Trail Markers

The 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race a.k.a The Last Great Race is into its fifth day. Racing from Willow through to Nome, the route approximates the old freight route, and covers 1000 miles of Alaskan wilderness. “The mushers travel from checkpoint to checkpoint much as the freight mushers did eighty years ago.” Even though cell phones, satellite tracking devices, and GPS units are standard gear today, old-fashioned trail markers remain an essential part of the historic trail.

To get a feel for what mushing in the north looks like, Blair Braverman‘s article Meet 5 of the Women Racing in this Year’s Ititarod includes accompanying photos and videos by Kiliii Yuyan that are simply spectacular. Falling snow with limited visibility, unfamiliar terrain, wild animals, and even sleep deprivation are potential threats to a team’s safety. But, losing the trail on frozen lakes or sea ice is not something a musher wants to add to that list. Open spaces on the Trail are marked with distinctive wooden tripods.

Photo of Robert Sørlie’s team approaching Nome, 2007. (Note the tripod-style log marker on the right. These tripods are used year round to mark open spaces on the Trail i.e. marshes.)

#FlashbackFriday

When Europeans began to explore the continent, circa the 1500s, they discovered that indigenous North Americans had a well-established system of way-markers in place for their trails. This shouldn’t be a surprise since First Nations peoples had been traveling over this vast expanse of land since at least the end of the last ice age, approximately 20,000 years ago.

Trail marking methods varied greatly, depending on available materials. For example, in temperate climates, hard wood trees were selected, then manipulated to form particular shapes. Trail marker and signal trees were used as tools for navigation, and as signposts for sites of a religious or ceremonial nature.  To read more, visit the Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society and Indian Trail Trees.

In more barren terrain, for example in the arctic regions of most northern countries, large single rocks and arrangement of stones acted as markers for a wide variety of activities. They were reference markers and points of navigation; they marked hunting or fishing spots, camps, food caches or sacred places. Some argue that the human-shaped inukshuk, which we know so well, today, is a post-European development. These rock structures have come to symbolize the North for many of us and many are, in fact, still in use today. For more on Inukshuk, visit Wikipedia and the The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Flashback Friday: Winter’s Coming

toboggan at Fort Carlton
Toboggan, Fort Carlton, SK

TO·BOG·GAN

  • originating from Mi’kmaq (tobâkun) and/or Abenaki (udãbãgan); adopted by French Canadians (tabaganne) in the early 1800s; now toboggan. – from Canadian Icons

All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.

Who Likes Berries?

Choke cherries at Fort Pitt
Chokecherries, Fort Pitt, SK

Berries weave an interesting thread through the history of western Canada. They entered the story early, an important food source for many living creatures on the prairies, and proved to be essential to the success of the buffalo hunt for Indigenous peoples. Local berries would eventually be welcomed into the diets of most newcomers, and even celebrated with festivals in their name!

One of the staples of the Indigenous diet on the Great Plains was pemmican, “a portable, high-energy, highly nutritious, and filling foodespecially convenient for crossing long distances in pursuit of the buffalo herds. Pemmican is a Cree-Chippewa word meaning fat – appropriate because 50% of pemmican was rendered buffalo fat with 45% lean shredded buffalo meat, and 5% dried and ground berries. As the fur trade spread throughout the Hudson’s Bay watershed, pemmican became a portable food source for traders, voyageurs, and early travelers, too. Today, pemmican is popular as a survival food for hikers, and modern recipes feature all sorts of variations, including vegetarian options (see links below).

Speaking of recipes, a few years back I visited Fort St. James, a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade post in northern British Columbia. They were passing out samples of Indian ice cream made from soapberries. Soapberries will foam when crushed, but are too bitter to eat by themselves so are usually mixed with something else. The recipe shown below features soapberries, water, and sugar. The berries also possess a number of medicinal qualities, as do many native plant species.

Settlers, of course, were familiar with berries, even though they may have been different from the ones in their homelands. Berry patches were located, berries were picked and preserved, eaten with fresh cream, and baked in pies, muffins, etc. St. Walburg in west-central Saskatchewan celebrates wild blueberries. Why? I’m not sure, but their 30th Annual Wild Blueberry Festival finished up last weekend.

Who else likes berries? Well, at Fort Pitt I found evidence down by the river that the bears probably really like the chokecherries. I bet you can guess what kind of evidence I found.

LINKS:

All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.

The Wabasca Canoe

wabasca canoe on display
The Wabasca Canoe display, Frenchman Butte Museum, SK

Many of the pioneer village museums I’ve visited have outdoor exhibit spaces that display their vintage farm equipment and wagons, and their earliest vehicles. The Frenchman Butte Museum is no exception. Their collection is similar to the others, but also includes an interesting item captioned The Wabasca Canoe. And, what I especially liked about it was that its early history of ownership had been recorded, and was now on display.

Constructed by First Nations canoe builders at Wabasca, AB in the 1920s, the canoe was purchased by Wilfred Hunt, a trapper, and possible fur-trader working in the Liard River watershed. It was subsequently sold to Loren Cornell of Kinuso, AB who eventually passed it on to Erven Fester, who donated the canoe to the Frenchman Butte Museum in Saskatchewan.

More from the artifact description:

Hand-made, these lightweight canoes were 12 to 14 feet long. The ribs were hand-carved and steam bent over a frame. Before fur trade days they were covered with birch bark or moose hide… They were used for muskrat trapping, fishing and hunting.

Wabasca is from the Cree word wapuskau, which means white water, and refers to the Wabasca River. Today, the majority of the residents of the hamlet of Wabasca are still Indigenous, and bands of the Bigstone Cree Nation occupy 6 reserves on Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta. Although, the practice of building traditional birchbark canoes in Canada today can still be a for-profit enterprise, many Indigenous canoe builders are re-learning the craft as part of their journey towards cultural reclamation.

All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.

Winter Travel Clothing, 1865

Perhaps I am the best clad in the party, and my clothes altogether will not weigh much. A flannel shirt, moleskin pants, full length leggings with garters below the knees, duffil socks and neat moccasins, a Hudson’s Bay capote, unlined and unpadded in any part, a light cap, and mittens which are most of the time tied on the load, while I wear a pair of thin unlined buckskin gloves. This is in a sense almost “laying aside every weight,” but the race which was set before the ordinary dog-driver in the days I am writing of was generally sufficient to keep him warm.

In my own case, I did not for several years wear any underclothing, and though in the buffalo country, and a buffalo hunter, I never had room or transport for a buffalo coat until the Canadian Pacific Railroad reached Alberta, and the era of heavy clothing and ponderous boots came in, with ever and anon men frozen to death in them! Not so with us; we run and lift and pull and push, and are warm.

by John McDougall, describing winter travel by dogsled circa 1865 in Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie: Stirring Scenes of Life in the Canadian North-West, 1898.

All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.

A Tale of Two Calendars

Canada geese with melting snow
Canada geese with melting snow, Edmonton, AB

After a lot of years living on North America’s Central Flyway, I’m pretty familiar with the waterfowl migrations that come along with spring. Each March, I begin my wait for the great flocks of Canada geese, snow geese and all the other migratory birds that advance northward with the melting snow.  I’m sure all of us look forward to hearing the honks overhead as the first V of geese flies by.

In University, I chose a roundabout path to a degree in history. My course load was all over the map in terms of focus; I’d go off on a tangent if something interested me or inspired me. For example, an evening course on the policies of the Arts in Canada led me, after a detour or two, to a couple of years studying the Cree language. I’ve since lost any conversational ability I may have had but I have retained some of the vocabulary.

I find the Cree language much more connected to the natural world around us than English, and much more descriptive, as well. Many Cree words were constructed after first contact and reveal the influence of European culture on Indigenous peoples. However, much of the language remains very reflective of the deeper rhythms of life.

When I flip the page on my fridge from February to March, I know the geese are on their way, even if the calendar doesn’t specifically spell it out for me.  The Cree word for March, though, does exactly that because niskipîsim means the goose moon.  Other ‘goose’ months are May, opiniyâwewipîsim, meaning the egg laying moon; June, opâskâwehipîsim, translates to the egg hatching moon and August, ohpahowipîsim, is the flying moon.  Names like these seem so much more relevant than those of the ancient gods that label my calendar, now.

In any case, it’s been a heck of a winter all the way around but, finally, the temperatures are warming; the snow is melting and, best of all, the geese have arrived. There’s nothing on the calendar that says they’ll turn around and go back if the weather’s too cold, but that’s exactly what happened in Winnipeg in 2014 – for the first time on record. I hope it doesn’t become a habit!

All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.