Before Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska (1959),” there was Alex Karras’s North to Cree Lake. It was just that Karras hadn’t quite gotten around to writing it down yet. Young and broke in the early 1930’s, Karras left home–the relatively civilized plains of Saskatchewan–and spent seven years with his brother, Ab, living the life of an old-time trapper in the northern wilds of his native province.
After his primitive “grand tour,” Karras, got himself educated and certified and built a successful career as a municipal administrator, but the urge to tell stories of his younger yesteryears couldn’t be denied, and he finally sat down in the 1960’s and got to work on a memoir. He and his wife, Effie, worked as a team to produce a manuscript that proved very difficult to sell. It’s easy to see why publishers had trouble committing themselves to the expense of putting Karras’s work between covers. My Canadian son-in-law (A Prince Albert, SK, native and a bit of a trapper himself), who lent me the book, warned me it wasn’t well written, and he was right. It’s full of vague and rambling sentences, and Karras has such a penchant for the passive voice that a reader sometimes has trouble figuring who is doing what and to whom. As witness the clause, “the moose was shot” when there are two men present, both wielding rifles. However, it’s also easy to see why Simon and Schuster was finally willing to take a chance on it. And with sales of well over twenty thousand copies, it’s turned out to be a profitable move for author and publisher alike.
Here’s a memoir by someone who’s actually done something most of us (guys, anyhow) would love to have done, or at least to think ourselves capable of. For myself, I’ve come no closer to this kind of live-off-the land life than some boyhood duck and pheasant hunting, some recreational fishing, and periodic car camping. But I always thought I should have or could have done.
Part way through, a bit frustrated with the awkward prose, I began to fantasize that if Jack London had taken hasty notes and observations of experiences later to be turned into fiction, they might read like this, and I was able to immerse myself in the stories. Whatever mental jiu-jitsu you have to practice to accomplish the trick, do it. It will pay off.
You’ll be rewarded, for example, with lessons on everything from how to track a moose or a bear or a fox to how to set a skein net. The author’s picture above shows him with a mess of what many of us call Jackfish (though he never does), or northern pike, which in my experience is a mean, scissor-toothed fish you don’t want in your boat. And it’s not much good for eating, either. Oily and bony. Karras kind of liked them though, and (who knows why) preferred them to Lake Trout. Nevertheless, he and his brother and the Natives thought of most fish as dog food and ate it only when they ran out of red meat or felt they needed a change of diet.
You’ll get instruction on how to set a bear trap and how it feels (not good) once you’ve captured your prey. You’ll learn what it’s like to go mad inside the four walls of a sixteen foot square near-snowbound cabin. In that particular sequence, BTW, Karras reveals a talent for building dramatic tension and suspense that he would have done well to employ more often.
You’ll learn how precarious a living it is to depend on the whims caprices of wild creatures who may not venture anywhere near your traps and snares or who may not have any truck with them if they do. You’ll learn the ups and down–sometimes the difference between plenty and starvation–in the fur markets, fluctuations which can build dreams of riches while during the winter you’re trapping what you think will bring a high price, and nightmares of despair when you find out you’re selling at a much lower price in the spring.
You’ll learn how you can make do with little or nothing because whatever you don’t have is a good fifty or sixty hard miles away by foot, and it probably costs more than you have at hand anyway, and they don’t take Visa.
Finally, from my pov, you will learn how little human and even animal activity the northern terrain can support. We tend to think of the unexplored wilderness as a land of plenty, with fish ready to jump on the hook and wildlife ready to impale itself on a campfire spit. In reality, the land supported but a small population of nomads for many centuries. Karras shows how a couple of men could fish out a small lake in a matter of weeks. A few dozen men could decimate a population of beaver or fox over many square miles in a few years. I thought of how the beaver in the States had been nearly erased in the mid nineteenth century, and it occurred to me how few in numbers mountain men really must have been, legendary though they are. Yet, this small band managed to harvest unto endangerment a whole mammalian species over tens of thousands of square miles in the course of three or four decades.
And it’s not only animal life that is vulnerable. Most burned (primarily by lightning-set blazes in the period of the book) or cut timber in this soil-poor region is replenished only over periods you could reckon in human lifetimes. Karras reinforces his account of these conditions in Cree Lake proper when he adds observations of his return to the area by automobile thirty or more years after his youthful adventures. He notes the devastation roads and other elements of the game and timber fishing industries have brought both to the land and to the Native populations. It’s a story repeated world wide, of course, but made more poignant by the fact that the writer is not just an academic dilettante, but one who has cut and bent the frames for his own snowshoes, strung them with the sinews of an animal he has shot, and used them to tramp the woods and eke out his own survival.
It’s not hard to guess what Karras would think of the current strip mining operations to extract oil from the northern sands. I don’t know if any of that mining is going on right where he was, but it must be land very like it. But enough gloom.
Cree Lake is at its heart an optimistic, energetic, and–most of all–authentic account of what it’s like for young and fit guys to succeed in wresting a living in physically and psychologically challenging conditions most of us only dream of taking on. And their efforts had some lasting success. Even though they spent only seven years in the area, the brothers leave behind a river and a lake named after them. The drama of their experience lies waiting for the skillful and adventurous reader to discover just behind the mediocre prose, just as the impression of a caribou hoof lies waiting for the skillful and adventurous tracker to discover in the dry grass. Happy hunting.