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   Chapter 17 THE RACE FOR UNGAVA

A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador By Mina Hubbard Characters: 25166

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Five days to Ungava!

Seated in' the canoe with time to think I could not seem to realise the situation. Indian House Lake! Five days to Ungava! Oh! how I wanted it to be true. Ungava, in spite of hopes and resolves, had seemed always far away, mysterious, and unattainable, but now it had been suddenly thrust forward almost within my reach. If true, this would mean the well-nigh certain achievement of my heart's desire-the completion of my husband's work. Yet there were the rapids, where the skill and judgment of the men were our safeguards. One little miscalculation and it would take but an instant to whelm us in disaster. Still we had come so far on the way with success, surely it would be given to us to reach the goal in safety. But here inevitably thought flew to one who had been infinitely worthy but who had been denied.

Five days to Ungava! and because I so much wished it to be true I was afraid, for the hard things of life will sometimes make cowards of its pilgrims.

The Barren Grounds Water was very fair in the morning sunshine. It was as if, while exploring some great ruin, we had chanced into a secret, hidden chamber, the most splendid of them all, and when after lunch the promised fair wind sprang up, and the canoes with well-filled sails were speeding northward, the lake and its guardian hills became bluer and more beautiful than ever.

Nowhere did we find the lake more than two miles wide. Long points reaching out from either shore cut off the view and seemed to change the course; but in reality they did not, for it was always northward. To right and left there were the hills, now barren altogether, or again with a narrow belt of "greenwoods"-spruce, balsam, tamarack-along the shore. In many places skeleton wigwams marked the site of old Nascaupee camps. The hills on the east in places rose abruptly from the water, but on the west they stood a little back with sand-hills on terraces between and an occasional high, wedge-shaped point of sand and loose rock reached almost halfway across the lake. Often as I looked ahead, the lake seemed to end; but, the distant point passed, it stretched on again into the north till with repetition of this experience, it began to seem as if the end would never come. Streams entered through narrow openings between the hills, or roared down their steep sides. At one point the lake narrowed to about a quarter of a mile in width where the current was very swift. Beyond this point we saw the last caribou of the trip.

It was a three-year-old doe. She stood at the shore watching us curiously as we came towards her. Then stepping daintily in, she began to swim across. We soon caught her up and after playing round her in the canoe for a time the men with shouts of laughter headed her inshore and George, in the bow, leaning over caught her by the tail and we were towed merrily in the wake. Every minute I expected the canoe to turn over. However, George was soon obliged to relinquish his hold for the doe's feet touched bottom and in a moment she was speeding up the steep hillside stopping now and then to look back with wondering frightened eyes at the strange creatures she had so unexpectedly encountered.

Here where the caribou were rare, George River mosquitoes made life miserable for us. The flies, which in the Nascaupee country had been such a trial to me, had not driven the men to the use of their veils except on rare occasions; but now they were being worn even out on the lake where we were still tormented. Backs and hats were brown with the vicious wretches where they would cling waiting for a lull in the wind to swarm about our heads in such numbers that even their war song made one shiver and creep. They were larger by far than any Jersey mosquitoes ever dreamed of being, and their bite was like the touch of a live coal. Sometimes in the tent a continual patter on the roof as they flew against it sounded like a gentle rain.

The foot of the lake was finally reached on Monday evening, August 21st, at sunset, and we went into camp fifty-five to sixty miles from where we had entered it, and within sound of the first pitch in the one hundred and thirty miles of almost continuous rapids over which we were to travel. That night Job had a dream of them. He believed in dreams a little and it troubled him. He thought we were running in rapids which were very difficult, and becoming entrapped in the currents were carried over the brink of a fall. In the morning he told his dream, and the others were warned of danger ahead. My canoe was to lead the way with George in the bow and Job in the stern, while Joe and Gilbert were to follow close behind. When we left our camp an extra paddle was placed within easy reach of each canoe man so that should one snap at a critical moment another could instantly replace it.

This was a new attitude towards the work ahead and as we paddled slowly in the direction of the outlet where the hills drew together, as if making ready to surround and imprison us, my mind was full of vague imaginings concerning the river.

Far beyond my wildest thought, however, was the reality. Immediately at the outlet the canoes were caught by the swift current and for five days we were carried down through almost continuous rapids. There were long stretches of miles where the slope of the river bed was a steep gradient and I held my breath as the canoe shot down at toboggan pace. There was not only the slope down the course of the river but where the water swung past long points of loose rocks, which reach out from either shore, a distinct tilt from one side to the other could be seen, as when an engine rounds a bend. There were foaming, roaring breakers where the river flowed over its bed of boulder shallows, or again the water was smooth and apparently motionless even where the slope downward was clearly marked.

Standing in the stern of the canoe, guiding it with firm, unerring hand, Job scanned the river ahead, choosing out our course, now shouting his directions to George in the bow, or again to Joe and Gilbert as they followed close behind. Usually we ran in the shallow water near shore where the rocks of the river bed looked perilously near the surface. When the sun shone, sharp points and angles seemed to reach up into the curl of the waves, though in reality they did not, and often it appeared as if we were going straight to destruction as the canoe shot towards them. I used to wish the water were not so crystal clear, so that I might not see the rocks for I seemed unable to accustom myself to the fact that it was not by seeing the rocks the men chose the course but by the way the water flowed.

Though our course was usually in shallow water near the shore, sometimes for no reason apparent to me, we turned out into the heavier swells of the deeper stronger tide. Then faster, and faster, and faster we flew, Job still standing in the stern shouting his directions louder and louder as the roar of the rapid increased or the way became more perilous, till suddenly, I could feel him drop into his seat behind me as the canoe shot by a group of boulders, and George bending to his paddle with might and main turned the bow inshore again. Quick as the little craft had won out of the wild rush of water pouring round the outer end of this boulder barrier, Job was an his feet again as we sped onward, still watching the river ahead that we might not become entrapped. Sometimes when it was possible after passing a particularly hard and dangerous place we ran into a quiet spot to watch Joe and Gilbert come through. This was almost more exciting than coming through myself.

But more weird and uncanny than wildest cascade or rapid was the dark vision which opened out before us at the head of Slanting Lake. The picture in my memory still seems unreal and mysterious, but the actual one was as disturbing as an evil dream.

Down, down, down the long slope before us, to where four miles away Hades Hills lifted an uncompromising barrier across the way, stretched the lake and river, black as ink now under leaden sky and shadowing hills. The lake, which was three-quarters of a mile wide, dipped not only with the course of the river but appeared to dip also from one side to the other. Not a ripple or touch of white could be seen anywhere. All seemed motionless as if an unseen hand had touched and stilled it. A death-like quiet reigned and as we glided smoothly down with the tide we could see all about us a soft, boiling motion at the surface of this black flood, which gave the sense of treachery as well as mystery. As I looked down the long slope to where the river appeared to lose itself into the side of the mountain it seemed to me that there, if anywhere, the prophecy of Job's dream must be fulfilled. Cerberus might easily be waiting for us there. He would have scarcely time to fawn upon us till we should go shooting past him into the Pit.

But after all the river was not shallow up in the mountain. It only turned to the west and swifter than ever, we flew down with its current, no longer smooth and dark, but broken into white water over a broader bed of smooth-worn boulders, till three miles below we passed out into a quiet expansion, where the tension relaxed and with minds at ease we could draw in long, satisfying breaths.

The travelling day was a short one during this part of the trip, and I wondered often how the men stood the strain. Once I asked Job if running rapids did not tire him very much. He answered, "Yes," with a smile and look of surprise that I should understand such a thing.

The nights were made hideous by the mosquitoes, and I slept little. The loss of sleep made rapid running trying, and after a particularly bad night I would sit trembling with excitement as we raced down the slope. It was most difficult to resist the impulse to grasp the sides of the canoe, and to compel myself instead to sit with hands clasped about my knee, and muscles relaxed so that my body might lend itself to the motion of the canoe. Sometimes as we ran towards the west the river glittered so in the afternoon sunshine that it was impossible to tell what the water was doing. This made it necessary to land now and again, so that Job might go forward and look over the course. As the bow of the canoe turned inshore, the current caught the stern and whirled it round with such force and suddenness, that only the quick setting of a paddle on the shoreward side kept the little craft from being dashed to pieces against the rocks.

On Thursday, August 24th, I wrote in my diary: "Such a nice sleep last night albeit blankets and 'comfortable' so wet (the stopper of my hot-water bottle had not been properly screwed in the night before and they were soaked). Beautiful morning. Mountains ahead standing out against the clear sky with delicate clouds of white mist hanging along their sides or veiling the tops. One just at the bend is very, very fine. It reminds me of an Egyptian pyramid. Job is not feeling well this morning and it bothers me. I asked him if it were too many rapids. He smiled and said, 'I don't know,' but as if he thought that might be the trouble.

"Later.-Just a little below our camp we found a river coming in with a wild rush from the east. It was the largest we had yet seen and we wondered if our reckoning could be so far out that this might be the river not far from the post of which the Nascaupees had told us. Then so anxious for the noon observation and so glad to have a fine day for it. Result 57 degrees, 43 minutes, 28 seconds. That settled it, but all glad to be rapidly lessening the distance between us and Ungava.

"After noon, more rapids and I got out above one of them to walk. I climbed up the river wall to the high, sandy terrace above. This great wall of packed boulders is one of the most characteristic features of the lower river. It is thrown up by the action of ice in the spring floods, and varies all the way from twenty feet at its beginning to fifty and sixty feet farther down. One of the remarkable things about it is that the largest boulders lie at the top, some of them so huge as to weigh tons. On the terrace, moss berries and blue berries were so thick as to make walking slippery. The river grows more magnificent all the time. I took one photograph of the sun's rays slanting down through a rift in the clouds, and lighting up the mountains in the distance. I am feeling wretched over not having more films. How I wish I had brought twice as many.

"While r

unning the rapid George and Job were nearly wrecked. Job changed his mind about the course a little too late and they had a narrow escape. They were whirled round and banged up against a cliff with the bottom of the canoe tipped to the rock and held there for a while, but fortunately did not turn over till an unusually tempestuous rush of water reached up and lifted the canoe from its perch down into the water again. Then tying a rope at either end they clambered out to a precarious perch on a slope in the cliff. By careful manoeuvring they succeeded in turning the canoe round and getting in again, thus escaping from the trap. Joe and Gilbert came through without mishap. Practically the whole river from Indian House Lake is like a toboggan slide. I shall be glad for everyone and especially for Job, when we have left the rapids behind. He says be feels better to-night. Saw fresh caribou tracks upon the terrace. Have been finding beautiful bunches of harebell (Cornua uniflora) in the clefts of the rocks along the river. They are very lovely. Once to-day the lonely cry of a wolf came down to us from high up on the mountain side. The mountains are splendid. We are in the midst of scenes which have a decidedly Norwegian look. Have passed one river and several good- sized streams coming in from the east and one of some size from west, but we have seen nothing from the west which could be called a river. Much more water comes in from the east.

"As we turned northward this evening just above camp a wind came up the valley, that felt as if straight from the Arctic. Fire in an open place to-night, and I do not like to go out to supper. It is so cold. Thinking now we may possibly get to the post day after to-morrow. George says be thinks the river must be pretty straight from here. I rather think it will take us a little more than two days. All feel that we may have good hope of catching the steamer. Perhaps we shall get to tide water to-morrow. There have been signs of porcupine along the way to-day, and one standing wigwam. There is a big bed of moss berries (a small black berry, which grows on a species of moss and is quite palatable) right at my tent door to-night. So strange, almost unbelievable, to think we are coming so near to Ungava. I begin to realise that I have never actually counted on being able to get there."

The country grew more and more mountainous and rugged and barren. The wood growth, which is of spruce and tamarack, with here and there a little balsam, was for some distance below the Barren Grounds Water rather more abundant than it had been along the lake shores. At best it was but a narrow belt along the water edge covering the hills to a height of perhaps two hundred feet and dwindling gradually toward the north, till in some places it was absent altogether and our tents were pitched where no trees grew. The ridges on either side crossed each other almost at right angles, turning the river now to the northeast, again to the northwest. Down the mountain sides, broad bands of white showed where the waters of numberless lakes and streams on the heights came tumbling down to join the river, or again a great gap in the solid mountain of rock let through a rush of blue-green, foaming water. The hills have the characteristic Cambrian outline and it is the opinion of Mr. Low that this formation extends continuously eastward from the Kaniapiscau to the George. The mountains on the right bank were more rugged and irregular than those on the left, and Bridgman Mountains in places stand out to the river quite distinct and separate, like giant forts. On the morning of August 24th they had closed round us as if to swallow us up, and gazing back from our lunching place George said, with something of awe in his tone, "It looks as if we had just got out of prison."

And still the river roared on down through its narrow valley, at Helen Falls dropping by wild and tempestuous cascades, and then by almost equally wild rapids, to a mile below where it shoots out into an expansion with such terrific force as to keep this great rush of water above the general level for some distance out into the lake. Here we made the longest portage of the journey down the George River, carrying the stuff one and a quarter mile.

Below Helen Falls the mountains spread in a wider sweep to the sea, and the river gradually increased in width as it neared Ungava. Still it flowed on in rapids. So often we had asked each other, "Will they never end?" However, in the afternoon on August 26th, we reached smooth water, and had a few hours' paddling. Then darkness began to close in. If only we could keep on! I knew from my observation that day we could not be many miles from our journey's end now; but it was not to be that we should reach our destination that night, and camp was pitched at a point, which I thought must be about seven or eight miles above the post.

It was very disappointing, and when George said, "If the ship is there they will be sure to try to get off Saturday night," I felt rather desperate. Still it would not do to take chances with the George River in the dark.

In spite of anxieties I slept that night but felt quite strung in the morning. At breakfast I used the last of the crystalose in my tea. It seemed very wonderful that the little ounce bottle of this precious sweet had lasted us as long as sixty pounds of sugar. There was just a little of our tea left, and I filled the bottle with it to keep as a souvenir of the trip. The remainder I put into one of the waterproof salt-shakers and this I gave to George. I learned later that there was a bit of quiet fun among the men as I did it. They had no great faith in my calculations, and it was their opinion that the tea would probably taste quite good at lunch.

After what seemed an unnecessarily long time, the camp things were again in the canoe and we were off. About a mile below the camp we found that the rapids were not yet passed. Here a heavy though short one made a portage necessary and then we dropped down to where the river spreads out to two miles or more in width. For several miles we paddled on in smooth water, the river swinging a little to the west. How eagerly I watched the point where it turned again to the north for beyond that we should see the post. As we neared the bend there was an exciting escape from running into an unsuspected rapid. Nothing was to be seen ahead but smooth water. The wind was from the south and not a sound was heard till, suddenly, we found ourselves almost upon the brink of the slope, and only by dint of hard paddling reached the shore just at its edge. It was the first and only time we had been caught in this way. Again came the question, "Will they never end?"

The rapids stretched on before us turbulent and noisy, as before, first west then swinging abruptly to the north. Joe and Gilbert decided to portage across the point, but George and Job after much consideration prepared to run down in the canoe while I walked across to the little bay below.

As they were starting off I said to George, "When you get out beyond those points you should be able to see the island opposite the post."

"All right, I'll watch for it," he replied with a smile, and they started.

Pushing off, they worked the canoe cautiously out to where they meant to take the rapid. It was something more of a feat then they had looked for, and suddenly after strenuous but ineffectual efforts to make the canoe do what they wanted, they dropped into the bottom, and to my amazement I saw it shoot forward stern foremost into the rapid. The men had been quick as the water though, and in dropping to their places had turned about, so that they were not quite helpless. I stood watching them, hardly daring to breathe.

The canoe danced like an autumn leaf in the swells of the rapid, and Job's excited shouting came faintly over the sound of the water. At what a pace they were going? Was the canoe under control? I could not tell. What would happen when they reached the point where the water swings round to the north again? In an agony of suspense I watched and waited. Now they were nearing the critical point. And-now--they had passed it, and with a wild cry of triumph turned towards the little bay below. As they drew in to where I waited for them, George waved his cap to me and shouted, "I saw the island."

We passed out beyond the point below and there it lay, some miles away, in the quiet water, with the sunshine of the calm Sabbath morning flooding down upon it. But the post was not yet in sight. Quite out of harmony with the still dignity of the day and the scenes of desolate grandeur about was the mind within me. The excitement at the rapid had seemed to increase the strain I was under, and every moment it became more intense. I did wish that the men would not chat and laugh in the unconcerned way they were doing, and they paddled as leisurely as if I were not in a hurry at all. If only I could reach the post and ask about the ship! If only I might fly out over the water without waiting for these leisurely paddles! And now, from being in an agony of fear for their lives, my strong desire was to take them by their collars and knock their heads together hard. This was not practicable in the canoe, however, and I was fain to control myself as best I might.

Once I said to George, "Do hurry a little," and for two minutes he paddled strenuously; but soon it was again the merry chat and the leisurely dip, dip of the paddles. I think they were laughing at me a little and had also in their minds the fun it would be to see me bring out my precious tea again for lunch.

Suddenly we descried a white speck on a point some distance away, and drawing nearer saw people moving about. Then we discovered that a boat was out at some nets, and on reaching it found an Eskimo fisherman and his son taking in the catch. He smiled broadly as he came to the end of his boat to shake hands with us, and my heart sank dully, for his face and manner plainly indicated that he had been expecting us. This could only be explained by the fact that the ship had been to the post bringing with her the news of my attempted crossing. We spoke to him in English, which he seemed to understand, but replied in Eskimo, which we were helpless to make anything of, and after a vain struggle for the much desired news as to the ship, we left him and proceeded on our way.

I sat thinking desperately of the Eskimo, of the way he had received us and its portent. There could be only one explanation. I had no heart now for the competition as to who should first sight the post. Yet how we hope even when there is nothing left to us but the absence of certainty! I could not quite give up yet. Suddenly George exclaimed, "There it is." Somehow he seemed nearly always to see things first.

There it was deep in a cove, on the right bank of the river, a little group of tiny buildings nestling in at the foot of a mountain of solid rock. It seemed almost microscopic in the midst of such surroundings. The tide was low and a great, boulder- strewn, mud flat stretched from side to side of the cove. Down from the hills to the east flowed a little stream winding its way through a tortuous channel as it passed out to the river. We turned into it and followed it up, passing between high mud-banks which obscured the post till we reached a bend where the channel bore away to the farther side of the cove. Then to my surprise the men suddenly changed paddles for poles and turning the bows inshore poled right on up over the mud-bank. It was such a funny and novel performance that it snapped the spell for me, and I joined with the men in their shouts of laughter over the antics of the canoe on the slippery mud-bank. When we finally reached the top and slid out on to the flat, we saw a man, who we supposed must be Mr. Ford, the agent at the post, coming over the mud with his retinue of Eskimo to meet us.

We were all on our feet now waiting. When he came within hearing, I asked if he were Mr. Ford, and told him who I was and how I had come there. Then came the, for me, great question, "Has the ship been here?"

He said, "Yes."

"And gone again?"

"Yes. That is-what ship do you mean? Is there any other ship expected here than the Company's ship?"

"No, it is the Company's ship I mean, the Pelican. Has she been here?"

"Yes," he said, "she was here last September. I expect her in

September again, about the middle of the month or later."

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