John Albrecht was a well known trapper and prospector in Northern Saskatchewan. Born in 1898 in what was then Prussia, he emigrated to Canada in 1929. During the 1930s he trapped around Wollaston Lake. Later, in pursuit of white fox he moved further north to Selwyn Lake which straddles the Saskatchewan – Northwest Territories border. John was only licensed to trap in Saskatchewan so his cabin was built somewhere on the long SW arm of the lake. In 1939 John accompanied the American traveller and author P. G. Downes on his trip to Nueltin Lake. Their adventures are described in Down’s famous book Sleeping Island.
When we lived in La Ronge in the 1970’s we saw John frequently. By then he was well into his 70s and retired but always ready to tell stories about his time in the bush. I remember him once relating how, at the height of the depression in the 1930s he disappeared up to his cabin and was gone several years. Those on the ‘outside’ presumed him dead. Eventually he reappeared, with a huge cache of furs to sell. Dr. Klaus Lehnert-Thiel wrote an excellent summary of John’s fascinating life that was published in The Northerner shortly after John’s death in 1991. A transcript of that article is available here.
When we began planning our Dubawnt River trip we realised that we would be paddling past the location of John’s Selwyn Lake trap cabin. We began trying to find where the cabin had been located. On our 2012 trip across Cree Lake and down the Mudjatik River we had come across what was probably one of Martin Brustad’s old cabins. Apart from a square depression in the ground and some old tins there was little left. Similarly on the 2013 leg of this trip we found the remains of a cabin on Blondeau Creek. It was still standing in 1957 when Sigurd Olson, Eric Morse and ‘The Voyageurs’ camped beside it. Peter Kazaks described it as ‘a caved in log house’ when he passed through in 1981 (Kazaks 2003). When we found what we believe to be the same building in 2013 it was again just a depression in the ground and overgrown by black spruce (refer photos Day 22, 2013). We knew that with the passage of about 60 years, plus the effects of forest fires, we would be unlikely to find much evidence of John’s cabin unless we knew precisely where it had been located.
Locating John’s Cabin
Klaus Thiel supplied us with a photostat of a snapshot taken of John in front of the cabin circa 1948. There is little in the way of distinct topography or other clues as to it’s location. Cabins were frequently marked on the earlier Canadian topographic maps. We tried to locate a copy of the original 074P Stony Rapids 1:250,000 sheet but without success. Vern Studer in La Ronge had one with John’s cabin marked but it had long ago been lent to someone and never returned. On the morning of our departure from Stony Rapids we discussed the problem over breakfast with Ed White, proprietor of The White Water Inn. Ed had, many years previously been manager of Selwyn Lake Lodge and said there had been a cabin on a small island in the SW arm of Selwyn Lake. Ed marked the location on our maps. We stopped at the island on the afternoon of June 19th 2014 (Trip Day 7).
The location, close to the southernmost extremity of the lake seemed to fit. We knew that John had only a Saskatchewan trapper’s licence. Rumour has it that he probably took white fox up in the NWT as well, but a cabin well south in the Saskatchewan portion of the lake would attract few questions. The shore of Selwyn Lake was recently burned when we visited but the island had remained unburned. As we approached in the canoe, we could see what appeared to be a path leading up from a small pebble beach to an area of open black spruce.
We spent some time wandering around the top half of the island. It is for all intents and purposes flat with gentle slopes down to the water. The only place we found any evidence of possible habitation was about 20m south of the small pebble beach. Here there is a prominent rock outcrop. Immediately to the west and south of the outcrop were two shallow, ill defined roughly rectangular depressions. In the same area we found a few rusty remains of tin cans.
Immediately to the south of the outcrop there is a similar depression. Many old trap cabins had the area under the floor dug out. Both these depressions however were too ill defined to definitely be confirmed as building sites.
We thought that we might have seen more evidence of former occupation. This arm of Selwyn Lake is still much visited by local Dene people, hunting caribou in winter. After John abandoned it (probably some time in the early 1950s) there would have been frequent canoe and dog sled traffic past the island. Anything of any use would have long since disappeared. Time and forest fires have likely done the rest. We regret that we didn’t consult with some of the Dene elders in Black Lake. It is likely there are still people alive who can remember the cabin and confirm the location. Please contact us if you have any further information.
Update January 2020
Saskatchewan historian and writer Joan Champ recently alerted us to an additional clue regarding the location of John’s cabin. S. E. (Bob) Lee was a friend of John Albrecht. In his self published book The North Called Softly Joan found a reference to a prominent esker close to the cabin. According to Lee, John and his wife Nan went there frequently. The topographic maps and Google Earth confirm that there is indeed an esker very close to our proposed cabin location (refer map above). It forms a sort of peninsula on the west side of the lake about 1.5km south of the island we visited. Sections of the esker also form a chain of three narrow sinuous islands. The most northerly of these is just 300 metres to the west of the island we propose as John’s cabin location. Certainly it fits. There are no other eskers anywhere on that long narrow SW arm of Selwyn Lake.
Joan Champ has written several articles regarding John Albrecht:
References and Notes
Lee, S. E. (Bob), The North Called Softly. Prince Albert, SK. Self-published, 1977
Sadly The Northerner ceased publishing in August 2015. Started by Vern Brooks in 1974 it was a part of northern Saskatchewan life for four decades