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The Men of the Last Frontier
Chapter VI. The Fall of the Leaf

Much has been written concerning the beauties and the joys of spring. Poets have glorified that time of flowers, and budding leaves, and frisking lambs in every language. I have, however, formed the opinion, after observing a good many of them, that spring is a time of the year to be regarded as something to look back on, or forward to, but not to enjoy. In the snow countries it is a season of floods, wet feet, bad trails, transportation difficulties, and shortage of supplies.

Easter is a favourite season for breaking ice, and carrying canoes on snowshoes over portages flooded with slush; whilst the weather is a nightmare of wet snowstorms and chill rains, or, if warm and clear the resultant thaw produces torrents of melted snow water and shaky ice. By the time these conditions mend equipment has been damaged far more than by the wear and tear of a whole year of honest travel. Men’s patience is worn to a frazzle, and the seeds of a wasting sickness are often laid in the system of those who perforce must sleep out in the rain or not sleep at all.

Here, spring is a time of the year when the marriage market is weak, bootleggers’ receipts are high, and those of the Church very low. I think the habitants* have a saint whose speciality it is to care for travellers at this season. I should much like to meet him, and discuss the matter quietly as between gentlemen, without witnesses.

Rarely do we hear favourably, in poetry or in prose, of that season called by some the “death of the year,” and too often looked forward to with misgiving as the precursor of dread Winter, the Fall. To those who may view its splendours in a forest untouched by the hand of man, autumn means much more than just the transition between the closing of summer and the coming of winter. In a country composed, as Canada is, largely of wild lands it means above all the opening of the hunting season, with the breaking of the monotony of civilized life, and all the freedom for the indulging of primitive instincts that goes with it.

It is a time of painted forests decked out in all the gay panoply of Indian Summer, of blue haze which lends enchantment to distant prospects, and of hills robed in flaring tints, which, in spite of their brilliance, merge and blend to form the inimitable colour scheme which, once every year, heralds the sad but wondrous spectacle of the falling of the leaves. Motionless days of landscapes bathed in waiting silence; the composed and breathing calm of an immense congregation attending the passing of a beloved one, waiting reverently until the last rites have been completed; for this is the farewell of the leaves to the forest which they have for a time adorned. Their task performed, with brave colours flying they go down in obedience to the immutable law of forest life, later to nourish the parent stem that gave them birth. And in the settled hush that precedes their passing, even the march of time itself seems halted, that there may be no unseemly haste in their disposal, whose life has been so short.

In the endless spruce forests of the High North, much of the beauty of Fall is lost, and passing suddenly out of the gloomy evergreens onto a rare ridge of birch and poplar, with their copper and bronze effects, is like stepping out of a cave into a capacious, many-pillared antechamber draped in cloth of gold. It is only in the hardwood forests of beech, maple and giant black birch yet remaining in certain areas, that the full beauty of the Fall of the Leaf can be appreciated. It was once my fortune to make a trip at this season, in a reserved area of some three thousand square miles in extent, in the heart of the strong woods country, below the Ottawa River. A lovely region it was, and is, of peaceful, rock-girdled lakes, deep, clear, and teeming with trout; and of rich forests of immense trees reaching in a smooth billowing tide in every direction. Here was not the horrific sepulchral gloom of the goblin-haunted spruce country, nor the crowded formation of hostile array. The trees, huge of trunk and massive of high-flung limb, stood decorously apart, affording passage for several men abreast; and the dimness was rather that of some enchanted palace seen only in a dream, and in which chords of stately music could be expected to resound at any moment.

The wide and spreading tops met overhead to form a leafy canopy that was a blaze of prismatic colour, as though the lofty pillars supported a roof of stained glass, through which the sunlight filtered here and there, shedding a dim but mellow glow upon the forest floor.

Between the well-ordered files one walked without obstruction, and in momentary expectation of a fleeting Anew of some living creature, of the many who dwelt herein. Every step opened up new vistas through the open woodland, the level bottom of which was relieved by terraces edged with small firs that loomed up blackly in the riot of colour, and occasional smooth white boulders which stood crowned by grey and hoary beeches with gnarled limbs, and serpentine, protruding roots, standing like effigies or statues carved from blocks of marble in some old castle garden. There the figure of a man was belittled, dwarfed to insignificant proportions, by the grandeur, and the vast and looming bulk of the objects by which he was surrounded.

At intervals the dimness was brightened, at about twice the height of a man, by the bright tinted foliage of dogwood, and moose-maple saplings. The gloom made the stems invisible at a little distance, and where the shafts of sunlight struck them, these gay clusters appeared like Japanese lanterns of every imaginable shape and hue, suspended in mid-air to light these ancient halls for some carnival or revel. In the wider spaces between the smooth grey hardwoods, stood the bodies of huge white pine, fluted red-brown columns upwards of six feet across, rearing their bulk up through the roof of leaves, to be shut off completely from further view; yet raising their gigantic proportions another half a hundred feet above the sea of forest, to the great plumed heads that bowed to the eastward each and every one, as though each morning they would salute the rising sun.

Although in the dimness of the ancient forest no breeze stirred the leaves of the young maples, far above, the air was never still. And through the dark masses of the noble sweeping tops of the pine trees, a steady wind played in a deep, prolonged and wavering note, as of the plucked strings of an unseen distant harp; gently humming like the low notes of an organ played softly, dying away to a whisper; swelling again in diapason through the vast transept of the temple of silence, the unceasing waves of sound echoing and resounding across the immeasurable sweep of the universe.

No moose were to be seen in this region, but every once in so often, a group of deer leaped out of sight, with sharp whistles, and spectacular display of white tails.

The air was filled with the low sound of falling leaves, as they made their hesitant way to earth, adding little by little to a variegated carpet already ankle deep. And as they came spinning, floating, and spiralling down like golden snowflakes, the sound of their continuous, subdued, rustling transformed the stately forest into a shadowed whispering gallery, in which it seemed as though the ancient trees would tell in muted accents the age-old secrets of days gone by, did one but have the ears to understand.

To the forest dwellers, autumn, with its sights, its sounds, its smells, its tang, which like good wine, sends the blood coursing and tingling through the veins, with its urge to be up and doing, and the zest and savour of its brittle air, is more than a season; it has become a national institution.

The signs of its coming are eagerly noted by all in whom one drop yet remains of the blood of long gone savage ancestors. Over the whole of North America the first frosts, where they occur, are a signal for the overhauling of weapons of all kinds, and the assembling of implements of the chase. Men step lighter, as with kindling eye they seem to emulate the hustle, the bustle, and the preparation of all living creatures in response to the stirring call of this magic season. For now the Hunting Winds are loosed to course at will along the highways of the forest, stirring the indolent to action, and quickening the impulses with their heady bouquet.

Now the Four-Way Lodge is open, and out from its portals pour the spirits of all the mighty hunters of the Long Forgotten Days, to range again the ancient hunting-grounds. And when a chill wisp of a breeze sweeps down into the forest, and scooping up a handful of leaves, spins them around for a moment in a madly whirling eddy, and of a sudden lets them drop, many will say that it is the shade of some departed hunter who dances a ghostly measure to the tune of the hunting winds.

The woods are fall of crisp rustlings, as small beasts scamper over frosted, crackling leaves, intent on the completion of self-appointed tasks. The surface of the waters is broken by clusters of ducks and waterfowl of all kinds, noisily congregated for the fall migration. Along the shore-line, ever-widening V’s forge silently ahead, as beaver and muskrats, alert, ready to sink soundlessly out of sight on the least alarm, conduct their various operations. Porcupines amble along trustfully in the open, regardless of danger; and, partly owing to their bristling armour and greatly owing to the luck of fools, generally escape unscathed. Back in the hills any number of bears are breaking off boughs and shredding birch-bark, to line dens that a man could be well satisfied to sleep in.

In the blaze of the declining sun the hills seem crested with fire, as the level rays strike the scarlet of the maples on the ridges. The russet of the whispering sedge-grasses on the river-flats and marshlands and the yellow of the wild hay in the beaver meadows, take on a metallic sheen, like burnished golden filigree, in which is set some placid sheet of water, reflecting on its glassy surface an inverted, flaming forest, and the hue of the evening sky, pink with its promise of frost, as the short day draws to its close.

The light mists of evening that begin to rise in the fen-lands are permeated with the aromatic scent of dried cherry leaves, and the spicy odour of the sage. With the near approach of darkness everything that had life is in movement, preparing for the great change soon to come, and the air is full of subdued sound, barely audible but insistent, as a myriad creatures of every size and species comb the face of the earth for the wherewithal to pass the winter, now so close upon them.

Slight noises in the distance have a startling penetration in the thin and buoyant air, and the passage of a squirrel over the dry leaves creates a disturbance out of all proportion to his size. Swift creatures, no longer silent-footed, rattle noisily across the brittle carpet on important errands. The crackle of brush, the sharp, alarmed whistle of a deer, and the whirring flight of a family of partridges, herald the approach of some creature larger than common, and a bull moose, in all the savage splendour of bristling mane and wide-spread antlers, stalks out beyond the tree-line onto the strip of grasses that border the lake, and calls his challenge, bidding defiance to all the world. His summons unanswered, he threshes mightily in the tall reeds, twisting and tearing saplings with deep grunts and hollow rattling of horns, in the futile rage of his unfulfilled desire for combat. Shortly he stops to listen, and, seeming to detect some dissonance in the scheme of his surroundings, he becomes uneasy, and retires, though with hesitation. And then, reason enough for the moose’s trepidation, there comes stealing in from the south a low-set, slim canoe, loaded to the gunwales, slipping silently along, propelled by the deft, light strokes of the practised canoeman.

And on the instant all sound ceases, and silence falls, abruptly as the sudden quenching of a light.

The light craft skirts the shore amidst the idly floating leaves, and its progress is as soundless as theirs, yet no movement rewards the vigilance of the man kneeling in its stern; the policy of proscription declared against this arch-enemy of all living creatures, this pariah of the society of the woods, could not be more completely carried out were he some noisome pestilence stalking through the kingdom of the wild.

The canoe lands at an open point of jack-pines and the man unloads, erects his tent with a few swift movements, and soon the glimmer of his camp fire lights the now rapidly falling dusk, and its smoke hangs in banks and wisps over the water, edging the wreaths of mist with blue.

Darkness settles and the fire dies. The stars, large and far apart, seem almost within reach, and the blade of the low-hung moon lies on its back just clear of the needle-pointed spruce that crown an eminence. And overhead the long wavering lines of wild geese pass at frequent intervals from the north with discordant clamour, as they retreat before an enemy with whom they have already been in action, and whose further advance is now imminent.

And as the night wears on and the moon sinks behind the hill, the population of the woods recommences its interrupted labours.

Small, earnest forest people in unnumbered multitudes race back and forth from cache to cache. The faintly discernible sounds of the daylight hours increase in volume during the stillness of the night, and are punctuated by distinguishable noises that much intrigue the curiosity of the listener; the distant screaming of a rabbit being prepared for cold storage by some successful butcher; the “plop,” and rustle, and scratch, as muskrats, like little gnomes, with short swift runs and hops work feverishly at their harvesting; the thumps and thuds, draggings and scrapings, and the low murmur of voices, as the gangs in the beaver-works labour prodigiously to complete their preparations....

But as daylight commenced to show in the east, these noises gradually ceased and day broke over an empty forest devoid of life or sound, save for a small flock of black ducks at their morning toilet and a porcupine, who had been appeasing his insatiable appetite for leather with a tump line, forgotten outside the tent on the point.

There was some slight commotion within the tent and a stream of smoke issued from the long, narrow stove pipe projecting from it. The porcupine, interested in this new development, stared stupidly at the smoke for a while, then, taking a few last bites out of the canoe gunwale in passing, lumbered off with the consciousness of a good night’s work well done.

At this juncture the man emerged from the tent, and the sight of the ruined tump line evoked a string of caustic remarks, arranged with the alliterative proficiency of one well versed in the art. The porcupine listened in pained surprise for a moment, and withdrew tactfully further into the timber; and, with a preliminary four-foot jump, the black ducks took the air and, circling the shoreline once, hit for the south.

The man viewed the angry-looking sunrise with misgiving. Wasting but little time on his hasty breakfast, he soon loaded up and headed for the north. The ice rimming the shores of his landing place had had to be broken with a pole to get the canoe into the water, and the rime that had settled on the beaver hay was heavy enough to show the passage, during the night, of a fox. These signs increased his apprehension, for he had also heard the all-night passage of the wild geese. Well he knew the penalty he might pay for having, in his ambition, penetrated so far before settling for the winter. He was caught in a network of small waters soon to be frozen, and tie him up for the Fall hunt. The special devil to whom is allotted the control of the legions of Winter, might wantonly loose them on a waiting world at any moment that his whim suggested. Soon he would throw up his ramparts and entanglements, effectually blocking all attempts at progress, sealing all hands into whatever neck-of-the-woods they were caught in, until winter was sufficiently advanced to release them. For this particular devil is well skilled at his game. Not his, as yet, a barrage of heavy storms, deep snow and zero wind. Coarse work, that, so early in the bout; anyhow, these men seemed to weather well on such stuff. Better, at first, a little display of skill, the deft touch of the artist; snow enough to cause a burdened man to slip on a sidehill, ice enough to cajole him out onto the water to try conclusions, and then to fail with a canoe badly scratched and cut; cold enough to freeze the one bag of much treasured potatoes, but not sufficient to make good ice.

Thus Ka-peboan-ka, keeper of Keewayedin, the North West Wind, rewards the effrontery of those who deem their small goings and comings should enter into the calculations of the Red Gods.

The man’s prognostications seemed about to prove only too true. Before noon of that day, ragged strips of grey clouds tore across a leaden sky, to the accompaniment of a shrill whining storm-wind that ripped the last leaves from the hardwoods, where they had hung but tenuously for days, ready to drop at the first volley of the advancing hosts of winter. And all Nature stood by in hole, and den, and matted evergreen covert, or builded house, waiting for that moment against which all had prepared for forty days or more: excepting man. He, the most intelligent and gifted of living creatures, alone was not ready. Abroad with a heavy outfit and unprepared, of all things having life he was to be the sole victim of the cataclysm now about to occur.

In two days a devastating change had come over the landscape. Gone from the uplands was the wonderfully blended colour scheme. There only remained a few garish patches of red splotched here and there, like dabs of paint scattered at random on a grey canvas, and only serving to accentuate the stark nakedness of the bare limbs through which the wind whistled and thrummed. Gone was the carnival note of the gay hanging lanterns of the dogwoods, as they stood now extinguished, in the empty halls of their revel. Before the chilling blast clouds of dead leaves eddied and volleyed down the roofless naves, flying at times in whirling masses high above the crest of the forest. And slanting, hissing down from the North, sifting through the naked limbs of the hardwoods, there rattled onto the fallen leaves a few hard flakes of the first snow. And Ka-peboan-ka, the old, the mischievous, the boisterous, having gloated long enough over his all-too-effective work, rubbed his hands gleefully, and entered the lists for the final bout with the crimson and brown youth,1 whose warm smile was fast fading as he weakened, this time to fall and rise no more.

And Ka-peboan-ka threw over the body his white mantle, and danced a whirlwind dance of triumph, till the air about him became filled with flying snowflakes. And countless leagues of grey and purple landscape petrified and turned slowly white, as he blew his whistling blasts of icy breath into the four corners of the earth. In the morning the sun rose glittering but without warmth on a world blanketed beneath a heavy pall of snow.

Winter was on.

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