In this first episode, Gisli and his four friends from Winnipegosis ride the “Muskeg Express” train far into the northern Manitoba boreal forest and then wend their way further north in two canoes. En route, they become painfully aware that they are all greenhorns, but the tradition of northern hospitality comes to their aid.
They are soon tutored in survival and woodcraft by sympathetic Aboriginal boatmen and Swedish immigrant trappers. Shortly after they begin trapping, Siggi escapes an attack by a trapped wolf, and the boys look forward to the caribou migrating from the tundra back into the forest.
In the spring of 1920, just after the first World War, fur took a big jump in prices on account of its scarcity. Muskrats averaged $5, mink went to $130, and silver foxes over $1200. So four young Icelanders in Winnipegosis figured they could make money trapping even if they only knew how to trap rats. These four were Leo Hjalmarson, Oskar Frederickson, Siggi Oliver, and myself, Gisli Norman.
After a lot of discussing they decided the north end of South Indian Lake would be virgin territory, so they decided that was the place to go.
Now they gathered up what they figured they needed for an outfit. Leo and Oskar had quite a few traps to begin with and all together they managed to gather up two hundred traps, mostly ones and one and a halfs. They also took four rifles, four revolvers, and bought four hundred shells for each rifle, one hundred shells for each revolver, and all their grub in Winnipegosis. When they finally were ready to go they had forty five hundred pounds, four dogs and two canoes which were a twenty foot and eighteen foot. They made sails for both canoes in case they had a fair wind, a pair of oars for each and a spare oar in case one broke.
On August first, we finally set out for The Pas, which was at that time the gateway to the north for all travel in Northern Manitoba.
We arrived at The Pas the following day only to find that the Muskeg Special, as the train was called, had left the day before and the next trip was not until the fifteenth. We had a two week hold up here.
The Muskeg Express landed us at Thicket Portage about two p.m. on the sixteenth of August, and we hustled all our stuff down to the lake shore. There we found a six canoe brigade of Indians picking up freight for the Hudson Bay Company. Their head man was Mr. Angus Thomas, who was in his late forties; a real nice man who gave us many pointers. He spoke fairly good English and told us we were welcome to follow them if we could.
Siggi said, “Angus seemed a bit doubtful that we could keep up to them. I’d like to see the day four Icelanders get left behind by a bunch of Indians!”
We all thought that was a big joke, but we had to eat crow the next day.
Believe me, we were grateful to Angus. He was one of nature’s noblemen to go out of his way to help strange greenhorns. It is too bad we never seen him again so we could thank him. We met him and his men going back for another trip to mile 185, but they had their sails up and we were rowing so it was just a friendly wave as we passed and when they came back to Nelson House from that trip we were gone up the Rat River.
Now we had hardened up. Each one of us was taking two hundred to two hundred and fifty pounds to a trip across the portages. We no longer needed to take a back seat to anyone portaging, as we could dogtrot along with two hundred pounds in the tumplines.
Here it was all up stream and we snaked up some of the rapids until we came to Kepuche Falls. The portage was only two hundred yards, but as we left it behind we got careless simply because we were too green. We didn’t realize how fast the current was just above the falls. As the water appeared so quiet Leo and Oskar in the big canoe pushed off shore before they had the oars ready and the current at once took hold and swept them towards the falls.
By the time Leo took the first pull on the oars they had already been pulled half way to the top of the falls. For a good minute they just seemed to sit in the same place. Siggi and I stood helpless watching and I believe we both sent a silent prayer up to the One who looks after fools and infants (and we were no infants), that the oars would hold. Then they seemed to gain a foot or so and slowly paddled to the shore where we could grab hold of the canoe as it glided into the shallow water.
We tied the canoe up and made a pot of tea, contemplating the situation, vowing to be more careful and have more respect for the river power.
If the boys had gone over the falls our trip would have ended right there. Even if they’d got out alive (as they were both expert swimmers), we’d have lost all of our traps and guns and the rest of the stuff and the canoe would have been sunk or ruined.
Still worse, the boys themselves could very easily have been knocked unconscious on the rocks at the bottom of the falls.
Here it is Tuesday, August twenty-fourth, we are in Nelson House camped on the river below Lamont and Quincy’s trading post. The Swedes were still here and told us they would not be ready to move for at least three days or more, as Jackson was getting some potatoes from the Indians.
It is now the twenty ninth of August. At last we are leaving the Nelson House. On our second day we were a bit ahead of the Swedes as we were two in each canoe. We came to a fairly good sized lake and decided to wait for them. It didn’t seem sensible to start across it not knowing where the river came into it.