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- The Arctic Prairies - 30/38 -
ponds; in time these cut their exits down, and drain, leaving each a broad mud-flat. The climate mildens and the south winds cease not, so that wind-borne grasses soon make green meadows of the broad lake-bottom flats.
The process climbs the hill-slopes; every little earthy foothold for a plant is claimed by some new settler, until each low hill is covered to the top with vegetation graded to its soil, and where the flowering kinds cannot establish themselves, the lichen pioneers still maintain their hold. Rarely, in the landscape, now, is any of the primitive colour of the rocks; even the tall, straight cliffs of Aylmer are painted and frescoed with lichens that flame and glitter with purple and orange, silver and gold. How precious and fertile the ground is made to seem, when every square foot of it is an exquisite elfin garden made by the little people, at infinite cost, filled with dainty flowers and still later embellished with delicate fruit.
One of the wonderful things about these children of the Barrens is the great size of fruit and flower compared with the plant. The cranberry, the crowberry, the cloudberry, etc., produce fruit any one of which might outweigh the herb itself.
Nowhere does one get the impression that these are weeds, as often happens among the rank growths farther south. The flowers in the wildest profusion are generally low, always delicate and mostly in beds of a single species. The Lalique jewelry was the sensation of the Paris Exposition of 1899. Yet here is Lalique renewed and changed for every week in the season and lavished on every square foot of a region that is a million square miles in extent.
Not a cranny in a rock but is seized on at once by the eager little gardeners in charge and made a bed of bloom, as though every inch of room were priceless. And yet Nature here exemplifies the law that our human gardeners are only learning: "Mass your bloom, to gain effect."
As I stood on that hill, the foreground was a broad stretch of old gold--the shining sandy yellow of drying grass--but it was patched with large scarlet mats of arctous that would put red maple to its reddest blush. There was no Highland heather here, but there were whole hillsides of purple red vaccinium, whose leaves were but a shade less red than its luscious grape-hued fruit.
Here were white ledums in roods and acre beds; purple mairanias by the hundred acres, and, framed in lilac rocks, were rich, rank meadows of golden-green by the mile.
There were leagues and leagues of caribou moss, pale green or lilac, and a hundred others in clumps, that, seeing here the glory of the painted mosses, were simulating their ways, though they themselves were the not truly mosses at all.
I never before saw such a realm of exquisite flowers so exquisitely displayed, and the effect at every turn throughout the land was colour, colour, colour, to as far outdo the finest autumn tints of New England as the Colorado Canyon outdoes the Hoosac Gorge. What Nature can do only in October, elsewhere, she does here all season through, as though when she set out to paint the world she began on the Barrens with a full palette and when she reached the Tropics had nothing left but green.
Thus at every step one is wading through lush grass or crushing prairie blossoms and fruits. It is so on and on; in every part of the scene, there are but few square feet that do not bloom with flowers and throb with life; yet this is the region called the Barren Lands of the North.
And the colour is an index of its higher living forms, for this is the chosen home of the Swans and Wild Geese; many of the Ducks, the Ptarmigan, the Laplongspur and Snowbunting. The blue lakes echo with the wailing of the Gulls and the eerie magic calling of the Loons. Colonies of Lemmings, Voles, or Groundsquirrels are found on every sunny slope; the Wolverine and the White Wolf find this a land of plenty, for on every side, as I stood on that high hill, were to be seen small groups of Caribou.
This was the land and these the creatures I had come to see. This was my Farthest North and this was the culmination of years of dreaming. How very good it seemed at the time, but how different and how infinitely more delicate and satisfying was the realisation than any of the day-dreams founded on my vision through the eyes of other men.
On this hill we divided, Preble and Billy going northward; Weeso and I eastward, all intent on finding a herd of Musk-ox; for this was the beginning of their range. There was one continual surprise as we journeyed--the willows that were mere twigs on Aylmer Lake increased in size and were now plentiful and as high as our heads, with stems two or three inches thick. This was due partly to the decreased altitude and partly to removal from the broad, cold sheet of Aylmer, which, with its July ice, must tend to lower the summer temperature.
For a long time we tramped eastward, among hills and meadows, with Caribou. Then, at length, turned south again and, after a 20-mile tramp, arrived in camp at 6.35, having seen no sign whatever of Musk-ox, although this is the region where Pike found them common; on July 1, 1890, at the little lake where we lunched, his party killed seven out of a considerable band.
At 9.30 that night Preble and Billy returned. They had been over Icy River, easily recognised by the thick ice still on its expansions, and on to Musk-ox Lake, without seeing any fresh tracks of a Musk-ox. As they came into camp a White Wolf sneaked away.
Rain began at 6 and continued a heavy storm all night. In the morning it was still in full blast, so no one rose until 9.30, when Billy, starved out of his warm bed, got up to make breakfast. Soon I heard him calling: "Mr. Seton, here's a big Wolf in camp!" "Bring him in here," I said. Then a rifle-shot was heard, another, and Billy appeared, dragging a huge White Wolf. (He is now to be seen in the American Museum.)
All that day and the next night the storm raged. Even the presence of Caribou bands did not stimulate us enough to face the sleet. Next day it was dry, but too windy to travel.
Billy now did something that illustrates at once the preciousness of firewood, and the pluck, strength, and reliability of my cook. During his recent tramp he found a low, rocky hollow full of large, dead willows. It was eight miles back; nevertheless he set out, of his own free will; tramped the eight miles, that wet, blustery day, and returned in five and one-half hours, bearing on his back a heavy load, over 100 pounds of most acceptable firewood. Sixteen miles afoot for a load of wood! But it seemed well worth it as we revelled in the blessed blaze.
Next day two interesting observations were made; down by the shore I found the midden-heap of a Lemming family. It contained about four hundred pellets: their colour and dryness, with the absence of grass, showed that they dated from winter.
In the evening the four of us witnessed the tragic end of a Lap-longspur. Pursued by a fierce Skua Gull, it unfortunately dashed out over the lake. In vain then it darted up and down, here and there, high and low; the Skua followed even more quickly. A second Skua came flying to help, but was not needed. With a falcon-like swoop, the pirate seized the Longspur in his bill and bore it away to be devoured at the nearest perch.
At 7.30 A. M., August 24, 1907, surrounded by scattering Caribou, we pushed off from our camp at Sand Hill Bay and began the return journey.
At Wolf-den Point we discovered a large and ancient wolf-den in the rocks; also abundance of winter sign of Musk-ox. That day we made forty miles and camped for the night on the Sand Hill Mountain in Tha-na-koie, the channel that joins Aylmer and Clinton-Colden. Here we were detained by high winds until the 28th.
This island is a favourite Caribou crossing, and Billy and Weeso had pitched their tents right on the place selected by the Caribou for their highway. Next day, while scanning the country from the top of the mount, I saw three Caribou trotting along. They swam the river and came toward me. As Billy and Weeso were in their tents having an afternoon nap, I thought it would be a good joke to stampede the Caribou on top of them, so waited behind a rock, intending to jump out as soon as they were past me. They followed the main trail at a trot, and I leaped out with "horrid yells" when they passed my rock, but now the unexpected happened. "In case of doubt take to the water" is Caribou wisdom, so, instead of dashing madly into the tents, they made three desperate down leaps and plunged into the deep water, then calmly swam for the other shore, a quarter of a mile away.
This island proved a good place for small mammals. Here Preble got our first specimen of the White Lemming. Large islands usually prove better for small mammals than the mainland. They have the same conditions to support life, but being moated by the water are usually without the larger predatory quadrupeds.
The great central inland of Clinton-Colden proved the best place of all for Groundsquirrels. Here we actually found them in colonies.
On the 29th and 30th we paddled and surveyed without ceasing and camped beyond the rapid at the exit of Clinton-Colden. The next afternoon we made the exit rapids of Casba Lake. Preble was preparing to portage them, but asked Weeso, "Can we run them?"
Weeso landed, walked to a view-point, took a squinting look and said, "Ugh!" (Yes). Preble rejoined, "All right! If he says he can, he surely can. That's the Indian of it. A white man takes risks; an Indian will not; if it is risky he'll go around." So we ran the rapids in safety.
Lighter each day, as the food was consumed, our elegant canoe went faster. When not detained by heavy seas 30 or 40 miles a day was our journey. On August 30 we made our last 6 miles in one hour and 6 1/2 minutes. On September 2, in spite of head-winds, we made 36 miles in 8 1/4 hours and in the evening we skimmed over the glassy
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