Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Making the Birch Bark Lodge

Making the Birch Bark Lodge

Martin Hunter : The Bush Indians of the 1860’s

How They Camped and Apportioned the Work

From the standpoint of the present day, (early 1900’s) , one might suppose that the Indians are much better off now than in former days, but I doubt it.  They have many luxuries, conveniences and superfluities that they had not then, but these are acquired tastes and at the expense of things more useful and lasting.

It was the policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company, before they were forced to do otherwise by the free traders, never to introduce anything new or non-essential to the Indian.  The goods they bartered were of the very best and most durable quality.. They charged for them, it is true, but the Indian had something he could depend on for service and wear.  This fixed policy ran through everything we bartered – guns, blankets, clothes, shawls, netting twine, ammunition, etc. , etc.

In those far back days provisions for the interior trade was unknown, and tea was, in small quantities, imported more as a gratuity than for barter.  Rum had been abolished throughout the country, and the tea was given the Indians in lieu thereof at their periodic trading visits to the posts.

An Indian’s home, the tepee, was made from sheets of the young white birch, sewed together in rolls of from twelve to fifteen feet, each roll tied together with a leather thong and placed, when moving the camp, either on his toboggan or in the canoe in summer.  From six to ten rolls made a very comfortable camp for a small family.

When the site of the new encampment was reached, the woman cleared a circle of brush, rotten wood and stones and broke up the ground with the head of an old axe so as to level it off and make it softer.  Sand and stones were placed in the middle in an oblong shape and slightly higher than the rest of the interior. This was to build their fire upon.

During this labor of the woman the husband cuts ten or fifteen straight poles three or four inches at the butt and tapering up to ten or twelve feet long.  These poles are to form the skeleton of the structure upon which to lay the extended rolls of bark.  If there were grown up children in the family, they drew the poles to the place as the father cut and branched them.

Three of these poles were tied with wattap ( a root) near the small end, or of such a height as the peak of the camp was intended to be.  This triangle being placed over the camp ground with the top just over where the fire would be,  the other poles were then placed all around the circle with their tops resting in the forks of the triangle.  These poles placed about two feet apart made, when finished, a very secure structure.

The poles at the entrance were placed very securely in the ground and about three feet apart at the bottom.

All now being ready to receive the bark, the man and woman unwound each roll very carefully by backing away from each other.  When the roll was clear to its full length, it was placed gently on the framework, beginning at the door space near the ground, tying it securely there and at the other end to the frame pole, and so on till the circumference near the ground had received a tier all around, finishing off at the door again.

Then another row began, giving a lap of three or four inches over the first strip, shingle fashion, to shed rain or melting snow.

The bark rolls being about a yard wide, three tier generally went as high as they wanted it, so as to leave an opening about the collection of pole tops for the smoke to escape from.

Once the bark covering was all in place, a few other poles of heavier weight but shorter length were lodged here and there all the way round against the bark and on top of the inner poles.  This keeps the bark from flapping about in the wind and prevents it cracking by the weather.

For a door an old blanket or dressed deerskin (hair on) is used.  The two upper corners being fixed securely to each side of the door inside, to the lower part near the ground a small cross stick is fixed.  This keeps the blanket extended to its width, and the cross bar, which is slightly longer than the blanket is broad, lodges at each side of the opening, thus preventing the blanket from tumbling inwards.  In passing in and out, one side is lifted up and allowed to fall behind the person.

The camp as a camp is now ready, excepting a liberal supply of cedar or balsam brush.  If an abundance of brush is near at hand, it is sometimes put on a foot thick.  Brushing a camp as it should be done is a great art, and some women are very painstaking about it.

It is a mistaken idea to think the brush is chucked down any way and trampled into shape.  On the contrary, the feathery ends of the branches are all placed one way.  These are taken five or six in a bunch and placed shingle fashion, commencing at the outer part of the camp and working towards the fire all round the circle.  When the whole is finished and properly done, no stalks are visible except those of the last bunches near the fireplace.

The breaking and carrying of the brush to camp is woman’s and children’s work, and while this is going on the man is chopping and carrying the night’s firewood.

The wood is cut in lengths as heavy and long as the man can handle, and while the wife, who by this time has got the camp brushed, is cooking the supper over a small fire, the husband is cutting his long wood into short lengths and plitting it at the camp door.  Thus all work goes on together and the result is ease.

Apart from rendering assistance this first night of a new encampment, the woman ever afterwards as long as they remain on that spot has to chop and carry the next night’s wood while her lord and master is away on the trap line or hunting game.

A night spent in a new camp; a bright, cheerful fire, the smell of the new brush, roasting game exuding its fragrance, and on lolling back smoking the after supper pipe, is one of the charming and satisfying conditions of the bush.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

"Shoo-fly" VS "the Iditarod"

In previous Post "Shoo-fly" and its three team-mates made the fifty-five mile crossing of Lake Nipigon in a winter gale, in the time of ten hours.
A few days ago, Dallas Seavey, the 2016 Iditarod winner of March 14th, 2016, crossed from White Mountain to Safety (Alaska), a distance of fifty-five miles, with seven dogs, in a time of 5 hours and 48 minutes. Those dogs had already travelled the better part of 900 miles before doing this.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Sagacity of "Shoo-fly"

By Martin Hunter
In the winter of 1876-77 I was out with a party of Hudson’s Bay men, watching an opposition party that had venturesomely penetrated our country in quest of furs.
I had followed them up in the fall by canoes and after the lakes and rivers froze we continued on foot, with dogs to haul our supplies.
We overtook the people we were in search of exactly on top of the land between Hudson’s Bay and the shores of Lake Superior.  They had, long before our arrival, erected their shanty and log storehouse, and our orders were to pitch alongside of where we found them, it was up to us to fell trees and build our own shelter.
It is rather a disheartening task to tackle in December, when the glass seldom rises above zero, to clear away the snow from the frozen ground and start to build one’s habitation.  But we were all young, strong, and in perfect health, and the world ahead of us had no terrors. We looked on it as a matter of course and went at it with a will.
Our first important work was to get the trees felled and the logs drawn to place while we had the use of the dog teams.  Dog food was a serious item and the sooner I could send most of them back to our nearest post the better.  In fact, I was merely following orders, which said: “ As soon as you can, after you catch up with these people and get your log hauling done, send all the dogs but one team back.”
This I carried out, sending two men with three teams to Nipigon House and keeping four men and one team with me.
Our opponents had made such a substantial camp that it told us plainly they intended remaining there till the opening of navigation. We, therefore, made ourselves as comfortable as circumstances would allow.
A man in the bush without an axe is useless and can oly stand around, but the five of us had axes and each one knew how to make use of it. The log walls of our shanty and storehouse went up by the run.  The roof and chinking the open space did not take long.
Of course, we had no stove, not even a tin one. The only thing to do was make a stove and clay chimney.  This took us considerable time, as everything had to be melted with hot water and the clay and long grass for torch making was only to be had at considerable distance from the shack site.
However, perseverance, with a strong pull and a pull together, does wonders, and we were each of us interested to have the work completed with the utmost dispatch. The 20th of December saw us housed and all in order, with two days firewood at the door.
 “Now, boys,” I said, “we will take a much required rest.”
Since leaving Nipigon House a hundred and twenty miles south, we had been strenuously on the jump, walking, sleeping and working in the bitter cold with never a let up.  Now I was allowing them and myself forty-eight hours of solid rest and inaction. The delight of that respite, which ended all too soon, for our imported provisions alone would not support us, our dependence, in great measure, must be what the country would produce.
We brought with us guns, ammunition, snaring twine and fish nets, - these we must use, and with effect, to economise our flour and pork.
As all my men were real bushmen, I could vary their line of activity. One was sent off to set nets under the ice, a second to set rabbit snares, another to hunt game, partridge, deer, or whatever eatable and shootable crossed their path, while the fourth man cut and hauled firewood and did the cooking.
I kept changing about from week to week, thus their duties never became monotonous ; in fact, it developed a kind of rivalry between them. Should the rabbit man be unlucky and fail to bring in a goodly number, the man getting that job next week would kink his leg muscles trying to surpass his predecessor.
Thus the days and weeks went by.  As far as watching the opposition was concerned, our duties were nil, for there was no likelihood or probability of them running outlying Indian camps until the days became longer and milder with the approach of Spring.
About the 10th of February,  hunger for news of the world and private letters commenced to draw at my heart strings. I had left the last post office on the Frontier in September, and since then had had no tidings of any kind. To send out and get letters would be good, but no matter what letters I got I could not answer them. No, the better way was to go out myself to the first post-office, get my mail and answer it there on the spot.
Decide first, Act afterward.  This was my motto.  Our team of four dogs had had pretty easy times, merely to draw our firewood down from the mountain to the door.  They had not been highly fed, but then, it takes very little to keep a dog about the door, with little exercise;  our dogs, therefore, were in good condition.
That evening, after the fire, I unfolded my plans to my young assistant, or second in command.
He said, “Why, certainly;  go by all means, Mr. Hunter.  I can manage here all right with two men. Take Stephen and the dogs and get away before we have another snow storm.”
That fixed it.  The next day we started in the afternoon.  I made this late departure on purpose, not to surprise the dogs too much at the offset.
We made about twenty miles and camped for the night.
From our shanty to the outlet of the Norwest River at Nipigon Lake, the distance is about ninety miles. The going was pretty deep all the way down, as the lakes are small and the rivers narrow.  However, we reached the lake at four o’clock the third afternoon.
There we dried our snowshoes, scraped the toboggan and made all preparations for a night crossing to Nipigon House, right straight across that big inland sea, fifty-five miles from shore to shore is a pretty serious proposition.
Even if one leaves the shore in a calm and apparently settled weather, yet things may alter very much before one reaches the further shore.  Such a sudden change befell us that night, and were it not for the sagacity of our leading dog, in all probability we would have perished out on that terrible expanse of ice.
Everything being ready at eight o’clock, we pointed out from our camp fire, which was amongst the rocks on the beach.  We took on board the sled split-up kindling and birch bark enough to boil our tea-kettle about midnight. The dogs had had four hour’s rest and were in good condition and spirits.
Our fire showed bright astern for half an hour, shortly after that it either went out or the land fall prevented us seeing it any longer.
The surface of the ice was in the best of condition and our dogs making good time.   There was hardly a breath of air when we started; by the time I am writing about  a slight breeze began to play on my cheek. Ah, what was that? A flake of snow? Yes; only too true, and then another and more in quick succession.
I turned my head and consulted Stephen, who stood on the tail end of the komitic.
“Will we turn back, or continue on?  Now is the time to return to the shore if we are going to have a storm,” I exclaimed.
Being young, he was optimistic, and did not relish the idea of retracing our steps.
“Oh, no,” he said: “the dogs are good and Shoo-fly (our leading dog) can find the way.”
I could say no more.  He was the driver and guide and ought to know what was possible to perform.
By that time the wind was steadily increasing, and with it the dry, salty snow – snow that flayed the face when we looked to windward.  Every now and then I heard Stephen calling an encouraging word to the leader, but never, after we had pointed him straight when we left the shore, did he attempt any direction of course.  Everything was entrusted to the dog’s instinct and sagacity to carry us through.
The storm became so great that even the dog nearest the sleigh was not discernable, and yet that noble leader kept right at his work, forging into the face of the blinding gale.
On that level, storm swept expanse, there was no stopping; it was push on or perish.  All at once we appeared to run into a calm and then the dogs stopped.
Stephen ran forward to ascertain the cause. He came back and said we were at the lea of an ice ridge, and now was our time to have our midnight lunch.
Nipigon is noted for its ice upheavals.  We were at the back of one and in shelter while we remained there.
I chopped up the ice to form water in our kettle, while Stephen started the fire.  The blaze revealed the poor dogs encrusted with snow, and now they had come to a standstill, they were each busy clearing themselves of ice.
While the flare lasted, Stephen examined the ridge to find a crossing. Very little time was wasted eating our snack, and dogs and men clambered over the shoved up ice barrier and once more we were away.
It seemed cruel not to feed the dogs, but Stephen said it would make them useless for further service did we do so.  Dogs in the North are only fed once in twenty-four hours. Ours had been fed on the beach as soon as we camped and now they would only eat when we reached our destination.
Neither of us carried a compass and our pulling through successfully depended on the leading dog.  Stephen said it was all right and nothing remained for me to do but accept his word, and on and on we continued, mile after mile.
Ensconced in my warm blanket and laced up to the chin in the komitic, I must have dosed, or even slept. Stephen shook me by the head and enquired the time. Unlacing a part of the top, I managed to light under cover and found it was four o’clock.
My guide ventured the opinion that we could not be much more than eight or ten miles from shore, and in an hour or an hour and a quarter we ought to smell it if not yet daylight.  He surmised the distance by the rate we had been travelling -  a sort of bushman’s “dead reckoning.”
Day broke and revealed the fort right ahead of us, not a mile off.  The storm was at its last blow and we arrived under a clear sky.
What bedlam!  Our dogs began to bark when they saw the buildings, to be answered by all the dogs within the stockade.  As we struck the shore the gates were swung open and there stood Henri, Count de la Ronde, to welcome us.
I looked at my watch; it was six o’clock.  Fifty-five miles in ten hours.  We must have come as straight as a string.  I flopped on the snow and took that “Shoo-fly” in my arms.