The small, log-hewn, square-built cabins are weather-beaten and grey like time-worn boulders on the wayside, and stand solitary as sentinels on a bare, treeless, grass-grown knoll. The Fort -the buildings of the Hudson Bay Company, comprising a house, a trading store, and an assortment of outhouses-stands dominant on the highest ground on the extreme east of the knoll. To the west, strange to say, is a tiny Catholic mission and church ; the latter cross-planned, as is the Roman custom, notwithstanding its insignificant size and crude workmanship. At some little distance from the mission is the Trading Store of the " French Company" (Revillion Brothers), rival traders to the Hudson Bay Company, who here established a footing some ten years ago. There are six cabins in the settlement occupied by part-blood or full-blood Indians, who are at intervals in summer and winter employed in the transport of furs and stores for the trading companies. White fungus-like tents, in awkward discord with natural colours, are pitched here and there along-shore. They are the temporary shelters of the ever wandering Chipewyans, for alas ! the days of the mahogany-coloured, smoke-soiled deer-skin (caribou or moose-skin) teepees have almost gone, and their peaked pyramid forms range no more in native beauty along the shore-front.
There is little stir of life around the cabins during the long summer's day, for the men are commonly away fishing or hunting or " freighting " for the Company, and the few squaws, with their half-wild children about them, keep chiefly to their dwellings. Occasionally the dogs of the Post, which form the greater part of the population, give voice to vicious quarrel or howls of deep-rooted melancholy; but, as a rule, they are to be seen curled up in slumber here, there, and everywhere, indifferent alike to the peace or desolation of the quiet scene.
Such is the aspect of Fort Du Brochet, the furthest inland post in the region and one of the hardest to reach from the far-distant frontier. One may call it a rude settlement in a rude land of water and cloud and wilderness: yet it had its native life of quaintness and simplicity; and, above all, its summer days, and its sunsets, and its Northern Lights of superb, wild, natural beauty.
The clear blue water of Reindeer Lake is teeming with fish, and it is almost as wonderful on that account as it is for its rare northern beauty. And those fish abound in water that is exceptionally fine, and which, no doubt, gives to them wonderful growth and well-being. An extract from the Canadian Geological Survey Report on the country between Lake Athabasca and Churchill River, 1896, p. 99 d, states :
" A chemical examination of the waters from Reindeer Lake and Churchill River was made by Dr. F. D. Adams in the Laboratory of the Survey in 1882. In summing up the general results, Dr. Adams says : ' Of the foregoing waters that from Reindeer Lake is remarkable for the small amount of dissolved solid mattei which it contains ; in this regard it would take rank with the waters of Bala Lake, Merionethshire, Wales, and Loch Katrine, Perthshire, Scotland. . . "
There are, in Reindeer Lake, as far as is known to me, eight different species of fish, most of which are to be found in many of the waterways of the North, particularly where rivers flow, or have connections to lakes. Many small land-locked inland lakes apparently contain no fish, or very few, and those usually pike.
The fish contained in Reindeer Lake are, if we exclude the small fry of which I had not sufficient time or opportunity to take account, Whitefish, Lake Trout, Back's Grayling, or Arctic Grayling (?) Pike, Pickerel, Red Sucker, Black Sucker, and lastly a small herring-like fish, indigenous apparently to the south end of the lake, which, after reference to specimens in the Museum at Ottawa, I believe to be the Alaska Herring, or Mooneye Cisco.
The Whitefish is the great food fish, both for the natives of Reindeer Lake and their sled-dogs. The flesh is white and delicate, and delicious to eat; and one never tires of it even when it is made a constant diet. They are caught only in gill-nets, and weigh on an average between two and three pounds. The smallest fish I saw taken weighed one pound, and the largest six pounds. In shape the whitefish is narrow-backed, with a full, curved outline and deep-girthed sides which are covered with silvery coarse scales; the head is small, and tapers sharply to the fine-lipped, toothless mouth. The lower sides and belly are silvery white, which is the striking colour of the fish, for they look like bars of silver when freshly caught; the upper sides glint with pale bluish-purple, or reddish-purple in some instances, and darken into the brown over back, while the scale outlines there show black. The dorsal fin is of ordinary size; not large, and brightly coloured like the grayling, which it resembles somewhat in shape and size.
The Lake Trout is almost of equal food value to the Whitefish, but it is never caught in great numbers by the Indians in their set nets. The flesh of this fish is deep yellow, and firm and full-flavoured ; but one tires of it quickly as a regular diet, probably on account of its richness in fat or oil. In shape those trout are full and lengthily well proportioned; in colour the fine scales are silvery white on the lower body, and white-spotted sage-green brownish above, while there is a thin, dark, well-defined line along the centre of the sides. They are powerful fish, usually weighing between three and a half pounds and eight pounds, though they are occasionally caught of much greater size. I secured one weighing nineteen pounds, and preserved the skin, which is now mounted in the Saskatchewan Museum. One is recorded weighing twenty-five pounds, caught near the mouth of Stone River.1 Those trout can be easily caught on a rod by trolling a minnow or spoon, but fly was tried on a few occasions without success, though fish were seen breaking the surface of the water in all directions on suitable evenings.
I had no occasion to catch more trout than the day's needs required, and on Reindeer Lake, particularly at the south end, half an hour's trolling was often sufficient to take a five to ten pound basket; when the rod would then be put away. Fishing for food in this way during the six days it took to travel from the south to the north end of Reindeer Lake, my catch totalled thirteen trout, weighing fifty-two pounds. I have often wondered what a whole day's catch would amount to in weight in those unfished waters, and almost regret I had not occasion to make the test.
1 Report on the country between Lake Athabasca and Churchill River, 1896, p. 14d.
Back's Grayling, or Arctic Grayling (?) is only on very rare occasions caught in nets by the natives. They probably do not live long periods in Reindeer Lake, unless that when doing so they keep to the deep waters and avoid detection. I have caught them below Reindeer Lake on the Reindeer River, and above Reindeer Lake on the Cochrane River. They are much given to frequenting the swift waters of river rapids, and it is there that I invariably found them. They were caught only on a small phantom minnow, which was the only lure I could induce them to rise to, and weighed between one pound and a half and three pounds. They were exceedingly game and fought splendidly in the swift current. From an angling point of view they afforded more excitement and fun than did the Lake Trout. I greatly enjoyed fishing for them, and also the scramble over the rocks to reach their favourite " lies " in surroundings where the river roared and tossed in companionable tumult.
In shape the Grayling resembles the White-fish, but the flesh is not so firm, and white, and palatable, though quite fair eating. In colour the upper sides are silvery brown, with glints of pale blue, and also with slight yellow and red tints, while there are a few widely spaced prominent black spots on the fore-shoulder; the back is darker than the sides, and therefrom arises a very large dorsal fin, almost a third of the length of the fish, which is brilliantly spotted and streaked with many lights of deep purple and greenish blue; the belly is blackish when the fish is first taken from the water, but later it pales to white. It is, altogether, a brilliant rainbow-tinted fish when seen swimming in the clear water, but quickly loses much of those glints of colour when killed.