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Wild Life in Canada
Chapter II - Out to Lake Ile La Crosse

I was setting out on a long expedition into the North, through little-known territory, west of Hudson Bay, on exploration and natural-history research. I had left my collecting “ shack ” on the Plains, from which I had roamed the rolling bluff-dotted country north of Qu’Appelle Valley for more than a year, and was now in the frontier settlement, which I have described, waiting for “ open water.”

On April 20 I had had an advice from the Hudson Bay Co. at Prince Albert, saying: “The ice in the northern lakes has not yet broken up. We will advise you immediately navigation opens, to enable you to go through by first open water.” On May 4, having no further advice, and impatient to get away, I left the plains on a dull cold morning, though the air and the scene had little promise of spring. Still were the long stretches of yellow grass, and the bleak dark-coloured poplar bluffs, unrelieved by the first fresh delicate green of budding vegetation. Still there was frost in the ground, and snow in the hollows and sun-shaded nooks. But the call of the North was in me, and I would be off.

At Prince Albert, the northern town of the Province of Saskatchewan, I secured my canoe— a light 18-foot chestnut cruiser—and completed the carefully selected outfit which I was to take with me, and which had been minutely calculated, governed by the knowledge that I must travel light, and that I was setting out from the mercantile world for a year or more.

To anyone about to leave on a distant journey into country uninhabited, or habited only by primitive natives, the question of the essential things that are to comprise an outfit is of great importance, and therefore I give below a complete list of what I considered I must take, and how I contrived to pack it, in view of the nature of my work and the months of canoe and sled travel that lay before me.

logging trail that terminated at the landing on the south-east shore of Crooked Lake. The trail to the Lake was very wet and heavy owing to the spring thaw, and the teamster, as he set out, was very doubtful of making the journey over the soft, frost-ruptured, slush-lain ground. However, spring was in our blood and difficulties looked small, and we started off in high spirits, accompanied by the parting good wishes of a small group of trappers and lumbermen who had, out of curiosity, collected to see the expedition setting out on its long adventure.

After a good deal of effort—indeed, after having twice completely stuck deep in the mire of the trail—the steaming, blown team drew up at the tiny landing, and our treasured possessions were deposited on the Lake shore.

The morning was now advanced.

Had we been about to enter the Garden of Paradise the day could not have been more perfect. The bright sun overhead shone in a cloudless, soft-blue sky, the air was vibrant with eager vigour and full of the promise of spring; and in our minds’ eye, before us, in the path of our canoe, waiting our coming, was a great fair summer-garden of limitless range and promise. Small wonder if the pulse quickened joyfully and one inhaled with keen appreciation deep breaths of the fragrant, stirring, pine-perfumed air.

We slid the frail, new, spotless canoe into the water alongside the small rough-timbered landing, and praised her every line as children would a new toy, while over a “drop” from the flask she was christened The Otter and we drank to “success.”

Then we bid farewell to the teamster, and turned our attention to the lake, and to embarking on our journey.

Though the day was fine the aspect of the lake was not reassuring : it was on the eve of rupture and change, but, contrary to expectation, the ice had not yet broken up in any extensiveness. We viewed the scene; Joe with a practised eye, I with half his intentness, and listening more, it must be confessed, to the tumult of the lake surface; for on the air, from the distance and near at hand, in haunting restlessness rose the persistent modulating sound of grinding, groaning ice-blocks agitated by the underflowing flood-water. It seemed to me as if the very soul of the ice-field was pleading to be set free, knowing in some mute sense that the holding grasp of winter weakened, and that the hour was at hand when its substance would cease to be.

I turned from those fancies, and conjectured with Joe the chance of finding a clear passage out. Around the landing, and across the head of the lake, there was open water—clear except for occasional detached lumps of floating ice— but away down the lake, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but a great sheet of dull, water-soaked, rotting ice, broken in places, and piled up where pressure had forced it to bulge and overlap on to a resisting surface.

“What do you make of it, Joe?” I asked.

“Not much,” answered Joe; “We may or may not get through—better if we had delayed a week longer. The ice is fast on this shore a long way down, but as pressure is heavy and the freshet flood is rising, it has probably drawn off the shore on the far side, and an open channel may be over there. If it remains calm the ice will hold as it is, but wind from a contrary quarter would move the whole ice surface and send the pressure in whatever direction it pleased to blow. But here we are, we’ll try her anyhow.” So we pushed off into the icy water and headed for the opposite shore across the head of the lake. Reaching there we found an open channel along shore, as Joe had surmised, and turned the canoe’s head northward along it. All went well until we reached the cut across the lake which the incoming police party in their large canoe had opened up the day before. We had not long entered this narrow channel when a soft north-east wind began to rise and drift over the ice, and anxiously we saw the pressure begin to close the channel before us, and the ice rasped against the windward side of our light canoe. Briefly Joe uttered a word of warning— for we were in imminent danger—bid me seize an axe and break the pressure off the bows as far as I could, while he worked madly with his paddle in the stern. For an hour we laboured, more like madmen than sane men, while we could feel the canoe at times creaking and almost giving way to the weight of icc against her sides that threatened to break her into matchwood. Luckily the ice, in most places, was water-soaked and rotted, and by labouring incessantly with axe and paddle we were able to move on slowly, spasmodically, and change and relieve the pressure on the canoe when it threatened to sink us. 'We escaped through in the end, exhausted and wet, yet very glad to have escaped disaster to ourselves and to the irreplaceable outfit.

We saw then how foolhardy we had been to attempt the journey; how complete might have been the disaster at the very outset of our undertaking.

We had learned .a lesson on overhaste, but, strange as it may seem, it is such uncommon experiences that are a part of the charm of the North—unexpected happenings, unforeseen dangers, forces that may lurk in flood waters, rapids, storms, night winds, ice floes, low-dropping thermometer and steel-blue cold, or in blinding blizzard. The ways of the North are manifold, and men cannot know her long before she bids them see her grim, unshakable strength, and experience a corresponding demand for daring and endurance.

The wind held in the direction it had sprung from and, working down the channel on the east shore, we had no further difficulty in navigating Crooked Lake. It was a long, narrow lake, trending northwards through forested hill-country. The trees on the shore were mostly delicate, thickly branched poplars, not yet in leaf, and here and there a few green spruce trees, sometimes grouped together in clumps, sometimes solitary, while in places the forest had been thinned by fire and many skeleton trunks stood like grave marks or sentinels in their appointed places.

During our progress through the lake plentiful bird-life had been observed, and the woods were filled with little songs and eall-notes of the feathered tribes that were daily coming in from the distant south to mate in their northern home. All of the common species I left unmolested, but secured four of the rarer types for which I had come: an Osprey, Wilson’s Phalarope, and two Dowitehers.

Demonstrating the wonderful instinct that leads to the reappearance of bird-life in the North almost at the exact hour of vital change of season, a pair of Eared Grebes and a Loon (Great Northern Diver) were seen on Crooked Lake on May 12, when the lake had only yet a very small area of open water. They were kindred spirits in eagerness to be up and away with the first breath of spring.

On the evening of the second day out we had reached and entered the head of Crooked River. Here we camped for the night, emptying the canoe of her cargo and lifting her out of the water in case flood might rise overnight and damage her. Then we ate our evening meal, and rested, for the two long days of paddling, and kneeling in the canoe bottom, had found out unused muscles, and made us aware that we were not yet hardened to it.

And it was good to lie there idly and rest. The day had been glorious—spring almost breaking to summer; and we were satisfied now that the weather would cause us no further delay.

As evening drew on we could hear, back in the woods from different points, the dump—dump— dump—dum! of a drumming Ruffled Grouse, quickly uttered, and closely resembling the sound of a motor-engine starting. A little later, carried to our ears across the darkening mask of forest, drifted the soft, musical hoo-hoo-hoo! of a solitary owl. We heard too, then, a few slow, rasping frog-croaks—a creature or two venturing to life, though the nights were yet too cold for them. Just as I was dropping off to sleep I heard a heavy moose splash ashore, having crossed from the opposite river-bank, and pass through the willows quite close to our camp.

The following eight days we continued onward, favoured, when we were on the move and not collecting, by fast-flowing flood water that hurried between wooded river-banks on their long, long journey to the sea, some 800 to 900 miles away, where the Churchill River—of which this was a tributary, via Lake lie a la Crosse— found outlet in Hudson Bay. We were two days on Crooked River, a stream about 130 feet wide, or less, that turned and twisted, as its name implies, but mainly flowed in a northwesterly direction. On the morning of May 10 we arrived at the point where Crooked River, twisting at this point in an abrupt astonishing south-westerly direction, empties into the north-flowing Beaver River, and for the remainder of the journey to lie a la Crosse Lake we continued on our way on the latter stream.

Beaver River was very beautiful. The banks in many places gradually sloped back from the stream to a fair height and were wooded chiefly with spruee and poplar. The poplars, with fresh-bursting tiny leaf, were now delicately green, against ground strewn with long-lain brown autumn leaves, and amidst symmetrical, formally creet, darker coloured spruce trees.

Crooked River and Beaver River have the reputation of being difficult to navigate in summer, as there are then many shallow stone-foul rapids; but in the big flood waters of spring—feet above the common mark, and covering most of the danger spots—we overcame all without serious trouble, finally running Grand Rapid, the last and heaviest rapid on this stretch of water, with a fall of about 25 feet.

Thereafter we found ourselves in easy slackening current flowing between banks which were low, and led on through a widening valley. Opposite Lae la Plonge, and towards its mouth, the river widens out and passes through a series of marshes and lakes before emptying into lie a la Crosse Lake. Through those marshes and lakes the river turns and twists on its course between low, narrow banks which in many places scantily divide it from the flooded mainland on either side.

I have eome rapidly down those waters in describing them, but in reality halt was made in many places to investigate the shores, or an inland lake, in carrying out research. During the ten days taken to cover the total distance— which was some 140 miles—thirty-two specimens were collected between Big River and He h la Crosse Lake, and were skinned and carefully packed away. At the same time many hundreds of our more common birds had been under observation.

Having come rapidly forward, as I have said, I will return now and note a few of the incidents of the riverside.

Crooked Lake,

May 13.

Early Nesting Mallard

To-day found a Mallard’s nest containing three freshly laid eggs ; the nest being in a cavity almost on the water edge in a low willow-covered bank. This pair had lost no time in mating and nesting, for ice still covered the lake. I marvel at their instinct: the wisdom that brought them hundreds of miles north across a continent, their time of opportune arrival set with the accuracy of calendar date : the wisdom that placed the nest so very close to the water’s edge, as if the duck had knowledge that the river soon would fall. Some*people might say it was accident, but the more one sees of nature, the more one ponders over that wisdom which is so often designated cunning.

An Osprey’s Nest

Back a little way in the forest at the top of the “mast” of a dead spruce tree we came later in view of an Osprey’s nest; a look-out over land and water without attempt at hiding. We ran the canoe quietly ashore, and went to investigate, while overhead, slowly circling, swung the great graceful birds that we had disturbed from the nest. Some 60 feet above the ground the dead tree had been broken off by wind, and the rested the great heap of sticks that composed the Osprey’s eyrie. I climbed the straight dead limb with difficulty, for it was of fair diameter, but I found, when directly beneath the nest, that it was of such great bulk that I could in no way reach out and above to the interior of the nest on top. I was anxious to secure the eggs, if there were any, and I tried from all sides to gain a firm hold on the nest sticks to draw myself outwards—but all to no avail, and in the end I climbed down to the ground unrewarded, and gave the quest up.

Crooked River,

May 14.

Black Phase of the Broad-winged Hawk

To-day I shot a Broad-winged Hawk which was completely dark brownish black in colour. It was a black 'phase of this species. Such peculiarities occur, but they are rare, and one is glad to find them, in the same manner that one is glad to see a black fox or a brown-black timber-wolf.

Pike and Pickerel

Pike and Pickerel are plentiful on this river, and we are securing them daily for food. Two Pickerel caught on small minnow to-day weighed 1˝j and 3˝ lbs. respectively.

Crooked River,

May 15.

We meet two Crees

While skinning a hawk this morning, two Crees, travelling upstream, came into view. On sighting our canoe they stopped on their way and came ashore. They were going to Big River; they had some furs, they told us.

We gave them some food.

One was a weather-beaten man well up in years, the other a boy of about eighteen summers. The elder man had a fine face, very pleasant to look upon. His eyes were sincere, and had an uncommon, permanent smiling expression— though the whites of the inner corners were bloodshot, as seems to be common to all; many fine wrinkles ran in between the eyes and the nose, as if his eyes had for ever searched over great distances. The nose was well chiselled and strong; the cheek-bones were high; the chin was firm; the forehead broad, and with two deep wrinkles across it. The colour of his skin was shining, deep yellow-tinged brown. The jet-black hair streaked down over the forehead, curled long and not ungracefully around behind the ears, and down across the back of the neck. The moustache and beard were scanty—a growth of a few coarse, untidy hairs. He wore Mackinaw trousers, loosely belted with a broad coloured Assumption sash, and a black shirt. On his feet were moccasins that fitted like gloves, decorated with interlaced coloured straws on the foreparts. Neither spoke a word of English.

The Spotted Sandpiper is a very common bird on this river. We constantly disturb them as we creep downstream, and they rise before us, piping nervously, in pairs, or in threes or fours, from the river-bank. With flood waters high and covering all sand or pebble spits, they perch always now on dead limbs of fallen trees or uprooted willows which protrude over the bank or lie water-logged in the river. It is remarked that when flying these birds show a prominent mark of white across the centre of the wings, which is invisible when they are in repose.


Tree Swallows arc now arriving. The brief spring is already shortening; summer is almost here.

Young Owls

Before the snows are gone the Great Horned Owls build their nests. To-day we found one. It was in a black poplar tree, not yet in leaf, situated about 20 feet back from the river bank. The nest was about 30 feet from the ground on a strong fork among bare limbs. It was not a large nest—small in comparison to the great size of this species—constructed with dead poplar and lichen-covered spruce twigs, and lined with rabbits’ hair. In the nest were two thrce-quarter-grown young, both very downy; the down on the larger one a beautiful buff-cream colour, the

other more grey. They might, those weird creatures in the tree, have been elves of a Wrack-ham’s pen, with their great round penetrating eyes and taloned fierceness. While I examined the nest, the parents perched in trees quite close to me and hoo-hoo’d continually in alarm and anxiety.

Finally we left the young to their parents’ care, after some trouble to secure a photograph of them.

Braver River,

May 16.

The American Goshawk

To-day found nest of this species rand established identity beyond doubt by securing the female.

The nest was not very high up in a black poplar tree of a total height of some 40 to750 feet. On approaching the tree the female Goshawk swooped down from it, and again and again passed close to my head, shrieking shrilly as she did so. The male bird was, meantime, nowhere to be seen, nor did he put in an appearance that day, or the following day, while we remained in the neighbourhood. The nest was composed of dead twigs and was lined with dry pieces of bark. It contained three very round white soiled eggs decimal of 1.69 x 2.25 in.—the full complement, as the female when skinned and dissected contained no further embryo egg-body.

To obtain a photograph of the nest’s interior, Joe and I made a ladder by felling two young poplars 25 feet long and setting them against the tree next to the nest, thereafter nailing on cross-rungs up which to climb. Had we made the ladder complete on the ground, our united strength could not have raised the cumbersome, sap-heavy thing into position, nor would the nails have held it together, since the wood was green and soft. The ladder ready, the camera was slung by a cord from my neck, the distance to nest measured on the ground, and the camera set to focus before ascending. The position on the top rung was precarious—with the left arm tightly gripping around the tree trunk, to prevent my falling, I had only the free use of the one hand to bring the camera into position, remove the shutter, and touch off the release. However, gradually I worked the camera round from my back on to my right breast and then brought it to bear steadily on the nest by straining the cord back with my neck. After some trouble, I secured three exposures. It took some time to do all this. What was my reward? None at all! Just a record of disaster; for my reference to this particular film-pack, which I was then using, reads: “Rest of film-pack spoilt through films jamming and not coming out properly.”

And that was the only occasion on which I have ever seen a living Goshawk or the nest of that species.

Beaver River,

May 18.

Long days and many labours

Arose 4 a.m. Came on about twenty-five miles. Lay down to sleep at 9 p.m. A seventeen-hours day, which is about our usual day—the principal exertions, our ever-onward search and travel; and skinning specimens and preparing food when we ran ashore at our night camping place.

Green leaf set free on winter-bare trees.

To-day has been very fine and the sunshine brilliant, and on the river-bank the leaf-buds of the poplars and willows are bursting, and the trees in a few hours have become beautiful with liberal show of minute ornament of purest emerald green.

Scarcity of Wild Duck

There is on this river, so far as we have gone, a marked scarcity of wild duck. They are here much less plentiful than on Crooked River. We are now on the main Hudson Bay Company’s route from Green Lake to lie la Crosse post, and it may be that they are less common here because this river is more often disturbed by passing voyageurs.

Beaver River,

May 19.

Warblers arriving

Many warblers are to-day in evidence for the first time. 'With the advance of spring they are feeling their way north. Groups of them were observed among the willows, restless and plaintively calling as if still in course of migration.

We leave the river and visit Small Lake

After travelling some distance to-day, we viewed, beyond the low bank on our right, a small inland lake on the east of the river. Through field glasses it was seen that this secluded water held abundant waterfowl, so we decided to portage the canoe overland to it, and . spend the remainder of the day there. The borders of the lake were grown with tall yellow marsh grass, while down to the lake shores crowded compact, sheltering forest, except on the river-side, which was open marsh. Here and there a gaunt, dead, storm-bruised tree stood in the water, landmarks to remember, and the perching places of a small colony of Bonaparte Gulls which were among the many birds on the lake. Black Terns were here in large numbers, flying swallow-like in the air, but, unlike the swallow, plaintively and fussily shrieking over our heads in protest against our approach. Coots were numerous and many duck: Mallard, Pintail, American Scaup Duck, Golden-eye, and Blue-winged Teal. Though ducks appeared scarce on the river they were common enough here. From among other and more uncommon varieties I secured seven specimens, and felt well repaid for having halted and turned aside to this favoured and fascinating habitat of wild fowl. None of the birds on the lake were nesting. They were either still on their journey northward or had but lately arrived in old haunts. I skinned late into the evening at our camp by the shore of the lake, while coots, in scores, splashed noisily, and chattered among the reeds close by. Once or twice, a busy muskrat swam smoothly across the calm water, from shore to shore of an inlet, with nose and tail on the water’s surface and mouth packed with a fresh gathering of reeds.

Beaver River,

May 20.

Joe traps small Mammals

I carry two steel traps and some mouse-traps, for collecting purposes. The larger traps afford Joe, my river man, much amusement, for he has trapped furs and has all of a trapper’s enthusiasm, and love of speculation as to the possibilities of a catch after his set is made.

After the evening meal is over off Joe goes to look for signs of animals and make his sets. Having found a place to his liking, you may watch him plan to outwit his quarry, place a trap just to his liking, cover it with great care, stake it down, and finally lay his tempting bait —a fish, a fish head, or a part of a bird carcass. In the morning, yesterday, he had captured a Ground Hog, and this morning a Skunk.

Nearing Ile a la Crosse

To-day we came down the lower reaches of the river, and, against a light headwind, stole out from its mouth on to the large lake of lie a la Crosse. 'We had come through low country latterly, where long marsh stretched away north with the river course as far as eye could see. There were lakes on either side, deep blue and wind-ruffled, and with yellow marsh bordering their areas; low timber country on the far distance of land; willows on the river-banks with wave-shaded tops of fiesli new green, and, on the east shore, small occasional bluffs of poplar. Overhead an equal feeling of unbounded vastness and beauty—far off white pillowed clouds in a soft blue sky.

Marsh Hawk. Birds very local To-day I observed a single Marsh Hawk. This is in a way remarkable because it is the first one I have seen since leaving the prairies, where they are very common. But birds in Canada are often very local. Their favourite haunts are contained within great areas, and they do not apparently roam far beyond them except in their migration north and south. One may live years in one place and never see a single bird of a species that may be fairly common a hundred miles or more away in country of a different type.

In noting here those incidents I have done so to give an impression of daily occurrence, the like of which continued for many months while travelling over 2,000 miles through Far North territory. Hereafter I will not continue day to day description of the country, its scenery, and its wild life, but will take you boldly to the subject of the chapters which deal with the most interesting incidents of the expedition.

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