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- The Arctic Prairies - 3/38 -
came to my tent on Grand Island. John complained that he couldn't hold anything on his stomach; he was a total peristaltic wreck indeed (my words; his were more simple and more vivid, but less sonorous and professional). He said he had been going down hill for two weeks, and was so bad now that he was "no better than a couple of ordinary men."
"Exactly so," I said. "Now you take these pills and you'll be all right in the morning." Next morning John was back, and complained that my pills had no effect; he wanted to feel something take hold of him. Hadn't 1 any pepper-juice or brandy?
I do not take liquor on an expedition, but at the last moment a Winnipeg friend had given me a pint flask of pure brandy--"for emergencies." An emergency had come.
"John! you shall have some extra fine brandy, nicely thinned with pepper-juice." I poured half an inch of brandy into a tin cup, then added half an inch of "pain-killer."
"Here, take this, and if you don't feel it, it means your insides are dead, and you may as well order your coffin."
John took it at a gulp. His insides were not dead; but I might have been, had I been one of his boatmen.
He doubled up, rolled around, and danced for five minutes. He did not squeal--John never squeals--but he suffered some, and an hour later announced that he was about cured.
Next day he came to say he was all right, and would soon again be as good as half a dozen men.
At this same camp in Grand Rapids another cure on a much larger scale was added to my list. An Indian had "the bones of his foot broken," crushed by a heavy weight, and was badly crippled. He came leaning on a friend's shoulder. His foot was blackened and much swollen, but I soon satisfied myself that no bones were broken, because he could wriggle all the toes and move the foot in any direction.
"You'll be better in three days and all right in a week," I said, with calm assurance. Then I began with massage. It seemed necessary in the Indian environment to hum some tune, and I found that the "Koochy-Koochy" lent itself best to the motion, so it became my medicine song.
With many "Koochy-Koochy"-ings and much ice-cold water he was nearly cured in three days, and sound again in a week. But in the north folk have a habit (not known elsewhere) of improving the incident. Very soon it was known all along the river that the Indian's leg was broken, and I had set and healed it in three days. In a year or two, I doubt not, it will be his neck that was broken, not once, but in several places.
Grand Island yielded a great many Deermice of the arctic form, a few Red-backed Voles, and any number of small birds migrant.
As we floated down the river the eye was continually held by tall and prominent spruce trees that had been cut into peculiar forms as below. These were known as "lob-sticks," or "lop-sticks," and are usually the monuments of some distinguished visitor in the country or records of some heroic achievement. Thus, one would be pointed out as Commissioner Wrigley's lob-stick, another as John MacDonald's the time he saved the scow.
The inauguration of a lob-stick is quite a ceremony. Some person in camp has impressed all with his importance or other claim to notice. The men, having talked it over, announce that they have decided on giving him a lob-stick. "Will he make choice of some prominent tree in view?" The visitor usually selects one back from the water's edge, often on some far hilltop, the more prominent the better; then an active young fellow is sent up with an axe to trim the tree. The more embellishment the higher the honor. On the trunk they then inscribe the name of the stranger, and he is supposed to give each of the men a plug of tobacco and a drink of whiskey. Thus they celebrate the man and his monument, and ever afterwards it is pointed out as "So-and-so's lob-stick."
It was two months before my men judged that I was entitled to a lob-stick. We were then on Great Slave Lake where the timber was small, but the best they could get on a small island was chosen and trimmed into a monument. They were disappointed however, to find that I would by no means give whiskey to natives, and my treat had to take a wholly different form.
Grand Rapids, with its multiplicity of perfectly round pot-hole boulders, was passed in four days, and then, again in company with the boats, we entered the real canyon of the river.
Down Athabaska's boiling flood Of seething, leaping, coiling mud.
HUMAN NATURE ON THE RIVER
Sunday morning, 26th of May, there was something like a strike among the sixty half-breeds and Indians that composed the crews. They were strict Sabbatarians (when it suited them); they believed that they should do no work, but give up the day to gambling and drinking. Old John, the chief pilot, wished to take advantage of the fine flood on the changing river, and drift down at least to the head of the Boiler Rapids, twenty miles away, The breeds maintained, with many white swear words, for lack of strong talk in Indian, that they never yet knew Sunday work to end in anything but disaster, and they sullenly scattered among the trees, produced their cards, and proceeded to gamble away their property, next year's pay, clothes, families, anything, and otherwise show their respect for the Lord's Day and defiance of old John MacDonald. John made no reply to their arguments; he merely boarded the cook's boat, and pushed off into the swift stream with the cooks and all the grub. In five minutes the strikers were on the twelve big boats doing their best to live up to orders. John said nothing, and grinned at me only with his eyes.
The breeds took their defeat in good part after the first minute, and their commander rose higher in their respect.
At noon we camped above the Boiler Rapids. In the evening I climbed the 400- or 500-foot hill behind camp and sketched the canyon looking northward. The spring birds were now beginning to arrive, but were said to be a month late this year. The ground was everywhere marked with moose sign; prospects, were brightening.
The mania for killing that is seen in many white men is evidently a relic of savagery, for all of these Indians and half-breeds are full of it. Each carries a rifle, and every living thing that appears on the banks or on the water is fusilladed with Winchesters until it is dead or out of sight. This explains why we see so little from the scows. One should be at least a day ahead of them to meet with wild life on the river.
This morning two Bears appeared on the high bank--and there was the usual uproar and fusillading; so far as could be learned without any effect, except the expenditure of thirty or forty cartridges at five cents each.
On the 27th we came to the Cascade Rapids. The first or Little Cascade has about two feet fall, the second or Grand Cascade, a mile farther, is about a six foot sheer drop. These are considered very difficult to run, and the manner of doing it changes with every change in season or water level.
We therefore went through an important ceremony, always carried out in the same way. All 13 boats were beached, the 13 pilots went ahead on the bank to study the problem, they decided on the one safe place and manner, then returned, and each of the 13 boats was run over in 13 different places and manners. They always do this. You are supposed to have run the Cascades successfully if you cross them alive, but to have failed if you drown.. In this case all were successful.
Below the Cascades I had a sample of Indian gratitude that set me thinking. My success with John MacDonald and others had added the whole community to my medical practice, for those who were not sick thought they were. I cheerfully did my best for all, and was supposed to be persona grata. Just below the Cascade Rapids was a famous sucker pool, and after we had camped three Indians came, saying that the pool was full of suckers--would I lend them my canoe to get some?
Away they went, and from afar I was horrified to see them clubbing the fish with my beautiful thin-bladed maple paddles. They returned with a boat load of 3- and 4-pound Suckers (Catostomus) and 2 paddles broken. Each of their friends came and received one or two fine fish, for there were plenty. I, presumably part owner of the catch, since I owned the boat, selected one small one for myself, whereupon the Indian insolently demanded 25 cents for it; and these were the men I had been freely doctoring for two weeks! Not to speak of the loaned canoe and broken paddles! Then did I say a few things to all and sundry--stinging, biting things, ungainsayable and forcible things--and took possession of all the fish that were left, so the Indians slunk off in sullen silence.
Gratitude seems an unknown feeling among these folk; you may give presents and help and feed them all you like, the moment you want a slight favour of them they demand the uttermost cent. In attempting to analyse this I was confronted by the fact that among themselves they are kind and hospitable, and at length discovered that their attitude toward us is founded on the ideas that all white men are very rich, that the Indian has made them so by allowing them to come into this country, that the Indian is very poor because he never was properly compensated, and that therefore all he can get out of said white man is much less than the white man owes him.
As we rounded a point one day a Lynx appeared statuesque on a stranded cake of ice, a hundred yards off, and gazed at the approaching boats. True to their religion, the half-breeds seized their rifles, the bullets whistled harmlessly about the "Peeshoo"--whereupon he turned and walked calmly up the slope, stopping to look at each fresh volley, but finally waved his stumpy tail and walked unharmed over the ridge. Distance fifty yards.
On May 28 we reached Fort MacMurray.
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