“The best barren lands traveler in the north country”
Archie Larocque was born in Smith’s Landing, Alberta, on January 25, 1914 to the Métis couple Henry J. Larocque and Mary Flett. As a sailor, Bay man, trapper, RCMP Special Constable, cat skinner, fire fighter, logger, and government maintenance man, Archie has lived a big life, a full life.
A permanent Royal Northwest Mounted Police* post had been built at Smith’s Landing in 1908 to include a detachment headquarters with attached kitchen, storehouse with attached lean-to for keeping dog feed and a stable with accommodations for four horses. Archie’s father Henry cooked for the NWMP in Smith’s Landing (the name was changed to Fort Fitzgerald in 1915). He later cooked for the Police in Fort Smith after that detachment was opened there on July 23, 1921. Henry also spent some time cooking for Ryan Brothers Transportation at Halfway House, the overnight stop for teamsters hauling the portage trail between Fitzgerald and Fort Smith.
When Archie visited Smith at the age of five there were only a few families living there. Most of the aboriginal people still lived at Salt River in 1919. He recalls that it wasn’t until after 1926 that Fort Smith became a central community and began to grow.
MISSION SCHOOL BOY IN FORT RESOLUTION
At the age of 12 Archie attended school the mission school at Fort Resolution from October 1926 to May 1927. The teachers knew Archie was only going to be there a short time so he says they crammed as much education into him as they could. Archie said he learned a lot in those eight months and was grateful for the chance to be able to go to school at all. He wished he had been able to stay longer. He kept learning for the rest of his life but only for that short time in school. After that he taught himself.
The 138-foot sternwheeler “Midnight Sun” had been built for the Jim Cornwall’s Northern Transportation Company at Athabasca Landing. Intrepid Métis river pilot Joe Bird ran her through the Grand Rapids of the Athabasca River in 1914, the only time such a feat was ever accomplished. The “Midnight Sun” was hauled up on the ways at Fort McMurray, her hull rebuilt under the supervision of Captain Matheson, and she was re-launched with a new name; “Northland Echo.” The “Echo” was used extensively during the summers of 1925, ’26 and ’27 hauling diseased plains buffalo north to the new Wood Buffalo Dominion Park. In 1928, at the age of 14, young Archie Larocque started working on the “Echo”, on the freight run from McMurray down to Fort Fitzgerald. He also worked on the “Distributor” that summer, plying north from Fort Smith north to the Arctic Ocean. The following summer, 1929, he worked mainly on Great Slave Lake on the “Slave River”; a steel hulled boat that had been assembled in Fort Smith.
TRAPPING THE BARRENLANDS AT FIFTEEN
At the end of the 1929 shipping season, Archie went to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company at the Snowdrift (Lutsel K’e) post but the job didn’t last very long. When the work with the Bay ran out he went trapping. He’d learned bush skills as a kid back home around Fitzgerald; so he and a traveling companion, Dan Bloomfield, headed out to barrenlands. They got as far as the headwaters of the Thelon River, Lynx Lake, a journey that included 52 portages with all their winter outfit. There, the two decided to split, Bloomfield staying at Lynx Lake while Archie went on down the Thelon.
Although he moved into an old cabin that first winter, Archie actually spent most of his time on the move, all over the country of the Upper Thelon. He ran his trap lines out from the base cabin in different directions, his longest line took him three and a half days to complete one way at an average of 20 miles a day. Archie remembers it as a tough life on the barrens, every day a challenge, especially when there was no caribou. “It was a battle to keep our dogs and ourselves alive when the caribou didn’t show up.” A hard life for little return; the fur prices weren’t good.
“We made a living, that’s about all,” Archie says, “a fox was only $13 then. You had to catch lots to make money. Howard Price was one of the best; he got 400 foxes one year. That was a really good catch. He was a good trapper: go, go, go – that’s all he knew. He had good dogs too.” Archie trapped out there for four winters. In the summers he stayed in Snowdrift, looked after his dogs and picked up odd jobs. But he had a girlfriend in Rocher River, up the Taltson River southeast of Fort Resolution, who he was real anxious to see again. He decided to pack it in and move to Rocher River. He was giving real serious thought to getting married by golly, so he pulled his outfit out to Snowdrift at the end of the trapping season.
ARCHIE JOINS THE POLICE FORCE
“I was in Snowdrift waiting for the ice to go. I had lots of time. No rush. So I was getting ready, and the police come in from Reliance. Well, I knew this guy, Jim Fabien, from Resolution, who was working for the RCMP at Reliance. The policeman said to me, ‘Jim’s quitting when we get to Resolution. How’d you like to take over his job?’ I said no, I don’t think so.” But that’s just what he did.
Archie sold his whole outfit; canoe, kicker, a couple of tents, 200 traps, camp gear, sleigh, dogs and all, to Jim Fabien for 700 bucks. Archie traveled by police boat from Snowdrift to Fort Resolution, Jim got off with all Archie’s outfit and Archie headed back to Reliance with the police. “I had to give up that girl for awhile,” he says, “but she was still there.”
That was 1934. For the next eight years he was Special Constable Archie Larocque. He piloted the Police boats in the summer and guided the dog patrols in the winter. Four times a year he did the mail run to Fort Resolution and back. During that time Archie guided the most famous and far-reaching patrols ever mounted from the Reliance detachment, checking in on the barrenland trappers, delivering their mail, protecting the Thelon Game Sanctuary and, once, hunting the suspect of a double murder.
“The RCMP weren’t really looking for anything in particular,” he recalls, “just the welfare of the trappers. When those men were up to the country, there was no radio, no nothing. They saw nobody all winter. So the RCMP had to bring the mail and make sure that all the trappers were accounted for.” Some of the trappers out there in those early days were: Jack Knox, Howard Price, Helge Ingstad, Fred Lind, Jim Cooley, Al Greathouse, the D’Aoust brothers (Gus and Gunny Sack Phil), Evan Peterson and his brother Martin, Frenchy Duhamel, a fellow named McMahon, Plum Pudding Dan Bloomfield, Clark Croft, Tin Can Jack, and the “crazy white man” name of Moonshine Bill.
Moonshine Bill at one time operated a squalid little post up the Dog River across from Fort Fitzgerald where he laid in wait for trappers coming in from the east country. There he attempted to separate them from their hard-earned winter fur with the sledgehammer encouragement of his homemade fiddlefoot firewater. That particular enterprise ended when a fresh batch of booze on the stove blew up, blasted the cabin to smithereens and burnt up the remains.
Archie served the RCMP and guided patrols for a number of different officers over his years at Reliance, remembering most of them as good guys and some of them as good men on the trail. Although he recalls Constable Silver as the worst stinker of a Cop he ever worked for, Archie remembers Corporal Tommy Thompson as a good man to work with and a fine trail partner.
“Tommy learned right away. He followed you. What you done, he done. He was good. Take his turn in the lead. Kill caribou. Just like an Indian.” They would head out on the trail for 20 days out of a month, travelling thousands of miles by dog-team.
ON THE MURDER TRAIL
Archie and Tommy Thompson conducted the most famous and thorough patrol of the barrens ever undertaken in 1939, visiting all of the trappers out there over a 30-day period, looking for clues to the whereabouts of a murder suspect.
Howard Price had found the skeletons of Gene Olsen and Emile Bode in the bunks of a cabin on the Mary Francis River in the fall of 1931. Both appeared to have been savagely dispatched with an axe. The last entry in Olsen’s diary was November 6, 1930. It took awhile for the word to filter back through the trapper’s telegraph to the police at Reliance. A police patrol inspected the site in January 1932, determining that the murders had likely been committed sometime around the Christmas of 1930.
The mystery remained unsolved.
It wasn’t until early 1939 that orders arrived at the Reliance police post to mount a patrol to search the country for Telaruk, an Inuk suspected of being the perpetrator of the grisly crime nine years before. It was thought he may have been living in a cabin built by Jack Knox and Bill Hoare at Warden’s Grove on the Thelon River, near where John Hornby, Harold Adlard and young Edgar Christian had starved to death in 1926. It turned out to be the longest and farthest ranging patrol ever conducted from the Reliance detachment.
Thompson and Larocque visited and interviewed all the trappers beyond the treeline in an attempt to piece together the story and get any leads on when Telaruk was last seen or where he might be. They traveled east from Reliance over Pike’s Portage to McKinley Lake, on to Ptarmigan Lake, then northest to Clinton-Colden Lake visiting trappers on the way. Continuing down the Thelon past the junction of the Thelon and Hanbury rivers, they finally arrived at the old cabin at Warden’s Grove. It hadn’t been used for years.
MURDER SUSPECT VANISHED
Telaruk hadn’t been seen for years either; he’d vanished, but the Police did uncover one more crucial bit of evidence during their interviews. Trapper Evan Peterson had been the last person to ever see Telaruk alive, not long after the murdered trappers had been discovered. Peterson revealed that on that occasion Telaruk had been in possession of a rifle that Peterson recognized as having belonged to one of the murdered men. Telaruk was never seen again. A case, perhaps, of northern justice.
Larocque led the patrol on a southward circuit to visit the rest of the trappers out there on the return trip, a route that would hopefully offer them a better chance of getting caribou to feed the dogs. It did.
After 30 days on the trail, Larocque and Thompson returned to Reliance. Thompson sat down to write up his report of the patrol. “We had no reliable maps of this area, and were dependant on Larocque’s instincts and knowledge of the Barrens travel to guide us in the right direction,” Thompson wrote in his report. “Larocque was the best barrens traveler in the north country. Without him, this patrol would never have been possible.”
Telaruk’s body was never found.
ONE DUMB COP
When the time came for Tommy Thompson to be transferred to another post, Archie quit the police. But it didn’t last long. In 1941 a couple of rank greenhorns, Constables Silver and Brown, arrived at Fort Resolution on the way to take over the Reliance post. Archie was talked into helping them. On the way down the east arm of the big lake, Silver, who didn’t know Great Slave Lake from the Sea of Galilee, insisted on telling Archie which way to go. Things went from bad to worse.
One of the duties if the Special Constable was to net and hang fish for the dogs. They would take the police schooner up the Taltson River every fall to put up coney. Very handy for Archie since that was where his girl lived. He and Mary Ann McSwain were married in 1940 and Archie took her back to Fort Reliance on the schooner. Of course Constable Silver blew a gasket. He told Archie that he had to have police permission to get married.
“I told him I thought I was old enough to marry and I didn’t need anyone’s permission. We didn’t get along. He wanted to make all kinds of changes that didn’t make sense. He was wrong and wanted everything his own way, He was no good.”
Silver decided Archie should make a winter patrol to the north in the barrens at a time when all the caribou were in the south. Archie refused to go. Silver threatened to arrest him.
“I said go ahead and arrest me but I know what I’m doing. Boy, was he mad.”
Then Silver proclaimed that the dogs would not be fed caribou or fish anymore, Archie and Brown were ordered to pack a mixture of cornmeal and fat which was to be heated up in the tent every night for dog feed. No fish or caribou, just twenty buckets of mush for a twenty day trip. And no dog whips. The men were not allowed to use whips on patrol. The dogs quickly took advantage of that delightful decree by slacking off from a shoulder straining pull to a snail like Sunday stroll. Of course, Silver never went out on patrol, he sent Archie and Brown. Archie had warned him.
“I told him, ‘Silver, if you ever go in the barrenlands with me, you’ll never come out.’ I didn’t mean it, but it worked. He never made one trip with me in the barrenlands. That’s what I wanted.”
QUIT THE POLICE FOR GOOD
By 1942 Archie had had enough. Working for a yahoo like Constable Silver had soured him for any more police work. He told the police he was leaving at the end of March. Since Croft Clark was selling out and leaving, Archie bought his out for 200 dollars. On April first he loaded a sled with all his belongings, “so high the wife had to straddle it like a horse,” and headed out of Reliance for the last time. With six good dogs they made it Rocher River in two and half days. They settled in Rocher River from where Archie trapped for the next couple of years.
Sad to say Mary Ann died of TB in 1943 and was buried in Rocher River. A son had been and Archie’s mother-in-law took care of baby Wally for a time. Archie married Florence Norn in 1944 in Fort Resolution.
The Larocque’s moved to Yellowknife that same year and Archie went to work for Imperial Oil. Besides delivering oil throughout the town he delivered to Ray Rock and Discovery mines by cat train over ice roads they built themselves. Besides oil, the cat trains hauled food, equipment, and machinery; everything the mines needed.
The year 1959 found Archie back in his original stomping grounds at Fort Smith where, once again, he went trapping. In the summers took jobs out on fire camps and worked in logging camps when not on the trap line.
In 1974 Archie was hired to work for the Department of Public Works in Snowdrift as a Maintenance Supervisor, a position he held until the territorial government retired him at the age of 65 in 1979. He moved to Hay River in later that year and bought a trapline on Mink Creek, between Fort Providence and Rae-Edzo. He remembers that area as very good for trapping. Then he purchased a cabin near Grumbler Rapids on the Hay River and trapped the Buffalo River area but there was no fur so he sold his cabin and moved on.
In the summer of 1983, ex-RCMP Sgt. Thompson and ex S/Cost. Larocque met in Yellowknife and set out to retrace their epic 1939 patrol in the Barren Lands. That time, they traveled by floatplane, motor boat and canoe.
BACK TRAPPING AT MINK CREEK
Archie moved north of the lake to the Beaulieu River, 60 miles east of Yellowknife, in 1986, remaining there for a year. 1987 found him back at Snowdrift where he built a cabin at Hare Lake and went to trapping again. In 1988 he moved back to Hay River and bought his cabin on Mink Creek back, trapping there for two more years.
It wasn’t until 1990 that Archie finally moved back to Fort Smith. After a year in town he got a trap line and went back to trapping until he injured himself in 1995. Now, at the age of 85, he is in total retirement.
You can spot him with his Stetson hat walking around Fort Smith these days, shopping at Northern, stopping to visit with friends, or sitting on the bench in front of the Church watching the world rush by. A real “Man of the North” his old friend Tommy calls him. He sure is. Archie Larocque has seen more of life than most of us can hope for and experienced worlds we’ll never know.
The name of the North-West Mounted Police was changed to the Royal Northwest Mounted Police in 1904 and then again in 1920 to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Some of the information and quotes in this article were gleaned from Thelon: A River Sanctuary, by David Pelly, published by the Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association, 1996. An article by R.W. Thompson published in the November7, 1989 issue of Scope, (reprinted from RCMP magazine) was used for background.
Interviews conducted and material gathered by Shirley Jones-Bohnet