YOUNG ALASKANS IN THE FAR NORTH
BY EMERSON HOUGH Author of "YOUNG ALASKANS IN THE ROCKIES" ETC.
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS
NEW YORK AND LONDON
YOUNG ALASKANS IN THE FAR NORTH
Copyright, 1918, by Harper & Brothers Printed in the United States of America
I. THE START FOR THE MIDNIGHT SUN 1 II. THE SCOWS 12 III. THE GREAT BRIGADE 32 IV. THE GRAND RAPIDS 51 V. WHITE-WATER DAYS 64 VI. ON THE STEAMBOAT 79 VII. THE WILD PORTAGE 89 VIII. ON THE MACKENZIE 112 IX. UNDER THE ARCTIC CIRCLE 132 X. FARTHEST NORTH 149 XI. THE MIDNIGHT SUN 164 XII. THE RAT PORTAGE 176 XIII. DOWN THE PORCUPINE 192 XIV. AT FORT YUKON 212 XV. THE FUR TRADE 222 XVI. DAWSON, THE GOLDEN CITY 231 XVII. WHAT UNCLE DICK THOUGHT 246
THE FIRST PORTAGE—SLAVE RIVER. "THE SCOWS WERE HAULED UP THE STEEP BANK BY MEANS OF BLOCK AND TACKLE" Frontispiece
AN ENCAMPMENT OF ESKIMOS ON THE BEACH AT FORT MCPHERSON Facing p. 55
HUSKY FLEET—FORT MCPHERSON " 172
HUSKY DOG—RAMPART HOUSE " 206
YOUNG ALASKANS IN THE FAR NORTH
THE START FOR THE MIDNIGHT SUN
"Well, fellows," said Jesse Wilcox, the youngest of the three boys who stood now at the ragged railway station of Athabasca Landing, where they had just disembarked, "here we are once more. For my part, I'm ready to start right now."
He spoke somewhat pompously for a youth no more than fifteen years of age. John Hardy and Rob McIntyre, his two companions, somewhat older than himself, laughed at him as he sat now on his pack-bag, which had just been tossed off the baggage-car of the train that had brought them hither.
"You might wait for Uncle Dick," said John. "He'd feel pretty bad if we started off now for the Arctic Circle and didn't allow him to come along!"
Rob, the older of the three, and the one to whom they were all in the habit of looking up in their wilderness journeyings, smiled at them both. He was not apt to talk very much in any case, and he seemed now content in these new surroundings to sit and observe what lay about him.
It was a straggling little settlement which they saw, with one long, broken street running through the center. There was a church spire, to be sure, and a square little wooden building in which some business men had started a bank for the sake of the coming settlers now beginning to pass through for the country along the Peace River. There were one or two stores, as the average new-comer would have called them, though each really was the post of one of the fur-trading companies then occupying that country. Most prominent of these, naturally, was the building of the ancient Hudson's Bay Company.
A rude hotel with a dirty bar full of carousing half-breeds and rowdy new-comers lay just beyond the end of the uneven railroad tracks which had been laid within the month. The surface of the low hills running back from the Athabasca River was covered with a stunted growth of aspens, scattered among which here and there stood the cabins or board houses of the men who had moved here following the rush of the last emigration to the North. There were a few tents and lodges of half-breeds also scattered about.
"Well, Uncle Dick said we would be starting right away," argued Jesse, a trifle crestfallen.
"Yes," said Rob, "but he told me we would be lucky if 'right away' meant inside of a week. He said the breeds always powwow around and drink for a few days before they start north with the brigade for a long trip. That's a custom they have. They say the Hudson's Bay Company has more customs than customers these days. Times are changing for the fur trade even here.
"Where's your map, John?" he added; and John spread out on the platform where they stood his own rude tracing of the upper country which he had made by reference to the best government maps obtainable. Their uncle Dick, engineer of this new railroad and other frontier development enterprises, of course had a full supply of these maps, but it pleased the boys better to think that they made their own maps—as indeed they always had in such earlier trips as those across the Rockies, down the Peace River, in the Kadiak Island country, or along the headwaters of the Columbia, where, as has been told, they had followed the trails of the wilderness in their adventures before this time.
They all now bent over the great sheet of paper, some of which was blank and marked "Unknown."
"Here we are, right here," said John, putting his finger on the map. "Only, when this map was made there wasn't any railroad. They used to come up from Edmonton a hundred miles across the prairies and muskeg by wagon. A rotten bad journey, Uncle Dick said."
"Well, it couldn't have been much worse than the new railroad," grumbled Jesse. "It was awfully rough, and there wasn't any place to eat."
"Oh, don't condemn the new railroad too much," said Rob. "You may be glad to see it before you get back from this trip. It's going to be the hardest one we ever had. Uncle Dick says this is the last great wilderness of the world, and one less known than any other part of the earth's surface. Look here! It's two thousand miles from here to the top of the map, northwest, where the Mackenzie comes in. We've got to get there if all goes well with us."
John was still tracing localities on the map with his forefinger. "Right here is where we are now. If we went the other way, up the Athabasca instead of down, then we would come out at the Peace River Landing, beyond Little Slave Lake. That's where we came out when we crossed the Rockies, down the Finlay and the Parsnip and the Peace. I've got that course of ours all marked in red."
"But we go the other way," began Jesse, bending over his shoulder and looking at the map now. "Here's the mouth of the Peace River, more than four hundred miles north of here, in Athabasca Lake. Both these two rivers, you might say, come together there. But look what a long river it is if you call the Athabasca and the Mackenzie the same! And look at the big lakes up there that we have read about. The Mackenzie takes you right into that country."
"The Mackenzie! One of the very greatest rivers of the world," said Rob. "I've always wanted to see it some time. And now we shall.
"I'd have liked to have been along with old Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the old trader who first explored it," he added, thoughtfully.
"I forget just what time that was," said Jesse, hesitating and scratching his head.
"It was in seventeen eighty-nine," said Rob, always accurate. "He was only a young Scotchman then, and they didn't call him Sir Alexander at all until a good while later—after he had made some of his great discoveries. He put up the first post on Lake Athabasca—right here where our river discharges—and he went from there to the mouth of the Mackenzie River and back all in one season."
"How did they travel?" demanded John. "They must have had nothing better than canoes."
"Nothing else," nodded Rob, "for they could have had nothing else. They just had birch-bark canoes, too, not as good as white men take into that country now. There were only six white men in the party, with a few Indians. They left Athabasca Lake—here it is on the map—on June third, and they got to the mouth of the great river in forty days. That certainly must have been traveling pretty fast! It was more than fifteen hundred miles—almost sixteen hundred. But they got back to Athabasca Lake in one hundred and two days, covering over three thousand miles down-stream and up-stream. Well, we've all traveled enough in these strong rivers to know how hard it is to go back up-stream, whether with the tracking-line or the paddle or the sail. They did it."
"And now we're here to see what it was that they did," said Jesse, looking with some respect at the ragged line on the map which marked the strong course of the Mackenzie River toward the Arctic Sea.
"He must have been quite a man, old Alexander Mackenzie," John added.
"Yes," said Rob. "As you know, he came back to Athabasca and started up the Peace River in seventeen ninety-three, and was the first man to cross to the Pacific. We studied him over in there. But he went up-stream there, and we came down. That's much easier. It will be easier going down this river, too, which was his first great exploration place.
"Now," he continued, "we'll be going down-stream, as I said, almost two thousand miles to the mouth of that river. Uncle Dick says we'll be comfortable as princes all the way. We'll have big scows to travel in, with everything fixed up fine."
"Here," said Jesse, putting his finger on the map hesitatingly, "is the place where it says 'rapids.' Must be over a hundred miles of it on this river, or even more."
"That's right, Jess," commented John. "We can't dodge those rapids yet. Uncle Dick says that the new railroad in the North may go to Fort McMurray at the foot of this great system of the Athabasca rapids. That would cut out a lot of hard work. If there were a railroad up there, a fellow could go to the Arctics almost as easy as going to New York."
"I'd rather go to the Midnight Sun now," said Rob. "There's some trouble about it now, and there's some wilderness now between here and there. It's no fun to do a thing when it's too easy. I wouldn't give a cent to go to Fort McPherson, the last post north, by any railroad."
John was still poring over the map, which lay upon the rude boards of the platform, and he shook his head now somewhat dubiously. "Look where we'll have to go," he said, "and all in three months. We have to get back for school next fall."
"Never doubt we can do it," said Rob, stoutly. "If we couldn't, Uncle Dick would never try it. He's got it all figured out, you may be sure of that, and he's made all his arrangements with the Hudson's Bay Company. You forget they've been going up into this country for a hundred years, and they know how long it takes and how hard it is. They know all about how to outfit for it, too."
"The hardest place we'll have," said John, following his map with his finger now almost to the upper edge, "is right here where we leave the Mackenzie and start over toward the Yukon, just south of the Arctic Ocean. That's a whizzer, all right! No railroad up in there, and I guess there never will be. That's where so many of the Klondikers were lost, my father told me—twenty years ago that was."
"They took a year for it," commented Rob, "and sometimes eighteen months, to get across the mountains there. They built houses and passed the winter, and so a great many of them got sick and died. But twenty years ago is a long time nowadays. We can do easily what they could hardly do at all. Uncle Dick has allowed us about three weeks to cover that five hundred miles over the Rat Portage!"
"Well, surely if Sir Alexander Mackenzie could make that trip in birch-bark canoes, over three thousand miles, with just a few men who didn't know where they were going, we ought to be able to get through now. That was a hundred and twenty-eight years ago, I figure it, and a lot of things have happened since then." John spoke now with considerable confidence.
"Well, Uncle Dick will take care of us," said Jesse, the youngest of these adventurers.
"Yes, and we'll take care of ourselves all we can," added Rob. "Uncle Dick tells me that the trouble with the Klondikers was that they didn't know how to take care of themselves out of doors. A lot of them were city people fresh to all kinds of wilderness work, and they simply died because they didn't know how to do things. They were tenderfeet when they started. A good many of them died before they got through. Some of those who did get through are the prominent men of Alaska to-day. But we're not tenderfeet. Are we, boys?"
"No, indeed," said Jesse, stoutly. "As I said, I'm ready to start." And he again puffed out his chest with much show of bravery, although, to be sure, the wild country in which he now found himself rather worked on his imagination.
It had required all the persuasion of Uncle Dick, expert railway engineer in wilderness countries, to persuade the parents of these three boys to allow them to accompany him on this, his own first exploration into the extreme North, under the Midnight Sun itself. He had promised them—and something of a promise it was, too—to bring the young travelers back safely to their home in Valdez, on the Pacific Ocean, in three months from the time they left the head of the railroad at Athabasca Landing.
"Well, now," said John, folding up his map and putting it back in his pocket, "here comes Uncle Dick at last. I only hope that we won't have to wait long, for it seems to me we'll have to hustle if we get through on time—over five thousand miles it will be, and in less than ninety days! I'll bet Sir Alexander Mackenzie himself couldn't have beat that a hundred years ago."
"Well, well, young gentlemen," called out the tall and bronze-faced man who now strode toward them across the railway platform, "did you think I was never coming? I see that you are holding down your luggage."
"Not a hard thing to do, was it, Uncle Dick?" said Jesse. "We haven't got very much along."
"That all depends. Let me tell you, my young friends, on this trip every fellow has to look out for himself the best he can. It's the hardest travel you've ever had. You must keep your eye on your own stuff all along."
"What do you mean—that we must be careful or some one will steal our things?" demanded Jesse.
"No, there isn't so very much danger of theft—that is, from the breeds or others along the way; they'll steal whisky, but nothing else, usually. But it's a rough country, and there are many portages, much changing of cargoes. Each chap must keep his eye on his own kit all the time, and look out for himself the best way he can. That's the lesson of this great North. It's the roughest country in the world. As you know, there is an old saying among the fur-traders that no man has ever whipped the North.
"I was thinking more especially about the dogs," he added, nodding toward the luggage on which the boys were sitting.
"And what do you mean about the dogs, Uncle Dick?" asked Jesse.
"Well, those are the beggars that will steal you blind. They'll eat anything they can swallow and some things they can't. I've had them eat the heels off a pair of boots, and moccasins are like pie for them. They would eat your hat if you left it lying—eat the pack-straps off your bag. So don't leave anything lying around, and remember that goes now, and all the way through the trip."
"Are there dogs all the way through?" asked John, curiously.
"Yes, we're in the dog country, and will be for five thousand miles down one river and across and up the other. You'll not see a cow or a sheep, and only two horses, in the next three months. North of Smith's Landing, which is at the head of the Mackenzie River proper, there never has been a horse, and I think there never will be one. The dogs do all the hauling and all the packing—and they are always hungry. That's what the fellows tell me who have been up there—the whole country starves almost the year round, and the dogs worst of all. I'm just telling you these things to be useful to you, because we've got nothing along which we can afford to spare."
"When are we going to start, Uncle Dick?" demanded Jesse, once more, somewhat mindful of the recent laughter of his companions at his eagerness.
"Well, that's hard to say," replied his elder relative. "I'd like to start to-morrow morning. It all depends on the stage of the water. If a flood came down the Athabasca to-morrow you'd see pretty much every breed in that saloon over there stop drinking and hurry to the scows."
"What's that got to do with it?" asked John.
"Well, when the river goes up the scows can run the Grand Rapids, down below here, without unloading, or at least without unloading everything. If the river is low so that the rocks stand out, the men have to portage every pound of the brigade stuff. The Grand Rapids are bad, let me tell you that! It is only within the last fifty years that any one has ever tried to run them. I'll show you the man who first went through—an old man now over seventy; but he was a young chap when he first tried it. Well, he found that he could get through, so he tried it over again. He and others have been guiding on those rapids ever since. That cuts off the old Clearwater trail from here to Fort McMurray, which used to be their old way of getting north.
"So now you see," he continued, "why these breeds like high water. It means less work for them. It's hard work for them at best, but a breed would rather risk his life than do any work he could escape. They know there is danger—there is hardly a brigade goes north which brings back all its men again.
"But come on now," he added. "It's almost time for supper. We'll go fix up our camp for the night."
The boys, each stoutly picking up his own pack-bag, followed their tall leader as he strode away. Their camp was far enough removed from the noise of the hotel bar to leave them in quiet and undisturbed.
"My, but the mosquitoes are thick!" said Jesse, brushing at his face with the broken bough which he had caught up. "I never saw them so bad."
"Well, Jesse," said Uncle Dick, smiling, "just you wait. Before you get back you'll say you never saw mosquitoes before in your life. The traders tell me that they are worse the farther north you go. They say it takes about two or three years for a new man to get used to them so that he can sleep or work at his best—it's a sort of nervousness that they stir up, though in time that wears off. I think also when they keep on biting you you get immune to the poison, so that it doesn't hurt so much."
"Don't they bite the half-breeds and Indians?" asked John.
"Certainly they bite them. You watch the breeds around a camp at night. Every fellow will cover up his head with his blanket, so that he can sleep or smother, as it happens. As for us, however, we've got our black headnets and our long-sleeved gloves. Dope isn't much good. No one cares much for mosquito dope in the Far North; you'll see more of it in the States than you will in here, because they have learned that it is more or less useless.
"Our big mosquito tent is just the same as the one we took down the Columbia River with us—the one that the Indians cut the end out of when we gave it to them! I've tried that tent all through Alaska in my work, and everywhere in this part of the world, and it's the only thing for mosquitoes. You crawl in through the little sleeve and tie it after you get inside, and then kill the mosquitoes that have followed you in. The windows allow you to get fresh air, and the floor cloth sewed in keeps the mosquitoes from coming up from below. It's the only protection in the world."
"But I saw a lot of little tents or bars down in the camp near the river a little while ago," said Rob.
"Precisely. That's the other answer to the mosquito question—the individual mosquito bar-tent. They are regularly made and sold in all this northern country now, and mighty useful they are, too. As you see, it's just a piece of canvas about six feet long and one breadth wide, with mosquito bar sewed to the edges. You tie up each corner to a tree or stick, and let the bar of cheese-cloth drop down around your bed, which you make on the ground. When you lie down you tuck the edge under your blankets, and there you are! If you don't roll about very much you are fairly safe from mosquitoes. That, let me say, is the typical individual remedy for mosquitoes in this country. Of course, when we are out on railroad work, map-making and writing and the like, we have to have something bigger and better than that. That sort of little tent is only for the single night. No doubt we'll use them ourselves, traveling along on the scows, because it is a good deal of trouble to put up a big wall tent every night.
"The distances in this country are so big," he added, after a time, explaining, "that every one travels in a hurry and spends no unnecessary work in making camp. We'll have to learn to break camp in ten minutes, and to make it in fifteen. I should say it would take us about thirty minutes to make a landing, build a fire, cook a meal, and get off again. There's no time to be wasted, don't you see?"
"I suppose Sir Alexander Mackenzie found that out himself when he first went down this river," said Rob.
"I'll warrant you he did! And his lesson has stuck in the minds of all these northern people to this day."
"Well, anyhow," commented Jesse, as one mosquito bit his hand, "I wish they wouldn't bother me while I'm eating."
"Now if John had said that," said Uncle Dick, "it wouldn't be so strange."
They all joined in his laughing at John, whose appetite made a standing joke among them. But John only laughed with them and went on with his supper. "There can't anybody bluff me out of a good meal," said he, "not even the mosquitoes."
"That's the idea," nodded his older adviser. "But really these insect pests are the great drawback of this entire northern country. Perhaps they will keep the settlers out as much as anything else. Fur-traders and trappers and travelers like ourselves—they can't stop for them, of course. We'll take our chances like Sir Alexander Mackenzie—eh, boys?"
"I'm not afraid," said Jesse.
"Nor I," added John.
And indeed they finished their evening meal, which they cooked for themselves, in fairly comfortable surroundings; and in their mosquito-proof tent they passed an untroubled night, each in the morning declaring that he had slept in perfect comfort.
"We'll leave the tents standing for a while," said Uncle Dick, "until we know just when we are going to embark. The brigade may pull out any day now. We'll have warning enough so that we can easily get ready. But come on now and we'll go over to the boat-yard," he added. "It's time we began to see about our own boat and to get our supplies ready for shipping."
They followed him through the straggling town down to the edge of the water-front, where the Athabasca, now somewhat turbulent in the high waters of the spring, rolled rapidly by.
Here there was a rude sort of lumber-yard, to all appearance, with the addition of a sort of rough shipyard. Chips and shavings and fragments of boards lay all about. Here and there on trestles stood the gaunt frames of what appeared to be rough flatboats, long, wide, and shallow, constructed with no great art or care. There was no keel to any one of these boats, and the ribs were flimsily put together.
"Well, I don't think much of these boats," grumbled John, as he passed among them slowly.
"Don't be too rough with them," said Uncle Dick, laughingly. "Like everything else up here, they may not be the best in the world, but they do for their purpose. These scows are never intended to come back, you must remember; all they have to do is to stand the trip down, for a month or two. All the frame houses of the Far North are made out of these scows; they break them up at the ends of the trips. Our boat may be part of a church before it gets through.
"Come now, and I'll introduce you to old Adam McAdam, the builder and pump-maker." He nodded toward an old man who was passing slowly here and there among the rude craft. "This old chap is no doubt over seventy-five years old, and he must have built hundreds of these boats in his time. He makes the pumps, too, and a pump has to go with every scow to keep it from sinking at first, before the seams get swelled up."
The old man proved pleasant enough, and with a certain pride showed them all about these rude craft of the fur trade. Each boat appeared to be about fifty feet in length and nearly twenty in width, the carrying capacity of each being about ten tons.
"Of course you know, my lads," said the old man, "a scow goes no faster than the river runs. Here's the great oar—twenty feet it is in length—made out of a young tree. The steersman uses that to straighten her up betimes. But there's nothing to make the boat run saving the current, do ye mind?"
"Well, that won't be so very fast," commented Rob, thinking of the long distances that lay ahead.
"Oh, we're not confined to scows for much more than two hundred and fifty miles," replied Uncle Dick. "At McMurray we get a steamer which carries us down-stream to Smith's Landing. That's the big and bad portage of the whole trip—that is to say, excepting the Rat Portage of five hundred miles over the Yukon. But when we get below the Smith's Landing portage we strike another Hudson's Bay Company steamer that takes us fast enough, day and night, all the way to the Arctic Circle. That's where we make our time, don't you see? These boats only get us over the rapids.
"Of course," he explained, a little later, "a few of them go on down, towed by the steamboats, because the steamboats are not big enough to carry all the freight which must go north. There are only two steamboats between us and the Arctic Circle now, barring one or two little ones which are not of much account. The scows have to carry all the supplies for the entire fur trade—trade goods, bacon, flour, and everything."
"Who's that old gentleman coming along there, Uncle Dick?" demanded Jesse, turning toward the end of the street.
"That's old Father Le Fevre," replied his uncle. "He's the purchasing agent for all the many missions of the Catholic Church in the Far North. Each year he comes in with ten or more scows, each carrying ten tons of goods. He may go as far as Chippewyan, and then come back, or he may go on to Great Slave. I understand there are two good Sisters going even farther north this year. No one knows when they will come back, of course; they'll be teachers up among the native schools.
"Well, now you see the transport system beyond the head of the rails in the Athabasca and Mackenzie country," he continued, as, hands in pocket, he passed along among the finished and unfinished craft which still lay in the shipyard.
Outside, moored to stumps along the shore, floated a number of the rude scows, some of which even now were partially laden. The leader of the expedition pointed out to one of these.
"That's our boat yonder, young men," said he. "You'll see that she has the distinction of a name. Most scows have only numbers on them, and each post gets certain scows with certain numbers. But ours has a name—the Midnight Sun. How do you like that?"
"That's fine, sir!" said Rob. "And we'll see to it that she doesn't come to grief as long as we use her."
"Well, it will only be for a couple of hundred miles or so," said Uncle Dick, "but I fancy there'll be nothing slow in that two hundred miles."
"Where will we eat?" demanded John, with his usual regard for creature comforts.
"That's easy," said Rob. "I know all about that. I saw two men loading a cook-stove on one of the scows. They took it out of a canoe, and how they did it without upsetting the canoe I can't tell, but they did it. I suppose we'll cook as we go along."
"Precisely," nodded Uncle Dick. "The cook-boat is the only thing that goes under steam. The cook builds his fire in the stove just as though he were on shore. When he calls time for meals, the men from the other boats take turns in putting out in canoes and going to the cook-boat for meals. Sometimes a landing is made while they eat, and of course they always tie up at night They have certain stages which they try to make. The whole thing is all planned out on a pretty good system, rough but effective, as you will see."
"Is he a pretty good cook?" asked John, somewhat demurring.
"Well, good enough for us, if he is good enough for the others," replied his uncle. "But I'll tell you what we might do once in a while. They do say that the two good Sisters who go north with the mission brigade know how to cook better than any half-breed. I've made arrangements so that we can eat on their scow once in a while if we like."
"What's that funny business on the end of our boat?" asked Jesse, presently, pointing to a rude framework of bent poles which covered the short deck at the stern of the boat.
"That's what they call a 'bower' up in this country," said Uncle Dick. "They have some curious old English words in here, even yet. Now a bower is simply a lot of poles, like an Indian wickiup, covering the end of your boat, as you see. You can throw your blankets over it, if you like, or green willows. It keeps the sun off. Since the Hudson's Bay Company charges a pretty stiff price for taking any passenger north, it tries to earn its money by building a bower for the select few, such as we are."
"I don't think that we need any bower," said Rob, and all the other boys shook their heads.
"A little sunshine won't hurt us," said Jesse, stoutly.
"But think of the style about it," laughed Uncle Dick, pleased to see the hardiness of his young charges. "Well, we'll do as we like about that. One thing, we've got to have a chance to see out, for I know you will want to keep your eyes open every foot of the way."
"Well, I wish the breeds would hurry up and get the boats loaded," added Jesse, impatiently, after a while. "There's nothing doing here worth while."
"Don't be too hard with the breeds," counseled Uncle Dick. "They're like children, that's all. This is the best time of the year for them, when the great fur brigade goes north. It couldn't go without them. The fur trade in this country couldn't exist without the half-breeds and the full-bloods; there's a half-dozen tribes on whom the revenues of this great corporation depend absolutely.
"You'll see now the best water-men and the best trail-men in the world. Look at these packages—a hundred pounds or better in each. Every pound of all that stuff is to be portaged across the Smith's Landing portage, and the Mountain Portage, and even at Grand Island, just below here, if the water is low. They have to carry it up from the scows to the steamboats, and from the steamboats to the shore. Every pound is handled again and again. It's the half-breeds that do that. They're as strong as horses and as patient as dogs; fine men they are, so you must let them have their little fling after their old ways; they don't know any better."
"How many of the fur posts are there in the North, Uncle Dick?" asked Rob, curious always to be exact in all his information.
"Well, let's see," pondered Uncle Dick, holding up his fingers and counting them off. "The first one above here is McMurray; that's one of the treaty posts where the tribes are paid their annuities by the Dominion government. It's two hundred and fifty-two miles from here, and there's where we hit our first steamboat, as I told you.
"Then comes Chippewyan, on Athabasca Lake. It was founded by Sir Alexander Mackenzie in seventeen eighty-eight, and from that time on it has been one of the most important trading-posts of the North—in fact, I believe it is the most important to-day, as it seems to be a sort of center, right where a lot of rivers converge. That's four hundred and thirty-seven miles from here. When you get that far in, my buckos, you'll be able to say that you are away from the hated pale-faces and fairly launched on your trip through the wildest wilderness the world has to-day. It is a hundred miles on to Smith's Landing—sixteen miles there of the fiercest water you ever saw in all your lives. Wagon portage there, but sometimes the boats go through. Fort Smith is at the other end of that portage.
"Next down is Fort Resolution, and that's seven hundred and forty-five miles from here. Hay River is eight hundred and fifteen, and Fort Providence nine hundred and five miles, and Fort Simpson, at the mouth of the Liard River, is a thousand and eighty-five miles from here. Getting along in the world pretty well then, eh?
"There are a few others as I recall them—Fort Wrigley, twelve hundred and sixty-five miles from here, and Fort Norman, fourteen hundred and thirty-seven miles. Now you come to Fort Good Hope, and that is right under the Arctic Circle. It is sixteen hundred and nine miles from here, where we are at the head of the railroads. If we are fast enough in our journey we'll get our first sight of the Midnight Sun at Good Hope, perhaps.
"The next post north of Good Hope is Arctic Red River, eighteen hundred and nineteen miles; and of course you know that the last post of the Hudson's Bay Company is Fort McPherson, on the Peel River, near the mouth of the Mackenzie. That is rated as eighteen hundred and nineteen miles by the government map-makers, who may or may not be right; being an engineer myself, I'll say they must be right! In round numbers we might as well call it two thousand miles.
"Well, that's your distance, young men, and here are the ships which are to carry you part of the way."
"And when we get to Fort McPherson we're not half-way through, are we, sir?" asked Rob.
"No, we're not, and if we were starting a hundred and twenty-eight years earlier than we are, with Sir Alexander Mackenzie, we would have to hustle to get back before the snows caught us. As it is, we'll hope some time in July to start across the Rat Portage. That's five hundred miles, just along the Arctic Circle, and in that five hundred miles we go from Canadian into American territory—at Rampart House, on the Porcupine River. Well, it's down-stream from there to the Yukon, and then we hit our own boats—more of them, and faster and more comfortable. I have no doubt, John, that you can get all you want to eat on any one of a half-dozen good boats that ply on the Yukon to-day from White Horse down to the mouth.
"Of course," he added, "this trip of ours is not quite as rough as it would have been twenty years ago when the Klondike rush began. The world has moved since then, as it always has moved and always will. I suppose some time white men will live in a good deal of this country which we now think impossible for a white man to inhabit. Little by little, as they learn the ways of the Indians and half-breeds, they will edge north, changing things as they go.
"But I don't want to talk about those times," he added, shrugging his shoulders. "I'm for the wilderness as it is, and I'm glad that you three boys and myself can see that country up there before it has changed too much. Not that it is any country for a tenderfoot now. You'll find it wild enough and rough enough. It has gone back since the Klondike rush. In travel you'll see the old ways of the Hudson's Bay Company, even although the independents have cut into their trade a little bit. You'll see the Far North much as it was when Sir Alexander first went down our river here.
"And as you go on I want you to study the old times, and the new times as well. That's the way, boys, to learn things. As for me, I found out long ago that the only way to learn about a country is not to look it up on a map, but to tramp across it in your moccasins.
"So now," he concluded, as they four stood at the river's brink, looking out at the long line of the scows swinging in the rapid current of the Athabasca, "that's the first lesson. What do you think of our boat, the Midnight Sun?"
"She's fine, sir!" said Rob, and the other boys, eagerly looking up into the face of their tall and self-reliant leader, showed plainly enough their enjoyment of the prospect and their confidence in their ability to meet what might be on ahead.
THE GREAT BRIGADE
"Roll out! Roll out!" called the cheery voice of Uncle Dick on the second morning of the stay at Athabasca Landing.
"Aye, aye, sir!" came three young voices in reply. The young adventurers kicked off their blankets and one by one emerged through the sleeve of the mosquito tent.
"What made you call us so early?" complained Jesse. "It's raining—it began in the night—and it doesn't look as if it were going to stop."
"Well, that's the very good news we've been waiting for!" said Uncle Dick. "It's been raining somewhere else as well as here. Look at the river—muddy and rising! That means that things will begin to happen in these diggings pretty soon now."
For experienced campers such as these to prepare breakfast in the rain was no great task, and they hurriedly concluded their preliminary packing. It was yet early in the day when they stood on the river-bank, looking at the great fleet of scows of the north-bound fur brigade as the boats now lay swinging in the stiffening current.
The river was indeed rising; the snow to the west was melting in the rains of spring. Time now for the annual fur brigade to be off!
At the river front already there had gathered most of the motley population of the place. Everything now was activity. Each man seemed to know his work and to be busy about it. The Company manager had general charge over the embarkation of the cargo, and certainly the men under him were willing workers.
A long line of men passed over the narrow planks which lay between the warehouses and across the muddy flats to the deep water where the boats lay. Each man carried on his shoulders a load which would have staggered the ordinary porter. All went at a sort of trot, so that the cargo was being moved rapidly indeed. It was obvious that these half-breeds, but now so lazy and roistering, were very able indeed when it came to the matter of work, and easy to see that they were, as Uncle Dick had said, the backbone of the fur trade of the North.
One after another a young half-breed would come hurrying down the street, his hair close cut and his face well washed, wearing all the finery for which he had been able to get credit, now that he had a prospect of wages coming in erelong. The resident population joined those idling about the warehouses and the boat-yard, for this was the greatest event of the year for them, with one exception—that is, the return of the much smaller brigade bearing the fur down from the northern country. This would come in the fall. Now it was spring, and the great fur brigade of the Company was starting north on its savage annual journey.
Here and there among these were strange faces also to be of the north-bound company now embarking. Good Father Le Fevre passed among them all, speaking to this or that man of the half-breeds pleasantly, they having each a greeting for him in turn. This was by no means his first trip with the brigade, and hundreds of the natives knew him.
The boys stood wondering at the enormous loads which these men carried from the warehouses out to the boats. Here a man might have on his back a great slab of side-meat weighing more than a hundred and fifty pounds, and on top of that a sack of flour or so. It was not unusual to see a slight young chap carrying a load of two or three hundred pounds, and some of the older and more powerful men engaged in a proud sort of rivalry among themselves, shouldering and carrying out literally enormous loads. It was said of one of these men that he once had carried a cook-stove weighing five hundred pounds on his back from the boat landing up the hill to one of the posts, a distance of many hundred yards.
"Well, at this rate," said Rob, after a time, "it won't take long before we'll be loaded and on our way. These men are simply wonders. Aren't they?"
Uncle Dick nodded his quiet assent.
"Our boat's getting loaded, too," said Jesse, pointing to where the Midnight Sun stood swinging in the current. "Look at them fill her up."
It was true; the factor in charge of the embarkation-work was checking out the cargo for each boat. Each scow had its number, and that number was credited to a certain fur-post along the great route to the mouth of the Mackenzie River. The supplies intended for each boat, therefore, went into the proper boats. All the cargo intended for Uncle Dick's party was marked in black, "M. S.," in courtesy to the name of this boat, the Midnight Sun, which carried no number at all.
"We'll not go as heavily loaded as some of the others," Uncle Dick explained, "although it is only courteous that we should take all we can, since transportation is so hard. We need only enough to take us to the mouth of the river and over the Rat Portage to the Yukon. Of course we'll forget all about our boat when we get below the rapids, but they'll tow her down alongside the steamer.
"I have told you," he went on, "that this is a starving country. Now you can see why. They can't possibly carry into that far-away region as much stuff as they need to eat and to wear. The Company does the best it can, and so do all these mission men do the best they can.
"Now you see how the brigade goes north—not in birch-bark canoes, but in scows, to-day. The scow has even taken the place of the old York boat. That was the boat which they formerly used on the Saskatchewan and some of these rivers for their up-stream work. It's a good deal like a Mackinaw boat. You'll see here, too, one or two scows with blunt ends, such as they call the 'sturgeon' nose. They tow a little easier than the square-ended scow. But these new square-facers are the best things in the world for going down-stream with the current."
"Hadn't we better get our packs ready?" asked Rob, methodical as ever.
"Yes," replied their leader, "you ought to get the bed rolls made up and the tent in its bag before very long. I don't think we'll be started a great while before sundown, but we'll get ready.
"It's enough to get ready," he continued. "Don't carry your own stuff down to the boats."
"Why not?" asked John, curiously. "We can do it easily enough."
"Well, you're in another sort of country now," said Uncle Dick to him, quietly. "Follow customs of the country. You must remember that the Hudson's Bay Company is a very old monopoly, and it has its own ways. Always it treats the natives as though they were children and it was the Great Father. A factor is a sort of king up here. He wouldn't think of carrying a pound of his own luggage for anything in the world. If he began that sort of thing the natives would not respect him as their bourgeois."
"Bourgeois? What does that mean?" asked John, again.
"Well, about the same as boss, I suppose. It's always necessary in dealing with ignorant and savage peoples to take the attitude that you are the boss, and that they are to do what you tell them. If you get too familiar or lower yourself too much with primitive people, they don't respect you, because they think you're afraid of them.
"Now, that has always been the custom of the Hudson's Bay Company in this work. In the old days, when things were more autocratic, when a factor went on a journey his people picked him up and carried him into his boat, and when he went ashore they picked him up and carried him out again. If anybody got wet or tired or hungry be sure it wasn't the boss!
"You see, young gentlemen, while I don't want you, of all things in the world, ever to be snobbish, I do want you to be observant. So just take this advice from me, and let these men do your work right at the start. They expect it, and they will treat you all the better—and of course you will treat them well."
"Who is that old pirate standing over there by the boat landing?" asked Jesse, presently, pointing to a tall, dark, and sinewy man with full black beard, who seemed to have a certain authority among the laborers.
"That's Cap. Shott. I've told you that he was the first man who ever ran the Grand Rapids of the Athabasca River. His real name is Louis Faisoneure. He's seventy-seven years old, but still he likes to go down with the brigade, part way at least.
"The quiet young man just beyond him is his son, Francois. He is the real captain—or commodore, as they call it—of the brigade, and has been for several years. He'll be the steersman on our boat, so that in one way you might say that the Midnight Sun, although not a Company boat, will pretty much be the flag-ship of the brigade this year. They're treating us as well as they know how, and I must say we'll have no cause to complain."
"Cap. Shott," as they nicknamed him, did indeed have a piratical look, as John had said. He stood more than six and a half feet in his moccasins, and was straight as an arrow, with the waist of a boy. His face was dark, his eyebrows very heavy and black, and his dark, full beard, his scant trousers held up with a brilliant scarf, and his generally ferocious appearance, gave him a peculiarly wild and outlandish look, although personally he was gentle as a child.
"Well, Cap. Shott," said Uncle Dick, approaching him, "we start to-day, eh?"
"Mebbe so, oui," replied the old man. "We load h'all the boats bimeby now. Yes, pretty soon bimeby we start, mebbe so, oui."
"Well," said Uncle Dick, smiling, as he turned to the boys, "that's about as definite as you can get anything. We'll start when we start! Just get your stuff ready to be embarked and tell the manager where it is. It will be on board all right."
"But what makes them start so late in the day?" demanded John, who was of an investigative turn of mind. "I should think the morning was the right time to start."
"Not so the great fur brigade," was his answer. "Nor was it the custom in the great fur brigades which went out with pack-trains from the Missouri in our own old days when there were buffalo and beaver. A short start was made on the first day, usually toward evening. Then when camp was made everything was overhauled, and if anything had been left behind it was not too far to send back to get it. Nearly always it was found that something had been overlooked.
"Now that's the way we'll do here, so they tell me. We'll run down the river a few miles, each boat as it is loaded, and then we'll make a landing. That will give each boat captain time to look over his stuff and his men—and, what is more, it will give each man time to run in across country and get a few last drinks. Some of them will come back to be confessed by their priest. Some will want to send supplies to their families who are left behind. On one excuse or another every man of the brigade will be back here in town to-night if we should start! Of course by to-morrow morning they'll be on hand again bright and early and ready for the voyage. You see, there are customs up here with which we have not been acquainted before."
It came out precisely as Uncle Dick had said. Very late in the afternoon—late by the clock, though not so late by the sun, which at this latitude sank very late in the west—there came a great shouting and outcry, followed by firing of guns, much as though a battle were in progress. Men, hurrying and crying excitedly as they ran, went aboard the boats. One after another the mooring-ropes were cast off. The poles and oars did their work, and slowly, piecemeal, but in a vast aggregate, the great Mackenzie brigade was on its way!
The first boat of the fleet, as had been predicted, ran no more than three or four miles before it pulled ashore at a landing-place which seemed well known to all. Here the scows came in slowly and clumsily, but without disorder and without damage, until the entire bank for a half-mile was turned into a sort of shipyard of its own.
Here and there men were working the little wooden pumps, because for the first day or two the scows were sure to leak.
The boys made their own camp that night aboard the boat. At each end was a short deck, and that in the rear offered space for their blanket beds. Rob undertook to sleep on top of the cargo under the edge of the great tarpaulin which covered all. They had their little Yukon stove, which accompanied them, and on the front deck, where a box of earth had been provided, they set this up and did their own cooking, as they preferred.
In the morning Father Le Fevre paddled over to them in a canoe from his own scow.
"Bon jour, gentlemen!" said he. "I called to ask you if you would not like to have breakfast with us. Sister Eloise is known for her skill in cookery."
The leader of our little party accepted with great cheerfulness, so that they all climbed into the canoe, and presently were alongside the mission scow. All over the great fleet of scows everything now was silent. Each boat had its watchman, but he alone, of all the crew, had remained aboard.
"My poor children!" said Father Le Fevre, smiling as he looked about him. "They indeed are like children. Presently they will come. Then we shall see."
Our young travelers now became acquainted with yet others of the north-bound party. Sister Eloise, stout and good-natured, proved herself all that had been promised as a cook.
"Yes, yes, she has gone north before," said the good Father. "But always she has fear of the water. When we go on the rapids Sister Eloise knits or tells her beads or reads—very hard indeed she reads or knits or prays! She is afraid, but does not like me to know it," and his eye twinkled as he spoke.
"Sister Vincent de Paul goes north for the first time," he said, smiling now at the other of the gray-habited nuns who found themselves in these strange surroundings. "She is called to Fort Resolution, and may stay there for some years. We do not know.
"And here," he added, pulling up by the ear a swarthy little boy who seemed more Indian than white, "this we will call Charl'. We are taking him back to his father, who is the factor at Resolution. His mother is native woman, as you see, and this boy has been at Montreal for two years at school. Eh bien, Charl', you will be good boy now? If not I shall tell your papa!
"You see," he explained to the others who now for the first time were getting some acquaintance of this mission-work, "we try to do the best we know, and to make life easier for these people in the Far North. It is a hard fortune that they have. Always they starve—never have they enough. And every year the great brigade goes north so that they may last yet another year."
Presently there came down overland to the fleet yet other men who made part of the strange, wild company. Cap. Shott, friendly and paternal in his way, brought on for introduction to the party the Dominion judge, who every year goes north to settle the legal disputes which may have arisen at the several posts for a considerable distance to the north. The judge had with him his clerk and secretary, and there was also a commissioner, as well as another official, a member of the Indian Department, who was bound north to pay the tribesmen their treaty money.
There came also the wife of a member of the Anglican Church, which, as well as the Catholic Church, has missions all along the great waterway almost to the Arctic Sea. So that, as may be seen, the personnel of the brigade that year was of varied and interesting composition.
All came out as Uncle Dick and Father Le Fevre had said—by the time breakfast was over the half-breed boatmen began to come down at a trot overland from the town. Few of them had slept. All of them had been drinking most of the night. They came with their heads tied up, their eyes red, each man looking uncomfortable, but they all went aboard and made ready for their work. Father Le Fevre shook his head as he looked at them.
"Too bad, too bad, my children!" said he, "but you will not learn, you will not learn at all. However, two days on the river and your heads will be more clear. Providence has arranged, I presume, that there shall be two or three days' travel between the landing and the Grand Rapids. Else fewer of our boats would get through!"
As the scows swung out into the river, under no motive power excepting that of the current, the men arranged themselves for the long journey, each to suit himself, but under a loose sort of system of government. At the long steering-sweep, made from a spruce pole twenty feet in length, stood always the steersman, holding the scow straight in the current. The ten tons of luggage was piled high in each scow, and all covered with a great tarpaulin to protect the cargo of side-meat, salt, sugar, flour, and steel traps, cloth, strouds, other rough supplies, as well as the better stock of trade goods—prints, powder, ball, rifles, matches, a scant supply of canned goods—and such other additions to the original stock as modern demands instituted by the independent traders for the most part had now made necessary in the traffic with the tribes. That year, indeed, a few hand sewing-machines went north, and some phonographs—things of wonder to the ignorant native of that far-off land.
The progress of the boats, although steady, seemed very slow, and, as there was no work to do, the men amused themselves as best they might. There were several fiddlers in the fleet, and now and then, as the Midnight Sun swept down, well handled by the commodore, Francois, they passed a scow on whose bow deck a scantily clad half-breed was dancing to the music of the violin. Now and again across the water came the curious droning song of the Cree steersmen, musical but wild.
The great brigade was off on its start for the long journey from the Rockies to the icy sea, continuing one more year of the wild commerce which had become a part of the land itself for more than a century now.
"It's wonderful—wonderful!" said Rob, looking about him at the strange scene on that morning of their first day of actual travel. "I've never seen a thing more fascinating than this. I'm sure this is going to be the best trip we've ever had.
"I tell you what," he added, a moment later, turning to the leader of their little party, "I believe I'll try to keep a little diary for a little while at least; it might be nice to have a few notes to refer to. I doubt if any of us will ever make this trip again."
"An excellent idea!" said his uncle. "That's the way to get your information soaked into your head. Write it down, and be careful what you write. Your notes, together with John's maps, are things you will prize very much indeed, later in life."
Rob, indeed, did fulfil his promise, beginning that very day, and perhaps a few notes taken from his diary may be of interest, as showing what actually happened as recorded by himself.
"May 29th.—Off late. Ran three miles. Men went back to town. Found sacks of sugar made a hard bed. Mosquitoes.
"May 30th.—The grand start of the big brigade. Running maybe four or five miles an hour. Banks getting lower. Cottonwoods, some brulee (burned-over forest). Supper 6 P.M. Ran until 9.45 P.M. Damp camp.
"May 31st.—Off at 6. In the morning men on the first boat killed a cow moose and two calves. No game laws north of 53 deg. Men rejoice over meat. Eight mission scows in fleet, which carry eight to ten tons each. Father Le Fevre says, except for whitefish, all northern missions would perish. At 2.15 stopped at Pelican Portage, at head of Pelican Rapids, 120 miles below the landing. Head winds yesterday, but favorable now. Two boats collided, and one damaged. Saw two dogs carrying packs—first pack-dogs I ever saw. Priest baptized an Indian baby here. I suppose this is what the brigade goes north for, in part. Lay here until 7 in the evening, and then off for our first rapids, the Pelican. Rough, but not so bad as Columbia Big Bend Rapids. An eighteen-foot canoe would go through; twelve-foot doubtful. Scows do it easily. Fast work close to the shore part of the way. Men know their business. Some system to the brigade. Camp at foot of rapids. Much excitement. Scows crowding one another. Many mosquitoes.
"June 1st, Sunday.—No travel to-day. All of the boatmen are Catholics. The priest put up a little chapel and said Mass. Curious scene to see all these half-savages kneeling, hats off, on the ground. After Mass a good many of them got their hair cut; one or two men can do barbering-work. The judge and legal party played cards all the afternoon. John seems to eat more than ever. A good many mosquitoes.
"June 2d.—Off at 6, which seems regular starting-time. Ashore for lunch 11.30. Slow and lazy work floating down, but pleasant. Tied up at 6 for supper. Much excitement now, as we are coming down to the head of Grand Island, where we make the big portage. After supper made a mile or so through shallow water among many rocks, to the head of the island. It is low and rocky, covered with cottonwoods, should think about a mile long, and not over half a mile wide. Very fierce water to the left, with quiet water above. No boat ever ran the left channel alive. Many lost here in the Klondike; they went into that quiet and deep water on the left and got caught. They say we will try to run the right-hand side. Did not put up tent to-night, but slept under mosquito tents. A hundred and sixty-five miles from Athabasca Landing. Now we begin to feel as though we were to see the real work."
THE GRAND RAPIDS
It was much as Rob had predicted in the last entry of his diary previously quoted. Uncle Dick hurried them through their breakfast.
"We'll see some fun to-day, boys," said he.
"How do you mean?" asked Jesse. "Are they going to try to run the boats through?"
"They'll have to run the scows through light, so Francois tells me. There isn't water enough to take them through loaded, so practically each one will have to unship its cargo here.
"You see that wooden tramway running down the island?" He pointed toward a crooked track laid roughly on cross-ties, the rails of wood. "That is perhaps the least expensive railroad in the world, and the one which makes the most money on its capital. I don't think it cost the Company over eight hundred dollars. It couldn't be crookeder or worse. And yet it pays for itself each year several times over, just by the outside trade which it does!
"They built this railroad after the Klondike rush came through here. Previous to that all the goods had to be taken over the 'short portage'—you see that place over on the steep hillside at the right side of the river—a mile and a half of it, and every pound of the Company and Klondike baggage that went north had to be carried on men's backs along that slippery footing. It was necessary to run these rapids and to build this railroad. You will see how both ideas will work to-day."
Some of the boats had been loaded so heavily that part of the cargo had to be left above the shallow water—one more handling of the freightage necessitated in the north-bound journey, but each boat, carrying as much as could be floated, now came poling down through the rocks to the head of the island.
The men, half in and half out of the water, began to unload this cargo and to pile it in a great heap at the head of the wooden railroad. There were two flat-cars, and rapidly these were loaded and pushed off to the foot of the island, half or three-quarters of a mile. There every pound of the baggage had to be unloaded once more, and after that once more carried from the landing into the boats at the foot of the island.
"Well, are they going to take the boats down on the cars, too?" demanded Jesse.
"They have done that for others," answered Uncle Dick, "and charged them ten dollars a boat for doing it, too. But as I said, we'll have to run our scows down on the right-hand passage. That's the fun I was talking about."
Rob came up to him now excitedly. "Tell me, Uncle Dick, can't I go through—couldn't I go through with you in the very first boat?"
His uncle looked at him for a time soberly before he replied. "Well, I don't like to mollycoddle any of you," said he, "but I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll have to leave John and Jesse here on the island. If Francois says it's safe I'll let you go through with me on the first boat. It's no place for us to be in this country if we're going to sidestep every little bit of risk there is. That isn't a manly thing to do. But the other two boys will have to wait for a while.
"There's bad news," he said to Rob, a little later, aside. "Word has just come up by canoe from the Long Rapids below here that four men were drowned day before yesterday. They were going down to McMurray, and although they had a native pilot they got overturned in the rapids and couldn't get out. The Mounted Police are looking for the bodies now."
It was with rather sober faces that our young travelers now watched the boatmen at their portage-work, although the latter themselves were cheerful as always, and engaged, as before, in friendly rivalry in feats of strength. Everything was confusion, yet there was a sort of system in it, after all, for each man was busy throughout the long hours of the day. As a scow came in its cargo was rapidly taken out, as rapidly piled up ashore, and quite as rapidly flung on top of the flat-cars for transport across the great portage.
Our young adventurers saw with interest that a good many of the boatmen were quite young, boys of fifteen, sixteen, and eighteen years of age. Some of these latter did the full work of a man, and one slight chap of seventeen, with three sacks of flour, and another youth of his own weight on top of it all, stood for a time supporting a staggering weight of several hundred pounds while Jesse fumbled with his camera to make a picture of him.
At about eleven o'clock in the morning of the second day Uncle Dick came to Rob and drew him aside.
"The first boat is going through," said he. "Francois will take it down. It's a Company scow with about a quarter of its cargo left in. Cap. Shott says it is all right. Are you still of a mind to go, or do you want to stay here?"
"Not at all, sir!" rejoined Rob, stoutly. "I'll go through, of course."
So presently they both stepped into the lightly loaded scow which lay at the head of the island. The men consisted of the steersman, Francois; a bowman, Pierre; and four oarsmen. They all were stripped to trousers and shirts. At a word from Francois the boat pushed out, the men poling it through the maze of rocks at the head of the island to a certain point at the head of the right-hand channel where the current steadied down over a wide and rather open piece of water.
The bowman carried in his hand a long lance-like shaft or pole, and stood with it upon the short bow deck. At the stern of the boat there was a plank laid across which acted as a bridge for the commodore, Francois, who walked back and forward across it as he worked his great steering-oar, which ran out at the back of the scow.
If the men had any anxiety about their undertaking, they did not show it. Francois smoked calmly. It was to be noted that Cap. Shott did not go through on the first boat, but remained on the shore. The skill of his wild calling had been passed down to the next generation.
Francois at last gave a short word or so of command in Cree. The oarsmen straightened out the boat. Francois motioned now to all the occupants to keep to the side, so that he would have a clear view ahead.
Little by little, as the current caught it, the scow began to slip on faster and faster. By and by waves began to come up alongside, almost to the gunwale. Rob had the vague impression that this boat was made of astonishingly thin boards, and that the water made a great noise upon it. Under the oars it creaked and strained and seemed very frail.
The men were silent now, but eager. Francois, pipe in mouth, was very calm as he stood at the oar, his eyes fixed straight ahead.
About half-way down the side of the island came the most dangerous part of the run. Suddenly the bowman sprang erect and cried out something in Cree, pointing sharply almost at right angles to the course of the boat. Francois gave a few quick orders and the oarsmen swung hard upon one side. The head of the scow swung slowly into the current. The channel here, however, passed between two great boulders, over the lower one of which the river broke in a high white wave. It was the duty of the steersman to swing the boat between these giant rocks, almost straight across the course of the river, a feat of extreme difficulty with such a craft or indeed with any craft. This was the bad place in the channel always known as "The Turn."
It seemed to Rob as if the whole river now was eager to accomplish their destruction. He was certain that the scow would be dashed upon the rocks and wrecked.
It was dashed upon the rocks! The turn was not made quite successfully, because of the too great weight of the cargo left in this boat. With a crash the scow ran high up on the lower rock, and lay there, half out of water, apparently the prey of the savage river. Rob felt a hand laid upon his shoulder.
"Steady, old chap!" said Uncle Dick. "Keep quiet now. We're still afloat."
This accident seemed to be something for which the men were not altogether unprepared. If they were alarmed they did not show it. There were a few quick words in Cree, to be sure, but each man went about his work methodically. Under the orders of Francois they shifted the cargo now to the floating side of the boat. All of the men except two or three pole-men took that side also. Then, under command, with vast heaving and prying on the part of the pole-men, to the surprise of Rob at least, the boat began to groan and creak, but likewise to slide and slip. Little by little it edged down into the current, until the bow was caught by the sudden sweep of the water beyond and the entire craft swung free and headed down once more! It seemed to these new-comers as an extraordinary piece of river work, and such indeed it was. A stiffer boat than this loose-built scow might have broken its back and lost its cargo, and all its crew as well. As it was, this boat went on down-stream, carrying safely all its contents.
Rob drew a long breath, but he would not show to the men any sign that he had been afraid.
Here and there among the rocks the oarsmen, under the commands of the steersman, picked their way, the lower half of the passage being much more rapid. On ahead, the river seemed to bend sharply to the left. Now Rob saw once more the bowman spring to his feet on his short forward deck. Calling out excitedly, he pointed far to the left with his shaft. Rob looked on down-stream, and there, a mile and a half below, he saw erected against a high bank a diamond-shaped frame or target. At this the bowman was pointing directly with his lance. It was the target put up there after the Klondike disasters by the Mounted Police, and indicated the course of the safe channel at the lower end of the chute.
Francois, pipe in mouth, calmly swung his sinewy body against the steering-oar. The bow of the boat crawled around to the left, far off from the island, toward the shore, where was a toboggan-like pitch of very fast but safe water for a distance of some hundreds of yards.
As they entered the head of this chute, the bowman still crouching with his pole poised, it seemed to Rob that he heard shouts and cries from the island, where, indeed, all those left behind were gathered in a body, waiting for the first boat in the annual brigade to go through—something of an event, as they regarded it.
But Rob's eyes were on ahead. He saw the boat hold its course straight as an arrow toward the great target on the farther bank. With astonishing speed it coasted down the last incline of the Grand Rapids. Then, under the skilful handling of steersman and oarsmen, the boat swung to the right, around a sort of promontory which extended around the right-hand bank. Rob looked around at Uncle Dick, who was curiously regarding him. But neither spoke, for both of them knew the etiquette of the wilderness—not to show excitement or uneasiness in any unusual or dangerous circumstances.
Francois, who had narrowly regarded his young charge, now smiled at him.
"Dot leetle boy, she is good man," he said to Uncle Dick. "He'll is not got some scares."
Rob did not tell him whether or not this was the exact truth, but only smiled in turn.
"Well, here we are," said he. "But what good does it do us? There's the foot of the island up there, three or four hundred yards away at least. And how can we get a boat up against these rapids, I'd like to know? Right here is where both the big chutes join. It would take a steamboat to get up there."
Francois, who understood a little English, did not vouchsafe any explanation, but only smiled, and Uncle Dick gravely motioned silence as well. Rob could see the eyes of Francois fixed out midstream, and, following his gaze, he presently saw some dark object bobbing about out there, going slowly down-stream.
"Look, Uncle Dick!" he cried. "What's that? It looks like a seal."
The latter shook his head. "No seals in here," said he. "That must be a log."
"So it is," said Rob. "But look at it—it's stopped now."
No one explained to him what all this meant. Francois sprang to his steering-oar and gave some swift orders. The boat swung out from the bank, and under the sweeps made straight out midstream, where the black object now bobbed at the edge of the slack water. Rob could see what had stopped it now—it was made fast by a long rope, which was in turn made fast somewhere up-stream, he could not tell where.
With a swift pass of his pole the bowman caught the rope as the boat swung near. Rapidly he pulled in the short log and made fast the rope to the bow of the boat. The scow now swung into the current, its head pointed up-stream, and hung stationary there, supported against the current by some unseen power. To Rob's surprise, the oarsmen now took in their oars.
"Well, now, what's going to happen?" he asked of Uncle Dick.
But the latter only shook his head and motioned for silence.
Slowly but steadily the scow now began to ascend the river, to breast the white waters which came rolling down, to surmount the full force of the current of the Athabasca River in its greatest rapids!
Rob glanced on ahead. He could see a long line of men bending under the great rope which had been floated down to them in this curious way. They walked inshore, steadily following the line of the railroad track for almost a quarter of a mile, as it seemed to the other boys who watched this proceeding ashore.
Steadily the boat climbed up the river, and now, with the aid of the oarsmen and the steersman, it finally came to rest at a sheltered little cove at the foot of the island, in slack water, where the landing was good and cargo could easily be transhipped.
Rob and his older companions stepped ashore, and each smiled as he looked at the other.
"Don't tell me, son," said Uncle Dick, "that these people don't know their business! That's the finest thing I've ever seen in rough-neck engineering in all my life—and I've seen some outdoor work, too."
He stood now looking up the white water down which they had come, and at the rough hillside beyond where the old portage had lain in earlier days.
"It's the only way it could have been done!" said he. "You see, these fellows don't carry a pound that they don't have to, but they don't risk losing a cargo by trying to run through with full load when the water won't allow it. They don't get rattled and they know their business. It's fine—fine!"
"That's what it is, sir," said Rob. "I never saw better fun in all my life."
By this time Jesse and John came running up, and the boys fell into one another's arms, asking a dozen questions all at once.
"Weren't you awfully scared?" said Jesse, somewhat awed at Rob's accomplishment.
"Well," said Rob, truthfully, "I did a good deal of thinking when we went fast on that rock out there in the middle. That was pretty bad."
"Uncle Dick," called out John, excitedly now. "Say, now, it's no fair for Rob to go through and us others not. Can't we go with the next boat?"
Uncle Dick stood looking at them quietly for a time, his hands in his pockets.
"You wait awhile," said he. "There'll be forty or fifty boats going through here. Time enough later to see whether it's safe for you two youngsters to risk it."
For three days the work of portaging on the Grand Island continued steadily, boat after boat going down to the head of the island to discharge, then taking the run through the channel of the right-hand side. Some excitement was shown when in the still water at the head of the murderous left-hand chute, which never was attempted by the voyageurs, a roll of bedding with a coat tied to it was seen floating in the current. It was supposed that somewhere up the river an accident had occurred, but, as it was impossible to tell when or where, no attempt was made to solve the mystery, and the labor of advancing the brigade northward went on without further delay.
As the boys watched the river-men at their hard and heavy work, they came more and more to respect them. Throughout long hours of labor—and in this northern latitude the sun did not set until after nine o'clock—there was never a surly word or a complaint heard from any of them.
John, who seemed to care for facts and figures, began to ask about the wages which these men received for this hard labor. He was told that they were paid by the trip from Athabasca Landing to McMurray, which covered the bad water to the head of steamboat transport. The steersmen for the round trip received about eighty dollars and their board, and the river-men forty to fifty dollars. All walked back across country, a shorter distance than that by water. Some of the men had along on the scows the large dogs which they used in the winter-time, and which they now purposed to employ in packing a part of their loads on the return journey.
John also discovered that the cargo of a scow averaged about twenty-five hundred dollars in value, and that it would cost sometimes almost a third of that amount to deliver the freight at its destination. For instance, the charge of the Hudson's Bay Company for freight from Athabasca Landing to Fort McPherson was thirteen dollars and fifty cents per hundred pounds. For the use of the little railroad a quarter of a mile in length on the island itself the charge to outsiders was one dollar a ton, and ten dollars for every boat taken across on the cars.
All the boys now began to learn more of the extreme risk and waste of this, the north-bound transit. It was not unusual, as they learned, for a scow to be lost with all its cargo, in which case the post for which it was destined would need to go without supplies until the brigade came north in the following year. Damage to goods from wetting, damage to boats from collisions—all these things went into the large figures of cost which were to be set against the figures of the large gain in this commerce of the Far North.
John got many of his figures from the Hudson's Bay Company clerk, a young man stationed here on Grand Island throughout the season, who was very friendly to all the strangers in the country. He expressed himself as very glad to see the brigade come north, for it was the only interesting time in his season's work. He and one associate remained here, cut off from the world, all through the summer season, and he was not very happy, although, as he said, he was president and general traffic-manager, as well as superintendent and board of directors, of his railroad, and section boss as well. His duties were to have general charge of the transport of cargoes at the island, and to keep a record of the day's doings.
Boat after boat now went through, as has been said, but without accident, although one or two hung up at The Turn, as the dangerous passage between the two great rocks in midstream now was called by all. Below that, as Rob expressed it, the bottom dropped out of the river and the boat traveled very fast.
John timed some of the boats through, and found that it took about eight minutes from the head of the eddy to the bottom of the chute. This Rob could hardly believe, as he said that when he went through it seemed not more than two minutes at the outside.
John and Jesse grew very grumpy over the prestige Rob had gained by his journey through the rapids, and besought Uncle Dick to allow them also to make the passage. Late in the third day, when most of the boats were through, they renewed their importunities, and he finally replied:
"Well, young men, I've about concluded to let you go through with the last boat. Francois says that he has been watching you all, and believes that you would not get 'some scares.' He says he will take you through in your own boat, which will be the last one of the brigade. The river has come up three or four inches since we struck in, and he says we can run through without unshipping much, if any, of our cargo, which doesn't amount to very much. Rob has made the trip, and I figure now that we are all in the same boat together. Sometimes it is necessary to be either a man or a mouse. I want to see you grow up men. Well, are you ready now?"
All the boys gladly said that they were, Rob insisting on accompanying the boat once more, as indeed was necessary, since there would be no transport after that.
They took ship at the head of the island, and were tooled across the shallow water to the head of the rapids on the farther shore. Here the men all disembarked and sat silently along the edge of the bluff, taking one of the pipe-smokes which make so regular a part of the voyageur's day's employment. They seemed to get some sort of comfort out of their pipes, and almost invariably when undertaking any dangerous enterprise a quiet smoke was a part of the preparation.
Francois talked to them, meantime, seeing that they were eager to learn about the customs of this strange and wild country into which they now were going. He told them, motioning to the steep hillside on the right of the channel, that in the old times he used to pack stuff across the mile-and-a-half portage there for fifty cents a hundred pounds. It was hard work, and yet he made it pay. When they began to portage on the island, and not along the mountain-side, he had made as much as fifty dollars a day, for he got five dollars for taking a boat through the rapids, or thirty dollars for running it down to Fort McPherson; so that a season's work would bring him, in very good years, over a thousand dollars, if he worked.
"But yong man, she spend the mon'," said he, smiling.
John set down in his book the facts and figures, the date of 1871, which was the time when old Cap. Shott first ran a boat through the Grand Rapids. Since that time a few other pilots had come on who proved able to handle scows in white water. But old Cap. Shott and his long-time friend, Louis La Vallee, were now both of them old—"h'almost h'eighty year, she is, each of him," said Francois.
"Well, now," he added at length, "we will ron h'on the rapide."
He rose and motioned to his men, who once more took their places at the oars, as they had in the boat which carried Rob through. Again the bowman squatted on his short fore deck. Francois, the steersman, stood on his plank walk at the handle of the great steering-oar. Gently they pushed out from shore, the last boat of the brigade.
"Here goes the Midnight Sun!" cried Jesse, waving his hat.
Uncle Dick watched them closely as the boat advanced. The boys spoke little or not at all, and John later accused Jesse of trying to pinch a piece out of the side of the boat, he held on so tight. But not one of them showed the white feather, nor made any trouble for the men in their work of running the fast water.
The boat at first ran along gently, the little waves lapping along the sides smartly, but not excitingly. Then at the end of the lower third the water gained in speed very much. At The Turn the waves were no doubt ten feet high. Francois, with a great sweep of his oar, fairly flung the boat athwart the current here, and the passage was made with no more than a scraping on the dangerous lower rock—the one which Uncle Dick called Scylla. The upper one he called Charybdis.
"You'll learn what those two words mean when you go to school a little later," said he, smiling.
Once beyond The Turn John and Jesse understood perfectly well what Rob had meant by saying that the bottom fell out of the river. They were excited, but had no thought of fear by the time they entered the last chute where the scow tobogganed down to the foot of the island. A moment later it was at rest once more in the eddy below the promontory.
Rob explained now about the log float which had carried the rope down to their boat when he first went through. There was, however, no longer need for the float to carry down a line to the boat. The brigade was through and the last scow below the island. The clerk and his taciturn companion were left alone. They stood now, both of them, waving their hats to the occupants of the Midnight Sun as, after a little, at the command of Francois, she pushed out from the eddy and took her place in the long procession of the north-bound brigade, every man of which now felt a sense of relief, since the most dangerous part of the early journey, the portage of the Grand Rapids of the Athabasca, had been safely accomplished.
The flotilla was now strung out over many miles of water, but it was the intention to make several miles additional before stopping for the night. In the late twilight, here strangely long and bright, Rob went on with his notes in his diary, while John worked at his map, charting as best he could the right-hand channel through which they had made their exciting journey. Rob's notes later proved of interest to his friends, as they explained very much about the journey of this dangerous two hundred and fifty miles of the white-water transport.
"Wednesday, June 4th.—Everybody busy all day. At 5 P.M. most of the freight on the island, and getting loaded on cars. Slept in the little mosquito tents. Very busy day.
"Thursday, June 5th.—Many pictures to-day, and we all were busy. Curious work running boats through the rapids and getting boat back to end of island. I think that rope that they let down to the boat is almost a quarter of a mile long. It takes twenty men or more to haul a boat up against the rapids, empty, of course.
"Off in the Midnight Sun below the island late afternoon. Ran the little Grand Rapids, and swung into the Second Eddy for supper. After that ran seven miles. Camp ground very bad. Mosquitoes getting worse.
"Friday, June 6th.—A great many rapids to-day. The Buffalo seems mild to us after the Grand. The Brule Rapids we liked because they had some pep to them. At about 3 P.M. we hit the Boiler Rapids, which is one of the worst. Name because a scow was lost here that was carrying a boiler up north. The boiler has never been recovered. Rapids full of boulders, and in low water very bad. Not very dangerous at this stage. Everybody was still as we went through this place and came into what they called the Rapids of the Drowned. They say a great many men have been drowned there, and it certainly looked bad. These two rapids are about a mile and a half altogether.
"Four boats were tied back because not everybody can run these rapids. Our boat was in the lead. Then four pilots walked back to bring through the boats which had been held up. We made pictures of them as they came through. Supper at 5 as we floated along, and then we dropped into the Middle Rapids and had a beautiful time.
"One or two canoes ran through with breeds. Pretty exciting. They say few of these breeds can swim, but they don't seem to mind that. Saw several wrecks of scows along the shores here, and one boat upset in the middle of the rapids. Some machinery on shore below rapids, very rusty. Begin to understand why freight comes high. Sometimes half a cargo is wasted or lost. No farms, no horses, no cows. A good game country. They say the game and fish keep the white men alive. The little boy Charl' keeps with the good Sisters. He was scared going through the rapids, and so were they.