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Ten Thousand Miles Through Canada
Chapter V

En route for French River—Pickerel Landing—The house on the rock—Primitive simplicity—The fate of the skunk—The Ojibwa Indian guide—Reversion to original type—Whisky and deterioration—French River—Recollections of Champlain —Trolling for bass and pike—A master of the knife—A fight with the “tiger of the river”—Gaff versus rifle—The indefatigable guide—The might have been—In camp—The note of the whipoorwill—“The fretful porcupine.”

THE Canadian Pacific Railway has recently been extended to Sudbury, the centre of a large mining industry. It has opened up a hitherto unexplored area of river and forest. For fishing and shooting it is one of the best districts in the Ontario Province. I travelled to Pickerel Landing which accurately describes the situation. It is nothing more than a landing, with not even a platform attached, to say nothing of a station. For primitive simplicity and the complete negation of all luxuries it can scarcely be surpassed. I scrambled out of the train, encumbered with fishing rods and other impedimenta of the chase, and climbed down to the railway track. Below it a magnificent river swept beneath the bridge, and in the midst of the river there was an island with a wooden habitation perched on a high rock. This was Wanikewin, or the “house on the rock.” To do it full justice it was the hotel whose hospitality stood between me and starvation, and destined to provide guide, canoe, and all the paraphernalia of a camping outfit.

The moment the train moved off on its northern journey, leaving my solitary figure in more emphatic relief, a boat was pushed off the island, and the quick flash of a paddle assured me that I had been discovered.

Wanikewin as an achievement of civilization was only a degree removed from the general desolation of the' place. It was a wooden structure, through which the wind whistled all day, and at night the music incidental to somnolence in one apartment could be heard in all the rest. The chance rambler outside the precincts was by no means cut off from any advantage that this primitiveness conferred. There was not a glass window in the house. A mosquito net closely nailed to an opening did duty for that. It succeeded in keeping out the winged pests, but not the rain, which forced its way through the network during the night. So near was the whole thing to the heart of nature, that the skunks claimed a right of entrance, and had to be shot. A beautiful specimen underwent that fate half an hour after my arrival, which insisted in making a storeroom a nesting-place for her young.

If this description of a hostel, which is not exaggerated, is likely to deter any sportsman from going to Wanikewin, let me assure him that of the places that I visited in the province, it was one of the most charming. The crude structure possessed all the conveniences that an explorer might desire: a postoffice for dispatch and delivery of letters; a store amply provided with provisions; camping tents of the latest and most comfortable design; canoes adapted to all the exigencies of the rivers; Indian guides, true children of the wilds; and a motor boat to shoot up the river and reach the nearest portage through the forest where human footsteps were almost unknown.

It is because this primitive simplicity is all too rapidly disappearing from Eastern Canada, and the modern hotel is taking its place, that one involuntarily exclaims, Oh, Wanikewin! keep thy wooden walls, thine unglazed windows, thine odorous skunks, and untutored Indians, and we shall love thee all the better!

It was something to be handed over to the charge of an Indian with royal blood in his veins. Ellick, my guide, had that particular distinction to commend him. His father, a chief of the Ojibwa tribe, died twelve years ago. The heir-presumptive to a disbanded kingdom possessed all the solemnity of a fallen magnate. He would sit on a ledge of rock, and look out across the surging river as if awaiting the summons to emancipate his tribe from the thraldom of civilization. It was interesting to try and discover what survived of the original qualities of the redskin. The preliminary survey of dress was not encouraging. A pair of heelless boots and patched nether garments, had little suggestive of the buckskin moccasins and buffalo robes garnished with porcupine quills. An old planter’s hat was a distant remove from the erstwhile conjure of golden eagles’ feathers.

But there was reversion to original type despite this sartorial vandalism. The Ojibwa temperament was there, and showed itself on the least provocation. The pensive face, with beady lustreless eyes, became animated under excitement. In motion there was a stealthiness in Ellick’s tread, which pointed to an hereditary connexion with the chase, a grace of carriage suggestive of nomadic ancestry. When the canoe silently drifted round a bend in the river and surprised a buck slaking its thirst, the Indian’s nostrils would quiver like those of a staghound held in leash, as the quarry dashed into the forest.

The North American Indians are now confined to Government reserves all over the Dominion, where they follow pastoral pursuits and engage in different forms of labour. They still shoot the deer, trap the beaver, net and spear the salmon, and as these pursuits are regarded as essential for food, and were enjoyed by them in practical monopoly, the Indians are granted a great deal of licence, and the close season is not enforced. In their unsophisticated primitiveness they make excellent guides, their knowledge of rivers and forests being invaluable. Close contact with civilization does not always improve them, and under indulgence they grow indolent and inefficient. Their introduction to the bottle by the white man has marked a stage in deterioration so distinct that it is now a penal offence to give them ardent spirits. Unfortunately this law is ignored by many sportsmen. On one river where they act as guides I heard it said that the Indian will go as far as the whisky-bottle lasts. Another deduction may be drawn from a saying, common in regard to them, “The Indian who can speak the English language is a bad guide.” You are frankly told that you must have ignorance or inefficiency. On the occasions when I employed them, I found them both interesting and efficient, and in two instances they could not speak English, beyond a grunt meant for “yea” and a headshake for “no.”

Ellick was a case in point. His gesticulations and the emphatic use he made of one or two words, were eloquence in themselves, and his quickness in understanding my wishes and complying with them left little to be desired.

When one remembers the habits and customs of the race from which the Indian sprang, there is little surprise at the great change that has taken place in his spirit and temper. The wild child of Nature, unrestrained as the mountain torrent; savage in instinct, with no law, but a law unto himself; consigned to the rules and restrictions of modern civilization, as he has been; is it any wonder that his nature should chafe and deteriorate? The ample provision for his needs in itself made for deterioration. The rifle in exchange for the bow, the shack for the wigwam, the purchase power of money in store and saloon; all this, so contrary to the environment of the rugged mountain, the entangled forest, and the struggle for life they imposed, civilized the North American Indian, and at the same time inaugurated the rapid extinction of the species.

A short portage brought us to French River. It is high above the level of Pickerel and narrow where it debouches into it, broadening out again as progress is made up-stream. It probably differs little from the river which Champlain descended two centuries ago. History records how he pressed his way across land from Lake Nipissing and struck French River after exploring the Ottawa. Working his way down-stream, he found a tribe of naked Indians gathering berries on the island rocks. They were Ojibwas, the tribe to which my guide belonged. With the exception of an occasional trapper or lumberman, few Europeans have since shot its rapids or camped on its banks.

As Ellick paddled the canoe up-stream, I mounted two fishing-rods, one with a spoon bait, the other with a Devon minnow, and began trolling. In a short time, several small-mouthed bass were landed, the largest of which we kept. A reach of the river fringed with weeds yielded a couple of wall-eyed pike, which took eagerly, but were returned to the water as undersized. Mounting larger spoons, two or three pound bass seized them, to the huge delight of Ellick, who had probably never seen fish caught with anything more scientific than a hand-line or spear.

The maskalonge is the chief game of the French River. It closely resembles the pike in appearance and habits. The shape of the head is flat and elongated, and resembles that of the. Esox lucius, although larger in the mouth. Its body is thinner in proportion to its size, and the fish is capable of equally rapid motion through the water. The colouring is dusky grey, with none of the bar or spot markings distinctive of the pike. Like the latter, the maskalonge is predatory in its habits, a veritable highwayman of the stream. On the margin of weeds it lurks, its colouring matching the river flora, or contrasting in a way equally deceptive. It is a master in the art of mimicry. The long, thin body changes in tint with the variegation of the weeds. In the spring it is a lighter colour, in keeping with the early verdure, becoming darker as the season advances, and in the winter, when the weeds are dying off, there is another change in consonance with its environment.

The maskalonge, like the pike, has its special feeding times, and one may fish for days without getting one of the large specimens, which gorge themselves and lie up until hunger sends them on the warpath again.

It was August when I fished for them, which is said to be one of the worst months for angling. The current opinion amongst Canadians that the maskalonge shed their teeth that month, is not generally supported by ichthyologists. It is contended that the phenomenon has its analogy in the deer shedding its antlers and the snake sloughing its skin. Fish, like grayling, become very soft in the scales when out of season, and are in the habit of casting them, but stiffen up again during the autumn months. Counter arguments might be raised against all this. Very old fish lose their teeth, no doubt, through senile decay, and possibly the discovery of some toothless maskalonge has given currency to the belief.

Two or three times I thought I had got hold of this tiger of the river, but the vigorous plunge and bold dash was caused by a pike of more than average size. Clearly, the maskalonge declined to be rushed, and we had to bide its time. Meanwhile, Ellick paddled slowly and patiently up-stream.

The French River broadened out to a mile in places, and disclosed magnificent bays bordered with pines and tamaracks. Its course was a complete puzzle. There were a number of these expansions in every reach, in places biting into the forest for half a mile, then sweeping round overlapping islands. It was a maze to all but the experienced boatman. I found myself speculating on the true course amongst the openings, but unsuccessfully. Sometimes it lay to the right, at others to the left, a sharp turn here, a forward and back there. But Ellick never erred; true as magnet to the pole, his native instinct guided him. Often I thought he was caught napping, as we found ourselves in a cul de sac, but the Indian had made a detour, and a big mellifluous voice, eloquent in the Ojibwa tongue, would whisper, “Lunge,” “bazz,” softening the sibilant into the music of the mother tongue. “Big rock-bazz,” and sure enough as the spoon drew near to the granite cliffs the reel would scream, and high out of the water the bass would spring, made captive by the bait.

Higher up the river, the forest became less dense, and there were occasional clearings, probably the effect of winter floods, where the river overflowed and drowned the trees along its banks. In the background they showed again, massed in unbroken phalanxes. Crowned with dwarf pines and poplars, island rocks stood forth in midstream, their white quartz seams clearly showing, and their fissures green with the seeds that had found foothold there. An occasional Norwegian pine towered from the bare bank, proudly proclaiming its victory over the flood that had swept away its less hardy fellows. Its roots had struck too deeply to be moved by wind or water.

We had luncheon on one of the islands, where my Indian guide showed a rare genius in the culinary art A few slashes of an old knife with a villainous look about it suggestive of other uses, removed the backbone of a bass and pickerel. The deftness of the strokes showed an inherited aptitude for scalping, becoming the son of a chief. Soon the blue smoke of the kindling logs rose from the island, and with it the odour of delicious viands, bass, pickerel, tea, fruit. Here was ambrosia, the very food of the gods waiting on little less than fiendish appetites. Oh, what a luncheon!!

Towards evening I had expectations of a fight with a maskalonge. We had caught bass, smallmouthed and large-mouthed, and a rock species with little fight in it compared with the others. But what a handsome fellow he was, with deep blue eyes and carmine irises! A dorsal fin exceptionally large with eleven rigid rays and eleven soft. Underneath there was a fin with six rigid rays and eleven soft. Beneath the throat the pectoral fins met in a fan-shape of artistic design, with five rigid rays in each. All these trimmings surmounted by a head and body

of golden green. But “handsome is as handsome does,” and the rock bass was a poor fighter. The cook holds a different opinion of his merits, and not without good reason.

The best pike, a fish of 9^ lbs., took a fancy to a large spoon bait intended for his betters, and gave the liveliest play so far. Then a long and uneventful paddle in an atmosphere without a breath of air. There was a violet haze on the water, and nothing broke the stillness of the smooth-flowing river but the regular beat of the Indian’s paddle. The rods were set athwart the canoe, a 3½ inch spoon on one and a large Devon minnow on the other. It had been a long day, and as there is only one position possible in a canoe, I was getting weary. The close atmosphere and the smell of the pines began to have a soporific effect, and I closed my eyes. The swi—ish . . . swi—ish, the regular beat of the paddle, grew fainter and fainter . . . swi—ish . . . ish . . . oblivion.

“Lunge! lunge! ” cur-r-r. These were the combined noises that awaked me, comprised of Ellick’s loud cry of “Lunge!” and the crescendo scream of a 4-inch pike reel revolving like mad. Far away, the line was cutting the water with a hiss. There was no mistake this time—I was fast in a maskalonge. I seized the rod, whilst Ellick reeled up the other to avoid entanglement. The big spoon had done the business, seducing the tiger which had gone forth on his evening prowl.

I had no fear of the rod, which was a stout green-heart of carefully selected timber, and specially made for large salmon. The line was finest silk, and the spoon mounted on gimp that could not be readily cut with the fish’s formidable teeth. It was a question, therefore, of firm hooking and careful handling. The moment I applied pressure to check the run, the fish turned and took a slanting direction. Ellick paddled towards him, and I recovered about twenty yards of line. More pressure set him off again, with a pace equal to a salmon’s, which ended with a break on the top of the water, disclosing his full proportions to our admiring gaze. Another pause followed, with more paddling and reel winding. So things progressed for some time.

The maskalonge’s method of fight is cunning. He makes rapid runs in the effort to break loose, then rests almost on the top of the water. This gives him breathing space, and when the canoe approaches him he is off again as vigorous as ever. In this particular he differs from the salmon, which only comes to the top when absolutely exhausted, excepting, of course, Salmosalar's lordly springs. How far he might alter this method if played with a hand-line, a method all too common in Canada, I do not know. It is possible that the firm pressure of the rod brings him up. The spring salmon of British Columbia keeps steadily on the move, with only an occasional dash, and in that way reserves its strength. The maskalonge exceeds pike and Canadian salmon in speed, but the runs are short. By such a method the fight is much prolonged. My captive leaped out of the water a couple of times, and acquitted himself in such sporting style that I share the high opinion he has earned amongst anglers.

It is not easy to play and land a fish from a canoe which is in danger of capsizing if there is more smile on one side of the face than the other, so that when the stage of exhaustion was reached, Ellick ran me ashore, and I gaffed the prize. I did not call in the aid of a rifle or revolver to assist in the process. Judging by angling literature and common report, this is the usual method of putting an end to the maskalonge’s struggles. It is, to say the least, a most reprehensible one, and those who practise it can scarcely be regarded as true sportsmen. Angling is a pastime, and regulated by reasonable rules. To supplement a rod by the aid of a rifle is not playing the game ; it is only using dynamite in another form.

My captive was over 10 lbs. weight, small, no doubt, compared with the monsters to be met with at times, but he was a fair sample of the species, and if those twice the weight play in the same proportion, then the maskalonge is a fish to be respected.

We camped high up on the bank of the river, Ellick pitching the tent on the borders of a clump of pines. As I watched his sober face in the light of the fire, I wondered at his powers of endurance.

He had been paddling all day long with the exception of the short luncheon interval, carrying the stores and canoe over steep and rocky portages, varying the proceedings by chopping logs, cooking meals and erecting the tent. A worthy son of that hardy race of Indians who prided themselves in their strength and won their chieftainship by endurance. It was such youths who entered the lists and competed in those ordeals that once comprised the ritual of his tribe. Had the march of civilization in the North-West continent been stayed or diverted, his physical powers would in all probability have been displayed in the long-imposed fast in which the gift bestowed by his guardian spirit was sought. He would have gone forth to fight unaided the grizzly bear or climb the war eagle’s eyrie to win the “medicine” talisman essential to his career. Ellick’s hardihood even suggested an endurance of the most exacting rite in which the “brave,’' with skewers driven through the muscles of his arms, was suspended in mid air until a merciful unconsciousness deemed the test sufficient—a custom no doubt often practised on the banks of that river where we had pitched our camp.

The fast-waning light which hung over the scene passed into dark, without the intervention of a gloaming. The camp fire flickering on the trees only served to make the darkness visible. Porcupines emerged from their hiding-places in the wood, loving darkness rather than light. A wild duck’s brood that our canoe had scattered were re-gathered from amongst the river sedges by the eager quacking of the mother bird. The musical call of the whipoorwill evoked answers from the very heart of the forest:

The notes, oft repeated, still remain with me. Ellick had spread a bed of balsam beneath my blankets. It is a species of pine where the needles run in straight lines, and do not prick or become bulky. There is an aromatic odour about it which is delightfully pleasant and said to be soporific, a medicine wholly supererogatory as far as I was concerned. I had scarcely put my head down when I was off.

How long I slept I know not, but I was awaked by a sound like a stick drawn sharply round the canvas of the tent. “What is it, Ellick?” I asked. There was a feeble answer in which I caught the first and last syllables, por—pine. Porcupines! The Indian had taken the precaution to bring our provisions into the tent. But in the morning I learned that, to get at the food at the head of Ellick’s bed, they walked over my person, and returned by the same route. I neither heard nor felt them. It may have been the effect of the aromatic balsam, but an earthquake would not have disturbed my repose.

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