William Jay emigrated to Canada from England. In 1923, when he was 20 years old, he and his friend Alex decided to go north to trap. After the first year they returned East, he and his friend were planning to return to the north to trap but, unfortunately, his friend Alex drowned and he did not go back.
William returned to Windsor and later, Hamilton where he kept a hobby farm while keeping up an office job. He was known for being able to properly skin mink etc., and did not only his own, but other mink ranchers in the vicinity as well. He won several trophies for Best in Breed at the Furriers show. He was also a Commissioner of the Boy Scouts. He had a wife and two daughters.
His story is as follows.
Some minor editing has been done for clarity.
While taking a quiet Sunday afternoon rest in my room located in Windsor, Ontario away from my printing chores in which I was engaged at the Border Cities Star, my friend and I became engrossed in a Sports Magazine. The outcome was that we decided to try our hand at trapping in the Northern Wilds.
Neither of us had ever set a trap in our lives, but the price of furs spurred us on. It was the month of August when the last Harvest Excursion ever to leave the East was in effect. We both secured Excursion fares which enabled us to travel from Windsor, Ontario to Regina, Saskatchewan for $20 each.
While in Regina, we planned our trip. We finally agreed on our course which was to take us clear up to Hudson’s Bay by boat and portage. We secured our gun and trapping licenses at the Regina Parliament Building and set forth to the end of the most northern railway line which was known as Big River, some 90 miles north of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
Here at Big River we built a boat, neither of us had ever tried building a boat before, however, a boat we built and believe it or not it was water-tight.
We had a grocer in Big River to quote for nine months worth of supplies for us and on thinking back, he did a good job. All told with our weight, we carried 1000 lbs in the boat which we rowed by hand oars to our destination.
Big River is a town situated on the Big River known also by its Cree name as Okelemow-Sipi. The river was dammed at the north end to form a lake (now known as Cowan Lake) to facilitate logging booms being towed to the sawmill in Big River. We travelled down this lake some 40 miles and we reached the end of the lake in three days, not bad rowing we thought! At the end of the lake, we came to what is known as the height of the land and a Government-controlled dam. This is where the Crooked River flows down from the other side of the dam and into the Beaver River.
For us to get to the end of Crooked River safely, the government officials allowed 24 hours of water to flow from the Big River into Crooked River and if one didn’t get through in one day one had to camp or portage boat and all contents down to Long Lac river (Beaver River) which we had to for two miles, in other words, the water ran out of Crooked River before we got to the end of it which empties into Long Lac River or Waterhen River as it is sometimes called (actually the same river).
Government Dam at the end of Cowan Lake. When the Dam is opened the water runs into Crooked River, allowing boats to reach the Beaver River further upstream.
Here at Waterhen River is a small village, with a mostly Cree Indian population. Here we came across a lone hermit who sold us eggs at two dollars a dozen and gave us lots of advice regarding - travelling, trapping etc
On our way up this river we noticed the trees in the forest area were burned and this caused us some dismay, however, the further we went the heavier the forest grew.
We took turns sleeping so that we would always be alert to any trouble which might occur. We caught fish and ate like kings. The fish we caught were several species, trout, bass, pickerel, and whitefish. We had blueberries for dessert which were delicious.
We continued on our journey and decided to camp at Ile-a-la-Crosse. Here we checked the country forest, water and entire surroundings for big game and wild fur animals. We saw all kinds of good signs and also confronted a few foxes and wolves. To us, this area showed very well and we were pleased while camping here until we rested. We heard lots of new sounds, wolves howling continually, foxes yapping and numerous birds squawking and singing, all in all a new real-world all its own.
It was here when I thought of what wonderful things God has given us, his treasure to behold. One has to go out and see and feel and hear all these wonderful things that God has given us. I shall always remember it. I even felt so close and safe, it made me think how fortunate I was.
After a good night’s rest, we continued up until we passed Ile-a-la-Crosse and came to our destination just a few miles from Hudson’s Bay. Here we stopped, chopped trees down and made a shack. We dug the dirt at the back of the shack and used it on pine boughs for our roof. We made wooden beds and set up our stove and when all was done, we were completely warm and comfortable.
This is a picture I took before our camp was built. I am having a cup of coffee after a long walk of deer hunting. I believe this was taken September 30th Note the thick brush, like going into a tunnel.
William A.A. Jay's trapping cabin.
William Jay with fish and partridges in front of his trapping cabin.
It was now at the end of September and the weather was starting to settle in. We cut wood every day for our fire and had plenty for emergencies in case of any unforeseen trouble. Our first real job was to catch lots of fish for baiting traps, which we did. We bought a fifty-foot fishnet from an Indian for fifty cents, which was worth ten times that much to us. While visiting this Indian he told us of his wife using a muzzleloader, ball and gunpowder. She used the same ball for three years (some shooting). They fed us bannock and good moose meat.
An Indian with his dog team on the Churchill River some 11 miles North.
I took the picture after giving him a meal. They travel about 70 miles a day.
We got started to catch fish and we certainly caught our share, some 200 whitefish. At this time of the year, schools by the thousands come up from deep water and one can just literally put your hand in the water and catch a whitefish average of five pounds. After cleaning and drying quite a few fish for our meals, we left the rest rot for bait.
Our bait now assured for the winter we set out for reconnoitring to see where the best places for our traps would be. We notched trees and observed both sides of the river for our traplines etc. We also marked the deepest spot for freshwater before the freeze-up.
Now it is getting to November and snow is starting to fall which made everything a different picture altogether. We picked a full pail of blueberries and boiled them down for dessert which I can truthfully say were delicious around Christmas time. During our leisure time, we made everything as comfortable as possible in the shack.
It was now time to get ourselves a deer, or caribou for meat. We were sitting on a log one evening when lo and behold, a caribou broke through the thin ice and swam right up in front of us. We had got our first real thrill and of course, the caribou was soon killed, skinned and cut up for our consumption. This being the first animal we killed and slaughtered gave us a real lesson on butchering. We salvaged some 150 pounds of meat which we consumed over the winter months and was good eating believe me. At one time we had the choice of caribou, partridge, or rabbit, all in one dish. We would alternate our meat to prevent scurvy which can be serious if severe.
December is now in and with the temperature at zero, we decided to lay out our traplines. This covered some ten miles in a circle route. Our first catch was a red fox with which we were more than delighted. You know the old saying, it takes a fox to catch a fox is true, believe me. I heard of a novel way to trap a fox from an old prospector and it was this. Make a mound of snow and hill it up about two feet, pour fish oil around it and place a tin on the top of this hill. When the moon shines on it is reflected and any animal especially a fox, gets curious at the shiny object and begins to smell and paw their way up the mound to the tin. Of course, traps are placed around the mound and bingo the fox gets trapped. This method proved very successful and we were well rewarded with pelts.
We trapped 25 foxes and over one hundred weasels on our winter's catch. Fur pelts in those days realized $25 to $40 each. We caught one crossfox which is partially red and black valued at $75. I saw my first silver fox up here which was trapped by an Indian trapper. The value at that time was $700 to $1000. You know a silver fox is a rare animal and usually the weakest pup in a litter, and it is cared for by the parents until almost full-grown (this being the reason that they are so hard to trap).
December and Xmas now drawing near, We decided to have a real Xmas dinner, yes we had roast partridge and boiled blueberry Roly Poly and enjoyed it. A short spell after we had a visit from an R.C.M.P. officer who had seen the smoke from our shack. He had a sled and a dog team. We visited and hosted him for two days, which is the law in this territory. He was a tough individual and stated he made the trip from Big River to Ile-a-la-Crosse to check the area twice during the winter months. Believe me a real man’s job.
The weather was dry and about this time we had some two feet of snow. The temperature hovered about -35 degrees. We learned quite a bit from this policeman and we traded meat for smokes. His dogs were huskies and
all they ate was frozen fish. It amazed me how they lay in the snow and yet kept warm. After licenses etc. were checked he departed on his way up the frozen river to other trappers' shacks etc.
While walking through the bush one day we came upon a small lake about a mile across. The water was frozen solid but at the edge of the lake, I saw a shiny object. I walked over to it and lo and behold there was a five-pound tin of strawberry jam. I dug it out of the sand and when we got home we opened it and it was good. The date on the tin was 1900. The sand had preserved it all this time, truly amazing! Neither of us was a church-goer and I can say we did take time out now and again to thank God for his great goodness.
On our travels, through the bush, we came upon a moose and he quickly got up and ran. His track averaged 10 feet a stride and went through some of the thickest crisscrossed thickets one ever saw, remarkable to say the least.
The long winter months seemed like a century and we passed the time away by playing cards, reading and skinning foxes and weasels. All in all, for two strange men we did a wonderful job of our operation.
The time came to finally pack up and start for home. We left most of our traps and belongings in the shack and decided to walk back to Big River. We walked down the river and picked our way back some 400 miles, sleeping in turns under big fir trees. As we went, we drank snow water and ate porridge mixed with partridge meat. This dish when fried is very substantial and the taste is not too bad. Salt took the taste out of the snow which is like soft water to drink.
It took us some 32 days to navigate this long walk. Not bad when you consider our packs and the treacherous icy walk in which we had to confront on reaching Big River. We sold our furs and realized some $1000.00
for our winter's catch. I might say we slept in a decent bed for almost 48 hours until finally rested up. It was a tough experience, but looking back I think it was well worth it. We had planned to go back the following year but it never materialized. My friend had passed away suddenly in the meantime.
In closing, I would like to say that scouting helped me an awful lot and I thank God for his great goodness and mercy to us during our sojourn in the north, I also realize what a great country we have in Canada and how proud we should be of it. It also proved that one could survive in the forest if you do not panic. Also, scouting offers all boys the outdoor experience which could be a lifesaver if anyone should get lost in the northern bush country. I would suggest boys learn to swim, know how to handle a canoe or boat, how to light a fire under damp conditions and Know what to eat such as rabbits, partridges etc.
This is not only educational but is essential if any boy is fond of travelling in the north country for adventure. All this is offered to young Scouts and can be had for the asking.