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birch canoe, ragged almost to nakedness, bare of feet, gray headed, nearly toothless but happier than an emperor— the first living being we had seen for a week in the muskegs. We camped together that night on the sand bars —trading Sam Ba'tiste flour and matches for a couple of ducks. He had been storm stead camped in the goose grass for three days. Do you think he was to be pitied? Don't! Three days hunting will lay up enough meat for Sam for the winter. In the winter, he will snare some small game, mink, and otter and muskrat; and these will earn him flour and clothes from the fur trader. Each of Sam's sons is earning $700 a year hunting big game on the rock ridge farther north— more than illiterate, unskilled men earn net in Eastern lands spring, Sam will emerge from his cabin —wood is free—and build another birch canoe, and paddle away in freedom and peace to the duck and wild geese haunts. W hen we paddled off in the morning, Sam still camped on the sand bank. He sat squat whittling away at kin-a-kin-ic, or the bark of the red willow, the hunter's free tobacco. In town, Sam would be poverty stricken, hungry, a beggar. Here, he is a lord of his lonely watery domain, more independent and care-free than you are—peace to his aged bones!
Another night coming through the muskegs, we lost ourselves. We had left our Indian at the fur post and trusted to follow southwest 200 miles to the next fur post by the sun ; but there was no sun, only heavy lead-colored clouds with a rolling wind that whipped the amber waters to froth and flooded the sand banks. If there was any current, it was reversed by the wind. We should have thwarted the main muskeg by a long narrow channel, but mistook our way thinking to follow the main river by taking the broadest opening. It led us into a lake seven miles across;
not deep, for every paddle stroke tangled into the long water weed known as mermaid's hair but deep enough for trouble when you consider the width of the lake, the lack of dry footing the width of one's hand, and the fact that you can't offer the gun'l of a canoe to the broadside of a big wave. We scattered our dunnage and all three squatted in the bottom to prevent the rocking of the big canoe. Then we thwarted and tacked and quartered to the billows for a half day.
Nightfall found us back in the channel again scudding before thunder and hurricane wind looking for camping place. It had been a back-breaking pace all day. We had tried to find relief by the Indian's choppy strokes changing every third dip from side to side; and we had tried the white man's deep long pulling strokes; and at seven in the evening with the thunder rolling behind and not a spot of dry land visible the size of one's foot, backs began to feel as if they might break in the middle. Our canoe and dunnage weighed close on 700 pounds. Suddenly we shot out of the ainber channel into a shallow lagoon lined on each side by the high tufted reeds; but the reeds were so thin we could see through them to lakes on each side. A whirr above our heads and a flock of teal almost touched us with their wings. Simultaneously, all three dropped paddles—all three were speechless. The air was full of voices. You could not hear yourself think. We lapped the canoe close in hiding to the thin lining of reeds.
"Sexsmith," I asked, "have those little sticks drifted down 1500 miles to this lagoon of dead water?"
"Sticks," he repeated, "it isn't sticks —it isn't drifts—it's birds—it's duck and geese—I have never seen anything like it—I have lived West more than twenty years and I never heard tell of anything—of anything like it." Anything like it? I had lived all my life in the West and I had never heard or dreamed any oldest timer tell anything like it! For seven miles, you could not have laid your paddle on the water without disturbing' coveys of geese and duck, geese and duck of such variety as I have never seen classified or
named in any book on birds. We sat very still behind the hiding of reed and watched and watched. We couldn't talk. We had lost ourselves in one of the secluded breeding places of wild fowl in the North. I counted dozens and dozens of moult nests where the duck had congregated before their long flight south. That was the night we could find camping ground only by building a foundation of reeds and willows, then spreading oil cloth on top; and all night our big tent rocked to the wind; for we had roped it to the thwarts of the canoe. How the guide held his taut, I don't know. Next day when we reached the fur post, the chief trader told us any good hunter could fill his canoe—the big white banded gray canoe of The Company, not the little seven banded birch craft—with birds to the gun'l in two hours' shooting on that lake.
That muskeg is only one of hundreds of thousands, when you go seventy miles north of the Saskatchewan, sixty miles east of Athabasca Lake. That muskeg and its like, covering an area two-thirds of all Europe, is the home of all the little furs—mink and muskrat and fisher and otter and rabbit and ermine, the furs that clothe—not princes and millionaire, who buy silver fox and sea otter—but you and me and the rest of us, whose object is to keep warm, not to show how much we can spend. Out of that one muskeg, hundreds of thousands of little pelts have been taken since 1754 when Anthony Hendry, the smuggler, first led the fur trader" inland from the Bay. Yet the game—save in the year of the unexplained rabbit pest—shows no sign of diminishing.
Does it sound very much to you like a region where the settler would ultimately drive out the fur trade? What would he settle on? That is the point. Nature has taken good care that climate and swamp shall erect an everlasting barrier to encroachment on her game preserves.
To be sure, if you ask a fur trader "how are furs?" he will answer "poor — poorer every year." So would you if you were a fur
trader and wanted to keep out rivals. I have never known a fur trader who did not make that answer.
To be sure, seal and sea otter, beaver and buffalo have been almost exterminated; but the extermination in one case has been the poacher, in the other the farm. Even today if the governments of the world, especially Canada and the United States would pass a law prohibiting the killing of a single buffalo or beaver, seal or sea otter for fifty years —these species would replenish themselves.
"The last chapter of the fur trade has been written?" Never! The oldest industry of mankind will last as long as mankind lasts.
I read also that "the last chapter of the fur romance has been written." That is the point of view of the man who spends fifty weeks in town and two weeks in the wilds. It is not the point of view of the man who spends two weeks in town and fifty in the wilds; of the man who goes out beyond the reach of law into strange realms the size of Russia with no law but his own right arm, no defense but his own wit. Though I have written an 800 page history of the Hudson's Bay Company straight from their own Minutes in Hudson's Bay House, London, I could write more of the romance of the fur trade right in the year 1911 than has ever been penned of the Company since it was established away back in the year 1670.
Space permits only two examples. You recall the Cambridge man, who thought it a short distance to go only fifty-five miles by dog train for a doctor. A more cultured, scholarly, perfect gentleman I have never met in London or New York. Yet when I met his wife, I found her a shy little, part-Indian girl, who had almost to be dragged in to meet us. That spiritual face—such a face as you might see among the preachers of Westminster or Oxford—and the little shy Indian girl-wife and the children, plainly a throw-back to their red-skin ancestors, not to the Cambridge paternity. What was the explanation? Where was the story of heartache and tragedy —I asked myself, as we stood in our tent door watching the York boat come in with provisions for the year under a sky of such diaphanous northern lights as leave you dumb before their beauty and their splendor? How often he must have stood beneath those northern lights thinking out the heartbreak that has no end.
I did not learn the story till I had come on down to civilization and town again. That Cambridge man had come out from England flush with the zeal of the saint to work among the Indians. In the Indian school where he taught he had met his Fate—the thing he probably scouted—that fragile type of Indian beauty almost fawn-like in its elusiveness, pure spirit from the very prosaic fact that the seeds of mortal disease are already snapping the ties to life. It is a type you never see near the fur posts. You have to go to the far outer encampments, where white vices have not pol
luted the very air. He fell in love. What was he to do? If he left her to her fate, she would go back to the inclement roughness of tepee life mated to some Indian hunter, or fall victim to the brutal admiration of some of those white sots, who ever seek hiding in the far wilderness. He married her, and had of course to resign his position as teacher in the school. He took a position with The Company and lived no doubt in such happiness as only such a spiritual nature could know; but the seeds of the disease which gave her such unearthly beauty, ripened. She died. What was to become of the children? If he sent them back to England, they would be wretched and their presence would be misunderstood. If he left them with her relatives, they would grow up Indians. If he kept them he must have a mother for them, so he married another trader's daughter — the little half-breed girl—and chained himself to his rock of Fate as fast as ever martyr was bound in Grecian myth; and there he lives today. The mail comes in only once in three months in summer, only once in six in winter. He is the only white man on a watery island 200 miles from anywhere except when the lumbermen come to the Ridge, or the Indian agent arrives with the treaty money once a year.
And "the last chapter of the fur romance has been written?"
"The last chapter of the fur romance" will not have been written as long as frost and muskeg provide a habitat for furtive game, and strong men set forth to traverse lone places with no defence but their own valiant spirit.
Space permits only one more example, and it is of a man known to every fur buyer of St. Louis and Chicago and St. Paul—Mr. Hall, the chief commissioner of furs for the Hudson's Bay Company. I wish I could give it in Mr. Hall's own words—in the slow quiet recital of the man who has spent his life amid the great silent verities, up next to primordial facts, not theorizing and professionalizing and discretionizing and generally darkening counsel by words without knowledge. He was a youth somewhere around his early twenties; and he was serving The Company at Stuart Lake in British Columbia—a sort of American Trossachs on a colossal scale. He had been sent with a party to bring some furs across from MacLeod Lake east in the most heavily wooded mountains. It was mid winter. Fort MacLeod was short of provisions. On their way back, travel proved very heavy and slow. Snow buried the beaten trail; and travel aside plunged men and horses through snow crust into a criss cross tangle of underbrush and windfall. The party ran out of food. It was thought if Hall, the youngest and lightest, could push ahead on snowshoes to Stuart Lake, he could bring out a rescue party with food.
He set off without horse or gun and only a lump of tallow in his pocket as food. The distance was seventy-five miles. At first he ran on winged feet— feet winged with hunger; but it began to snow heavily with a wind that beat in his face and blew great gusts of snow pack down from the evergreen branches overhead; and even feet winged with hunger and snowshoes clog from soft snow and catch derelict branches sticking up through the drifts. By the time you have run half a day beating against the wind, reversing your own tracks to find the chipped mark on the bark of the trees to keep you on the blazed trail
—-you are hungry. Hall began to nibble at his tallow as he ran and to snatch handfuls of snow to quench his thirst. At night he kindled a roaring big whiteman-fire against the wolves, dried out the thawed snow from his back and front, dozed between times, sang to keep the loneliness off, heard the muffled echo come back to him in smothered voice, and at first streak of dawn ran on and on and on.
By the second night, Hall had eaten all his tallow. He had also reefed in his belt so that his stomach and spine seemed to be camping together. The snow continued to fall. The trees swam past him as he ran. And the snow drifts lifted and fell as he jogged heavily forward. Of course, he was not dizzy. It was the snow blindness or the drifts. He was well aware the second night that if he would have let himself, he would have dug down a sleeping hole in the snow and wrapped himself in a . snow blanket and slept and slept; but he thrashed himself awake, and set out again, dead heavy with sleep, weak from fatigue, staggering from hunger; and the wings on his feet had become weighted with lead.
He knew it was all up with him when he fell. He knew if he could get only a half hour's sleep, it would freshen him up so he could go on. Lots of winter travelers have known that in the North; and they have taken the half hour's sleep; and another half hour's; and have never wakened. Anyway, something wakened Hall. He heard the crackle of a branch. That was nothing. Branches break to every storm; but this was like branches breaking under a moccasin. It was unbelievable; there was not the slightest odor of smoke, unless the dream odor of his own delirious hunger; but not twenty paces ahead crackled an Indian fire, surrounded by buckskin tepees, Indians warming themselves by the fire.
With an unspeakable revulsion of hope and hunger, Hall flung to his feet and dashed into the middle of the encampment. Then a tingling went over his body like the wakening from death, of frost to life—blind stabbing terror obsessed his body and soul; for the fire was smokeless, the figures were speechless, transparent, unaware of his pres