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Wild Life in Canada
Chapter V - Reindeer Lake and Fort du Brochet

Reindeer Lake! Fort Du Brochet! Names remote on the map of Canada, names situated in that Far Northern hinderland where so few have come into being that each denominates a kingdom of virgin country which lies, unknown to our race, on all sides of the point that has been discovered. To me such names are big with possibilities, big with the attraction of things mysterious, big because they shelter a country that is waiting the races of the future. Yet to you, no doubt they are mere names of Lake and Post to be glanced over and forgotten, and given back to the gigantic soundless wastes of semi-Arctic Canada. Because they are hidden away in far-off distance they hold what fame they have in the still unravelled clouds, and the secretive silence, of the ever-passing years.

Reindeer Lake is between longitudes 102° and 103° and extends north to latitude 58°. It is a vast sheet of water which stretches 140 miles north and south, and forty miles across where its width is greatest. It is in a country of rock, and muskeg and low-lying hills which arc filled with silence and unseen creatures.

The lake contains countless islands (some thousands) which are wooded, as are the land shores, with the strong character of dark-peaked Spruce and Scrub Pine, and a few Tamarac and Birch. The island shores, which are bordered with Willows at the fringes of the forest, are rugged and grey with rock and boulders, brightly relieved for occasional stretches with long low bays and points of spotless, warm-toned sand. Distant stretches of water open up between 'the islands, low smoke-blue hills show faintly in the distance, miniature traceries of dark trees rise, like masted ship, out of reflecting shadows on the far lake surface where hidden islands lie, and right out, as if at the end of the world, the waters die away into the clouds where no land is in sight. It is a wonderful lake of hidden distances which appear and disappear in all directions behind the foreland, as onward you travel through a truly bewitching fairyland. And over the clear blue waters of the lake, reaching far into the great distances, reaching even beyond into unseen but imaginable places, there reigns impressively the weight and solemnity of an unseen Spirit. It is the Spirit 6f the North—silent grandeur, and vastness, and untouched purity of a Virgin Land lending awe and greatness to Creation. It is the dominance of that Spirit which makes man feel, when in the great grave presence of it, how impotent, how insignificant a part of the Universe he is, and how humble he should be.

There are two Trading Posts on Reindeer Lake : one, a winter post, is on Big Island at the south end at the head of Reindeer River; the other, Fort Du Brochet, the chief Post of the territory, is on the north mainland near the mouth of the Cochrane River. The two Posts are, depending on wind, five to six days’ canoe journey apart, while the York Boat of the Hudson Bay Company —a cumbersome, wide-beamed sailing craft of some forty-foot keel—with following wind (and the Indian crew always wait for such a wind when about to make the voyage), and travelling day and night, can accomplish the distance in two days.

It was in mid-July that Joe and I in our solitary canoe approached the north end of Reindeer Lake and sought the inlet which would hold some sign of habitation.

Night was creeping down over the earth, and the shores were darkening to blackness when our journey on the lake drew to a close and we neared the Post of Fort Bu Brochet. The gladness of a summer’s day was folding its spirit in repose, and the inflexions of a score of tiny nature sounds were fading away into the darkness, though still the strained ear caught the laughing trickle of water against the canoe and the lowspeaking lap of the gentle waves as they came and went with the lazy northern breeze. Our approach was unheralded, and the lone canoe stole softly inshore, where cabins stood solemnly silhouetted against the wistful sky. Dim figures moved on shore to the left, and low voices, in native conversation, rose—then died away. Stars peeped out, and the Northern Lights grew clear in the overhead sky. A rising fish splashed—and another. . . . Then silence reigned.

The canoe was run in on the sand close by the shadowy landing, and my companion and I stepped ashore to pick our way up the rough path to the Fort. Night settled down to death-like silence. . . . The Spirit of the North was in the air, and in the solitude of the lonely Post.

After rounding an island promontory Fort Du Brochet is approached, where its scanty settlement of miniature dwellings stands grave and grey in one of those hidden inlet bays so common to all waterways of the rugged North. The small gathering of teepees and cabins shows suddenly and at close range before the vision of the voyageur, and he welcomes them, after his long, hard journey through unpeopled country, as an unexpected find. He exclaims with pleasure at the sight of habitations, and excitedly anticipates the joy of conversation with the white or half breed trader at the Fort. It is the way of men on the outer trails to be delighted with such rare meetings with mankind, for as they gain the freedom of the wilderness the mind looks ever back to its harvest of memories of companionship, and looking back grows ever hungrier for the voices of their kind. Those primitive shelters, artless and somewhat uncompromising in line and colour, are therefore as welcome to the traveller as at other times might be the comfortable bungalow of a civilised home. Indeed, it is possible they are more welcome, for in the Silent Places men learn a greater appreciation than in a world of ease.

The small, log-hewn, square-built cabins are weather-beaten and grey like time-worn boulders on the wayside, and stand solitary as sentinels on a bare, treeless, grass-grown knoll. The Fort —the buildings of the Hudson Bay Company, comprising a house, a trading store, and an assortment of outhouses—stands dominant on the highest ground on the extreme cast of the knoll. To the west, strange to say, is a tiny Catholic mission and church; the latter cross-planned, as is the Roman custom, notwithstanding its insignificant size and crude workmanship. At some little distance from the mission is the Trading Store of the “French Company” (Revillion Brothers), rival traders to the Hudson Bay Company, who here established a footing some ten years ago. There are six cabins in the settlement occupied by part-blood or full-blood Indians, who are at intervals in summer and winter employed in the transport of furs and stores for the trading companies. White fungus-like tents, in awkward discord with natural colouis, are pitched here and there along-shore. They arc the temporary shelters of the ever wandering Chipewyans, for alas ! the days of the mahogany-coloured, smoke-soiled deer-skin (caribou or moose-skin) teepees have almost gone, and their peaked pyramid forms range no more in native beauty along the shore-front.

There is little stir of life around the cabins during the long summer’s day, for the men are commonly away fishing or hunting or “freighting” for the Company, and the few squaws, with their half-wild children about them, keep chiefly to their dwellings. Occasionally the dogs of the Post, which form the greater part of the population, give voice to vicious quarrel or howls of deep-rooted melancholy'; but, as a rule, they arc to be seen curled up in slumber here, there, and everywhere, indifferent alike to the peace or desolation of the quiet scene.

Such is the aspect of Fort Du Brochet, the furthest inland post in the region and one of the hardest to reach from the far-distant frontier. One may call it a rude settlement in a rude land of water and cloud and wilderness: yet it had its native life of quaintness and simplicity; and, above all, its summer days, and its sunsets, and its Northern Lights of superb, wild, natural beauty.

The clear blue water of Reindeer Lake is teeming with fish, and it is almost as wonderful on that account as it is for its rare northern beauty. And those fish abound in water that is exceptionally fine, and which, no doubt, gives to them wonderful growth and well-being. An extract from the Canadian Geological Survey Report on the country between Lake Athabasca and Churchill River, 1896, p. 99 d, states:

“A chemical examination of the waters from Reindeer Lake and Churchill River was made by Dr. F. D. Adams in the Laboratory of the Survey in 1882. In summing up the general results, Dr. Adams says: "Of the foregoing waters that from Reindeer Lake is remarkable for the small amount of dissolved solid matter which it contains; in this regard it would take rank with the waters of Bala Lake, Merionethshire, Wales, and Loch Katrine, Perthshire, Scotland. . .    ”

There are, in Reindeer Lake, as far as is known to me, eight different species of fish, most of which are to be found in many of the waterways of the North, particularly where rivers flow, or have connections to lakes. Many small land-locked inland lakes apparently contain no fish, or very few, and those usually pike.

The fish contained in Reindeer Lake are, if we exclude the small fry of which I had not sufficient time or opportunity to-take account, Whitefish, Lake Trout, Back’s Grayling, or Arctic Grayling (?) Pike, Pickerel, Red Sucker, Black Sucker, and lastly a small herring-like fish, indigenous apparently to the south end of the lake, which, after reference to specimens in the Museum at Ottawa, I believe to be the Alaska Herring, or Mooneye Cisco.

The Whitefish is the great food fish, both for the natives of Reindeer Lake and their sled-dogs. The flesh is white and delicate, and delicious to eat; and one never tires of it even when it is made a constant diet. They are caught only in gill-nets, and weigh on an average between two and three pounds. The smallest fish I saw taken weighed one pound, and the largest six pounds. In shape the whitefish is narrow-backed, with a full, curved outline and deep-girthed sides which are covered with silvery coarse scales; the head is small, and tapers sharply to the fine-lipped, toothless mouth. The lower sides and belly are silvery white, which is the striking colour of the fish, for they look like bars of silver when freshly caught; the upper sides glint with pale bluish-purple, or reddish-purple in some instances, and darken into the brown over back, while the seale outlines there show black. The dorsal fin is of ordinary size; not large, and brightly coloured like the grayling, which it resembles somewhat in shape and size.

The Lake Trout is almost of equal food value to the Whitefish, but it is never caught in great numbers by the Indians in their set nets. The flesh of this fish is deep yellow, and firm and full-flavoured; but one tires of it quickly as a regular diet, probably on account of its richness in fat or oil. In shape those trout are full and lengthily well proportioned; in colour the fine scales are silvery white on the lower body, and white-spotted sage-green brownish above, while there is a thin, dark, well-defined line along the centre of the sides. They are powerful fish, usually weighing between three and a half pounds and eight pounds, though they are occasionally caught of much greater size. I secured one weighing nineteen pounds, and preserved the skin, which is now mounted in the Saskatchewan Museum. One is recorded weighing twenty-five pounds, caught near the mouth of Stone River. Those trout can be easily caught on a rod by trolling a minnow or spoon, but fly was tried on a few occasions without success, though fish were seen breaking the surface of the water in all directions on suitable evenings.

I had no occasion to catch more trout than the day’s needs required, and on Reindeer Lake, particularly at the south end, half an hour’s trolling was often sufficient to take a five to ten pound basket; when the rod would then be put away. Fishing for food in this way during the six days it took to travel from the south to the north end of Reindeer Lake, my catch totalled thirteen trout, weighing fifty-two pounds. I have often wondered what a whole day’s catch would amount to in weight in those unfished waters, and almost regret I had not occasion to make the test.    .

Back’s Grayling, or Arctic Grayling (?) is only on very rare occasions caught in nets by the natives. They probably do not live long periods in Reindeer Lake, unless that when doing so they keep to the deep waters and avoid detection. I have caught them below Reindeer Lake on the Reindeer River, and above Reindeer Lake on the Cochrane River. They are much given to frequenting the swift waters of river rapids, and it is there that 1 invariably found them. They were caught only on a small phantom minnow, which was the only lure I could induce them to rise to, and weighed between one pound and a half and three pounds. They were exceedingly game and fought splendidly in the swift current. From an angling point of view they afforded more excitement and fun than did the Lake Trout. I greatly enjoyed fishing for them, and also the scramble over the rocks to reach their favourite “lies” in surroundings where the river roared and tossed in companionable tumult.

In shape the Grayling resembles the White-fish, but the flesh is not so firm, and white, and palatable, though quite fair eating. In colour the upper sides are silvery brown, with glints of pale blue, and also with slight yellow and red tints, while there are a few widely spaced prominent black spots on the fore-shoulder; the back is darker than the sides, and therefrom arises a very large dorsal fin, almost a third of the length of the fish, which is brilliantly spotted and streaked with many lights of deep purple and greenish blue; the belly is blackish when the fish is first taken from the water, but later it pales to white. It is, altogether, a brilliant rainbow-tinted fish when seen swimming in the clear water, but quickly loses much of those glints of colour when killed.

The Pike.—This fish, commonly called Jack-fish in Canada, is that long-snouted, somewhat repulsive fish that everyone knows; and it needs not description. Its flesh is quite edible in northern waters, but nevertheless it is never used for food by the Indians when Whitefish and Trout can be got. I caught many of those fish on spoon or minnow, and took one on the rod weighing eighteen pounds.

The Pickerel, an American species of Pike, is very similar to the above, and 'was almost equally common, and taken with the same lures.

The Red Sucker is very plentiful in Reindeer Lake, and in the river flowing into it, and is often caught in nets along with the Whitefish. It is used for dog-food, but only seldom for human food, although the heads cut off and boiled are often eaten by the Indians, who consider the eyes a delicacy. The flesh is white, but somewhat soft, and, if used for native food at all, is dried or smoked previous to consumption. In shape they are a broad-backed, round-barrelled fish of equal depth and width, while below the blunt-pointed snout is the puckered, toothless, circular mouth from which they derive their name. They weigh, as a rule, between two pounds and four pounds. In colour the fish is white underneath, with the under-fins tinted with shades of yellow and reddish chrome; the back and upper sides are medium dark shades of blackish-brown with a clear pinkish tint overlying the ground colour on the full length of the middle sides; the gills are yellowish.

In summer these fish are often seen in great shoals in the clear shallow waters of rapids, and their colours then show beneath the surface with oriental brilliancy.

The Black Sucker is very similar, but lacks the bright colouring of the Red variety. Both are fish imperturbable by any kind of lure, failing the possession of nets they may be speared in shallow water.

The Alaska Herring or Mooneye Cisco is probably the strange little fish which I saw taken for food purposes at the south end of Reindeer Lake. None were caught at Fort Du Brochet at the north end of the same lake, and the Indians declare they are known only at the first-named locality, which appears very strange. I saw many of those fish when passing on my way north, but omitted to secure specimens. And unfortunately when I returned in winter the lake was frozen, and none were procurable, though I tried.

I am unable therefore to - positively establish the identity of this species, but certainly record the location so that at least the presence of this small herring-like fish, which is apparently peculiar to one particular section of water, may be noted and investigated later by others if not by myself.

Reindeer Lake is undoubtedly very abundantly stocked with fish, and one is prone to wonder if, in time, it will come to be exploited by the white race on account of their food value.

But meantime its vast expanse lies undisturbed; virgin—for one can almost discount the piscatorial activities of the handful of Indians that now live on her shores, for those are the activities of but a limited number of individuals who can make no visible impression on this inland sea.

And so, of the future of Reindeer Lake one dreams, or is prone to dream, when camped by her shores when the sun is lowering in the gold-rippled, peaceful West, and the air vibrant with the churring of nighthawks. . . . And, as you muse, and night creeps in, further sounds of the wild awake and catch your acutely tuned ears, as does even the minute rustle of a mouse in the grass in the breathless intervals of overawing silence. . . . And at last, as if aware you had been waiting for it, from the shadow-filled swamp near-by arises the elf-song of the white-throated sparrow in mystic sweetness. . . . Then are you glad to cease your ponderings; glad that Time has not changed this wonderland: and that yours is the good fortune to camp on Indian hunting-ground, in the Indians’ deep-shadowed land.

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