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The Fur Hunters

Thirty or more years ago, one who stood at the foot of Main Street, Winnipeg, in front of the stone gate leading to the inner court of Fort Garry, and looked up across the river flats, would have seen a procession as picturesque as ever graced the streets of old Quebec—the dog brigades of the Hudson's Bay Company coming in from the winter's hunt.

Against the rolling snowdrifts appeared a line, at first grotesquely dwarfed under the mock suns of the eastern sky veiled in a soft frost fog. Then a husky-dog in bells and harness bounced up over the drifts, followed by another and yet another—eight or ten dogs to each long, low toboggan that slid along loaded and heaped with peltry. Beside each sleigh emerged out of the haze the form of the driver—a swarthy fellow, on snow-shoes, with hair bound back by a red scarf, and corduroy trousers belted in by another red scarf, and fur gauntlets to his elbows—flourishing his whip and yelling, in a high, snarling falsetto, 'marche! marche!'—the rallying-cry of the French wood-runner since first he set out from Quebec in the sixteen-hundreds to thread his way westward through the wilds of the continent.

Behind at a sort of dog-trot came women, clothed in skirts and shawls made of red and green blankets; papooses in moss bags on their mothers' backs, their little heads wobbling under the fur flaps and capotes. Then, as the dog teams sped from a trot to a gallop with whoops and jingling of bells, there whipped past a long, low, toboggan-shaped sleigh with the fastest dogs and the finest robes—the equipage of the chief factor or trader. Before the spectator could take in any more of the scene, dogs and sleighs, runners and women, had swept inside the gate.

A View Of The Interior Of Old Fort Garry
Drawn by H. A. Strong

At a still earlier period, say in the seventies, one who in summer chanced to be on Lake Winnipeg at the mouth of the great Saskatchewan river—which, by countless portages and interlinking lakes, is connected with all the vast water systems of the North—would have seen the fur traders sweeping down in huge flotillas of canoes and flat-bottomed Mackinaw boats—exultant after running the Grand Rapids, where the waters of the Great Plains converge to a width of some hundred rods and rush nine miles over rocks the size of a house in a furious cataract.

Summer or winter, it was a life of wild adventure and daily romance.

Here on the Saskatchewan every paddle-dip, every twist and turn of the supple canoes, revealed some new caprice of the river's moods. In places the current would be shallow and the canoes would lag. Then the paddlers must catch the veer of the flow or they would presently be out waist-deep shoving cargo and craft off sand bars. Again, as at Grand Rapids, where the banks were rock-faced and sheer, the canoes would run merrily in swift-flowing waters. No wonder the Indian voyageurs regarded all rivers as living personalities and made the River Goddess offerings of tobacco for fair wind and good voyage. And it is to be kept in mind that no river like the Saskatchewan can be permanently mapped. No map or chart of such a river could serve its purpose for more than a year. Chart it to-day, and perhaps to-morrow it jumps its river bed; and where was a current is now a swampy lake in which the paddle men may lose their way.

When the waters chanced to be low at Grand Rapids, showing huge rocks through the white spray, cargoes would be unloaded and the peltry sent across the nine-mile portage by tramway; but when the river was high—as in June after the melting of the mountain snows—the voyageurs were always keen for the excitement of making the descent by canoe. Lestang, M'Kay, Mackenzie, a dozen famous guides, could boast two trips a day down the rapids, without so much as grazing a paddle on the rocks. Indeed, the different crews would race each other into the very vortex of the wildest water; and woe betide the old voyageur whose crew failed of the strong pull into the right current just when the craft took the plunge! Here, where the waters of the vast prairie region are descending over huge boulders and rocky islets between banks not a third of a mile apart, there is a wild river scene. Far ahead the paddlers can hear the roar of the swirl. Now the surface of the river rounds and rises in the eddies of an undertow, and the canoe leaps forward; then, a swifter plunge through the middle of a furious overfall. The steersman rises at the stern and leans forward like a runner.

Track Survey Of The Saskatchewan
Between Cedar Lake & Lake Winnipeg

'Pull!' shouts the steersman; and the canoe shoots past one rock to catch the current that will whirl it past the next, every man bending to his paddle and almost lifted to his feet. The canoe catches the right current and is catapulted past the roaring place where rocks make the water white. Instantly all but the steersman drop down, flat in the bottom of the canoe, paddles rigid athwart. No need to pull now! The waters do the work; and motion on the part of the men would be fatal. Here the strongest swimmer would be as a chip on a cataract. The task now is not to paddle, but to steer—to keep the craft away from the rocks. This is the part of the steersman, who stands braced to his paddle used rudder-wise astern; and the canoe rides the wildest plunge like a sea-gull. One after another the brigades disappear in a white trough of spray and roaring waters. They are gone! No human power can bring them out of that maelstrom! But look! like corks on a wave, mounting and climbing and riding the highest billows, there they are again, one after another, sidling and lifting and falling and finally gliding out to calm water, where the men fall to their paddles and strike up one of their lusty voyageur songs!

The Company would not venture its peltry on the lower rapid where the river rushes down almost like a waterfall. Above this the cargoes were transferred to the portage, and prosaically sent over the hill on a tram-car pulled by a horse. The men, however, would not be robbed of the glee of running that last rapid, and, with just enough weight for ballast in their canoes and boats, they would make the furious descent.

At the head of the tramway on the Grand Rapids portage stands the Great House, facing old warehouses through which have passed millions of dollars' worth of furs. The Great House is gambrel-roofed and is built of heavily timbered logs whitewashed. Round it is a picket fence; below are wine cellars. It is dismantled and empty now; but here no doubt good wines abounded and big oaths rolled in the days when the lords of an unmapped empire held sway.

The Principal Posts Of The Hudson's Bay Company
Map by Bartholomew.

A glance at the map of the Hudson's Bay Company's posts will show the extent of the fur traders' empire. To the Athabaska warehouses at Fort Chipewyan came the furs of Mackenzie river and the Arctic; to FortEdmonton came the furs of the Athabaska and of the Rockies; to Fort Pitt came the peltry of the Barren Lands; and all passed down the broad highway of the Saskatchewan to Lake Winnipeg, whence they were sent out to York Factory on Hudson Bay, there to be loaded on ships and taken to the Company's warehouses in London.

Incidentally, the fur hunters were explorers who had blazed a trail across a continent and penetrated to the uttermost reaches of a northern empire the size of Europe. But it was fur these explorers were seeking when they pushed their canoes up the Saskatchewan, crossed the Rocky Mountains, went down the Columbia. Fur, not glory, was the quest when the dog bells went ringing over the wintry wastes from Saskatchewan to Athabaska, across the Barren Lands, and north to the Arctic. Beaver, not empire, was the object in view when the horse brigades of one hundred and two hundred and three hundred hunters, led by Ogden, or Ross, or M'Kay or Ermatinger went winding south over the mountains from New Caledonia through the country that now comprises the states of Washington and Oregon and Idaho, across the deserts of Utah and Nevada, to the Spanish forts at San Francisco and Monterey. It is a question whether La Salle could have found his way to the Mississippi, or Radisson to the North Sea, or Mackenzie to the Pacific, if the little beaver had not inspired the search and paid the toll.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The Adventurers Of England On Hudson Bay, A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the North, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914


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