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- The Arctic Prairies - 20/38 -
It sounds like the opening of an epic poem but it is not.
The Chipewyan calender is divided in two seasons--dog season and canoe season. What the horse is to the Arab, what the Reindeer is to the Lap and the Yak to the Thibetan, the dog is to the Chipewyan for at least one-half of the year, until it is displaced by the canoe.
During dog season the canoes are piled away somewhat carelessly or guarded only from the sun. During canoe season the dogs are treated atrociously. Let us remember, first, that these are dogs in every doggy sense, the worshipping servants of man, asking nothing but a poor living in return for abject love and tireless service, as well as the relinquishment of all family ties and natural life. In winter, because they cannot serve without good food, they are well fed on fish that is hung on scaffolds in the fall in time to be frozen before wholly spoiled. The journeys they will make and the devoted service they render at this time is none too strongly set forth in Butler's "Cerf Vola" and London's "Call of the Wild." It is, indeed, the dog alone that makes life possible during the white half-year of the boreal calender. One cannot be many days in the north without hearing tales of dog prowess, devotion, and heroism. A typical incident was related as follows by Thomas Anderson:
Over thirty years ago, Chief Factor George McTavish and his driver, Jack Harvey, were travelling from East Main to Rupert's House (65 miles) in a blizzard so thick and fierce that they could scarcely see the leading dog. He was a splendid, vigorous creature, but all at once he lay down and refused to go. The driver struck him, but the factor reproved the man, as this dog had never needed the whip. The driver then went ahead and found open water only a few feet from the dogs, though out of sight. After that they gave the leader free rein, surrendered themselves to his guidance, and in spite of the blinding blizzard they struck the flagpole of Rupert's between 11 and 12 that night, only a little behind time.
Many of the wild Wolf traits still remain with them. They commonly pair; they bury surplus food; the mothers disgorge food for the young; they rally to defend one of their own clan against a stranger; and they punish failure with death.
A thousand incidents might be adduced to show that in the north there is little possibility of winter travel without dogs and little possibility of life without winter travel.
But April comes with melting snows and May with open rivers and brown earth everywhere; then, indeed, the reign of the dog is over. The long yellow-birch canoe is taken down from the shanty roof or from a sheltered scaffold, stitched, gummed, and launched; and the dogs are turned loose to fend for themselves. Gratitude for past services or future does not enter into the owner's thoughts to secure a fair allowance of food. All their training and instinct prompts them to hang about camp, where, kicked, stoned, beaten, and starved, they steal and hunt as best they may, until the sad season of summer is worn away and merry winter with its toil and good food is back once more.
From leaving Fort MacMurray we saw daily the starving dog, and I fed them when I could. At Smith Landing the daily dog became a daily fifty. One big fellow annexed us. "I found them first," he seemed to say, and no other dog came about our camp without a fight.
Of course he fared well on our scraps, but many a time it made my heart ache and my food-store suffer to see the gaunt skeletons in the bushes, just beyond his sphere of influence, watching for a chance to rush in and secure a mouthful of--anything to stay the devastating pang. My journal of the time sets forth in full detail the diversity of their diet, not only every possible scrap of fish and meat or whatsoever smelled of fish or meat, but rawhide, leather, old boots, flour-bags, potato-peelings, soap, wooden fragments of meat-boxes, rags that have had enough animal contact to be odorous. An ancient dishcloth, succulent with active service, was considered a treat to be bolted whole; and when in due course the cloth was returned to earth, it was intact, bleached, purged, and purified as by chemic fires and ready for a new round of benevolences.
In some seasons the dogs catch Rabbits enough to keep them up. But this year the Rabbits were gone. They are very clever at robbing fish-nets at times, but these were far from the fort. Reduced to such desperate straits for food, what wonder that cannibalism should be common! Not only the dead, but the sick or disabled of their own kind are torn to pieces and devoured. I was told of one case where a brutal driver disabled one of his dogs with heavy blows; its companions did not wait till it was dead before they feasted. It is hard to raise pups because the mothers so often devour their own young; and this is a charge I never heard laid to the Wolf, the ancestor of these dogs, which shows how sadly the creature has been deteriorated by contact with man. There seems no length to which they will not go for food. Politeness forbids my mentioning the final diet for which they scramble around the camp. Never in my life before have I seen such utter degradation by the power of the endless hunger pinch. Nevertheless--and here I expect the reader to doubt, even as I did when first I heard it, no matter how desperate their straits-these gormandisers of unmentionable filth, these starvelings, in their dire extremity will turn away in disgust from duck or any other web-footed water-fowl.
Billy Loutit had shot a Pelican; the skin was carefully preserved and the body guarded for the dogs, thinking that this big thing, weighing 6 or 7 pounds, would furnish a feast for one or two. The dogs knew me, and rushed like a pack of Wolves at sight of coming food. The bigger ones fought back the smaller. I threw the prize, but, famished though they were, they turned away as a man might turn from a roasted human hand. One miserable creature, a mere skeleton, sneaked forward when the stronger ones were gone, pulled out the entrails at last, and devoured them as though he hated them.
I can offer no explanation. But the Hudson's Bay men tell me it is always so, and I am afraid the remembrance of the reception accorded my bounty that day hardened my heart somewhat in the days that followed.
On the Nyarling we were too far from mankind to be bothered with dogs, but at Fort Resolution we reentered their country. The following from my journal records the impression after our enforced three days' stay:
"Tuesday, July 16, 1907.--Fine day for the first time since July 3. At last we pulled out of Fort Resolution (9.40 A. M.). I never was so thankful to leave a place where every one was kind. I think the maddest cynophile would find a cure here. It is the worst dog-cursed spot I ever saw; not a square yard but is polluted by them; no article can be left on the ground but will be carried off, torn up, or defiled; the four corners of our tent have become regular stopping places for the countless canines, and are disfigured and made abominable, so that after our escape there will be needed many days of kindly rain for their purification. There certainly are several hundred dogs in the village; there are about 50 teepees and houses with 5 to 15 dogs at each, and 25 each at the mission and H. B. Co. In a short walk, about 200 yards, I passed 86 dogs.
"There is not an hour or ten minutes of day or night that is not made hideous with a dog-fight or chorus of yelps. There are about six different clans of dogs, divided as their owners are, and a Dogrib dog entering the Yellow-knife or Chipewyan part of the camp is immediately set upon by all the residents. Now the clansmen of the one in trouble rush to the rescue and there is a battle. Indians of both sides join in with clubs to belabour the fighters, and the yowling and yelping of those discomfited is painful to hear for long after the fight is over. It was a battle like this, I have been told, which caused the original split of the tribe, one part of which went south to become the Apaches of Arizona. The scenes go on all day and all night in different forms. A number of dogs are being broken in by being tied up to stakes. These keep up a heart-rending and peculiar crying, beginning with a short bark which melts into a yowl and dies away in a nerve-racking wail. This ceases not day or night, and half a dozen of these prisoners are within a stone's throw of our camp.
"The favourite place for the clan fights seems to be among the guy-ropes of our tent; at least half a dozen of these general engagements take place every night while we try to sleep.
"Everything must be put on the high racks eight feet up to be safe from them; even empty tins are carried off, boots, hats, soap, etc., are esteemed most toothsome morsels, and what they can neither eat, carry off, nor destroy, they defile with elaborate persistency and precision."
A common trick of the Indians when canoe season arrives is, to put all the family and one or two of the best dogs in the canoes, then push away from the shore, leaving the rest behind. Those so abandoned come howling after the canoes, and in unmistakable pleadings beg the heartless owners to take them in. But the canoes push off toward the open sea, aiming to get out of sight. The dogs howl sadly on the shore, or swim after them till exhausted, then drift back to the nearest land to begin the summer of hardship.
If Rabbits are plentiful they get along; failing these they catch mice or fish; when the berry season comes they eat fruit; the weaker ones are devoured by their brethren; and when the autumn arrives their insensate owners generally manage to come back and pick up the survivors, feeding them so that they are ready for travel when dog-time begins, and the poor faithful brutes, bearing no grudge, resume at once the service of their unfeeling masters.
All through our voyage up Great Slave Lake we daily heard the sad howling of abandoned dogs, and nightly, we had to take steps to prevent them stealing our food and leathers. More than once in the dim light, I was awakened by a rustle, to see sneaking from my tent the gray, wolfish form of some prowling dog, and the resentment I felt at the loss inflicted, was never more than to make me shout or throw a pebble at him.
One day, as we voyaged eastward (July 23) in the Tal-thel-lay narrows of Great Slave Lake, we met 5 canoes and 2 York boats of Indians going west. A few hours afterward as, we were nooning on an island (we were driven to the islands now) there came a long howling from the rugged main shore, a mile away to the east of us; then it increased to a chorus of wailing, and we knew that the Indians had that morning abandoned their dogs there. The wailing continued, then we saw a tiny black speck coming from the far shore. When it was half-way across the ice-cold bay we could hear the gasps of a tired swimmer. He got along fairly, dodging the cakes of ice, until within about 200 yards, when his course was barred by a long, thin, drifting floe. He tried to climb on it, but was too weak, then he raised his voice in melancholy howls of despair. I could not get to him, but he plucked up heart at length, and
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