H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

The great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory online

. (page 20 of 24)
Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 20 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

find no theory quite so fallacious for an unskilled voyager ;
for, let him be as careful as he will, he can keep the sun
in the position he requires, and yet go round in a circle.
After one becomes accustomed to prairie or ocean-travel, he
learns almost intuitively to be guided by the sun, and can
travel by it ; but it cannot be learned by a neophyte in a
single lesson.

Alone upon the illimitable plain, passing by, in his igno-
rance of prairie-craft, those numberless milestones to safety


wliich make to the plain-dweller a great public highway, the
lonely wanderer begins at length to realize that he is lost.
It dawns upon him first in a sense of absolute bewilderment
— a bewilderment so intense as to produce for the moment
an almost perfect blank in the mind. He is incapable of
summoning thought sufficient to realize anything — to consider
his present situation, or take measures for future action. It is
an indefinable state where all is chaotic ; quickly succeeded,
however, by an all-pervading terror, which chains thought
and action in a manner nearly akin to death — a vague, shape-
less terror, imagining all possible horrible things, and paint-
ing mistily and hazily upon the numbed faculties nameless
miseries yet to be experienced : a slow death by starvation or
thirst ; exposure to the devouring elements, or wild beasts ;
tortures of every imaginable description, always ending in a
lingering death ; and, above all, never more to look upon
a human face, never more to share human sympathy — a
going out in utter darkness, perfectly alone. Then Despair
joins Terror, adding her tortures ; and lastly comes that
all-powerful, all-pervading desire for human companionship
which, blending with the former feelings, unhinges the intel-
lect and renders the man insane.

In winter the dangers of the prairie-ocean deepen and
become manifold. The deep snows obliterate all landmarks ;
to-day, the depressions are filled up ; the ridges levelled ;
it is a dead surface of glistening white. To-morrow, the
shifting winds start the breakers going ; they come at first
in long even swells, the harbingers of the storm ; they break


into short chopping waves ; they pile one upon another in
tumultuous billows that freeze into motionless torpor. The
face of the snowy sea is never the same ; what is a landmark
to-day is obliterated to-morrow. The peaceful summer scene
that seemed only wanting the settler's hut, the yoke of oxen,
the wagon, to become the paradise of the husbandman, is
lost in fierce storm and tempest and blinding snowdrift.

But there come calms upon the prairie-ocean — days when
an infinite silence broods over the trackless expanse, when the
Mirage of the Desert plays strange freaks of inverted shore-
land. It is the moment following the sunrise of such a day.
A deeper stillness steals over the earth, and in its solemn hush
colors of wondrous hue rise and spread along the horizon.
The earth stands inverted in the sky; the capes and promon-
tories of the prairie-ocean are etched in deeper lines than
graver ever drew upon the blue above ; the poplar and aspen
islands which dot the plain, float bottom upwards, anchored by
great golden threads in a deep sea of emerald and orange and
blue, mingled and interwoven together. Dwellings twenty and
thirty miles distant, seem but a few rods away ; the gliding
dog-sledges, out of sight over the plain, are transferred to the
sky, and seem steering their sinuous courses through the clear
ether ; far away, seemingly beyond and above all, one broad
flash of crimson light, the sun's first gift, reddens upward
toward the zenith. But every moment brings a change ; the
day gathers closer to the earth, and wraps its impassive veil
again over the sunken soul of the wilderness.

The mirages of the Plains are of wondrous beauty ; every


feature of the landscape seems limned with supernatural dis-
tinctness. We have seen, a moment after sunrise on a win-
ter's morn, a little hamlet, thirty miles away, defined against
the sky with a minuteness of detail not excelled by a steel
engraving. We have seen men at nearly the same distance
photographed so microscopically as to be able to describe
their wearing apparel ; have distinguished the gambolings of
dogs and other animals upon the snow. The ordinary phe-
nomena of the mirage — the simple drawing of a distant land-
scape near the spectator — are of almost daily occurrence at
some seasons of the year. Objects far beyond the range of
the naked eye seem but a few rods distant; beautiful, waveless,
nameless lakes glimmer in uncertain shore-line, and in shadow
of inverted hill-top ; the aspen groves seem standing with
their trunks half buried in the water. At times, when the
atmospheric conditions are perfect, the whole landscape
within the range of vision seems but an optical delusion, a
phantasmagoria ; everything about one is uncertain, unreal.
The mirage begins but a few yards distant from one, and
shifts and merges into new forms, like the changing colors
of a kaleidoscope. At such times the inexperienced traveler
is all at sea; he pursues one ignis fatitiis but to involve himself
in another, and becomes hopelessly and irretrievably lost.

To the plain-dweller, however, all the myriad features of
the prairie are but so many guideboards pointing out his des-
tination. He who runs may read. He has the sun by day,
the moon and the stars by night. The turning of a blade of
grass points him east and west ; the bark of every tree north


and south ; the birds of the air forecast the weather for him.
He sees a twig broken, and it tells the story of a passing
animal ; an upturned pebble on the beach marks the hour
when the animal drank. He will distinguish the trail of a
wagon over the prairie years after it has passed ; the grass,
he says, never grows the same. There is not a sigh or sough
of the restless wind that is unintelligible to him. He will
take a straight course in one direction over the plain, where
no landmarks can be seen, in days when the sun is not shin-
ing, nor a breath of air stirring. Yet he is unable to explain
the power he possesses, and considers it quite a natural
faculty. The half-breed or Indian never gets lost. If he be
overtaken by storm upon the plain, his escape becomes
simply a question of physical endurance.

But the measureless spaces of the Fur Land have other
dangers and discomforts than those of uncharted immensity.
To any one who has not experienced the atmosphere of that
hyperborean region the intensity of its coldness can scarcely
be described. The sun, being so far southward, creates but
little heat, and the major part of the time is hidden behind
sombre and leaden clouds. Before you, in every direction,
the eye meets an unbroken waste of snow. Far away, per-
haps, as the eye can reach, a faint line of scattered tree-tops
may barely be distinguished, appearing no higher than fern-
bushes, marking the course of some prairie-stream crossing
your path, or running parallel with it — not a thing of life
or motion within the range of vision between the earth and
sky, save the conveyance near you. The vastness and mag-


nitude of the scene are overpowering. The immensity of
the dead level is overwhelming. You are an atom in the
gigantic panorama of frozen Nature about you.

Coming in from the rarefied atmosphere generated by
sixty-seven degrees of frost, an extended and sentient fore-
finger, pointing in the direction of one's nose, instantly in-
forms him of the frozen condition of that member. Then
he recalls the fact that, fifteen minutes before, a slight prick-
ing sensation was experienced in the end of the nose —
momentary, and in the hurry of the instant scarcely noticed.
It was at that particular moment that it had frozen. Had he
looked out, or rather down, he would have seen the ghostly
spectacle ; for firmer, colder, whiter, and harder than hard
hearts, stony eyes, marble foreheads, or any other silicious
similitude, stands forth prominently a frozen nose.

Some theorist might make a study of frozen noses which
would be interesting. Inference might be connected with
inference in infinite duration. One might read an essay
from it on the eternal fitness of things, and history viewed by
the light of frozen noses might reveal new secrets. For
example, the inability of the Roman nose to stand the rigors
of an Arctic winter limits the boundaries of the Roman
empire ; the Esquimaux nose is admirably fitted by nature,
on account of its limited extent, for the climate in which
it breathes, hence its assignment to hyperborean latitudes.
This, however, is by the way.

One's nose was frozen, say, in traversing at a rapid walk
a distance of not more than one hundred yards; for it is


a '^poudre" day. Sixty-seven degrees of frost, unaccom-
panied by wind, is endurable if you are taking vigorous
exercise, and are warmly dressed; but let the faintest possi-
ble wind arise — a gentle zephyr, a thing which just turns the
smoke above the lodge-poles, or twists the feather detached
from the wing of a passing bird — then look out, for the
chances are that every person met will extend that forefinger
to mark some frozen spot on your reddish-blue countenance.
This, however, is the extent of the courtesy; they do not
follow out the Russian plan of rubbing out the plague-spot
with a handful of snow, probably out of deference to the
limited amount of attrition most noses stand without peelino-.
A poudre day, with the temperature in the thirties below,
is a thing to be spoken of in a whisper. Not a soul leaves
the fireside who can avoid it ; to wander away from well-
known landmarks is to run the risk of never returning.
Every winter half a score of men walk off into the whirling
particles of snow and drift, and the morning sun finds a
calm and peaceful face turned up to the sky, with its life
frozen out, and its form hard and unimpressible, as if carved
from granite. The early morning of such a day may be clear
and still ; but upon close inspection the atmosphere will
be found filled with crystal, scintillating, minute, almost im-
perceptible particles of snow, drifting on wings of air, impal-
pable and fleeting. Soon after daybreak the wind begins
to rise. Off to the north rolls a little eddy of snow, a mere
puff, not larger than one's hand. Another follows ; minia-
ture coils circle over the smooth surface of the snow, and

sink back imperceptibly to the level again. Drifts of laro-er


proportions roll over the expanse, until the atmosphere
becomes thick with the frozen particles. All landmarks are
lost, and the range of vision is limited to a few feet. The
wind howls like a raging beast, and the merciless cold con-
geals the very heart's blood. It is the sirocco of the North !
On such days traveling is particularly toilsome and dan-
gerous. The state of the atmosphere renders respiration
difficult, increasing the action of the heart, and producing
a slight but constant dizziness. All landmarks are oblit-
erated, and unless one is thoroughly conversant with the
country, he is liable to lose his way, and be caught at night-
fall without shelter or fire. But the most dangerous phase
of travel is the tendency toward inertia. Fatigued by the
least effort, paralyzed by the cold, perhaps frostbitten in
many places, despite every precaution, the traveler is likely
to give up in despair. " I cannot " and " I will not " become
synonymous terms. All effort is apparently useless ; the
attention is distracted by the necessity of fighting continually
to keep face and hands free from frostbite ; keeping the
road in so blinding a tempest seems to be impossible ; the
animals one is driving face about in harness, and refuse
to proceed; and so, beset on every hand, with an intellect
benumbed and paralyzed by the intense cold, and a body
overcome by physical inertia, one gives up all effort as only
adding unnecessary pain, and sits down to be bound hand
and foot by the final stupor. Five minutes' rest in some
snowdrift on the plain is enough, in certain conditions of
fatigue and temperature, to paralyze the energies of the


Strongest man, and make him Avelcome any fate if only let
alone to take his ease. We recall more than one time when
we would have given all we possessed simply to have been
permitted to lie down in a snowbank for ten minutes ; and
left to ourselves, we should certainly have done so. Some of
the best dog-drivers on the plains have related to us similar
experiences, where the inertia of a poudre day on the prairie
seemed too intense to be resisted. Persons who know the
prairie only in summer or autumn have but little notion
of its winter fierceness and desolation. To get a true con-
ception of life in these solitudes they must go toward the
close of November into the treeless waste ; there, amid wreck
and tempest and biting cold, and snowdrifts so dense that
earth and heaven seem wrapped together in undistinguisha-
ble chaos, they will see a sight as different from their summer
ideal as day is from night.

But, though not so dangerous, the still days are the cold-
est. There are every winter a dozen or more days so magic-
ally still that all the usual sounds of nature seem to be sus-
pended; whenthe ice cracks miles away with a report like that
of a cannon ; when the breaking of a twig reaches one like
the falling of a tree ; when one's own footsteps, clad in soft
moccasins, come back from the yielding snow like the
crunching of an iron heel through gravel ; when every arti-
ficial sound is exaggerated a hundred fold, and Nature seems
to start at every break in the intense silence. The atmos-
phere is as clear as crystal, and the range of vision seems
to be unlimited. Seen from a window, from the cosy limits


of an almost hermetically-sealed room, the clear sunshine
and crisp freshness of the day appear to invite one forth to
enjoy its seeming mildness. But the native knows better
than to venture out. A fifteen minutes' walk in that clear
ether is a fifteen minutes' fight for existence. A sudden
prick and one's nose is frozen ; next go both cheeks ; one
raises his hand to rub away the ghastly white spots, only to
add his fingers to the list of icy members. Rub as you will,
run hard, swing your arms — all to no purpose ; the little
white spots increase in size, until the whole face is covered
with the waxen leprosy. The breath congeals almost upon
leaving the mouth, and the icy vapor falls instead of rising.
Expectorate, and instantly there is a lump of ice where the
spittle fell. Ah, it is cold beyond belief. The spirit regis-
ters a temperature away down in the forties. We have seen
a stalwart man, after a few hours' exposure on such a day,
walk into the room where every footfall clanked upon the
floor like blocks of wood clapping together ; his feet frozen
solid as lumps of ice.

On such a day one may stand for hours in the snow with
moccasined feet, and leave no trace of moisture behind. The
snow is granulated like sand ; there is no adhesiveness in it.
It is as difficult to draw a sledge through it as through a bed
of sand. Slipperiness has gone out of it. A horse gives out
in a few minutes. And yet the aspect of all nature is calm,
still, and equable as on a May day.

One of these still nights upon the prairie is unspeakably
awful. The cold is measured by degrees as much below the


freezing point as ordinary summer temperature is above it.
Scraping away the snow, the blankets and robes are spread
down. Then you dress for bed. Your heaviest coat is donned,
and the hood carefully pulled up over the heavy fur cap upon
your head ; the largest moccasins and thickest socks are drawn
on (common leather boots would freeze one's feet in a twink-
ling) ; huge leather mittens, extending to the elbows, and
trebly lined, come next ; you lie down and draw all the avail-
able robes and blankets about you. Then begins the cold.
The frost comes out of the clear grey sky with still, silent
rigor. The spirit in the thermometer placed by your head
sinks down into the thirties and forties below zero. Just
when the dawn begins to break in the east it will not infre-
quently be at fifty. You are tired, perhaps, and sleep comes
by the mere force of fatigue. But never from your waking
brain goes the consciousness of cold. You lie with tightly-
folded arms and upgathered knees, and shiver beneath all
your coverings, until forced to rise and seek safety by the fire.
If you are a novice and have no fire, count your beads and
say your prayers, for your sleep will be long.

This low temperature, however, is vastly preferable to,
and more enjoyable than the shifting climate of the lake
regions. One always knows just what to expect, and prepares
accordingly ; and we doubt whether the feeling of being cold
all through is not experienced on the levee at New Orleans as
intensely as in the North. The air is crisp and entirely free
from moisture, and there is an utter absence of that penetrating,
marrow-chilling quality which makes winter life further south


a burden. No sudden changes pile cold upon cold, and keep
one's lungs in a continual congestion. The climate, while
cold, is equable. From November till April one knows that
he can never go out without abundant wrappings. Just what
constitutes an abundance varies considerably in amount. The
native attires himself in a pair of corduroy trousers, a calico
shirt, an unlined coat, very much open at the breast to show
the figured shirt, a fur cap, moccasins, and a pair of duffel
socks without legs. Thus appareled, he is ready to face
all day the roughest weather of the winter. But then he
is continually in motion, and possessed of an unimpaired
circulation. The foreigner, not to go into the minutiae of his
wardrobe, simply puts on all the clothing he can conveniently
walk in, then closely watches the end of his nose. As for
the aboriginal occupants of the country, little Indians may
be seen any day running about in the snow before the lodge-
doors, with the thermometer thirty degrees below zero, clad
only in their own tawny integuments.

The effect of the interminable winter landscapes of the
Fur Land upon the mind of the new-comer is melancholy in
the extreme ; more especially upon the still days, and where
an occasional dwelling or tent is embraced in the desolate
scene. No wind breaks the silence, or shakes the lumps
of snow off the aspens or willows ; and nothing is heard save
the occasional cracking of the trees, as the severe frost acts
upon the branches. The dwelling, if any, stands in a little
hollow, where the willows and poplars are luxuriant enough to
afford a shelter from the north wind. Just in front a small


path leads to the river, of which an extended view is had
through the opening, showing the fantastic outHnes of huge
blocks and mounds of ice relieved against the white snow.
A huge chasm, partially filled with fallen trees and mounds of
snow, yawns on the left of the house ; and the ruddy sparks
of fire which issue from its chimney-top throw this and the
surrounding forest in deeper gloom. All around lies the
unending plain, wrapped in funeral cerements of ghastly
white, or dotted here and there with slender trees, which
seem to bend and shiver as they stand with their feet in the

With the advent of a " blizzard," however, all still life
ends and chaos begins. A blizzard is the white squall of the
prairies, the simoon of the plains. Like its brother of the
Sahara, when it comes all animate nature bows before it.
The traveler prostrates himself in the snow, if he is of the
initiated, and, covering his head, waits until it passes by.
To pursue a different course, and journey on is to be lost.
Let me give you an instance which may serve to illustrate its
power, and the dangers of travel in the Fur Land :

In the month of February, 1869, I was called by urgent
business from my residence near the foot of Lake Winnipeg
to an interior post, distant some two hundred and fifty miles.
This call involved no ordinary journey. It meant a weary,
exhaustive travel of ten or twelve days across an unbroken
prairie, without shelter of any kind, without the probability
of encountering a single human being throughout the entire
route, and the almost certainty of being overtaken by some of


the terrible storms prevalent at that season. But the call
was imperative, and I set about preparing for the journey.

The preparations were of a primitive sort, there being but
two methods of travel admissible at that season — the one by
dog-sledges, the other with horses attached to light carioles.
The outfit embraced a combination of the two by the selection
of a commodious dog-sledge, with trams in which to place a
horse for myself, and a light cariole for my companion ; for
attendant I must have over that desolate route. Choosing a
stalwart half-breed, accustomed to the rough life of the
prairies, and inured to all manner of hardship from infancy,
we started one bitterly cold day toward the end of the month.

In the forward conveyance was placed provisions for our-
selves and provender for the animals, while my own sledge
was comfortably furnished with the huge bundle of robes and
blankets requisite for our comfort and even safety in camp.
Into this shoe-like sledge I fondly hoped to creep and glide
smoothly to my journey's end. But the intensity of the cold
soon disenchanted me of that illusion ; for we had proceeded
but a few miles when I was forced to take to my feet and run
after the sledge to avoid being frozen. Even then the severity
of the cold was such that, when jumping on the sledge for a
momentary respite, on reaching the ground again my blood
would seem frozen, the muscles refuse to act, and it would
require a sharp trot of a mile or more before I could recover
usual warmth.

Our rate of travel was about twenty-five miles a day.
The route pursued was that commonly taken by the voyagcurs


in their summer trips, and in many of our proposed camping-
places the fuel had been exhausted to supply the numberless
trains which had come and gone in the years before. This
necessitated, at times, continued travel for an entire day with-
out stopping.

At night, we descended the banks of the river, pitching
our camp upon the second terrace, in some spot equally con-
venient to wood and water. Then, making an excavation in
the snow, logs would be heaped up, until our fire was suffi-
ciently large to afford a genial warmth throughout the night.
Our sledges turned across the head, and blankets spread
upon the snow, formed a bed into which, with caps and over-
coats on, we were at all times ready to creep.

Thus we journeyed on, until the closing of the seventh
day brought us to the crossing of Elm River, a small stream
upon our route.

The day had been warmer than any experienced since
starting. In the afternoon the snow had melted sufficiently
to wet our moccasins thoroughly, and by its softness to
impede our travel ; so that the distance made had not been
so great as on other days, while the fatigue and discomfort
had been greater. During the day we had fallen in with a Mr.
Wheeler, a gentleman from Montana, with whom I had been
previously acquainted ; a man of huge and burly physique,
capable of immense endurance. He was journeying in our
direction, having come up on the mail-sled the day before, and
gladly availed himself of an invitation to encamp with us
for the night. It being nearly dark on our arrival at the


river, we did not think it necessary to build a iire, both
on account of the warmth of the evening, and the quality
of the fuel, of which we were unable to find any except wet,
green elm, hardly ignitable. So, having eaten a cold supper,
we set about our preparations for the night.

Elm River, like all prairie-streams, is narrow and runs in
a channel much below the surface of the plain, having, in
consequence, high banks, which in most cases are precipitous
but on this stream sloped back, with only moderate abrupt-
ness, to the level prairie. It was on the farther bank that we
selected our place of rest for the night, without shelter, of
course, but sufficiently below the level to be out of the sweep

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 20 22 23 24

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 20 of 24)