It’s the late 17th century, and two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France --- bound to a feudal lord for three years in exchange for land --- to become barkskins --- wood-cutters. René suffers hardships and is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader and sets up a timber business.
Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, two ranch hands, come together when they're working as sheepherder and camp tender one summer on a range above the tree line. At first, sharing an isolated tent, the attraction is casual, inevitable, but something deeper catches them that summer. Both men work hard, marry, and have kids because that's what cowboys do. But over the course of many years and frequent separations this relationship becomes the most important thing in their lives, and they do anything they can to preserve it.