The Living Forest
Reading this instalment of Mr. Heming’s story is like getting away from everyday affairs and sharing, with Old Bill the Hunter and the boys, their life in the deep, cool shadows of the north woods.
THE first thing we did next morning was to examine the wolf
tracks, and at one place in damp ground near the
spring we saw very clear impressions of them.
The size of one set of tracks was surprising; they were much larger than those of any dog I had ever seen, and the marks proved the claws very long and sharp.
We then went to examine the rabbit snares. The first rtili set, the second had been sprung by a ed by a wolf. The third snare, ntained a rabbit. After fixing the broken one med ti' our fire-place. The air Men with cold mist from the lake that we hurried to make up our fire. Bill then showed us how to dress a rabbit.
hirst he cut the skin down the inside of each hind leg its met below the tail: then he peeled back Irew it down, inside out and off the body as Cutting off the head and o the carcass lengthwise between the legs in to disembowel it. he next laid the body apart, as one opens a book, and trussed it with a couple of wooden skewers in readiness for roasting. Securing a stick about eet long, he split the butt and opening the split, inserted the rabbit, binding the split ends together with green willow bark in order to hold the rabbit securely » ' Aing. Ramming the thin end of the stick into
the ground, he slanted it over the fire, but out of the smoke, and presently the rabbit began to cook.
'Indians call this way o’ cookin’ Ponasking, which means toastin’: an' it's not a bad way to cook fish. But instead of splittin’ th' butt of th’ stick, you should sharpen shove th'butt into th’fish’s mouth toward th’tail, an’ slant it over th’ fire, in this way,” remarked the old man.
After breakfast. Bill said:
"My boys, now that we'll be here for several weeks, I’m coin' to build a fish barrier across Beaver Creek.”
"XVhat’s a fish barrier?” asked Link.
"It's a stone dam across a stream, with an open slide to carry off th’ overflow; an' below which a basket is set to catch the fish that venture through. It’ll work for us every hour in the twenty-four; at least it will as long as we leave the basket there. Then we’ll not only have all the fish we can eat. but we'll have plenty, too, for dryin’ lokin' for our trip. So we must now hump ourselves get to work. You boys eat some berries, while I look
for some poles to build our lean-to against this boulder.”
X X THEN' I saw old Bill Hill working so hard near our \ V berry patch I stopped eating to lend him a hand. Selecting a dead spruce about four inches thick, he hacked a ring round its butt: then we swayed it back and forth until we broke it off. Removing its brittle branches and lopping off its tip, it was left about fifteen feet in length. Likewise Bill trimmed another of the same size, and we ed them over to the boulder. After gathering a ber of smaller spruce poles, and some long, strong jns of green willow bark, Bill laid the two longest poles parallel upon the ground, and about eight feet apart: then fastened them together at the butt by means of a slender traverse bar which he lashed securely into place with the thongs of willow bark. About five feet from the tip of the poles he bound another traverse bar to them: but this time he used a stronger one, as it had to carry considerable weight. Then between the long poles and parallel with them he fastened two slender poles an equal distance apart.
Across the four parallel poles and between the two traverse bam he secured a number of slender bars about eighteen inches apart. It was to the latter Bill intended fastening sheets of birchbark to act as shingles. Link then coming over, also lent help by binding the poles together wherever they crossed one another.
Thus in a short time we finished the frame work that was to serve as a slanting roof for our shelter.
The next'thing the old hunter did was to set out in search of a big birch tree that
would yield large enough sheets of bark to make the roof and ends of our shelter rain-proof. So up the slope we went toward a grove of birches, and it was not long before we were using wooden chisels to remove the bark from the trees, but as it was not the right season for such work, we found it hard to gather the quantity we needed. Placing the bark inside out— to shed the rain better— we laid it shingle fashion and tied it securely to the cross bars with strong, string-like spruce roots.
WHEN the work was completed we raised one end of the frame aloft, and rested the projecting ends of the two long poles upon the top edge of the boulder; thus slanting the roof toward the ground at an angle of about forty-five degrees. Then closing each of the open ends with a perpendicular framework that was covered with birchbark, our shelter was completed. It was rain-proof except on the side next the fire, where the edges of the open side stood back from the rock about three feet, and thus left an entrance at each end, as well as an overhead vent for the smoke between the roof and rock.
After lunch, having some bark left over, we built a little shed near at hand and beneath which we stored fire wood to keep it dry. The old halfbreed also built a stage or platform, about six feet high, upon which to store supplies beneath a covering of birchbark.
Link and I were so delighted with the cosiness of our new camp that Bill said:
“My hoys, did you ever notice that it’s the townsman who talks like a philosopher an’ lives like a fool? He’s the man who slaves all his life to pay for a home he seldom owns an’ out of which he’s thrown when the rent’s overdue. Yet a woodsman can build in a couple o’ hours a home that costs him nothin’ more than a few drops o’ sweat. I’ve noticed, too, that when the citizen visits the woods, he exclaims: ‘Oh heaven!’ An’ when the woodsman visits the city he exclaims: ‘Oh, hell!’ ”
Late that afternoon, being tired and hungry, we set out in search of a good feed of berries. A little way from camp, a sudden short, chattering scream attracted our attention; something invisible scurrying among dry, rustling leaves, passed swiftly toward a tree. Then we espied the cause. A red squirrel was being chased by what I at first thought to be a young fox, but its coat and bushy tail were a rich, dark brown, while its breast was of orange.
T TP THE tree scurried the frightened squirrel with the other animal in hot pursuit. Up, up, they raced, but the tree was standing alone beside the lake. How could the squirrel escape? Out upon a branch it darted, and without pausing a moment took a flying leap far out over the water, and with wide spread legs and tail sailed like a bird in descent; and down it splashed into the lake. But the other animal, instead of increasing its speed, in order to follow with a flying leap, hesitated a moment, then lost its nerve while its prey swam away. Then the fainthearted four-legged hunter turned about, and we lost sight of it among the branches of the jack pine.
“What was it?” I asked.
“A marten, my boy.”
“I thought the squirrel a goner,” said Link.
“An’ so it would’ve been if it hadn’t jumped, for the marten as you saw, is a very active animal in a tree. So active that it can even outrun the squirrel. But the
red squirrel is a good swimmer, an’ won’t hesitate to cross a lake several miles wide. Once when I was paddlin’ down a long three
wide lake, across,
1 happened to meet a red squirrel an’ he was already half way over. When I slowed down just ahead o’ him an’ slanted my paddle toward him, he took advantage o' my offer, crawled out on the blade, shook himself, rested a little while, then ran up the paddle handle as well as my arm, an’ contented himself on my shoulder for five minutes or more. Then, rested, he leaped into the water an’ set out again to finish his journey to the northern shore.”
“Have red squirrels many enemies?” Link asked.
“The marten is his worst; though owls an’ hawks worry him a good deal, an’ are ever on the watch for him.”
“Tell us about red squirrels?” I coaxed.
“They’re not of much account. We never bother about their fur. Though they kill an endless number of birds, as well as destroy their eggs; they live mostly on seeds an’ nuts an’ berries; but their chief food is the seed of the jack pine and the spruce, which they store for winter use. They usually live in hollow trunks though in this country they are also given to buildin’ weather proof nests of bark among th’ upper branches of the trees. The young are born in spring. Red squirrels don’t seem to mind the cold much; for even on a sunny mid-winter day you may see ’em scurryin’ about as though they enjoyed the weather. But you boys ought to know as much as I do about red squirrels; for they live in your country too.” “Then tell us about martens,” Lincoln asked.
WELL, to begin with, only in looks is the marten a beautiful animal. He’s got so many bad habits that he's detested by those who know him. However, his fur is only prime during three months of the year: December, January an’ February, though it’s fairly good in October an’ November, as well as in March an’ April. But as soon as the sun grows strong the fur loses its greatest value. A mild spell of rain cornin’ in winter also affects the fur; dark patches will show on the inside of the skin, and the color of the fur will change. The sun affects the tips of the hair first, bleaching it like it bleaches grass. But rain’ll affect the whole condition of the skin and fur.
“The female usually makes her nest in a hollow tree; sometimes using a squirrel’s or woodpecker’s hole; or she may burrow beneath the roots of a tree, or make use of a hole once used by a fox or skunk. As a rule they’re local animals. Though when food grows scarce they may migrate to a better feedin’ ground. They’re found most in park-like regions of heavy growth evergreens. They feed on rabbits, squirrels, mice, insects an' birds, as well as their eggs and young. Though the marten’ll not catch fish, it’ll eat ’em when it finds ’em. They also eat wild celery an’ wild rhubarb an’ will even nibble at wild parsnip; which th’ Indians claim makes their coats a beautiful dark brown. Perhaps that’s why the finest marten skins secured in the whole of Canada come from the region of the Parsnip River. Though only about five hundred skins are annually taken in that district, they’re finer an’ darker an’ larger than the skins taken in any other part of the Dominion.
“The young, usually four to six, are born in early spring an’ soon develop into lively little creatures. Though great tree climbers, they’re not good swimmers, but'll undertake to cross a brook or little river. The marten is a great thief, an’ ever ready
to rob a cache or stage, an' usually leaves a bad odor—not the equal o’ the skunk but about the same as th’ ermine. Moreover, they’re very quarrelsome creatures, so much so that two martens rarely ever meet without fightin’.
“An’ that reminds me, my boys, that the more angry one gets, the less he’s apt to listen to reason. The test of a knife an’ the test of a man is temper. Bad temper spoils a man as readily as it spoils a knife.”
“Do martens store their food?” I asked.
“Yes, but they often forget where they’ve cached it. In midwinter martens are not so active as during the rest of the year, an’ it’s then that th’ Indian, relying less upon his traps, hunts them with his dog an’ gun. The dog helps brings th’ hunter to a marten tree, where the little animal may be seen pokin’ its head out of its hole. To avoid the risk of killing the little brute in its home an’ having to chop down the tree to get it out, the hunter’ll walk slowly ’round the tree, and the marten’s curiosity will force it to leave its hole to see what the hunter’s doin’. Then the hunter takes aim an’ drops the little brute at the foot of the tree. When upon the ground, as perhaps you noticed, the marten travels mostly by a few leaps an’ bounds followed by a step or two, an’ then repeats his springin’.”
After supper Bill took us over to Beaver Creek and just as we neared the pond we caught sight of something that held us spellbound. Down through a small leafy tunnel we saw four wolves attacking a wolverine. Though smaller than the wolves, the wolverine was a powerful, bear-like beast, and in order to better defend itself it had turned over on its back; and lying in a depression of the rocky slope, it was ready to fight with all four sets of claws as well as its powerful jaws. The wolves were facing around and leaping about in their sly efforts to slash their prey; but so far the wolverine had succeeded in keeping them off, and warding their vicious attacks.
For some moments we silently watched the brutes in the light of the sunset glow, as it was reflected in the pond’s still water. But presently the wolves caught scent of us, and instantly both wolves and wolverine vanished to left and right. It was a thrilling sight.
“Would a single wolf attack a wolverine?” Lincoln asked.
“My boy, I’ll tell you about wolverines some other time,” the old hunter answered.
LUCKILY we struck a fine J patch of blueberries quite near camp, and fell to feasting without delay. A little breeze was blowing the mosquitoes away, and an opening between the trees afforded us a view of the lake. Among the whispering branches little birds sang sweetly; overhead gulls called shrilly; while upon the lake a flock of loons, six or eight, sported wildly about, rushing along the surface with paddling feet, their flapping wings beating the soft water into foam, as they chased each other with sardonic laughter.
“Do loons lay their eggs in trees?” Link asked.
A sudden burst of laughter from me made the old woodsman frown in my direction, but my mental picture of a loon trying to lay an egg up in a tree was as funny to me as though a crane had tried to do it too, and I followed my laughter with:
“Yes, and so do herons.”
Instantly the old hunter replied:
“My son, bein’ fresh isn’t bein’ funny. That’s exactly what herons do.” Then turning to Lincoln he added:
“Learn all you can, my boy, an’ then some day you may know almost as much ’bout the woods as some Indians do. You asked about loons. Loons lay two eggs upon the ground, usually so close to water that when danger threatens, a single plunge from the nest’ll submerge the bird. Swimmin’ under water, far from shore, the loon then rises to the surface to see the cause of alarm. Durin’
spring, summer an’ fall loons live on northland lakes an’ rivers; then by their swift daylight flyin’ they migrate to southern waters to spend the winter. You may know a loon by the fact that it’s larger than a duck an’ smaller than a goose; an’ it walks like a drunken man. Its head, neck an’ back are black, but its neck’s marked with white streaks an’ its back with white dots, while its breast’s pure white. Its straight, sharp-pointed bill is good for catchin’ fish.
“Yesterday, when a blue heron flew over I heard Gordon call it a crane. He should learn the difference between the two. A crane doesn’t fly with its neck curved back an’ its head between its shoulders, as does the heron. A crane flies with its neck outstretched. Yet both fly with their legs trailin’ beyond their tail. The heron is a
wader an’ still-huntin’ fisherman in open shallows, an’ secures his food—frogs, fish or mice—by strikin’ at it with his long, sharp bill. Often in large flocks herons build their big, bulky nests of sticks in the tops of tamarack trees that stand in swamps. But while the crane builds its nest in a marshy place too, it is made of reeds laid on the ground. The crane is also a hunter of fish, frogs and mice. The heron’s a tall bird, but the crane’s even taller. Sometimes it stands higher than a man’s waist.”
After supper Bill Hill returned to Beaver Creek and carefully selected a straight, dry, willow stick about five feet long and two inches thick, as well as ten straight willow wands about three feet long and as thick as a man’s little finger. When Link asked what they were for, the old woodsman replied:
“Bow an’ arrows.”
“How about a string?”
“A thong from my belt’ll do. But if I hadn’t leather, I’d make a twisted string o’ green willow bark.”
On our way back we came upon three ruffed grouse in a tree. Old Bill snared one. While sitting in the glare of our evening fire, he said:
“Remember, boys, anything’s liable to happen, an’ we got to be ready. We need bows an’ arrows.”
. Using a short, stout stick in place of a mallet, he drove his knife into the end of the bigger willow stick, carefully
allowing the blade to follow the grain of the wood as he split it from end to end. Thus, by removing one after another, four sides of the stick, he squared it, and then shaved it into a bow with gracefully tapering ends, notchd in readiness to receive its four-foot leather string.
Next he peeled and shaved the willow wands into twoand-a-half foot lengths; and splitting one end of each, he slipped into the split a tiny sliver of stone, binding it there with a string of green willow bark. Then splitting a grouse’s wing feather, he bound one half on either side of the arrow’s tail. Thus he made a number of stone headed and feather tipped arrows, as well as a roll of birchbark with a willow bark sling to act as a quiver, in order that he might carry the arrows on his back.
For a while we sat beside the dying fire and silently
watched its’flickering glow. Even the distant howling of wolves had stopped; and so quiet had it grown that one another’s breathing suggested a distant gale. Presently the old hunter whispered:
“Do you hear the little singers?”
At first I thought he was joking, but when he assured us he was in earnest, I too listened, and presently detected the faintest waves of singing—so faint indeed that Link too had failed to hear them. As Bill listened to the almost soundless singing, a kindly smile played upon his face, coming and going in unison with the flickering of the fire. “Do you see the little singers?” he asked.
Following his line of vision, I discovered the two tiny, mouse-like musicians flitting about in the dim firelight, and when their playfulness afforded a nearer view I noticed their long, pointed snouts. They were not mice, nor had I ever before seen such creatures. They were about three inches long, with brown coats upon their backs and light gray below. I glanced enquiringly at our old friend and he whispered:
“They’re shrews. They’re found all-over this country, mostly in well watered, grassy or bushy places. Their little den’s often a tiny hollow in a tree or stump or log. They don’t burrow. Their food’s principally worms an’ bugs. Their eyes are so small that you can scarcely see where they belong. Shrews hunt both day an’ night. But don’t try to catch one in your hand.”
“Why?” I asked.
“They’ve a disgustin’ odor. Perhaps that’s why there's so many billions of ’em in this land. They’ve got such a rotten smell that many a meat-eatin’ animal an’ bird refuses to dine on ’em.” Soon after lying down upon our brush bed, I fell asleep, but some time after midnight I awoke—-to hear a strange sound. Listening intently I heard it again. Though it was so far away that it was scarcely distinguishable, I thought it sounded like men or animals walking in water. Now I could hear it repeatedly. It began to worry me. I wondered if I should call old Bill. Later I arose and in the faint light of a clouded sky stepped over Link and awoke the old hunter by touching him and saying:
At once he sat up and was all attention.
“There . . . did you hear?” I whispered.
“Yes,” he nodded, and getting up went outside.
After a short wait we heard the sound again.
“It’s a small band of caribou crossin’ the narrows. If it was moonlight I might get a few. I’ll try anyway.”
WE skirted the
shore, we caught sight of three moving silhouettes against the northern sky. They were passing westward along the ridge and travelling up wind. In the hope of getting within range of the game trail Bill crept up the slope and patiently waited for more deer to follow. But no more came. About half an hour later he said:
“Next time I’ll be ready for ’em. I’m goin’ to build a blind. But after all, we can’t count on caribou, so I better make the fish barrier first.”
When I awoke next morning at sunrise Bill Hill was already cooking a fish that he had speared in our little bay. After breakfast we visited the snares but there was nothing in them, so we continued up the slope in search of berries. Following the course of the spring, we came to a clump of evergreens growing beneath a steep embankment, out of which ran the tiny brook. On entering the grove the old hunter discovered a rocky cave in which there still remained a mass of ice that neither summer sun nor southern breeze had melted.
“A good place to hang an’ store our meat,” Bill smiled. “Nowif we can get some deer we can lay in a stock of grub for our trip. Let’s go an' look at last night’s tracks.” On the way w-e banked our fire. There were many signs of caribou on the point, and on further investigation the hunter found that they had descended the big rock by way of the old game trail.
“It seems to be a regular crossin’ place for caribou
an’ fifteen or twenty raust have passed here last night. From the way things look 1 wouldn’t be surprised if you’ll have a taste o’ caribou steak before long. Do you see those masses of old caribou hair that’ve drifted there?” he asked, as he pointed along the shore. “That was shed from the winter coats of hundreds o’ deer while they swum across here last spring. The water’s lower now, so they only have to wade. Caribou have remarkable hair. Th’ inner layer's composed of an oily wool, while each hollow hair o’ the' outer coat contains a little air chamber; that's why caribou are so very buoyant. I’ve seen Indian hunters make a raft o’ dead caribou an’ gettin’ aboard the mass they poled the dead deer back to camp.”
"Are caribou hard to hunt?” Lank asked.
"Sometimes, my boy, they're impossible to approach. But then again, they occasionally act in a most erratic way, sometimes even cornin’ right up to the hunter. I’ve known it happen while I was traveilin’ on a lake Ín winter with two of my Indian friends. We sighted a band o’ caribou an’ though we made no effort to approach ’em, the deer came close to us an’ our dog teams. Even after we shot a number of ’em, th’ others trotted ’round an’ ’round our sleds. There’s no accountin’ for caribou. At one time they’re without fear. At another time they’re so shy that a hunter with an express rifle can’t get within range. In early summer their strange behavior’s often due to their bein’ pestered by flies an’ mosquitoes. Later on they’re sometimes driven nearly crazy by attacks of the warble fly. Its long stinger penetrates the hide o’ the deer an’ deposits eggs that develop into maggots. The maggots eventually eat through the skin an’ render the hide almost worthless. These tracks here are those o’ cows an’ calves. If they were the tracks o’ bulls, I wouldn't be so hopeful about this bein’ a regular crossin’ place for caribou.”
"You spoke of a blind. What's a blind?” I asked.
"A blind is a screen behind which to hide when game approaches. I'll make one of evergreen boughs, somewhere around here, so that when we see caribou descendin’ the rock we can hide behind the blind an’ be within arrow range when the deer wade ashore this point. But first I’m goin’ to tackle the fish barrier. It’s a surer way of gettin’ food. Let's go over to the creek now.”
/'AN COMING to the stream old Bill waded up and A-c down it for several hundred paces before he decided to build the fish barrier on the edge of a shelf of fairly flat rock chat crossed the creek, and over which the water ran in a little cascade with about a three foot drop. At that point the brook was about twenty feet wide; and as there were plenty of loose flat stones, he decided to begin at once. So we started in.
We boy3 carried or rolled big stones to the old woodsman while he built them into a wall across the creek. Then when we grew tired and wanted to rest for awhile, he gave us his knife and showed us the kind of willow switches to cut for the making of the basket. In less than half an hour w-e had gathered several armfuls of long, slender switches; and then he stopped his work again to show us how to weave a big, coarse basket, after the Indian fashion, for the holding of the fish.
First he interlaced switches so as to form a mat a couple of feet square. Then by bending up the free ends and interweaving them with strands running horizontally he began to form the upright sides. Though it was hard work at first, we persevered, and by degrees the basket grew until its sides were about three feet high; and then Bill cut off the butts and twisted the alternating slender tips about the last horizontal strands that ran round the top. Thus it was completed, a strong, serviceable though crude affair, but the making of it had given us much satisfaction.
"My boys, when I see how ready an’ willin’ you are to work, it pleases me. We shouldn’t live to work, but should work to live. Hunger an’ cold are often the wages o’ laziness: while common sense an’ wmrk usually win contentment.”
During the afternoon a hot south wind threatened a change in weather, so we knocked off work to gather a two or three days’ supply of firewood, which we stored beneath an overhanging ledge of rock. There too we placed some dry punk, tinder and birchbark in case our fire went out. Soon the sky became overcast with mackerel clouds and the swallows flew so low that they scarcely skimmed the tree tops. Bill said they were catching flies. The mosquitoes were now very annoying.
"As she came abreast of us, not more than fifteen paces away, I was trembling with excitement, especially when I noticed that Bill was taking aim and pulling on his bow string until 1 thought it would break. Nearer came the deer. Suddenly the hunter let fly an arrow. It struck the doe with such force that the little shaft sank deep behind the shoulder and the startled creature leaped into the air.”
Bill lmd been so anxious to finish the fish barrier that he had not taken time to hunt for game; so we ate our fill of berries. During the night I heard rain. Day broke with a glorious dawn; and after visiting the snares we breakfasted on a couple of rabbits.
While Bill worked on the dam, we boys gathered poles and birchbark with which to make the fish trough; and then the old hunter showed us how to do it. Placing a couple of three-foot sticks on the ground about four feet apart, we laid, close together and at right angles across them, a number of five foot poles, which we bound to the crossbars with willow bark. In like manner we formed the two perpendicular sides about a foot high, across the
top of which we bound several bars to support the sides. Next we lined the trough with sheets of birchbark laid shingle fashion, and tied them in place with green spruce roots split to the size of cord.
Then after Bill had bound one end of the trough to the centre of a stout pole, we carried the whole affair out to mid-stream, and laid the pole end of the trough in the opening of a sluiceway that Bill had left in the dam—so that the pole rested horizontally against the inside of the wall, and thus prevented the force of the water from carrying the trough away. The pole then being adjusted to the proper height, and secured with stones, the opening in the wall was filled up, so that the trough formed the only large opening through which the water could escape. When the trough was propped at the right angle, the water raced through it about ten inches deep and fell into the basket. Thus, when water and fish passed through the trough, the coarsely woven basket allowed the water to escape but imprisoned the fish.
AT FIRST Bill’s intention was to leave the fish barrier -¿A to do its work unaided, while we built the blind for caribou hunting, but needing food at once he led us ashore and up the valley for several hundred yards. Then wading down the creek toward the dam, we beat the water with long willow switches to drive the fish into the trap. It was fun for Link and me slashing about with our switches as we waded sometimes waist deep through cold water, or staggered over slippery stones, or crossed gravelly shoals where brook trout flitted about beneath long streaks of foam. When we reached the dam and examined the trap, what a reward we got! There were three large fish and a lot of small ones too, including seven brook trout.
What a meal we had! Afterwards the old woodsman showed us how to dry the rest of the fish and hang them on a pole which he wedged across the cave just below its ceiling.
Then we all headed for the point where the caribou landed the night before. When we arrived Bill warned us not to cross the caribou tracks, as he was afraid that any deer coming that way might scent us; as the wind had now swung round and was blowing from the northwest; so we kept southward of the trail.
Selecting a commanding spot the old hunter began building an evergreen screen. In less than an hour we had completed the work—a screen of poles covered with evergreen brush.
It was about twelve feet long by seven feet high. On returning to camp Bill practised with his bow, driving arrows into clumps of moss set upon bushes at various distances.
And all the while I kept wishing some big game would come along and give him a chance to do some real execution.
That night as twilight crept through the woods and we sat beside the fire, we watched bats circling about the trees or sometimes dipping down close to our heads.
“There must be a little cavern somewhere near, besides th’ ice cave we found to-day,” the hunter remarked. “For these bats live in caves, an’ they’ve come out now to feed,
as they always hunt their food at dawn an’ twilight.”
“What do they eat?” I asked.
“Insects, my boy, an’ if you watch ’em you’ll see what wonderful skill they show in avoidin’ the branches o’ trees, even while in swiftest flight. Yet it’s so dark we can hardly see the bats. Some Indians claim that even a blinded bat has no trouble in keepin’ its proper course an’ avoidin’ every object. That seems to argue that the bat goes by a sense of feel. That it actually feels the presence of an object before it’s near enough to touch it.”
The hard work of building the dam and making the blind, made me feel very sleepy, and I was quite ready to turn in soon after supper. When I awoke next morning I found Link sitting beside the fire. He informed me that Bill had been away nearly half an hour. But suddenly the old hunter returned and with suppressed excitement exclaimed:
“Quick . . . I’ve seen deer!”
Seizing his bow and quiver, he hurried to gain the shelter of the trees on the point. Then we saw them too. Single file they were descending the game trail down the face of the rocky precipice. Apparently we managed to gain the shelter of the blind without being seen by the deer; and fortunately, too, the wind was in our favor. Now we had a good view of them as they zig-zagged back and forth among the scattered clumps of trees and bushes on the rocky wall. It seemed there were between twenty and thirty deer; near the foot of the trail we lost sight of them for a while in a clump of spruce. Eater Bill whispered:
“Look! . . . the leader’s cornin’ now!”
“Where? ... I can’t see him,” Link replied.
“It’s not a him, it’s a her. Don’t you see her little horns?” the old hunter corrected.
“Horns? . . . on a doe?” I questioned.
“Yes, caribou does have horns. But you keep stili or you’ll frighten ’em.”
NTOW I saw the leader. She was emerging from the spruce grove. Cautiously she gazed around, just as a person would do who wished to advance unobserved. Then she stood as though searching the lake and opposite shore, looking straight at us, too, but apparently not seeing us or anything at which to take alarm. Then she retraced her steps to where the band stood waiting in the shelter of the trees. On being assured—as it seemed to me—that all was well, the deer now broke into a trot as they followed her down to the water’s edge.
“I wish I’d had time to get a better willow thong,” said Bill, as he laid his spear beside him in readiness for use. “The knife’s not very secure, but I may not need to use it after all.”
As I watched the oncoming deer, I could see that the leader of the band was a handsome creature, with a much larger set of horns than the other does possessed. On entering the lake some of the deer swerved toward the north, as if seeking deeper water; and just before they settled down to swim they began thrashing it with their legs, making a noise not unlike the roaring of a rapid. Then, too, while they were swimming they made a noise not unlike the grunting of pigs. But most of the band waded straight across the rapids; and as they came ashore the old hunter restrung his bow and adjusted an arrow. On gaining the bank, the leader, glancing round a couple of times as if to make sure her charge were close behind, advanced up trail toward the blind; for it was there the bank could be most easily ascended.
“Now, boys . . . keep your eyes open . . . I’ll try for the leader . . . if I get her . . .I’ll have time to use more arrows,” whispered old Bill.
Silently and motionlessly and breathlessly we waited. Cautiously the leader moved forward. As she came abreast of us, not more than fifteen paces away, I was trembling with excitement, especially when I noticed that Bill was taking aim and pulling on his bow string until I thought it would break. Nearer came the deer. Suddenly the hunter let fly an arrow. It struck the doe with such force that the little shaft sank deep behind the shoulder and the startled creature leaped into the air, then fell heavily upon the ground. Instantly the rest of the band halted, and staring for a few moments at their disabled leader, they began trotting around in bewilderment. With wild eyes and dilated nostrils they tossed their heads, searching and scenting in every direction to discover where the hidden danger lay; but as our blind
was thickly built, and as it also stood down wind, we were not discovered.
A MOMENT later the old hunter, having strung another arrow, struck another deer; and as it stumbled a nearby doe took fright and galloped up the slope.
Then, as if accepting her as their new leader, all the does and calves followed her. When Bill let fly his third arrow, it struck another doe, but did not bring her down, and at that instant, Lincoln, overwrought with excitement, seized Bill’s spear and leaping out from behind the screen, hurled it, javelin fashion, with all his might, at the escaping, wounded caribou. The weapon struck the deer with considerable force and for nearly fifty yards the shaft dragged behind the beast; then it dropped free, but left the knife embedded in the doe’s flank. A moment later the deer with Bill’s knife, disappeared among the trees, and the old woodsman roared out in despair:
“Lord save us!. . . we’ve lost our knife!”
Angrily glaring at Lincoln, he fairly growled: “What’d you throw it for? . . . you fool!”
“Just wanted to help.”
“Help? . . . you mean starve us to death!”
“But I’ll get it again . . . I’ll catch the caribou,” Link replied.
“Catch that deer . . . you’d no more catch a caribou than you’d catch an express train . . . unless it’s mortally wounded,” grunted the old man in angry derision. Then he exclaimed:
“Quick, we must follow . . . it’s our only chance!” Without another word he trailed the deer. Our chances of success seemed hopeless as we ran up the little valley between the hills, for now and again I would lose trace of the tracks. But the hunter with eyes and ears alert, silently and swiftly followed the often invisible trail; then once more he would lead us to where the tracks re-appeared, and I would marvel at his skill. The country through which we passed was fairly open, being covered only here and there with thick clumps of trees and bushes. It was then I noticed that the woodsman, instead of paying attention to the ground near his feet, focussed his gaze from ten to twenty paces ahead, where the pine needles, or the moss, or the grass, or the occasional outcroppings of rock, caught the light at such an angle with the e>e that he could detect wherever the slightest disturbance had taken place.
In that way he followed the trail over the most delicate of mosses, that seemed little more than a rough, mottled coat of paint upon the weather-beaten stone. But we were following the main trail of the band; and it was only when Bill discovered blood upon overturned leaves that he was certain he was following the wounded deer. After an exhausting run of several miles, we came suddenly upon the disabled doe as she staggered up from behind a fallen tree, where she had laid down to rest. Already she had grown weak, and though at first she tried to escape, she eventually wheeled about and stood at bay when we drew near. Adjusting an arrow the old hunter bent his bow, and let drive; but it took two to bring her down. Then seizing his knife by the handle, he pulled it free and finished the deer.
“It’s a long carry to camp, an’ as there’s one deer here an’ two on the point, we’d best return an’ dress those first; then we can take our time in carryin’ this one home. For if I stopped to dress this one, somethin’ might happen to th’ others.”
ON RETURNING to the two dead caribou, Bill said: “Now boys, watch what I do, if you want to learn how to skin an’ cut up deer.” And then he added as he turned one of the does over on his back:
“The two principal ways o’ skinnin’ animals are called ‘case skinnin’ ’ an’ ‘split skinnin’.’ To case skin an animal the skin’s cut down th’ inner side of each hind leg until the two cuts meet under the tail. Then the pelt’s peeled off by turnin’ the skin inside out. Just as I showed you
th’ other day when skinnin’ rabbits. All animals such as ermine, fox, fisher, lynx, marten, mink, otter, skunk, muskrat an’ rabbit are skinned that way. All animals such as wood-buffalo, musk-ox, moose, wapiti, caribou, deer, bear, beaver, wolf an’ wolverine are split skinned.
That’s the way we’re goin’ to skin these does, by first cuttin’ the skin down the belly from throat to tail; then down th’ inside of each leg to the centre cut. Then we’ll peel the skin off both ways toward the back.
“An’ while I think of it, I ought to tell you that all split skins are stretched on square-cornered frames, except beaver skins which are stretched on oval frames. All case skins are stretched over wedge-shaped boards o’ various sizes. That is, all except muskrat skins, which are usually stretched over a hooped frame or a looped stick. These deer skins’ll be stretched by lacin’ ’em inside a frame made of poles. But, boys, there’s still another way to skin a big animal that’s too heavy to turn over, an’ that is to split the skin down the back an’ then peel it off both ways toward the belly. It’s a good thing for you boys to know that.”
Meanwhile the hunter had bled and cut off the heads of both carcasses, and as the bodies had had time to stiffen sufficiently for convenient handling while removing the skin, he let us take turns in helping him by pulling back the skin, or even in occasionally handling the knife. When we had removed both skins, we set to work to disembowel the carcasses. It was certainly a messy job, but we had to learn how to play our part; otherwise, if we lost Bill Hill we’d never be able to work our way out to civilization.
Then the old woodsman cut out the ligaments extending along each side of the spine; for from them he intended making bow-strings and the thread with which we were to sew deerskins for winter clothing. Next he quartered the carcasses, then split them, and cutting the flesh free of the backbone, broke the ribs off close to the spine by bending them back and striking them with a heavy, sharp stone. Then he cut out the tongues, wrapped them up along with the hindquarters in the skins, bound the bundles with thongs of willow bark and hung the remainder of the meat in the surrounding trees. After which we washed ourselves in the lake, and then set off for camp, each carrying a load of meat.
It was some time after noon before we had our first meal that day, and what an enjoyable meal it was, our first feed of caribou steak. We liked it better than beef. It was nearing sunset when the last of our caribou meat was stored in the ice cave. Then another big meal, and we went for a little stroll through the woods.
Presently Bill, who was leading, stopped suddenly. He was watching something.
Now we espied it too.
It was a bear. Although only about fifty yards away, it was unaware of us, as the evening breeze was in our favor.
After pawing and scratching around, it laid a forefoot on a little mound, waited patiently for a while, then, without moving its foot it began licking the back of its paw. Presently it clawed the earth again and then resumed its licking. I couldn’t imagine what it was about, and curiosity almost forced me to whisper, but I dared not ask lest I frighten the brute. It fussed around the
spot for ten or fifteen minutes before it finally wandered away. Then Link asked:
“What on earth was it doing?”
“Catchin’ ants, my son.”
On walking over to the spot, Bill showed us how the bear had been clawing about an ant hill in order to excite the ants and make them come out of their house. Then when the bear would plant his paw on their home, the ants would excitedly run all over his foot, and he would lick them off. Thus he not only caught the ants, but he did it, too, without getting any dirt in his mouth.
“A bear often drinks the same way, especially when he thinks the water needs strainin’. He drinks through the hair on the back o’ his paw.”
“jT^ON’T stop . . Bill. Tell us more about bears.
Last time you said there was a lot more we ought to know. You promised you would,” Lincoln reminded him.
“My boy, you’re right. There’s not only a lot you should know, but a whole heap more I’d like to find out. That’s why I never grow tired listenin’ to Indians tell their huntin’ stories. Yes, I’ll tell you what little I know. But where did I leave off?”
“You told us about their life in spring, and how they fish and fight, and about being right and left-handed,” I recalled. “And what they eat,” Link added.
“Oh, yes, I know now,” the old hunter commenced. “And that reminds me that sometimes when scoppin’ for fish, the bear may slip off the rock an’ get a duckin’. I’ve seen it happen. Th’ one I saw looked mighty foolish especially when he found there was another bear watchin’ him. Bears make me laugh; they’re so like men, an’ men are just like boys. I never grow weary o’ watchin’ their antics.”
“Whose? Boys’?” Link asked.
“No, men’s,” I answered.
“Bears’,” corrected Bill.
“When a bear catches enough fish for a meal, he doesn’t at once go ashore to eat but seeks a sunny rock, shakes himself like a dog an’ dries off a while. Then he goes over an’ eats the best he’s caught. When he’s had enough he’ll shake himself again an’ gruntin’ with satisfaction he’ll walk carelessly away, as much as to say: ‘You other bears or any other animals or birds, can now eat what I’ve left ’ But when he returns next day he’ll not eat what he left— not if the fishin’s good. At that season o’ the year he likes fresh fish, an’ seems to enjoy the sport of catchin’ em. But at other seasons he’ll eat rotten fish with relish The bear’s spring fishin’ season lasts a couple o’ weeks
“Then, my boys, there’s a season of about two weeks between the runnin’ o’ th’ fish an’ th’ findin’ o’ the’ first
green things, durin’ which time th’ bear has to resort to whatever food he can find. It s at that time he leaves the rivers an’ seeks higher ground where he finds mice, lemmin’, ground hogs, rabbits or grouse. After two weeks or a month o’ such huntin’ his feet may be tender un his claws worn down from diggin’ for food underground. Next he feasts on green berries an’ likes ’em so well it’s apt to make him ill. Then he an’ his companions may become so cranky from eatin’ too much green fruit that their band may disperse. Though, of course, a mother an’ her young cubs always stay together.
“After the green fruit season the first berries to ripen are the lowland bearberries that grow on wet ground on separate stems. Though the bear likes 'em an’ seems to thrive on ’em no other animal cares to tackle 'em that I know of. It’s claimed they’re poisonous to man. Then there’s the highland bearberry that grows on high bushes almost like willows: an’ though man may eat 'em, he soon stops.
“In midsummer the bear turns mostly to eatin’ fruit an’ feasts on bearberries, strawberries, Saskatoon berries,
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raspberries, crowberries, craneberries, blueberries, cranberries an’ currants. After a month o’ such feedin’ he’ll want to change his diet again, an’ then for about a week he’ll hunt for nothin’ but ant hills. Just as you saw him doin’ tonight. Think of an animal as big as a bear—sometimes weighin’ over five hundred pound’—bein’ able to catch an ant. But now you not only know how he does it, but you’ve seen him do it, too.”
SUDDENLY silence took possession of the old man, and his keen, steel-blue eyes, that had been constantly scanning the bay, became fixed upon a certain spot. Instantly fear held my breath, and as I glanced that way I expected to witness the return of the murderers. There, at a certain place on the water, ever widening, wavy rings were obliterating the reflections of the sky in the bay. What a tremendous relief! There a big fish had just leaped to catch a fly.
“Go on, Bill,” Link coaxed.
“But where did I leave off?” the old man asked abstractedly.
“About bears catching ants,” I prompted.
“Oh, yes, o’ course,” he resumed. “Now I remember what I was goin’ to say: Until about the beginnin’ o’ June the bear’s still carryin’ his winter fur an’ wishin’ to get rid of it he travels in a zigzag way all over the place. Ignorant white men’d say he was huntin’ grouse or rabbits or mice. But he’s simply makin’ use of every bush within his reach to comb his sides an’ back to help pull off his winter coat. As soon as th’ old matted fur’s replaced by his new summer hair, he begins to fatten an’ look quite slick. It’s then he feels he ought to travel a bit to find a mate.
“So about the middle of June he becomes as white men’d say, ‘quite chesty’. If, when he finds a female there’s another male with her that he thinks he can master he’ll try to take her away from him. A fight may follow an’ if he’s licked, he’ll slink away an’ try to find another female for a wife. As I said before, bears seldom fight to the death. An’ when a desperate battle does ensue, it doesn’t last long, not so much from terrific bitin’ as from clawing with all four feet.
“A bear at that season bein’ proud of his new coat seldom climbs trees. But in July an’ August he’s often among th’ upper branches o’ big timber. Fishin’ starts again about th’ end o’ August. When fish—brook trout, for instance— are workin’ their way up stream they try for back waters, but in rapids there bein’ few back waters, the fish often head for eddies behind rocks. There they rest in one eddy while they’re gettin’ ready to try for another. It’s then the bear has his chance. When bears fish in shoal waters, runnin’ from three to six inches deep over stones, their antics are often very funny. By the way, white men often describe a bear as holdin’ its food in its paws like a squirrel. But a bear usually puts its paw down on its food, especially when it’s eatin’ meat, an’ chews an’ tears away at it from under its paw ...”
As the old woodsman paused, Link asked:
“What do bears do next?”
“The seasons of matin’, of berryin’ an’
fishin’ bein’ over, the bear may choose the later kinds o’ food, such as cranberries an’ weedberries. The latter kind the bear sometimes finds by scraping away the snow. There’s still another berry or bud that’ll last him a long time, an’ that’s the bud o’ the rose after the petals’ve fallen. It’s sweet an’ good to eat. Then there’s th’ upland bearberry that lasts all winter. From its leaves, gathered in summer, the best of kinnickinick’s made. Kinnickinick is a substitute for tobacco.
“A bear’s den or wash depends on the nature o’ the country in which the bear lives. If winter overtakes him in a swampy region, he may den up in risin’ ground, or in a tree-crested mound, or inside a large moss, or grass-covered, tussock. In any case his den’ll be cosy an’ dry. If winter overtakes him in a Brule' country he may find a fallen tree whose big upturned roots afford a cave beneath an’ into it he’ll crawl.”
“What’s a Brule' country?” I asked. “A forest of burnt timber. M.y boy, a bear never digs a den if he finds one ready made. _ Neither do bears cuddle up together in a wash, like so many kittens in a basket. Each bear curls up by itself, as it likes plenty o’ room. Where a mother an’ two second winter cubs’re found in a wash, each has its own nest; an’ the leaves workin’ up between the bears, form little walls that separate ’em. Two mothers with their cubs never live in a single den; each mother must have her own wash. Two or three young cubs may be found together, but never two full grown males. They’d never agree. In hibernatin’, a bear usually turns his back to th’ entrance of his den, an’ sleeps with his head between his legs, while his nose may be covered with his flank.
BUT speakin’ of cubs, reminds me of an experience I once had with a mother bear. It happened one mornin’ in spring when some snow was still upon th’ ground an’ the trees was covered with hoar frost. While visiting my trappin’ trail, I came to a fairly open space where I had set a bear snare among some birches. At first glance I could see that th’ big tossin’ pole had been sprung, an’ on cornin’ nearer I saw that a big bear had been caught in the snare. It was a mother with two little cubs. Though they must have been starvin’ for a week or more they were still alive an’ cryin’ about their mother. The snare, havin’ caught her about the head, had not strangled her to death ; but had pulled her head aloft an’ held it there for many days. At first I thought she was dead. Later, I discovered she was still breathin’. I uncovered my gun to end her sufferin’ but the poor little cubs were too much for me. I decided to spare the mother for them. But how was I to let her go? It was dangerous work. After thinkin’ it over I got up in a slender tree—too small for her to climb—then I tried to cut the snare with a bullet from my gun. It was ticklish work; but the fourth shot severed the line, an’ the relieved mother sank down in a heap. For a while she didn’t move. Later, the joy of her cubs seemed to bring her to, an' at last she got. up an’ shuffled away with her little babies crying affectionately on either side of her.
To be continued