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Chapter 8


I aroused the Indian early to go in search of our companion, expecting to find him within a mile or two, farther down the stream. The Indian wanted his breakfast first, but I reminded him that my companion had had neither breakfast nor supper. We were obliged first to carry our canoe and baggage over into another stream, the main East Branch, about three fourths of a mile distant, for Webster Stream was no farther navigable. We went twice over this carry, and the dewy bushes wet us through like water up to the middle. I hallooed from time to time, though I had little expectation that I could be heard over the roar of the rapids.

In going over this portage the last time, the Indian, who was before me with the canoe on his head, stumbled and fell heavily once, and lay for a moment silent as if in pain. I hastily stepped forward to help him, asking if he was much hurt, but after a moment's pause, without replying, he sprang up and went forward.

We had launched our canoe and gone but little way down the East Branch, when I heard an answering shout from my companion, and soon after saw him standing on a point where there was a clearing a quarter of a mile below, and the smoke of his fire was rising near by. Before I saw him I naturally shouted again and again, but the Indian curtly remarked, "He hears you," as if once was enough.

It was just below the mouth of Webster Stream. When we arrived he was smoking his pipe, and said that he had passed a pretty comfortable night, though it was rather cold, on account of the dew. It appeared that when we stood together the previous evening, and I was shouting to the Indian across the river, he, being nearsighted, had not seen the Indian nor his canoe, and when I went back to the Indian's assistance, did not see which way I went, and supposed that we were below and not above him, and so, making haste to catch up, he ran away from us. Having reached this clearing, a mile or more below our camp, the night overtook him, and he made a fire in a little hollow, and lay down by it in his blanket, still thinking that we were ahead of him.

He had stuck up the remnant of a lumberer's shirt, found on the point, on a pole by the waterside for a signal, and attached a note to it to inform us that he had gone on to the lake, and that if he did not find us there he would be back in a couple of hours. If he had not found us soon he had some thoughts of going back in search of the solitary hunter whom we had met at Telos Lake, ten miles behind, and, if successful, hire him to take him to Bangor. But if this hunter had moved as fast as we, he would have been twenty miles off by this time, and who could guess in what direction? It would have been like looking for a needle in a haymow to search for him in these woods. He had been considering how long he could live on berries alone.

We all had good appetites for the breakfast which we made haste to cook here, and then, having partially dried our clothes, we glided swiftly down the winding stream toward Second Lake.

As the shores became flatter with frequent sandbars, and the stream more winding in the lower land near the lake, elms and ash trees made their appearance; also the wild yellow lily, some of whose bulbs I collected for a soup. On some ridges the burnt land extended as far as the lake. This was a very beautiful lake, two or three miles long, with high mountains on the southwest side. The morning was a bright one, and perfectly still, the lake as smooth as glass, we making the only ripple as we paddled into it. The dark mountains about it were seen through a glaucous mist, and the white stems of canoe birches mingled with the other woods around it. The thrush sang on the distant shore, and the laugh of some loons, sporting in a concealed western bay, as if inspired by the morning, came distinct over the lake to us. The beauty of the scene may have been enhanced to our eyes by the fact that we had just come together after a night of some anxiety.

Having paddled down three quarters of the lake, we came to a standstill while my companion let down for fish. In the midst of our dreams of giant lake trout, even then supposed to be nibbling, our fisherman drew up a diminutive red perch, and we took up our paddles.

It was not apparent where the outlet of the lake was, and while the Indian thought it was in one direction, I thought it was in another. He said, "I bet you fourpence it is there," but he still held on in my direction, which proved to be the right one.

As we were approaching the outlet he suddenly exclaimed, "Moose! moose!" and told us to be still. He put a cap on his gun, and, standing up in the stern, rapidly pushed the canoe straight toward the shore and the moose. It was a cow moose, about thirty rods off, standing in the water by the side of the outlet, partly behind some fallen timber and bushes, and at that distance she did not look very large. She was flapping her large ears, and from time to time poking off the flies with her nose from some part of her body. She did not appear much alarmed by our neighborhood, only occasionally turned her head and looked straight at us, and then gave her attention to the flies again. As we approached nearer she got out of the water, stood higher, and regarded us more suspiciously.

Polis pushed the canoe steadily forward in the shallow water, but the canoe soon grounded in the mud eight or ten rods distant from the moose, and the Indian seized his gun. After standing still a moment she turned so as to expose her side, and he improved this moment to fire, over our heads. She thereupon moved off eight or ten rods at a moderate pace across a shallow bay to the opposite shore, and she stood still again while the Indian hastily loaded and fired twice at her, without her moving. My companion, who passed him his caps and bullets, said that Polis was as excited as a boy of fifteen, that his hand trembled, and he once put his ramrod back upside down.

The Indian now pushed quickly and quietly back, and a long distance round, in order to get into the outlet,—for he had fired over the neck of a peninsula between it and the lake,—till we approached the place where the moose had stood, when he exclaimed, "She is a goner!"

Shooting the Moose Shooting the Moose

There, to be sure, she lay perfectly dead, just where she had stood to receive the last shots. Using a tape, I found that the moose measured six feet from the shoulder to the tip of the hoof, and was eight feet long.

Polis, preparing to skin the moose, asked me to help him find a stone on which to sharpen his large knife. It being flat alluvial ground, covered with red maples, etc., this was no easy matter. We searched far and wide a long time till at length I found a flat kind of slate stone, on which he soon made his knife very sharp.

While he was skinning the moose I proceeded to ascertain what kind of fishes were to be found in the sluggish and muddy outlet. The greatest difficulty was to find a pole. It was almost impossible to find a slender, straight pole ten or twelve feet long in those woods. You might search half an hour in vain. They are commonly spruce, arbor-vitæ, fir, etc., short, stout, and branchy, and do not make good fishpoles, even after you have patiently cut off all their tough and scraggy branches. The fishes were red perch and chivin.

The Indian, having cut off a large piece of sirloin, the upper lip, and the tongue, wrapped them in the hide, and placed them in the bottom of the canoe, observing that there was "one man," meaning the weight of one. Our load had previously been reduced some thirty pounds, but a hundred pounds were now added, which made our quarters still more narrow, and considerably increased the danger on the lakes and rapids as well as the labor of the carries. The skin was ours according to custom, since the Indian was in our employ, but we did not think of claiming it. He being a skillful dresser of moose-hides would make it worth seven or eight dollars to him, as I was told. He said that he sometimes earned fifty or sixty dollars in a day at them; he had killed ten moose in one day, though the skinning and all took two days. This was the way he had got his property.

We continued along the outlet through a swampy region, by a long, winding deadwater, very much choked up by wood, where we were obliged to land sometimes in order to get the canoe over a log. It was hard to find any channel, and we did not know but we should be lost in the swamp. It abounded in ducks, as usual. At length we reached Grand Lake.

We stopped to dine on an interesting rocky island, securing our canoe to the cliffy shore. Here was a good opportunity to dry our dewy blankets on the open sunny rock. Indians had recently camped here, and accidentally burned over the western end of the island. Polis picked up a gun-case of blue broadcloth, and said that he knew the Indian it belonged to and would carry it to him. His tribe is not so large but he may know all its effects. We proceeded to make a fire and cook our dinner amid some pines.

I saw where the Indians had made canoes in a little secluded hollow in the woods, on the top of the rock, where they were out of the wind, and large piles of whittlings remained. This must have been a favorite resort of their ancestors, and, indeed, we found here the point of an arrow-head, such as they have not used for two centuries and now know not how to make. The Indian picked up a yellowish curved bone by the side of our fireplace and asked me to guess what it was. It was one of the upper incisors of a beaver, on which some party had feasted within a year or two. I found also most of the teeth and the skull. We here dined on fried moose meat.

Our blankets being dry, we set out again, the Indian, as usual, having left his gazette on a tree. We paddled southward, keeping near the western shore. The Indian did not know exactly where the outlet was, and he went feeling his way by a middle course between two probable points, from which he could diverge either way at last without losing much distance. In approaching the south shore, as the clouds looked gusty and the waves ran pretty high, we so steered as to get partly under the lee of an island, though at a great distance from it.

I could not distinguish the outlet till we were almost in it, and heard the water falling over the dam there. Here was a considerable fall, and a very substantial dam, but no sign of a cabin or camp.

While we loitered here Polis took occasion to cut with his big knife some of the hair from his moose-hide, and so lightened and prepared it for drying. I noticed at several old Indian camps in the woods the pile of hair which they had cut from their hides.

Having carried over the dam, he darted down the rapids, leaving us to walk for a mile or more, where for the most part there was no path, but very thick and difficult traveling near the stream. He would call to let us know where he was waiting for us with his canoe, when, on account of the windings of the stream, we did not know where the shore was, but he did not call often enough, forgetting that we were not Indians. He seemed to be very saving of his breath—yet he would be surprised if we went by, or did not strike the right spot. This was not because he was unaccommodating, but a proof of superior manners. Indians like to get along with the least possible communication and ado. He was really paying us a great compliment all the while, thinking that we preferred a hint to a kick.

At length, climbing over the willows and fallen trees, when this was easier than to go round or under them, we overtook the canoe, and glided down the stream in smooth but swift water for several miles. I here observed, as at Webster Stream, that the river was a smooth and regularly inclined plane down which we coasted.

We decided to camp early that we might have ample time before dark. So we stopped at the first favorable shore, where there was a narrow gravelly beach, some five miles below the outlet of the lake. Two steps from the water on either side, and you come to the abrupt, bushy, and rooty, if not turfy, edge of the bank, four or five feet high, where the interminable forest begins, as if the stream had but just cut its way through it.

It is surprising on stepping ashore anywhere into this unbroken wilderness to see so often, at least within a few rods of the river, the marks of the axe, made by lumberers who have either camped here or driven logs past in previous springs. You will see perchance where they have cut large chips from a tall white pine stump for their fire.

While we were pitching the camp and getting supper, the Indian cut the rest of the hair from his moose-hide, and proceeded to extend it vertically on a temporary frame between two small trees, half a dozen feet from the opposite side of the fire, lashing and stretching it with arbor-vitæ bark. Asking for a new kind of tea, he made us some pretty good of the checkerberry, which covered the ground, dropping a little bunch of it tied up with cedar bark into the kettle.

After supper he put on the moose tongue and lips to boil. He showed me how to write on the under side of birch bark with a black spruce twig, which is hard and tough and can be brought to a point.

The Indian wandered off into the woods a short distance just before night, and, coming back, said, "Me found great treasure."

"What's that?" we asked.

"Steel traps, under a log, thirty or forty, I didn't count 'em. I guess Indian work—worth three dollars apiece."

It was a singular coincidence that he should have chanced to walk to and look under that particular log in that trackless forest.

I saw chivin and chub in the stream when washing my hands, but my companion tried in vain to catch them. I heard the sound of bullfrogs from a swamp on the opposite side.

You commonly make your camp just at sundown, and are collecting wood, getting your supper, or pitching your tent while the shades of night are gathering around and adding to the already dense gloom of the forest. You have no time to explore or look around you before it is dark. You may penetrate half a dozen rods farther into that twilight wilderness after some dry bark to kindle your fire with, and wonder what mysteries lie hidden still deeper in it, or you may run down to the shore for a dipper of water, and get a clearer view for a short distance up or down the stream, and while you stand there, see a fish leap, or duck alight in the river, or hear a thrush or robin sing in the woods.

But there is no sauntering off to see the country. Ten or fifteen rods seems a great way from your companions, and you come back with the air of a much traveled man, as from a long journey, with adventures to relate, though you may have heard the crackling of the fire all the while—and at a hundred rods you might be lost past recovery and have to camp out. It is all mossy and moosey. In some of those dense fir and spruce woods there is hardly room for the smoke to go up. The trees are a standing night, and every fir and spruce which you fell is a plume plucked from night's raven wing. Then at night the general stillness is more impressive than any sound, but occasionally you hear the note of an owl farther or nearer in the woods, and if near a lake, the semihuman cry of the loons at their unearthly revels.

To-night the Indian lay between the fire and his stretched moose-hide, to avoid mosquitoes. Indeed, he also made a small smoky fire of damp leaves at his head and feet, and then as usual rolled up his head in his blanket. We with our veils and our wash were tolerably comfortable, but it would be difficult to pursue any sedentary occupation in the woods at this season; you cannot see to read much by the light of a fire through a veil in the evening, nor handle pencil and paper well with gloves or anointed fingers.

Henry David Thoreau

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