Lure of the Labrador Wild, The


The unintelligible words that George shouted to me from the knoll after we parted on Tuesday (October 20th) were an injunction to keep near the river, as the men he would send to rescue Hubbard and me would look for us there. As he proceeded down the valley his progress was slow and tedious, owing to his weakness, the rough country, and the deepening snow. Towards noon he came upon the newly made track of a porcupine, followed it a short distance into a clump of trees, where he soon saw the round quill-covered animal in the snow and shot it. Immediately he built a fire, and singed off quills and hair. Then, as he related to me afterwards, he considered, talking aloud to himself, what was best to do with his prize.

"There's them fellus up there without grub," he said. "Maybe I'd better turn about and take 'em this porcupine. But if I do, it won't last long, and then we'll be worse off than ever. This snow's gettin' deeper all the time, and if it gets so deep I can't walk without snowshoes, we'll all die for sure. No, I'd better go on with this porcupine to help me."

So after boiling a piece of the porcupine in his tea kettle and eating it, he continued down the valley. By his fires be always talked to himself to keep himself company, and that night he said:

"This 's been a tough day, and I ain't where I ought to be. But I'll eat a good snack of this porcupine now with some of the flour, and in the mornin' I'll have another good snack, and that'll make me stronger and I can travel farther to-morrow. I ought to get most to Grand Lake to-morrow night."

But so far from getting anywhere near Grand Lake the next day, he did not complete his twenty-five-mile journey for several days to come. The snow became so deep he could hardly push through it. He carefully hoarded the bones of his porcupine, thinking he might have to eat them; but Providence sent him more food. When the first porcupine was eaten, he came upon and killed another, and when that was gone, he shot a third. He also succeeded in shooting several grouse. If it had not been for this game, he would not have lived to do the hard work that was before him.

The pieces of blanket in which his feet were wrapped were continually coming off, and frequent halts were necessary to readjust them. He must not let his feet freeze; for then he would not be able to walk, and not only would he perish himself, but "there'd be no hope for them fellus up there." One day he came upon a man's track. He was exultant. That it was a trapper's trail he had no doubt. Staggering along it with all the speed he could command, he shouted wildly at every step. Presently he discovered that he was following his own trail; he had been travelling in a circle. The discovery made him almost frantic. He stopped to reason with and calm himself. Said he, so that all the listening wilderness might hear:

"Them fellus up there in the snow have got to be saved. I said to Hubbard, 'With God's help I'll save you,' and I'm a-goin' to if my legs hold out and there's anybody at Grand Lake." And then he went on.

His progress down the valley that day was only a mile and a half. It was most discouraging. He must do better. The powdered milk we had abandoned he did not find, but on October 26th he recovered our old lard pail. Some of the lard he ate, some he used in cooking a grouse, and the rest he took along with him.

Below the place where he bivouacked that night the snow was not so deep, and early the next morning George once more beheld the broad waters of Grand Lake. The journey he had expected to make in three days had actually taken him seven. He arrived at Grand Lake three days after I, wandering in the valley above, lost all track of time.

A few miles above its mouth the Susan River bends to the southward, and from that direction reaches the little lake that lies just north of the extreme western end of Grand Lake, so that George, proceeding down the river on the south bank, eventually came to the little lake's western shore. Along this shore he made his way until he reached the point of land formed by the little lake and the branch of the Beaver River that flows a little south of east to merge its waters in the little lake with those of the Susan. The water here had not been frozen, and George found his further progress arrested. He was in a quandary. The trapper's tilt for which he was bound was on the south shore of Grand Lake about seven or eight miles from its western end, and in order to reach the tilt he would have to continue on south around the end of the lake.

The land on the other side of the swirling stream to which George had come was the island at the mouth of the Beaver that separates it into two branches, and which forms the western shore of the swift stream or strait that, flowing to the southward, discharges the waters of the little lake into Grand Lake. George thought, however, that this island was a part of the western boundary of Grand Lake, and he determined to reach it. But how? To swim across was impossible. Well, then, he would build a raft. And, although he had no implements, he did. He hauled together several fallen trees, laid them in a row and bound them at one end with his pack strap and at the other with a piece of our old trolling line. When this was done, he hacked himself a pole with his sheath-knife, threw his bag containing a piece of a porcupine and some grouse on the raft, launched it, jumped on it himself and pushed out into the stream.

One or two good shoves George gave with his pole, and then found he no longer could touch bottom. He was at the mercy of the swift current. Down into the little lake he was swept, and thence through the strait right out into Grand Lake. A high sea was running, and the frail raft promptly began to fall to pieces. "Have I escaped starvin' only to drown?" thought George. It certainly looked like it. "But," said he to himself, "if I drown them fellus up there will be up against it for sure." So he determined not to drown. He got down on his hands and knees, and, although the icy seas broke relentlessly over him, he held the floating sticks in place, at the same time clinging tenaciously to his food bag; for, as he confided to me later, "it would have been just as bad to escape drownin' only to starve as it would have been to escape starvin' only to drown."

Farther out on the broad bosom of the lake George was carried. "Now," said he, "if I jump, I'll drown; and if I don't, I'll drown anyway. So I guess I'll hang on a little longer." And hang on he did for something like two hours, when the wind caught his raft and drove it back to the southern end of the island at the mouth of the Beaver. "You can't lose me," said George, as he landed. He and his game bag were saved, but his difficulties were not ended by any means.

While the wind was driving him back, George caught sight of the branch of the Beaver that flows almost due south directly into Grand Lake, forming the island's western shore. Standing on this shore, he made a shrewd guess. "I'll bet," he said, "my dream was right, and here we have the same river we were on when we said good-bye to the canoe." What interested him the most, however, was a row boat he espied a little south of the island on the opposite shore. Apparently it had been abandoned. "If can reach that boat," said George, "and it'll float and I don't find Blake or any grab at his tilt, I'll put right off for the post, and send help from there to them fellus up there."

There was no doubt about it, he would have to take chances with another raft. Although his rags were beginning to freeze to his body, he did not stop to build a fire, neither did he wait to eat anything. At first it seemed hopeless to try to launch a raft; for the bank on the western side of the island was very steep. Farther north, however, ice had formed in the river for some distance from the shore, and to this ice George dragged fallen trees and bound them as he had done before. It was the labour of hours, the trees having to be dragged for considerable distances. Once more afloat, George found no difficulty in touching bottom with his pole, and in the gathering dusk he reached the other shore.

Supposing that he was still many miles from a place where there was any possibility of finding a human being, he decided to bivouac for the night; but first he must examine the rowboat he had sighted from the island. This made necessary the fording of a small stream. Hardly had he emerged from the water, when, from among the spruce trees farther back from the shore, there came a sound that brought him to a sudden standstill and set his heart to thumping wildly against his ribs. It was a most extraordinary sound to hear when one supposed one was alone in a wilderness, and when all had been solemnly still save for the dashing of waves upon a shore. On the night air there came floating to George the cry of a little child.

"When I heard that youngster scream," said George, in telling me about the incident, "I knew folks was there, and I dropped my bag, and I tore my piece of blanket from my shoulders, and I runned and I runned."

In the course of the summer Donald Blake had built himself a log house on the spot to which George was so wildly fleeing. The rowboat George had spied belonged to him, but the house, standing back in a thick clump of trees, had not been visible from the water. On the evening of George's arrival, Donald and his brother Gilbert were away, and Donald's wife and another young woman who stayed with her to keep her company were alone. The latter young woman, with Mrs. Blake's baby in her arms, was standing at the door of the house, when suddenly she heard a crashing noise in the bush in front of her, and the next moment there loomed up before her affrighted vision in the gloaming the apparition of a gaunt and ragged man, dripping wet, and running towards her with long, black hair and straggling beard streaming in the wind. She turned and fled into the house.

"O Mrs. Blake! O Mrs. Blake!" she cried, "'tis somethin' dreadful comin'! 'tis sure a wild man!"

Greatly alarmed, Mrs. Blake went to the door. George, panting and still dripping, stood before her.

"Lord ha' mercy!" she piously exclaimed, throwing up her arms.

"Don't be scared, ladies," panted George; "I couldn't hurt a rabbit. Ain't there any men here?"

His ingratiating manner reassured the frightened women, and explanations followed. All the natives of the vicinity of Hamilton Inlet had been wondering what had become of us, and Mrs. Blake quickly grasped the situation. Kindness itself, she took George in. Donald and Gilbert, she said, would be back directly. She made him hot tea, and put on the table for him some grouse stew, molasses, and bread and butter, all the time imploring him to sit down and warm himself. But George was too excited to sit down. Up and down he paced, the melting ice on his rags making tiny rivulets on his hostess's spotless floor. Most of the breeds who live near the western end of Hamilton Inlet are remarkably cleanly, this probably being due to their Scotch blood.

George at length calmed himself sufficiently to turn his attention to the meal that had been prepared for him. He had salt for his meat, molasses to sweeten his tea and a bountiful supply of good bread. He ate greedily, which fact he soon had cause to regret; for later in the evening he began to bloat, and for several days thereafter he writhed with the colic. But for the present he thought of nothing save the satisfaction of the appetite that had been regenerated by the food he had been able to obtain after leaving me. It was especially difficult for him to tear himself away from the bread. As there must be an end to all things, however, George eventually stopped eating, and then he started to go for his bag. But Mrs. Blake said:

"No, Donald'll get he. Sit down, sir, and rest."

A little later Donald and Gilbert appeared. We had made Donald's acquaintance, it will be remembered, at Rigolet; it was he who had sailed his boat up the Nascaupee and had given us the most information about that river. When he had heard George's story, there was no need to urge him to make haste. Lithe, ambitious, and in the habit of doing a dozen things at a time, Donald was activity itself. His brother Gilbert, a young fellow of seventeen, commonly called Bert, was also eager to start to the rescue of Hubbard and me. They told George it was fortunate he had arrived when he did, as in a day or so they would have been away on their trapping paths.

"But didn't you see Allen Goudie's tilt, sir?" asked Donald, when George had finished telling about his trip down what he supposed to be the Nascaupee River. "She's on th' Nascaupee right handy to th' bank, and in fair sight from th' river, sir."

"If there's a tilt on the Nascaupee," said George, "you can kick me."

Donald asked him to tell more about the river we were on, and George drew a rough map of its leading features. Then it was that George learned that the river of our distress was really the Susan.

"And we passed right by the mouth of the Nascaupee?" he asked.

He was informed that such was the case.

"Well," said George, "I'll be blamed!" "Blamed" was George's most violent expletive; I never heard him use profanity.

Donald told George he must not think of going back with the rescuing party, as his weakness would retard its progress. So George marked on the map he had made of the Susan's course the general situation of our last camp. He warned Donald that the deep snow up the valley might have prevented me from reaching the tent, but that in any event they would find me near the river.

Hearing that, Donald quickly decided that more men were needed for the rescuing party; for if either Hubbard or I was found alone the party would have to separate in order to continue the search for the other man. The packs, besides, would be too heavy for two men to carry and make the rapid progress that was necessary. Fortunately Allen Goudie and a young fellow named Duncan McLean were at the former's winter tilt on the Nascaupee, seven miles across the lake from Donald's. The hour was late and the lake was rough, but Donald and Gilbert started for them in their rowboat immediately after making ready their packs of provisions and camp equipment, prepared for an early start up the Susan the next day.

At noon (October 28th) they were back with both Allen and Duncan, and at once loaded the packs into the boat. Then the four men rowed up through the little lake to the first rapid on the Susan, hauled the boat up on the shore, donned their snowshoes, shouldered their packs, and started up the valley. Running when they could, which the rough country would not permit of their doing often, they camped at night ten miles above their boat.

The next morning (October 29th) they cached some provisions to lighten their packs, and as they proceeded fired a rifle at intervals, thinking there was now a chance of coming upon either Hubbard or me. As a matter of fact they must have passed me towards evening. They were on the north side of the river, and it was the evening when I staggered down the north shore, to cross the ice at dusk and make my last bivouac in the lee of a bank on the south shore. Whether I had crossed the river before they came along, or whether, hidden by the trees and the falling snow, I passed them unobserved on the same shore, I do not know; the fact is, they camped that night about a mile and a half above me, and about twelve miles below Hubbard's tent.

There was only one thing that saved me from being left alone to die—these trappers' keen sense of smell. In the morning (October 30th) while they were breaking camp preparatory to continuing on up the valley, Donald Blake fancied that he smelled smoke. He spoke to Allen Goudie about it, and both men stood and sniffed the air. Yes, Allen smelled smoke, too. It was unmistakable. The wind was blowing up the valley; therefore someone must have a fire below them. Hastily finishing the work of breaking camp, the four men shouldered their packs and turned back.

Close down to the shore of the river they scrambled, and hurried on, shouting and discharging a rifle. At length they paused, to give exclamations of satisfaction. They had found my track leading across the ice to the other shore. Only a moment they paused, and then, following the trail, they broke into a run, redoubling their shouts and repeatedly discharging the rifle. They had smelled my smouldering rotten stump, but if a whiff of smoke was now rising it was too small for them to see. My trail, however, led them to the bank over which they heard my feeble answering shout. So down the bank they scrambled, to come to a sudden halt, transfixed with amazement, as they told me afterwards, that such a wreck as I could stand and live.

The spectacle I presented certainly must have been an unusual one—a man all skin and bones, standing in drawers and stocking feet, with the remnants of a pair of trousers about his hips, there in the midst of the snow-covered forest. They were heavily clad and had their caps pulled far down over their ears to protect them from the biting wind, while I did not even have my hat on.

It was some time before I could realise that living men were before me. As if in a half-dream, I stood stupidly gazing at them. But with the return of sensibility I recollected that George had gone to find Donald Blake, and gradually it dawned upon me that he was there. I spoke his name "Donald Blake." At that Donald stepped forward and grasped my hand warmly and firmly like an old friend.

"Did George get out and send you?" I asked.

"Yes, sir; it was he that sent us, sir. He's safe at my house."

"Have you found Hubbard?"

"Not yet, sir. We smelled smoke a mile and a half above, where our camp was last night, an' came down to find you, sir."

I remember telling Donald that he had better leave me something to eat, and go on to Hubbard as fast as he could. He replied that Duncan and Bert, the two young fellows, would stay with me, while he and Allen would continue on up the valley. During this talk, the kind-hearted trappers had not been idle. While two of them cut wood for a rousing fire and put the kettle on for tea, the others made a cosey couch close to the blaze and sat me on it. They gave me a very small piece of bread and butter.

"You'd better eat just a small bit at first, sir," said Allen. "You're fair starved, and much grub at th' beginnin' might be th' worse for you."

Before I had my tea, Donald and Allen were ready to start. Allen hesitated for a moment; then asked:

"If the other man be dead, sir?"

"Dead?" I said. "Oh, no, he won't be dead. You'll find him in the tent waiting for you."

"But if he be dead?" persisted Allen. "He may be, and we sure can't bring th' body out now, sir."

Although still struggling against the fear that my reason told me was only too well founded, I requested, that in the event of what they thought possible proving to be the case, they wrap the body in the blankets they would find in the tent, and build for it a stage high enough from the ground to protect it from animals. I also asked that they bring back with them all the things they should find in the tent, including the rifle and camera, and especially the books and papers of all descriptions.

Promising that all should be done as I wished, and again cautioning me against eating too much, Allen and Donald departed, leaving me a prey to anxiety and fear as to the news they should bring back.

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