Canoeing in the wilderness

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When we awoke it had done raining, though it was still cloudy. The fire was put out, and the Indian’s boots, which stood under the eaves of the tent, were half full of water. He was much more improvident in such respects than either of us, and he had to thank us for keeping his powder dry. We decided to cross the lake at once, before breakfast; and before starting I took the bearing of the shore which we wished to strike, about three miles distant, lest a sudden misty rain should conceal it when we were midway.

Though the bay in which we were was perfectly quiet and smooth, we found the lake already wide awake outside, but not dangerously or unpleasantly so. Nevertheless, when you get out on one of those lakes in a canoe like this, you do not for[123]get that you are completely at the mercy of the wind, and a fickle power it is. The playful waves may at any time become too rude for you in their sport, and play right on over you. After much steady paddling and dancing over the dark waves we found ourselves in the neighborhood of the southern land. We breakfasted on a rocky point, the first convenient place that offered.

It was well enough that we crossed thus early, for the waves now ran quite high, but beyond this point we had comparatively smooth water. You can commonly go along one side or the other of a lake, when you cannot cross it.

My companion and I, having a discussion on some point of ancient history, were amused by the attitude which the Indian, who could not tell what we were talking about, assumed. He constituted himself umpire, and, judging by our air and gesture, he very seriously remarked from time to time, “You beat,” or “He beat.”[124]

Leaving a spacious bay on our left, we entered through a short strait into a small lake a couple of miles over, and thence into Telos Lake. This curved round toward the northeast, and may have been three or four miles long as we paddled.

The outlet from the lake into the East Branch of the Penobscot is an artificial one, and it was not very apparent where it was exactly, but the lake ran curving far up northeasterly into two narrow valleys or ravines, as if it had for a long time been groping its way toward the Penobscot waters. By observing where the horizon was lowest, and following the longest of these, we at length reached the dam, having come about a dozen miles from the last camp. Somebody had left a line set for trout, and the jackknife with which the bait had been cut on the dam beside it, and, on a log close by, a loaf of bread. These proved the property of a solitary hunter, whom we soon met, and canoe and gun and traps were not far off.[125] He told us that it was twenty miles to the foot of Grand Lake, and that the first house below the foot of the lake, on the East Branch, was Hunt’s, about forty-five miles farther.

This hunter, who was a quite small, sunburnt man, having already carried his canoe over, had nothing so interesting and pressing to do as to observe our transit. He had been out a month or more alone. How much more respectable is the life of the solitary pioneer or settler in these, or any woods—having real difficulties, not of his own creation, drawing his subsistence directly from nature—than that of the helpless multitudes in the towns who depend on gratifying the extremely artificial wants of society and are thrown out of employment by hard times!

Telos Lake, the head of the St. John on this side, and Webster Pond, the head of the East Branch of the Penobscot, are only about a mile apart, and they are connected by a ravine, in which but little[126] digging was required to make the water of the former, which is the highest, flow into the latter. This canal is something less than a mile long and about four rods wide. The rush of the water has produced such changes in the canal that it has now the appearance of a very rapid mountain stream flowing through a ravine, and you would not suspect that any digging had been required to persuade the waters of the St. John to flow into the Penobscot here. It was so winding that one could see but a little way down.

It is wonderful how well watered this country is. As you paddle across a lake, bays will be pointed out to you, by following up which, and perhaps the tributary stream which empties in, you may, after a short portage, or possibly, at some seasons, none at all, get into another river, which empties far away from the one you are on. Generally, you may go in any direction in a canoe, by making frequent but not very long portages. It[127] seems as if the more youthful and impressionable streams can hardly resist the numerous invitations and temptations to leave their native beds and run down their neighbors’ channels.

Wherever there is a channel for water there is a road for the canoe. It is said that some Western steamers can run on a heavy dew, whence we can imagine what a canoe may do.

This canal, so called, was a considerable and extremely rapid and rocky river. The Indian decided that there was water enough in it without raising the dam, which would only make it more violent, and that he would run down it alone, while we carried the greater part of the baggage. Our provisions being about half consumed, there was the less left in the canoe. We had thrown away the pork-keg and wrapped its contents in birch bark.

Following a moist trail through the forest, we reached the head of Webster[128] Pond about the same time with the Indian, notwithstanding the velocity with which he moved, our route being the most direct. The pond was two or three miles long.

At the outlet was another dam, at which we stopped and picked raspberries, while the Indian went down the stream a half-mile through the forest, to see what he had got to contend with. There was a deserted log camp here, apparently used the previous winter, with its “hovel” or barn for cattle. In the hut was a large fir-twig bed, raised two feet from the floor, occupying a large part of the single apartment, a long narrow table against the wall, with a stout log bench before it, and above the table a small window, the only one there was, which admitted a feeble light. It was a simple and strong fort erected against the cold.

We got our dinner on the shore, on the upper side of the dam. As we were sitting by our fire, concealed by the earth[129] bank of the dam, a long line of sheldrakes, half grown, came waddling over it from the water below, passing within about a rod of us, so that we could almost have caught them in our hands. They were very abundant on all the streams and lakes which we visited, and every two or three hours they would rush away in a long string over the water before us, twenty to fifty of them at once, rarely ever flying, but running with great rapidity up or down the stream, even in the midst of the most violent rapids, and apparently as fast up as down.

An Indian at Oldtown had told us that we should be obliged to carry ten miles between Telos Lake on the St. John and Second Lake on the East Branch of the Penobscot; but the lumberers whom we met assured us that there would not be more than a mile of carry. It turned out that the Indian was nearest right, as far as we were concerned. However, if one of us could have assisted the Indian in man[130]aging the canoe in the rapids, we might have run the greater part of the way; but as he was alone in the management of the canoe in such places we were obliged to walk the greater part.

My companion and I carried a good part of the baggage on our shoulders, while the Indian took that which would be least injured by wet in the canoe. We did not know when we should see him again, for he had not been this way since the canal was cut. He agreed to stop when he got to smooth water, come up and find our path if he could, and halloo for us, and after waiting a reasonable time go on and try again—and we were to look out in like manner for him.

He commenced by running through the sluiceway and over the dam, as usual, standing up in his tossing canoe, and was soon out of sight behind a point in a wild gorge. This Webster Stream is well known to lumbermen as a difficult one. It is exceedingly rapid and rocky, and also shallow,[131] and can hardly be considered navigable, unless that may mean that what is launched in it is sure to be carried swiftly down it, though it may be dashed to pieces by the way. It is somewhat like navigating a thunder-spout. With commonly an irresistible force urging you on, you have got to choose your own course each moment between the rocks and shallows, and to get into it, moving forward always with the utmost possible moderation, and often holding on, if you can, that you may inspect the rapids before you.

By the Indian’s direction we took an old path on the south side, which appeared to keep down the stream. It was a wild wood-path, with a few tracks of oxen which had been driven over it, probably to some old camp clearing for pasturage, mingled with the tracks of moose which had lately used it. We kept on steadily for about an hour without putting down our packs, occasionally winding around or climbing over a fallen tree, for the most[132] part far out of sight and hearing of the river; till, after walking about three miles, we were glad to find that the path came to the river again at an old camp-ground, where there was a small opening in the forest, at which we paused.

Swiftly as the shallow and rocky river ran here, a continuous rapid with dancing waves, I saw, as I sat on the shore, a long string of sheldrakes, which something scared, run up the opposite side of the stream by me, just touching the surface of the waves, and getting an impulse from them as they flowed from under them; but they soon came back, driven by the Indian, who had fallen a little behind us on account of the windings. He shot round a point just above, and came to land by us with considerable water in his canoe. He had found it, as he said, “very strong water,” and had been obliged to land once before to empty out what he had taken in.

Coming Down the Rapids

He complained that it strained him to paddle so hard in order to keep his canoe[133] straight in its course, having no one in the bows to aid him, and, shallow as it was, said that it would be no joke to upset there, for the force of the water was such that he had as lief I would strike him over the head with a paddle as have that water strike him. Seeing him come out of that gap was as if you should pour water down an inclined and zigzag trough, then drop a nutshell into it, and, taking a short cut to the bottom, get there in time to see it come out, notwithstanding the rush and tumult, right side up, and only partly full of water.

After a moment’s breathing-space, while I held his canoe, he was soon out of sight again around another bend, and we, shouldering our packs, resumed our course.

Before going a mile we heard the Indian calling to us. He had come up through the woods and along the path to find us, having reached sufficiently smooth water to warrant his taking us in. The shore was about one fourth of a mile distant through[134] a dense, dark forest, and as he led us back to it, winding rapidly about to the right and left, I had the curiosity to look down carefully and found that he was following his steps backward. I could only occasionally perceive his trail in the moss, and yet he did not appear to look down nor hesitate an instant, but led us out exactly to his canoe. This surprised me, for without a compass, or the sight or noise of the river to guide us, we could not have kept our course many minutes, and could have retraced our steps but a short distance, with a great deal of pains and very slowly, using a laborious circumspection. But it was evident that he could go back through the forest wherever he had been during the day.

After this rough walking in the dark woods it was an agreeable change to glide down the rapid river in the canoe once more. This river, though still very swift, was almost perfectly smooth here, and showed a very visible declivity, a regularly[135] inclined plane, for several miles, like a mirror set a little aslant, on which we coasted down. It was very exhilarating, and the perfection of traveling, the coasting down this inclined mirror between two evergreen forests edged with lofty dead white pines, sometimes slanted half-way over the stream. I saw some monsters there, nearly destitute of branches, and scarcely diminishing in diameter for eighty or ninety feet.

As we were thus swept along, our Indian repeated in a deliberate and drawling tone the words, “Daniel Webster, great lawyer,” apparently reminded of him by the name of the stream, and he described his calling on him once in Boston at what he supposed was his boarding-house. He had no business with him but merely went to pay his respects, as we should say. It was on the day after Webster delivered his Bunker Hill oration. The first time he called he waited till he was tired without seeing him, and then went away. The[136] next time he saw him go by the door of the room in which he was waiting several times, in his shirt-sleeves, without noticing him. He thought that if he had come to see Indians they would not have treated him so. At length, after very long delay, he came in, walked toward him, and asked in a loud voice, gruffly, “What do you want?” and he, thinking at first, by the motion of his hand, that he was going to strike him, said to himself, “You’d better take care; if you try that I shall know what to do.”

He did not like him, and declared that all he said “was not worth talk about a musquash.”

Coming to falls and rapids, our easy progress was suddenly terminated. The Indian went alongshore to inspect the water, while we climbed over the rocks, picking berries. When the Indian came back, he remarked, “You got to walk; ver’ strong water.”

So, taking out his canoe, he launched[137] it again below the falls, and was soon out of sight. At such times he would step into the canoe, take up his paddle, and start off, looking far down-stream as if absorbing all the intelligence of forest and stream into himself. We meanwhile scrambled along the shore with our packs, without any path. This was the last of our boating for the day.

The Indian now got along much faster than we, and waited for us from time to time. I found here the only cool spring that I drank at anywhere on this excursion, a little water filling a hollow in the sandy bank. It was a quite memorable event, and due to the elevation of the country, for wherever else we had been the water in the rivers and the streams emptying in was dead and warm, compared with that of a mountainous region. It was very bad walking along the shore over fallen and drifted trees and bushes, and rocks, from time to time swinging ourselves round over the water, or else[138] taking to a gravel bar or going inland. At one place, the Indian being ahead, I was obliged to take off all my clothes in order to ford a small but deep stream emptying in, while my companion, who was inland, found a rude bridge, high up in the woods, and I saw no more of him for some time. I saw there very fresh moose tracks, and I passed one white pine log, lodged in the forest near the edge of the stream, which was quite five feet in diameter at the butt.

Shortly after this I overtook the Indian at the edge of some burnt land, which extended three or four miles at least, beginning about three miles above Second Lake, which we were expecting to reach that night. This burnt region was still more rocky than before, but, though comparatively open, we could not yet see the lake. Not having seen my companion for some time, I climbed with the Indian a high rock on the edge of the river forming a narrow ridge only a foot or two wide at top, in order to look for him. After calling[139] many times I at length heard him answer from a considerable distance inland, he having taken a trail which led off from the river, and being now in search of the river again. Seeing a much higher rock of the same character about one third of a mile farther down-stream, I proceeded toward it through the burnt land, in order to look for the lake from its summit, and hallooing all the while that my companion might join me on the way.

Before we came together I noticed where a moose, which possibly I had scared by my shouting, had apparently just run along a large rotten trunk of a pine, which made a bridge thirty or forty feet long over a hollow, as convenient for him as for me. The tracks were as large as those of an ox, but an ox could not have crossed there. This burnt land was an exceedingly wild and desolate region. Judging by the weeds and sprouts, it appeared to have been burnt about two years before. It was covered with charred[140] trunks, either prostrate or standing, which crocked our clothes and hands. Great shells of trees, sometimes unburnt without, or burnt on one side only, but black within, stood twenty or forty feet high. The fire had run up inside, as in a chimney, leaving the sapwood. There were great fields of fireweed, which presented masses of pink. Intermixed with these were blueberry and raspberry bushes.

Having crossed a second rocky ridge, when I was beginning to ascend the third, the Indian, whom I had left on the shore, beckoned to me to come to him, but I made sign that I would first ascend the rock before me. My companion accompanied me to the top.

There was a remarkable series of these great rock-waves revealed by the burning; breakers, as it were. No wonder that the river that found its way through them was rapid and obstructed by falls. We could see the lake over the woods, and that the river made an abrupt turn southward around[141] the end of the cliff on which we stood, and that there was an important fall in it a short distance below us. I could see the canoe a hundred rods behind, but now on the opposite shore, and supposed that the Indian had concluded to take out and carry round some bad rapids on that side, but after waiting a while I could still see nothing of him, and I began to suspect that he had gone inland to look for the lake from some hilltop on that side. This proved to be the case, for after I had started to return to the canoe I heard a faint halloo, and descried him on the top of a distant rocky hill. I began to return along the ridge toward the angle in the river. My companion inquired where I was going; to which I answered that I was going far enough back to communicate with the Indian.

When we reached the shore the Indian appeared from out the woods on the opposite side, but on account of the roar of the water it was difficult to communicate with[142] him. He kept along the shore westward to his canoe, while we stopped at the angle where the stream turned southward around the precipice. I said to my companion that we would keep along the shore and keep the Indian in sight. We started to do so, being close together, the Indian behind us having launched his canoe again, but I saw the latter beckoning to me, and I called to my companion, who had just disappeared behind large rocks at the point of the precipice on his way down the stream, that I was going to help the Indian.

I did so—helped get the canoe over a fall, lying with my breast over a rock, and holding one end while he received it below—and within ten or fifteen minutes I was back at the point where the river turned southward, while Polis glided down the river alone, parallel with me. But to my surprise, when I rounded the precipice, though the shore was bare of trees, without rocks, for a quarter of a mile at[143] least, my companion was not to be seen. It was as if he had sunk into the earth. This was the more unaccountable to me, because I knew that his feet were very sore, and that he wished to keep with the party.

I hastened along, hallooing and searching for him, thinking he might be concealed behind a rock, but the Indian had got along faster in his canoe, till he was arrested by the falls, about a quarter of a mile below. He then landed, and said that we could go no farther that night. The sun was setting, and on account of falls and rapids we should be obliged to leave this river and carry a good way into another farther east. The first thing then was to find my companion, for I was now very much alarmed about him, and I sent the Indian along the shore down-stream, which began to be covered with unburnt wood again just below the falls, while I searched backward about the precipice which we had passed.[144]

The Indian showed some unwillingness to exert himself, complaining that he was very tired in consequence of his day’s work, that it had strained him getting down so many rapids alone; but he went off calling somewhat like an owl. I remembered that my companion was nearsighted, and I feared that he had either fallen from the precipice, or fainted and sunk down amid the rocks beneath it. I shouted and searched above and below this precipice in the twilight till I could not see, expecting nothing less than to find his body beneath it. For half an hour I anticipated and believed only the worst. I thought what I should do the next day if I did not find him, and how his relatives would feel if I should return without him. I felt that if he were really lost away from the river there, it would be a desperate undertaking to find him; and where were they who could help you? What would it be to raise the country, where there were only two or three camps, twenty or thirty[145] miles apart, and no road, and perhaps nobody at home?

I rushed down from this precipice to the canoe in order to fire the Indian’s gun, but found that my companion had the caps. When the Indian returned he said that he had seen his tracks once or twice along the shore. This encouraged me very much. He objected to firing the gun, saying that if my companion heard it, which was not likely, on account of the roar of the stream, it would tempt him to come toward us, and he might break his neck in the dark. For the same reason we refrained from lighting a fire on the highest rock. I proposed that we should both keep down the stream to the lake, or that I should go at any rate, but the Indian said: “No use, can’t do anything in the dark. Come morning, then we find ’em. No harm—he make ’em camp. No bad animals here—warm night—he well off as you and I.”

The darkness in the woods was by this[146] so thick that it decided the question. We must camp where we were. I knew that he had his knapsack, with blankets and matches, and, if well, would fare no worse than we, except that he would have no supper nor society.

This side of the river being so encumbered with rocks, we crossed to the eastern or smoother shore, and proceeded to camp there, within two or three rods of the falls. We pitched no tent, but lay on the sand, putting a few handfuls of grass and twigs under us, there being no evergreen at hand. For fuel we had some of the charred stumps. Our various bags of provisions had got quite wet in the rapids, and I arranged them about the fire to dry. The fall close by was the principal one on this stream, and it shook the earth under us. It was a cool, dewy night. I lay awake a good deal from anxiety. From time to time I fancied that I heard his voice calling through the roar of the falls from the opposite side of the river; but[147] it is doubtful if we could have heard him across the stream there. Sometimes I doubted whether the Indian had really seen his tracks, since he manifested an unwillingness to make much of a search.

It was the most wild and desolate region we had camped in, where, if anywhere, one might expect to meet with befitting inhabitants, but I heard only the squeak of a nighthawk flitting over. The moon in her first quarter, in the fore part of the night, setting over the bare rocky hills garnished with tall, charred, and hollow stumps or shells of trees, served to reveal the desolation.

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