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THE GREAT PLAINS OF CANADA.
WITH PICTURES BY FREDERIC REMINGTON.
HE northern portions of the two great continents which make up the non-insular land surface of the globe afford room for great plain areas wholly unlike, in extent at least, any similar areas in other latitudes. On both continents these broad tracts are very much alike in general features. They lie well toward the Arctic Ocean; they slope gradually toward the northern sea; their river-systems converge toward the pole; and they are scantily wooded and mostly covered with nutritious grasses. Marshes of great extent abound, and such lakes and inland seas as exist are shallow and more or less brackish in character. At the northern edge of the continents the surfaces sink more and more to the sea-level; the streams grow sluggish and broad; and the frozen sea invades the land in countless inlets, bays, and channels, leaving above the surface many low, swampy islands, which are little more than mud-banks.
No one, I think, who is acquainted with the great plains of our own western continent lying north of the great lakes can read the narratives of the expeditions sent out in search of the Jeannette explorers, or Mr. George Kennan's accounts of Siberian travel, without being impressed with the likeness suggested between the Asiatic steppes and the "Great Lone Land" of the western hemisphere. Many of Mr. Kennan's descriptions of the country through which he passed on his memorable journey to the penal colonies and the prison mines of eastern Siberia are equally well suited to the almost boundless tracts west of Hudson's Bay, and northward to the region of the Great Slave Lake. Indeed, I know of no more graphic and truthful portraitures of many parts of what used to be marked on the maps as British North America, and is now more commonly known as the British Northwest, or the Canadian Northwest, than these same narratives; but I am sure no words or pictures can adequately convey to the mind the real impressions which these regions make upon one who lives among and travels over them in long journeys in summer and winter. It is one thing to talk of vast ness and solitude and silence, of transparent air VOL. XLIV.-74.
and illimitable sunshine in summer, or of fierce, howling winter tempests shutting down about the lonely traveler as he struggles forward, the only spot of color in the weltering waste of snow, with no friendly shrub or tree or sheltering hill greeting his tired senses, only to find an enforced halting-place where darkness overtakes him, from whose frozen torpor and death no morning may arouse him-it is quite another to have experienced these things in one's own person.
Among the mountains there are grandeur and solitude: mists wreathe the lofty summits, and lie along the valleys where the rivers run; morning and evening bathe the snowy, ice-clad peaks in floods of golden and crimson glory; from moment to moment shadows, tints, and tones of color come and go to mark the passing hours; and climb where you will, the prospect is always limited, bounded, varied. Even the barren, unsociable sea is not without changing aspects and motions, fraught indeed, at times with danger and terror; but the traveler who has passed many seasons in the grandest mountain scenery, or has sailed on many a sea, has yet to find, in an acquaintance with the great plains, a new set of novel and strange experiences.
Perhaps the first thing which will impress him will be the absence of what Mr. John Burroughs calls an atmosphere. For the first time in his life he will feel that he is out of doors, or that his eyes have been suddenly opened. Objects which under other circumstances would have tempered and softened outlines, or would be altogether invisible, now seem as sharply defined as the shadows of houses or trees in the glare of the electric light. There is no toning of the light, and between the blades of grass on the ridge of some slope many rods away from him, he sees with utmost distinctness to unimaginable distances. The sky rises like a wall about him, and through the limitless air the sun shines like a resplendent disk of burnished metal. Upward, if he look long and steadfastly, he will lose the illusion of blueness, and will seem to be looking into blue-black depths, which will convey to his mind with a new meaning the notion of space. The distant forests, where they exist, and the low, tumbled hills, grassy and rounded to their summits, are seen without disguise or softening; and moving animals or trains of carts show every deta
with the distinctness of close proximity. Perchance a herd of white-tailed deer, of antelope, or possibly of elk, challenges him to a feat of arms, and he is chagrined to find that he has underrated the distance of the game, and that his shot has only served to startle his quarry. In the morning he looks out over the landscape far beyond the spot where he will take his midday meal, beyond even his next night's camp. As this experience is repeated from day to day with unvarying monotony, his spirits begin to flag, and a depression comes over him that may verge toward hopelessness. If the surface of the country is flat for many miles, as is often the case, this effect is intensified, and the horizon appears to be rising all about him and approaching nearer and nearer to swallow up the sky and overwhelm him. He longs for a tree or the slope of a hill to break the unvarying sameness of level horizon and to suggest to him new vistas. Even clouds and storm are welcome, for they at least bring shadows and changing lights and movement.
I shall never forget the peculiar sensation of being challenged which I experienced when, after a long railway journey from St. Paul, Minnesota, one day in April, some years ago, I arrived at the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and, as the clear morning sun rose above the level horizon unbroken by hill or tree, I went out to the edge of the town and looked away over the brown grass, now faintly flushed with the first tender green of early spring. It was easy to imagine that an almost audible voice invited me to penetrate the untraversed regions toward the north and west, and to discover the mysteries of the wilderness where almost unknown rivers ran, where vagrant, unbreathed winds were ever blowing, where wild animals and water-fowl lived unmolested; and it was with impatience that the necessary delay of preparation for a long journey far from civilization, with unknown perils and hardships to be encountered, was endured. This sense of challenge, which is not less an invitation to meet nature at first hand, without the conventionalities and the expedients of long use, is, I presume, one of the peculiar experiences of the pioneer and the explorer in every clime, whether by land or sea; and it must be practically unknown to the dweller in old communities, and not less to the ordinary tourist, to whom the thought of absence from his usual associates and the conveniences of mails and telegraphs and daily papers seems only painful.
We speak of darkness which can be felt. Similarly we may speak of silence which can be heard, and this is another impressive element of an experience of the plains. On the sea, except in calm, and in the forest and among the places of human habitation, there is always
sound, even at night; but on the treeless plains, in the midst of normal activity, there is silence as of the grave. Even a hurricane is comparatively inaudible, for there are no waters to dash, no forests to roar, no surfaces to resound, while the short grasses give forth no perceptible rustle; and there is something awful in the titanic rush of contending natural forces which you can feel, but cannot see or hear. The wind may sweep away your breath on a current of sixty miles an hour, and the clouds may rush through the sky as in a tornado, but no sounds confound the ear. A winter blizzard, which carries on its frigid breath destruction to life, which blinds the eyes, and which drives the particles of ice and snow with cutting force against the frozen cheek and through all but the heaviest fur clothing, is comparatively inaudible, and the traveler appears to himself to struggle vainly with an implacable, ghostly force which fills the whole creation. When, also, nature is undisturbed in tranquil summer mood, and the sky is blue and flecked with fleecy clouds floating far aloft, all sound seems to have died out of the world, and a mantle of silence enfolds everything. Partaking of the predominant natural sentiment, man becomes silent also; he ceases to talk to his mates and becomes moody and taciturn. The merry song of the voyager, reechoing between wooded shores, the shout, the joke of the cheerful traveler here are stilled — stifled you might almost say—by the immeasurable muffle of silence. Here are no woods to give back the answering shout, and the crack of the rifle is insignificant. The cry of the passing wild-fowl in the darkness, as you lie awake in your tent at midnight, comes to you with a weird, faint, far-away sound as if heard in a dream, and even the rare thunder breaks impotently on the continent of silence. If a comrade is lost, and you wish to make some sign to direct him to the camp, no noise which you can make with voice or firearms will be of any avail, for such noises will penetrate only a few rods at farthest. By day the only resource is a flag on some elevation or a smoke of burning grass; by night rockets must be sent up as at sea, or, if these have not been provided, firebrands from the camp-fire may be thrown up with some hope of success. No one can know, until he has experienced it, the longing which takes possession of one who has been for weeks practically separated from speaking men, once more to hear the sounds of common life, the roar of the city streets, the sound of bells, and even the crowing of the cock in the early dawn.
The Red River of the North, as it used to be called on the maps of our boyhood, when Green Bay was an obscure trading-post, and the Mississippi River, except by name, was
familiar to few, rises in the State of Minnesota in the same divide which sends a portion of its waters southward on their long journey to the Gulf of Mexico. By a short portage it is easy to pass from the head-waters of the Mississippi to those of the Red River, whence a continuous passage is open northward through Lake Winnipeg, the Sea or Nelson's River, and Hudson's Bay even to the Arctic Ocean. The river flows westward at first, but, presently turning, it forms the boundary line between Minnesota and Dakota. It drains a broad, level valley, and winds tortuously between clay banks like an irregular canal, fringed with a sparse growth of oak, ash, and box-elder, which nowhere spreads out into a forest. The valley is so broad and flat that only from the appearance of low elevations at a great distance to the east and the west can you correct your impression that the surface is that of an upland plain. Here are great areas of a heavy, fertile soil, which within a few years have become celebrated for the immense crops of wheat grown on them. Flowing away from the sun, the river suffers from disastrous floods, for while the advancing season thaws the snows along its upper course, the lower portions are yet locked in ice. At such times the valley is covered for miles with water to a depth of several feet, and as late as the month of April or May the city of Winnipeg, lying at the junction of the Assiniboin with the Red River, about sixty miles north of the international boundary line, is liable to be overflowed. During a part of the year small steamers navigate the river from a point in Minnesota to Winnipeg, and thence to Lake Winnipeg; but, below the city named, the channel, nowhere deep, is obstructed with shallows and rapids at the few places where the underlying rock approaches the surface; while, nearer the lake, the stream becomes so broad and shallow as to be of small commercial importance. The Assiniboin, rising about 450 miles west of its junction with the Red River, flows through a level or rolling plain to the eastward with many short turns, receiving no important tributaries. At favorable seasons of the year steamboats of small size and light draft can go as far west as Portage la Prairie, a distance of about 70 miles, and occasionally they push their way even up to the Hudson's Bay trading-post of Fort Ellice, about 350 miles from Winnipeg. Here the river lies in a deep valley between precipitous bluffs more than one hundred feet in height. In this portion of its course it affords a striking illustration of the action of streams in working over the materials along their courses. From the bluffs on which the post is situated you look down into the valley where the stream, now only a narrow creek fringed with willows and poplars, winds with
countless turns, swinging in the course of centuries from one side of the flood-plain to the other, obliterating old curves and forming new ones, but never moving in a straight line for a dozen rods, until the whole alluvial deposit has been worked over time and again.
The general aspect of the Great Lone Land of the Canadian Northwest is that of a broad plain lying inclined at a low angle of elevation against the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains, sloping both eastward toward Hudson's Bay and northward toward the Arctic Ocean. There may be said to be no rock-exposures throughout the whole area, and rarely does the surface rise even into low, rounded hills. In two expeditions of nearly a thousand miles each, in a direct line northwest from Winnipeg, my notes, made daily, show that rock in situ was seen only once, and that at Stony Mountain, not more than fifty or sixty miles from the city named. Here is an outcrop of blue limestone of excellent quality for building purposes. It is perhaps fifty feet in height, and it covers an area of not more than a square mile. In a few places on the head-waters of the Red Deer, the Battle, and the two Saskatchewan rivers, a few layers of a yellowish sandstone were observed in the cut banks of the streams adjacent to strata of a poor quality of bituminous coal. The surface of the country is, however, in many places thickly strewn with granite boulders, generally of rounded form, sometimes abounding in the shallow marshes, the surrounding hills being destitute of them; or again, the slopes and the tops of the elevations are covered with them, while none appear in the depressions, the disposition of them appearing to be entirely capricious. For hundreds of miles at a stretch it is possible to go without finding a stone as large as the fist, and, along the beds of the rivers, the fragments of limestone brought down from the mountains in the annual freshets are carefully gathered by the few inhabitants as a source of the lime used for making the mortar with which they daub the spaces between the logs of their poor cabins. There are some hilly tracts, but the highest elevations are less than two hundred feet, and the summits are smoothly rounded and covered with grass, like the more level surfaces below. Occasionally sand-hills are met with, consisting of loose white sand, in which a few stunted poplars find a precarious foothold. The prevailing winds are constantly changing the contours of these hills, and they are at all times, except when covered deep in snow, extremely difficult to traverse with vehicles or animals. Blinding sand-storms frequently occur in their vicinity, against which it is difficult to advance. Shallow marshes and shallow lakes are numerous, the latter often having neither inlet nor outlet, and varying in size from small
ponds to large areas many miles in extent. Not infrequently the traveler discovers well-defined, ancient sea-beaches composed of rounded pebbles and fine sand, generally overlaid by the clay soil of the country, and appearing where the surface has been removed or broken through.
Hudson's Bay, a vast, shallow body of water, an inland sea, constitutes the great drainage-basin of the wide region under consideration. It is 600 by 900 miles in its greatest dimensions, and it is large enough to contain all the other inland waters of the western hemisphere without sensible increase. Into it flow from the west all the waters of a wide region which do not find their way northward to the Arctic Ocean through the Athabasca and the Peace rivers, the chief affluents of the mighty Mackenzie system. The principal channels of these accumulated waters are the Red River already spoken of, the Saskatchewan rivers, and the Churchill, or English, River. The Saskatchewan rivers, known as the North and South Saskatchewan, take their rise in the foot-hills of the Rocky Mountains at a considerable distance asunder, the South Saskatchewan receiving as its principal affluents the Red Deer River and, nearer the mountains, the Bow and the Belly rivers. The Battle River drains the area between the Red Deer River and the two Saskatchewans, and empties into the North Saskatchewan at Battleford, in longitude 1080. The latter stream, flowing in a direction a little north of east in its upper course, presently turns to the eastward; then bending to the southeast, it approaches to within twenty miles of the south branch, parallel to which it flows for some 300 miles, when the two streams unite their waters near Fort à la Corne in longitude 1050, latitude 53°. Receiving the waters of Lake Winnipeg and of the adjacent body of water known by the two names Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipegosis at their northern extremity, not less than 260 miles from where the Red River discharges into Lake Winnipeg, the direction of the river thenceforth is northeastward, until the mighty flood pours into Hudson's Bay, in longitude 93°, latitude 570.
Thus this Saskatchewan river-system drains an area extending through a region measured by some twenty-five degrees of longitude and some fifteen degrees of latitude; and some notion of the magnitude of these streams can be obtained from the fact that about midway in the course of the North Saskatchewan, before it unites with the south branch, it is four hundred yards broad, or as broad as the Ohio at Cincinnati, while nearer Lake Winnipeg it becomes much broader still. The Indian name of the two great branches of the system, Saskatchewan, means "swift-flowing," and it is applied to many other streams in the far North
west. Throughout much of their courses these rivers sweep along with great velocity in broad but comparatively shallow channels, lined in some parts with a scanty growth of cottonwoods and poplars of little commercial value. The soil through which they cut their way is a yellow clay containing great quantities of fine sand. It is easily dissolved by water, and, as a consequence, the streams are always turbid, sand-bars are constantly forming and changing, and quicksands abound. Navigation in these streams is beset with all the difficulties which characterize the Missouri, if not with still greater ones. Yet, during three or four weeks in June and July, a few stern-wheel steamers of light draft leave the city of Winnipeg on the flood-waters, and, making a precarious passage down the Red River, traverse the length of Lake Winnipeg with difficulty, and stem the current of the North Saskatchewan in the hope of reaching the Hudson's Bay Company's trading-post of Edmonton before the waters fall. Occasionally they accomplish their endeavor, and land their cargoes of supplies at the head of navigation at Edmonton, within one hundred miles of the Rocky Mountains, after a tedious voyage of nearly two thousand miles; but more frequently these boats are stranded on the shifting sand-bars, perhaps four or five hundred miles from any settlement, in a totally uninhabited country. Here they must remain until another season in the charge of two or three men, who provide a store of fuel and prepare for a long nine or ten months of absolute isolation and the rigors of an arctic winter; or, when news of the almost expected disaster has reached some settlement by a messenger on foot or on horseback, a brigade of carts is fitted out and despatched to convey the stores by land to the point for which they were shipped, while the steamer winters where she was stranded.
Another feature of this great drainage area is the valleys which in the course of centuries the rivers have cut out for themselves. They are often of great depth, and in places have very steep walls. Arriving at the brink of the valley of the South Saskatchewan at one time in my journeyings, I sent out a guide in one direction, while I went in another, to search for a slope sufficiently gradual to enable us to get the wagons down in safety. After a half-day's search, we agreed upon a place for the undertaking. The valley of the Red Deer River is three hundred feet deep and three miles wide. Aware of its general course and situation, as I approached it with my half-breed guide on a wagon, I was surprised that no sign of it appeared. The rolling surface of the prairie seemed to stretch out to the horizon without a break, and yet, if the maps were only approximately
correct, I knew that we could not be more than a mile or two from the edge of the depression. At length, in the treeless expanse in front of us, we observed what appeared to be a single small fir-tree three or four feet in height, standing alone in the plain. Approaching it, we came presently to the edge of the valley, and found that the small fir was only the tip of a great tree standing far down the steep declivity, while still below were whole groups of Conifera whose tops did not reach half-way up to the general level of the country. A brief inspection showed us that no descent was possible for vehicles or animals, and, picketing our horses, we set out to descend, if possible, on foot. After a tortuous and toilsome task we reached the bottom, but we could not discover the stream, although we pressed our way to the opposite valley walls. We concluded that we VOL. XLIV.-75.
must have crossed a dry fork and that the river lay in some depression further on. It was necessary, therefore, to return to our starting-point, and, driving some miles down-stream, to make another attempt. This we did, and at length came to the stream, which was flowing with a moderately rapid current, not yet having lost the impetus derived from the Rocky Mountain slopes, some two hundred miles distant. Its waters still retained some of the characteristics of a mountain stream, being clearer, colder, and less bitter than those of streams nearer their mouths. In the banks of a small tributary of the main stream I discovered several thin layers of a poor quality of bituminous coal. This substance is found in nearly all the river-banks of the country near the mountains, and in places it is of such abundance and quality as to render it of great commercial value; and as the country