A Winter Encampment

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley

Flintlock Guns: these are the guns that all the HBC men carried in the 1840s, though a few may have had percussion guns by this time.

So let’s continue this young clerk’s journey by dogsled, from the banks of the Pennygataway River where we have left him. He begins his story again, with instructions on how to prepare a winter encampment — something that every man learned to do:

As all of my readers may not be acquainted with the mode of constructing a winter encampment I will describe the routine of business more minutely.

My legs being tired of one position, I was glad to jump out of my confinement to stretch myself while Gilbeault proceeded to unharness the dogs. They, on being liberated, commenced rolling and tumbling about in the snow, and every now and then would take a mouthful to quench their thirst. Gilbeault next set to work to cut down brush — the branches of the pine — with which he made each dog a bed at the foot of a tree to which he fastened them with chains to prevent them running back to the Factory [York Factory.] Throwing each one a lump of damaged pemmican, he left them to enjoy it.

A level spot was chosen for our encampment, and the snow shoes being used as shovels, the snow was soon cleared out of the desired place and thrown up on either side. Soft branches were next provided to form a carpet for our habitation and the denuded sticks were placed at the back and sides of the enclosure, one side being left open to receive the fire. A quantity of dry wood cut into irregular lengths of eight and ten feet was next piled on the open side of the encampment, which was soon in a blaze, but as it was broad daylight the effect of the ruddy flame was lost.

This camp was built at daylight. They had traveled all night to take advantage of the hardened snow, which would soften with the heat of the sun. The “denuded sticks” might well have been intended to stop the drift of snow if a storm came up overnight. I can think of no other reason to build a “fence” of this sort. They would also be firewood, for when the fire died down.

But we were hungry and must eat. “Come, Gilbeault, what for breakfast?” Ha! Fresh minced beef mixed with savoury fat. Yes, and biscuits and fresh butter, too. The tea kettle boils and soon the bright tin teapot stands before the fire to keep the generous liquid warm. Anon is heard the hissing of the frying pan followed by a sputtering as Gilbeault, with fork in hand, turns over the fragrant bullets to brown upon the other side. Hiss! Hiss! Goes the pan again while some circling eddy of wind tantalizingly wafts about the savoury fumes of the fry which causes the weary dogs to lift up their heads and sniff the scented air. Anon, again they are done and down I sit with the steaming pan between my outstretched legs and a cup of boiling tea nearby. Ha! Thought I, as I sat and enjoyed my breakfast: what would he not give, I say, could he but enjoy his breakfast as I did mine on that bright, frosty morning.

I remember being amazed by the fact that everyone in the fur trade drank tea, with sugar, instead of coffee: even the voyageurs drank tea and enjoyed it, as far as I could tell. The tea came from India, of course, and brown sugar (along with rum) from the West Indies — via the slave plantations owned by many Scots and Englishmen, including Andrew Wedderburn/Colvile, a director of the HBC. Tea with sugar were, in fact, considered essentials, and when the York Factory express men left everything not needed en cache at Boat Encampment, tea and sugar were carried over the mountains!

After breakfast the blankets were spread out and those who felt disposed lay down to sleep. As I had slept most of the night, I felt no inclination to do so now, so by way of pastime I loaded my gun, and slipping on my snowshoes, dived into the recesses of the forest in search of anything that change might throw my way. But the country I roamed through was not famous for game, so that with the exception of a few squirrels I saw nothing to waste powder and shot on, and I returned to the camp just as the sun was setting. My companions had already risen from their slumbers, and Gilbeault was engaged in rekindling the fire, which for want of attention had gone out.

Stepping outside the camp he began to gently press the untrodden snow with his foot, and finding that it was already becoming crisp, he predicted that we might soon continue our march. The tea kettle was again put on the fire, and another batch of bullets graced the frying pan. They were speedily cooked, and as speedily eaten, and we prepared to leave our lodgings. The half-sleeping dogs were roused by the tinkling of the bells as their respective master pulled down the harness from the fork of the tree: they rose up and stretched their rigid limbs, completing their toilet with a hearty shake of their coats.  While the noisy operation of harnessing was going on, I made myself comfortable in the conveyance, and the dogs being put to and the pipes lighted, off we set, gliding swiftly over the crisping snow, the jingling bells tinkling loudly in the still evening air…

With half closed eyes and as the keen night air began to tell upon my nose I hauled up the hood of the cariole and sliding farther down said warm folds of the blankets, I was soon asleep.

At almost the same time of year that this clerk was nestling down in his bed on the Pennygataway River, artist Paul Kane described how his voyageurs made their campsite, on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, in 1846. Literally on the west side of the Rockies — they were climbing the mountains on their way to Athabasca Pass!

It is necessary to walk repeatedly with snow-shoes over the place chosen for the encampment until it is sufficiently beaten down to bear a man without sinking on its surface. Five or six logs of green timber, from eighteen to twenty feet long, are laid down close together in parallel lines, so as to form a platform. The fire of dry wood is then kindled on it, and pine branches are spread on each side, on which the party, wrapped in their blankets, lie down with their feet toward the fire. The parallel logs rarely burn through in one night, but the dropping coal and heat form a deep chasm immediately under the fire, into which the logs are prevented from falling by their length. [Russell J. Harper, ed., Paul Kane’s Frontier, p. 88]

So one group of men used snowshoes as shovels, while another used them as tools to beat down the snow. The snow was much deeper in the Rockies than near York Factory, and they used smaller [bear-paw] snowshoes there. What worked in one place may not have worked in another.

Anyway, for the clerk that spent his night on the Pennygataway, the following day his men set up camp on the banks of the Fox River. As he said, “During the day the sky became lowering and towards evening it commenced blowing and snowing in good and earnest, rendering our position, without the shelter of strong woods, anything but agreeable as the snow was driven in our faces by the violent wind.”

We might have started at our usual hour, but as there appeared to be an end to the fine warm weather for a few days at least, it was deemed advisable that we should pass the night where we were and continue our journey in the morning, and so substitute day for night travelling — and as this was a more rational mode of procedure, I gladly acceded to this plan.

Swallowing as comfortable a supper as the disagreeable weather would admit of, and having treated Gilbeault and our guide to a small drop out of a small keg of brandy, which some ministering angel had included among my travelling store (not forgetting to fortify my own vitals with a nip also), I left Guilbeault and the guides to lie lovingly down together and snore through the storm as best they could, and betook myself to my cariole, as the most comfortable bed of the two under the circumstances. Inwardly praying that I might not be so roughly treated during my slumbers as on the morning before, I drew up the covering and soon was utterly regardless of the snow, the wind, or the cold.

When he woke up the cariole was already on the move. He lay quiet, but soon, “It was breakfast time, and as I threw back the covering I found that I had by no means over-rated the violence of the weather.”

It was blowing coldly and the snow fell thick and heavy and the men, dogs, cariole was all covered with it. In a few minutes a temporary camp was made, and in spite of the united opposing force of the wind and the snow, a cheerful fire soon blazed. The hardy dogs seemed to care little for the cold as they lay in little knots of twos and threes under the lee of some friendly bush, watching Gilbeault as he again tantalized them with his fry, but finding there was nothing for them at present they would coil their long tails round their noses, to doze till wanted. It was not customary to feed these dogs more than once a day and never while working, as it would only tend to make them lazy. The usual practice adopted by old voyageurs is to feed their dogs overnight, so that they may be in good trim to work all next day without tasting anything but snow. I have often noticed old dogs refuse food while in harness. Many of them are much more knowing than their masters, and I have often been amused how an old stager will nonplus the green hand. The dog will eye him carefully and appear to know from his very look, that his master has not yet learnt to give a cutting stroke with the short handled whip used by the voyageurs. A good dog, if he knows his master is not up to the chip, will resort to all sort of tricks with impunity; whereas with an old voyageur the same dog will be as attentive and lively as a spark.

They would begin again when breakfast was eaten, and arrive in safety at Oxford House. When that post is written, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/oxford-house/

To return to the beginning of this dogsled journey, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/dogsled/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

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