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- The Arctic Prairies - 1/38 -

Produced by Bruce Miller; Courtesy of Kevin McCarthy Director of Perrot Memorial Library.

The Arctic Prairies

A Canoe-Journey



By Ernest Thompson Seton

Author of "Wild Animals I Have Known", "Life Histories", Etc.





What young man of our race would not gladly give a year of his life to roll backward the scroll of time for five decades and live that year in the romantic bygone-days of the Wild West; to see the great Missouri while the Buffalo pastured on its banks, while big game teemed in sight and the red man roamed and hunted, unchecked by fence or hint of white man's rule; or, when that rule was represented only by scattered trading-posts, hundreds of miles apart, and at best the traders could exchange the news by horse or canoe and months of lonely travel?

I for one, would have rejoiced in tenfold payment for the privilege of this backward look in our age, and had reached the middle life before I realised that, at a much less heavy cost, the miracle was possible today.

For the uncivilised Indian still roams the far reaches of absolutely unchanged, unbroken forest and prairie leagues, and has knowledge of white men only in bartering furs at the scattered trading-posts, where locomotive and telegraph are unknown; still the wild Buffalo elude the hunters, fight the Wolves, wallow, wander, and breed; and still there is hoofed game by the million to be found where the Saxon is as seldom seen as on the Missouri in the times of Lewis and Clarke. Only we must seek it all, not in the West, but in the far North-west; and for "Missouri and Mississippi" read "Peace and Mackenzie Rivers," those noble streams that northward roll their mile-wide turbid floods a thousand leagues to the silent Arctic Sea.

This was the thought which spurred me to a six months' journey by canoe. And I found what I went in search of, but found, also, abundant and better rewards that were not in mind, even as Saul, the son of Kish, went seeking asses and found for himself a crown and a great kingdom.

Four years have gone by since I lived through these experiences. Such a lapse of time may have made my news grow stale, but it has also given the opportunity for the working up of specimens and scientific records. The results, for the most part, will be found in the Appendices, and three of these, as indicated--namely, the sections on Plants, Mammals, and Birds--are the joint work of my assistant, Mr. Edward A. Preble, and myself.

My thanks are due here to the Right Honourable Lord Strathcona, G. C. M. G., Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, for giving me access to the records of the Company whenever I needed them for historical purposes; to the Honourable Frank Oliver, Minister of the Interior, Canada, for the necessary papers and permits to facilitate scientific collection, and also to Clarence C. Chipman, Esq., of Winnipeg, the Hudson's Bay Company's Commissioner, for practical help in preparing my outfit, and for letters of introduction to the many officers of the Company, whose kind help was so often a Godsend.




In 1907 I set out to journey by canoe down the Athabaska and adjoining waters to the sole remaining forest wilds--the far north-west of Canada--and the yet more desert Arctic Plains, where still, it was said, were to be seen the Caribou in their primitive condition.

My only companion was Edward A. Preble, of Washington, D. C., a trained naturalist,--an expert canoeist and traveller, and a man of three seasons' experience in the Hudson's Bay Territory and the Mackenzie Valley. While my chief object was to see the Caribou, and prove their continued abundance, I was prepared incidentally to gather natural-history material of all kinds, and to complete the shore line of the ambiguous lake called "Aylmer," as well as explore its sister, the better-known Clinton-Colden.

I went for my own pleasure at my own expense, and yet I could not persuade my Hudson's Bay Company friends that I was not sent by some government, museum or society for some secret purpose.

On the night of May 5 we left Winnipeg, and our observations began with the day at Brandon.

From that point westward to Regina we saw abundant evidence that last year had been a "rabbit year," that is, a year in which the ever-fluctuating population of Northern Hares (Snowshoe-rabbits or White-rabbits) had reached its maximum, for nine-tenths of the bushes in sight from the train had been barked at the snow level. But the fact that we saw not one Rabbit shows that "the plague" had appeared, had run its usual drastic course, and nearly exterminated the species in this particular region.

Early next morning at Kininvie (40 miles west of Medicine Hat, Alberta) we saw a band of 4 Antelope south of the track; later we saw others all along as far as Gleichen. All were south of the track. The bands contained as follows: 4, 14, 18, 8, 12, 8, 4, 1, 4, 5, 4, 6, 4, 18, 2, 6, 34, 6, 3, 1, 10, 25, 16, 3, 7, 9 (almost never 2, probably because this species does not pair), or 232 Antelope in 26 bands along 70 miles of track; but all were on the south side; not one was noted on the north.

The case is simple. During the past winter, while the Antelope were gone southward, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company had fenced its track. In spring the migrants, returning, found themselves cut off from their summer feeding-grounds by those impassable barb-wires, and so were gathered against the barrier. One band of 8, at a stopping place, ran off when they saw passengers alighting, but at half a mile they turned, and again came up against the fence, showing how strong is the northward impulse.

Unless they learn some way of mastering the difficulty, it means extermination for the Antelope of the north Saskatchewan.

From Calgary we went by train to Edmonton. This is the point of leaving the railway, the beginning of hard travel, and here we waited a few days to gather together our various shipments of food and equipment, and to await notice that the river was open.

In the north the grand event of the year is the opening of the rivers. The day when the ice goes out is the official first day of spring, the beginning of the season; and is eagerly looked for, as every day's delay means serious loss to the traders, whose men are idle, but drawing pay as though at work.

On May 11, having learned that the Athabaska was open, we left Edmonton in a livery rig, and drove 94 miles northward though a most promising, half-settled country, and late the next day arrived at Athabaska Landing, on the great east tributary of the Mackenzie, whose waters were to bear us onward for so many weeks.

Athabaska Landing is a typical frontier town. These are hard words, but justified. We put up at the principal hotel; the other lodgers told me it was considered the worst hotel in the world. I thought I knew of two worse, but next morning accepted the prevailing view.

Our canoe and provisions arrived, but the great convoy of scows that were to take the annual supplies of trade stuff for the far north was not ready, and we needed the help and guidance of its men, so must needs wait for four days.

This gave us the opportunity to study the local natural history and do a little collecting, the results of which appear later.

The great size of the timber here impressed me. I measured a typical black poplar (P. balsamifera), 100 feet to the top, 8 feet 2 inches in circumference, at 18 inches from the ground, and I saw many thicker, but none taller.

At the hotel, also awaiting the scows, was a body of four (dis-)Mounted Police, bound like ourselves for the far north. The officer in charge turned out to be an old friend from Toronto, Major A. M. Jarvis. I also met John Schott, the gigantic half-breed, who went to the Barren Grounds with Caspar Whitney in 1895. He seemed to have great respect for Whitney as a tramper, and talked much of the trip, evidently having forgotten his own shortcomings of the time. While I sketched his portrait, he regaled me with memories of his early days on Red River, where he was born in 1841. 1 did not fail to make what notes I could of those now historic times. His accounts of the Antelope on White Horse Plain, in 1855, and Buffalo about the site of Carberry, Manitoba, in 1852, were new and valuable light on the ancient ranges of these passing creatures.

All travellers who had preceded me into the Barren Grounds had

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