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Lesser Slave River And Lesser Slave Lake.

It is unnecessary to inform the average reader that the Lesser Slave River connects the Lesser Slave Lake with the Athabasca; any atlas will satisfy him upon that point. But its peculiar colouring he will not find there, and it is this which gives the river its most distinctive character. Once seen, it is easy to account for the hue of the Athabasca below the Lesser Slave River; for the water of the latter, though of a pale yellow colour in a glass, is of a rich burnt umber in the stream, and when blown upon by the wind turns its sparkling facets to the sun like the smile upon the cheek of a brunette. Its upward course is like a continuous letter S with occasional S’s side by side, so that a point can be crossed on foot in a few minutes which would cost much time to go around. Its proper name, too, is not to be found in the atlases, either English or French. There it is called the Lesser Slave River, but in the classic Cree its name is Iyaghchi Eennu Sepe, or the River of the Blackfeet, literally the “River of the Strange People.” The lake itself bears the same name, and even now is never called Slave Lake by the Indians in their own tongue. This fact, to my mind, casts additional light upon an obscure prehistoric question, namely, the migration of the great Algic, or Algonquin, race. Its early home was, perhaps, in the far south, or south-west, whence it migrated around the Gulf of Florida, and eastward along the Atlantic coast, spreading up its bays and inlets, and along its great tributary rivers, finally penetrating by the Upper Ottawa to James’s, and ultimately to the shores of Hudson Bay. I know there is strong adverse opinion as to the starting-point of this migration, and I only offer my own as a suggestion based upon the facts stated, and as, therefore, worthy of consideration. Sir Alexander Mackenzie speaks of the Blackfeet “travelling north-westward,” and that the Crees were “invaders of the Saskatchewan from the eastward.” Indeed, he says the latter were called by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s officers at York Factory “their home-guards.” One thing seems certain, viz., that the Crees got their firearms from the English at Hudson Bay in the 17th century. Thence that great tribe, called by themselves the Naheowuk, but by the Ojibway Saulteaux the Kinistineaux, and by the voyageurs Christineaux, or, more commonly, the Crees a word derived, some think, from the first syllable of the latter name, or perhaps from the French crier, to shout descended upon the Blackfeet, who probably at that time occupied this region, and undoubtedly the Saskatchewan, and drove them south along a line stretching to the Rocky Mountains.

The tradition of this expulsion is still extant, as also of the great raids made by the Blackfeet and their kindred in times past into their ancient domain. I remember visiting, with my old friend Attakacoop Star-Blanket the deceased Cree chief, twenty years ago, the triumphal pile of red deer horns raised by the Blackfeet north of Shell River, a tributary of the North Saskatchewan. It is called by the Crees Ooskunaka Assustakee, and the chief described its great size in former days, and the tradition of its origin as told to him in his boyhood. Be all this as it may, and this is not the place to pursue the inquiry, the stream in question is, to the Crees who live upon it, not the River of the Slaves, but the “River of the Blackfeet.” How it came by its white name is another question. Possibly some captured Indians of the tribe called the Slaves to this day, reduced to servitude by the Crees, were seen by the early voyageurs, and gave rise to the French name, of which ours is a translation. Slavery was common enough amongst the Indians everywhere. A thriving trade was done at the Detroit in the 18th century in Pawnees, or Panis, as they were called, captured by Indian raiders on the western prairies and sold to the white settlers along the river. I have seen in Windsor, Ont., an old bill of sale of one of these Pani slaves, the consideration being, if I recollect aright, a certain quantity of Indian corn.

To return to the river. The distance from Athabasca Landing to the Lesser Slave is called sixty-five miles, but this must have been ascertained by measuring from point to point, for, following the shore up stream, as boats must, it is certainly more. To the head of the river is an additional sixty miles, and thence to the head of the lake seventy-five more. The Hudson’s Bay Company had a storehouse at the Forks, and an island was forming where the waters meet, the finest feature of the place being an echo, which reverberated the bugler’s call at reveille very grandly.

A spurt was made in the early morning, the trackers first following a bank overgrown with alders and sallows, all of a size, which looked exactly like a well-kept hedge, but soon gave way to the usual dense line of poplar and spruce, rooted to the very edges of the banks, which are low compared with those of the Athabasca. After ascending it for some distance, it being Sunday, we camped for the day upon an open grassy point, around which the river swept in a perfect semi-circle, the dense forest opposite towering in one equally perfect, and glorious in light and shade and harmonious tints of green, from sombre olive to the lightest pea. The point itself was covered with strawberry vines and dotted with clumps of saskatoons all in bloom.

It was a lovely and lonely spot, which was soon converted into a scene of eating and laughter, and a drying ground for wet clothes. Towards evening Bishop Grouard and Father Lacombe held a well-attended service, which in this profound wilderness was peculiarly impressive. Listening, one thought how often the same service, these same chants and canticles, had awakened the sylvan echoes in like solitudes on the St. Lawrence and Mississippi in the old days of exploration and trade, and of missionary zeal and suffering. It recalled, too, the thought of man’s evanescence and the apparent fixedness of his institutions.

Shortly after our tents were pitched a boat drifted past with five jaded-looking men aboard more baffled Klondikers returning from Peace River. We had heard of numbers in the interior who could neither go on nor return, and expected to meet more castaways before we reached the lake. In this we were not astray, and several days after in the upper river we met a York boat loaded with them, alert and unmistakable Americans, but with the worn features of disappointed men.

We were now constantly encountering the rapids, which extended for about twenty-five miles, and very difficult and troublesome they proved to be to our heavily-loaded craft. Most of them were got over slowly by combined poling and tracking, the line often breaking with the strain, and the boats being kept in the channel only by the most strenuous efforts of the experienced men on board. If a monias (a greenhorn) took the bow pole, as was sometimes the case, the orders of our steersman, Cyr, were amusing to listen to. “Tughkenay asswayegh tamook!” (Be on your guard!) “Turn de oder way! Turn yourself! Turn your pole Hell!” Then, of course, came the customary rasp on the rocks, but, if not, the cheery cry followed to the trackers ashore, “Ahchipitamook!” (Haul away!) and on we would go for a few yards more. Once, towards the end of this dreary business, when we were all crowded into the Commissioner’s boat, where we took our meals, in the first really stiff rapid the keel grated as usual upon the rocks. With a better line we might have pulled through, but it broke, and the boat at once swung broadside to the current and listed on the rocks immovably, though the men struggling in the water did their best to heavy her off. The third boat then came up, and shortly afterwards the Police boat. But getting their steering sweeps fouled and lines entangled, it was nearly an hour before Cyr’s boat, being first lightened, could swing to starboard of the York, and take off the passengers. The York boat was then shouldered off the rocks by main force, and all got under way again. At this juncture our old Indian, Peokus or Pehayokusk, to give him his right name, to wit, “The giblets of a bird” met with a serious accident, which, much to our regret, laid him up for several days. In his eagerness to help he slipped from a sunken log, and the bruise knocked the wind out of him completely. We took off his wet clothes and rubbed him, and laid him by the fire, where the doctor’s care and a liberal dram of spirits soon fetched him to rights. A look of pleased wonder passed over his clumsy features as the latter did its work. Caliban himself could not have been more curiously surprised.

This was not our last stick: there were other awkward rapids near by; but by dint of wading, shouldering, pulling and tracking, we got over the last of them and into a deep channel for good, having advanced only five miles after a day of incessant toil, most of it in the water.

Our camp that night was a memorable one. The day was the fiftieth anniversary of Father Lacombe’s ministration as a missionary in the North-West, and all joined in presenting him with a suitable address, handsomely engrossed by Mr. Prudhomme on birch bark, and signed by the whole party. A poem, too, composed by Mr. Cote, a gentleman of literary gifts and taste, also written on bark, was read and presented at the same time. [The poem, the text of which was secured from the author too late for insertion here, will be found in the Appendix, .] Pere Lacombe made a touching impromptu reply, which was greatly appreciated. Many of us were not of the worthy Father’s communion, yet there was but one feeling, that of deep respect for the labours of this celebrated missionary, whose life had been a continuous effort to help the unbefriended Indian into the new but inevitable paths of self-support, and to shield him from the rapacity of the cold incoming world now surging around him. After the presentation, over a good cigar, the Father told some inimitable stories of Indian life on the plains in the old days, which to my great regret are too lengthy for inclusion here. One incident, however, being apropos of himself, must find place. Turning the conversation from materialism, idealism, and the other “isms” into which it had drifted, he spoke of the fears so many have of ghosts, and even of a corpse, and confessed that, from early training, he had shared this fear until he got rid of it in an incident one winter at Lac Ste. Anne. He had been sent for during the night to administer extreme unction to a dying half-breed girl thirteen miles away. Hitching his dogs to their sled he sped on, but too late, for he was met on the trail by the girl’s relatives, bringing her dead body wrapped in a buffalo skin, and which they asked him to take back with him and place in his chapel pending service. He tremblingly assented, and the body was duly tied to his sled, the relatives returning to their homes. He was alone with the corpse in the dense and dark forest, and felt the old dread, but reflecting on his office and its duties, he ran for a long distance behind the sled until, thoroughly tired, he stepped on it to rest. In doing this he slipped and fell upon the corpse in a spasm of fear, which, strange to say, when he recovered from it, he felt no more. The shock cured him, and, reaching home, he placed the girl’s body in the chapel with his own hands. It reminded him, he said, of a Community at Marseilles whose Superior had died, but whose money was missing. The new Superior sent a young priest who had a great dread of ghosts down to the crypt below the church to open the coffin and search the pockets of the dead. He did so, and found the money; but in nailing on the coffin lid again, a part of his soutane was fastened down with it. The priest turned to go, advanced a step, and, being suddenly held, dropped dead with fright. These gruesome stories were happily followed by an hour or two of song and pleasantry in Mr. McKenna’s tent, ending in “Auld Lang Syne” and “God Save the Queen.” It was a unique occasion in which to wind up so laborious a day; and our camp itself was unique on a lofty bluff overlooking the confluence of the Saulteau River with the Lesser Slave a bold and beautiful spot, the woods at the angle of the two rivers, down to the water’s edge, showing like a gigantic V, as clean-cut as if done by a pair of colossal shears.

Next morning rowing took the place of poling and tracking for a time, and, presently, the great range of lofty hills called, to our right, the Moose Watchi, and to our left, the Tuskanatchi the Moose and Raspberry Mountains loomed in the distance. Here, and when only a few miles from the lake, a York boat came tearing down stream full of lithe, young half-breed trackers our long-expected assistants from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post, as we would have welcomed much more warmly had they come sooner, for we had little but the lake now to ascend, up which a fair breeze would carry us in a single night.

Doubtless it would have done so if it had come; but the same head-winds and storms which had thwarted us from the first dogged us still. We had camped near the mouth of Muskeg Creek, a good-sized stream, and evidently the cause hitherto of the Lesser Slave’s rich chocolate colour; for, above the forks, the latter took its hue from the lake, but with a yellowish tinge still. From this point the river was very crooked, and lined by great hay meadows of luxuriant growth. Skirting these, reinforced as we were, we soon pulled up to the foot of the lake, where stood a Hudson’s Bay Company’s solitary storehouse. There some change of lading was made, in order to reach “the Island,” some seven miles up, and the only one in the lake, sails being hoisted for the first time to an almost imperceptible wind.

The island, where we were to camp simply for the night as we fondly thought was found to be a sprawling jumble of water-worn pebbles, boulders and sand, with a long narrow spit projecting to the east, much frequented by gulls, of whose eggs a large number were gathered. To the south, on the mainland, is the site of the old North-West Company’s post, near to which stood that of the Hudson’s Bay Company, for they always planted themselves cheek by jowl in those days of rivalry, so that there should be no lack of provocation. A dozen half-breed families had now their habitat there, and subsisted by fishing and trapping. On the island our Cree half-breeds enjoyed the first evening’s camp by playing the universal button-hiding game called Pugasawin, and which is always accompanied by a monotonous chant and the tom-tom, anything serving for that hideous instrument if a drum is not at hand. They are all inveterate gamblers in that country, and lose or win with equal indifference. Others played a peculiar game of cards called Natwawaquawin, or “Marriage,” the loser’s penalty being droll, but unmentionable. These amusements, which often spun out till morning, were broken up by another rattling storm, which lasted all night and all the next day. We had lost all count of storms by this time, and were stolidly resigned. The day following, however, the wind was fresh and fair, and we made great headway, reaching the mouth of Swan River Naposeo Sepe about mid-day.

This stream is almost choked at its discharge by a conglomeration of slimy roots, weeds and floatwood, and the banks are “a melancholy waste of putrid marshes.” It is a forbidding entrance to a river which, farther up, waters a good farming country, including coal in abundance.

The wind being strong and fair, we spun along at a great rate, and expected to reach the treaty point before dark, reckoning, as usual, without our host. The wind suddenly wheeled to the south-west, and a dangerous squall sprang up, which forced us to run back for shelter fully five miles. There was barely time to camp before the gale became furious, raging all night, and throwing down tents like nine-pins. About one a.m. a cry arose from the night-watch that the boats were swamping. All hands turned out, lading was removed, and the scows hauled up on the shingle, the rollers piling on shore with a height and fury perfectly astonishing for such a lake. By morning the tempest was at its height, continuing all day and into the night. The sunset that evening exhibited some of the grandest and wildest sky scenery we had ever beheld. In the west a vast bank of luminous orange cloud, edged by torn fringes of green and gray; in the south a sea of amethyst, and stretching from north to east masses of steel gray and pearl, shot with brilliant shafts and tufts of golden vapour. The whole sky streamed with rich colouring in the fierce wind, as if possessed at once by the genii of beauty and storm. The boatmen, noting its aspect, predicted worse weather; but, fortunately, morning belied the omens our trials were over.

We were now nearing Shaw’s Point, a long willowed spit of land, called after a whimsical old chief-factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company who had charge of this district over sixty years before. He appears to have been a man of many eccentricities, one of which was the cultivation a la Chinois of a very long finger-nail, which he used as a spoon to eat his egg. But of him anon. By four p.m. we had rounded his Point, and come into view of Wyaweekamon “The Outlet” a rudimentary street with several trading stores, a billiard saloon and other accessories of a brand-new village in a very old wilderness.

Here we were at the treaty point at last, safe and sound, with new interests and excitements before us; with wild man instead of wild weather to encounter; with discords to harmonize and suspicions to allay by human kindness, perhaps by human firmness, but mainly by the just and generous terms proffered by Government to an isolated but highly interesting and deserving people.