This is the most understated account of tragedy and devotion that this writer has ever heard. It is taken, with only the least possible amount of deletion of detail or repetition from a taped interview with Mr. George Hunter of Beryl Prairie near Hudson’s Hope in July 1973. It is told without embellishment or dramatization. Its language is simple. It portrays the lack of heroics or emotion with which the early trappers and settlers coped with the “arrows of outrageous fortune”.
The latter part of this story is stark drama – certainly not comedy nor yet tragedy. The triumph of will and devotion over a period of two months in primitive conditions by a boy of nineteen and his partner and his faithful dogs. The basis of drama has been identified as conflict, either subjective — the hero against something within himself or objective — the hero against forces outside himself. We do not attempt to name the hero; the protagonists may be different for each person who reads this story.
The story was told by a “big” man — without dramatics, self-pity or rancor. It is in the classic style of newspaper factual reporting. D. H. C., 1973
George Hunter is my name. I think it suits me very well, for as far back as I can remember I never wanted to be anything else but a hunter and a trapper. I used to trap coyotes, mink, weasels and such, ever since I was a boy on the prairies, near the Battle River in Alberta. Consequently it isn’t surprising that in 1927, when I was nineteen, I found myself in the Peace River Country. The rails came as far as Wembley then I got a taxi as far as Pouce Coupe where I got a hotel room for the night. Since I had only fifteen dollars in my pocket, I had to get a job.
The next morning before I was awake, a local farmer knocked on my door. It was August, and he needed harvest help. Lucky for me I got a job. Due to the wet fall, I went on over to the end of steel at Spirit River for the rails were not into Dawson Creek yet. All that winter I worked at freighting, for the farmers had to haul their grain and stock seventy-five miles to the shipping point. It was quite an experience!
There were over four hundred teams on the Spirit River Trail. I was surprised at a new homestead country having such good horses, some of the nicest outfits I had ever seen.
In March, the snow left. On the last trip we had to haul at night, mostly on the frost, in order to get the summer supplies in before the road broke up. The snow was all gone before we got the last load in. Once again I was looking for a job.
One of the freighters had been to Fort St. John the summer before. He had told me about all the open country and good soil up there. I had to see that! On the twenty-fifth of March, I went with the boss to Rolla to get a horse shod. I well remember the start of that trip because before we were very far out a moose ran across the field carrying a full set of horns — something I have never seen since at that time of year in this country.
From Rolla, I started out with a pack on my back to walk to Fort St. John. At that time it was just a mud trail, double-rutted. About ten miles out I came to a stopping place. Some English people were running the place. That evening another fellow came in from Fort St. John on a little buckskin horse, so he shared the bunkhouse too. The next morning it was raining hard. It poured all the next day too so we stayed, but we had a good time. There was a gramophone there in the bunkhouse and Mr. Woods, the other traveler, could “work the bones”, while I had a mouth organ to pass the time away. The children from the house came out to listen to our concert and got quite a kick out of it.
When the clouds were breaking next morning, I went on three miles to the Cutbank River, now called the Kiskatinaw. A family there knew that there was going to be an influx of settlers. Chris Neilson and his wife were just starting to build a stopping place, living in tents while they got some small log buildings up.
“It’s twenty miles to Fort St. John,” they told me, “and the going is pretty rough. The water is running on the ice,” they said. I stayed for dinner; she had apple pie for dessert, I remember — it was made from dried apples, but sure good.
“Have another piece”, she said. “It’s a long way to the Peace River. You’ll need it before you get there.”
After dinner I found that she was right. The sun had disappeared. The road was a sea of mud. The ditches were overflowing with water. The mud clung to my feet at every step. I walked to the Peace River where Howard Feeney had a stopping place, only a long house with bunks, but as soon as I hit the bed I fell asleep.
In the morning Howard Feeney said, “You’d better ride across with me. There’s a lot of water running on the ice, about three feet deep. I’m taking a load of logs across.”
So I got on. I left him on the other side and slogged on to what is now Fort St. John, arriving about noon. There was a bachelor there, in a one-roomed log shack. He had a barn there with just straw for a roof. That was Fort St. John at that time. The bachelor fixed me up a meal and charged me fifty cents.
Just across from his shack was a pile of lumber to build a little land office. A Mr. Pickel was to be the land agent there. About a mile and a half or two miles north at Fish Creek the Hudson Bay Company had a trading post, and John Middleton and his wife had a little shack and a small stock of groceries. They were feeding people, too, when they came along. I slept in the barn in my blanket on the hay.
The next morning a fellow came along on his way to Montney. The place was then known as “The Tin Shack”. A settler had brought along a prefab galvanized building. This was a landmark — “The Tin Shack”. We had to take the “Old Trail” out there, and straight on to Montney. There were no graded roads.
There was one homesteader there, Clay Martin. He had five acres broke. He was the farmer. I looked around for a few days for land but didn’t see much of anything I liked. Finally I decided on a piece near the Tin Shack. There I bought a saddle horse.
In the meantime a horse-rancher, Ernie Peterson, had come along. He had a horse ranch up what is now the Beatton River. They trapped there in the winter, he and his brother, where Rose Prairie is now. He was going on to Fort St. John but he said he had to come back and go over his traps. “Would I come along?” He’d pick up some supplies. May be I could pick up a few beavers, and then float back on a raft when the ice went out. We went up to the Doig River, but beaver weren’t very plentiful for the Indians had been in and shot most of them. When we got back to the ranch he had a lot of wild horses to break, so I stayed around. Horses were running wild at that time on the range there.
Ernie’s brother and another fellow named John Brown, and Billy Miller were trapping east of there on the Campella River. Ernie had to go up there with packhorses, to bring them out. We built a corral and put in a whole bunch of horses. Some we selected and broke. Then we hit north to the River. It took about three days to get there. They were ready so we brought them out.
Ernie had been out to Fort St. John where he met a fellow who wanted to help to take some trading goods up to Fort Nelson on the Muskwa River. That sounded pretty good. The man was Henry Courvoisier. Three years earlier he and his cousin Charlie Draudt had gone with pack horses from Fort St. John to Kotcho Lake to become the first white trappers in the Fort Nelson district. Not liking the muskeg, Henry had moved west toward the mountains. The Indians would come in there and do a little trading with him before they got to the Bay. He was now trying to get his goods in to his store. If I went along I could stay and do a little trapping. That sounded good. He bought a couple of horses, but as I had no saddle, I rode bareback all the way to Fort Nelson, but that didn’t bother me then.
It was the 27th August when we left, a beautiful day. We rode through mud and muskeg following an old trapline. You had to be careful — just a little blaze here and there was all you had to go by. We made it to Fort Nelson about the 20th of September. They had just had their first frost that killed the tops of the potatoes that some of the Indians were growing.
We got ourselves organized to go on further. Henry had brought in a workhorse from the prairies of Alberta, intending to use it to help “track” the scow up the Muskwa River. When we got fifteen miles up the river to the rapids we found that the water was just too shallow, so we built a cache there — a log cache up on poles, of course — and stored all of our grub and trading stock. From there we took the packhorses up to the mouth of Taylor Creek about fifty or sixty miles north of Nelson. After two or three trips, the horse feed was frozen, so that was the end of the packing.
Another trapper had worked his way up to the head of the Muskwa intending to trap the same area that winter. Henry showed him where he could work.
While they were gone I made myself a toboggan for my one dog. I had had fifteen dollars when I left Fort St. John. Five dollars of it I spent for a dog. He was old and most of his teeth were gone, but he was a leader. He had only one eye, but he had been a good leader. I thought I could get by with him. The toboggan I made was light. When Henry got back, we set off about fifty miles or so on the land I could trap on. Henry blazed the trail. I stayed with Henry at the trading post. Al Larson, the other trapper, had a little place and we settled in for the winter. We made an agreement to try to get back together now and again to check on each other in case anything happened.
Well, we did pretty good that winter. Even though I was a greenhorn I caught quite a few martin. The mice were pretty bad. Other trappers were having a lot of trouble with them stealing the bait, and weren’t having much luck. I thought up an idea. Being at the trading post I had quite a few cans. I’d just put a little bait in the can and then close the opening just so a mouse couldn’t get in. Putting that in behind my ‘set’, it stayed good.
All of us trappers — there were now about five of us — came into Fort Nelson for Christmas, going back after New Year’s. January was usually cold and there wasn’t much fur moving anyway.
By spring I had made a thousand dollars. Like the policeman said when I’d given him my ten dollars for a license, “Here’s a cheque. It’s up to you to fill it.”
That summer I stayed around Nelson. Henry went out and brought another fellow, Henry Philpott, in to help him break horses and such. He was going to do a little trapping too.
There was lots of sign on the first skiff of snow, the next winter, but by the time we got our traps out there wasn’t a track anywhere. Henry and the other man weren’t having much luck either. Henry Philpott had come from the prairies. He was inexperienced. There was no trail up the Muskwa where he was supposed to trap. I said, “Maybe you’d better come with me this winter, and I’ll show you how”. But before Christmas there was no fur, so instead of going to Fort Nelson for Christmas we decided to go in back of the mountains. In those days there was no such thing as a registered trapline. You could go where you liked [as long as no one else was already trapping there].
We had quite an experience. We were running short of grub. Coming back we ran into a blizzard and almost ran out of grub entirely. We had a dog along that wasn’t pulling his weight so we disposed of him. Then we cooked up bannock to share with the rest of the dogs. Eventually when we got back to Weasel City [?] we rested and tried it again, but there was no fur that winter. We decided to have a look east of Fort Nelson, and try for the beaver season.
In Nelson when we were having supper, there was a noise outside. “I hear a motor!” I said.
“Oh,” said the clerk, “That’s only the dogs. They’re always quarreling and fighting”,
“No sir! That’s a motor”, I said. So we all went outside and sure enough an airplane flew over. That was a remarkable day for Fort Nelson, for it was the start of aviation there, the first plane ever to land. The pilot was Punch Dickens. The mechanic was Lew – I forget his other name.
They were headed up the Muskwa to see whether they could spot Tommy Clark, the trader, on the river. If they did, they’d stop and pick him up. A Bay inspector had come in. It was the duty of the manager to take him on to the next post on the Liard. They asked me to come along as guide. We flew up about seventy-five miles but we didn’t see Tommy Clark. We could see the track of the toboggan like a thread down there on the river, but no sign of Tommy. We found out later that he was just going over the portage each time — both when we flew over and when we came back, so we missed him. They flew on down to Simpson, and Henry and I went out towards Kotcho Lake, with another green trapper who was taking some supplies in that direction. We all travelled together. It took us four days hard travelling back to his camp where he had an eight by ten-foot tent with some spruce boughs on the ground for a bed, and little stove in it. It was pretty cold. We didn’t mind that, but we needed meat. We decided that Henry Philpott would go out the next day to break trail for the dogs and Jim and I would go out to see whether we could get a moose. I didn’t know what Jim intended to use for a gun — I hadn’t seen one. We all went to bed, three of us under our eiderdowns that covered the three of us.
The next morning after breakfast I put on my parka. Going out of the tent, I took my rifle, and leaned it up against a tree while I went around behind the tent to get my big snowshoes off my toboggan. The small pair was for trail use and the big pair for travelling where there was no trail. I was just stooping down to take the protective canvas off the toboggan when there was a rifle shot — a gun went off.
Down I went.
It hit me in both legs. Just like an animal, I guess, I was foundering around in the snow. Inside they could hear me. Through that tent they could almost see me.
The dogs all jumped up. I guess they thought there was a moose around.
“What are you doing in there”, I called. “What are you trying to pull off?” But they never moved. I tried to get up. My left leg was bleeding. It was really paining and I couldn’t feel the other leg — it was just numb.
When I reached for the blanket and the gun went off, I knew I was hit for I saw my pants leg flap where the bullet had struck and torn them. I got up on the leg that was hurting so bad, but when I tried to get onto the other one, I just collapsed again. I still didn’t realize until I saw my leg bent off to one side that my leg must be broken. I stood up again and hopped on one leg to the front of the tent.
When I looked in, Jim and Henry were sitting in the very same place as when I left them and there was still no rifle to be seen. I didn’t think of it just then but I remembered after that I didn’t see any rifle.
They helped me down onto the bed then. I was beginning to bleed pretty bad, so they rolled up my pants leg, and then cut off the pants and underwear just above the knees. They could see where the bullets had gone. I didn’t realize until afterwards that the bullet had split. Jim had his tent tied to a tree with a dog chain. One loose end was hanging down. If it hadn’t been for that dog chain, it would have got me in the chest somewhere. I guess I would have been through trapping.
I had some lynx cord. It is intended for fishnets, but as a cat doesn’t chew a snare they use the cord for that purpose. They tied the cord above the two wounds. The two half bullets entered my left leg above the knee. One had penetrated the flesh and lay on the other side just under the skin. The other one had gone through the right leg below the knee, through the bone, and was embedded in the flesh beside the bone. I didn’t know it then but I saw it afterwards in the X-ray.
I told them to tear up a flour sack and make some bandages. In Fort Nelson I had broken a tooth while eating some beans, there was a stone in the beans. I had some iodine along in case it started aching. They poured it on. I guess it was good 100% pure iodine because it blistered the skin. Probably that was a good thing.
After they put the bandages on the next question was, how were we going to get out?
THE MERCY MISSION — TRAPPER STYLE
It had just taken us four days to come from Fort Nelson. The biggest problem was how to get across that Snake River eighty miles from there. And it was cold!
It had flashed through my mind, after the bullets struck my leg and while I was falling, “It is four hundred miles down stream to Fort Simpson where there is a little outpost mission. It is three hundred and fifty from Fort Nelson to Fort St. John and another fifty to Pouce Coupe where there is a doctor”.
The dogs were in poor condition because we were out of meat. We hadn’t been able to get any moose in Fort Nelson on account of the police. Well, we talked it over and decided to hit out right away. Henry put his dogs with mine — that’s six dogs. Jim was to come along behind. They put the blankets in the toboggan then the eiderdown in there and then me. We started out.
It was then that I asked them what had happened. Henry said, “Jim was going to clean his gun. He had a .30 Remington slide action. He took it out from under the head of the bed.” He must have put it back before I got around the front of the tent, for I never did see that gun.
I said, “Why did he do that? Any man going to clean a gun sure wouldn’t have it pointed to the back of the tent.”
“I don’t know,” Henry said. “I just can’t remember anything about that.” His mind was just in a daze, I guess, but it seems reasonable that two men sitting facing the front of the tent, with the gun just beside them under the covers, would just pick it up and start working at it. I don’t know how it happened. Never will, I guess, now.
We left just at noon. We put my dog in the lead. The other dogs were willing workers, but that lead dog would do anything for me. He was timid, though. I never had to use a whip. There was a little Collie in him as well as Husky. I guess that made him a little more willing. Jim’s dogs were different. He had one pretty little white husky that had the cutest look on his face. You had to like him, but he had one drawback — he was lazy. Every once in a while Henry had to use the whip. When he did, my dog was scared to death. He kept looking from side to side and would get down and scratch, almost on his belly. I knew he couldn’t last like that, but we had to do it. So we started off.
At first I could hardly bear it. It was just a trapline trail over logs and through the bush. I braced myself but I got so tired I couldn’t keep it up so I just let myself go and took the bumps as they came. There were plenty of them!
About six o’clock — two hours after dark — all we had was some tea for ourselves and some mouthfuls of pork. They turned me over, still in the toboggan, to give me a change of position while they got a little fire going. The tea revived me a little.
We travelled on and on through the cold until after midnight. We found out afterwards that it was more than thirty below. When we went through the heavy timber we could hear the trees cracking like rifle shots. The dog’s breath came out in little puffs of steam that froze as it hit the cold air. At midnight we stopped again, made a fire and more tea and fixed a mouthful of pork for the dogs. We went on until almost daylight — all pretty tired by this time. We rested as before, made tea, and then went on again.
I was still cold. I couldn’t keep warm. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was still losing a lot of blood. Under the eiderdowns I just couldn’t keep warm. I guess shock had a lot to do with it, but I didn’t think of it then.
We went on for a couple of hours and then the dogs began to play out. You could see the buckle on the collar of the leader going in and out just behind the collar. He wasn’t pulling anything. That was my leader. I knew he couldn’t last.
“I don’t think he is putting it on,” I said, “but you can just go up beside him and tap him just a little with the whip. I think he is pretty well played out.”
Henry went up and touched him with the whip. He didn’t pay any attention — he was too tired to care.
“I’ll stop,” said Henry.
“Put that harness in the back”, I said, “and open up that bag of cornmeal. Cook a little for the dogs.”
He loosed my leader. He came back, stuck his nose down inside the blankets and licked my face — then he crawled in right beside me. “I’ve done my best”, he seemed to say. He couldn’t do any more. Henry put one of his dogs in the lead. We had to go on and leave him. It was all we could do. (Here there may have been an echo of a long-ago emotion in Mr. Hunter’s voice.)
After a couple of hours we started on again. By this time I was getting so tired that we’d only go — oh, maybe a half a mile — and I’d have to have a little rest. I’d never been so tired in my life. Another dog fell out. Henry put one of Jim’s dogs on to replace him. The poor dog just lay there.
“He’ll come along when he’s rested,” I said.
Then another dog played out — and then another dog and then another. Finally when we were only a few miles from Nelson, the little Indian settlement on the Nelson River, we talked it over. We decided that maybe Jim should go on and get another dog team to come to meet us. That’s what we decided. Jim went on with one dog on his toboggan. We went on, stopping and resting; stopping and resting.
We got right to the top of the Snake River Hill, just above the village. It was a steep hill. We had to put a dog chain around the toboggan to act as a holdback to keep it from going too fast and running down on the dogs or into the trees. By this time the dogs were smelling the camp smoke, and got a little more pep into them. At last we got down, took the chain off, and made it to one of the little Indian shacks.
Here were Jim Lawrence and Tommy Clark. Tom was about to go up the Snake River, but we flagged him down. Jim hadn’t started back for me or anything! I thought that kind of funny. Tom told me afterwards that Jim didn’t say anything about going back for me. He told Tom that I had shot myself. Jim said he had to go right back, so Tom had said Jim could use his toboggan because it was bigger.
We all stayed there that night. They tried to take me out of the toboggan. There was a half-breed and his wife settled there but he was out on the trap line. She and her sister were home. They tried to get me out of the blankets but what with all the blood there, it was frozen solid. The women had such solemn faces — I guess they thought that it was the end of me. I couldn’t help but laugh at the look on their faces, but they didn’t think it was a laughing matter. They tore the blankets loose. They had to be pretty careful because my leg was broke and not feeling too good.
They took me into the shack. It was nice and warm in there and very clean. They had a white bed there. They even had white sheets on it and a pillow — a nice white pillow; something I hadn’t slept on for two years, since I’d come into that country. It sure looked good to me!
Right away they put on some water to boil, then sponged the blood off my legs, put on some disinfectant and some clean bandages, I guess. I was just so [exhausted], I just went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning they had already had breakfast. It was daylight. Jim had taken off again to his trapline, taking the smaller toboggan.
We were about twenty miles from Fort Nelson, but at least there was clear running on the river ice. After some breakfast we started out. The dogs were pulling and meanwhile the dogs that had played out were coming in. Tommy gave them some food so they were willing to go again although they were very worn out and footsore.
We finally got to Fort Nelson. It wasn’t so rough as in the bush — I could stand a lot better. There they carried me to a room upstairs and put me to bed. They tended my legs again. I had to lie still. I didn’t know at the time how badly my leg was broken but I realized I had to lie on my back, and keep still.
There I began to feel sick. My, I was sick! I had to stay there about a week. I guess it was from shock. When I’d seen all the blood, I knew why it was that I had been so cold. There wasn’t anything they could do for my legs. As if that wasn’t enough, the tooth that was broken started to ache. Then another good tooth started to ache. “My goodness”, I thought, “it never rains but what it pours!” I was too weak to go on. Day by day went on.
Finally the policeman said that he had to go out towards Fort St. John a hundred and fifty miles on patrol. Henry heard about that, went down to see him and asked to go along. We couldn’t go alone, because with me on the toboggan, and all our food and the dogs’ food, we were too heavily loaded, and the road wasn’t broken out.
“I can’t take you out,” he said, “but I’ll mark out the river for you. In some places it is so crooked that if you go a quarter of a mile overland you can save a long distance on the ice.”
We were ready by the fifteenth. The police and their interpreter had two toboggans and dog teams — carrying nothing but their grub and supplies — when they started out. As we were delayed a little bit, we had a chance to get another dog, making seven altogether. While we were seeing about that there blew up a real blizzard, snowing and blowing and everything. We knew the police would make about fifty miles that day. The trail would be all blown in. Breaking trail, we knew we couldn’t make it.
A man named Larson and another man hadn’t gone out on the trapline since New Year’s. They hummed and hawed for a while until finally the other man– a Metis — said, “Well, I’ll help you out. I’ll take you down to the Fontas River. That’s where the freight teams usually come in with the spring supplies. Maybe you can get out with them. I’ll take my dog team and go that far with you. I won’t charge you much. Just eight dollars a day, if you’ll leave your license to trap beaver on your line in the spring.”
I couldn’t do anything else – I had to get out. My legs were still discharging – there were loose pieces of bone coming out and of course I couldn’t walk on them. I couldn’t wait to get on the boat after breakup to go down to Simpson. I said, “O.K.”.
About three o’clock one morning we hooked up the dogs and Henry started up the river. It was thirty below, nice and cold and clear. About six o’clock, Archie and I started out. About fifteen miles out we caught up to Henry, who had a fire going and had made lunch, after which we went on again. It was tough breaking trail and the dogs were getting tired. I suggested that Archie leave me — split up — go on ahead and break trail, but he wouldn’t do that.
It was the 17th of March now. As you know about that time the ice starts to melt from underneath, and you can’t trust it. You can be walking along and suddenly disappear through a hole under the snow. Henry walked ahead on snowshoes, breaking trail for his dogs. He’d been a rider in his youth. One time he had fallen off as the horse came out of the chute. He had caught his ankle and broken it. That ankle now began to swell up. That night he could hardly get his moccasin off. We found a place to camp where there were some spruce boughs near the riverbank. He made a bed and carried me over to it for a rest. The next day, it was the same thing — hard going. It took us three days and half to get up to the mouth of the Fontas River. It comes into the Nelson River where there was a trading post looked after by George Beatton from Fort St. John.
When we got there about noon was he glad to see us! Hadn’t seen anyone for a whole month, he said. He got some grub ready right away, while we were telling him what little news we had. We stayed the night.
Archie was supposed to go another fifty miles with us to the place where the freight teams hit the river. In the morning Archie said, “Well, I got to go back home. Sorry, but I can’t go with you.” That kind of left us in the lurch!
It started to warm up, looking as if we might get a Chinook. There was nothing to do but go on — Henry to walk on ahead and I to talk to the dogs and keep them going.
“There’s supposed to be two fellows trading at the mouth of the Conroy,” George said. “At least you won’t need to take any more grub than just to get you there.” We took what we thought would last us.
Henry went on breaking trail. I talked to the dogs who were pretty willing. Pretty soon we saw a smoke in the valley — somebody camped up on the bank. Henry climbed up to see who it was. It was the police coming back!
“Are the teams in yet on the Conroy?”
“No,” he said, “They weren’t there when we left this morning, but they’re expected in tonight. You’ll probably miss them.”
I began to have little faith in that policeman by this time. He had promised to break out the portages for us, but he hadn’t. He went straight on along the river. We’d had to break out every one.
We left him and went on. We heard afterwards that he was making fun of Henry for climbing the bank and leaving me sitting down on the river. I don’t know what else he could have done! About dusk we had to find a place for a camp for the night.
“We’ll probably miss the teams,” we said. “Just our luck”.
Just then I saw a toboggan trail leading off into the bush. Henry followed it up and sure enough there was a cabin with a pole bunk in it. But oh my! The stove smoked so bad it nearly drove us out. We decided to cook our dog food there, make a little tea, and let the fire go out for the night. There was no light but we had a bit of butter, which we melted on the stove. Then I cut a piece off my underwear and lit it for a wick. I guess the salt hindered the burning — made it sputter all the time — and it smoked like anything but that was our lamp. At least we could see a little bit. The next morning we did the same thing.
It warmed up a little now. We travelled all afternoon. It should be a good day’s travel to the mouth of the Conroy where there had been a trading post and some buildings where the two traders were supposed to be that George talked about. When we got there about five o’clock there wasn’t a sign that anybody had been there for some time. There were no horse tracks and no toboggan tracks — no sign that anybody had been there for some time.
Whoever had the cabin had left it nice and clean. There was a table and stumps for chairs. We just moved in, and ate the last of the grub. We waited around until noon, hoping to see the teams, but there was no sign of them. Henry went over to the cache, pried the lock off the door, and found inside a package of Arrowroot biscuits and two cans of corn. Why anybody would leave those things there I don’t know, but we wasted no time thawing out the cans and dividing up the biscuits. The poor dogs didn’t have anything. Henry went across the river to another cache. He was lucky again – a five pound sack of bread. We were well away now! We had baking powder and a little tea, so we baked up bannock for the dogs.
Henry thought he’s better go scouting ten miles up the river where a trapper used to be. Then he’d come back for me. Luckily the trapper was there.
“When are the teams coming?” Henry asked.
“I’ve no way of knowing”, the trapper replied. “That policeman had no way of knowing either.”
I don’t know why the policeman told us that. We didn’t waste any time speculating about it when Henry came back. We just moved up there and although we had intended to travel all night because the ice was softening we stayed the night, for it seemed like it wasn’t going to freeze.
The trapper had a dog he wanted to send out to Fort St. John, so we agreed to take it for him, as it would give us an extra. Plenty of power then — dog power.
We made about fifteen miles when the snow began to stick to the bottom of the toboggan. It got pretty hard pulling. It was better to camp for the day, rest and feed the dogs, and travel when it froze. After eight o’clock or so it began to freeze pretty well. The sleigh trail had melted and frozen over very slick so that the toboggan had real good going with no ruts to slide into. It was clear, the stars were shining and the dogs were feeling good. We made real good time. Once a moose must have passed on the road just ahead of us. The dogs smelled it and were away. Henry was riding on the back of the toboggan trying to keep it balanced, but they wouldn’t listen to anything for about two miles before they let up. We sure made good time!
About midnight it got pretty cold. We were all chilly, so we stopped to make a fire and have some tea where a small fire had gone through and left some dry wood. Henry went over to a small spruce and started chopping. The axe glanced and hit him on the side of the foot. When I saw the axe hit the foot I thought, “Now we’re really in for it! What are we going to do now?” Feeling the same way, Henry hopped over, sat on the nose of the toboggan and pulled off moccasin and socks. To our surprise the axe had cut through them all, but there wasn’t a scratch on his foot – only a bruise! After that he was a little more careful, and we had some tea. Relieved and refreshed we went on.
It was a clear night with stars shining, the toboggan rattling and the dogs pulling on cheerfully mile after mile. About four o’clock in the morning we came to Marten Creek where Gus Berksteid had a cabin. There was nobody home, but soon we heard a sound. Along came Gus on his skis — he didn’t like dogs. He was delighted to see us — to have somebody to talk to while he made coffee and breakfast, talking a mile a minute.
Soon we heard something like chains clinking. Sure enough it was the teams just pulling in to rest and feed. It was Henry McLeod and his outfit heading up to the Conroy. It would take about a week to get back. They suggested that we go on and wait for them at Nig Creek.
We had to cross the North Pine, now known as the Beatton. We put the dog chain around the toboggan again for a brake, and made it down to the other side of the river. Two men were there — Duncan Beatton and Jimmy Underwood — but we went on to Nig Creek where Johnny Beatton was running the post. It had got real mild again and the going was tough.
Johnny’s wife got us something to eat. We’d come about eighty miles they said. It was black as pitch that night, and snowing, when Henry decided to go on empty and meet me in Fort St. John. He said that in time for breakfast he was at Blueberry.
I stayed at the trading post for a week. Duncan Beatton and Jimmy Underwood came in. Duncan packed me around because my leg was so swollen that I couldn’t put it on the ground. It had to be kept up on a chair or it would swell and turn black. They were good to me. I guess the bone was beginning to knit by then, and the pain was easing up. When the teams came we travelled all night, making a little fire close to the rack for a rest stop, where I could get a little warmth. The next night we started to run out of snow. With the country opening up, it began to get warm faster in the spring. In a lot of places we had to drag over bare ground.
About noon we came to homesteader who had a wagon. “Help yourself”, he said. They made a kind of hammock for me out of ropes in the wagon box, so I wouldn’t jolt too much. We got out to near Montney to what they called Hold-up at that time. There were a couple of Jews there running a little trading post. I was surprised at the change in the country around Montney — shacks everywhere. Some of the roads were fenced off.
After sleeping on the floor at Hold-up, we arrived at Fort St. John next day. Where there had been only a shack there was a new log hotel where the Fort Hotel is today. Everybody crowded around wanting to know my story, but I was kind of bashful talking about it. I didn’t want to talk about it, but they seemed anxious to hear.
The next morning Henry had heard I was in and came along. He offered to try to find someone who had a car, who would take us the fifteen miles over dirt roads — pretty awful in break-up time — down to the river. He found someone with an old Model T touring car, side curtains and all, who would take us to Taylor’s Flat for five dollars.
There was a ferry at Taylor, but the ice was still running, so they didn’t have it in the water. When the ferryman saw us from across the water, he came after us in a canoe.
We stopped in at Feeney’s for dinner, where who should come along from Rolla but the mailman, Frank Coons, in a brand new Model A Ford — just the thing for those roads. He was bringing in the first nurse to be stationed at Fort St. John. Later she married Jimmy Young.
She travelled all over the country any way she could — saddle horse, old team and wagon. She did a world of good. But this time when she looked at my legs, she said, “Oh, Oh, I’m afraid you’re a hospital case. I can’t do anything for you.” Next morning off we headed for Rolla with chains on, and Henry pushing.
At Pouce Coupe, Frank was heading for Grande Prairie to pick up some passengers. The doctor wasn’t there at Pouce Coupe, but we picked up a couple of passengers and pushed on to Hythe. About five miles out a wheel went down the road ahead of us. It was the front wheel off the car. Frank said, “Go to it, you beggar!” The car slewed to the right and came to rest in the ditch without rolling over. Nobody was hurt. The wheel kept rolling on across the ditch and into a field, coming to rest in a little patch of snow where it lay there steaming. Henry brought the wheel back and Frank got out an axe and they managed to rivet it on there someway. We got to the hotel at Hythe a couple of hours before the train came in.
Then who should walk through the door but Henry’s dad. Unknown to Henry, his folks had taken up land nearby the previous summer and now had a carload of stock and effects on the siding waiting to unload. Henry said he would take me down to Grande Prairie, and then come back to help his Dad. Henry carried me in and out of the train and into the hospital. That was the end of a long journey, pretty near two months. I got shot on the twelfth of February, my Mother’s birthday. Next thing I knew there was a little cart there and Henry carried me and laid me on it.
The next morning they operated. They couldn’t get the bullets out. They wound up some pieces of gauze on a needle and passed it through my right leg, thinking they might get some pieces of bones out. They didn’t even give me any chloroform. I can tell you it was hard lying there while they dragged these rags through. The next morning they put a cast on. I was two weeks before I could get out.
I remember there was a little boy there named Hall from Dawson Creek — a cute little blond, curly-headed fellow. They had operated on him, but his Mother couldn’t stay. It was hard to keep him still. I was getting around on crutches, so I used to go there and try to amuse this baby, throwing the ball his mother had left there up in the air — anything to keep him still. One morning about two o’clock he began to cry bitterly. I rang the bell.
“What’s the matter,” the nurse asked him.
“I want to play ball with Fort Nelson”, he sobbed. That was my name there.
Right next to my bed was Baldy Red. Now he was quite a character! He was an old man at that time, quite the local character. Just a fringe of red hair above his ears. His nose was flat and off to one side. He was witty and kept us all pepped up with his stories. We all liked Baldy Red.
Summing it up it was quite a trip! Two months, – starting with airplane, then to dog teams and sleighs and wagons, and taxis, to canoes and trains to hospital trolleys – and that was quite a relief.
And that’s my story.
BACK NORTH AGAIN
In the fall of 1928 I went from Fort St. John with a fellow named Henry Courvoisier up to Fort Nelson to go trapping alongside his line.
The next winter, the season opened in November. I had my line all set out, but there wasn’t much for fur that winter. As I’ve told you I went east with Henry Philpott out to Kotcho Lake where I got accidentally shot through both legs by another fellow who was trapping out there. I had had to go to Grande Prairie, a trip of two months and probably about five hundred and fifty miles, by trail.
By fall I couldn’t go back on the trapline because I couldn’t walk well. My ankle was stiff and there were still pieces of bone coming out of my wounds.
I went north to Waterways, about seventy-five miles, and hauled fish for a fellow for a few months. Then I hauled railway ties until the snow went. By that time I decided it was time to go back up to my trapline country at Fort Nelson. I took the train for the Peace River Country — Edmonton to Dawson Creek — and drove to Fort St. John. From there I had to walk some three hundred miles to Fort Nelson.
I started with a pack on my back but was lucky enough to get a ride with a trader with a team of mules for eighty miles. It took me five days to walk to the Sikanni River along the old freight trail – just a winter road with the bush cut out, when they hauled freight to the river, then built scows to float it down when the ice went out.
On the way I met a fellow I had gone to school with. I stopped to share his campfire. He offered me a dog that I took and put a little pack on. I went down to where they were building scows, at the mouth of the Conroy. I intended to raft down the river, but the ice hadn’t gone out. A Mr. Ross wanted me to help build. He figured on going right down the river to Fort Norman, down the Mackenzie. Then there was Lynch Callison, another man just waiting to run his own trading goods. Another trader named Joe Clark was building a fifty-foot scow to take him down to Fontas where he had a trading post, halfway to Fort Nelson, and another at Fort Nelson. Two prospectors, the Fisher brothers, were building a boat figuring on prospecting in the Fort Nelson area. Last of all was the police. They had a cedar boat come in in pieces from Vancouver. They were putting it together to take down to their barracks at Fort Nelson.
I was helping Mr. Ross at the time when I had a little accident. They had the scow upside down, and we were running tar into the cracks. They had just called “Dinner,” when I set my little pail of hot tar down on the scow, but when I took my hand away, my mitt stuck to the pail. We used to grease our mitts, but somehow this stuck. The pail tipped over and poured the hot tar down inside my mitt. There was a five-gallon pail of oil right close into which I plunged my hand after jerking my mitt off, taking most of the hide with it. That kept the air off it anyway. There was nothing there, so somebody suggested they might have something. Lynch Callison had a pail of linseed oil and some wool, which they bandaged on and then, poured linseed oil over the bandage. I kept it on for three days, but when the sore was getting pretty bad and it was swollen up to my elbow, I was afraid of blood poison. But I knew that if it was poisoned I’d never make it out. I pulled the dressing off again. It took some of the hide off with it, but it was a clean wound and from that time began to heal over.
When the ice went out the scows were all built. I was going down with Lynch Callison to pilot him down. I could read water — he had never been down before. He said he’d give me fifty dollars and board.
“That beats rafting down,” I said.
We put a big log in the water and slid the raft into the water, with the log alongside for the ice to hit and bounce off. We put all the goods into the scow — eight tons when we were through.
The other pilots were all teasing us about the rapids we were going to swamp in, and Slim Baine’s rapids, but we pulled out before they had their scows in the water. We were two days ahead of them. We went through some fast water all right, we must have gone through K Rapids and never even knew it! We knew when we came to Slim Baine’s Rapids! There was a big rock right in the middle of the river and two channels. The one to the right you had to make a kind of ‘S’ trip through, but the one to the left was too shallow. I told Lynch our only bet was to keep to the right. He didn’t agree, but I kept sweeping to the right. We had two sweeps on, one in the front and one in the back. There was nothing for him to do but sweep with me, or we’d go broadside on the rock. Anyway, we got through.
Down the river there had been a slide. The river was full of logs sticking up, right across the river. One channel was a little bit open. We made our way through it but we lost a propeller. We had a Model T engine on for power and a twenty-one inch bronze propeller on the end of the drive shaft. When we lost that, all we could do was float down for several hours to a place near the Fontas where it comes into the Nelson.
There was an island. The channel to the right was wide and shallow. We couldn’t make it because we had too much weight. There was nothing to do but try the left channel, although we couldn’t see what was around the bend. We got through, but there was a ridge of rocks pretty near across the river. We couldn’t sweep our heavily loaded scow around enough to avoid them. The current was too fast, so we wound up on the rocks.
And then it started to rain. It rained, and rained, until it turned to wet snow. We were comfortable enough with lots of grub and a little cook stove. We even had a gramophone and lots of records that Lynch figured on selling to the Indians. As well as two thousand feet of green lumber which Lynch was taking down for the police to build a new barracks. So we just stayed there and enjoyed ourselves. Once in a while we’d see a beaver or muskrat or something, working upstream.
The second morning when it cleared up, we were just getting some rope and stuff ready to get off, when we heard a motor. Downstream came a longer scow then we had, and he wasn’t drawing as much water. With some of the boys poling, he just made it through — barely. Going by they said that Joe Clark was stuck up at Slim Baine’s Rapids, and they had to go back in the canoe.
We had a long rope aboard which I carried the end of out onto the rock pile, put it around a good-sized and then brought the end back to the scow. Then we cut a big pole. By rocking the scow, we could thrust the pole under. As the scow came down, it would push the boat a little upstream. Then we’d take the slack up on the rope. Standing up to our waist in the water, we did this until we had the scow straightened right out. Then all we had to do was push it over. By this time Joe Clark came along and helped us get off.
At Fontas River, Lynch got out some tools. We cut the top of a gas barrel out and made two figure-eight blades out of it. We still had the drive shaft and the pinion-gear in the end of it. We got a hacksaw and cut the pinion gear in half. We put a hole in the centre of each blade and put them on each side of the pinion gear. Then we riveted them together and by taking a pipe wrench we could twist the blades and make a propeller. It worked just fine.
We’d stop now and again along the river and buy a little fur from the Indians, trade them a little goods until we got down to Fort Nelson, in about two days.
We knew that with the old Model T engine we’d probably need some help to tie it up. We still had the old horn of the old Model T. We got some green wood and made a big smudge. The fort was just above some rapids. But there’s a straight away stretch of water. The Muskwa River comes into the Nelson about two miles above the fort. We knew the people in Fort Nelson would see us if we had a big fire with blue smoke drifting out, or they’d hear the horn if we blew that once in a while. By the time we got down to the Fort, the Indians were all lined up along the bank. They helped pull us in.
I stayed a month on that scow. I could talk the Indian language pretty good and I could bargain with them. The trader at the Bay told them that if they sold any furs to the free trader they wouldn’t get any credit that summer so the Indians came at night to trade.
It was time for Lynch to go on alone. I thought I would go back in and get some beaver. The season wasn’t quite over yet when along came Henry Kawasy down the river in a canoe from the trading post at Weasel City. He said, “There’s a bad whirlpool in the river”. Henry Philpott and another fellow were figuring on coming down in a dugout canoe that I had up there, to bring their fur. They were going to put a dry log on each side, but in that outfit they’d never be able to buck the whirlpool.
I said to Henry, “Maybe we should rush back overland and head them off”.
Henry thought that was a good idea so we set out with a couple of pack dogs. Part way, we met them. They had changed their mind. We went on up and caught a few beaver.
That fall I was just setting out my trapline — good and early — and was going back to look it over. One day out I got so sick! Just vomited all night long. I couldn’t get any heat out of the campfire. I was just camping out. I tried making tea, but it only made me sicker. In the morning I was pretty sure I had an attack of appendicitis. Back in my cabin I had light food — soup and stuff, but the pain didn’t let up. I was just thinking of making that fifty miles back to Nelson with my dogs, when Henry Philpott came down from Weasel City. It was only twelve miles away. He should have been on his trapline but he got a hunch he should come to see me.
That worked just fine. We put our dogs together.
I got sick the middle of November, but I hung around Nelson until on in January, when the freight teams came in. I went out with them. It was warm when we started out but it soon turned cold. We put a tent over the sleigh. Henry Kawasy and his wife came in with us. She had come in with him that summer but had to go out again. We all rode in the sleigh and kept the fire going. Lynch drove the horses during the day. At night I would spell him off. If there were any suspicious looking place on the ice I would wake Lynch up. He would take the axe and go to see if there were any way around it.
It was so cold that even the rabbits froze to death on the trail. Then our horses started to bleed at the nose. Their lungs were frosting. We tore up sacks and put over the horses’ noses and over their chest. We travelled day and night — travel for three hours, then stop for three hours and then stop for an hour and a half with three blankets over each horse. We’d feed them mostly grain — if we stopped any longer they’d just get cold and stiff.
We travelled this way for twelve and half days until we got within fifteen miles of Fort St. John. We were going to stay at Lynch’s homestead that night. I felt the pain in my side ease up, but I began to get cramps in my stomach. I knew my appendix had ruptured. Lynch got fresh horses and arrived at Fort St. John and got into the hospital at seven o’clock in the morning. They had to operate right away.
The first night the doctors and nurses were there all night with me. I didn’t know it, for I guess they gave me an overdose of chloroform and it took me a long time to come out of it. They kept telling me, “You’ll soon feel better”. But they put a sign on the door for ten days, “No Visitors”. I know I suffered an awful lot of pain. I was getting internal abscesses. Finally the doctor went in with a probe and broke the abscess. I began to get better then, but I was in hospital for six weeks.
I knew I’d never be strong enough to go on the trapline again, so I sold it out to Lynch’s father.
So that’s the end of another episode in the trapping business.
There is just one thing more I’d like to mention. The first hospital built in Fort St. John was finished in September. It was the second of February when I had my operation. Thank goodness I didn’t have to go to Grande Prairie again — only about half the trip!