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The Men of the Last Frontier
Chapter V. On Being Lost

Three years ago, on a night in spring, a man went down from his camp fifty yards to the river to get a pail of water and has never been seen since.

A year before the time of writing, in this district, a deer-hunter took an afternoon stroll and was discovered eleven days later, by one of a gang of twenty-five men who scoured the woods for him for twenty miles around.

In the first case the man strayed off the water-trail in the dark, and not arriving at the shack he attempted to correct his mistake and took a short-cut, only to arrive back to the river at another point. He again endeavoured to strike the camp but, angling too much to his right, missed it. So much was learned by the finding of the pail at the river bank, and by his tracks. After that he entered a country of burnt, bare rocks, and small patches of green swamp, and he is there yet.

The second man, having killed a deer, remained where he was, erected a shelter and kept a fire. Beyond the mental strain incident to his adventure he Was in good condition when found. Wherein lies the secret of the difference between being correctly and incorrectly lost.

The safest course, with night coming on, and being still astray, is for one to stop, make a fire, and as comfortable a camp as maybe, and wait for daylight, with the feeling of security that it brings after the uncertainties and exaggerated forebodings of a long night. Then, perhaps, bearings can be taken to better advantage, and the sun may be shining, although it may now, after half a day of extended and aimless ramblings, be impossible for the wanderer to determine in which direction a start should be made.

Even so, he may strike for low land, and if his camp is not situated on it he will have at least an idea where it should lie. The inability of the average man to retain a record of his itinerary to the rear, whilst he selects his route ahead, is responsible for more loss of life in the woods than any other factor, excepting perhaps fire. This is so well recognized that one of the Provinces has passed a law prohibiting the killing of porcupines, except in cases of emergency, they being the only animal that can be killed by a starving man without weapons.

A man may start on a bright, sunshiny day, with all confidence, to make his way to some as yet undiscovered lake or river, or to look over a section of country, and find his trip going very satisfactorily. Inviting glades, offering good travelling, open up in every direction; gulleys lead on miraculously from one to another in just the right directions; and an occasional glance at the sun, or the lie of the land, affords all the indication of route necessary. The course is smooth, the wheels are greased, and he slides merrily on his way.

Having lured him in so far with fair promise, the fickle landscape now decides to play one from the bottom of the deck. The going becomes thicker during the next half hour, and the ground inclined to be swampy, with quite a few mosquitoes present. The interest aroused by these features induces a slight relaxing of concentration, and during such period of preoccupation the sun guilefully seizes on this as the psychological moment at which to disappear. The travelling becomes worse, much worse. Dwarf tamarac, spruce and cedar have now superseded the more generous and tractable hardwoods, and standing close-packed, with interlaced limbs, they form an entanglement from the feet up, through which a man is hard put to it to force a passage. Overhead is an impenetrable mass of twisted branches, through which the perspiring  man vainly endeavours to get a glimpse of the sun, only to discover that it is gone. From the high ground further back he has seen a ridge of hardwood across the swamp, perhaps a mile away or more, where the footing will be good; so he presses on for this. He fights his way through the tangled growth for hours, it seems, and appears to be no nearer the slope of deciduous timber than he ever was. He now, wisely, decides to eat and think it over; so making a fire, and infusing his tea with swamp water, he builds himself a meal.

After this, and a smoke, being now refreshed, he goes forward with renewed energy and zeal. This, in time, wears off; there is no improvement in the going, he seems to arrive nowhere, and would be much cheered by the sight of a familiar landmark. This, however, is not forthcoming; but presently he smells smoke. Wondering who but one in his own predicament would make a fire in such a jungle, he trails up the smoke, finding an odd footprint to encourage him; he will at least see a man, who may know the district. He arrives at the fire, and no one is there, but there are tracks leading away which he commences to follow, on the run. All at once he notices something oddly familiar in the shape of a spruce top he is climbing over, and with sudden misgiving he sets his moccasined foot into one of the stranger’s footprints, to find that they fit perfectly; the tracks are his own. He has been tracking himself down to his own fire-place!

Mixed with the feeling of affront at the scurvy trick that is making a laughing-stock of him for all the forest, is more than a hint of uneasiness, and, taking careful observations, he starts out anew, this time more slowly and coolly. An hour finds him back at the long-dead fire. With a sudden burst of speed in what he hopes is the right direction, he puts this now thoroughly distasteful piece of scenery behind him, tearing and ripping his way through this endless maze, that seems somehow to cover all Northern Canada. He frequently maps out his line of march with a stick in the mud, and spends much time in abstruse calculations; but it is only a matter of time till he returns, torn, exasperated, scarcely believing his eyes, to this hub of the wheel on which he is being spun so helplessly.

And on him dawns, with sickening certainty, the indisputable fact that he is lost. He becomes a little panicky, for this begins to be serious.

He appears to be unable to get away from this spot, as though held by a powerful magnet which allows him to wander at will just so far out, drawing him inexorably back at intervals. He is caught in the grip of the endless circle, which from being a mere geometrical figure, has now become an engine which may well encompass his destruction. As these thoughts pass swiftly, fear enters his heart. If wise, he will now get him a quantity of boughs, and construct a lean-to, gather a pile of wood, and pass the night in comfort, hoping for the re-appearance of the sun in the morning. Or he may blindly obey the almost uncontrollable impulse of the lost, to run madly, tearing through underbrush regardless of clothing and skin, so as to get as far from the hateful spot as possible, and go on, and on, and on—to nowhere. He will almost inevitably take the wrong direction, at last breaking away from that deadly circle, in which case his speed only serves to plunge him deeper and deeper into a wilderness that stretches to the Arctic Sea. Darkness finds him exhausted, and almost incapable of making camp, and when the sun rises the next morning, his calculations, if he has any, are so involved, that he knows not whether to travel facing the sun, with his back to it, or across it.

He may be later stumbled upon, by the merest accident, by some member of a search party, or by his partner, if the latter is a skilful tracker; or again, he may find his way to a large body of water and wait to be picked up by some Indian or other passer-by. This within a reasonable distance of civilization. If far in the woods he will wander hopelessly on, sometimes in circles, at times within measurable distance of his camp, past spots with which he is familiar, but is no longer in a condition to recognize. The singing of the birds becomes a mockery in his ears; no they, and everything around him, are carrying on as usual, each in its own accustomed manner of living, and yet he, the lord of creation, is the only creature present who is utterly and completely subjugated by his surroundings. Hunger gnaws his vitals, and hot waves of blood surge through his brain, leaving him weak and dizzy. Still he must keep on, always- he may yet strike some trapper’s cabin or Indian encampment; even his deserted fire-place, once so odious, now appears in the light of a haven of refuge.

As the hours pass swiftly on, and the setting of another sun finds him no nearer safety, his mind becomes obsessed by strange fancies; the grey whiskey-jacks, trail companions on more fortunate trips, flickering across his line of vision like disembodied spirits, whispering together as they watch him, become birds of evil omen, sent to mock him with their whistling. Luminous rotting stumps, glowing in the darkness with ghostly phosphoresence, seem like the figments of a disordered dream; and a grey owl, floating soundlessly on muffled wings, has all the semblance of an apparition with yellow, gleaming eyes. The little distant red spots, like fire, that every tired man sees at night, are to him real enough to cause him to chase them for long distances in the falling dusk, spending his waning strength, and undergoing the added mental torture of disappointment. The whole world of trees, and shadows, and dark labyrinth becomes a place of phantasma and fevered imaginings, and his soul becomes possessed by a shuddering dread that no known danger of ordinary woods travel could account for. The sepulchral glow of the moon .transforms the midnight forest into an inferno of ghostly light, pregnant with unnameable supernatural possibilities.

As he grows weaker he becomes the victim of hallucinations, and is beset by a form of insanity, the “ madness of the woods,” in which the dim arches become peopled with flitting shapes and formless apparitions. Gargoyle faces leer and grimace at him from out the shadows; Indians appear, stare momentarily beyond him as though he were invisible, to disappear again, eluding his frantic efforts to attract their attention. Acquaintances stand beckoning in the distance who, when he approaches, retreat yet further, and beckon again, finally fading to nothingness, or walking callously out of sight. And he shouts frenziedly that they may stop and wait for him, at which the woods become suddenly deserted, and his voice echoes hollowly through the endless, empty ramifications, which have now assumed the appearance of a tomb.

And there hangs over him as he blindly staggers onward, a Presence, an evil loathsome thing, which, as though to mark him as its own, envelops him with its shadow; following him like a hideous vampire, or some foul, carrion bird, waiting but for the moment when he will drop, watching with a terrible smile. For the ghoul that sits enthroned behind the ramparts of the North, holds always in his hand the strands of his entanglements, sleeping not at all, lest, of those who stumble unawares within them, there should one escape.

For another day, perhaps two, or even three, he stumbles on; muttering, at times raving; falling, getting up, only to fall again; crawling at last in that resistless urge of the lost to keep on while there is yet life; and always just ahead dangles the will-o’-the-wisp of hope, never fulfilled.

And if ever found, his bones will indicate his dying posture as that of a creeping man.

In northern Quebec, during one of the mining rushes which are yet in progress, a prospector came out to the railroad to report his partner lost. This had happened six weeks before his arrival at the “ front.” He had spared no effort, and had used every means that mortal man could devise to recover his companion, but without avail. As this had happened in a territory that could only be reached by something over two hundred and fifty miles of a rough and difficult route, which it would take at least two weeks to cover, it was considered useless to make any further attempt, as the man had no doubt been long dead.

The prospector, however, had his doubts. Both men were experienced bushmen, although perhaps not gifted with that sense of direction which not even all Indians possess. Being no tenderfoot, the missing man would not be likely to make any further false moves after the initial one of getting lost, and this thought had kept alive a spark of hope.

For two weeks the bereft man could not get his friend out of his mind; often he dreamed of him. After one of these dreams, more vivid than the rest, in which he saw his partner crawling, in the last extremity, along the sandy beach on the shores of a shallow lake, he decided to revisit the ground, having been lucky in his prospecting, by means of an airplane. In a few hours he was hovering over the scene of the mishap.

Nearly every lake in the district was visited for signs of life, but none of them answered the description of the dream lake. Eventually the pilot, fearing to run out of gasoline, advised a return. Influenced by his vision, as indeed he had been in deciding to make the trip, the miner asked the aviator to fly low over a cluster of lakes about twenty miles from the original camp site, one of them being plainly shallow, and having sand beaches down one side.

And, as they passed over the sheet of water, they saw a creeping thing, moving slowly along on the beach, stopping, and moving on. At that distance it could have been a bear, or a wolf hunting for food, and they were about to swing off to the south and civilization when they decided to make one last attempt and investigate.

Three minutes later the two men were confronted by an evidence of human endurance almost past belief. Practically naked, his body and face bloated with the bites of mosquitoes he no longer had the strength to fight, his two month’s beard clotted with blood and filled with a writhing mass of black flies, emaciated to the last degree, the missing man, for it was he, was even yet far from dead.

But, after sixty-two days of suffering such as few men are called on to endure, this man who would not die could no longer reason. He stared dully at his rescuers, and would have passed on, creeping on hands and knees. And he was headed North, going further and further away from the possibility of rescue with every painful step.

Very gently he was carried, still feebly resisting, to the waiting plane, and in two hours was in safety.

Later the rescued man told how, confused by the nonappearance of the sun for several days, he had wandered in circles from which he could not break away, until he commenced to follow lake shores, and the banks of rivers, expecting them to lead him to some body of water that he knew.

On the re-appearance of the sun, after about a week, he was so far gone as to become possessed by the idea that it was rising and setting in the wrong places, and travelled, accordingly, north instead of south, continuing in that direction long after he had ceased consciously to influence his wanderings. For food he had dammed small streams and set a weir of sticks in a pool below, easily catching the fish left in the drained creek bed. During the weeks of the sucker run, he fared not too badly, as suckers are a sizeable fish of two or three pounds weight, and fish, even if raw, will support life. Later this run ceased, and the suckers returned to deep water. He was then obliged to subsist on roots and an occasional partridge killed with a stone, until he became too weak to throw at them.

He next set rabbit snares of spruce root, most of which the rabbits ate; so he rubbed balsam gum on them, which rabbits do not like, and occasionally was lucky. Soon, however, he lacked the strength to accomplish these things, and from that on lived almost entirely on the inside bark of birch trees. So far north there are miles of country where birch trees will not grow, so he was often without even that inadequate diet. At last he was crawling not over a couple of hundred yards a day, if his last day’s tracks were any indication. To travel six or eight days without food is an ordeal few survive, and only those who have undergone starvation, coupled with the labour of travelling when in a weakened condition, can have any idea of what this man went through.

His mind a blank, at times losing sight of the object of his progress, daily he crept further and further away from safety. And there is no doubt that insanity would eventually have accomplished what starvation apparently could not.

This “madness of the woods” that drives men to destruction, when a little calm thinking and observation would have saved the day, attacks alike the weak-willed and the strong, the city man and the bush-whacker, when, after a certain length of time, they find themselves unable to break away from the invisible power that seems to hold them within a definite restricted area from which they cannot get away, or else lures them deeper and deeper into the wilderness. Men old on the trail recognize the symptoms and combat them before their reasoning powers become so warped that they are no longer to be relied on.

This peripatetic obsession causes men to have strange thoughts. Under its influence they will doubt the efficiency of a compass, will argue against the known facts, fail to recognize places with which they are perfectly familiar.

One lumber-jack foreman who became twisted in his calculations, struck a strange road, followed it, and arrived at a camp, and not till he entered it and recognized some of the men, did he realize that the camp was his own. Some men lost for long periods, and having been lucky enough to kill sufficient game to live on, although alive and well seem to lose their reasoning powers entirely. At the sight of men they will run, and are with difficulty caught, and with staring eyes and wild struggles try to free themselves and escape.

Only those who, relying on no compass, spend long years of wandering in the unmarked wastes of a wild country, acquire the knack, or rather the science, of travelling by the blind signs of the wilderness. Ordinary woodsmen of the lumber-jack type, whose work seldom calls them off a logging road, are as easily lost as a townsman. Timber cruisers, engineers and surveyors are all compass men. Their type of work makes necessary the continuous use of this instrument, they do little travelling without it.

It is only amongst men of the trapped or prospector type that we find developed that instinctive sbnse of direction, which is a priceless gift to those who possess it.

Travelling in an unpeopled wilderness calls fef an intense concentration on the trail behind, a due regard for the country ahead and a memory that recalls every turn made, and that can recognize a ridge, gulley, or stream crossed previously and at another place. Swinging off the route to avoid swamps, and other deviations must be accomplished without losing sight of the one general direction, meanwhile the trail unrolls behind like a ball of yarn, one end of which is at the camp and the other in your hand.

If the sun is out it is an infallible guide, provided proper allowance is made for its movement. In returning by the same route no attempt is made to cover the same ground, unless convenient, so long as creeks, ridges, flats and other features are recognized as they occur, and provided you remember at about what angle you traversed them. Every man has a tendency to work too much to either left or right, and knowing that, he must work against it.

The tops of pine trees on the crest of ridges point uniformly north-east; in level bush, if open to the wind, the undergrowth has a “set” to it which can sometimes be detected. The bark is thicker and the rings in the timber closer together on the north side of trees in exposed places. Do not forget that water always runs downhill; moose and deer tracks in March are mostly found on a southern exposure; the snow of the last storm is generally banked on the side of the trees opposite from the direction of the wind it came with, which you will, of course, have noted; and the general trend, or “lie” of the country in all Northern Canada is north-east and south-west. Taking an average on all this data, some pretty accurate travelling can be done.

These are some of the indications by which Indians travel, nor have they any God-given superiority over other men in this respect. Only intensive training and habits of acute observation bring them to the pitch of excellence to which they often attain. One generation out of their environment and the faculty is as dead as it is in most white men. There is as much difference between travelling by compass and picking a trail by a study of details such as were just mentioned, as there is between a problem in mathematics and a work of art.

A compass calls for progression in straight lines, over all obstacles, or if around them by offsetting so many paces and recovering that distance, the obstruction once passed; a purely mechanical process. Little advantage can be taken of the lie of the land, and a man is more or less fettered in his movements.

There are highly important operations and improvements taking place all along the frontier which would be almost impossible without this device and very accurate results are obtained by its use in mapping out the country; but for ordinary travelling purposes he is freer who uses the sun, the wind, the roll of mountains and the sweep of the earth’s surface as his guides, and from them he imbibes a moiety of that sixth sense which warns of danger and miscalculation, so that a species of instinct is evolved—whereby a man may be said to feel that he is wrong—almost as infallible, and more flexible of application than any instrument can be, and to it a man may turn when all else fails. This is developed to a remarkable degree in some individuals.

Of all the snares which Nature has set to entangle the footsteps of the unwary the most effective is the perfidious short-cut. Men well tried in woodcraft succumb to its specious beguilements in the endeavour to save a few hours and corresponding miles. I firmly believe there never yet was a short-cut that did not have an impassable swamp, an unscalable mountain or an impenetrable jungle situated somewhere about its middle, causing detours, the sum of which amount to more than the length of the original trail. This is so well recognized that the mere mention of the word “short-cut” will raise a smile in any camp. Often an old trail that seems to have been well used long ago, after leading you on for miles in the hopes of arriving somewhere eventually, will degenerate into a deer path, then to a rabbit runway, and finally disappear down a hole, under a root.

After many years in the woods with the most efficient instructors at the work that a man could well have, I find that I cannot yet relax my vigilance, either of thought or eye, for very many minutes before I become involved in a series of errors that would speedily land me into the orbit of the endless circle. I find it impossible to hold any kind of connected conversation and travel to advantage. In the dark especially, if the mind slips a cog and loses one or more of the filaments of the invisible thread, it is impossible to recover them, and nothing then remains but to stop, make fire, and wait for daylight.

My first experience in this line was far from heroic. I remember well my initial trial trip with an Indian friend who had volunteered for the difficult task of transforming an indifferent plainsman into some kind of a woodsman. We sat on a high rocky knoll on which were a few burnt pines, on one of which we had hung up the packsack. All around us were other knolls with burnt stubs scattered over them. The lower ground between them was covered with a heavy second growth of small birch and poplars, willows and alders. My task was to leave the hill on which we were seated, cross a flat, and climb another, identical in appearance, even to its dead trees, distant about three hundred yards. Nothing, I considered, could well be easier, even without the sun which I had to help me.

I descended the slope and struck through the small growth at its foot, and soon found that I was entangled above, below and on all sides by a clawing, clutching mass of twisted and wiry undergrowth, through which I threshed with mighty struggles. After about twenty minutes I saw the welcome shine of bare rock, and was glad enough to get into the open again. I climbed the knoll, and there, to my astonishment, sat my friend and mentor at the foot of one of the chicos, calmly smoking, and apparently not having turned a hair in his swift trip through the jungle.

I owned myself beaten, remarking that he must have made pretty good time to have arrived at the spot ahead of me. He looked mildly surprised, and replied that he had not arrived at any place, not having as yet moved. I hardly believed him until I saw the packsack where I myself had hung it, and my humiliation was complete when I realized that I had walked right down into that flat and turned round and walked right out again.

This was my first acquaintance with the charming endless circle. It was not my last, and even to-day it sneaks alongside of me through the forest like a spinning lariat, hopefully waiting for the day when I shall place my foot within. And these days I hold that imaginary ball of twine very tightly in one hand, whilst scrutinizing the landscape ahead with a view to my proposed route, and I fight flies with the other.

My tutors have turned me out, so they consider, a finished product, and in certain circumstances I am able to contrive, devise and stand from under with the best of them; yet even to-day there are times when my failure to apply the lessons so painstakingly taught me, if known, would be the cause of much disappointment and terse but apt comment spoken through the blue smoke-haze in certain shadowy lodges, beneath the sombre spruces.

As late as four years ago I was guilty of a piece of bad judgment, or several of them, that left a considerable blot on my record, already none too spotless, and came near to settling for all time my earthly problems. The occasion was one on which it became necessary, owing to the destruction of a hunting ground by fire, to move several hundred miles to the north, and, in so doing, I failed to make the necessary allowance for changed climatic conditions. This resulted in my arriving behind the season, and finding the trading post out of many things, and its stock, much depleted, consisting mainly of culled or damaged goods remaining after the Indians, now long departed for their hunting grounds, had taken their pick. Amongst these left-overs was a one and only pair of moose-hide mitts, too small to be of much use. Having at that time no hides of my own, these I was obliged to take; the initial mistake and one for which, later, I dearly paid.

I was able to locate a ground with the assistance of the post manager and a very inaccurate map, and had a bad two weeks getting in with my stuff, fighting ice and snowstorms all the way, a matter of seventy miles or more. The trapping was fair, but the ground, being small, was soon hunted out, necessitating long trips into the interior in search of fur.

There had been much soft weather after the preliminary cold snap, and I started out on an exploration trip on a wet, soggy day, on which dragging and lifting the slushed snowshoes was a heavy enough labour. I perspired profusely, and on leaving the chain of lakes on which my cabin was situated for the overland trip to other waters, I hung up my outside shirt and leggings and proceeded without them, a criminal.

It soon commenced to snow heavily, and so continued for the rest of the day; a wet, heavy fall which in my half clothed condition, quickly wetted me to the skin. With that lack of commonsense for which some people are remarkable, I carried on obstinately. Late that afternoon I found beaver. Not waiting to set any traps, as a cessation of movement, and dabbling elbow deep in ice-water meant a clammy chill which I was in no mood to endure, I made fire and drank tea, and thus fortified, commenced the return trip.

All went well for the first few miles. The sky cleared, and it turned colder, which, whilst it froze my outer clothing, made it windproof, and lightened the heavy going considerably, the snow no longer clogging my snow-shoes. The moon would rise shortly and everything was coming my way. I anticipated an easy journey home; I had found beaver of a potential value amounting to some hundreds of dollars, and a little wetting damped my spirits not at all.

The fact that I was probably two hundred miles directly north of my accustomed range, and in a country of severe and sudden storms and erratic changes in temperature, did not enter into my calculations.

My outbound route had been very circuitous, and at a point where I thought it would be to my advantage I attempted the old, oft-tried, and justly notorious expedient of a short-cut in the dark. On such a night, calm, clear and frosty, nothing could possibly go wrong, and I expected to strike my own tracks in a patch of timber near the lake where my clothing was, and so on home. Half an hour from that time, in my wet condition, I became chilled with the now rapidly increasing cold, and was again obliged to make fire in a small gulley, where I waited the coming of the moon.

A chill wind arose, whistling bleakly over the deserted solitude, and I shivered over my fire, seemingly unable to get warm. The eastern sky lightened, and soon the ragged outline of the pointed spruce stood darkly silhouetted against the great moon, now creeping up over the ridge, and commencing to flood the little valley with a lambent glow. The uncertain illumination lent an appearance of illusive unreality to the surroundings which affected me strangely, and I began to have some misgivings as to the advisability of going farther that night.

As the pale disc cleared the hills the shadows shortened and I made out to see a small sluggish stream, picking its somnolent way amongst snow-covered hummocks of moss and scattered clumps of larches. The prospect was not inviting, so not waiting to dry my mitts and moccasins, I prepared myself for a fast trip to my clothes, and abandoned my fire; two more mistakes either one of which, under the circumstances, was sufficient for my undoing.

I examined the creek and having ascertained the direction of its flow, decided to go downstream, as long as its direction suited me; and turning my back on my sheltered nook, with its abundance of dry wood and friendly twinkling fire, I started on a very memorable journey. And at my elbow, as I walked, there sounded a still, small voice which said plainly and insistently, “Do not go; stay by the fire; there you are safe; do not go”; the voice, so often disregarded, of discretion, making a last bid to stay the tragedy of errors now about to be consummated.

The going was bad. There was not enough snow to level the inequalities of the ground, and the floor of the gulley was plentifully bestrewn with broken rock piles, studded with large hummocks, and pitted with holes; and, the moon only serving in this instance to increase the shadow cast by these obstacles, I stumbled and fell repeatedly, arising from each fall chilled to the bone.

Presently the stream meandered off to the right, out of my projected line of travel, and the sides of the ravine fell away into low undulations, which flattened out and eventually disappeared altogether. I realized that I was on the borders of one of those immense muskegs with which this North Country abounds. I pressed on my way, hoping that I would soon emerge into a belt of timber, which in that region would indicate the proximity of a lake, but none was to be seen save a small clump of spruce to my right and far ahead; and on all sides the white, endless fields of snow lay stretched in dreary monotony.

The moon, having become hazy whilst I was yet at the fire, was now circled by a band of rainbow hue, and before long became completely obscured; a storm threatened and soon became imminent. A low moaning sound could be heard to the north, increasing every minute, and I bitterly regretted leaving my late camp ground; but, as there was yet enough light to distinguish the details of the scenery, such as they were, with that fatuous optimism that has driven many a man out over the edge of the Great Beyond, I cast behind me the last atom of discretion and pushed forward with all possible speed.

Suddenly, with the whistling and screaming of a myriad hell-bound demons, the blizzard struck, sweeping down from the north in a choking, blinding wall of snow and zero hurricane, lashing the surface of the muskeg into a whirling, frenzied mass of hissing snow-devils, sticking to my frozen and inadequate clothing in a coat of white, and effectually blotting out every vestige of the landscape.

Staggered by the first onslaught, I quickly recovered and, realizing the seriousness of the situation, I took a firm grip on my reasoning powers, whilst my mind subconsciously searched the screeching ether for some indication of direction.

In the open the wind eddied and rushed in from every side, and no bearings could be taken from it, but I thought I could detect above the other sounds of the tempest, the deeper roar of wind in the block of timber, now distant about half a mile. With this as a guide I continued on my journey, my objective now the shelter of the grove in question.

Bent almost double, gasping for breath, my clothing caked with frozen snow, becoming rapidly exhausted, I knew that, dressed as I was, I could not long survive in such a storm.

The insistent barrier of the wind became a menace, a tangible, vindictive influence bent on my destruction. All the power and spite of the hurricane seemed centred on my person with the intention of holding me back, delaying me until my numbed limbs refused further duty, driving me down, down in between the snow mounds, where, shrieking with triumph, it would overwhelm me with a whirling mass of white, and soon nothing would remain save the roar of the wind, the scurrying drift, and the endless, empty waste of snow.

Coupled with this cheerful reflection was the thought that perhaps, after all, my senses were deceived concerning the supposed position of that bluff of timber, and this spurred me on to renewed speed, if such a word could be applied to my groping progress. My arms became numb to the elbow, and my legs to the knee. My eyelids repeatedly stuck together with rime which I rubbed off with frozen mitts; and I stumbled on, knowing I must never fall.

The wind seemed to redouble its fury, and the wall of resistance that it opposed to my efforts seemed more and more a malicious attempt to detain me until I no longer had the strength to fight it. So that it became a personal issue between the tempest and myself; it with all the howling fury of unleashed omnipotent power, and I with all the hate, and bitterness and determination its buffeting had aroused in me.

How long this continued I do not know, but suffice it that in time I heard with certainty the roar of wind-tossed tree tops, and soon a black wall of forest rose up before me, and I knew that I now had a fighting chance. I quickly skirted a section of the belt of evergreens, looking up in an endeavour to find a bare pole protruding through the black tops, indicating a dry tree, but could distinguish nothing. Entering the grove I quickly chipped various trees, tasting the chips for dry wood; every one stuck to my lips, showing them to be green and impossible to start a fire with. A deadly fear entered my heart; supposing there was no dry wood, what then?

I commenced a frantic but methodical search, tapping boles with my axe for the ring of dry timber, but without avail.

Meanwhile the cold was biting deeper and deeper, and I was well aware that any wood found after the lapse of another twenty minutes would be useless, as I should by that time be unable to light a fire.

In a kind of a panic I ran out into the open, and, the storm having abated somewhat, I saw, to my unspeakable relief, a tall dry tamarac standing no great distance away, and hidden from me till then.

I attacked it furiously with my axe and now found that my wet mitts had frozen into such a shape that it was almost impossible to chop. I made several strokes, and the axe twisted in my grip and no more than dinged the tamarac, hardest of dry woods.

Once a glancing blow struck my foot, shearing through moccasin and blanket sock, drawing blood. Eventually the axe flew out of my numbed hands entirely and I lost precious seconds recovering it. There was only one alternative; I must chop barehanded. This I did, felling the tree, and continuing cutting it up until my fingers began to freeze. And then I found that my mitts, already too small, had so shrunken with the frost that now, hard as iron, I could not “put them on again.

I stood for a moment, as the deadly import of this entered my brain with damning finality. I was confronted with the stark staring fact that I could no longer use my hands; and around my feet the snow was stained with an ever-widening patch of blood. I was as near to death as mortal man may be and yet live.

The storm had passed. The Northern Lights commenced their flickering dance. The landscape had now assumed an appearance of hypocritical solemnity; the moon also appeared, to lend the proper air of sanctimonious propriety fitting to the occasion, and the capering corpses in the northern hemisphere mocked with their grotesque gyrations my abortive movements.

I marvelled somewhat that in this present day and age of achievement, with civilization at its peak, I should be beyond its help, dying in a way, and owing to conditions long supposed to be out of date. I got a slight “kick” out of the notion, and thus exhilarated suddenly decided that this was no time and no place to die. I intended to be no spectacle for a gallery of ghouls, nor did I propose to submit dumbly to the decrees of one whom I had yet to meet—The Devil of the North forsooth, with all his power and his might!

I laughed aloud, for I had a trump card; two of them, in fact, one up each sleeve; he should not freeze my hands, and so destroy me. I decided that I would freeze my hands myself. And so I did, cutting up and splitting, until my hands became bereft of power and feeling, fully believing that I had lost my fingers to save my life.

I made a fire. The agony of it as the circulation made its way through the seared flesh; and the fear of a horrible death by blood-poisoning, or a useless existence without hands! For a man finds these things hard to accept with the calmness expected of him, and I am perhaps of softer mould than some.

Gibbering madmen have before now dragged their hideous deformities out to the haunts of man to exhibit them as payment exacted for lesser follies than I had committed that night. My fingers were frozen and my foot cut to the bone, but not badly enough to cause permanent injury, although I could hunt no more that winter.

I later found that the muskeg skirted the lake, and the next morning as I moved out I discovered that the clump of spruce that I had originally intended to pass by was an offshoot of the forest that I was looking for, and that I had spent the night, half-frozen, within a rifle-shot of my discarded clothes.

So I am still in doubt as to whether that blizzard was intended to destroy me, or if it was not merely one of those rough, but friendly attempts to set us on the right road, that we sometimes suffer at the hands of our friends.

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