Canoeing in the wilderness

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The note of the white-throated sparrow was the first heard in the morning, and with this all the woods rang. Though commonly unseen, their simple ah, te-te-te, te-te-te, te-te-te, so sharp and piercing, was as distinct to the ear as the passage of a spark of fire shot into the darkest of the forest would be to the eye. We were commonly aroused by their lively strain very early. What a glorious time they must have in that wilderness, far from mankind!

I told the Indian that we would go to church to Chesuncook this morning, some fifteen miles. It was settled weather at last. A few swallows flitted over the water, we heard Maryland yellow-throats along the shore, the notes of the chickadee, and,[58] I believe, redstarts. Moose-flies of large size pursued us in midstream.

The Indian thought that we should lie by on Sunday. Said he, “We come here lookum things, look all round, but come Sunday look up all that, and then Monday look again.”

He spoke of an Indian of his acquaintance who had been with some ministers to Katahdin and had told him how they conducted. This he described in a low and solemn voice. “They make a long prayer every morning and night, and at every meal. Come Sunday, they stop ’em, no go at all that day—keep still—preach all day—first one, then another, just like church. Oh, ver’ good men. One day going along a river, they came to the body of a man in the water, drowned good while. They go right ashore—stop there, go no farther that day—they have meeting there, preach and pray just like Sunday. Then they go back and carry the body with them. Oh, they ver’ good men.”[59]

I judged from this account that their every camp was a camp-meeting, and that they wanted an opportunity to preach somewhere more than to see Katahdin.

However, the Indian added, plying the paddle all the while, that if we would go along he must go with us, he our man, and he suppose that if he no takum pay for what he do Sunday then ther’s no harm, but if he takum pay then wrong. I told him that he was stricter than white men. Nevertheless, I noticed that he did not forget to reckon in the Sundays at last.

He appeared to be a very religious man, and said his prayers in a loud voice, in Indian, kneeling before the camp, morning and evening—sometimes scrambling up in haste when he had forgotten this, and saying them with great rapidity. In the course of the day he remarked, “Poor man rememberum God more than rich.”

We soon passed the island where I had camped four years before. The deadwater, a mile or two below it, the Indian said[60] was “a great place for moose.” We saw the grass bent where a moose came out the night before, and the Indian said that he could smell one as far as he could see him, but he added that if he should see five or six to-day close by canoe he no shoot ’em. Accordingly, as he was the only one of the party who had a gun, or had come a-hunting, the moose were safe.

Just below this a cat owl flew heavily over the stream, and he, asking if I knew what it was, imitated very well the common hoo, hoo, hoo, hoorer, hoo, of our woods.

We carried a part of the baggage about Pine Stream Falls, while the Indian went down in the canoe. A Bangor merchant had told us that two men in his employ were drowned some time ago while passing these falls in a bateau, and a third clung to a rock all night and was taken off in the morning. There were magnificent great purple fringed orchises on this carry and the neighboring shores. I measured the largest canoe birch which I saw in this[61] journey near the end of the carry. It was fourteen and one half feet in circumference at two feet from the ground, but at five feet divided into three parts. The Indian cut a small woody knob as big as a filbert from the trunk of a fir, apparently an old balsam vesicle filled with wood, which he said was good medicine.

After we had embarked and gone half a mile, my companion remembered that he had left his knife, and we paddled back to get it, against the strong and swift current. This taught us the difference between going up and down the stream, for while we were working our way back a quarter of a mile, we should have gone down a mile and half at least. So we landed, and while he and the Indian were gone back for it, I watched the motions of the foam, a kind of white waterfowl near the shore, forty or fifty rods below. It alternately appeared and disappeared behind the rock, being carried round by an eddy.[62]

Immediately below these falls was the Chesuncook Deadwater, caused by the flowing back of the lake. As we paddled slowly over this, the Indian told us a story of his hunting thereabouts, and something more interesting about himself. It appeared that he had represented his tribe at Augusta, and once at Washington. He had a great idea of education, and would occasionally break out into such expressions as this, “Kademy—good thing—I suppose they usum Fifth Reader there. You been college?”

We steered across the northwest end of the lake. It is an agreeable change to cross a lake after you have been shut up in the woods, not only on account of the greater expanse of water, but also of sky. It is one of the surprises which Nature has in store for the traveler in the forest. To look down, in this case, over eighteen miles of water was liberating and civilizing even. The lakes also reveal the mountains, and give ample scope and range to our thought.[63] Already there were half a dozen log huts about this end of the lake, though so far from a road. In these woods the earliest settlements are clustering about the lakes, partly, I think, for the sake of the neighborhood as the oldest clearings. Water is a pioneer which the settler follows, taking advantage of its improvements.

About noon we turned northward up a broad kind of estuary, and at its northeast corner found the Caucomgomoc River, and after going about a mile from the lake reached the Umbazookskus. Our course was up the Umbazookskus, but as the Indian knew of a good camping-place, that is, a cool place where there were few mosquitoes, about half a mile farther up the Caucomgomoc, we went thither. So quickly we changed the civilizing sky of Chesuncook for the dark wood of the Caucomgomoc. On reaching the Indian’s camping-ground on the south side, where the bank was about a dozen feet high, I read on the trunk of a fir tree blazed by[64] an axe an inscription in charcoal which had been left by him. It was surmounted by a drawing of a bear paddling a canoe, which he said was the sign used by his family always. The drawing, though rude, could not be mistaken for anything but a bear, and he doubted my ability to copy it. The inscription ran thus. I interline the English of his Indian as he gave it to me.

(The figure of a bear in a boat.)
July 26

We alone Joseph
right away

July 15

He added now below:—

July 26
Jo. Polis

This was one of his homes. I saw where he had sometimes stretched his moose-hides on the sunny north side of the river where there was a narrow meadow.

After we had selected a place for our camp, and kindled our fire, almost exactly on the site of the Indian’s last camp here, he, looking up, observed, “That tree danger.”

It was a dead part, more than a foot in diameter, of a large canoe birch, which branched at the ground. This branch, rising thirty feet or more, slanted directly over the spot which we had chosen for our bed. I told him to try it with his axe, but he could not shake it perceptibly, and, therefore, seemed inclined to disregard it, and my companion expressed his willingness to run the risk. But it seemed to me that we should be fools to lie under it, for[66] though the lower part was firm, the top, for aught we knew, might be just ready to fall, and we should at any rate be very uneasy if the wind arose in the night. It is a common accident for men camping in the woods to be killed by a falling tree. So the camp was moved to the other side of the fire.

The Indian said that the Umbazookskus, being a dead stream with broad meadows, was a good place for moose, and he frequently came a-hunting here, being out alone three weeks or more from Oldtown. He sometimes, also, went a-hunting to the Seboois Lakes, taking the stage, with his gun and ammunition, axe and blankets, hard-bread and pork, perhaps for a hundred miles of the way, and jumped off at the wildest place on the road, where he was at once at home, and every rod was a tavern-site for him. Then, after a short journey through the woods, he would build a spruce-bark canoe in one day, putting but few ribs into it, that it might be[67] light, and, after doing his hunting with it on the lakes, would return with his furs the same way he had come. Thus you have an Indian availing himself of the advantages of civilization, without losing any of his woodcraft, but proving himself the more successful hunter for it.

This man was very clever and quick to learn anything in his line. Our tent was of a kind new to him, but when he had once seen it pitched it was surprising how quickly he would find and prepare the pole and forked stakes to pitch it with, cutting and placing them right the first time, though I am sure that the majority of white men would have blundered several times.

Now I thought I would observe how he spent his Sunday. While I and my companion were looking about at the trees and river he went to sleep. Indeed, he improved every opportunity to get a nap, whatever the day.

Rambling about the woods at this[68] camp, I noticed that they consisted chiefly of firs, spruce, red maple, birch, and, along the river, the hoary alder. I could trace the outlines of large birches that had fallen long ago, collapsed and rotted and turned to soil, by faint yellowish-green lines of featherlike moss, eighteen inches wide and twenty or thirty feet long, crossed by other similar lines.

Wild as it was, it was hard for me to get rid of the associations of the settlements. Any steady and monotonous sound, to which I did not distinctly attend, passed for a sound of human industry. The waterfalls which I heard were not without their dams and mills to my imagination; and several times I found that I had been regarding the steady rushing sound of the wind from over the woods beyond the rivers as that of a train of cars. Our minds anywhere, when left to themselves, are always thus busily drawing conclusions from false premises.

I asked the Indian to make us a sugar-[69]bowl of birch bark, which he did, using the great knife which dangled in a sheath from his belt; but the bark broke at the corners when he bent it up, and he said it was not good—that there was a great difference in this respect between the bark of one canoe birch and that of another.

My companion, wishing to distinguish between the black and white spruce, asked Polis to show him a twig of the latter, which he did at once, together with the black; indeed, he could distinguish them about as far as he could see them. As the two twigs appeared very much alike, my companion asked the Indian to point out the difference; whereupon the latter, taking the twigs, instantly remarked, as he passed his hand over them successively in a stroking manner, that the white was rough, that is, the needles stood up nearly perpendicular, but the black smooth, that is, as if bent down. This was an obvious difference, both to sight and touch.

I asked him to get some black spruce[70] root and make some thread. Whereupon, without looking up at the trees overhead, he began to grub in the ground, instantly distinguishing the black spruce roots, and cutting off a slender one, three or four feet long, and as big as a pipestem, he split the end with his knife, and taking a half between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, rapidly separated its whole length into two equal semi-cylindrical halves. Then, giving me another root, he said, “You try.”

But in my hands it immediately ran off one side, and I got only a very short piece. Though it looked easy, I found that there was a great art in splitting these roots. The split is skillfully humored by bending short with this hand or that, and so kept in the middle. He then took off the bark from each half, pressing a short piece of cedar bark against the convex side with both hands, while he drew the root upward with his teeth. An Indian’s teeth are strong, and[71] I noticed that he used his often where we should have used a hand. They amounted to a third hand. He thus obtained in a moment a very neat, tough, and flexible string, which he could tie into a knot, or make into a fishline even. He said that you would be obliged to give half a dollar for spruce root enough for a canoe, thus prepared.

He had discovered the day before that his canoe leaked a little, and said that it was owing to stepping into it violently. I asked him where he would get pitch to mend it with, for they commonly use hard pitch, obtained of the whites at Oldtown. He said that he could make something very similar, and equally good, of material which we had with us; and he wished me to guess what. But I could not, and he would not tell me, though he showed me a ball of it when made, as big as a pea and like black pitch, saying, at last, that there were some things which a man did not tell even his wife.[72]

Being curious to see what kind of fishes there were in this dark, deep, sluggish river, I cast in my line just before night, and caught several small sucker-like fishes, which the Indian at once rejected, saying that they were good for nothing. Also, he would not touch a pout, which I caught, and said that neither Indians nor whites thereabouts ever ate them. But he said that some small silvery fishes, which I called white chivin, were the best fish in the Penobscot waters, and if I would toss them up the bank to him, he would cook them for me. After cleaning them, not very carefully, leaving the heads on, he laid them on the coals and so broiled them.


Returning from a short walk, he brought a vine in his hand, saying that it made the best tea of anything in the woods. It was the creeping snowberry, which was quite common there, its berries just grown. So we determined to have some tea made of this. It had a slight checker[73]berry flavor, and we both agreed that it was really better than the black tea which we had brought. We thought it quite a discovery, and that it might well be dried and sold in the shops. I for one, however, am not an old tea-drinker and cannot speak with authority to others. The Indian said that they also used for tea a certain herb which grew in low ground, which he did not find there, and Labrador tea; also hemlock leaves, the last especially in winter when the other plants were covered with snow; and various other things. We could have had a new kind of tea every night.

Just before night we saw a musquash, the only one we saw in this voyage, swimming downward on the opposite side of the stream. The Indian, wishing to get one to eat, hushed us, saying, “Stop, me call ’em”; and, sitting flat on the bank, he began to make a curious squeaking, wiry sound with his lips, exerting himself considerably. I was greatly sur[74]prised—thought that I had at last got into the wilderness, and that he was a wild man indeed, to be talking to a musquash! I did not know which of the two was the strangest to me. He seemed suddenly to have quite forsaken humanity, and gone over to the musquash side. The musquash, however, as near as I could see, did not turn aside, and the Indian said that he saw our fire; but it was evident that he was in the habit of calling the musquash to him, as he said. An acquaintance of mine who was hunting moose in these woods a month after this, tells me that his Indian in this way repeatedly called the musquash within reach of his paddle in the moonlight, and struck at them.

The Indian said a particularly long prayer this Sunday evening, as if to atone for working in the morning.

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