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- The Arctic Prairies - 4/38 -
Here I saw several interesting persons: Miss Christine Gordon, the postmaster; Joe Bird, a half-breed with all the advanced ideas of a progressive white man; and an American ex-patriot, G------, a tall, raw-boned Yank from Illinois. He was a typical American of the kind, that knows little of America and nothing of Europe; but shrewd and successful in spite of these limitations. In appearance he was not unlike Abraham Lincoln. He was a rabid American, and why he stayed here was a question.
He had had no detailed tidings from home for years, and I never saw a man more keen for the news. On the banks of the river we sat for an hour while he plied me with questions, which I answered so far as I could. He hung on my lips; he interrupted only when there seemed a halt in the stream; he revelled in, all the details of wrecks by rail and sea. Roosevelt and the trusts--insurance scandals--the South the burnings in the West--massacres--murders--horrors--risings--these were his special gloats, and yet he kept me going with "Yes--yes--and then?" or "Yes, by golly--that's the way we're a-doing it. Go on."
Then, after I had robbed New York of $100,000,000 a year, burnt 10 large towns and 45 small ones, wrecked 200 express trains, lynched 96 negroes in the South and murdered many men every night for 7 years in Chicago--he broke out:
"By golly, we are a-doing it. We are the people. We are a-moving things now; and I tell you I give the worst of them there European countries, the very worst of 'em, just 100 years to become Americanised."
Think of that, ye polished Frenchmen; ye refined, courteous Swedes; ye civilised Danes; you have 100 years to become truly Americanised!
All down the river route we came on relics of another class of wanderers--the Klondikers of 1898. Sometimes these were empty winter cabins; sometimes curious tools left at Hudson's Bay Posts, and in some cases expensive provisions; in all cases we heard weird tales of their madness.
There is, I am told, a shanty on the Mackenzie above Simpson, where four of them made a strange record. Cooped up for months in tight winter quarters, they soon quarrelled, and at length their partnership was dissolved. Each took the articles he had contributed, and those of common purchase they divided in four equal parts. The stove, the canoe, the lamp, the spade, were broken relentlessly and savagely into four parts--four piles of useless rubbish. The shanty was divided in four. One man had some candles of his own bringing. These he kept and carefully screened off his corner of the room so no chance rays might reach the others to comfort them; they spent the winter in darkness. None spoke to the other, and they parted, singly and silently, hatefully as ever, as soon as the springtime opened the way.
DOWN THE SILENT RIVER WITH THE MOUNTED POLICE
At Fort MacMurray we learned that there was no telling when the steamer might arrive; Major Jarvis was under orders to proceed without delay to Smith Landing; so to solve all our difficulties I bought a 30-foot boat (sturgeon-head) of Joe Bird, and arranged to join forces with the police for the next part of the journey.
I had made several unsuccessful attempts to get an experienced native boatman to go northward with me. All seemed to fear the intending plunge into the unknown; so was agreeably surprised when a sturdy young fellow of Scottish and Cree parentage came and volunteered for the trip. A few inquiries proved him to bear a good reputation as a river-man and worker, so William C. Loutit was added to my expedition and served me faithfully throughout.
In time I learned that Billy was a famous traveller. Some years ago, when the flood had severed all communication between Athabaska Landing and Edmonton, Billy volunteered to carry some important despatches, and covered the 96 miles on foot in one and a half days, although much of the road was under water. On another occasion he went alone and afoot from House River up the Athabaska to Calling River, and across the Point to the Athabaska again, then up to the Landing-150 rough miles in four days. These exploits I had to find out for myself later on, but much more important to me at the time was the fact that he was a first-class cook, a steady, cheerful worker, and a capable guide as far as Great Slave Lake.
The Athabaska below Fort MacMurray is a noble stream, one-third of a mile wide, deep, steady, unmarred; the banks are covered with unbroken virginal forests of tall white poplar, balsam poplar, spruce, and birch. The fire has done no damage here as yet, the axe has left no trace, there are no houses, no sign of man except occasional teepee poles. I could fancy myself floating down the Ohio two hundred years ago.
These were bright days to be remembered, as we drifted down its placid tide in our ample and comfortable boat, with abundance of good things. Calm, lovely, spring weather; ducks all along the river; plenty of food, which is the northerner's idea of bliss; plenty of water, which is the river-man's notion of joy; plenty of leisure, which is an element in most men's heaven, for we had merely to float with the stream, three miles an hour, except when we landed to eat or sleep.
The woods were donning their vernal green and resounded with the calls of birds now. The mosquito plague of the region had not yet appeared, and there was little lacking to crown with a halo the memory of those days on the Missouri of the North.
Native quadrupeds seemed scarce, and we were all agog when one of the men saw a black fox trotting along the opposite bank. However, it turned out to be one of the many stray dogs of the country. He followed us a mile or more, stopping at times to leap at fish that showed near the shore. When we landed for lunch he swam the broad stream and hung about at a distance. As this was twenty miles from any settlement, he was doubtless hungry, so I left a bountiful lunch for him, and when we moved away, he claimed his own.
At Fort McKay I saw a little half-breed boy shooting with a bow and displaying extraordinary marksmanship. At sixty feet he could hit the bottom of a tomato tin nearly every time; and even more surprising was the fact that he held the arrow with what is known as the Mediterranean hold. When, months later, I again stopped at this place, I saw another boy doing the very same. Some residents assured me that this was the style of all the Chipewyans as well as the Crees.
That night we camped far down the river and on the side opposite the Fort, for experience soon teaches one to give the dogs no chance of entering camp on marauding expeditions while you rest. About ten, as I was going to sleep, Preble put his head in and said: "Come out here if you want a new sensation."
In a moment I was standing with him under the tall spruce trees, looking over the river to the dark forest, a quarter mile away, and listening intently to a new and wonderful sound. Like the slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell, it came. Ting, ting, ting, ting, and on, rising and falling with the breeze, but still keeping on about two "tings" to the second; and on, dulling as with distance, but rising again and again.
It was unlike anything I had ever heard, but Preble knew it of old. "That", says he, "is the love-song of the Richardson Owl. She is sitting demurely in some spruce top while he sails around, singing on the wing, and when the sound seems distant, he is on the far side of the tree."
Ting, ting, ting, ting, it went on and on, this soft belling of his love, this amorous music of our northern bell-bird. .
Ting, TING, ting, ting, ting, TING, ting, ting, ting, ting, TING, ting--oh, how could any lady owl resist such strains?--and on, with its ting, ting, ting, TING, ting, ting, ting, TING, the whole night air was vibrant. Then, as though by plan, a different note--the deep booming "Oho-oh-who-oh who hoo" of the Great Homed Owl--was heard singing a most appropriate bass.
But the little Owl went on and on; 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes at last had elapsed before I turned in again and left him. More than once that night I awoke to hear his "tinging" serenade upon the consecrated air of the piney woods.
Yet Preble said this one was an indifferent performer. On the Mackenzie he had heard far better singers of the kind; some that introduce many variations of the pitch and modulation. I thought it one of the most charming bird voices I had ever listened to--and felt that this was one of the things that make the journey worth while.
On June 1 the weather was so blustering and wet that we did not break camp. I put in the day examining the superb timber of this bottom-land. White spruce is the prevailing conifer and is here seen in perfection. A representative specimen was 118 feet high, 11 feet 2 inches in circumference, or 3 feet 6 1/2 inches in diameter 1 foot from the ground, i.e., above any root spread. There was plenty of timber of similar height. Black spruce, a smaller kind, and tamarack are found farther up and back in the bog country. jackpine of fair size abounds on the sandy and gravelly parts. Balsam poplar is the largest deciduous tree; its superb legions in upright ranks are crowded along all the river banks and on the islands not occupied by the spruce. The large trees of this kind often have deep holes; these are the nesting sites of the Whistler Duck, which is found in numbers here and as far north as this tree, but not farther. White poplar is plentiful also; the hillsides are beautifully clad with its purplish masses of twigs, through which its white stem gleam like marble columns. White birch is common and large enough for canoes. Two or three species of willow in impenetrable thickets make up the rest of the forest stretches.
At this camp I had the unique experience of showing all these seasoned Westerners that it was possible to make a fire by the friction of two sticks. This has long been a specialty of mine; I use a thong and a bow as the simplest way. Ordinarily I prefer balsam-fir or tamarack; in this case I used a balsam block and a spruce drill, and, although each kind failed when used with drill and block the same, I got the fire in half a minute.
On June 3 we left this camp of tall timber. As we floated down we sighted a Lynx on the bank looking contemplatively into the flood. One
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