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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.