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   Chapter 4 DISASTER WHICH THREATENED DEFEAT

A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador By Mina Hubbard Characters: 18077

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Friday morning was warm and bright. It seemed wonderful to be having so much fine weather in Labrador, and not a fly or mosquito as yet. The one nuisance we had met was mice or lemmings. They had been busy with my hat in the night, and when I came to put it on that morning I found there was a hole eaten in the crown and a meal or two taken out of the brim. There seemed to be thousands of them, and they ran squealing about everywhere, great fat fellows, some of them as big as grey squirrels. The ground was so perforated with their holes that it reminded one of a porous plaster.

While the outfit was being brought up I walked along the shore watching the rapids. The men did not like to see me go near the river at all except when in the canoe, and warned me against going to the rapids. I promised to be careful, but not to keep away altogether, for they grew more and more fascinating. I wanted to be near them and watch them all the time. They were so strong, so irresistible. They rushed on so fast, and nothing could stop them. They would find a way over or around every obstacle that might be placed before them. It made one wish that it were possible to join them and share in their strength. About a mile above camp I stepped out on a great boulder close to where they were very heavy. The rock seemed large enough so that I could scarcely fall off if I tried; but when the men came up George said: Mrs. Hubbard, you must not do that."

"Why?"

"You will get dizzy and fall in."

"But I do not get dizzy."

"Maybe you think you will not. It is all right when you are looking at the rapid, but it is when you turn that you will fall. It is very dangerous. If you are going to do that we will just turn round and go back to Northwest River."

That settled the matter.

The river here became impracticable, and Job went forward to hunt out the trail. The sandhills at this point stood back a little from the river. The low-lying land between was thickly wooded, but up on the hills the walking was good. So the trail was cut straight up the bank which was eighty feet high and very steep.

If any one supposes that cutting a trail means making a nice, smooth little path through the woods, let him revise his ideas. The hill-side was a network of new growth and windfalls. Now and again I made the mistake of calling them deadfalls. Certainly all women, and perhaps a few men, would think the mistake pardonable could they see the trail which led straight over the tangled heaps of fallen tree-trunks. I watched the men carrying the canoes and their heavy loads over these with wonder almost equal to that with which I had looked at Job's work in the rapids.

The outfit made about four loads each for them, and when it was all safe on top of the hill, Joe sat down trembling like a leaf. George looked a bit shaky, and Gilbert very hot and tired.

Joe said: "In a week George and I will be hardened up so that there won't be any trembling."

Job said: "Always hard."

By noon it had grown very hot. There was scarcely a stir in the air, and the sun beat down on the sand-hills in no gentle manner. The perspiration ran down the men's faces as they carried, and the flies were beginning to come. After lunch Job set up two impromptu wigwams, stringing a tarpaulin over each, and under these shelters the men rested till 4 P.M. By camping time the outfit had been moved up over the portage about a mile, and I had learned something more about what packing means.

All day it had been slow, hot work, and the men were tired. I thought I would take a hand in making camp and getting supper. We had a beautiful camping-place, its only drawback being the distance from the water supply, for we were now 200 feet above the river, and some distance back from it. The ground was dry and moss covered, and the scattered spruce supplied the carpets for the tents which were soon ready for the night.

There were bannocks to be made again, and I helped to cook them. It was no small surprise to find how much art there is in doing it. At first I thought I could teach the men a lot of things about cooking bannocks, but it was not long before I began to suspect that I had something to learn. They were made simply with the flour, salt, baking-powder and water, but without any shortening. This made them tough, but they carried better so. As George said: "You can throw them round, or sit on them, or jump on them, and they are just as good after you have done it as before."

In cooking them a piece of the dough is taken and worked into a round lump, which is pressed flat into a frying-pan. It is then placed before the fire till the upper side of the bannock is slightly browned, when it is turned and replaced till the other side is browned. As soon as the bannock is stiff enough to stand on its edge it is taken out of the pan to make room for more, and placed before a rock near the fire, or on a pair of forked sticks until it has had time, as nearly as can be calculated, to cook halfway through. Then it is turned again and allowed to cook from the other side. In this process the possibilities in the way of burning hands and face, and of dropping the bannocks into the fire and ashes are great. I seemed to take advantage of them all, but if my efforts were not much help they certainly furnished amusement for the men. The task is a long one too, and it was nine o'clock when supper was ready.

Job, who had been absent for some time, returned now with a report that three-quarters of a mile further on we could again take the river. Despite the day's work he looked all alive with interest and energy. He loved to pole up a rapid or hunt out a trail just as an artist loves to paint.

Supper over, we sat at the camp fire for a little while. The sunset light still tinged the sky back of Mount Sawyer, and from its foot came up the roar of the rapid. Now and again a bird's evening song came down to us from the woods on the hill above, and in the tent Joe was playing softly on the mouth organ, "Annie Laurie" and "Comin' through the Rye." After I had gone to my tent the men sang, very softly, an Indian "Paddling Song."

A stream of bright sunlight on the roof of my tent roused me on Saturday morning, and mingling with the sound of the river came again that of the "Paddling Song." At breakfast all were exclaiming over the wonderful weather, George insisting that he did not believe this could be Labrador at all.

That morning I was to make my maiden attempt at following a new trail, and when the last load was ready I went first to try my fortunes. The trail meant just a little snip off the bark of a young tree here, the top of a bush freshly broken there, again a little branch cut showing that the axe had been used. There was not a sign of any path. The way was not always the easiest, and sometimes not the shortest, but it was always the quickest. My heart quite swelled with pride when I reached the river at 8.30 A.M. having missed the trail but once, and having found it again with little delay. Already it had grown hot on the hills, and the mosquitoes were beginning to come, so that it was good to be back at the river again; but before the men went away for more loads I had to promise very solemnly that I would not go on the rocks by the rapids.

By noon the whole outfit was at the river, we had lunch, and the men rested an hour and then we were off again. A mile of paddling and two short portages brought us to the head of what the trappers call "Three Mile Rapid." The river was very picturesque here, and in midstream were great swells which curled back like ocean breakers as the torrent of water poured over the boulders of the riverbed. I smile now remembering how I asked George if be thought I should see anything so fine as this rapid on, the rest of my journey.

Splendid as the rapids were, it was a great relief to reach smooth water again, though the current was still swift. Passing a bend half a mile above we came in sight of a beautiful wooded island, and saw that we had reached the edge of the burned-over country. It would scarcely be possible to convey any adequate idea of the contrast. The country had been grand with a desolate sort of grandeur softened by the sunshine and water and the beautiful skies, but now the river with its darkly-wooded hills was not only grand but was weirdly beautiful as well.

When we had passed Mabelle Island the hills seemed to close round us and were covered with tall, pointed evergreens, so dark in colour as sometimes to seem almost black. Always these have been beautiful to me, with a mysterious kind of beauty which sends through me feelings akin to those I had when as a child I dreamed over the wonderful pictures the Frost King left in the night on the window panes. The river ahead was too rough to proceed along the south shore, and the men decided to cross. It was very fearsome looking. Through a narrow opening in the hills farther up, the river came pouring from between dark,

perpendicular walls of the evergreen in a white, tossing rapid, widening again to one only less turbulent. A heavy cloud hung over us, throwing a deeper shade on the hills and turning the water black save for the white foam of the rapids, while down the narrow valley came a gale of hot wind like a blast from a furnace. We turned out into the river, and all paddled as if for life. The canoe danced among the swells, but in spite of our best efforts the rapid carried us swiftly down. It was a wild ride, though we reached the other shore in safety, and looking up the river I wondered what might be in store for us beyond that narrow gateway. When we passed it would the beyond prove as much like Hades as this was suggestive of it? It seemed as if there we must find ourselves within the mysteries.

After we landed, George turned, and in mildly approving tone said: "I have seen lots of men who would jump out of the canoe if we tried to take them where you have been just now."

Job's quick eye had seen that the canoes could be taken through the narrows on the north shore. And when this part of the river was passed all suggestion of Hades vanished. There stretched before us Mountain Cat Lake, for beauty, a gem in its setting of hills. It was half a mile wide and two miles long. In the lower part were two small wooded islands, but the upper part was clear. Long spruce covered points reached out into its waters, which still flowed so swiftly that instead of paddling we poled along the shore. It was camping time when we reached the head of the lake, where the river comes down round a fine gravel point in a decided rapid.

George remarked: "That would be a fine place for Sunday camp."

"Then why not camp there?" I asked.

"Oh, no," he replied emphatically; "that would not do at all. There would be no Sunday rest for me. I'd have to be watching you all the time to keep you away from that rapid."

A little way up the river we came to another point which seemed even finer than the one at the head of the lake, and on this we made our Sunday camp. There was no noisy rapid here. On the opposite shore a long wooded hill sloped down to a point a mile above camp, round which the river came from the west. The sun was almost touching the hill-top, and below were low, gravel flats covered with fresh spring green and cut by little waterways, still as glass, and reflecting the sunset colours. In the river above us were small wooded islands, and away beyond them the blue ridges. It would have been beautiful at any time, but now in the calm evening, with the sunset light upon it, it was peculiarly so, and seemed in a special way to accord with the thought of the Sabbath rest. There was not a word spoken in reference to it, but about the men and in the way they did their work was something which made you feel how glad they were a resting time had come.

When the outfit had been landed, and the canoes drawn up on shore, George walked up the bank a little way, and there, with folded arms, stood quite still for some time looking up the river.

Presently I asked: "What are you thinking, George?"

"I was just thinking how proud I am of this river," he replied.

It seemed luxurious on Sunday morning to be able to loiter over washing and dressing, to get into clean clothes, to read a little, and to look at the day itself. I had strained both feet the day before, and they were quite swollen, but did not hurt very much. My hands and face, too, were swollen and sore from the bites of the flies and mosquitoes. Having a rooted dislike to wearing a veil, I had deferred putting one on; but it was plain now that Labrador flies were soon to overrule all objections. When breakfast was announced at 10.30 A.M. the men had been for a swim, and appeared shaved and in clean clothes-Joe and Gilbert in white moleskin trousers. Everything was done in lazy fashion. Everyone loitered. It was washing day for all, and by noon the bushes along the shore were decorated in spots in most unwonted fashion. Later, walking up the shore a little way I came upon Gilbert cutting Joe's hair.

In the afternoon the men lay in the tent or on the bank under the trees reading their Bibles and singing very softly, almost as if afraid of disturbing the stillness of "the silent places," some of the fine old church hymns. A thunderstorm passed later, but it lasted only a short time, and the evening was fine. Job took a canoe and went up the river scouting. As we sat on the shore by the camp fire, after 9 P.M., and supper just ready, he came floating down again. The river carried him swiftly past us and he called "Good-bye, Good-bye." Then all at once the canoe turned and slipped in below the point. He reported the river rapid as far as he went or could see.

Monday we started at 8.30 A.M., crossing to the other shore, where I walked along a bear trail on the flats, while the men brought the canoes up by poling and tracking. The morning was wonderfully clear, and millions of dewdrops glistened on the low growth. The "country," or "Indian," tea which grew in abundance was in blossom, and the air was filled with fragrance. It seemed to me the most beautiful morning we had yet had.

As the river grew more and more difficult part of the outfit had to be portaged. Two miles above camp about half a load was put into one of the canoes, and slipping the noose of a tracking line round the bow George and Gilbert went forward with it, while Job and Joe got into the canoe to pole. Had it not been for my confidence in them I should have been anxious here, for the river was very rough, and close to shore, where they would have to go, was a big rock round which the water poured in a way that to me looked impassable. But I only thought, "They will know how to manage that," and picking up my kodaks I climbed up the bank to avoid the willows. I had just reached the top when looking round I saw the canoe turn bottom up like a flash, and both men disappeared.

I stood unable to move. Almost immediately Joe came up. He had caught the tracking line and held to it. Then I saw Job appear. He had not been able to hold to the canoe. The current had swept him off, and was now carrying him down the river. My heart sickened at the sight, and still I could not move. Then an eddy caught him, and he went down out of sight again. Again he appeared, and this time closer to us, for the eddy had somehow thrown him in shore where the water was not so deep. He was on his back now and swimming a little, but could neither get up nor turn over. I wondered why the men stood motionless watching him. Then it dawned on me that George was holding the canoe, and I found my voice to shout: "Run, Joe." Joe's own experience had for the moment dazed him, but now he suddenly came to life. Springing forward, he waded out and caught Job's hand before he was carried into deep water again. As he felt himself safe in Joe's strong grasp, Job asked: "Where is Mrs. Hubbard? Is she all right?"

At first he did not seem able to get up, but when George, on reaching the canoe, turned it right side up, and to the utter astonishment of every one, it appeared that nearly the whole load was still in it-the sight revived Job. He got up and came ashore to the canoe, which was found still to contain the two tents, one rifle, my fishing-rod, the sextant, and artificial horizon, a box of baking-powder, a box of chocolate, my sweater, three of the men's coats, and one tarpaulin. It seemed nothing less than miraculous, for the little craft had been bottom up for several minutes. During the reckoning Job heartened rapidly, and was soon making a joke of the experience, though this did not hide the fact that he had been well shaken up.

For a time thankfulness at the escape of the men, and that so much of the outfit had been saved, made me oblivious of everything else. Then gradually it came to the minds of the men what was missing, but it was some time before the list was complete, and I knew that we had lost all the axes, all the frying-pans, all the extra pole- shods, one pole, one paddle, the crooked knife, two pack-straps, one sponge, one tarpaulin, my stove, and Job's hat and pipe. The loss of the axes and the pole-shods was the most serious result of the accident, and I wondered how much that would mean, but had not the courage to ask the question. I feared the men would think they could not go on without the axes.

Soon they began to upbraid themselves for putting both tents and all the axes into the same canoe; but there was no mention made of turning back. All seemed only thankful that no lives were lost. While Job and Joe were changing their wet clothing, George and Gilbert, as quickly as possible, prepared lunch. Job, however, was very quiet during the meal, and ate almost nothing. Later, however, I could bear George and Joe in fits of laughter. Job was entertaining them with an account of his visit to the fishes. According to his story, he had a most wonderful time down there.

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