The temperature was three degrees below freezing when grey dawn at half past four o'clock that Monday morning bid us up and on. The crisp air and the surpassing beauty of the morning stirred within us new hope and renewed ambition. And the bags of jerked venison and the grease gave us faith that we should succeed in reaching our goal. Though we had some food in stock, there was to be no cessation in our effort to get fish; our plan was for Hubbard to try his rod at the foot of every rapid while George and I did the portaging.
Before midday Hubbard had forty trout, one of them sixteen inches long—the biggest we had caught yet. We stopped for luncheon on the sandy shore of a pretty little lake expansion, and ate the whole morning's catch, fried in caribou tallow, with unsweetened coffee to wash it down. Then on we pushed towards the Kipling Mountains. At a narrow strait between two lakes we left Hubbard to fish, George and I going on two miles farther to the place where we had spent that chilly night while scouting, and where our camp for this night was to be pitched.
Our object in going there was to give George another chance to view the country on the other side of the mountain range. This time he was to try another peak. As he disappeared up the mountain side, I paddled back to get Hubbard, who was awaiting me with a good string of big trout. The two-mile stretch of lake from where Hubbard was fishing to our camping ground was as smooth as a sheet of glass. The sun hanging low over the mountains and reflecting their nude forms in the silvery water, and the dark green forest of fir trees on the shores moved Hubbard to exclamations of delight.
"Oh, if it could be painted just as it appears now!" he said. "Why, Wallace, this one scene is worth all the groaning we've done to get here. It's grand! grand!"
At dark George returned to camp with the report that from his peak he could see only higher mountains looming up to the westward. In the shadow of the grey rocks of the grim old mountains that so stubbornly held their secret of what lay beyond, we had a good supper of trout and were happy, though through the gulch the creek roared defiance at us, and off in the night somewhere a loon would break out at intervals in derisive laughter. At the base of the mountains the narrow lake reflected a million stars, and in their kindly light the snow and ice patches on the slopes above us gleamed white and brilliant.
With our day's work the listlessness from which we had recently suffered had entirely disappeared, and we felt ready to undertake any task, the more difficult the better. Hubbard suggested giving up route hunting if our river ended where we then were, and striking right across the mountains with our outfit on our backs, and we received the suggestion with enthusiasm. He talked, too, a great deal about snowshoeing in winter to St. Augustine on the St. Lawrence, cutting across country from the Kenemish River, which flows into Groswater Bay opposite Northwest River Post. This trip, which he held out as a possibility in the event of our missing the last steamer out from Rigolet, seemed to appeal to him immensely.
"I don't care if we are too late for the steamer," he said; "that snowshoeing trip would be a great stunt."
We found a great many wigwam poles near and in the pass hard by our camp, while by the creek we came across the remains of both summer and winter camps, probably those of hunters. "One of the beggars was high-toned," said George; "he had a stove." This was evidenced by the arrangement of stones within the circle of wigwam poles, and a few pieces of wood cut stove-size.
On Tuesday morning (August 18) we turned back and into the long, narrow lake expansions to the eastward, and soon satisfied ourselves that this was the right course. Our thermometer registered 28 degrees that morning. The day dawned clear and perfect; it was a morning when one draws in long breaths, and one's nerves tingle, and life is a joy. Early in the forenoon we reached rapids and quickly portaged around them; all were short, the largest being not more than half a mile. At ten o'clock we ate luncheon at the foot of one of the rapids where we caught, in a few minutes, fourteen large trout. Just above this rapid the river opened into long, narrow lakes, and the canoeing was superb. Suddenly the river took a sharp turn to the westward, and appeared to lead directly into the mountains. At that we sent up three rousing cheers—the river problem seemed to be solved; apparently the road to Michikamau lay straight before us.
A little above the bend in the river we came upon an old gander and goose and two unfeathered young. The gander with a great squawk and flapping wings took to the bush, but we killed the old goose with a rifle, and George "knocked over," as he expressed it, one of the young ones with a pistol. More luck (and food) came to us a little later. While George and I portaged around the last rapid that evening, Hubbard caught fifty trout averaging over a pound each. They jumped greedily to the fly, four or five rising at every cast.
Above this rapid the river again took the form of a long, narrow lake—a lake so beautiful that we were entranced. It was evening when we arrived, and the very spirit of peace seemed to brood over the place. Undoubtedly we were the first white men that had ever invaded its solitude, and the first human beings of any kind to disturb its repose for many years. On the north a barren, rocky bluff rose high above the water; at all other places the shores were low and wooded. A few miles to the westward could be seen the barren Kipling Mountains, and between them and us was a ridge of low hills covered with black-green spruce. The sun was setting in our faces as we paddled slowly along the lake, and as it went down behind the mountains a veil was gradually drawn over the lovely scene. Not a breath of air was stirring, and hardly a sound broke the stillness save the ripple at the bow of the canoe and the soft splash of the paddles. In the placid waters two otters were swimming and diving. One was timid and remained at a distance, but the other was bold and inquisitive and came close to the canoe. Here and there all over the lake, its mirror-like surface was broken by big jumping trout. Two loons laughed at us as we drew the canoe on to the sandy beach of a low jutting point, and they continued to laugh while we pitched our camp in the green woods near the shore and prepared our supper of roast goose. It was a feast day. With goose, plenty of trout and good water for paddling, it was a time to eat, drink, and be merry.
Our high spirits still remained when we broke camp in the morning (Wednesday, August 19), but they were destined soon to be dashed. Not long after we started we found ourselves in good-sized lakes, with arms extending in every direction. All day we hunted for the river, but found only small streams emptying into the lakes. The country now was much rougher, and much more rocky and barren, than any we had seen since we left the coast. The trees were more stunted and gnarled, and the streams usually had a bed-rock bottom. In the course of the day Hubbard shot three rock ptarmigans—"rockers," George called them. They were the first we had seen, and were still wearing their mottled summer dress; later in the season they are a pure, spotless white. Towards evening we made our way to a point on the northwesterly part of the lakes where a small stream came through a mountain pass, and there went into camp.
We were much disappointed at our failure to find the river, but not disheartened. In order to make certain that we had not overlooked it, we decided to paddle back the next day as far as the last rapid and make one more careful search. Failing then to find the river, we should portage through the mountain pass at the entrance to which we had camped.
"Do you remember," asked Hubbard, "the slogan of the old Pike's Peakers?—'Pike's Peak or Bust?'"
"Yes," said I; "and very often they busted."
"Well," said Hubbard, "we'll adopt it and change it to our needs. 'Michikamau or Bust,' will be our watchword now."
And sitting around the fire, we all took it up and repeated determinedly, "Michikamau or Bust!"
The morning of the next day (Thursday, August 20) we occupied in mending our moccasins with parts of the caribou skin. George also took the venison from the bags and hung it over the fire to give it a little more drying, as it had begun to mould. In the afternoon Hubbard and I, in accordance with the plan we had adopted, paddled back over our course and re-explored the lower lakes. We discovered nothing new. The fact was that these lakes were the source of the Beaver River.
While we were paddling about we came upon two old and two young loons. The old ones tried to lure us away from their young, by coming very near the canoe. The young loons made frequent dives, but we succeeded in catching one of them. Finally, however, we restored it to its parents, and when the loon family was re-united there was great rejoicing in the household. In the pool at the foot of the last rapid we spent an hour fishing, and caught eighty-one trout, averaging, perhaps, a half-pound each. Upon our return to camp in the evening we dressed our catch and hung the fish to dry over a slow, smoky fire.
The river having come to an end, our only course now was to cross the mountains, and on Friday (August 21), with "Michikamau or Bust!" for our slogan, we began our portage along the stream that flowed through the pass near our camp. A heavy rain was falling. During the first part of the day, in the course of which we crossed three small ponds, the travelling was fairly good; but during the latter part it was exceedingly rough and difficult. We pitched our tent that night on the divide; in other words, we had reached the place where small streams flowed both east and west.
The cold rain continued when we broke camp the next morning (Saturday, August 22). For a time we again encountered rough work, forcing a passage over rocks and through thick brush and scrambling down high banks, and then, as we neared the end of the pass, the portage became less difficult. Before noon we came upon a lake of considerable size and unmistakable signs that in directing our course through the pass we had kept upon the old Indian trail. On the edge of the lake—we shall call it Lake Hope—trees had been blazed to make plain the exact point where the portage trail left the water, and near this place were sweat holes where the medicine men had given baths to the sick. Much drift wood showing axe cuttings was on the shore, and we picked up an old canoe paddle of Indian make. All this led us to believe we were on waters connected directly with Lake Michikamau (which was the fact), and we thought that possibly we had reached a deep bay said to extend from the main body of the lake some thirty miles in a southeasterly direction.
Where we launched our canoe the mountain pass was very narrow, and on the southerly side, rising almost perpendicularly from the water to a height of eight or nine hundred feet, stood a hill of absolutely bare rock. The wind was blowing the rain in sheets over its face, and, despite the wet and chill, we paused to enjoy the grandeur of the scene. We had travelled about six miles through the pass, and this hill marked its end; the mountain barrier that at one time seemed so formidable had not proved so difficult to cross after all. And in accomplishing the pass we had reached the great interior plateau—the land that lay hidden behind the ranges.
After we had paddled along Lake Hope a hundred yards, we struck a sharp-pointed rock that tore a hole through the bottom of the canoe. This accident forced us to take refuge on a near-by island where George could repair the damage and procure gum from the spruce trees to cover the patch.
Sunshine came with Sunday morning (August 23), and we dried our blankets and camp outfit before starting forward, so that it was after ten o'clock when we quit the island. Lake Hope proved to be long and narrow, and we soon realised that it could not be Michikamau's southeast bay; but at the western end we hoped to find a strait connecting it with another lake, and as we approached the western end with a feeling of uncertainty as to what lay beyond, George remarked: "It's like goin' into a room where there's a Christmas tree."
Sure enough there was a strait, and as we turned into it, we saw beyond big water stretching away to the westward for miles. "There's a Christmas tree without a doubt," said Hubbard. We felt positive now that this second lake was Michikamau's southeast bay, and we broke the solemn stillness of the wilderness with three lusty cheers. It is violating no confidence to say here that the second lake was not Michikamau's southeast bay; it was simply the peculiarly-shaped body of water that appears on my map under the name, Lost Trail Lake.
Two and a half miles up Lost Trail Lake we climbed a barren ridge, where we found blueberries, mossberries and bake-apple berries. The latter berry is salmon-coloured, and grows on a plant resembling that of the strawberry. The berry itself resembles in form the raspberry, and has a flavour like that of a baked apple, from which fact it derives its name. It ripens after the first frost. The mossberry is small and black, resembling in shape and size the blueberry, and is sweet and palatable after being touched with frost. It is usually found on the moss clinging to rocks. On the ridge it grew in abundance, and we ate a great many. The blueberry of Labrador is similar to the blueberry of the United States.
Some distance beyond where we got the berries we went into camp. Trolling on the way, we caught a namaycush (lake trout), the first we had seen on the trip. In our camp on Lost Trail Lake we were held all of Monday (August 24) by a gale that beat the water into a fury. We took advantage of the opportunity to try our gill net, sinking it on the lee shore, but it was so rotten it would not hold a fish large enough to get fast in it, and we finally threw it away as a useless encumbrance.
In the course of the day Hubbard and climbed a hill not far away, while I remained in camp to do some "chores." They found bake-apple berries in abundance—the only spot we came across where they grew in any great quantity—and had a good look at a lake we had previously sighted two miles to the north. This lake was larger than the one we were on, being about twenty-five miles long; it was, in fact, the largest body of water by far that we had seen since leaving Grand Lake. Its size impressed Hubbard with the fatal belief that it, rather than Lost Trail Lake, was connected with Michikamau, and to it he decided to go. Our experience there led us to call it Lake Disappointment.
We portaged into it on Tuesday morning (August 25). Our course was over a neck of land which was mostly soft marsh partially covered with spruce. We did not know then that in abandoning Lost Trail Lake for Lake Disappointment we were wandering from the Indian trail to Michikamau. Some Indians I met during the winter at Northwest River Post told me that a river flowed out of the western end of Lost Trail Lake into the very southeast bay of Lake Michikamau we were longing so much to see. This was the trail. And we lost it.
We ate our luncheon on the southern shore of Lake Disappointment. That afternoon and the next two days (August 26 and 27) we spent in paddling about the lake in a vain search for a river. Thirty or more miles a day we paddled, and found nothing but comparatively small creeks. One of these we followed almost to its source, and then returned to the lake again. We were living pretty well. While we were on these lakes near the mountains we killed four geese and one spruce-grouse, and caught about eighty half-pound trout, two two-pound namaycush and a five-pound pike.
The pike we got in this unsportsmanlike manner: We were fishing for trout in a creek that emptied into Lake Disappointment in a succession of falls, and found that while there were some above the lower fall, none could be induced to rise where the creek at the foot of the lower fall made an ideal pool for them. We were lunching on a rock near this pool when Hubbard suddenly remarked:
"There's only one reason why trout don't rise here."
"What's that?" I asked.
"Pike," he answered laconically, and left his luncheon to fasten a trolling hook on his trout line. After he had fixed a piece of cork to the line for a "bobber," he baited the hook with a small live trout and dropped it into the pool. "Now we'll have a pike," said he.
Scarcely had he resumed his luncheon when the cork bobbed under, and he grabbed his rod to find a big fish on the other end. He played it around until it was near the shore, and as it arose to the surface I put a pistol bullet through its head. Then Hubbard hauled in the line, and he had our five-pound pike.
There were two occasions when we felt particularly like feasting. One was when we were progressing with a clear course ahead and were happy, and the other was when we were not sure of the way and were blue. That night we were blue; so we had a feast of goose and pike. Hubbard planked the pike, and it was excellent. All of our food was eaten now without salt, but we were getting used to its absence.
After our feast Hubbard astonished George and me by taking out a new pipe I had brought along to trade with the Indians, and filling it with the red willow bark George and I had been mixing with our tobacco. We watched him curiously as he lighted it; for, with the exception of a puff or two on a cigarette, he had never smoked before. He finished the pipe without flinching. I asked him how he liked it.
"Pretty good," he said. Then after a pause he added: "And I'll tell you what; if ever I start out again on another expedition of this sort, I am going to learn to smoke; watching you fellows makes me believe it must be a great comfort."
George and I had been mixing red willow bark with our tobacco, because our stock had become alarmingly low. In fact, it would have been entirely gone had not Hubbard presented us with some black plug chewing he had purchased at Rigolet to trade with the Indians. The plugs, having been wet, had run together in one mass; but we dried it out before the fire, and, mixed with the bark, it was not so bad. Later on George and I took to drying out the tea leaves and mixing them with the tobacco.
On Wednesday morning (August 26) when we left camp to continue the search for a river, we decided to leave the caribou skin behind us; its odour had become most offensive, and in spite of our efforts to keep out the flies they had filled it with blows and it was now fairly crawling with maggots. On Thursday when we were passing the same way, George gave a striking example of his prescience. He was at the stern paddle, and turned the canoe to the place where we had left the hide.
"What are you stopping for?" asked Hubbard.
"I thought I would get that caribou skin, wash it off, and take it along," said George.
"What in the world do you expect to do with it?
"Well," answered George quietly, "we may want to eat it some day."
Hubbard and I both laughed. Nevertheless Hubbard jumped out of the canoe with George and helped him wash the skin, and we took it along. And, as George predicted, the day came when we were glad we did.
It was on Thursday night that, disgusted and weary, we gave up the search for a river. Our camp was on the north shore of Lake Disappointment, down near the western end. Hubbard now expressed the opinion that we should have to portage north or northwest across country. His idea was that by proceeding north we should eventually reach the river that Low had mapped as flowing from Michikamau, the so-called Northwest. If we reached the latitude in which the river was supposed to be and could not find it, Hubbard's plan then called for our turning directly west.
The situation that confronted us was serious. Hubbard had recently had another attack of diarrhoea, and was weak. The patches we put on our moccasins would last only a day or two, and we were practically barefoot. Our rags were hanging in strips. Our venison was going rapidly, and our flour was practically gone. To portage across country meant that we should probably not have many opportunities for fishing, as we should not have any stream to follow. Getting game had proved uncertain. Even were we to face towards home, we had not sufficient provisions to carry us half way to Northwest River Post.
That Thursday evening in camp we discussed the situation from all sides. We knew that if we pressed on winter in all probability would overtake us before we reached a post, but we decided that we should fight our way on to Lake Michikamau and the George River. There was no doubt about it, we were taking a long chance; nevertheless, we refused to entertain the thought of turning back. Daring starvation, we should on the morrow start overland and see what lay beyond the hills to the northward. "Michikamau or Bust!" was still our slogan.