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   Chapter 5 TO THE BEND OF THE RRVER

A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador By Mina Hubbard Characters: 19408

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Beyond this point our progress was slow and difficult. There were days when we made less than two miles, and these were the discouraging days for me, because there was ever hanging over me the thought of the necessity of reaching Ungava by the last week in August-if I meant to catch the ship there. However, by poling and tracking, by lifting and dragging the canoe through the shallow waters near the shore, or again by carrying the entire outfit over the sand-hills or across boulder-strewn valleys, we won gradually forward.

It frightened me often to see the men take their packs where they did. Sometimes it was over a great bed of boulders, where the reindeer moss was growing. This moss is a delicate grey-green colour, exquisitely beautiful in form as well, and as a background for the dark spruces is wonderfully effective. We found it growing luxuriantly almost everywhere, except in the burned districts, and in places it is six inches in height. When dry, it is brittle, and may be crumbled to powder in the hands, but when wet is very much the consistency of jelly, and just as slippery. Through the wooded land the soil appeared to be simply a tangle of fallen and decayed tree-trunks grown over with thick moss of another variety, in which you sank ankle deep, while dark perilous looking holes yawned on every side, making you feel that if once you went in you might never appear again. Sometimes our way led along a fine bear trail on a sandy terrace where the wood growth was small and scattered, and where the walking was smooth, and even as that of a city street, but much softer and pleasanter. There were many bear trails through this lower Nascaupee country, though we did not again see any bears, and one might actually think the trails had been chosen with an eye to beauty. The woods were very fine, the spruces towering far above us straight as arrows. They were, many of them, splendid specimens of their kind, and one I measured was nine feet in circumference. Here and there some balsam was found among the spruces. These were true virgin forests, but their extent was limited to the narrow river valleys. Out beyond, the hill-tops rose treeless and barren.

On the portages the outfit was taken forward by short stages, and I had a good deal of waiting to do. The men did not like to leave me alone lest I might possibly encounter a bear, and I had many warnings to keep my rifle ready, and not to leave my waiting-place. Secretly I rather hoped a bear would come along for I thought I could manage him if he did not take me unawares.

Besides the interest of watching for the bear I hoped to meet, I had, while we travelled in the more open parts, the hills both up and down the river to look at, and they were very beautiful with their ever-changing colour. Mount Sawyer and Mount Elizabeth were behind us now, and away ahead were the blue ridges of hills with one high and barren, standing out above the rest, which I named Bald Mountain. I wondered much what we should find there. What we did find was a very riotous rapid and a very beautiful Sunday camp.

Waiting in the lower wooded parts was not as pleasant. Once I announced my intention of setting up my fishing-rod and going down to the river to fish, while the rest of the outfit was being brought up. Sudden consternation overspread the faces of the men. In a tone of mingled alarm, disapproval, suspicion, George exclaimed: "Yes; that is just what I was afraid you would be doing. I think you had better sit right down there by the rifles. There are fresh bear tracks about here, and Job says they run down there by the river."

I could not help laughing at the alarm I had created, but obediently sat down on the pile of outfit by the rifles, strongly suspecting, however, that the bear tracks were invented, and that the real fear was on account of the river. It began to be somewhat irksome to be so well taken care of.

The mosquitoes and flies were now coming thick and fast. I thought them very bad, but George insisted that you could not even call this a beginning. I wore a veil of black silk net, but the mesh was hardly fine enough, and the flies managed to crawl through. They would get their heads in and then kick and struggle and twist till they were all through, when they immediately proceeded to work. The men did not seem to care to put their veils on even when not at work, and I wondered how they could take the little torments so calmly.

On the morning of July 6th we reached the Seal Islands expansion. Around these islands the river flows with such force and swiftness that the water can be seen to pile up in ridges in the channel. Here we found Donald Blake's tilt. Donald is Gilbert's brother, and in winter they trap together up the Nascaupee valley as far as Seal Lake, which lies 100 miles from Northwest River post. Often in imagination I had pictured these little havens so far in the wilderness and lonely, and now I had come to a real one. It was a tiny log building set near the edge of the river bank among the spruce trees. Around it lay a thick bed of chips, and scattered about were the skeletons of martens of last winter's catch. One had to stoop a good deal to get in at the narrow doorway. It was dark, and not now an attractive-looking place, yet as thought flew back to the white wilderness of a few months before, the trapper and his long, solitary journeys in the relentless cold, with at last the wolfish night closing round him, it made all different, and one realised a little how welcome must have seemed the thought and the sight of the tiny shelter.

In the tilt there was no window and no floor. All the light came in through the doorway and a small hole in the roof, meant to admit the stove pipe. Hanging on the cross beams were several covered pails containing rice, beans, flour, lard, and near them a little cotton bag with a few candles in it. Thrown across a beam was a piece of deerskin dressed for making or mending snow-shoes; and on a nail at the farther end was a little seal-skin pouch in which were found needle, thread, and a few buttons. A bunk was built into the side of the room a few feet above the ground, and lying in it an old tent. Beside a medley heap of other things piled there, we found a little Testament and a book of Gospel Songs. The latter the men seemed greatly pleased to find, and carried it away with them. We took the candles also, and filled one pail with lard, leaving one of the pieces of bacon in its place. Already we were regretting that we had no lard or candles with us. They had been cut out of the list when we feared the canoes would not hold all the outfit, and later I had forgotten to add them. The men were hungry for fried cakes, and the lard meant a few of these as a treat now and then.

Gilbert had hoped to find an axe here, but although be hunted everywhere there was none to be found. He did, however, get his little frying-pan and a small pail which made a welcome addition to our depleted outfit.

That day we portaged nearly all the afternoon. It was rough, hard walking, and occasional showers fell which made it worse. There was many a wistful glance cast across to the other shore where we could see a fine sand terrace. There the walking must be smooth and easy; but we could not cross, the rapids were too heavy.

During the afternoon we found the first and only fresh caribou tracks seen in the lower Nascaupee valley. A pair of fish eagles, circling high above us, screamed their disapproval of our presence there. We saw their nest at the very top of a dead spruce stub, some sixty feet or more above the ground. This was one of the very many things on the trip which made me wish I were a man. I could have had a closer look at the nest; I think I could have taken a photograph of it too. Now and then came the sweet, plaintive song of the white-throated sparrow.

Towards evening it began to rain fast, and as if with the intention of keeping at it; so George called a halt. As I sat down on a pile of outfit he opened up the men's tent, and, spreading it over me, directed me to wait there till my own was ready. George's tone of authority was sometimes amusing. Sometimes I did as I was told, and then again I did not. This time I did, and with my rifle on one side and my fishing-rod on the other, to hold the tent up, I sat and watched them making camp and building the fire.

All day the mosquitoes and flies had been bad, but now the rain had coaxed them out in redoubled force, and they were dreadful. I could feel how swollen my neck and ears were, and wondered how I looked; but I was rather glad that I had no mirror with me, and so could not see. Now and then I had spoken of my suspicions as to what a remarkable spectacle I must present. George, manlike, always insisted that I looked "just right"; but that night, in an unguarded moment, he agreed with me that it was a good thing I had not brought a mirror. For the first time we went into a wet camp.

It poured steadily all day Friday, and we did not attempt to go forward. I slept again after breakfast, and then did some mending, made veils, and studied a little. It was very cold and dismal; but the cold was always welcome, for it kept the flies and mosquitoes quiet. Our camp was on high ground, and from the open front of my tent I could look down over a steep bank thirty feet to the river, racing past with its ceaseless roar. Sometimes I wished I could reach out and stop it just for a minute, and then let it go again. I wished rainy days might not come often, though I fully expected that they would. About 3 P.M. I heard a stir outside and going out found George and Gilbert

making a fire. It was not so simple a matter now without an axe. The small stuff had to be broken, and then whole trees were dragged bodily to the spot and laid on to be burned off a piece at a time. When fallen stuff was scarce, standing dead trees were by hard labour pushed over and brought in. The big fire felt very good that day.

It was not raining quite so fast now, and after dinner I sat watching George while he mended my moccasin where the mice had eaten it, and sewed the moleskin cartridge pouch to my leather belt. He finished putting the pouch on, and handed the belt back to me with a satisfied smile. Instead of taking it I only laughed at him, when he discovered he had put the pistol-holster and knife- sheath on wrong side first. There was no help for it; it had to come off again, for the sheaths would not slip over either buckle or pouch. I comforted him with the assurance that it was good he should have something to do to keep him out of mischief. When the mistake had been remedied he showed me how to make a rabbit-snare. Then the rain drove me to my tent again, and I had supper there while the men made bannocks. It was horrid to eat in the tent alone.

The barometer was now rising steadily, and I went to sleep with high hopes of better weather in the morning. When I awoke the sun was shining on the hills across the river. How welcome the sight was! Everything was still wet though, and we did not break camp till after dinner. I did some washing and a little mending. The mice had eaten a hole in a small waterproof bag in which I carried my dishes, dish-towel, and bannock, and I mended it with some tent stuff. An electrician's tape scheme, which I had invented for mending a big rent in my rubber shirt, did not work, and so I mended that too with tent stuff. How I did hate these times of inactivity.

It was one o'clock when we started forward again, and all afternoon the portaging was exceedingly rough, making it slow, hard work getting the big pile of stuff forward. To add to the difficulties, a very boisterous little river had to be bridged, and when evening came we had gone forward only a short distance. We had come to a rather open space, and here the men proposed making camp. Great smooth-worn boulders lay strewn about as if flung at random from some giant hand. A dry, black, leaflike substance patched their surfaces, and this George told me is the wakwanapsk which the Indians in their extremity of hunger use for broth. Though black and leaflike when mature, it is, in its beginning, like a disk of tiny round green spots, and from this it gets its name. _Wakwuk- fish-roe; wanapisk-a rock.

It was a very rough place, very desolate looking, and far from the river. It made me shudder to think of spending Sunday there. So the men were persuaded to try to reach the head of the rapid, which was three-quarters of a mile farther on, taking forward only the camp stuff. We were now travelling along the foot of Bald Mountain seen from the hill on Monday, and passing what is known by the trappers as North Pole Rapid, which was the wildest of the rapids so far. The travelling was still rough, and the men were in a hurry. I could not keep up at all. George wanted to carry my rifle for me, but I would not let him. I was not pleased with him just then.

We reached the head of the rapid, and it was beautiful there. A long terrace stretched away for miles ahead. It was thinly wooded, as they all were, with spruce and a few poplars, smooth, dry, and mossy, and thirty feet below us was the river with North Pole Brook coming in on the other side. It was an ideal place for Sunday camp.

Though it rained hard through the night the morning was beautiful, and again I breathed a little sigh of thankfulness that we were not in the other desolate place farther back. The day would have been a very restful one had it not been for the flies which steadily increased in numbers, coaxed back to life and activity by the warm sunshine. I wanted very much to climb the mountain behind our camp in the afternoon, but I could not go alone, and the men were taking a much needed rest. So I wandered about watching the hills and the river for a while, took a few photographs, and lay in the tent. Towards evening the flies swarmed over its fly front, getting in in numbers one could not tell where or how. Still they were nothing inside to what they were outside. At supper I hated to put up my veil. They were so thick I could hardly eat. Finally George came to the rescue, and waving a bag round my head kept them off till I finished my meal.

While we were at supper Job walked silently into camp with a rifle under his arm. He had a way of quietly disappearing. You did not know anything about it till you found he was not there. Then suddenly be would appear again, his eyes shining. He had wonderfuly fine eyes, so bright that they startled me sometimes. Full of energy, quick, clever, he went straight to the point in his work always without the slightest hesitation. When you saw these men in the bush you needed no further explanation of their air of quiet self-confidence.

Job had been up as far as the bend of the river where we were to leave the Nascaupee for the trappers' cross country route to Seal Lake. A little above this bend the Nascaupee becomes impassable. It was three miles away, but Job reported, "Fine portage all the way to brook."

It was just four next morning when I heard voices at the other tent. Then all was quiet again. At six the men went past with loads. They had brought up the outfit that was left behind on Saturday. The day was fine, and we made good progress. George said: "Oh, it's just fun with this kind of portaging." It was nevertheless hot, hard work. I felt resentful when I looked at the river. It was smooth, and appeared altogether innocent of any extraordinary behaviour; yet for the whole three miles above North Pole Rapid it flowed without a bend so swift and deep that nothing could be done on it in the canoes.

All day the flies were fearful. For the first time George admitted that so far as flies were concerned it began to seem like Labrador. We ate lunch with smudges burning on every side, and the fire in the middle. I was willing that day almost to choke with smoke to escape flies; but there was no escape. In spite of the smudges there were twenty dead flies on my plate when I had finished lunch, to say nothing of those lying dead on my dress of the large number I had killed. I had to stop caring about seeing them in the food; I took out what could be seen, but did not let my mind dwell on the probability of there being some I did not see. When drinking, even while the cup was held to my lips, they flew into it as if determined to die. Their energy was unbounded, and compelled admiration even while they tortured me. How the men endured them without veils and without words I could not understand.

For more than two miles above our camp we kept to a fine bear trail. The walking could not have been better, and was in sharp contrast with what the trail had led us over for the last few days. Then we turned to the right and climbed to another plain above, beyond which rose the mountain.

A bear trail led along the edge of the terrace, and while the men carried I waited hopefully, rifle in hand. Ever since our bear chase back near Grand Lake my imagination turned every black spot I saw on the hills into a bear, to the great amusement of the men. But no bear appeared.

Soon mist gathered on the hills, and the specks on the plain below began to move faster and grow larger. Job led the way with a canoe. He stopped to rest at the foot of the bank, while George came past and up to the top at great speed.

"The showers are coming. We shall have to hurry or you will get wet," he said.

Every day my admiration and respect for the men grew. They were gentle and considerate, not only of me, but of each other as well. They had jolly good times together, and withal were most efficient. Gilbert was proving a great worker, and enjoyed himself much with the men. He was just a merry, happy-hearted boy. Joe was quiet and thoughtful, with a low, rather musical voice, and a pretty, soft Scotch accent for all his Russian name. He spoke English quite easily and well. Job did not say much in English. He was very reserved where I was concerned. I wanted to ask him a thousand questions, but I did not dare. George was always the gentle, fun-loving, sunny-tempered man my husband had admired.

Our camp was perhaps 100 feet above the river which here came down from the northeast round the foot of Bald Mountain, and less than half a mile below us bent away to the southeast. At the bend a tributary stream came in from the northwest to merge itself in the stronger tide, and together they flowed straight on at the foot of a long, dark-wooded ridge. Here at this stream our portage route led out from the river.

When the showers had passed we had supper, and as we sat at our meal the sun came out again, throwing a golden glow over all. Clouds lay like delicate veils along the hill-sides, sometimes dipping almost to their feet. Walking back along the edge of the terrace I watched till they gathered thick again and darkness came down over all. It was very wild and beautiful, but as an exquisite, loved form from which the spirit has fled. The sense of life, of mystery, and magic seemed gone, and I wondered if the time could come when beauty would cease to be pain.

When I returned to camp the men had gone to their tent. A tiny fire was still burning, and I sat watching it till the rain came and drove me to my little shelter again.

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