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   Chapter 14 THROUGH THE LAKES OF THE UPPER GEORGE

A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador By Mina Hubbard Characters: 13899

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


How little I had dreamed when setting out on my journey that it would prove beautiful and of such compelling interest as I had found it. I had not thought of interest-except that of getting the work done-nor of beauty. How could Labrador be beautiful? Weariness and hardship I had looked for, and weariness I had found often and anxiety, which was not yet past in spite of what had been achieved; but of hardship there had been none. Flies and mosquitoes made it uncomfortable sometimes but not to the extent of hardship. And how beautiful it had been, with a strange, wild beauty, the remembrance of which buries itself silently in the deep parts of one's being. In the beginning there had been no response to it in my heart, but gradually in its silent way it had won, and now was like the strength-giving presence of an understanding friend. The long miles which separated me from the world did not make me feel far away-just far enough to be nice-and many times I found myself wishing I need never have to go back again. But the work could not all be done here.

Half the distance across the peninsula had been passed, and now on August 11th we were beginning the descent of the George River. Would the Labrador skies continue to smile kindly upon me? It would be almost if not quite a three hundred mile journey to Ungava, and it might be more. Could we make the post by the last week in August? The men appeared confident; but for me the days which followed held anxious hours, and the nights sleepless ones as I tried to make my decision whether in case it should become evident we could not reach Ungava in time, I should turn back, leaving the work uncompleted, or push on, accepting the consequent long winter journey back across Labrador, or round the coast, and the responsibility of providing for my four guides for perhaps a full year. At least the sun shone on the beginning of the journey, and about nine o'clock, the last pack having gone forward, I set off down the portage below Lake Hubbard, a prayer in my heart that the journey might be swift.

The prayer seemed doomed to remain unanswered at first. Before noon of that day the sun was hidden, and for nearly a week we did not again see his face. Violent storms of wind and rain and snow made progress difficult or impossible, and on August 16th we were camped only thirty miles from the Height of Land.

The upper river proved a succession of lake expansions of varying sizes, their waters dropping from one to the other down shallow rapids. At the Height of Land, and for some miles beyond, the country is flat and boggy, and sparsely wooded with tamarack and spruce, many of the tall, slender tops of the former being bent completely over by the storms. The spruce was small and scant, increasing in size and quantity as we descended from the highest levels, but nowhere on the northern slope attaining the size reached in the valley of the Nascaupee.

Gradually low, barren ridges began to appear, their white mossy sides marked by caribou trails which formed a network over the country we were passing through, and all were freshly cut with hoof marks. Every day there were herds or single deer to be seen along the way, and at a number of points we passed long piles of whitened antlers. Other game too, ducks, geese, and ptarmigan had become plentiful since we entered the caribou country, and now and then a few were taken to vary the monotony of the diet of dried caribou meat. Loons were about us at all hours, and I grew to love their weird call as much almost as the Indians do.

We travelled too fast to fish, and it was stormy, but the indications were that in places at least fish were abundant. When we ran down to the little lake, on which our camp of August 12th was pitched, hundreds of fish played at its surface, keeping the water in constant commotion. They were in no wise disturbed by our presence and would turn leisurely over within two feet of the canoe. I ran out my troll as we paddled down the lake-but not a nibble did I get. The men said they were white fish.

Every day we expected to see or hear something of the wolves which are said to attend the movements of the caribou; but no sign of them appeared, save the one track found at the point on Lake Michikamats.

Signs of the Indians became more numerous, and on a point near the head of Cabot Lake we found a camp but lately deserted, and left, evidently, with the idea of return in the near future. The Indians had been there all through the spring, and we found a strongly built cache which the men thought probably contained furs, but which we did not, of course, disturb. It was about ten feet long and six feet wide at the base, and built in the form of an A, with the trunks of trees from five to six inches in diameter set up close together and chinked with moss and boughs.

There were many of the uncovered wigwams standing about, one a large oblong with three fireplaces in it. Lying near the wigwams were old clothes of a quite civilised fashion, pots, kettles, a wooden tub, paint-cans and brushes, paddles, a wooden shovel, broken bones, piles of hair from the deer skins they had dressed, and a skin stretcher. Some steel traps hung in a tree near, and several iron pounders for breaking bones. On a stage, under two deer-skins, were a little rifle, a shot gun, and a piece of dried deer's meat. A long string of the bills of birds taken during the spring, hung on a tree near the water, and besides each of the various wigwams, in the line of them which stretched along the south shore of the point, a whitened bone was set up on a long pole for luck.

The river gradually increased in volume, and all previous excitement of work in the swift water seemed to grow insignificant when my long course in running rapids began. Perhaps it was because the experience was new, and I did not know what to expect; but as the little canoe careered wildly down the slope from one lake to the next with, in the beginning, many a scrape on the rocks of the river bed, my nervous system contracted steadily till, at the foot where we slipped out into smooth water again, it felt as if dipped into an astringent.

A few miles below Cabot Lake the river is joined by what we judged to be its southeast branch, almost equal to the middle river in size. This branch, together with a chain of smaller lakes east of Lake Michikamau, once formed the Indian inland route from the Nascaupee River to the George used at times of the year when Lake Michikamau was likely to be impassable on account of the storms. It had been regularly travelled in the old days when the Indians of the interior traded at Northwest River post; but since the diversion of their trade to the St. Lawrence it had fallen into disuse.

There was much talk of our prospective meeting with the Nascaupees which I did not understand; and it was not until the evening of August 14th, as I sat after suppe

r at the camp fire, that I became conscious of the real concern with which the men were looking forward to the event.

For two precious days we had been unable to move on account of the storms. The rain had fallen steadily all day, changing to snow towards evening, and now, though the downpour had ceased, the black clouds still fled rolling and tossing over head before the gale, which roared through the spruce forest, and sent the smoke of the big camp fire whirling now this way, now that, as it found its way into our sheltered nook.

George and Joe were telling amusing stories of their boyhood experiences at Rupert's House, the pranks they played on their teacher, their fights, football, and other games, and while they talked I bestowed some special care upon my revolver. Job sat smoking his pipe, listening with a merry light in his gleaming, black eyes, and Gilbert lounged on the opposite side of the fire with open-mouthed boyish attention.

The talk drifted to stories of the Indians, tributary to Rupert's House, and the practical jokes perpetrated on them while camped about the post to which they brought each spring from the far interior their winter's catch of furs. There were stories of Hannah Bay massacre, and the retribution which followed swift and certain; and of their own trips inland, and the hospitality of the Indians. The talk ended with an anxious "If it were only the Hudson Bay Indians we were coming to, there would be no doubt about the welcome we should get."

Turning to me, George remarked, "You are giving that revolver a fine rubbing up to-night."

"Yes," I replied, laughing a little: "I am getting ready for the

Nascaupees."

"They would not shoot you," he said gravely. "It would be us they would kill if they took the notion. Whatever their conjurer tells them to do, they will do."

"No," asserted Gilbert, who boasted some traditional knowledge of the Nascaupees, "they would not kill you, Mrs. Hubbard. It would be to keep you at their camp that they would kill us."

I had been laughing at George a little, but Gilbert's startling announcement induced a sudden sobriety. As I glanced from one to the other, the faces of the men were all unwontedly serious. There was a whirl of thoughts for a moment, and then I asked, "What do you think I shall be doing while they are killing you? You do not need to suppose that because I will not kill rabbits, or ptarmigan, or caribou, I should have any objection to killing a Nascaupee Indian if it were necessary."

Nevertheless the meeting with the Indians had for me assumed a new and more serious aspect, and, remembering their agony of fear lest some harm befall me ere we reached civilisation again, I realised how the situation seemed to the men. When I went to my tent, it was to lie very wide awake, turning over in my mind plans of battle in case the red men proved aggressive.

The following morning the weather was still bad but we attempted to go forward. Soon a snow squall drove us to the shelter of the woods. When it had passed we were again on the water; but rain came on and a gale of wind drove it into our faces, till they burned as if hot water instead of cold were pelting them. We could make no headway, and so put ashore on the right bank of the river to wait for calmer weather. Camp was made on a tiny moss-covered ridge of rock back of the stretch of swamp along the shore, and soon a roaring fire sent out its welcome warmth to the wet and shivering wayfarers crouching near it in the shelter of the spruce. How cold it was! And how slowly we were getting on!

The river widened here, and on the left bank, at short intervals broad trails with fresh cut tracks led down to its edge, and along the shore a wide band of white caribou hair clung to the bank four feet above the river, where it had been left by the receding water. So we knew that the caribou had been in possession of the region since shedding their winter coats.

We had been sitting by the fire only a little while when Job, who, after his usual manner had disappeared, called to us in a low, eager voice from one hundred feet away. He said only one word- "Joe"-but we all knew what it meant and there was a rush in the direction in which he had again disappeared. A herd of fifteen caribou were swimming across from the opposite shore straight to the little bay above our landing. Under cover of the woods and willows we stole down quite close to the water and waited until they came almost to shore. Then springing from our hiding places we shouted at them. The beautiful, frightened creatures turned and went bounding back through the shallow water, splashing it into clouds of spray, till they sank into the deeper tide and only heads and stubs of tails could be seen as they swam back to the other shore. They were nearly all young ones, some of them little fawns.

All day long, at short intervals, companies of them were seen crossing, some one way, some another. Towards evening two herds passed the camp at the same time, one to the east of us but a short distance away, and the other along the foot of the ridge on the west, not fifty feet from our camp.

On Wednesday, against the strong northwest wind, we succeeded in making six and a half miles, passing the mouth of the southwest branch of the Upper George River; and when at 3 P.M. we reached the head of Long Lake it was too rough to venture on, and we had to go into camp.

I felt rather desperate that night, and sick with disappointment. One week of precious time was gone, it was the 16th of the month, and we were only thirty miles, perhaps a little more, from the Height of Land. How was it possible to reach the post in time for the ship now?

"We will get you there about two days before the ship arrives,"

George insisted.

"When we get down below the lakes we can make forty miles a day if the weather is good," said Joe.

But I was not reassured. When we should get down below the lakes we could travel fast perhaps; but the last one, Indian House Lake, where the old Hudson's Bay Company post had been, was still far, far north of us, and no one knew what lay between. Perhaps there was a bare possibility that we might make the journey in ten days; but I knew I could not count on it. Had I a right to undertake the return journey with its perils? I was not sure.

My tent was sweet that night with the fragrance of its carpet of balsam boughs, and a big bunch of twin flowers, which grew in profusion there; but it was late before I slept. Perhaps two hours after I awoke to find a big moon peering into my face through the open front of my tent.

I was startled at first, and instinctively reached for my revolver, not knowing what it was; but when full consciousness had returned, whether it was the effect of the moon or not, the question had somehow been settled. I knew I should go on to Ungava whatever the consequences might be.

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