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- The Arctic Prairies - 2/38 -
relied on the abundant game, and in consequence suffered dreadful hardships; in some cases even starved to death. I proposed to rely on no game, but to take plenty of groceries, the best I could buy in Winnipeg, which means the best in the world; and, as will be seen later, the game, because I was not relying on it, walked into camp every day.
But one canoe could not carry all these provisions, so most of it I shipped on the Hudson's Bay Company scows, taking with us, in the canoe, food for not more than a week, which with camp outfit was just enough for ballast.
Of course I was in close touch with the Hudson's Bay people. Although nominally that great trading company parted with its autocratic power and exclusive franchise in 1870, it is still the sovereign of the north. And here let me correct an error that is sometimes found even in respectable print--the Company has at all times been ready to assist scientists to the utmost of its very ample power. Although jealous of its trading rights, every one is free to enter the territory without taking count of the Company, but there has not yet been a successful scientific expedition into the region without its active co-operation.
The Hudson's Bay Company has always been the guardian angel of the north.
I suppose that there never yet was another purely commercial concern that so fully realized the moral obligations of its great power, or that has so uniformly done its best for the people it ruled.
At all times it has stood for peace, and one hears over and over again that such and such tribes were deadly enemies, but the Company insisted on their smoking the peace pipe. The Sioux and Ojibway, Black-Foot and Assiniboine., Dog-Rib and Copper-Knife, Beaver and Chipewyan, all offer historic illustrations in point, and many others could be found for the list.
The name Peace River itself is the monument of a successful effort on the part of the Company to bring about a better understanding between the Crees and the Beavers.
Besides human foes, the Company has saved the Indian from famine and plague. Many a hunger-stricken tribe owes its continued existence to the fatherly care of the Company, not simply general and indiscriminate, but minute and personal, carried into the details of their lives. For instance, when bots so pestered the Caribou of one region as to render their hides useless to the natives, the Company brought in hides from a district where they still were good.
The Chipewyans were each spring the victims of snow-blindness until the Company brought and succeeded in popularizing their present ugly but effectual and universal peaked hats. When their train-dogs were running down in physique, the Company brought in a strain of pure Huskies or Eskimo. When the Albany River Indians were starving and unable to hunt, the Company gave the order for 5,000 lodge poles. Then, not knowing how else to turn them to account, commissioned the Indians to work them into a picket garden-fence. At all times the native found a father in the Company, and it was the worst thing that ever happened the region when the irresponsible free-traders with their demoralizing methods were allowed to enter and traffic where or how they pleased.
DOWN THE NOISY RIVER WITH THE VOYAGEURS
At Athabaska Landing, on May 18, 1907, 10.15 A. M., we boarded the superb Peterborough canoe that I had christened the Ann Seton. The Athabaska River was a-flood and clear of ice; 13 scows of freight, with 60 half-breeds and Indians to man them, left at the same time, and in spite of a strong headwind we drifted northward fully 31 miles an hour.
The leading scow, where I spent some time, was in charge of John MacDonald himself, and his passengers comprised the Hudson's Bay Company officials, going to their posts or on tours of inspection. They were a jolly crowd, like a lot of rollicking schoolboys, full of fun and good-humour, chaffing and joking all day; but when a question of business came up, the serious businessman appeared in each, and the Company's interest was cared for with their best powers. The bottle was not entirely absent in these scow fraternities, but I saw no one the worse for liquor on the trip.
The men of mixed blood jabbered in French, Cree, and Chipewyan chiefly, but when they wanted to swear, they felt the inadequacy of these mellifluous or lisping tongues, and fell back on virile Saxon, whose tang, projectivity, and wealth of vile epithet evidently supplied a long-felt want in the Great Lone Land of the Dog and Canoe.
In the afternoon Preble and I pushed on in our boat, far in advance of the brigade. As we made early supper I received for the twentieth time a lesson in photography. A cock Partridge or Ruffed Grouse came and drummed on a log in open view, full sunlight, fifty feet away. I went quietly to the place. He walked off, but little alarmed. I set the camera eight feet from the log, with twenty-five feet of tubing, and retired to a good hiding-place. But alas! I put the tube on the left-hand pump, not knowing that that was a dummy. The Grouse came back in three minutes, drumming in a superb pose squarely in front of the camera. I used the pump, but saw that it failed to operate; on going forward the Grouse skimmed away and returned no more. Preble said, "Never mind; there will be another every hundred yards all the way down the river, later on." I could only reply, "The chance never comes but once," and so it proved. We heard Grouse drumming many times afterward, but the sun was low, or the places densely shaded, or the mosquitoes made conditions impossible for silent watching; the perfect chance came but once, as it always does, and I lost it.
About twenty miles below the Landing we found the abandoned winter hut of a trapper; on the roof were the dried up bodies of 1 Skunk, 2 Foxes, and 30 Lynxes, besides the bones of 2 Moose, showing the nature of the wild life about.
That night, as the river was brimming and safe, we tied up to the scows and drifted, making 30 more miles, or 60 since embarking.
In the early morning, I was much struck by the lifelessness of the scene. The great river stretched away northward, the hills rose abruptly from the water's edge, everywhere extended the superb spruce forest, here fortunately unburnt; but there seemed no sign of living creature outside of our own numerous, noisy, and picturesque party. River, hills, and woods were calm and silent. It was impressive, if disappointing; and, when at last the fir stillness was broken by a succession of trumpet notes from the Great Pileated Woodpecker, the sound went rolling on and on, in reverberating echoes that might well have alarmed the bird himself.
The white spruce forest along the banks is most inspiring, magnificent here. Down the terraced slopes and right to the water's edge on the alluvial soil it stands in ranks. Each year, of course, the floods undercut the banks, and more trees fall, to become at last the flotsam of the shore a thousand miles away.
There is something sad about these stately trees, densely packed, all a-row, unflinching, hopelessly awaiting the onset of the inexorable, invincible river. One group, somewhat isolated and formal, was a forest life parallel to Lady Butler's famous "Roll Call of the Grenadiers."
At night we reached the Indian village of Pelican Portage, and landed by climbing over huge blocks of ice that were piled along the shore. The adult male inhabitants came down to our camp, so that the village was deserted, except for the children and a few women.
As I walked down the crooked trail along which straggle the cabins, I saw something white in a tree at the far end. Supposing it to be a White-rabbit in a snare, I went near and found, to my surprise, first that it was a dead house-cat, a rare species here; second, under it, eyeing it and me alternately, was a hungry-looking Lynx. I had a camera, for it was near sundown, and in the woods, so I went back to the boat and returned with a gun. There was the Lynx still prowling, but now farther from the village. I do not believe he would have harmed the children, but a Lynx is game. I fired, and he fell without a quiver or a sound. This was the first time I had used a gun in many years, and was the only time on the trip. I felt rather guilty, but the carcass was a godsend to two old Indians who were sickening on a long diet of salt pork, and that Lynx furnished them tender meat for three days afterward; while its skin and skull went to the American Museum.
On the night of May 20, we camped just above Grand Rapids--Preble and I alone, for the first time, under canvas, and glad indeed to get away from the noisy rabble of the boatmen, though now they were but a quarter mile off. At first I had found them amusing and picturesque, but their many unpleasant habits, their distinct aversion to strangers, their greediness to get all they could out of one, and do nothing in return, combined finally with their habit of gambling all night to the loud beating of a tin pan, made me thankful to quit their company for a time.
At Grand Rapids the scows were unloaded, the goods shipped over a quarter-mile hand tramway, on an island, the scows taken down a side channel, one by one, and reloaded. This meant a delay of three or four days, during which we camped on the island and gathered specimens.
Being the organizer, equipper, geographer, artist, head, and tail of the expedition, I was, perforce, also its doctor. Equipped with a "pill-kit," an abundance of blisters and bandages and some "potent purgatives," I had prepared myself to render first and last aid to the hurt in my own party. In taking instructions from our family physician, I had learned the value of a profound air of great gravity, a noble reticence, and a total absence of doubt, when I did speak. I compressed his creed into a single phrase: "In case of doubt, look wise and work on his 'bowels.'" This simple equipment soon gave me a surprisingly high standing among the men. I was a medicine man of repute, and soon had a larger practice than I desired, as it was entirely gratuitous.
The various boatmen, Indians and half-breeds, came with their troubles, and, thanks chiefly to their faith, were cured. But one day John MacDonald, the chief pilot and a mighty man on the river,
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