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Backwoods of Canada
Letter 10

Variations in the Temperature of the Weather.--Electrical Phenomenon.-- Canadian Winter.--Country deficient in Poetical Associations.--Sugar- making. Fishing Season.--Mode of Fishing.--Duck-shooting.--Family of Indians.--Papouses and their Cradle-cases.--Indian Manufactures.-- Frogs.

Lake House, May the 9th. 1833.

WHAT a different winter this has been to what I had anticipated. The snows of December were continually thawing; on the 1st of January not a flake was to be seen on our clearing, though it lingered in the bush. The warmth of the sun was so great on the first and second days of the new year that it was hardly possible to endure a cloak, or even shawl, out of doors; and within, the fire was quite too much for us. The weather remained pretty open till the latter part of the month, when the cold set in severely enough, and continued so during February. The 1st of March was the coldest day and night I ever experienced in my life; the mercury was down to twenty five degrees in the house; abroad it was much lower. The sensation of cold early in the morning was very painful, producing an involuntary shuddering, and an almost convulsive feeling in the chest and stomach. Our breaths were congealed in hoar-frost on the sheets and blankets. Every thing we touched of metal seemed to freeze our fingers. This excessive degree of cold only lasted three days, and then a gradual amelioration of temperature was felt.

During this very cold weather I was surprised by the frequent recurrence of a phenomenon that I suppose was of an electrical nature. When the frosts were most intense I noticed that when I undressed, my clothes, which are at this cold season chiefly of woollen cloth, or lined with flannel, gave out when moved a succession of sounds, like the crackling and snapping of fire, and in the absence of a candle emitted sparks of a pale whitish blue light, similar to the flashes produced by cutting loaf-sugar in the dark, or stroking the back of a black cat: the same effect was also produced when I combed and brushed my hair*.

[* This phenomenon is common enough everywhere when the air is very dry.--Ed.]

The snow lay very deep on the ground during February, and until the l9th of March, when a rapid thaw commenced, which continued without intermission till the ground was thoroughly freed from its hoary livery, which was effected in less than a fortnight's time. The air during the progress of the thaw was much warmer and more balmy than it usually is in England, when a disagreeable damp cold is felt during that process.

Though the Canadian winter has its disadvantages, it also has its charms. After a day or two of heavy snow the sky brightens, and the air becomes exquisitely clear and free from vapour; the smoke ascends in tall spiral columns till it is lost: seen against the saffron-tinted sky of an evening, or early of a clear morning, when the hoar-frost sparkles on the trees, the effect is singularly beautiful.

I enjoy a walk in the woods of a bright winter-day, when not a cloud, or the faint shadow of a cloud, obscures the soft azure of the heavens above; when but for the silver covering of the earth I might look upwards to the cloudless sky and say, "It is June, sweet June."  The evergreens, as the pines, cedars, hemlock, and balsam firs, are bending their pendent branches, loaded with snow, which the least motion scatters in a mimic shower around, but so light and dry is it that it is shaken off without the slightest inconvenience.

The tops of the stumps look quite pretty, with their turbans of snow; a blackened pine-stump, with its white cap and mantle, will often startle you into the belief that some one is approaching you thus fancifully attired.  As to ghosts or spirits they appear totally banished from Canada. This is too matter-of-fact country for such supernaturals to visit.  Here there are no historical associations, no legendary tales of those that came before us.  Fancy would starve for lack of marvellous food to keep her alive in the backwoods.  We have neither fay nor fairy, ghost nor bogle, satyr nor wood-nymph; our very forests disdain to shelter dryad or hamadryad. No naiad haunts the rushy margin of our lakes, or hallows with her presence our forest-rills.  No Druid claims our oaks; and instead of poring with mysterious awe among our curious limestone rocks, that are often singularly grouped together, we refer them to the geologist to exercise his skill in accounting for their appearance: instead of investing them with the solemn characters of ancient temples or heathen altars, we look upon them with the curious eye of natural philosophy alone.

Even the Irish and Highlanders of the humblest class seem to lay aside their ancient superstitions on becoming denizens of the woods of Canada. I heard a friend exclaim, when speaking of the want of interest this country possessed, "It is the most unpoetical of all lands; there is no scope for imagination; here all is new--the very soil seems newly formed; there is no hoary ancient grandeur in these woods; no recollections of former deeds connected with the country. The only beings in which I take any interest are the Indians, and they want the warlike character and intelligence that I had pictured to myself they would posses."

This was the lamentation of a poet. Now, the class of people to whom this country is so admirably adapted are formed of the unlettered and industrious labourers and artisans. They feel no regret that the land they labour on has not been celebrated by the pen of the historian or the lay of the poet. The earth yields her increase to them as freely as if it had been enriched by the blood of heroes. They would not spare the ancient oak from feelings of veneration, nor look upon it with regard for any thing but its use as timber. They have no time, even if they possessed the taste, to gaze abroad on the beauties of Nature, but their ignorance is bliss.

After all, these are imaginary evils, and can hardly be considered just causes for dislike to the country. They would excite little sympathy among every-day men and women, though doubtless they would have their weight with the more refined and intellectual members of society, who naturally would regret that taste, learning, and genius should be thrown out of its proper sphere.

For myself, though I can easily enter into the feelings of the poet and the enthusiastic lover of the wild and the wonderful of historic lore, I can yet make myself very happy and contented in this country. If its volume of history is yet a blank, that of Nature is open, and eloquently marked by the finger of God; and from its pages I can extract a thousand sources of amusement and interest whenever I take my walks in the forest or by the borders of the lakes.

But I must now tell you of our sugar-making, in which I take rather an active part. Our experiment was on a very limited scale, having but one kettle, besides two iron tripods; but it was sufficient to initiate us in the art and mystery of boiling the sap into molasses, and finally the molasses down to sugar.

The first thing to be done in tapping the maples, is to provide little rough troughs to catch the sap as it flows: these are merely pieces of pine-tree, hollowed with the axe. The tapping the tree is done by cutting a gash in the bark, or boring a hole with an auger. The former plan, as being most readily performed, is that most usually practised. A slightly-hollowed piece of cedar or elder is then inserted, so as to slant downwards and direct the sap into the trough; I have even seen a flat chip made the conductor. Ours were managed according to rule, you may be sure. The sap runs most freely after a frosty night, followed by a bright warm day; it should be collected during the day in a barrel or large trough, capable of holding all that can be boiled down the same evening; it should not stand more than twenty-four hours, as it is apt to ferment, and will not grain well unless fresh.

My husband, with an Irish lad, began collecting the sap the last week in March. A pole was fixed across two forked stakes, strong enough to bear the weight of the big kettle. Their employment during the day was emptying the troughs and chopping wood to supply the fires. In the evening they lit the fires and began boiling down the sap.

It was a pretty and picturesque sight to see the sugar-boilers, with their bright log-fire among the trees, now stirring up the blazing pile, now throwing in the liquid and stirring it down with a big ladle. When the fire grew fierce, it boiled and foamed up in the kettle, and they had to throw in fresh sap to keep it from running over.

When the sap begins to thicken into molasses, it is then brought to the sugar-boiler to be finished. The process is simple; it only requires attention in skimming and keeping the mass from boiling over, till it has arrived at the sugaring point, which is ascertained by dropping a little into cold water. When it is near the proper consistency, the kettle or pot becomes full of yellow froth, that dimples and rises in large bubbles from beneath. These throw out puffs of steam, and when the molasses is in this stage, it is nearly converted into sugar. Those who pay great attention to keeping the liquid free from scum, and understand the precise sugaring point, will produce an article little if at all inferior to muscovado*.

[* Good well-made maple-sugar bears a strong resemblance to that called powdered sugar-candy, sold by all grocers as a delicate article to sweeten coffee; it is more like maple-sugar in its regular crystallizations.]

In general you see the maple-sugar in large cakes, like bees' wax, close and compact, without showing the crystallization; but it looks more beautiful when the grain is coarse and sparkling, and the sugar is broken in rough masses like sugar-candy.

The sugar is rolled or scraped down with a knife for use, as it takes long to dissolve in the tea without this preparation. I superintended the last part of the process, that of boiling the molasses down to sugar; and, considering it was a first attempt, and without any experienced person to direct me, otherwise than the information I obtained from ------. I succeeded tolerably well, and produced some sugar of a fine sparkling grain and good colour. Besides the sugar, I made about three gallons of molasses, which proved a great comfort to us, forming a nice ingredient in cakes and an excellent sauce for puddings.

The Yankees, I am told, make excellent preserves with molasses instead of sugar. The molasses boiled from maple-sap is very different from the molasses of the West Indies, both in flavour, colour, and consistency.

Beside the sugar and molasses, we manufactured a small cask of vinegar, which promises to be good. This was done by boiling five pails-full of sap down to two, and fermenting it after it was in the vessel with barm; it was then placed near the fire, and suffered to continue there in preference to being exposed to the sun's heat.

With regard to the expediency of making maple-sugar, it depends on circumstances whether it be profitable or not to the farmer. If he have to hire hands for the work, and pay high wages, it certainly does not answer to make it, unless on a large scale. One thing in its favour is, that the sugar season commences at a time when little else can be done on the farm, with the exception of chopping, the frost not being sufficiently out of the ground to admit of crops being sown; time is, therefore, less valuable than it is later in the spring.

Where there is a large family of children and a convenient sugar-bush on the lot, the making of sugar and molasses is decidedly a saving; as young children can be employed in emptying the troughs and collecting fire-wood, the bigger ones can tend the kettles and keep up the fire while the sap is boiling, and the wife and daughters can finish off the sugar within-doors.

Maple-sugar sells for four-pence and six-pence per pound, and sometimes for more. At first I did not particularly relish the flavour it gave to tea, but after awhile I liked it far better than muscovado, and as a sweetmeat it is to my taste delicious. I shall send you a specimen by the first opportunity, that you may judge for yourself of its excellence.

The weather is now very warm--oppressively so. We can scarcely endure the heat of the cooking-stove in the kitchen. As to a fire in the parlour there is not much need of it, as I am glad to sit at the open door and enjoy the lake-breeze. The insects are already beginning to be troublesome, particularly the black flies--a wicked-looking fly, with black body and white legs and wings; you do not feel their bite for a few minutes, but are made aware of it by a stream of blood flowing from the wound; after a few hours the part swells and becomes extremely painful.

These "beasties" chiefly delight in biting the sides of the throat, ears, and sides of the cheek, and with me the swelling continues for many days. The mosquitoes are also very annoying. I care more for the noise they make even than their sting. To keep them out of the house we light little heaps of damp chips, the smoke of which drives them away; but this remedy is not entirely effectual, and is of itself rather an annoyance.

This is the fishing season. Our lakes are famous for masquinonge, salmon-trout, white fish, black bass, and many others. We often see the lighted canoes of the fishermen pass and repass of a dark night before our door. S------ is considered very skilful as a spearsman, and enjoys the sport so much that he seldom misses a night favourable for it. The darker the night and the calmer the water the better it is for the fishing.

It is a very pretty sight to see these little barks slowly stealing from some cove of the dark pine-clad shores, and manoeuvring among the islands on the lakes, rendered visible in the darkness by the blaze of light cast on the water from the jack--a sort of open grated iron basket, fixed to a long pole at the bows of the skiff or canoe. This is filled with a very combustible substance called fat-pine, which burns with a fierce and rapid flame, or else with rolls of birch-bark, which is also very easily ignited.

The light from above renders objects distinctly visible below the surface of the water. One person stands up in the middle of the boat with his fish-spear--a sort of iron trident, ready to strike at the fish that he may chance to see gliding in the still waters, while another with his paddle steers the canoe cautiously along. This sport requires a quick eye, a steady hand, and great caution in those that pursue it.

I delight in watching these torch-lighted canoes so quietly gliding over the calm waters, which are illuminated for yards with a bright track of light, by which we may distinctly perceive the figure of the spearsman standing in the centre of the boat, first glancing to one side, then the other, or poising his weapon ready for a blow. When four or five of these lighted vessels are seen at once on the fishing-ground, the effect is striking and splendid.

The Indians are very expert in this kind of fishing; the squaws paddling the canoes with admirable skill and dexterity. There is another mode of fishing in which these people also excel: this is fishing on the ice when the lakes are frozen over--a sport that requires the exercise of great patience. The Indian, provided with his tomahawk, with which he makes an opening in the ice, a spear, his blanket, and a decoy-fish of wood, proceeds to the place he has fixed upon. Having cut a hole in the ice he places himself on hands and knees, and casts his blanket over him, so as to darken the water and conceal himself from observation; in this position he will remain for hours, patiently watching the approach of his prey, which he strikes with admirable precision as soon as it appears within the reach of his spear.

The masquinonge thus caught are superior in flavour to those taken later in the season, and may be bought very reasonably from the Indians. I gave a small loaf of bread for a fish weighing from eighteen to twenty pounds. The masquinonge is to all appearance a large species of the pike, and possesses the ravenous propensities of that fish.

One of the small lakes of the Otanabee is called Trout Lake, from the abundance of salmon-trout that occupy its waters. The white fish is also found in these lakes and is very delicious. The large sorts of fish are mostly taken with the spear, few persons having time for angling in this busy country.

As soon as the ice breaks up, our lakes are visited by innumerable flights of wild fowl: some of the ducks are extremely beautiful in their plumage, and are very fine-flavoured. I love to watch these pretty creatures, floating so tranquilly on the water, or suddenly rising and skimming along the edge of the pine-fringed shores, to drop again on the surface, and then remain stationary, like a little fleet at anchor. Sometimes we see an old duck lead out a brood of little ones from among the rushes; the innocent, soft things look very pretty, sailing round their mother, but at the least appearance of danger they disappear instantly by diving. The frogs are great enemies to the young broods; they are also the prey of the masquinonge, and, I believe, of other large fish that abound in these waters.

The ducks are in the finest order during the early part of the summer, when they resort to the rice-beds in vast numbers, getting very fat on the green rice, which they eagerly devour.

The Indians are very successful in their duck-shooting: they fill a canoe with green boughs, so that it resembles a sort of floating island; beneath the cover of these boughs they remain concealed, and are enabled by this device to approach much nearer than they otherwise could do to the wary birds. The same plan is often adopted by our own sportsmen with great success.

A family of Indians have pitched their tents very near us. On one of the islands in our lake we can distinguish the thin blue smoke of their wood fires, rising among the trees, from our front window, or curling over the bosom of the waters.

The squaws have been several times to see me; sometimes from curiosity, sometimes with the view of bartering their baskets, mats, ducks, or venison, for pork, flour, potatoes, or articles of wearing-apparel. Sometimes their object is to borrow "kettle to cook," which they are very punctual in returning.

Once a squaw came to borrow a washing-tub, but not understanding her language, I could not for some time discover the object of her solicitude; at last she took up a corner of her blanket, and, pointing to some soap, began rubbing it between her hands, imitated the action of washing, then laughed, and pointed to a tub; she then held up two fingers, to intimate it was for two days she needed the loan.

These people appear of gentle and amiable dispositions; and, as far as our experience goes, they are very honest. Once, indeed, the old hunter, Peter, obtained from me some bread, for which he promised to give a pair of ducks, but when the time came for payment, and I demanded my ducks, he looked gloomy, and replied with characteristic brevity, "No duck-- Chippewa (meaning S------, this being the name they have affectionately given him) gone up lake with canoe--no canoe--duck by-and-by." By-and- by is a favourite expression of the Indians, signifying an indefinite point of time; may be it means to-morrow, or a week, or month, or it may be a year, or even more. They rarely give you a direct promise.

As it is not wise to let any one cheat you if you can prevent it, I coldly declined any further overtures to bartering with the Indians until my ducks made their appearance.

Some time afterwards I received one duck by the hands of Maquin, a sort of Indian Flibberty-gibbet: this lad is a hunchbacked dwarf, very shrewd, but a perfect imp; his delight seems to be tormenting the brown babies in the wigwam, or teazing the meek deer-hounds. He speaks English very fluently, and writes tolerably for an Indian boy; he usually accompanies the women in their visits, and acts as their interpreter, grinning with mischievous glee at his mother's bad English and my perplexity at not being able to understand her signs. In spite of his extreme deformity, he seemed to possess no inconsiderable share of vanity, gazing with great satisfaction at his face in the looking glass. When I asked his name, he replied, "Indian name Maquin, but English name 'Mister Walker,' very good man;" this was the person he was called after.

These Indians are scrupulous in their observance of the Sabbath, and show great reluctance to having any dealings in the way of trading or pursuing their usual avocations of hunting or fishing on that day.

The young Indians are very expert in the use of a long bow, with wooden arrows, rather heavy and blunt at the end. Maquin said he could shoot ducks and small birds with his arrows; but I should think they were not calculated to reach objects at any great distance, as they appeared very heavy.

'Tis sweet to hear the Indians singing their hymns of a Sunday night; their rich soft voices rising in the still evening air. I have often listened to this little choir praising the Lord's name in the simplicity and fervour of their hearts, and have felt it was a reproach that these poor half-civilized wanderers should alone be found to gather together to give glory to God in the wilderness.

I was much pleased with the simple piety of our friend the hunter Peter's squaw, a stout, swarthy matron, of most amiable expression. We were taking our tea when she softly opened the door and looked in; an encouraging smile induced her to enter, and depositing a brown papouse (Indian for baby or little child) on the ground, she gazed round with curiosity and delight in her eyes. We offered her some tea and bread, motioning to her to take a vacant seat beside the table. She seemed pleased by the invitation, and drawing her little one to her knee, poured some tea into the saucer, and gave it to the child to drink. She ate very moderately, and when she had finished, rose, and, wrapping her face in the folds of her blanket, bent down her head on her breast in the attitude of prayer. This little act of devotion was performed without the slightest appearance of pharisaical display, but in singleness and simplicity of heart. She then thanked us with a face beaming with smiles and good humour; and, taking little Rachel by the hands, threw her over her shoulder with a peculiar sleight that I feared would dislocate the tender thing's arms, but the papouse seemed well satisfied with this mode of treatment.

In long journeys the children are placed in upright baskets of a peculiar form, which are fastened round the necks of the mothers by straps of deer-skin; but the young infant is swathed to a sort of flat cradle, secured with flexible hoops, to prevent it from falling out. To these machines they are strapped, so as to be unable to move a limb. Much finery is often displayed in the outer covering and the bandages that confine the papouse.

There is a sling attached to this cradle that passes over the squaw's neck, the back of the babe being placed to the back of the mother, and its face outward. The first thing a squaw does on entering a house is to release herself from her burden, and stick it up against the wall or chair, chest, or any thing that will support it, where the passive prisoner stands, looking not unlike a mummy in its case. I have seen the picture of the Virgin and Child in some of the old illuminated missals, not unlike the figure of a papouse in its swaddling-clothes.

The squaws are most affectionate to their little ones. Gentleness and good humour appear distinguishing traits in the tempers of the female Indians; whether this be natural to their characters, the savage state, or the softening effects of Christianity, I cannot determine. Certainly in no instance does the Christian religion appear more lovely than when, untainted by the doubts and infidelity of modern sceptics, it is displayed in the conduct of the reclaimed Indian breaking down the strong-holds of idolatry and natural evil, and bringing forth the fruits of holiness and morality. They may be said to receive the truths of the Gospel as little children, with simplicity of heart and unclouded faith.

The squaws are very ingenious in many of their handiworks. We find their birch-bark baskets very convenient for a number of purposes. My bread-basket, knife-tray, sugar-basket, are all of this humble material. When ornamented and wrought in patterns with dyed quills, I can assure you, they are by no means inelegant. They manufacture vessels of birch-bark so well, that they will serve for many useful household purposes, such as holding water, milk, broth, or any other liquid; they are sewn or rather stitched together with the tough roots of the tamarack or larch, or else with strips of cedar-bark. They also weave very useful sorts of baskets from the inner rind of the bass-wood and white ash.

Some of these baskets, of a coarse kind, are made use of for gathering up potatoes, Indian corn, or turnips; the settlers finding them very good substitutes for the osier baskets used for such purposes in the old country.

The Indians are acquainted with a variety of dyes, with which they stain the more elegant fancy-baskets and porcupine-quills. Our parlour is ornamented with several very pretty specimens of their ingenuity in this way, which answer the purpose of note and letter-cases, flower-stands, and work-baskets.

They appear to value the useful rather more highly than the merely ornamental articles that you may exhibit to them. They are very shrewd and close in all their bargains, and exhibit a surprising degree of caution in their dealings. The men are much less difficult to trade with than the women: they display a singular pertinacity in some instances. If they have fixed their mind on any one article, they will come to you day after day, refusing any other you may offer to their notice. One of the squaws fell in love with a gay chintz dressing-gown belonging to my husband, and though I resolutely refused to part with it, all the squaws in the wigwam by turns came to look at "gown," which they pronounced with their peculiarly plaintive tone of voice; and when I said "no gown to sell," they uttered a melancholy exclamation of regret, and went away.

They will seldom make any article you want on purpose for you. If you express a desire to have baskets of a particular pattern that they do not happen to have ready made by them, they give you the usual vague reply of "by-and-by." If the goods you offer them in exchange for theirs do not answer their expectations, they give a sullen and dogged look or reply, "Car-car" (no, no), or "Carwinni," which is a still more forcible negative. But when the bargain pleases them, they signify their approbation by several affirmative nods of the head, and a note not much unlike a grunt; the ducks, fish, venison, or baskets, are placed beside you, and the articles of exchange transferred to the folds of their capacious blankets, or deposited in a sort of rushen wallets, not unlike those straw baskets in which English carpenters carry their tools.

The women imitate the dresses of the whites, and are rather skilful in converting their purchases. Many of the young girls can sew very neatly. I often give them bits of silk and velvet, and braid, for which they appear very thankful.

I am just now very busy with my garden. Some of our vegetable seeds are in the ground, though I am told we have been premature; there being ten chances to one but the young plants will be cut off by the late frosts, which are often felt through May, and even the beginning of June.

Our garden at present has nothing to boast of, being merely a spot of ground enclosed with a rough unsightly fence of split rails to keep the cattle from destroying the vegetables. Another spring, I hope to have a nice fence, and a portion of the ground devoted to flowers. This spring there is so much pressing work to be done on the land in clearing for the crops, that I do not like to urge my claims on behalf of a pretty garden.

The forest-trees are nearly all in leaf. Never did spring burst forth with greater rapidity than it has done this year. The verdure of the leaves is most vivid. A thousand lovely flowers are expanding in the woods and clearings. Nor are our Canadian songsters mute: the cheerful melody of the robin, the bugle-song of the blackbird and thrush, with the weak but not unpleasing call of the little bird called Thitabecec, and a wren, whose note is sweet and thrilling, fill our woods.

For my part, I see no reason or wisdom in carping at the good we do possess, because it lacks something of that which we formerly enjoyed. I am aware it is the fashion for travellers to assert that our feathered tribes are either mute or give utterance to discordant cries that pierce the ear, and disgust rather than please. It would be untrue were I to assert that our singing birds were as numerous or as melodious on the whole as those of Europe; but I must not suffer prejudice to rob my adopted country of her rights without one word being spoken in behalf of her feathered vocalists. Nay, I consider her very frogs have been belied: if it were not for the monotony of their notes, I really consider they are not quite unmusical. The green frogs are very handsome, being marked over with brown oval shields on the most vivid green coat: they are larger in size than the biggest of our English frogs, and certainly much handsomer in every respect. Their note resembles that of a bird, and has nothing of the creek in it.

The bull-frogs are very different from the greens frogs. Instead of being angry with their comical notes, I can hardly refrain from laughing when a great fellow pops up his broad brown head from the margin of the water, and says, "Williroo, williroo, williroo," to which another bull-frog, from a distant part of the swamp, replies, in hoarser accents, "Get out, get out, get out;" and presently a sudden chorus is heard of old and young, as if each party was desirous of out-croaking the other.

In my next I shall give you an account of our logging-bee, which will take place the latter end of this month. I feel some anxiety respecting the burning of the log-heaps on the fallow round the house, as it appears to me rather a hazardous matter.

I shall write again very shortly. Farewell, dearest of friends.

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