Fictional account of a 17th C. fur trader [for "It's A Canadian Thing!" Story Contest]
Bloody wonderful idea you had, Johnny lad, he reproached himself, volunteering to travel up here solo, instead of coming with a small crew. You'd 've had someone to talk to. At least it's basically just a scouting trip, and shore ice isn't a big problem. Tanner's arms ached after ten hours of pitting his canoe against the Hudson Bay's currents, the waves trying to push him to the western shore sooner than he wanted, and the occasional ice floe.
It was late July and he was two days into what was likely a ten day journey. The ice, while having mostly receded away from the shoreline and into the bay proper, still bore watching. Never a solid sheet of ice, even during the winter, the wind and the currents were pushing the various-sized pieces around and it would be all too easy to get pinched between a couple of floes or, even worse, holed by a jagged slab hiding just below the water's surface.
"Good hunting, Tanner, and be careful! The ice isn't that long gone and there's no telling how close to shore those bears may be, so keep a sharp eye out."
"You've provisions enough, I should think, besides whatever you catch yourself but, in a pinch, there's always York Factory."
"Aye, and see if you can get any information out of any natives you may run across - Cree, I shouldn't wonder. Do a good job, and there just may be a private license in it for you." This last was accompanied by a broad wink.
These and other admonitions and exhortations had accompanied his send-off from Fort Severn. Barely a year old itself, Fort Severn was already trying to expand in order to compete with—if not actually surpass—the York Factory trade operation. He shook his head as if to clear away the last-minute conversations, and bent himself to the task of the twelfth, and final, hour of paddling for the day. He'd started the day at about 6am with a plan to call it quits at about 6pm. While this certainly didn't qualify as 'pleasure boating', it was a vast improvement over the 18-hour days he was used to as part of a crew. He was just a touch concerned that he'd get spoiled by all the extra free time and the leisurely pace.
Spotting a somewhat less rocky area along the shore, Tanner dug the paddle into the cold bay water on the right side of the canoe and turned towards land. He grounded the canoe, climbed out at the bow and dragged it far enough out of the water to keep the tide and waves from pulling it back. He was tired from a long day of fighting the counterclockwise current, although staying relatively close to shore helped. He pulled his pack out of the canoe and set up camp about a dozen feet away. He wanted to be far enough away from the canoe, so that a stray spark from the campfire didn't endanger it, but also close enough to catch the canoe, if he was awakened by the sound of the waves dragging it back over the rocks.
He cut a medium-sized chunk of pemmican from one of the blocks he'd brought along and popped it into his mouth, then got busy cleaning the whitefish he'd caught earlier in the day. Tanner was a 'rough and ready' type of cook. While he appreciated any spices that might be available in a more permanent setting, out in the wild he had to be content with using some of the salt from his pouch. His hatchet made short work of a small poplar, and he soon had a small fire going. He took his posnet1 out of the pack, laid the filleted and diced fish inside, sprinkled a few grains of salt over the pieces, and then set the pot onto the small pile of burning branches.
There wasn't much wind, and what little there was came out of the northwest. Still, he kept an eye out for anything larger than himself that might be drawn by the aroma—and then find him a much more interesting meal opportunity than a bit of cooked fish.
He finished his meal without incident, scoured the little pan clean in a little tide pool, and then stowed it away; breakfast would be another chunk of pemmican. Tanner reckoned it was somewhere around nine o'clock, even though there was still almost an hour to go until sunset. With nothing else needing to be done and no one to talk to, he decided that sleep was the most reasonable thing to do. The day had been pleasantly warm and he was sure the temperature wouldn't fall below freezing overnight, so he lay his rifle down next to his blankets and wrapped himself up. No companions also meant no one on guard, so having his rifle nearby was only prudent. No one on guard also meant there would be no one to wake him, so he determined to just set out on the next stage whenever he awoke. This was his pattern for the bulk of his voyage, and it served him well.
He put into York Factory on the fourth day, glad that it was situated on the Hayes River rather than the Nelson with its much stronger flow. He replenished his supplies, especially his skins of fresh water. He'd not been low on provisions, but making use of the opportunity to stock up at an established post was a much better plan than having to hunt or trap on his own. He also checked his canoe for any repairs it might need. Paddling close to shore or not, he would likely not survive in the icy water, if the canoe sank due to a leak, was holed or overturned; it was in fine shape. He was glad of the company and remained awake later than he had intended. He set off shortly after dawn the next morning, adopting once more his accustomed routine of travel and rest.
The bear, the indigenous and the furs
John Tanner was now eight days into his journey and the trip, while arduous, had thus far proven uneventful. To his right, the bay stretched away farther than the eye could see, the surface typically dotted with small whitecaps and the odd ice floe. On his left, the terrain varied from evergreen forest, to muskeg2 playing host to slender poplars, to rocky shoreline. Tanner's two-man birchbark canoe glided easily through the choppy water, the single paddle alternately dipping left and right to propel the boat along. He wasn't paddling at the standard 40-45 strokes per minute a full crew would use on one of the larger freight canoes, but he was making good progress.
The day was warm and, to the west, the sky held few clouds. Over the bay, however, hung a thick fog. It had made appearances on previous days, but had generally been less thick and further offshore; now, though, it was close aboard. Making the situation even worse, it was accompanied by sturdy ice floes that could pose a real threat to his craft.
The danger was even closer than Tanner imagined.
Floating over the water from a spit of land just ahead came a rough, but plaintive, mewling or bawling. A few more pulls on his paddle brought into view a surprising sight. A small band of natives were gathered around two cages made of woven branches. Trapped inside each cage, and visible through the gaps, were a pair of bear cubs. Just as he began to wonder why they had bothered to trap the cubs instead of simply clubbing them to death, Tanner heard a loud woof followed immediately by a splash—and he had his answer. The mother bear, which had been out hunting on the ice, had abandoned the beluga whale she'd caught and was now swimming with impressive speed on a straight line to her cubs. As fate would have it, Tanner's canoe was directly in her path. He paddled for all he was worth. Still, the canoe was almost tipped over as the bear overtook him and shouldered her way past.
The polar bear sow's paws churned through the shallows, then scattered stones and dirt as she charged the men who threatened her cubs. They took up positions directly in front of her, hurling what appeared to be Hudson Bay Trade axes at her head and chest. More men jumped up from where they had lain in wait and hurled their own weapons at her legs, seeking to cripple her and make the kill somewhat less dangerous. The bear had taken fearsome damage and was bleeding profusely, but her maternal rage carried her forward. Swipes of her massive paws killed three of the men before she slowed and then turned, ready to charge once more. Then—crack! A large hole appeared in her chest and the bear fell at last.
Tanner lowered his rifle. He'd been willing to watch the hunt play out, but decided to lend a hand when it appeared the bear just might come out on top, and that he smelled a lot like the men who'd taken her cubs. The Indians seemed to understand this, and simply turned themselves to the task of skinning the bear and cutting up and stowing the meat in various containers. The cubs, their role in the hunt now at an end, soon shared their mother's fate.
Tanner hailed the group from the shallows. One of them looked his way, but none answered him. He finished pulling the canoe ashore and lay his rifle in it, then approached the men slowly, keeping his hands in view the entire time. They all watched him now, alert but quiet. One man stepped forward; the chief, Tanner assumed. He gave a smile and used his best Swampy Cree to greet him. The look on the leader's face made Tanner wish he hadn't left his rifle in the canoe. Great! Either my Cree is worse than I thought and I just insulted him, or these Indians aren't Cree. He thought a moment, then decided He's already suspicious of me, so why not?
The group of men relaxed. "Bon jour," the leader replied. Tanner's hunch had paid off, guessing that French traders may have come through the area. Both Tanner and the chief spoke only very basic French but, through repetition, gestures and crude drawings in the sand, Tanner was able to explain he was looking for new fur sources, especially beaver.
"Y a-t-il des castors ici?" Tanner finally asked.
The leader pointed to the west. "Oui. Beaucoup."
Tanner retrieved one of the packs from the canoe and brought it back to the group. He opened it and dumped the goods he'd brought to trade.
Visions of a faster trip back to Fort Severn—this time he'd be going with the current—and that promised license swirling in his head, Tanner helped the men finish preparing the kill, then followed them toward his future.
Author's Note #1 ▼
Author's Note #2 ▼