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Skagit River Journal

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Fur Trading Odyssey in Northern British Columbia

By Otto K. Pressentin, as told to Ray Jordan, Courier-Times, April 24, 1958
(Otto with his pistol)
Otto with his pistol

      (Courier Ed. note: Otto K. Pressentin, now 82, has a tremendous stock of memories of the Northwest and the exciting life of the times. In the story, Mr. Pressentin, who lives in his small home on east State street., tells Ray Jordan about one period in his life. —Frank Evans)

Otto and the Great Outdoors
      At Vancouver I cashed in my furs. The two foxes that I had purchased at Quesnel for $65 brought me $1,700. My expense for the season had been about $500. In December a French trapper who thought I might be buying furs had approached me. he had a fine specimen of cross fox and a beautiful silver fox skin that he wanted to sell for $100. I was nearly broke and told him so. [These figures are confusing. The $1,700 figure may have been a typo.]
      "Why don't you sell them at the store?" [I asked. He replied:]
      "The storekeeper does not buy the fur. He offer to send them away for me, but that would take too long. Christmas she come soon and I want sure to have the money by then." Back in 1910 there were no fox farms and a silver fox was a prize few men ever came by. I had to have those furs.


Gets the furs
      I went to a barroom where a party was playing poker and succeeded in selling my camping outfit and revolver at a loss, for $50, and borrowing back $20 that i had loaned a friend. I scraped up the $100, then started hunting for the Frenchman.
      He spotted me first, and before I could open my mouth, said that he would take $65 for the furs. Hurriedly peeling off the money, I clutched the skins. That was the deal that clinched my future for the next ten years as a fur trader among the Indians of northern British Columbia during which time I traveled alone by shanks mares, horse, canoe, dog team and boat.
      In the ensing years I pitched my tent many times in the northwest Stikine river country, along the Skeena river and the western headwaters of the Fraser [see a description of the watershed of those rivers below.]


Pack horse used
      For three years I used a pack horse successfully. The snow was never very deep except in the high passes. Wild grass and pea vine provided ample forage. The only maps available at this time had been drawn by a priest on his travels and were correct in every details, that is, for areas which he had traversed, the rest depended upon information gained from the Indians.
      And every pound counted on these trips. My tent, which I made myself of Indian muslin, weighted only four pounds. Dehydrated potatoes, put up in cans for the trade, and bacon with fish and game picked up along the trail was the principal diet. I carried only the lightest trade items that would get me furs. These journeys were made in the dead of winter, and alone, for reasons to be stated later.
      The inland Indians were an interesting study. As a rule, I found them to be tall, intelligent and still proud, though tractable enough when receiving fair treatment. Any reasonable request or hospitality was freely granted, if they liked you. And they knew trading prices too. You had to hew to the line, or you got no furs.


Indians hated braggarts
      They lived off the country and were experts in their way of life, and this was their criterion in judging the white man that came among them. They hated braggers and windbags.
      After trying to operate one season with a partner, I gave up. My companion had a sneering regard for what he considered an inferior people, which drove the Indians to fury on occasions. As a result, while in their villages my diplomacy was taxed tot he utmost to avert serious trouble.
      It was just too difficult to find a man who would respect the Indians' dignity, or approach him as an equal, so from then on I "lone-wolfed" it as long as I remained in the North, and had no difficulties with them at any time, merely by treating them as I would want to be treated myself. The Indian was no fool by any means, just a victim of the lack of opportunity.
      The Tahltans, with their headquarters village about two hundred miles up the Stikine river and twenty miles from Telegraph creek, were the most advanced of any of the tribes I met. Their language, I noted in particular, had all the verb tenses, something I had not encountered in any other tribal tongue. They also had a small species of fierce fighting dog used for hunting found nowhere else. These people appeared to be related to the Tsimshians at the mouth of the Stikine.


Stone Age type
      In contrast, the tribe at the headquarters of the Liard River, known locally as the "Dease Lake Indians," lived much deeper in the Stone Age.
      These people did not believe in interfering with any natural occurrence. If a man were drowning, and you gave help, the spirits would be angry; if he saved himself, everything was fine.
      If a hunter was roasting a hunk of meat before the fire and another hunter noticed that it was burning and told him so, he would have to let it burn and then start with a fresh piece, or the gods would take offense. Also, for the same reasons, the carcasses of the otter, lynx and coyote, which were considered sacred, had to be arranged in a sleeping position when they were disposed of after skinning.
      Once, while at their village, I noticed some undue commotion. Discreet investigation revealed that they were preparing to burn two of their number who had been convicted of witchcraft. They had offended the spirits in some way, so the luckless pair had to die. A hunting party of Tahltans in the vicinity who had more advanced views, some of them armed with muskets, interfered and took the would-be victims home with them.


Cannibalism
      A Metlakahtla Indian from the Prince Rupert area once told me that while still a boy, in the long ago, he had helped his father eat part of a white man. This was not done as a result of a meat shortage, but that by so doing that might acquire some of the superior powers of the white brothers. "Just like pork," he said.
      Indian languages of the interior differed considerably; enough English was understood, however, to conduct trading without great difficulty, and some of the chiefs spoke the Chinook Jargon.
      You might be surprised to know that the natives had a system of writing which was the one originated from a priest in the Kamloops area [and I checked] how widespread the system was. I once had to write my name on a piece of paper which I showed to another chief 150 miles away and he read it with no difficulty. [This was apparently a simple trade language similar to the Chinook jargon, which was invented at Nootka sound more than a century before.]


A mystery
      Here is one on the lighter side. While trading at an isolated village a young boy appeared proudly with his first furs. This meant that he would trade for anything he wanted. He handed over $6 in fur for a "Hudson's Bay Piano" [a Jew's harp], which cost 3 cents, and to my surprise, he immediately gave forth with an excellent rendition of "Marching through Georgia!" How did he learn it?
      At a different time and place, an Indian chief who had a slender, handsome daughter, seemed overly anxious to be in possession of some butter that I had at the time. We made a deal for four pounds, which whetted my curiosity. What did he want it for? The butter was melted, the maidens were strapped to the hide and smeared from head to heels. It seems that the chief had slightly misinterpreted a good priest's custom on anointing.


Links to descriptions of the river watersheds that Otto traveled
      Stikine River. Don't even think of canoeing or kayaking the Stikine River into the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, a 61-mile (100-km) stretch of impassable waters that charge through canyons 1,000 feet deep (300 metres) deep. It has only once been tested. Be content with the waters that are runable: for instance, the 160-mile (260-km) stretch between Tuaton Lake in the Spatsizi Plateau Provincial Wilderness Park and the Hwy 37 bridge over the Stikine. If you wish, you can pick up the trip on the other side of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, continuing downriver from Telegraph Creek all the way to Wrangell, Alaska, for a fortnight's travel of 280 miles (459 km). This is a trip for experienced backcountry paddlers only.
      Skeena River. Accessible by paved road, ferry, and plane, the Skeena River Valley is filled with both unique wilderness experiences and the 'standard' British Columbia fare of deep fjords, dramatic canyons, sheer mountains, rivers thick with salmon, old-growth forests, and an abundance of wildlife. Nestled up under the Alaska Panhandle, the province's northernmost coast, the valley is home to the Skeena River, the second-largest river in British Columbia. The Skeena is approximately 580 kilometres long and drains some 54 488 square kilometres. Over five million salmon return to the Skeena every year, making this a premier salmon-fishing area.
      Fraser river. The Fraser River is the longest river of British Columbia in Canada, rising in the Rocky Mountains near Mount Robson flowing for 1400 km (870 mi), into the Pacific Ocean at the city of Vancouver. The Fraser drains a 220,000 square-kilometer area. Its source is just below Mount Edith Cavell, and for the first part of its course it runs northwest, past Mount Robson, reaching past 54 north before making a sharp turn to the south. At the town of Prince George it is joined by the Nechako River, then continues south and slightly east until just north of the United States border, passing through the Coast Mountains in a deep canyon. It then turns west, passing by Chilliwack and then forming a large delta where it empties into the Strait of Georgia between the mainland and Vancouver Island. The city of Vancouver, its suburb Burnaby, and other smaller towns all sit on the flat land of the delta. The river's volume at its mouth is 112 km each year, and it dumps 20 million tons of sediment into the Pacific. The upper reaches were first explored by Sir Alexander Mackenzie in 1793, and fully traced by Simon Fraser in 1807, who established that it was not connected with the Columbia River. Map of Fraser river.


More stories about the Otto and the von Pressentins


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Story posted on Feb. 5, 2004, and last updated on April 20, 2006
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