By a Special Correspondent T HROUGHOUT the long Manitoba winter hundreds
If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it so we can fix it.
of tractor-trains swing over the frozen lakes, carrying supplies to tradrng posts and mining fields. Because the freight is carried on sleds pulled by Caterpillar tractors, the operators are called " cat-skinners " and they talk about their sled "cats."
In central Manitoba tractor-trains cross the ice-covered expanses of Lake Winnipeg, bringing in their harvests of fresh-caught whitefish sheltered from frost in heated cabooses, or frozen fish piled on sleighs. From points on the Hudson Bay Railway the trains carry in massive mining equipment, fuel and food. Sometimes they come back empty, but often there is a payload of mining concentrates, pulpwood, frozen fish or furs for the return trip.
Radio Communication ' Some of these outfits are equipped with two-way radio sets to keep constant touch witIr head office, and they operate on fixed schedules. Others , function less regularly along routes which are little known and may involve round trips of nearly 1,000 miles.
Time was when all haulage was done by horse and sleigh, and ,loads comprised equal parts of feed and freight. Many a driver in those days walked back from .his jottrney because his horses had died of exposure.
Then came the Lynn petrolengine(' tractors and finally the oilers, which have proved themselves to -be veterans of the north.
Ilford, a tiny settlement at Mile 286 on the Hudson Bay Railway, is an important centre for tractor haulages. The 125 miles from the railway to God's Lake is practically a tractor highway, being used by four outfits. Sixty hours is the standard time for a one-way trip. From God's Lake the tractors branch off to mining communities, such as Lingman Lake and Island Lake, or to the trading posts of Red Sucker or Bearskin and Sachigo. in Ontario When haulage is about to start in mid-December a " breaking " crew goes over the road. These men put in bridges where necessary, and haul a heavy drag over the portages [stretches of land between lakes] to establish a firm foundation.
The goods yards at Ilford hum with idling engines. Once started for the winter, the engines are never switched off. During the long nights the head lights play over the piles of freight, easing the duties of the watchman.
Night and day the crews manhandle loads of fuel or dressed lumber, bags of flour and cartons of dry goods and groceries on to the flat sleighs.
The arrangement of the tractortrain is carefully planned. Depending on individual hauling power, some tractors pull five sleighs and others only three. On portages the units remain close together, but on lakes they are widely spaced for the sake of safety. The trains average about 3 m.p.h.
Sleeping and kitchen accommodation are incorporated in the train. In many cases the two compartments are combined and are desperately crowded. The men sleep in bunks arranged like a honeycomb and called "muzzle-loaders." Usually two crews work alternate shifts of eight hours on and eight hours off. Some outfits drive steadily throughout the day, a 16-hour shift, and halt during the night.
Substantial meals are ready every eight hours, with snacks in between for the men who are on shift. Meals are, for the most part, cooked and eaten "on the fly," but usually at breakfast-time the machines pause for refuelling.
Fuel Reserves From time to time along the route, drums of oil fuel are removed from the sleighs and placed in caches for the return trip. Any outfit in time of distress may borrow from them. Honesty is not merely the best policy here; it is the only one, as unnecessary tampering might lead to reprisals. Usually a message is left in a cleft stick alongside the trail.
The tractor route makes use of lakes where possible, because the greatest speed may be maintained across the flat frozen surfaces. While crossing portages between lakes, the machines frequently double-up to
haul loads up the gradients. In some cases, to get them safely downhill, a tractor is hitched to the tail of a string of sleighs to restrain them from rushing down upon one another, and "jack-knifing."
When the ice snaps like pistol shots and the sleigh runners squeak over the snow, it is good freighting weather. In sub-zero temperatures, continual traffic strengthens the ice for those who have to follow.
Snowstorms, on the other hand, not only make driving difficult and unpleasant, but weaken the ice. Under a thick layer of snow, the ice cannot freeze solidly, but forms frozen slush which is vulnerable to the sun of early spring. Each tractor, with its train of sleighs, chews up the slush. The good ice underneath sinks with the continued weight, and each on-coming machine finds more water and slush piled up ahead.
Lakes of Slushy Ice It may be necessary to plough out a fresh route for each tractor and load when crossing a lake of slushy ice. Where that is impossible, machines and loads are dragged across by cable, using a Hyster winch. Then, if the weather turns cold, the slush is frozen into rough hummocks, a further menace to equipment on the return trip. Mr holes,.too, are a source of danger to the unwary.
The route must be chosen with care. The " cat-skinner" in front
with the sriowplough has a hazardous occupation. It is his duty to clear a safe path across the frozen icefields, and to avoid air holes that may be invisible to the uninitiated. He must know enough to give islands and reefs a wide berth, for there the ice is weak. He must be able to recognize signs of efacks in the good ice far below the surface of snow and slush..
Ready to Bale Out Many a driver is not ashamed to stand up at the controls of his machine while on snow-ploughing duty, ready to leap. There is little margin of safety, and frequently drivers have not been fast enough in leaving their tractors. For this reason, and in spite of the added comfort, cabs are disliked by the "cat-skinners." If they must drive in them, it is always with the top folded back in readiness for a hurried exit.
Dirty swamp-water and mud holes do not freeze well, and aretreacherous in mid-winter. If the shores be of sinking muskeg or rocky hills, it is impossible to skirt the mud holes. Sometimes muskeg may be crossed, but it is dangerous, because it falls and rises with the passing machine. It may bear the weight of a few loads, but later loads drop
through. Almost as swift as the plunge through the ice is the disappearance of a tractor into a muskeg lake, and the machine cannot be salvaged as easily as it can from water.
Courtesy of the road calls for an exchange of news. "Watch for the craft in the lake ahead," one will warn the other. "We put up a signal."
The danger signal often, consists of a "pair of evergreens standing on end and crossed, at the danger point. Anyone traversing that area does so in the face of clear warning.
When trains meet on a portage, the more heavily loaded outfit has the right-of-way. Usually tractors are uncoupled to give the other fellow a helping hand, or to widen the road for him.
There is not much time for social life on the tractor routes.. As fast as the freight can be unloaded at the various points of call, the sleighs a-re either left behind to be called for, or are " double-decked " to reduce the drag. A machine crippled beyond immediate repair may beloaded on to a sleigh and hauled home. Empty fuel cans are picked up on the return trip.
Non-stop Performance Once back in the goods yards, the round of work is resumed. Sleighs are loaded; then out on the " road " once more. Time is all-important in winter freighting. The traffic must go through before the spring breakup arrives, with its delays and dangers.
It is a hard life, concerned entirely with working, eating and sleeping. It calls for strength and endurance and courage. The men are matterof-fact about it, but daily they face hardship and monotony, danger and not rarely the possibility of death. Anyone with normal mechanical skill can drive a tractor. But it takes much more than that to be a good —catskinner."