Dog Sledging in the North by D. M. Barringer

1895

A good many years ago, my friends, Boies Penrose, Granville Keller, and I concluded that it would be a fitting termination to a very successful summer and fall hunting trip in the Rocky Mountains to endeavor to kill some moose and caribou in the Lake Winnipeg country, Manitoba. Thus we should combine very different kinds of sport amid surroundings more dissimilar than we imagined at the time. The whole of this rather memorable trip occupied nearly six months.

HOW OUR OUTFIT WAS CARRIED

Our adventures during the latter part of the hunt, that is, during our sojourn in the far north—while a part of the every-day experience of those familiar with the winter life in the woods of that country—were of a character totally unknown to the majority of sportsmen in the United States, and for this reason it has been thought worth while to give a short account of them.

If my recollection serves me correctly, we arrived at Selkirk, at the lower end of Lake Winnipeg, in the latter part of October, to find navigation already closed. We had hoped to reach the upper part of the lake by means of a steamer, but found this impossible, and were therefore obliged to go on sleds to our first hunting ground—a moose country to the south of the head waters of the Fisher River, between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Winnipegosis.

At Selkirk we were joined by a Mr. Phillips, and we had there employed an Indian boy to look after the dogs. This Indian was a magnificent specimen physically, and certainly the best walker that I have ever known. With the exception of a pardonable fondness for our whisky, he behaved very well at first, but afterward became so insufferably lazy that he was scarcely fit for the simple work of driving one of the dog teams—a change which was to be attributed entirely to our kind treatment of him. He was, however, a good trailer, but the worst shot that I remember to have met. He seemed to have no difficulty in finding moose, but could not hit them, which was the exact reverse of our experience.

Portions of the country between Lakes Winnipeg and Winnipegosis, visited by our party, are as flat as the flattest portions of New Jersey, and for great distances nothing could be more level except possibly a billiard table. It is traversed by very few rivers or even creeks, there being immense stretches of territory where the only guide back to camp is the sun when it shines, or when it does not your compass, or the dog-sled trail through the snow leading to the camp. The different portions of this region are so much alike that it is almost impossible to tell one from another.

Owing to the fact that it is very dangerous to be caught out over night, with the thermometer ranging anywhere from zero to 50 degrees below, we took the precaution to mount a big red flag in the top of the highest spruce we could find near our camp, so that, by climbing a high tree anywhere within a radius of a mile or so, one could easily see this flag. To still further reduce the chance of getting lost, we blazed the trees in a straight line for four miles due south of the camp, and, as the dog-sled trail came into our camp (which was in the heavy timber) from the north, it was not difficult to find one's way home in the evening. These precautions—needless elsewhere, but wise in this country—were taken principally because each of us had always been in the habit for years of hunting alone—a practice which I would recommend to anyone who desires to be really successful in killing big game.

This vast expanse of flat country is quite heavily wooded over large areas, the timber being spruce, tamarack, poplar, birch, etc., with a great abundance of red and gray willow. The underbrush is sometimes very thick. There are, however, innumerable open places, which bear the local name of muskegs. These are, of course, marshes in summer, and covered with a heavy growth of grass; in winter they are frozen hard, and traveling over them is comparatively easy.

The moose seem to be fond of remaining close to the edges of these muskegs, which are usually fringed with a heavy growth of willows. It would appear, however, that they venture out into these open places either during the night, early in the morning, or late in the afternoon; and, as these were the times when we were very glad either to be in camp or to be returning to it, we had more success in finding the moose in the timber, or on the little so-called ridges, which sometimes attain the remarkable height of four or five feet.

Up to the time of leaving this camp we had very little opportunity to use snowshoes, as the snow was not yet—about the last of November—deep enough to make these necessary. We hunted all of the time in moccasins, boots of any description being simply out of the question, as they would soon freeze as hard as iron. After the cold weather set in, one day's experience with boots was quite sufficient for me, and I came to the conclusion, as I had often before in other regions, that it is very difficult to improve, in the matter of clothing, upon the customs of the country. The sudden change to moccasins was very tiring at first, but after one gets used to walking in them he will find that he can walk further and hunt better in them than any other style of foot-gear. We used, as I remember, first one or two pairs of heavy woolen socks, then a very heavy so-called "German" sock, coming up to the knee, over which we wore the high laced moccasin of the country.

Before we had very long been engaged in moose hunting we all learned that we were not so expert in the art of killing big game as we previously imagined ourselves. In all my experience I have never met with any animal which is so difficult to get a shot at, even when quite numerous, as the moose in this region. It must always be borne in mind that to kill a moose—especially in a country where they have been hunted for generations by the Indians—by the thoroughly sportsmanlike method of following the trail of one until you finally get a shot at it and kill it, is a totally different thing from killing the same moose either by calling him at night in the autumn or by paddling on him in a canoe in the summer. In fact, of all the difficult things I have ever undertaken in the way of sport, I regard this as the most difficult; and before I got my first shot I began to think that there was a great deal of truth in the Indian's sneering remark, "White man no kill moose." Finally one day my luck turned, but that it did so was due more to the realization of my own inferiority, and lack of the proper kind of knowledge, than to anything else.

It happened in this way: having thoroughly convinced myself that the moose either smelt me or in some other way found out that I was in their neighborhood before I could be made aware of the same fact, I concluded that there was something radically wrong in my manner of hunting them, although I employed every method known to me—methods which had been acquired in an experience during which I had killed considerably over one hundred head of big game, throughout the Rockies and the Alleghanies. In short, I was exceedingly painstaking and careful. Notwithstanding all my precautions, however, I remember that I had the satisfaction one night of knowing that I had started during the day eight different moose, each separately, without hearing or seeing a single one of them. This sort of thing lasted for twenty-two consecutive days, or until I finally concluded that, as our Indian seemed to have no trouble in seeing moose, I would follow his tactics. Waiting, therefore, one morning until I was sure that the Indian had left camp, I changed my course so as to intersect his trail, followed this for some distance, and watched carefully his foot-prints, so as to read the record of his hunt.

Pretty soon it became apparent that he had come across a moose trail. He tried it first with the toe of his moccasin, then with the butt of his gun, and satisfied himself that it was too old to follow. He went on until he came across another trail, and evidently had spent considerable time in making up his mind whether it was worth while to follow this trail or not. He then followed it for a few yards, and, to my surprise, suddenly left it, and went off almost at right angles to the leeward. I supposed that he had given up the moose trail, but nevertheless I followed further on his track. Again to my surprise, I presently found him gradually coming around in a circuitous fashion to the trail again, until he finally reached it. He then immediately retraced his steps, making another semi-circle, bearing generally, however, in the direction the moose had gone, and again came to the trail. This occurred four or five times, until finally the explanation of his conduct flashed upon me, for there lay his cartridge. I saw—as he afterward described it to me—where he had shot at the moose, which had just arisen out of its bed a short distance away, but, as usual, he had missed it. Now I had noticed, in my three weeks' experience, that I had come upon the moose either lying down or standing in some thicket, but that they had been able to wind me considerably before my arrival at the spot marked by their beds in the snow. Not until then had occurred to me what is well known to many who still-hunt moose, namely, that before lying down they generally make a long loop to the leeward, returning close to their trail, so that they can readily get the wind of anyone following upon it long before he reaches them, when, of course, they quietly get up and sneak away. In fact, they do not seem to have an atom of curiosity in their composition, and in this are different from most other wild animals that I have known. By making these long loops to the leeward the hunter reduces to a minimum the likelihood of being smelt or heard by the moose; and in these animals the senses of smell and hearing are very acute, although their eyesight seems to be bad.

Having quite satisfied myself as to what it was necessary to do, I waited until the next day to put it into execution, because by the time I had made my discovery it was about half past 2 o'clock, and the sun was near the horizon.

The following day I went out bright and early, and, after varying success in finding a good trail, I ran across a trail made by five bull moose, a photograph of one of which is shown. After satisfying myself that the trail had been made during the previous night, I began making the long loops to the leeward which I had found to be so necessary. I finally came to the place where the moose had lain down—a bed showing one of them to have unusually large horns—but they had gone on again, in a manner, however, that showed that they were merely feeding, and not alarmed. I redoubled my precautions, stepping as if on eggs, so as not to break the twigs underneath my feet. In a short time I heard the significant chattering of one of the little red pine squirrels so abundant in that region. I at once knew that the squirrel had seen something, but had not seen me. It did not take me long to make up my mind that the only other living things in that vicinity which would be likely to cause him to chatter were these moose, and that they were probably startled, although I had not been conscious of making any noise. At any rate, I ran quite rapidly toward the end of a small narrow muskeg on my left, but some distance away, to which chance conclusion and prompt action I owe probably one of the most fortunate and exciting pieces of shooting that has occurred in my experience. I was shooting at that time a little double rifle (.450-120-375 solid bullet), which had been made for me by Holland & Holland, and which was fitted with one of my conical sights.

Before I was within fifty yards of the end of the muskeg, I saw one of the moose dash across it, about 150 yards away. I fired quickly, and in much the same way that I would shoot at a jacksnipe which had been flushed in some thicket; but had the satisfaction of seeing the animal lurch heavily forward as he went out of sight into the timber. Almost immediately, and before I had time to reload, the second moose followed. I gave him the other barrel, but I did not know until afterward that he was hit. In fact, it was hard to get a bullet through the timber. I reloaded quickly, and ran forward to get to the opening; but before I reached it, the third moose passed in immediately behind the others. I again shot quickly, and felt that I had probably hit him. By running on rapidly I reached the edge of the opening in time to intercept the fourth moose. As he came into the opening I got a good shot at him, not over eighty yards distant, and felt very sure of this one at least. I then reloaded, when, to my amazement, the fifth, in a very deliberate manner, walked, not trotted, into the muskeg, which at the point where the moose crossed it was not over sixty or seventy feet wide. He first looked up and down, as if undetermined what to do, and then, probably seeing one of the other moose on the ground, commenced walking up toward me. As luck would have it, I got a cartridge jammed in my rifle, and could not pull it out or knock it in, although I nearly ruined my fingers in my attempt to do so. Of course, this was the biggest bull of all, and I had the supreme satisfaction of seeing him deliberately walk out of my sight into the woods, and he was lost to me forever. His horns were much larger than those which I got. Up to that time I had no idea that I had killed any except the last moose that I shot at, but thought that perhaps I had wounded one or two of the others, feeling that I would be very lucky if I should ever come up with them.

Going down to the place where the moose had disappeared, after I had got my rifle fixed—that is, had extracted the cartridge and put in another—I found one of the moose dead; another, a big one, on his knees, and the third a short distance away, looking very dejected and uncomfortable. I did not know then that the largest bull of all had stopped on the other side of a little thicket; and when I commenced to give the finishing touches to the wounded moose in sight, he, accompanied by another wounded one, got away. As I shot the big one on his knees, I was surprised by a noise, and upon turning around found the dejected looking small bull coming full drive toward me. I had only time to turn around and shoot him in the breast before he was on me. I do not think that he intended to charge; his coming toward me was probably entirely accidental. Still it had the effect of sending my heart in my mouth. I then started out after the wounded one, but when I saw that he was not bleeding much concluded that, as it was growing late, and I was seven or eight miles from camp, I would not have more than time to cover up the three moose with snow so that I could skin them the next morning. Before doing so, however, I sat down on top of my biggest moose, and, as these were the first moose that I had ever seen, I surveyed them with a great deal of satisfaction.

About this time Phillips, who had been attracted by the shooting, appeared in the distance, and I hailed him by a shot, when he came to me. We then carefully covered up the moose with snow and pulled out for camp. When we arrived there and told our story, a more disconsolate looking Indian you could not have found in the whole region, and he doubtless came to the conclusion that his sweeping assertion as to the inability of a white man to kill a moose in that country was perhaps a little too broad.

Our luck seemed to turn from this time and we got several very good moose, but unfortunately no other large heads. After telling this story I do not wish to go upon record as a game slaughterer, for those who know anything of my hunting know that I am strongly opposed to anything of the kind. We usually have killed only enough game for meat in camp, but at this time we had to feed beside ourselves ten dogs. Moreover, I have never thought that the killing of bulls made very much difference in the amount of the game, although in shooting them we have usually made it a rule to kill only such heads as we wished to take home. I should add, moreover, that all the meat that we did not use of the moose that we killed in this country was distributed among some Indians whom we met on our return, and who, hearing of our luck, followed our dog trail to the hunting grounds after our departure.

Having had enough moose hunting, and anxious to kill caribou, we concluded to cross Lake Winnipeg, which by this time—early in December—was frozen hard with nearly six feet of ice, the cracking of which, especially at night, produces a very curious and never-to-be-forgotten sound, which can be heard for miles. We soon reached the lake, but were detained a day or two waiting for a favorable day to cross—that is to say, one when the wind did not blow, as when it does the exposure in crossing on the ice is terrific. After finally venturing upon the ice, we made some forty or fifty miles the first day, and reached the edge of an island, in the middle of which there were a few houses occupied principally by Icelandic immigrants. These earn a precarious livelihood by fishing for whitefish and jackfish principally in the summer. They keep up this fishing all through the winter, however, to supply their own needs, by setting their nets underneath the ice, employing a very simple method, which, if De Long and his party had known and provided for, they would never have perished so miserably in the Lena delta. Here we were witnesses to the fact which entitles us to claim that the common domestic cow is not, strictly speaking, properly to be classed among the herbivora. We distinctly saw a very ordinary looking cow devour with evident relish, while she was being milked, a large jackfish, which had been taken from a frozen pile stacked up outside of the house and thawed for her evening meal.

These Icelanders live as a rule in a primitive but very comfortable way. They are much more neat and cleanly than many of the immigrants who come to the United States, and it is a pity that we do not have them in this country, for they seem to be very industrious and would make good citizens. However, it is probable that they were in search of cold weather, and would not be happy unless they had it. If this is the case, they most certainly have chosen the best spot on this continent which is at all accessible; for the region around Lake Winnipeg is, I am told, one of the coldest places where any reliable record of the temperature is kept. During our trip, and especially while we were on the east side of the lake, the temperatures recorded were very low, often 45 degrees below zero. In fact, during our absence there was a record of 50 degrees below zero at Selkirk and Winnipeg; and, as we were over a hundred miles to the north, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the temperature was quite as low, if not lower, with us. It must not be forgotten, however, that, except for the cracking of the frozen trees, it is deathly still and quiet in these regions when the temperature drops to 10 degrees below zero. Indeed, when the temperature is below that point, it is usually much more comfortable for one who is out in such weather than a temperature of zero, or even 20 degrees above, with a heavy wind. Under these conditions, however, an ordinary man when out hunting cannot occasionally sit down on a log and smoke his pipe, for any length of time, with a great amount of pleasure. Like the persecuted boy in the play, although there are no policemen about, he is compelled, and indeed is usually perfectly willing, to keep "movin' on."

After leaving Big Island, as I remember the name, we made our way across to the mouth of the Bad Throat River, where there was an old lumber camp, which a great many years ago was the scene of an important conflict between the Hudson Bay Company's men and the men of the Northwest Fur Company, in which quite a number were killed. Here we got another team of dogs, and picked up another member for our party in the person of an Englishman, who by choice had drifted into this country and lived there, marrying an Indian squaw shortly after our return. Unfortunately, the good old-fashioned plan of performing the marriage ceremony by running together under a blanket had been abolished, so he had to wait until the yearly visit of the priest. This marrying of squaws is of course common among the white men of this region.

As we had only a few things to get before starting out for the famous caribou country between the head waters of the Hole, the Askandoga and the Blood Vein rivers, we were not delayed long at this place. The snow was now quite heavy, at least enough so for comfortable snowshoe traveling, and we made rapid time after leaving the Bad Throat River. In this connection it is to be remarked that comparatively little snow falls in this region. This seems singular, and I do not know the meteorological explanation of the fact. There is certainly very much less, for instance, than in Minnesota, hundreds of miles to the south. The snow, however, is usually a dry powder all through winter, and very rarely becomes crusted.

In traveling over broken timbered country with dog-sleds, very much the same routes are followed that one takes with a canoe in summer—that is to say, you avoid the rough country by traveling on the rivers, which are usually covered with thick ice, or over the same portages that are used in summer. It was necessary for either Penrose, Keller or myself to lead the way with our snowshoes, while the others took care of the dog-sleds behind. The dogs followed accurately in the trail beaten out by our snowshoes for them.

The country on this side of the lake, unlike that of the west, is very rough, rocky and rugged, and especially so near the lake shore. It is quite thickly timbered. As one advances into the interior, however, this aspect changes, so that the country near the height of land is more open, and there are long stretches of nearly level country traversed by rocky, moss-covered and roughly parallel ridges. There is more or less timber on these ridges, and in the so-called muskegs between them. This is the country which the caribou seem to prefer.

After about two weeks' hard traveling, we reached the country which had been recommended to us and came upon great abundance of caribou sign. In fact, there were millions of tracks, but, curiously enough, no caribou were to be seen. We afterward found that they had been driven out by a lot of wolves, which probably had followed them down from the north. While this explanation was interesting, it was not productive of any great amount of satisfaction to the party, for we had been counting definitely upon fresh meat, and so had our dogs. At least, after doing the terrific work necessary to make this journey, it is fair to presume that they had counted upon being fed, and not being left to starve miserably while tied to a tree.

To add to our hardships, our Indian tepee, made of canvas, began to smoke so excessively as to cause us the greatest discomfort, and we all thought we had pneumonia; but afterward concluded it was nothing but irritation of the lungs, due to breathing pine smoke a good many hours each day. In fact, it was almost unbearable. An Indian tepee of this kind, properly made by a squaw, is beyond doubt the most comfortable of all hunting tents in any respectable climate; but in a climate of 40 degrees below zero it is an abomination. We used frequently to crawl into our sheep-skin sleeping bags, wrap several blankets around the bags and put the fire out, merely to get relief from the annoyance of the smoke. In the morning the steam which arose from our bodies, and from the meal which we might be cooking, got mixed up with the smoke, so that it was impossible to distinguish each other when four feet apart. In fact, we were sometimes inclined to think that the dogs on the outside were better off than ourselves, though the appearance they presented in the morning was not such as to cause us to wish to change places with them. They were each tied by a short chain to the pine trees about the camp, and after a night of low temperature there were to be seen in the morning only twelve white mounds of snow; not that any snow had fallen during the night, or that the dogs had crawled underneath that already on the ground. Their white appearance was simply due to the dense coating of frost which had been produced from the condensation caused by the heat of their bodies. It must not be forgotten, however, that they are as hardy and as well able to withstand this rigorous climate as the wolves, from which many of them are directly descended. All of the so-called "huskies" are of this type.

Altogether things were not very pleasant about this time. Our Christmas Day rations consisted of one small roll each with a little coffee for breakfast, and in the evening each man was given a small piece of rabbit.

The rabbits in this country were unfortunately not as abundant as they were on the opposite side of the lake, where the Indian boy one day went out with one of our rifles to visit his rabbit snares and to shoot rabbits for the dogs. Before long we heard him shoot four times. He came back to camp with eight rabbits, which had certainly been killed with the rifle, none of them having been snared.

Those of us who were able to hunt at all hunted with the greatest perseverance, but with little success, until finally some one brought in the report that caribou had been seen, and in a very few days the country again contained numbers of them.

One morning, shortly after the first caribou had been seen, Keller, who had been quite sick, was unable longer to tolerate the smoke of the tepee, and took a little walk with his rifle close around our camp. He soon came upon the fresh trail of a bunch of caribou. He had followed it only a few hundred yards when he saw one of the caribou lying down. He is a dead shot, the best I have ever known in my life. He carefully steadied himself, raised his .45-90 Winchester, aimed at the caribou lying down and fired. When he went up to look at it, to his amazement, he came across another dead caribou, between the spot where he had fired and the one at which he had aimed. It had been shot straight through the temples. On going further, he found the other caribou shot exactly where he had aimed at it, some twenty yards distant from the first one. The only possible way in which he could explain this remarkable occurrence is that the caribou which had been shot through the head, and which he had not seen, had risen out of its bed just as he was in the act of firing and interposed his head directly in the line of fire. The fact of having fresh meat in camp, of course, brought great joy to us all, and especially to the semi-starved dogs. As in the case of killing the first moose, it seemed to have the effect of changing our luck, for we afterward killed a number of caribou, although we were not successful in getting good heads.

These caribou are totally different from the moose in the kind of food they live upon and in their general habits. They prefer a different sort of a country, the two rarely being found together. They spend much of their time in the muskegs, which seem to be characteristic of all of that region of the country; but these muskegs are not open, like those on the west side of the lake, being more or less covered with a growth of stubby jack pine, from which usually hangs an abundance of long gray moss. The caribou feed upon this moss, while the moose, on the other hand, are fond of the tender sprouts of the red and gray willow. The caribou, however, are often found on the rocky ridges, where they find good feed on the moss growing upon the rocks. Indeed, they seem to have no settled place of abode, like moose, being probably one of the most restless animals on the face of the earth. They seem to be always on the move. Unlike the moose, they are very inquisitive, in this respect being more like the antelope than any other animal. They are found singly, or in twos or threes, or in small bunches of ten to twenty, but often in great herds of a hundred or perhaps a thousand. They spend a great deal of their time on the lakes in the winter, where they play with each other like kittens. They are wonderfully quick in their actions. They are also very sure of their footing, and we saw a number of places in the snow where they had slid down quite steep rocks for some distance, probably by putting their four feet close together. Great herds often come down from the region on the western shore of Hudson Bay and return the following summer.

Very few people have any idea of the immense numbers of caribou which are found in the great tract of country to the west of Hudson Bay. By many who are familiar with this country they are believed to be as numerous as the buffaloes ever were in the early days. When more or less scarce, as they were during the greater portion of our hunt, they afford excellent hunting; but I should imagine that when they are very numerous there would be little sport in killing them, for as a rule they are not at all shy or difficult to approach. In general it may be said that the caribou of this region, known as the woodland caribou, live in the wooded districts during the summer and autumn, but in the winter time go to the higher land. Wind and cold seem to have no terror for them, and I doubt very much whether there is an animal in the world, with the exception perhaps of the musk-ox or the polar bear, that is so well fitted by nature to withstand the intense cold of the region in which they live. When one sees a caribou's track for the first time, he is amazed at its size, and its difference from the long, narrow, sharp-toed track of the moose, and naturally comes to the conclusion that the animal must be much larger than it really is. As a matter of fact, they are not much larger than the black-tailed deer, and considerably smaller than the elk of the Rocky Mountains. Until he has seen them, one is likely to imagine that the caribou is an ungainly, misshapen animal. This is a great mistake. Not only are they as a rule well proportioned, but they are extremely graceful. Their curious horns give them, of course, rather an odd appearance. The meat we found to be delicious, and rather better than moose meat.

After having remained as long as we desired in this country, and as long as we could stand the infernal smoke of the tepee, and after having secured a good supply of meat for our return journey, we loaded our toboggans and retraced our steps without especial incident to the mouth of the Bad Throat River. From there we took a sleigh to Selkirk, driving over the lake on the ice, and arriving at Selkirk the latter part of January or the 1st of February.

To those who may contemplate taking a similar trip to the Canadian woods in winter, I would say that it will prove a very interesting and never-to-be-forgotten experience, and that the hardships of such a trip are not necessarily severe if one will be guided entirely by the advice of the inhabitants of the region, especially as to his clothing and general outfit. I feel certain that, if one goes to the right locality, not only will he get good sport, but he will get it under very pleasant and novel conditions, and return home more benefited in every way than if he had taken a trip of the same duration to some warm climate. Under no circumstances, however, let him imagine that he knows more than the people of the country as to what he should do and wear.