VIII. "MICHIKAMAU OR BUST!"
The temperature was three degrees below freezing when grey dawn at half
past four o'clock that Monday morning bid us up and on. The crisp air
and the surpassing beauty of the morning stirred within us new hope and
renewed ambition. And the bags of jerked venison and the grease gave
us faith that we should succeed in reaching our goal. Though we had
some food in stock, there was to be no cessation in our effort to get
fish; our plan was for Hubbard to try his rod at the foot of every
rapid while George and I did the portaging.
Before midday Hubbard had forty trout, one of them sixteen inches
long—the biggest we had caught yet. We stopped for luncheon on the
sandy shore of a pretty little lake expansion, and ate the whole
morning's catch, fried in caribou tallow, with unsweetened coffee to
wash it down. Then on we pushed towards the Kipling Mountains. At a
narrow strait between two lakes we left Hubbard to fish, George and I
going on two miles farther to the place where we had spent that chilly
night while scouting, and where our camp for this night was to be
Our object in going there was to give George another chance to view the
country on the other side of the mountain range. This time he was to
try another peak. As he disappeared up the mountain side, I paddled
back to get Hubbard, who was awaiting me with a good string of big
trout. The two-mile stretch of lake from where Hubbard was fishing to
our camping ground was as smooth as a sheet of glass. The sun hanging
low over the mountains and reflecting their nude forms in the silvery
water, and the dark green forest of fir trees on the shores moved
Hubbard to exclamations of delight.
"Oh, if it could be painted just as it appears now!" he said. "Why,
Wallace, this one scene is worth all the groaning we've done to get
here. It's grand! grand!"
At dark George returned to camp with the report that from his peak he
could see only higher mountains looming up to the westward. In the
shadow of the grey rocks of the grim old mountains that so stubbornly
held their secret of what lay beyond, we had a good supper of trout and
were happy, though through the gulch the creek roared defiance at us,
and off in the night somewhere a loon would break out at intervals in
derisive laughter. At the base of the mountains the narrow lake
reflected a million stars, and in their kindly light the snow and ice
patches on the slopes above us gleamed white and brilliant.
With our day's work the listlessness from which we had recently
suffered had entirely disappeared, and we felt ready to undertake any
task, the more difficult the better. Hubbard suggested giving up route
hunting if our river ended where we then were, and striking right
across the mountains with our outfit on our backs, and we received the
suggestion with enthusiasm. He talked, too, a great deal about
snowshoeing in winter to St. Augustine on the St. Lawrence, cutting
across country from the Kenemish River, which flows into Groswater Bay
opposite Northwest River Post. This trip, which he held out as a
possibility in the event of our missing the last steamer out from
Rigolet, seemed to appeal to him immensely.
"I don't care if we are too late for the steamer," he said; "that
snowshoeing trip would be a great stunt."
We found a great many wigwam poles near and in the pass hard by our
camp, while by the creek we came across the remains of both summer and
winter camps, probably those of hunters. "One of the beggars was
high-toned," said George; "he had a stove." This was evidenced by the
arrangement of stones within the circle of wigwam poles, and a few
pieces of wood cut stove-size.
On Tuesday morning (August 18) we turned back and into the long, narrow
lake expansions to the eastward, and soon satisfied ourselves that this
was the right course. Our thermometer registered 28 degrees that
morning. The day dawned clear and perfect; it was a morning when one
draws in long breaths, and one's nerves tingle, and life is a joy.
Early in the forenoon we reached rapids and quickly portaged around
them; all were short, the largest being not more than half a mile. At
ten o'clock we ate luncheon at the foot of one of the rapids where we
caught, in a few minutes, fourteen large trout. Just above this rapid
the river opened into long, narrow lakes, and the canoeing was superb.
Suddenly the river took a sharp turn to the westward, and appeared to
lead directly into the mountains. At that we sent up three rousing
cheers—the river problem seemed to be solved; apparently the road to
Michikamau lay straight before us.
A little above the bend in the river we came upon an old gander and
goose and two unfeathered young. The gander with a great squawk and
flapping wings took to the bush, but we killed the old goose with a
rifle, and George "knocked over," as he expressed it, one of the young
ones with a pistol. More luck (and food) came to us a little later.
While George and I portaged around the last rapid that evening, Hubbard
caught fifty trout averaging over a pound each. They jumped greedily to
the fly, four or five rising at every cast.
Above this rapid the river again took the form of a long, narrow
lake—a lake so beautiful that we were entranced. It was evening when
we arrived, and the very spirit of peace seemed to brood over the
place. Undoubtedly we were the first white men that had ever invaded
its solitude, and the first human beings of any kind to disturb its
repose for many years. On the north a barren, rocky bluff rose high
above the water; at all other places the shores were low and wooded. A
few miles to the westward could be seen the barren Kipling Mountains,
and between them and us was a ridge of low hills covered with
black-green spruce. The sun was setting in our faces as we paddled
slowly along the lake, and as it went down behind the mountains a veil
was gradually drawn over the lovely scene. Not a breath of air was
stirring, and hardly a sound broke the stillness save the ripple at the
bow of the canoe and the soft splash of the paddles. In the placid
waters two otters were swimming and diving. One was timid and remained
at a distance, but the other was bold and inquisitive and came close to
the canoe. Here and there all over the lake, its mirror-like surface
was broken by big jumping trout. Two loons laughed at us as we drew
the canoe on to the sandy beach of a low jutting point, and they
continued to laugh while we pitched our camp in the green woods near
the shore and prepared our supper of roast goose. It was a feast day.
With goose, plenty of trout and good water for paddling, it was a time
to eat, drink, and be merry.
Our high spirits still remained when we broke camp in the morning
(Wednesday, August 19), but they were destined soon to be dashed. Not
long after we started we found ourselves in good-sized lakes, with arms
extending in every direction. All day we hunted for the river, but
found only small streams emptying into the lakes. The country now was
much rougher, and much more rocky and barren, than any we had seen
since we left the coast. The trees were more stunted and gnarled, and
the streams usually had a bed-rock bottom. In the course of the day
Hubbard shot three rock ptarmigans—"rockers," George called them.
They were the first we had seen, and were still wearing their mottled
summer dress; later in the season they are a pure, spotless white.
Towards evening we made our way to a point on the northwesterly part of
the lakes where a small stream came through a mountain pass, and there
went into camp.
We were much disappointed at our failure to find the river, but not
disheartened. In order to make certain that we had not overlooked it,
we decided to paddle back the next day as far as the last rapid and
make one more careful search. Failing then to find the river, we
should portage through the mountain pass at the entrance to which we
"Do you remember," asked Hubbard, "the slogan of the old Pike's
Peakers?—'Pike's Peak or Bust?'"
"Yes," said I; "and very often they busted."
"Well," said Hubbard, "we'll adopt it and change it to our needs.
'Michikamau or Bust,' will be our watchword now."
And sitting around the fire, we all took it up and repeated
determinedly, "Michikamau or Bust!"
The morning of the next day (Thursday, August 20) we occupied in
mending our moccasins with parts of the caribou skin. George also took
the venison from the bags and hung it over the fire to give it a little
more drying, as it had begun to mould. In the afternoon Hubbard and I,
in accordance with the plan we had adopted, paddled back over our
course and re-explored the lower lakes. We discovered nothing new.
The fact was that these lakes were the source of the Beaver River.
While we were paddling about we came upon two old and two young loons.
The old ones tried to lure us away from their young, by coming very
near the canoe. The young loons made frequent dives, but we succeeded
in catching one of them. Finally, however, we restored it to its
parents, and when the loon family was re-united there was great
rejoicing in the household. In the pool at the foot of the last rapid
we spent an hour fishing, and caught eighty-one trout, averaging,
perhaps, a half-pound each. Upon our return to camp in the evening we
dressed our catch and hung the fish to dry over a slow, smoky fire.
The river having come to an end, our only course now was to cross the
mountains, and on Friday (August 21), with "Michikamau or Bust!" for
our slogan, we began our portage along the stream that flowed through
the pass near our camp. A heavy rain was falling. During the first
part of the day, in the course of which we crossed three small ponds,
the travelling was fairly good; but during the latter part it was
exceedingly rough and difficult. We pitched our tent that night on the
divide; in other words, we had reached the place where small streams
flowed both east and west.
The cold rain continued when we broke camp the next morning (Saturday,
August 22). For a time we again encountered rough work, forcing a
passage over rocks and through thick brush and scrambling down high
banks, and then, as we neared the end of the pass, the portage became
less difficult. Before noon we came upon a lake of considerable size
and unmistakable signs that in directing our course through the pass we
had kept upon the old Indian trail. On the edge of the lake—we shall
call it Lake Hope—trees had been blazed to make plain the exact point
where the portage trail left the water, and near this place were sweat
holes where the medicine men had given baths to the sick. Much drift
wood showing axe cuttings was on the shore, and we picked up an old
canoe paddle of Indian make. All this led us to believe we were on
waters connected directly with Lake Michikamau (which was the fact),
and we thought that possibly we had reached a deep bay said to extend
from the main body of the lake some thirty miles in a southeasterly
Where we launched our canoe the mountain pass was very narrow, and on
the southerly side, rising almost perpendicularly from the water to a
height of eight or nine hundred feet, stood a hill of absolutely bare
rock. The wind was blowing the rain in sheets over its face, and,
despite the wet and chill, we paused to enjoy the grandeur of the
scene. We had travelled about six miles through the pass, and this
hill marked its end; the mountain barrier that at one time seemed so
formidable had not proved so difficult to cross after all. And in
accomplishing the pass we had reached the great interior plateau—the
land that lay hidden behind the ranges.
After we had paddled along Lake Hope a hundred yards, we struck a
sharp-pointed rock that tore a hole through the bottom of the canoe.
This accident forced us to take refuge on a near-by island where George
could repair the damage and procure gum from the spruce trees to cover
Sunshine came with Sunday morning (August 23), and we dried our
blankets and camp outfit before starting forward, so that it was after
ten o'clock when we quit the island. Lake Hope proved to be long and
narrow, and we soon realised that it could not be Michikamau's
southeast bay; but at the western end we hoped to find a strait
connecting it with another lake, and as we approached the western end
with a feeling of uncertainty as to what lay beyond, George remarked:
"It's like goin' into a room where there's a Christmas tree."
Sure enough there was a strait, and as we turned into it, we saw beyond
big water stretching away to the westward for miles. "There's a
Christmas tree without a doubt," said Hubbard. We felt positive now
that this second lake was Michikamau's southeast bay, and we broke the
solemn stillness of the wilderness with three lusty cheers. It is
violating no confidence to say here that the second lake was not
Michikamau's southeast bay; it was simply the peculiarly-shaped body of
water that appears on my map under the name, Lost Trail Lake.
Two and a half miles up Lost Trail Lake we climbed a barren ridge,
where we found blueberries, mossberries and bake-apple berries. The
latter berry is salmon-coloured, and grows on a plant resembling that
of the strawberry. The berry itself resembles in form the raspberry,
and has a flavour like that of a baked apple, from which fact it
derives its name. It ripens after the first frost. The mossberry is
small and black, resembling in shape and size the blueberry, and is
sweet and palatable after being touched with frost. It is usually
found on the moss clinging to rocks. On the ridge it grew in
abundance, and we ate a great many. The blueberry of Labrador is
similar to the blueberry of the United States.
Some distance beyond where we got the berries we went into camp.
Trolling on the way, we caught a namaycush (lake trout), the first we
had seen on the trip. In our camp on Lost Trail Lake we were held all
of Monday (August 24) by a gale that beat the water into a fury. We
took advantage of the opportunity to try our gill net, sinking it on
the lee shore, but it was so rotten it would not hold a fish large
enough to get fast in it, and we finally threw it away as a useless
In the course of the day Hubbard and climbed a hill not far away, while
I remained in camp to do some "chores." They found bake-apple berries
in abundance—the only spot we came across where they grew in any great
quantity—and had a good look at a lake we had previously sighted two
miles to the north. This lake was larger than the one we were on,
being about twenty-five miles long; it was, in fact, the largest body
of water by far that we had seen since leaving Grand Lake. Its size
impressed Hubbard with the fatal belief that it, rather than Lost Trail
Lake, was connected with Michikamau, and to it he decided to go. Our
experience there led us to call it Lake Disappointment.
We portaged into it on Tuesday morning (August 25). Our course was
over a neck of land which was mostly soft marsh partially covered with
spruce. We did not know then that in abandoning Lost Trail Lake for
Lake Disappointment we were wandering from the Indian trail to
Michikamau. Some Indians I met during the winter at Northwest River
Post told me that a river flowed out of the western end of Lost Trail
Lake into the very southeast bay of Lake Michikamau we were longing so
much to see. This was the trail. And we lost it.
We ate our luncheon on the southern shore of Lake Disappointment. That
afternoon and the next two days (August 26 and 27) we spent in paddling
about the lake in a vain search for a river. Thirty or more miles a
day we paddled, and found nothing but comparatively small creeks. One
of these we followed almost to its source, and then returned to the
lake again. We were living pretty well. While we were on these lakes
near the mountains we killed four geese and one spruce-grouse, and
caught about eighty half-pound trout, two two-pound namaycush and a
The pike we got in this unsportsmanlike manner: We were fishing for
trout in a creek that emptied into Lake Disappointment in a succession
of falls, and found that while there were some above the lower fall,
none could be induced to rise where the creek at the foot of the lower
fall made an ideal pool for them. We were lunching on a rock near this
pool when Hubbard suddenly remarked:
"There's only one reason why trout don't rise here."
"What's that?" I asked.
"Pike," he answered laconically, and left his luncheon to fasten a
trolling hook on his trout line. After he had fixed a piece of cork to
the line for a "bobber," he baited the hook with a small live trout and
dropped it into the pool. "Now we'll have a pike," said he.
Scarcely had he resumed his luncheon when the cork bobbed under, and he
grabbed his rod to find a big fish on the other end. He played it
around until it was near the shore, and as it arose to the surface I
put a pistol bullet through its head. Then Hubbard hauled in the line,
and he had our five-pound pike.
There were two occasions when we felt particularly like feasting. One
was when we were progressing with a clear course ahead and were happy,
and the other was when we were not sure of the way and were blue. That
night we were blue; so we had a feast of goose and pike. Hubbard
planked the pike, and it was excellent. All of our food was eaten now
without salt, but we were getting used to its absence.
After our feast Hubbard astonished George and me by taking out a new
pipe I had brought along to trade with the Indians, and filling it with
the red willow bark George and I had been mixing with our tobacco. We
watched him curiously as he lighted it; for, with the exception of a
puff or two on a cigarette, he had never smoked before. He finished
the pipe without flinching. I asked him how he liked it.
"Pretty good," he said. Then after a pause he added: "And I'll tell
you what; if ever I start out again on another expedition of this sort,
I am going to learn to smoke; watching you fellows makes me believe it
must be a great comfort."
George and I had been mixing red willow bark with our tobacco, because
our stock had become alarmingly low. In fact, it would have been
entirely gone had not Hubbard presented us with some black plug chewing
he had purchased at Rigolet to trade with the Indians. The plugs,
having been wet, had run together in one mass; but we dried it out
before the fire, and, mixed with the bark, it was not so bad. Later on
George and I took to drying out the tea leaves and mixing them with the
On Wednesday morning (August 26) when we left camp to continue the
search for a river, we decided to leave the caribou skin behind us; its
odour had become most offensive, and in spite of our efforts to keep
out the flies they had filled it with blows and it was now fairly
crawling with maggots. On Thursday when we were passing the same way,
George gave a striking example of his prescience. He was at the stern
paddle, and turned the canoe to the place where we had left the hide.
"What are you stopping for?" asked Hubbard.
"I thought I would get that caribou skin, wash it off, and take it
along," said George.
"What in the world do you expect to do with it?
"Well," answered George quietly, "we may want to eat it some day."
Hubbard and I both laughed. Nevertheless Hubbard jumped out of the
canoe with George and helped him wash the skin, and we took it along.
And, as George predicted, the day came when we were glad we did.
It was on Thursday night that, disgusted and weary, we gave up the
search for a river. Our camp was on the north shore of Lake
Disappointment, down near the western end. Hubbard now expressed the
opinion that we should have to portage north or northwest across
country. His idea was that by proceeding north we should eventually
reach the river that Low had mapped as flowing from Michikamau, the
so-called Northwest. If we reached the latitude in which the river was
supposed to be and could not find it, Hubbard's plan then called for
our turning directly west.
The situation that confronted us was serious. Hubbard had recently had
another attack of diarrhoea, and was weak. The patches we put on our
moccasins would last only a day or two, and we were practically
barefoot. Our rags were hanging in strips. Our venison was going
rapidly, and our flour was practically gone. To portage across country
meant that we should probably not have many opportunities for fishing,
as we should not have any stream to follow. Getting game had proved
uncertain. Even were we to face towards home, we had not sufficient
provisions to carry us half way to Northwest River Post.
That Thursday evening in camp we discussed the situation from all
sides. We knew that if we pressed on winter in all probability would
overtake us before we reached a post, but we decided that we should
fight our way on to Lake Michikamau and the George River. There was no
doubt about it, we were taking a long chance; nevertheless, we refused
to entertain the thought of turning back. Daring starvation, we should
on the morrow start overland and see what lay beyond the hills to the
northward. "Michikamau or Bust!" was still our slogan.