The hardest sled-driving is when passing overland : guide-rope in hand, at one time urging the dogs uphill, at another time righting the sled if a bad canting slope, or a hidden stump, has overturned it. Then, perhaps, a mad scramble downhill, guiding the sled, sometimes with somewhat random effort, as it sways from side to side in its impetuous movement, buffered off the shallow banks which it encounters on the margins of the trail. Finally, at sight of a lake ahead, the dogs break into a gallop at prospect of getting on to the level again, and the line of sleds debouch on to the lake from the forest like a veritable cataract. Breathless, or if not breathless, perspiring, we run alongside our sleds, board the protruding ledge at the rear, and step over into the body to settle down for a rest while still watching the dogs and urging them on. But before long we are out on the ice again, trotting patiently behind the dogs, encouraging them, and using the whip on any caught slacking (if not foot-sore, and slacking with a cause), glad of exercise to keep up warmth against the cutting cold wind we faced, and that swept over lake ice with the freedom of wind on the sea.
Travelling light, and on packed snow, with no trail to break, neither hunting en route nor trapping, it was estimated that the dogs were travelling from four to five miles an hour. We were travelling in three stages each day : that is, we halted to make two " fires" between morning start and night camp. In each stage the dogs ran between two and a half hours and three hours. Therefore the minimum distance of travel per day was thirty miles, and the maximum forty-five miles.
When it was time to make " first fire," a well timbered, sheltered place was selected and the dogs run in to the lake edge. Straightway a few spruce trees were felled on to the lake ice, their branches lobbed off and spread mat-fashion on the snow to accomodate the dogs, whereupon the teams, still harnessed to their sleds, were led on to those " carpets " to there lie down, panting and tired, to cool off while their feet and bodies were safeguarded from contact with ice and snow. Back a little way in the shelter of the woods we then kindled a camp-fire, filled the cans with water from a hole cut with an axe through two feet of lake ice, and soon each one of us was enjoying fragrant hot tea and pemmican, or lumps of cold Caribou meat saved from the previous night's-cooking. Afterwards pipes and laughter while we stood, first back, then front, basking in the luxurious warmth of the log-fire.
The time of making " fires " of course varies. There is really no mechanical measurement of Time in the Far North; only are the spans of daylight measured by the sun, or by unfailing instinct if there is no sun. However, a fair guide to halts on the winter trail are : Morning Fire, 6.30 a.m. (about an hour and a half before daylight); First Fire Halt, 9.30 a.m.-10 a.m.; Second Fire Halt, 2 p.m. - 2.30 p.m. Night Camp, 5.30 p.m. (about an hour and a half after dark). It is on account of those customary halts that Indians always answer questions as to how long a journey will take by giving you the number of times they sleep or make fire. Thus they say : "To go Eskimo camp, we sleep ten times " (twelve days' travel); or again, " To go Gull-foot's wigwam, we make two small fires " (about six hours' travel); or " two long fires " would mean about nine hours' travel.
Throughout the day we kept trailing into the North over river and lake and land that ever changed in line and aspect yet never lost the dead white countenance of frigid snow. The " first fire " we left behind, and the second, as we had done on the days before-each marking so much gained on the scale of man's ambition to explore, yet piling up the leagues of snow that lay behind, lengthening the gulf between solitude and the voices of fellow-mankind.
Even after the short winter's day had ended we were still calling to the dogs and urging them onward as they flagged at the end of a hard day's work. The wind had dropped, it was some degrees more intensely cold, and, outside our small activities, the whole vast land was deadly still with silentness. On, ever on, like a shaft of black shadow, the line of sleds crept toward the head of the large lake we were crossing, until our moving forms were brushed from the level white surface and engulfed in the darkness of the dwarf forest on shore.
Among the trees we made camp. The sleds were drawn into position to barricade our sleeping ground against the dogs and the cold; and then the dogs were released from their harness. Boughs were cut and laid for the dogs to rest on, and then all hands turned toward making the night's camp. Space was cleared sufficient to accommodate a large log-fire and our outstretched forms. The fire was kindled at the edge of the space down-wind; up-wind, the full length of our bodies from the fire, the back of a two to three foot barricade was built, while similar sides enclosed our camping space to the fire, which counted the fourth side of our enclosure. This three-sided barricade before the fire was partly formed with sleds, and completed with felled trees and snow-banking.
As soon as the fire was well ablaze the " sticks " of fish were ranged before it to partially thaw out before being fed to the dogs. While this was being done the camp was laid with a thick mattress of boughs so that we would not sleep directly on the snow. Also a great pile of dead timber was gathered for the night fire.
Those things were completed and the dogs fed (two fish each) before any attention was given to our own wants. Thereafter pots of meat were boiled over the blazing fire, and tea, and we ate with the deep content of lean and hungry men.
In time the camp was ready to sleep. Beyond the fire glare most of the dogs had ceased to move and had dug themselves holes beneath the snow. Mistewgoso made a final round outside the barricade to make sure the sleds were thoroughly protected from ravaging dogs-some of whom would prowl stealthily round camp like wolves after we slept-then, when he returned satisfied, clad as we were in our heavy fur clothes, we curled into our fur-lined sleeping-bags-feet to fire, and sheltered by the barricade from wind-and forgot the cold and the trail in dreamless sleep.
I have endeavoured to describe a day on the north trail, particularly the mode of travel. I have known many such days-their food-shortage : no Caribou : dogs weakening, dogs footsore, dogs dying : and Indian companions losing faith. Travelling north is not free of risk at any time, it is far from pleasant then. But when without food in bitter weather those dogs of endurance will gamely do their best for three or four days and may save an anxious situation in the end. It is then that one learns the greatness of their strength, and the spirit that resists to the last blood-drop, unmurmuring, Big as the stern-disciplined North that has mothered them.