eClassics Publications presents "The Collected Works of Grey Owl" Description: "The Collected Works of Grey Owl" comprises the works of Grey Owl, or Wa-sha-quon-asin, the Indian name of English-born Archibald Stansfeld Belaney (September 18, 1888 – April 13, 1938), chosen by himself when he took on a First Nations identity as an adult. This collection consists of his three books "The Men of the Last Frontier", "Pilgrims of the Wild" and "The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People", all in one volume.
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A deep slow-flowing river; silent, smooth as molten glass; on either bank a forest, dark, shadowy and mysterious.
The face of Nature as it was since the Beginning; all creation down the eons of unmeasured time, brooding in ineffable calm, infinite majesty, and a breathless and unutterable silence.
So it has lain for countless ages, dreaming, dwelling on the memories of untold tales no longer remembered, wise with the wisdom of uncounted years of waiting.
Overhead an eagle manoeuvres in the eye of the sun, and in the shadows on the shore an otter lies asleep.
Far-off in midstream appears a tiny dot, growing larger and larger as it approaches, and presently a bark canoe, yellow as an autumn leaf, and floating as lightly, speeds by. The sun glints sharply at regular intervals on paddles swung with swift and tireless strokes, by six brown, high-featured savages. Eagle feathers bob in unison, copper-hued backs bend and sway, driving forward the fragile craft, high of prow and stern, with a leaping undulation that is the poetry of motion.
In the centre stands a white man, bedizened with the remnants of the lace and ruffles of the courts of Europe. His cheeks are hollow and his frame gaunt. His skin is streaked with blood from the bites of myriad flies, but he recks not of it; his burning gaze is fixed ahead: Westward, Westward, from whence the river flows.
A few minutes and the bump and swish of paddles become inaudible. The canoe diminishes again to a speck and disappears into the unknown. And the tiny waves of its passing find their way to shore, and so die. The two wild creatures stare in idle curiosity, and return each to his occupation: the eagle to his undisturbed soaring, the otter to his interrupted sleeping: and little know that, for a moment, they have gazed on History.
And so, unostentatiously, without pomp or ceremony, all unknown to the teeming millions of the Eastern Hemisphere, the long closed portals of the Western World swing open.
"I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me
High mountains are a feeling, but the hum
Of human cities torture; I can see
Nothing to loathe in Nature, save to be
A link reluctant in a fleshly chain,
Class'd among creatures, when the soul can flee,
And with the sky, the peak, the heaving plain
Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain."
During the last twenty years or so, with emigration pouring its thousands of newcomers into Canada to seek fresh homes, the world has been wont to consider the Dominion as a settled country, largely shorn of its forests, and given over almost entirely to farming, mining, manufacturing, and like industries.
Certainly the Canada of to-day can boast of unlimited opportunities for those who are willing to work, and there can be found in her cities and small towns a civilization as prosaic and matter-of-fact as exists in many older and longer-settled countries. There is big business; there are mining developments and engineering projects second to none in the world. Several finely equipped railroads span her from coast to coast. The mountains have been conquered, mighty rivers dammed, and vast reaches of prairie and woodland denuded of their game and brought under the plough. There are few improvements or inventions of modern times that are not in common use, even in sparsely settled districts.
All this is known to the world at large, and the word "Canada" is synonymous with "Prosperity" and "Advancement." These things coupled with the almost unequalled natural resources yet remaining at her command, have placed Canada in the forefront of the colonies that help to make the British Empire.
Those of us who enjoy the high privilege of participation in the benefits accruing from the development of a land of such riches, and unequalled opportunity, are apt to think but little, or fail, perhaps, even to be cognizant of the ceaseless warfare that for three centuries has been carried on in the van of the Great Advance. Without it the triumphant march of to-day might have been long deferred, or at least limited to a far smaller area. This bitter contest is still being waged without intermission, by a thin handful of devoted souls, on the far-flung borderland beyond the fringe of Civilization, where they are still adding additional, and alas, final, verses to the soul-inspiring saga of the Great North-West.
The mechanical mind of the efficient engineer who designs marvellous bridges, constructs huge dams, lays out our railroads, or makes extensive surveys—however well suited to his particular calling—very seldom possesses that sixth sense which seems to be the peculiar attribute of the pathfinder. Many of the mountain passes, and skilfully selected routes bearing the names of prominent men supposed to have discovered them, were the century-old trails of trappers and other frontiersmen whose names we never hear.
Not for the borderman are the rich rewards of honour, material profit and national prominence, which fall rather to those who follow with the more conspicuous achievements of construction, and, too often, destruction. Not for gain does he pursue his thankless task, for he is satisfied if he makes the wherewithal to live; neither for renown, for he lives obscurely, and often dies a strange death, alone. And no press notices sing his praises, and no monument is raised over his often unburied body.
He who leads the precarious life of skirmisher or scout on the No-Man's-Land beyond the Frontier, becomes so imbued with the spirit of his environment, that when the advance guard of the new era sweeps down on him with its flow of humanity and modern contrivance, he finds he cannot adapt himself to the new conditions. Accustomed to loneliness and seclusion, when his wanderings are curtailed, he forthwith gathers his few belongings and, like the Arab, folds his tent and steals silently away. Thus he moves on, stage by stage, with his furred and feathered associates, to fresh untrammelled horizons; where he explores, lays his trails, and unearths secret places to his heart's content, blazing the way for civilization, and again retiring before it when it comes.
This is the spirit of the true Pioneer. This is the urge that drove Champlain, Raleigh, Livingstone, and Cook into the four corners of the earth; the unquenchable ambition to conquer new territory, to pass where never yet trod foot of man.
Of all the various kinds of bordermen that pass their days Back of Beyond, undoubtedly the most accomplished and useful as a pathfinder is the trapper. He antedates all others. Men of the type of Boone, Crockett, Bridger, and Cody still exist to-day, undergoing the same hardships, eating the same foods, travelling by the same means, as did their forerunners, and talking languages and using methods handed down from the dim obscurity of the past, by the past-masters in the first and most romantic trade that North America ever knew, that of the hunter. The trapper of to-day has no longer the menace of the hostile savage to contend with, but he is in many ways under infinitely greater difficulties than was the woodsman of an earlier day.
From the time of the conquest of Canada until about fifty years ago, the land now under cultivation was covered with hardwood and pine forests with little or no undergrowth or other obstructions to retard progress. The woods-runner of that period had the best of timber for manufacturing his equipment. As a contrast, I once saw in the far North a party of Indians equipped with tamarac axe-handles and poplar toboggans; a condition of affairs about on a par with using wooden wheels on a locomotive, or cardboard soles on boots. The woods in those days were full of deer, a more prolific animal than the moose, far more easy to handle when killed, and with a much more useful hide. The old-time trapper had not far to go for his hunt, once settled in his district, and he had no competition whatsoever.
The modern hunter has to cover more ground, largely by means of trails laboriously cut through tangled undergrowth, sometimes not setting over three or four effective traps in a ten-mile line. The country so far North is more broken, the rivers rougher, the climate more severe; the forest, amounting in some places to little more than a ragged jungle, offers resistances unknown to the traveller of earlier days. Steel traps have supplanted to a large extent the wooden deadfall, and the snare, and better firearms have simplified still-hunting; but game is scarcer, and harder to approach, except in very remote sections.
Conditions have changed, and the terrain has shifted, but the kind of a man who follows the chase for a living remains the same; the desire to penetrate far-away hidden spots, the urge to wander, is there as it was in his prototype of two hundred years ago. The real trapper (by which I mean the man who spends his days up beyond the Strong Woods, not the part-time hunter, or "railroad" trapper out for a quick fortune) is as much an integral part of the woods as are the animals themselves. In tune with his surroundings, wise in the lore of the Indian, he reads and correctly interprets the cryptograms in the book that lies open before him, scanning the face of Nature and forestalling her moods to his advantage. Dependent entirely on himself, he must be resourceful, ready to change plan at a moment's notice, turning adverse circumstances and reverses to what slight advantage he may. The hardships and privations of the trapper's life have developed in him a determination, a dogged perseverance, and a bulldog tenacity of purpose not often necessary in other walks of life. At the outset, before the commencement of the hunt, the trapper may have to spend one or two months in getting supplies to his ground, after spending most of the summer searching for a likely spot. His exploration work is of great value to those who follow him, but it is all lost time to him. He expects, and receives, nothing for his labours, but counts it all in the day's work, and hopes his ground will produce the goods. On such trips these men are sometimes called on to perform seemingly impossible feats, and probably no trip coming inside my recollection would illustrate this better than the journey undertaken by a white man and an Indian, three winters ago in Northern Quebec.
These men came from further south and, having made no allowance for the difference in climate, on their arrival found the freeze-up already in progress. Travelling during this period is considered by even the most enduring as being almost, if not quite, impossible.
Nothing daunted, these two hardy souls commenced their pilgrimage, for it was nothing less. Each had a canoe-load of about 600 lbs. On the first lake they found ice, which, whilst not capable of bearing a man, effectually prevented the passage of a canoe. This had to be broken, the two men armed with poles first breaking a channel in an empty canoe, from one expanse of open water to another. This entailed the unloading of 600 lbs. of baggage on any kind of shore, into the snow, and the reloading of it on the return of the empty canoe; work enough, if frequently performed. They proceeded thus at the rate of about three miles a day, carrying the loads and canoes over seven portages. It snowed steadily day and night, increasing the difficulties on portages, making camping out a misery, and preventing at the same time the ice from becoming thick enough to walk on.
For five days they continued this struggle, making camp every night after dark, soaking wet and exhausted. It now turned colder, and this did not improve the ice under its clogging mass of snow water, while in the channel so laboriously broken, the cakes of ice and slush often cemented together, during the return trip, into a stronger barrier than the original ice had been. Held up at length on the shores of an eight-mile lake by these conditions, they passed around the entire shoreline of one side of the lake on snowshoes, the ice being too weak to carry them otherwise, and even then, within a few feet of the shore, driving their axes through the ice at one blow every few feet. A full day was consumed on the outward journey, and they returned by the light of a clouded moon, splashed to the head, their garments freezing as they walked. But they were well repaid, as the water flooded the ice around the holes they had cut, and slushed up the snow on it. The whole mass froze through, forming a kind of bridge, over which they passed in safety, drawing the canoes and loads in relays on improvised sleighs.
This style of progress, alternating with the usual portages, continued for several more days, one man going through the ice in deep water, and being with difficulty rescued. The men were in no danger from starvation, but wrestling with hundred-pound bags of provisions under such trying conditions, and carrying ice-laden canoes over portages on snowshoes, was too severe a labour to be long continued. Worn-out and discouraged by their seemingly hopeless task, too far in to turn back, not far enough advanced to remain, faced by the prospect of passing the best part of the winter on a main route denuded of game, these companions in tribulation plodded with bitter determination, slowly, painfully, but persistently ahead.
Mile by mile, yard by yard, foot by foot, it seemed, those mountainous loads proceeded on their way, as two steely-eyed, grimfaced men opposed their puny efforts to the vindictive Power that vainly inhibited their further progress.
Their objective was a fast-running river, some forty miles in from the steel, knowledge of which had caused them to retain their canoes, in the hopes of finding it unfrozen. This proved to be the case, and on its current they travelled in ease and comfort, as far, in two days, as they had previously done in the two weeks that they had been on the trail. When the water no longer suited their direction, they camped several days to rest up; and winter coming on in real earnest, they cached their now useless canoes, and making sleighs moved on into their ground by easy stages.
My own first introduction to a district celebrated for its topographical irregularities was a muskeg two miles long, of the same width and of indeterminate depth. These muskegs are frequently little more than moss-covered bogs that offer not one solid piece of footing in miles. Between two of us we juggled close on nine hundred pounds of equipment and provisions across this morass, besides a large freighting canoe, taking three days to complete the task. It rained the whole time, so we were wet on both sides, at both ends, and in the middle. Two nights camp had to be made on a quaking bog, where a small cluster of stunted spruce offered shelter and a little dry wood, whilst mosquitoes in countless myriads swarmed on us from the pools of slime on every side.
At no place in this swamp could we carry over a hundred pounds, owing to the treacherous nature of the footing, this increasing the number of trips.
On one occasion, bogged to the knees, I was unable to extricate myself, and, unwilling to drop my load in the mud, had to wait in this position till my partner passed on his return trip. The whole thing was a hideous nightmare. Four trips apiece we made by quarter-mile stretches, and the labour involved was nothing short of terrific. Yet the feat, if so it could be called, excited no comment; such things are commonly done.
Men following the trap line become so inured to the severe conditions prevailing, and the unremitting exertion connected with the continuous travelling, that they can undergo, without serious inconvenience, discomforts and hardships that would kill an ordinary man. The exigencies of a life devoted to wrestling a living from an unyielding and ungenerous wilderness, make frequent feats of endurance a matter of course; yet the severity of the life itself, unartificial, healthy, aboriginal almost, engenders the nervous force necessary to the performance of them. Laziness under these conditions is an impossibility, as even to exist requires, at times, a daily expenditure of energy not always given by the wage-earner to a day's work.
In the summer long trips have to be made by canoe and portage into the interior in search of hunting-grounds, whilst swarms of mosquitoes and black flies make life almost unendurable. In late summer, or early Fall, canoes are loaded down with little less than half a ton of supplies, and have to be run down rapids, or poled up them according to direction, and paddled over big lakes in all kinds of weather, into the selected territory. At every portage the whole outfit must be unloaded, packed across the carry by means of a leather headpiece attached to two ten-foot thongs and known as a "tump line," in loads of from one to three hundred pounds each trip, according to the kind of trail. The canoe is then reloaded and the paddling renewed. No rests are taken on these portages; recuperation is supposed, on the sound theory that a change is as good as a rest, to take place on the return trip for another load.
In these late days game is far to seek, and it is sometimes necessary to go in two or three hundred miles over thirty, forty, or fifty portages, only perhaps to find, with the coming of snow, that what had appeared to be a rich territory when visited on an exploration trip, is now barren, the game having migrated in the interim. The hunter who finds himself caught in such a predicament may be hard put to it to make his expenses, and his whole year is a loss.
The hunting ground reached, a log cabin is built, trails laid out, caches of provisions distributed to outlying points, where tents or other shelters for one-night stands are to be located. Traps are set, meat killed and brought in. Once the snow commences to fall, trails have to be kept open, and traps examined and broken out after every storm, to the number of perhaps two hundred or so, extending over an aggregate of thirty or forty miles of lines. And this is over and above the constant cutting of wood, cooking, tanning of hides, and other routine work.
Expeditions have to be made into far districts with a toboggan loaded with a tent, stove, blankets, and a few provisions, drawn by dogs. This outfit will be set up every night on top of the snow, the only preparation being to tramp the surface solid with snowshoes, and to lay on it a thick layer of balsam brush. Every morning this will be all pulled down again, and loaded, and trail broken ahead of the dogs for another day; and so on for a week at a time.
A man if alone, and going far, needs all the available space in his canoe for provisions, and must often do without dogs, having no room for them. On these side trips he must therefore draw his own toboggan. As he has also to break his own trail, he travels light, taking only a sheet of canvas for a windbreak, and one blanket, sleeping out all night in temperatures often as low as 60 degrees below zero.
Making camp thus is a matter of two or three hours' hard work, and this after a day's hard travelling. The snow has to be dug out over an area of about ten feet each way, as the fire would speedily sink below the level of the camp to the ground otherwise; and not the least labour is the cutting of the large quantity of wood required. Nor dare the trapper lose time to cook, eat, or rest until the last job is done, lest he be caught in the dark with insufficient wood, or otherwise unprepared for the blistering deadly cold.
For there is One who is watching him, has watched him since he entered the woods, waiting for just some such contingency: the grim Spirit of the Silent North, who stalks each lonely traveller's footsteps relentless and implacable, whose will is law in the White Silence. They who enter his Kingdom do well to tread with circumspection.
Once fixed for the night, his hunger satisfied and his pipe going, the refreshed man takes his ease. He is no longer alone, for his dancing fire serves as both friend and comforter; and as he sits and watches the billowing smoke clouds make pictures in the air, he thinks not of the labours of the day just done, but plans the morrow's trip with enthusiasm. Thus he is content, and his scheme of existence, shorn of all the multitudinous complexities of modern life, suffices him; he retains his peace of mind and thinks the cost in hardship well repaid.
During the dead days of mid-winter, when game does not run, the time hangs heavy, and loneliness is often such that only high-pressure activity keeps the mind from wandering into the black abyss of introspection. So that, as a man is more alone with himself in the confinement of the camp, he stays out during all the hours of daylight, and often many of those of darkness, in all weathers, traversing the empty streets of the forest, where the tracks of beasts are as messages from friends, and the very trees seem living entities.
A man so much alone looks kindly on the numerous small birds and animals that congregate around his cabins and camping places. Squirrels that eye him knowingly from the eaves of his roof, chattering and quivering with some violent emotion the while, are tolerated until they become a pest. Ermine are suffered to enter the camp at will through some hidden crack, to flicker noiselessly around in flashes of white, bobbing up almost simultaneously in widely separated spots, thus giving the impression that there are two of them, where there is only one, or that they are able to appear in two places at the one time. Chickades in little flocks chirrup their "Don't-give-a-darn—Don't-give-a-darn" at him at every stop, and—trail companion that sticketh closer than a brother—the whiskey-jack, commits, unpunished, his numerous depredations. This whiskey-jack is a small bird, about the size of a blackbird, but he has more mischief in his small body than there is in a whole bag of cats. He is a scamp, but a likeable rascal, at that. He mocks the calls of other birds and steals bait, or any small articles left around the camp. He loves human company, and, at the first smoke of a camp-fire, he appears mysteriously from nowhere, like a small grey shadow, and perches on a limb, generally right over the trapper's lunch place, knocking snow down his neck or into the cooking as he lights. He has a foolish little song he whistles which is supposed, no doubt, to charm the hunter into giving him a part of his meal. This he generally gets, but does not eat, carrying it away and cacheing it; so he is never full, and stays until the last morsel has disappeared.
A lonely man cannot resist the little bird's begging, and he, as he gets fed, becomes bolder and, should the man move away to fix the fire, will even steal out of the lunch bag. If shoo'ed away, Mr. Whiskey Jack will fly up squawking into a branch and maybe knock some more snow down the trapper's neck, or on to his mitts which he is carefully drying.
A pleasant hour having been spent in this way, the trapper moves on, thinking himself well rid of this impish familiar, and continues baiting his sets. Friend whiskey-jack follows silently and invisibly behind, flying from tree to tree. When the trapper stops and baits his trap, the nuisance watches until he is gone, and just as carefully unbaits it, removing the meat piece by piece, and cacheing it—and so all along the line for miles. And when the trapper returns to his fire place, there is his chum, sitting innocently up on a limb, singing his crazy song, waiting for some more to eat. At one camp I had, there were five or six of these birds, and they used to follow me out on the trail in this way; and in selecting their portion from any moose-meat there was, believe me, they knew the steak from the neck. A man alone for months is glad of their company, in spite of the trouble they make; and for me their friendliness and cheerful whistling have brightened many a lonesome camp fire.
By some dispensation of Providence the unpleasant happenings, the freezings, the burnings, the starvation trips, and the terrific labour are soon forgotten, only the successes and triumphs are remembered. Were it otherwise, not one man in ten would return to the bush after the first trip. A man may be soaking wet, half-frozen, hungry and tired, landed on some inhospitable neck of the woods, vowing that a man is a fool to so abuse himself. Yet, let him but make a fire, get a sheet of canvas between himself and the elements, and a dish of hot tea under his belt, and his previous state of misery will fade from his mind; and he will remark to his partner, his dogs, or his tea-pail, that "Home was never like this," or that "This is the life."
He overcomes his difficulties by skill and cunning, rather than by force, taking a leaf from the Indian's book, thus husbanding his energies against the time when he is tried by the supreme tests of endurance, which occur frequently enough. A saving sense of humour eradicates all feeling of self-pity in times of stress, the only feeling being that elation which one lone man may experience at prevailing against overwhelming odds, and the only comments passed are a few quaint remarks on the queer tricks of Fate. The more lurid flows of profanity are reserved for trivial occurrences, where the energy thus expended will not be missed.
This optimistic state of mind must be carried to the point where—if he lose a canoe-load of goods through miscalculation, or incorrect handling in a rapids, or should a toboggan piled with necessaries, and what few luxuries he permits himself, go through the ice after being hauled eighty miles or so—he must be glad it was not worse, see only the silver lining, and remember he did not drown. Also that he is lucky to, perhaps, have saved a few matches in a waterproof case, or that he kept his hat dry maybe.
He who lives by the hunt must be patient, and of a monumental calm. The constant petty annoyances incident to everyday travel, trivial in themselves, become by constant repetition exasperating to a degree, and would soon drive an irritable man to the verge of insanity. Being much alone, this modern Spartan subjects himself to a discipline as severe as that demanded of any soldier, for he cannot allow his emotions ever to gain the upper hand, lest they get complete control, and that way madness lies. His unceasing vigilance and watchfulness, by constant practice, become almost automatic. Even in sleep this awareness of what is transpiring around him is subconsciously continued, so that a slight noise, as of the passage of some animal, or the abrupt cessation of a familiar sound, bring instant wakefulness.
They who would catch a woodsman of the old school asleep do well to come carelessly and with much noise. A stealthy approach seems to establish some telepathic communication with the subconscious mind of one who lives with Nature. This faculty is borrowed from the animals, and is common amongst Indians. To creep up on a sleeping animal, except in a canoe, is an impossibility. Domesticated wild animals, lying asleep, perhaps in the midst of all kinds of noise, will, if gazed at intently, become uneasy and awaken.
A man's progress through the woods is heralded before him as the advance of a plague would be down a crowded thoroughfare, and he who would cope with senses so much more delicately balanced than his own must needs develop, to some extent, the alertness of the beasts he chases.
Also, he must develop to a remarkable degree the tenacity of life that they possess. Deer shot through the heart have been known to rush blindly on for a hundred yards, dead to all intents and purposes. I have followed moose, shot through the lungs and otherwise wounded, that travelled doggedly on for miles before falling. So with man, it has sometimes occurred that, having lost everything by some accident, frequent enough in the unwritten history of the woods, lone bushmen have been known to stagger out of the wilderness in a dying condition, having striven painfully for days to get to some human habitation, the will to live alone having sustained them until they might safely collapse.
The case is well known of the Scotch half-breed, who was caught by the leg in a bear trap weighing perhaps twenty-five pounds, and fastened to a large tally-pole. He cut through the heavy birch clog with his hunting-knife, no mean feat even for a well man; he then made a sling to hold the leg and trap clear of the ground, and, with the teeth lacerating him at every move, made his way to civilization on improvised crutches,—only to die during the night within reach of help, just outside the town limits.
In a territory beyond the jurisdiction of the police, life is simplified down to a few basic principles. Laws become more or less unnecessary, except the few unwritten ones which are tacitly observed; and ostracism, or worse, is the penalty for infringement. In such an elementary state of society complete strangers, meeting, have no means of judging one another save by a few simple direct actions, and it is well to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing. Witness the case in earlier days of the prospector, who, on meeting a party on the trail, reached quickly towards his hip, and was immediately shot. It transpired that he had merely been in the act of drawing his flask to offer a round of drinks, but the suspicious action, as related by the witness, entirely exonerated his assailant.
Generally speaking your woodsman does not steal.
In the first place, a man usually has all the necessaries or he could not be in the woods at all, also, he has faith in his fellow man, and in the unwritten law that he himself obeys. To take a certain amount of food, to carry a man on to the nearest base of supplies, is not considered other than excusable. In fact, deserted shacks are often found to contain a small supply of essentials, left there by the departing owners with that very end in view. Caches containing goods worth hundreds of dollars are often exposed to view, although sheltered from the weather; and passers-by will make repairs to the keep-over if necessary, in the same spirit in which they expect to get it done for them by others.
Once stealing is commenced by a few amateurs and thoughtless or ignorant vandals, the tradition of centuries crumbles, the barriers are down, and stealing becomes the king of outdoor sports. A rifled cache in the woods calls for reprisals of a severe nature and, unless justice can weed out the offenders, sometimes leads to grim tragedy enacted beneath the larch and spruce trees, who keep their secret well; mute witnesses, condoning by their silence a justice as certain and inexorable as the retributions of Nature itself.
Two years ago a white trapper, situated two hundred and forty miles north of the railroad in the Abitibi district, returned one night to his camp to find it destroyed in such a way as to be no longer habitable. Worse, every last ounce of his provision was gone, together with a spare canoe, a tent, and small stove, with which he could have made out to live, on a strictly meat diet, all winter. His remaining stove was smashed beyond possibility of repair.
The man was in a serious position. He had with him a little food left from his trip, enough only for a couple of days at the most. It was the time of year when, owing to ice conditions, travel by canoe was almost impossible. Soon the intense cold of winter, in that parallel, would be upon him and without shelter he must succumb, starvation or no. The time of the raid had obviously been selected with regard to this. Somehow he got out to the "Front," how is not known, except that he arrived in rags, and in a starving condition. I have talked with the man in question, but beyond stating that it "was no picnic" he will not speak of the trip.
The casus belli was known to be the disputed ownership of a rich hunting-ground, and the intention of the raiders evidently was that he should never leave the spot alive. The following winter, in the same district, the two parties met, six men all told; threats were exchanged over the muzzles of loaded rifles, and a pitched battle seemed imminent. But the affair had attracted the attention of the Mounted Police and itching trigger-fingers had to be controlled in this instance. Arrests were made and a trial staged. Justice, unable to differentiate between the claims of either side, dropped the case; but such things are never forgotten nor forgiven.
This affair was a modification of the old "Longue Traverse," a scheme adopted by the despotic representatives of a big fur company in earlier days, whereby undesirables, such as freetraders, encroaching trappers and others, were captured, their outfit confiscated, and themselves turned loose with a rifle and a few rounds of ammunition, to find their way on foot, hundreds of miles, to the nearest town. And often enough a pair of Indian killers, earning thereby, perhaps, a rebate on their debt, followed stealthily behind to watch the dying struggles of a starving man with callous apathy, or grimly stalk him day by day, and later shoot him.
A man who has successfully overcome the difficulties, and endured the privations of the trap-line for a few years, can no more quit it than the confirmed gambler can leave his gaming. Trapping is, after all, a gamble on a large scale, the trapper's life and outfit against the strength of the wilderness and its presiding genii, to win a living; and in the hazard he experiences a rare pleasure.
Nor is his life without its compensations. He may climb a mountain, and look as far as the eye can reach, out over illimitable leagues of forested hill and valley stretching into the dim distance, with a feeling of ownership, and there is none to say him nay. And to all intents and purposes it is his, therein to work his will; surely a vast enough estate to satisfy the most land-hungry, and with no taxes or upkeep attached to it. His sole title to possession is the hard-won supremacy he has attained to by unremitting toil, as potent for him as any letters patent could be. The sense of untrammelled freedom and a wild independence, inculcated by wanderings over an unlimited area, enter his soul, unfitting him for any other walk of life. His is the sport of kings, and he is free as no king ever was.
He scans the face of the wilderness, and there gets his inspiration. The pale disc of the moon shining through the interlaced limbs of a leafless tree; the silhouette of tall distant pines against the frosty sky; the long shadows cast by a winter sunset across the white expanse of a snow-bound lake, all strike a chord which finds a ready response in his breast. He may not be able, or willing, to express his feelings to the world, but they indubitably impress his unspoken thoughts. The sublimity, the immensity, and the silent majesty of his surroundings influence his character, and the trapper is often a quiet thoughtful man, set in his ways, and not overly given to conversation.
Many are the tales told of his taciturnity; exaggerated accounts, no doubt, many of them, but typical. There is the story of the old-timer, who, in years of solitary wandering, had happened on a particularly pleasant camping ground and was preparing to pass the night there. Presently he saw coming a canoe, and soon a stranger, attracted no doubt by his smoke and the knowledge of the presence of another of his kind in the interminable waste, edged his canoe ashore and landed.
"Fine evening," said the stranger, probably his first speech for months.
"Yeah," replied the old-timer.
"Gosh darned fine camping ground you got here," added the new arrival.
"Uh huh." The habit of a lifetime was not to be so easily broken.
The other man commenced to unload his canoe, and whilst he so busied himself, endeavoured to warm the chill atmosphere by cheerful conversation.
"They's a war in China; d'jy'a hear about it?" he queried.
Receiving no answer he looked up to see his newly-found companion, deliberately folding his blankets, and pulling down his tent, evidently so lately erected.
"What in hell's wrong," he demanded in pained surprise. "Not goin' away, a'ir you?"
"Yes, I'm going away," was the answer. "They's too darn much discussion around here to suit my fancy."
It is related of a man of my acquaintance that on an occasion being informed politely that it was "a great day" he gave no answer; and on the remark being repeated, replied—"I'm not denying it, am I? I don't aim to have no argyment with you!"
Men who follow this life will follow no other, and the interests of the outside world, current events, the doings of the great and the near-great, affect them not at all. I remember being of a party where one of the guides was asked how he could go such long periods without news from the "front," as the railroad is called, the death of a noted film star being cited as an example of such news.
"I don't give a continental hoot," said he, "if Douglas Fairbanks eats his beans with a knife or a shovel. As for that fillum guy you say died, too much of a good thing killed him I guess. Me I'm O.K. here, and I won't die till I'm dam good and ready."
Those used to the polite evasions and diplomatic social intrigue of a higher state of society find the average frontiersman disconcertingly direct in speech on occasion, yet his tact and acumen have been such that in days gone by he was able to deal successfully with savage leaders, past-masters in all the arts of subtlety, where the trained diplomats of Europe failed.
Proud generals have sought his advice on the eve of decisive battles, and without his leadership the successful crossing of the western plains by the great wagon trains of fifty years ago would have been well-nigh impossible. There are no longer any savages or generals contesting for the possession of this country but he still, to-day, shoulders responsibilities as great and as important. He is entrusted with the care of brigades of canoes loaded with valuable cargoes destined for the scene of important development work, and highly trained engineers turn to him for advice when map and compass fail.
Even at this late day, the arts of woodcraft are practised as originally acquired from the Indian, whose highly specialized faculties his white contemporary has more or less successfully emulated. Having for neighbours a people who carry drums to celebrate the Wabeno and wear charms to ward off evil spirits, the white trapper has naturally imbibed some of their lesser superstitions. If he has bad luck he is none too sure that he is not conjured by some enemy. He feels that there is no actual harm done by cutting out the knee-caps from the hind legs of his beaver carcases and burning them, or by placing a small portion of tobacco in the brain-box of a bear he kills and hanging the skull on a tree.
Sometimes old hands, soured by the disappointments of several bad seasons in succession, will proclaim that they have quit the game, are off the trail for life. But come Fall, the smell of a smoky wood-fire, or the sight of some portion of well-used equipment, companion of many a long and arduous journey, brings up a chain of recollection, and the hunt is on again.
One of the most successful trappers I ever knew was visited with about all the bad luck that could be crowded into one season. The beaver in his district developed a degree of sagacity unusual even in those animals. They evaded his sets persistently, springing traps, and stealing bait with monotonous regularity. A swarm of rabbits descended on the land, and on nearly every occasion on which a valuable animal entered a trap house, the rabbits were there first, getting themselves caught, and providing an excellent chain of free lunches to the fur bearers, who disdainfully refused his other lures. Omitting to remove a greased plug from the muzzle one day, he blew the end off the best rifle in the world, as he was wont to call it. Early in the Fall a cloudburst had transformed a dry creek into a raging torrent, carrying away a tent and complete outfit erected as a branch camp in an outlying district. A man of Indian training, he was superstitiously inclined, as is common; so, when, after slicing one of his feet with an axe, he found one of his dogs eating the bones of one of the few beaver he had caught, he commenced to figure that there was a nigger in the woodpile somewhere, and left the woods, selling most of his gear.
The next year, resolving to try his luck once more, he reassembled an outfit, and hit the trail for over the hills and far away; only to find one morning, his canoe, left overnight at the far end of a portage, completely stripped of its canvas by a bear. Apprehensive of what further disaster might lie in store, he patched up the canoe, returned to town, and sold out completely. He had been a saving man, so he built him a nifty bakeshop, and did well selling bread to the people of the village.
Coming on Fall, I tried to persuade him to come in with me, saying I would lend him the equipment, but he stood firm to his decision. As I was leaving town for the last time I paused at his little shop in passing. It was a cool day in Indian Summer, the tang of Autumn was in the air, and a bluish haze softened the outlines of the wooded hills across the lake, which, calm as a sheet of glass, reflected the forest that crowded down to its very edge in reds, yellows, and russet browns. The sun was shining brightly, but without heat, through the smoke of wood-fires from the houses of our little town, as it hung in wisps and whorls in the still air.
The old fellow was standing outside his door, looking beyond the smoke, into the distant hills, gay in their autumn colouring. I held out my hand to bid him farewell, and just then came a chill puff of wind, from nowhere at all, blowing some yellow leaves from a bush to our feet where they eddied momentarily and went fluttering and rustling down the empty street. He followed them with his eyes. Turning suddenly, he struck my hand aside.
"Hell," said he. "Good-bye nothin'! gimme some traps an' a gun, I'm comin' with you!"
There are exceptions, but the professional hunter and woods-runner seen at the trading posts is rarely the shaggy, bearded, roaring individual depicted in the movies and some books; but a quiet, purposeful-eyed man, out in town, after the hunt, to have a good time in his own way.
Rarely does he leave the bush in the winter months, unless perhaps at New Year, and I have seen some lively times at trappers' conventions at that season. Habits of silence and watchfulness make him a somewhat taciturn person, but when in congenial company, and his tongue perhaps loosened by a few applications of the New Year's spirit, the effect of the gloom of shadowy forests fades temporarily away, and the repression of word and action gives way to a boisterous hilarity.
Some save their gains, others engage in a well-earned spree, as has been customary with frontiersmen from time immemorial. On these occasions they spend money like water, and indulge in generosities that would stagger a city worker, seeming to place little value on the money so hardly earned.
His short holiday over, some morning at daybreak the trapper loads his toboggan and harnesses up his team, amidst the barking and howling of huskies, near huskies, and just plain dogs, and is gone. He has no thought of the money he spent, the good times he had, or didn't have; true to type his mind is on the trail ahead. And as he passes the first fringe of the forest, which is never any great distance from these outposts of civilization, he enters the enchanted world of which he is as much a part as the ancient trees, the eternal snows, and the dancing Northern Lights. The magic of the winter wilderness descends on him like a cloak, and the waiting hush that covers the face of Nature, reaches out and engulfs him.
An anachronism, belonging to a day long past, he marches back down the avenues of time, a hundred years in as many steps. With a glance at the sun for direction, and eye to the lie of the land easiest for his dogs, feeling for signs of an unseen and drifted trail with his feet, he swings along on his big snow-shoes, out across the Frontier, beyond the ken of mortal man, to be no more seen in the meagre civilization he has left behind, till the suns of springtime shall have melted the snowdrifts from the hillsides, and cleared the lakes of ice.
Whether treading bitter trails, or resting securely in warm log cabins; faltering over empty barrens with staring eyes; hollow-cheeked with hunger or with hands dyed to the wrist with the rich blood of newly killed meat; fighting for life with desperate strokes in the hungry white water, or floating peacefully along some slow, winding river; these men of the Last Frontier are toilsomely, patiently, but indubitably laying the stepping-stones by which will pass the multitudes of future ages.
On the outskirts of the Empire this gallant little band of men still carries on the game that is almost played. The personnel changes as the years roll on, but the spirit remains the same. Each succeeding generation takes up the work that is laid down by those who pass along, leaving behind them traditions and a standard of achievement that must be lived up to by those who would claim a membership in the brotherhood of the Keepers of the Trails; bequeathing something of their courage, self-sacrifice, and devotion to a cause, to those who follow.
These are the soldiers of the Border Lands. Whether recruited from pioneer stock, and to the manner born, or from the ranks of the wage earners; whether scion of a noble house, or the scapegrace who, on account of some thoughtless act has left the haunts of men, or, perchance, a rolling-stone to whom adventure is as the breath of life; each and every one is playing his allotted part in that heroic struggle which is making possible the fulfilment of the greater and more lasting purpose of the future.
We, to-day, of this generation, are seeing the last of the free trappers; a race of men, who, in passing, will turn the last page in the story of true adventure on this continent, closing forever the book of romance in Canadian History. The forest cannot much longer stand before the conquering march of modernity, and soon we shall witness the vanishing of a mighty wilderness.
And the last Frontiersman, its offspring, driven back further and further towards the North into the far-flung reaches where are only desolation and barrenness, must, like the forest that evolved him, bow his head to the inevitable and perish with it. And he will leave behind him only his deserted, empty trails, and the ashes of his dead camp fires, as landmarks for the oncoming millions. And with him will go his friend the Indian to be a memory of days and a life that are past beyond recall.
"Full in the passage of the vale above
A sable silent solemn forest stood
Where nought but shadowy forms were seen to move."
Side by side with the modern Canada there lies the last battle-ground in the long-drawn-out, bitter struggle between the primeval and civilization. I speak not of those picturesque territories, within easy reach of transport facilities, where a sportsman may penetrate with a moccasined taciturn Indian, or a weather-beaten and equally reticent white man, and get his deer, or his fishing; places where, in inaccessible spots, lone white pines, one-time kings of all the forest, gaze in brooding melancholy out over the land that once was theirs. In such districts, traversed by accurately mapped water routes and well-cut portages, all the necessities and most of the luxuries of civilization may be transported with little difficulty.
But to those on whom the magic lure of far horizons has cast its spell, such places lack the thrill of the uncharted regions. Far beyond the fringe of burnt and lumbered wastes adjacent to the railroads, there lies another Canada little known, unvisited except by the few who are willing to submit to the hardships, loneliness, and toil of long journeys in a land where civilization has left no mark and opened no trails, and where there are no means of subsistence other than those provided by Nature.
Large areas of this section are barren of game, no small consideration to the adventurer caught by the exigencies of travel, for an extended period, in such a district. The greater part, however, is a veritable sportsman's paradise, untouched except by the passing hunter, or explorer; those hardy spirits for whom no privation is too severe, and no labour so arduous as to prevent them from assuaging the wanderlust that grips them and drives them out into the remaining waste places, where the devastating axe has not yet commenced its deadly work, out beyond the Height of Land, over the Great Divide.
This "Backbone of Canada" so called, sometimes known as the Haute Terre, stretches across the full breadth of the continent, East and West, dividing the waters that run south from those that run north to the Arctic Sea. In like manner it forms a line of demarcation between the prosaic realities of a land of everyday affairs, and the enchantment of a realm of high adventure, unconquered, almost unknown, and unpeopled except by a few scattered bands of Indians and wandering trappers.
This hinterland yet remains a virgin wilderness lying spread out over half a continent; a dark, forbidding panorama of continuous forest, with here and there a glistening lake set like a splash of quicksilver amongst the tumbled hills. A harsher, sterner land, this, than the smiling Southland; where manhood and experience are put to the supreme test, where the age-old law of the survival of the fittest holds sway, and where strength without cunning is of no avail. A region of illimitable distance, unknown lakes, hidden rivers, and unrecorded happenings; and changed in no marked way since the white man discovered America.
Here, even in these modern days, lies a land of Romance, gripping the imagination with its immensity, its boundless possibilities and its magic of untried adventure. Thus it has lain since the world was young, enveloped in a mystery beyond understanding, and immersed in silence, absolute, unbroken, and all-embracing; a silence intensified rather than relieved by the muted whisperings of occasional light forest airs in the tree-tops far overhead.
Should the traveller in these solitudes happen to arrive at the edge of one of those high granite cliffs common to the country and look around him, he will see, not the familiar deciduous trees of the south, but will find that he is surrounded, hemmed in on all sides, by apparently endless black forests of spruce, stately trees, cathedral-like with their tall spires above, and their gloomy aisles below. He will see them as far as the eye can reach, covering hill, valley, and ridge, spreading in a green carpet over the face of the earth. Paraded in mass formation, standing stiffly, yet gracefully, to attention, and opposing a wellnigh impenetrable barrier to the further encroachments of civilization, until they too shall fall before the axe, a burnt-offering on the altar of the God of Mammon.
In places this mighty close-packed host divides to sweep in huge undulating waves along the borders of vast inland seas, the far shores of which show only as a thin, dark line shimmering and dancing in the summer heat. These large lakes on the Northern watershed are shallow for the most part, and on that account dangerous to navigate. But in spots are deep holes, places where cliffs hundreds of feet high run sheer down to the water's edge, and on to unfathomed depths below. Riven from the lofty crags by the frosts of centuries, fallen rocks, some of them of stupendous size, lie on some submerged ledge like piles of broken masonry, faintly visible in the clear water, far below. And from out the dark fissures and shadowy caverns among them, slide long, grey, monstrous forms; for here is the home of the great lake trout of the region, taken sometimes as high as forty pounds in weight.
In places long low stretches of flat rock reach up out of the water, entering the wall of forest at a gentle incline. Their smooth surface is studded with a scattered growth of jackpines, fashioned into weird shapes by the wind, and, because standing apart, wide and spreading of limb, affording a grateful shade after long heats at the paddle on the glaring expanse of lake. These are the summer camping grounds of the floating caravans, and off these points a man may catch enough fish for a meal in the time it takes another to make the preparations to cook them.
In the spring time, in sheltered bays, lean and sinuous pike of inordinate size, hungry-looking and rapacious, lie like submarines awash, basking in the sunlight. Shooting them at this season is exciting sport, as only the large ones have this habit, and fish up to fifty inches in length are common.
Here and there, too, the sable carpet of evergreen tree-tops is gashed by long shining ribbons of white, as mighty rivers tumble and roar their way to Hudson's Bay, walled in on either side by their palisades of spruce trees, whose lofty arches give back the clatter of rapids or echo to the thunder of the falls.
Far beneath the steeple tops, below the fanlike layers of interlaced limbs that form a vaulted roof through which the sunlight never penetrates, lies a land of shadows. Darkened aisles and corridors lead on to nowhere. A gloomy labyrinth of smooth, grey columns stretches in every direction into the dimness until the view is shut off by the wall of trees that seems to forbid the further progress of the intruder. This barrier opens up before him, as he goes forward, but closes down behind him as though, having committed himself to advance he may not now retire; it hems him in on either side at a given distance as he proceeds, a mute, but ever-present escort. Here, in the endless mazes of these halls of silence, is neither time nor distance, nor direction.
Here exists a phantom world of unreality, where obstacles crumble beneath the touch and formless undefinable objects loom up vaguely in the middle distance, fading to nothingness on near approach. Elusive creatures whose every movement is furtive, light of foot, springy, effortless of gait, go their soundless ways; grey ghosts that materialize and vanish on the instant, melting into the shadows at the sight of man, to stand observing him from skilfully selected cover.
Above, below, and on all sides is moss; moss in a carpet, deadening the footfall of the traveller, giving beneath his step, and baffling by its very lack of opposition his efforts to progress. Moss stands in waist-high hummocks, around which detours must be made. Moss in festoons hangs from the dead lower limbs of the trees, like the hangings in some ancient and deserted temple. And a temple it is, raised to the god of silence, of a stillness that so dominates the consciousness that the wanderer who threads its deserted naves treads warily, lest he break unnecessarily a hush that has held sway since time began.
In places the dense growth of spruce gives way to sandy plains, where, more open but still a heavy enough forest, are stretches of jackpine. Here the gnarled and uncouth limbs, and the ragged grotesquely twisted tops of these deformed hybrids, throw fantastic shadows at the full of the moon on the floor of this devil's dance-hall,—shadows in and out of which flit the Puck-wah-jeesh in their goblin dances, as they hold high revel to the tune of their soundless drums, and plot fresh mischief against the Indian.
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