The Winter Hunt

In 1932, when a group of Fortune Bay men went on a 12-day hunting trip and did not return for 26 days, many were given up for dead

     Today's moose or caribou hunting trip is done as much for pleasure as for anything else. More than 60 years ago, the killing of wild game was a different matter entirely - it was a necessity.

     Hunting was often a matter of survival, a means of putting fresh meat on the table for the family. This was especially true in the isolated little coastal communities of Newfoundland. Nearly every able-bodied male of sufficient age went hunting at least once a year.

     In 1932, a hunting party of about 40 men set out from several neighbouring settlements in Long Harbour, Fortune Bay. It was a trip which could have cost them their lives.

     Among the group were Fred Dodge, Tom Dominaux, Arthur Herridge, Cecil Herridge, Jim Herridge, John Matthews, Willoughby Riggs, Albert Thornhill, Cyril Thornhill, Eli James Thornhill, Enos Thornhill, John Thornhill and Stanley Thornhill of Anderson's Cove; Ambrose Pope, Will Pope and Cecil Thornhill of Stone's Cove; Billy Fizzard of Hoop Cove; and Bill Phillips of Hare Harbour.

     They had dogs with them also, to help pull the heavily-laden "komatiks", or sleds. These dogs were usually brought home from Labrador on the last fishing trip on the fall.

     The men carried heavy canvas-duck tents, which had stovepipe holes in them, but no floor. There was cooking gear, enamel dishes, hatchets, guns and ammunition. Some had lanterns and kerosene, while others had candles. Bedding was blankets and caribou skins.

     Supplies were meagre and basic; salt meat, salt port, a few vegetables, bread, buns, molasses, raisins and tea. Fresh meat was obtained when possible along the way. Alcoholic beverages were not carried for this was not a pleasure trip, but serious business. Bags of frozen fresh herring were usually carried for the dogs.

     All were dressed warmly in home-knit socks, mittens, sweaters, "face-and-eye" caps and knitted underwear. They wore heavy flannel shirts, wool "salt-and-pepper" pants, rubber boots, and canvas jackets with sheepskin lining. Each man carried one change of clothing in case he got wet.

Cyril Thornhill, who was the youngest member of the hunting party, at age 16, said they expected to be gone 12 days and so they took enough food for that period of time. Little did they know bad weather would hamper the trip and it would be 26 days before they saw their loved ones again. During that time, many families would presume the men had been lost.

The trip began December 27, when the frost and ice made good going. It was a 12-mile walk to the mouth of Long Harbour River. Then they hiked 52 miles in the country to Middle Ridge. They were close enough to the interior of the island to see the smoke rising from the coal-burning, cross-country trains.

Middle Ridge was always a good place for caribou. Hunters killed only what they needed and nothing was wasted. Antlers were not usually brought home as trophies. Moccasins were made from the skin of the hind legs while the rest of the hide was tanned for various uses.

When they got to Middle Ridge, the hunting party split into two crews, one heading east, the other north.

"It was a snowstorm every day after that," recalled Cyril Thornhill, now 82, who lives in St. John's.

Setting up camp was time-consuming work. Tent poles were cut at each site. Two green sticks were cut to rest the stove on inside the tent. This was a small square box, made from heavy tin, which was used for cooking on and as a source of heat.

When the tent was up, each man took his axe, went off and cut a couple of "rampikes". Those were dry, white sticks with no bark on them, which gave out a good heat while burning.

Tips of green boughs were cut to cover the floor of the tent, making a thick springy carpet. Rubber boots were always taken off upon entering the tent. A line was strung through the center of the tent to hang the lantern on.

Camp was always set up near a source of water, but often the pond or brook would be frozen and it was necessary to cut a home in the ice. Part of the camp was small houses constructed from boughs, for the dogs.

At night, if they weren't too tired from the day's hunting, some played cards, putting their "grub boxes" together to form a rough table, before turning in. Grub boxes were recycled biscuit boxes, about two feet long, 18 inches wide, and one foot deep.

"Uncle" Albert Thornhill was the "shotsman," or marksman. He always used a 30-30 rifle and was never known to miss.

At one point, Cyril Thornhill and Cecil Herridge were left back at camp to cook for the other men, who had gone out hunting for the day.

"A snowstorm came up about three o'clock ... they didn't make it back that night," Cyril recalled. "We thought they were lost and we talked about what we would do. We didn't know our way out. We were scared then. We were going to try to go by the sun to find our way back."

Fortunately, the rest of the party returned to camp the next day when the weather cleared.

After they had killed two animals for each man, the hunters headed home. But then they ran into severe winter weather, which made their journey slow and difficult.

Waist-deep snow made walking slow. The going was increasingly hard as the men were faced with blizzard after blizzard.

Among them, there were only two or three pairs of snowshoes. One man, wearing snowshoes, would take the lead, towing the heaviest komatik, to break the trail. After a short time this man would retreat to the rear and the next man in line moved to the front. In this manner, the slow, painstaking work of breaking a new trail through fresh, deep snow was shared equally, thus helping to conserve each man's strength.

Travelling in single file, they didn't cover much ground in a day. It was hard on the dogs also because the snow was too deep for their legs.

Sometimes they took shelter in small hunting cabins along the way. Other times, they had to use their tents. Each day they would stop several hours before dark to set up camp for the night.

When their food supplies were exhausted, some of the men had a supply of freshly killed caribou. They would cook a boiler of venison at night, then slice it for eating cold on the trail the following day. Caribou meat kept the dogs going too.

"At one point we stopped and I had a loaf-and-a-half of bread left," said Cyril Thornhill, whose parents had not wanted him to go hunting with the men - it was the teenager's first trip into the country.

"I was that hungry I could've eat it all at that meal, but I couldn't touch it because I knew we had a long way to go yet."

Those who had any tobacco left went off alone to smoke. There wasn't enough to share with everyone and they didn't want to tease the empty-handed smokers by lighting up in front of them.

Cyril Thornhill's party of hunters was found by his two brothers and another man, who had headed into the woods with a supply of food with a slim hope of finding them still alive. On their way back, the men met another party of hunters from Femme. By now, the total group had swelled to 48 men and 52 dogs.

John Henry Saunders, the wireless operator at Long Harbour Beach, first saw them coming. He sent a message to John Denham, the wireless operator at Stone's Cove. Denhem relayed the message by telephone to Uncle Ned and Aunt Leah Osbourne at Anderson's Cove: "A large group of men and dogs were seen coming out over the ice in Long Harbour."

All the hunters reached home safely, 26 days after their departure. Tired and sporting nice beards, they were glad to be back. Most of their caribou had been eaten along the way, their tobacco was gone, and they had only a small amount of tea left.

Practically all the hunters suffered some degree of frost burn, whether it be ears or toes. One of Arthur Herridge's ears was badly frostbitten. It was probably the last big winter caribou hunt they went on. The risks were too high and this one had come too close to disaster.

Cyril Thornhill recalls how when they returned home, they saw that many of the houses in their community had the blinds lowered - common practice in those days when there was a death in the family. Many people were sure all of the men had been lost.

"We were really happy to be home," he said last week, more than 66 years later. "That was my first trip in the country and I never forgot it. I never will forget it."

© F. Herridge
Published in The The Telegram, February 21 1999

Non-fiction 1

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