We followed the north shore of the lake to its end, then portaged twenty yards across a narrow neck into another lake, and keeping near the north shore of this lake also, continued until we came upon a creek of considerable size running out of it and taking a southeasterly course. Where the creek left the lake there was an old Indian fishing camp. It was out of the question that our trail should follow the valley of this creek, for it led directly away from our goal.
Once we came upon a snow bank in a hollow, and cooled ourselves by eating some of the snow. Our observations made it quite certain that the trail left the northern side of the second lake through a bowlder-strewn pass over the hills, though there were no visible signs of it, and we climbed one of the hills in the hope of seeing lakes beyond.
There were none in sight. It was too late to continue our search that day and we reluctantly returned to camp. Our failure was rather discouraging because it meant a further loss of time, and I had hoped that our route, until we reached Nipishish at least, would lie straight and well defined before us. Sunday was comfortably cool, with a good stiff breeze to drive away the flies. I dispatched Richards, with Pete and Easton to accompany him, to follow up our work of the evening before, and look into the pass through the hills, while I remained behind with Stanton and Duncan and kept the fire going under our venison.
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I Had expected that Duncan, with his lifelong experience as a native trapper and hunter in the Labrador interior, would be of great assistance to us in locating the trail; but to my disappointment I discovered soon after our start that he was far from good even in following a trail when it was found, though he never got lost and could always find his way back, in a straight line, to any given point. The boys returned toward evening and reported that beyond the hills, through the pass, lay a good-sized lake, and that some signs of a trail were found leading to it.
This was what I had hoped for. Our meat was now sufficiently dried to pack, and, anxious to be on the move again, I directed that on the morrow we should break camp and cross the hills to the lakes beyond.
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At half-past four on Monday morning I called the men, and while Pete was preparing breakfast the rest of us broke camp and made ready for a prompt start. All were anxious to see behind the range of bowlder-covered hills and to reach Lake Nipishish, which we felt could not now be far away. As soon as our meal was finished the larger canoe was loaded and started on ahead, while Richards, Duncan and I remained behind to load and follow in the other. With the rising sun the day had become excessively warm, and there was not a breath of wind to cool the stifling atmosphere. The trail was ill-defined and rough, winding through bare glacial bowlders that were thick-strewn on the ridges; and the difficulty of following it, together with the heat, made the work seem doubly hard, as we trudged with heavy packs to the shores of a little lake which nestled in a notch between the bills a mile and a half away.
Once a fox ran before us and took refuge in its den under a large rock, but save the always present cloud of black flies, no other sign of life was visible on the treeless hills. Finally at midday, after three wearisome journeys back and forth, bathed in perspiration and dripping fly dope and pork grease, which we had rubbed on our faces pretty freely as a protection from the winged pests, we deposited our last load upon the shores of the lake, and thankfully stopped to rest and cook our dinner. We were still eating when we heard the first rumblings of distant thunder and felt the first breath of wind from a bank of black clouds in the western sky, and had scarcely started forward again when the heavens opened upon us with a deluge.
The brunt of the storm soon passed, but a steady rain continued as we paddled through the lake and portaged across a short neck of land into a larger lake, down which we paddled to a small round island near its lower end. Here, drenched to the bone and thoroughly tired, we made camp, and in the shelter of the tent ate a savory stew composed of duck, grouse, venison and fat pork that Pete served in the most appetizing camp style.
One day when I saw one of my party eat three thick loaves of squaw bread in addition to a fair quantity of meat, I felt that it was time to limit the flour part of the ration. I expressed my fears to Pete, and advised that he bake less bread, and make the men eat more of the other food. Not good when white an eat so much. Good way fix him. Use not so much baking powder, me.
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I decided to try this plan, and that evening in our camp on the island I told them that a ration of bread would soon have to be resorted to. They looked very solemn about it, for the bare possibility of a limited ration, something that they had never had to submit to, appeared like a hardship to them. On Tuesday morning when we awoke the rain was still falling steadily. During the forenoon the storm abated somewhat and we broke camp and transferred our goods to the mainland, where the trail left the lake near a good-sized brook.
Our portage led us over small bills and through marshes a mile and a half to another lake. While Pete remained at our new camp to prepare supper and Easton stayed with him, the rest of us brought forward the last load. Richards and I with a canoe and packs attempted to run down the brook, which emptied into the lake near our camp; but we soon found the stream too rocky, and were forced to cut our way through a dense growth of willows and carry the canoe and packs to camp on our backs. The rain had ceased early in the afternoon, and the evening was delightfully cool, so that the warmth of a big camp fire was most grateful and comforting.
The clouds hung low and threatening, and in the twilight beyond the glow of our leaping fire made the still waters of the lake, with its encircling wilderness of fir trees, seem very dark and somber.
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The genial warmth of the fire was so in contrast to the chilly darkness of the tent that we sat long around it and talked of our travels and prospects and the lake and the wilderness before us that no white man had ever before seen, while the brook near by tumbling over its rocky bed roared a constant complaint at our intrusion into this land of solitude.
The following morning was cool and fine, but showers developed during the day. Our venison, improderly dried, was molding, and much of it we found, upon unpacking, to be maggoty.
After breakfast I instructed the others to cut out the wormy parts as far as possible and hang the good meat over the fire for further drying, while with Easton I explored a portion of the lake shore in search of the trail leading out. We returned for a late dinner, and then while Easton, Richards and I caught trout, I dispatched Pete and Stanton to continue the search beyond the point where Easton and I had left off. It was near evening when they came back with the information that they had found the trail, very difficult to follow, leading to a river, some two miles and a half beyond our camp.
This was undoubtedly the Crooked River, which empties into Grand Lake close to the Nascaupee, and which the Indians had told us had its rise in Lake Nipishish.
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The evening was very warm, and mosquitoes were so thick in the tent that we almost breathed them. Stanton, after much turning and fidgeting, finally took his blanket out of doors, where he said it was cooler and he could sleep with his head covered to protect him; but in an hour he was back, and with his blanket wet with dew took his usual place beside me. Below the point where the trail enters the Crooked River it is said by the Indians to be exceedingly rough and entirely impassable. We portaged into it the next morning, paddled a short distance up the stream, which is here some two hundred yards in width and rather shallow, then poled through a short rapid and tracked through two others, wading almost to our waists in some places.
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We now came to a widening of the river where it spread out into a small lake. Near the upper end of this expansion was an island upon which we found a long-disused log cache of the Indians. A little distance above the island what appeared to be two rivers flowed into the expansion. Richards, Duncan and I explored up the right-hand branch until we struck a rapid. Upon our return to the point where the two streams came together we found that the other canoe, against my positive instructions not to proceed at uncertain points until I had decided upon the proper route to take, had gone up the branch on the left, tracked through a rapid and disappeared.
There were no signs of Indians on either of these branches so far as we could discover, and I was well satisfied that somewhere on the north bank of the expansion, probably not far from the island and old cache which we had passed, was the trail. But evening was coming on and rain was threatening, so there was nothing to do but follow the other canoe, which had gone blindly ahead, until we should overtake it, as it contained all the cooking utensils and our tent.
We tracked through some rapids and finally overhauled the others at a place where the river branched again. On the west fork and directly across from our camp was a rough rapid, and while supper was cooking I paddled over with Richards to try for fish.
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We made our casts, and I quickly landed a twenty-inch ouananiche and Richards hooked a big trout that, after much play, was brought ashore. It measured twenty-two and a half inches from tip to tip and eleven and a half inches around the shoulders.
I had landed a couple more large trout, when Richards enthusiastically announced that he had a big fellow hooked. He played the fish for half an hour before he brought it to the edge of the rock, so completely exhausted that it could scarcely move a fin. We had no landing net and he attempted to lift it out by the line, when snap went the hook and the fish was free! I made a dash, caught it in my hands and triumphantly brought it ashore. It proved to be an ouananiche that measured twenty-seven and one-half inches in length by eleven and one-quarter inches in girth.
In our excitement we had forgotten all about supper and did not even know that it was raining; but we now saw Pete on the further shore gesticulating wildly and pointing at his open mouth, in pantomime suggestion that the meal was waiting. There are some big fellows under that rapid. So when we pushed through the dripping bushes to the tent we presented only the few big trout, which did indeed create a sensation. Then Richards brought forward his ouananiche, and it produced the desired effect.
After supper Pete and Easton must try their hand at the fish, and they succeeded in catching five trout averaging, we estimated, from two to three pounds each. Richards, however, still held the record as to big fish, both trout and ouananiche, and the others vowed they would take it from him if they had to fish nights to do it.