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

The Young Voyageurs
Chapter I. The Fur Countries

Boy reader, you have heard of the Hudson’s Bay Company? Ten to one, you have worn a piece of fur, which it has provided for you; if not, your pretty little sister has — in her muff, or her boa, or as a trimming for her winter dress. Would you like to know something of the country whence come these furs?—of the animals whose backs have been stripped to obtain them? As I feel certain that you and I are old friends, I make bold to answer for you—yes. Come, then! let us journey together to the “Fur Countries;” let us cross them from south to north.

A vast journey it will be. It will cost us many thousand miles of travel. We shall find neither railway-train, nor steamboat, nor stage-coach, to carry us on our way. We shall not even have the help of a horse. For us no hotel shall spread its luxurious board; no road-side inn shall hang out its inviting sign and “clean beds;” no roof of any kind shall offer us its hospitable shelter. Our table shall be a rock, a log, or the earth itself; our lodging a tent; and our bed the skin of a wild beast. Such are the best accommodations we can expect upon our journey. Are you still ready to undertake it? Does the prospect not deter you?

No—I hear you exclaim. I shall be satisfied with the table— what care I for mahogany? With the lodging—I can tent like an Arab. With the bed—fling feathers to the wind!

Enough, brave boy! you shall go with me to the wild regions of the “North-west,” to the far “fur countries” of America. But, first—a word about the land through which we are going to travel.

Take down your Atlas. Bend your eye upon the map of North America. Note two large islands—one upon the right side, Newfoundland; another upon the left, Vancouver. Draw a line from one to the other; it-will nearly bisect the continent. North of that line you behold a vast territory. How vast ? You may take your scissors, and clip fifty Engl an ds out of it ! There are lakes there in which you might drown England, or make an island of it! Now, you may form some idea of the vastness of that region known as the “fur countries.”

Will you believe me, when I tell you that all this immense tract is a wilderness—a howling wilderness, if you like a poetical name? It is even so. from north to south, from ocean to ocean,—throughout all that vast domain, there is neither town nor village — hardly anything that can he dignified with the name of “settlement.” The only signs of civilisation to be seen are the “forts,” or trading posts, of the Hudson’s Bay Company; and these “signs” are few and far — hundreds of miles—between. For inhabitants, the country has less than ten thousand white men, the employes of the Company; and its native people are Indians of many tribes, living far apart, few in numbers, subsisting by the chase, and half starving for at least a third part of every year! In truth, the territory can hardly be called “inhabited.” There is not a man to every ten miles; and in many parts of it you may travel hundreds of miles without seeing a face, red, white, or black!

The physical aspect is, therefore, entirely wild. It is very different in different parts of the territory. One tract is peculiar. It has been long known as the “Barren Grounds.” It is a tract of vast extent. It lies north-west from the shores of Hudson’s Bay, extending nearly to the Mackenzie River. Its rocks are primitive. It is a land of hills and valleys,—of deep dark lakes and sharp-running streams. It is a woodless region. No timber is found there that deserves the name. No trees but glandular dwarf birches, willows, and black spruce, small and stunted. Even these only grow in isolated valleys. More generally the surface is covered with coarse sand—the debris of granite or quartz-rock—upon which no vegetable, save the lichen or the moss, can find life and nourishment. In one respect these “Barren Grounds” are unlike the deserts of Africa: they are well watered. In almost every valley there is a lake; and though many of these are landlocked, yet do they contain fish of several species. Sometimes these lakes communicate with each other by means of rapid and turbulent streams passing through narrow gorges; and lines of those connected lakes form the great rivers of the district.

Such is a large portion of the Hudson’s Bay territory. Most of the extensive peninsula of Labrador partakes of a similar character; and there are other like tracts west of the Rocky Mountain range in the “Russian possessions.”

Yet these “Barren Grounds” have their denizens. Nature has formed animals that delight to dwell there, and that are never found in more fertile regions. Two ruminating creatures find sustenance upon the mosses and lichens that cover their cold rocks: they are the caribou (reindeer) and the musk-ox. These, in their turn, become the food and subsistence of preying creatures. The wolf, in all its varieties of grey, black, white, pied, and dusky, follows upon their trail. The “brown bear,”—a large species, nearly resembling the “grizzly,”—is found only in the Barren Grounds; and the great “Polar bear” comes within their borders, but the latter is a dweller upon their shores alone, and finds his food among the finny tribes of the seas that surround them. In marshy ponds, existing here and there, the musk-rat (Fiber zibethicus) builds his house, like that of his larger cousin, the beaver. Upon the water sedge he finds subsistence; but his natural enemy, the wolverene (Gulo luscus) skulks in the same neighbourhood. The “Polar hare” lives upon the leaves and twigs of the dwarf birch-tree ; and this, transformed into its own white flesh, becomes the food of the Arctic fox. The herbage, sparse though it be, does not grow in vain. The seeds fall to the earth, but they are not suffered to decay. They are gathered by the little lemmings and meadow-mice (arvicolce), who, in their turn, become the prey of two species of mustelidce, the ermine and vison weasels. Have the fish of the lakes no enemy? Yes—a terrible one in the Canada otter. The mink-weasel, too, pursues them; and in summer, the osprey, the great pelican, the cormorant, and the white-headed eagle.

These are the fauna of the Barren Grounds. Man rarely ventures within their boundaries. The wretched creatures who find a living there are the Esquimaux on their coasts, and a few Chippewa Indians in the interior, who hunt the caribou, and are known as “caribou-eaters.” Other Indians enter them only in summer, in search of game, or journeying from point to point; and so perilous are these journeyings, that numbers frequently perish by the way. There are no white men in the Barren Grounds. The “Company” has no commerce there. No fort is established in them: so scarce are the fur-bearing animals of these parts, their skins would not repay the expense of a “trading post.”

Far different are the “wooded tracts” of the fur countries. These lie mostly in the southern and central regions of the Hudson’s Bay territory. There are found the valuable beaver, and the wolverene that preys upon it. There dwells the American hare, with its enemy the Canada lynx. There are the squirrels, and the beautiful martens (sables) that hunt them from tree to tree. There are found the foxes of every variety, the red, the cross, and the rare and highly-prized silver-fox (Vulpes argentatus), whose shining skin sells for its weight in gold! There, too, the black bear (Ursus Americanus) yields its fine coat to adorn the winter carriage, the holsters of the dragoon, and the shako of the grenadier. There the fur-bearing animals exist in greatest plenty, and many others whose skins are valuable in commerce, as the moose, the wapiti, and the wood-bison.

But there is also a “prairie” district in the fur countries. The great table prairies of North America, that slope eastward from the Rocky Mountains, also extend northward into the Hudson’s Bay territory. They gradually grow narrower, however, as you proceed farther north, until, on reaching the latitude of the Great Slave Lake, they end altogether. This “prairie land” has its peculiar animals. Upon it roams the buffalo, the prong-horned antelope, and the mule-deer. There, too, may be seen the “barking wolf” and the “swift fox.” It is the favourite home of the marmots, and the gauffres or sand-rats; and there, too, the noblest of animals, the horse, runs wild.

West of this prairie tract is a region of far different aspect,—the region of the Rocky Mountains. This stupendous chain, sometimes called the Andes of North America, continues throughout the fur countries from their southern limits to the shores of the Arctic Sea. Some of its peaks overlook the waters of that sea itself, towering up near the coast. Many of these, even in southern latitudes, carry the “eternal snow.” This “mountain-chain” is, in places, of great breadth. Deep valleys lie in its embrace, many of which have never been visited by man. Some are desolate and dreary; others are oases of vegetation, which fascinate the traveller whose fortune it has been, after toiling among naked rocks, to gaze upon their smiling fertility. These lovely wilds are the favourite home of many strange animals. The argali, or mountain-sheep, with- his huge curving horns, is seen there; and the shaggy wild goat bounds along the steepest cliffs. The black bear wanders through the wooded ravines; and his fiercer congener, the “grizzly”—the most dreaded of all American animals—-drags his huge body along the rocky declivities.

Having crossed the mountains, the fur countries extend westward to the Pacific. There you encounter barren plains, treeless and waterless; rapid rivers, that foam through deep, rock-bound channels; and a country altogether rougher in aspect, and more mountainous, than that lying to the east of the great chain. A warmer atmosphere prevails as you approach the Pacific, and in some places forests of tall trees cover the earth. In these are found most of the fur-bearing animals; and, on account of the greater warmth of the climate, the true felides—the long-tailed cats—here wander much farther north than upon the eastern side of the continent. Even so far north as the forests of Oregon these appear in the forms of the cougar (Fells concolor), and the ounce (Felis onza).

But it is not our intention at present to cross the Rocky Mountains. Our journey will lie altogether on the eastern side of that great chain. It will extend from the frontiers of civilization to the shores of the Arctic Sea. It is a long and perilous journey, boy reader; but as we have made up our minds to it, let us waste no more time xn talking, but set forth at once, You are ready? Hurrah!

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.