One of the most enduring and interesting stories uncovered while researching my last project were those from the overland freighters in northern Saskatchewan. As soon as the Territorial Government and the Department of Indian Affairs pushed through a cart trail to the south end of Montreal Lake, freighters could be found plying the trail north of Prince Albert with loads of goods. A boreal quagmire in summer, such trails were used primarily in the wintertime, when seasonality — and the advent of winter — froze the trailbeds hard enough to carry sleigh loads of any size or weight.
I’ve been interviewed on CBC Radio regarding these stories, and they are my favourite ‘party trick’ tales as a professional historian. I love to read passages from Saskatchewan novelist John Beames, whose 1930 book, Army without Banners offered delightful characters and tales from the frozen trails. Or, I read from local history books drawn from communities along the forest fringe, where homesteaders would take freighting jobs throughout the winter for cash. Crossing the lakes in a ‘freight swing’ of horses, with the lead horses pushing a snowplow across the ice, was always an adventure. Shearing through ice heaves, wrapping the horses’ legs in gunny sacks to protect them from the sharp ice, rescuing horses and men from slush pockets and open leads, trying to build a fire on ice in a snowstorm — the modern ice truckers with their safety equipment, heated cabs, and road building technology are following in the footsteps of those who braved the elements with their bodies and wits.
Here are some selections:
“It’s a hell of a life: live out in the woods like a wolf, lay down in the snow with the sky for a roof an’ all outdoors for a shanty. But what’s a man to do? I got a wife an’ ‘leven kids. An’ so here I am, out on the freight trail, livin’ like a damn coyote an’ sweatin’ my soul out to keep ‘em in groceries.” John Crawford, character in John Beames’ Army Without Banners.
“There was a lot of work to be done before they could take the freight trail. Stove wood had to be cut and piled for the women, hay hauled and stacked beside the barns, and freight racks built. …Everything had been done for the women that could be done, and Pierre Normandin had promised to look in at both houses frequently. …Kent and Billy were clothed in heavy sheepskin coats, fur caps, and thick woolen trousers. They wore three pairs of socks each, and high moosehide moccasins with ankle rubbers over them. On their hands were woolen mittens and pullovers of mulehide. They found, before their return, that they were rather under- than over-clothed.”
“Kent and Billy nibbled at frozen bannock during the short halt, but Crawford cut a hunk of raw fat pork from the carcass of a pig on his rack and chewed it with relish. “Pork’s the stuff for the freight trail,”he said. “Nothin’ like it to keep the cold out. To the devil with beef an’ bannock – they sit cold on a man’s stummick. Have some.” They declined with thanks. “You’ll come to it yet,” he assured them.”
And while modern trucks can be lost and replaced, hundreds of horses died on the trail, pulling loads through brutal conditions.
“The morning was still young when the ice gave way without warning. The sleighs sank to the bunks only, but the horses were in deeper water and unable to keep their footing. Ahead of them the whole ice bridge collapsed, revealing a wide stretch of ridged and racing water. Crawford stooped and jerked out the drawbolt, freeing the team. Had he not done so the sleighs must have been dragged into deep water and the precious freight, consisting mostly of flour, ruined beyond salvage. The horses were borne rapidly downstream, to bring up at the edge of the firm ice below. But they were in too deep water to climb out unaided. Crawford plunged through the snow along the shore and reached them just in time. He flung himself on his stomach and caught them by the bridles as they were about to be sucked under. …Nooses were with some difficulty passed over the heads of the drowning horses… A hard steady pull, and they slid up over the edge of the ice, Kent and Crawford pulling on their forelegs. Freed, they struggled to their feet, wheezing loudly but otherwise little the worse, Their harness was taken off and they were rubbed down briskly before their coats became stiff with ice. Warmly blanketed and tied between two roaring fires, they soon ceased to shiver violently.”
“The grey mare rose into the air with a sudden squeal. The ice had closed her nostrils. Crawford sprang to her head, whipped off his blanket and flung it over her ears. He hung on like a bulldog, muffling her head in its folds, while she struck out madly with her forefeet. The warmth of the blanket presently thawed her nostrils and she became quiet again, panting heavily. They pulled on again, Large drops of blood began to drip one by one from the nose of Billy’s Sam. Nothing could be done to stop it, for its warmth kept the poor brute’s nostrils from freezing like the mare’s.”
Local history books from the forest edge tell the following tales:
When Stan and Harry Hale of Paddockwood set out on the freight trail, their wives “made long narrow sacks out of flour bags and stuffed them with cooked potatoes, beans, etc., each kind in its own bag. When we camped, either in a hunter’s camp or just light a bonfire, we’d just chop off a chunk and heat it up.” Paddockwood: Cordwood and Courage
“Frederickson asked what was on the menu for supper for we were all famished. He replied ‘Roast Pork,” which sounded good to all of us. Mrs. Steinbach, a native, made us feel at home as we all sat down around a large table. …Later in the bunkhouse we were discussing the evening meal and how much we had eaten, when someone remarked that the pork had tasted strange to him. We agreed there had been a slight difference but we had all eaten our fill and enjoyed it too when Frederickson informed us that is was “Pork” all right – “Pork-U-Pine.” We all had a good laugh.” From John Brooks, Strange Hunters.
When the trip was through and the men returned to their homesteads or towns, they were faced with a dilemma: how much do you tell your wife? If the trip was superb and all went well, it was easy to dwell on the beauty of the northern lights, the flash of the snow and to discuss what to do with the money earned. But dead horses that needed to be replaced, broken equipment, and frozen feet, hands, and faces, not to mention shredded clothing and gaunt bodies, were much harder to explain. The extreme cold, the danger, the fear, the howling wolves and the sheer terror of it all had to be hidden if the freighter ever wanted to take to the trail again. It was good money, if all went well; but it was a rare trip that didn’t experience at least one major disaster.
One of History TV’s most popular shows is Ice Road Truckers. I heard a rumor that they were planning a special to focus on overland freighting in the 1930s — likely by caterpillar tractor. The experiences of those who pulled freight on the ‘cat-trains’ is a whole other blog post, but here’s the teaser: if you’re the driver of the cat tractor crossing the ice on, say, Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan (essentially an inland sea), and you hit bad ice or an open lead, what are your chances of survival if the cat drops to the bottom of the lake?
Soon, I hope to publish a book on overland freighting experiences, using local histories, oral stories, and photographs from archival and personal collections. Freighting is an aspect of western Canadian history that too often has been lost to the ‘prairie’ mystique of the treeless, open plains. But the rollicking yarns deserve to be told to a broader audience.