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Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of North America
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Monday, 13. — We had no sooner retired to rest last night, if I may use that expression, in a country where the sun never sinks beneath the horizon, than some of the people were obliged to rise and remove the baggage, on account of the rising of the water. At eight in the morning the weather was fine and calm, which afforded an opportunity to examine the nets, one of which had been driven from its position by the wind and current. We caught seven poissons inconnus, which were unpalatable; a white fish, that proved delicious; and another about the size of an herring, which none of us had ever seen before, except the English chief, who recognised it as being of a kind that abounds in Hudson's Bay. About noon the wind blew hard from the Westward, when I took an observation, which gave 69. 14. North latitude, and the meridian variation of the compass was thirty-six degrees Eastward.1
This afternoon I re-ascended the hill, but could not discover that the ice had been put in motion by the force of the wind. At the same time I could just distinguish two small islands in the ice, to the North-West by compass. I now thought it necessary to give a new net to my men to mount, in order to obtain as much provision as possible from the water, our stores being reduced to about five hundred weight, which, without any other supply, would not have sufficed for fifteen people above twelve days. One of the young Indians, however, was so fortunate as to find the net that had been missing, and which contained three of the poissons inconnus.
Tuesday, 14. — It blew very hard from the North-West since the preceding evening. Having sat up till three in the morning, I slept longer than usual; but about eight one of my men saw a great many animals in the water, which he at first supposed to be pieces of ice. About nine, however, I was awakened to resolve the doubts which had taken place respecting this extraordinary appearance. I immediately perceived that they were whales; and having ordered the canoe to be prepared, we embarked in pursuit of them. It was, indeed, a very wild and unreflecting enterprise, and it was a very fortunate circumstance that we failed in our attempt to overtake them, as a stroke from the tail of one of these enormous fish would have dashed the canoe to pieces. We may, perhaps, have been indebted to the foggy weather for our safety, as it prevented us from continuing our pursuit. Our guide informed us that they are the same kind of fish which are the principal food of the Esquimaux, and they were frequently seen as large as our canoe. The part of them which appeared above the water was altogether white, and they were much larger than the largest porpoise.
About twelve the fog dispersed, and being curious to take a view of the ice, I gave orders for the canoe to be got in readiness. We accordingly embarked, and the Indians followed us. We had not, however, been an hour on the water, when the wind rose on a sudden from the North-East, and obliged us to tack about, and the return of the fog prevented us from ascertaining our distance from the ice; indeed, from this circumstance, the island which we had so lately left was but dimly seen. Though the wind was close, we ventured to hoist the sail, and from the violence of the swell it was by great exertions that two men could bale out the water from our canoe. We were in a state of actual danger, and felt every corresponding emotion of pleasure when we reached the land. The Indians had fortunately got more to windward, so that the swell in some measure drove them on shore, though their canoes were nearly filled with water; and had they been laden, we should have seen them no more. As I did not propose to satisfy my curiosity at the risk of similar dangers, we continued our course along the islands, which screened us from the wind. I was now determined to take a more particular examination of the islands, in the hope of meeting with parties of the natives, from whom I might be able to obtain some interesting intelligence, though our conductor discouraged my expectations, by representing them as very shy and inaccessible people. At the sage time he informed me, that we should probably find some of them, if we navigated the channel which he had originally recommended us to enter.
At eight we encamped on the Eastern end of the island, which I had named the Whale Island. It is about seven leagues in length, East and West by compass; but not more than half a mile in breadth. We saw several red foxes, one of which was killed. There were also five or six very old huts on the point where we had taken our station. The nets were now set, and one of them in five fathom water, the current setting North-East by compass. This morning I ordered a post to be erected close to our tents, on which I engraved the latitude of the place, my own name, the number of persons which I had with me, and the time we remained there.
Wednesday, 15. — Being awakened by some casual circumstance, at four this morning, I was surprised on perceiving that the water had flowed under our baggage. As the wind had not changed, and did not blow with greater violence than when we went to rest, we were all of opinion that this circumstance proceeded from the tide. We had, indeed, observed at the other end of the island, that the water rose and fell; but we then imagined that it must have been occasioned by the wind. The water continued to rise till about six, but I could not ascertain the time with the requisite precision, as the wind then began to blow with great violence; I therefore determined, at all events, to remain here till the next morning, though, as it happened, the state of the wind was such, as to render my stay here an act of necessity. Our nets were not very successful, as they presented us with only eight fish. From an observation which I obtained at noon we were in 69. 7. North latitude. As the evening approached, the wind increased, and the weather became cold. Two swans were the only provision which the hunters procured for us.
Thursday, 16. — The rain did not cease till seven this morning, the weather being at intervals very cold and unpleasant. Such was its inconstancy, that I could not make an accurate observation; but the tide appeared to rise sixteen or eighteen inches.
We now embarked, and steered under sail among the islands, where I hoped to meet with some of the natives, but my expectation was not gratified. Our guide imagined that they were gone to their distant haunts, where they fish for whales and hunt the rein-deer, that are opposite to his country. His relations, he said, see them every year, but he did not encourage us to expect that we should find any of them, unless it were at a small river that falls into the great one, from the Eastward, at a considerable distance from our immediate situation. We accordingly made for the river, and stemmed the current. At two in the afternoon the water was quite shallow in every part of our course, and we could always find the bottom with the paddle. At seven we landed, encamped, and set the nets. Here the Indians killed two geese, two cranes, and a white owl. Since we entered the river, we experienced a very agreeable change in the temperature of the air; but this pleasant circumstance was not without its inconvenience, as it subjected us to the persecution of the mosquitoes.
Friday, 17. — On taking up the nets, they were found to contain but six fish. We embarked at four in the morning, and passed four encampments; which appeared to have been very lately inhabited. We then landed upon a small round island, close to the Eastern shore, which possessed somewhat of a sacred character, as the top of it seemed to be a place of sepulture, from the numerous graves which we observed there. We found the frame of a small canoe, with various dishes, troughs, and other utensils, which had been the living property of those who could now use them no more, and form the ordinary accompaniments of their last abodes. As no part of the skins that must have covered the canoe was remaining, we concluded that it had been eaten by wild animals that inhabit, or occasionally frequent, the island. The frame of the canoe, which was entire, was put together with whale-bone; it was sewed in some parts, and tied in others. The sledges were from four to eight feet long; the length of the bars was upwards of two feet; the runners were two inches thick and nine inches deep; the prow was two feet and an half high, and formed of two pieces, sewed with whalebone, to three other thin spars of wood, which were of the same height; and fixed in the runners by means of mortises, were sewed two thin broad bars lengthways, at a small distance from each other; these frames were fixed together with three or four cross bars, tied fast upon the runners, and on the lower edge of the latter, small pieces of horn were fastened by wooden pegs, that they might slide with greater facility. They are drawn by shafts, which I imagine are applied to any particular sledge as they are wanted as I saw no more than one pair of them.
About half past one we came opposite to the first spruce-tree that we had seen for some time: there are but very few of them on the main land, and they are very small: those are larger which are found on the islands, where they grow in patches, and close together. It is, indeed, very extraordinary that there should be any wood whatever in a country where the ground never thaws above five inches from the surface. We landed at seven in the evening. The weather was now very pleasant, and in the course of the day we saw great numbers of wild fowl, with their young ones, but they were so shy that we could not approach them. The Indians were not very successful in their foraging party, as they killed only two grey cranes, and a grey goose. Two of them were employed on the high land to the Eastward, through the greater part of the day, in search of rein-deer, but they could discover nothing more than a few tracks of that animal. I also ascended the high land, from whence I had a delightful view of the river, divided into innumerable streams, meandering through islands, some of which were covered with wood, and others with grass. The mountains, that forged the opposite horizon, were at the distance of forty miles. The inland view was neither so extensive nor agreeable, being terminated by a near range of bleak, barren hills, between which are small lakes or ponds, while the surrounding country is covered with tufts of moss, without the shade of a single tree. Along the hills is a kind of fence, made with branches, where the natives had set snares to catch white partridges.
Saturday, 18. — The nets did not produce a single fish, and at three o'clock in the morning we took our departure. The weather was fine and clear, and we passed several encampments. As the prints of human feet were very fresh in the sand, it could not have been long since the natives had visited the spot. We now proceeded in the hope of meeting with some of them at the river, whither our guide was conducting us with that expectation. We observed a great number of trees, in different places, whose branches had been lopped off to the tops. They denote the immediate abode of the natives, and probably serve for signals to direct each other to their respective winter-quarters. Our hunters, in the course of the day, killed two rein-deer, which were the only large animals that we had seen since we had been in this river, and proved a very seasonable supply, as our pemmican had become mouldy for some time past; though in that situation we were under the necessity of eating it.
In the valleys and low lands near the river, cranberries are found in great abundance, particularly in favourable aspects. It is a singular circumstance, that the fruit of two succeeding years may be gathered at the same time, from the same shrub. Here was also another berry, of a very pale yellow colour, that resembles a raspberry, and is of a very agreeable flavour. There is a great variety of other plants and herbs, whose names and properties are unknown to me.
The weather became cold towards the afternoon, with the appearance of rain, and we landed for the night at seven in the evening. The Indians killed eight geese. During the greater part of the day I walked with the English chief, and found it very disagreeable and fatiguing. Though the country is so elevated, it was one continual morass, except on the summits of some barren hills. As I carried my hanger in my hand, I frequently examined if any part of the ground was in a state of thaw, but could never force the blade into it, beyond the depth of six or eight inches. The face of the high land, towards the river, is in some places rocky, and in others a mixture of sand and stone, veined with a kind of red earth, with which the natives bedaub themselves.
Sunday, 19. — It rained, and blew hard from the North, till eight in the morning, when we discovered that our conductor had escaped. I was, indeed, surprised at his honesty, as he left the moose-skin which I had given him for a covering, and went off in his shirt, though the weather was very cold. I inquired of the Indians if they had given him any cause of offence, or had observed any recent disposition in him to desert us, but they assured me that they had not in any instance displeased him: at the same time they recollected that he had expressed his apprehensions of being taken away as a slave; and his alarms were probably increased on the preceding day, when he saw them kill the two reindeer with so much readiness. In the afternoon the weather became fine and clear, when we saw large flights of geese with their young ones, and the hunters killed twenty-two of them. As they had at this time cast their feathers, they could not fly. They were of a small kind, and much inferior in size to those that frequent the vicinity of Athabasca. At eight, we took our station near an Indian encampment, and, as we had observed in similar situations, pieces of bone, rein-deer's horn, &c., were scattered about it. It also appeared, that the natives had been employed here in working wood into arms, utensils, &c.
Monday, 20. — We embarked at three this morning, when the weather was cloudy, with small rain and aft wind. About twelve the rain became so violent as to compel us to encamp at two in the afternoon. We saw great numbers of fowl, and killed among us fifteen geese and four swans. Had the weather been more favourable, we should have added considerably to our booty. We now passed the river, where we expected to meet some of the natives, but discovered no signs of them. The ground close to the river does not rise to any considerable height, and the hills, which are at a small distance, are covered with the spruce fir and small birch trees, to their very summits.
Tuesday, 21. — We embarked at half past one this morning, when the weather was cold and unpleasant, and the wind South-West. At ten, we left the channels formed by the islands for the uninterrupted channel of the river, where we found the current so strong, that it was absolutely necessary to tow the canoe with a line. The land on both sides was elevated, and almost perpendicular, and the shore beneath it, which is of no great breadth, was covered with a grey stone that falls frog the precipice. We made much greater expedition with the line, than we could have done with the paddles. The men in the canoe relieved two of those on shore every two hours, so that it was very hard and fatiguing duty, but it saved a great deal of that time which was so precious to us. At half past eight we landed at the same spot where we had already encamped on the ninth instant.
In about an hour after our arrival, we were joined by eleven of the natives, who were stationed farther up the river, and there were some among them whom we had not seen during our former visit to this place. The brother of our late guide, however, was of the party, and was eager in his inquiries after him; but our account did not prove satisfactory. They all gave evident tokens of their suspicion, and each of them made a distinct harangue on the occasion. Our Indians, indeed, did not understand their eloquence, though they conjectured it to be very unfavourable to our assertions. The brother, nevertheless, proposed to barter his credulity for a small quantity of beads, and promised to believe every thing I should say, if I would gratify him with a few of those baubles; but he did not succeed in his proposition, and I contented myself with giving him the bow and arrows which our conductor had left with us.
My people were now necessarily engaged in putting the fire-arms in order, after the violent rain of the preceding day; an employment which very much attracted the curiosity, and appeared in some degree, to awaken the apprehensions of the natives. To their inquiries concerning the motives of our preparation, we answered by showing a piece of meat and a goose, and informing them, that we were preparing our arms to procure similar provisions: at the same time we assured them, though it was our intention to kill any animals we might find, there was no intention to hurt or injure them. They, however, entreated us not to discharge our pieces in their presence. I requested the English chief to ask them some questions, which they either did not or would not understand; so that I failed in obtaining any information from them.
All my people went to rest; but I thought it prudent to sit up, in order to watch the motions of the natives. This circumstance was a subject of their inquiry; and their curiosity was still more excited, when they saw me employed in writing. About twelve o'clock I perceived four of their women coming along the shore; and they were no sooner seen by their friends, than they ran hastily to meet them, and persuaded two of them, who, I suppose, were young, to return, while they brought the other two, who were very old, to enjoy the warmth of our fire; but, after staying there for about half an hour, they also retreated. Those who remained, immediately kindled a small fire, and laid themselves down to sleep round it, like so many whelps, having neither skins or garments of any kind to cover them, notwithstanding the cold that prevailed. My people having placed their kettle of meat on the fire, I was obliged to guard it from the natives, who made several attempts to possess themselves of its contents; and this was the only instance I had hitherto discovered, of their being influenced by a pilfering disposition. It might, perhaps, be a general opinion, that provisions were a common property. I now saw the sun set for the first time since I had been here before. During the preceding night, the weather was so cloudy, that I could not observe its descent to the horizon. The water had sunk, at this place, upward of three feet since we had passed down the river.
Wednesday, 22. — We began our march at half past three this morning, the men being employed to tow the canoe. I walked with the Indians to their huts, which were at a greater distance than I had any reason to expect, for it occupied three hours in hard walking to reach them. We passed a narrow, and deep river in our way, at the mouth of which the natives had set their nets. They had hid their effects, and sent their young women into the woods, as we saw but very few of the former, and none of the latter. They had large huts built with drift-wood on the declivity of the beach and in the inside the earth was dug away, so as to form a level floor. At each end was a stout fork, whereon was laid a strong ridge-pole, which formed a support to the whole structure, and a covering of spruce bark preserved it from the rain. Various spars of different heights were fixed within the hut, and covered with split fish that hung on them to dry; and fires were made in different parts to accelerate the operation. There were rails also on the outside of the building, which were hung around with fish, but in a fresher state than those within. The spawn is also carefully preserved and dried in the same manner. We obtained as many fish from them as the canoe could conveniently contain, and some strings of beads were the price paid for them, an article which they preferred to every other. Iron they held in little or no estimation.
During the two hours that I remained here, I employed the English chief in a continual state of inquiry concerning these people. The information that resulted from this conference was as follows:
This nation or tribe is very numerous, with whom the Esquimaux had been continually at variance, a people who take every advantage of attacking those who are not in a state to defend themselves; and though they had promised friendship, had lately, and in the most treacherous manner, butchered some of their people. As a proof of this circumstance, the relations of the deceased showed us, that they had cut off their hair on the occasion. They also declared their determination to withdraw all confidence in future from the Esquimaux, and to collect themselves in a formidable body, that they might be enabled to revenge the death of their friends.
From their account, a strong party of Esquimaux occasionally ascends this river, in large canoes, in search of flint stones, which they employ to point their spears and arrows. They were now at their lake due East from the spot where we then were, which was at no great distance over land, where they kill the rein-deer, and that they would soon begin to catch big fish for the winter stock. We could not, however, obtain any information respecting the lake in the direction in which we were. To the Eastward and Westward where they saw it, the ice breaks up, but soon freezes again.
The Esquimaux informed them that they saw large canoes full of white men to the Westward, eight or ten winters ago, from whom they obtained iron in exchange for leather. The lake where they met these canoes, is called by them Belhoullay Toe, or White Man's Lake. They also represented the Esquimaux as dressing like themselves. They wear their hair short, and have two holes perforated, one on each side of the mouth, in a line with the under lip, in which they place long beads that they find in the lake. Their bows are somewhat different from those used by the natives we had seen, and they employ slings from whence they throw stones with such dexterity that they prove very formidable weapons in the day of battle.
We also learned in addition from the natives, that we should not see any more of their relations, as they had all left the river to go in pursuit of rein-deer for their provisions, and that they themselves should engage in a similar expedition in a few days. Rein-deer, bears, wolverines, martens, foxes, hares, and white buffaloes are the only quadrupeds in their country; and that the latter were only to be found in the mountains to the Westward.
We proceeded with the line throughout the day, except two hours, when we employed the sail. We encamped at eight in the evening. From the place we quitted this morning, the banks of the river are well covered with small wood, spruce, firs, birch, and willow. We found it very warm during the whole of our progress.
Thursday, 23. — At five in the morning we proceeded on our voyage, but found it very difficult to travel along the beach. We observed several places where the natives had stationed themselves and set their nets since our passage downwards. We passed a small river, and at five o'clock our Indians put to shore in order to encamp, but we proceeded onwards, which displeased them very much, from the fatigue they suffered, and at eight we encamped at our position of the 8th instant. The day was very fine, and we employed the towing line throughout the course of it. At ten, our hunters returned, sullen and dissatisfied. We had not touched any of our provision stores for six days, in which time we had consumed two rein-deer, four swans, forty-five geese, and a considerable quantity of fish: but it is to be considered, that we were ten men, and four women. I have always observed, that the north men possessed very hearty appetites, but they were very much exceeded by those with me, since we entered this river. I should really have thought it absolute gluttony in my people, if my own appetite had not increased in a similar proportion._______________
1 The longitude has since been discovered, by the dead reckoning, to be 135. West.