VII. ON A REAL RIVER AT LAST
We broke camp in the forenoon of August 7th, and a few hours later,
after making two trips back and forth, we arrived with our baggage on
the bank of our new river. At last we had a real river to travel on,
its average width being between 100 and 150 yards. None of us, of
course, then knew that our real river was the Beaver, and that in
taking to it we had stumbled upon an old Indian route to Lake
Michikamau. If we had known this, it would have made a great
difference in our fortunes.
Immediately below the point where we portaged into the river, wooded
ridges on either side hugged it close, forming a narrow valley. Just
above us the valley broadened, and a mile or so up a big hill reared
its barren summit above the black spruce trees at its base, standing
there like a lonely sentinel among the little hills that bordered the
widening river basin. Despite the fact that we had reached a real
river, we still had rapids to encounter, and we had to make so many
short portages that after we had ascended the river two miles it was
time to camp.
We pitched our tent on a rising plateau just below a stretch of rushing
water. As soon as we stopped, Hubbard tried to fish, and while I made
camp he landed fifteen trout averaging nearly half a pound each. They
were most welcome, as the time had come when we had to live off the
country. Our bread ration was now cut down to one-third of a loaf a
day for each man. As we had no lard, it was made simply of flour,
baking powder, and water. It was baked in our frying pan, and a loaf
was about eight inches in diameter and one inch thick, so that our
daily ration was but a morsel. We also decided that from now on we
should use pea meal only on rare occasions, and to reserve our other
provisions, with the exception of a few dried apples, tea, coffee and a
little chocolate and cocoa, to give us a start should we at any time
find it necessary to make a sudden dash for the Post.
Our clothing was rapidly disintegrating. The front of Hubbard's
trouser leg was all torn open again, and once more he had to resort to
pieces of twine. We had frequent discussions at this period as to
whose appearance was the most beautiful. For a time Hubbard and I
would claim the distinction each for himself, but it usually ended by
our conceding the distinction to George. As a matter of fact, with our
unkempt hair and beards and our rags, we now formed as tough looking a
party of tramps as ever "came down the pike." That night in camp I cut
up my canvas leggings and used pieces of the canvas to rebottom my
moccasins, sewing it on with shoemaker's thread.
It was a glorious evening. A big moon rising over the bluffs beyond us
transformed the river into a silvery thread stretching far down through
the dark valley. Behind us the black spruce forest made our roaring
fire seem more cheerful in contrast. A cold east wind had driven away
the flies and the mosquitoes. Supper eaten, our cup of contentment was
full to the brim. After all, the wilderness was not so inhospitable.
Who would be anywhere else, if he could? Not one of us.
With the sensation that we were the only people in Labrador, a fancy
struck me and I suggested to my companions that we ought to organise
some sort of government.
"We'll make you, Hubbard," I said, "the head of the nation and call you
the Great Mogul. Of course you will be commander-in-chief of the army
and navy and have unlimited power. We're your subjects."
"I suspect," replied Hubbard, "you are looking for a political job.
However, I, of course, stand ready, like our politicians at home, to
serve the country when duty calls—if there's enough in it. As the
Great Mogul of Labrador, I appoint you, Wallace, Chief Justice and also
Secretary of State. George I shall appoint Admiral of the Navy."
"Where are my ships?" asked George.
"Ships!", exclaimed Hubbard. "Well, there will be only one for the
present. But she's a good staunch one—eighteen feet long, with a beam
of thirty-three and a half inches. And she carries two quick-fire
With these and other conceits we whiled away the beautiful evening
hours. What a difference there was in the morning! We awoke—it was
Saturday, August 8—to find that the east wind had increased in force
and was accompanied by a driving, chilling rain. Reluctantly we broke
camp, and began a day of back-breaking, disheartening work. The wind
soughed dismally through the forests, and it was as though late autumn
had overtaken us in a night. The spruce boughs, watersoaked, seemed to
hang low for no other purpose than to strike us in the face at every
step, and the willows and alders along the river that now and again
obstructed our way appeared to be thicker and wetter than ever.
Under these conditions we had made six portages, the longest of which
was about three-quarters of a mile, and covered in all about four and a
half miles, when one o'clock came and we gave up the fight for the day,
to make our Sunday camp and try to get fish. We were ravenously
hungry, and ate even the heads of the dried trout we had for luncheon,
these being the last of those we caught and smoked on Lake Elson.
During the afternoon we put out for the first time the old gill net
Mackenzie had given us, and by hard work with the rod caught a few more
trout for supper.
It still poured on Sunday morning. Hubbard fished all day, and I the
greater part of the forenoon. The net product of our labor was
forty-five trout, most of them little fellows. The gill net yielded us
nothing. In the afternoon George and I took the rifles and started out
in different directions to look for caribou. Neither of us found any
fresh tracks. I returned at dusk, to find George already in camp and
our supper of boiled fish ready to be eaten. Our sugar was all gone by
this time, and our supply of salt was so low that we were using hardly
any. In spite of us the salt had been wet in the drenching rains we
had encountered all up the Susan Valley, and a large part of it had
While we all craved sugar and other sweets, I believe Hubbard suffered
the most from their absence. Perhaps the fact that George and I used
tobacco and he did not, was the explanation. He was continually
discussing the merits of various kinds of cake, candies, and sweet
things generally. Our conversation too often turned to New York
restaurants, and how he would visit various ones of them for particular
dishes. Bread undoubtedly was what we craved the most. "I believe
I'll never refuse bread again," Hubbard would say, "so long as there's
a bit on the table."
Monday (August 10) brought with it no abatement of the driving rain and
cold east wind. Working industriously for half an hour before
breakfast, Hubbard succeeded in landing a single small trout, which
fell to me, while he and George ate thick pea meal porridge, of which
they were very fond. We made several short portages during the
morning, and, despite the dismal weather, our spirits brightened; for
we came upon old wigwam poles and axe cuttings, which we accepted as
proof that we were now surely on the Indian trail to Michikamau.
Towards noon Hubbard said:
"Well, boys, we're on the right road, we've covered three miles this
morning, and this rain is killing, so we'll pitch camp now, and wait
for the weather to clear and try to get some fish ahead. There are fish
here, I know, and when the wind changes we'll get them."
After warming ourselves by a big fire and eating luncheon, Hubbard and
I took our rods and fished the greater part of the afternoon, catching
between us twelve or fifteen trout.
"You had better cook them all for supper, George," said Hubbard. "This
is my mother's birthday, and in honour of it we'll have an extra loaf
of bread and some of her dried apples. And I tell you what, boys, I
wish I could see her now."
On the following day (Tuesday, August 11) the weather had somewhat
moderated, but the east wind continued, and the rain still fell during
all the forenoon. We could get no fish at our camp, and at two in the
afternoon started forward, all of us hungry and steadily growing
hungrier. Hubbard whipped the water at the foot of every rapid and
tried every pool, but succeeded in getting only a very few trout.
While he fished, George and I made the portages, and thus, pushing on
as rapidly as possible, we covered about four miles.
While George and I were scouting on Sunday, we had each caught sight of
a ridge of rocky mountains extending in a northerly and southerly
direction, which we estimated to be from twenty to twenty-five miles to
the westward. Previous to Tuesday, these mountains had not been
visible from the river valley, but on that day they suddenly came into
view, and they made us stop and think, for they lay directly across our
course. However, we did not feel much uneasiness then, as we decided
that our river must flow through a pass in the mountains far to the
north, and follow them down before turning east.
Our camp on Tuesday night was rather a dreary one; but before noon on
Wednesday (August 12) the clouds broke, big patches of blue sky began
to appear, and with a bit of sunshine now and again, our hearts
lightened as we proceeded on our journey.
At the foot of a half-mile portage Hubbard caught fourteen trout, and
our luncheon was secure. Three more portages we made, covering in all
about three miles, and then we shouted for joy, for there ahead of us
lay open water. Along it for five miles we gaily canoed before
stopping for luncheon. Hungry? Yes, we were hungry even after
devouring the fourteen trout and drinking the water they were boiled
in—I could have eaten fifty like them myself—but our spirits were
high, and we made merry. For the first time since leaving Grand Lake
there was good water behind us and good water before us.
At the last rapid we portaged the country had flattened out. Wide
marshes extended along the south bank of the river, with now and then a
low hill of drift. The north side was followed by a low ridge of
drift, well wooded. We landed for luncheon on the south bank, at the
foot of a wooded knoll, and there we made an interesting discovery,
namely, the remains of an old Indian camp and the ruins of two large
birch-bark canoes. In November, at Northwest River Post, I heard the
story of those canoes.
Twelve years before, it appears, the band of Indians that had camped
there, being overtaken by early ice, was forced to abandon its canoes
and make a dash for the Post. Game was scarce, and the fish had gone
to deeper waters. The Indians pushed desperately on overland, but one
by one they fell, until at last the gaunt fiend, Starvation, had
claimed them all. Since that time no Indian has ever travelled that
trail—the route to Michikamau upon which we had stumbled was thereupon
abandoned. The Indians believe the trail is not only unlucky, but
haunted; that if while on it they should escape Starvation—that
terrible enemy which nearly always dogs them so closely—they are
likely to encounter the spirits of them that died so many years ago.
Not knowing anything of this tragic story, we merrily ate our luncheon
on the very spot where others in desperation had faced death. It was
to us an old Indian camp, and an additional reason for believing we
were on the right trail, that was all. While we ate, the sun came out
brilliantly, and we resumed our paddling feeling ready for almost
anything that might happen. And something soon did happen—something
that made the day the most memorable so far of the trip.
No rapids intercepted our progress, and in an hour we had paddled three
miles, when, at a place where the river widened, a big woodland stag
caribou suddenly splashed into the water from the northern shore, two
hundred yards ahead. I seized my rifle, and, without waiting for the
canoe to stop, fired. The bullet went high. The caribou raised his
head and looked at us inquisitively. Then Hubbard fired, and with the
dying away of the report of his rifle, George and I shouted: "You hit
'im, Hubbard; you've got 'im!" The wounded caribou sank half way to his
knees, but struggled to his feet again. As he did so, Hubbard sent
another shot at him, but missed. Slowly the big deer turned, and began
to struggle up the bank. Again Hubbard and I fired, but both shots went
We ran the canoe to shore, and while I made it fast, Hubbard and George
ran breathlessly ahead to where the caribou had disappeared. I followed
at once, and soon came upon them and the caribou, which fallen thirty
yards from the river with a bullet through his body just back of the
left shoulder. A trail of blood marked his path from the river to
where he lay. As the animal floundered there in the moss, Hubbard,
with the nervous impetuosity he frequently displayed, fired again
against George's protest, the bullet entering the caribou's neck and
passing down through his tongue the full length. Then George caught
the thrashing animal by the antlers, and while he held its head down
Hubbard cut its throat.
We made our camp right where the caribou fell. It was an ideal spot on
the high bank above the river, being flat and thickly covered with
white moss. The banks at this point were all sand drift; we could not
find a stone large enough to whet our knives. George made a stage for
drying while Hubbard and I dressed the deer. Our work finished, we all
sat down and roasted steaks on sticks and drank coffee. The knowledge
that we were now assured of a good stock of dried meat, of course,
added to the hilarity of feast. As we thought it best to hoard our
morsel of flour, it was a feast of venison and venison alone.
While waiting for our meat to dry, we had to remain in camp for three
or four days. On the next afternoon (Thursday, August 13) Hubbard and
I paddled about three miles up the river to look for fish, but we got
no bites, probably because of the cold; in the morning there had been a
fringe of ice on the river shore.
"We'll take it easy," said Hubbard while we were paddling upstream,
"and make a little picnic of it. I'm dead tired myself. How do you
"I feel tired, too," I said. "I have to make an extra effort to do any
work at all."
Hubbard was inclined to attribute this tired feeling to the freedom
from strain after our nerve-racking work of the last few weeks, while I
hazarded the opinion that our purely meat diet had made us lazy.
Probably it was due to both causes.
As Hubbard was anxious to obtain definite knowledge as to what effect
the high ridge of rocky mountains had upon our river, George and I,
with the object of ascertaining the river's course, left camp in the
canoe on Friday morning (August 14), taking with us, in addition to our
emergency kits, our cups, some tea, and enough caribou ribs for
luncheon. We portaged around a few short rapids, and then, about eight
miles above our camp, came upon a lake expansion of considerable size
with many inlets. On the northerly side of the lake was a high, barren
hill, which afforded us a splendid view of the surrounding country.
Winding away to the southeast was the river we had ascended. To the
west was a series of lake expansions connected by narrow straits, and
beyond them were the mountains, which we estimated rose about 2,500
feet above the country at their base. In sheltered places on their
sides, patches of ice and snow glistened in the sunshine. Barren
almost to their base, not a vestige of vegetation to be seen anywhere
on their tops or sides, they presented a scene of desolate grandeur,
standing out against the blue sky like a grim barrier placed there to
guard the land beyond. As I gazed upon them, some lines from Kipling's
"Explorer" that I had often heard Hubbard repeat were brought forcibly
to my mind:
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—<BR>
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"<BR>
Let us call these ranges the Kipling Mountains.
To the north, hill after hill, with bald top rising above the stunted
trees on its sides, limited our range of vision. Far away to the south
stretched a rolling, wooded country. To the eastward the country was
flatter, with irregular ranges of low hills, all covered with a thick
growth of spruce and fir balsam. Beyond the point where the water
flowed from it southeasterly into the river we had ascended, the lake
at the foot of our hill seemed to extend directly eastward for four for
five miles; but the thick wood of the valleys and low-lying hills made
it difficult to see just where it ended, so that from where we stood it
was impossible to tell what course the river took—whether it came from
the east, bending about in the lake expansion below us, or flowed from
the west through the lake expansions beyond. Away off to the northeast
an apparently large lake could be discerned, with numerous mound-like
islands dotting its surface.
For a long time we stood and gazed about us. Far to the southeast a
tiny curl of smoke rose heavenward in the clear atmosphere. That was
Hubbard's campfire—the only sign of life to be seen in all that wide
wilderness. The scene was impressive beyond description. It gave me a
peculiar feeling of solemnity and awe that I shall never forget.
We found on our hill a few dead twigs of sub-Arctic shrubbery with
which to make a fire to broil our caribou ribs, and gathered some
mildly acid berries of a variety neither of us had ever seen before,
which we ate as a dessert. After luncheon George said he thought we
had better go to the westward to look for the river.
"But how can it come through those mountains?" I asked.
"I don't know as it can," he replied. "But," pointing to one of the
range, "I want to take a look at the country beyond from that high
So we returned to our canoe, and paddled to the westward a few miles
through two lake expansions, which brought us to the foot of the
mountains. We landed at a place where a small creek tumbled down
through a rocky pass. George went up his mountain alone. During his
absence, with my emergency kit, I caught ten six-inch trout to be
divided between us for supper, as only two of our caribou ribs
remained. Near dark George came back. After climbing half way to the
summit of his mountain, he had encountered perpendicular walls of rock
that blocked his further progress.
We made a fire of old wigwam poles, and roasted our fish before it on a
flat stone. A quart of hot tea between us washed down our meagre
supper, and then we made a bed of boughs. But when we tried to sleep
the icy wind that blew through the pass caused us to draw closer to the
fire, before which we alternately sat and lay shivering throughout the
night. Having brought no axe with us, we could not build a fire of any
size. I do not believe either of us slept more than half an hour.
"Which would you rather have, Wallace, a piece of bread or a blanket?"
George would ask at frequent intervals.
"Bread," I always answered. At that he would chuckle. We had tasted
nothing but venison and fish since the day we killed the caribou, and
for bread we had an inexpressible craving.
"Anyway," George would say, "this cold will weaken the flies." And
with this reflection he continued to comfort us as the nights became
In the morning we had to break the ice to get water for our tea, which
with the two remaining caribou ribs constituted our breakfast. George
then made another attempt at his mountain. Again he failed to reach the
summit, and I failed to induce any more trout to rise. In a somewhat
despondent mood we turned back, and paddled for some distance into the
lake expansions to the eastward of the point where our river flowed
out. Although we were compelled to start for "home" before obtaining
any definite knowledge of the course of the river, we were of the
opinion that it came from the east. For all we knew, however, the
river might end in those lake expansions; we could not tell, as no
current could be discerned, and having no food we could not continue
It was five o'clock in the evening when we reached camp, tired out and
as hungry as two wolves, and we astonished Hubbard with the amount of
venison we put out of sight. While George was temporarily out of
hearing, Hubbard said:
"It's bully good to see you back again, Wallace. I was disappointed
when you didn't come back last night, and I've been dead lonesome. I
got thinking of my wife and home, and the good things to eat there, and
was on the verge of homesickness."
"We were mightily disappointed, too, at not getting back," said I
between mouthfuls. "Up there on the lakes we put in the toughest night
yet, and we were thinking of the venison and warm blankets down here at
Hubbard was much discouraged and depressed at our report of the
uncertain course of the river, although he was careful to conceal his
feelings from George.
The next day (Sunday, August 16) we cut up our canvas guncases and used
some of the material to re-bottom our moccasins. What was left over we
put away carefully for future use. George cracked the caribou bones
and boiled out the marrow grease. He stripped the fat from the
entrails and tried out the tallow, preserving even the cracklings or
scraps. "We'll be glad to eat 'em yet," said he. One of the hoofs he
dressed and put with our store of meat. We preserved everything but
the head, the entrails and three of the hoofs. The tallow we found an
excellent substitute for lard.
In the afternoon Hubbard and I caught thirty trout in an hour at the
rapid a mile and a half above our camp, and a few more in the river
close by the camp. High living during the day raised all of our
spirits. For breakfast we had the caribou heart, which George thought
at first he would roast but changed his mind and served stewed. For
dinner we had the tongue, the tidbit of the animal, boiled with pieces
of other parts. Hubbard's second bullet had torn out the centre of the
tongue, but what there was of it was delicious. And at night we had
the trout caught during the afternoon, to which, as a Sunday luxury,
was added a cake of bread.
When we gathered around the fire in the evening Hubbard had entirely
recovered from his depression and took a more hopeful view of the
river. We discussed the matter thoroughly, and decided that the river
George and I had seen coming from the eastward must take a turn farther
north and break through the Kipling Mountains, and that it might prove
to be Low's Northwest River we all thought was possible.
At the same time we could not disguise the fact that it was extremely
probable we should have to portage over the mountains, and the prospect
was far from pleasing; but, ragged and almost barefooted though we
were, not a man thought of turning back, and on Monday morning, August
17th, we prepared to leave Camp Caribou and solve the problem as to
where lay the trail of Michikamau.