Down North
A Dependent's Notes of Interest
© Jean Watts 2002

Page4: Ft. Providence (continued)

Tugboats and barges bringing in supplies

Yearly Rations
All the bulkier supplies, including food, oil for heating, gas and oil for the truck and the engines, and most of the bits and pieces necessary for maintaining the equipment, arrived in the summer. These vitally important items were transported on barges pushed by tugs down the Mackenzie from Hay River. Goods first had to traverse a portage to Hay River from Fort McMurray, the terminus of the railway system on which everything had begun its journey from the South.

It was, of course, imperative to ration these supplies to make them last over the whole year, which objective sometimes needed some ingenuity to accomplish. Each man was entitled to a year's supply of rations, for which $37.50 per month was deducted from his pay. The same amount was also deducted as rent for our PMQ. An extra man's ration share could be ordered for each "dependant," as wives and children of soldiers were termed. We chose instead to arrange for a little variety in the menu by ordering a year's supplies from Western Grocers, a wholesale firm in Edmonton. Very careful ordering was essential and taking everyone's preferences into consideration was a must. On returning to southern life I found that buying groceries once a week seemed an unnecessary and incredibly fussy way of doing things!

Meat came either in cans or as frozen carcasses, which were hung in the refrigerator unit and were jointed and shared out by the station cook. Milk was powdered or canned, and fruit and vegetables came dried or in cans or bottles. It took a very long time indeed to get the children to eat fresh fruit and salads when we finally returned to southern Canada, as they were so used to canned and frozen food. The concept of fresh food was almost completely alien to them, although we did manage to grow a few lettuces and did occasionally get some fresh fruit in by air.

One could also obtain sacks of potatoes and eggs, a crate at a time, but I cannot remember how these were obtained or where they came from. I think that the suppliers were fairly local and sent these items in by local plane or boat. Bread, cakes, cookies, etc. were made from the flour and baking supplies provided in the rations. I soon got used to baking bread twice a week.

The Pelican Rapids, the Hudson's Bay Company supply boat.

When the river became free of ice in June, the boats that had been laid up for the winter were able to run again and resume bringing in supplies. Before then, if one had been unable to make the year's rations stretch over the winter, it was sometimes possible - at very high northern rates - to buy the missing items from the Hudson's Bay post or from the one local native trading post. But the added cost of importing supplies to the North made this a very expensive proposition. Any supplies that were desperately needed could be sent by air (and received if weather and landing conditions were favourable), but again this was a very expensive procedure.

Since I had experienced food rationing in England during the war, this way of life posed no problems for me and I never ran out of supplies. It did take me some time, though, to understand the warning from Jorgy not to give the station cook any vanilla essence if he tried to borrow some after running out of his yearly supply. To my surprise, I discovered that this alcohol-based flavouring essence was regarded as a standard alcoholic drink. I remember one Easter the "boys" expressing their hearty thanks when I sent over some hot cross buns. They said they particularly enjoyed the vanilla icing!

Dealing with Diapers

One of the several challenges to be faced was baby laundry, and perhaps only the parents of babies are able to appreciate the ramifications involved. This was, of course, before disposable diapers. Things have changed so much since those days that I feel an explanation of baby care then is necessary for a modern audience. Diapers were in those days made from cotton cloth cut and hemmed into a shape that was almost, but not quite square. One folded the diaper into a shape suitable for either a boy or a girl (the thick side either fore or aft), and then pinned it with two large diaper safety pins, one to each side, to the baby's little undershirt.

A recent improvement had made available paper diaper-liners, which, even if expensive, did save some of the labour involved. They could be discarded after being soiled, leaving the diaper only slightly dirty. These liners also washed quite well if one accidentally included them in the laundry!

Used cloth diapers were rinsed in the toilet and then placed in a covered diaper pail filled with water to which a little disinfectant had been added. At the end of twenty-four hours, there would be about a dozen soiled diapers in the pail, and each day these had to be washed.

If one's baby developed diaper rash or if the diapers began to lose their pristine whiteness, one had to boil them on the stove in a large container of soapy water, rinse them in fresh water, and then dry them on the clothesline outside (if the weather was warm enough). The washing process of course necessitated a supply of water and a means of heating it, which, although a matter of course for those living "outside," was not quite so easy in the North.

In the winter, it was wonderful having a large basement in which to suspend clotheslines. Here I could hang the washing to dry after it had been washed, rinsed, and put through the wringers of the washing machine. This practice was common in many houses, including army PMQs, in other parts of Canada.

I developed a great respect for the Slavey mothers, whose babies were always spotlessly clothed, even if the older children were a little on the grubby side. Their clotheslines, like mine, always bore a long line of diapers! And of course, subsequently, training pants! Those mothers were seldom lucky enough to have husbands who carried water or ice from the river for them, as mine did for me when it was impossible to pump water from the river. Their husbands were usually away on their trap lines in the winter and perhaps too busy fishing in the summer.

Native Inhabitants

The medical authorities in the south had warned us not to let our children play with the native children because of the prevalence of tuberculosis in the North. This was a terrible scourge among native families; sufferers were obliged to spend months and even years away from home in special TB hospitals. Consequently, when one had small children, it was impossible to do more than just pass the time of day with any of the natives. I was never able to know any of them well.

The Slavey women were adept at making wonderful moccasins, mukluks, mitts, parkas with fur-trimmed hoods, and other articles out of the tanned skins of various wild animals. They embroidered the articles beautifully, using designs apparently based on the wild roses that grew everywhere and whose fragrance in the long, warm days of summer permeated the air.

They were especially expert in moose-hair tufting, a craft that I believe is unique to Fort Providence. The moose hair was stitched in tufts to the material to be ornamented and then trimmed to produce a very pretty mossy effect. These craftswomen were so skilled that, if you put in an order for moccasins or mukluks, they needed only one swift glance to estimate the size of your feet.

I once made an embroidered flannelette baby jacket for an expectant mother. She responded later, when I was expecting my second child, with an exquisite pair of baby moccasins in bleached caribou skin trimmed with white rabbit fur and embroidered beautifully with a charming moose-hair tufted pattern. The moose hair was dyed in the traditional pink and green, which colours made the rose design a very convenient one. Alas, my family all have enormous feet and the little moccasins were too small even for the newborn baby. On the other hand, this enabled me to keep them as a precious souvenir for years!

The Slavey men were all expert trappers, hunters, and fishers. In the summer they would catch large quantities of fish in the river. The fish would then be dried and smoked on wooden racks set up either in front of their cabins or on the river edge. These fish would be used in the winter to feed the dog teams.

Having previously only read about the Native way of life in tales of adventure, I expected to find these North American Indians paddling the canoes from which they fished. It was a big surprise to find that although they did use paddles, their main means of locomotion for a canoe was a small outboard motor, or "kicker"!

Jill on front gate, with dog team passing along the road

Dog Teams

A familiar sound throughout the year was the melodious howling of the sled dogs. When not hitched up a sled, the dogs were chained each to its own doghouse outside the Native dwellings. From these doghouses the chorus of howls travelled through the village from team to team, to be finally taken up by wolves outside the settlement. At night it was a wonderful, eerie, northern sound.

Dog team with sled and driver

At times the "boys" at the station would run a dog team or two. Inexpert drivers sometimes confused the commands for right and left. When the team turned sharply from the compound gate to the main road, the driver would be leaning the wrong way, and was completely unbalanced. He would end up in the snow with the sled on its side, its load upset and the dogs all excited and tangled up in their traces. This was not much fun, except for the spectators, especially when the load was the station garbage on its way to the dump!

All the dogs loved to run, and the drivers' long whips seemed to be used only for cracking on either side of the team to encourage them and occasionally flicking the ear of a misbehaving animal. To encourage the dogs to run faster, drivers made a soft trilling noise like the Scottish rolled R.

Constables Norm Hambley and Tommy Scott, RCMP,
and Jill. Note the lettuces growing in the background.

One of our two RCMP constables, Tommy Scott, a novice in the North and on his first patrol with the dogs, had a difficult time controlling his team at first. It was the start of winter, but all the water in the creeks was not yet frozen. The excited team kept tipping the sled over in water, getting all tangled up in their traces and fighting with each other. The poor man had to take his mitts off to untangle the traces, his hands began to freeze, he could no longer feel what his fingers were doing, the dogs were still fighting, and he was at a loss as to what to do next. Then, in desperation, he had an incredibly bright idea: he bit the ear of the lead dog! It worked instantaneously - he was now the master of the team. The lead dog quieted down and behaved himself from then on.

Tommy was a little tougher with the team from then on and did not let them get so out of hand. He had left Scotland only eighteen months before and thought of dogs as pets rather than working animals. (Another memory of Tommy is of him trying to teach my children to say "Och aye!" instead of "yes" and "Och noo!" instead of "no." It never actually caught on, in spite of his best endeavours.)

The RCMP dogs were particularly tough, as they were part wolf and bigger and heavier than the malamutes used by most families. When Dick was introduced to them in their fenced enclosure at the Mountie compound, one dog stood on its hind legs and put its forepaws on Dick's shoulders, its jaws wide open, panting hotly into his face. Dick in those days was six feet, two inches! It was quite a terrifying experience and he was considerably relieved when Constable Norm Hambley assured him that the dog hadn't seen too many people lately and was just making friends!

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