A Bush Wife’s Life for Me
Women in the wilds get treated like duchesses by the grizzled guys of the mining camps, but there's no movie on the corner
LAST SPRING I completed my third year as a “wilderness woman” in the northwestern Ontario mining district of Red Lake. My city friends still shake their heads, claim I am crazy; but they tell me they wish they, too, could throw off the pressure of life in Canada’s larger centres and head into my country where I catch trout in my back yard, spin around the lake in a small motor boat, or tramp through the woods, my two-year-old son in a packsack on my back.
I have, all the year round, what most people save and plan for in an annual two-week vacation.
I keep telling these city friends, with a good deal of impatience lately, there are hundreds of square miles awaiting a bit of youthful pioneering spirit, so hop the next plane in and pitch your tent next to ours. We have no housing shortage. There aren’t even any houses, until you build your own out of the giant fir and spruce at the token price of 25 cents a cord.
Plumbing and wiring present no problem. Buy a couple of pails and dip your water out of the lake; two or three gas or coal-oil lamps serve colorfully and adequately for lighting.
Furniture you make from rough lumber or small saplings if you aren’t flush enough to order from the catalogue. If you really want to rough it fir boughs make a fine bed when topped by a sleeping bag. A bed roll is doubly practical—warm enough for even the 50 below weather and priceless in that you have no bed to make.
When I joined my prospector husband, Dusty, in the north, I was 27 and not particularly enthused about outdoor toilets and scrubbing clothes on a board. I had the worst possible background for such a life.
City-bom, used to a newspaperwoman’s life, admittedly gregarious, I frankly didn’t think I could stand more than about three weeks among the fauna and flora. But here I am, more than three years later, living miles from our nearest neighbor, seeing no one but my husband and son, Mike, for months on end—and loving every minute of it.
Good-by, My Lovely Blouse
WE HAVE never regretted selling our home, disposing of carefully accumulated furniture at a definite sacrifice, to take up a new life with only a few hundred dollars in the bank. I have come to agree with the seasoned bushman who says possessions only serve to clutter up an originally simple life and happiness can be achieved with no more material assets than what you can put in a packsack The summer before I came north to live, I took a holiday from my Toronto job to look over the country—and my husband in his role as prospector. I flew in from Winnipeg, over the 300-square mile area of the Red Lake mining district, which is almost entirely bush and water.
An eastern fashion consultant had told me that my grey slacks, chartreuse blouse and red waistcoat which matched my sandals were “the vex y last thing, my dear!” But Dusty took one look at me and said, “Where did you ever get an outfit like that? You look like a pint of bloodshot cream.”
He marched me into the Hudson’s Bay Company post to stock up on tweed trousers, wool shirts and high boots. The day I finally gave my colorful ensemble to an Indian woman marked my acceptance into the bush league of wilderness women. But I soon discarded the high boots for sturdy brogues.
I found I was like the old prospector up here who was asked how long he had been in this country. “Nigh on to 16 years I guess,” he answered.
“Been prospecting all that time?”
“Heck no. Spent at least eight years lacing and unlacing these dag-blamed boots.”
The major part of my holiday was spent in learning to run the outboard motor, read a map to guide me the 28 miles to Red Lake town, and handle a compass. The latter feat I haven’t yet managed. I
am waiting for some bright soul to invent a compass which I can set for “home” and follow the arrow as I would highway road signs.
Apparently I passed my northern initiation to my husband’s satisfaction, but I was exiled to Toronto until the camp at Pipestone Narrows was made ready for a woman.
In less than a year I once again landed in Red Lake, this time as a tenderfoot bush wife.
We made the trip to camp in about four hours. Cramped and tired though I was from sitting curled up in the bow of the canoe for so long, I felt I was coming home.
I hardly recognized the camp. To replace the one tent, Dusty had built a 16 by 32 foot bunk-
house-cookery, which he had erected on the same principle on which he hangs a shelf—crooked. The whole structure staggered drunkenly down toward the lake. There was a small screened-in house where meat was put in summer with the optimistic notion it would keep fresh there.
About a city block from the cabin was Dusty’s and my headquarters and my private “bathroom.” We had a tent, 10 by 12, mounted on four-foot lumber walls, partitioned across the centre to make an office in front, a bed-sitting-room at the back. It was rough and crude, but the clothes closet and built-in washstand with its oilcloth of trailing purple morning-glories, were testimony of a tough sourdough husband making concession to a woman in camp. Dusty’s crew that year was composed of university students, who took great pains to decorate our home in honor of my arrival. A colored poster thumbtacked to the door caricatured my arrival and white twisted streamers (which proved to be toilet tissue) festooned the office. On the drafting table was a clutter of whisky bottles and lipstick-smeared glasses, which the boys later admitted they had painstakingly faked with red crayon.
They were wonderful young men on that crew and I came to respect and love them as I would a family of kid brothers. They provided a good lesson in tolerance too, as does practically every phase of life in this country. In three years I have yet. to hear a northerner (and nearly all the “northerners” came originally from some other part of Canada) speak disparagingly of another race or religion. Up here, your race, linage, financial position or social accomplishments don’t matter.
There was a bond between us, a sort of brotherhood which exists among all when there are few people in a great undeveloped country. Greg Novak, from Winnipeg, was the oldest on the crew, and his views as a Ukrainian Catholic were enlightening to the rest of us. Danny Wolch, our baby, was from Winnipeg too, a Jewish lad who had such admiration for our Scottish Jimmy Robertson, that he wore a tamo-shanter and called himself MacWolch.
I had two main projects that first summer, my garden and my Tin Can Alley. Jimmy had made me a foot scraper at the door of the tent, tin cans pounded into the ground. I mistook it for the beginning of a walk up to the cookery and started to save cans for it. I am afraid our meals were built around how many cans 1 could use, rather than a well-balanced diet.
Jimmy entered into the spirit of the thing until he calculated it would take 3,947 cans to finish the walk.
Rocks on the Cookery
We had practically no fresh vegetables, so I worked for two weeks digging out rocks and tree stumps to get clear a patch of broken earth, nine by six. Bribing Danny and Jimmy with cigarettes, they planted it for me. Apparently they had never planted anything but beans and potatoes, so when my beets, carrots, radishes and lettuce came up they sprouted from neat little hills. Even with thinning and carrying gallons of water from the lake, my season’s yield was a handful of tasteless carrots.
More successful than my alley and garden was my mastery of the giant wood stove. When I got it licked 1 was elected camp cook which, in view of the heat and the hefty appetites of the lads, was more than a man-size job. 1 had to learn the difference between slow-burning birch and roaring tamarack.
With my first cake I debunked the theory that sudden noises, such as the slamming of a door, will make a cake fall. My super-de-luxe chocolate cake was in the oven when an ear-shattering dynamite blast crashed the silence of the cookery and rocks pelted through the cabin roof. Landing on the stove and perilously near my unprotected self. The boys had neglected to tell me that their shout of “FIRE!” was my signal to head for cover. I wasn’t hit—and the cake didn’t fall.
I started to bake my own bread, something I had always wanted to try
in the city. My breadmaking was an unspectacular success, but most bush women have an experience or two to add in this field. Eileen Bergmann, from Edmonton, who lives now at the Boymar Mine near Red Lake, followed the instructions to “keep dough away from draughts” so implicitly that she locked herself in the kitchen for hours with doors and windows closed, not ! even allowing her husband Jack to ! come in for lunch. He ate that day at the cookery, but was rewarded by coffee roll, bread, pecan buns, cinnamon rolls and Chelsea buns.
Half the fun of life in the bush is learning to improvise. Our perishables | we kept refrigerator cool in a garbage | tin sunk in the ground; our bread ] stayed free of mildew, hung in sacks | in the trees. We never did figure out j how to keep the squirrels and chipmunks out of it though.
Dusty’s sister, Ruby, visited us from Toronto and much as I enjoyed her gay company I liked even better having someone help me handle the men.
I never knew anything could be worse than a man shortage, but with too many men a lone woman has more than her hands full with their teasing and practical joking.
Our nearest neighbor, Wilma Drawson, was about 15 minutes by boat from our camp, and to me she is the epitome of bush women.
Time Is Only a Clock
Wilma, who is from Lac du Bonnet, Man., is so at home in the north, she might have grown there. She shoots and fishes like a man; tans her own wolf hides for rugs; harvests wild rice for the stuffing of the duck she brings down herself; pulls the rope on a hefty 14horsepower motor like an Amazon. And she can pull rods on her husband’s diamond drill outfit with the best of the men. Even covered with grease and | tired from a day’s drilling with Johnny, | she manages to look blondly attractive her fairness if anything, enhanced by smudges of gasket goo.
There is the odd woman up here who doesn’t like the bush, and unfortunately her moaning about the lack of decent shops, social contacts and household conveniences is heard mostly by the men who already think the bush is no place for a woman, which makes it all the harder for women who do want to join their men.
When my first bush summer faded and the crew returned to their universities, we moved from the tent to the cabin. I was then able to get rid of Greg Novak’s garden which had been the bane of my life. I had tried to keep the boys’ cabin tidy, but Greg had insisted I leave the weeds which grew through the floor boards around his bed. By September, he said he felt like Moses in the bulrushes.
But even with chinking, the log cabin was so cold that winter I did my housework in outdoor clothing and right after supper would crawl with a hot-water bottle into Dusty’s eiderdown sleeping bag which 1 had appropriated the first chilly day.
Freezeup, that period when we are cut off from town while lakes freeze for j winter travel by ski-ed plane or snowmobile, was lonely. We saw no one for j nearly two months, but we read as we j had always wanted to read, listened to the radio, and I was bitten by the soap opera bug.
Our mail delivery was most erratic— sometimes seven or eight weeks without word from outside—but three bulging mailbags, all for us, made the waiting more than worth while.
Our radio battery went dead during j one of these long periods of isolation; then one evening we forgot to wind ou clock. For weeks we literally ‘‘didn’t know what time it was.” Eventually we even lost track of the days.
When the ice started to go out of the lake and Dusty put out our small skiff I longed for a bottle of champagne to break over the bow. The first water trip in seven months was a simple occasion, but to us an exciting one. Dusty brought me home greens for a salad; for a head of lettuce, a wilted bunch of celery, two bunches of green onions and a pound of poor tomatoes he paid $1.69.
I had had a year of bush life when Dusty decided 1 should go to my parents’ home in Edmonton for the birth of our first child. Two days before 1 was to fly out, 1 was rushed over to the Red Cross post hospital at Red Lake for emergency surgery.
My doctor and his wife, Bruce and Helen Moir, from Winnipeg, stood beside my bed before I went into the operating room. They knew I couldn’t travel home if 1 was to save my baby, and they knew 1 couldn’t go back to camp. They asked me to make my home with them.
Northern friendship to me that summer was Bruce and Helen caring for me for five long months, until, on October 9, 1947, on his father’s birthday, our son, Michael Bruce, was born.
While I had been living in town with the Moirs, Dusty left Pipestone and joined the staff' at Miles, about five miles farther into the bush. He secured a handkerchief-size house for us, one room, 13 by 17, and when Mike was j four weeks old, we went back to the bush on the last boat to make it that year. Freezeup and isolation were upon us again.
Phil Cross, a mining engineer and his wife June from Brampton, Ont., were our next-door neighbors, with two other couples living down the road. It was my first experience with other women in a mining camp and 1 loved it. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed feminine companionship in my months at Pipestone. We four women, because we were alone and needed each other as we never seemed to need friendship in a city, were a closely knit unit.
Electric Lights Aren’t Enough
It was a challenge to make a home in our one-room house, but by dint of Dusty’s carpentering (which had improved considerably since the crooked house) and my work at painting and curtaining, we soon had an attractive little place. Storing was our main problem; atone time 1 managed to put away under beds and tables, besides other household staples: 100 lb. flour;
50 of sugar; 30 doz. eggs; 500 tins fruit and vegetables; 40 lb. butter; 50 lb. dry milk.
By spring, with the low price of gold and a poor stock market, the mine closed down. Only Dusty and Phil were left when a bad bush fire started at the mine, a mile from our houses.
For two days and nights the boys fought it alone until our bay was free of ice and the most beautiful sight in the world, a yellow forestry plane, landed to take over. We had our few possessions ready to take to the boats, so it was with prayerful relief we were told the fire was out and we unpacked our du file bags and settled down for summer.
Before summer was on us with its black flies, heat and round of camp visitors, Mike and 1 made our first trip outside together. I wasn’t as far as Kenora when 1 wanted to turn back.
Everyone was in such a rude rush and I found it wasn’t long before 1, too, was shoving and pushing as in my city days. There is never any doubt in the bush about women and children going
first and I longed for the manners of the northern men. Many of them may speak with a foreign accent, be badly in need of a shave, and not know the significant social difference between a white and a black tie, but they do treat women with a deference that makes them feel like duchesses.
Getting back into the swing of city life 1 found it hard to wear high heels again, and 1 was in a mental snit remembering to keep my legs decorously crossed now that skirts had replaced my accustomed slacks and shorts.
My family and friends in Edmonton were amused at my obvious thrill at water running hot and cold from shiny chrome faucets; at lights that responded to the flick of a switch. I enjoyed the marvels of modern plumbing. But after seven weeks of the city, I was more than happy to come home.
By the time I returned to Miles in July, June and Phil had left and we moved into their four-room house. I was as pleased as though I had been handed a mansion. One wilderness woman who doesn’t like the bush recently moved from two rooms to four. But instead of being grateful she disdainfully commented: “What difference does it make? One bush shack is just the same as another.” But my simple soul reveled in the closets and shelves, and in having a room for our son.
Mike’s Pets: Husky and Weasel
Dusty spent part of the summer guiding American tourists who have stolen a march on Canadians in discovering what a fertile fish and hunt ground we have in northwestern Ontario, and I helped out a tourist camp owner by turning cook for a few weeks.
By the time the tourist season closed the middle of November, freezeup had started —the signal for us to get at our Christmas shopping. In the North it isn’t a last-minute rush in jostling crowds; rather it is a few quiet evenings under the gaslight, poring over the catalogue, changing your mind a dozen times before you make your final selections, then waiting until a plane brings in your purchases for final approval, gift wrapping, and shipping to family and friends outside.
Our boy, in his two years in the bush
has grown tall and strong. He hasn’t seen another child, but doesn’t make at all strange with the odd trapper or prospector who drops in to see us. He is as much at home playing with his big black husky as most city children with a wooly toy. And our pet weasel who lives in the back porch brings as wide a grin to his gamin face as any Mickey Mouse.
He has spent two Christmases in the bush, each time going out with his father and me to pick out the tree we would chop down for decorating in festive fashion, and bringing in Ins own small way more cheer to our Christmas than the round of parties ever did in our city days.
There are many things I would improve in the bush, things that could be accomplished if we had more women up here. Wives could put the place on the map. We could bring the price of food down and we could exert influence on mining companies to provide proper housing for their married employees. Already many of us are buying groceries in Winnipeg (even paying freight in, we find it cheaper) and the local merchants are feeling the pinch. If w'e stick together, the stores in town will have to bring their prices down.
Mine managers complain bitterly at their turn-over in staff and crew. Single men in the North are mostly adventurers, moving from job to job as the spirit dictates; and the married man will not stay either unless he is provided with a home for his family.
We need a more adequate dental service, for the one dentist for the entire district, while a fine workman, simply can’t handle the large practice.
I would have a library in town where we could pool the books we all buy from book clubs. When we can’t use our own boats we have to rely on independent flying companies; if we all got together the companies would be forced to give us the service.
What this bush country needs is more women. A bit of pioneering is the most satisfactory experience a young couple can share. So, take it from this bush wife, there is plenty of pioneering just waiting for Canadians with enough imagination and stamina to give it a try. We who are here already will be more than happy to move over.