Water travel of a sort could bring the traveler to Lesser Slave Lake. There was a portage, known as the Portage Trail between Mirror Landing and the Lake. An enterprising individual ran a “stage” across this shortcut. The passenger would pay his fare and set out confidently expecting to be carried; with of course much crazy tilting and jolting of the vehicle which was always expected. On this unspeakable road, the driver would soon ask the passengers to get off “to lighten the load for the horses”. According to one account, the riders would then be asked to help push. Some “passengers” found themselves walking the whole way to Sawridge (later Lesser Slave Lake Town).
In time, somebody tried to cut “roads” both North and South of the Lake to avoid the tie-ups of traffic due to the steamers being laid up when winter came. These “Lesser Slave Lake Trails” were nightmares as anyone can imagine who knows the muskeg and dense forest in that area. The stretch along Lesser Slave Lake was the last to be paved [around 1973] between Peace River and Athabasca Town, as an alternate route to Edmonton by the Valleyview way.
The terminal of any route across Lesser Slave Lake was Grouard. For many years the two centres of both trade and missions were Peace River Landing and Grouard (or Buffalo Bay). As the crow flies, they were only about ninety miles apart, but it might as well have been nine hundred. In fact they were hundreds of miles of river route apart, via Fort Chipewyan down the Athabasca and up the Peace. There had been a pack trail between the two places for many years, and an Indian trail for unknown years before that. In 1879 Tom Kerr cleared it out and made it a cart trail. For many years the Hudson’s Bay kept a brigade of ox-carts busy with Joe Pruden as foreman, hauling freight between the two points. The vehicles were Red River Carts, drawn by oxen, one to a cart. Four or five were tied in line, so that one man could manage that string of carts. H. Somers Somerset in his book Land of the Muskeg describes a procession of fourteen carts and two wagons, the latter drawn by four oxen or four horses.
“The whole country was covered with a dense forest . . .the branches met overhead and the road beneath was an oozy swamp of black mud untouched by the sun. Great pits and dykes furrowed its surface and were filled to the brim with the stagnant water. Through these the wagons pitched and swam like ships in a heavy sea, now falling on the brink of disaster, then again righting, and again all but overturning on the other side . . . When we passed through the swamp great clouds of mosquitoes flew out upon us. The necks and shoulders of the horses were grey with them, and ran blood from the bites of the bull-dog flies.”
Men also suffered in the same way. No further work was done to improve the road until 1902 when Jim Cornwall, transportation “king”, pressured the Ottawa government. The Peace River Country was not yet part of the Province of Alberta, but was in the territory of Athabasca, a Federal responsibility. He got a grant of $7 000 and actually put the road in fairly good shape at a cost of less than $80 a mile!
Increased traffic brought a new industry–cutting and putting up hay for the horses hauling wagons on the route. In Peace River this route was known as the Portage Trail. At Grouard it was known as the “Peace River Trail”. Such confusion arose with many roads. It happened again years later with what we know as the “Edson Trail” because that’s where it was starting from.
After the Trail of ‘98 [to the Klondike], a new “Peace River Trail” became known. It led first to the old settlement at Waterhole, where there was rich farmland. In the beginning it was much like the old road on the other side of “The Landing” but it, too, was gradually improved. Later, when the railway came, the thriving town of Waterhole was by-passed by about four miles. It just picked itself up and moved to the new town-site of Fairview.
Now branches began to tap the fertile prairies at Saskatoon Lake and Spirit River, crossing the Peace River by ferry at Dunvegan. Settlement steadily pushed west, eventually to Clayhurst and even Fort St. John.
The Rolla and Pouce Coupe districts, being on the south side of the Peace River headed towards Spirit River. That stretch became known as the “Spirit River Trail” which was considerably helped in later years by the building of a railroad grade that never saw rails, when the builders decided to turn south to Grande Prairie.
The names of these trails still occur in speech and in newspaper articles because there are people yet living who came over them. If anyone is confused it is quite simple to sort things out. If one says, “He came over the Spirit River Trail” he undoubtedly came that far on the railroad. If he says he came over the Peace River Trail, he got to that town either by steamer or rail, and drove on from there.
If he says he came over the Lesser Slave Lake Trail, he drove from Athabasca to Lesser Slave Lake Town, and took the horrible road south of the Lake of that name, thence overland to Sturgeon Lake, and finally to Saskatoon Lake or to Beaverlodge.
One group who settled at Beaverlodge was the “Burnsites”. They were one of the few groups who took the trail around the north side of Lesser Slave Lake. Sherk, Flint, Godin and Lossing are still commonly heard names. The group is also known as “The Bull Outfit”. Few ever tried that route again. People who claim descent from these are from ancestors who showed unmatched endurance of unimaginable hardships. But gentle ladies in the long skirts of the days before jeans and slacks somehow coped with the problems of cooking, washing, and sleeping on the trail, often with tiny infants, some of whom were born on the trail.