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Backwoods of Canada
Letter 7

Journey from Peterborough.--Canadian Woods.--Waggon and Team.--Arrival at a Log-house on the Banks of a Lake.--Settlement and first Occupations.

October 25, 1832.

I SHALL begin my letter with a description of our journey through the bush, and so go on, giving an account of our proceedings both within-doors and with-out. I know my little domestic details will not prove wholly uninteresting to you; for well I am assured that a mother's eye is never weary with reading lines traced by the hand of an absent and beloved child.

After some difficulty we succeeded in hiring a waggon and span (i.e. pair abreast) of stout horses to convey us and our luggage through the woods to the banks of one of the lakes, where S------ had appointed to ferry us across. There was no palpable road, only a blaze on the other side, encumbered by fallen trees, and interrupted by a great cedar swamp, into which one might sink up to one's knees, unless we took the precaution to step along the trunks of the mossy, decaying timbers, or make our footing sure on some friendly block of granite or limestone. What is termed in bush language a blaze, is nothing more than notches or slices cut off the bark of the trees, to mark out the line of road. The boundaries of the different lots are often marked by a blazed tree, also the concession-lines*. These blazes are of as much use as finger-posts of a dark night.

[* These concession-lines are certain divisions of the townships; these are again divided into so many lots of 200 acres. The concession-lines used to be marked by a wide avenue being chopped, so as to form a road of communication between them; but this plan was found too troublesome; and in a few years the young growth of timber so choked the opening, that it was of little use. The lately-surveyed townships, I believe, are only divided by blazed lines.]

The road we were compelled to take lay over the Peterborough plains, in the direction of the river; the scenery of which pleased me much, though it presents little appearance of fertility, with the exception of two or three extensive clearings.

About three miles above Peterborough the road winds along the brow of a steep ridge, the bottom of which has every appearance of having been formerly the bed of a lateral branch of the present river, or perhaps some small lake, which has been diverted from its channel, and merged in the Otanabee.

On either side of this ridge there is a steep descent; on the right the Otanabee breaks upon you, rushing with great velocity over its rocky bed, forming rapids in miniature resembling those of the St. Laurence; its dark, frowning woods of sombre pine give a grandeur to the scenery that is very impressive. On the left lies below you a sweet secluded dell of evergreens, cedar, hemlock, and pine, enlivened by a few deciduous trees. Through this dell there is a road-track leading to a fine cleared farm, the green pastures of which were rendered more pleasing by the absence of the odious stumps that disfigure the clearings in this part of the country. A pretty bright stream flows through the low meadow that lies at the foot of the hill, which you descend suddenly close by a small grist-mill that is worked by the waters, just where they meet the rapids of the river.

I called this place "Glen Morrison," partly from the remembrance of the lovely Glen Morrison of the Highlands, and partly because it was the name of the settler that owned the spot.

Our progress was but slow on account of the roughness of the road, which is beset with innumerable obstacles in the shape of loose blocks of granite and limestone, with which the lands on the banks of the river and lakes abound; to say nothing of fallen trees, big roots, mud-holes, and corduroy bridges, over which you go jolt, jolt, jolt, till every bone in your body feels as if it were going to be dislocated. An experienced bush-traveller avoids many hard thumps by rising up or clinging to the sides of his rough vehicle.

As the day was particularly fine, I often quitted the waggon and walked on with my husband for a mile or so.

We soon lost sight entirely of the river, and struck into the deep solitude of the forest, where not a sound disturbed the almost awful stillness that reigned around us. Scarcely a leaf or bough was in motion, excepting at intervals we caught the sound of the breeze stirring the lofty heads of the pine-trees, and wakening a hoarse and mournful cadence. This, with the tapping of the red-headed and grey woodpeckers on the trunk of the decaying trees, or the shrill whistling cry of the little striped squirrel, called by the natives "chitmunk," was every sound that broke the stillness of the wild. Nor was I less surprised at the absence of animal life. With the exception of the aforesaid chitmunk, no living thing crossed our path during our long day's journey in the woods.

In these vast solitudes one would naturally be led to imagine that the absence of man would have allowed Nature's wild denizens to have abounded free and unmolested; but the contrary seems to be the case. Almost all wild animals are more abundant in the cleared districts than in the bush. Man's industry supplies their wants at an easier rate than seeking a scanty subsistence in the forest.

You hear continually of depredations committed by wolves, bears, racoons, lynxes, and foxes, in the long-settled parts of the province. In the backwoods the appearance of wild beasts is a matter of much rarer occurrence.

I was disappointed in the forest trees, having pictured to myself hoary giants almost primeval with the country itself, as greatly exceeding in majesty of form the trees of my native isles, as the vast lakes and mighty rivers of Canada exceed the locks and streams of Britain.

There is a want of picturesque beauty in the woods. The young growth of timber alone has any pretension of elegance of form, unless I except the hemlocks, which are extremely light and graceful, and of a lovely refreshing tint of green. Even when winter has stripped the forest it is still beautiful and verdant. The young beeches too are pretty enough, but you miss that fantastic bowery shade that is so delightful in our parks and woodlands at home.

There is no appearance of venerable antiquity in the Canadian woods. There are no ancient spreading oaks that might be called the patriarchs of the forest. A premature decay seems to be their doom. They are uprooted by the storm, and sink in their first maturity, to give place to a new generation that is ready to fill their places.

The pines are certainly the finest trees. In point of size there are none to surpass them. They tower above all the others, forming a dark line that may be distinguished for many miles. The pines being so much loftier than the other trees, are sooner uprooted, as they receive the full and unbroken force of the wind in their tops; thus it is that the ground is continually strewn with the decaying trunks of huge pines. They also seem more liable to inward decay, and blasting from lightning, and fire. Dead pines are more frequently met with than any other tree.

Much as I had seen and heard of the badness of the roads in Canada, I was not prepared for such a one as we travelled along this day: indeed, it hardly deserved the name of a road, being little more than an opening hewed out through the woods, the trees being felled and drawn aside, so as to admit a wheeled carriage passing along.

The swamps and little forest streams, that occasionally gush across the path, are rendered passable by logs placed side by side. From the ridgy and striped appearance of these bridges they are aptly enough termed corduroy.

Over these abominable corduroys the vehicle jolts, jumping from log to log, with a shock that must be endured with as good a grace as possible. If you could bear these knocks, and pitiless thumpings and bumpings, without wry faces, your patience and philosophy would far exceed mine;-- sometimes I laughed because I would not cry.

Imagine you see me perched up on a seat composed of carpet-bags, trunks, and sundry packages, in a vehicle little better than a great rough deal box set on wheels, the sides being merely pegged in so that more than once I found myself in rather an awkward predicament, owing to the said sides jumping out. In the very midst of a deep mud-hole out went the front board, and with the shock went the teamster (driver), who looked rather confounded at finding himself lodged just in the middle of a slough as bad as the "Slough of Despond." For my part, as I could do no good, I kept my seat, and patiently awaited the restoration to order. This was soon effected, and all went on well again till a jolt against a huge pine-tree gave such a jar to the ill-set vehicle, that one of the boards danced out that composed the bottom, and a sack of flour and bag of salted pork, which was on its way to a settler's, whose clearing we had to pass in the way, were ejected. A good teamster is seldom taken aback by such trifles as these.

He is, or should be, provided with an axe. No waggon, team, or any other travelling equipage should be unprovided with an instrument of this kind; as no one can answer for the obstacles that may impede his progress in the bush. The disasters we met fortunately required but little skill in remedying. The sides need only a stout peg, and the loosened planks that form the bottom being quickly replaced, away you go again over root, stump, and stone, mud-hole, and corduroy; now against the trunk of some standing tree, now mounting over some fallen one, with an impulse that would annihilate any lighter equipage than a Canadian waggon, which is admirably fitted by its very roughness for such roads as we have in the bush.

The sagacity of the horses of this country is truly admirable. Their patience in surmounting the difficulties they have to encounter, their skill in avoiding the holes and stones, and in making their footing sure over the round and slippery timbers of the log-bridges, renders them very valuable. If they want the spirit and fleetness of some of our high-bred blood-horses, they make up in gentleness, strength, and patience. This renders them most truly valuable, as they will travel in such places that no British horse would, with equal safety to their drivers. Nor are the Canadian horses, when well fed and groomed, at all deficient in beauty of colour, size, or form. They are not very often used in logging; the ox is preferred in all rough and heavy labour of this kind.

Just as the increasing gloom of the forest began to warn us of the approach of evening, and I was getting weary and hungry, our driver, in some confusion, avowed his belief that, somehow or other, he had missed the track, though how, he could not tell, seeing there was but one road. We were nearly two miles from the last settlement, and he said we ought to be within sight of the lake if we were on the right road. The only plan, we agreed, was for him to go forward and leave the team, and endeavour to ascertain if he were near the water, and if otherwise, to return to the house we had passed and inquire the way.

After running full half a mile ahead he returned with a dejected countenance, saying we must be wrong, for he saw no appearance of water, and the road we were on appeared to end in a cedar swamp, as the farther he went the thicker the hemlocks and cedars became; so, as we had no desire to commence our settlement by a night's lodging in a swamp-- where, to use the expression of our driver, the cedars grew as thick as hairs on a cat's back,--we agreed to retrace our steps.

After some difficulty the lumbering machine was turned, and slowly we began our backward march. We had not gone more than a mile when a boy came along, who told us we might just go back again, as there was no other road to the lake; and added, with a knowing nod of his head, "Master, I guess if you had known the bush as well as I, you would never have been fule enough to turn when you were going just right. Why, any body knows that them cedars and himlocks grow thickest near the water; so you may just go back for your pains."

It was dark, save that the stars came forth with more than usual brilliancy, when we suddenly emerged from the depth of the gloomy forest to the shores of a beautiful little lake, that gleamed the more brightly from the contrast of the dark masses of foliage that hung over it, and the towering pine-woods that girt its banks.

Here, seated on a huge block of limestone, which was covered with a soft cushion of moss, beneath the shade of the cedars that skirt the lake, surrounded with trunks, boxes, and packages of various descriptions, which the driver had hastily thrown from the waggon, sat your child, in anxious expectation of some answering voice to my husband's long and repeated halloo.

But when the echo of his voice had died away we heard only the gurgling of the waters at the head of the rapids, and the distant and hoarse murmur of a waterfall some half mile below them.

We could see no sign of any habitation, no gleam of light from the shore to cheer us. In vain we strained our ears for the plash of the oar, or welcome sound of the human voice, or bark of some household dog, that might assure us we were not doomed to pass the night in the lone wood.

We began now to apprehend we had really lost the way. To attempt returning through the deepening darkness of the forest in search of any one to guide us was quite out of the question, the road being so ill defined that we should soon have been lost in the mazes of the woods. The last sound of the waggon wheels had died away in the distance; to have overtaken it would have been impossible. Bidding me remain quietly where I was, my husband forced his way through the tangled underwood along the bank, in hope of discovering some sign of the house we sought, which we had every reason to suppose must be near, though probably hidden by the dense mass of trees from our sight.

As I sat in the wood in silence and in darkness, my thoughts gradually wandered back across the Atlantic to my dear mother and to my old home; and I thought what would have been your feelings could you at that moment have beheld me as I sat on the cold mossy stone in the profound stillness of that vast leafy wilderness, thousands of miles from all those holy ties of kindred and early associations that make home in all countries a hallowed spot. It was a moment to press upon my mind the importance of the step I had taken, in voluntarily sharing the lot of the emigrant--in leaving the land of my birth, to which, in all probability, I might never again return. Great as was the sacrifice, even at that moment, strange as was my situation, I felt no painful regret or fearful misgiving depress my mind. A holy and tranquil peace came down upon me, soothing and softening my spirits into a calmness that seemed as unruffled as was the bosom of the water that lay stretched out before my feet.

My reverie was broken by the light plash of a paddle, and a bright line of light showed a canoe dancing over the lake: in a few minutes a well-known and friendly voice greeted me as the little bark was moored among the cedars at my feet. My husband having gained a projecting angle of the shore, had discovered the welcome blaze of the wood fire in the log- house, and, after some difficulty, had succeeded in rousing the attention of its inhabitants. Our coming that day had long been given up, and our first call had been mistaken for the sound of the ox-bells in the wood: this had caused the delay that had so embarrassed us.

We soon forgot our weary wanderings beside the bright fire that blazed on the hearth of the log-house, in which we found S------ comfortably domiciled with his wife. To the lady I was duly introduced; and, in spite of all remonstrances from the affectionate and careful mother, three fair sleeping children were successively handed out of their cribs to be shown me by the proud and delighted father.

Our welcome was given with that unaffected cordiality that is so grateful to the heart: it was as sincere as it was kind. All means were adopted to soften the roughness of our accommodation, which, if they lacked that elegance and convenience to which we had been accustomed in England, were not devoid of rustic comfort; at all events they were such as many settlers of the first respectability have been glad to content themselves with, and many have not been half so well lodged as we now are.

We may indeed consider ourselves fortunate in not being obliged to go at once into the rude shanty that I described to you as the only habitation on our land. This test of our fortitude was kindly spared us by S------, who insisted on our remaining beneath his hospitable roof till such time as we should have put up a house on our own lot. Here then we are for the present fixed, as the Canadians say; and if I miss many of the little comforts and luxuries of life, I enjoy excellent health and spirits, and am very happy in the society of those around me.

The children are already very fond of me. They have discovered my passion for flowers, which they diligently search for among the stumps and along the lake shore. I have begun collecting, and though the season is far advanced, my hortus siccus boasts of several elegant specimens of fern; the yellow Canadian violet, which blooms twice in the year, in the spring and fall, as the autumnal season is expressively termed; two sorts of Michaelmas daisies, as we call the shrubby asters, of which the varieties here are truly elegant; and a wreath of the festoon pine, a pretty evergreen with creeping stalks, that run along the ground three or four yards in length, sending up, at the distance of five or six inches, erect, stiff, green stems, resembling some of our heaths in the dark, shining, green, chaffy leaves. The Americans ornament their chimney-glasses with garlands of this plant, mixed with the dried blossoms of the life-everlasting (the pretty white and yellow flowers we call love-everlasting): this plant is also called festoon-pine. In my rambles in the wood near the house I have discovered a trailing plant bearing a near resemblance to the cedar, which I consider has, with equal propriety, a claim to the name of ground or creeping cedar.

As much of the botany of these unsettled portions of the country are unknown to the naturalist, and the plants are quite nameless, I take the liberty of bestowing names upon them according to inclination or fancy. But while I am writing about flowers I am forgetting that you will be more interested in hearing what steps we are taking on our land.

My husband has hired people to log up (that is, to draw the chopped timbers into heaps for burning) and clear a space for building our house upon. He has also entered into an agreement with a young settler in our vicinity to complete it for a certain sum within and without, according to a given plan. We are, however, to call the "bee," and provide every thing necessary for the entertainment of our worthy hive. Now you know that a "bee," in American language, or rather phraseology, signifies those friendly meetings of neighbours who assemble at your summons to raise the walls of your house, shanty, barn, or any other building: this is termed a "raising bee." Then there are logging-bees, husking-bees, chopping-bees, and quilting-bees. The nature of the work to be done gives the name to the bee. In the more populous and long-settled districts this practice is much discontinued, but it is highly useful, and almost indispensable to the new settlers in the remote townships, where the price of labour is proportionably high, and workmen difficult to be procured.

Imagine the situation of an emigrant with a wife and young family, the latter possibly too young and helpless to render him the least assistance in the important business of chopping, logging, and building, on their first coming out to take possession of a lot of wild land; how deplorable would their situation be, unless they could receive quick and ready help from those around them.

This laudable practice has grown out of necessity, and if it has its disadvantages, such for instance as being called upon at an inconvenient season for a return of help, by those who have formerly assisted you, yet it is so indispensable to you that the debt of gratitude ought to be cheerfully repaid. It is, in fact, regarded in the light of a debt of honour; you cannot be forced to attend a bee in return, but no one that can does refuse, unless from urgent reasons; and if you do not find it possible to attend in person you may send a substitute in a servant or in cattle, if you have a yoke.

In no situation, and under no other circumstance, does the equalizing system of America appear to such advantage as in meetings of this sort. All distinctions of rank, education, and wealth are for the time voluntarily laid aside. You will see the son of the educated gentleman and that of the poor artisan, the officer and the private soldier, the independent settler and the labourer who works out for hire, cheerfully uniting in one common cause. Each individual is actuated by the benevolent desire of affording help to the helpless, and exerting himself to raise a home for the homeless.

At present so small a portion of the forest is cleared on our lot, that I can give you little or no description of the spot on which we are located, otherwise than that it borders on a fine expanse of water, which forms one of the Otanabee chain of Small Lake. I hope, however, to give you a more minute description of our situation in my next letter.

For the present, then, I bid you adieu.

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