Canoeing in the wilderness

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At breakfast, the Indian, evidently curious to know what would be expected of him the next day, asked me how I spent the Sunday when at home. I told him that I commonly sat in my chamber reading, etc., in the forenoon, and went to walk in the afternoon. At which he shook his head and said, “Er, that is ver’ bad.”

“How do you spend it?” I asked.

He said that he did no work, that he went to church at Oldtown when he was at home; in short, he did as he had been taught by the whites.

When we were washing the dishes in the lakes, many fishes came close up to us to get the particles of grease.

The weather seemed to be more settled this morning, and we set out early in order[41] to finish our voyage up the lake before the wind arose. Soon after starting, the Indian directed our attention to the Northeast Carry, which we could plainly see, about thirteen miles distant. This carry is a rude wooden railroad running north and south about two miles, perfectly straight, from the lake to the Penobscot through a low tract, with a clearing three or four rods wide. This opening appeared as a clear bright, or light, point in the horizon, resting on the edge of the lake. We should not have suspected it to be visible if the Indian had not drawn our attention to it. It was a remarkable kind of light to steer for—daylight seen through a vista in the forest—but visible as far as an ordinary beacon by night.

We crossed a deep wide bay north of Kineo, leaving an island on our left and keeping up the eastern side of the lake. We then crossed another broad bay, which, as we could no longer observe the shore particularly, afforded ample time for con[42]versation. The Indian said that he had got his money by hunting, mostly high up the West Branch of the Penobscot, and toward the head of the St. John. He had hunted there from a boy, and knew all about that region. His game had been beaver, otter, black cat (or fisher), sable, moose, etc. Canada lynx were plenty yet in burnt grounds. For food in the woods he uses partridges, ducks, dried moose meat, hedgehog, etc. Loons, too, were good, only “bile ’em good.”

Pointing into the bay he said that it was the way to various lakes which he knew. Only solemn bear-haunted mountains with their great wooded slopes were visible. The Indian said that he had been along there several times. I asked him how he guided himself in the woods.

“Oh,” said he, “I can tell good many ways.”

When I pressed him further he answered, “Sometimes I lookum sidehill,” and he glanced toward a high hill or[43] mountain on the eastern shore; “great difference between the north and south; see where the sun has shone most. So trees—the large limbs bend toward south. Sometimes I lookum locks” (rocks).

I asked what he saw on the rocks, but he did not describe anything in particular, answering vaguely, in a mysterious or drawling tone, “bare locks on lake shore—great difference between north, south, east, west side—can tell what the sun has shone on.”

“Suppose,” said I, “that I should take you in a dark night right up here into the middle of the woods a hundred miles, set you down, and turn you round quickly twenty times, could you steer straight to Oldtown?”

“Oh, yer,” said he, “have done pretty much same thing. I will tell you. Some years ago I met an old white hunter at Millinocket; very good hunter. He said he could go anywhere in the woods. He wanted to hunt with me that day, so we[44] start. We chase a moose all the forenoon, round and round, till middle of afternoon, when we kill him. Then I said to him, ‘Now you go straight to camp.’

“He said, ‘I can’t do that. I don’t know where I am.’

“‘Where you think camp?’ I asked.

“He pointed so. Then I laugh at him. I take the lead and go right off the other way, cross our tracks many times, straight camp.”

“How do you do that?” asked I.

“Oh, I can’t tell you,” he replied. “Great difference between me and white man.”

It appeared as if the sources of information were so various that he did not give a distinct conscious attention to any one, and so could not readily refer to any when questioned about it, but he found his way very much as an animal does. Perhaps what is commonly called instinct in the animal in this case is merely a sharpened and educated sense. Often, when an[45] Indian says, “I don’t know,” in regard to the route he is to take, he does not mean what a white man would by those words, for his Indian instinct may tell him still as much as the most confident white man knows. He does not carry things in his head, nor remember the route exactly, like a white man, but relies on himself at the moment. Not having experienced the need of the other sort of knowledge—all labeled and arranged—he has not acquired it.

The hunter with whom I talked in the stage knew some of the resources of the Indian. He said that he steered by the wind, or by the limbs of the hemlocks, which were largest on the south side; also sometimes, when he knew that there was a lake near, by firing his gun and listening to hear the direction and distance of the echo from over it.

As the forenoon advanced the wind increased. The last bay which we crossed before reaching the desolate pier at the[46] Northeast Carry, was two or three miles over, and the wind was southwesterly. After going a third of the way, the waves had increased so as occasionally to wash into the canoe, and we saw that it was worse ahead. At first we might have turned about, but were not willing to. It would have been of no use to follow the course of the shore, for the waves ran still higher there on account of the greater sweep the wind had. At any rate it would have been dangerous now to alter our course, because the waves would have struck us at an advantage. It will not do to meet them at right angles, for then they will wash in both sides, but you must take them quartering. So the Indian stood up in the canoe and exerted all his skill and strength for a mile or two, while I paddled right along in order to give him more steerage-way. For more than a mile he did not allow a single wave to strike the canoe as it would, but turned it quickly from this side to that, so that it would always be on[47] or near the crest of a wave when it broke, where all its force was spent, and we merely settled down with it. At length I jumped out onto the end of the pier against which the waves were dashing violently, in order to lighten the canoe and catch it at the landing, which was not much sheltered, but just as I jumped we took in two or three gallons of water. I remarked to the Indian, “You managed that well,” to which he replied: “Ver’ few men do that. Great many waves; when I look out for one, another come quick.”

While the Indian went to get cedar bark, etc., to carry his canoe with, we cooked the dinner on the shore in the midst of a sprinkling rain. He prepared his canoe for carrying in this wise. He took a cedar shingle or splint eighteen inches long and four or five wide, rounded at one end, that the corners might not be in the way, and tied it with cedar bark by two holes made midway, near the edge on each side, to the middle crossbar of the[48] canoe. When the canoe was lifted upon his head bottom up, this shingle, with its rounded end uppermost, distributed the weight over his shoulders and head, while a band of cedar bark, tied to the crossbar on each side of the shingle, passed round his breast, and another longer one, outside of the last, round his forehead; also a hand on each side rail served to steer the canoe and keep it from rocking. He thus carried it with his shoulders, head, breast, forehead, and both hands, as if the upper part of his body were all one hand to clasp and hold it. A cedar tree furnished all the gear in this case, as it had the woodwork of the canoe. One of the paddles rested on the crossbars in the bows. I took the canoe upon my head and found that I could carry it with ease, but I let him carry it, not caring to establish a different precedent. This shingle remained tied to the crossbar throughout the voyage, was always ready for the carries, and also served to protect the back of one passenger.[49]

We were obliged to go over this carry twice, our load was so great. But the carries were an agreeable variety, and we improved the opportunity to gather the rare plants which we had seen, when we returned empty-handed.

We reached the Penobscot about four o’clock, and found there some St. Francis Indians encamped on the bank. They were making a canoe and drying moose meat. Their camp was covered with spruce bark. They had a young moose, taken in the river a fortnight before, confined in a sort of cage of logs piled up cob-fashion, seven or eight feet high. It was quite tame, about four feet high, and covered with moose flies. There was a large quantity of cornel, red maple, and also willow and aspen boughs, stuck through between the logs on all sides, butt ends out, and on their leaves it was browsing. It looked at first as if it were in a bower rather than a pen.

Our Indian said that he used black spruce[50] roots to sew canoes with, obtaining it from high lands or mountains. The St. Francis Indians thought that white spruce roots might be best. But the former said, “No good, break, can’t split ’em.”

I told him I thought that I could make a canoe, but he expressed great doubt of it; at any rate he thought that my work would not be “neat” the first time.

Having reloaded, we paddled down the Penobscot. We saw a splendid yellow lily by the shore, which I plucked. It was six feet high and had twelve flowers, in two whorls, forming a pyramid. We afterward saw many more thus tall along this stream, and on the East Branch. The Indian said that the roots were good for soup, that is, to cook with meat, to thicken it, taking the place of flour. They get them in the fall. I dug some, and found a mass of bulbs pretty deep in the earth, two inches in diameter, looking, and even tasting, somewhat like raw green corn on the ear.

When we had gone about three miles[51] down the Penobscot, we saw through the tree-tops a thunder-shower coming up in the west, and we looked out a camping-place in good season, about five o’clock.

I will describe the routine of camping. We generally told the Indian that we would stop at the first suitable place, so that he might be on the lookout for it. Having observed a clear, hard, and flat beach to land on, free from mud, and from stones which would injure the canoe, one would run up the bank to see if there were open and level space enough for the camp between the trees, or if it could be easily cleared, preferring at the same time a cool place, on account of insects. Sometimes we paddled a mile or more before finding one to our minds, for where the shore was suitable the bank would often be too steep, or else too low and grassy, and therefore mosquitoey. We then took out the baggage and drew up the canoe. The Indian cut a path to the spot we had selected, which was usually within two or three[52] rods of the water, and we carried up our baggage.

One, perhaps, takes birch bark, always at hand, and dead dry wood, and kindles a fire five or six feet in front of where we intend to lie. It matters not, commonly, on which side this is, because there is little or no wind in so dense a wood at that season; and then he gets a kettle of water from the river, and takes out the pork, bread, coffee, etc., from their several packages.

Another, meanwhile, having the axe, cuts down the nearest dead rock maple or other dry hard wood, collecting several large logs to last through the night, also a green stake, with a notch or fork to it, which is slanted over the fire, perhaps resting on a rock or forked stake, to hang the kettle on, and two forked stakes and a pole for the tent.

Making a Camp in the Streamside Woodland

The third man pitches the tent, cuts a dozen or more pins with his knife to fasten it down with, and then collects an armful or two of fir twigs, arbor-vitæ, spruce, or[53] hemlock, whichever is at hand, and makes the bed, beginning at either end, and laying the twigs wrong side up, in regular rows, covering the stub ends of the last row; first, however, filling the hollows, if there are any, with coarser material.

Commonly, by the time the bed is made, or within fifteen or twenty minutes, the water boils, the pork is fried, and supper is ready. We eat this sitting on the ground, or a stump, around a large piece of birch bark for a table, each holding a dipper in one hand and a piece of ship-bread or fried pork in the other, frequently making a pass with his hand, or thrusting his head into the smoke, to avoid the mosquitoes.

Next, pipes are lit by those who smoke, and veils are donned by those who have them, and we hastily examine and dry our plants, anoint our faces and hands, and go to bed.

Though you have nothing to do but see the country, there’s rarely any time to spare, hardly enough to examine a plant,[54] before the night or drowsiness is upon you.

Such was the ordinary experience, but this evening we had camped earlier on account of the rain, and had more time. We found that our camp was on an old indistinct supply-road, running along the river. What is called a road there shows no ruts or trace of wheels, for they are not used; nor, indeed, of runners, since they are used only in the winter when the snow is several feet deep. It is only an indistinct vista through the wood, which it takes an experienced eye to detect.

We had no sooner pitched our tent than the thunder-shower burst on us, and we hastily crept under it, drawing our bags after us, curious to see how much of a shelter our thin cotton roof was going to be in this excursion. Though the violence of the rain forced a fine shower through the cloth before it was fairly wetted and shrunk, with which we were well bedewed, we managed to keep pretty dry, only a[55] box of matches having been left out and spoiled, and before we were aware of it the shower was over, and only the dripping trees imprisoned us.

Wishing to see what fishes were in the river there, we cast our lines over the wet bushes on the shore, but they were repeatedly swept down the swift stream in vain. So, leaving the Indian, we took the canoe, just before dark, and dropped down the river a few rods to fish at the mouth of a sluggish brook. We pushed up this a rod or two, but were soon driven off by the mosquitoes. While there we heard the Indian fire his gun twice in rapid succession. His object was to clean out and dry it after the rain, and he then loaded it with ball, being now on ground where he expected to meet with large game. This sudden loud crashing noise in the still aisles of the forest affected me like an insult to nature, or ill manners at any rate, as if you were to fire a gun in a hall or temple. It was not heard far, however, except along[56] the river, the sound being rapidly hushed up or absorbed by the damp trees and mossy ground.

The Indian made a little smothered fire of damp leaves close to the back of the camp, that the smoke might drive through and keep out the mosquitoes, but just before we fell asleep this suddenly blazed up and came near setting fire to the tent.

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