Herb Lake 100


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Alma Mardis interviewed Ralph and Mabel Bryenton in 1966 for "The Centennial Salute to the
Trail Blazers" a booklet published by the Centennial Committee in Snow Lake, MB. The
Bryentons invited Alma to their home to experience the trappers' lifestyle.

Ralph: In the fall of 1927 my brother Wendell came to the Herb Lake area by way of Flin Flon.
In August 1930, I put my 14-foot canoe into the North Saskatchewan River at Edmonton and
followed its winding course east to The Pas, a journey of 800 miles. I lived off the country,
shooting deer and trading the meat to ferrymen along the way for vegetables, butter and eggs.
The journey took 21 days.

When I arrived at Herb Lake, Wendell was not there as he had gone out that summer with Dr.
Porsild, a botanist, who was the curator of the Royal Museum in Ottawa, on an expedition into
the Arctic. They went to Churchill and flew to the head of the Kazan River. They then went
down the Kazan River to Baker Lake and then out around by the coast. When I arrived at Herb
Lake, I made Wendell's cabin my headquarters, then took my canoe and went inland and built a
couple of small trapping cabins.

When Wendell returned to Herb Lake, we made a canoe trip on the Carrot River where we built
a small cabin. In mid October it started to snow and snowed for three days and nights resulting
in four feet of snow. We were not prepared for the sudden onset of winter and had left our
snowshoes at Herb Lake.

When the snow stopped, we tried to walk out but the snow in the bush was too deep. The river
had not been frozen when the snow started to fall, and it was now covered in snow. A lot of the
snow in the river melted, but a lot remained. Water from the river soaked upward into this snow
and then froze, forming a crust which supported our weight.

We walked on the river to the quarter mile portage between the creek and the lake and got about
half way across the portage and then played out. Since we could go no further through the bush
we were forced to turn back and return to the cabin on the Carrot River. At the cabin, we had a
few boards about half an inch thick and we made substitute snowshoes by lashing the boards to
our feet. We returned to the portage, successfully crossed it with the makeshift snowshoes and
made a safe trip to Herb Lake.

We had a poor start that winter trapping because in the deep snow the small animals, like the
weasels and squirrels, just disappear. In the spring we did much better and took 1200 rats
(muskrats). Even with the prices those days we had a good catch.

Alma: What was the price?

Ralph: I think it was 67 cents each. We sold the fur at the Dominion Fur Auction.

Alma: How many years did you and your brother trap?

Ralph: We trapped until 1938 and then Wendell got a job in the mine at Herb Lake. When the
mine closed, he went to Windego on Lake of the Woods and worked in the mine for a year or so
but he got rheumatism and quit mining. He came back with me for another year or two, and then
he started a heating business in Edmonton.

Alma: When were you married?

Ralph: We were married in 1934. At that time Mabel stayed at Calman, AB and I came up here
and trapped for the winter and went there in the summer. In 1938 we built our house at Herb
Lake. We went down the Grassy River and cut logs, pushed them into the water and formed
them into a raft. We pushed sixty to seventy logs up the river with the outboard motor and we
built our house on an island close to Herb Lake. At that time my brother lived on the island as
well. I still have these two log houses but we don't stay there much anymore.

Alma: Tell me about your movie theatre at Herb Lake.

Ralph: In 1946 I made a trip to Winnipeg looking for a boat as I was doing some freighting on
Herb Lake using home-made boats and barges. I purchased a boat and then went to see General
Films to enquire about purchasing a projector. Equipment was difficult to obtain but the
salesman said that he could find a second-hand projector for me, but it probably would not work
satisfactorily. He suggested that I purchase some good equipment and open a theatre. Since the
people in Herb Lake had never seen motion pictures, he suggested it would be a profitable
business. When I left Winnipeg I had purchased a boat, motion picture camera, projector,
screen and miscellaneous items. I was broke when I left Winnipeg.

Alma: Was the motion picture business profitable?

Ralph: No, I ran it for about four years, and at first it went very well. But when you consider the
cost of the building and equipment, it never paid for itself in money, but it did in satisfaction. I
enjoyed it.

When I was in Winnipeg, I met Dr. Peacock and he showed me some motion pictures he had
made on hospital operations and I was intrigued. I thought, if he can do that, I can make a movie
as well. So I took my camera and worked for three years on a film about trapping. One time
when I was in Regina to see General Films about some business in connection with the theatre, I
showed my pictures to them. The salesman said that if I could do that kind of work with a
"Keystone" camera, I should invest in a good camera. He gave me a letter of recommendation to
Dr. Brill in Chicago who was with the Encyclopedia Britannica. The next summer I went to
Chicago to see Dr. Brill and he liked my films and asked me to make a picture about trapping. I
spent another year working on a trapping picture and created "Fur Trapper of the North", which
is now shown in many schools. I sold the film in 1950 and still occasionally get royalty cheques.
The income from the theatre never replaced trapping, and I have trapped every year since 1922,
never missing a year.

Part 11 of Interview with the Bryentons

I'm confined to a block of ground ... about 200 square miles - Ralph Bryenton

Alma: Did you do some prospecting?

Ralph: Yes, I've done a little prospecting, and had one or two interesting experiences but I found
that you usually put more money into the ground that you take out.

Alma: Did you winter fish?

Ralph: I am the world's worst fisherman because I am too handy with a jack knife. When its
cold in the fall and the fish don't come out of the net, I'm very quick to cut them out with a
knife. Fishermen frown on damage to nets but when my hands are cold I get the fish out of the
nets the quickest way I can. I don't think I could ever get a job as a fisherman. That's not my
profession. But I fish for my dogs every year and dry them for feed. I'm very fond of fish to

Alma: Is it better today with registered traplines?

Ralph: No, I liked it better the other way. I feel fenced in now. We used to travel great
distances. Of course, I was younger then. I don't think I could cover the ground that I used to,
but when we went on trips we covered a lot of territory and got the fur to show for it. Now
we're confined to a block of ground; I think I have about 200 square miles. It sounds like a lot,
but you have to stay in those borders and sometimes the fur isn't there, but if you go 20 miles
north you run into the fur.

Alma: Are there trappers on all the lines?

Ralph: I believe there are 32 blocks in the Herb Lake area, but I would say this year there are not
10 trappers on the lines. They go to the trapline in the fall and take the mink and whatever they
can get, and then go back in the spring for the beaver and muskrats. During the rest of the time,
they fish or work in the settlement. I've never done that myself. I always figured if a fellow was
going to be a trapper, he should be a trapper.

Alma: Do you still feel that trapping is the best life for you?

Ralph: Yes, I like it. I wouldn't work for wages. I wouldn't work for anybody. I'm kind of a
slave driver. I work hard and trapping is hard work, no matter how you go about it. If you are
going to make a living at trapping you have to cut lines and get out and break trails on snow
shoes. You get caught in blizzards and have to fight the weather all the time. It's not an easy
life, but there is a challenge to it that I like.

Alma: You have no regrets that you became a trapper?

Ralph: No. If I had to do it again, I'd still be a trapper.

Alma: Do you like this country better the way it used to be than the way it is now?

Ralph: Oh yes. I liked it when the best man won. You could get out and go where you wanted
and nobody had any say about it. Possibly, on the whole, for the good of the country, it's better
the way it is as it stops any arguments about boundaries, however, I never heard of many
quarrels in the early days. For one thing, there was no concentration of people; there were only a
few hard nuts that went into the bush. In the olden days there were not many people that made a
living trapping in this district but there were a few who prospected in the summer and trapped in
the winter. There was the odd one that made a living at trapping. There were Billy English and
his partner Joe Kerr and Wilfred Vickers who trapped in the Snow Lake area. Bob Nicholson
trapped down the Grassy River below Herb Lake. Gasper Richards and some of the Stoltz boys
were trappers. Old Mr. Forster was one of the better rat trappers and he took the biggest catch of
rats (muskrats) that was every caught in one day in this area - 125 rats in one day.

In those days there was no arguing over trap lines as there is today. People went out and traveled
great distances. If they crossed each other's lines, well, it wasn't your country and it wasn't my
country, so we didn't quarrel about it. If we had two traps set within a short distance of each
other, the best man won. There was a gentleman's agreement that trappers didn't crowd each
other. There was enough ground for us all.

Alma: How did you manage the loneliness with no one to talk to?

Ralph: Well there are always the willow bushes to talk to. Nothing wrong with that you know,
but if you start answering yourself, then you have to worry as that's the first sign you are going
wacky. Lonesomeness is something that has never worried me. I guess I should have been a
hermit because I like my own company. I never get in an argument with myself. I've been a
trapper all my life and it has never occurred to me to get lonesome, but I think now if I went out
without Mabel, I would find it lonely. I suppose I'd get used to it again. But I like it the way it
is, with Mabel on the trapline with me. We look after each other.

Alma: I was thinking more of the time when you were here alone. Many trappers spend time
alone, going out for the entire winter and not seeing other people. I have noticed that many
trappers are good talkers and enjoy conversation. I would think it would bother them not to have
anyone to talk to.

Ralph: Well you save it up for so long. In the old days, when the camps were far apart and you
didn't see anyone for a long time, if a trapper came by, he always wanted to talk. That was his
outlet - to talk. Of course, you notice this in the other fellow, but I guess I was just as good at
letting off steam as the next fellow. When trappers got together, we talked steady.

Alma to Mabel: How about you Mabel, do you mind the loneliness?

Mabel: Oh, I make the best of it, but I miss the family.

Alma: How many children do you have?

Mabel: We have a daughter, Doris, and I had three children from my first marriage. Doris was
three years old in 1938 when I came up here. She took part of her schooling in Herb Lake and
part in Sheridan, then went to Edmonton for grade 12.

Ralph: Mabel did practical nursing in Herb Lake for a number of years as she had worked for the
Red Cross during the war. There was no doctor after the mine closed and no hospital.

Alma: You usually take the summer off, don't you?

Ralph: Yes, I've done that all my life. I quit in the spring when the fur season is over and go out
for the summer. I used to visit the folks in the States. Then after we were married, we spent the
summers around Edmonton. We still go out and travel all summer. It gives you an incentive to
trap when you are here. In the winter, I concentrate on trapping and in the summer, I concentrate
on having a good time. I like to travel and see places and do things.

Alma: Do you think that people have made much impression on the country? Do you think it
would take very long for it to grow back to bush if all the people left?

Ralph: Oh, I think in about four years we wouldn't know anyone was ever here. It is surprising
how quick the bush grows back. Look at Herb Lake; there was a town of several hundred people
and a mine. It closed down, and that's not so many years ago. Today there are only about three
occupied houses over there. The trails are all grown with big trees in the middle of the road and
the yards and gardens have gone back to bush. Moose graze where buildings once stood. Oh,
nature takes over very quickly once people move away.

Alma: Who lives there now?

Ralph: Milty Roberts is a fisherman. Louis Stoltz has a fish camp there and Roy Leslie, a retired
trapper, has a house there but he lives in Winnipeg most of the time. Jim Barton, the fellow who
was abandoned in the Arctic, lives there year round. That's all that's left in the town.

Alma: When did you leave Herb Lake and move to the trapline?

Ralph: In 1961. There was no reason to stay as there was nothing left.

Alma: Did you ever work for anyone else?

Ralph: The year after I left school I worked for a year for the C.N.Railway as an office clerk and
then did farm labor for a few months. I worked for several summers with Dr. Porsild as a
companion on trips. In 1947 we went down the McKenzie River to the Arctic coast. We worked
in the reindeer roundup at Aklavik.

Alma: What was the object of the trip?

Ralph: Dr. Porsild was responsible for bringing the reindeer over from Alaska. The Canadian
Government sent him out to explore the route where they would drive the reindeer from Alaska
across to the mouth of the McKenzie. They figured it would take two years, but instead it took
four years to bring them across. The herd decreased and the reindeer were not doing well, so
they sent Dr. Porsild back again to study the grazing grounds and to make recommendations. I
went along as a companion and helped with the cooking and chores. I took my camera and did
some photography.

Another year, Dr. Porsild invited Mabel and Doris to accompany us, and we went into the Rocky
Mountains in the area of Jasper, Banff and Kanaskas and spent six weeks in the mountains. Dr.
Leed and his wife, from the University of Oslo in Norway accompanied us. Both Dr. Porsild and
Dr. Leed are botanists and they studied the wild flowers and pressed samples. Mrs. Leed did
illustrations and paintings and we brought specimens to her.

On this trip, I again did some of the cooking and camp work. I carried my camera and took
pictures of the wildlife and of the flowers of the Rocky Mountains. I later showed these pictures
in the theatre at Herb Lake. I spent two summers in the Rockies with Dr. Porsild. One year we
went through the James Thompson pass from Nordig over to the ice fields, which was
considered quite a feat. We went up to Mountain Park, which I think is about 8000 feet.
There's an old coal mine up there. We drove the four-wheel jeep, left the roads and went over
the mountains with it. Dr. Porsild preserved many hundred specimens of flowers and I got some
good pictures.

Alma: Will you keep on trapping?

Ralph: Yes, I expect to trap for a few more years. My snow shoes are not worn out yet and I am
still a good walker. I'm in good health, and as long as I remain that way, I'll keep trapping.

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