’59 Trail, Part Five


The ’59 Trail.
The ’59 Trail,
Unknown artist
Newspapers.com, reproduced with permission

Part 5 of my uncle, John Alldridge’s 1959 report from Canada’s Far North for the Birmingham Mail – Jerry F

The Pas, Manitoba

The trick about getting round this vast, wide-open country in a hurry, I’ve learned, is to travel light.

When the only plane for a week takes off at crack of dawn and you’ve got a mad 40-mile cross-country ride to catch it, you daren’t be held up by a mountain of luggage.

So I’ve stripped myself down to essentials. I move in what I wear, plus a duffle bag, a small flight bag, my typewriter — and, of course, under my arm goes my faithful bottle of very special Hudson’s Bay Scotch. Which is the best ice-breaker I know.

Thus equipped, we hit the trail in ’59 …

I travelled south again from Churchill by train. An incredible train. It pulls out every night at seven o’clock and it appears in the timetable as the Hudson Bay Railway. But it’s better known as the Musteg Cannonball.

It is well-named. For 500 miles the track runs over musteg; a damnable sort of peat, reinforced with a wiry growth of wild cranberry.

Musteg is the worst natural obstacle the trail-blazers have struck so far in this formidable country. You cannot build on it because it is as shifty as sand, and after rain it crinkles like linoleum. But on it young pine forests grow like weeds. To get rid of it, to clear your way ahead, you’ve got to use dynamite and then send in a shock battalion of bulldozers.

We arrived in The Pas on the evening of Victoria Day, which is a national holiday in Canada. So the town was empty and I was able to stroll through deserted streets of charming white wood houses and elegant public buildings in American-colonial style.

It is a town as clean as a new pin. A little town, as towns go, with a population of under 4,000. Yet it has as lively a present and as colourful a past as any in Canada.

There has been a fur-trading post here since 1800. And it has always been a jumping-off point and supply base for every expedition going north and north-west into that wilderness of lake and pine.

It seemed quiet and respectable enough on this golden May evening. I saw a few Indians. But they were a depressing lot. They wore old cloth caps and magnificent beaded buckskin jackets over dirty dungarees. They slouched about, and looked for all the world like “extras” from a touring company of “Annie Get Your Gun” who had slipped out for a pint and had found the pubs closed.

But the time to see The Pas is in February, when the town holds its annual Trappers Festival. Then the place fills up with trappers and Indians and miners and prospectors and every man has money to burn after the long weeks of isolation.

Before the serious business of drinking begins there are competitions of all kinds — prizes for rat-skinning, bannock-baking, ice-fishing, square-dancing and plain-and-fancy jigging.

All this leads up to the great event of the year — The Pas’s Cup Final and Boat Race and Grand National all in one — the Dog Derby: with teams of half-wild huskies racing 200 miles across country driven by madly-yelling Indians and Eskimos.

It takes tough dogs and even tougher men to complete that gruelling course. But this country breeds tough men. They are as thick as blackberries in September.

Men like Tom Lamb, far instance…

Tom Lamb’s father came out from Huddersfield 70-odd years ago to give rough-and-ready schooling to the Indians on the Cree reservation here. So Tom was born on the reservation and speaks Cree and half a dozen other Indian tongues as well as he speaks English.

Today, he must be one of the richest men in Canada. His is the sort of rags-to-riches that would be impossible in Europe but is still commonplace up here in the North of Canada, where a man can kick over a stone in the wilderness and find a fortune lying underneath.

He began in a small way by leasing a few acres from the Government and raising muskrats for their skins. The muskrats thrived, the market boomed and Torn made money. From muskrats he turned to beaver, and from beaver to timber.

In the mid-thirties the country began to open up. There were rich “strikes” in the wilderness, but no quick way of getting in or out. Tom solved that by buying a plane and running an air taxi service.

Jerry F, Going Postal
Tom Lamb in 1935.
Tom Lamb in front of new Stinson,
Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Now he owns and operates a fleet of a dozen aircraft of all types. He has six strapping sons. All are pilots flying for Lamb Airways.

Now you would have thought that was enough for one man’s lifetime. But not for Tom Lamb. Over drinks in a Winnipeg bar he got talking to an Alberta cattleman. The rancher was boasting about the size of his herd. You can’t raise beef north of Winnipeg, he claimed.

Tom flew back to The Pas in a thoughtful mood. He looked down over country that had never seen a cow. The mood lasted a week. Then he sent South for some pedigree Aberdeen Angus and had them ferried up by barge to his farm on Moose Lake. Now he has a herd of 200. There is no better beef in all Canada.

In between he runs side-lines. He calls himself, among other things, a “removal man.” But no removal man I’ve heard of was ever like this. If you want a lumber camp – or for that matter, a small town — moving a hundred miles up country you ring up Tom. And Tom sends up a fleet of tractor-trailers, hooks up your town and moves it bodily, lock, stock and barrel.

With this money I suppose Tom Lamb could live anywhere in the world. He could — and frequently does — take over the most expensive suite in New York’s Waldorf Astoria. But his home and heart is here in The Pas. He lives where he was born: on the reservation. And so do his sons and daughters.

As Bob Macdonald, back in Winnipeg, would no doubt put it:

“Yes, sir! This is a Big Country. With some pretty Big Men in it”…

Reproduced with permission
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Jerry F 2023