Oscar Olson ~ Pikwitonei, Manitoba (photo: Zbitnew 1978)







Interview with Oscar Olson

This interview was recorded in the community of Pikwitonei sometime in
early December 1978, when I traveled by myself along the Hudson Bay Railway
doing preliminary research for 'Muskeg Special' ~ (filmed in the summer of 1979.)

Oscar Olson was 75 years old when I recorded our conversation on cassette tape
and took this photograph of him. I was 22 years old.

Q: What made you decide to go trapping?

Oscar: My partner, Hilmer Hanson, and I were working in Strassbourg, Saskatchewan.
Hilmer was a trapper and wanted to get back to the bush, and I was interested in
anything I'd never tried before. I wanted to see wild country, where no-one had
set foot... sort of romantic for me. All of a sudden we quit in Strassbourg and went
up to Neepawin. They had a cable ferry across the Saskatchewan River. We went over
and looked on the other side, and it looked like prairie to us, not the kind of trapping
country we wanted to see. So we pulled out of there and went up to The Pas. We
looked on the map to see how far we could go on this Hudson Bay line, and that
is as far as we could go; mile 214. We thought it would be wilder than it was. This
was the end of the steel then and there were shops and quite a town. So we thought
we better get a foothold. I went into the Lands Office and got a homestead for $10,
and I've never seen it yet. We went right into the bush and weren't interested in
homesteading after that.

Q: Was there an office here for homesteading?

Oscar: No, in The Pas. I lived here for 24 years after that trapping and prospecting
around this country.

Q: How did you learn about prospecting?

Oscar: I was interested in rocks and it just came naturally to me. There was an old
gentlemen here, a Yankee Major from the First World War named Garr. He was a
big man and we called him Mr. Garr.

Q: He was supposedly quite rich.

Oscar: He died a millionaire anyway, he inherited it from his mother. He was here
for his health I think. He probably drank too much and could get away from it here
a little bit. He sent the native people out to gather rock samples here and there, and
was out himself a few times. I staked claims for him in the 1930s.

Q: Were there good samples here?

Oscar: Oh yeah, there were good samples, high grade samples up near Copper Lake.
9% nickel I think there was in one sample there.

Q: Was INCO (International Nickel Company) out here?

Oscar: They spent 5 million dollars once with survey parties when they took up
option on Mystery Lake. See, that was their first discovery. That was known to us
for a long time that the samples were there but there was nobody interested in it,
they were prospecting for gold and silver and nothing else. I had some samples of
8% copper that I introduced to Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company. They've
never been drilled, and you never know, there has to be a demand for it. Nickel right
now is out of the question. INCO has it sewed up. You had to be lucky. There was ten
of them there that went out and staked at Mystery Lake. They each got 10%. I think
Walter Johnson got a bit more. I think he got $26,000. They got $150,000 on the first deal.
Walter Johnson had a trapline where Thompson is now. They discovered Moak Lake
first, but after this discovery in Thompson, they developed it first. But now Johnson
as I say was right there ahead of INCO, staking, and he got about $600,000 right in his mitt.
He got married after that and moved to Flin Flon, and he died after that. All them prospectors
were getting pretty old. They got money too late. INCO had crews prospecting all over
the place from a camp in Waboden. They were checking rocks on the Grassy River and
the Nelson. I went down there with a few samples.

Q: What year did you move to Pikwitonei?

Oscar: 1928, in September. About 50 years ago.

Q: That would be just before the railway was completed?

Oscar: Yeah, it opened up in Churchill in 1929. They originally wanted Port Nelson,
but there was too much mud.

Q: Were the tracks ever completed to Port Nelson?

Oscar: They had a lot of equipment there, so they must have had tracks, but I think
they were torn up. They moved the warehouse and men to Gillam. We had a chinaman
here; Bob Long, who had a restaurant. His place burned down here and he moved to
Gillam. Fred Rasmuny and Albert Sandberg worked at Port Nelson. There are still
Sandbergs in Gillam, Albert's wife is still there.

Q: How did the town change when the crew moved out?

Oscar: Some of the native people got in on the railroad after that. Like J.R.Moose,
the section foreman we have here now used to trap out here. I have pictures of that.
He worked for the railway for 35 years.

Q: Were there people living here before the railway came through?

Oscar: No, not that I can think of. Although native people came here quite a bit
because of the trapping. Some came from Split Lake and Cross Lake. With a few
portages you can go all over the place. But there was no settlement. The railway
brought that in.

Q: What about other places along the railway?

Oscar: No, there was no concentration of people anywhere. The railway was just built
through muskeg and wild country. Even Split Lake came later. The people living
there now came from Hudson Bay.

Q: Were there any stores when you first came up?

Oscar: Well there were mainly trading posts that would buy fur, or trade for fur,
money wasn't so important. They would give grub stakes. The first storekeeper
I knew when I came up was Bill Cordell, Freddy's dad, who had a store, a small
log cabin store, out on the point where I was living. Cy Adams had a store and
so did Percy Carter. There was a couple of traders besides that, the Chumpkas.
Small traders who had a store. You could get complete grub stakes in those days
for the winter and pay for it with your fur you brought in.

Q: Could you make a good living trapping fur?

Oscar: We made the kind of living we wanted. We enjoyed it. I remember one
can of jam. We weren't going to eat it until we caught our first fox or lynx. It took
a long time too! There were no maps of the inland in those days. We would get up
early, long before daybreak and maybe find a creek and follow it until we got to a
lake. That was how we discovered every piece, and once you knew your way around
a little bit you could take short cuts from one lake to another. If you didn't know
your way around you could get lost.

Q: How did you get around in those days?

Oscar: We had dog teams. Although the first year we didn't have any dogs and
used a jumper. We didn't come in for Christmas that year. We came out for New Year
with the dogs. We left Tea Lake and went through Armstrong Lake and then followed
the tracks in. We went out on October 5th in a canoe, on a beautiful calm day, which
was what we wanted to see. Joe Andrew came with us. He lived on the way out, where
the bible camp is now, about 12 miles from here. We stopped there overnight. They
had a coal oil lamp out there, that his wife had brought from England. She was a war bride.
Joe was over there in the First World War. They had a fox farm. Foxes were worth money
in those days. That was her life, she raised the foxes and spent a lot of time out there by herself.
Joe Andrew died later. They shot a moose for meat for the fox farm and I guess the canoe
was overloaded and there was rough weather and they drowned.

Q: Were there many trappers in those days?

Oscar: Yeah, but we lived in the bush. Now they have power toboggans and just
go out there for a short while. We left in the fall and didn't come back until Christmas.
We went out again and maybe came back once before open water. Maybe not.

Q: You didn't have much light to work in during the winter. How did that effect your trapping?

Oscar: Well you got to be up earlier. I'll travel in the dark, it's not a good idea, but I did it sometime.
I had dogs.

Q: How long did they live?

Oscar: Well they worked pretty hard sometime. I guess they lived maybe 7 or 8 years.
They pulled through slush and all kinds of weather.

Q: Where did you get the dogs from?

Oscar: Well we would breed them ourselves. Sometimes it was quite a job. That's the
best idea anyway because you get to know them. I still have a stiff finger here from dogs
I bought from Joe Andrew. They were raised wild on an island by his place there, and
he used to throw fish to them. So they came to dislike humans and be afraid of them.
We caught them with snares on the island, that was the only way to catch them.

Q: Didn't the snares hurt them?

Oscar: Well Joe was watching them so he could get them right away. I had one of
the dogs with me on Burnigan Lake, on an island. She was frightened, she had been
in a snare once. I had a whole island full of snares but she didn't go near one. It was
freezing up and I walked to get this one before freeze up so she couldn't get away
to the mainland. The water hadn't frozen up enough yet when I saw her sleeping curled
up on a rock. The wind was just right and she couldn't smell me from where I was. I had
a chain inside my jacket and I was just going to get it on her and then let her go and
get tangled up in the bush. I sneaked out there and grabbed its collar with my left hand
and reached into my jacket for the chain with the other hand. Her mouth was away
from me you see. But when I pulled out the chain she turned around and got me right
over all four fingers. I got blood poison. There was a big lump under there (his knuckle).
I was sitting there not strong enough to go and my closest neighbour was 14 miles away.
My cabin was pretty close. I had a little camp stove and a lot of wood at my cabin.
I heard that salt would draw out the poison. I had an old lard pail that was used to
make tea in, and I put water in and heated it up, and put some salt. I sat there all
night soaking in it. My hand was twice the size it normally was. The swelling went
down but I've always had a stiff finger after that.

Q: So what happened to the dog?

Oscar: It turned out to be one of my best dogs, it just wasn't used to me. The wild dogs
were always tense and nervous, and over-eager. Dogs were good company, especially
the ones I bred, they knew me.

Q: How did you learn trapping?

Oscar: Well I didn't know anything about trapping before I came up here. Trapping
changes too, over the years. In those days it was mostly fox trapping and muskrat.
Mink was worth $3.50 or $4.50 in those days. After the First World War, silver fox
was worth $600. Right now cross is $50, silver $200, red foxes $30. It has stayed
pretty well through the years. We got $30 for an otter. Now prices have gone up.
A lynx was $90, but there was none around when the price went up. When they were
around $40 we caught lots of lynx, now they're two or three hundred dollars I understand.
I like lynx trapping. It was clean nice trapping. It's best to set more than one snare for
a lynx because they travel in company. If one gets caught, the others wont leave, and
you could catch them too. Wolves travel in bunches too. I counted 36 of them one
time from my cabin. I was on my trapline for 15 years and I never saw a caribou track.
One time James Garr and Johnny Cook came out to my cabin, and Johnny told me that
when he was a little boy he came down to this lake with his father, and it was so full
of caribou that you could hardly get through with a dog team. I thought he was telling
me a real fine story. Some years later; 1945, 46, 47, I saw my first 12 caribou. In a couple
of hours the lake was so thick I couldn't tell what was caribou and what was bush.
I couldn't even see the shoreline. I could stand with a 30:30 and shoot ten caribou with one shot.

When the caribou came there was nothing left alone. They got between trees
and got caught in snares and broke them. They came down in the fall and came
back in the spring. They moved in one direction. I have 4 windows on my cabin
and I could have had a standing count of 10,000 caribou in each window. They
have a cycle, and when he told me that story I estimated over 30 years before the
cycle came back, so they could be back any day now. This was in the 40s. I guess
they keep surveys on them. They eat and tramp down every growing thing and they
multiply so fast. It takes years for things to grow back.

Q: Did you have any problem with wolverines?

Oscar: There was one on my trapline that was like a comet. It would circle the
trapline then disappear. They are very strong animals and would be dangerous
if they were cornered. I was up to Moak Lake one time in 1962, staking up there
for Commerce Mining Company. We tramped a lot of trails every morning. There
would be wolverine tracks on all our trails. The wolverine on my trapline would
come back every year. If they get into a trappers cabin they'll destroy everything they see.

Oscar: After awhile I had power on my trapline. I built a windmill. It had a tower about
50 feet high, to get over the treetops. I once got an old bear and stretched the skin and
hung it on the tower.

Q: When was the last time you were trapping?

Oscar: In 1951-52 winter. I went to Churchill in 1952 and was there for eight years.
Then I was down to The Pas for a couple of years. Then I came back and did some
prospecting here for several mining companies.

Q: How long have you lived in this house?

Oscar: Hillman and I moved here in 1937. The house was built for railway surveyors.
It's about 60 years old. I worked for the hydro installation here for about 9 years.
In 1965 I had a one kilowatt unit. This was the first light hooked up in this house.
September 17, 1965 they started up the first unit. I wired most of the town. It was
a beautiful Christmas that year with the streetlights on it looked just like a post card.
There was a foreman on the railway who came down to mile 214 (Pikwitonei), and
said that was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen mile 214, with all the lights on.

_____ End of interview_____

On a personal note, I had arrived in Pikwitonei a couple of nights before I interviewed
Oscar Olson. The southbound train from Churchill had pulled in at about one o'clock in
the morning, and I was the only passenger to disembark. The entire power for the town
was out, and when the train pulled away, I was standing beside the tracks with about a
dozen dogs, in a dark night at 30 below. Fortunately, I had worked in the town a couple
of years before, and knew where the school was that I had arranged to sleep in. It wasn't
far away, and the dogs were just as puzzled to see me as I was to see them, and they left me alone.