The time of this in its beginning, in men’s time, is 1880 in the summer, and its place is the Athabaska valley, near its head in the mountains, and along the other waters falling into it, and beyond them a bit, over Yellowhead Pass to the westward, where the Fraser, rising in a lake, flows through wilderness and canyon down to the Pacific.
In those days Canada was without a railway across the mountains. The Canadian Pacific was being built, but it was not till 1885 that the first train steamed over its rails to reach tidewater at Port Moody. Its crossing of the Rocky Mountains was by Kicking Horse Pass, more than two hundred miles to the south of Yellowhead. So that it might be built and that men might gain money from its building, Canada was made a dominion. British Columbia, a colony of England, became the most western province of the territory now stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
In time another railway was built. It was called the Grand Trunk Pacific, and passed through the mountains at Yellowhead. That was in 1911.
Until that happened the country around Yellowhead and on the headwaters of the Athabaska, the Arctic’s most southern slope, was little changed from what it had always been. It was a game country, and men found meat when they travelled. In the summer the days were long and the nights only brief twilight between the sun’s setting and rising. Pine- and fir-trees grew in the valleys, and good grass on the flats and benches; and higher on the mountain slopes, close to the rock and snow, spruce and balsam. Poplar, birch and alder, and tall willows grew in the river bottoms; and everywhere was the sound of running water. In the winters the nights were long. Streams and lakes were frozen. Frost split trees. The wind blew up the Athabaska from the north, and blizzards rose in the valley. Still, sometimes it would be quiet, with the sun shining, and then a man’s voice talking could be heard two miles away across the snow.
For a long time fur brigades from Hudson Bay and Fort Garry on the prairies travelled the Athabaska valley. They used horses in the summer and dog-teams in the winter. At first they followed the river to its head, and at the Committee’s Punchbowl met those who had come up from the Columbia river valley with beaver skins. For these they exchanged rum and leather and pemmican and came back with the fur eastward. When the lower Columbia valley turned to the Americans and became part of their nation, the brigades swung out of the Athabaska lower down and crossed the mountains at Yellowhead Pass to trade with the Indians and white trappers along the Fraser as far down as Fort Prince George. In time the people around Fort Prince George began to send their furs out by the new Cariboo road to the Pacific, and fur brigades then ceased to travel through the Athabaska valley. The posts they had built in good places where there was game and fish, feed for their horses, and wood for their fires, were no longer used. Their roofs caved in under the snow, and wind blew the moss chinking from between the logs that walled them. Grass grew in the ruts of the trails. Along the trails “blazes,” filled with yellow pitch, burned into the tree bark with no one to see them, like lanterns left and forgotten.
In 1880 one man remained by the Athabaska river where it flowed through the mountains. He was tall, fair-haired and fair-bearded, and his blue eyes, stung with the snow, streamed with water when he stood outside and faced the sun. He lived in a cabin on a point above the river where the trail leaves it to follow the Miette to Yellowhead Pass. He trapped and hunted, and traded with bands of wandering Indians. Once a year, in the spring, he took his furs eastward out of the mountains by pack-horse to Edmonton. He was named Red Rorty, and was thought by himself and some others to be a strong man because sometimes on a still day he could be heard shouting from five miles off. He shouted at his horses when they were hard to catch, or at an Indian who had brought poor furs to trade. At other times he would shout when there was nothing to shout for, and would listen and smile when the mountains hurled his voice — rolled it from one rock wall to another, until it seemed he heard bands of men, loosed above him, calling one to another as they climbed farther and higher into the rock and ice.
Much alone, he was given to hearing strange sounds and to seeing a tree far off as a man, or a bunch of trees down the valley from his cabin as a group of men advancing towards him. So that he could see better what was around him and that no one might come upon him unawares, he had made a wide clearing around his cabin, which he kept free of willows and all bush tending to grow there. A pine-tree on the edge of the clearing, ninety yards from his door, was marked with lead from his rifle because of the times in the moonlight he had looked out and thought he saw it moving before him.
His cabin — tidy, with hard earth for its floor — held a stove, a table, a bed, and a bench to sit on. Pack-saddles, bridles, and blankets were hung by its door under the eaves. Its logs were white-washed, so that it gleamed against his eyes from far off when he returned from hunting.
Red Rorty was the first son of many born on a homestead in Bruce County in Ontario. He came west when he was young and worked on the land near Fort Carry. After a while he got a job wrangling horses on a party sent out to the mountains to line the rivers into the contours of the land. When the party disbanded at Edmonton he returned to the Athabaska valley with four horses and the money he had saved, and built himself a cabin — for of all the country he had seen he liked it the best.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Tay John by Howard O'Hagan. Copyright © 2008 by Howard O'Hagan Afterword by Michael Ondaatje. Excerpted by permission of New Canadian Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.