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Lure of the Labrador Wild, The

VI. SEARCHING FOR A TRAIL

When we portaged into Goose Creek on Friday, July 31st, Hubbard had quite recovered from his illness, I, too, was well again, and our appetites had returned. It is true that my legs and feet were much swollen from the continuous work in the cold river, but the swelling caused me no inconvenience. All of us, in fact, were in better shape for the fight against the wild than at any time since the start.

For three or four miles up Goose Creek the rapids were almost continuous, and we had to portage for practically the whole of the distance. On August 1st and 2d the weather was cold, with a raw wind and a continuous downpour of rain. At night the rain kept up a steady drop, drop, drop through our tent. On the 2d, owing to the inclemency of the weather, we did not travel; but the morning of the 3d brought brilliant sunshine and with the perfume of the forest in our nostrils we pushed on, soon reaching a flatter and a marshy country, where the creek deepened and narrowed with a sluggish current. Here the paddling was good, and for a little way we made rapid progress.

In this marshy stretch by the creek's bank we saw a beaver house, and George stepped out of the canoe to examine it.

"They're livin' here," he remarked. "If we're not too far away when we camp to-night, I'm comin' down with a rifle and watch for 'em. They come out to play in the water in the evenin' and it's not hard to get 'em."

"What's the use of killing them?" I asked. "What could you do with a beaver if you got him?"

"I'd cook it, and we'd have a good snack of beaver meat," said George. "They're the finest kind of eatin', and I'd go a good way for a piece of beaver tail; it's nice and greasy, and better than anything you ever ate."

As we paddled on, George continued to extol the virtues of beaver meat, expatiating on many a "good snack" of it that he had consumed. However, he did not return to the beaver house, for more important things that evening claimed our attention.

It was on this day that we reached a point where our branch creek itself separated into two branches. Upon scouting them, we discovered that each of these branches had for its origin a lake, the two bodies of water from which they flowed being close together some three miles to the westward. Apparently they were small lakes, but we hoped to find that they belonged to a chain that would carry us into the country, and their discovery encouraged us to push on.

This hope was strengthened by Indian wigwam poles that we found in the vicinity. The poles, it is true, were old, indicating that the Indians had not been there for several years; but as it had been a long time since they had ceased to visit regularly Northwest River Post, we thought we had reason to believe that the poles marked what had been a permanent trail rather than the course of a hunting expedition. Hubbard was particularly observant of these old Indian signs. He was anxious to find them, and delighted when he did find them. "Here are the signs," he would say, "we are on the right trail." But we were not on the right trail. The right trail—the Nascaupee route—was miles to the northward. We eventually did stumble upon a trail to Michikamau, but it was another one—a very old one—and we found it only to lose it again.

While we were following up Goose Creek the condition of our commissariat troubled us not a little. The scarcity of game had forced us to draw heavily upon our stores. Only a little of our lard and a small part of our twenty-five pounds of bacon remained. "We must hustle for grub, boys," Hubbard frequently remarked. Our diet, excepting on particular occasions, was bread and tea, fish when we could get them, and sometimes a little pea soup. The pea meal, plain and flavoured, was originally intended as a sort of emergency ration, but we had drawn on our stock of it alarmingly. Our flour, too, was going rapidly, and the time was drawing near when we felt that the ration of bread must be cut down.

The only thing, perhaps, that we really craved was fresh meat. For several days after leaving the post we had experienced a decided craving for acids, but that craving had been partially satisfied when, on the barren hills that border the Valley of the Susan, we found a few cranberries that had survived the winter. Every day while we were on Goose Creek we caught a few small trout. When we halted for any purpose, Hubbard always whipped the stream. He was a tireless as well as an expert fisherman. He would fish long after I had become discouraged, and catch them in pools where they positively refused to rise for me. The trout thus obtained were relished, but a fish diet is not strengthening, neither is it satisfying, and as we had had no fresh meat since the day we landed at Indian Harbour a month before, our longing for it had become importunate.

Imagine our joy, then, when on August 3d, the day we discovered the petering out of Goose Creek, some fresh meat came our way. Most unexpectedly was the day turned into one of feasting and thanksgiving. As we were preparing, soon after passing the beaver house, to pack at the foot of a rapid just below a little pond expansion, Hubbard saw four geese swimming slowly down the stream. He and George had just lifted their packs from the canoe, while I, some little distance off, had mine on my back. Hubbard had his rifle in his hands. George, who caught sight of the geese almost as soon as Hubbard, grabbed my rifle from the canoe. "Drop!" cried Hubbard, and down we all fell behind the little bank over which the birds had been sighted. There was fresh meat swimming towards us, and while we lay waiting for it to come in sight around the little head of land the excitement was intense.

Soon the leader appeared, and Hubbard and George fired almost simultaneously. If ever there was a goose that had his goose cooked, it was that poor, unfortunate leader. One of the bullets from the .45-70 rifles that were aimed at him went through his neck, cutting the bone clean and leaving his head hanging by two little bits of skin. The other bullet bored a hole through his body, breaking both wings. I did not blame him when he keeled over. The leader disposed of, Hubbard and George again fired in quick succession, and two of the other geese dropped just as they were turning back upstream and vainly trying to rise on their wings, which were useless so soon after the moulting season. The second shot emptied George's rifle. He threw it down, grabbed a paddle and went after one of the birds, which, only slightly wounded, was flopping about in the water.

Meanwhile Hubbard had fired twice at the fourth goose and missed both times. His rifle also being empty now, he cast it aside, seized his pistol, ran around the bank and jumped into the water in time to head off the remaining goose as it was flopping upstream. That brought the goose between him and George, and the bird was so bewildered that Hubbard had time to fire at him twice with his pistol and kill him, while George effectually disposed of the wounded goose by swatting him over the head with the paddle. Thus all four birds were ours, and our exultation knew no bounds. We shouted, we threw our hats in the air and shouted again. Lifting the birds critically, we estimated that we had on hand about fifty pounds of goose meat.

More luck came to us that same day when we halted for luncheon at the foot of some rapid water. As soon as we stopped, Hubbard, as usual, cast a fly, and almost immediately landed a half-pound trout. Then, as fast as I could split them and George fry them, another and another, all big ones, fell a victim to his skill. The result was that we had all the trout we could eat that noon, and we ate a good many.

It was late in the afternoon when we reached the point where the two brooks joined to form Goose Creek. Our scouting was finished in less than two hours, and we went into camp early: for, as Hubbard expressed it, we were to have a "heap big feed," and George reminded us that it would take a good while to roast a goose. Our camp was pitched at the foot of a semi-barren ridge a half-mile above the junction of the brooks. George built a big fire—much bigger than usual. At the back he placed the largest green log he could find. Just in front of the fire, and at each side, he fixed a forked stake, and on these rested a cross pole. From the centre of the pole he suspended a piece of stout twine, which reached nearly to the ground, and tied the lower end into a noose.

Then it was that the goose, nicely prepared for cooking, was brought forth. Through it at the wings George stuck a sharp wooden pin, leaving the ends to protrude on each side. Through the legs he stuck a similar pin in a similar fashion. This being done, he slipped the noose at the end of the twine over the ends of one of the pins. And lo and behold! the goose was suspended before the fire.

It hung low—just high enough to permit the placing of a dish under it to catch the gravy. Now and then George gave it a twirl so that none of its sides might have reason to complain at not receiving its share of the heat. The lower end roasted first, seeing which, George took the goose off, reversed it and set it twirling again. After a time he sharpened a sliver of wood, stuck it into the goose and examined the wound critically.

"Smells like a Christmas goose when one goes through the kitchen dead hungry before dinner," said Hubbard.

"Um-m-n!" I commented.

In a little while George tried the sharp splinter again. Hubbard and I watched him anxiously. White juice followed the stick. Two hours had passed, and the goose was done!

Events now came crowding thick and fast. First, George put the steaming brown goose in his mixing basin, and deftly and rapidly disjointed it with his sheath knife. Meanwhile, with nervous haste, Hubbard and I had drawn our knives, and with the tin basin of goose before us, all three of us plumped down in a half-circle on the thick moss in the light of the bright-blazing fire. Many of the rules of etiquette were waived. We stood not on the order of our falling to, but fell to at once. We eat, and we eat, at first ravenously, then more slowly. With his mouth full of the succulent bird, George allowed he would rather have goose than caribou. "I prefer goose to anything else," said he, and proceeded to tell us of goose hunts "down the bay" and of divers big Indian feasts. At length all the goose was gone but one very small piece. "I'll eat that for a snack before I sleep," said George, as he started to put the giblets to stew for breakfast.

The fire died down until nothing remained save a heap of glowing embers. For a long time we sat in the darkness over an extra pot of tea. At first, silence; and then, while George and I puffed complacently on our pipes, Hubbard, who never smoked, entertained us with more of Kipling. "The Feet of the Young Men" was one of his favourites, and that night he put more than his usual feeling into the words:

"Now the Four-way Lodge is opened, now the Hunting Winds are loose—
Now the Smokes of Spring go up to clear the brain;
Now the Young Men's hearts are troubled for the whisper of the Trues,
Now the Red Gods make their medicine again!
Who hath seen the beaver busied?
Who hath watched the black-tail mating?
Who hath lain alone to hear the wild-goose cry?
Who hath worked the chosen water where the ouananiche is waiting,
Or the sea-trout's jumping—crazy for the fly?

He must go—go—go away from here!
On the other side the world he's overdue.
'Send your road is clear before you when the old
         Spring-fret comes o'er you
And the Red Gods call for you!"


Again the silence. The northern lights flashed and swept in fantastic shapes across the sky, illuminating the fir tops in the valley and making the white lichens gleam on the barren hill above us. We thought of the lake ahead with its old wigwams, and the promise it held out of an easy trail to Michikamau made us feel sure that the worst part of our journey was ended. Thus we sat supremely happy and content until long past midnight, when we went to our tent and our bed of fragrant spruce boughs, to be lulled asleep by the murmuring waters of the creek below.

The brooks into which Goose Creek divided near our camp of course would not permit of canoeing, and the morning after our feast (August 4) we portaged through a swamp into the lake that fed the southerly one. We called this small body of water Mountaineer Lake, because the Mountaineer Indians had been there. Besides numerous cuttings and the remains of wigwams, we found the ruins of a drying stage where they had cured meat or fish. From Goose Camp to the lake shore George carried the canoe, and Hubbard and I each a pack. Then while George and I returned for the remaining packs, Hubbard waited by the lake. As he sat there alone, a caribou waded into the water less than a hundred feet away, stopped and looked fearlessly at him for a few moments, and then walked leisurely off into the woods.

"It seemed as if he wanted to shake hands with me," Hubbard said when he told us of the incident. He had to let the deer depart in peace, because both rifles were back with the last loads at Goose Camp, and his pistol was in his bag. Needless to say, we were bitterly disappointed at losing the first deer we had seen, and it taught us the lesson always to take one rifle forward with the first load on a portage.

We spent the afternoon scouting in different directions, and discovered that the only inlet to Mountaineer Lake ended in a bog a mile or so up. A mile or more to the westward, however, George discovered another and much larger lake, which in honour of him we shall call Lake Elson. An old trail led from Mountaineer Lake to Lake Elson, which George pronounced to be a caribou trail, but which Hubbard believed to be an old portage, because it led from lake to lake by the most direct course. There were no axe cuttings, however, to indicate that the Indians had followed it.

We tried the troll in Mountaineer Lake, but caught nothing. Apparently there was nothing there but trout, of which fish I caught eight at the inlet. I shot with my pistol a muskrat that was swimming in the lake, but George did not cook it, as he said the flesh would be too strong at that season. It was raining again and the mosquitoes were out in millions, but with three geese still on hand and a good lake ahead we were indifferent to such troubles as that, although our clothing was not now in a condition successfully to withstand much bad weather.

Rags, in fact, were beginning to appear upon us all. One of Hubbard's trousers legs was ripped clear down the front, and it was continually streaming behind in the wind and getting caught in the bushes, despite his efforts to keep it in place with pieces of twine. At length he patched it with a piece of white duffel, and exhibited his tailoring feat to us with much pride.

About noon on August 5, after a two-mile portage, we reached Lake Elson. On the way Hubbard sighted two caribou. He dropped his pack and grabbed his rifle. They were 250 yards away and partially hidden by the timber, and as they were approaching him, he waited, believing he would get a better shot. But, while he was waiting, what he called a "cussed little long-legged bird" scared them off, by giving a sharp, shrill cry of alarm, which the deer evidently were clever enough to construe as meaning that something out of the ordinary was happening.

Lake Elson proved to be about three and a half miles long and a half mile wide. It lay in a basin surrounded by wooded hills. The northerly portion was dotted with low, mound-like islands of drift, with two or three irregular, rocky islands, all completely wooded. It was a beautiful sheet of water, and, like all the lakes in Labrador, as clear as crystal and very cold. On the northerly side there were narrow straits and inlets, doubtless connecting the lake with others to the northwest that were hidden by the growth.

The outlet was at the southern end. It flowed through a pass in a low ridge of hills that extended for a great distance east and west, and emptied into a small lake, the waters of which were discharged through a creek that flowed through a pass in another low ridge that ran parallel with the first as far as we could see. Between the two ridges was a marsh that extended westward for many miles. The ridges and the hills surrounding the lakes were covered with spruce and balsam. Nowhere along our route since we left Northwest River Post, however, had we seen any timber of commercial value; the largest trees did not exceed eight inches in diameter, the generality being much smaller.

We were somewhat disconcerted upon finding no further signs of Indians, and feared we had lost the trail. Neither trapper's blaze nor trapper's cutting was to be seen; for now we were beyond their zone and in a country that apparently no white man and no breed had ever viewed. We selected a site for our camp near the outlet at the southern end of the lake. In the afternoon Hubbard and George went to some bluffs that could be seen two or three miles to the southward, to scout for a route to Michikamau and find the Indian trail if possible. I remained behind to make camp.

The days were now shortening rapidly; it was dark before eight o'clock. In the grey of the twilight George returned. When he hailed me, I was fishing in the outlet just below the camp, standing on a rock in midstream to which I had waded.

"Come 'long up to camp," he called. Once in the wilderness, we made no distinctions as to master and servant; we were all companions together. Hence George's familiar manner of address.

"When I land two more trout," I shouted back.

"You've got enough; come 'long now," he pleaded. There was that in his tone that excited my curiosity; he seemed all of a sudden to have acquired an unusual fondness for my society. "What's the matter, George?" I asked.

"I've been about lost," he returned. "Come on and I'll tell you."

I was astonished. I had seen George drop a pack in the bush, where everything for miles around looked alike to me, and without marking the spot or apparently taking note of any guiding signs, he would go directly to it again. I was with him one pitch-dark night when he left a pack among alders and willows in the depth of a marsh, and in the morning he went back two miles straight to the very spot. How a man that could do this could get lost was beyond my understanding. I hurried up to camp.

"How did it happen, George?" I asked.

"I just got turned 'round," he replied. "I didn't have any grub, and I didn't have a pistol, or a fishhook, or any way to get grub, and I didn't have a compass, and I was scared."

"But don't you know how you got lost?" I persisted.

"No, I don't," said George. "I just got lost. But I found myself pretty quick. I never got lost before."

The only way I could account for it was that he had permitted his thoughts to wander. I asked him what he would have done if he had not been able to find his way back.

"Gone to the highest hill I could see," he answered with a grin, "and made the biggest smoke I could make at its top, and waited for you fellus to find me."

While we were talking George was busily engaged in making the fire, putting a goose to boil and preparing water for tea. The twilight deepened, and ere we realised it darkness had come. Every moment we expected to hear Hubbard, but he did not appear.

"Another man lost," said I, with a forced lightness that illy concealed the anxiety George and I both felt; we knew that Hubbard not only had nothing to eat, but no matches to make a fire.

Frequently we stopped our work and talk, to peer into the gathering night and listen for the breaking of a twig. At length I took my rifle and fired at intervals half a dozen shots; but the reports echoed and died away without a reply. A damp north wind chilled the air, and the gloom seemed particularly oppressive.

"Hubbard will have a hard night out there in the bush," said George.

"Yes," I replied; "I don't suppose we can expect him back now before morning; and when a man is lost in this wild country it's pretty hard to find a little tent all by itself."

I was thinking of my own experience farther back, and what might happen should Hubbard fail to find us or we him. He was not so fortunate as I had been, in that there was no river to guide his return. However, at five o'clock in the morning he appeared. He had spent a miserable night on a ridge two miles to the southward, wet and shivering, with no fire, and tormented by mosquitoes. He reported that from the ridge he could hear the roar of a rapid. Darkness had prevented him from going on, and he had not seen the rapid, but he was sure it was a part of a big river.

At first he was loath to admit he had been lost, doubtless remembering how he and George had "guyed" me when I had been out all night and my prediction that his turn would come; but when George confessed to having gone astray also, he made a clean breast of it, telling us he was "lost good and plenty, and scared some, too." Now I had my innings, and I must confess I took great delight in returning some of the chaff they had given me.

Hubbard decreed, in consequence of these experiences—getting lost—that thereafter each man at all times should have on his person an emergency kit, to consist of matches, a piece of fish line, some hooks and two or three flies, enclosed in a film box waterproofed with electrician's tape.

We remained in our camp on Lake Elson for two days in order to scout and dry fish. It was the best fishing place we had yet come to. During our stay we had all the trout we could eat, and we dried and smoked forty-five large ones. The scouting proved that Hubbard's "big river" was an important discovery. It lay two miles to the south of us, flowing to the southeast. Hubbard sent George to look at it, and he reported that it certainly came from large lakes, as it was big, deep and straight. Could it come from Lake Michikamau?

While George was away Hubbard and I took a trip in the canoe around the lake and through some inlets. At the northeast we discovered a creek flowing into the lake, and as there were some old Indian wigwams and cuttings near it, indicating the possibility of its being part of a trail, we seriously considered the advisability of following it up. From a knoll near by we could see to the northwest other lakes into which the creek might possibly lead us; but, after returning to camp, we considered the situation fully in the light of George's report of the big river, and we decided that to the big river we should go.

This decision was not to prove an error of judgment; for the big river was none other than the Beaver—an important part of an old trail of the Indians to Lake Michikamau.





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