Lure of the Labrador Wild, The


It was nine o'clock on Wednesday morning, July 15, that we made the start. Our canoe, laden deep with our outfit, was drawn up with its prow resting snugly on the sandy bottom of the little strait that is locally known as the Northwest River. Mackenzie and a group of swarthy natives gathered on the shore to see us off. All but the high-spirited agent were grave and sceptical, and shook their heads at our persistency in going into a country we had been so frequently warned against.

The atmosphere was crisp, pure, and exhilarating. The fir trees and shrubs gave out a delicious perfume, and their waving tops seemed to beckon us on. The sky was deep blue, with here and there a feathery cloud gliding lazily over its surface. The bright sunlight made our hearts bound and filled our bodies with vigour, and as we stood there on the edge of the unknown and silent world we had come so far to see, our hopes were high, and one and all we were eager for the battle with the wild.

"I wish I were going with you; good-bye and Godspeed!" shouted Mackenzie, as we pushed the canoe into deep water and dipped our paddles into the current. In a moment he and the grave men that stood with him were lost to view. Up through the strait into the Little Lake we paddled, thence to the rapid where the waters of Grand Lake pour out. With one end of a tracking line, Hubbard sprang into the shallow water near the shore below the swift-running stream, and with the other end fastened to the bow of the canoe, pulled it through the rapid. A "planter's" family in a cabin near by watched us wonderingly.

Then we were in Grand Lake. Hubbard remarked that it looked like Lake George, save that the hills were lower. For a few miles above its outlet the shores on both sides of the lake are low. Then on the south come bluffs that rise, stern and grand in their nudity, almost perpendicularly from the deep, clear water, while on the north come lower hills, the most part wooded, that retreat more gently from the rocky shore. Heading for the extreme upper of the lake, where Low's map and the natives had led us to expect we should find the Northwest or Nascaupee River, we paddled along the north shore to a point where we stopped among the rocks for a luncheon of flapjacks and syrup.

We were away without waste of time, paddling diagonally across the lake to the south shore. The fleecy clouds had now thickened, and a few drops of rain had fallen. In our course across the lake we passed Cape Corbeau (Raven), but were so far out that the mouth of the river of that name, which is just east of it, escaped our attention. Cape Corbeau, it had been named by a French missionary, because the ravens build their nests on its rocky top, and, perched high up, croak at you warningly from afar. Always the ravens are there. Involuntarily, as one croaked above our heads, "Nevermore" echoed through my mind. "And my soul from out that shadow shall be lifted nevermore." There were dark shadows ahead of us among the rocks and the forests, and—But in a moment the thought was drowned and forgotten in the beauties of the scenery. Beauties?—yes; for bleak and desolate Labrador has a beauty and a charm all its own.

Two hours after passing Cape Corbeau the rain began to pour, and at 7.30 o'clock, when we made camp on the south shore, we were well soaked. We resumed our journey at 5.30 in the morning. A stiff breeze was blowing, but by keeping in the lee of the shore we made good progress. At ten o'clock, when we found it necessary to cross to the north shore so as to shorten the distance, there was a rising sea, and we had to lighten the canoe and ferry the cargo over in two loads.

It was soon after one o'clock that we reached the upper end of the lake, where we found a stream about 125 yards wide that flowed with a swift current from out a little lake. Into this lake after luncheon we paddled, and when we reached its upper end, there was the mouth of a river, which we immediately hailed as the Nascaupee, the stream that was to lead us up to Lake Michikamau. Its mouth was wide, and it seemed to answer so well all the descriptions we had heard of the river for which we were searching that the possibility of our being mistaken never once entered our heads; in fact, we remained under the impression that it was the Nascaupee until the last.

But we were mistaken. We had passed the Nascaupee five miles below, where it empties, together with the Crooked River, into a deep bay extending northward from Grand Lake. At its mouth the Nascaupee is divided by an island into two streams, and this island is so thickly covered with trees, and the streams on either side of it are so narrow, that when we crossed along in front of the bay no break in the line of woods at the mouth of the river was perceptible. Perhaps it will be said we should have explored the bay. I know now myself that should have been done, but in justice to Hubbard it must be remembered that none of us then had any reason to suppose we should find a river at any place other than the extreme upper end of the lake. Time and time again Hubbard had asked the few natives who had been there if the Nascaupee entered Grand Lake at its extreme upper end, and the answer invariably had been: "Yes, sir; he do." Furthermore, it will have to be taken into consideration how hard pressed Hubbard was by the fear that the short summer would end before he had completed his work, and by the consequent necessity of pushing on with all possible speed.

The river up which we started to ascend with light hearts was the Susan, a river which was to introduce us promptly to heart-breaking hardships, a river which is to me associated with the most tragic memories.

On the southerly side of the little lake Porcupine Hill raises its spruce-covered head a thousand feet above the water. Proceeding up the Susan, we found that the river valley was enclosed by low ridges covered with spruce and a few scattering white birch and aspen trees. For the most part the banks of the river were steep and high; where they were low the river formed little pond expansions. For a mile above its mouth we had good canoeing. Up to this point the river was not more than thirty yards wide, and was deep, with little current. Then it began gradually to widen and become shallow and swift, with a boulder-strewn bottom. Soon we had to jump into the water, and with Hubbard at the end of the tracking line, and George and I at either end of the canoe, haul, lift, and push the heavily laden boat up the river, while we floundered over the boulders. Sometimes we would be able to get into the canoe and pole, but never for long. Around the worst places we portaged the whole outfit, canoe and all. It was desperately hard work, and when night came on and we went into camp, we were only two miles above the little lake.

Hard as it was, we should not have minded our work in the rapids so much had it not been for the flies. For the first time we now realised the full form of what had been told us about the fly pest of Labrador. We had considered them annoying at Rigolet and Northwest River, but as soon as we began to buck the rapids they came upon us in clouds. They got into our nostrils, into our ears, into our mouths, into our eyes even, and our faces and hands were streaked with blood from their bites. They were villainous, hellish. Hubbard frequently remarked that the mosquitoes seemed friendly in contrast—and the mosquitoes were by no means considerate of our feelings and comfort either. We had purchased some cheesecloth at Rigolet for face nets, but the trial we had given it during the afternoon had proved that it was too closely woven for us to see through it and do our work, and it was useful only as some measure of protection for our ears and necks. On our faces we also tried some "fly dope" that we had purchased in New York, but it kept the pests away for a few minutes only.

The ordinary Labrador fly is smaller than a pinhead. You do not feel it until after it has had its bite, and then the sensation is like that of a fiery itch. In addition to this kind, we had to withstand the attacks of flies called by the natives "bulldogs." These beasts are about the size of the top joint of one's thumb. They are well named. When they bite, you feel it immediately beyond a doubt. We used to say they bit out pieces of our flesh entire and flew up into the trees to eat them, and we used frequently to beg George to try his luck at shooting the brutes. However, it must be said to the credit of both kinds of flies that they have one good habit—they "knock off" work at the approach of the cool of evening, thus giving you a chance to bathe as well as sleep.

The rain was still pouring when we pitched our tent that first night, but we had a good supper and were reasonably cheerful. There were flapjacks dripping with the syrup of melted sugar, and bacon, and hot bread, and coffee.

"With this sort of work before us," said Hubbard, "we must keep well fed."

"The river," said I, "certainly is the limit. If the Indians have to travel on it much, I feel sorry for them."

"Well," said Hubbard, "we've surely got our work cut out. At this rate we're going to make pretty slow progress."

"Blake told us," I ventured, "we could paddle up the river eighteen or twenty miles, and that he had sailed his boat up that far. I'd be willing to bet he never sailed it up this stream."

"Oh," replied Hubbard, "he was mistaken in the distance. This must be the place where he said the river tumbled off the mountain. What do you say, boys," he added, "to throwing away some of the outfit? We'll never make any progress if we attempt to carry it all."

"Let's stick to it a little longer," suggested George.

However, we decided to abandon some clothing and a pail containing about four pounds of lard; and as George, particularly, was opposed to leaving behind us any provisions, it was decided to eat of them lavishly and pay no attention to the hunt for the present.

All night it continued to rain, and we broke camp and started forward on Friday morning, July 17, in a drenching downpour. George thought this was rather hard. While Hubbard was out of hearing, he told me that the Indians never travelled in the rain, and that he had never been expected to do so before. The fact was that George had never before been on an expedition where there was so much necessity for haste.

We found the river on the second day to be even worse than our worst fears had pictured it, and it kept growing worse as we ascended. The water was so swift and shoal that we could take only a part of the outfit in the canoe, which meant that we had to return at intervals for the rest and track all the way, Hubbard pulling on the line while George and I waded and pushed. Sometimes we were scarcely knee deep in the water, and at other times we would sink up to our armpits. Frequently we were swept off our feet. Once or twice we forced the canoe and outfit through the thick willows and alders that lined the river, and dragged them up the steep bank and attempted to portage; but the country here had been burned and fallen trees were piled high in every direction, so that we were compelled to return to the river and resume our efforts in the raging torrent.

The work was awful, it was heartrending; and though we exerted ourselves to the utmost from six o'clock in the morning until eight at night, we advanced our camp only two miles that day. And when we gathered around the fire at night, how we did "cuss" that river! None of us, however, was discouraged, nor flinched at the prospect. Our oil-tanned, cowhide moccasins and woollen trousers were beginning to show the result of the attacks of bush, rock, and water, but our blue flannel shirts and soft felt hats were still quite respectable. Our coats we had left behind us as an unnecessary encumbrance.

While George was cooking breakfast on Saturday morning (July 18), a red squirrel barked at us from a near-by tree. Drawing his pistol from its holster, Hubbard said:

"Wallace, let's see who shall have the honour of bringing to George the first game of the trip."

I acquiesced, and walking around the tree, caught the first glimpse of the squirrel. At it I carefully aimed my pistol, and down it came. It made a tiny morsel for three men, but as the "first game of the trip," we hugely enjoyed it when George served it in a pot of soup.

At six o'clock we broke camp and laboured on, facing the same desperate conditions that we had met the day before. It is true that the rain had ceased to fall, but the good weather brought out the flies in increasing swarms. We fairly breathed flies, and we dreaded them far more than the hard work. Since they attacked us first, we had left our faces unwashed so as to retain the "dope," and they were streaming with a mixture of grease, dirt, blood, and perspiration.

The return of the sun also sent the mercury soaring. At noon that Saturday it registered 90 degrees in the shade. Always at sunset, however, the temperature dropped with startling suddenness, and a variation of from fifty to sixty degrees between the maximum and minimum record for one day was not an unusual thing as long as summer lasted.

Floundering up the boulder-strewn river that Saturday, we found the heat so oppressive that it seemed to us we had got into the torrid zone instead of up to within a few hundred miles of the Arctic Circle. We resolved, however, that the obstacles interposed against our advance by the unfeeling wild should make us fight only the harder, George and I receiving much inspiration from Hubbard, to whom difficulties were a blessing and whose spirit remained indomitable up to the very end. And when we sat down to our evening meal by a cosey fire, we had the satisfaction of knowing that we had doubled our previous day's record and were four miles further up the river.

On our first Sunday out we remained in camp to rest. We were all pretty tired, and enjoyed the long sleep in the morning. The day was fine, but very warm. In the morning Hubbard caught about twenty small trout, and after luncheon he and George went up the river on a scouting trip. When they returned in the evening, they reported important discoveries. First they had come upon a small, rocky stream flowing into our river from the south, which stream Hubbard felt sure must be the Red River the Blakes had told us about, and a mile above that a two-mile stretch of good water. But the discovery that pleased Hubbard the most was some old cuttings that apparently had been made by Indians; he was of the opinion, as were all of us, that they indicated we really were on the Mountaineer Indian trail to Michikamau, and that we undoubtedly soon should come upon lakes and other good water that would carry us through; and the discoveries of the scouting trip buoyed up our spirits wonderfully.

On Monday morning (July 20) George took an axe and cut us a portage route from our camp through a swamp a mile and a half to the foot of a hill. This route we covered three times. It was impossible for one man alone to carry the canoe through the swamp, and in addition to it and the firearms we had at this period to transport about five hundred pounds of baggage made up into packs of about seventy-five pounds each. At first Hubbard and I found seventy-five pounds a pretty good load to carry, and neither of us could get even that on his back without help from George; but later on we learned to back and carry with comparative ease a hundred pounds or more. In packing we never used either shoulder or chest straps, relying solely upon the head strap, which passes across the forehead.

When, after much groaning and sweating, we finally arrived with all of our outfit at the foot of the hill, it took the combined efforts of all three of us to get the canoe to the top, whence we followed an old caribou trail for a mile along the summit, camping just above the smooth water that Hubbard and George had seen on Sunday. We were all completely exhausted when we reached camp. While staggering along with the canoe a hundred yards from the tent, I became so weak that I suddenly sank to the ground and the others had to come to my rescue and bring in the canoe. But the night was cool and starry, and we sat long by our fire and talked and drank pea soup and tea, and when it came time for us to turn in to our soft bed of fragrant spruce boughs, our troubles had been quite forgotten.

The good water that Hubbard and George thought was two miles long shortened down, when we actually came to it the next morning, to less than half a mile, affording us only a meagre opportunity to make use of the canoe. For a little distance we again bucked the rapids, and then left the river for a rough portage of a mile and a half over the hills on the shore. Again at night we were exhausted, but again we had a fine camp on a point overlooking the river. The crisp air came laden with the perfume of spruce and balsam. On the surrounding hills the fir trees were darkly silhouetted against the sky, radiant with its myriads of stars. The roar of the river could be heard dying away into a mere murmur among the hills below.

"Boys," said Hubbard, after we had made a good supper of a mess of trout I had caught at midday, "this pays for all the hard work."

Undoubtedly Hubbard was in fine fettle that evening, and as we lay before the fire with that delicious feeling of languor which comes from conscientious toil, he entertained George and me with quotations from his favourite author, Kipling, while we puffed comfortably upon our pipes. One verse he dwelt upon, as it seemed particularly appropriate to our position. It was:

When first under fire, if you're wishful to duck,
Don't look or take heed of the man that is struck;
Be thankful you're living and trust to your luck,
And march to your front like a soldier."

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