The Living Forest
All through the Summer and through the time when Nature dropped her glowing color box over the north woods Old Bill and the boys labored in preparation for the bitter Winter months—gaining in strength, confidence and wood-lore, and learning to love the forest.
NOW for a number of days we spent most of our time at work on our canoe, but when we grew tired of one job we turned to another. Every day old Bill taught us something new, either in the way of woodcraft or natural history, and every day, too, we grew more fond of our life in the north woods. What with our daily work, and the surprises and adventures it often brought us, so much of interest was crowded into our lot that neither Link nor I had time to think of the life we had left in civilization, to brood over the catastrophe that had befallen Perkins and his party. Every day seemed to bring us more contentment and pleasure, and thus we boys were as happy as any boys could be who were living a life of adventure in an enchanting and mystery-haunted forest.
One evening after supper Link said:
“Bill, you’ve told us a lot about other animals, but nothing about beavers. I’ve heard they’re about the most interesting animals in the north woods.”
“That’s true, Link. An’ here they’re right at your very door, yet neither of you boys’ve had courage or ambition enough to do a little investigatin’ on your own account. I sometimes wonder what boys are made of nowadays. Any night you want to, you can slip over to Beaver Creek an’ watch ’em.
They may be workin’ every night now. Perhaps the newly weds’ve started buildin’. Or some old one may be doin’ a bit o’ work on the dam. An’ when you go over there, stay quiet, an’ keep down wind, an’ only move when they’re not lookin’ your way. You boys ought to be good at spyin’ on animals, because you’ve less bulk an’ better sight than ole Bill. I’ll take you over an’ leave you there.”
We struck the creek just below the dam, and that was the first thing Bill explained to us.
“They built it to raise the water o’ the stream high enough to protect their island-like homes by coverin’ th’ entrances to their lodges; also to form enough water below the winter’s ice to allow o’ swimmin’ to the grub cache, as well as to flood the little valley until the water reached the surroundin’ poplars, so that after cuttin’ em down, they’d float ’em to their lodges.”
“But how on earth did they build a big dam like this? It must be seventy or eighty feet long, and at least five feet deep in the middle?” Lincoln asked.
“They began by cuttin’ brush an’ layin’ it in the water, butts up stream. On the brush they placed mud an’ sod an’ stones, or any handy stuff that’d weigh the brush down and help block back the water. That’s the way the work went on, until finally it raised the water as high as they wanted it.
But this isn’t a big dam. Sometimes they build ’em hundreds o’ feet long.”
“I’ve heard they dig canals, too,” I remarked.
“I haven’t seen any ’round here,” Bill replied.
“If I had I’d show you one. They’re usually dug for the purpose o’ floatin’ home the branches they’ve cut from trees beyond the reaches of their pond. Some of their canals are even provided with several little dams, for the purpose o’ raisin’ the water to a number o’ different levels.
“The canals are from two to three feet wide an’ about eighteen inches deep, an’ sometimes run for hundreds of feet. Now I’m goin’ to leave you boys here to do a little scoutin’ of your own. Don’t stay too late, an’ when you get back to camp, I’ll be glad to hear what you’ve seen.”
But after remaining a dark hour or two, and hearing nothing but an occasional noise that nearly frightened the life out of us—it sounded as if a moose had jumped off a hill into the water—we decided to go home. On the way Link twisted his ankle, and soon after arriving at camp it began to swell badly. Though the old hunter looked worried, he merely remarked:
“I’ll be back in a little while.”
About a quarter of an hour later he returned with some branches of dwarfed juniper. How he found them in the dark was a mystery to me. Breaking off the tips of the twigs in lengths about three inches long, he peeled
off the outer bark, then with his knife scraped off the inner bark, which looked like the scrapings from new potatoes. Putting the pulpy stuff in his mouth he chewed it until it formed a mass, like oatmeal porridge; then plastering it around Link’s ankle, he used soft willow bark to bind it there. In a couple of hours the pain left him, and by next morning the swelling had disappeared.
It was then that Bill asked us what we had learned about beavers, and when we told him what an awful noise we’d heard, he laughingly remarked:
“Why, that was only the beavers slappin’ the water with their tails when they dived. They did it to give warnin’ to their comrades that danger was near. You’re great boys . . . you are. However, when I finish the canoe I’ll show you what beavers really do.”
Later when I asked the old hunter if he would make bows and arrows for Link and me, he replied:
“You’re right, my son. You should both have ’em. An’ you should be able to make ’em yourselves. Not only that, but you must learn what to do if you haven’t even a knife. No man is a real woodsman unless he can hunt an’ fish an’ travel without even a gun, or an axe or a knife. A real woodsman doesn’t need anything from th’ outside world. He can live absolutely independent o’ civilization. An’ I might just as well show you right now how to make a bow an’ arrow without th’ aid o’ even a knife. Then as soon as you learn to do it for yourselves, I’ll make each of you a proper bow,
strung with a string o’ twisted deer sinews.”
AFTER breakfast the old hunter led us down by the shore, where a few -days before we had seen part of the skeleton of a wolf that must have been lying there for several years, so hard and white were the weather-bleached bones. Choosing a bone about the thickness and roundness of his little finger, and the length of his hand, he then set out in search of some milk-white quartz. I remembered we had seen quartz in a number of places, especially as jagged lining to open pockets in the rocky wall of the cliff. Sure enough, we soon found it there; and with the aid of a broken stone, Bill smashed several pieces of the quartz free and carried them away.
“My boys, I’m now goin’ to teach you how to make knives, an’ spears, an’ axes, an’ bows, an’ arrows, just as they were made by our ancestors fifty or a hundred thousand years ago. A flinty stone would be better than this quartz, but the quartz is handy an’ it’ll do. When you’ve learned how to make flint knives, an’ spears, an’ arrow heads, without th’ aid of any tools, an’ when you’ve learned how to support yourselves independent o’ civilization an’ when you’ve spent the rest o’ your lives livin’ in the woods learnin’ the ways o’ beasts an’ birds, then you’ll be worthy o’ bein’ called real woodsmen. Then you’ll be the real thing. Real men o’ the livin’ forest.
“Now, my lads, with this bone I’ll be able to chip quartz or flint an’ make it into knives or spears, just as our ancestors did in the old stone age fifty thoussand years ago. Watch me do it.”
Gripped firmly between the fingers and palm of his left hand, he held the quartz, and against its blunt edge he steadily pressed the end of the bone with all the force he could command. Suddenly a small piece of quartz flaked off. He kept on thus for about half an hour, chipping off flakes of stone until he had formed the quartz into a sharp pointed double-edged spear-head; much after the pattern of the ancient flints found on the sites of old Indian burial grounds. As he worked, Bill explained:
“This is the way the Indians made their flint arrow an’ spear heads an’ their skinnin’ knives. The Walkin’ Wonder taught me how to do it when I was a boy. Now, you said you wanted to be great hunters. Try it yourselves. You’ve got to learn. First you’ve got to make your own stone knives. Then you’ve got to use ’em to make your bow's an’ arrows. When you’ve done that, an’ when you’ve killed game w'ith your own home made huntin’ implements, and when you’ve skinned the game too, with your own home made stone knives, then I’ll make for each of you the finest bow an’ arrow's I can, and I’ll teach you how to use ’em as the Indian hunters used to do.”
“You’re a wise man, Uncle,” Lincoln smiled. “Link, my boy, common sense is so rare that it often creates surprise. An’ don’t forget, my son, wisdom’s alw'ays worth more to-day than to-morrow.”
That day, while resting Lincoln’s ankle, we boys spent most of our time learning how to make stone arrow-heads, and spear-heads and knives, how to use willow bark, twisted into cord, for our bow strings, and how to prevent our bowstrings from breaking by placing them in a birchbark tube along with wet moss to keep them moist. Then we practised with the bows and arrows that we had made with our stone knives, and as a reward, that evening the old hunter set about making us the best bows and arrows he could with the aid of his steel knife. But somehow' or other we really took more pride in the rough bows and arrows we had made ourselves, though we had to lay them aside when it came to a choice for real hunting.
A FEW days later I got my turn at being laid up. But x x it was entirely my owTn fault. I fell ill so suddenly and so overwhelmingly that I was soon in agony upon the ground. Violent cramps had seized my stomach, and I believed I was going to die.
“What you been eatin’?” old Bill frowned.
“Only . . . a few . . . berries,” I gasped.
\~ a~rh "Oh nd .~ (ew d~ret V~ h~t' Stt~k~ b~rrje-3~ Stay wtth him, Link. 111 be ri I~ut hQ ttrst `ooked au~urtd he wa~ in search of some tc ular r hert w' sw y. On his ret urn he t bunch ,i long grass wLth slender eddish-like tuut~ about s rhi~k J pencils N having a tin dish i~ which t b~tI rht m a~ he
t~xpiaiftei to Ut~ ut st,i'~ o~ the tt~ mouth, h~wed them up nt~ nJ th~'n tooL~ the LtL~ p). Lit~L~!rtg from nuu~ nt t~.ist~d on my eat~n~ tt 1 !t . frw ri. he tpp~~~t uu~ 4 w~ rL4ddeL1. Jr voure it
So I had to gulp down the slimy stuff. It tasted like the quintessence of peppermint, and took effect so rapidly that I was soon vomiting. Then I lay still for a while, and old Bill covered my naked stomach with the grass he had gathered, and bound it there with willow bark thongs, fie explained it was to keep my stomach warm. I soon fell asleep, and when I awoke some hours later. I felt better. But the old woodsman wouldn’t let me get up. and insisted on my staying in bed for the rest of the day.
Every once in a while during the next few day3 when we boys wanted to snatch a little play we would get out our bows and arrows and resort to target practice. As archers we soon gained considerable skill. At other times we would discard our clothes and race up and down the sandy shore in the warm sunlight. And what a joy it was to be hustling about as nature intended us to go, without even a thought of clergy or police. Then, too, we always had our morning plunge, and often old Bill made us take another in the evening, as he would never stand for us going to bed dirty.
Thus those glorious, never-to-be-forgotten days hurried by, and thus, too, the canoe neared completion. Though the nights had grown cool, the days were still delightfully mild, for the finest month of all the northern year had arrived—the middle of August to the middle of September. And thankfully we remembered that there were yet a few days left of that wonderful season. The flies and mosquitoes had already disappeared. But still we had little time left for anything but hard work in preparation for our outward journey.
LkTE one afternoon, when only the finishing touches ‘ remained to be put on our canoe, the old woodsman left off work to examine the fish barrier, and Lincoln reluctantly went to the river to wash his shirt—which old Bill had insisted on his doing. I, too, stopped work, to go in search of spruce gum which the old hunter intended melting—nine parts of gum to one part of grease— in a birch bark dish, to apply to the seams of the canoe to render them watertight. Slinging my quiver over my shoulder I set out alone, because Link still doing his washing could only smile his refusal to come along.
For some time I worked away in the woods back from the shore, when suddenly I noticed out of the corner of my eye, as I stooped to recover a piece of gum that fell to the ground, some dark object passing among the trees toward the river. On slowly glancing round I beheld a black bear. Waiting a moment or two, until the animal had passed behind some trees, I seized my bow and an arrow, and began stalking it. I was careful, however, to use the intervening trees and bushes as a screen to prevent the bear seeing me. As the beast was traveling up wind, I approached from behind. Cautiously and silently I followed, stalking it as I imagined a lynx would stalk a rabbit. Before going two hundred yards I saw the animal suddenly sit up and peer beyond the trees on the river bank. Evidently startled, it appeared as if about to run away, yet stared at something beyond the trees. Its strange action was accounted for when on pressing forward I too caught sight of something—it was Lincoln washing his clothes.
Standing ankle deep in the water, he was treading his well soaked shirt into the dun-colored ochre of the river bottom, and washing it Indian fashion—as old Bill Hill had taught us to do—using the dun-colored clay in place of 3oap. A moment later, however, the bear dropped upon all fours, wheeled half around, and hurried off among the trees. After going a little farther up shore, the animal stopped to feed amid a berry' patch. Then, because it was my only chance of success, I made a detour to gain the shelter of some trees that stood close to the brute. But my action was seen. Instantly I stood still—just as
Bill had told us to. After watching me for a minute or two, the bear resumed its eating. Again I advanced and finally came to within about thirty or forty paces of it. Taking careful aim, 1 let drive an arrow that struck the ground near the beast. Startled, the bear stared at the arrow, while 1 crept still closer, then let fly another one. Again 1 missed my' aim. But this time the bear learned from whence the arrow came, and instantly bolted out of sight among the leafy' trees.
Though I was much disappointed -for 1 had counted on killing the beast single-handed in the hope of impressing old Bill and Lincoln—I persuaded myself that there was now little use in trying to trail the bear, and that my time might be better spent in another way. The other way was to help Link gather dry marsh hay with which to stuff his newly washed shirt and prop it up on sticks, like a scarecrow, so that it might dry quickly. That was the way old Bill said the Indians did with their buckskin clothing, and that we might as well learn to dry clothes properly, as we would soon have deerskin smocks and leggins to wash.
That evening, while we were talking about bears, the old woodsman infused some of the Indian tea he had gathered. This he did by heating stones and then placing them in a birchbark dish containing water. After repeating the operation several times, the stones caused the water to boil, then the tea blossoms were thrown into it and allowed to settle. Link and I liked the brew even from the first, especially as it had a slightly minty flavor, and later on, after taking a
little every day, grew accustomed to and quite fond of it.
The following morning we were eager to witness the finishing of the canoe by the gumming of its seams. Whittling a handle to one end of a dry pine stick, the old hunter split the other end before placing it in the fire. After a little burning the stick opened like a fork. Taking it in hand, he held it over a seam which had been covered with gum, then blowing into the crotch of the stick, he re-melted the gum, and spitting on his right palm, rounded off the gum and smoothed it down. When all the seams had been properly gummed, he placed the canoe right side up upon two logs. After using our birchbark rogans to partly fill the canoe with water,Bill crawled underneath, and lying on his back, marked with charcoal every leakage he could find. In a little while he made the canoe
water-tight, and in good condition for the long trip.
Launching the craft, we got aboard, and not only were we all delighted with it, but old Bill gave Link and me many valuable pointers as to the proper way such a craft should be handled and navigated. I had had a little experience in paddling, but after the old voyageur had instructed me for an hour I had added much to my skill.
It was surprising, too, how rapidly Link advanced in the handling of the canoe.
XX/’E SPENT the rest of the day packing up, for now ' ' we had everything in readiness to set out upon our canoe voyage. Several hours before sunset our work was completed, and to celebrate the occasion, old Bill peeled a long spiral strip of bark from a birch pole and wound it into the shape of a flageolet. When the rough musical instrument was completed, he delighted us by playing upon it. Lincoln liked its tone so well that nothing would do but he too must play it.
Though we were ready to turn in early, we boys reminded the old hunter of his promise to show us the beaver at work, so after portaging the canoe over to Beaver Creek, he placed it in the pond, and silently paddled us up near some mounds that rose above the water. Bill did it by keeping his paddle blade covered all the time, and revolving the blade whenever he took a stroke, and yet he was able to paddle nearly as fast that way as in the ordinary fashion. No wonder we were able to approach while the beavers were at work, for I couldn’t detect any sound from either the stroke of the old hunter’s blade, or the gliding of our canoe.
It was an ideal night for such work, as the moon was shining brightly, and merely a whisper of wind was astir and it too was in our favor.
“Do you see that dome-shaped mound of earth an barkless sticks showin’ above the bushes over there?’ and the old hunter pointed. “That’s a beaver lodge Let’s get a better look at it. I’ve often watched them build their lodges,” he whispered. “They do most o the work on moonlight nights, yet I’ve seen ’em workin in daylight too. They begin by selectin’ a site, which means the right kind o’ bottom at the right depth o water, an’ not too far from suitable hardwood trees They fell trees by standin’ on their hind legs, while they gnaw round the trunk about a foot an’ a half from the ground, even though the trunk be a foot thick. As you’ve probably noticed, most shore trees lean toward the water, so when cut by the beavers they fall toward the pond. Then the beavers gnaw off the branches an’ after cuttin’ ’em into handy lengths, they drag ’em into the water. Seizing ’em in their teeth, they swim home with ’em an’ sink ’em in a pile that forms a store house o’ food they can reach beneath th’ ice.
“When they build a house, it’s made principally o’ barkless sticks, an’ mud an’ sod or anythin’ that’s near an’ can be easily handled. The work keeps on night after night, until at last a dome-shaped mound rises four or five feet above the water. Two tunnels are then made. Th’ outside entrances of these are placed below the frost line, an’ the inside ends above th’ water line. Sticks an’ mud are removed to form an inside room, about two feet high by five or more feet wide. The floor’s generally o’ two levels, one half about six inches above th’ other half, an’ on the higher level the beavers sleep.
“In the fall I’ve often seen beavers carryin’ mud to the tops o’ their houses, an’ droppin’ it there to thicken an’ strengthen the roof when it freezes ...”
“But, Bill, I once read a book that described the roofs of beaver houses as being composed of nothing but sticks,” Lincoln remarked.
“I don’t doubt it. People forget that local conditions vary so in certain regions that even animals o’ the same species have sometimes to live different in one locality from the way the rest of their kind do in other localities.
An’ in a country over three thousand miles long that’s liable to happen pretty often. Now, my boys, keep your èyes skinned for beaver. They look like giant muskrats except for the tail, which is not round but horizontally flat, very broad an’ covered with scales instead o’ hair. Sometimes beavers weigh fifty or sixty pounds. You see the tips o’ those dead sticks pokin’ out o’ the water over there? That’s where they stored poplar branches for their last winter’s food."
E VERY now and then we noticed a golden streak upon the water, and as it neared us we could see that a beaver
was floating a branch toward its home. It propelled the branch by holding it in its teeth as it swam. Then on nearing its lodge, the animal would suddenly dive and both beaver and branch would disappear. After anchor ing the branch among the other sticks it had sunk to form a cache of winter food, it would rise and swim away for another supply.
The old hunter told us that the beaver were carrying up mud and depositing it there, although from where we watched we could not have sworn to that, as the light was not bright enough to prove it. After that, we drifted down stream, and for some time watched the beaver working at an opening in the dam, while just below three swans were gracefully gliding about in the moonlight.
Silently our canoe glided in its wake, and after many intervals of gliding and pausing we finally stopped with the bow of our canoe among the branches of a large poplar tree that beavers had felled into the water. The tree was in full leaf, and a number of beaver were working within its shadows. We could hear them passing in and out of the water, creeping along the swaying branches, and cutting off the limbs with their great sharp teeth. Every once in a while a beaver would come into view where the moonlight enabled us to see it plainly, so that on two occasions we actually saw them at work.
Sometimes, when they would pause at their labor, they would raise their heads and glance around, but although there was nothing to obstruct their view, I doubt if they realized what we were, as they would presently continue their work with no sign of concern. After watching them for fully an hour, old Bill whispered to Lincoln—who was in the bow—to make a move. But the instant he did so there was such a deafening noise of violent blows upon the placid water that it sounded as if a lot of horses and cows had leaped into the pond all around us. And the motion of the water actually rocked our canoe.
Moving off. we drifted half way down the pond, then gliding beneath an overhanging tree we lay there in its shadow, and waited a half hour or so at least, until we again saw beavers swimming. Then slowly and silently we emerged and drifting down toward the beaver lodges we saw several of the beavers at work.
Occasionally one would swim toward the house with a peeled branch in tow, and after much tugging, finally would land it upon the dome-like roof. Others would mount the roof of the lodge without conveying up any stick. The old hunter told us they were carrying up mud and depositing it there, although from where we watched them we could not have sworn to that, as the light was not bright enough to prove it. However, next morning, when we happened to pass that way, we saw that fully three-quarters of the roof was composed of mud, while only about one-fourth of it was covered with sticks.
After that we drifted down stream and for some time watched two beavers working at an opening in the dam, while just below three swans were gracefully gliding about in the moonlight.
IMMEDIATELY upon returning to camp we went to bed, as we counted on making an early start next day. Dawn found us upon our feet, and after a farewell dip in the river—although it was pretty cold—and a hurried breakfast, we started to portage our outfit over the point and paddle down the lake to where a little stream would carry us out to the great river. It was then that we had a chance to try our new tump-lines of deerskin.
They were from twelve to fifteen feet in length, tapering gradually from a broad centre piece toward each end. The centre piece was made to rest on the top of the carrier’s head, while the two ends passed down his back and encircled the lower pack, which was carried hip high, while the other packs were adjusted above-it in a leaning position against the packer’s back. The advantage of carrying loads in this way is that the arms are left free, and in case the packer stumbles, his load falls free of him and thus may prevent the accident of a broken arm or leg. On the first part of our journey I carried from twenty to thirty pounds until my neck became used to the work; then I tried forty and even fifty at times—at least old Bill said it weighed that much. But when we boys marvelled at the big loads the old woodsman carried, he replied:
“It’s small compared to what some Indians pack. Every voyageur in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fur Brigades carries at least two packs o’ fur in a single load, but more often they carry three. Each pack weighs eighty pounds, so that means a load o’ two hundred an’ forty pounds. Even with such a load they can run at a jog-trot over a portage, perhaps half a mile long, without once haltin’.”
When all our stuff was portaged, we loaded and boarded our canoe, the old hunter taking the stern paddle, while
Link sat in the middle and I knelt in the bow. Then away we paddled on our long voyage to the outer world.
ON ENTERING The River of the Strange People we took advantage of its slackest waters and paddled close to the southern shore until we landed at the foot of the rapids, from where we portaged our outfit up to Bloody Bay—as old Bill had named it. Then we had the full sweep of the great river before us; and although I did not mention it to the others, I was mighty glad to leave Bloody Bay behind me. After an hour’s paddle, we crossed several shallow bays where bushels upon bushels of feathers were lodged among the rushes. There, too, we saw quantities of egg shells lying in depressions along the bank; and the old woodsman explained that such places were breeding grounds for swans, geese, ducks, loons and waders of many kinds.
“Thousands of water fowl must’ve been here durin’ th’ moultin’ season, an’ it’s a wonder we didn’t see more on our lake. Land birds moult gradually, but water birds lose most o’ their pinion feathers at once. So it often happens that for about a week most water fowl are easily caught, ’cause they can’t fly. At that time a man with a paddle can kill a lot o’ geese in a few minutes. When approached in such a condition, geese try to reach water, but should they fail, they lie down upon the ground, stretchin’ their wings an’ necks out flat in the hope they won’t be seen. Should they reach water while danger threatens, they’ll dive an’ stay under as long as they can, even holdin’ on to the underwater weeds to keep themselves down.
“I’ve found that white geese are the best runners, while wavey, or laughin’ geese, Canada geese an’ gray geese, come next. It takes a good dog to catch either white or wavey, but a man has little trouble in runnin’ down either of th’ others. Under such conditions, swans
are dangerous for an unarmed man to attack, as they can deliver a powerful blow with their wings. The crane defends himself with his dagger-like bill, while the laughin’ goose sometimes lies on his back to defend himself.
“In the northern part o’ the Barren Grounds I’ve seen, durin’ moultin’ season, flocks o’ geese walkin’ over the country in such numbers that they reminded me of a great army on the march. The whole mass was separated into units, and each unit was composed solely of one variety o’ geese. But as there were many varieties, they gave th’ impression o’ divisions clothed in different uniforms. At that time o’ the year they always march southward. A great mass o’ white geese on the march looks like a great snow field slowly slidin’ ’cross the country. Various divisions were constantly passin’ each other while on the march. One division would stop to feed, while another would continue to walk. Then that one, too, would stop to eat, while the first’d resume its march. The little lakes’d be covered with ’em, an’ thousands o’ geese’d every now an’ then fly a little w'ay, as if tryin’ their new' wing feathers. Then growin’ tired, they’d land an’ start marchin’ again.
‘ Durin’ the moultin’ season, hunters prefer to eat the wings. But in spring an’ fall, when water fowl are usin’ their wings more than their legs, the hunters consider the legs better eatin’. Because the more a limb’s used, the tougher it becomes. I remember one moonlight night when I was returnin’ from a hunt with an Indian friend o’ mine, how we came on a great flock o’ Canada geese. They seemed to be asleep, for each stood on a single leg, with its head tucked under one of its wings. It was a strange sight. The flock must’ve numbered many thousands, for it seemed to densely cover five or six acres. After watchin’ ’em for a while, we crept forward, but the nearest ones heard us. Withdrawin’ their heads they watched us in the dim moonlight, though in a stupid w'ay, for they did not try to escape or make an outcry when my pardner slashed off the heads o’ several of ’em.”
Soon after resuming work with our paddles we crossed the mouth of an inlet, and here noticing a lot of little gutters along the muddy bottom, I asked Bill what had caused them.
“In winter, muskrats use these passage ways to travel beneath the ice. If we were to follow one of ’em we’d come to a muskrat lodge.” Pointing with his paddle he added: “You see that little mound o’ dead rushes over there? That’s a muskrat house. If we opened it, we’d find the room inside quite clean. Such a house is built by rakin’ the dead rushes from the river’s muddy bottom an’ pilin’ ’em until they rise above the surface. Tunnellin’ down through the mass until an entrance’s found below water, the rats then pile more reeds an’ mud on their mound; an’ clearin’ out the centre o’ the mass, they form th’ inner room with its dry floor well above water. From day to day the roof’s strengthened until by fall the house rises ’bout three feet above the river. Other muskrats may build their winter quarters by tunnellin’ into the bank o’ the river, an’ diggin’ out inner chambers for their livin’ quarters . .
“Don’t stop, tell us more,” Lincoln coaxed.
“Bill, how' is it I see so little when you see so much?” I asked. “When I came dowm this river I never saw a tenth of the things you’ve pointed out."
“It’s all in the way you look at things,” replied the old hunter. “I try to look at nature as th’ Indians do, for they're much more observant than white men. It’s the way my Indian mother taught me as a child—to look at everythin' an' tell her what I saw. Then if I didn't understand. she'd explain it to me."
“But tell us more about muskrats." remarked Lincoln. “All right, my son. But while I think of it, I want you boys to keep a keen lockout for the sight or sign o’ men. V o 11 run into signs p>rett\ soon, an’ I don't wmnt to beY-aught nappin' because it might mean the death of us. So front now on be mighty leery an’ if you see or hear any signs, let me know at once.
Silence ensued, but after a little while I broke it with:
“Don’t forget about muskrats. ’
“Well, my boys, to begin wdth,” he replied, “their
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range’s very small, they often remain in ‘a single pond all their lives. Others, o’ course, may take a trip of a mile or two in the fall in search of a new feedin’ ground. If met on their overland journey, they sometimes prove great fighters, as they’re the bravest of all animals. Nothin’ daunts ’em, not even bear or wolf or man. The muskrat’ll tackle anythin’ that’ll tackle him; an’ if cornered will fight any livin’ thing. He’s hard to kill, especially with a club, as he often springs on a curve an’ therefore is hard to hit when in th’ air. Yet he’s not aggressive if you’ll be gentleman enough to get out of his way. But if you remain in his road, he’ll attack you, even though you’re mounted on a horse, as he once attacked me.
“Nevertheless he’s not quarrelsome, an’ makes a pleasant pet, bein’ gentle an’ graceful in his movements, an’ cleanly an’ industrious in his habits. His worst enemy, o’ course, is man. But there’re lots of others ever ready to kill him, such as owls, hawks, wolves, foxes, otters, wolverines, bears, ermines an’ minks. The last two will go through the south side of the muskrat’s lodge. If the rat’s away, they’ll wait for him near the mouth of his tunnel, an’ if little bubbles rise, they’ll know the rat’s returnin’ an’ll grab him by the back of his neck as he rises to the surface.”
LINCOLN and I had stopped paddling ^ to listen, and presently the old hunter turned the canoe as he said:
“Well, my boys, since you expect me not only to do all the talkin’ but all the workin’ too, I’ll turn in here out o’ the current to keep her from driftin’. Now you lads shove your paddles down into the mud an’ hold her, if you want to hear any more.”
That we did, and then he continued: “The muskrat’s feet make a pretty track; the hind feet, which’re much larger than the forefeet, make a track somewhat resemblin’ that of a duck, as if the rat’s hind feet were web-toed. Sometimes aroun’ noon, when the sun’s shinin’, you may spy a dozen or more rats restin’ or sunnin’ themselves in the water, though you may see nothing’ more than a lot o’ little sticks protrudin’ above the surface, and which a moment later may turn into wigglin’ muskrat tails. When alarmed, the muskrat dives, slappin’ the water loudlv with his tail to warn his brothers. Th’ Indians say: if you want to head him off, you must watch the curve of his tail when be disappears in the water so as to tell in which direction he intends to swim beneath the surface. But it’s not always a sure sign. His tail is o’ great use to him in swimmin’, as he uses it much as a boatman uses a stern oar.
“If instantly killed, a muskrat ’ll sink, but if merely wounded he’ll flutter about an’ swim round an’ round before he goes down. When a dead muskrat sinks, an’ the hunter wishes to secure it, he’ll place his gun at an angle close to the water an’ discharge it. Usually that’ll cause the body to rise to the surface. Th’ Indians often slap the surface o’ the water with the flat of a paddle blade to answer the same purpose. An’ when a couple o’ hunters wish to bring muskrats within easy range o’ their bows an’ arrows, or of their guns, one’ll paddle the canoe about the pond while th’ other slaps the surface with his paddle to make the rats come out of their houses to see what’s goin’ on.
“Muskrats usually feed at sunrise an’ sunset, an’ they eat almost every plant that grows under water, includin’ the stalks an’ roots o’ lilies, flags, bullrushes,
an’ ‘water onions.’ But never the water parsnip or carrot. That is considered deadly poison. My father once lost nine head o’ cattle that ate it. The muskrat’s a clean an’ particular feeder, an’ delights in the taste o’ salt, so much so that if you put a little salt on his trail, near where he rises from the water an’ set your trap close to it, you’ll stand a good chance o’ catchin’ him. He stores for winter use a certain amount o’ food beside bis lodge, anchorin’ it by placin’ one end o’ the stalks in the mud, to prevent ’em from driftin’ away.
“His sight an’ hearin’ are pretty keen, but his scent’s even more so. He has no trouble scentin’ the hunter whose tobacco or gun smoke may be lyin’ over the water. In huntin’ rats, dogs’re of much help, as the dog’ll scent out runawavs, or th’ openings of underground turr.eL. Muskrats are more often speared by the hunter, though he may kill many with his bow an’ arrows. If the muskrat hasn’t beenclubbed to death, an’ if he has been properly skinned an’ dressed, he’s as nice to eat as a suckin’ pig, an’ a hang sight cleaner. Accordin’ to Indian folklore, the muskrat never forgets an insult or an injury, an’ always remembers every kindness that’s shown him, an’ accordin’ to actual life he’s pretty much of a gentleman. An’ as to courage, as I said before, he’s the bravest of all North American animals.”
AFTER continuing our paddle for an - hour or so, hunger drove us ashore, and after the meal Lincoln went off among the trees; then came running back to tell us he had seen a wolf. He had gone within thirty or forty paces of the brute before he noticed it, and instead of running away, it stood gazing at him. Finally it turned aside and merely walked off in a most dignified way as if it had nothing to fear.
“It must’ve been a mother wolf with her litter o’ puppies hidden somewhere near. Otherwise it’d hardly have acted that way,” Bill Hill explained. “No doubt, if you had advanced toward her she’d have led you off, as slowly as she dared, in quite th’ opposite direction from her den in order to entice you away from her young.”
Toward the end of the afternoon the old woodsman espied a good camping place on a high point on the western shore, for here the river curved southward, so we landed. And instead of making a brush windbreak, we carried up the canoe, as we intended sleeping beneath it, for the sky was clouding up as if it might rain. But when our fire began to crackle and our supper to sizzle, a spirit of contentment possessed us, and we gave little further heed to the weather.
. “My boys, from now on I want you to be ever on th’ alert to find any trace o’ trippers havin’ recently passed UD this river. Every once in a while we’ll land on th’ other bank, too, because I expect that at least one party has passed up stream since we were canoe-wrecked.” “Are you alluding to the Mounted Police?” Lincoln asked.
“No, my boy, I’m alludin’ to the murderers of our canoe-men. An’ the sooner we pick up their tracks again, and keep careful watch for ’em, the better for us. An’ that reminds me there’s another subject, a very important one, in which I should instruct you the first chance I get, as not only our lives, but the lives of others may depend on it. The subject is: the trailin’ o’ men.”
To be Continued