Down North by Tony Onraet (Sergeant – Canadian Armed Forces)
Written by Harold
- Published in Book Reviews
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Truth be told, I read a lot of books, many of which were written by, or on behalf of various explorers, prospectors, trappers and the like, outlining their experiences in Canada’s far north.
Some tell a very compelling story, while others can be somewhat repetitive, and dare I say, bland, or at best “matter of fact” in nature, and as a result, don’t provide the reader with a clear sense of what is was truly like to live and survive in such a harsh and unforgiving environment, and perhaps more importantly, what drove, or inspired them to attempt it in the first place.
If someone decides to spend several years of their life in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, all the while living under primitive conditions, eating nothing but mosquitos, beans and the occasional Porcupine, although I’m certainly interested in knowing what they got up to while there, ideally I’d also like them to help me understand – why?
Some of the very best that I have spent many a pleasant hour with include:
• Great Bear – A Journey Remembered by Fredrick B. Watt,
• The New North - Being Some Account of a Women's Journey through Canada to the Arctic by Agnes Deans,
• Free Spirits: Portraits From The North by Bern Will Brown,
• The Lure of the Labrador Wild by Dillon Wallace, and
• Unflinching by Edgar Christian.
These individuals were able to paint a vivid picture of life in the far North, not just by describing their surroundings and daily tasks, but by sharing some of their inner most thoughts and aspirations underlying their decision to take on such a challenge, thereby better helping me to understand what took them, and in many cases kept them there for their entire lives.
In order to add a slightly different dimension to what was often times nothing more than a hard and lonely life, some, like John C. Nesbitt in Keep Your Nose on the Horizon, also shared humorous anecdotes, with one of my favourites involving a trapper who the RCMP had under house arrest for making home brew, and who’s job was to cut the winter supply of wood for the detachment.
As it turned out, when John flew him back to his trap line after having served his sentence, the RCMP found that he had carefully cut every piece of wood just long enough so that it wouldn’t fit into the stove!
I honestly can’t recall when I’ve enjoyed a book more, so rather than have me blather on endlessly, I’ll let Tony speak for himself, for he has created a rich and vibrant tapestry, depicting a way of life in this country that has long since passed, by weaving together his experiences, the principles he lived by, and the emotions he experienced in a manner as you will see below, that is truly representative of the man and his life Down North.
“In the meanwhile old lady bear licked and sucked the milk off the tarpaulin, swallowed a pound wad of butter with great gusto, and ate the honey. I just watched her squeeze that honey can flat, and then proceed to chew on it, much like that buck-toothed waitress I saw once in a second rate Chicago restaurant, only the bear looked intelligent.”
“The last Christmas I spent with my dogs was in 1938.
When I go back I shan’t have two of them joyfully greeting me. Hector went out on the Great Never Ending Trail soon after I left for Britain. And, not so long afterwards, the Indian friend, in whose care I entrusted them for the duration of the war, wrote to me in England that Rollo had gone too. Rollo had been getting a bit oldish, so I wasn’t so surprised as I had been when I heard about Hector. I guess Hector missed me.
There was nothing wrong with him wrote my friend from Fort Norman. He was just lonely…that’s all.”
“That was my life Down North: out on the trap line, a bit of prospecting, staking claims, cook at Murphy’s store, and even running a restaurant on my own at Cameron Bay on Great Bear Lake.”
He and his traveling partner had just lost most of their food and gear in an accident on the Peace River when:
“He told us his name was Harry Jebb, and he was headed for Great Bear Lake.
He had cooking utensils, baking powder, grease and salt, and a couple of pounds of tea. He had come down the Smoky River, the Wapiti: started with a good boatload of grub; had turned over in the rapids; lost everything but himself and the wolfhounds. Then he started walking down river until he reached a lonely little trading post, where he purchased his present equipment on credit, built a raft and came on.
Well, if that funny little guy could go to Great Bear Lake with such a rig-up, so could we.”
“What other country can you roam in and range at will, welcome to anything you find, keep for yourself your furs and minerals and get a square deal from the Mounties everywhere, and all for a two dollars’ licence a year? Same freedom everywhere in the British Empire. Somebody’s got to go and help keep this country and the rest of the free world free if the scrap really gets started.
There ain’t going to be no Gestapo here instead of the Mounties!”
“A trapper will make the journey by himself until he passes some other cabin on the trail, where he will be joined by the trapper who belongs there, so that as they go on, man after man, white, half-breed, Indian, and their families and squealing kids, will hitch on with their sleighs to the procession.
This is the first time in many moons most of us have had any human being to speak a word to. You can guess how much we have looked forward to our Christmas.
We wouldn’t miss it for all the gold in the North.”
First published in 1944 by Jonathan Cape, London, this beautifully written book is without a doubt one of the very finest of its kind in this particular genre.
I suspect that there are very few copies remaining in print, and would highly recommend that you track one down while there are still some to be had.
Copies may be obtained through: www.biblio.com. Search using “Great Bear Lake” as your key word.
And no, you can’t borrow mine!
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