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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XI. Three Curious Trees

Next morning they were awake at an early hour. There was still enough of the tongues and grouse left, along with some ribs of the antelope, to breakfast the party; and then all four set out to bring the flesh of Basil’s buffaloes into camp. This they accomplished, after making several journeys. It was their intention to dry the meat over the fire, so that it might keep for future use. For this purpose the flesh was removed from the bones, and after being cut into thin slices and strips, was hung up on poles at some distance from the blaze. Nothing more could be done, but wait until it became sufficiently parched by the heat.

While this process was going on our voyageurs collected around the fire, and entered into a consultation about what was best to be done. At first they thought of going back to the Red River settlement, and obtaining another canoe, as well as a fresh stock of provisions and implements. But they all believed that getting back would be a toilsome and difficult matter. There was a large lake and several extensive marshes on the route, and these would have to be got round, making the journey a very long one indeed. It would take them days to perform it on foot, and nothing is more discouraging on a journey than to be forced some accident to what is called "taking the back-track.” All of them acknowledged this, but what else could they do? It is true there was a post of the Hudson’s Bay Company at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg. This post was called Norway House. How were they to reach that afoot? To walk around the borders of the lake would be a distance of more than four hundred miles. There would be numerous rivers to cross, as well as swamps and pathless forests to be threaded. Such a journey would occupy a month or more, and at Norway House they would still be as it were only at the beginning of the great journey on which they had set out. Moreover, Norway House lay entirely out of their way. Cumberland House— another trading-post upon the River Saskatchewan— was the next point where they had intended to rest themselves, after leaving the Red River settlements. To reach Cumberland House afoot would be equally difficult, as it, too, lay at the distance of hundreds of miles, with lakes, and rivers, and marshes, intervening. What, then, could they do?

“Let us not go back,” cried Francois, ever ready with a bold advice; “let us make a boat, and keep on, say I.”

“Ha! Francois,” rejoined Basil, “it’s easy to say ‘make a boat' how is that to be done, I pray?” "Why, what’s to hinder us to hew a log, and make a dug-out? We have still got the axe, and two hatchets left.”

Norman asked what Francois meant by a dug-out. The phrase was new to him.

“A canoe,” replied Francois, “hollowed out of a tree. They are sometimes called 'dug-outs’ on the Mississippi, especially when they are roughly made. One of them, I think, would carry all four of us well enough. Don’t you think so, Luce?”

“Why, yes,” answered the student; “a large one might: but I fear there are no trees about here of sufficient size. We are not among the great timber of the Mississippi bottom, you must remember.”

“How large a tree would it require?” asked Norman, who knew but little of this kind of craft.

“Three feet in diameter, at least,” replied Lucien; “and it should be of that thickness for a length of nearly twenty feet. A less one would not carry four of us.”

“Then I am sure enough,” responded Norman, “that we won’t find such timber here. I have seen no tree of that size either yesterday, or while we were out this morning.”

“Nor I,” added Basil.

“I don’t believe there’s one,” said Lucien.

“If we were in Louisiana,” rejoined Francis, “I could find fifty canoe-trees by walking as many yards. Why, I never saw such insignificant timber as this here.”

“You’ll see smaller timber than this, Cousin Frank, before we reach the end of our voyage."

This remark was made by Norman, who knew that, as they proceeded northward, the trees would be found decreasing in size until they would appear like garden shrubbery.

“But come,” continued he, “if we can’t build a craft to carry us from one tree, perhaps we can do it out of three ”

“With three!” echoed Francois.. “I should like to see a canoe made from three trees! Is it a raft you mean, Cousin Norman?”

“No,” responded the other; “a canoe, and one that will serve us for the rest of our voyage.” All three—Basil, Lucien, and Francois—looked to their cousin for an explanation.

“You would rather not go back up the river?” he inquired, glancing from one to the other.

“We wish to go on—all of us,” answered Basil, speaking for his brothers as well.

“Very well,” assented the young fur-trader; “I think it is better as you wish it. Out of these trees I can build a boat that will carry us. It will take us some days to do it, and some time to find the timber, but I am tolerably certain it is to be found in these woods. To do the job properly I want three kinds; two of them I can see from where I sit; the third I expect will be got in the hills we saw this morning.”

As Norman spoke he pointed to two trees that grew among many others not far from the spot.

These trees were of very different kinds, as was easily told by their leaves and bark. The nearer and more conspicuous of them at once excited the curiosity of the three Southerners. Lucien recognised it from its botanical description. Even Basil and Francois, though they had never seen it, as it is not to be found in the hot clime of Louisiana, knew it from the accounts given of it by travellers. The tree was the celebrated “canoe-birch,” or, as Lucien named it, "paper-birch” (Betula papyracea) celebrated as the tree out of whose bark those beautiful canoes are made that carry thousands of Indians over the interior lakes and rivers of North America; out of whose bark whole tribes of these people fashion their bowls, their pails, and their baskets; with which they cover their tents, and from which they even make their soup-kettles and boiling-pots! This, then, was the canoe birch-tree, so much talked of, and so valuable to the poor Indians who inhabit the cold regions where it grows.

Our young Southerners contemplated the tree with feelings of interest and curiosity. They saw that it was about sixty feet high, and somewhat more than a foot in diameter. Its leaves were nearly cordate, or heart-shaped, and of a very dark-green colour; but that which rendered it most conspicuous among the other trees of the forest was the shining white or silver-coloured bark that covered its trunk, and its numerous slender branches. This bark is only white externally. When you have cut through the epidermis you find it of a reddish tinge, very thick, and capable of being divided into several layers. The wood of the tree makes excellent fuel, and is also often used for articles of furniture. It has a close, shining grain, and is strong enough for ordinary implements; but if exposed to the weather will decay rapidly.

The “canoe-birch” is not the only species of these trees found in North America. The genus Betula (so called from the Celtic word batu which means birch) has at least half-a-dozen other known representatives in these parts. There is the “white birch” (B. populifolia), a worthless tree of some twenty feet in height, and less than six inches diameter. The bark of this species is useless, and its wood, which is soft and white, is unfit even for fuel. It grows, however, in the poorest soil. Next there is a species called the “cherry-birch” (B. lento), so named from the resemblance of its bark to the common cherry-tree. It is also called “sweet birch,” because its young twigs, when crushed, give out a pleasant aromatic odour. Sometimes the name of “black birch” is given to this species. It is a tree of fifty or sixty feet in height, and its wood is much used in cabinet-work, as it is close-grained, of a beautiful reddish colour, and susceptible of a high polish.

The “yellow birch” is a tree of the same size, and is so called from the colour of its epidermis. It is likewise used in cabinet-work, though it is not considered equal in quality to the cherry-birch. Its leaves and twigs have also an aromatic smell when bruised, hot so strong, however, as the last mentioned. The wood makes excellent fuel, and is much used for that purpose in some of the large cities of America. The bark, too, is excellent for tanning—almost equal to that of the oak.

The “red birch” is still another species, which takes its name from the reddish hue of its bark. This is equal in size to the canoe-birch, often growing seventy feet high, with a trunk of nearly three feet diameter. Its branches are long, slender, and pendulous; and it is from the twigs of this species that most of the “birch-brooms” used in America are made.

Still another species of American birches is the “dwarf birch” (Betula nana), so called from its diminutive size, which is that of a shrub, only eighteen inches or two feet in height. It usually grows in very cold or mountainous regions, and is the smallest of these interesting trees.

This information regarding the birches of America was given by Lucien to his brothers, not at that time, but shortly afterward, when the three were engaged in felling one of these trees. Just then other matters occupied them, and they had only glanced, first at the canoe-birch and then at the other tree which Norman had pointed out. The latter was of a different genus. It belonged to the order Coniferce, or cone-bearing trees, as was evident from the cone-shaped fruits that hung upon its branches, as well as from its needle-like evergreen leaves.

The cone-bearing trees of America are divided by botanists into three great sub-orders—the Pines, the Cypresses, and the Yeivs. Each of these includes several genera. By the “pine tribe” is meant all those trees known commonly by the names pine, spruce, fir, and larch; while the Cupressince, or cypress tribe, are the cypress proper, the cedars, the arbor-vitae, and the junipers. The yew tribe has fewer genera or species; but the trees in America known as yews and hemlocks of which there are several varieties — belong to it.

Of the pine tribe a great number of species exist throughout the North American Continent. The late explorations on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, and in the countries bordering on the Pacific, have brought to light a score of species hitherto unknown to the botanist. Many of these are trees of a singular and valuable kind. Several species found in the mountains of North Mexico, and throughout those desert regions where hardly any other vegetation exists, have edible seeds upon which whole tribes of Indians subsist for many months in the year. The Spanish Americans call them pinon trees, but there are several species of them in different districts. The Indians parch the seeds, and sometimes pound them into a coarse meal, from which they bake a very palatable bread. This bread is often rendered more savoury by mixing the meal with dried “prairie crickets,” a species of coleopterous insects—that is, insects with a crustaceous or shell-like covering over their wings— which are common in the desert wTilds where these Indians dwell. Some prairie travellers have pronounced this singular mixture equal to the “best pound-cake.”

The “Lambert pine,” so called from the botanist of that name, is found in Oregon and California, and may be justly considered one of the wonders of the world. Three hundred feet is not an uncommon height for this vegetable giant; and its cones have been seen of eighteen inches in length, hanging like sugar-loaves from its high branches! The wonderful “palo Colorado” of California is another giant of the pine tribe. It also grows above three hundred feet high, with a diameter of sixteen feet! Then there is the “red pine,” of eighty feet high, much used for the decks and masts of ships; the “pitch-pine” (Finns rigida), a smaller tree, esteemed for its fuel, and furnishing most of the firewood used in some of the American cities. From this species the strong burning “knots” are obtained. There is the “white pine” (Pinus strobus), valuable for its timber. This is one of the largest and best known of the pines. It often attains a height of an hundred and fifty feet, and a large proportion of those planks so well known to the carpenter are sawed from its trunk. In the State of Yew York alone no less than 700,000,000 feet of timber are annually obtained from trees of this species, which, by calculation, must exhaust every year the enormous amount of 70,000 acres of forest I Of course, at this rate the pine-forests of New York State must soon be entirely destroyed.

In addition, there is the “yellow pine,” a tree of sixty feet high, much used in flooring houses; and the beautiful “balsam fir,” used as an ornamental evergreen both in Europe and America, and from which is obtained the well-known medicine — the “Canada balsam.” This tree, in favourable situations, attains the height of sixty feet; while upon the cold summits of mountains it is often seen rising only a few inches from the surface. The “hemlock spruce” (P.Canadensis), is another species, the bark of which is used in tanning. It is inferior to the oak, though the leather made by it is of excellent quality. The "black” or “double spruce” (P. nigra), is that species from the twigs of which is extracted the essence that gives its peculiar flavour to the well-known “spruce beer". Besides these, at least a dozen new species have lately been discovered on the interior mountains of Mexico all of them more or less possessing valuable properties.

The pines cannot be termed trees of the tropics, yet do they grow in southern and warm countries. In the Carolinas, tar and turpentine, products of the pine, are two staple articles of exportation; and even under the equator itself, the high mountains are covered with pine-forests. But the pine is more especially the tree of a northern sylva. As you approach the Arctic circle, it becomes the characteristic tree. There it appears in extensive forests, lending their picturesque shelter to the snowy desolation of the earth. One species of pine is the very last tree that disappears as the traveller, in approaching the pole, takes his leave of the limits of vegetation. This species is the “white spruce” (Pimis alba), the very one which, along with the birch-tree, had been pointed out by Norman to his companions.

It was a tree not over thirty or forty feet high, with a trunk of less than a foot in thickness, and of a brownish colour. Its leaves or “needles” were about an inch in length, very slender and acute, and of a bluish green tint. The cones upon it, which at that season were young, were of a pale green. When ripe, however, they become rusty-brown, and are nearly two inches in length.

What use Norman would make of this tree in building his canoe, neither Basil nor Francois knew. Lucien only guessed at it. Francois asked the question, by saying that he supposed the “timbers” were to come out of it.

“No,” said Norman, “for that I want still another sort. If I can’t find that sort, however, I can manage to do without it, but not so well.” “What other sort?” demanded Francois.

“I want some cedar-wood,” replied the other. “Ah! that’s for the timbers,” said Frangois; “I am sure of it. The cedar-wood is lighter than any other, and, I dare say, would answer admirably for ribs and other timbers.”

“You are right this time, Frank—it is considered the best for that purpose.”

“You think there are cedar-trees on the hills we saw this morning?” said Francois, addressing his Canadian cousin.

“I think so. I noticed something like them.” “And I, too, observed a dark foliage,” said Lucien, “which looked like the cedar. If anywhere in this neighbourhood, we shall find them there. They usually grow upon rocky, sterile hills, such as those appear to be—that is their proper situation.”

“The question,” remarked Basil, “ought to be settled at once. We have made up our mind to the building of a canoe, and I think we should lose no time in getting ready the materials. Suppose we all set out for the hills.”

“Agreed—agreed!” shouted the others with one voice; and then shouldering their guns, and taking the axe along, all four set out for the hills. On reaching these, the object of their search was at once discovered. The tops of all the hills—dry, barren ridges they were — were covered with a thick grove of the red cedar (Juniperus viginiana). The trees were easily distinguished by the numerous branches spreading horizontally, and thickly covered with short dark green needles, giving them that sombre, shady appearance, that makes them the favourite haunt of many species of owls. Their beautiful reddish wood was well known to all the party, as it is to almost every one in the civilized world. Everybody who has seen or used a black-lead pencil must know what the wood of the red cedar is like—for it is in this the black-lead is usually incased. In all parts of America, where this tree grows in plenty, it is employed for posts and fence-rails, as it is one of the most durable woods in existence. It is a great favourite also for kindling fires, as it catches quickly, and blazes up in a few seconds, so as to ignite the heavier logs of other timbers, such as the oak and the pine.

The red cedar usually attains a height of about thirty to forty feet, but in favourable situations it grows still larger. The soil which it loves best is of a stony, and often sterile character, and dry barren hill-tops are frequently covered with cedars, while the more moist and fertile valleys between possess a sylva of a far different character. There is a variety of the red cedar, which trails upon the ground like a creeping plant, its branches even taking root again. This is rather a small bush than a tree, and is often seen hanging down the face of inaccessible cliffs. It is known among botanists as the Juniperus prostrata.

“Now,” said Norman, after examining a few of the cedar-trees, “we have here all that’s wanted to make our canoe. We need lose no more time, but go to work at once."

“Very well,” replied the three brothers, “we are ready to assist you, — tell us what to do.”

“In the first place,” said the other, “I think we had better change our camp to this spot, as I see all the different kinds of trees here, and much better ones than those near the river. There,” continued he, pointing to a piece of moist ground in the valley,—“there are some splendid birches, and there beside them is plenty of the epinette” (so the voyageurs term the white spruce). "It will save us many journeys if we go back and bring our meat to this place at once.”

To this they all of course agreed, and started back to their first camp. They soon returned with the meat and other things, and having chosen a clean spot under a large-spreading cedar-tree, they kindled a new fire and made their camp by it—that is, they strung up the provisions, hung their horns and pouches upon the branches around, and rested their guns against the trees. They had no tent to pitch, but that is not necessary to constitute a camp. In the phraseology of the American hunter, wherever you kindle your fire or spend the night is a “camp.”

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