One of the most enduring and interesting stories uncovered while researching my last project were those from the overland freighters in northern Saskatchewan. As soon as the Territorial Government and the Department of Indian Affairs pushed through a cart trail to the south end of Montreal Lake, freighters could be found plying the trail north of Prince Albert with loads of goods. A boreal quagmire in summer, such trails were used primarily in the wintertime, when seasonality — and the advent of winter — froze the trailbeds hard enough to carry sleigh loads of any size or weight.
I’ve been interviewed on CBC Radio regarding these stories, and they are my favourite ‘party trick’ tales as a professional historian. I love to read passages from Saskatchewan novelist John Beames, whose 1930 book, Army without Banners offered delightful characters and tales from the frozen trails. Or, I read from local history books drawn from communities along the forest fringe, where homesteaders would take freighting jobs throughout the winter for cash. Crossing the lakes in a ‘freight swing’ of horses, with the lead horses pushing a snowplow across the ice, was always an adventure. Shearing through ice heaves, wrapping the horses’ legs in gunny sacks to protect them from the sharp ice, rescuing horses and men from slush pockets and open leads, trying to build a fire on ice in a snowstorm — the modern ice truckers with their safety equipment, heated cabs, and road building technology are following in the footsteps of those who braved the elements with their bodies and wits.
When the trip was through and the men returned to their homesteads or towns, they were faced with a dilemma: how much do you tell your wife? If the trip was superb and all went well, it was easy to dwell on the beauty of the northern lights, the flash of the snow and to discuss what to do with the money earned. But dead horses that needed to be replaced, broken equipment, and frozen feet, hands, and faces, not to mention shredded clothing and gaunt bodies, were much harder to explain. The extreme cold, the danger, the fear, the howling wolves and the sheer terror of it all had to be hidden if the freighter ever wanted to take to the trail again. It was good money, if all went well; but it was a rare trip that didn’t experience at least one major disaster.
One of History TV’s most popular shows is Ice Road Truckers. I heard a rumour that they were planning a special to focus on overland freighting in the 1930s — likely by caterpillar tractor. The experiences of those who pulled freight on the ‘cat-trains’ is a whole other blog post, but here’s the teaser: if you’re the driver of the cat tractor crossing the ice on, say, Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan (essentially an inland sea), and you hit bad ice or an open lead, what are your chances of survival if the cat drops to the bottom of the lake?
Soon, I hope to publish a book on overland freighting experiences, using local histories, oral stories, and photographs from archival and personal collections. Freighting is an aspect of western Canadian history that too often has been lost to the ‘prairie’ mystique of the treeless, open plains. But the rollicking yarns deserve to be told to a broader audience.
For a longer version of this blog post, including selections from novels and local history books telling tales from the trails and more photos, visit Merle Massie’s Blog
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