Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Making Good in Canada
Chapter IX - The Game and Fire Wardens

During the past few decades the Dominion Government recognizing that sooner or later Canada, as the pioneer found it, was certain to become nought but a memory, decided to set aside huge stretches of primeval country as reservations or parks, where the indigenous game might be able to roam hither and thither unmolested, and where the hand of improving man would not bo allowed to pursue its bent. The policy, though apparently fatuous at the time when the West-was still wild and woebegone, to day is appreciated. Canadians of two or three centuries hence, as well as the people of other countries, will be enabled to catch a glimpse of what it was in the distant past, by wandering through these domains.

The Government has not been at all niggardly in its action. Not acres, but hundreds of square miles, have been railed off for once and for all against development. When tho forest has been cleared, and what are now dense tangled masses of timber, become seas of brown earth, stretches of succulent vegetables, or areas of waving com, these primeval islets will stand out as oases of the hoary past. The most important of these reservations are Algonquin Park in Ontario, of about 2,100 square miles, Jasper Park on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, stretching over 5,000 square miles; and Banff Park, in the province of Alberta, of 5,732 square miles area. A more comprehensive idea of the size of these stretches of Wild Canada may be gathered from the fact that Jasper Park is as large as Belgium, and that it is threaded for nearly fifty miles by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, while Banff Park and Algonquin Park are traversed by the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk Railways respectively for mde after mile. Even to day, although primeval Canada comprises many hundreds of thousands of square miles, the parks are becoming more and more favoured by the public, who have not the desire, or inclination, to wander too far from the beaten track to see Canada as it was presented to the daring pioneers in the earliest days of settlement.

Naturally these reservations have to be patrolled and guarded against those who are always ready to prey upon preserves, because the game therein is always more plentiful and easily obtainable than in the wilds. The denizens of the forest appear instinctively to know that within these stretches of upland, valley, and mountain they are protected from their foes. The poacher, whether two or four-footed, always regards such areas as happy hunting-grounds, and to guard against such depredations, game-wardens are appointed, whose one object in life is the guardianship of the park, and all that it contains in the way of fur, feather, and fish life.

When the stranger enters these precincts, his firearms are sealed, and on no account whatever is he permitted to break the official embargo upon his weapons within the confines of the park. Fish, likewise, are protected, every disciple of Isaac Walton practising his art in the streams within the boundaries of the reservation having the extent of his catch rigorously limited by law.

The life of the game-warden is probably one of the loneliest that has yet come into vogue as a livelihood. Take Jasper Park for instance. Although it rolls over 5,000 square miles of rugged, thickly wooded country, two men are responsible for the safety and well-being of all the life. The idea of two men being able to patrol and watch over such a large tract appears absurd, but at the time I traversed the park, the trails through the area wore very limited, and could be watched fairly easily. Our party had scarcely entered when the protective official strode up, apparently appearing from nowhere, and, within a few seconds, our firearms were duly sealed in accordance with the law Having performed his duty the warden, cheered at the sight of a few strange faces, stretched himself on the sward before the camp fire, and regaled us with stories galore concerning his life and adventures. Although dwelling in solitary state, he was the jolliest fellow alive, and certainly the responsibilities of his work and his fight for existence caused him no anxiety. When we resumed our journey, we had not gone fifteen miles when we ran upon his colleague, and had to display our weapons to convince him that the seals were intact still. Had he found them otherwise a fine of £10 and the confiscation of our firearms would have been the penalty.

But the loneliness of the game-warden’s life was brought homo to us with more poignant vividness as we were dropping down the 350 miles of the Upper Fraser River. We were drifting along with two Indian dug-outs fastened together, a la catamaran, when suddenly a blue Peterborough shot cut into midstream from beneath the trees overhanging the bank so as to intercept us. It was tbe game-warden patrolling 350 miles of waterway, flowing through the wildest stretch of New British Columbia. We were in the heart of the moose country, where these animals roam in large numbers, magnificent specimens of which we had seen within a stone’s-throw of our craft. Fortunately, we had not drawn upon them for meat, otherwise this official would have caught us with the goods, and thon there would have been something doing.

As we swung towards him the arched back which had been crouching over the paddle bent itself straight, and a pair of vigilant eyes searched our canoes through and through. As we swung by him we gave a cheery “Hallo!” to which there was a monosyllabic response, scarcely more than a guttural, and we were permitted to go on our way. The occupant of the Peterborough bent his arms to the paddle once more, and, driving towards the bank, pulled himself laboriously against stream through the mesh of branches dipping into the water.

He was a pathetic figure. The Peterborough was his home. It was a cramped domicile in very truth, scarcely 14 feet in length, bobbing like a cork float on the sportive waters of the turbulent Fraser, and which braved timber-jam races, rapids, end canyons. In the bow a more or less white heap thrust its ugly protuberance above the thwarts; this was the paddler’s home at night —a small tent, housing all his daily requirements in the way of bedding, cooking utensils, and provisions. He kept paddling upstream during the day, and when the shades of evening fell he pulled into an open spot on the bank, made his Peterborough fast by snubbing the painter round a tree-stump, pulled out his tent, rigged it up, piled a camp fire, and cooked his meal, which he devoured in solitary state. For day after day this individual never saw the sight of a human face, unless it happened to be an Indian on the prowl for game. Even this interlude was not frequent, because the Indians took good care to keep out of eyeshot of Roberts, the game-warden. He was as relentless in driving home his duties as any man of his race to be found between the poles, and it would have been difficult to find even a hardened hermit prepared to take on the task of patrolling 350 miles of such wicked, silent waterway as the Upper Fraser River. He was taciturn, almost to the degree of being dumb ; probably the silence of the forest had entered into his soul and had numbed his faculty of speech. lie eared no more for the progress of the outside world than the cannibal is captivated by Grand Opera. This warden was marooned worse than any lighthouse keeper—the latter does have the company of a fellow-being in his vigil over the watery wastes, and does receive spells of holiday ashore at regular intervals; but for Roberts there were no such welcome changes. The only variation he ever enjoyed was when he ran up against the firewarden of the Upper Fraser, who was almost as great a nomad, though he had the company of his wife and child in the crazy-looking dugout.

One of the members of our party on this occasion, Mr. Robert C. W. Lott, a few years before had thrown in his lot with these lonely patrollers, for the purposes of restoring his health. The scene of his activity was in Algonquin Park, some way up in the Highlands of Ontario, and he painted me some very powerful pictures of the life of this official under all varying conditions. Twenty five rangers were responsible for the maintenance and safety of the animals within this reservation. It seems a small staff in all conscience, especially when it is recalled that this is one of the most popular holiday resorts in Canada. The salary at that time averaged £8 per month, out of which the men were required to board themselves. This does not appear to be a princely remuneration, but it must be remembered that living cost only £1 per month. The wages have since been increased, the present scale being £10 per month, while the board is approximately the same; but after the latter expenditure has been defrayed, there is practically no other outlay beyond tobacco and clothes, which, in view of the character of the work, do not constitute a very heavy drain upon the financial resources of the wage-earner. He can safely anticipate putting by quite 50 per cent, of his income under normal conditions of living. In addition, each ranger was entitled to one deer, which was “cached” late in the autumn to provide an ample supply of fresh meat during the winter. After the animal had been slaughtered, the offal and parts unfit for human consumption were saved to be sacked with strychnine to be used as bait for the large and ferocious timber wolves, which ravage the park, causing widespread havoc among the deer.

During the summer, life as a game-warden in such a park is enviable to those compelled to drudge in the suffocating and broiling city, because the men spend the whole of their time in the open air; which, bearing in mind the situation and altitude of the reserve, is a most invigorating tonic. Hotels have sprung up at points in close proximity to the Grand Trunk Railway which traverses this national demesne, and during the hot season these hostelries are crowded with visitors. The latter hail with delight an opportunity to get back somewhat to the primitive, and indulge in canoe and other excursions through the park, leading a more or less rough life in tents., or shaking down in the log shelter-huts placed at various points for the benefit of the wardens. Trails have been driven in all directions, many of them leading through lonely and rugged parts of the reservation, where a person without a guide may be easily lost, to pay the penalty for his temerity in essaying to go out alone. Guides are available, however, to steer the tourist through the loneliest, and be it noted, most picturesque corners of the enclosure, and it must be admitted that it would be difficult to conceive a more enchanting holiday than a sojourn in this stretch of primevalism, for one may wander over the 2,000 odd square miles for weeks, and not see half-a-dozen human faces.

But winter paints quite a different picture. The rivers are frozen up, and the ground is covered to a depth of 3 feet or more of snow. The biting northern winds howl among the trees, and the blizzards rage with terrific fury. The hotels are shut up, and a general atmosphere of desolation rests upon everything. Though the country apparently is closed, the wardens have to be up and doing, as the poacher is on the alert for beaver, mink, and other animals, which he knows thrive in abundance within this sanctuary. To them the chances of securing a good big bag are far more rosy than a quest in the forests beyond the limits of the park. The poacher is a wily individual. He sets his traps in the most impossible situations, and moves to and from the scene of his illicit actions by ways and means which are dark and difficult to follow', taking extreme care that he shall leave no foot-marks in the snow which might lead to his undoing. In addition there are the wolves preying on the deer, which have to be handled. These animals, like the human poachers, have instinctively learned that a prolific feast awaits them within the borders of the park, and they ravage the herds accordingly. The wardens give these parasites very short shrift, resorting to every artifice, no matter how questionable it may seem from the humanitarian point of view, to rid the deer of this implacable enemy.

The wardens can relate many interesting and exciting adventures with this beast, when maddened by hunger to a degree of extraordinary ferocity. Also, life in the park offers many golden opportunities to study animal life at close range; indeed, this constitutes one of the most interesting occupations among the wardens to while away the time. Lett related how one night, during a short stay at one of the little cabins specially provided to shelter them on their rounds of duty, they heard the peculiar cry which betokens that the chase is on, and that a kill is certain to ensue. In the morning he and his companion started out in the direction from which the wail had been heard the previous night. They soon picked up the trail of the pursued and pursuing animals. The wolves had scented a deer browsing among low-growing cedars, which is this animal’s most delectable dainty in winter. Sighting their quarry, they had given vent to a loud howl. The deer, startled, had broken cover to make for the water, which is its instinctive act when disturbed. It was a buck, and the chunks oi flesh and masses of hair which the two men found scattered over the white cloth covering the frozen lake, plainly told the tale and the vicious character of the combat. In the chase the wolf is relentless; it springs upon its prey, seizes the inside of the flank with its teeth, and holds on like grim death until it tears a mouthful of flesh from the hunted animal’s body or is forced to release its hold. The men measured the bounds of this deer, and found them to vary from 15 to 18 feet in length, while here and there the snow was churned up and darkly stained, showing where a wolf in his spring had alighted upon its prey, and had been bodily dragged along for considerable distances. By following the spoor, the two men at last came upon the scene of the deer’s last stand, and found its mutilated carcass. The wolves, after they had despatched their game, had left it, devouring only about 10 pounds of the body, though they had lapped it dry of its life’s blood by biting into the throat. Where the wolves wreak such havoc is that frequently they hunt the deer merely for the excitement of the chase, and the desire of killing. During this winter pdone, these two wardens found no less than twenty-two animals which had been killed by wolves, and in every instance only a small portion of the dead animal had been devoured. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that the wardens wage a bitter, inexorable warfare against- the timber wolves. When mutilated carcasses of their prey are discovered, the abandoned flesh is heavily soused with strychnine and distributed. Sooner or later the bait completes its deadly work, though, unfortunately, in the effort to exterminate the wolves, many innocent foxes, ravens, whisky-jacks — as the Canada jay is colloquially called—-and blue jays meet an untimely death by partaking of the poisoned food.

The wardens move hither and thither through the park in pairs. This precaution is taken in the interests of safety, not from fear of the wolves, but in case one man may meet with an accident or be stricken down by illness. In summer the canoe constitutes the principal vehicle for carrying the requirements of the men, as the numerous waterways intersecting the park afford access to the most remote corners. In winter sleds have to be used, and it is no light undertaking hauling a heavy load of impedimenta over the rough ground or through the soft snow. At times the wardens experience hardships of excessive magnitude, battling with the elements or other adversities which rear up at every turn. Lett and his companion on one occasion were making painful tracks for their little cabin near the height of land in the park. Each hauled an Indian sleigh by means of a pair of traces, relieved now and again by a head or shoulder strap. The loads upon the sleighs were heavy as the vehicles were well piled up with provisions, sleeping-bags, cooking utensils, axes, and a few other necessary odds and ends. It was the coldest period of the season, and for three weeks the twain had been making towards the little headquarters on the North River, which is the head-water of the Muskoka watershed. The weight of the sleighs and softness of the snow alone would have rendered travelling arduous, but when a rough, undulating and Limber-strewn country was encountered into the bargain, advance was rather a series of laborious pulls, blind stumbling, and back-racking falls. The day was rapidly closing, and the cabin was almost in sight, when they reached the bank of the North River. This waterway had to be crossed, as the shack was on the opposite shore; but the question was, How to cross the river. They had half hoped, in view of the low registering of the thermometer, that the water would be frozen sufficiently to enable them to cross on the ice, although they were only too cognizant of the treacherous character of this waterway. It is one of those rivers which is so rough, and rises and falls so quickly that it is perilous to cross hi winter, as its ice is rotten and unsafe; but, to their dismay, when they reached the waterside, the river was quite open and tearing along fiendishly.

They were in a quandary. They had no canoe, and there were no dead dry trees handy with which a raft might be fashioned. Yet they bad to get across that night somehow or other. They stacked their sleds and rummaged tho adjacent forest for tho slightest signs of any wood that might be serviceable for a raft. After much search and considerable time they found six short logs. These were dropped into the water, and a few pieces were laid transversely to hold the fabric together. While his companion turned into the forest to find one more piece of wood, Lett, thinking the crazy craft perfectly safe, stepped aboard with the pole to make the crossing. Unfortunately his moccasins were quicker than he himself; the frozen soles, coming info contact with another icy surface on the logs, shot bis leg;; out on either side, spreading the logs and letting him through the hole into freezing water up to his shoulders. Fortunately some bushes -were overhanging the waterway, and as he dropped into the water Lett gave a mad clutch at them, thereby preventing the swinging current throwing him into midstream, where swimming would have been of no avail, owing to the velocity of the water and its icy coldness. At this juncture his companion returned, and when he looked down to where the raft had been improvised, he was so surprised to see nothing but Lett’s head and shoulders, that he dropped his log. Lett brought him to his senses by asking for a hand out. Dry land regained, Lett shook himself as well as he could, and with his clothes freezing upon him, the scattered logs were regained and the raft re-fashioned, only this time some rope was taken from the sleds to bind the slippery wooden pieces together. The second warden, being a smaller and lighter man, embarked upon the raft this time, poled himself safely across the waterway, and then hurried to the cabin to drag out a small canoe to bring Lett over, the latter meanwhile endeavouring to keep his circulation going in freezing clothes by violent exercise. His companion was certain that his immersion would result in a, fatal illness, but it is the luck of the bush that colds are seldom contracted from such duckings so long as one keeps on the move. When the log-hut was gained, a roaring fire soon dried the drenched garments, and restored the warmth to the unfortunate warden’s shivering body.

The fire-warden’s duties, possibly, are even more strenuous. He is ever on the roan, with a keen eye for the slightest outbreak of the fire-fiend, which wreaks such widespread damage among the timber wealth of the country. When the summer is hot and dry, his life is an exciting and exhausting round of toil. Ho may be out for days and nights fighting a bush conflagration, summoning assistance whence he can. He has the authority to call upon one and all who chance to be within hail to help him in his task. Refusal is criminal, and brings a heavy fine with possible imprisonment. Travellers through a country are sometimes dismayed to find the fire-warden enforcing his authority with all the austerity of the old press-gang, but there is no alternative ; one must buckle to and lend a hand. This power has provoked some humorous situations at times ; for instance, a company of actors had been despatched up-country by an enterprising firm of cinematograph play-producers to enact a back-woods play before the camera, the idea being to secure the local colouring to perfection. While they were in the midst of their work, obeying the stentorian behests of the stage-manager, a smoke-begrimed and tattered firewarden burst upon the scene. Every man in the company was ordered to “quit playacting and to give a hand in putting out the bush fire.” The actors remonstrated, but in vain. Opposition to the common enemy of the country was far more important than getting a film to amuse the thousands in the cities. The warder, hustled them up, threatening to prosecute one and all with the utmost rigour of the law if they did not answer his call, and quickly too, as time was pressing, and permitting the fire to secure a firmer hold. Those performers were kept hard upon a most uncongenial task for several hours on end, and when their services at last were dispensed with, they presented a sorry-looking and exhausted mass cf humanity; then, the most amused individual was the warden himself, and his laughter provoked threats of terrible reprisals fur interfering with a lawful occupation. A complaint was duly lodged with the authorities by the aggrieved artists, together with a claim for damages, but, laughing up their sleeves, the authorities pointed out that the warden was acting quite within his powers, and if actors and actresses were content to penetrate into such a country, they mast run the risk of the country’s luck. Occupation or social position cannot be taken into consideration in such desperate circumstances; when the bush fire is racing the millionaire travelling in the vicinity can be impressed as much as the unkempt hobo or tramp.

Keeping a vigilant eye upon the game during the winter and frustrating the knavish tricks of the wily poacher constitute a welcome interlude to the normal daily round of the park-keeper. There are a few oldtime trappers still, who trod the trails intersecting this reservation years before it was ever railed off for the benefit oi the public, and before the inmates of the animal kingdom were brought under the protective wing of the Government. These worthies occasionally forget this latter circumstance, as well as the situation of the boundary lines, and, wandering within the preserve, secure a few beaver or mink with their metal traps; but the professional poacher is far more cunning; he knows the strength of the forces of the guardians of the animals the fact that they patrol the area in couples, and that they have an extensive stretch of diversified country to cover. He also knows their trails and shelter-huts. Accordingly, he steals through the bush, leaving the paths severely alone, and in this manner the prints of his snow-shoes are difficult to trace. By gaining asylum in the dense thickets the poacher is often passed unobserved within a yard by the rangers, and is able to complete his nefarious work. But .Nemesis in this instance has a long arm. The warden is at liberty to arrest any character whom he suspects of poaching within a mile of the boundaries of the park, and accordingly many a poacher who has secured a good illicit haul within the reservation has met his deserts beyond the fence.

The Government is devoting more attention to the class of men suited for this peculiar work. Although the life seems terribly lonely, there is no dearth of applicants. It is excellent training, and the greater number of the rangers have turned their drifting in the woods to excellent account for improving their positions in life. It affords excellent scope for mastering the intricacies of woodcraft, reading and cutting trails, studying the habits, manners, and peculiarities of wild animals at close quarters, an well as becoming fitted for detective work. The motto “Never turn back, but get to your objective at all costs” is the guiding aphorism, and the men act up to it fully. The life appears to be selfish, for the only cares presenting themselves to the rangers are avoiding accidents, patrolling conscientiously, and providing from Nature’s larder for the next meal. The men enjoy the life thoroughly, and confess that it leaves nothing to be desired. The call of the wild becomes so deeply rooted that, although many of the men at times long for the glare glitter, and bustle of the “Great White Way” of the city, and abandon the wilderness for commercial activity in civilization's maelstrom, they invariably return to the tall, silent timbers, within a few months.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.