THE TRAIL OF ’TWENTY-SIX
“A mucky gash in the earth, like the excavation for a sewer in a new suburban street." That description of the Dome workings at Red Lake does not suggest romance, but it does suggest the spirit in which this article was written. Read it and you will have a new respect for the sourdoughs and the mining engineers who are probing the secrets of Canada's newest gold field
IT HAS become a byword that romance is swiftly dying in the world, yet, eight hours from Winnipeg, I descended from a Pullman, on a bitter April night, and entered on a scene that might have sprung to life from Service’s colorful doggerel.
As the train pulled out, I felt through the dark along a narrow boardwalk, lined on either side by tethered sleighdogs howling like lost souls in Hades, to a looming building, its doorway hedged about by toboggans up-ended in the snow.
Within, a single lantern gleamed through the murk of smoke. From an open space around a big box stove, tiers of bunks ran off into a gloom where figures moved and the lamplight did not follow. It was the “Hotel”—Lord save the mark—at the head of the winter trail to the new gold fields at Red Lake. Dog-harness, packs, and snowshoes festooned the walls and bunk-ends, eiderdowns were on the bunks in lieu of bedding, while, wherever there was space enough, men clad in mackinaw and mocassins strove blasphemously, with multifarious kinds of dunnage, in a reek of their own tobacco smoke.
Other men slept, as thunderous snoring abundantly testified.
I asked for a bunk, chucked my pack upon it and sat on the corner of a bench by the stove.
Now I perceived that the majority of the men there could be divided into two classes; those who were about to take the trail, and those who had just returned.
The former, mostly clean shaven and with much equipment patently fresh from the store, were sorting dog-harness, packing chuck-bags and earnestly studying maps, while the latter, wild-haired and bearded, sprawled at their ease and smoked. But, one and all, they talked of gold, of trails in .many places, of blizzards fought for dear life upon the open lakes, of breakings through the ice in spring, of frost-bite and starvation, snow-blindness and the slow madness that descends on lonely man—being “bushed,” they call it.
Until I slept, I listened to their steady voices, absorbed in the tales they told, and feeling very far away from the humdrum round of city days. The whole night through subconsciously I was aware of the errie howling of the tethered huskies.
When I rolled out of my eiderdown next morning I was pounced upon by an eager youngster clad in overalls and pointed, city boots. He had heard I was going “In” alone, to-day. Was it true?
Might he . . . Would I . . . How would it be if . . . Could he? Didn’t I want a man to travel with me? He had no chuck nor outfit, but would be glad to give his services if I would only take him. Perhaps I . . He was always fond of snow-shoeing; and he’d work like the very devil for me, so he would!
I explained that I was to fly in, so that it would be impossible.
His face fell despairingly. He was very young. Thinking of the pitiless winds that sweep the lakes in springtime I eyed his eager, peaked face, his overalls, his shoddy boots. He needed little encouragement to talk, and I learned that he had just left high-school in Calgary and had come East to make his fortune in the gold fields. He had enough cash to keep him for a week or two at the hotel. That was all. He thought he might get a job with some outfit going in. Didn’t I think there was a chance? His eyes shone.
Again I looked at his thin clothing, and, thinking of bitter dawns and days, suggested tentatively that there was far more chance of making money in his home town, which was even then in the throes of an oil boom, than in a gold camp at its earliest beginnings— and a rock proposition, at that.
He would have none of it. He was for the gold fields; and I was about to tell him the sober truth in plain language when I remembered my own adolescence; how I cast solid opportunities cheerfully to the four winds, to follow my glamorous trail that beckoned, and how my most cherished memories are part of the story of my disillusionment. So I contented myself with a few remarks on the subject of suitable clothing, and, out of the profundity of my wisdom, assured that sucking conqueror of destiny that all things come to him who ardently desires them; provided only he desires them ardently enough.
THE town, which night had covered when I came, revealed itself. Three months ago it was a weary little lakeside stopping place—station, section house, Hudson’s Bay store. Now it blotted the prospect with many new-raised buildings of yellow deals, and the skeletons of more to come. Two banks, two general stores, a hotel, restaurant, base for the aerial service and offices for the various companies operating in and to Red Lake. In this familiar urban scene the sleigh-dogs, tethered everywhere and the bushmen in their mukluks and their parkas struck a strangely incongruous note.
The snow crunched underfoot as we crossed the ice to the waiting aeroplane. Soon she was breasting an icy gale in the brilliant sunlight while the earth unrolled beneath us; sheer white of frozen lake, gray of the poplar scrub and green of spruce timber, mile after steady mile, as far as the eye could reach.
I am continually impressed anew with the immensity and potentialities of Canada’s woodlands; there is on earth no greater contrast than that between Canada as she was born—the woods, the lakes, the rivers and the mountains—and the works that men have set among them. Straggling and unbeautiful, the cities scar the earth, lacking even that mellow merging which is achieved in some degree by older places. In them is naught of peace, not much of dignity and little more of beauty. But, take a train from almost any of them, and in one hour you may find peace, loveliness and an immense serenity. And yet, impressive as it is, on the ground one does not truly realize its magnitude. From the air, booming steadily along, hour after hour, with the broad earth one colossal circle of which one is the infinitesimal centre, one is staggered by the sense of its vastness.
In one short hour we overtook dog trains that had started days before. They looked like half-an-inch of hair on a twelve foot tablecloth. A gale sprang up as we worked northward, and the plane labored, bumping heavily where the timber met the lakes, so that it was two hours and forty minutes before she taxied to a stop in a little bay. Smoke rose among the timber.
The cessation of the engine’s thunder left a “roaring silence” that almost could be felt.
Descending, I was so cold that I could barely stand, but, with the eye of long experience for such conditions, some of the dozen fellows who crossed the ice to us observed this and energetically began to rub and pummel me to life again. Soon, looking round for my pack —it was no feather weight for I had been told that grub was scarce inside and had brought ten days supply for two—I found some kindly fellow was halfway to the timber with it. As I followed him the loved sense of silence that the woods hold came to me, the baying of the sleigh-dogs serving but to accentuate it.
Ashore, it would be impossible to conceive anything less like the traditional gold camp of the oft-told tales of Dawson days. Here were no gambling hells; not one saloon; no dance halls with their cracked pianos and their predatory, gold-tooth damsels.
Instead, alone among the whispering timber, I found the new recording office, a neat tent pitched upon four tiers of logs and strengthened by an axe-hewn framework. A grateful glow flowed from the opened door of slabs, and I was still so cold that I was profoundly glad to squat by the stove and let the heat soak in.
And now at once a sense of romance came to me, bred of the scent of the balsam beds, the ceaseless howling of the dogs and the bearded, long-haired fellows who came and wenc, hovering over the recorder’s blueprint and pointing with gnarled hands, worn by axe and paddle, to illustrate their comments.
When at last I was warm, I cached my dunnage and strolled round the camp before loading the toboggan. Across the angle of the little bay I found the workings of the Dome Mines, whose interest in the Howey Brothers’ claims was responsible for the rush.
Again that disconcerting lack of the traditional goldcamp atmosphere. Just a big bunk tent, a cook tent and a few smaller ones. A sprawl of miscellaneous material; all very prosaic to anyone familiar with the woods. And the potential mine itself —a mucky gash in the earth, like nothing so much as the excavation for a sewer in a new suburban street. The same went for the McIntyre site.
Alas for romance! Here was no washing of yellow nuggets from the sands. In reef mining it is a far, far cry from the day when a lone prospector bares the first surface showing of the vein, until it produces any wealth.
Not the Days of ’49
TN THE roaring placer 1 days on the Yukon and in California, the miner packed a pick, a shovel and a rocker or sometimes only a goldpan, staked his claim on or near the creek bed and either washed the river sand itself or dug through the overlying soil to gravel. This he Washed and, if he was lucky, every so often got a tiny pinch of yellow dust which he hoarded in the leather “poke” of glamorous boyhood memory. If the claim were good, in a comparatively short time two men could thus wash themselves to wealth.
But in this rock country the best prospectors can do alone is to fell the tree and strip the earth from above the vein, put in some shots of dynamite, drilling the holes by hand with (infinite labor, and blast their way down far enough to show the nature of it. Then, if it promises well, they must take samples, hie them to town and induce someone to put enough capital to investigate further. Often such search is heartbreakingly difficult. If successful, a contract is drawn, giving the prospectors as a rule, quite a small sum for an option on the property, at a price, ample time being allowed for the financial backers to examine it thoroughly. Then a gang is sent in, and more stripping and blasting done to determine the surface extent of the vein and whether the gold is evenly distributed. If the results are still encouraging, diamond drills are put to work; ponderous machines, each driven by its own steam, that force a revolving bitt through soil and rock deep into the ribs of the earth. The drills are hollow, and their cores being extracted, the depth of the vein below the surface, its thickness and its mineral content at that point may be accurately determined from them. Many such holes are made, and after months of such costly operations, an estimate of the size and gold content of the ore body may be obtained. If this is sufficient to justify the great expenditure for stamp mills and separating machinery, then, and only then, will the option be taken up and the prospectors handle any considerable sum of money. However, they usually retain an interest in the property, and, if it proves rich, may grow wealthy on the proceeds.
But, compared with the excitement and swift riches which reward the fortunate placer miner, it is a weary, unromantic business.
Leaving the workings, I wandered along the lakeshore past a dozen or so camps of parties which had staked on the snow, and now awaited spring to enable them to commence investigations.
Old Timers and the Tenderfeet
' I 'HERE was an impressive difference between the A time-worn, efficient equipment of some bent and whiskered old prospectors, and the expensively new patent camping outfits of some aspiring millionaires from Toronto and Buffalo.
The greenhorns, to a man, looked sick; palefaced and peevish. A few tentative inquiries disclosed the fact that a man may own an expensive patent stove, a chuck box full of aluminum utensils and table fittings, and lots of flour, but he cannot make a bannock unless he has experience.
Before I had finished my trip, I discovered that almost all the tenderfeet in the country were suffering from chronic indigestion, engendered by their amateur baking. Some of them were seriously ill, and one was barely saved from death by being shipped out by aeroplane to hospital. A gentleman but a year or two from Germany, disgruntled by his failure to secure claims near discovery, was overheard to observe lugubriously, “Gott im Himmel! Medink mörë Stummick-ache dan gol’ mine in dis Red Lake!” I learned that the tales of food shortage had bêêfl grossly exaggerated. All winter long the Hudson Bay post, seven miles up the lake, had sold flour at fourteen dollars a hundred with the necessities to accompany it offered at proportional prices. Before I left the country a general store arrived over the ice and optimistically started business by quoting flour at thirty dollars and everything else at equally preposterous rates.
Encamped along the shore I found Sandy McIntyre, discoverer of the McIntyre mine, which now produces at the rate of millions annually and which he sold originally for a ridiculously small sum. The price gone in one grand burst of plutocratic affluence, Sandy is back in the woods again; and, if I mistake not, happier than he could ever be in town.
Here was also Kenneth Murray, who with his brother, made the Elbow Lake strike, further west.
The old saying that joy is not in the finding but in the seeking must be true, for these fellows seem almost invariably to dissipate the fruits of their labors and return with infinite contentment to the trails and the seeking again.
Each camp gave me instant welcome, offering hospitality of tea, or bannock and bacon, or tobacco.
But now a shout rang out from somewhere down the shore, to be followed by a rising chorus. The fellow to whom I talked, yelled excitedly and pointed across the lake, where from behind the wooded point came a horsedrawn sleigh.
It was the first load of drilling equipment for the mines.
As the column crawled from behind the point and the teamsters saw the camp they sprang to their feet’, shook up their horses and spreading out across the ice broke into a gallop and raced for the honor of being the first team into Red Lake.
The woods echoed and rang with the yells of the miners and the instant clamor of a hundred huskies as the teams raced in. The entire small population of the camp lined the shore, cheering and waving. It was a momentous arrival, that of the machinery which should decide whether the field was what all hoped it would be.
Into the Silence
DUT it was getting late -*-* and there was a long trip ahead, so we hitched up the dogs and mushed. Once round the point that sheltered the camp, the awful loneliness of the winter woods enveloped us like a mist; white of lake, green-gray of timber, gray of sky, and silence. Hour after hour we mushed, the only sound the soft grind .of the toboggan and the panting of the dogs, and we saw no man. But, watching the shoreline, inevitable as telegraph poles beside a railway track, every forty chains among the timber gleamed the yellow of a new-squared post marking the end of a claim.
In ten days of traveling through those silent woodlands, two hundred miles from steel, go where you will you cannot travel forty chains without discovering a newblazed line ending in a squared post endorsed with some man’s name and dedicated to his hopes of fortune.
Four thousand claims marked out since January. Two hundred and fifty odd square miles of rocky country and not a yard but is claimed by someone in the hope that it covers gold. Most of it was staked in the most strenuous competition between parties, after seven days gruelling travel across the lakes from steel. Many of the claims have been recorded with no more laudable hope than that they might be sold at the height of a coming financial stampede, which, incidentally, has so far failed to materialize. Some have been staked in large groups by the representatives of syndicates in town, and a smaller proportion by bona-fide miners themselves with intent to investigate them personally as soon as the snow disappeared.
As is invariable under such conditions, the shyster is not lacking. A number of early comers staked out more claims than they were legally entitled to, endorsing the corner posts with fictitious names. Those who followed, neglecting in their haste to compare the stakings with the recorder’s map and coming on the claims apparently already held, passed on, while the crook, watching for some new arrivals who looked as though they might have money, approached them with his shady story, offering to lead them to claims that they could register under their own legal powers . . . this, of course, for a substantial consideration. This practice, known as “blanketing,” has been used with lamentable freedom.
Slipping over the ice, now reddened by a sunset like the gaping maw of Hades, it was hard to realize that before long, it is likely the timber will be down, the game all fled, and in their place, ugly buildings and the stamp and rattle of machinery everywhere. What may be the future of the country, who can say? It is certain that it is part of the same formation which holds the great gold mines further East. It is also certain that it carries gold in many places; but how much or how little no man can guess. Only the slow diamond drills, biting inexorably inch by inch into the ribs of the earth, can tell the story. Even if the present workings should disappoint there will be many another trial before hope is abandoned.
That night we made the Hudson’s Bay outpost, and were received with great hospitality. Here it was possible, even more, to realize the overwhelming change that had come to Red Lake. In December it was a forsaken little fur post on the Narrows, where no man came all winter long but a very occasional trapper or Indian. Now three or four well-equipped parties were encamped close by, and every day some dog train stopped there.
The factor, a cheerful Englishman with a sense of humor, remarked that the noise of the traffic was getting on his nerves.
For ten days of traveling thereafter, the situation did not change. Not a yard of country was unclaimed. Every once in a while we found a tiny camp among the spruce where miners waited for the passing of the snow before commencing work, or met a dog train pressing, by forced marches, towards some portage into new country. As the days passed by, the sense of romance, which the realization of rock mining’s uncompromising nature had so dampened, grew and grew.
In the Sourdough Manner
WE MET sourdoughs from the Yukon and from Eastern Canada, placer men from British Columbia and California, a swarthy fellow with earrings and side whiskers from the Mexican border, and a party of fishermen from Nova Scotia, the latter yellow-haired and tanned, and with a sea-salt brogue which sounded strangely here.
My trip had been but three hours’ frigid crouching in the cockpit of an aeroplane and a brief respite, in a world I loved, from the grind of life in town. But for them it had been vastly more. The first news of the strike coming to some lonely place, the slow weighing of chances and the quick decision to upstakes and go. Then the forced marches to the steel, the shipping of their outfits, the buying of dogs, if they came from milder climes; and then the bitter trekking over frozen lakes, pushing on, every minute of daylight, lest they be just too late—six days’ pitiless travail. The search of the records for the likeliest open ground and the last lap of the rush to stake it ere it was claimed by others ... all that; and over it all the glamor of their dreams of fortune, visions of wealth and the fulfilment of long cherished dreams.
I discovered that, both in essential character and in curious tricks of manner, prospectors are uncannily alike.
They pronounce the word “gold” with bated breath, as they might the name of deity. They back one into corners, glance round furtively and then take little bits of ore from old tobacco pouches, pointing out their excellence and whispering their hopes and fears for the mother lode. But they never tell where these specimens were found. They tell of the ground that once they staked and then abandoned, that is now a famous mine; of a strike of fabulous richness that they made, way back of beyond in the year of the big wind, but which for one reason or another they have been unable to reach again; and while they speak they hold one’s eyes with a gaze that is curiously serene, aimost childlike in its guilelessness, yet with all the sombre dignity of their own lakes and woodlands.
Yet we are reminded of the mighty fish our neighbor hooked, but which escaped.
But, if we take their gold finds with a grain of salt, there is about the balance of their stories that which rings as true as gold itself.
After the hostility, the peurile nicklesqueezing, of the cities, there is a charm about these woodsmen, to me more precious than the wealth they seek. From the illiterate fellow born and raised in the back countries, to the graduate of Oxford drawn to the woods by the love of them, they are the same genial, kindly gentlemen; calm, ready to cheer or aid, with a slow but friendly smile lurking always somewhere. And there is no bitterness within them.
Lord send us more of them to make life livable!
The Prophet ol the Rand
TV/f Y LAST night in the woods I listened to one talking. He was an Afrikander, originally from the great Rand Reefs. Later he had hunted orchids in the hinterland of Sierre Leone, till fever drove him, dying, to a more invigorating climate, since when he has ranged the woods and lakes of Canada.
He told of his first wide sweep through that lake country where we then were, how he found abundance of mineral signs and returned to the city trying in vain to get financial support for further exploration, and how after years the slow drift of interest from the East had borne out his prophecies.
“It’s cornin’,” he said; “this country’s cornin’. It’s only so long now, just more or less.” His eyes went past me, seeking some far-resting place beyond my ken. “I can see this country opened up, wealthy, the greatest mining belt in all the world. There’ll be mineshafts all the way from Rouyn to Northern Manitoba, and the country will make millionaires galore
Then he fell strangely silent, gazing. I wondered if he shared the thoughts that came to me. I, too, saw his vision of a thriving mineral belt from Quebec to east of the Bay; but I saw also the woods destroyed, the lakes scummed and polluted, the game all scattered and the ugly gear of the modern trade colossus strewn about the whole fair country.
And I wondered where in that day would be my orchid hunter and all his gentle brotherhood. Do their wistful eyes see yet some further hunting grounds when the woods of Canada are despoiled to the Arctic snowline? And what could the wealth of Croesus buy for them so precious as the comradeship of camp fires, their crystal dawnings, their star-hung nights . . .