, Lascar. This state of things startles one, as all
miscegenation does, and this particular European-Eskimo alliance is
different from all others. In the hinterland of the Arctic, when a
Frenchman or a Scot took a dusky bride from the tepee of Cree or
Chipewyan it was with an idea of making the marriage a permanent one.
There is no intent on the part of the whalers to take their Eskimo
"wives" outside with them, nor does the wife so-called look for this.
One or two cases are on record where the half-breed child has been taken
"outside" by his father to school, and through the years perhaps six or
eight half-Eskimo kiddies have percolated the interior waterways south
to some mission-school, Anglican or Roman. As a rule, the
marriage-contract is "good for this season only," and the wife and
children bid their quondam husband and father farewell, smiling at him
with neither animosity nor reproach as the boats go out.
What is then the ice-widow's condition? Is she an outcast among her
people? No, you must remember that neither the matrimonial standard of
Pall-Mall nor Washington, D.C, obtains here. The trade-ticker of the
erstwhile wife of the whaler ticks skyward in the hymeneal Lloyd's; she
is much sought of her own people. Has she not gained in both kudos and
capital? The knowledge which she must have acquired from the white man
of whalers' ways of trading is supposed to be of monetary use to her
second lord. Moreover, the tent, utensils, and cooking-kit which she
shared with her spouse from the ships makes a substantial dower when she
again essays Hymen's lottery.
Eskimo women are neither petulant nor morose. With the men they share
that calm-bearing of distinction, combined with the spontaneity of a
child which makes such a rare and winning mixture. In moving among the
half-caste Eskimo children up here on the edge of things, fairness
forces us to admit that neither in stature nor physique do they fall
below the standard of the thorough-bred natives. About the morals, the
ethical, or mental standards, we venture no comparison, for heredity
plays such strange tricks. The whole condition is formative, for the
blending of races has been going on scarcely long enough for one to see
and tabulate results. The influence of the mother will be longer applied
and its results more lasting than that of the evanescent father, and in
this is their hope. For years we have been repeating the trite, "The
sins of the father are visited upon the children to the third and
fourth generation;" it remained for Charles Dickens to ask, in his own
inimitable way, if the virtues of the mothers do not occasionally
descend in direct line.
We respect the Eskimo for many things: for his physical courage as he
approaches the bear in single combat, for his uncomplaining endurance of
hardships, for his unceasing industry, the cleverness of his handicraft,
his unsullied integrity, sunny good-humour, and simple dignity. But,
most of all, he claims my respect for the way he brings up his children.
"A babe in the house is a well-spring of pleasure," is a pretty theory,
but Charles Lamb reminds us that each child must stand on his own
footing as an individual, and be liked or disliked accordingly. In the
igloo and the tupik the child has his own accorded place and moves in
and out of the home and about his occupations with that hard-to-describe
air of assuredness that so distinguishes his father and mother.
The Eskimo child accepts himself as the equal of any created thing, but
there is nothing blatant about him, nor is his independence obtrusive.
He is born hardy, and lives hardy, trudging along on the march in his
place beside the grown-ups. Each Eskimo man and woman is an independent
entity, free to go where he pleases. There is no law, no tribunal, no
power to limit or command him, but instinctively he observes the rule of
doing as he would be done by, and he teaches his child the same Golden
Rule. A boy or girl is never considered an encumbrance and is readily
even eagerly adopted if his own parents die. The Eskimo child is ushered
into the earthly arena with no flourish of trumpets, for his coming is
but an incident of the journey if Fate has decreed that he should be
born when the family is on the march. The hour's stop for the mid-day
meal often sees a new little valiant soldier added to the ranks of the
clan and starting his traverse of Arctic trails. If the baby is born
while the family is in camp, mother and babe separate themselves from
the rest of the family for a month, no one being allowed to look at,
much less fuss over, the little stranger.
Naming an Eskimo baby is fraught with significance. If the last grown
man who died in the band was one revered, one whose footsteps are worthy
to be followed, the name of the departed clansman is given to the
newborn child. The belief is that the spirit of the dead man hovers
around the community and immediately upon the birth of the child takes
possession, a re-incarnation in the baby-body. Withdrawing itself in
twelve months' time, the spirit of the ghostly god-father lingers by to
influence the character and destiny of the growing child.
We trace a well-known nursery rhyme to the igloo of the Eskimo. The
summer-born baby dispenses with clothing for the first six months of its
earthly pilgrimage, cuddling its little bare body close to its mother's
back under her _artikki_, or upper garment, which has been made
voluminous to accommodate him. But the husky babe who comes when King
Wenceslaus looks out on the Feast of Stephen has his limbs popped into a
bag of feathers before his mother takes him pick-a-back, or else he is
wrapped in a robe of rabbit-skin. So we see that it was an Eskimo mother
who first crooned in love and literalness,
"By-o, Baby Bunting,
Daddy's gone a-hunting,
To get a little rabbit-skin,
To wrap his Baby Bunting in."
Mother-love is a platform upon which even ancestral enemies can meet.
While I sat cross-legged (and, like cotton, absorbent) last summer
enjoying the hospitality of the Oo-vai-oo-aks, to us entered a
beautiful-faced Loucheux Indian mother with a pair of twins
pendant,--rollicking chaps. The younger Mrs. Oo-vai-oo-ak dropped on the
floor her lord's boot which she had been dutifully biting into shape and
jumped up to greet her visitor. There was no mistaking that smile of
hospitality. Snatching from the visitor one of her baby boys, the young
hostess kissed and cried out to it with an abandon of maternal joy, the
culminating point of which was feeding it from her own breast. Thus, in
one instance at least, has the ancient feud of Loucheux and Eskimo died.
A baby Eskimo is nursed until it is two years old or older, and learns
to smoke and to walk about the same time. The family pipe is laid upon
the couch, and papa, mamma, and the children take a solacing whiff as
the spirit moves them. These pipes are identical with those used by the
Chinese, and hold but half a thimbleful of tobacco, the smoke being
inhaled and swallowed with dreamy joy.
The hardihood of Eskimo children is scarcely believable. It is not
unusual for children of six years to trudge uncomplainingly for
twenty-five miles by the side of their elders; and we came to know a
little seven-year old chap who was quite a duck-hunter, and who went out
every day alone and seldom came back without at least two brace. At
eleven years, with his watertight boots, spear in hand, and coil of line
on his back, he takes up the Innuit man's burden, and does it with an
air both determined and debonair. If you ask a mother if she does not
think this a somewhat tender age for her boy to essay to keep up with
the men on the hunt, she merely smiles as she sews her waterproof seam,
and says, "The First Innuits [Eskimo] did so."
These fur-clad philosophers are perhaps seen at their best in their
play, for there is always harmony in the crystal nursery of the North,
as these little people have no bad names nor threatening terms in their
vocabulary Yet the play is often very rough, and your Eskimo lad is no
molly-coddle. The writer watched five small boys playing football with a
walrus-bladder among the roses on the edge of the Arctic. The game was
neither Rugby nor "Soccer," but there seemed to be a good deal of
tackling in it. Four of them got the fifth one, who hugged the ball,
down, and were sitting on him and digging their skin boots into the soft
parts of his anatomy. "You're angry, now," said a Major of the Royal
Northwest Mounted Police who was looking on. "No, sir," said the under
dog, with difficulty protruding his head, "I never get mad when I play."
The boys have a sort of duel which they have copied from their elders.
It is customary for the grown men of the tribe to settle accumulated
difficulties by standing a selected number of contestants, say four on
each side, facing each other. Each man is allowed to strike his
adversary a number of blows, the recipient of the buffeting being bound
by the laws of the game to stand quiescent and take what is coming to
him. Then striker and strikee change places and reverse the courtesy.
All sorts of feelings come into your throat to choke you, as you watch a
row of "heathen" Eskimo lads carry out an ungentle joust of this kind,
for the blows are no child's play. Think of what this self-inflicted
discipline means in the way of character-building, then think of the
ignoble tactics that obtain on some of our race-courses, baseball
diamonds, and "sport" carnivals, and then do some more thinking. A line
of Tennyson came persistently to my mind last summer as I walked in and
out among the camps of the Eskimo,--"Self-reverence, self-knowledge,
[Illustration: Farthest North Football]
What of the little girls? They have dolls made of reindeer skins, rude
imitations of their elders. And they play "house," and "ladies," and
"visiting," just as their cousins do on every shore of the Seven Seas;
but no little Eskimo girl has ever yet had the pleasure of dressing up
in her mother's long dresses.
[Illustration: Two Spectators at the Game]
When the ptarmigan gets dark in feather and the sun begins to return in
spring after the long six months' night, it is the pleased prerogative
of the children to blow out the lamp in the snow-house. All the time
that the sun is travelling south, clever combinations of cat's-cradle
are played by the mothers and the children to entangle the sun in the
meshes and so prevent its being entirely lost by continuing south and
south and forgetting entirely to turn back to the land of the
anxiously-waiting Eskimo. The boys, by playing a cup-and-ball game,
help, too, to hasten its return. When the sun forgets you for six
months, you become fearful lest you have lost his loving care forever.
The spring is an anxious time in more ways than one, for if there is any
suffering from hunger it is felt now, when the winter supplies are
finished and the new hunts not yet begun. "I'll eat my hat" is an empty
threat in the south, but many an Eskimo kiddie has satisfied the gnawing
pains of spring hunger by chewing his little skin boots.
At the Mackenzie delta last year, Roxi the Eskimo came in and told me
this sad story. Six weeks before, a party of Eskimo had left Baillie
Island with dogs for Kopuk. On their way they found a dead whale and
cooked and ate of it; the next day they found another and again
indulged. After travelling twenty-five miles, the whole party was taken
violently ill, and six adults and two children died, leaving only one
little girl alive. There for three days and four nights she remained,
alone in the camp of the dead, until by the merest chance a young
Eskimo, attending his line of traps from Toker Point, stumbled into the
One can faintly glimpse at, but must utterly fail to grasp, what that
little girlie suffered mentally. We picture her sleeping, sobbing,
waiting in that snow-hut in the silences, surrounded by the still bodies
of every one she loved on earth. The sequel of the story is as sad as
its first chapter. The band of Eskimo to which the rescuer belonged went
in their turn and ate of this stranded whale, with the result that
A-von-tul and Ita-chi-uk, two youths of twenty or twenty-one, died, too,
and with them a little four-year-old girl. The drift whale must have
been poisoned either by ptomaine or by the remnants of the highly
compressed tonite, the explosive used by the whale-hunters.
[Illustration: An Eskimo Exhibit
A--Eskimo woman's head-dress of reindeer skin.
B--Skin of the baby seal, its shimmering whiteness used by the
missionaries to typify the Lamb of God, the word "Lamb" having no
meaning to an Eskimo.
C--Ornamental skin mat, the work of an Eskimo woman.
D--Quiver of arrows used by Eskimo boys.
E--Model of Eskimo paddle.
F--Skin model of the _Oomiak_ or Eskimo woman's boat.
G and H--Eskimo pipes of true Oriental type, the bowl holding only half
a thimbleful of tobacco.]
As we visit in friendly wise the Eskimo and their children, a feeling of
loving admiration and appreciation tightens round our hearts. We had
never heard a harsh word bestowed upon a child, no impatient or angry
admonition. If a boy gives way to bursts of temper, and this is rare, he
is gently taken to task, reproved, and reasoned with _after_ the fit of
passion is over. Certainly, without churches or teachers or schools,
with no educational journals, and no Conventions of Teachers, with their
wise papers on the training of "the child," the Eskimo children we saw
were better behaved, more independent, gentler, and in the literal sense
of the word, more truly "educated" than many of our children are.
Instinctively you feel that here are boys and girls being trained
admirably for the duties of life, a life that must be lived out in stern
Perchance, floating down on the Aurora, has come to the Eskimo a glint
of the truth that has passed us by, the truth that God's own plan is the
family plan, that there are life lessons to learn which, by the very
nature of things, the parents alone can impart. Teaching children in the
mass has its advantages, but it is the family after all and not the
fifty children in a school grade which forms the unit of national
FORT MACPHERSON FOLK
"I have drunk the Sea's good wine,
Was ever step so light as mine,
Was ever heart so gay?
O, thanks to thee, great Mother, thanks to thee,
For this old joy renewed,
For tightened sinew and clear blood imbued
With sunlight and with sea."
--_A Pagan Hymn_.
On July 14th, shortly after we leave Arctic Red River, an open scow
passes us, floating northward with the stream. It comes in close to the
steamer, and we look down and see that every one of its seven occupants
is sound asleep. In traversing the Mackenzie, there is no danger of
running into ferry-boats or river-locks, if you strike the soft alluvial
banks here the current will soon free you and on you go. The voyagers in
the scow may sleep in peace.
At Point Separation, 67 deg. 37' N., the Mackenzie delta begins. Where the
east and west branches diverge, the width of the river is fifty miles,
the channel becoming one maze of islands, battures, and half-hidden
sand-bars. The archipelago at the Arctic edge extends a full hundred
miles east and west.
The two lob-sticks at Point Separation are full of historic interest. It
was here, on the evening of July 3rd, 1826, that Sir John Franklin and
Dr. Richardson parted, Franklin to trend west and Richardson east, in
their mission of Arctic coastal exploration. Twenty-two years later,
Richardson, this time concerned with the _Plover_ Relief Expedition of
the lost Franklin, again visited Point Separation. He records,
"July 30th, 1848, Point Separation. In compliance with my instructions,
a case of pemmican was buried at this place. We dug a pit at a distance
of ten feet from the best grown tree on the Point, and placed in it,
along with the pemmican, a bottle containing a memorandum of the
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