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Skagit River Journal

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Odyssey of a fur trader
in northern British Columbia
As told to Ray Jordan by Otto K. Pressentin

Otto Presssentin, British Columbia, 1911

      "You come with me to the inland countree, we trap a leetle, we trade s leetle, we make mooch monee, by Gar" the big French-Canadian axrnan had coaxed as we neared the end of a timber-cruising job on the coast of British Columbia during 1909.
      I didn't go then, but the "bug" planted by this son of the forest eventually developed into a series of exciting adventures, mixed with hardship and profit, that were to lost for eleven years during which I traveled by shank's mare, horse, canoe, dog team, and boat.
      All that winter at my home at Birdsview, on the Skagit River in Western Washington, the "bug" gnawed. At last I interested a chum and early September 1910 found us headed for Vancouver, British Columbia on the first leg of a reconnaissance trip though the fur country.

The late Fred Slipper gave us this unpublished manuscript by Ray Jordan several years ago. Part of it was published on an unknown date in the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times. This continues our series about the days in the early 20th century when Otto walked back and forth to Alaska from Washington twice, living off the land the whole way.

      Arriving at Vancouver we went down to the docks and found the steamer for Bella Coola (about 375 miles northwest of Vancouver), the place we wanted to go, just pulling out of sight. Disconcerted by the thought of welting three days for another steamer we wandered along the waterfront and engaged in conversation with a man calking a boat, who mentioned that if he ever got it to turn water he was heading for Bella Coola. We pricked up our ears. Would he take us? He would, and glad for the company.
      This boat was a good one, thirty-eight feet long, rated for. a ten-ton cargo, but equipped with sails only for motive power unless you wanted to make use of the big oars. Gaily we set off up Georgia Strait sailing by day and camping by night, digging clams, fishing and having a rare time as the picturesque scenery unfolded before us.
      Our adventures began one night when it was time to anchor. We let down the hook but could find no bottom. The skipper consulted his chart and said that the depth was 3,000 feet. On both sides of the channel the cliffs towered, dropping abruptly into the water. It looked bad, but we finally spotted a tree on the cliff which I reached with some difficulty by climbing an oar set on end on the deck and tied up for the night.
      We were becalrned three days once, and one day another time before reaching Bella Coola situated at the head of Burke Channel, a long blue arm of the sea reaching easterly into the interior, on September 23, and ten days out of Vancouver.

Bella Coola to Fort Fraser
      Bella Coola was populated by a colony of Norwegians straight from the Old Country, settled here in the virgin forest by the Canadian Government about ten years previous, we were told. Every building in the settlement was constructed of logs hewed and notched by expert axmen. Truly a beautiful picture. And let no one say that those Norwegians were not hospitable. You couldn't pass a house without being invited in to eat and drink.
      We bought supplies here for the trip ahead and tried to purchase a horse, but no dice, so we made arrangements with a pack train to transport two hundred pounds of supplies on to Ootsa Lake, 250 miles back by Indian trail, to save on heavy back packing.
      Shouldering our light packs we headed out of Bella Coola, up the Bells Coola River for about twenty miles into the unknown, turned north to cross the Coast Range to Eutsuk Lake, then northwest to Ootsa Lake where our supplies were, living off the country as much as we could with the aid of our fishing tackle and a 32-20 Colt revolver.
      In the vicinity of Ootsa and Cheslatta Lakes we became confused with the Indian trails and had to do some backtracking but finally got straightened out, found our supplies, hoisted our now heavy packs and struck out for Fort Fraser, about 135 miles by Indian trail, touching Francois Lake on the way.
      Three weeks and many sweats later, about Nov. 5, 1910, we stood at what might be called the junction of Fraser Lake, the Nechako River and the Fraser River, gazing at the timeworn, hundred year-old buildings of the Hudson's Bay post called Fort Fraser. [96 miles from Prince George and 570 miles from Vancouver, this is the site of the first cultivated land in the BC Interior at the site of the 1806 fort of Simon Fraser. A village formed there in 1914.
      We made camp in an unoccupied cabin which the post trader kindly permitted us to use. I set off for the river to catch trout for supper and upon my return found my partner with a badly cut foot, due to a mishap while rustling wood. I patched him up the best I could with our meager medical supplies, but the accident held us there for two weeks.
      While my partner recuperated, I busied myself taking notes on the fur trade, acquiring a few skins and searching for a canoe for the downstream trip. All the inland canoes were cottonwood dugouts of the shovel-nosed type since cottonwood was the only suitable timber here. Prices ranged from fifty to one hundred dollars, but luckily I found one at the Endako Indian village on Lake Fraser about twenty miles up the lake from Fort Fraser, which I purchased for fifteen dollars due to its faulty construction, but which I figured would be good enough to float us down the river.

Quesnel River
      On November 20, my partner was well enough to travel so we loaded our canoe and pointed the bow down the Fraser, studying the country and the Indians with a view to future operations, supplementing our supplies with fish and numerous "fool hens" with which the region abounded.
      Though practically born in a canoe on the Skagit River, I found my skill taxed to the utmost at times traversing strange waters, trying to decide which side of a split channel to take, or estimating the temper of white water. Sometimes we even stopped and reconnoitered on foot the dangerous looking passages ahead.
      But we passed down the river without serious mishap, visiting at Fort George and many other points until we reached Quesnel. Here, my partner who had become disenchanted with prospects of the fur trade, quit me and took a job with a placer mining outfit working the Quesnel River.
      Before leaving Quesnel an event took place which chained me to the fur trade. One evening, a French trapper, who thought I might be buying furs approached me. He had a fine specimen of cross fox and a beautiful silver fox skin that he wanted to sell for $100. I was nearly broke and told him so. "Why don't you sell them at the store?"
      "The storekeeper does not buy the fur. He offer to send them away for me, but that would take too long. Christmas she come soon and I want sure to have the monee by then." The furs were of the finest and I started using my head.
      I went to barroom where a party was playing poker and succeeded in selling my camping outfit and revolver at a loss, for $50, and borrowing back $20 that I had loaned a friend. I scraped up the $100, then started hunting for the Frenchman. He spotted me first, and before I could open my mouth said that he would take $65 for the furs. I peeled off the money quickly and clutched the skins.
      It was getting cold now and ice was forming in the river, time to leave. I found a miner who wanted to go outside and who was willing to shoot the river with me. On the morning of December 20, we dipped our paddles into the freezing water. The weather kept getting colder until stretches of the river were frozen over completely forcing us to scoot the canoe over the ice until we reached open water again. This embarking and disembarking with a tricky canoe called for fancy footwork and timing. The thermometer dropped to 26 below. The nights were tough.
      Above the rapids at the Soda Creek roadhouse (178 mile house) we were forced to pull our canoe from the ice-filled Fraser. We walked to Ashcroft, then the end of steel, and had our Christmas dinner in the Canadian Pacific Railway diner on the way to Vancouver.
      At Vancouver I cashed in my furs. The two foxes that I had purchased at Quesnel for 65 brought me $1,700. My expenses for the season had been about $500. The fur buying "bug" had complete control now.

1911: the beginning of ten years in BC
      In the early spring of 1911, I invaded the North again where I was to remain for the next ten years, but this time by way of the Caribou Trail [also spelled Cariboo, after the Cariboo Gold Rush on the upper Thompson River in the 1860s]. At Quesnel I purchased a snug log cabin which was my base of operations until 1914, when I sold out and moved to Fort George (now Prince George) to be closer to my fur buying beat.
      In the ensuing years I pitched my tent many times in the northeast Stikine River country, along the Skeena River and the western headwaters of the Fraser. My dog team and sled left numerous trails through the western drainage of the Peace River and as far north as the Liard River which empties into the Mackenzie.
      For three years I used a pack horse successfully. The snow was never very deep except in the high passes. Wild grass and peavine provided ample forage. The only maps available at this time had been drawn by a priest on his travels and were correct in every detail, that is, for areas which he had traversed; the rest depen
      One season I took 120 pictures, but the film was ruined by the summer heat before they could be brought out for developing. And every pound counted on these trips. My tent, which 1 made myself of Indian muslin weighed only four pounds. Dehydrated potatoes put up in cans for the trade, and bacon with fish or game picked up along the trail was the principal diet. I carried only the lightest trade items that would get me furs. These journeys were made in the dead of winter, and alone, for reasons to be stated later.

Respecting the Indians
      The inland Indians were interesting people. As a rule, I found them to be tall, intelligent and still proud, though tractable enough when receiving fair treatment. Any reasonable request or hospitality was freely granted, if they liked you. And they knew trading prices too. You had to hew to the line, or you got no furs. They lived off the country and. were experts in their way of life, and this was their criterion in judging the white man. that came among them. They hated braggers and windbags.
      After trying to operate one season with a partner, I gave up. It was too difficult to find a man who would respect the Indian's dignity, or approach him as an equal, so I lone-wolfed it as long as I was in the North and had no difficulties with them at any time, merely by treating them as I would want to be treated myself. The Indian was no fool by any means.
      The Tahltans, with their headquarters village about 200 miles up the Sikine River and twenty miles from Telegraph Creek, were the most advanced of ariy of the tribes I met. Their language, I noted in particular, had all the verb tenses, Something I had not encountered in any other tribal tongue. They also had a small species of fierce fighting dog used for hunting found nowhere else. These people appeared to be related to the Tsimshians at the mouth of the Stikine.
      In contrast, the tribe at the headwaters of the Liard River, known locally as the "Dease Lake Indians" lived much deeper in the Stone Age. These people did not believe in interfering with any natural occurrence. If a man were drowning, and you gave help, the spirits would be angry; if he saved himself, everything was fine.
      If a hunter was roasting a hunk of meat before the fire, and another hunter noticed that it was burning and told him so, he would have to let it burn end then start with a fresh piece, or the gods would take offense. Also, for the same reasons, the carcasses of the otter, lynx, and coyote, which were considered sacred, had to be arranged in a sleeping position when they were disposed of after skinning.
      Once, while at their village, I noticed some undue commotion. Discreet investigation revealed that they were preparing to burn two of their number who had been convicted of witchcraft. A. hunting party of Tahltans in the vicinity, some of them armed with muskets, interfered and took the would-be victims home with them.
      A Metlakahtla Indian from the Prince Rupert area once told me that while still a boy, in the long ago, he had helped his father eat part of a white man. This was not done as a result of a meat shortage, but that by so doing they might acquire some of the superior powers of the white brother. "Just like pork," he said. [Metlakatla was a village of an Indian band not associated with the Tsimshian nation's 14 constituent tribes. Metlakatla is a Tsimshian word for "saltwater pass" and traditionally the site was the collective winter village of the "Nine Tribes" of the lower Skeena River.]
      Indian languages of the interior differed considerably. Enough English was understood however, to conduct trading without great difficulty, and some of the chiefs spoke the Chinook Jargon. You might be surprised to know that the natives had a system of writing which perhaps was the one originated by a priest in the Kamloops area. To check how widespread this system was, I once had. a chief write my name on a piece of paper which I showed to another chief 150 miles away who read it with no difficulty.
      Here is one on the lighter side: While trading at an isolated village a young boy approached proudly with his first catch of furs. This rneant that he could trade for anything he wanted. He handed over $6 in furs for a "Hudson's Bay piano" (jew's-harp) which cost five cents wholesale, and to my surprise, immediately gave forth with an excellent rendition of "Marching Through Georgia." How did he learn it?
      At a different time and place an Indian chief who had three or four slender, handsome daughters, seemed very anxious to get possession of some butter that I had at the time. We made a deal for four pounds which whetted my curiosity. What did he want it for? The butter was melted, the maidens were stripped bare and smeared from head to heels. It seemed that the chief had slightly misinterpreted a good priest's sermon on anointing.

Trade negotiations
      Indians seldom had enough material possessions to barter for anything really expensive. During my first trips into the fur country the bow and arrow and muzzle-loading musket were widely used. The bow and arrow he could manufacture himself and use on birds and small animals. Every village had a target set up for practice. Muskets, though high in price by trade standards, were cheap to operate. A little powder and ball went a long way.
      Trade negotiations heard at a. certain post: a hunter wanted one of those new streamlined 30-30 rifles which could be bought in the States for $12. The post trader asked 50 dark marten skins worth $22.50 each, equivalent to $1,125 cash.
      Crude log cabins were the usual habitations though some tents were used, especially while traveling. Churches however, were well-built with whipsawed boards, but Indians made little use of this type of lumber otherwise.
      The skins from snared rabbits cut into strips and ingeniously woven together provided s1eeping robes which would last but one season a rabbit fur is not very durable. But robes made from marmot skins would last for years.
      Snares and deadfalls were widely used in taking fur because they were economical. Indians were successful in catching lynx, marten and muskrat in steel traps, though lynx were often caught in snares. For fisher, coyote and wolf, snares were mostly employed. The deadfall was used for mink, and the hear was taken with both deadfall and snare. Beaver were usually speared through holes in the ice near their houses, and after gaff hooks were introduced, both implements were used.
      At this early date interior Indians were still bemoaning the coming of the white man and making dire prophecies in regard to the Indian's way of life if the encroachment continued. Coast natives, or ones who had been exposed to the white man's education did not share this concern to such an extent.

Trading details; one beaver skin equals one dollar
      Here are a few of the standard trade items of the old North. The Hudson's Bay token, made of copper, and good at any Company post, was based on the standard: One beaver skin equals one dollar, in trade. A beaver skin was worth $5, or more, to the Company.
      Does the Indian lady want a bright red or green sweater? She can get one by handing over $35 in furs for a garment that cost the trader $2, wholesale. Or a large, bright-colored bandanna? $6.50 in fur, please. Cost to trader, 8 cents.
      A large, bright silk scarf? $15 in furs; cost, 83 cents. Three feet of bright ribbon, $5 in furs. The chief barters $6.50 in furs for his hunting knife; cost, $l.25. Harmonicas, each, $6.50 in furs; cost, 25 cents. One fish hook, any size, $5 each in furs; cost, one cent.
      Flour, rice, beans, coffee and sugar, were classed as commodities by the Hudson's Bay posts and sold at a flat price of $2.50 a pound cash, or tokens, or $12 in furs. Hudson's Bay blankets which could be bought for $1 a pound in Vancouver brought $2.50 a pound in cash or tokens at the posts, or $7.50 a pound in furs.
      Exorbitant prices and profit? The apparent profit shrinks drastically when you subtract the tremendous costs of freight and distribution in an unsettled region over great distances, and the risks were great, especially for a private trader traveling alone. In the first place, you had to be a good judge of furs and a master at woodcraft and handling dogs. You could drown or lose your outfit, while shooting the rapids in a canoe or crossing bad ice.
      If you froze your own or the dogs' feet you were through. Sickness or accidents could overtake you, or you could freeze to death on your feet if caught in a blizzard in which case your bones might be found in the spring. I copied the Indians in watching for signs of these "blows."
      When the squirrels were unusually busy gathering food and the grouse stuffing themselves you had about 24 hours to get ready. Pull into a thicket, make camp, and chop a huge pile of wood. Once I was holed up for three days in my little tent waiting out one of these howlers. The dogs bury themselves in the snow and let 'er blow.
      And then there was the competition of the Hudson's Bay Company. In areas where as yet there were no white settlers. The Company originally was granted exclusive trading rights in Canada, but later, as provincial lines were drawn, this monopoly was disputed. Nevertheless, they were firmly dug in, and experts at trading.
      It worked like this. If a private trader of modest means set up a competing post, trading openly, in a region where no white settlers had moved in to upset the status quo, the Company dropped the price of trade goods and raised the price of furs which often broke the competitor in a single season.
      For this reason I kept my own counsel and traveled alone, never showing myself at a Company post. Of necessity I had to make one trip in the dead of winter before the Indians turned in their furs at the Hudson's Bay posts to finance their customary Christmas big time. Later in the winter, before the trappers cashed in at the Company posts in the spring I would make a. second loop and load up again. By this strategy, I was successful. These trips consumed about four months of the year. I supplemented my income the rest of the year by carpenter jobs, as canoe man, and storekeeper.
      During 1912, as the Grand Trunk Railroad was building through the interior toward Prince Rupert on the coast, the country experienced a rush of settlers. On one occasion I assisted a young couple with a small baby 125 miles back over the trails to their homestead. The horse-drawn rig with which they were negotiating the rough trace pitched and bucked so violently that I became alarmed for the safety of the baby and voiced my fears. I wound up carrying the little shaver the whole distance in my arms.

Grand Trunk Railroad
      he summer of 1914, I made a good stake piloting barges and steamboats on the swift waters of the Fraser River east of Fort George for the Grand Trunk contractors as the line inched its way through that rugged country.
      One summer was spent staking out 10,000 acres of grassland for a cattle outfit for a fee of $5,000. The deal went through, but there was a change in government land policies meantime and the company decided that it would not be feasible to go through with the proposition, so I lost my fee.
      Canada's entry into the World War I in 1914 halted development of the interior. Construction on the Grand Trunk Railroad, due to the war and financial difficulties, came to a standstill. Hundreds of tons of equipment rusted away at Fort George before rails were laid again. Many settlers left the country. Business became so stagnated as the years wore on that there was nothing at which to occupy myself profitably during the summers, so I decided to leave.
      In 1921, I sold my house in Fort George, built a boat which I filled with furniture that I had been unable to sell, and headed down the Fraser and out of the country. At Soda Creek, a point where the railroad passed near the river, I planned to sell my boat and belongings. But 30 miles above Soda Creek a settler along the river hailed me and I pulled over. He bought the outfit, lock, stock and barrel. Next day he took me to Soda Creek in his rig and I was soon on my way by train to the States after an absence of ten years.
      From my- eighty-two years I look back longingly to that big free country of long ago, teeming with game, fur and adventure. I wish I were thirty-five again.
      [Ray Jordan note: One of Skagit County's best known pioneers, Otto Karl Von Pressentin, died on July 28, 1965, at the age of eighty-nine.

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Story posted on Feb. 1, 2008, updated on March 17, 2008
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