Churchill River - The Lonely Season
Traditional bush life in Labrador
The Labrador bush is a difficult place in which to survive. Extracting a living
from this harsh and unforgiving land is a challenge few humans can endure physically
and psychologically. Trapping animals and selling their skins to warm the bodies
of wealthy Europeans was one way inhabitants of Labrador survived.
A unique community of fur trappers, descended from native Inuit and English
adventurers, dominated the lower Churchill River on the shores of the big salt-water
lake into which the river empties.
The Goudie family of North West River is the best-known of the group of people
who called themselves the ‘settlers.’ As an elderly woman, the late Elizabeth
Goudie, wrote the story of her family in the book, Woman of Labrador.
Her recounting of life in the Labrador bush was considered so important as a
historical record that she was awarded an honourary doctoral degree by Memorial
University of St. Johns, Newfoundland.
Elizabeth traced one of her ancestors to an Inuit orphan girl who ran away because
she was being blamed for her family’s death by other Inuit who believed an evil
spirit had overtaken her body. At the point where the Churchill River enters Lake
Melville, the orphan encountered an Englishman who was fishing for salmon. He brought
her to North West River to grow up with a neighbour’s family. Eventually she married
Elizabeth Goudie was born in 1902 and is the great-great-granddaughter of that
Inuit runaway and the English salmon fisher.
Elizabeth grew up as an only child on the barrens. In 1917 she worked for a
church missionary organization for four dollars a month. Soon after, she met
and married a trapper named Jim Goudie.
Because only the thick, cold-season fur of animals is valuable, trapping took
place in mid-winter, far from the family’s log cabin. This was the lonely season
for Elizabeth. She raised eight children in her trapper’s cabin.
On the trapline, trappers walked on snowshoes from one overnight shelter to
the next, taking the trapped animals and rebaiting their traps. They towed their
supplies and pelts behind them on a toboggan called a komatik. At the end of
the day, trappers built a fire to warm their shelter, called a ‘tilt,’ and to
cook their flat ’trapper’s bread’ and beans. The trapline catch was skinned and
the pelts stowed in a bag.
Back home in the family log cabins, wives like Elizabeth made clothing, chopped
firewood, and cared for their children. Fish and meat was the basic diet. An annual,
spring tonic made from sulphur and molasses was administered to the children to
kill stomach worms.
A welcome relief came with the yearly trip from the winter trapping base camp
to the family’s summer fishing house on the shore of the lake. Summer was the
social season — time for families to get together.
But the summer air along the Churchill River is thick with mosquitoes and black
flies that virtually terrorize people and animals. A smoke pot had to be kept
going all day. ‘You would not see grown dogs in summer,’ Elizabeth Goudie
recalled. ‘They would live under rocks or in holes in the ground to keep
alive.’ The areas over their eyes and around their ears and tails would be picked
to the bare flesh. ‘When I saw dogs like that, I wondered how I was going
to keep my children alive.’
The Goudie family lived at various times in North West River, Goose Bay and
Mud Lake. Life was lived according to the rhythm of what amounted to a ‘trapper’s
calendar.’ Each month meant different tasks to be accomplished as a matter of
January: Return from the trap lines
February: Month of rest
March: Hunting of rabbit and partridge
April: Trout fishing
May: Smelt fishing and hunting of ducks and geese
June: Crafting of new canoes
July: Salmon fishing on streams that run into Lake Melville
August: Cod fishing; berry-picking and jelly-making
September: Harvesting potatoes, storing firewood, and repairing traps
October: Setting out the lines of 200-300 traps.
December: Prime trapping time
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