Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science Volume 26, September, 1880 online

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forming, with the dense mass of grass-roots, a tough compound in which
the earthy and vegetable parts are about equal, while the tall grass,
growing perpendicularly from the shore, makes a stretch of walls on
either side, the monotony of which becomes at last so tiresome that a
twenty-feet hill, a boulder as large as a bushel basket or a tree of
unusual size or kind becomes specially interesting. Standing on tiptoe
in the canoes, we could see nothing before or around us but a boundless
meadow, with here and there a clump of pines, and before and behind the
serpent-like creepings of the river. The only physical life to be seen
was in the countless ducks, chiefly of the teal and mallard varieties,
a few small birds and the fish - lake-trout, grass-bass, pickerel and
sturgeon - constantly darting under and around us or poised motionless
in water so clear that every fin and scale was seen at depths of six
and eight feet. The ducks were exceedingly wild - something not easily
accounted for in that untroubled and uninhabited country; but we were
readily able to reinforce our staple supplies with juicy birds and
flaky fish broiled over a lively fire or baked under the glowing coals.

[Illustration: A BLOW ON BALL CLUB LAKE.]

By noon of Friday, the 18th, we had come to an average width in the
river of eighty feet and a sluggish flow of six feet in depth. We
halted for our lunch at the mouth of the South (or Plantagenian) Fork
of the Mississippi, up which Schoolcraft's party pursued its way to
Itasca Lake. Thence a short run brought us suddenly upon Lake
Marquette, a lovely sheet of water with clearly-defined and solid
shores, about one mile by two in extent, exactly across the centre of
which the river has entrance and exit. Beyond this, a short mile
brought us to the sandy beaches of Bemidji Lake, the first considerable
body of water in our downward travel, and about one hundred and
twenty-five miles, as the river winds, from Itasca. The real name of
the lake, as used by the Indians and whites adjacent, is Benidjigemah,
meaning "across the lake," and Bemidji is frequently known as Traverse
Lake. It is a lovely, unbroken expanse, about seven miles long and four
miles wide. Its shores are of beautiful white sand, gravel and
boulders, reaching back to open pine-groved bluffs. Our shore-searchers
found agate, topaz, carnelian, etc. Our approach to Bemidji had been
invested with special interest as the first unmistakable landmark in
our lonely wanderings, and as the home of one man - a half-breed - the
only human being who has a home above Cass Lake. We found his hut, but
not himself, at the river's outlet. The lodge is neatly built of bark.
It was surrounded by good patches of corn, potatoes, wheat, beans and
wild raspberries. There is a stable for a horse and a cow, and all
about were the conventional traps of a civilized biped who lives upon a
blending of wit, woodcraft and industry. We greatly wished to see this
hermit, whose nearest neighbors are thirty miles away. His dog welcomed
us with all the passion of canine hunger and days of isolation, but the
master was gone to Leech Lake, as we afterward found from his Cass Lake
neighbors. The wind favored a sail across the lake - a welcome variation
from our hitherto entirely muscular propulsion - so we rigged our spars
and canvas, drifted smoothly out into the trough of the lively but not
angry waves, and swept swiftly across the clear, bright little sea. The
white caps dashed over our decks and a few sharp puffs half careened
our little ships, but the crossing was safely and quickly made. It was
yet only mid-afternoon, but we had paddled steadily and made good
progress nearly four days; so we went into early camp on a bluff
overlooking the entire lake, did our first washing of travel-stained
garments, brought up epistolary arrearages, caught two fine lake-trout
for our next breakfast and went to sound sleep in the
nine-and-a-half-o'clock twilight.

We had been advised that we should need guides in finding our exits
from the lakes, which were obscured by reeds and wild rice. But no
guide was to be had, and we easily found our own way. The river at the
outlet of Bemidji Lake is about one hundred and fifty feet wide, very
shallow, and runs swiftly over a bed of large gravel and boulders
thickly grown with aquatic grass and weeds. We had gone but a little
way when a rattling ahead told of near proximity to swift and rough
water, down which we danced at a speed perilous to the boats, but not
to our personal safety. The river was unusually low, so that the many
bouldery rapids which otherwise would have been welcome were now only
the vexatious hints of what might have been. The shallow foam dashed
down each rocky ledge without channel or choice, and whichever way we
went we soon wished we had gone another. The rocks were too many for
evasion, and the swift current caught our keels upon their half-sunken
heads, which held us fast in imminent peril of a swamp or a capsize,
our only safety lying in open eyes, quick and skilful use of the paddle
or a sudden leap overboard at a critical instant. Added to these
difficulties, a gusty head wind and lively showers obscured the
boulders and the few open channels. So we went on all the forenoon,
hampered by our ponchos, poling, drifting, paddling and peering our
way, blinded by wind and rain, till we came to the last of these
labyrinths, liveliest and most treacherous of all. We were soaked, and
only dreaded an upset for our provisions and equipments. The rapid was
long, rough, swift, crooked. The Kleiner Fritz led the way into the
swirl, and was caught, a hundred feet down, hard and fast by her
bow-keel, swung around against another boulder at her stern, and was
pinned fast in no sort of danger, the water boiling under and around
her, while her captain sat at his leisure as under the inevitable, with
a don't-care-a-dash-ative procrastination of the not-to-be-avoided jump
overboard and wade for deeper water. The Betsy D., following closely,
passed the Fritz with a rush which narrowly escaped the impalement of
the one by the other's sharp nose, struck, hung for a moment, while the
water dashed over her decks and around her manhole, then washed loose
and went onward safely to still water. The Fritz, solid as the
Pyramids, beckoned the Hattie to come on without awaiting the
questionable time of the latter's release; so the namesake of the
hazel-eyed and brown-haired Indiana girl came into the boil and bubble,
sailed gayly by the troubles of the others, was gliding on toward quiet
seas under her skipper's gleeful whoops, when, bang! went her bow upon
a rock, from which a moment's work freed her: tz-z-z-z-z-zip crunched
her copper nails over another just under water, whence she went bumping
and crunching, her captain's prudent and energetic guidance knocking
his flag one way and his wooden hatch the other, till finally his
troubles were behind him. Then the Fritz began to stir. Her commander
went overboard and released her, then leaped astride her deck and
paddled cautiously down the rift and slowly down the quieter water
below, howling through the pelting rain,

"Then let the world wag along as it will:
We'll be gay and happy still,"

until he came upon his comrades - one stumbling about over the blackened
roots of grass and underbrush from a recent fire in search of wood for
our needed noon-day blaze; the other with wet matches and birch bark,
and imprecations for which there was ample justification, vainly
seeking that without which hot coffee and broiled bacon cannot be. The
Kleiner Fritz's haversack supplied dry matches, fire began to snap,
coffee boiled, bacon sputtered on the ends of willow rods, hard tack
was set out for each man, and we sat upon our heels for lunch under the
weeping skies and willows, comparing notes and experiences.

[Illustration: PEKAGEMA FALLS.]

Thence, three hours through monotonous savanna and steady rain brought
us to the uppermost bay of Cass Lake, and unexpectedly upon a
straggling Indian village. We bore down upon it with yells, and there
came tumbling out from birch lodges and bark cabins the first human
beings we had seen for more than ten days, in all the ages, sizes,
tints, costumes and shades of filth known to the Chippewas of the
interior wilderness. At first they were a little shy of us, but we got
into a stumbling conversation with the only man of the whole lot who
wore breeches or could compass a little English, and soon the dirty,
laughing, wondering, chattering gang came down to inspect us and our,
to them, marvellous craft, and to fully enjoy what was perhaps the most
interesting event in many a long month of their uneventful lives. Then
we paddled across the bay, or upper lake, out into the broader swells
of Cass Lake itself, pulled four miles across to the northernmost point
of Colcaspi, or Grand Island, and made our second Saturday night's camp
upon its white sands at or very near the spot where Schoolcraft and his
party had encamped in July, forty-seven years before. The landward side
of the beautiful beach is skirted by an almost impenetrable jungle. We
had frequently seen traces, old and new, of deer, moose, bears and
smaller animals, but had seen none of the animals themselves save one
fine deer, and our sleep had been wholly undisturbed by prowlers; so we
sank to rest on Grand Island with no fears of invasion. At midnight the
occupant of the Kleiner Fritz was aroused by a scratching upon the side
of the canoe and low, whining howls. He partially arose, confused and
half asleep, in doubt as to the character of his disturber, which went
forward, climbed upon the deck and confronted him through the narrow
gable of his rubber roof with a pair of fiery eyes, which to his
startled imagination seemed like the blazing of a comet in duplicate.
The owner of the eyes was at arm's length, with nothing but a
mosquito-bar intervening. Then the eyes suddenly disappeared, and the
scratching and howling were renewed in a determined and partially
successful effort to get between the overlapping rubber blankets to the
captain of the Fritz. This movement was defeated by a quick grasp of
the edges of the blankets, and while the animal was snarling and pawing
at the shielded fist of his intended victim lusty shouts went out for
the camp to arouse and see what the enemy might be, as the Fritz was
unwilling to uncover to his unknown assailant. The Hattie's skipper,
hard by, saw that something unusual was on hand, peered out, and so
increased the uproar as to draw the adversary's attack. Then the Betsy
bore down upon us all just as the hungry and persistent beast was
crouching for a leap at the Hattie's jugular, the loud bang of a Parker
rifle rang out upon the stillness, and a fine, muscular lynx lay dead
at the Cincinnati Nimrod's feet. The animal's trail showed that he had
prowled around our bacon and hard tack in contempt, had inspected the
Betsy's commander as he lay on the sand in his blanket and under a huge
yellow mosquito-bar, but had evidently concluded that any man who could
snore as that man usually did was not a good subject for attack, and so
came on down the beach in search of blood less formidably defended. We
renewed our fire, examined our dead disturber, and turned in again to
sound sleep under the assuring suggestion of the Cincinnati man that,
whatever else the jungle might hide, two cannon-balls rarely enter the
same hole.

Our heavy and late slumber was broken by the laugh and chatter of two
Indian women and a child, who in a bark canoe a little way from shore
were regarding our camp in noisy curiosity. My blanket suddenly thrown
aside and a good-morning in English took them by surprise, and they
paddled away vigorously toward a group of lodges some four miles across
the lake. In the glorious sunset of a restful Sunday we crossed the
glassy lake to its outlet, taking two fine lake-trout of four pounds as
we went, and glided out of as beautiful a lake as sun and moon shine
upon into the swift, steady, deep current of what for the first time in
its long way Gulfward bears the full dignity of a river. Its green
banks are some two hundred feet apart. The water has a regular depth of
from five to six feet, and all the way to Lake Winnibegoshish affords
an unbroken channel for a medium-sized Western steamer. The shores,
alternating between low, firm, grass-grown earth and benches of
luxuriant green twenty feet high, grown over with open groves of fine
yellow pines, were so beautiful and regular that we could hardly
persuade ourselves that we should not see, as we rounded the graceful
curves, some fine old mansion of which these turfed knolls and charming
groves seemed the elegant lawns and parks. Our fleet unanimously voted
the river between Cass and Winnibegoshish Lakes the most beautiful of
all its upper course.

[Illustration: BARN BLUFF (C., M. & ST. P. R.R.).]

We began our second week upon the Mississippi with a breakfast of baked
lake-trout, slapjacks, maple syrup and coffee, which embodied the
culinary skill of the entire fleet: then started for Winnibegoshish in
the height of good spirits and physical vigor. In one of our easy,
five-miles-an-hour swings around the graceful curves we were met by a
duck flying close over our heads with noisy quacks. A little farther we
came upon the cause of the bird's lively flight in an Indian boy, not
above nine years old, paddling a large birch canoe, over the gunwale of
which peeped the muzzle of a sanguinary-looking old shot-gun. The
diminutive sportsman was for a moment dashed by our sudden and novel
appearance, but, from the way he urged his canoe and from the
determined set of his dirty face, we had small room to doubt the
ultimate fate of the flying mallard. Another curve brought us in sight
of the home of the little savage, where a dozen Indians, in all stages
of nudity, were encamped upon a high bluff. A concerted whoop from our
fleet brought all of them from their smoky lodges, and we swept by
under their wondering eyes and exclamations. Then the high land was
left behind, and half an hour between low meadows brought us out upon
the yellow sands and heaving swells of Lake Winnibegoshish, the largest
in the Mississippi chain, the dimensions of which, including its lovely
north-eastern bay, are about eleven by thirteen miles. The name
signifies "miserable dirty water lake," but save a faint tinge of brown
its waters are as pure and sparkling as those of any of the upper
lakes. Our entrance upon Winnibegoshish was under a driving storm of
wind and mist, against which we paddled three miles to Duck Point, a
slender finger of wooded sand and boulder reaching half a mile out, at
whose junction with the main land is a miserable village of most
villainous-looking Indians. One man alone could speak a little English,
and through him we negotiated for replenishing our provisions.
Meantime, the storm freshened and embargoed an eight-mile journey
across an open and boiling sea; so we paddled to the outermost joint
upon the jutting finger for a bivouac under the trees, waiting the
hoped-for lull of wind and wave at sunset. The smoke of our fire
invited to our camp the hungry natives, who dogged us at every turn all
the long afternoon, in squads of all numbers under twenty, and of all
ages between two and seventy. One club-footed and club-handed fellow of
forbidding visage protested with hand and head that he neither spoke
nor understood our vernacular. Later, he sidled up to the Hattie's
skipper and said in an earnest _sotto voce_, "Gib me dime." Denied the
dime, he intimated to the Betsy that he doted on bacon, of which we
were each broiling a slice. The Betsy's captain was bent upon securing
an Indian fish-spear, and he pantomimed to the twinkling eyes of the
copper-skin that he would invest a generous chunk of bacon in barbed
iron. The Indian strode back to his village, and soon returned with the
spear, which he transferred to the Betsy's stores.

The conventional Indian maiden besieged the bachelor two-thirds of our
expedition with all the wiles that could be embodied in a comely and
clean-calicoed charmer up in the twenties, who finally bore away from
the Betsy's private stores a fan of stunning colors and other odds and
ends of a St. Paul notion-store; while the guileless commander of the
Hattie, whose cumulative years should have taught him better, and whose
thinly-clad brain-shelter and disreputable attempt at sailor costume
should have blunted all feminine javelins, surrendered to the ugliest
old septuagenarian in the village, and sent her heart away rejoicing in
the ownership of a policeman's whistle courted by her leering eyes and
already smirched by her dirty lips, together with a stock of tea,
crackers and bacon for which her expanded corporosity evinced no
imminent need. At last rid of our importunate acquaintances, we turned
in for a sleep, which we resolved should be broken at the first moment,
dark or light, when we might cross the lake. Before daylight the
Betsy's resonant call awoke us, and in the earliest gray we paddled out
upon a heavy but not foaming sea, and after two and a half hours of
monotonous splashing in the trough of the waves landed for breakfast on
the eastern shore, whence we crossed a lovely bay and passed out once
more upon the river.

A mile on our way we came to the prettiest of the many Indian
burying-grounds which we saw now and then. Formerly, the Indians
deposited their dead upon rude scaffolds well up in the air. Now they
seek high ground and place the bodies of the departed in shallow
graves, over which they build little wooden houses a foot or two high
with gabled roofs, and mark each with a white flag raised upon a pole a
few feet above the sleeper's head. In this neighborhood we inquired of
a stalwart brave concerning our proximity to a portage by means of
which a short walk over to a small lake near the head of Ball Club Lake
and a pull of six miles down the latter would bring us out again into
the river, and save a tedious voyage of twenty-five to thirty miles
through a broad savanna. The Indian in his old birch canoe joined our
fleet, and led us to the beginning of the portage near the foot of
Little Winnipeg Lake. We had carried two canoes and all the baggage
over to the water on the other side of a sandy ridge, leaving only the
Kleiner Fritz to be brought, when our guide and packer, with a
preliminary grunt, said "Money?" inquiring how much we intended to pay
him. He had worked hard for four hours, for which we tried to tell him
that we should pay him one dollar when he should bring over the
remaining canoe; but we could not make him understand what a dollar
was. We then laid down, one after another, four silver quarter-dollars
and two bars of tobacco; whereupon he gave a satisfied grunt and an
affirmative nod, disappeared in the forest, and in less than an hour
returned with the Fritz upon his steaming shoulders, having covered
more than three miles in the round trip.

As we pulled out upon Ball Club Lake a gentle stern wind bade us hoist
our canvas for an easy and pleasant sail of six or seven miles down to
the open river. We glided out gayly before a gentle breeze, and sailed
restfully over the little rippling waves, our speed increasing, though
we hardly noted the signs of a gale driving after us over the hills
behind. The Hattie was leading well over to the port shore, the Fritz
bearing straight down the middle, with the Betsy on the starboard
quarter, when the storm struck us with a vigor that increased with each
gust. The black clouds swished over our heads, seemingly almost within
reach of our paddles. The sails tugged at the sheets with tiresome
strength. The canoes now plunged into a wave at the bows and were now
swept by others astern, as they rushed forward like mettlesome colts or
hung poised upon or within a rolling swell, until, with the increasing
gale, the roaring waves dashed entirely over decks and men. The Hattie
bore away to leeward and rode the gale finely, but at last prudence
bade the furling of her sail. Expecting no such blow the Fritz had not
taken the precaution to arrange her rubber apron for keeping out the
waves from her manhole, and now, between holding the sheet, steering
and watching the gusty wind, neither hand nor eye could be spared for
defensive preparations; so her skipper struck sail and paddled for the
westward shore, with the Betsy lunging and plunging close behind. We on
the windward side sought the smoother water within the reeds, and drove
along rapidly under bare poles, out of sight of the Hattie, separated
at nightfall by miles of raging sea. We rode before the wind to the
foot of the lake, where we were confronted by the alternative of a
toilsome and unsafe paddle around the coast against the storm's full
force, or camping in mutual anxiety as to the fate of the unseen
party - a by no means pleasant sedative for a night's rest upon wild and
uninhabited shores. We decided upon the pull, and labored on, now upon
the easy swells within the reeds, and then tossing upon the crests in
open places, until at last a whirling column of smoke a mile ahead gave
us assurance of the Hattie's safety. The reunited fleet paddled down
into the Mississippi, enlivening the darkness until we could find
camping-ground beyond the marshes by a comparison of storm-experiences
and congratulations that we had escaped the bottom of the lake.


Late in the afternoon of the next day, after a monotonous pull through
the interminable windings of Eagle Nest Savanna, we swept around a
curve of high tillable land upon the uppermost farm cultivated by
whites, eighteen miles above Pekagema Falls, and one hundred and
seventy miles by river beyond the Northern Pacific Railroad. Thomas
Smith and his partner, farming, herding and lumbering at the mouth of
Vermilion River, were the first white men we had seen since July 6,
seventeen days, and with them we enjoyed a chat in straight English.
Nine miles below we camped at River Camp, the second farm downward,
where we were kindly supplied with vegetables and with fresh milk,
which seemed to us then like the nectar of the gods. Thursday, 24th, we
reached Pekagema Falls, a wild pitch of some twenty feet, with rapids
above and below, down which the strong volume of the river plunges with
terrible force in picturesque beauty. A carry around the falls and
three miles of paddling brought us to Grand Rapids, and we rushed like
the wind into the whirl and boil of its upper ledge, down the steep and
crooked incline for two hundred yards, out of which we shot up to the
bank under a little group of houses where Warren Potter and Knox &
Wakefield conduct the uppermost post-office and stores upon the river.
We speedily closed our partly-completed letters and posted them for a
pack-mail upon an Indian's back sixty-five miles to Aitkin, while we
should follow the tortuous river thither for one hundred and fifty
miles. We had hoped for a rest and lift hence to Aitkin upon the good
steamboat City of Aitkin, which makes a few lonely trips each spring
and fall, but the low water had prevented her return from her last
voyage, made ten days before our arrival. Our stores replenished, after
two hours of rest we started again in a driving rain, and under the
hearty _bon voyage_ of a dozen frontiersmen and Indians shot the two
lively lower ledges of Grand Rapids, and came out on smooth water,
whose sluggish flow, broken by a very few rifts, bore us thence one
hundred and fifty miles to the next white settlement at Aitkin. The
entire distance lies through low bottom-lands heavily timbered, and our
course was drearily monotonous. We left Grand Rapids at mid-afternoon
of Thursday, July 24, and camped on Friday night four miles below Swan
River. Late on Saturday we passed Sandy Lake River - where formerly were
a large Indian population and an important trading-post, founded and
for many years conducted by Mr. Aitkin, who was prominently identified
with the early history of that region, and is now commemorated in the
town and county bearing his name, but where now remain only one or two
deserted cabins and a few Indian graves, over which white flags were
flapping in the sultry breeze - and camped two miles below. Monday's
afternoon brought us to Aitkin, so that we had covered one hundred and
fifty miles of sluggish channel, at low summer tide, in three working
days. We had been four weeks beyond possibility of home-tidings, and we
swooped down upon the disciple of Morse in that far-away village with

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Online LibraryVariousLippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science Volume 26, September, 1880 → online text (page 3 of 20)