The Reindeer Trek

One of the two more singular feats in Mattie's illustrious life concerned the Great Reindeer Drive down the Northern Peninsula, a distance of 400 miles in the dead of winter. The following description of the journey is taken from an article appearing in The Express, March , 1992 by Don Morris. A more complete description of the trek and its background can be found in The Book of Newfoundland, Vol III, p. 419-422.

In 1908, Dr Wilfred Grenfell the medical missionary who founded the famed Grenfell Mission at St. Anthony, had bought in Scandinavia a herd of 300 reindeer to augment the local food supply of the northern people. Fifty of the animals were earmarked for the AND Company which wished to try an experiment -- the use of reindeer in harness for hauling logs in the interior.

lt was intended that the company's animals be landed at the convenient port of Lewisporte. However when the ship arrived the harbour was ice-blockaded and the reindeer were unloaded at Cremaillere Bay near St. Anthony. A party of men from the company under the direction of Hugh Henry Cole, a key official wilh the mill concern, left for St. Anthony for the unique "reindeer drive" southward. It was only natural that the company would choose Mattie Mitchell to guide the men and animals down the Great Northern Peninsula to Millertown.

At the Grenfell Mission Mattie and the company men were joined by four colorfully dressed Laplanders who had come to Newfoundland with the reindeer to act as temporary herdsmen. The drive down the peninsula began March 2 1908. The original intention was to drive the herd over the sea ice but the suface was broken by violent storms. The alternative was the high windswept plateau of the peninsula.

It was a lingering late winter and the land was constantly swept by blinding blizzards. The herd consisted of 40 female reindeer heavy with fawns and 10 male deer. Four trained reindeer herd dogs and six local huskies were included in the unusual caravan. On March 22, the drive had reached the headwaters of Cat Arm River inside While Bay after 20 days of very tortuous travel. Because of Ihe weather-slowed progress, provisions were now practically gone.

Forced to turn eastward in an effort to survive, men and animals reached an empty logging camp at Sop's Arm River on March 28. At Cole's direction Mitchell and another man were sent by dogteam to the village to find food. When the pair reached the settlement, they found it deserted. The inhabitants had moved across the bay to their more sheltered winterquarters. The men pushed onward, reached the people, obtained some supplies and headed back to Cole's camp. It look them 52 hours to make the round trip of about 20 miles. The party with their reindeer then continued their hard joumey towards Deer lake.

At the foothills of the Long Range Mountains, caribou were encountered in abundance and the trekkers dined on venison, a most welcomed fare. Thirty days after leaving St. Anthony, the Cole party and their charges had reached the summit of the great peninsula's mountain range. But sub-zero temperatures and storms made travel appalling. When they eventually descended and again reached foothills on the opposite side of the range the most difficult part of their journey as over. The intense cold and severe storms persisted, but there was more shelter and now the waterways were opened permitting the herd to swim across St. Paul's Inlet.

Bonne Bay was eventually reached on April 23, after 53 days on the trail. Cole left the party and made a sled trip to the railway depot at Deer lake where he took the train for Millertown to make arrangements for building corrals for the reindeer. Mattie stayed with the party in his capacity as guide. Cole returned to meet his men and the herd at a point halfway between Bonne Bay and Deer Lake. Then the reindeer were loaded into rail boxcars and eventually reached their destinations. The long unusual journey was completed April 30. They were on the trail 58 days and covered 400 miles of the most gruelling nature.

After a while the AND Company lost interesl in the experiment of using reindeer as beasts of burden. but the animals together with the Laplanders clad in their attractive native garb proved to be a showpiece at Millertown and attracted visitors from as far away as St. John's. Even the colony's governor was curious enough to organize a select party and travel overland to view the novelty.

Eventually, the reindeer were donated to the Grenfell Mission and shipped backed to St. Anthony. The Laplanders returned home and Mattie Mitchell went about his business of fishing, hunting guide and prospector. It is said the redoubtable Micmac had no lack of clients.

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