H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 3 of 24)
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natural to the watch-dog. And of the whole race of dogs, the
Esquimaux alone should be made a hauling-dog. He alone
looks happy in his work, and is a good hauler ; and although


Other dogs will surpass him in speed for a few days, only he
can maintain a steady pace throughout a long journey, and
come in fresh at its end.

At length the violence of the storm forced us to seek the
shore, and camp for the night ; and no sooner had this been
accomplished, and supper over, than the Cree, fearing a con-
tinuance of the storm, summoned a driver of the packet-trains
to assist in performing a solemn invocation to the Manitou to
stay the tempest. Rattles made of bladders, with pebbles in
them, were brought out from their limited luggage ; " medi-
cine " belts of wolf-skin donned, and other "medicine" cr
magic articles, such as ermine-skins, and musk-rat skins,
covered with beads and quills. Then the Cree and his com-
panion drummed and rattled, and sang songs, finishing, after
some hours, by a long speech, which they repeated together,
in which they promised to give the Manitou a feast of fat
meat, and to compose a new song in his praise immediately
upon the cessation of the storm. After this performance they
fell asleep. Long before daylight, however, I was awakened
by the conjurers, who, in high glee, were cutting off tidbits of
pemmican and casting them into the fire as the promised offer-
ing to the Manitou, at the same time chanting monotonously,
and sounding their rattles. Then they engaged in feasting,
and banished sleep by the persistency with which they sang
the new song they pretended to have composed for the occa-
sion, which they continued to sing over and over again without
cessation until morning. As they had both been fast asleep
dl night, it is shrewdly suspected that they attempted to im-
pose upon their Maiiitou by making shift with an old hymn,


for they certainly could have had no opportunity for compos-
ing the new one promised. However this may be, the Manitou
performed his part, for the storm was much abated.

At an early hour a start was again made in the usual man-
ner — the harsh command " Marche !" followed by deep-toned
yells from the crouching dogs ; then, a merciless beating and
thumping, and the cowering animals at length set off with the
heavy loads, howling as if their hearts would break. After the
thrashing came the abuse and curses. Coffee would be ap-
pealed to "for the love of Heaven to straighten his traces."
Chocolat would be solemnly informed that he was a migratory
swindle, and possessed of no character w-hatever. Brandy
would be entreated to "just see if he couldn't do a little bet-
ter ; " that he was the offspring of very disreputable parents,
and would be thrashed presently. The passenger's only occu-
pation was to keep from freezing. Vain task ! Though
buried head and all in two robes and a blanket, the wind found
its way through everything, and the master, sitting still in his
wraps, suffered more from cold than his man who was running
against the wind, and suffered, besides, under the depressing
sense of his idle helplessness, while the driver felt the cheering
influence of hardy toil.

Thus we journeyed on, the incidents of one day being but
an iteration of that preceding. For eight days our course led
from point to point of the lake's shore, upon the immense sur-
face of which our six fleeting sledges seemed the veriest crawl-
ing insects. Nevertheless, we passed in rapid flight, at last

sweeping up the rocky promontory and within the palisade of



Norway House, like the ghostly stormers of the Rhenish castle.
In this hospitable shelter we halted for a time, while the great
Northern packet journeyed on toward the unknown land of
the far North. The dogs slept quietly in their kennels ; the
heathen Cree, with his hardly-earned sovereigns, arrayed him-
self in more intricate apparel, and stalked a green-and-yellow
apparition among the squalid tepees of a neighboring Indian



O UMMER in the Fur Land treads so closely upon the heels
*^ of winter as to leave but little standing room for spring.
About the second week in April the earth begins to soften ;
the forest becomes fragrant with last year's leaves and this
year's buds ; the little rills wander feebly riverward, and the
wild duck wings its flight along the water-courses. During
the following week the days grow soft and warm ; rain falls in
occasional showers ; the thermometer varies from fifty to sixty
degrees between daybreak and mid-afternoon. A few days
later, the river, which hitherto has churlishly resisted all the
advances of spring, begins to show symptoms of yielding at
last to her soft entreaties. Tears rise upon his iron face, and
flow down his frosted cheeks ; his great heart seems to swell
within him, and ominous groans break from his long-silent
bosom. At night, however, he thinks better of it, and looks
grim, rigid and unsusceptible in the early morning, as if slight-
ly ashamed of his weakness. But spring, shower, and sun are
at last too strong for him. All his children are already awake.
They prattle and purl and pull at him, urging him to open his
long closed eyelids, to look once more at the blue and golden


With the coming of the delicate flowers and vernal bloom
of early May, he gives way suddenly and throws off his icy
mask. Inanimate nature seems to caress him for the sacrifice.
The wild flowers and green grasses grow down close to the
water's edge ; the bright leaves spring forth and fling their
shadows over the flood ; the balsamic pine and fir kiss the
placid surface with their overhanging branches. Animate
nature expresses its joy. The teal, the widgeon, the mallard
float upon its broad bosom ; the grey goose and wavy crowd
its estuaries ; the crane stands motionless on one leg, knee-
deep in the turbid tide ; all the wild things of the water sport
upon its surface.

The red man lifts his birch -bark canoe from its resting-
place, and launches it upon the flood. It is as wild and beau-
tiful as any bird of them all. Through the long winter it has
lain beneath a covering of snow and branches ; now, the wild
swan and wavy, passing northward to the polar seas, wake it
from its icy sleep. The canoe is a part of the savage ; useless
to carry the burden of man's labor, fitted alone for him and
his ways. After generations of use, it has grown into the
economy of his life. What the horse is to the Arab, the camel
to the desert traveler, or the dog to the Esquimaux, the birch-
bark canoe is to the Indian. The forests along the river shores
yield all the materials requisite for its construction ; cedar for
its ribs ; birch-bark for its outer covering ; the thews of the
juniper to sew together the separate pieces ; red pine to give
resin for the seams and crevices. It is built close to the hunt-
ing-lodge on river or lake shore.


" And the forest life is in it —
All its mystery and magic,
All the tightness of the birch-tree,
All the toughness of the cedar.
All the larch's supple sinews,
And it floated on the river
Like a yellow leaf in autumn.
Like a yellow water lily."

During the summer season the canoe is the home of the
red man. It is not only a boat, but a house ; he turns it over
him as a protection when he camps ; he carries it long dis-
tances over land from lake to lake. Frail beyond words, yet
he loads it down to the water's edge. In it he steers boldly
out into the broadest lake, or paddles through wood and swamp
and reedy shallow — almost over dry land in a heavy dew.
Sitting in it he gathers his harvest of wild rice, or catches fish,
or steals upon his game ; dashes down the wildest rapid, braves
the foaming torrent, or lies like a wild bird on the placid
waters. While the trees are green, while the waters dance and
sparkle, and the wild duck dwells in the sedgy ponds, the
birch-bark canoe is the red man's home.

And how well he knows the moods of the river ! the mul-
tiplicity of its perils, and its ever-changing beauty ! To him
it is replete with all wild instincts. He speaks of it as he
does of his horse, or his dog, who will do whatever he com-
mands. It gives him his test of superiority, his proof of
courage. To guide his canoe through some whirling eddy,
to shoot some roaring waterfall, to launch it by the edge of
some fiercely-rushing torrent, or dash down a foaming rapid,
is to be a brave and skillful Indian. The man who does all
this, and does it well, must possess a rapidity of glance, a


power in the sweep of his paddle, and a quiet consciousness
of skill, not attained save by long years of practice.

An exceedingly light and graceful craft is the birch-bark
canoe ; a type of speed and beauty. So light that one man
can easily carry it on his shoulder over land where a waterfall
obstructs his progress ; and as it only sinks five or six inches
in the water, few places are too shallow to float it. The bark
of the birch-tree, of which it is made, is about a quarter of an
inch thick. Inside of it is laid a lining of extremely thin
flakes of wood, over which are driven a number of light bows
to give strength and solidity to the canoe. In this frail bark,
which measures anywhere from twelve to forty feet long, and
from two to five feet broad in the middle, the Indian and his
family travel over the innumerable lakes and rivers, and the
fur-hunters pursue their lonely calling.

In the old life of the wilderness the canoe played an im-
portant part, and the half-breed voyaga/r was a skilled rival
of the red man in its management. Before the consolidation
of the Fur Companies,* when rival corporations contended
for the possession of the trade of the Fur Land, the echoes
along the river reaches and gloomy forests were far oftener
and more loudly awakened than now. The Northwest
Company, having its head-quarters in Montreal, imported
its entire supplies into the country and exported all their furs
out of it in north canoes. Carrying on business upon an
extended scale, the traffic was correspondingly great. Not
less than ten brigades, each numbering twenty canoes, passed
* The Hudson's Bay, Northwest, and X. V. Companies.


over the route during the summer months. The first half of
the journey, over the great lakes, was made in very large
canoes, known as canotcs de maitrc, a considerable number of
which are still .kept at the border posts for the use of the
company's travelers. These canoes are of the largest size,
exceeding the north canoe in length by several feet, besides
being much broader and deeper. They are, however, too
large and cumbersome for traveling in the interior — where
the canoe goes literally over hill and dale — requiring four
men to carry them instead of two, like the north canoe ; be-
sides, they are capable of carrying twice as much cargo, and
are paddled by fourteen or sixteen voyageurs.

The north canoe, the ideal craft of the summer voyageur,
and which still plays an important part in the fur-trade, is a
light and graceful vessel about thirty-six feet long, by four or
five broad, and capable of containing eight men and three
passengers. Made entirely of birch-bark, it is gaudily painted
on bow and stern with those mystical figures which the super-
stitious boatmen believe to increase its speed. In this fairy-
like craft the traveler sweeps swiftly over the long river-
reaches ; the bright vermilion paddles glancing in the sun-
shine, and the forests echoing back the measures of some
weird boat-song, sung by the voyageurs in full chorus ; now
floating down a swiftly-rushing rapid, again gliding over the
surface of a quiet lake, or making a portage over land where
a rapid is too dangerous to descend.

Those who have not seen it can have but a faint idea of
the picturesque effects of these passing canoe-brigades.


Sweeping suddenly round some promontory in the wilderness,
they burst unexpectedly upon the view, like some weird
l)hantom of mirage. At the same moment the wild yet simple
chansons of the voyageurs strike upon the ear :

" Qui en a compose la chanson ?

C'est Pierre Falcon ! le bon garfon !

Elle a ete faite et compose

Sur le victoire que nous avons gagne !

Elle a ete faite et compose

Chantons la gloire de tous ces Bois-brules !"

Sung with all the force of a hundred voices ; which, rising
and falling in soft cadences in the distance, as it is borne
lightly upon the breeze, then more steadily as they approach
swells out in the rich tones of many a mellow voice, and
bursts at last into a long, enthusiastic chorus. The deep
forests and precipitous banks echo back the refrain in varying
volume ; the long line of canoes is half shrouded in the spray
that flies from the bright vermilion paddles, as they are urged
over the water with the speed of the flying deer, until, sweep-
ing round some projecting headland, they disappear, like
" the baseless fabric of a dream."

But the winged passage of these birds of flight conveys but
a faint idea of the sensation experienced on witnessing the
arrival of a brigade at an inland post after a long journey.
It is then they appear in all their wild perfection ; and the
spectator catches a glimpse of the supreme picturesqueness of
the Fur Land. The voyageurs upon such occasions are at-
tired in their most bewildering apparel, and gaudy feathers,



ribbons and tassels stream in abundance from their caps and
garters. Gayly ornamented, and ranged side by side, like con-
tending chariots in the arena, the frail canoes skim like a bird
of passage over the water ; scarcely seeming to touch it under
the vigorous and rapid strokes of the small but numerous
paddles by which the powerful voyagcitrs strain every muscle
and nerve to urge them on. A light mist, rising from the
river, etches them while yet afar in shadowy outline, augment-
ing their symmetry, like a veil thrown over the face of
Beauty. The beautifully simple, lively, yet plaintive c/ianso?i,
so much in unison with, that it seems a part of, the surround-
ing scenery, and yet so different from any other melody, falls
sweetly upon the ear. In the distance it comes with the
pleasing melancholy of " Home, Sweet Home ! " and seems
the vocal expression of the z'oyageitrs' thoughts of their native
land. On its nearer approach, it changes the feeling into one
of exultation, as the deep manly voices swell in chorus over
the placid waters — the " Marseillaise " of the wilderness.

Nearing the landing, a spirit of competition arises as to
who shall arrive first. The long canoes speed over the
waters, like a flight of arrows, to the very edge of the wharf ;
then, as if by magic, come suddenly to a pause. The paddles
are rolled on the gunwale simultaneously, enveloping their
holders in a shower of spray, as they shake the dripping
water from the bright vermilion blades, and climb lightly from
their seats.

Canoe travel in the Fur Land presents many picturesque
phases. Just as the first faint tinge of coming dawn steals


over the east, the canoe is lifted gently from its ledge of rock
and laid upon the water. The blankets, the kettles, the guns,
and all the paraphernalia of the camp, are placed in it, and the
swarthy voyageurs step lightly in. All but one. He remains
on shore to steady the bark on the water, and keep its sides
from contact with the rock. It is necessary to be thus careful
with canoes, as the gum or pitch with which the sides are
plastered breaks off in lumps, and makes the craft leaky. The
passenger takes his place in the centre, the outside man springs
gently in, and the birch-bark canoe glides away from its rocky

Each hour reveals some new phase of beauty, some chang-
ing scene of lonely grandeur. The canoe sweeps rapidly over
the placid waters ; now buffets with, and advances against,
the rushing current of some powerful river, which seems to
bid defiance to its further progress ; again, is carried over
rocks and through deep forests, when some foaming cataract
bars its way ; and yet again, dashes across some silvery lake
with a favoring breeze. The clear unruffled water, studded
with innumerable islets, stretches out to the horizon, reflecting
the wooded isles and timber-clad bluffs upon its margin. The
morning sun, rising in a sea of light, burnishes the motionless
expanse with a golden sheen, and turns the myriad of dew-
drops upon the overhanging foliage into sparkling diamonds.

But there falls upon the ear the rush and roar of water ;
and, rounding some wooded promontory, or pine-clad island,
the canoe shoots toward a tumbling mass of spray and foam,
studded with huge projecting rocks which mark a river rapid.


It is a wild scene of wood and rock and water ; but the voya-
geurs advance upon it with a cahii assurance. The boiling
rapid is nothing to them. All their lives long they have lived
among them. They have been the playthings of their early
youth, the realities of their middle life, the instinctive habit of
their old age. As the canoe approaches the foaming flood, ad-
vantage is taken of the back current created by the mad rush
of the mid-stream, and flowing backward close to the banks,
to push the frail craft as far up the rapid as possible. Then
the voyageur in the bow — the important seat in the manage-
ment of the canoe — rises upon his knees, and closely scans the
wild scene before attempting the ascent. Sinking down again,
he seizes the paddle, and pointing significantly to a certain
spot in the chaos of boiling waters before him, dashes into the

The rushing flood seems to bear the light canoe down with
the speed of an arrow ; the water boils and hisses to within an
inch of the gunwale ; and to an unaccustomed traveler it seems
folly to attempt the ascent. But the skilled canoemen know
every feature of the rapid. In the centre of the boiling flood
a large black rock rises above the surface. From its lower
side a long eddy runs, like the tail of a fish, down the stream.
It is just opposite this rock that the canoe leaves the back
current, and toward it the voyageurs paddle with all their
might. Swept down by the force of the stream, however, they
just reach the extreme point of the eddy ; but a few vigorous
strokes of the paddle float the canoe quietly in the lee of the
rock. Here a momentary halt is made — just long enough to


look for another rock. The bowsman again selects one a few
yards higher up, and a good deal to one side. The paddles
are dipped once more, the canoe heads into the torrent again,
and the sheltering eddy of the second rock is soon reached.
Yard by yard the rapid is thus ascended, sometimes scarcely
gaining a foot a minute, again advancing more rapidly, until at
last the light craft floats upon the very lip of the fall, and a
long smooth piece of water stretches away up the stream.

Frequently the ascent is not made without mishap. Some-
times the canoe runs against a stone, and tears a small hole in
the bottom. This obliges the voyageurs to put ashore imme-
diately and repair the damage. They do it swiftly and with
admirable dexterity. Into the hole is fitted a piece of bark ;
the fibrous roots of the pine-tree, called "watape," sew it in
its place ; a small fire is made and pitch melted, and the place
plastered so as to be effectually water-tight, all within the space
of an hour. Again, the current is too strong to admit of the
use of paddles, and recourse is had to poling, if the stream be
shallow, or tracking if the depth of water forbid the use of
poles. The latter is an extremely toilsome process, and would
detract much from the romance of canoe-life in the wilderness
were it not for the beautiful scenery through which the traveler

Rapid after rapid is surmounted ; and yet, with every
rounding of point and headland, rapids and falls arise in
seemingly endless succession. Fairy islets, covered to the
very edge of the rippling water with luxuriant vegetation, rise
like emeralds from the broad bosom of the river ; white-


winged birds sail about the canoes, or rise in graceful circles
into the azure sky, and long lines of waterfowl whirr past in
rapid flight.

But if the rushing or breasting up a rapid is exciting, the
operation of shooting them in a birch-bark canoe is doubly so.
True, all the perpendicular falls have to be "portaged," and
in a day's journey of forty miles, from twelve to fifteen port-
ages have to be made. But the rapids are as smooth water to
the hardy voyageiirs, who, in anything less than a perpendicu-
lar fall, seldom lift the canoe from the water. And it is im-
possible to find anything in life which so effectually condenses
intense nervous excitement into the shortest possible compass
of time as does the running of an immense rapid. No toil is
required, but as much coolness, skill, and dexterity as man can
throw into the work of hand, eye, and head. He must know
where to strike and how to do it ; the position of every rock,
the sweep of every drop of water, and the combinations which
rock and water in relative positions will assume.

As the frail birch-bark nears the rapid from above, all is
quiet. One cannot see what is going on below the first rim
of the rush ; but tiny spirals of spray and the deafening roar
of falling water give a fair premonition of what is to be ex-
' pected. The most skillful voyageiir sits on his heels in the bow of
the canoe, the next best oarsman similarly placed in the stern.
The hand of the bowsman becomes a living intelligence as, ex-
tended behind him, it motions the steersman where to turn the
craft. The latter never takes his eye off that hand for an in-
stant. Its varied expression becomes the life of the canoe.



The bowsman peers straight ahead with a glance like tliat
of an eagle. He has got a rock or splintered stump on shore
to steer by, and knows well the only door by which the slope
of water can be entered. The canoe, seeming like a cockle-
shell in its frailty, silently approaches the rim where the
waters disappear from view. On the very edge of the slope
the bowsman suddenly stands up, and bending forward his
head, peers eagerly down the eddying rush, then falls upon
his knees again. Without turning his head for an instant, the
sentient hand behind him signals its warning to the steers-
man ; then the canoe is in the very rim ; she dips down the
slant, shooting her bow clear out of water, and falling hard
and fiat on the lower incline.

Now there is no time for thought ; no eye is quick enough
to take in the rushing scene. Here peers a rock just above
the surface, there yawns a big green cave of water ; here a
place that looks smooth-running for a moment, suddenly
opens up into great gurgling chasms sucking down the frail
canoe. There are strange currents, unexpected whirls, and
backward eddies and rocks — rocks rough and jagged, smooth,
slippery, and polished — and through all this the canoe glances
like an arrow, dips like a wild bird down the wing of the
storm ; now slanting with a strange side motion from a rock,
as if with an instinctive shrinking from its presence ; now
perched upon the very edge of a green cavern, with one foot
almost in a watery grave, as it were ; now breaking through a
backward eddy, as if eager to run its wild race. Ofttimes a
huge rock, time-stained and worn, stands full in the midst of


the channel, seeming to present an obstacle from which escape
is impossible. The canoe rushes full toward it, and no human
power can save it from being dashed to pieces. Stay ! there
is just one power that can do it, and that is provided by the
rock itself. No skill of man could run the canoe on to that
rock ! The fierce current splits upon it, and a wilder sweep
of water rushes off both its polished sides than on to them.
The instant the canoe touches that sweep it dashes off with
redoubled speed. The jagged rock is a haven of safety com-
pared to the treacherous whirlpool and twisting billow.

All this time not a word is spoken ; but every now and
again there is a quick convulsive twist of the bow paddle to
edge far off some rock, to put her full through some boiling
billow, to hold her steady down the slope of some thundering
chute. All this is wild life if you will ; but how tame and

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 3 of 24)