The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter IV.

A Factory.

One of the largest of the lakes beyond the 61st parallel is that called the Great Slave Lake; it is two hundred and fifty miles long by fifty across, and is situated exactly at 61° 25’ N. lat. and 114° W. long. The surrounding districts slope down to it, and it completely fills a vast natural hollow. The position of the lake in the very centre of the hunting districts. once swarming with game, early attracted the attention of the Company. Numerous streams either take their rise from it or flow into it-the Mackenzie, the Athabasca, &c.; and several important forts have been constructed on its shores — Fort Providence on the north, and Fort Resolution on the south. Fort Reliance is situated on the north-east extremity, and is about three hundred miles from the Chesterfield inlet, a long narrow estuary formed by the waters of Hudson’s Bay.

The Great Slave Lake is dotted with little islands, the granite and gneiss of which they are formed jutting up in several places. Its northern banks are clothed with thick woods, shutting out the barren frozen district beyond, not inaptly called the “Cursed Land.” The southern regions, on the other band, are flat, without a rise of any kind, and the soil is mostly calcareous. The large ruminants of the polar districts — the buffaloes or bisons, the flesh of which forms almost the only food of the Canadian and native hunters — seldom go further north than the Great Slave Lake.

The trees on the northern shores of the lake form magnificent forests. We need not be astonished at meeting with such fine vegetation in this remote district. The Great Slave Lake is not really in a higher latitude than Stockholm or Christiania. We have only to remember that the isothermal lines, or belts of equal heat, along which heat is distributed in equal quantities, do not follow the terrestrial parallels, and that with the same latitude, America is ever so much colder than Europe. In April the streets of New York are still white with snow, yet the latitude of New York is nearly the same as that of the Azores. The nature of a country, its position with regard to the oceans, and even the conformation of its soil, all influence its climate.

In summer Fort Reliance was surrounded with masses of verdure, refreshing to the sight after the long dreary winter. Timber was plentiful in these forests, which consisted almost entirely of poplar, pine, and birch. The islets on the lake produced very fine willows. Game was abundant in the underwood, even during the bad season. Further south the hunters from the fort successfully pursued bisons, elks, and Canadian porcupines, the flesh of which is excellent. The waters of the Slave Lake were full of fish; trout in them attained to an immense size, their weight often exceeding forty pounds. Pikes, voracious lobes, a sort of charr or grayling called “ blue fish,” and countless legions of tittamegs, the Coregonus of naturalists, disported themselves in the water, so that the inhabitants of Fort Reliance were well supplied with food. Nature provided for all their wants; and clothed in the skins of foxes, martens, bears, and other Arctic animals, they were able to brave the rigour of the winter.

The fort, properly so called, consisted of a wooden house with a ground-floor and one upper storey. In it lived the commandant and his officers. The barracks for the soldiers, the magazines of the Company, and the offices where exchanges were made, surrounded this house. A little chapel, which wanted nothing but a clergyman, and a powder-magazine, completed the buildings of the settlement. The whole was surrounded by palisades twenty-five feet high, defended by a small bastion with a pointed roof at each of the four corners of the parallelogram formed by the enceinte. The fort was thus protected from surprise, a necessary precaution in the days when the Indians, instead of being the purveyors of the Company, fought for the independence of their native land, and when the agents and soldiers of rival associations disputed the possession of the rich fur country.

At that time the Hudson’s Bay Company employed about a million men on its territories. It held supreme authority over them, an authority which could even inflict death. The governors of the factories could regulate salaries, and arbitrarily fix the price of provisions and furs; and as a result of this irresponsible power, they often realised a profit of no less than three hundred per cent.

We shall see from the following table, taken from the “ Voyage of Captain Robert Lade,” on what terms exchanges were formerly made with those Indians who have since become the best hunters of the Company. Beavers’ skins were then the currency employed in buying and selling.

The Indians paid —

For one gun,

10 beavers’ skins

“ half a pound of powder,

1 “

“ four pounds of shot,

1 “

“ one axe,

1 “

“ six knives,

1 “

“ one pound of glass beads,

1 “

“ one laced coat,

6 “

“ one coat not laced,

5 “

“ one laced female dress,

6 “

“ one pound of tobacco,

1 “

“ one box of powder,

1 “

“ one comb and one looking glass,

2 “


But a few years ago beaver-skins became so scarce that the currency had to be changed. Bison-furs are now the medium of trade. When an Indian presents himself at the fort, the agents of the Company give him as many pieces of wood as he brings skins, and he exchanges these pieces of wood for manufactured articles on the premises; and as the Company fix the price of the articles they buy and sell, they cannot fail to realise large profits.

Such was the mode of proceeding in Fort Reliance and other factories; so that Mrs Paulina Barnett was able to watch the working of the system during her stay, which extended until the 16th April. Many a long talk did she have with Lieutenant Hobson, many were the projects they formed, and firmly were they both determined to allow no obstacle to check their advance. As for Thomas Black, he never opened his lips except when his own special mission was discussed. He was wrapped up in the subject of the luminous corona and red prominences of the moon; he lived but to solve the problem, and in the end made Mrs Paulina Barnett nearly as enthusiastic as himself. How eager the two were to cross the Arctic Circle, and how far off the 18th July 1860 appeared to both, but especially to the impatient Greenwich astronomer, can easily be imagined.

The preparations for departure could not be commenced until the middle of March, and a month passed before they were completed. In fact, it was a formidable undertaking to organise such an expedition for crossing the Polar regions. Everything had to betaken with them-food, clothes, tools, arms, ammunition, and a nondescript collection of various requisites.

The troops, under the command of Lieutenant Jaspar Hobson, were one chief and two subordinate officers, with ten soldiers, three of whom took their wives with them. They were all picked men, chosen by Captain Craventy on account of their energy and resolution. We append a list of the whole party:—

1. Lieutenant Jaspar Hobson.

11. Sabine, soldier.

2. Sergeant Long.

12. Hope,      do.

3. Corporal Joliffe.

13. Kellet,      do.

4. Petersen, soldier

14. Mrs Rae    

5. Belcher,     do.

15. Mrs Joliffe.

6. Rae,         do

16. Mrs Mac-Nab.

7. Marbre,     do

17. Mrs Paulina Barnett.

8. Garry,       do

18. Madge.

9. Pond,       do

19. Thomas Black

10. Mac-Nab, do.

 


In all, nineteen persons to be transported several hundreds of miles through a desert and imperfectly-known country.

With this project in view, however, the Company had collected everything necessary for the expedition. A dozen sledges, with their teams of dogs, were in readiness. These primitive vehicles consisted of strong but light planks joined together by transverse bands. A piece of curved wood, turning up at the end like a skate, was fixed beneath the sledge, enabling it to cleave the snow without sinking deeply into it. Six swift and intelligent dogs, yoked two and two, and controlled by the long thong brandished by the driver, drew the sledges, and could go at a rate of fifteen miles an hour.

The wardrobe of the travellers consisted of garments made of reindeer-skins, lined throughout with thick furs. All wore linen next the skin as a protection against the sudden changes of temperature frequent in these latitudes. Each one, officer or soldier, male or female, wore seal-skin boots sewn with twine, in the manufacture of which the natives excel. These boots are absolutely impervious, and are so flexible that they are admirably adapted for walking. Pine-wood snow-shoes, two or three feet long, capable of supporting the weight of a man on the most brittle snow, and enabling him to pass over it with the rapidity of a skater on ice, can be fastened to the soles of the seal-skin boots. Fur caps and deer-skin belts completed the costumes.

For arms, Lieutenant Hobson had the regulation musketoons provided by the Company, pistols, ordnance sabres, and plenty of ammunition; for tools: axes, saws, adzes, and other instruments required in carpentering. Then there was the collection of all that would be needed for setting up a factory in the remote district for which they were bound: a stove; a smelting furnace, two airpumps for ventilation, an India-rubber boat, only inflated when required, &c., &c.

The party might have relied for provisions on the hunters amongst them. Some of the soldiers were skilful trackers of game, and there were plenty of reindeer in the Polar regions. Whole tribes of Indians, or Esquimaux, deprived of bread and all other nourishment, subsist entirely on this venison, which is both abundant and palatable. But as delays and difficulties had to be allowed for, a certain quantity of provisions was taken with them. The flesh of the bison, elk, and deer, amassed in the large battues on the south of the lake; corned beef, which will keep for any length of time; and some Indian preparations, in which the flesh of animals, ground to powder, retains its nutritive properties in a very small bulk, requiring no cooking, and forming a very nourishing diet, were amongst the stores provided in case of need.

Lieutenant Hobson likewise took several casks of rum and whisky; but he was firmly resolved to economise these spirits, so injurious to the health in cold latitudes, as much as possible. The Company had placed at his disposal a little portable medicine-chest, containing formidable quantities of lime-juice, lemons, and other simple remedies necessary to check, or if possible to prevent, the scorbutic affections which take such a terrible form in these regions.

All the men had been chosen with great care; none were too stout or too thin, and all had for years been accustomed to the severity of the climate, and could therefore more easily endure the fatigues of an expedition to the Polar Sea. They were all brave, high-spirited fellows, who had taken service of their own accord. Double pay had been promised them during their stay at the confines of the American continent, should they succeed in making a settlement beyond the seventieth parallel.

The sledge provided for Mrs Barnett and her faithful Madge was rather more comfortable than the others. She did not wish to be treated better than her travelling companions, but yielded to the urgent request of Captain Craventy, who was but carrying out the wishes of the Company.

The vehicle which brought Thomas Black to Fort Reliance also conveyed him and his scientific apparatus from it. A few astronomical instruments, of which there were not many in those days-a telescope for his selenographic observations, a sextant for taking the latitude, a chronometer for determining the longitudes, a few maps, a few books, were all stored away in this sledge, and Thomas Black relied upon his faithful dogs to lose nothing by the way.

Of course the food for the various teams was not forgotten. There were altogether no less than seventy-two dogs, quite a herd to provide for by the way, and it was the business of the hunters to cater for them. These strong intelligent animals were bought of the Chippeway Indians, who know well how to train them for their arduous calling.

The little company was most skilfully organised. The zeal of Lieutenant Jaspar Hobson was beyond all praise. Proud of his mission, and devoted to his task; he neglected nothing which could insure success. Corporal Joliffe, always a busybody, exerted himself without producing any very tangible results; but his wife was most useful and devoted; and Mrs Paulina Barnett had already struck up a great friendship with the brisk little Canadian woman, whose fair hair and large soft eyes were so pleasant to look at.

We need scarcely add that Captain Craventy did all in his power to further the enterprise. The instructions he had received from the Company showed what great importance they attached to the success of the expedition, and the establishment of a new factory beyond the seventieth parallel. We may therefore safely affirm that every human effort likely to insure success which could be made was made; but who could tell what insurmountable difficulties nature might place in the path of the brave Lieutenant I who could tell what awaited him and his devoted little band.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24