Dogsled Journey to Norway House

Norway House

Their destination: Norway House. This lovely image is used with the permission of Glenbow Archives, na-1041-5

Well, I am working on so many projects at the same time that I am getting lost in my office, and so it is time to tell you a funny story — as much to de-stress myself as for any other reason! So I will tell the story of a journey by dogsled, from York Factory to Norway House, in early spring. “Although the winter had taken a milder turn it was yet winter,” the young clerk wrote when he heard he must journey to Norway House. “Consequently, as boating was yet not practicable I had either to walk or ride. Thanks to Mr. [James] Hargrave I was enabled to go in the latter way, as he kindly lent me his private cariole and dogs, and further inconvenienced himself by placing at my service his Canadian servant, who was an excellent winter voyager.”

I set to pack up, while Gilbeault busied himself with his dogs. As I was to travel by cariole I was obliged to leave the greater part of my baggage to be sent on by water, merely taking with me a small portmanteau with a change of clothes in it, and my traveling canteen which was a sort of portable pantry containing a teapot, cups and saucers, plates, knives and forks, spoons, flagons, etc., besides canisters of tea and sugar.

I was actually quite interested to learn that the only beverage these HBC men drank was black tea with sugar — to the point that it was carried over the Rocky Mountains, while the alcoholic drinks were left behind! The “portable pantry” this young clerk is describing, is the “cassette” that every gentleman carried with him. A cassette is a wooden box, built of well-seasoned pine boards three quarters of an inch thick. The boxes are made as strongly as possible, with dove-tailing, grooving, and binding them with iron bands. They are built by the fort’s carpenter, and seem to be a standard size: two feet four inches in length and one foot, four inches in  both width and depth. They have partitions in them for cutlery, tea and sugar, as the young clerk noted above. Canada’s History Magazine has a picture of a cassette in its magazine dated August-September 2015, if you are interested in learning more. If your ancestor worked for the HBC, he had a cassette! Keep an eye open for them: they are built so strongly they are still around.

As the reader may not be acquainted with that light and fragile conveyance of the north, called a cariole, I may as well describe it. Two or three thick planks of birch or oak, about three quarters of an inch thick, form the bottom of it; one end being turned up in the shape of a swan’s neck or other ornamental device. These planks are held side-by-side by means of transverse bars which are sewed on with babiche. The body of the machine is formed of thick parchment extending from the backboard to the front end. When finished, they are gaudily painted and have a very light and graceful appearance.

Parchment is not paper! In this case, it is dried, raw, hide, or rawhide; untanned and often oiled animal hide or leather used to make book-bindings, today, or drums. Babiche is rawhide (or parchment) cut into strips and used as ties for packs or packhorses, and for making snowshoes. So basically these two things are exactly the same product; just one [the parchment] is cut into strips to make the other [the babiche].

In this coach, the traveller sits, or rather inclines, and as it is only of sufficient width to accommodate one passenger he has very little room to turn about. To keep out the cold he is wrapped in blankets and a buffalo robe, nothing appearing but the tip of his nose.

The day wore away, and the night closed in, and the snow having become hard and brittle after the slight thaw of day, we prepared to start. Guilbeault drove up to the door with the cariole, the bells on the back of the dogs jingling loudly. To lash my scanty luggage and to take a long farewell of my kind friends, from whom I was so suddenly separated, only occupied a few moments, and I jumped in and was soon buried amid a pile of blankets.

All being ready, smack went the whip and away went the cariole, gliding over the snow. Presently…I was conscious of a sudden change from the level road to the shelving declivity of the bank down which the light thing glided like a snake, and I began to fear an upset at the outset. As we came to the bottom, Gilbeault, by a well-regulated extension of his right leg, which he made to act as a rudder by scraping the snow with his foot, made the head of the cariole whisk round to the right and the next moment we were on the level surface of the river.

Ere long the moon rose over the tops of the distant trees, lightening up our path, and as the weather was beautifully mild I certainly began to think that however my long journey might terminate, the beginning at all events was not so disagreeable after all, I was getting into a highly reflective state, comparing the different modes of conveyance used by different nations, from the smoke-vomiting steam-engine to the modest dog cariole, when my mediations were brought to an end by the cariole coming suddenly to a standstill, when Gilbeault having exchanged a few words with the driver of the provision train in advance, informed me that we had forgotten the frying pan. I was on the point of giving him a blowing-up for his forgetfulness, when the happy thought struck him that we could procure one at the wood sawyer’s tent a few miles ahead.

This young man annoyed me many times over through this journal, and this is one of the occasions on which I felt like slapping him! But they did things differently in the past…

The dogs were fresh and the road over the hard frozen snow was good, and in a short time we arrived at a well-beaten road leading to the top of the bank, up which the dogs — in spite of Gilbeault’s determination to prevent them — persisted in dragging me. The battle between Gilbeault and his dogs for the mastery caused the inmates of the tent to appear on the top of the bank. One of them who was in advance of all the others turned round and addressed them in a suppressed voice, “How boys! Here be Mai-ster Hair-grave!” The poor fellow evidently thought that it was Mr. H. come at the untimely hour of night to overhaul his work. But as G went up I suppose he made them easy on that score, and what was of much more importance to me, he soon made his appearance with a frying pan.

Everyone carried a frying pan! There were cast-iron frying pans in the York boats, and in the brigade boats as well. They were essentials, and woe betide the man who forgot to pack his frying pan!

We were soon in motion again, and as I became at last tired of looking in turn at the snow, the trees, and the moon, I profited by my recumbent position and was soon in the land of dreams. How long I slept I know not, but I was unceremoniously brought to a state of consciousness by finding myself in a very unchristian-like position for sleeping — with my heels in the air and my head hanging down. The fact was our route no longer lay by the river, and we were at that moment in the middle of a steep bank. I soon jumped out to lighten the dogs and they, freed of my weight, soon reached the top where we allowed them to spell it a few minutes, to recover wind.

We now left the even track on the river for the more tortuous and uneven one through the woods, and it required all of Guilbeault’s care and practical skill to keep the narrow machine from rolling over into the holes that appeared on every side. Nor was the view anything to boast of. A distorted growth of dwarf pine and willow appeared in loose proximity on every side, and as I saw nothing to admire in this, and trusting to the good will of my Jarvey to keep me from coming in contact with the trees, I essayed to sleep once more.

A “Jarvey” was a coachman, the driver of a hackney coach, or a jaunting car. Don’t let anyone tell you that a jarvey is an overgrown ferret capable of human speech, though with plenty of swear words! But when I think about it, this might be quite a good description of a typical London jarvey, whiskers and all — don’t you agree? On consideration, I’ll also have to admit the word might apply to the voyageurs, who used plenty of swear words. It’s a good, descriptive word, and it works!

It was evident I had succeeded in courting the drowsy god sometimes; for when I awoke the first dawn of morning had eclipsed the moon and from the slow motion of the cariole, and the fact that Gilbeault was some paces behind, convinced me that all were getting tired. We however journeyed on till day was well up and until the snow, under the influence of the sun, had become soft; but to continue farther without allowing the dogs some rest would only have delayed us in the end, and so having reached the Penny Gataway River we halted to camp.

The Pennygataway River! John Work wrote about this river, on which banks he rested one day’s canoe journey out of York Factory in 1823. The Shamattawa, or God’s River, was 56 miles out of York Factory, according to Aemilius Simpson. According to Franklin’s maps, the Pennygataway flows into the Hayes River from the east, about halfway between the mouth of the Shamattawa and York Factory. It seems that this dogsled is only about twenty to twenty-five miles away from Hudson Bay and York Factory! They have a long way yet to go. By river it is about 411 miles to his destination of Norway House!

I’ve now published the Oxford House section and you will find it here:

There! I’m de-stressed. Now to organize my office!!!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.

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