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Christmas in the Dog Days

Published November 07, 2007        by Matt

It is now near Christmas, 1862, and Mr. Woolsey planned to spend the holidays at Edmonton. We left [Smoking Lake mission] long before daylight the Monday morning before Christmas, which came on Thursday that year. We had about four inches of snow to make our road through. This was hardly enough for good sleighing, but where there was prairie or ice, our dogs had good footing and made good time.

Down the slope of country to Smoking Lake, and then along the full length of the lake we went; then straight across country, over logs and round the windings of the dim bridle path for the Wah-suh-uh-de-now, or "Bay in the Hills" (which would bring us to the Saskatchewan River), to which place we came about daylight, having already made a good thirty-five miles of our journey. Mr. Woolsey had slept and snored most of the way. What cared he for precipitous banks, or tortuous trails, or the long hours of night!

After coming down the big hill into the valley at a break-neck pace, we came to the almost perpendicular bank of the stream, still seventy-five or eighty feet high, and here I roused Mr. Woolsey, and asked him to climb down, while Williston and I took the dogs off and let the cariole and sled down as easily as we could.

Once down, we got Mr. Woolsey in again, and away we went up the river at a good smart run, my leader taking the way; from point to point, and around the rapids and open water at the word. For another five miles we kept on, and stopped for breakfast before sunrise opposite Sucker Creek.

To jerk these dogs out of their collars is the first thing. This gives them a chance to roll and run about, and supple up after the long pull of the morning. Then we make a big fire and cut some brush to put down in front of it; then help Mr. Woolsey out of his cariole, next boil the kettle, and roast our dried meat and eat. Then after a short prayer, and while the "Amen" is still on our lips, we hitch up the dogs, tie the sleigh, help Mr. Woolsey into cariole, tuck and wrap him in, and "Marse!" Away jump my dogs once more, and their bells ring out in the clear morning frost, and are echoed up and down the valley as we ascend, for even over the ice the ascension is very perceptible.

On we went, steadily making those long stretches of river which are between Sucker Creek and Vermilion. As we proceed, we left the snow, and the ice became glare and very difficult to run on, especially when one had to constantly steady the cariole to keep it from upsetting in the drift ice, or from swinging into the open channel. I slipped once badly, and gave myself a wrench, the effects of which I felt at times for many a long year.

After stopping for lunch on an island, we pushed on, and, climbing the hill at the mouth of

River, found the country bare of snow, and after going two or three miles in this way, I concluded to camp, and strike back for the river in the morning.

If we could have gone on, we would have reached
Edmonton the next day before noon.

Mr. Woolsey was astonished at our progress. We had come fully eighty miles, although the latter part of the road was very difficult to travel, the glare but uneven river ice being very hard on both dogs and men.

We camped on a dry bluff. What a revelation this country is to me! This is now the 22nd of December, and the weather, while crisp and cold, beautifully fine - no snow - and we having to use exceedingly great caution in order not to set the prairie on fire.

The next morning we struck straight across country for the river, and kept the ice thence on to
Edmonton, which, because of the windings of the stream, we did not reach until evening. We found the fort full, trappers, and traders having returned from their long summer's journeying; but we also found provisions scant, and Mr. Christie, the gentleman in charge, anxious as to the future. The buffalo were far out; the fisheries were not very successful.

Here we met with clerks and post-masters from the inland and distant posts, and we and they but added to the responsibilities of the head officer, having so many more mouths to feed. Then there were all the dogs, and these were simply legion, as most of the winter transport and travel of those days was done with dogs, and their food supply was a serious question.

I have often wondered since then why it was in a country with so much natural hay, where oats grew often at the rate of one hundred bushels to the acre, and where horses were cheap, that this dog business lasted as long as it did; but I suppose everything has its day, and even the dog had his.

I fully believe that if there was one dog in the small compass of the fort at
Edmonton, there were one hundred and fifty. When the bell rang for the men to go to work or come for their rations, the dogs would howl, and one would imagine bedlam let loose. Then the fights, which were taking place at all hours, day or night, became monotonous.

The sole topic of conversation would be dogs. The speed and strength and endurance of a dog-train occupied the thoughts of most men, either sleeping or waking.

Next to the dogs came the dog-runners. These were famous because of their ability to manage a train of dogs, and the wind and endurance and pluck they manifested in travel.

Races were common - five miles, twenty miles, sixty miles, one hundred and fifty miles, etc., and many of the feats performed by these dogs and dog drivers would be thought impossible to-day.

We were received very kindly by all parties, and I very soon felt at home with such men as R. Hardisty and Mr. MacDonald, and in the family of Mr. Flett where I received great hospitality, and from being a total stranger was soon made to feel thoroughly intimate.

I found that the Roman Catholics had a church built in the fort, and Mr. MacDonald and I went to the celebration of midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Our conduct was respectful and reverent. Indeed, graceless as I may have been, I always from early boyhood have respected the religious services of others. Often in the conjurer's camp, and at thirst and sundances, I have preserved most perfect decorum and attention, and that night at Edmonton my friend and self behaved; but because someone saw MacDonald pass me a peppermint, it was noised abroad that we were mocking the passing of the wafer. Quite a furor was caused by this, and the Catholics came to the Chief Factor to demand our expulsion from the fort, but he very justly refused to interfere, and the storm passed away without hurting us. But I was amused and delighted with my friend, Mr. Woolsey. Said he to me, while drawing him up and squaring off, "I never yet struck a man, but if I did, it would be a mighty blow."

Mr. Woolsey held service on Christmas morning, which was largely attended.

In the afternoon, Mr. Hardisty and I went for a drive on the river with our dog-trains. Mr. Hardisty took the little daughter of the Chief Factor with him, and we drove up the river, but when turning to come home, his dogs took a sweep out into the river and left him, and the course the dogs took was dangerous. There was a long stretch of open current. There sat the child perfectly unconscious of her danger. Hardisty was winded, and he shouted to me to catch his dogs. I saw if I drove mine after his it would make matters worse, for his dogs would run the faster; so I left mine and ran after his, and here the constant training of the season did me good service. I had both wind and speed, but the time seemed dreadful. The dogs were nearing the current, and if the cariole should swing or upset, the child was doomed. If ever I ran, it was then; if ever I was thankful to be able to run, it was then. Little Mary was a favorite of mine, and her peril filled me with keen anguish; but I have always been thankful that my whole body responded as it did. Steadily I came up, and presently, before the dogs knew it, I was on the back of the sleigh; then, gripping the ground lashing, I let myself drag as a brake, and with a mighty "Chuh!" which made the leader jump quickly to the left, then a loud stern "Marse!" straight out from the danger the strong train drew us.

After we came home, I felt weak and exhausted because of the nervous strain; but the reward of having been instrumental in saving the little darling's life was sweet to me.

The next day we had dog-races, and footraces and football, and the fun was fast and furious. This social and pleasant intercourse with my fellowmen was especially agreeable to me after the isolation of the last few months. Then my new found friends were exceedingly kind, and I was heartily glad Mr. Woolsey had brought me with him to