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Wilderness Ways By William J. Long Characters: 16252

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

I was watching for a bear one day by an alder point, when Chigwooltz came swimming in from the lily pads in great curiosity to see what I was doing under the alders. He was an enormous frog, dull green with a yellowish vest-which showed that he was a male-but with the most brilliant ear drums I had ever seen. They fairly glowed with iridescent color, each in its ring of bright yellow. When I tried to catch him (very quietly, for the bear was somewhere just above on the ridge) in order to examine these drums, he dived under the canoe and watched me from a distance.

In front of me, in the shallow water along shore, four more large frogs were sunning themselves among the lily pads. I watched them carelessly while waiting for the bear. After an hour or two I noticed that three of these frogs changed their positions slightly, turning from time to time so as to warm the entire body at nature's fireplace. But the fourth was more deliberate and philosophical, thinking evidently that if he simply sat still long enough the sun would do the turning. When I came, about eleven o'clock, he was sitting on the shore by a green stone, his fore feet lapped by tiny ripples, the sun full on his back. For three hours, while I watched there, he never moved a muscle. Then the bear came, and I left him for more exciting things.

Late in the afternoon I came back to get some of the big frogs for breakfast. Chigwooltz, he with the ear drums, was the first to see me, and came pushing his way among the lily pads toward the canoe. But when I dangled a red ibis fly in front of him, he dived promptly, and I saw his head come up by a black root, where he sat, thinking himself invisible, and watched me.

Chigwooltz the second, he of the green stone and the patient disposition, was still sitting in the same place. The sun had turned round; it was now warming his other side. His all-day sun bath surprised me so that I let him alone, to see how long he would sit still, and went fishing for other frogs.

Two big ones showed their heads among the pads some twenty feet apart. Pushing up so as to make a triangle with my canoe, I dangled a red ibis impartially between them. For two or three long minutes neither moved so much as an eyelid. Then one seemed to wake suddenly from a trance, or to be touched by an electric wire, for he came scrambling in a desperate hurry over the lily pads. Swimming was too slow; he jumped fiercely out of water at the red challenge, making a great splash and commotion.

Fishing for big frogs, by the way, is no tame sport. The red seems to excite them tremendously, and they take the fly like a black salmon.

But the moment the first frog started, frog number two waked up and darted forward, making less noise but coming more swiftly. The first frog had jumped once for the fly and missed it, when the other leaped upon him savagely, and a fight began, while the ibis lay neglected on a lily pad. They pawed and bit each other fiercely for several minutes; then the second frog, a little smaller than the other, got the grip he wanted and held it. He clasped his fore legs tight about his rival's neck and began to strangle him slowly. I knew well how strong Chigwooltz is in his forearms, and that his fightings and wrestlings are desperate affairs; but I did not know till then how savage he can be. He had gripped from behind by a clever dive, so as to use his weight when the right moment came. Tighter and tighter he hugged; the big frog's eyes seemed bursting from his head, and his mouth was forced slowly open. Then his savage opponent lunged upon him with his weight, and forced his head under water to finish him.

The whole thing seemed scarcely more startling to the luckless big frog than to the watcher in the canoe. It was all so brutal, so deliberately planned! The smaller frog, knowing that he was no match for the other in strength, had waited cunningly till he was all absorbed in the red fly, and then stole upon him, intending to finish him first and the little red thing afterwards. He would have done it too; for the big frog was at his last gasp, when I interfered and put them both in my net.

Meanwhile a third frog had come walloping over the lily pads from somewhere out of sight, and grabbed the fly while the other two were fighting about it. It was he who first showed me a curious frog trick. When I lifted him from the water on the end of my line, he raised his hands above his head, as if he had been a man, and grasped the line, and tried to lift himself, hand over hand, so as to take the strain from his mouth.-And I could never catch another frog like that.

Next morning, as I went to the early fishing, Chigwooltz, the patient, sat by the same stone, his fore feet at the edge of the same bronze lily leaf. At noon he was still there; in twenty-four hours at least he had not moved a muscle.

At twilight I was following a bear along the shore. It was the restless season, when bears are moving constantly; scarcely a twilight passed that I did not meet one or more on their wanderings. This one was heading for the upper end of the lake, traveling in the shallow water near shore; and I was just behind him, stealing along in my canoe to see what queer thing he would do. He was in no hurry, as most other bears were, but went nosing along shore, acting much as a fat pig would in the same place. As he approached the alder point he stopped suddenly, and twisted his head a bit, and set his ears, as a dog does that sees something very interesting. Then he began to steal forward. Could it be-I shot my canoe forward-yes, it was Chigwooltz, still sitting by the green stone, with his eye, like Bunsby's, on the coast of Greenland. In thirty-two hours, to my knowledge, he had not stirred.

Mooween the bear crept nearer; he was crouching now like a cat, stealing along in the soft mud behind Chigwooltz so as to surprise him. I saw him raise one paw slowly, cautiously, high above his head. Down it came, souse! sending up a shower of mud and water. And Chigwooltz the restful, who could sit still thirty-two hours without getting stiff in the joints, and then dodge the sweep of Mooween's paw, went splashing away hippety-ippety over the lily pads to some water grass, where he said K'tung! and disappeared for good.

A few days later Simmo and I moved camp to a grove of birches just above the alder point. From behind my tent an old game path led down to the bay where the big frogs lived. There were scores of them there; the chorus at night, with its multitude of voices running from a whistling treble to deep, deep bass, was at times tremendous. It was here that I had the first good opportunity of watching frogs feeding.

Chigwooltz, I found, is a perfect gourmand and a cannibal, eating, besides his regular diet of flies and beetles and water snails, young frogs, and crawfish, and turtles, and fish of every kind. But few have ever seen him at his hunting, for he is active only at night or on dark days.

I used to watch them from the shore or from my canoe at twilight. Just outside the lily pads a shoal of minnows would be playing at the surface, or small trout would be rising freely for the night insects. Then, if you watched sharply, you would see gleaming points of light, the eyes of Chigwooltz, stealing out, with barely a ripple, to the edge of the pads. And then, when some big feeding trout drove the minnows or small fry close in, there would be a heavy plunge from the shadow of the pads; and you would hear Chigwooltz splashing if the fish were a larger one than he expected.

That is why small frogs are so deadly afraid if you take them outside the fringe of lily pads. They know that big hungry trout feed in from the deeps, and that big frogs, savage cannibals every one, watch out from the shadowy fringe of water plants. If you drop a little frog there, in clear water, he will shoot in as fast as his frightened legs will drive him, swimming first on top to avoid fish, diving deep as he reaches the pads to avoid his hungry relatives; and so in to shallow water and thick stems, wh

ere he can dodge about and the big frogs cannot follow.

All sorts and conditions of frogs lived in that little bay. There was one inquisitive fellow, who always came out of the pads and swam as near as he could get whenever I appeared on the shore. Another would sit in his favorite spot, under a stranded log, and let me come as close as I would; but the moment I dangled the red ibis fly in front of him, he would disappear like a wink, and not show himself again. Another would follow the fly in a wild kangaroo dance over the lily pads, going round and round the canoe as if bewitched, and would do his best to climb in after the bit of color when I pulled it up slowly over the bark. He afforded me so much good fun that I could not eat him; though I always stopped to give him another dance, whenever I went fishing for other frogs just like him. Further along shore lived another, a perfect savage, so wild that I could never catch him, which strangled or drowned two big frogs in a week, to my certain knowledge. And then, one night when I was trying to find my canoe which I had lost in the darkness, I came upon a frog migration, dozens and dozens of them, all hopping briskly in the same direction. They had left the stream, driven by some strange instinct, just like rats or squirrels, and were going through the woods to the unknown destination that beckoned them so strongly that they could not but follow.

The most curious and interesting bit of their strange life came out at night, when they were fascinated by my light. I used sometimes to set a candle on a piece of board for a float, and place it in the water close to shore, where the ripples would set it dancing gently. Then I would place a little screen of bark at the shore end of the float, and sit down behind it in darkness.

Presently two points of light would begin to shine, then to scintillate, out among the lily pads, and Chigwooltz would come stealing in, his eyes growing bigger and brighter with wonder. He would place his forearms akimbo on the edge of the float, and lift himself up a bit, like a little old man, and stare steadfastly at the light. And there he would stay as long as I let him, just staring and blinking.

Soon two other points of light would come stealing in from the other side, and another frog would set his elbows on the float and stare hard across at the first-comer. And then two more shining points, and two more, till twelve or fifteen frogs were gathered about my beacon, as thick as they could find elbow room on the float, all staring and blinking like so many strange water owls come up from the bottom to debate weighty things, with a little flickering will-o'-the-wisp nodding grave assent in the midst of them. But never a word was spoken; the silence was perfect.

Sometimes one, more fascinated or more curious than the others, would climb onto the float, and put his nose solemnly into the light. Then there would be a loud sizzle, a jump, and a splash; the candle would go out, and the wondering circle of frogs scatter to the lily pads again, all swimming as if in a trance, dipping their heads under water to wash the light from their bewildered eyes.

They were quite fearless, almost senseless, at such times. I would stretch out my hand from the shadow, pick up an unresisting frog that threatened too soon to climb onto the float, and examine him at leisure. But Chigwooltz is wedded to his idols; the moment I released him he would go, fast as his legs could carry him, to put his elbows on the float and stare at the light again.

Among the frogs, and especially among the toads, as among most wild animals, certain individuals attach themselves strongly to man, drawn doubtless by some unknown but no less strongly felt attraction. It was so there in the wilderness. The first morning after our arrival at the birch grove I was down at the shore, preparing a trout for baking in the ashes, when Chigwooltz, of the ear drums, biggest of all the frogs, came from among the lily pads. He had lost all fear apparently; he swam directly up to me, touching my hands with his nose, and even crawling out to my feet in the greatest curiosity.

After that he took up his abode near the foot of the game path. I had only to splash the water there with my finger when he would come from beside a green stone, or from under a log or the lily pads-for he had a dozen hiding places-and swim up to me to be fed, or petted, or to have his back scratched.

He ate all sorts of things, insects, bread, beef, game and fish, either raw or cooked. I would attach a bit of meat to a string or straw, and wiggle it before him, to make it seem alive. The moment he saw it (he had a queer way sometimes of staring hard at a thing without seeing it) he would crouch and creep towards it, nearer and nearer, softly and more softly, like a cat stalking a chipmunk. Then there would be a red flash and the meat would be gone. The red flash was his tongue, which is attached at the outer end and folds back in his mouth. It is, moreover, large and sticky, and he can throw it out and back like lightning. All you see is the red flash of it, and his game is gone.

One day, to try the effects of nicotine on a new subject, I took a bit of Simmo's black tobacco and gave it to Chigwooltz. He ate it thankfully, as he did everything else I gave him. In a little while he grew uneasy, sitting up and rubbing his belly with his fore paws. Presently he brought his stomach up into his mouth, turned it inside out to get rid of the tobacco, washed it thoroughly in the lake, swallowed it down again, and was ready for his bread and beef. A most convenient arrangement that; and also a perfectly unbiased opinion on a much debated subject.

Chigwooltz, unlike many of my pets, was not in the least dependent on my bounty. Indeed, he was a remarkable hunter on his own account, and what he took from me he took as hospitality, not charity. One morning he came to me with the tail of a small trout sticking out of his mouth. The rest of the fish was below, being digested. Another day, towards twilight, I saw him resting on the lily pads, looking very full, with a suspicious-looking object curling out over his under lip. I wiggled my finger in the water, and he came from pure sociability, for he was beyond eating any more. The suspicious-looking object proved to be a bird's foot, and beside it was a pointed wing tip. That was too much for my curiosity. I opened his mouth and pulled out the bird with some difficulty, for Chigwooltz had been engaged some time in the act of swallowing his game and had it well down. It proved to be a full-grown male swallow, without a mark anywhere to show how he had come by his death. Chigwooltz looked at me reproachfully, but swallowed his game promptly the moment I had finished examining it.

There was small doubt in my mind that he had caught his bird fairly, by a quick spring as the swallow touched the water almost at his nose, near one of his numerous lurking places. Still it puzzled me a good deal till one early morning, when I saw him in broad daylight do a much more difficult thing than snapping up a swallow.

I was coming down the game path to the shore when a bird, a tree sparrow I thought, flew to the ground just ahead of me, and hopped to the water to drink. I watched him a moment curiously, then with intense interest as I saw a ripple steal out of the lily pads towards him. The ripple was Chigwooltz.

The sparrow had finished drinking and was absorbed in a morning bath. Chigwooltz stole nearer and nearer, sinking himself till only his eyes showed above water. The ripple that flowed away on either side was gentle as that of a floating leaf. Then, just as the bird had sipped and lifted its head for a last swallow, Chigwooltz hurled himself out of water. One snap of his big mouth, and the sparrow was done for.

An hour later, when I came down to my canoe, he was sitting low on the lily pads, winking sleepily now and then, with eight little sparrow's toes curling over the rim of his under lip, like a hornpout's whiskers.

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