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Mr. McPherson Assumes the Command

On the 2d of October Mr. McPherson arrived from Canada, and I forthwith demitted the charge. I was now appointed to Fort Liard, but the season being far advanced, it had been found necessary to appoint another previously, whose arrangements for the season being completed, it was deemed expedient that I should pass the winter at Great Slave Lake; and I embarked for that station accordingly on the 4th, and arrived on the 16th.

This post formerly belonged to Athabasca, but is now transferred to McKenzie's River district. The natives consist of Chippewayans, properly so called, and Yellow Knives, a kindred tribe; the former inhabit the wooded parts of the country, extending along the northern and eastern shores of the lake; and the latter, the opposite side extending towards the Arctic regions, where there is no wood to be found; it abounds, however, in reindeer and musk oxen. The Yellow Knives were at one time a powerful and numerous tribe; but their number has been greatly diminished by a certain disease that lately prevailed among them, and proved peculiarly fatal. They also waged a short but bloody war with the Dogribs, that cost many lives. They muster at present between sixty and eighty men able to bear arms.

The Chippewayans in this quarter are a shrewd sensible people, and evince an eager readiness to imitate the whites. Some years ago a Methodist Missionary visited Athabasca; and although he remained but a short time, his instructions seemed to have made a deep impression. They observe the Sabbath with great strictness, never stirring from their lodges to hunt, nor even to fetch home the game when killed, on that day; and they carefully abstain from all the grosser vices to which they formerly were addicted. What might not be expected of a people so docile, if they possessed the advantages of regular instruction!

Having fortunately a supply of books with me, and other means of amusement, I found the winter glide away without suffering much from ennui; my health, however, proved very indifferent; and that circumstance alone would have been sufficient to induce me to quit this wretched country, even if my earlier prospects had been realized, as they have not been. From the accompt current, I find my income as chief trader for 1841 amounts to no more than 120l.: "Sic vos non vobis mellificatis apes;" and since things are come to this pass, it is high time I should endeavour to make honey for myself, in some other sphere of life. I therefore transmitted my resignation to head-quarters.

I cannot close this chapter without mentioning a singular phenomenon which the lake presents in the winter season. The ice is never less than five feet in thickness, frequently from eight to nine; yet the water under this enormous crust not only feels the changes in the atmosphere, but anticipates them. An approaching change of wind or weather is known twenty-four hours before it occurs. For instance, while the weather is perfectly calm, if a storm be at hand, the lake becomes violently agitated the day before; when calm weather is to succeed, it is indicated in like manner by the previous stillness of the lake, even when the gale is still raging in the air. In summer there is no perceptible current in the lake; in winter, however, a current always sets in the direction of the wind, and indicates a change of wind by running in a different direction. These curious points have been ascertained by the long observation of our fishermen, who, in the beginning of winter, bore holes in the ice for the purpose of setting their lines, and visit them every day, both in order to keep them open, and to take up what fish may be caught.

In consequence of the frequent shifting of the current, they experience no little difficulty in adjusting their lines, the current being occasionally so strong as to raise them to an angle of forty degrees. Thus, if the lines were too long, and the current not very strong, they would drag on the bottom; if too short, and the current strong, they would be driven up upon the ice. The approach of a storm is indicated, not by any heaving of the ice, but by the strength of the current, and the roaring of the waves under the ice, which is distinctly heard at a considerable distance, and is occasionally increased by the collision of detached masses of broken ice, which, in the earlier part of the season, have been driven under the main crust.

Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, 1849


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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