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A memory from Merrick

The following is a letter written by Elliott Merrick to those attending the annual Wilderness Paddlers gathering at the Hulbert Outdoor Centre in Fairlee, Vermont this March. This small gathering of some 80 people is a mini-version and inspired by the annual Wilderness Canoe Association a.k.a the Luste Bunch held every January in Toronto.

We thought Elliott's words were wonderful and asked the 92-year-old author for permission to publish here so you all might enjoy them.

Greetings to wilderness travellers. We all share something in common. I would like to be with you, but I'll soon be 92, and too frail to travel much.

There are few advantages to being old, but perhaps one is that I was travelling in the Labrador wilderness in the winter of 1929-30 -- think of it - 67 years ago with native trappers.

It was a different world then, no bush planes in Labrador, no radio telephone, no snowmobiles, long before Goose Bay airbase. The Innu, the Montagnais Indians, came paddling down Naskaupi River to our village of North West River in late June or early July to the Hudson's Bay Company fur post to trade a little fur and get away on the Bay shore from the flies. They camped across the river from the village, about ten tents. They had never heard of outboard motors. They split their paddles out of spruce trees, or white birch, shaped them with an axe, and fined them down with crooked knives. They made the finest snowshoes in the world. The children had little ones like soup plates. They also made canoes, using canvas and paint from the HBC. End of summer they paddled away to spend the winter in the wilderness, furring a littler, but mostly hunting meat.

In this village we were all to ourselves each winter. No stranger came in from October, when the last mail steamer departed the coast and the sea froze, until the following June when the ship came again. An exception was the two dog team mails from South, carrying letters only, no packages. We thought of "the outside", as it was called -- that world of cities and towns -- as very remote and of not much importance to us. Most of the part-Scotch, part-Eskimo people of the village had never seen a bicycle or an automobile, or a railroad train, or a plane, and didn't especially hanker to. When I was told that people in the cities pay money for their drinking water, the response was, "I wouldn't want to live in a place like that." It was still the age of isolation.

My future wife and I worked in this village for two or more years, she as a nurse in the Grenfell Mission Hospital, and I as a teacher in the Mission school and maintenance man around the hospital, so we came to know the people, she especially. When the trappers left in their canoes, first of September, for their trapping grounds up Churchill River, one of them said he would take us with him. We had been getting ready all summer, including buying two 18-foot Chestnut canoes from a group of departing prospectors.

As we were about to shove off from one of the last houses at Traverspine, old Uncle Joe Michelin came down to the sand beach and said, "I want to shake your hand, because I don't ever expect to see you again. Going up a river for pleasure! Some people would go to hell for a pastime!"

Heavily loaded with flour, food, and gear to last us 4 1/2 months, we were one of those months getting 350 miles up Churchill River. Hardly ever had a woman made this all-male trek, but they had great respect for Kay, who had done so much for their families, and even for them. The rapids were difficult; poling, tracking, lightening loads. The trappers helped us through. We tried not to slow them/

The portage around Churchill Falls took a week, that great cataract of immense volume and twice the height of Niagara. I wrote in True North that it was too far, far away ever to be harnessed for power. Since then, it has become one of the world's great hydros, producing some $800 million worth of electricity yearly. I often say it is hard enough to eat your words, but when you have to swallow the paper too, that's mighty tough.

It was glorious when we were settled into John Michelin's main cabin a long way above the falls. Especially so, as we had never known when we would capsize in a rapid or peter out on this hard driving slog, with the most experienced canoemen and woodsmen you can imagine. We would never have made it without their generous help, as I said. We tried to our utmost not to delay them, as this furring expedition comprised their year's earnings.

John was gone two or three or four days on his traplines. Sometimes I went with him, but more often tended close-by traps for him and did chores. One of these chores was to make a bending, flexible toboggan out of a tamarack tree. It took us a long time, I can tell you. Ever-helpful Kay tended rabbit snares, shot partridges and ptarmigan for food, did all the cooking, and even made sourdough "rose bread" in our small tin stove-pipe oven. One of her proudest accomplishments was a .22 rifle was to down a white partridge running on white snow. We claimed it was luck. All you can see is a small black eye and a tip of black on the tailfeathers. We had to eke out our flour and portaged food, making it last as long as possible.

We travelled some around this height-of-land country with other trappers, even to what we called "Unknown Lake".

The months passed, and we were running short of grub. It was time to start the long snowshoe and toboggan journey down the frozen river. The various trappers were anxious to get home to their wives and dwellings after four months in the bush. They were running short of all supplies, too.

We didn't want to go, Kay and I. We had almost forgotten about the outside world, and we didn't want to go there or even to the village. From the comparative comfort of John's main cabin, we were thinking always how beautiful the winter wilderness can be; the rabbit tracks, the endless forms of frost and ice, the northern lights, the forest and icy stars. We wished we could stay there always. But, of course, we would soon run out of food and cartridges and candles and everything else. We could not live on meat exclusively the way the Innu can. And in summer the bug would eat us alive. So we had to go.

Many people ask me about the hardships, but at night on the trail in our tent with the little sheet-iron stove going and the balsam floor beginning to smell sweet, the partridge stew coming to a boil, we were quite comfortable, even at 40 below. The worst hardship was that these experienced hunters travel so fast. We wanted to linger, to enjoy, watching the magnificent sunsets or rock glens or superb scenery. But we had to keep up. Some days when the hauling was hard, we made only 10 or 15 miles. When the going was good we travelled 20, even 35 miles between pre-dawn and long after dark. This being December, and then January, daylight was short. We pulled down the tents in the morning starlight and set them up again in the dark. The longest-mileage days occurred where the wind-scoured river showed no sign of rapids. It was then we lashed our snowshoes on the sleds and trotted hour after hour. How Kay kept up I'll never know. She remained strong and cheerful, always carrying her little pack to lighten my sled load. She wanted so much to go, to see, to know, and now she was doing it. Every man had a toboggan, but she had none, so that was some help for her, One of the trappers said, "She's as good as a man, and better than some."

John, of course, took half our load on his toboggan. I, however, always kept the tent and stove, some grub, sleeping gear, axe, .22 on mine in case we got left behind, which seemed likely. From the start, we shared all the food with John. We would have let them go, except we didn't know the river road the way they did, and weren't capable of following it by ourselves -- sometimes one bank, sometimes another, sometimes on a narrow ice shelf beside an open rapid, just as they always found it. Once in a traditional place, beside a black and ugly-looking rapid, we had to haul the sleds with long lines up a steep bank and crawl through willows for a long way, leaving the river entirely. Although we were learning fast, we hadn't known the river from boyhood.

Because food was short, we were always hungry. We hoped to get partridges for the evening stew pot, but usually didn't, travelling too fast to spend time hunting. Our main food was a dwindling supply of flour, so it was bannock, bannock, and never enough of that.

As we came down the river, we picked up more trappers from their accustomed hunting grounds. Now we were ten. In the middle of every morning and afternoon the group stopped for a brief boil-up of tea and a bit of bannock. Kay and I had hoarded some sugar and Bakers semisweet chocolate. A cup of sweet tea and a square of chocolate kept us going on some of the longest afternoons. Our belts were in two holes, as our legs grew bigger and our stomachs flatter.

It was in a jumble of rough ice behind an ice dam that we had our worst experience and got left far behind. Among the maze of crooked, on-edge slabs as big as grand pianos, I stuck my foot between the chunks into the water. We had to warm my foot, then put on dry socks, duffles and moccasins. It was way below zero and I musn't freeze my foot in the course of this long march. I was making slow progress through this chaos for fear I'd break my toboggan over sharp edges that were curling shavings from the wood. The last thing the boys shouted to us was. "We got to hurry, hurry, she's going to bust again any minute." Water was rising between the chunks and forming shallow stream along the ice beside the banks showing every sign of the increasing pressure.

Kay and I slipped and slid with our snowshoes on, fearful of breaking them. The sled I had made bent and twisted, all joints lashed with caribou sinew, Indian fashion. They all held. Night came on as the water continued rising and we continued slipping and sliding, careful not to break a leg. It was bad, and I mean BAD! We could have been lost that night in Churchill River. When would the river burst? Would it be all of a sudden? We didn't know.

We were lucky. Long after dark we caught the trapper crew in their camp at a flat spot. John, who usually slept in the tent with Kay and me, had set up his sleeping gear in Henry Goudie's tent. They welcomed us in as though we were long lost children, put up the tent for us, lit the stove, covered the floor with balsam tips, and cut up our night's wood. We were too tired to eat.

A couple of days short of home, the rapids past and the river solid, we let them go and travelled at our own pace. John's departing words were, "I'll have codfish and potatoes for you in Traverspine." We had learned a great deal -- enough so we could make small winter journeys on our own now, always with a toboggan, axe, tent, stove, grub, .22 rifle, spare mitts, footgear and bedding.

That winter I snowshoed nearly 800 miles with trappers, trying to become a trapper myself. We never wanted to leave there, but I couldn't make a living.

What did it all add up to? I will tell you. We were changed forever by our months in the Labrador wilderness. We will never be the same.

I wrote somewhere: I am thankful to have been a little part of this wilderness living. And more than all is the land, the long white lakes, the ridges and rivers, the space and manlessness, the spruce forests and the birch hills, and the terrible beauty of it when darkness and cold are tightening like a grip of iron. Nothing in my lifetime will be more satisfying that to have glimpsed the heart of all that.

Elliott Merrick, March 1997
This story first appeared in Che-Mun Outfit 88 in 1997.


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