Bill Layman & Lynda Holland's 2002 trip
La Ronge, Saskatchewan to Arviat, Nunavut on Hudson Bay - 55 Days and 1000 miles.
Day #10 Wednesday June 19, 2002

Here it is noon and we haven't moved a foot. I woke at 6:00 and got up to have a look. A strong north-east wind has blown in cold gray Arctic skies. The ceiling is so low that I could almost reach out and touch the Beaver airplane that flew over at 6:30. It must have been less than 250 feet above me. Where I could see for miles yesterday I can now only see part way across the narrows between us and the nearest island.

Waiting for the Weather to Change
  Although only about 1/4 mile away I can barely make out a hint of its green canopy of giant spruce. We are stuck here until tomorrow at the earliest. So I went back to bed and listened to the loons that have drifted into the calm of the south shore we are camped on.

When we got up, at about 10:30, I made a bacon Swiss cheese omelet. Garnished with salsa and served with fresh bannock and washed down with strong coffee, it makes this forced layover bearable. Barely bearable though. As always I am driven to move and can't seem to sit out here for long. Partly because I am always restless, partly because Tom has non-refundable air tickets. With no time table, Lynda and I can be pinned for a week and it doesn't mean a thing. But now we have a time table. If the weather has other ideas, then our planning is all out the window.

Boats race by, going to and from Southend, but we are traveling the old way. And that means we go when we can. We have about 90 miles up the lake to the beginning of the Swan Blondeau River into Wollaston Lake. 3 1/2 days if all goes well, a week or more if it blows. How strange to watch the big aluminum boats race by. Less than 50 years ago, the drivers' relatives might have been stuck on this island with us.

Downes was wind bound at Sandy Island in 1936, both going north and returning. On each occasion he met Cree who were also wind bound. On the trip north he met Jimmy MacKay and Malachi Michaud, both from Stanley Mission, with their wives. En route to Wollaston via the Swan Blondeau, they had broken both of their small outboards and were preparing to paddle to Brochet to make repairs so that they could get to their traplines. Just a nice little 150 mile detour. On the return trip he met a family from Southend going to Wollaston to trap. Today people who go across the Swan Blondeau route talk about how hard it is. And this with light kevlar boats, dehydrated food, and specialized gear that is light as a feather. My guess is that the paddle Downes used weighed as much as my tent. What of the Cree families taking their winter supplies and dogs with them, traveling with 18 foot wood and canvas freighter canoes weighing well over 125 pounds? Each day, as the canoe soaked up water it got heavier, to boot. These folks were tough.

Lots of people have made much of this trip that I am doing. And I guess by today's standards it is a longish trip. But as Lynda is fond of saying, 10 days or 50 days is all the same. The canoe and the nightly camps become your home.

Just before I left I re-read Face the North Wind by A L Karras. This book is about the famous duo of Fred Darbyshire and Ed Theriault. These were real tough white trappers who went north during the depression. What stuck in my mind is the one paragraph description of Fred's 1945
trip to his trapline with his wife Nora Lueken. He had been running a sawmill with his brother in The Pas and said it wasn't making any money. My guess is that after five years in a town and away from the bush he just had to go back. So, at about age 45 he talked Nora, age 25 into going to Close Lake from Big River by canoe. They travelled up to Ile a la Crosse, down the Churchill River to the Reindeer River, up the Reindeer, across the Swan Blondeau portage, up the Geikie River, and up the Wheeler River, and finally making their way to Close Lake, which after this description doesn't seem very "close" at all. All this just to get to where he was going to trap And he could have taken a plane and been there in hours. You know my guess is that he had been asked about his trip he would have said, "Mister man you think what Nora and I did was hard? What about those Cree and Dene who did it with birch bark canoes and no kickers! (small outboards). Now those were tough people. We have it easy now." Like I said, the whole trip is encapsulated in ONE paragraph in his memoir. To him, this trip was just one of hundreds that were equally exciting and more arduous.

After that talk about Simons last night, I found a Downes quote about Del in my notes. He was from New York state and was " ... a big powerful fellow with endless dreams of the big pot at the end of the rainbow ... anything big, there was Simons ... one of those rare whites that the Indians really liked as a person ... he would and could do everything they did, but better." P G recounts a Pelican Narrows Cree saying that Simons "could eat more" than he could. Del started as a post manager for Revillon Freres and rose to the rank of District Manager. Soon tiring of this, he set up his own company. Wally Laird, a respected HBC post manager and a story in his own right said Simons, "... made heavy inroads into,"both the HBC and RF. Wouldn't I have loved to have lived back then. I know for a fact I would have been in the thick of it, chasing the same dreams and pots of gold these northern legends chased.

Hope for good weather for us. Its time to move again. See you soon in Wollaston Lynda. And then we get to go to the Dene's "Land of Little Sticks" once again.

Day #11 Thursday June 20, 2002

This narrative is getting more and more like a history lesson - but so many have been here before me. I was remembering last night about Ted Nagle's book, Prospector North of 60. During 1928 he and a group of five others were on a prospecting trip through this country. This is when prospecting was still done by canoe.

At a Cree Camp
  They travelled the length of Lake Athabasca, went up the Fond du Lac River, came down the Cochrane River from Wollaston, then traveled the length of Reindeer Lake, down the Reindeer River and through Pelican Narrows finally ending up in The Pas. They all got a bottle of whiskey to celebrate once they got there. Small wonder.

But it was all in a day's work then. He notes that flour was $1.20 per pound and sugar or salt $2.00 per pound at Brochet. Little wonder, given the distance that freight had to moved to get there. The Cree freighters even managed to freight eggs all the way up to Brochet. When Nagle went through Southend he describes it as "several cabins and log buildings scattered along the shore." A far cry from today. He says there were a few gardens so they bought 20 pounds of potatoes ( the size of chicken eggs) and some canned butter, and feasted.

They just happened to be there when the RCAF had two Vedette bi-planes (the first planes
into this area of the north) that were involved in mapping. These were open cockpit pusher type planes. Walter Gilbert was one of the pilots and he went on to form Western Canadian Airways with no less than Punch Dickens. And to top it off, Dickens was a childhood friend of Nagle's. The survey crew gave Nagle a copy of the first map of the area as a parting gift. As I venture along Reindeer, I am amazed that anyone could find their way without getting lost.

When they left Southend, Nagle saw an odd stick in the water with a flagging ribbon on it. They went over to investigate and found a letter from Nagle's boss at Canadian Mining and Smelting directing the rest of his summer's prospecting. Talk about a weird inter office memo. Later in the summer, he got a letter from a friend working in the north telling him about the discovery of the Hornby party (by a prospecting party) on the Thelon. Exciting times. "Ober and Billie Magee" went through here in 1912. Their trip was roughly 1650 miles and took 133 days. They travelled from The Pas to Nueltin, back down the shore of Hudson Bay and ended at Gimli, Manitoba, all without benefit of a map or a guide. Whatever possessed "Ober" to do it is beyond me, but I am glad he did. Toward Magnetic North is a fascinating book about the trip. R H Cockburn and David Treuer (sp?), an Ojibway author, are, as well, writing books about this epic trip. The former is from Oberholtzer's journals and the latter is from Billie's story that is still part of the Ojibway oral record. Do you think I might be buying these two books?

At Brochet, Ober tried to hire Alphonse Chipewyan as a guide. His wife wouldn't let him go. I wish she had. His real last name was Dzeylion and, had he gone, his relatives in Wollaston, who Lynda knows, would have had their own version of the trip. This history is so close I can all but taste it.

Anyway a little about our day today. It went dead calm about 8:00 so we got up at 5:00 and hit the water by 6:15. We had near calm and were in a narrow channel most of the morning and got near 18 miles before lunch at 11:30. And what a lunch. Fried pike, bannock, cappuccino, and a small piece of Bear Creek Poppy Seed Amaretto cake each.

This lake is spectacular. Much exposed bedrock in all shades of gray and white and ochres. Lots of tight knit black spruce and the odd open flat spot with jackpine. As well there are many areas with lots of small white birch. The poplars are all but gone now. Virtually every half mile there is a perfect lunch spot on bare bedrock right at lake's edge. We are camped for the night in a spectacular spot, a 20 foot high spot carpeted with light green caribou moss, twin flower and Labrador tea. The odd birch dots the campsite which is surrounded by black spruce. The view is to the north and across a wide expanse of Reindeer Lake. The sky is a mix of grays and whites and light blue and there is that feeling of rain in the air. The mosquitoes are coming out now and any day now it will be time for our Bug Shirts.

The water is freezing cold as the ice has just gone off - less than a week ago. This morning it was so cold that we were wearing gloves and toques. I saw a Southend boat go by and the driver was wearing a winter parka, skidoo mitts and a muskrat hat. And this is the 19th of June. It really never warmed up all day and after lunch the wind picked up a bit from the north east. It both chilled us and slowed us down. Nonetheless we banged off close to 26 miles. Now, as I type this, it is dead calm at 5:30, but with a steel gray sky there is a chance of rain and cold by morning. We have been "pushing" wind for the entire 11 days we have been out. I would hope for better weather but Solomon Merasty, from Pelican Narrows, who went with Downes on one of his trips on this lake said, "It doesn't do any good to hope in this country, you just do the best you can."

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what it is about these canoe trips and life in the north in general that appeals to me. Downes summed it up nicely, I think. He said, "The real people of the north don't love the north. What they cling to is that complex in themselves which is satisfied by their situation - by the freedom of being their own boss .... or the wandering irresponsibility of it all."

We are only two days from the start of the Swan Blondeau route. And soon, far too soon I know, the trip will end for Tom. But he will be back somewhere in the north again in a canoe. And soon. It has cut into his soul as deeply as it has into mine. Even if he wanted to stay away he would be unable. The north will call to him in his dreams as it does to me.

This was a VERY very good day.

  La Ronge to Arviat Trip Map
Here are the
Sponsors & Introduction Story for the 2002 trip
Check out Bill and Lynda's
2001 trip to the Dubawnt River in NWT & Nunavut.
Bill Layman's bio - with other Trips & Stories by Bill.
Live text edited by
Joan Eyolfson Cadham, freelance writer/editor, Foam Lake Saskatchewan.


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