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Courtesy: Winnipeg Film Group
The Romance of the Far Fur Country
reviewed by Jeff Dinsdale
With significant fanfare, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) premiered the movie, The Romance of the Far Fur Country in 1920. It had been three years in the planning, filming and editing. This movie was produced to showcase the Company’s fur trade “kingdom”, celebrating its accomplishments featuring life at far flung HBC trading posts as well as in large urban centres throughout all of Canada. It was a significant part of the Company’s 250th anniversary celebrations.
This movie review is about a remake or maybe more correctly a reconstruction or reconstitution of the original movie. This process has been extremely well-documented elsewhere1. My particular interest and focus is on studying just what this movie can teach us about the historic use of working sled dogs in Canada’s North.
The original The Romance of the Far Fur Country enjoyed modest and relatively brief popularity; then it languished for almost 80 years. The complete movie which ran for almost two hours had been “cut up” and made into a series of film shorts, so in its complete state the movie had actually disappeared. This was until the film footage, which had been stored in the National Film and Television Archives, British Film Institute, London, England, was transferred from the original very volatile nitrate film using a digitization process and then returned to the HBC Archives in Winnipeg. A Winnipeg-based company, Five Door Films, acquired access to all of the film footage and began the task of reconstituting the original film.
In 1919 the science and art of making epic movies was in its infancy. Although the term hadn’t yet been coined, this “movie documentary” was actually released two years before Nanook of the North, which is considered to be the harbinger of all great documentaries2. The pivotal person in this production was clearly the photographer (the term “videographer” did not exist) who was much more than just the person behind the camera. Harold Wyckoff was this person. In addition to filming, it would appear that he was also responsible for developing the story line and he was the creative director. Given the limitations of the available technology and the extremely difficult working conditions, Wyckoff’s contribution is excellent.
If there was a producer on the scene it was probably Captain Edmund Mack, HBC Superintendent of Transportation for Hudson’s Bay and Labrador and a former captain of the HBC vessel Nascopie. After Winnipeg, this role was filled by HBC Captain Thomas O’Kelly who also played the pivotal role of “the Factor” in the second half of the production. I have chosen to refer to these individuals collectively as the “filmmakers”. The film credits state that the movie was produced by E.W. Hammons, but this is confusing. It isn’t clear if this person was the producer in 1919 or in 2014. In reality the HBC was the majority owner of the film production company, Educational Films Corporation, and it was no doubt the responsibility of Captains Mack and O’Kelly to make sure that the Company’s interests and message were front and centre during its production. It should be remembered that this movie had no dialogue and the intertitles were in English. For this reconstitution, an original musical score and, for the sake of clarity, a series of route maps have been added.
If you are interested in the North, in northern history, in the fur trade or in the Hudson’s Bay Company, viewing this film footage is like discovering and opening a long forgotten photo album and seeing images that have been frozen in time, many sadly thought to have been lost, suddenly coming to life and moving across the screen in the present. The emotion associated with this experience is one of pinch-me-is-it-real awe. It is like having the best seat in the house viewing a way of life that was supposed to have passed into distant memory. The vast majority of images of sled dogs from this era are static photographs. Watching these dogs moving about, interacting with each other and with humans is especially exciting for anyone interested in the history and use of working sled dogs.
The documentary has some features of a travelogue. The main message however is the story of the accomplishments of the Hudson’s Bay Company as evident in each of five Northern Canadian communities; Kimmirut (now in Nunavut), Moose Factory in present day Ontario, Vancouver and Alert Bay in British Columbia and Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta. There is also passing mention of a few more locations with significant ties to the HBC and the fur trade. All but one of the featured communities showcase a significant HBC presence, and a real effort was made to show as many as possible of the dynamic aspects of the fur trade, the Company‘s operations and the interactions with First Nations people.
Map courtesy: Five Door Films
Kimmirut is located on southern Baffin Island’s Meta Incognita Peninsula, on the northern shore of Hudson Strait. To get to this location, the filmmakers travelled on the HBC’s annual arctic supply run aboard the venerable HBC vessel Nascopie. We see the ship leaving the dock in Montreal. There are a few shots of the passage up the eastern coast of Labrador. We get a flavour of travel in the pack ice and are introduced to the colourful mix of personalities on board, learning a bit about their reasons for being there.
All of the filming took place in 1919. The HBC had only established Kimmirut as a Hudson’s Bay Company trading Post in 1911. For much of its existence after 1911, this post was known as Lake Harbour, however in 1996 the settlement was officially named Kimmirut. For eons before the creation of that HBC post, the whole area had been known as Kimmirut (an Inuktitut word for a local geological feature).
It is significant that Kimmirut was established as a fur trade post. It was not established by the government and at the time of the filming there were no government services (police, school, medical clinic, administrative office). An itinerant missionary, the Reverend Dr. James Edmund Peck, does appear in the film, but Lake Harbour was indeed a “company town”. Inuit hunters and their families were urged to move to the area to trap the arctic white fox. The attraction (and it was a strong one) for Inuit hunters and their families was the presence of the many goods available from the trading post. It was only later that other services arrived; the RCMP for example came to Lake Harbour in 1927. Today Kimmirut has a population of just over 400 people. At the time of this filming it was much, much smaller and when the hunters were on the land, it was most likely only the traders who remained at Lake Harbour.
With the benefit of hindsight, this film clearly portrays the genesis of those factors that led to a major change in the way of life for all Inuit as they eventually moved into permanent settlements in the 1950’s and 60’s. There are many indicators in the movie of the dramatic transition that was about to take place for Inuit of this region and that is what makes this movie so special. In 1919, the vast majority of the Inuit population still lived a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, living in isolated camps. Prior to the presence of the HBC in this region, Inuit had become somewhat dependent on the goods that traders offered. During the 19th Century, Inuit hunters worked for and traded with whalers who hunted and often over wintered in this area, until the whale population of the Eastern Arctic was almost decimated. At this time resourceful Inuit hunters were making a livelihood by trapping and trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
It could be argued that this period saw an increase in the use of the working sled dog throughout the north. The fur trade was flourishing and trapping was an established way of life. Successful trappers needed dogs, and more than just a couple. As trap lines became longer, dog teams became larger. This was also pre-snowmobile and just the very beginning of the post WWI era of the bush plane and pilot. If anyone was going to move any distance of consequence in the winter they had to do it with sled dogs, especially if they had to transport a load of any kind. Also, with the presence of “store bought” food, the sled dogs and their masters were no longer competing exclusively for the same food source…which meant that there was more “dog food” for more dogs.
The arrival of the annual supply ship in any isolated northern community was a big deal, perhaps the grandest occasion of the year. Everyone in all of the outlying camps would plan their lives so that they would be at the main settlement for “ship time”. Kimmirut boasting a good harbour, the Nascopie had to drop anchor just a little way off shore, being very aware of the significant tides in this area in the process. This was clearly a festive time and the community was jam packed with people…..and sled dogs. Virtually everyone was camping, there were no established dwellings in Kimmirut at the time.
Everyone had travelled in from their isolated camps with their dogs working as pack animals. Given the lack of both snow on the ground and ice along the shoreline, it is doubtful that these dogs had arrived harnessed as teams and pulling komatiks. The dog population in this community had mushroomed and there were sled dogs of all ages running everywhere, and no one seemed to be too upset by this fact. The dogs look impressive, they are indeed Inuit Dogs, at this time there was little chance of cross breeding with any other mutts from the south. It was surprising to see that every dog was untethered, especially Inuit Dogs that are noted for same sex scrapping.
I was surprised (shocked) to see so many working sled dogs running loose amidst all of the adults and children. Some of the dogs were pups. There were even some nursing puppies, but clearly the majority were adults. There is a brief scene filmed at Kimmirut of some Inuit men up on a wooden dock, the tide is obviously out and at least 50 adult Inuit dogs are milling about under the dock as the men are dumping a tub of dog feed (fish?) into the mass of dogs wandering underneath them. Clearly these were a mixture of dogs coming from different teams. It would seem that if ever there was an occasion where Inuit Dogs would feel that they had something to prove, this was it. But there was surprisingly little fighting. This scene suggested to me that there may be something to learn about the kind of animal husbandry that was taking place with these dogs.
The film shows scenes of the dogs in action. There is a brief (and clearly staged) scene of a team of about ten dogs harnessed in a fan hitch pulling an empty komatik over the dirt for about 30 metres. Of more interest are the scenes of people (clearly not staged) apparently leaving the settlement to return to their camps. The dogs aren’t in harness. Many of them are carrying packs and they walk in a group, dogs and their human “families”, everyone carrying their load, puppies trailing behind. You can’t help but feel that this is indeed the real thing.
Upon leaving, the Nascopie steamed towards Cape Wolstenholme which is the northernmost tip of the Ungava Peninsula on the left side of Hudson Strait, right at the entrance to Hudson’s Bay. From here the Nascopie headed south into James Bay and docked at Charlton Island, the site of a warehouse and transhipment point. Here the Nascopie off-loaded the supplies for all of the Company trading posts that rimmed James Bay. These supplies were then to be delivered to these posts by the Inenew, a much smaller cargo vessel.
The movie-makers no doubt travelled on this vessel to Moose Factory, a long established post located at the mouth of the Moose River which flows into James Bay from the west. This community marked the start of the journey upstream by canoe for both the film crew as well as a small number of employees of the local HBC post. The intent was to get to the railway which runs east-west across Canada. The ultimate destination was Vancouver, British Columbia, but the immediate goal was to reach Cochrane, a town located in northern Ontario where the Trans Canada Rail Line crossed the Abitibi River.
The paddling scenes are exciting, while not actually voyageurs, these very skilled Cree/Métis paddlers weren’t too far removed from their paddling predecessors. In twenty foot cedar canvas canoes, much of their work involved poling upstream in rapids and against a fairly strong current; these fellows knew what they were doing. The canoes seemed to be carrying light loads but once all of the photo equipment and the photographers were added, those canoes were loaded.
It would also appear that once reaching Winnipeg, some decisions were made regarding the “shape” of the rest of the production. The new HBC rep Captain Thomas O’Kelly, is introduced as the HBC presence in the production of this movie. As the story unfolds, he also takes on an active part in the actual storyline, assuming the role of “the Factor” complete with iconic Hudson’s Bay blanket capote. His presence provides some continuity to the storyline as it unfolds throughout the rest of the film. It was time to show more of the details of just what role the HBC has played in the fur trade and how that role was constantly evolving.
We spend surprisingly little time in Winnipeg; we see nothing of the HBC head office and the main fur warehouse. A little bit of time is spent at Lower Fort Garry which is located on the Red River about 20 kilometres downstream from Upper Fort Garry. As the filmmakers head west, there is a very brief bit of footage showing the Plains bison at Buffalo National Park in Wainwright, Alberta, and a brief shot of the HBC department store in downtown Calgary.
And then we are in Vancouver. Banners on the building seem to announce the pending opening of the brand new Hudson’s Bay Company department store, the same one that sits at the corner of Granville and Georgia streets in downtown Vancouver today. This part of the movie was no-doubt designed to demonstrate the fact that the HBC had evolved past the days of the rural trading post and had now entered the world of up scale retail sales.
From Vancouver the storyline takes a very interesting twist. The filmmakers choose to go to a community where the HBC did not have any presence at all. They make their way up the East Coast of Vancouver Island to the First Nations community of Alert Bay, a Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) community located on Cormorant Island, just off the east coast of Vancouver Island. The closest community of any size is Port McNeil located on Vancouver Island and it is here that the closest HBC trading post was located. This section of the film is visually quite striking and seems designed to highlight all of the trappings of an intact and very rich and impressive First Nations culture. Alert Bay had become an anthropologist’s mecca. There was broad international interest in the First Nations art and way of life in this community. In 1914 Edward S. Curtis, a noted and truly famous photographer who focused exclusively on First Nations subjects, made a silent feature film in this community called In the Land of the Head Hunters. Curtis’ movie was actually a melodrama with an all First Nations cast. Is it possible that this Alert Bay footage was included simply to promote as much interest as possible in The Romance of the Far Country?
Everyone then returned to Vancouver to initiate the last leg of this photographic journey which would take them to the north shore of Lake Athabasca and the small and very isolated community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta.
Roderick MacKenzie established a Northwest Company fur trade post at Fort Chipewyan in 1788, making it the oldest non-First Nations settlement in Alberta. This is where Alexander Mackenzie (Roderick’s cousin) in 1790, following directions from Peter Pond, took the wrong river flowing out of Lake Athabasca and ended up at the Arctic Ocean rather than the Pacific. To his credit he did come back two years later and this time followed the Peace River, eventually ending up at the Pacific Ocean in July, 1793. This is where George Simpson, the soon-to-be Governor of the HBC cut his fur trading teeth in 1820, serving at the Hudson’s Bay Company post called Fort Wedderburn which was located on a small island just off the coast, in clear view of the Northwest Company post on the mainland. In 1919, Fort Chipewyan had been a fur trade post continuously for 120 years and since 1821 it had become the exclusive domain of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Some have described the Fort Chipewyan of the early 20th century as a miniature version of York Factory, the main HBC supply depot located on the Hudson’s Bay. One description of the HBC post said that it “stretched for a mile” along the north shore of Lake Athabasca. While this may be an exaggeration, it was big. Some of the buildings (St. Paul the Apostle Anglican Church built in 1880 is one example) survive to this day, the headstones in the graveyards bear surnames well known to the fur trade.
It is clear why the Company wanted to highlight this post in their movie. It was perhaps here that the “Romance” part of the movie’s title surfaces. This picture-perfect trading post setting complete with a palisade (fence) and an archway gate gave it something of the appearance of a traditional fur trade “fort”, with the distinctive white with red roof trading post (the movie is in black and white). This is clearly the image that the Company wanted to portray to the viewing public. This is the image that we have all so frequently seen in the HBC’s in-house publication The Beaver (which actually began publication in 1920). This was the public’s perception of the northern presence of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The group had quite a time getting to Fort Chipewyan. The quickest way to travel north was to get to Edmonton by train (there would have been a few options from Vancouver) and then to take another train to Waterways, which is located just south of Fort McMurray on the Athabasca River. From there it would be possible to travel by sternwheeler to Fort Chipewyan. But for a couple of reasons this option wasn’t available to the moviemakers. The Alberta Great Waterways Railway (later known as the Northern Alberta Railway) didn’t reach Waterways until 1925, six years after the filming of this movie. The film crew also left a little late in the year. By then the water levels had dropped to winter levels, making scow, barge and sternwheeler travel, particularly on the lower Athabasca River, impossible.
The film crew took a different route. They no doubt did travel to Edmonton by rail but then over the old Athabasca Landing trail (by 1919 upgraded to a wagon road) to the community of Athabasca which is located well south of Waterways on the upper Athabasca River. Late in the season when the water levels were low, they had difficulty and did not make it to their destination before freeze-up. In the process, viewers see some drama as goods were portaged using horse and wagon as well as sled dogs and a wooden sled. This sled is worth noting. It was apparently a gift given to the Factor by Ernest Shackleton. The runners are turned up at both ends, making it a Nansen sled. It was well made and as the footage reveals, it would have been extremely difficult to complete this section of the journey without it.
En route to Fort Chip, the crew passes through Fort McMurray. The fur trade literature talks about winter travel by dog team all the way from Edmonton north to Fort Chipewyan and beyond to Great Slave Lake and down the Mackenzie River to the Beaufort Sea. It is hard to believe that these trips did occur but here we are able to see the documentation of such a trip in this movie. From Fort McMurray north it was all on foot, by snowshoe and by dog team. The images of Fort McMurray, which in the movie seems to consist of one street and a few buildings, are in stark contrast to today’s “Fort Mac” which sits at the epicentre of the infamous Athabasca Tar Sands, one of the largest proven oil fields in the world.
Fort Chipewyan is sled dog country and it is in this part of the movie that sled dogs working in harness are featured. The dogs in use at the time and in this place were all Mackenzie River Huskies3, not really a breed in their own right but a type of dog that had evolved over time as the perfect animal for the job that had to be done in that area. Their size, temperament, hardiness, stamina as well as their desire to work and eat and their ability to deal with the harsh cold climate made them ideal. At the same time they weren’t fast dogs (although they moved differently and faster than an Inuit dog) and they certainly didn’t have a very uniform appearance, some with floppy ears while others had the pointed ears of the wolf. What makes this movie so special is that the dog known as the Mackenzie River Husky has now disappeared and yet here they are “in technicolor” (as it were) doing what they did best.
All of the scenes were staged: a trip out to the trapline, pulling into the Fort to meet the Chief Trader, travelling out on Lake Athabasca, fishing through the ice, lots and lots of furs, and though staged they are very authentic. An extremely rare dog cariole is featured in several scenes. This is a dog toboggan fitted out with a compartment made of scraped moose or caribou hide that provides a very cozy place (with the help of fur robes) for a passenger to ride. The cariole in the movie (which may just be the one on display at lower Fort Gary north of Winnipeg) is painted with the HBC logo, and the five-dog team is fitted out with leather tandem collar harness, the musher usually jogging along but occasionally standing on the back of the toboggan….and if he isn’t the forerunner, jogging ahead of the teams on snowshoes, the Factor is riding in the cariole. What is perhaps even more interesting is a second toboggan featuring what is often called a canvas “wrapper” or “carryall”. Through the ingenious use of rope tension and in conjunction with a wooden handlebar or backboard, the wrapper offers a very roomy and dry compartment for carrying all manner of goods used by a trapper. This is the first confirmation that I have seen that the wrapper was in use as early as 1920. The dogs are again fitted with tandem collar harness, some are sporting brightly coloured dog blankets or “tapis” and wool and ribboned “collar horns” fitted in conjunction with their harness, all of this so typical of the way that sled dogs were driven throughout all of western Canada, including the what is now the Northwest Territories and Yukon.
This movie clearly demonstrates the overwhelming influence that the fur trade companies, particularly the HBC, had on the “technology” associated with how sled dogs were outfitted throughout those regions of Canada populated by First Nations (not Inuit) people. The use of the tandem harness with paddled leather collar and leather traces and the use of the wooden dog team toboggan with either cariole or canvas wrapper was virtually universal. The fur trade companies were themselves very dependent on dog teams for winter communication and for freighting trade goods. The fur trade companies were largely responsible for the supply and distribution of the “equipment” that was used by all dog mushers including trappers in these regions. For the HBC and the generations of company employees, voyageur and Métis dog mushers and First Nations and white trappers, the tandem harness/wooden toboggan set-up was the only option. This was for good reason, the tandem harness/wooden toboggan allowed for the use of narrow trails in forested country and for the use of smaller numbers of dogs.
I have often wondered why the paddled collar harness was so widely used during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. I am now convinced the influence of the HBC permeated into the Klondike. Many of the Gold Rush stampeders would have been outfitted by the HBC. Many of these same men, while not dog mushers, would have been experienced teamsters, used to driving horses using a padded collar harness set-up. As the Gold Rush unfolded, photos show the evolution of the types of harnesses and hook-ups used as the Alaskan/Russian influence of what came to be called the siwash harness and the side-by-side hook-up using a centre gangline with individual tug lines on the dogs became the norm. But as this evolution was taking place, many of the harnesses still incorporated the padded collar in various convoluted styles incorporating spreader bars and lots of metal hardware. The Gold Rush stampeders abandoned the wooden dog team toboggan almost immediately. The amount of drag with the toboggan was a liability. Soon mass produced sleds, referred to as Klondike sleds, which were essentially just “platforms” for hauling freight but which were really adaptable and were pulled by not just sled dogs but also horses, humans and even goats and oxen were universally used. Instead of running behind the toboggan (as we see in the movie), during the Gold Rush the musher (or freighter) began walking at the front right hand side of the sled using a long gee pole to both brake and steer the unwieldy load.
Towards the end of this movie there is a very poignant scene. Chief Laviolette of the Chipewyan Band is standing in front of the main HBC trading post, forcefully urging the Factor to take a message to the King, telling him that the treaty has been broken and that there should be no closed season on the hunting of game in the area. The Chief is referring to the fact that because of over hunting, the numbers of Wood bison resident in this area had dipped precariously low and were in danger of being wiped out.
It is interesting that the HBC would make it appear that they had a direct line to the King. In actual fact, in 1922 the Canadian government created Wood Buffalo National Park in this massive Peace Athabasca Delta region, one of the world’s largest parks, the area where Wood bison had thrived. In 1926, the Canadian government (not the King) shipped 5000 Plains bison by rail and barge from Buffalo National Park located at Wainwright Alberta, the very bison that had appeared earlier in a scene from The Romance of the Far Fur Country, to Wood Buffalo National Park. This ill-informed scheme was seen as a way to rectify the dwindling bison numbers so that everyone would be able to hunt once again. In fact, the Plains bison interbred with the Wood bison creating a hybrid bison and tragically, it would appear that the imported Plains bison brought with them the diseases of anthrax and tuberculosis which have resisted all attempts directed towards eradication and are something that is endemic in this herd today.
I recount this story as a lead in to my review of this movie’s companion film, On The Trail of the Far Fur Country. The Romance of the Far Fur Country was commissioned to help celebrate the HBC’s 250th anniversary and to showcase the work of the HBC in the North. Quite unintentionally however, this movie now serves as a spotlight on a significant number of social, cultural. ecological and political issues that in many ways dominate the lives of both Inuit and First Nations groups throughout Canada to the present day.
1Geller, P (2004) Northern Exposures: Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920 - 1945 Vancouver, UBC Press.
2From Canada’s History, “Arctic Visions. In the early days of moviemaking, two companies competed to tell the story of the North. Nanook of the North soared to enduring fame; no one remembers the other film.”
3Mushing Past blogspot: What is a Mackenzie Husky?”
Both The Romance of the Far Fur Country and On the Trail of the Far Fur Country are now available through the Winnipeg Film Group. Get one individually, or as a combo pack. For the restored 1920 film, this is a special double disc region free DVD packed with extras: approximately six hours of video content. A heads up for collectors, archivists, teachers, cinephiles and fur trade history lovers out there, this is a limited edition.
The Romance of the Far Fur Country DVD includes:
• New digital transfer from the 1920 35mm nitrate film elements
• Restored two hour feature of The Romance of the Far Fur Country with contemporary score by composer Nathan Reimer
• Map of the journey with photo album & diary entries from cameraman Harold Wyckoff from the 1919 expedition
• Audio commentary by historian Peter Geller and curatorial editor Kevin Nikkel
• Regional short films with contemporary score by composer Nathan Reimer
• A behind the scenes short documentary of the return and restoration
• The Heritage of Adventure, the 90-minute silent UK version of the 1920 film
• Additional 1920 silent films with extra footage from the HBCA / Archives of Manitoba (Trials & Tribulations of a Cameraman, It’s a Great Life If, HB Pageant, HBC Comics)
• Treasures from the Far Fur Country: a short film covering the over all 1919 journey with contemporary score
• 28 page booklet with 4 curatorial essays and classroom study guide
Ed. Two of Jeff Dinsdale’s many passions are sled dog and polar history. Enjoy more of these accounts on his Mushing Past blog. He is also one of the organizers of the annual Gold Rush Sled Dog Mail Run. Jeff and his family live in British Columbia where for a very long time he has raised and traveled with Inuit Dogs.