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The Men of the Last Frontier
Chapter III. The Trail

The trail! you visualize a smooth, narrow path meandering in and out between stately trees; lightfooted Indians slipping noiselessly by; a highway between two points unknown; a winding road to dreams, romance, and mystery.

It can be that. It can also be the faintly discernible, at times invisible, crushing of dry moss on sun-scorched rocks, with little or no other indication of the passage there of generations of wandering tribesmen. It may be but a few broken twigs, turned leaves, or bent grasses, displaced by the single passage of some adventurer, which, slowly twisting back to their former position, are no more disturbed by the foot of man; or a well-defined, beaten main route, hard-packed by the traffic of centuries; the smooth and easy road to disaster, or the rough and arduous road to fortune.

On it may pass the wealth of a nation, from some fabulously rich Eldorado, or the staggering wreck of a beaten man, broken on the wheel of incompetence or misfortune. The Trail is the stage on which all the drama, the burlesque, the tragedy, and the comedy of the wilderness is played. On these narrow paths that thread their secret ways through hidden places, are performed epic deeds of courage and self-sacrifice, and incredible acts of treachery and cowardice.

On the Trail the soul of a man is stripped bare and naked, exposed for all to see, and here his true nature will come out, let him dissemble never so wisely. The pleasant and versatile companion of a social entertainment may exhibit unsuspected traits of pusillanimity, and weakness of character, when’put to the test; and the unassuming, self-effacing “wallflower” may show an unexpected fund of resourcefulness, and by sheer strength of will perform prodigies of valour which his sturdier brethren shrink from.

Night and day the Trail makes its insistent demands on the ingenuity, the resourcefulness, and the endurance of a man. Work on the Trail is synonymous with the contact between an irresistible force and an immovable object. The issue is entirely in the air until the last incident of that particular trip is closed. The whole course of a journey may be changed, or increased hardship caused, by such apparent trivialities as a change of wind, or the passing away of clouds from the face of the sun. An hour lost may mean a day or more beyond schedule at the other end, with attendant shortage of supplies. Careless travelling is too dearly paid for to be indulged in. No rests are taken; the easier sections of the route providing sufficient respite from toil and permitting recuperation of energy to expend on the difficulties ahead. Abandoned loads, noncompletion of self-appointed tasks, mistakes in direction or in selection of routes, involving delay, are all blots on the record of efficiency, for which payment is extorted to the last pound of flesh. Although the rewards of the game are rich to those who conform to the rules, the penalties of disobedience are often swift, sure and terrible. And let not the heedless be unduly optimistic that at times the discipline appears to slacken, that the barriers seem to be down, and all is going well. This is but subterfuge, an attempt to catch him off guard, to deal a lightning body-blow, or a foul. For the Trail is like unto a fickle officer, who to-day apparently condones breaches of discipline, to visit sudden and disproportionate penalties for the least infringement on the morrow.

Every year takes its toll of life by bad ice, intense cold, or misadventure. Quarrels over hunting grounds terminating fatally are not unknown, the Spirit of the Northland meanwhile sitting by and grinning ghoulishly to see his enemies destroy one another.

Often a rifle or other imperishable article of equipment, exposed by the low water of a hot summer, or the remains of a canoe hung high and dry by spring floods, points to some error in judgment that explains an almost forgotten disappearance. Some bones and a few mildewed rags at a long-dead camp fire, discovered by a wandering Indian, will account for one canoe that failed to show up after the spring hunt.

Even the very silence, most negative of all the passively resistant qualities of the country, claims its victims. The unearthly lack of sound is such a strain on the nerves of those unaccustomed to it that men have been known to go insane under its influence, and have had to be brought out to the railroad.

The Trail is the one and only means of entry to the land of promise of the North, and on it all must pass a critical inspection. Newcomers must undergo the severe scrutiny of the presiding powers, and all who enter are subjected to trial by ordeal, from which only the chosen few emerge unscathed. And to those who by their own unaided efforts do so prevail the jealously guarded portals of the treasure-house are thrown open without reserve; and there is a twice-fold value on the recompense so hardly won, and, once attained to, so lavishly bestowed.

Nor are the rewards thus gained always material. Let it not be imagined that riches dog the footsteps of the successful frontiersman. His ambition to become supreme, get quickly rich and retire early, if he had any such idea, is soon lost sight of in the lively and unceasing contest he must enter into, if he would qualify for admission to the fraternity of the forest.

Up beyond the Height of Land, no man may expect any exemption or immunity on account of his superiority, as such; he has to prove his case. Often he exhibits less common sense than the animals, and of them all he is the most helpless in the face of the vigorous conditions that obtain. When he has conquered these he has accomplished something worth while.

The spiritual satisfaction, the intellectual pleasure, and the knowledge of power that comes with victory over a valiant but ruthless adversary, which accrue after years of submission to the acid test of wilderness life, give the veteran woodsman a capacity for a clean, wholesome enjoyment of living that riches sometimes fail to bring. And looking back on his past struggles, through which he has risen successfully to a position of equality with the dwellers of the waste lands, he would not trade his experience for wealth. He enters into his inheritance with a mind tempered to the fullest appreciation of it, and says to himself that it was worth his while.

On the Trail life is stripped of the non-essentials; existence is in the raw, where an aye is an aye, and a no, no; and no trick of speech, or mannerism or cherished self deception, can gain one jot or tittle of preferment. Under these conditions a man subordinates that part of him that feels and suffers, to the will to conquer, retaining only that part which takes cognizance of the exigencies of travel, and the means adopted to overcome them. There is none to tell him what he shall or shall not do, yet he has the hardest master a man can well work for—himself.

Long periods of intense concentration of will on one line of endeavour, together with the entire subjection of all that is physical to the fulfilment of the big idea, produce, in time, a type of mind that can be subdued by death alone, and cases have been known of stricken men who, dead to all intents and purposes, staggered on an appreciable distance before finally collapsing.

Out from town; the warmth, the laughter, the comfort left behind. Past half-finished barns, and snowy deserts of burnt stumps; past the squalid habitations of the alien, while the inmates stare out with animal curiosity; and so beyond the works of man, to where the woods become thicker and thicker, and all is clean, and silent, and shining white—the winter Trail.

Trees filing by in endless, orderly review, opening up before, passing on either hand, and closing in irrevocably behind. That night a camp under the stars. Then, the hasty breakfast in the dark, breaking of camp in the knife-edged cold of dawn; shivering, whining huskies squirming impatiently whilst numb fingers fumble with toboggan strings, and the leather thongs of dog harness. Then away!

Strings of dogs swinging into line; a couple of swift, slashing dog fights, the shouts of the drivers, cracking of whips, and an eventual settling down to business. The swing and soft sough of snowshoes in the loose snow, the rattle of frame on frame. Then the sun rises. Glittering jewels of frost shivering on the pointed spruce-tops, like the gay ornaments on Christmas trees. The breath jets into the crackling air like little clouds of smoke, and steam rises off the dogs. Onward, onward, speed, speed, for the hands are still numb, and the cold strikes the face like volleys of broken glass; and we have far to go to-day.

So, for an hour; we begin to warm up. Suddenly ahead, the thud of a rifle, the answering crack leaping with appalling reverberations amongst the surrounding hills. Shouts up front; someone has shot a caribou. Good! fresh meat for supper.

Two of the more lightly laden teams drop out, and their owners commence expertly to skin and dress the kill; as their hands become numb they will plunge them to the elbows in the warm blood for a minute, and resume their work.

More hours; steep hills where men take poles and push on the load ahead of them, to help the dogs; on the down grades, tail ropes are loosed, and men bear back with all their weight, some falling, others dragged on their snow-shoes as on a surf-board, amidst the shouts and yells of the brigade and the excited yapping of the dogs as they race madly to keep ahead of the flying toboggan. Meanwhile the Trail unwinds from some inexhaustible reel up front, passes swiftly underfoot and on behind, while the trees whirl swiftly by.

Then another stop; what is this? “Dinner,” say the trail breakers; well, they ought to know, they are bearing the brunt of the work. Quick, crackling fires, tea made from melted snow, whilst the dogs take the opportunity to bite the ice balls off their feet; most of them are wearing moccasins, evidence of thoughtful owners; for men, red or white, have always a heart for a dog. Pipes are lighted, and all hands relax utterly and smoke contentedly—for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, a word for the husky. Lean, rangy, slant eyed and tough as whalebone, hitched in teams of four; over muskegs and across frozen lakes; tails up, tongues hanging, straining against the harness, bracing themselves at the curves, trailwise and always hungry, these faithful animals haul their loads all day for incredible distances. Not overly ornamental in appearance, inclined to savagery and deadly fighting, and thieves of no mean ability, these half-bred wolves are as necessary to transport in the North as horses were in the West in the early days. On more than a few occasions, they have been the means of saving life by their uncanny knowledge of ice, and unerring sense of direction.

And now the short rest is over, and we swing into position as the teams go by, and are away. Hours, miles, white monotony, and a keen, steady wind; lake and portage, gully and riverbank; sometimes the crest of a bare hill from which a fleeting glimpse of the surrounding country is obtained. Limitless, endless, empty distance before, behind, and on either hand.

Later a trail turns in from the left, a thin winding ribbon, dwindling to a thread, to nothingness, across a lake, the far shores of which show but faintly, coming from out of the Keewaydin, the storied, mystic North. The trail is well packed by snowshoes of all sizes, men, women and children; Indians.

Good going now; the trail breakers, glad of the respite, drop behind. On the hard trail the snowshoes commence to sing.

Smoke ahead; teepees, windbreaks; the Indian camp. Sharp vicious barking, howling, and then an unspeakable uproar as a herd of wolf-dogs swoops down on the caravan. Shrill scolding of squaws, who belabour lustily with burning sticks, restoring comparative quiet. Black-eyed, round-faced children stand aloof, whispering in soft voices. Maidens with head shawls peep from canvas doorways; buxom old ladies declaim loudly, as they cook at open fires. A tall spare man with Egyptian features, and long black hair, intones gravely in an ancient language, and we understand that we are invited to share the camp ground; the place is well sheltered, and we are told, there is much wood, moose-meat. But we cannot stay; the mail is with us, and travels on schedule; to-night we camp at Kettle Rapids, to-morrow at Thieving Bear.

“Will we take tea ” We surely will, for who can refuse tea on the Trail? Large steaming bowls, and strong.

Away again; more hours, more miles. The teams with the meat have caught up, and the party redoubles its speed; it is getting colder and the men commence to trot. The snowshoes sing shriller now as thelabkhe tightens in the frost, and speed, and more speed is the slogan. Another lake; long, narrow, and bordered by glittering spruce-trees garbed in white; the great sun, hanging low above them, dyeing their tops blood red.

And as the sun goes down, the shadows creep softly out of the woods to the feet of the runners, and beyond. The wind drops and the cold quickens. One man drops out; there is blood on his moccasins. Incorrectly dressed, his feet have chafed with the rub of the bridles and have been bleeding for an hour. Another man steps aside and joins the first; as no one of the brotherhood of trail runners can. be left alone in distress; an unbreakable law. But the mail man is satisfied, so all hands stop for the night.

Out axes and after the drywood, boys! A mighty clamour of steel biting into wood. Large piles of spruce boughs make their appearance. Semicircular windbreaks of canvas stretched over poles cluster before a central fire, eight feet long. Smoke billows up to a certain height, to open out in a spreading, rolling canopy over the camp.

Dogs are fed with frozen fish or moose meat, this their only meal in twenty-four hours.

It has now been dark a long time, but wood is still being cut; eventually quiet settles down and the men sleep; but not the dogs. It seems they never sleep. One of them finds a morsel of something eatable; a swift rush and he is fighting at least six others. Howls, snarls, sharp, shrill yapping as of wolves; then curses, shouts, thuds, and silent scurrying retreats; for your husky does not yelp when beaten, but is a skilful dodger.

Once more, quiet. And then the moon rises, pale, and very large, and seemingly no further away than the back of the next ridge, the ragged outline of the shrouded trees standing sharply out across its face.

From around the fire, where each takes his turn at replenishing, come sounds of sleep. The bizarre shadows cast by the shifting flames dance in and out the tree-trunks, and white snowshoe rabbits appear and disappear silently within the circle of light, unseen by the dogs who have crept up near the fire, dozing with the eye nearest it.

The moon rises high and resumes its normal size. The cold grips the land with the bite of chilled steel; trees crack in the frost like scattering rifle-fire. Then, later, as the moon sets, a thin wailing comes stealing across the empty wastes, wavering in strophe and anti-strophe, increasing in volume as voice after voice takes up the burden; the song of the wolves. And simultaneously, as at a given signal, in the wide dance hall of the sky above, the Dead commence to tread their stately measures. Flickeringly and hesitantly at first; but, as the moonlight disappears, the unearthly nebulous host stretches in the files of a ghostly array, which has the whole horizon for its manoeuvring, swiftly undulating, spreading and contracting, advancing and retreating in formless evolution, marching in column of route across the face of the Northern sky, swaying in a lambent, flickering horde to the tune of the unheard rhythm that rocks the universe. At times they seem to hover in the tree tops, almost, it would seem within reach, and the ear seems to get the illusion of sound; so that the listener strains to hear the ghostly music, almost, but not quite audible, to which the spectral company is performing.

A little later the mail man gets up, scans the stars, and pronounces it time to rise. An hour and a half, or less, and all is ready. As the day breaks, the last team disappears around a bend in the trail. And nothing remains but a few bare poles, flattened piles of brush, and a dead fire, and, stretching either way into the chill, white silence, the Trail.

Such, in normal circumstances, is the Trail in winter. A few days soft weather, however, or a rainstorm, may bring conditions which make travelling virtually impossible. Yet a man caught out in such shape must do the impossible; he must go on. Goaded on by the knowledge of a rapidly diminishing food supply, or the certainty of more bad weather, he must keep moving; for this is the Trail, and will be served.

One season, having located a pocket of marten and lynx, which, being within a short distance of the railroad, had been overlooked, another man and myself hunted there all winter. We made frequent trips to town, a distance of twelve miles, often covering the route in four hours or less.

Hearing from a passing Indian that there was talk of a close season being suddenly declared, we decided to take out our fur, and dispose of it while it was still legal, and so avoid a heavy loss. This was late in April, and the ice was on the point of going out, but there were yet four feet of snow in the bush.

We started before daylight one morning, so as to cross most of the lakes before the sun took the stiffening out of the night’s frost. There was open water of varying widths and depths around the shores of every lake, and we crawled out over this on poles, drawing the poles with us for use in making our landing. A light blow easily punctured the ice in any place, excepting on our winter trail, which, padded down solid by the numerous trips back and forth to town, formed a bridge over which we passed, most of the time erect, and with little danger. An hour after sunrise, a south wind sprang up, the sky clouded over, and it commenced to rain. The bottom went out of the ice bridges, necessitating walking the shores of each remaining lake, and on land the trail would no longer support our weight.

Where we had so blithely passed at a three-miles-an-hour gait in winter, we now crawled painfully along by inches, going through to the knee at each step, the snowshoes often having to be extricated by hand. The surface held until we put just so much weight on it, when it let us through at every step with a shock that was like to jar every rib loose from our backbones. OIF the trail the snow was of the consistency of thick porridge, and progress there impossible.

We heartily cursed the originator of an untimely close season, who, no doubt, sat at home in warmth and comfort, whilst we, his victims, wet to the skin, our snowshoes heavy with slush, our feet and legs numb with ice-water, crept slowly on. The water slushed in and out of our porous moccasins; but there was little we could do beyond wringing them and our socks out, and so occasionally getting relief for a few minutes, and also keeping moving. At that, we were no worse off than the man who walked all day in ice-water with holes in his boots, claiming that he preferred them that way, as he did not have to take them off to empty them.

Every so often we made a lunch, and drank tea, and our progress was so slow that on one occasion, on making a halt, we could look back, and still see the smoke of our last fire, made two hours before. And this is to say nothing of the load. We took turns to draw the toboggan, which could not stay on the trail, since the sides having given out it was peaked in the centre. Thus the toboggan ran on its side most of the time, upsetting frequently, and the friction producing, contrary to common supposition, cold instead of heat, it became coated with ice, and drew with all the spring and buoyancy of a watersoaked log. Frequent adjustments had to be made to snowshoe-bridles with numb hands, the increased weight of the snowshoes breaking the tough leather repeatedly.

Resting was not desirable, except at a fire, as we became chilled to the bone in a few minutes; and, dark coming on with several miles yet to go, we pressed on as best we might. The jar of constantly going through the trail was nauseating us, and we had almost decided to camp for the night in the rain, when there loomed up in the gloom a large grey animal, standing fair in the centre of the trail ahead. We reached simultaneously for the rifle, but the animal came towards us with every appearance of confidence, and turned out to be a big Indian dog, out on a night prowl for rabbits.

Had this occurred in days gone by, no doubt we should have subscribed for a shrine at the place, in honour of some saint or other; as it was we said nothing, but seized the unfortunate beast, and quickly stripping the tump line off the toboggan, with multiple knots fashioned a dog harness, and hitched up our new-found friend. Showing no regret for his interrupted hunt, he hauled along right manfully, whilst we, unable to do enough for our deliverer, kept the toboggan on the trail, as far as was humanly possible, with poles. About that time, the wind changed to the North, the sky cleared, and it commenced to freeze, and with all these things in our favour, we made the remainder of the trip with ease, having spent seventeen and a half hours of misery to cover about ten miles up to that point.

In the woods nothing can be obtained except by effort, often very severe and prolonged, at times almost beyond human endurance. Nothing will occur of its own volition to assist, no kindly passer-by will give you a lift, no timely occurrence will obviate the necessity of forging ahead, no lu.cky accident will remove an obstruction. Of course, a man can always give up, make fire, eat his provision, rest, and then slink back to camp, beaten and dishonoured; but that is unthinkable.

As you sit on your load to rest, searching the skyline for some encouraging indication of progress, it is borne home to you most irrefutably that all the money in the world cannot hire a single hand to help you, and that no power on earth, save your own aching feet, will cause the scenery to go sailing by, or take one solitary inch off the weary miles ahead. And as you sit in chill discomfort, your body bowed down from the weight of your load, your mind depressed by the incubus of the slavish labour yet to do, you realize that the longer the rest, so much longer you remain on the Trail. The thought goads you on to further efforts. Those packs will never move themselves, and the fact that they may contain skins worth a small fortune obtains for you no respite.

In civilization, if you showed your peltries, attention would be showered on you; willing hands would lift you to your feet. Deep in the forest your valuable pack becomes a useless burden, except for the pinch or two of tea and the few bites of greased bannock it may contain, which are worth, to you, more than all the gold in Araby.

At times you are fain to give up, and abandon your hardly-won treasure, of which you would give the half for one mile of good footing, or the privilege of going to sleep for an hour. But you must struggle on; exhaustion may be such that further movement seems impossible, or you may have injuries that cause exquisite torture with every movement; but that trip must be finished, or in the latter event, fire must be lighted and camp of some kind made.

The beautiful marten stole gracing the shoulders of the elegantly dressed woman in Bond Street or on Broadway might, if it were able, tell a tale its owner little guesses.

At times the spirit of the Northland, tiring of his heavy role, turns mountebank, and with sardonic humour he fashions mirages, travesties of the landscape they belie, and very baffling to one not acquainted with the topography of the district. Whole ridges of trees disappear from view, and across empty fields of ice a solid wall of forest presents itself, to melt into nothing, and be replaced perhaps by an expanse of open water which apparently bars further advance. It takes considerable steadiness of mind to march on into a section of landscape which you know not to be there, and so discredit the evidence of your senses.

Meanwhile this devil-turned-wizard conjures forests out of the ether, blots out mountains, and balances islands precariously one on another. A puerile occupation for an evil genius bent on destruction, yet men have been cajoled to death on bad ice by these tactics.

In a strange country, during the more vivid of these performances, it is as well to make camp, and leave the mummer to his clowning, until he allows the landscape to resume its normal contours.

After a more or less eventful visit to the “front,” a companion and myself decided to desist from our efforts to relieve the stagnation of currency in the district, to return to the bush, and have a square meal.

My associate, not content with a few days’ hilarity, had been looking too earnestly and too long on the wine when it was sixty-five over proof, and had tried to promote the health of the community by depriving it of its whiskey supply. The morning of the first day of the trip in was an epic of heroism on his part; and a good deal of the time he was not at all sure if his surroundings were real or the offspring of a slightly warped vision. I was not in a position to be of much assistance, having troubles of my own. But he kept on doggedly placing his feet one ahead of the other, until we arrived at the shores of a fair-sized lake.

Here a mirage was in progress. An island we well knew to be there was nowhere to be seen, and a dignified and solemn row of ancient trees, old enough probably to know better, were poised above the level of the surrounding scenery, head down.

My companion took a look at the manifestation, his eyes distended and his jaw dropped.

“Cripes,” said he. “Do you see what I see?”

I replied that I thought I did. He shook his head.

“You don’t see the half of it,” he said. “This is the limit; I’m goin’ back!”

Sometimes in winter a trail hidden by successive storms, or invisible in the darkness, has to be felt out step by step for miles at a time; and that at a speed little, if any less, than that attained to on good footing and during the daylight hours. The trail itself, if once passed over previously, is harder than the surrounding snow and a slight give of the shoe, slightly off on one side, is sensed, and the error rectified, without pause, at the next step. Thus a man and his outfit are enabled to pass dryshod over lakes that are often otherwise a sea of slush beneath the field of snow. A few steps into this and showshoes and toboggan become a mass of slush which immediately freezes, making progress impossible and involving the loss of an hour or more. This feat of feeling the way is common enough, but calls for intense concentration, and much resembles walking swiftly on a hidden tightrope; so much so, that a trapper will say with regard to a trip, that he went so many miles, of which he walked so much “on the tightrope.” The strain attached to this form of exercise is such that on making a halt, one’s frame is distinctly felt to relax. I have walked miles in this way, and then suddenly realized that my hands had been gripped tight all during the stretch in an effort, apparently, to hold the body free of the legs, as one who sits on eggs, dressed in his best, would do.

Under these conditions, the trail being most of the time invisible, a man travels to as much advantage in the night as in the daytime; more, in fact, as he is not constantly deceiving himself with fancied indications of the trail which land him into trouble.

As much travelling is done at night, almost, as in day; in summer to avoid the heavy winds of the daylight hours on large bodies of water, and in winter, because, owing to the length of the nights, much less wood is required for those who sleep out in daytime; also, the searing winds that generally go down with the sun, are avoided.

There is a peculiar, indescribable charm attached to night journeying that is handed down to some of us from the dawn of time; few can realize, without the experience, the feeling of wildness and barbaric freedom that possesses the soul of one who travels alone in the dark, out on the edge of the world; when anything may happen, beasts of all kinds are abroad, and flitting shapes appear and disappear, dimly seen by the light of the stars.

In a country where so little happens to break the monotony of wilderness travel, small occurrences, trivialities almost, become momentous occasions. The passage of a band of wolves at an unusual place, the distant sighting of an otter, a change of wind even. This is borne out in the nomenclature of sections of trail, and prominent features of the scenery. Such names as Hell’s Gate, Steel River, Devil’s Eddy, Smoky Falls, Lazy Beaver, Place-where-the-Devil-laughed, Dancing Portage, Hungry Hall, Lost Indian, are all apt reminders of the perhaps one outstanding incident that made history in that particular spot or region.

But the greatest thrill of all is that of suddenly finding strange footprints in a section where no signs of man, other than your own, have been seen for half a year. Fresh snowshoe tracks turning in, and going your way, perhaps. This opens up a wide field of speculation. You undergo all the sensations experienced by Robinson Crusoe on his discovery of the well-known footprint; A man, one of your kind, and not long gone by; he slushed up the trail in one place, and it is not yet frozen!

A man, yes; but who? Frenchman? Indian? assuredly not the latter, his tracks would be unmistakable. A wandering fur-buyer? The Mounted Police? Surely they are not going to be narrow-minded about that little affair last spring at Bisco. The Prince of Wales? Maybe; they say he is in Canada just now.

Anyhow this has got to be investigated. You quicken your steps, and two hours later you smell smoke, and suddenly come on a blazing fire, with a tea pail suspended over it. It is only Old Bill from the Wild Cat Hills; but anyway, Bill is a good old plug, and is just back up from “Canada,” and he may have some news, or a letter.

Bill has no letters and less news, but he has a few chocolate bars, priceless treasures, which he shares, and a new brand of tobacco that would asphyxiate a horse, which he also endeavours to share. We eat and talk awhile, then Bill, who draws his own toboggan, gathers up his belongings, ducks into his tump line, and slipping with deft ankle movements into the bridles of an immense pair of trail breakers*, shoes of an Indian rig, waves his hand, and is away. For Bill turns off here; he is leaving the Wild Cat Hills, and is going, foot-loose and free, to some far range as yet unexplored.

And as I stand and watch him go, I am lonesome a little, for the thought strikes me that Bill is old and may not come back. And so, bending forward against the creaking leather, snow flying in little puffs from his big snow-shoes, he goes. Leaving behind him as he proceeds that winding, ever-lengthening, narrow ribbon, the Trail, his one obsession for days to come, the only thing that connects him with his fellow-man, and one that the first storm will obliterate.

Down the hollow tunnels between snow-laden trees, over unmarked wastes, he picks his way by instinct; cynosure of all the hostile eyes that stare coldly out from shadowy recesses. Pushing doggedly on, across wind-lashed lakes, with their scurrying drift, and whirling, breath-taking snow-devils, past bald glistening mountains that stand guard at the portals of some mighty river. A moving speck, creeping across the face of the earth, he goes on to unknown destinations.

Day by day he penetrates deeper and deeper into the Kingdom of the Spirit of the North, where, jealous of such encroachment on his domain, with a thousand imps of mischief to do his bidding, master of all the powers of evil, the brooding Killer grimly bides his time; nor does he always wait in vain.

A small, red building overshadowed by a large canoe-shed, on the flat top of a rocky point; at the water’s edge a dock at which, float a number of canoes in various stages of loading. Men pass from the shed to the dock with bags of flour, sacks of beans, tents, blankets, boxes and bundles. In the shade of the wide Large snowshoes.

Presently the canoes are all loaded, the shed closed, and the men dispose themselves to wait. Some of these are attired in new mackinaw or khaki, and knee-boots; others, to whom, it is obvious, the proceedings are no novelty, wear the faded canvas clothing and the moccasins, or other heelless footwear, of the professional canoeman.

Soon the door of the diminutive office opens, and there steps out from it a man, weather-beaten, lean and wiry as a greyhound, dynamic energy apparent in every movement, indomitable will stamped on every feature. He closes the building as though for a long time; for not once again during five months will any of these men return to this spot, unless dismissed the Service, for this is the official Head Quarters of the Government Forest Rangers, the wiry man their Chief.

Seventy-five miles in is their distributing point, and from it these thirty men will successfully police from fire an area of ten thousand square miles. The Chief shoulders a heavy packsack, and steps quickly down to the dock with the lithe swing of an Indian. He glances appraisingly over his little band.

“Are we ready?” he asks.

It seems we are. He embarks in the rear canoe, for the trip ahead is long and arduous, and he must shepherd his men, unknown quantities many of them. Paddles are dipped, the veterans leading, and the flotilla is in motion. The bunched canoes string out, gain speed; the sun flashes on wet paddles, kneeling men sway to the stroke, and the canoes leap ahead in low undulations. The brigade is on its way, off on the Summer Trail.

The first objective is a long black point ahead, apparently the end of the lake. The point is reached, rounded, and another stretch of lake appears, with a similar point miles beyond. Hours of paddling, and no noticeable change in the scenery. A treadmill—but no stops.

Paddles, by pairs, click in unison with the regularity of clockwork; never a stroke is missed. Hours pass. The seasoned canoemen in front are setting a pace that never changes, never will change. They seem to have solved the problem of perpetual motion. The sun, a copper ball, burns its way across the sky, beating down on unshaded faces and bare forearms, and its reflected image on the glassy water stares into eyes puckered to mere slits against the scorching glare. The Chief, with his sterns-man, a supple, slant-eyed Cree, brings up the rear, watching his men, estimating their efficiency. Some parts of his patrol are difficult, and he must place his rangers judiciously.

Between two broken hills the lake narrows to a deep bay and finally comes to an end. Here a well-beaten, but not wide, path winds up a gully by carefully selected grades. Canoes are unloaded, and mountainous piles of baggage start up the ravine, as men assume their burdens and move off. This is the portage so long looked for as a change from the interminable paddling. And a change it certainly is. Everything, canoes and all, must^ be carried by man-power to the other side. Let us hope it is a short one. With our two hundred odd pounds apiece, by general consent conceded to be a “ man’s load,” we commence the carry. An easy grade at first, but becoming rapidly more arduous as the two hundred and some pounds take their toll of nerve and muscle, with each successive upward step. Here the curse of Adam is fulfilled to the letter; sweat commences to pour into the eyes, down the body, dripping off the forearms. Vicious insects light and bite on contact. One hand is engaged in pulling forward and down on the top load to support the head, the other contains an axe or a pail of lard; so the flies stay until surfeited, and blood runs freely with, the sweat. Up, and up, and then some. Surely this cannot go on much longer! But it does. Up on the crest, finally, where is a cool breeze; thank God for that; tear open the shirt and let it in.

Then down a declivity where the energy expended to keep from being rushed into uncontrollable speed, is apparently greater than the effort of climbing; the thought of a slip with that load is intolerable. Then a level spot, badly cluttered with boulders, and stones that move underfoot, where one walks with the precise steps of a cat, as a false step may mean a broken leg.

Men returning empty, carrying coiled tump lines, stand aside and give the trail to the burdened ones. No words are spoken on meeting; talking has become an effort, and the toilsome paddling of the forenoon now appears, by contrast, to have been little more than a light and healthful pastime.

At last, piles of bags and boxes lying in scattered heaps, but without confusion; the end, no doubt. You unload, and look around, and see no lake; only a continuation of that never-to-be-sufficiently-damned trail. This, then, is not the end, only a stage.* How many more? True to the code you will not ask, but take what comes and like it; you coil your line and return. After all it was worth carrying that load if only to experience the feeling of comfort walking back without it. You step aside at intervals for heavily laden men ; some of them have four hundred pounds and over. Incredible, but there are the bags— count them; a hundred of flour in each. These men trot, with short, choppy steps, but smoothly, evenly, without jar, whilst breath whistles through distended nostrils, and eyes devoid of expression stare glassily at the footing.

Several trips like this, then the canoes are taken. These, carried one to a man, do not stop at the stage, but, an easier load, seventy pounds perhaps, go on to the next stop, so that precious privilege, the rest walking back, will not be forfeited. Otherwise a stoppage would be necessary at the dump before again picking up a load, and delays are neither tolerated, nor expected; the sooner it is over the better; resting merely prolongs the agony. Stage after stage; stifling heat in a breathless scorching tunnel. Our hopes of a short portage have long ago faded entirely. Where is the end of this thing? Maybe there is no end.

And eventually every last piece and pound is dumped on the shores of a lake. Weary men make fire, cook, and wash the brassy film from their throats with hot tea. Hot tea on a broiling day!—yet the system calls for it. The lake is very small; not much respite here; load up, unload, and pack across again.

A new hand asks how many portages there are, and we hear it said that on this first leg of the journey there are fifteen more, and that the next one is called “Brandy” and admitted to be a bad one. We subsequently find this admission to be correct, but at the time, in view of our experiences on the last portage, we are all agog with interest as to what special features this alcoholic jaunt has in store.

We are not long in finding out. Almost a mile in length with five sharp grades arranged without regard for staging or symmetry, it has also a steep slope at the far end, which, being equal in sum to the aggregate of the hills so painfully climbed, at one fell swoop kicks your gains from beneath your feet, and lands you panting and half-dead back at the same level from which you started. So this is Brandy. She is, as we heard, a man-killer; and well named, for it is quite conceivable that more than one stricken man has found himself compelled to reach for his flask, before finally vanquishing this monster.

On the way back, after the first trip, we see the new man. He sits on a log with his head in his hands, exhausted, dejected. He can go no further. The Trail, ever on the watch, has weighed him in the balance, and he is found wanting. He will be sent back; for this is the Trail, where none may falter or linger, or evade the issue. For the time being he must do what he can, as to leave him is out of the question, but the weeding-out process has commenced.

On the third day we enter the pineries. Hills black with pine to the water’s edge. Rock walls hundreds of 68 feet in height and crowned with pine, falling sheer down into deep water. Pine, in mass formation, standing solemn, dignified, kings of all the forest; a sea of black sweeping tops swinging to the North; myriads of dark arms pointing one way, Northward, to journey’s end; as though in prophetic spirit they see their doom approaching, and would flee before it to the last stronghold of the Red Gods. We are now entering the area for which this corps will be held responsible till late Fall, and two canoe crews receive their instructions, and leave the brigade, taking each their separate way to a designated patrol district.

Indian signs now become frequent; teepee poles amongst the pine trees, in the glades, and on the beaches; caches raised high on scaffolds in sheltered spots; trail signs, marking a route; shoulder bones of moose hanging in pairs at camp grounds; bear skulls grinning out over the lake from prominent points. If you are stuck for tobacco you will find some in the empty brain box; but no bushman will take it; reprisals for vandalism of that kind may entail endless trouble. I once heard a white guide severely reprove a half-breed belonging to his party, who, wishing to show contempt for such customs, and considering himself above them, took one of these skulls down and commenced to fill his pipe from it. The guide gave in no uncertain terms his opinion of the unsportsmanlike.

This is an Indian country; and at evening the double staccato beat of a drum swells and ebbs through the still air, faint but very clear, yet unaccountably indeterminate as to direction. A strangely stirring sound, giving an eerie quality to the surroundings. Those pines heard that sound three hundred years ago, when they were saplings; beneath these very trees the Iroquois war parties planned their devilish work, to a similar rhythm. We had thought these things were no longer done. The Cree is questioned, but he blinks owlishly, and has suddenly forgotten his English. The following day shows no sign of living Indians, but here and there is a grave with its birch-bark covering, and personal effects; always in a grove of red pines, and facing towards the sunset. Moose are seen every day now, and two men told off to fish when the evening halt is made, generally return in half an hour, or less, with enough fish for the entire party’s meal.

Immense bodies of water many miles in length alternate with carries of from a hundred yards to three miles, so that there are stretches where we pray for a portage, and portages where we pray for a stretch. The pine-clad mountains begin to close in on the route, the water deepens, narrows, and commences to flow steadily.

We are now on the head of a mighty river, which drains all this region, and soon the portages become shorter, but more precipitous, and are flanked on one side or the other by a wicked rapids. Some of these can be run; but not all are experts, and the Chief will not allow valuable cargoes and, perhaps, useful lives to be sacrificed in order that some man of uncertain ability may try to qualify as a canoeman. Rocks that would rip the bottom from a canoe at a touch, lie in wait, invisible, just below the surface, but indications of their position are apparent only to the practised eye. Eddies, that would engulf a pine tree, tug at the frail canoe essaying to drag it into the vortex. Treacherous cross-currents snatch viciously at the paddles; deceptive, smooth-looking, oily stretches break suddenly into six-foot pitches.

But there are amongst us some who have earned the right to follow their own judgment in such matters; these now take control of the situation. They are the “ white water men,” to whom the thunderous roar of a rapids, and the smell of spray flying in the face, are as the intoxication of strong drink. To such as these considerations of life and limb loom small compared with the maddening thrill of eluding and conquering the frenzied clawing and grasping of tons of hungry, rushing waters; yet coupled with this stern joy of battle is a skill and a professional pride that counts the wetting of a load, or the taking of too much water, an ineradicable disgrace.

None but those who have experienced it can guess the joyous daredeviltry of picking a precarious channel at racing speed between serried rows of jagged rocks, spiteful as shark’s teeth. Few may know the feeling of savage exultation which possesses a man when the accumulated experience of years, with a split-second decision formed after a momentary glimpse through driven, blinding spume into some seething turmoil, and a perfect coordination between hand and eye, result in, perhaps, the one quick but effective thrust of the paddle or pole, that spells the difference between a successml run, and disaster. And as the canoe careens, and sidles, and plunges its way to safety, the pent-up emotions of its crew find expression in the whoops and shouts of the white canoemen, and the short, sharp yelps of the Indians, their answer to the challenge of the rapids. And the thundering waters drop back with a sullen growl, and a man may lean on his paddle, and look back and say, "Well, that was not too bad.”

I know men who would camp a night at a bad rapids in order to have the sun in the right place for running, not able to resist picking up the gauntlet so arrogantly flung at their feet by some stretch of water that had already taken its toll of human life. But this hazardous pastime is not one to be entered upon lightly by those not knowing their danger, or who knowing it, overrate their own prowess. For a man well skilled in the game, with many years of hard apprenticeship to his credit, is sometimes called on to pay the extreme penalty; and a broken paddle, an unexpected obstruction, or sheer hard luck, may accomplish what the might of the river never could contrive.

Swept clear of his canoe, still living yet a dead man, he is whirled swiftly down; then comes the quick terrible realization of his awful extremity, that he is beyond aid, that this is the end. And the arches of the forest that have echoed to the shouts of triumph of those who run successfully, mockingly give back the cry of agony of the latest victim of that which knows no pity or remorse. A few swift seconds, and the black waters have thrown aside their plaything, limp and lifeless in the pool below, whilst the ring of trees around it stand all unheeding, or watch in silent apathy. And as if the act had been ordained from ages past, the silence of a thousand years resumes its sway; the pendulum of unmeasured time continues its sweep of the universe, and the soundless symphony of the infinite plays on.

Men react differently to the near approach of certain death. One, an Indian, laughed inordinately all during the last half-minute of his time on earth, and the ghastly bubbling gurgle as his mouth reached the level of the water, before it closed over his head for ever, will stay in my memory for many a day, as it doubtless will in the minds of all of us who had to stand helplessly by, and see him swept over a sixty-foot fall.

Another, also unable to swim, strangely, but undeniably, the usual thing with men who spend their lives in a canoe, after swamping in heavy water came to the surface with his hat on. Upon this hat he immediately clapped his hand, holding it in position and fighting for his life with one hand only, until he sank.

In another instance two men attempted to negotiate a dangerous place with a full load, in high water. The canoe filled, and, loaded down with traps, guns, flour, a stove and other heavy articles, it immediately sank. One of the partners seized a bundle, which held him up for a few seconds only, when he disappeared, to remain under the ice all winter. The other was a powerful swimmer, and after losing much time and vitality in an effort to rescue his companion, he commenced to fail in the icy water and made for land. Exhaustion was such, that, a short distance from shore, he gave up, allowing himself to sink. Not far below the surface his feet struck a rock, and he was able to retain his footing there, partly submerged, until sufficiently rested to make the remaining distance to safety.

Yet not always does the grim reaper stalk in the wake of misadventure which, if he be absent, is often in the nature of an entertainment for the lookers-on. A timely sense of humour has taken the sting from many a bitter misfortune, for out on the endless Trail, the line between tragedy and comedy is very finely drawn. A look, a word, anything that will crack a laugh in faces drawn with anxiety, no matter at whose expense, will often make a burlesque out of what would otherwise be an intolerable situation.

For instance, no one could ask for a more humorous and elevating exhibition than I myself once gave, before an interested audience of sixteen Fire Rangers. Upset by an unfortunate move, for which my partner and I were equally to blame, I swung out of the canoe as it capsized, keeping hold of the stern, and going down the rest of the swift water like the tail of a comet, amidst the sarcastic comment of the assembled Rangers. My bowsman was wearing heavy boots instead of moccasins, and in a kneeling position, the usual one in a canoe, his stiff footwear had become wedged beneath the thwart. He must have been almost a minute under the overturned canoe, unable to extricate himself, and in grave danger of drowning, when, with what little assistance I could give, he somehow got loose. Bewildered, he climbed onto the canoe, which being old and heavy, immediately sank, and me with it.

I am an indifferent swimmer, if any, and this was a dangerous eddy, and deep; there were no hand holds to speak of. So, although it rolled and twisted considerably in the cross current, I stayed with the canoe, on the chance that it would float up, as without it I would be a dead loss anyhow; and soon my head broke water again. The attentive concourse on the river bank, who were in nowise disturbed, evidently thinking we were giving an aquatic performance for their benefit to lighten the cares of a heavy day, were highly diverted, until my companion, on my return to the surface, swam ashore, where his condition apprised them of the true state of affairs. In a matter of seconds a canoe was racing towards me, whilst its occupants shouted encouragement. About this time I was in pretty bad shape, having taken much water, and my hold on the canoe was weakening; so I commenced to shout lustily, suggesting speed. To my horror, one of the men suddenly ceased paddling and commenced to laugh.

“Say,” said he. “Why don’t you stand up?”

And amidst the cheers and shouts of the appreciative assemblage, I stood up in about three feet of water. I had been floating with my legs out ahead of me, and had drifted backwards within a few yards of the shore.

Then there is the official whom I saw sitting in a canoe which had run aground and filled. Wet to the waist, he sat in the water with both feet elevated above the gunwales.

“What in hell you doin’ there?” angrily demanded his assistant, who stood on the rock, submerged to the knees.

“Keeping my feet dry,” replied the official with chattering teeth.

Many of the prospectors are old “desert rats” and plainsmen, used to horses and knowing but little about canoes. One such, not realizing the chances he was taking, attempted the negotiation of a difficult piece of fast water with the loaded canoe, whilst his companion crossed the portage. Unable to distinguish the channel, the prospector ran foul of a swift shallows; and, on getting out to lighten the load, he was swept off his feet and nearly carried away. The canoe swung sideways and filled, to the gunwales, and, with part of its contents, was salvaged only after an hour’s hard work. An inventory was taken of the remaining goods, which were found to be thoroughly soaked. The man who had walked did not berate his crestfallen companion, who was responsible for the mishap, merely remarking disgustedly:

“We needn’t have gone to all that trouble, we could have got that stuff just as wet letting it down on a rope.” The Height of Land is, for some reason, the breeding place of storms of a severity and suddenness that makes a familiarity with the signs preceding them imperative to those whose itineraries include lakes of any size. As one of the members of a heavily freighted brigade, caught in the centre of a lake forty-nine miles in length by one of these unexpected tempests, I once had this forcibly illustrated for me.

We were crossing at the narrowest stretch, a distance of fifteen miles, and were at about the centre, when, with very little warning, a gale sprang up which steadily increased until we were unable to ride it any longer. The waves had a twenty-four-mile sweep at us, yet we could have juggled our way to some bay that offered shelter, only for the fact that the lake being shallow, there was little buoyancy in the water, and the waves struck in rapid succession, with no sea-room between them. The canoes began to take water in quantities, and the danger of swamping was imminent, so we jettisoned the half of our valuable cargoes, and ran down wind to a small, bare rock island. Erecting tents was impossible without poles, so we bunched the canoes together and spread the tents over them. Here, with no wood, no brush, exposed to a continuous hurricane, we spent two days and a night. As the remains of our loads were the heavier packages that had been in the bottom of the canoes, and consisted in each case of flour, beans, and salt pork, all of which require cooking to be palatable, we came near to starving in the midst of plenty, and were mighty glad on the following night to make the mainland, and cook a few meals.

I have seen masses of water the height of a pine tree and ten yards across, spiraleing and spinning across the centre of lakes at terrific speed in the spring of the year. With them a canoe has little chance. I once saw a point of heavy timber, perhaps thirty acres in extent, whipped, and lashed, and torn into nothing but a pile of roots and broken tree-stumps, in the space of fifteen seconds.

I saw a gap the width of a street, tearing itself at the speed of an express train through a hardwood forest, birch and maple trees, three feet through, being twisted around until they fell. Strange to say the few white pine escaped unscathed, standing around mournfully afterwards as though appraising the damage. In this instance there was a settlement near, in which a farmer claimed to have seen his pig-pen, pigs and all, go sailing away into the unknown. On being asked how far the building was carried, he replied that he didn’t know, but that it must have been quite far, because the pigs did not return for a week.

In a country of this description it is well to pitch camp, even if only for a night, with due regard for possible falling timber or cloud-bursts; in dealing with the unsleeping, subtle Enemy, ready to take advantage of the least error, it is well to overlook nothing.

A storm of this kind, at night, with nothing but a flimsy canvas tent between men and the elements, is a matter for some anxiety. The fierce rattle of the rain on the feeble shelter, the howling of the wind, the splintering crash of falling trees, which, should one fall on the tent, would crush every soul within it, make speech impossible. The blackness is intensified by each successive flash of lightning which sears its way between the rolling mass of thunder-heads, the air riven by the appalling impact between the heavenly artillery and the legions of silence. It is an orgy of sound; as though in very truth the wild women* on their winged steeds were racing madly through the upper air, screeching their warcries, and scattering wreck and desolation in their wake.

With the passing of the storm comes the low menacing murmur of some swollen stream, growing to a sullen roar as a yellow torrent of water overflows its bed, forcing its way through a ravine, sweeping all before it. That insistent muttering must not go unheeded, for there lies danger. Trees will be sucked into the flood; banks will be undermined, and tons of earth and boulders, and forest litter, will slide into the river channel, on occasion taking with them tents, canoes, complete outfits, and the human souls who deemed their feeble arrangements sufficient to cope with the elements.

Thus, with little preliminary, the Master of Destruction f ruthlessly eliminates those who so place themselves at his disposal; for at such times he scours the wilderness for victims, that he may gather in a rare harvest while the time is ripe.

To those who dwell in the region that lies north of the Haut Terre, which heaves and surges, and plunges its way two thousand miles westward across the face of the continent, the settled portions of the Dominion are situated in another sphere. This is not surprising, when it is considered that a traveller may leave London and be in Montreal in less time than it takes many trappers to reach civilization from their hunting-grounds. Most frontiersmen refer to all and any part of this vast Hinterland as the Keewaydin; a fitting name, of Indian origin, meaning the North-West Wind, also the place from which it comes. Only the populated areas are referred to as “Canada.”

Canada, to many of them, is a remote place from whence come bags of flour and barrels of salt pork, men with pale skins, real money, and new khaki clothing; a land of yawning sawmills, and hustling crowds, where none may eat or sleep without price; and where, does a man but pause to gaze on the wonders all about him, he is requested to “move on,” and so perforce must join the hurrying throng which seems so busy going nowhere, coming from nowhere.

A surge of loneliness sweeps over him as he gazes at the unfriendly faces that surround him, and he furtively assures himself that his return ticket is inside his hat-band, and wonders when is the next North-bound train. Supercilious bell-boys accept his lavish gratuities, and openly deride him; fawning waiters place him at obscure and indifferently tended tables, marvel at the size of his tips, and smirk behind his back. For he is a marked man. His clothes are often old-fashioned and he lacks the assurance of the town-bred man. He has not the pre-occupied stare of the city dweller; his gaze is beyond you, as at some distant prospect, his eyes have seen far into things that few men dream of. Some know him for what he is, but by far the greater part merely find him different, and immediately ostracise him.

He on whom the Trail has left its mark is not as the common run of men. Eyes wrinkled at the corners prove him one who habitually faces sun and wind. Fingers curved with the pressure of pole, paddle and tump line; a restless glance that never stays for long on one object, the gaze of a bird or a wild thing, searching, searching; legs bowed a little from packing, and the lift and swing of wide snowshoes; an indescribable freedom of gait. These are the hallmarks by which you may know him.

There is another type; unwashed, unshaven, ragged individuals appear at the “ steel ” at intervals, generally men who being in for only a short time are able to stand that kind of thing for a limited period. They are a libel on the men they seek to emulate, wishing to give the impression that they are seasoned veterans, which they succeed in doing about as well as a soldier would if he appeared in public covered with blood and gaping wounds, or an actor if he walked the streets in motley.

Many, young on the trail, do some very remarkable feats, and impose on themselves undue hardship, refusing to make the best of things, and indulging in spectacular and altogether unnecessary heroisms. They go to the woods in the same spirit as some men go to war, as to a circus. But the carnival spirit soon wears off as they learn that sleeping on hard rocks when plenty of brush is handy, or walking in ice-water without due cause, however brave a tale it makes in the telling, will never take a mile off the day’s journey, nor add a single ounce to their efficiency.

The Trail, then, is not merely a connecting link between widely distant points, it becomes an idea, a symbol of self-sacrifice ana deathless determination, an ideal to be lived up to, a creed from which none may falter. It obsesses a man to the utmost fibre of his being, the impelling force that drives him on to unrecorded feats, the uncompromising taskmaster whom none may gainsay; who quickens men’s brains to shift, device, and stratagem, purging their bodies of sloth, and their minds of weak desires.

Stars paling in the East, breath that whistles through the nostrils like steam. Tug of the tump line, swing of the snowshoes; tracks in the snow, every one a story; hissing, slanting sheets of snow; swift rattle of snowshoes over an unseen trail in the dark. A strip of canvas, a long fire, and a roof of smoke. Silence.

Canoes gliding between palisades of rock. Teepees, smoke-dyed, on a smooth point amongst the red pines; inscrutable faces peering out. Two wooden crosses at a rapids. Dim trails. Tug of the tump line again: always. Old tea pails, worn snowshoes, hanging on limbs, their work is well done; throw them not down on the ground. Little fires by darkling streams. Slow wind of evening hovering in the tree tops, passing on to nowhere. Gay, caparisoned clouds moving in review, under the setting sun. Fading day. Pictures forming and fading in glowing embers. Voices in the running waters, calling, calling. The lone cry of a loon from an unseen lake. Peace, contentment. This is the Trail.

Tear down the tent and the shelter,
Stars pale for the breaking of day,
Far over the hills lies Canada,
Let us be on our way.

Trail Song.

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