At the recent workshop in Vancouver, we were asked to present either a potential op-ed piece for a newspaper (which doesn’t stand for opinion-editorial, but “opposite-editoral page,” I came to find out), or a magazine query. I chose the magazine query, and will be sending out the query I wrote to Prairies North Magazine. Prairies North is a spectacular Saskatchewan-based magazine located in the small town of Norquay, north of Yorkton. The storyline is shaped around the experiences of the overland freighters (think: modern day long-haul truckers) who hired themselves and their horses and sleighs out on contract. The contracts, in Saskatchewan at least, involved freighting goods from the railheads on the prairies. From there, the men, horses, and sleighs wound their way north to the isolated fur trade posts, schools, and communities that once were the backbone of Saskatchewan’s early development. These communities had been bypassed (and hamstringed, and ignored) by southern prairie development shaped around agriculture and railways. On the return trip, freighters would bring loads of fur, timber, or (usually), fish.
The stories are delightful, if sometimes sobering, often lyrical and most make your marrow freeze in your bones. After all, the stories are almost always set in the winter, when the Keewatin, or cold north wind, froze the muskegs, rivers, and lakes into roadbeds solid enough to pull heavily laden sleighs. Open leads in the ice, slush, blistering winds across miles of frozen lake, snowblindness, and howling blizzards faced with no shelter for man or beast were common hazards of the trail. A pitiful fire, built in the lee of a sleigh while crossing a large lake on a bitterly cold day became an excercise in hopeless futility — no warmth rose, but the flames melted the snow and ice beneath, smothering itself. Two men, used to the ways of the trail, had their wives sew long, thin bags out of flour sacks. The ladies would fill each with food — one with cooked beans, another with cooked potatoes, for example. On the trail, the men could just hack a frozen chunk off straight into a pot with some snow and heat it up. Frozen microwave dinners, over the open fire.
As technology advanced, caterpillar tractors became the motive power of these “trains” going north. Although a warm caboose added to the men’s comfort, the driver of the cat tractor was still wary. After all, he was riding in the part of the train most likely to sink. In the winter of 1947, for example, seven caterpillar tractors and three men were lost in the icy depths of Reindeer Lake.
The stories of these freighters are found in local history books and oral archives, including many pictures. At the Archives in Ottawa, however, a treasure trove of moving pictures can be found. The “cat trains” in particular excited the “modern” imagination, and everyone from the National Film Board to International Harvester and CBC shot footage of caterpillar tractor trains in action, heading north. These films can’t be incorporated in my potential essay for Prairies North, but I’m hoping to have them copied for use in the classroom.
Overland freighting into and out of the north country is a Saskatchewan story that too often gets lost in the overwhelming dominance of the prairie mystique. In an interview in October for CBC’s radio program Blue Sky, some of those stories were brought forward. See http://www.cbc.ca/bluesky/2009/10/the_long_trek_to_northern_sask.html to listen to the podcast.
If you’d like to read more of the stories, you’ll have to wait for the upcoming book, Mind the Gap, currently in pre-production by the Canadian Plains Research Center. Due out potentially as early as Fall 2010, this book is full of essays, poetry, and artwork responding to an entirely Saskatchewan theme. “Layin’ Out in the Snow with it Forty Below,” an essay based on overland freighting stories and photographs, has been accepted for publication.