Read Chapter X of Through the Mackenzie Basin, free online book, by Charles Mair, on

The Trip To Wahpooskow.

Our route lay first up the Pelican River, the Chachakew of the Crees, and then from the “divide” down the Wahpooskow watershed to the lake. We had six canoemen, and our journey began by “packing” our outfit over a four-mile portage, commencing with a tremendously long and steep hill, and ending on a beautiful bank of the Pelican, a fine brown stream about one hundred feet wide, where we found our canoes awaiting us, capital “Peterboroughs,” in good order. Here also were a number of bark canoes, carrying the outfit of Mr. Ladoucere, a half-breed trader going up to Wahpooskow. Mr. Prudhomme and myself occupied one canoe, and with two experienced canoemen, Auger at the stern and Cardinal at the bow, we kept well up with the procession.

Where the channels are shallow, poles are used, which the men handled very dexterously, nicking in and out amongst the rocks and rapids in the neatest way; but in the main the propulsion was by our paddles, a delight to me, having been bred to canoeing from boyhood. We stopped for luncheon at a lovely “place of trees” overhanging a deep, dark, alluring pool, where we knew there were fish, but had no time to make a cast. So far the banks of the Pelican were of a moderate height, and the adjacent country evidently dry a good soil, and berries very plentiful. Presently, between banks overhung with long grass, birch and alder, we entered a succession of the sweetest little rapids and riffles imaginable, the brown water dancing amongst the stones and boulders to its own music, and the rich rose-pink, cone-like tops of the water-vervain, now in bloom, dancing with it.

Our camp that night was a delightful one, amongst slender birch and spruce and pine, the ground covered with blueberries, partridge berries, and cranberries in abundance. The berries of the wolf-willow were also red-ripe, alluring, but bitter to the taste. It was really a romantic scene. Ladoucere had made his camp in a small glade opposite our own, the bend of the river being in front of us. The tall pines cast their long reflections on the water, our great fires gleamed athwart them, illuminating the under foliage of the birches with magical light, whilst the half-breeds, grouped around and silhouetted by the fires, formed a unique picture which lingers in the memory. We slept like tops that night beneath the stars, on a soft bed of berry bushes, and never woke until a thin morning rain sprinkling in our faces fetched us to our feet.

A good bacon breakfast and then to our paddles, the river-bends as graceful as ever, but with fewer rapids. At every turn we came upon luxuriant hay meadows, with generally heavy woods opposite them, the river showing the same easy and accessible shore, whilst now and then giant hoof-prints, a broken marge, and miry grass showed where a moose had recently sprawled up the bank. Nothing, indeed, could surpass the rich colour-tone of this delightful stream an exquisite opaqueness even under the clouds; but, interfused with sunshine, like that rare and translucent brown spread by the pencil of a master.

As we were paddling along, the willows on shore suddenly parted, and an Indian runner appeared on the bank, who hailed us and, handing over a sack of mail with letters and papers for us all, sped off as suddenly as he came.

It was now the last day of August, raw and drizzly, and having paddled about ten miles through a like country, we came in sight of the Pelican Mountains to the west, and, later on, to a fork of the river called Muskeg Creek, above which our stream narrowed to about eighteen feet, but still deep and fringed with the same extensive hay meadows, and covered here and there with pond lilies, a few yellow ones still in bloom. By and by we reached Muskeg Portage, nearly a mile in length. The path lay at first through dry muskegs covered with blueberries, Labrador tea, and a dwarfed growth of birch, spruce, tamarac, and jackpine, but presently entered and ended in a fine upland wood, full of pea-vines, vetches and wild rose. This is characteristic of the country, muskegs and areas of rich soil alternating in all directions. The portage completed, we took to our canoes again, the stream of the same width, but very crooked, and still bordered by extensive and exceedingly rich hay meadows, which we were satisfied would yield four or five tons to the acre. Small haystacks were scattered along the route, being put up for ponies which haul supplies in winter from Pelican Landing to Wahpooskow.

The country passed through showed good soil wherever we penetrated the hay margin, with, of course, here and there the customary muskegs. The stream now narrowed into a passage deep but barely wide enough for our canoes, our course lying always through tall and luxuriant hay. At last we reached Pelican Lake, a pretty large sheet of water, about three miles across, the body of the lake extending to the south-west and north-east. We crossed it under sail and, landing at the “three mile portage,” found a half-breed there with a cart and ponies, which took our outfit over in a couple of trips to Sandy Lake. A very strong headwind blowing, we camped there for the night.

This lake is the height of land, its waters discharging by the Wahpooskow River, whose northern part, miscalled the Loon, falls into the Peace River below Fort Vermilion. The lake is an almost perfect circle, ten or twelve miles in diameter, the water full of fibrous growths, with patches of green scum afloat all over it. Nevertheless, it abounds in pike, dory, and tullabees, the latter a close congener of the whitefish, but finer in flavour and very fat. Indeed, the best fed dogs we had seen were those summering here. The lake, where we struck it, was literally covered with pin-tail ducks and teal; but it is not a good moose country, and consequently the food supply of the natives is mainly fish.

We descried a few half-breed cabins and clearings on the opposite shore, carved out of the dense forest which girdles the lake, and topographically the country seemed to be of a moderate elevation, and well suited for settlement. The wind having gone down, we crossed the lake on the 2nd of September to what is here called Sandy Creek, a very crooked stream, its thick, sluggish current bordered by willows and encumbered with reeds and flags, and, farther on, made a two-mile portage, where at a very bad landing we were joined by the boats, and presently paddled into a great circular pond, covered with float-weed, a very paradise of ducks, which were here in myriads.

Its continuation, called “The Narrows,” now flowed in a troubled channel, crossed in all directions by jutting boulders, full of tortuous snies, to be groped along dexterously with the poles, but dropped at last into better water, ending at a portage, where we dined. This portage led to the farmhouse of a Mr. Houle, a native of Red River, who had left St. Vital fifty-eight years before, and was now settled at a beautiful spot on the right bank of the river, and had horses, cows and other cattle, a garden, and raised wheat and other grain, which he said did well, and was evidently prosperous. After a regale of milk we embarked for the first Wahpooskow lake, which we reached in the afternoon.

This is a fine and comparatively clear sheet of water, much frequented by the natives. The day was beautiful, and with a fair wind and sails up we passed point after point sprinkled with the cabins and tepees of the Indians and half-breeds. It was perfectly charming to sweep up to and past these primitive lodgings, with a spanking breeze, and the dancing waves seething around our bows. Small patches of potatoes met the eye at every house, making our mouths water with expectation, for we had now been a long time without them, and it is only then that one realizes their value. In the far distance we discerned the Roman Catholic Mission church, the primitive building showing up boldly in the offing, whilst our canoemen, now nearing their own home, broke into an Indian chant, and were in high spirits. They expected a big feast that night, and so did we! I had been a bit under the weather, with flagging appetite, but felt again the grip of healthy hunger.

We were now in close contact with the most innocently wild, secluded, and apparently happy state of things imaginable a real Utopia, such as Sir Thomas More dreamt not of, being actually here, with no trace of abortive politics or irritating ordinance. Here was contentment in the savage wilderness communion with Nature in all her unstained purity and beauty. One thought of the many men of mind who had moralized on this primitive life, and, tired of towns, of “the weariness, the fever and the fret” of civilization, had abandoned all and found rest and peace in the bosom of Mother Nature.

The lake now narrowed into a deep but crooked stream, fringed, as usual, by tall reeds and rushes and clumps of flowering water-lilies. A four-mile paddle brought us to a long stretch of deep lake, the second Wahpooskow, lined on the north by a lovely shore, dotted with cabins, the central tall buildings upon the summit of the rising ground being those of the English “Church Mission Society,” in charge of the Reverend Charles R. Weaver. Here we were at last at the inland end of our journey, at Wahpooskow this, not the “Wabiscow” of the maps, being the right spelling and pronunciation of the word, which means in English “The Grassy Narrows.”

The other Missions of this venerable Society in Athabasca, it may be mentioned, were at the time as follows: Athabasca Landing, the residence of Bishop Young; Lesser Slave Lake, White Fish Lake, Smoky River, Spirit River, Fort Vermilion, and Fort Chipewyan, in charge, respectively, of the Reverend Messrs. Holmes, White, Currie, Robinson, Scott, and Warwick. The Roman Catholic Mission, already mentioned, had been established three years before our coming by the Reverend J. B. Giroux, at Stony Point, near the outlet of the first lake, the other Oblat Missions in Athabasca I do not vouch for my accuracy being Athabasca Landing, Lesser Slave Lake, the residence of Bishop Clut and clergy and of the Sisters of Providence; White Fish Lake, Smoky River, Dunvegan, and St. John, served, respectively, by Fathers Leferriere, Lesserec, and Letreste; Fort Vermilion by Father Joussard, and Fort Chipewyan by Bishop Grouard and the Grey Nuns.

Mr. Weaver, the missionary at Wahpooskow, is an Englishman, his wife being a Canadian from London, Ontario. By untiring labour he had got his mission into very creditable shape. When it is remembered that everything had to be brought in by bark canoes or dog-train, and that all lumber had to be cut by hand, it seemed to be a monument of industry. Before qualifying himself for missionary work he had studied farming in Ontario, and the results of his knowledge were manifest in his poultry, pigs and cows; in his garden, full of all the most useful vegetables, including Indian corn, and his wheat, which was then in stock, perfectly ripe and untouched by frost. This he fed, of course, to his pigs and poultry, as it could not be ground; but it ripened, he told me, as surely as in Manitoba. Some of the natives roundabout had begun raising stock and doing a little grain growing, and it was pleasant to hear the lowing of cattle and the music of the cow-bells, recalling home and the kindly neighbourhood of husbandry and farm.

The settlement was then some twenty years old, and numbered about sixty souls. The total number of Indians and half-breeds in the locality was unknown, but nearly two hundred Indians received head-money, and all were not paid, and the half-breeds seemed quite as numerous. About a quarter of the whole number of Indians were said to be pagans, and the remainder Protestants and Roman Catholics in fair proportion. In the latter denomination, Father Giroux told me, the proportion of Indians and half-breeds, including those of the first lake, was about equal. The latter, he said, raised potatoes, but little else, and lived like the Indians, by fishing and hunting, especially by the former, as they had to go far now for fur and large game.

The Hudson’s Bay Company had built a post near Mr. Weaver’s Mission, and there was a free-trader also close by, named Johnston, whose brother, a fine-looking native missionary, assisted at an interesting service we attended in the Mission church, conducted in Cree and English, the voices in the Cree hymns being very soft and sweet. Mr. Ladoucere was also near with his trading-stock, so that business, it was feared, would be overdone. But we issued an unexpectedly large number of scrip certificates here, and the price being run up by competition, a great deal of trade followed.

Wahpooskow is certainly a wonderful region for fish, particularly the whitefish and its cousin-german, the tullabee. They are not got freely in winter in the first lake, but are taken in large numbers in the second, where they throng at that season. But in the fall the take is very great in both lakes, and stages were seen in all directions where the fish are hung up by their tails, very tempting to the hungry dogs, but beyond their reach until the crows attack them. The former keep a watchful eye on this process, and when the crows have eaten off the tails, which they invariably attack first, the dogs seize the fish as they drop. When this performance becomes serious, however, the fish are generally removed to stores.

One night, after an excellent dinner at Mr. Weaver’s, that grateful rarity with us, we adjourned to a ball or “break-down,” given in our honour by the local community. It took place in a building put up by a Mr. George, an English catechist of the Mission; a solid structure of logs of some length, the roof poles being visible above the peeled beams. On one of these five or six candles were alight, fastened to it by simply sticking them into some melted tallow. There were two fiddlers and a crowd of half-breeds, of elders, youths, girls and matrons, the latter squatting on the floor with their babes in moss-bags, dividing the delights of the evening between nursing and dancing, both of which were conducted with the utmost propriety. Indeed, it was interesting to see so many pretty women and well-behaved men brought together in this out-of-the-world place. The dances were the customary reels, and, of course, the Red River Jig. I was sorry, however, to notice a so-called improvement upon this historic dance; that is to say, they doubled the numbers engaged in it, and called it “The Wahpooskow Jig.” It seemed a dangerous innovation; and the introduction later on of a cotillon with the usual dreary and mechanical calls filled one with additional forebodings. We almost heard “the first low wash of waves where soon shall flow a human sea.” But aside from such newfangled features, there was nothing to criticise. The fiddling was good, and the dancing was good, showing the usual expertness, in which performance the women stooped their shoulders gracefully, and bent their brows modestly upon the floor, whilst the men vied with each other in the admirable and complicated variety of their steps. In fact, it was an evening very agreeably spent, and not the less so from its primitive environment. After joining in a reel of eight, we left the scene with reluctance, the memorable Jig suddenly striking on our ears as we wended our way in the darkness to our camp.

As regards farming land in the region, for a long way inland Mr. Weaver and others described it as of the like good quality as at the Mission, but with much muskeg. It is difficult to estimate the extent of the latter, for, being more noticeable than good land, the tendency is to overestimate. Its proportion to arable land is generally put at about 50 per cent., which may be over or under the truth, for only actual township or topographic surveys can determine it.

The country drained by the lower river, the Loon, as it is improperly called in our maps, navigable for canoes all the way to where it enters the Peace, was described as an extensive and very uniform plateau, sloping gently to the north. To the south the Pelican Mountains formed a noble background to the view from the Mission, which is indeed charming in all directions.

At the mouth of the river, and facing the Mission, a long point stretches out, dividing the lake into two deep arms, the Mission being situated upon another point around which the lake sweeps to the north. The scene recalls the view from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at Lesser Slave Lake, but excels it in the larger extent of water, broken into by scores of bayous, or pools, bordered by an intensely green water-weed of uniform height, and smooth-topt as a well-clipt lawn. Behind these are hay meadows, a continuation of the long line of them we had passed coming up.

Upon the whole, we considered this an inviting region for any farmer who is not afraid to tackle the forest. But whether a railway would pass this way at first seemed to us doubtful. The head of Lesser Slave Lake lies far to the south-west, and there it is most likely to pass on its way to the Peace. What could be supplied, however, is a waggon-road from Wahpooskow to Athabasca Landing, instead of the present dog-trail, which passes many deep ravines, and makes a long detour by Sandy Lake. Such a road should pass by the east end of the first Wahpooskow Lake, thence to Rock Island Lake, and on by Calling Lake to the Landing, a distance of about one hundred miles. Such a road, whilst saving 125 miles of travel by the present route, would cut down the cost of transport by fully one-half.

Wahpooskow had its superstitions and some doubtful customs. For instance, an Indian called Nepapinase “A Wandering Bolt of Night-Lightning” lost his son when Mr. Ross was there taking adhesion to the Treaty, and spread the report that he had brought “bad medicine.” Polygamy was practised, and even polyandry was said to exist; but we had no time to verify this gossip, and no right to interfere if we had.

On the 6th, a lovely fall morning, we bade good-bye to Wahpooskow, its primitive people, and its simple but ample pleasures. Autumn was upon us. Foliage, excepting in the deep woods, was changing fast, the hues largely copper and russet; hard body-tints, yet beautiful. There were no maples here, as in the East, to add a glorious crimson to the scene; this was given by shrubs, not by trees. The tints were certainly, in the larger growths, less delicate here than there; the poplar’s chrome was darker, the willow’s mottled chrome more sere. But there was the exquisite pale canary of the birch, the blood-red and yellow of the wild rose, which glows in both hues, the rich crimson of the red willow, with its foil of ivory berries, and the ruddy copper of the high-bush cranberry. These, with many other of the berry bearers and the wild-flowers, yielded their rich hues; so that the great pigments of autumn, crimson, brown and yellow, were everywhere to be seen, beneath a deep blue sky strewn with snowy clouds.

We were now on the return to Pelican Landing, with but few incidents to note by the way, aside from those already recorded. But having occasion to take a declaration at a cabin on our passage along the first lake, we had an opportunity of visiting a hitherto unobserved stratum of Wahpooskow’s society.

The path to the cabin and its tepees led up a steep bank, beaten as hard as nails and as slippery as glass; nevertheless, by clutching the weeds which bordered it, mainly nettles, we got on top at last, where an interesting scene met the eye.

This was a half-breed family, the head of which, a shrivelled old fellow, was busy making a paddle with his crooked knife, the materials of a birch-bark canoe lying beside him and most beautifully they make the canoe in this region. His wife was standing close by, a smudged hag of most sinister aspect; also a son and his wife. On stages, and on the shrubs around, were strewn nets, ragged blankets, frowsy shawls, and a huddle of other shreds and patches; and, everywhere else, a horde of hungry dogs snarling and pouncing upon each other like wolves. Filth here was supreme, and the mise en scene characteristic of a very low and very rare type of Wahpooskow life indeed a type butted and bounded by the word “fish.” An attempt was made to photograph the group, but the old fellow turned aside, and the old woman hobbled into the recesses of a tepee, where we heard her muttering such exécrations in Cree as were possible to that innocent tongue. The hands of the woman at the cabin door were a miracle of grime and scrofula. Her sluttish locks, together with two children, hung around her; one of the latter chewing a muddy carrot up into the leaves, an ungainly little imp; the other was a girl of singularly beautiful features and of perfect form, her large luminous eyes of richest brown reflecting the sunlight from their depths like mirrors a little angel clad in dirt. Why other wild things should be delicately clean, the birds, the fishes she lived on, and she be bred amidst running sores and vermin, was one of the mysteries I pondered over when we took to our canoes. For such a pair of eyes, for those exquisite features, some scraggy denizen of Vanity Fair would have given a king’s ransom. Yet here was a thing of beauty, dropped by a vile freak of Nature into an appalling environment of filth and ignorance; a creature destined, no doubt, to spring into mature womanhood, and lapse, in time, into a counterpart of the bleared Hecate who mumbled her Cree philippics in the neighbouring wigwam.

On our return trip some detours were made, one of which was to the habitation of another half-breed family at the foot of Sandy Lake, themselves and everything about them orderly, clean and neat; the very opposites of the curious household we had visited the day before. They had a great kettle of fish on the fire, which we bought, and had our dinner there; being especially pleased to note that their dogs were not starved, but were fat and well handled. At the east side of the lake we were delayed trying to catch ponies to make the portage, failing which we got over otherwise by dark, and camped again on the Pelican River. That night there was a keen frost, and ice formed along shore, but the weather was delightfully crisp and clear, and we reached Pelican Landing on the 9th, finding there our old scow and the trackers, with our friend Cyr in command, and Marchand, our congenial cook, awaiting us.

On the 11th we set off for Athabasca Landing, accompanied by a little fleet of trippers’ and traders’ canoes, and passed during the day immense banks of shale, the tracking being very bad and the water still high. We noted much good timber standing on heavy soil, and on the 14th passed a curious hump-like hill, cut-faced, with a reddish and yellow cinder-like look, as if it had been calcined by underlying fires. Near it was an exposure of deep coloured ochre, and, farther on, enormous black cut-banks, also suggestive of coal.

The Calling River “Kitoosepe” was one of our points of distribution, and upon reaching it we found the river benches covered with tepees, and a crowd of half-breeds from Calling Lake awaiting us. After the declarations and scrip payments were concluded, we took stock of the surroundings, which consisted, so far as numbers went, mainly of dogs. Nearly all of them looked very miserable, and one starveling bitch, with a litter of pups, seemed to live upon air. It was pitiful to see the forlorn brutes so cruelly abused; but it has been the fate of this poor mongrel friend of humanity from the first. The canine gentry fare better than many a man, but the outcasts of the slums and camps feel the stroke of bitter fortune, yet, with prodigious heart, never cease to love the oppressor.

There was an adjunct of the half-breed camp, however, more interesting than the dogs, namely, Marie Rose Gladu, a half-sister of the Catherine Bisson we met at Lesser Slave Lake, but who declared herself to be older than she by five years. From evidence received she proved to be very old, certainly over a hundred, and perhaps the oldest woman in Northern Canada. She was born at Lesser Slave Lake, and remembered the wars of her people with the Blackfeet, and the “dancing” of captured scalps. She remembered the buffalo as plentiful at Calling Lake; that it was then a mixed country, and that their supplies in those old days were brought in by way of Isle a la Cross, Beaver River, and Lac la Biche, as well as by Methy Portage, a statement which I have heard disputed, but which is quite credible for all that. She remembered the old fort at the south-east end of Lesser Slave Lake, and Waupistagwon, “The White Head,” as she called him, namely, Mr. Shaw of the famous finger-nail. Her father, whose name was Nekehwapiskun “My wigwam is white” was a fur company’s Chief, and, in his youth, a noted hunter of Rabisca (Chipewyan), whence he came to Lesser Slave Lake. Her own Cree name, unmusical for a wonder, was Ochenaskumagan “Having passed many Birthdays.” Her hair was gray and black rather than iron-gray, her eyes sunken but bright, her nose well formed, her mouth unshrunken but rather projecting, her cheeks and brow a mass of wrinkles, and her hands, strange to say, not shrivelled, but soft and delicate as a girl’s. The body, however, was nothing but bones and integument; but, unlike her half-sister, she could walk without assistance. After our long talk through an interpreter she readily consented to be photographed with me, and, seating ourselves on the grass together, she grasped my hand and disposed herself in a jaunty way so as to look her very best. Indeed, she must have been a pretty girl in her youth, and, old as she was, had some of the arts of girlhood in her yet.

At this point the issue of certificates for scrip practically ended, the total number distributed being 1,843, only 48 of which were for land.

Leaving Calling River before noon, we passed Riviere la Biche towards evening, and camped about four miles above it on the same side of the river. We were not far from the Landing, and therefore near the end of our long and toilsome yet delightful journey. It was pleasant and unexpected, too, to find our last camp but one amongst the best. The ground was a flat lying against the river, wooded with stately spruce and birch, and perfectly clear of underbrush. It was covered with a plentiful growth of a curious fern-like plant which fell at a touch. The great river flowed in front, and an almost full moon shone divinely across it, and sent shafts of sidelong light into the forest. The huge camp-fires of the trackers and canoemen, the roughly garbed groups around them, the canoes themselves, the whole scene, in fact, recalled some genre sketch by our half-forgotten colourist, Jacobi. Our own fire was made at the foot of a giant spruce, and must have been a surprise to that beautiful creature, evidently brimful of life. Indeed, I watched the flames busy at its base with a feeling of pain, for it is difficult not to believe that those grand productions of Nature, highly organized after their kind, have their own sensations, and enjoy life.

The 17th fell on a Sunday, a delicious morning of mist and sunshine and calm, befitting the day. But we were eager for letters from home, and therefore determined to push on. Perhaps it was less desecrating to travel on such a morning than to lie in camp. One felt the penetrating power of Nature more deeply than in the apathy or indolent ease of a Sunday lounge. Still there were those who had to smart for it the trackers. But the Mecca of the Landing being so near, and its stimulating delights looming largely in the haze of their imagination, they were as eager to go on as ourselves.

The left bank of the river now exhibited, for a long distance, a wilderness swept by fire, but covered with “rampikes” and fallen timber. The other side seemed to have partially escaped destruction. The tracking was good, and we passed the “Twenty Mile Rock” before dinner, camping about fifteen miles from the Landing. Next morning we passed through a like burnt country on both sides, giving the region a desolate and forlorn look, which placed it in sinister contrast with the same river to the north.

Farther up, the right bank rose bare to the sky-line with a mere sprinkling of small aspens, indicating what the appearance of the “rampike” country would be if again set ablaze, and converted from a burnt-wood region to a bare one. The banks revealed a clay soil, in some places mixed boulders, but evidently there was good land lying back from the river.

In the morning bets were made as to the hour of arrival at the Landing. Mr. P. said four p.m., the writer five, the Major six, and Mr. C. eight. At three p.m. we rounded the last point but one, and reached the wharf at six-thirty, the Major taking the pool.

We had now nothing before us but the journey to Edmonton. At night a couple of dances took place in adjacent boarding-houses, which banished sleep until a great uproar arose, ending in the partisans of one house cleaning out the occupants of the other, thus reducing things to silence. We knew then that we had returned to earth. We had dropped, as it were, from another planet, and would soon, too soon, be treading the flinty city streets, and, divorced from Nature, become once more the bond-slaves of civilization.