CHAPTER 6 - Poplar River

The settlement at Poplar River was very small, with the buildings set around the bay that stretched into Lake Winnipeg. The trading post Rod and Toni were operating stood alone on one side of the bay, while across the bay another cluster of log buildings included the Hudson's Bay post, the United Church and manse, plus a few private residences. The population was largely native Canadian - the white race was represented by Mr. and Mrs. Albert Caldwell, the United Church missionary and his wife, plus their children; the trader at the Hudson's Bay post, usually an unmarried man; plus Toni, Rod and Ray Schuetze. Additionally, Eugen Schuetze lived at the post with Rod and Toni, since Lothar and Gustie had moved to Little Grand Rapids. Eugen had been helping Lothar around the post, and since there seemed more work for him at the post than there would be with Lothar's work as a missionary, he stayed on in Poplar River. He helped Rod in and around the post, and was extra company for both Rod and Toni. There was no Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment at the settlement - policing needs were provided from the detachment at Berens River.

The Schuetze's settled into their new environment and adapted to the changes much as Toni had adapted to life in the bush. They often visited with the Caldwell family, developing a life-long friendship with them.

Rod bought a phonograph and some records - music was a luxury in western Canada in the 1920's, and the Schuetze's relished every note. Rod's work kept him close to the post, but he also carried the mail from Berens River to Poplar River, and held it at the post until the recipients called for it.

Their first winter at Poplar River passed slowly. The loss of Frankie was an enormous hurdle to cross. Their developing friendship with the Caldwell's helped them both, and Eugen's presence provided another avenue of conversation, often taking the topic to something far different to what was upper-most in their minds.

Eugen took great delight in his grandson, Ray. In earlier years, his pocket watch had been one of his prized possessions, but now it no longer worked. Eugen had taken it to a jeweller, who, after examining it, returned it, saying:

"You might as well get another one, this one cannot be repaired."

The watch was an elaborate mechanism which not only gave the time of day, but registered the calendar date and year, the month, day of the week, plus the phases of the moon. In a small window on the face of the watch, a miniature moon passed, noting the First and Last Quarters, the Full and New Moons. It was an example of European technology of the late 1800's - an item to be treasured. Since it no longer worked, Eugen decided to give it to baby Ray as a toy. Rod had always taken pleasure in his father's watch, and could not bear to see it discarded - he asked Eugen for an opportunity to try to repair it himself. They agreed. Much of Rod's spare time that winter was devoted to work on this watch, and in time, through trial and error, he learned the intricacies of the mechanism, why it no longer operated, and finally, how to fix it.

Meanwhile, Toni and Rod welcomed another son into their lives. The baby was healthy but only lived about three months. Toni could not understand what happened to him, when she found him dead in his crib. Many years later, reading on the phenomena of 'crib death', she learned why the baby died, and that there was nothing she could have done to prevent it.

Some of the trappers brought in their furs from their winter trapping, and Rod made the long trip to Winnipeg by dog team to deliver those furs in time for the January sales. While in the city, Rod, ever the mechanic, purchased the frame of a Chevrolet coupe car and built a snowmobile. Skis replaced the front wheels, and to aid traction, the rear wheels were fitted with chains. Also in Winnipeg, at the same time, were two of Mrs. Caldwell's younger brothers, who were keenly interested in Rod's project. When it was complete, Rod asked the Dunphy brothers to drive his dog-team back to Poplar River, so he was free to handle the snowmobile. On the long trail over Lake Winnipeg, Lothar, riding with the mailman, saw the renovated car approaching, and realized what it was, but not who was driving.

Turning to the mailman, he commented: "It won't be long before my brother Rod has one of those!"

The snowmobile created quite a stir in Berens River when they passed through, but those in Poplar River (Picture 6 - 1) who knew Rod were not surprised at his bringing new inventions to their area - he was a bit of an inventor himself, so the local people expected innovations from Rod. The snowmobile was not a toy, though. Rod promptly put it to work, hauling firewood from the bush, and used it for other tasks it was suited for.

Picture 6-1 Hauling firewood with Rod's snowmobile

The following summer, two men arrived at Poplar River with news that set the town and its people a-buzz. They had discovered gold! They had samples of the ore with them, and allowed the local residents to examine them freely. The strike, they said, was some distance from Poplar River, but they were not greedy men, everyone in town could get in on the find before the information went too far. The residents were all eager to strike it big - but caution ruled the day.

Rod, accompanied by Albert Caldwell, took the gold samples to Winnipeg for assaying. To their surprise, the results were quite high - even the assayer was impressed. Rod and Albert knew the area the samples were said to have been found in, and did not think of it as containing the proper geology to harbour minerals. They returned to Poplar River, determined to have the men take them out to the site. Once home, they found the town's new friends happily living in a new cabin, constructed for them by the local residents during Rod and Albert's absence.

Everyone wanted in on the gold strike! They all had visions of nuggets, gold dust and big bank accounts in the future. Albert and Rod discussed their plan for a visit to the site of the strike, and the townspeople agreed. The party was comprised of the two prospectors, the Hudson's Bay trader, Albert, Rod, Toni and Ray. Toni accompanied the group as cook. As the party travelled by freight canoe (Picture 6-2) to the future mine site, the prospectors joked and teased Toni: "You'll be the first woman to have visited the gold mine - and before the stampede, at that! You'll go down in history!!" Camp was established at a spot indicated by the prospectors, and the men went off to check the gold strike possibility. Toni had planned ahead, thinking something special for the evening meal would be appropriate on such an auspicious occasion. With the camp stove and drum-oven set up, she prepared a pie made from dried apples. When she removed it from the oven it looked and smelled wonderful. When she cut and served it after the main course, she was dismayed to find the bottom crust still raw. Unwilling to discard the pie, she told the men of the problem and urged them to not eat the bottom crust. One man, after completely devouring his portion, turned to Toni and asked: "What part of the pie did you say not to eat?"

Picture 6-2 Cranberry Rapids on Whiskey Jack River

The pie, however, was one of the higher points of the trip. The gold strike was exposed as a hoax. The gold samples had been stolen from a mine in Ontario - and the two prospectors disappeared from Poplar River as quickly as they had come. The settlement reverted to its role as a trading post and quiet hamlet.

Rod decided to build a cabin on the "Ivory of Poplar River". They often used the gas-powered freight boat on Lake Winnipeg, and severe weather or heavy swells made it a wet, uncomfortable mode of travel. Having a cabin on it would provide a dry place for provisions, and for little Ray when he travelled with them.

Winter arrived (Picture 6 - 3) and they all settled into a quiet routine. Eugen Schuetze continued to help Rod around the post, usually taking care of the accounting and other light duties. He was in his seventies now - a quiet, frail man who played with his grandson, read and enjoyed his daily quota of five cigarettes. However, his hands shook so badly he was unable to roll his own cigarettes, and Toni's final act for the each day was the preparation of his smoking materials for the next day. Eugen had a small metal cigarette case which held only five cigarettes, and Toni filled this nightly before retiring.

Picture 6-3 Ice houses along Lake Winnipeg,
used to store fish during the summer season

Toni and Rod were expecting another child - the baby was due in the late spring. Rod would deliver the baby when the time came, so advance preparations were minimal.

One evening, as Eugen sat smoking and reading, Rod was sorting the mail he had picked up earlier in Berens River, and Toni was completing her task of rolling Eugen's cigarettes. She felt slightly ill - nothing major - a day-long headache, and her vision was not clear. The happenings of the day were now a little fuzzy in her mind - perhaps a good nights sleep would set things right.

Toni closed the tobacco tin and stood up to put away her materials. Her feet and legs felt numb - the sensation surged up through her trunk, the room swam - everything went black.

Slowly she became aware of sounds, and struggled to open her eyes. Rod was looking down at her, his face creased in concern. Toni realized she was lying on the floor, with the pillow from Eugen's bed beneath her head.

"What happened?" she asked.

"You fainted."

Rod helped Toni to bed. The symptoms she had experienced all day intensified and they both became worried. Toni's head began twitching - the flood of numbness rose once again from her feet and legs, abruptly she passed out again. Rod and Eugen now knew Toni was suffering convulsions - but neither had medical training, and no help was at hand. Rod watched Toni closely, and when he realized another seizure was imminent, he grasped her head firmly between his hands and held on tightly until the attack passed. It was not as severe as earlier ones.

The night dragged on. Toni slept fitfully between seizures, and Rod lay awake. Re-awakening from a particularly severe convulsion, Toni saw Rod seated on the side of the bed, watching her as he prayed and worried aloud.

"Dear God, what can I do to help her? Please relieve her condition and let her rest. What is this doing to the baby? Lord, I don't want to be a widower!"

Morning brought relief from the seizures, but Toni's stomach was upset, and neither food nor drink would stay with her. The retching was painful to watch and listen to, and even harder on Toni. The days drifted together as Toni's health and condition continued to deteriorate. She miscarried the baby, and seemed to lose interest in things around her. Local people did what they could to help. Since her stomach had become so queasy, and she could retain so little food, community members checked their supplies with an eye to helping encourage her food intake. The Hudson's Bay post manager refused to sell his remaining tins of tomatoes, thinking the juice from them might be something Toni could keep down. Another trader, travelling through the area, stopped by the cabin and left the remaining oranges he had brought from Winnipeg. The Caldwell's sent over the freshest eggs they had on hand. This was early April - the worst time of the year to try to travel in the bush country. The ice was still in place on the lakes and rivers, but was too thin and insecure to risk travelling on it. The ice that remained prevented the infrequent aircraft from landing. Dog teams would have problems - the snow was melting and the ice underneath was becoming rotten - the worst possible conditions for an emergency trip.

One day Rod had decided to move Toni to George Island where, he hoped, the lake-going boat would soon be making its first call of the season when he heard a small plane arrive. Dropping what he was doing, he hurried to the dock to talk with the pilot. The plane had brought in Forestry officials for a preliminary review of conditions before the advent of the fire season. Rod explained their plight to the pilot and his passengers - they all agreed this was an emergency, and the aircraft would be made available for a mercy flight. While the pilot radioed his base in Winnipeg to notify them of the change of plans, and to secure approval for the flight, Rod dashed back to Toni's bedside to prepare her for the trip. He packed a small bag with a set of clothes for her, found a heavy sweater and a pair of socks for her to wear, and a large, heavy blanket to wrap around her.

The plane was a Vidette flying boat (Picture 6 - 4 and 6 - 5) from the World War One era - some of these crafts were now being sold to the private sector for a variety of uses. In this case, the plane was utilized at the direction of the Manitoba provincial government. The plane offered seating for two, including the pilot, plus a gunner's hole, where Rod placed Toni for the trip.

Picture 6-4 Vidette

Picture 6-5 A plane of the type used in the mercy flight to Winnepeg

The plane's pilot was Flying Officer Wilbur Van Vliet of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who himself had recently been rescued from northern Manitoba. He had spent ten days marooned on the shores of Thunder Lake, north and east of Poplar River, and had been located and rescued in the past several days by his fellow officers. Now he was the rescuer, transporting a very sick woman to a Winnipeg hospital.

The day was well advanced before the flying boat left Poplar River with the three on board. The aircraft was not equipped for night flying, so they landed in Berens River for the night. Here the local people made them comfortable, and the pilot and Rod planned an early morning departure for the city. However, morning arrived with an electrical storm, and take-off had to be delayed several hours until the storm passed.

By the time the Vidette landed in Winnipeg, the story of the mercy flight had reached the media - newspaper and radio reporters mixed with ambulance and medical personnel on the dock. The reporters had a two-headline story - the mercy flight itself, coupled with Flying Officer Van Vliet's recent escape from danger. This was one of the early mercy flights in Manitoba, and the public was fascinated with the speed that the aircraft could bring people from the wilderness to medical care.

Newspaper Article 1

Newspaper Article 2a

Newspaper Article 2b

For Toni and Rod, the flight ended a nightmare of nearly a month's duration, and which could have been tragic. To others living in the north, it was a reassurance that help was more accessible than they had first thought. To members of the Royal Canadian Air Force and others in the business of flying, it was another door opened to the future of aviation.

Toni was admitted to Winnipeg General Hospital, where she came under the care of Dr. Ross Mitchell, an obstetrician, who took particular interest in his patient from the bush. Dr. Mitchell diagnosed Toni's earlier illness as eclampsia. This illness is a serious, but rare, condition of late pregnancy, labour and the period following delivery. The early stages of eclampsia may be marked by high blood pressure, protein in the urine, plus an accumulation of fluid in the tissues. Following the miscarriage, Toni had developed other complications - most serious of which was septic poisoning from retained placenta. These conditions, plus her state of malnutrition from her illness, were now addressed with the best procedures of the day. For two or three days, Toni had ice packs applied to her abdomen, and next underwent a procedure utilizing first a glucose enema, followed by radiant heat supplied by a sort of 'oven' that fitted across her abdomen and was powered by electric light bulbs.

After a few treatments this procedure began to upset Toni's stomach and vomiting became a part of her daily routine. Rod happened to be in the ward one morning when Toni had one of these attacks. Her basin had been removed, and no nurse answered her call-bell. Rod planned to return to Poplar River for the out-board motor powered "Ivory of Poplar River" and wanted to be absolutely sure of Toni's care before he left. He arranged for a special nurse, and left for home to check on the rest of his family and the trading post.

Dr Mitchell spent time with his patient, learning more about her health history and the development of her most recent illness. In time he explained to her how eclampsia had affected the late stages of her pregnancy and the problems that developed following the miscarriage. She was now well on the road to recovery, but needed some building up and would remain in the hospital for some time yet.

Meantime, Rod returned to Poplar River. The season at the trading post was now quiet - the trapping season was well over, and the Indians had mostly settled their accounts. They were now drawing some goods for the summer months. Eugen Schuetze was able to manage the post at this time of the year, so Rod prepared the boat for the return trip to Winnipeg. The Caldwell family accompanied him on the journey, since Mrs. Caldwell was about to have another child, and they wished to have it delivered in a Winnipeg hospital. Two of Mrs. Caldwell's sisters, Josie and Hattie Dunphy, stayed with the Caldwell children in Poplar River, and Ray Schuetze, who had been in the care of the Caldwell's since Toni became ill, sailed with his father and the Caldwell's to the city.

Travelling time between centres along the lake varied according to the mode of travel, the weather conditions, and, in some cases, the urgency of the trip. Ships such as the Keenora made the round trip in a week's time. The ship sailed more hours than a smaller craft could, and Rod's trips with the "Ivory of Poplar River" were longer, as he camped out overnight along the lake shore. The more than 350 miles linking Winnipeg and Norway House was an arduous trip, many sections over large areas of open water where wind and storms created enormous challenges for small boats.

Passing through St. Andrew's Locks on the Red River, Rod tied up at the dock at the Granite Club, where, for a dollar a day, boats such as his could be moored, and the facilities of the club were available for use. There were showers and toilets, a small grocery store and a city bus stop nearby.

Toni was granted early discharge from the hospital, and joined Rod and Ray, living on the gas boat. Here she continued to gain strength, and could care for Ray herself.

Back in Poplar River, things were changing. The spring and summer were very dry and windy, the forest prime for fire. Unsettled weather bred electrical storms - one lightning strike ignited a tremendous forest fire that ravished the region. Eugen Schuetze was alone at the post when the fire bore down on the small settlement at the mouth of the Poplar River. His age and health prevented him from considering trying to fire guard the post. The wind-driven flames and smoke swept in on him - an inferno to terrorize the young and able. He had never managed a canoe on his own, and the only real escape was over the water. Recognizing the need to preserve the accounts from the trading post, he gathered them up, along with all the cash, both paper and coin, and placed them in the bottom of a canoe moored at the dock. Next he searched through the house, looking for items he could save. Among those he found was a fountain pen Toni had clipped to a calendar. All these things went into the canoe before Eugen thought of his own safety - then he soaked a rabbit fur robe in the lake, wrapped it securely around himself, and lay down in the shallow water near the shore, to let the fire burn over him. Word of the fire reached Rod in Winnipeg, and fear clutched at him as he hastily made arrangements for Toni and Ray to stay at the home of friends while he sped back to Poplar River to check on his father and the business. Toni could stay with the family, as long as she was able to care for Ray - the lady of the house could not help with the toddler. Rod was only gone a few days when Toni became ill. Dr Mitchell stopped at the house to see her, and diagnosed her difficulty as pleurisy. Soon she could no longer care for Ray - hurriedly, she phoned the home where the Caldwell's were staying, and enlisted Helen Dunphy, Mrs. Caldwell's youngest sister, to take over the responsibility of caring for little Ray. Mrs. Caldwell's baby had been born, and they named her Joyce - but because of the timing of her birth and the forest fire, the child was known for years as 'the fire baby'.

Rod was relieved to find his father safe with friends in the main settlement at Poplar River. The side of the bay where Rod's trading post had been was a blackened landscape (Picture 6 - 6) - the other side of the bay had not been affected by the fire, and the houses and people were the same as before. Eugen related to Rod what precautions he had taken, how he had lain in the shallow waters while the fire burned around him. When he judged it was safe for him to come out, he was faced with devastation.

Picture 6-6 After the fire

Piles of rubble were all that remained of the house, trading post and dock. He searched for the canoe, but it was gone also. He told Rod what he had gathered into the canoe, and Rod rightly guessed that burning embers had ignited the canoe and its contents. A search of the shallow waters yielded up the outboard motor off the canoe, plus a blob of metal that was all that remained of the coins Eugen had so carefully stored in the canoe for safe-keeping. The friends Eugen had been staying with talked of how they had found him wandering among the burned stumps and ruins of the trading post when the fire had passed and it was safe for them to come and check on him.

Earlier Rod had re-ordered supplies and these had been delivered by the large boats that sailed on Lake Winnipeg. They had been stock-piled, awaiting Rod's return. Now they were all burned. (Picture 6 - 7) Insurance was non-existent. The Indians all relied on the trader to keep account of what they owed him; now, with the records gone, no one could recall the exact state of anyone's account.

Picture 6-7 Scorched trees and piles of rubble greeted Rod on his return from Winnepeg

Rod was able to salvage the outboard motor from the burnt freight canoe. When he had time, he checked through the rubble of their former home and discovered the stove and Toni's sewing machine, could, with some effort, be made usable once more. All their clothing, bedding, dishes, their phonograph and prized records - all gone (Picture 6 - 8).

Picture 6-8 The forest fire left one end of the fish drying stage

Eugen Schuetze accompanied some freighters hauling trade goods to a post at Little Grand Rapids, and re-joined Lothar and Gustie's household. Rod returned to Winnipeg to bring Toni and Ray home.

Home for now would be a tent set up on land they owned in Berens River. Rod brought the stove and sewing machine from Poplar River, and set about restoring as much of the kitchen range as possible. It would be greatly changed from its original form - the copper reservoir which had provided the family with a source of warm water had broken off during the fire and could not be repaired. The same held true for the warming oven. The oven door had been warped by the heat of the fire, but a blow torch in Rod's capable hands restored the door to its proper shape, and the range, although its surface was pitted and dulled by the fire, once again returned to service. Rod set the stove up outside the tent, with a tarp stretched above the cooking surface, so rain or shine, Toni could cook. The sewing machine needed some lubrication, belts and a few parts before it would be ready to be fitted into another cabinet.

Rod sadly told Toni, along with the stove and sewing machine, he had made one other discovery in the remains of their house - the body of their favourite dog.

Rod and Toni did not expect help from others, but they did receive some assistance. The Red Cross sent in a load of used clothing with the Schuetze's when they returned from Winnipeg. This clothing was given to others. The United Church gave them a quilt, and the suppliers Rod had dealt with while operating the trading post provided them with enough lumber and nails to build a two room house. Rod lost no time in setting about the task, as summer was now well advanced, and winter can come early in the north.

Rod's suppliers were realistic - they understood that for Rod to pay them for the burned supplies, he would first have to establish his family and find employment. Along with the lumber and nails for a small home, they provided an allowance for clothing and food for the coming winter. All these goods arrived with a single message: "Pay us when you can, if you can." It is to Rod and Toni's credit that they did their utmost to pay all funds owing to their suppliers, although this was accomplished over a period of years. In the end, the remaining indebtedness was written off by understanding creditors.

The Air Force personnel who frequented the area took particular interest in Rod and Toni, since it had been one of their number who had flown them to Winnipeg when Toni was ill. One day, three or four of these young men arrived, ostensibly to help with the house construction. Not a great deal was accomplished, but a good time was had by all! In the end, Toni prepared an evening meal for the group - bacon, eggs and home-made bread were popular with all of them.

Before Toni had said goodbye to Dr. Mitchell, he had presented her with a gift - a medical book he had used early in his practice. He knew Toni's babies would continue to be born at home, and that illnesses could strike any time, illnesses that Rod and Toni might have to cope with on their own. The book was a large, very heavy item, but they both prized it, and consulted it diligently whenever sickness arose in the family.

It had been a sad home-coming for Rod and Toni. Although they had not wanted to become traders, they had grown to know and like the people they traded with, and to enjoy their home on the lake shore. They had survived a number of illnesses, two forest fires, the losses of two children, and now were coping with having to start anew. They had each other, their small son, friends, a house, and their own capabilities and willingness. Perhaps their bad luck was now over, and the future would be a more financially rewarding time for them. Right now they were happy to have each other, and gave thanks for Toni's restored health.


©1992,2006,2007 E.Woytowich