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Churchill River - The Lonely Season

Traditional bush life in Labrador

More on the Churchill River:
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Cold comfort:
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Low-level fright:
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Home Page:
The battered Innu culture strives to recover

The Lonely Season:
Traditional bush life in Labrador

Mega Water:
Churchill Falls generating station

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 the Englishman.

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 survival.

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.
November: Mending
December: Prime trapping time

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