A tale of one of the last Metis Trappers
By Gregory McGrath-Goudie, Orillia Bureau Chief
Horace Goudie was born in North West River, Labrador, on May 14th, 1922. At the time of his birth, North West River was a tiny village with a trading post operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and it was commonplace for men to spend their lives trapping animals and selling the furs they collected as a means of survival. As one of the last men to truly live this lifestyle, my great uncle Horace not only exhibited mastery in surviving Labrador’s harsh wilderness, but his tale also describes the compromises he had to make as modernity wilfully crept its way into his surroundings. His passing this January is not only an incredible loss to the Goudie family, but it marks—in many ways—the closing of an era and the people who survived within it. This is a story of the world he grew up in.
The Hudson’s Bay Company, for better or for worse, played a huge role in developing Canada as we know it today. Founded in 1670, it initially served as the de facto government across many parts of Canada, until European states eventually laid claims to the lands it operated in. It was not until 1836, decades after the Treaty of Paris passed Labrador from French to British rule, that the Hudson’s Bay Company arrived and exercised a monopoly on Labrador’s fur trade for over 100 years. These historical events explain Horace’s lineage as a Metis man, as he descended from both Inuit and European origins. Although trapping as a career would soon become a thing of the past, Horace loved living in the country more than anything, and always sought to get back into this lifestyle. In his autobiography, Trails to Remember, he cites his father—a fellow trapper—as his hero and greatest influence, and describes the determination required in making his dreams come true:
“To me, a trapper had to go through [difficult] things, had to accept everything that had to be done, to be good at, like my father. I could not turn around and walk away from it. I had to go through it all in order to become successful at what I wanted to be. That was my wish, that was my dream, and I was willing to do anything that had to be done.”
You may be wondering—what exactly was it that he had to do as a trapper? Well, it involved leaving his home in autumn for upwards of several months at a time, and canoeing close to 300 kilometres, upstream, to his trapping grounds near Churchill Falls. This may sound impossible, but since Horace was born relatively late to become a trapper, the only trap lines available to him and his peers were those near the Labrador Plateau, where the Churchill Falls fed the Churchill River that many trappers used. Colloquially known as the Height of Land, Horace and his peers were referred to as the Height of Landers, a name befitting their demanding lifestyles.
Once the journey on canoe was finished, trappers would venture down their trap lines, where they had various tilts (tiny log cabins) set up along the way. They would set up traps for anything ranging from otters, beavers, lynx, and foxes, as well as weasels, martens, and minks. After collecting the pelts that they could, trappers would build a toboggan, generally out of tamarack, to pull their furs and luggage home. As it was impossible to canoe downstream in a Labrador winter (where temperatures could drop to -50 Celsius), the Height of Landers had to walk up to 22 days to arrive at home, and had to leave their canoes behind. Naturally, this walk was a gruelling experience, but Horace’s arrivals at home over the years generated some pretty funny stories.
My father, Jason Goudie, told me of a time where Horace had finished the walk home, and asked his sister to cook him eggs until he was full. In the end, he ate around 40 eggs in a single sitting. Another time, his mother and fellow author, Elizabeth Goudie, had prepared 5 pounds of salmon for the entire family to eat the following day, but good old Horace unwittingly ate it all—as a snack before going to bed.
Once the trappers arrived at home, they sold their furs to the Hudson’s Bay Company. The reason the Hudson’s Bay Company was able to generate as much profit as it did was due to the fact that they purchased furs at a high profit margin—thus leaving little money for the trappers themselves. This simple fact of life caused the people of Labrador to adopt a high standard of professionalism borne by scarcity of resources. For example, it was often considered wasteful to take only one animal with a single bullet. I was told a story where Horace was hunting ducks, and he saw several of them floating down a river on an ice flow. Although he had a perfect shot at one of them, he waited patiently until three of their heads were lined up, and instantly took three ducks where many others would have only been able to take one.
My father also told me the story of his first caribou hunt. At this time, traveling by snowmobile was commonplace, so he and Horace travelled up to the Churchill Falls area, met up with other hunters who were using a truck, and ventured off towards Esker. As they were driving, they startled two caribou that were resting near the road. They slowed down and Horace, who was into his senior years at this point, hopped out of the still moving truck and quickly set up his rifle. Although it appeared that he would only be able to hit the rear end of the caribou, he lined up his shot perfectly and managed to shoot it through heart, at a range of around 100 yards. A shot through the heart is one of the most humane ways to kill an animal, and the fact that he was able to pull it off at such a ridiculous angle is a testament to his professionalism as a trapper.
Although hunting animals was and still is commonplace in Labrador, my great uncle Horace displayed a deep compassion for the wilderness and all the creatures that lived within it. In Trails to Remember, he recounts his appreciation for the cleverness of beavers, who knew how to set off traps using sticks, lest they get caught in one themselves:
“I found it strange and amazing when I learned about the way beavers live and work. I could hardly believe how clever they are. […] When we came back the second time […] all the traps had a little stick in them. When we checked the traps for a third time, the beaver had […] got careless. He took a little short stick, about three to four inches long in his paw and held it, just like a man would hold it in his hand, and pushed it down on the bridge of the trap. The trap struck up but this time the stick was too short—his foot was already inside the jaw, and the trap struck across it. The little stick was still in his paw when we found him. That was proof to me that the beaver had really done it.”
Living in the kind of country that they did, people from this time often came close to death in their efforts to complete their work. These experiences altered their characters—they became tough, strong, and often laughed at dangerous situations. Fear gave way to fortitude and common sense. Although I largely grew up in Ontario, I was fortunate enough to personally hear a great story out of Horace when I saw him in 2010. He told me of a time where he, along with many other trappers, had set out in the fall to complete the winter’s work. It was fairly common for trappers to shoot a bear, if possible, as its fur was valuable for staying warm throughout the winter.
One of Horace’s friends noticed a bear swimming across the river, and decided to shoot it. Naturally, the bear sunk to the bottom of the river, and when he asked the group if anyone would like to retrieve it, they unanimously replied, “Well, you shot it. You go get it.” After this man dragged the bear’s body from the riverbed to the riverbank, something we would today consider horrifying happened: the bear awoke, as it had only been knocked unconscious, and began chasing this man up the riverside. Instead of panicking and rushing to help their friend, Horace and the rest of the trappers were too busy having a laugh over the ordeal. Of course, someone soon shot the bear down and helped out their friend. This story, though, is remarkable to me because I would be incapable of laughing at such an experience from the vantage point of my time and upbringing. Horace and his fellow trappers, however, were tough to the point that they could quite literally laugh in the face of death.
Despite their ability to laugh at situations like this, people from this time also displayed a legendary capacity for kindness. In World War II, a military base was set up near Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, and American soldiers began frequenting the area. My uncle, Scott Goudie, recalls a compelling story about Horace’s father, Jim Goudie:
“He once saved some American pilots. He was home for some reason in the winter and heard a crash. He walked for two days and found them all ready to starve or freeze. He brought some extra food and then walked another two, three days in order to get them rescued.”
With the construction of the military base, Horace’s home underwent a transformation. The frontier life of Labrador slowly gave way to urbanization, and this affected the ability of people to continue living in traditional lifestyles. Over these years, Horace took various jobs—including driving trucks, working as a security guard in Toronto, and even working as an outside manager for the Hudson’s Bay Company, to name but a few. Although he enjoyed the challenges of his work at times, he perpetually yearned to get back into the country, where his heart always felt at home. Whenever fur prices rose high enough to justify trapping for the winter, Horace was the first to get back to his true calling. In his book, he states how he felt lonely when he was not in the wilderness, even though he was often alone when he did his work. When he met his wife, Anita, she asked about the loneliness of the wilderness, to which he replied, “No, I am happy out there, but I am lonely when I am here in the Valley, it’s just too crowded here for me.”
My grandfather, Joe Goudie, succinctly describes his brother as “a man of the country,” and it is sad to see his way of life come to an end. Despite that, those that are alive today can learn lessons from Horace’s hardships, his brilliance, and his determination to live the life that he thought was right. He was hard and strong, yet brilliant. Ruthlessly efficient, yet compassionate. These are only a few of the words that can describe Horace Goudie, as well as the people of Labrador.