The Living Forest
The forest lore packed into this absorbing tale of the North Land makes one realize how helpless humans are unless willing to learn in Nature's kindergarten.
"Now, boys, that's enough about bears for to-night. I'll tell you more some other time. It's getting late. We better be turnin' in But remember this:even a wise man can learn a great deal from animals an' birds. If you're really in search of wisdom-study Nature. Then you'll begin to read the great book our Good Friend has placed before us.
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ilL I tiLl heard an awtul 14 itSt I ea led U p a tid il" 4 -t boUt. t renibling with fear lest he others ui: nl4hei \ es, Link ; as there. `I' hen good il 4 Ru p'~o It a great horned owl, LILItI .1 racittit It was the rann.t nat made the ii USC I )urnh at other trios, the fear o death at Last truth' it scream. An' tn_it hi o the woods, ;reat horned owl, 1; eatn :t nw. Do you see it `here, on rh unper tip of ` uat nroken ampike R:znt up aga:nst the sky." Ye's I saw it. True, the c"at `tn as eatinc s~me n-c and every once in a wb.e :ts r'u~ sL,n;s stould n.j'siread as r balanced `s towering perch.
"My boys, are rabbits in this country aren’t rabbits at all. They’re varyin’-hares, though nmonly called snow-shoe rabbits on account of their remarkable large feet, which lets ’em travel easy over the deepest snow-drifts. The real rabbit burrows underground, while these varyin’-hares don’t. Their r.ests are usually on the ground in some sheltered place beneath brushwood that forms a fair protection. Their nests are lined with leaves, grass, or their own cast-off fur. The reason they’re called varyin’-hares is that they wear a coat that changes color with the changin’ seasons; brown in summer an’ white in winter.”
"Rabbits never put up much of a fight, do they?” "No. Of all th’ animals in the woods the rabbit is the most harmless. Y'et it’s hunted more by beasts an’ birds an’ men than any other creature in the forest.”
"Does a rabbit ever take to water?” I asked.
"Y'es, an’ he's a fair swimmer too, but he doesn’t like it. Instead of divin’ in like an otter when he takes to a stream, he jumps in like a lynx an’ makes a great splash in his effort to keep his head from goin’ under. If he stays in long his coat is apt to get water-logged. So his swimmin’ is mostly confined to crossing little rivers, or even little lakes, in search of an island that will give him a better feedinground. While rabbits generally spend the day in sunnin’ themselves or sleepin’, they feed mostly at night, specially when the moon is full. Then it is they’re fattest. In daylight a rabbit seldom dares to cross an open space, or a frozen river, as he always wants to keep to cover. But at night he’s a little braver. It’s then that th’ owl attacks him most; though th’ other flesh-eatin’ birds an’ beasts are ever ready to catch him day or night.”
"There must be an awful lot of rabbits in this country,” I remarked.
"Millions of them, my boy. It’s the seventh year. The year of great plenty in the Northland,” the old woodsman replied. “Some places in these northern woods’ll be fairly swarmin' with ’em all winter long; an’ other animals such as foxes, lynx an’ wolves’ll be plentiful too, because they live on rabbits.”
"What do you mean by the seventh year?” Lincoln
The seventh year, my son, is as I said before, the year of great plenty in the Northland. But to be exact, the year of great plenty doesn't always fall on the seventh year; it may come in the sixth or th' eighth year. Rabbits are then swarmin' in the woods; but soon a sickness breaks out among `em, an' before another winter it'll have almost wiped the rabbits out of existence. They get to have a s~vellin' throat an' then they develop painful sores in the groin an' under the leg pits.
During the next few years the females have un usually large families, the young numberin' even eight or ten, so in six or eight years the country is again overrun with i~ab bits. Then, once more, the plague appears an' in a few months there is hardly a rabbit to be seen-unless they're already lyin' dead on the snow. During the next year or two there's far fewer animals that feed on rabbits, such as lynx, foxes, ermine, mar ten, minks, fishers an' wolves. When rabbits are scarce, starvation stalks the woods, so you see we're lucky that this is the seventh year." Early next morning we visited the snares and
found two rabbits dangling there; and as we had no immediate use for more, the old woodsman took up the snares. Then away we went to the creek to examine the fish barrier; and there we found nearly thirty pounds of fish in the basket; so the hunter set the basket ashore as we did not need any more until we had a chance to dry or smoke the amount of food we had in store. After breakfast we built a rack upon which to hang the fish to be smoked. Then Bill showed us how to dress the fish for that work. By cutting into the back on either side of the spine, from gills to tail, he opened the fish and remove the bones and offal. Then on the inside he repeatedly slashed the thicker parts half way through in order that the smoke might the more easily penetrate the flesh. This done, he hung the fish inside out upon the rack ready for smoking. When we had finished dressing all the fish, old Bill built beneath the rack a smouldering fire of dry rotten wood that made no blaze but
no but much smoke; and around the rack he placed a brush screen to protect the smoke from the wind. Next morning, a couple of hours after sunrise, Bill suggested our having a second breakfast, and more caribou steak disappeared. “But after this,” the old hunter commented, “we must eat the bony parts first an’ save the fleshy parts for the makin’ o’ dried meat to take on our outward journey.” The meal over, Bill Hill went up to the cave to examine the
meat and skins. By standing on props set against the inner walls, he managed by jamming their ends into crevices of the rock to place several poles across the top of the cavern. Upon those poles he formed a rack, and upon the rack he placed the meat out of reach of prowling animals.
“If anything can jump that high, we’ll have to build a fence across the mouth of the cave, an’ enter by a gate,” the hunter smiled.
The next thing Bill did was to hang the skins over poles placed between trees, in order to prevent the “mack” or fat heating the skins and causing them to spoil, which might have happened had they been left folded up.
Then he set to work to make a bow-string of deer sinew. First he removed with the back of his knife all the flesh that adhered to the ligaments, then stretched them upon a pole where he left them to dry for an hour or so, away from the heat of the fire. After rolling and pounding the ligaments, he separated their fibres into the finest of sinew threads, which he made into a long cord by first twisting them tightly together by rolling them on his bare thigh with the flat of his palm. After this he stretched the cord between two saplings and left it there to dry.
He also showed us how to make thread, for the sewing together of deerskins for our fall clothing, by rolling and twisting the very finest of the separate fibres of deer sinew on our bare thighs, and then tying a knot at one end of the thread and pointing the other end, so that when dry the point would be stiff enough to pass through the holes made in the leather with a bone awl; thus no needle would be required.
“I’ll make an awl for each of you, just as soon as I get time. Besides makin’ Nothin’ for the cornin’ of winter, we must make deerskin sleeping robes that can also be used as wrappers to keep our stuff on our sleds when travelin’ overland.”
While pausing in our work to listen to the old hunter, a strange looking mouse scurried by Link. It was about five inches long and looked a grayish brown with a darker stripe down its back. When he drew Bill’s attention to it, the hunter smiled:
“That the first you've seen? Y’ou boys must be shortsighted. The country’s overrun with ’em. It’s the northern deer-mouse. Yrou can find it almost anywhere in the woods. It doesn’t hibernate. It hoards its food, principally seeds, in all sorts o’ queer places. Its weather proof nest is usually found in a hollow log, tree or stump. Even in midwinter you may see its tiny tracks on the snow; an’ perhaps hear its gentle squeakin’. The hawks an’ owls, as well as foxes, wolves, lynx an’ ermine are always after it. There’re other mice you’ll see before long. They’re called voles. Two kinds; the red-backed an’ the brown. The red-backed are called gapper mice an’ the brown are known as meadow mice. There’re a lot of ’em, too, billions I guess.”
After lunch the old woodsman began making “jerked meat.” Taking a thick piece of deer meat, he cut it in such a way that it opened into a strip about two feet long
one opens a book of panoramic views. “Th’ Indian women are wonders at this work. They’d do it in half the time it takes me. Dryin’ meat this way reduces its weight about one-half an’ lessens its bulk about twothirds. It makes it much easier to carry. Besides, it’ll keep for months, if not packed too tight.” “How long will we have to smoke it?” Lincoln asked. “Two or three days to make a good job. Later on we may get enough ducks an’ geese too, to smoke 'em also, for our overland journey.” Presently he added: “Look at those little beggars. You’d think they’d never eat their fill. They’re Canada jays, but mostly known as ‘Whiskey Jacks.’ Though th’ word whiskey has nothin’ to do with liquor. It’s simply taken from th’ name the Indians called ’em before th’ white man came.”
—just in the way that
“It’s too bad we boys haven’t knives, too. If we had, we could help you a lot more,” I remarked.
“Gordon, my boy, you won’t have to wait long,” Bill replied. “We can manage as th’ Indians an’ Eskimoes do. They’re never at a loss for knives. Usually they make ’em of native copper; it’s found in many parts o’ this country. But when they haven’t copper, they take a piece of sandstone an’ grind down the thin edge of a caribou rib until it’ll serve for skinnin’ or cuttin’ meat. Or they split the shin bone of the forleg of a caribou, which without even grindin’ sometimes has an edge keen enough to cut meat.”
That started us making shin bone knives. For after all they were easy to make when one knew how. So when Bill split five or six of the shin bones with a heavy stone, he picked out the two best and broke them off to a handy length and Link and I got to work. By supper time the cutting up of the meat was finished. While picking berries the hunter remarked:
“We must start dressin’ the deerskins pretty soon; then in our spare time, especially in th’ evenin’s when we’re sittin’ beside the fire, we can keep ourselves busy makin’ moccasins an’ clothin’.”
“What style of a coat are you going to wear?” Link asked me. “A Tuxedo or a swallowtail?”
“I’m not much of a tailor,” the old woodsman smiled,
“but I guess we can manage. If we make th’ other halves of those shin bones into skin dressers—by grindin’ their ends into chisel points—we’ll be able to remove the mack from th’ inside of the skins.
Then we can start tannin’ ’em.”
For some reason or other the flies were very bad around camp that evening, so we went for a walk just to get away from them.
“Darn these mosquitoes!” I exclaimed, as I slapped my face. “Don’t they ever stop biting?”
“All summer long we have ’em with us, my boy, an’ they work both day an’ night, in relays, it seems. But deerflies —which many call bulldogs— bite only between sunrise an’ sunset, durin’ July an’ August, while blackflies appear toward th’ end o’ May an’ stay until bout th end of July. They’re day workers too, but they bite worse at sunrise an’ sunset than at noon. The sandfly or the no-see-’ems’, hunt mostly at dawn an’ twilight ; seldom in the heat o’ the day. They’re found most in sandy places, an bite worse durin’ damp weather. The smoke of a smudge fire helps drive mosquitoes an’ blackflies away, but a big open fire attracts sandflies so strongly that they can’t keep from its flames. With the comin o frost all flies disappear. And that’s when one may live happiest in the Northland.”
f I 'HE timber through which we passed was tall but not dense, and mostly composed of two kinds of spruce— black and white—as well as balsam poplars, paper birches and aspens. Here and there were a few jack pines and tamaracks; while willows stood near the water. Farther inland the tamaracks and jack pines grew more plentiful, and while the tamaracks were found mostly in marshy places, the jack pines often stood alone >n rocky ground. Then again there were fairly open rocky ridges covered here and there with thick patches of moss or thin groups of trees.
Later, at early twilight, while we were on our way back, we caught sight of a handsome fox as it appeared on a ledge of rock. It saw us, too, and for several minutes stood poised like a statue with head up, ears pricked and holding in its mouth a squirrel. Its beautiful coat was white and gray and red and black. So delighted were we with the sight for it could not have been more than
thirty paces away—that even Bill, though he held his bow in hand, refrained from molesting it.
“My boys, that was a cross-fox. The real black fox is the most valuable, an’ the rarest of all foxes. The most perfect skins are generally those of large males. In fact, my father, who was a Hudson’s Bay Factor, never saw the skin of a female that could be classed as a perfect black fox. Yet he was for years stationed at Fort Smith on Great Slave River, one of the best black an’ silver fox regions in Canada. For there, in one year, he handled ninety-six black an’ silver fox skins. Yet, strange to say, some of the best silver fox skins were those of females. Out of that lot of ninety-six skins, there were only nine
that could really be classed as genuine black foxes.
“For skins run about one black to fifteen silver. One silver to twenty cross. And one cross to twenty red. The fur o’ the so-called black fox is a very dark slaty blue and both th’ inner and outer hair is of that color. Every black or silver fox is marked with a white spot on the breast an’ a white tip on the tail. The smaller the white markings, the higher the skin’ll grade. That is, providing there’re no other white hairs upon the skin. If other white hairs, called guard hairs, show, then it’s classed as a silver fox.”
For a while the old woodsman was silent, and Link asking why, he replied:
“My boy, it’s hard to talk when we’re walkin’ single file. At least if I talk loud enough for the last man to hear we’ll be makin’ too much racket. We’d better wait until we get home. Otherwise we’ll scare everythin’ away an’ spoil our chances of seein’ game.”
CURE enough, when we got back to camp and were ^ comfortably settled beside the fire, Lincoln kept the old hunter to his word by saying:
“Tell us more about foxes. You said you would.”
“You’re awful boys,” old Bill smiled. “You never let th’ old man rest. I feel as though you were turnin’ me into a talkin’ machine. But I guess you need it all. For you’re certainly pretty green. I sometimes wonder what city boys ever learn. Well, to go back to foxes—I’ll tell you somethin’ th’ Indian hunters believe.
“They believe that the purer a black fox grades the
rounder its tracks, an’ while the tracks of the cross fox are less round,the tracks of the red fox ’re even more oval. They also claim there’s another peculiarity about the black fox, an’ that is: if it’s not frightened, or is not caught the first time it comes in contact with a trap, it will, after that, be easily caught. But if nipped only once by à trap it’ll then be almost impossible to catch a black fox. For under such circumstances it’s much harder to catch a black fox than a red fox. My father, durin’ his life long experience as a fur trader, found three black fox skins with only about a dozen white hairs in the tip o’ the tails and on the breast, yet never once did he see a black fox skin without white hairs.”
“Then how would you describe a perfect silver fox skin?” I asked.
“My son, a perfect silvei fox skin must contain nothin’ but black an’ white hair. For if the slightest tinge o’ yellow or red is seen, it’s then graded as a cross fox skin. The more white hairs found in a silver fox skin, the more it loses in value. The more black hairs, or the larger the cross, on a cross fox skin, the greater its value. The more yellow or red hairs take the place o’ white, the more it lessens in value. The cross fox skins found in various parts o’ Canada run all the way from black to white with brown, red an’ yellow intermixin’ in a handsome way. But all fox skins of lighter colors show, more or less, a dark cross on the back. Yet, remember, my boys, I’m speakin’ only of the foxes of the Great Northern Forest.
“Say, boys, don’t you think that’s enough for to-night? I feel pretty sleepy, an’ a lot more like turnin’ in than I do like talkin’. Besides, to-morrow’ll soon be here. That reminds me. To-morrow I must look about for big pine or birch trees an’ decide which kind of a canoe it’ll be easiest for us to build. It’ll depend entirely on the trees we find in the next few days. We may even have to travel southward to get the kind I want. It’ll take a pine about eighteen inches thick to furnish a sheet o’ bark large enough to make a canoe of thirty inch beam. An’ when you take into consideration that it ought to be about eighteen feet in length, without knots, our chance of findin’ one that size is mighty slim.
“But a pine-bark canoe's easily made, by simply foldin’ up an’ sewin’ together th’ ends o’ the sheet to make bow an’ stern. It’s a clumsy craft, though, an’ not adapted to rapid travelin’. So I’m countin’ more on a birchbark canoe. Though we’re almost on the edge of the range of canoe birch trees, I believe we may find some o’ fair size if we travel south for a day or two. That’s somethin’ we ought to settle to-morrow.”
\TEXT morning I was up even before Bill Hill, and while he kindled the fire he asked me to go to the cave and bring down some meat for breakfast. It was a cool morning; the mist hung so thick in the valley that even the big rock was veiled from view, and the trees and bushes were drenched with dew. I was hurrying along, care-free, as I entered the little grove of evergreens. The cave was now in view. But the next instant I stopped dead in my tracks. I saw something! . wheeling about, I lit out for camp as if all the animals in the forest were after me, and fairly flew among the trees. When I tried to dive into the lean-to the rock hit me so hard I could only gasp out two words:
“Bear! . . Cave! . . ."
Seizing his staff, the old hunter bound his knife to it as he ran. Cautiously he entered the grove. The bear was still there, his back toward us and eating something on the floor of the cave. Silently old Bill approached, spear in hand, and pausing behind the bear spoke to him. With a startled grunt the bear swung round, rose on his haunches and posed in an attitude to receive attack. But Then he changed his mind. Suddenly >urs, and swerving aside, he sailed out h surprising speed that it made me die of black bed-clothes si ot from a wav he seemed to soar th rough the and there last, we did lings the old nul hunted Mountains.
he would upon his c striking, e hunter advantage edge; and haunenes mself in me hts spear
beneath d slant the point obliquely toward the te. while the hunter would lean back as without letting go his lance. The bear, >on to be a harmless stick, would drop forts to reach the Indian, and by his own » spear into his body. Then the hunter > and either hamstring the bear with his xe or shoot him with his muzzle-loading
surprised me," remarked Link, “was the tore through the air, when you were all :ure him with your spear. He didn’t act bears in books." And I added: “But, Bill, ,ished telling us about bears; and you would." So while eating our breakfast he , a lot more facts about them.
■ould Gord or I tell a bear’s den in winter
f you came upon a bear’s den in winter here was a bear inside, the chances are frost or icicles on the lower branches of an ee. or on the twigs of nearby bushes. Th’ ■e formed by the bear’s breath risin’ from an .-en if you boys passed such a spot an’ didn’t ht hear it.” laughed. r. That's if there was a breeze. Because
r. That's if there was a breeze. Because i would make th’ icicles tinkle like little ou'd realize that for some reason or other different from the rest o’ the xvoods. An’ -. you'd investigate the cause. At least you -ere a good hunter. ndian finds icicles, or hoar frost, about th’ bear's den, he listens carefully to hear if ,m the bear’s asleep. If so, the hunter may ’■m, or crawl inside an’ feel about to locate d. If the position of the head prevents him th' animal behind th’ ear, he’ll then dig : den from a point over the bear’s head. A :h' ear an’ the bear stretches out dead, or early spring a hunter’s careful how he in his den. He may not be sound asleep. If 1' Indian'll bar the hole with three poles the man’s arm. Two of ’em will be crossed like of th’ entrance, while the third is jammed to block the hole. Hearing the noise outthe sticks there, the brute may become tryin' to come out the beast’ll thrust his the sticks, an’ pushin’ hard to force them may jam fast. The hunter, standin’ above makes use 0’ his axe, an’ splits the bear’s his den, an’ th’ entrance e without gun or axe, he’ll
block all light from the hole before he goes for his gun. Because, if left in total darkness the brute’ll lie still for some time. But if light is admitted, it'll become restless an’ come out. A good hunter always takes advantage 0’ his knowledge of animal ways.
“If he finds a bear awake in his den, an’ he doesn’t want to pack the bear’s meat all the way to his distant camp, he may move his camp to the bear’s den. But first he’ll take care to see that no light is enterin’ the den, as total darkness may keep the bear there for several days. A good hunter can also toll without lookin’ in, or puttin’ his hand in to feel, how many bears may be in
the den. He does it by listenin’. One bear may snore, another grunt, or as many bears do, a third may whistle in his sleep. A keen hunter can also tell their ages fairly well by the volume 0’ their breathin’, just as easily as he can tell the size 0’ largest bear by the size of th’ entrance he made to his den.”
“Do Indians use dogs for hunting bears?” Link asked.
“Yes. Dogs have better scent an’ hearin’ than men. But in winter, when the snow’s deep, dogs may have a hard time findin’ a bear’s den, unless there happens to be a crust on the snow, which allows ’em to move about much easier. A bear doesn’t wander far from his den—seldom more than ten miles— even when lookin’ for a mate. He frequents the same den every winter
unless driven away by
wolves, fire or man. Bears prefer to hibernate in certain localities. The wise hunter, bein’ well informed, knows where to look for ’em in winter. They’re found in hillsides, cut banks, hollow stumps or logs or trees—usually in the vicinity 0’ rapids that form good fishin’ places, or near big berry patches. The good hunter knows from year to year where game’s most abundant on his huntin’ grounds.
“TN TH’ early winter or in th’ early spring, while the A ground or snow’s still frozen, if the bear’s been disturbed or driven from his wash he’ll not wander far—for two reasons. His feet, when travelin’ on frozen ground, are almost as tender as a man’s; an’ a cold snap may overtake him while away from his shelter. In that case he may pull together a few branches or leaves an’ curl up on them to sleep; while new snow may fall upon him and turn him into a white capped mound. But while that’s true it rarely happens.”
“Do hunters ever call bears the way they do moose?” I asked.
“They sometimes call bears, not by imitatin’ the call 0’ the mate but by imitatin’ the cry 0’ the cub. One way a bear is different from other animals is that when he comes to a small tree, instead 0’ walkin’ round it, he may bend it down an’ walk right over it, with the little tree between his legs. Perhaps because he likes to feel the twigs combin’ his long hair. He also likes to walk up an’ down slantin’ trees. That bein’ his habit, the hunter’ll stand a good chance 0’ catchin’ a bear if he sets a trap at
the foot of a slantin’ tree. Often, too, a bear’ll climb stumps ten to twenty feet high; an’ there he’ll sit an’ look around, as though he was enjoyin’ the scenery.
"Now, my boys, the sun’s gettin’ up, so I must cut short my talk on bears with just a few more words. So pay attention to what I say, as it’s about trackin’ bears. In the deep, soft snow of early winter, a bear leaves a clear track. If it freezes in that condition, notwithstandin’ that the later snows of midwinter cover it completely, it’ll again show up next spring. It’s then that it requires a wise hunter to tell the age of that track. But if the hunter examines everythin’ carefully an’ contrasts all surroundin’ conditions, he may be able to tell when it was made.
“Though the hunter may have passed a certain spot many times durin’ the winter without seein’ any sign 0’ tracks on account 0’ deep snow, when mild spring weather causes the snow to thaw rapidly, the tracks will re-appear. First they are visible as shallow hollows in the snow, scarcely larger than the bear’s paw, an’ so delicate in depth that you can hardly see ’em. Then a little later the surroundin’ snow may thaw to the same level, an’ the tracks disappear. Later still the surroundin’ snow may thaw even lower than the packed snow of the tracks, leavin’ the foot prints elevated because the snow beneath ’em is also packed. An’ even later still, if the thaw continues, the soft surroundin’ snow may disappear so rapidly that the hard packed foot prints may remain standin’ like very large, ill-shaped mushrooms, six or eight inches above the level 0’ the surroundin’ snow. It’s an odd sight.
“In spring, on account of his tender feet, a bear’s travelin’ is very limited. It’s then, too, he doesn’t like climbin’ trees. But should a hunter trail a bear at that time, the brute’s likely to do one 0’ two things— climb a tree, or try to return to his wash. In either case it means his death.
“Now, boys, to work,” ordered the old hunter, as he arose. “The first thing we’ve got to do is to find birchbark for our canoe.”
TAKING a small supply of partially dried meat, we started southward. An unusual number of wild fowl was passing overhead, and Bill Hill told us that we would soon see great flocks of swans, geese and ducks flying southward from their breeding grounds, which of course lay all about us, even our little lake being here and there fringed with discarded feathers from moulting geese and ducks. But for some reason or other we had only seen a few of the birds about our bay. Perhaps underwater food was not so plentiful there.
Ascending the southwestern slope we at first passed through a fairly dense woodland. Then, off and on, we came upon places where clumps of stunted spruces and twisted jack pines were scattered among outcroppings of rock. Later we encountered several swamps that compelled us to make detours. Next we passed over a big hill, the southern slope of which supported heavy timber, and it was down near a little lake that we entered a beautiful grove of birches. Most of the white trees were standing in groups of from three to eight or nine, and some of their trunks were unusually large for that part of the country. But we had to search some time before we could find trees of a suitable size, whose trunks were free from limbs and knots.
Choosing one of the finest and largest, the old woodsto skin its trunk
man began by first cutting the bark free a little above the ground, and then cutting it again as high as he could reach while standing on a prop. Next he severed the bark vertically by cutting away a ribbon of bark about an inch wide. That was done so that he might use a large wooden chisel to remove the bark from the tree, without damaging the edges of the bark. Owing to the lateness of the season, the bark was much harder to remove than it would have been in the month of May, wrhen the sap would be running.
Thus it took quite a time to gather all the bark we needed for our canoe. I noticed that Bill rolled
the sheets of bark the narrow way and bound the bundles with willow bark thongs. Then he made tump-lines of the same, in order that we could carry the rolls of bark upon our backs.
In returning to camp we deviated somewhat to avoid trouble in carrying our awkward loads among the closestanding trees. True, we made slower time, but the going was easier. While passing a small lake we came upon a tundra, or mossy area that resembled a large meadow, and on closer inspection its light green surface was found to be dotted here and there with patches of cranberries, raspberries and Indian tea. Of the latter we gathered a quantity, especially the blossoms, for they make better tea than either the leaves or stems. It was Bill’s intention to dry the tea on returning to camp and infuse it as a beverage.
Continued on page 47
The Living Forest
Continued, from page 16
On leaving the tundra we heard a great chattering of birds that kept repeating ze ze ze, ze ze ze, until our interest was sufficiently aroused to put down our loads and go in search of them. We found two or three hundred beautiful little birds all clustered on a single birch, perched close together in rows upon its branches. They were handsome little brown creatures with long, pointed crests upon their heads, and Bill told us they were Bohemian wax wings; shy little fellows that breed far to the north and roam about in a most irregular way in flocks of several hundreds. While we ate our supper they continued to delight us with their happy chattering, and just before we made ready to start, the whole flock took flight together and with a swish of fluttering wings passed southward.
Later we stopped beside a spring, and noticed many deer tracks about the place. The old hunter called it a “salt lick,” as there was much salt crusted about the spring, and he claimed that was the reason so many deer had been there. The discovery pleased him, and he carried away enough salt to last for weeks. He also told us that we needn’t worry much about running short of food; as he could always count on getting some deer there within a very few days,
TT WAS shortly after we left Salt A Spring that we boys saw for the first time a porcupine. It was so remarkably tame that we almost stumbled over it as it rested on the ground.
“What a curious looking brute!” Link exclaimed.
“It seems as if it couldn’t move,” I added, as I touched it with a stick.
“It’s not much of a traveler; but I’d be careful not to let your hand get in the way of its tail—, or you may get a few quills,” the old man cautioned.
It was a thick set brute, weighing about twenty pounds, and at a distance we might have taken it for a bear cub as it lay there all in a heap. When we began questioning Bill about the strange beast, he replied:
“My boys, the Canada porcupine’s a very local animal, an’ if it’s got plenty o’ food, it’ll remain in one locality for months. Its food is chiefly the bark an’ twigs of jack pines, hemlocks, birches an’ poplars an’ it much prefers second growth jack pines from four to twelve feet high, that may be found in a burnt over country. The porcupine’s one o’ the most inoffensive of all animals, an’ no one should kill a porcupine unless he’s greatly in need o’ its meat. The young are born in spring, an’ their home may be in a burrow beneath the roots of a tree, or a rock, or in a hollow tree or log, an’ their nest usually’s made o’ soft, dry grass. The porcupine’s a cleanly animal, but a regular glutton to eat when food’s plentiful, an’ it affords the hunter many a good meal, as its flesh tastes like a cross between veal an’ chicken. Its fat, when melted, supplies a very soft grease something like vegetable oil.
“Usually the porcupine’s found in numbers from two to six or so, an’ I though in some parts o’ the north it’s scarce, they’re very plentiful in the Isle a la Crosse district. There, in my [ younger days, 1 once saw over a hundred in a grove of ten foot jack pines. They were strippin’ the trees bare of bark an’ t wigs as they slowly moved along. Though its forefeet are supplied with long claws, the porcupine uses them much as a monkey uses its hands. He can climb out on a very slender branch an’ nibble away, though the branch may curve so low that it turns the brute upside down. He is so fond o’ salt that he’ll enter a tent or house for the sake o’ gnawin’ a board, shelf or table on which salt pork has left a briny taste.
"The porcupine never appears to make use o’ its hearin’ or its scent, an’ its sight seems very defective. For instance, hunters can go up to within six or eight feet of a porcupine an’ stand there smokin’ their pipes an’ talkin’ an laughin’ an’ the brute may not show in any way that he even suspects their presence— just as you saw a few moments ago. Yet another porcupine may take alarm when a person is thirty or fifty feet away an’ chatter its anger before it waddles under cover of stump or log or a deserted shanty. Remember, boys, when you see I a porcupine in a tree, don’t climb up to get a nearer view, as he is apt to start down hind quarters first, to meet you half way. If his swishing tail happens to hit you, many barbed quills will remain in your flesh an’ give you great pain, even if they don’t make you ill. My boys, though I’m tryin’ to teach you the ways o’ the woods, I sometimes feel I’m talkin’ too much. As a rule the more men talk, the less they say. Our Good Friend gave us two eyes and two ears, but only one mouth, an’ we ought to govern ourselves accordingly.”
It was nearing sunset when we arrived at camp tired and hungry; we didn’t waste much time before we turned in that night.
In the morning the old woodsman prepared a place for the building of our canoe. First he drove in two principal stakes at a distance of about eighteen feet apart—the length of the canoe to be —then connected them with two rows of smaller stakes, diverging and converging, so as to form the shape of the canoe; the two rows of stakes being about a yard apart in the centre, so as ! to allow for the width of the canoe.
For a number of days—I’ve forgotten j how many—we worked from early I morning until late at night, sewing bark, shaving gunwales, splitting sheathing j and cutting ribs. The best pieces of bark, which had been soaked in the lake for a I day, we overlapped together and double stitched with split, water-soaked spruce j roots until a large sheet of bark was made. This was placed between the two j rows of stakes, with the inside of the bark down. The well-soaked sheathing j and ribs were next put in place and as soon I as the latter were loaded with stones, the bark assumed its proper form. Then the pine gunwales were bound into j position and the pine ribs and birch thwarts adjusted. Thus the work upon the canoe progressed.
WHEN weary of our task we turned to other things for a change, spending time in hunting deer, or in shooting water fowl, or in dressing skins, or in sun-drying berries and currants spread upon deerskins, or in making articles that would be needed for our trip, such as clothing, bags, paddles, arrows, tumplines, and a tracking-line for the hauling of a canoe up swift waters.
But the work that Link and I disliked most was the dressing of deerskins. It seemed such an endless job. After removing the "mack” or fat, and while the skins were stretched on rectangular frames by lacing them to the poles, Bill cut off the hair with his knife; and we scraped both sides with the bone dressers to remove the remaining mack, as well as the outer skin. When that was done we had to take the skins from the stretchers and work them over a stump to soften them. On lacing them back again, into the frames, we rubbed the insides of the skins with the animal’s brains, letting them soak in for three or [ four days. Next we had to soak the
skins in water for at least two days. Then we would stretch them again to dry. After once more going over them with our bone dressers, we removed them from the frames, worked them in our hands, and pulled them between us. Finally we smoked them over a fire of green pine cones, which gave them a rich tan color and an agreeable smell. The old hunter told us that if they afterwards became wet, the smoking would prevent them from drying as hard as they otherwise would.
“That’s the regular Indian way,” Bill said, “an’ it makes beautiful leather for moccasins or clothin’. But when they wish to dress a skin with the hair on, they don’t soak it in water. Remember, my boys, it’s easier to dress deerskins in winter, as the cold weather helps the scrapin’. But leather made o’ summer skins lasts longer; for while in winter pelts the roots o’ the hair reach only a little below the surface, in summer skins the roots run through the pelt. So if we can kill enough caribou I want to make plenty o’ moccasins durin’ the next few weeks to last us for the whole o’ our overland trip next winter. The first clothin’ to make will be hairless deerskin smocks an’ hip-high leggin’s for early winter. Then we must provide caribou robes for beddin’. I need a deerskin quiver for my arrows, as this birchbark one makes too much noise for huntin’.”
“I wish I had a bow and arrows,” I remarked.
“Both you boys must have ’em right away an’ get busy too learnin’ how to use ’em. You must learn how to be self-supporting, for just as soon as we start to travel up the big river we can’t count on anything. Any one of us, or all of us, may be killed any day. O’Brien an’ his gang would shoot us an’ think nothin’ of it. We must always keep ’em in our mind, or we’ll be caught unawares. No doubt they’re on their way back now. Remember, the rivers form th’ highways of this country. Trippers have to use ’em same as townspeople use streets. That’s why we’re apt to run into O’Brien an’ his gang, no matter if they’re ahead or behind us.”
One morning we discovered there were thousands of ducks crowding the little bays along the western shore on the north side of the point, so Bill decided to try for a few. At first he found them out of range, so concluded to wait for a better chance rather than run the risk of losing his arrows. We loafed along the shore watching them.
“What kind are they?” Link asked.
“But, there’s different kinds,” I volunteered.
“Those over there . . . those that're goin’ ‘whew, whew, whew’ as they swim an’ feed . . . they’re Baldpates,” the old hunter explained, as he pointed in their direction. “Listen ... do you hear that: ‘peep, peep’? That’s a Teal. There, see it? Listen . . . hear that other call? That: ‘kaow, kaow.’ It’s made by the female Baldpate. Look ... see her over there?”
“Where do they nest?” Link asked. But old Bill being intent on something else, seemed not to hear, So I replied with the smile of the well-informed:
“Where do you suppose? Don't you know that all ducks nest on the ground?”
"You’re wrong again,” the old woodsman replied, as he turned to me. "The wood duck lays her eggs in a hollow tree or stump, an’ sometimes many feet from the ground.”
"Look! Look!” exclaimed Link, “why there’s a lot of our Canvasback ducks from America. I didn’t know they ever came up here in Canada, so far from their home.”
“My son . . . how American you are . . . claimin’ everythin’ that even visits th’ United States,” smiled old Bill. “Home is where you're born . . . especially if you never miss livin’ there a part o’ every year. Nearly all the wild fowl that live in North America are born up here, an' they never miss a single year in returnin’ to their Northland home. Here’s where their young are born. An' so it has been goin’ on for thousands . . . yes, an’ perhaps millions o' years. An’ the same thing applies to most all other kinds o’ North American birds.” LATER, walking northward, we folJ lowed the shore around a marshy inlet, and there we came suddenly upon a red fox devouring a duck. As quick as lightning the old hunter let drive an arrow. The fox leaped into the air and fell—as I thought—dead. But old Bill said: “No, he’s only stunned.” Then he turned it over and pressed bis moccasined foot down upon the body for a while. As he skinned the fox he told us why he did this.
“Remember, my boys, the best way to kill a furbearin’ animal, especially if it’s been caught in a trap, is to strike it on the snout close to th’ eyes, to stun it. Then with the knee or the moccasined foot, bear down over the heart until the pressure stops the heart from heatin’. Thus the skin’s never injured.” Then he continued telling us about fox skins: “The trader can best judge the value of a skin by lookin’ at th’ inside. The roots o’ the hair never show through on th’ inside of a prime skin; but on an unprime skin they may be seen on the inside. A prime skin is one that has been taken at the right season o’ the year, when the fur’s in first-class condition. That is why most trappers stretch their fox skins inside out. It’s generally about th’ end o’ March that the roots begin to show on th’ inside o’ the skin, an’ then, too, the fur’s growin’ poor, as the foxes are then doin’ much runnin’ about among bushes an’ wearin’ their hair off. The best skins are well furred from feet to neck. In fact a fox with a valuable coat looks as though it had on leggin’s. In its prime, th’ inside o’ the skin resembles partly transparent tissue paper.
“The best traders take great pride in bein’ able to name the date th’ animal was killed, by simply lookin’ at th’ inside o’ its skin. There are two ways to tell if the skin was taken in February or March. For then the sun’s growin’ stronger an’ there’re two ways the hair’ll show it. First, the tips o’ the guard hairs’ll be slightly bleached, an’ if you look at ’em with a magnifyin’ glass you’ll see that a tiny bulb has formed upon each tip. Second: the fox then suns himself a good deal, lyin’ in the warmth o’ the sun until his under hair often freezes to the snow, an’ in gettin’ up some o’ the hairs’re pulled out or broken off. This causes the fur to look slightly uneven.
“Foxes mate in February an’ March, an’ the young are born about seven weeks later, an’ strongly resemble house kittens. Their home is in an underground burrow, an’ the father brings food to the mouth o’ the den to help feed the family. The fox has such a keen sense o’ scent that he can find an’ dig out a nest o’ hibernatin’ mice, even though the snow may be a foot deep. In the same way he can detect grouse or ptarmigan sleepin’ beneath the snow, into which the birds had dived headforemost at sunset to escape the increasin’ cold o’ cornin’ night.
“Now listen, my boys. The bite of a fox is one of the most dangerous bites that a trapper may get, as bloodpoisoning may set in, an’ festerin’, or even lockjaw may follow. The fox is a treacherous animal, as you can never count on him. Foxes like most other animals haunt salty ground, such as deer licks or salt springs. That’s why the regions around Great Slave Lake an’ Great Bear Lake are such good fur districts; as there are numerous salt springs in that country.
WHAT kind are the biggest foxes?” I asked.
“The largest foxes, my boy, are the males o’ the black an’ red. Then comes the males o’ the silver an’ the cross. Then the females of the blue an’ white. The smallest of all Canadian foxes are the kit-foxes o’ the prairies.”
“What do foxes mostly eat?” enquired Link.
“They live on flesh, fish or fowl, but mostly upon grouse, rabbits an’ mice. In huntin’ grouse that are sleepin’ in the snow, the fox leaps three or four feet into th’ air, an’ comes down snout an’ forepaws together in order to force his way suddenly through the snow, an’ pounce upon his prey. In that way he may kill several birds out of a single covey, or if th’ others haven’t been disturbed, he may turn up early next mornin’ for another feed. The fox’s also an eater of eggs, an’ will even carry eggs in his mouth without breakin’ ’em, as I’ve found egg shells in foxes’ dens. When a fox is huntin’ water fowl, it may happen that a duck is sittin’ upon her nest, an’ rather than leave her eggs to the mercy of the fox, she may put her head under her wing an’ close her eyes to try an’ persuade herself that she is safe—because she no longer sees the fox. An’ the fox will creep up to within six feet, an’ then spring upon her: an’ thus secure a duck as well as a nest of eggs for his family’s dinner.
“By the way, boys, the foxes livin’ about big lakes often have the best coats, as they then travel most upon open expanses o’ frozen water, instead o’ brushin’ their coats against trees an’ bushes. Besides the fox is a great night traveler, as the rabbits are feedin’ them, an’ the grouse an’ ptarmigan are sleepin’ beneath the snow, where they’re easier prey than they would be in the daytime. The only time a fox chooses to travel in a heavy storm is when something has frightened him—maybe the crasbin’ of a tree that the storm has thrown down. Or he may be lookin’ for better shelter. About th’ only animal that seems to enjoy travelin’ in a storm is the wolverine, perhaps because he then hopes to find other animals off their guard, an’ thus fall an easier prey to him.
“It’s time we were gettin’ back, but when I see Gordon scratehin’ himself the way he’s doin’ now, he not only reminds me o’ somethin’ but he’s makin’ bis mosquito bites much worse.”
What does he remind you of?” I asked.
“He reminds me that foxes are always troubled with fleas. An’ if you’re a keen observer you’ll find that fox fleas are smaller an’ smarter than the fleas that pay so much kindly attention to the lynx.”
To be Continued