[Illustration: Eskimo trading his Pipe, carved from Walrus Tusk, for the Value of Three Beaver Skins.]
May—the frog moon—and June—the bird’s egg moon—were the festive seasons at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca. Indian hunters came tramping in from the Barren Lands with toboggan loads of pelts drawn by half-wild husky dogs. Woody Crees and Slaves and Chipewyans paddled across the lake in canoes laden to the gunwales with furs. A world of white skin tepees sprang up like mushrooms round the fur post. By June the traders had collected the furs, sorted and shipped them in flotillas of keel boat, barge, and canoe, east to Lake Superior and Montreal. On the evening of June 2, 1789, Alexander Mackenzie, chief trader, had finished the year’s trade and sent the furs to the Eastern warehouses of the Northwest Company, on Lake Superior, at Fort William, not far from where Radisson had first explored, and La Verendrye followed. Indians lingered round the fort of the Northern lake engaged in mad boissons, or drinking matches, that used up a winter’s earnings in the spree of a single week. Along the shore lay upturned canoes, keels red against the blue of the lake, and everywhere in the dark burned the red fires of the boatmen melting resin to gum the seams of the canoes; for the canoes were to be launched on a long voyage the next day. Mackenzie was going to float down with the current of the Athabasca or Grand River, and find out where that great river emptied in the North.
The crew must have spent the night in a last wild spree; for it was nine in the morning before all hands were ready to embark. In Mackenzie’s large birch canoe went four Canadian voyageurs, their Indian wives, and a German. In other canoes were the Indian hunters and interpreters, led by “English Chief,” who had often been to Hudson Bay. Few provisions were taken. The men were to hunt, the women to cook and keep the voyageurs supplied with moccasins, which wore out at the rate of one pair a day for each man. Traders bound for Slave Lake followed behind. Only fifty miles were made the first day. Henceforth Mackenzie embarked his men at three and four in the morning.
[Illustration: Quill and Bead Work on Buckskin, Mackenzie River Indians.]
The mouth of Peace River was passed a mile broad as it pours down from the west, and the boatmen portaged six rapids the third day, one of the canoes, steered by a squaw more intent on her sewing than the paddles, going over the falls with a smash that shivered the bark to kindling-wood. The woman escaped, as the current caught the canoe, by leaping into the water and swimming ashore with the aid of a line. Ice four feet thick clung to the walls of the rampart shores, and this increased the danger of landing for a portage, the Indians whining out their complaints in exactly the tone of the wailing north wind that had cradled their lives—“Eduiy, eduiy!—It