“The seasons of time offer no guarantees. For modern societies, no less than for all forms of life, transformative change is discontinuous. For what seems an eternity, history goes nowhere – and then it suddenly flings us forward across some vast chaos that defies any mortal effort to plan our way there. The Fourth Turning will try our souls – and the saecular rhythm tells us that much will depend on how we face up to that trial. The saeculum does not reveal whether the story will have a happy ending, but it does tell us how and when our choices will make a difference.” – Strauss & Howe – The Fourth Turning
Br Francis Marion and Aunt E. – First Published September 7th, 2016
In 1928 the southern part of Saskatchewan suffered a severe frost and there was a complete crop failure in the Little Woody District portion of the province. The dustbowl followed soon afterward. There was very little rain and hordes of grasshoppers flew through the area in massive clouds while other years infestations of army worms ate everything in their path. Our family harvested Russian thistle to feed our horses and cattle in the winter and I remember when a cart load of fresh fruit and vegetables arrived from out east to help out. Mostly I remember how delicious the apples and squash were.
In 1930 one of my brothers went north to the Meskinaw district of the province to look for work. He had found it there on a farm so one of my other brothers followed shortly after in 1932. He too found work and reported back of better conditions and so it was that in 1933 that the rest of the family made and executed plans to follow into the north country.
My fifteen-year-old son’s six-foot frame stretched out and up in front of me. I followed 10 feet behind as we scaled a steep patch of ground up the western slope of a small drainage. I was at a seven-inch disadvantage to his long stride, young, healthy lungs and his mother’s Slavic genetics but somehow had managed to score the heavier pack. The extra fifty pounds were putting pressure on my hips so I stopped and turned to take in the view.
“Are you hungry,” I asked him as he turned to see what I was doing?
“I could eat,” he replied from above.
“It opens up over the next ridge. We’ll stop there for a snack and a break.”
“Ok, dad,” he turned and grabbed the branch of a small spruce to get moving upward again. I leaned on my poles and followed one step at a time, slowly and deliberately. I kept reminding myself; the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And then many, many more.
In mid-May, the trek began. Mother drove a team on the “tent wagon” as we called it. It carried our beds, a coal oil stove, food, clothes, the cream separator and other living necessities. It was covered over with a canvas top and looked like a pioneer covered wagon.
Two other wagons were loaded with equipment, tools, household goods, etc. One of these wagons was driven by father and the other by our uncle who was also bringing some of his cattle and equipment.
I (E) was thirteen and it was my duty to bring the cattle, so I was riding horseback and, along with my faithful dog (Touser) herding the fourteen head of cattle that we owned. This included about five cows that were milking.
We traveled about twenty miles a day. At first, it was a bit difficult to keep the cows on track, but before many days they almost followed the wagons automatically. We had to start looking for a place to stop for the night early in the afternoon. We had to milk the cows and separate the milk twice a day. Sometimes we would give the cream to people near where we were camping and often in return they would give us bread, meat, etc. which we appreciated very much. It was an exciting and interesting trip but a very tiring one as well.
As we topped the next ridge the country began to open up into the large bowl where my son had shot a deer two seasons past. The smell of flowing sap and rotting foliage was heavy in the air and a light mist began to float in from over the ridge to the south of us.
The temperature had dropped precipitously at this elevation over the past week and even at mid-morning, the air was damp and cool.
We pulled up a seat on the edge of a small patch of junipers with a view to the North and began to pull off our packs and dig out our food. The ground around us was covered in mountain blueberries that were bursting with sugar and a fruity sweetness that had been triggered by the dropping temperatures. I ate a handful of nuts and picked the sweet fruit that covered the slope.
“Don’t eat too many of those berries dad. They’ll upset your stomach.”
I smiled and popped another into my mouth as my son shook his head and stood up from his bed of clover and grass.
“I’m going to take the camera and shoot some footage from that ridge to the north. I’ll be back in a bit.”
“All right,” I replied, “stay away from the drop-off. If you fall your mother will kill me.” I grinned and threw a berry at him.
He raised an eyebrow and strode off through the alpine to do his thing.
Three weeks after leaving our home in Little Woody our little caravan trekked into Mr. H’s yard four and a half miles from Meskanaw. What a thrill to see his beautiful garden and the lush grass up to the cow’s bellies in his pasture.
We had no land of our own so Mr. H told us that we could stay there until we found a place to live. We parked our tent wagon near their shop and called that “Home”.
There was an abundance of wild fruit around and we were thrilled to fill our pails with wild raspberries, the likes of which we had never seen before as well as wild saskatoons and “cranberries”. We also canned rhubarb from the H.’s patch, mostly without sugar as we couldn’t afford such a luxury.
After much searching for land, Father finally was able to purchase a quarter section from the Soldier Settlement Board. It was located only a half mile from Mr. H’s place and was covered with heavy bush but bore no buildings so the men got out some logs and built a little shack about twelve feet by eighteen feet for us to live in.
As we crested another ridge we passed the valley and bowl we’d spent so much time in over years past. We sat for a time glassing the area then decided to make a push for the top of the mountain where a small cabin, built by snowmobilers, had stood for several decades. With the Jeep now more than two thousand feet beneath us and with the day still young we were eager to explore more of the mountain range. Through the bowl and up another five to seven hundred feet sat the small building made of plywood and tin. It rested on stilts about five feet high to accommodate the heavy snow fall that would otherwise bury it. A small, neatly stacked pile of firewood adorned its entrance and someone had taken the time to paint the front of the building red. It was a simple structure but lovingly maintained with a wood stove in the centre and benches for sitting and sleeping built around the perimeter. We sat for a short time on its steps looking out over the valley below. For a moment I thought of it as man’s tribute to God’s creation then took another deep drink of cool water from the bladder in my pack, stood up, grabbed my poles and turned south to new country.
When we finally moved into our new home we didn’t have much room. With seven or eight people bedding down for the night we had wall to wall bodies.
The first winter was a hard one as the cattle and horses did not adapt well to the different feed in the north. Many of them became sick and died. Money was scarce too so the men cut cord wood and hauled it to Pathlow and Ethelton for as little as seventy-five cents a cord. They were able to bring groceries home in exchange. My brother fixed up a sawing outfit and went around the country sawing wood. They also cut more logs to build a house the next summer. The neighbors were kind and gave us vegetables from their gardens which we very much appreciated.
The log house was built in 1934. We girls continued milking cows and selling cream and the men went out in the fall to help with threshing. One of the major projects was to get land cleared so crop could be planted. Most of the clearing was done by hand and it was a hard, slow process. The boys helped father with this and the girls helped with chores. Mother worked hard too, never having a washing machine but doing all her washing by hand and hanging the clothes out to freeze in the winter time.
One winter my brother [my grandfather] was helping cut wood when he accidentally cut his foot with the ax. With tearful eyes I watched Aunt M stitch the large gash together. By following her good advice the foot healed and in time was as good as new.
In spite of the struggles, there were good times in the early days too. In the winter we would travel by sleigh and horse to the neighbors. People held dances in their homes and whole families went to them. The little ones would be tucked in the corner someplace and off to sleep they would go while Mum and Dad would kick up their heels. Mum liked to crochet and knit and sew and quilt. Father liked to sing and loved to hunt. My brothers, especially my youngest were also interested in guns, hunting, and traveling and when he was old enough my little brother bought a truck and traveled North America delivering goods and seeing the country.
Past the cabin and over another small ridge, just a couple of hundred quick feet up and to the South, the trail opened up into another series of bowls, meadows, and mountain. We walked for a while along a ridge, following the contour of the hillside and watched in wonder at the world around us.
Heavy cloud rolled in from the southwest near the coast where a massive system of rain and wind had been brewing. But the titan in front of us reached skyward grabbing and clawing at the incoming storm, breaking it apart and setting it asunder in pieces, revealing patches of blue sky above.
To our right a small flock of blue grouse strutted and clucked amongst a patch of scrub spruce and pine while the occasional raven would circle overhead patiently waiting to see what we would produce.
We settled in on a patch of dry grass and fished out our lunch as a nice muley deer doe traversed one of the meadows in front us a short 150 yards across and below. I pointed quietly and smiled as my son looked at her through the range finder. She fed quietly for a short time then disappeared into the folds of clover, trees and flowers.
Mother and Father continued to live in the log house on the farm until 1966 when ill health finally forced them to move to the Jubilee lodge in Kinistino. In 1967 they bought a Ford Falcon and travelled around quite a lot to ball games, picnics, and family gatherings. We celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in Melfort in 1973 with the entire family except for one of my brothers who had been killed in a sawmill accident [my grandfather]. A year later mother passed away after a bad fall and father followed soon after in 1977. He would have been 90 years old.
Most of us children continued to live in the area and farm and raised families of our own. We have lived to see so much and now are happy to see our own grandchildren and great grandchildren starting families as well. Some have stayed and some have gone in search of greener pastures.
We roamed the southern ridge for the rest of the afternoon kicking up muley does here and there while discussing the world, small things and grand things, friends and school, work and travel. After the fifth or sixth antlerless deer crossed our path I chuckled and told my son it appeared the ladies loved us but the men ‘not so much’. He smiled and pointed at the time and suggested we make tracks for our vehicle.
As daylight waned we crossed the ridge past the cabin and descended the mountain back down through the drainage we’d climbed that morning. My hips were sore from the weight of the pack but my heart kept an even and steady beat in cadence with our managed and deliberate descent.
Down through the alpine and the subalpine we went and through mature forest to an old logging road grown up through decades of neglect. We rounded our final corner and could see the Jeep parked at the last drivable stretch of trail in the top of an aging cut block.
As I dumped my pack next to the rear hatch and wiped the sweat from my brow my son tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. Not 100 yards from where we had parked were five mule deer moving up and across the hill with a nice young buck bringing up the rear. With no time to reach for shooting sticks or to find a rest we assumed the ‘buddy’ shooting position. With me kneeling and leaning back and my son with his knee in my waist, his rifle stock across my shoulder and his forearm across my upper back and neck I plugged my ears and told him to be patient.
“Let him stop,” I said and I clicked my tongue.
At the sound the small herd froze and as they did my son’s rifle barked. The rear buck tipped over backwards like a piece of falling timber. He kicked three times and expired where he landed.
We cleaned and loaded the two and half year old deer and chuckled about how easy it was and how hard it could have been. As we rolled down the trail in the fading light my son thanked me for making him practice his shooting. He said he was happy that each time he pulled the trigger on an animal that it died quickly and didn’t suffer. To hear him say such a thing filled me with pride. It was good to know I wasn’t only raising a man but a human being as well.
As we pulled off the main logging road and hit the highway we called his mother to tell her the news.
“There is fresh bread and baking when you get home,” she said, “I’ll clear the garage and get it ready for you so you can get your deer hung.”
“Thanks mom, we’ll see you soon,” said my son as he hung up my phone.
“Dad,” he asked as he put the phone down?
“I feel kind of bad that I shoot everything these days. You haven’t shot anything in years.”
I smiled at his concern and thought of the farm yard in the pines my grandfather had raised his family in that my dad’s sister and husband now owned where we’d meet during early November mornings when I was just a boy. Cousins, uncles and friends would hang around the trucks in the freezing dawn air, drinking coffee from red thermoses while the men, mostly my dad and uncles, great and recent discussed strategy. One group on this quarter, another on that one. We’d drive some bush with one group pushing and beating while another, mostly us kids, would do the shooting.
Mid morning would find us back at the farm where the deer from the morning’s hunt were hung. The smell of my uncle’s cured bacon and fresh venison cutlets frying together in a cast iron pan would drift through the front door and onto the porch where we left our boots. We’d eat our fill of meat and yesterday’s eggs, coaxed from beneath anxious hens, as my aunt set plate after plate of homemade pancakes and toast on the table in front of us.
Decades later I can still remember it all. The smells, the conversations, the hunts, every detail.
I took a deep breath and looked at my boy who was waiting for an answer.
“You don’t worry about that. Right now it’s your turn. Mine will come again soon enough.”
“Ok dad,” was all he said. I don’t think he understood but eventually he will. Because his turn is now but like all men who came before and who are yet to be his time and his turning will come.