Spring Thaw

Norway House
This image of Norway House is used with the permission of Glenbow Archives, na-1041-5

As you can guess, it is very difficult to travel via dog sled when the ice on the lakes is melting in springtime. Even the shallow Echimamish River, that crossed the low height of land between the Hayes River and the Nelson, could cause problems to HBC men travelling when spring thaw was occurring. In addition to the problem of the ice not supporting the weight of men and dogs, the entire Echmimamish River valley turned into a swamp during spring thaw!

But in 1843, a young clerk named Augustus Peers made the journey by cariole, or dogsled, from York Factory to Norway House. An earlier section of this same journey is posted here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/winter-encampment/

Here is what Peers has to say of his adventures:

During the night we passed through several lakes and morning opened just as we had got to the end of a very long one where the cariole stopped, as Joe was anxious to let me partake of a little of his surprise at seeing the whole lake as far as we could see dotted over with large black patches. These were actually holes in the ice and Joe was quite at a loss to tell how we could manage to pass through them in the dark without having gone plump into one…

This is probably Whitefalls Lake, also called Robinson’s [or Robertson’s] Lake, and it seems that when Joe stopped the cariole, he had already passed over the lake in the dark without seeing the holes. That discovery would be a little startling, I think!

Breakfast over we went on and in an hour or so came to the [Echimamish] river when lo, instead of an even hard surface we found not only the river, but the whole country on either side of it, deluged with water. This river ran through a flat country for a distance of many miles and, as there was no other route for us, we had to submit to our hard fate nolens volens.

He uses “nolens volens” fairly often in this manuscript. It basically means, “whether you want to or not.”

We first tried the river, but as the snow on its surface was converted into rotten ice we broke through at every step, to the no small damage of our shins. We then, as a last resort, betook ourselves to the swamp.

Reader, could you have seen us as we plodded through that rascally swamp, you would have laughed! The poor dogs, unable to find bottom in many places, were compelled to swim, with the cariole and sledge behind them. Had the water been warm we would not have minded it a groat; but it was, on the contrary, as cold as ice and pierced us to the very marrow. But this was not the only inconvenience; the snow which lay upon the ground had, by the action of the water, become converted into ice, and as this adhered to the bottom, it required our utmost care to keep ourselves from tumbling at every step.

Thus we plodded on now up to our knees, and often to our hips, as we stumbled into some hidden hole. The drivers became regardless of their dogs, which we allowed to get along as best they could; all ceremony was at an end, in fact the order of the march was sauve qui peut.

“Sauve qui peut” translates as “a general stampede, panic, or disorder.” That’s funny! and a perfect description of this short, wet, journey!

When near the end of this troublesome swamp our eyes were greeted by the sight of two ducks which rose up from amongst some grass. I watched them jealously as they flew circling around us, but they took good care not to return too near; however, although I carried my gun I think they might have safely taken a closer survey of us, as from the half-frozen state I was in, I do not think I could have harmed them much…

How my companions felt I cannot say, but for myself I was heartily glad when I found myself once more on terra firma. We spent the next ten minutes in jumping about and puttings in order. The snow had nearly disappeared; our road through the woods being only marked by a snake-like streak of snow which, from the hard compression it had received from the feet of former passengers, had so far resisted the action of the sun. The dogs, no less anxious than ourselves to be in motion, set off at a rapid pace, hauling the dilapidated cariole over every obstacle. We followed their example and trudged on behind them like three drowned rats till it began to grow late. There being no likelihood of reaching Norway House at a reasonable hour, we resolved to encamp once more, and as we were soaking wet we did not lose much time in preparing our camp.

The fire being lighted, I bethought me of my portmanteau! On opening it I found everything was wet through and through. The mens’ things were in a similar plight and my blankets and robe and in fact everything, not excepting the clothes we stood in. To render the chapter of accidents complete, Mr. McK’s cariole, once so gaudily decorated with paint of many hues, had now assumed a very woebegone look. It was not in the least benefited by the loss of three or four feet of its middle plank, which had been knocked out during the trials of that memorable day.

A line was stretched out among the trees around the fire, and the contents of our respective kits hung thereon to dry, and presently might be seen dangling therefrom a goodly array of white shirts and blue shirts, short stockings and long stockings, napkins and handkerchiefs, coats and waist-coats, besides three or four pair of inexpressibles of every hue and quality, to say nothing of a half-a-dozen blankets and a buffalo robe. Had any stranger passed by he would have thought that some washerwoman gone mad had fled the Old Country and set up “a-fixing” in those woods. It only required a board with “Washing and Mangling Done Here,” to complete the picture.

But “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good,” and we experienced the truth of that adage: the miseries of the day tended to make us feel the cheering influence of the fire the more. We cooked our supper and ate it, dried our clothes, and slept. At an early hour next morning we set out on our last stretch and, after crossing a part of Play Green Lake, we arrived at Norway House just as the bell tolled the hour of breakfast. Mr. Gladman, who saw me approaching, came to welcome me.

This is probably George Gladman, Jr., son of another George Gladman with whom I am more familiar. Though Mr. Gladman would be in charge of Norway House in later years, at the present time Donald Ross was in charge. From a thesis, which is well worth downloading if you want to know about more about Norway House over the years, is the description of Donald Ross and his time at this post.

The big change in the summer of 1830 was the departure of John MacLeod on the 30th of August and his replacement by Donald Ross on the 13th of September. This marked the beginning of an era as Ross was ultimately to remain in charge of the post and its associated district for more than two decades, not taking leave of the post until 1851. For the remainder of the period covered by this study, it was Donald Ross who was responsible for Norway House.

John McLeod Sr. is, of course, in my book, The York Factory Express, as he led out the first express in 1826. He stayed in the east where he built the new Norway House at the Jack River fisheries. This is the post that Donald Ross took charge of in 1830. I like both these men, and find both interesting — I like McLeod for his leading of the Express and his interesting journal, and Ross for his many informative letters to almost every gentleman who passed through the post over the years.

And of course, if you are interested in the history of Norway House, you will want to know the source of the above quote. This thesis was written for the Department of History, Faculty of Arts, University of Ottawa. Its author is James McKillip, and the thesis is titled “Norway House: Economic Opportunity and The Rise of Community, 1825-1844.” Google either name or title and you are likely to immediately be led to his thesis, which will download with ease (so much ease that I have several inadvertent copies of it on my hard-drive!)

So another online source for all of you fur trade enthusiasts! Enjoy! I have more of them coming up.

If you wish to purchase my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020, All rights reserved.