We broke camp in the forenoon of August 7th, and a few hours later, after making two trips back and forth, we arrived with our baggage on the bank of our new river. At last we had a real river to travel on, its average width being between 100 and 150 yards. None of us, of course, then knew that our real river was the Beaver, and that in taking to it we had stumbled upon an old Indian route to Lake Michikamau. If we had known this, it would have made a great difference in our fortunes.
Immediately below the point where we portaged into the river, wooded ridges on either side hugged it close, forming a narrow valley. Just above us the valley broadened, and a mile or so up a big hill reared its barren summit above the black spruce trees at its base, standing there like a lonely sentinel among the little hills that bordered the widening river basin. Despite the fact that we had reached a real river, we still had rapids to encounter, and we had to make so many short portages that after we had ascended the river two miles it was time to camp.
We pitched our tent on a rising plateau just below a stretch of rushing water. As soon as we stopped, Hubbard tried to fish, and while I made camp he landed fifteen trout averaging nearly half a pound each. They were most welcome, as the time had come when we had to live off the country. Our bread ration was now cut down to one-third of a loaf a day for each man. As we had no lard, it was made simply of flour, baking powder, and water. It was baked in our frying pan, and a loaf was about eight inches in diameter and one inch thick, so that our daily ration was but a morsel. We also decided that from now on we should use pea meal only on rare occasions, and to reserve our other provisions, with the exception of a few dried apples, tea, coffee and a little chocolate and cocoa, to give us a start should we at any time find it necessary to make a sudden dash for the Post.
Our clothing was rapidly disintegrating. The front of Hubbard's trouser leg was all torn open again, and once more he had to resort to pieces of twine. We had frequent discussions at this period as to whose appearance was the most beautiful. For a time Hubbard and I would claim the distinction each for himself, but it usually ended by our conceding the distinction to George. As a matter of fact, with our unkempt hair and beards and our rags, we now formed as tough looking a party of tramps as ever "came down the pike." That night in camp I cut up my canvas leggings and used pieces of the canvas to rebottom my moccasins, sewing it on with shoemaker's thread.
It was a glorious evening. A big moon rising over the bluffs beyond us transformed the river into a silvery thread stretching far down through the dark valley. Behind us the black spruce forest made our roaring fire seem more cheerful in contrast. A cold east wind had driven away the flies and the mosquitoes. Supper eaten, our cup of contentment was full to the brim. After all, the wilderness was not so inhospitable. Who would be anywhere else, if he could? Not one of us.
With the sensation that we were the only people in Labrador, a fancy struck me and I suggested to my companions that we ought to organise some sort of government.
"We'll make you, Hubbard," I said, "the head of the nation and call you the Great Mogul. Of course you will be commander-in-chief of the army and navy and have unlimited power. We're your subjects."
"I suspect," replied Hubbard, "you are looking for a political job. However, I, of course, stand ready, like our politicians at home, to serve the country when duty calls—if there's enough in it. As the Great Mogul of Labrador, I appoint you, Wallace, Chief Justice and also Secretary of State. George I shall appoint Admiral of the Navy."
"Where are my ships?" asked George.
"Ships!", exclaimed Hubbard. "Well, there will be only one for the present. But she's a good staunch one—eighteen feet long, with a beam of thirty-three and a half inches. And she carries two quick-fire rifles."
With these and other conceits we whiled away the beautiful evening hours. What a difference there was in the morning! We awoke—it was Saturday, August 8—to find that the east wind had increased in force and was accompanied by a driving, chilling rain. Reluctantly we broke camp, and began a day of back-breaking, disheartening work. The wind soughed dismally through the forests, and it was as though late autumn had overtaken us in a night. The spruce boughs, watersoaked, seemed to hang low for no other purpose than to strike us in the face at every step, and the willows and alders along the river that now and again obstructed our way appeared to be thicker and wetter than ever.
Under these conditions we had made six portages, the longest of which was about three-quarters of a mile, and covered in all about four and a half miles, when one o'clock came and we gave up the fight for the day, to make our Sunday camp and try to get fish. We were ravenously hungry, and ate even the heads of the dried trout we had for luncheon, these being the last of those we caught and smoked on Lake Elson. During the afternoon we put out for the first time the old gill net Mackenzie had given us, and by hard work with the rod caught a few more trout for supper.
It still poured on Sunday morning. Hubbard fished all day, and I the greater part of the forenoon. The net product of our labor was forty-five trout, most of them little fellows. The gill net yielded us nothing. In the afternoon George and I took the rifles and started out in different directions to look for caribou. Neither of us found any fresh tracks. I returned at dusk, to find George already in camp and our supper of boiled fish ready to be eaten. Our sugar was all gone by this time, and our supply of salt was so low that we were using hardly any. In spite of us the salt had been wet in the drenching rains we had encountered all up the Susan Valley, and a large part of it had dissolved.
While we all craved sugar and other sweets, I believe Hubbard suffered the most from their absence. Perhaps the fact that George and I used tobacco and he did not, was the explanation. He was continually discussing the merits of various kinds of cake, candies, and sweet things generally. Our conversation too often turned to New York restaurants, and how he would visit various ones of them for particular dishes. Bread undoubtedly was what we craved the most. "I believe I'll never refuse bread again," Hubbard would say, "so long as there's a bit on the table."
Monday (August 10) brought with it no abatement of the driving rain and cold east wind. Working industriously for half an hour before breakfast, Hubbard succeeded in landing a single small trout, which fell to me, while he and George ate thick pea meal porridge, of which they were very fond. We made several short portages during the morning, and, despite the dismal weather, our spirits brightened; for we came upon old wigwam poles and axe cuttings, which we accepted as proof that we were now surely on the Indian trail to Michikamau. Towards noon Hubbard said:
"Well, boys, we're on the right road, we've covered three miles this morning, and this rain is killing, so we'll pitch camp now, and wait for the weather to clear and try to get some fish ahead. There are fish here, I know, and when the wind changes we'll get them."
After warming ourselves by a big fire and eating luncheon, Hubbard and I took our rods and fished the greater part of the afternoon, catching between us twelve or fifteen trout.
"You had better cook them all for supper, George," said Hubbard. "This is my mother's birthday, and in honour of it we'll have an extra loaf of bread and some of her dried apples. And I tell you what, boys, I wish I could see her now."
On the following day (Tuesday, August 11) the weather had somewhat moderated, but the east wind continued, and the rain still fell during all the forenoon. We could get no fish at our camp, and at two in the afternoon started forward, all of us hungry and steadily growing hungrier. Hubbard whipped the water at the foot of every rapid and tried every pool, but succeeded in getting only a very few trout. While he fished, George and I made the portages, and thus, pushing on as rapidly as possible, we covered about four miles.
While George and I were scouting on Sunday, we had each caught sight of a ridge of rocky mountains extending in a northerly and southerly direction, which we estimated to be from twenty to twenty-five miles to the westward. Previous to Tuesday, these mountains had not been visible from the river valley, but on that day they suddenly came into view, and they made us stop and think, for they lay directly across our course. However, we did not feel much uneasiness then, as we decided that our river must flow through a pass in the mountains far to the north, and follow them down before turning east.
Our camp on Tuesday night was rather a dreary one; but before noon on Wednesday (August 12) the clouds broke, big patches of blue sky began to appear, and with a bit of sunshine now and again, our hearts lightened as we proceeded on our journey.
At the foot of a half-mile portage Hubbard caught fourteen trout, and our luncheon was secure. Three more portages we made, covering in all about three miles, and then we shouted for joy, for there ahead of us lay open water. Along it for five miles we gaily canoed before stopping for luncheon. Hungry? Yes, we were hungry even after devouring the fourteen trout and drinking the water they were boiled in—I could have eaten fifty like them myself—but our spirits were high, and we made merry. For the first time since leaving Grand Lake there was good water behind us and good water before us.
At the last rapid we portaged the country had flattened out. Wide marshes extended along the south bank of the river, with now and then a low hill of drift. The north side was followed by a low ridge of drift, well wooded. We landed for luncheon on the south bank, at the foot of a wooded knoll, and there we made an interesting discovery, namely, the remains of an old Indian camp and the ruins of two large birch-bark canoes. In November, at Northwest River Post, I heard the story of those canoes.
Twelve years before, it appears, the band of Indians that had camped there, being overtaken by early ice, was forced to abandon its canoes and make a dash for the Post. Game was scarce, and the fish had gone to deeper waters. The Indians pushed desperately on overland, but one by one they fell, until at last the gaunt fiend, Starvation, had claimed them all. Since that time no Indian has ever travelled that trail—the route to Michikamau upon which we had stumbled was thereupon abandoned. The Indians believe the trail is not only unlucky, but haunted; that if while on it they should escape Starvation—that terrible enemy which nearly always dogs them so closely—they are likely to encounter the spirits of them that died so many years ago.
Not knowing anything of this tragic story, we merrily ate our luncheon on the very spot where others in desperation had faced death. It was to us an old Indian camp, and an additional reason for believing we were on the right trail, that was all. While we ate, the sun came out brilliantly, and we resumed our paddling feeling ready for almost anything that might happen. And something soon did happen—something that made the day the most memorable so far of the trip.
No rapids intercepted our progress, and in an hour we had paddled three miles, when, at a place where the river widened, a big woodland stag caribou suddenly splashed into the water from the northern shore, two hundred yards ahead. I seized my rifle, and, without waiting for the canoe to stop, fired. The bullet went high. The caribou raised his head and looked at us inquisitively. Then Hubbard fired, and with the dying away of the report of his rifle, George and I shouted: "You hit 'im, Hubbard; you've got 'im!" The wounded caribou sank half way to his knees, but struggled to his feet again. As he did so, Hubbard sent another shot at him, but missed. Slowly the big deer turned, and began to struggle up the bank. Again Hubbard and I fired, but both shots went low.
We ran the canoe to shore, and while I made it fast, Hubbard and George ran breathlessly ahead to where the caribou had disappeared. I followed at once, and soon came upon them and the caribou, which fallen thirty yards from the river with a bullet through his body just back of the left shoulder. A trail of blood marked his path from the river to where he lay. As the animal floundered there in the moss, Hubbard, with the nervous impetuosity he frequently displayed, fired again against George's protest, the bullet entering the caribou's neck and passing down through his tongue the full length. Then George caught the thrashing animal by the antlers, and while he held its head down Hubbard cut its throat.
We made our camp right where the caribou fell. It was an ideal spot on the high bank above the river, being flat and thickly covered with white moss. The banks at this point were all sand drift; we could not find a stone large enough to whet our knives. George made a stage for drying while Hubbard and I dressed the deer. Our work finished, we all sat down and roasted steaks on sticks and drank coffee. The knowledge that we were now assured of a good stock of dried meat, of course, added to the hilarity of feast. As we thought it best to hoard our morsel of flour, it was a feast of venison and venison alone.
While waiting for our meat to dry, we had to remain in camp for three or four days. On the next afternoon (Thursday, August 13) Hubbard and I paddled about three miles up the river to look for fish, but we got no bites, probably because of the cold; in the morning there had been a fringe of ice on the river shore.
"We'll take it easy," said Hubbard while we were paddling upstream, "and make a little picnic of it. I'm dead tired myself. How do you feel, Wallace?"
"I feel tired, too," I said. "I have to make an extra effort to do any work at all."
Hubbard was inclined to attribute this tired feeling to the freedom from strain after our nerve-racking work of the last few weeks, while I hazarded the opinion that our purely meat diet had made us lazy. Probably it was due to both causes.
As Hubbard was anxious to obtain definite knowledge as to what effect the high ridge of rocky mountains had upon our river, George and I, with the object of ascertaining the river's course, left camp in the canoe on Friday morning (August 14), taking with us, in addition to our emergency kits, our cups, some tea, and enough caribou ribs for luncheon. We portaged around a few short rapids, and then, about eight miles above our camp, came upon a lake expansion of considerable size with many inlets. On the northerly side of the lake was a high, barren hill, which afforded us a splendid view of the surrounding country.
Winding away to the southeast was the river we had ascended. To the west was a series of lake expansions connected by narrow straits, and beyond them were the mountains, which we estimated rose about 2,500 feet above the country at their base. In sheltered places on their sides, patches of ice and snow glistened in the sunshine. Barren almost to their base, not a vestige of vegetation to be seen anywhere on their tops or sides, they presented a scene of desolate grandeur, standing out against the blue sky like a grim barrier placed there to guard the land beyond. As I gazed upon them, some lines from Kipling's "Explorer" that I had often heard Hubbard repeat were brought forcibly to my mind:
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"
Let us call these ranges the Kipling Mountains.
To the north, hill after hill, with bald top rising above the stunted trees on its sides, limited our range of vision. Far away to the south stretched a rolling, wooded country. To the eastward the country was flatter, with irregular ranges of low hills, all covered with a thick growth of spruce and fir balsam. Beyond the point where the water flowed from it southeasterly into the river we had ascended, the lake at the foot of our hill seemed to extend directly eastward for four for five miles; but the thick wood of the valleys and low-lying hills made it difficult to see just where it ended, so that from where we stood it was impossible to tell what course the river took—whether it came from the east, bending about in the lake expansion below us, or flowed from the west through the lake expansions beyond. Away off to the northeast an apparently large lake could be discerned, with numerous mound-like islands dotting its surface.
For a long time we stood and gazed about us. Far to the southeast a tiny curl of smoke rose heavenward in the clear atmosphere. That was Hubbard's campfire—the only sign of life to be seen in all that wide wilderness. The scene was impressive beyond description. It gave me a peculiar feeling of solemnity and awe that I shall never forget.
We found on our hill a few dead twigs of sub-Arctic shrubbery with which to make a fire to broil our caribou ribs, and gathered some mildly acid berries of a variety neither of us had ever seen before, which we ate as a dessert. After luncheon George said he thought we had better go to the westward to look for the river.
"But how can it come through those mountains?" I asked.
"I don't know as it can," he replied. "But," pointing to one of the range, "I want to take a look at the country beyond from that high mountain."
So we returned to our canoe, and paddled to the westward a few miles through two lake expansions, which brought us to the foot of the mountains. We landed at a place where a small creek tumbled down through a rocky pass. George went up his mountain alone. During his absence, with my emergency kit, I caught ten six-inch trout to be divided between us for supper, as only two of our caribou ribs remained. Near dark George came back. After climbing half way to the summit of his mountain, he had encountered perpendicular walls of rock that blocked his further progress.
We made a fire of old wigwam poles, and roasted our fish before it on a flat stone. A quart of hot tea between us washed down our meagre supper, and then we made a bed of boughs. But when we tried to sleep the icy wind that blew through the pass caused us to draw closer to the fire, before which we alternately sat and lay shivering throughout the night. Having brought no axe with us, we could not build a fire of any size. I do not believe either of us slept more than half an hour.
"Which would you rather have, Wallace, a piece of bread or a blanket?" George would ask at frequent intervals.
"Bread," I always answered. At that he would chuckle. We had tasted nothing but venison and fish since the day we killed the caribou, and for bread we had an inexpressible craving.
"Anyway," George would say, "this cold will weaken the flies." And with this reflection he continued to comfort us as the nights became chillier.
In the morning we had to break the ice to get water for our tea, which with the two remaining caribou ribs constituted our breakfast. George then made another attempt at his mountain. Again he failed to reach the summit, and I failed to induce any more trout to rise. In a somewhat despondent mood we turned back, and paddled for some distance into the lake expansions to the eastward of the point where our river flowed out. Although we were compelled to start for "home" before obtaining any definite knowledge of the course of the river, we were of the opinion that it came from the east. For all we knew, however, the river might end in those lake expansions; we could not tell, as no current could be discerned, and having no food we could not continue the search.
It was five o'clock in the evening when we reached camp, tired out and as hungry as two wolves, and we astonished Hubbard with the amount of venison we put out of sight. While George was temporarily out of hearing, Hubbard said:
"It's bully good to see you back again, Wallace. I was disappointed when you didn't come back last night, and I've been dead lonesome. I got thinking of my wife and home, and the good things to eat there, and was on the verge of homesickness."
"We were mightily disappointed, too, at not getting back," said I between mouthfuls. "Up there on the lakes we put in the toughest night yet, and we were thinking of the venison and warm blankets down here at camp."
Hubbard was much discouraged and depressed at our report of the uncertain course of the river, although he was careful to conceal his feelings from George.
The next day (Sunday, August 16) we cut up our canvas guncases and used some of the material to re-bottom our moccasins. What was left over we put away carefully for future use. George cracked the caribou bones and boiled out the marrow grease. He stripped the fat from the entrails and tried out the tallow, preserving even the cracklings or scraps. "We'll be glad to eat 'em yet," said he. One of the hoofs he dressed and put with our store of meat. We preserved everything but the head, the entrails and three of the hoofs. The tallow we found an excellent substitute for lard.
In the afternoon Hubbard and I caught thirty trout in an hour at the rapid a mile and a half above our camp, and a few more in the river close by the camp. High living during the day raised all of our spirits. For breakfast we had the caribou heart, which George thought at first he would roast but changed his mind and served stewed. For dinner we had the tongue, the tidbit of the animal, boiled with pieces of other parts. Hubbard's second bullet had torn out the centre of the tongue, but what there was of it was delicious. And at night we had the trout caught during the afternoon, to which, as a Sunday luxury, was added a cake of bread.
When we gathered around the fire in the evening Hubbard had entirely recovered from his depression and took a more hopeful view of the river. We discussed the matter thoroughly, and decided that the river George and I had seen coming from the eastward must take a turn farther north and break through the Kipling Mountains, and that it might prove to be Low's Northwest River we all thought was possible.
At the same time we could not disguise the fact that it was extremely probable we should have to portage over the mountains, and the prospect was far from pleasing; but, ragged and almost barefooted though we were, not a man thought of turning back, and on Monday morning, August 17th, we prepared to leave Camp Caribou and solve the problem as to where lay the trail of Michikamau.