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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter XII

On Thursday, July 17th, at two o'clock in the afternoon, we struck camp and started on a four-mile portage to the next lake down stream, as the river-bed was too full of large boulders to navigate the strong current with safety. It was hard work carrying the cargo and canoe through the mosquito-stricken ironstone country, and we did not camp till midnight. Here another bad omen was observed. Mackinlay and I had gone ahead, after carrying over a load, to try and kill something for supper; we found a musk-ox, but made rather a clumsy mess of killing it, and the animal was badly heated before we finished it off. The meat was consequently discoloured, and Saltatha declared this to be an unfailing sign of some great misfortune at hand. The women had made us a few pair of moccasins each, but not nearly enough for the tracking-work that we should have to do when we turned up stream; and our stock of provisions, instead of the bales of dried meat that we had expected to enable us to travel without waste of time in hunting, consisted of ten dried deers’-ribs, so full of maggots, from having been imperfectly cured, that we threw them away on the second day out. Our flour and pemmican had of course been finished long ago, and we drank the last kettleful of tea before leaving Musk-ox Lake, but as the Labrador tea grows all over this country in profusion, this did not much matter; tobacco too was nearly at an end.

The lake was still full of floating ice, but we had no trouble in passing the canoe into the river at the north end, and found the stream considerably increased in volume by a couple of large tributaries that come in from the opposite sides of the lake. After dropping down two or three miles with a sluggish current, we heard the roar of a rapid, and put ashore on an island in midstream as soon as we sighted broken water. It was lucky we did so, as there was a heavy overfall impossible to run, and we were obliged to portage the whole length of the island and then shoot the tail of the rapid. Here we put ashore to patch the canoe, which was leaking badly, and pulled out big trout as quickly as we could throw in the spoon-bait; we found this could be done at the foot of all the rapids, so one need not take much thought about provisions in this part of the stream. After another small rapid, which was run with a full load, the river, heading straight to the north, passes through a small lake and emerges as a broad canal-like waterway with very slight current, flowing through the roughest part of the ironstone country that we had yet seen; the banks were steep too, and we could put the canoe alongside a natural wharf in any spot for a distance of five or six miles. In passing down these reaches we saw and killed musk-ox, but the caribou seemed to shirk the labour of crossing the confused masses of rocks, and none of these animals were seen till we reached a less rugged district. Again the channel widened out into a lake, two miles in length, with an ugly rapid at the north end; this we negotiated with the precaution of leaving guns and ammunition ashore, and directly afterwards Saltatha caused some excitement by saying he had caught a glimpse of a man walking on a neighbouring ridge; we put ashore, but could find no tracks, and came to the conclusion that it was Saltatha’s imagination. A long day’s travel was made successfully, and by ten o’clock we were clear of the ironstone and slipping quietly along through a pleasant sandy country. We camped at the foot of a high sand-butte covered with flowers and moss, and 'found a bunch of willows on the bank of the river. There were indications that some one had camped on the same spot many years ago; small sticks had been chopped with an axe, and bones of caribou were lying in heaps on the ground. The Yellow Knives at once said it was an old Esquimaux camp, and it was evident that they had little inclination to go any farther down stream; more probably the chopping was done by a band of Dog-Ribs, whose hunting-grounds lie to the west, or possibly by the members of Stewart’s and Anderson’s expeditions. On mounting the butte we saw that the country northward presented a much more fertile appearance than anything we had seen on the south side of the watershed. There was a luxurious growth of grass over the sandy ridges, and during the two months of summer one could imagine oneself back on the prairies of Alberta; the willows here too grew to a better size, and, as far as we descended the river, we had little trouble about fuel; in the winter, of course, the willows would be all drifted over with snow, and it would then be no easy matter to make a fire. This stream heads in the woodless country; consequently there is no drift-timber, and not a single pine-tree is to be seen along its course.

We had a pleasant camp enough that night, but rebellion was rife and burst into flame on the following morning when we ordered the men to take their places in the canoes. This is the hopeless part of having to rely on natives for travelling in the Barren Ground; they have no courage outside their own country. If we had had a good crew of half-breeds from Red River or the upper country of British Columbia we might even now, notwithstanding the lateness of the season, have pushed far out towards the northern sea-coast, and possibly have made the acquaintance of some of the scattered bands of Esquimaux who live there in happy ignorance of any more comfortable form of life. But we were practically in the hands of the Yellow Knives, for although I would myself have taken the risk of steering, none of the men who were willing to go knew how to stitch up a broken canoe, and it would have been madness to push on without this knowledge. Moise, our half-breed interpreter and steersman, who was an engaged servant of the Hudson's Bay Company and bound by his contract to obey Mackinlay's orders in everything, showed the Indian side of his nature by joining the mutineers and refusing to take his position in the stem of the canoe. For two hours we argued the matter on the bank of the river, and at one time I thought we should certainly have come to blows. Mario and Carquoss were the ringleaders, but Saltatha was inclined to stand by us, although afraid of giving offence to the other Indians. The result of the dispute was that the worst two deserted, taking with them the little canoe, while Noel and Saltatha, tempted by many promises of great reward when we reached the fort, agreed to come with us, and Moise sulkily went back to his duty. After we had thus got rid of the element of discord things went on better; but the loss of the little canoe, besides doing away with our chance of crossing overland to Bathurst Inlet, increased the risk of losing all our possessions by one disaster. A pretty poetical thing is a birch-bark canoe, as it leaps down a sparkling river among its native birch woods, but too frail a craft for a long journey in the rock-bound country beyond the line where timber grows. No chance here to strip the bark from a birch-tree and put a new side in a canoe that has struck a rock in the foaming rapid, or if needs be to build a new canoe altogether; three square feet of birch-bark, a little gum, and a bundle of fibre were our only resources for effecting repairs.

The day’s journey began with a rapid, below which was a reach of quiet water gradually broadening out into a lake some eight miles in length; its surface was covered with ice at the north end, but we found an open channel close ashore on the west side and effected a passage through by skirting the bays. Several bands of musk-ox were seen, and there was always too much anxiety among the men to put ashore and shoot, or to do anything except push steadily on; just as we were leaving the lake a magnificent bull appeared on the top of a high ridge, and, standing on a flat rock within one hundred yards of us, leisurely surveyed the first human beings who had encroached upon his sanctuary for so many years.

Below the lake the river makes a sharp bend eastward, and for three miles is nothing but a succession of rapids. Moise when once at work was a splendid steersman, and he certainly handled the canoe with great skill through this difficult piece of navigation; we passed the mouths of two big streams coming in from the west, and at camping-time shot into a quiet sandy lake and put ashore for the night. A musk-ox that I killed from the door of the lodge, and the unlimited number of trout that we could catch in the river, enabled us to spend a peaceful Sunday without hunting. We explored towards the east, and came once more upon the iron country, which seems to run with a sharply defined edge in a north-easterly direction. There were few lakes out of the course of the river, but long stretches of flat grassy muskegs extended as far as the eye could see to the west. Four-footed game was plentiful, especially musk-ox; the caribou that we saw were generally solitary bucks, but it was now nearly time for the does to be coming back from the sea-coast; of the smaller animals we often came across a skulking wolf, a wolverine, an Arctic fox, or a hare, while the holes in the sand-hills were the abode of numerous siffleurs and ermines. A ferocious little mouse, brown in summer, but turning white as the winter comes on, is very common all over the Barren Ground; if disturbed from a tuft of grass it will turn on a man and dance with impotent rage at his feet; these mice naturally fall an easy prey to the hawks and owls, which make a good living here during the summer months. Beyond these predatory birds little feathered life was visible in this part of the country; a few gulls, terns, and skuas flitted along the reaches of the river, and occasionally a loon or a long-tailed duck could be seen in the lakes. The Canada goose and grey wavy were breeding in the marshes, but not in great quantities; the main body of geese go right out to the coast to lay their eggs, and do not start for the South till the end of August.

In the early morning we made a short portage over a small cascade immediately below the camp, and found that the river still held its northerly course through a chain of small lakes connected by short stretches of bad water. We made one more portage at mid-day and ran several rather nasty rapids. After dinner we were obliged to portage fully a mile to avoid an impassable reach, and then took more risk than we were justified in doing with our only canoe by running a couple of miles of broken water, full of boulders and with such a heavy sea that we shipped a good deal of water; luckily we did not touch anything, and dropped safely into a long narrow lake, on the east side of which camp was made for the night. This was the most dangerous day that we made; as although we always put ashore to inspect the rapids in case we might discover a waterfall below, we became emboldened by success and ran in safety through some places that we should not have attempted. Back’s map of the river would have been a great help to us, but neither this nor an account of the previous journeys that had been made down the stream was procurable at the fort.

The next day a curious blue haze hung over everything, closely resembling the smoke of a forest fire at a distance from the scene of conflagration. The lake that we had camped on proved to be about six miles in length, with the usual rapid at its north end connecting it with another lake, the size of which we could not at first determine owing to the murky state of the air; nor could we at once find its outlet, but by keeping in a north-easterly direction soon felt the influence of a current, and found the volume of water much increased by the junction of a tributary, which we afterwards discovered came in from the north-west. On the east side of the stream, just as it left the lake, we noticed a circle of flat stones standing on end, evidently put up by human hands, and on landing discovered unmistakable signs of a band of Esquimaux having been encamped there not very long before. Seven small oval-shaped enclosures, surrounded by rough turf-heaps six inches in height, had been the dwelling-places, but we could not determine whether these low walls were the foundations of snow-houses or deer-skin lodges; there were several blackened fireplaces outside, but the fires must have been very small judging from the charred stumps of tiny green willow twigs, and we saw no wood within several miles of the encampment The stones propped on end had been used probably for drying meat, and for tying up the dogs to keep them from stealing. Bones and horns of musk-ox and caribou were lying about in every direction, and their numbers showed that this

must be a favourite camping-place of the Esquimaux; some of the musk-ox horns had been cut into rough spoons, and several were found in a half-finished condition. A flat stone kettle was picked up with the grease still sticking to it, and a small piece of copper let into the back, possibly an arrangement for a handle, showed that these people are able to work this metal; there were also a few bone arrow-heads scattered about in the camp. If any further proof were necessary to determine what tribe of people had camped here, it was forthcoming in the form of several pieces of undressed sealskin with the hair on, and these seemed to be of greater interest to our crew than any of the other discoveries; arrow-heads, spoons, and kettle were dropped in the contemplation of the skin of an animal they had never seen, and they instantly demanded a description of the seal. After we had told them all we knew upon the subject, we asked their opinion as to the length of time that the Esquimaux had remained here, and when they had left Saltatha, reading the signs that a white man might miss, came to the conclusion that they had come here in the autumn, as was proved by the hard homs of male caribou lying about, that they had stayed here through the winter, and left late in the spring with dogs on the last snow, about six weeks before our arrival. He thought too that they made a practice of coming here regularly, in the same manner that the Yellow Knives come to the head-waters of the river, as the bones appeared to him to have belonged to animals killed at widely differing dates. We found hiding-places among the rocks close to the edge of the river, which had evidently been used for concealing men engaged in spearing the swimming caribou. The only weak point in Saltatha’s theory seemed to be the absence of any carcasses of freshly killed caribou; but it is possible that the Esquimaux may have left before the females came out so far, and the animals would have been later than usual in arriving here owing to the backward nature of the spring.

When we had thoroughly inspected everything we left again down stream, with a swift current and good water without rapids for eight miles, where we found another lake running more to the eastward than the general course of the river; on the west side of this lake we were obliged to camp, as a strong head-wind raised too much sea to travel against, and rain was falling in torrents. We explored the shore of the lake in hopes of finding further traces of the Esquimaux, but made no discoveries of any kind. No musk-ox were seen this day, but there were enough caribou to provide food for the party.

With better weather we made an early start in the morning, the river on leaving the lake bending a little more to the eastward, with a swift current for several miles, and two rapids which we ran in safety. A short distance below the second rapid the current slackens and the stream gets rapidly broader, till, with a sudden sweep to the south-east, the whole length of Beechey Lake comes open; a long narrow sheet of water, twenty-five miles in length, and nowhere more than two in breadth, lying east and west, and forming a well-defined elbow in the course of the Great Fish River. With a light fair wind, and a blanket set for a sail, we ran down the lake and pitched our lodge on the north shore. Two days were spent in exploration, but again we failed entirely to find any signs of the Esquimaux. Towards the east end of the lake the iron formation shows up once more, and the country is rough to travel through. There was a slight difficulty about provisions at this time as game was scarce, and, though we fully expected to catch fish in the lake and put out our net both nights, not a single fish was taken; just at the critical time, however, a few female caribou with their young turned up on their way back to the South, and we were relieved of all anxiety.

As we had promised our crew that we would not descend the river beyond Beechey Lake, and it was already the end of July, orders were reluctantly given on the third day to start up stream with the intention of doing a little exploration to the northward of the old Esquimaux camp, to see if there was any feasible route from there to Bathurst Inlet, as there were no signs of these people having camped in any other place along the river. It seemed a pity to abandon the voyage just at the interesting time, after we had got over all the difficulties of the upper part of the river and had now only a broad stream to follow, with a great deal of easy lake-travel, to reach the Arctic Ocean, and the scene of the final sufferings of the members of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition. On the other hand, we had no object in going down to the sea, and there is little pleasure to be got out of a journey of this kind with an unwilling and untrustworthy crew; our canoe, too, which was already leaking badly, would have been of very little service for sea work.

As far as Beechey Lake the south side of the Great Fish River is free from any large tributary streams, so that, if our canoe had been smashed up in a rapid, and we had been able to save guns and ammunition, it would have been easy enough to follow the river on foot; but on the north side there are several large streams to be forded, and a long detour might be necessary to find a spot shallow enough for this purpose.

There was much more enthusiasm displayed by the Indian portion of the crew on the upstream journey, and no encouragement was needful to get a good day’s work done. In the river stretches the tracking line was used, and three men at the shore end of it kept the canoe travelling at a lively pace except in the very strong water; in mounting the second rapid a mistake on the part of Noel, our bowsman, caused a heavy collision with a rock, and several hours were spent in putting in a patch of birch-bark. On the second night we pitched our lodge on the sandy lake within sight of the Esquimaux camp, and found a considerable stream coming in from a northwesterly direction. I cannot find any mention of this stream in the accounts of the two former journeys down the river, nor is it marked on the maps; it was probably unnoticed on both occasions, as it comes in at the west end of the lake, out of the course of a canoe passing up or down the main river.

Mackinlay, Murdo, and myself started on foot the following morning, to explore this stream for a couple of days, taking David with us in case we came across any of his countrymen. The malcontents were left in charge of the camp, with orders to kill caribou if any passed, and partially dry the meat to save the waste of time caused by having to hunt for our living as we travelled; they were also to thoroughly gum the canoe, to stop as much as possible the leaking which was getting serious.

We struck out along the bank of the stream, carrying nothing but a gun and a blanket apiece, and at dinner-time were lucky enough to find a flock of moulting Canada geese, unable to fly; four were shot, and two eaten at once, while the other two were stowed away among the rocks for use later on. We had a long day’s walk through a pleasant grassy country, and towards evening crossed an unusually high range of hills through which the river canons. Finding a few willows here, we left our blankets, and walked on along the bank for an hour or two, finally climbing a solitary sand-butte at sundown for a last survey of the country before turning our faces to the south.

Far away towards the north-west we could trace the windings of the stream to a ridge of blue hills, which formed the horizon under the setting sun. How these blue ridges in the distance tempt one to push on and see what lies on the far side! And the experience that nine times out of ten you would have done better to stay where you were is never sufficient to overcame this feeling; to this day I can seldom resist it, although game may be plentiful at the door of my lodge and everything that one desires in a wild country is close at hand. Below us lay a broad valley, so green and fertile in appearance that we could hardly realise that for nine months in the year it lay frost-bound and snow-covered under the rigour of an Arctic climate. In the middle of this valley, close to the bank of the stream, was a black object that we had long ago learnt to recognise at a glance, an old bull musk-ox feeding in a patch of willow-scrub ; he was sacrificed for our night's rations, and, loaded with meat and marrow-bones, we returned to the canon where we had left our blankets. There was a distinct twilight, and late in the night David awoke me to draw my attention to the first star that we had seen for many weeks. “See,” he said, “a star already; it is past middle summer, and we have not yet seen the sun all night.” It was the first summer he had ever spent without seeing the midnight sun, as, since he had been left at the Peel River Fort by a band of Esquimaux who come there annually to trade, he had passed his life within the Arctic circle.

The only signs that we saw of people having travelled along this valley were occasional cache-marks made by piling up a heap of small stones in a conspicuous position, to denote the carcass of an animal hidden in the rocks close by; but it seems such an easy route and leads so nearly in the direction of Bathurst Inlet, the nearest point on the sea-coast, that it is probably used regularly by wandering bands of Esquimaux on their way to and from their inland hunting-ground.

This was the end of our voyage of discovery, though I should have liked to have pushed on another day or two; but we wanted a small canoe to be certain of reaching the coast, which must have been within sixty miles of us, as there are sure to be many lakes to cross en route, and making long detours on foot would be an endless task. The fine weather also had broken, and heavy showers of rain came driving in front of the north wind, while the rest of our crew that had remained with the canoe were not too trustworthy, and, with the exception of Saltatha, in whom both Mackinlay and myself had great confidence, were quite capable of leaving us to find our way out of the country on foot. We had to content ourselves with the hope that in a future summer, with an earlier season and a better crew, we might find an opportunity of exploring thoroughly this promising valley in the Barren Ground. But now I must turn my attention to my long journey of seventeen hundred miles, mostly upstream, to cross the Rocky Mountains by the head-waters of the Peace River before the winter set in; and even if I could manage this there were still many hundred miles of mountain and forest to be crossed before I saw the shores of the Pacific and the abodes of civilization.

When we reached the lodge we found that the Indians had made a stupid slaughter of caribou, and, not contented with taking as much meat as we could carry, had been recklessly killing the females and young that were now passing in great numbers. The love of killing seems deeply rooted in the nature of most men, but the Yellow Knives have it more fully developed than other people. This indiscriminate slaughter is especially culpable in a land where ammunition is scarce, and not to be replaced when wasted by needless firing.

The next morning we picked out of our trading-stock a few presents to be left in the Esquimaux camp, as a sign that there were people in the interior willing to be on friendly terms with the people of the coast. Knives, axes, beads, and files, a couple of hand-mirrors, a few strips of red cloth, and a flannel shirt or two were stuffed into a copper kettle, which would be itself the biggest prize of all. On lifting the lid, the first object to meet the eye of the wondering Esquimaux would be the photograph of the Protestant missionary at Fort Resolution, which David had been keeping among his small stock of treasures; it was a photograph of a Church of England clergyman, in clerical costume, and should certainly give the Esquimaux a favourable idea of the style of man who had visited their camping-place. We also put in a note asking anyone who might read it to let us know in what manner it had come to hand, as it is uncertain whether these scattered bands of Esquimaux ever visit the Hudson’s Bay Company’s summer trading-post on Marble Island, which lies a great distance away at the mouth of Chesterfield Inlet, or whether they only know of the white men by hearsay from other tribes that trade annually with the Company. The kettle was carefully stowed in one of the pits made for watching the swimming caribou, and a canoe-pole, bearing a gaudy cotton handkerchief for a flag, planted alongside to attract attention. Everybody tried their handiwork at sketching our story with burnt sticks on the conspicuous flat rocks close to the river: there was a picture of a canoe, with seven upright black lines supposed to represent seven men; another of a Yellow Knife and an Esquimau (though the artist could not say which was which) shaking hands with the greatest affection; while David was certainly entitled to the first prize for a bloodthirsty sketch of a misshapen musk-ox, with a thin black line, again supposed to be a man, transfixed on the point of his horn. When we thought we had represented everything to perfection, we turned our backs on the land of the Esquimaux and plodded away up stream, 'tracking and portaging in the river-stretches, and paddling through the lakes which are always a great help in mounting a stream.

We now came in for a spell of really bad weather, which made the uphill work very laborious. A heavy unceasing downpour of rain, and sometimes sleet, continued day after day, accompanied by strong winds. The men all worked well and without much grumbling, although we were never dry and in many places the tracking had to be done waist-deep in water; at night we slept in our wet clothes, on the wet ground, rolled up in our sopping blankets. This Is the killing weather, and one needs perfect health to resist its effects; the dry cold of a northern winter is child’s play in comparison. Saltatha, who had hurt himself by a nasty fall while carrying a heavy load over a portage, broke down completely at this time, and was unable to work during the rest of the trip. We could do nothing for him, as there was no medicine of any kind in the outfit, and he had to take his chance with the rest. I think he came very near dying while we were running down Lockhart’s River; he lost all strength and was spitting blood freely for a fortnight, but ultimately recovered in a miraculous manner. We worked long days tracking up-stream, but were continually delayed by having to patch up the canoe every time she touched a rock; it was just as well we did not go down to the mouth of the river, for she would certainly not have stood another three weeks’ work of this kind. Another trouble was the scarcity of moccasins, which were completely worn out by a single day’s walk on the sharp-rocks along the river’s bank.

In eight days we reached Musk-ox Lake, and, finding the wind too strong to paddle against, we put ashore on the east side and took advantage of a little sunshine to thoroughly dry all our belongings. From this camp we saw the last muskox, and, crossing the bay with a canoe, went in pursuit as our meat supply was short. Some of the guns were posted, and others tried to drive the animals, but we made a mess of the hunt and the whole band escaped; my last remembrance of the animals that I had started out a year before on purpose to kill, being a stern view of a grand old bull disappearing at a gallop over a ridge, and a puff of dust just behind him, marking the spot where a badly aimed rifle-bullet had struck the ground. A caribou, however, supplied us with meat, but we had some trouble in picking him up, as he was killed in the water and it was no easy matter to tow his carcass ashore against the gale of wind that was raging. Mackinlay and myself for once got ahead of the wolverines on this occasion. We saw three coming our way before they saw us, and, lying behind a rock, bowled them all over; a right and left at wolverines is seldom brought about in a lifetime, but it is very satisfactory when one thinks of the stolen caches and consequent hard times that these wily brutes are responsible for.

From the south end of the lake I walked ahead with Mackinlay, starting early in the morning, and at mid-day sighted three lodges on the Aylmer Lake divide. We fired a signal-shot which brought everybody out, and we were soon surrounded by Capot Blanc’s brigade, and deluged with questions as to what had happened and why we had come back alone; for surely something evil had taken place in the country that always slopes downhill. With our small command of the Yellow Knife language, and plenty of signs, we made them understand that the canoe was by this time at the first lake, and the water was so low in the river that it would be necessary to portage the whole distance. All the available men and women went to help our crew to carry the loads, and by sundown our lodge was once more planted by the water that finds its way to the Great Slave Lake and runs a course of a thousand miles before falling into the Arctic Sea.

It took half a day to settle accounts with the Indians who had been working for us on our way up to Musk-ox Lake, while the women were busy gumming the canoe and getting her in order for the run down Lockhart’s River. A good proportion of the wages due were paid out of the remainder of our trading-stock that had been intended for the Esquimaux if we had met them. The box that contained this small supply of goods had been an object of strife the whole time. The Indians had the strongest objection to any of the products of the Grand Pays passing through their country being given to strangers, and we had been careful not to let them see the gaudy contents of the box, or we should have been troubled with the constant begging that the Yellow Knives think will eventually gain them the object they desire. Imagination had run high as to the contents of the fairy casket, and there was a great rush when it was announced that any of the men to whom wages were due might take what they fancied. They had seen pressed bales of blankets landed at the fort on the arrival of the yearly outfit from Winnipeg, and had been surprised at the number of blankets that could be squeezed into a small space; there was an idea prevalent that our box had been packed on the same principle, and might contain an abundant supply of all the good things that only the white men know how to make. Some disappointment was shown when it turned out that we had only-been speaking the truth in answering their petitions by telling them we had such a small stock that nothing could be spared. The trade went off to the satisfaction of both sides; the Indians obtained the trinkets so dear to their vanity, and we lightened our load for the numerous portages that lay between us and the Great Slave Lake. There was some question as to what it was best to do with Saltatha; whether to leave him here with his friends, or to let him take his chance of the canoe journey to the fort, where medicine could possibly be obtained; at his own request we decided on the latter course, and during the first few days his health seemed to improve.

The route that we were now to take was the same that Back and Anderson had both chosen, following the Lockhart’s River down-stream through the immense lakes that lie in its course, gradually bending to the south-west, and avoiding the impassable obstructions in the lower part of the river by portaging through a chain of lakes, the last of which is only three miles distant from the north-east end of the Great Slave Lake. The boat was to meet us on August 1st, and as it was already several days past that date we determined to travel our best, although there was a chance of getting windbound in any of the big lakes.

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