By Glen Wade, © 2001
As a 16 year old, looking for adventure, and having an uncle and grandma living in a log cabin in the north woods, it was inevitable that I would be able to persuade my Dad to ship me up there, if only to put a stop to my pleading. It was arranged that I should take my grade eleven by correspondence from Regina.
When I arrived in Pouce Coupe and then went out to my uncle’s homestead, five and one half miles south of town, everything was as wonderful as expected. There followed a year and a half that has left me with many great memories. It is difficult to give the following any continuity, so I will just list the memories as a series of events in no special sequence.
In 1928, my uncle, Percy Wade, my grandma, Maggie Wade, along with John Cade and his family, left Red Deer, Alberta, for what they thought were greener pastures. They took up homesteads, solid with large trees, south of Pouce Coupe. Not for them the prairies around Dawson Creek. If trees grew large the land must be good. So trees became Uncle Percy’s enemy, and such an obsession, that years later, when he visited me on my acreage and saw my trees I had so carefully nurtured, he accused me of being too lazy to cut them down. I admit that when you lived in such heavy bush, a few cleared acres looked like a welcome change.
Percy’s cabin was great. It was one large room, with one end partitioned off by curtains strung on wire, to form two bedrooms. There was a large porch on the front to shelter the front door, and below the floor, in the centre of the cabin, a cellar had been dug, with dirt walls. It contained a gas barrel stove, which would take three-foot logs, and shelves for grandma’s canned goods. Flour was suspended from the roof by wires to protect it from the mice. The cellar was entered by a trap door in the floor, counter weighted to make it easier to open. Green wood meant chimney fires occurred once in awhile but they sure cleaned out the chimney.
Our total income was ten dollars a month. Taxes were paid by my uncle brushing road allowances for three days. Apart from salt, sugar, flour and other such necessities, nature supplied our food. When meat was required, Percy shot a moose, often from the front door of the cabin. Strangely there were no deer. Grandma would then cut the meat into two-inch cubes and put them into jars, which would be sealed and cooked. Imagine how many jars it took to can a whole moose. The meat was very tender and had no wild taste and was a favourite school lunch for me. Also one bear was shot each year and rendered down for cooking fat. This always occurred in the fall before hibernation. Grandma made her own vinegar from mother of vinegar that was kept on the back of the stove. Sourdough was sometimes preserved for leavening bread but mainly she used yeast that came in cakes. Our vegetables were supplied from a small garden, which grandma tended. Rabbits were a real scourge but couldn’t be eaten because of pustules under their skin, which we were told was TB. To keep them from eating the garden, grandma wove a willow fence all around her garden, which was quite effective in keeping them out. As I remember, it was a real work of art. Periodically I would provide some variety to our diet by shooting three grouse, one for each of us.
One-day grandma informed me she hadn’t seen another woman for over two years. This was a country populated by bachelors. There was a lady, a Mrs. Gallagher, who lived about two miles from us by a fairly good trail, so I suggested we walk over and visit. The visit was a great success and was repeated several times. The man on the farm was a Mr. Elliot. His place was much more developed, and they had livestock including four large draft horses. I enjoyed these visits as much as grandma did.
Close behind our cabin was a trail which went many miles back to, I believe, the Cutbank River. One day I met a Norwegian who lived back there and he was on skis moving right along with a large bag of flour lying across his skis. He was moving by pushing himself with his poles. What powerful arms he must have had. Sometimes a tractor would go along this trail and grandma always knew, because she could smell the fumes. Then she would scold about these stinky contraptions, and why would anyone want to own one.
Grandma was very clean and very house proud. However with the hospitality of the times it was inevitable that the cabin would be infected with bedbugs. Checking mattresses was a daily ritual and fumigating the cabin by burning sulphur was a frequent event. What a frustration this was for grandma!
Charlie Ovans, our schoolteacher, kept his saddle horse at our place. I think somebody outsmarted him, because that was the worst tempered horse I ever saw. He said I could ride it, but that was no fun. In winter Mr. Ovans would put a kettle of hot water on the stove and everyone could bring vegetables from home each day and these were thrown in the pot to simmer all morning. At noon we had a nourishing stew which tasted pretty good. Dances were held once in awhile in the school and were fun. Harry Meadows lived near the school and I believe was one of the musicians. They were real family affairs. Most people did not have horses so walked to the dance. Imagine walking several miles to a dance, then dancing until the wee hours, and then walking home. My walk to school was two miles from home.
There was no end of interesting men in the area. One was Mr. Gornel, who lived on the banks of Canyon Creek, a couple of miles from our place. He was an English remittance man, supposedly from an embarrassed nobility. His home was a most interesting cave dug out of the bank of Canyon Creek. It had a southern exposure and was always warm. When he dug the cave, he also carved the rooms furniture out of the dirt. His bed was a square dirt block, covered by moose hides. His armchair looked just like an easy chair, as we know them, also covered by moose hides and was very comfortable. In fact the whole cave was very comfortable and easy to keep warm. Mr. Gornel had a great sense of humor. Ball games were taken very seriously by the communities, and winning was essential. Mr. Gornel would go to these games, collect all the local kids and give each of them a dime if they would cheer loud and hard for the visiting team. Kids would do anything for a dime, and the effect on the parents was catastrophic.
Mr. Gornel’s neighbor was Mr. Chapman, who also lived by Canyon Creek. He had been a miner in Australia and had suffered a severe head injury in a mine accident. This necessitated a silver plate replacing part of his skull. Cold weather caused severe pain, which often resulted in him taking it out with firearms. I never witnessed this but hearsay said Mr. Gornel was the target, although usually they were great friends.
Dad Freeman lived near the highway in a nice cabin facing east. The land was cleared between his cabin and the highway and it had a nice porch where he could sit and watch any passers by. On the porch he had a most interesting chair made out of woven willows and I believe moose horns. It was very comfortable. I used to sit there with him and we had great talks.
One day I was told the Bedaux Expedition would be going down the highway at a certain time. It had received a lot of publicity, so I went to see them go by. Right on time, they roared past me, down the highway, each of the vehicles giving me a big wave. What amazed me was that vehicles with caterpillar type wheels could go so fast, and also that they could carry such high and large loads. Anyway, I had seen a bit of history. Another bit of history was the cars that bushwhacked their way across country from Beaverlodge to Prince George via the Monkman Pass. Many years later I was able to see the remains of this trek.
Cutting across our homestead was a grassy roadway that seemed to go nowhere. There were wagon ruts down the centre, which had long since grown over with grass. Also there was the remains of a log cabin on the trail which was in a sad state of decay. My uncle informed me this was part of the Trail of 98 that the Klondikers took thirty-six years before.
Twice a week, I would walk to town for the mail. I would leave after school and get home about nine o’clock. One night while walking home, the whole sky lit up just as bright as daytime. It was a meteor that has gone down in history books because, I believe, some of it was recovered. It startled me but did not frighten me, because I knew right away what it was.
On another trip to town, I was going in with Mr. Elliot. He had their four horses hooked up to an empty hayrack on sleds. It was very cold and the snow was just like sand. The horses could barely pull the rack and had to rest every half-mile. Also, icicles kept forming in their nostrils and we had to clean them out so they could breathe. When we got to town they told us it was seventy-two below zero. Two weeks later I was taking my socks off and my whole heel came off with my sock. It was one quarter of an inch thick and the size of my heel. I had frozen it and was not aware of it.
While waiting for the mail I would sit by the potbellied stove in Becker’s store. There was always several old men sitting there, talking and it was great to listen to them. I remember one old fellow saying that he could not help but notice that there was getting to be less and less old people around. Then he said he suddenly realized he was now the old people. At 84 I can relate to that.
Dad and Mother drove up to visit me. The trip from Edmonton took a full week of plowing mud. When I came up on the train, I remember along the Slave Lake area, the water was over the tracks and the train made a wave just like the wake of a boat.
Well all this is memories now. Grandma died in the Pouce Coupe hospital while I was overseas bombing a country where I now have many friends. She lay for several days on a stretcher in the corridor of the hospital, as there was no bed for her. Uncle Percy died in the Dawson Creek hospital hanging onto my arm with a grip like steel because my last words to him were “hang on Percy”
One last little anecdote. When I got back from overseas, Percy asked me which group of people gave me the best treatment. I replied that without doubt it was the Salvation Army. Years later, on opening his will, his sole beneficiary was the Sally Ann. What a great way to go.