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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XVI. A Grand Sunday Dinner

After remaining a day at their first camp on the lake, our voyageurs continued their journey. Their course lay a little to the west of north, as the edge of the lake trended in that direction. Their usual plan, as already stated, was to keep out in the lake far enough to shun the numerous indentations of the shore, yet not so far as to endanger their little craft when the wind was high. At night they always landed, either upon some point or on an island. Sometimes the wind blew “dead ahead,” and then their day’s journey would be only a few miles. When the wind was favourable they made good progress, using the skin of the wapiti for a sail. On one of these days they reckoned a distance of over forty miles from camp to camp. It was their custom always to lie by on Sunday, for our young voyageurs were Christians. They had done so on their former expedition across the Southern prairies, and they had found the practice to their advantage in a physical as well as a moral sense. They required the rest thus obtained; besides, a general cleaning up is necessary, at least, once every week. Sunday was also a day of feasting with them. They had more time to devote to culinary operations, and the cuisine of that day was always the most varied of the week. Any extra delicacy obtained by the rifle on previous days, was usually reserved for the Sunday’s dinner. On the first Sunday after entering Lake Winnipeg the “camp” chanced to be upon an island. It was a small island, of only a few acres in extent. It lay near the shore, and was well wooded over its whole surface with trees of many different kinds. Indeed, islands in a large lake usually have a great variety of trees, as the seeds of all those sorts that grow around the shores are carried thither by the waves, or in the crops of the numerous birds that flit over its waters. But as the island in question lay in a lake, whose shores exhibited such a varied geology, it was natural the vegetation of the island itself should be varied. And, in truth; it was so. There were upon it, down by the water’s edge, willows and cottonwoods (Populus angulata), the characteristic sylva of the prairie land; there were birches and sugar-maples (Acer saccharinum); and upon some higher ground, near the centre, appeared several species that belonged more to the primitive formations that bounded the lake on the east. These were pines and spruces, the juniper, and tamarack or American larch (Laryx Americana); and among others could be distinguished the dark cone-shaped forms of the red cedar-trees. Among the low bushes and shrubs there were rose and wild raspberry; there were apple and plum trees, and whole thickets of the “Pembina” (Viburnum oxycoccos). There is, in fact, no part of the world where a greater variety of wild fruit has been found indigenous than upon the banks of the Red River of the North, and this variety extended to the little island where our voyageurs had encamped.

The camp had been placed under a beautiful tree—the tacamahac, or balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera). This is one of the finest trees of America, and one of those that extend farthest north into the cold countries. In favourable situations it attains a height of one hundred and fifty feet, with a proportionate thickness of trunk; but it is oftener only fifty or eighty feet high. Its leaves are oval, and, when young, of a rich yellowish colour, which changes to a bright green. The buds are very large, yellow, and covered with a varnish, which exhales a delightful fragrance, and gives to the tree its specific name.

It was near sunset on the afternoon of Saturday; the travellers had just finished their repast, and were reclining around a fire of red cedar, whose delicate smoke curled up among the pale-green leaves of the poplars. The fragrant smell of the burning wood, mixed with the aromatic odour of the balsam-tree, filled the air with a sweet perfume, and, almost without knowing why, our voyageurs felt a sense of pleasure stealing over them. The woods of the little island were not without their voices. The scream of the jay was heard, and his bright azure wing appeared now and then among the foliage. The scarlet plumage of the cardinal grosbeak flashed under the beams of the setting sun; and the trumpet-note of the ivory-billed woodpecker was heard near the centre of the island. An osprey was circling in the air, with his eye bent on the water below, watching for his finny prey; and a pair of bald eagles (Haliaetus leucocephalus) were winging their way towards the adjacent mainland. Half-a-dozen turkey vultures (Cathartes atratus) were wheeling above the beach, where some object, fish or carrion, had been thrown up by the waves.

For some time the party remained silent, each contemplating the scene with feelings of pleasure. François, as usual, first broke the silence.

“I say, cook, what’s for dinner to-morrow?”

It was to Lucien this speech was addressed. He was regarded as the maître de cuisine.

“Roast or boiled—which would you prefer?” asked the cook, with a significant smile.

“Ha! ha! ha!” laughed François; “boiled, indeed! a pretty boil we could have in a tin cup, holding less than a pint. I wish we could have a boiled joint and a bowl of soup. I’d give something for it. I’m precious tired of this everlasting dry roast.”

“You shall have both,” rejoined Lucien, “for to-morrow’s dinner. I promise you both the soup and the joint.”

Again François laughed incredulously.

“Do you mean to make soup in your shoe, Luce?”

“No; but I shall make it in this.”

And Lucien held up a vessel somewhat like a water-pail, which the day before he had himself made out of birch-bark.

“Well,” replied François, “I know you have got a vessel that holds water, but cold water ain’t soup; and if you can boil water in that vessel, I’ll believe you to be a conjuror. I know you can do some curious things with your chemical mixtures; but that you can’t do, I’m sure. Why, man, the bottom would be burned out of your bucket before the water got blood-warm. Soup, indeed!”

“Never mind, Frank, you shall see. You’re only like the rest of mankind—incredulous about everything they can’t comprehend. If you’ll take your hook and line, and catch some fish, I promise to give you a dinner to-morrow, with all the regular courses—soup, fish, boiled, roast, and dessert, too! I’m satisfied I can do all that.”

“Parbleu! brother, you should have been cook to Lucullus. Well, I’ll catch the fish for you.”

So saying, François took a fish-hook and line out of his pouch, and fixing a large grasshopper upon the hook, stepped forward to the edge of the water, and cast it in. The float was soon seen to bob and then sink, and François jerked his hook ashore with a small and very pretty fish upon it of a silver hue, with which the lake and the waters running into it abound. Lucien told him it was a fish of the genus Hyodon. He also advised him to bait with a worm, and let his bait sink to the bottom, and he might catch a sturgeon, which would be a larger fish.

“How do you know there are sturgeon in the lake?” inquired François.

“I am pretty sure of that,” answered the naturalist; “the sturgeon (Acipenser) is found all round the world in the northern temperate zone—both in its seas and fresh waters; although, when you go farther south into the warmer climate, no sturgeons exist. I am sure there are some here, perhaps more than one species. Sink your bait, for the sturgeon is a toothless fish, and feeds upon soft substances at the bottom.”

François followed the advice of his brother, and in a few minutes he had a “nibble,” and drew up and landed a very large fish, full three feet in length. Lucien at once pronounced it a sturgeon, but of a species he had not before seen. It was the Acipenser carbonarius, a curious sort of fish found in these waters. It did not look like a fish that would be pleasant eating; therefore François again took to bobbing for the silver fish (Hyodons), which, though small, he knew to be excellent when broiled.

“Come,” said Basil, “I must furnish my quota to this famous dinner that is to be. Let me see what there is on the island in the way of game;” and shouldering his rifle, he walked off among the trees.

“And I,” said Norman, “am not going to eat the produce of other people’s labour without contributing my share.”

So the young trader took up his gun and went off in a different direction.

“Good!” exclaimed Lucien, “we are likely to have plenty of meat for the dinner. I must see about the vegetables;” and taking with him his new-made vessel, Lucien sauntered off along the shore of the islet. François alone remained by the camp, and continued his fishing. Let us follow the plant-hunter, and learn a lesson of practical botany.

Lucien had not gone far, when he came to what appeared to be a mere sedge growing in the water. The stalks or culms of this sedge were full eight feet high, with smooth leaves, an inch broad, nearly a yard in length, and of a light green colour. At the top of each stalk was a large panicle of seeds, somewhat resembling a head of oats. The plant itself was the famous wild rice (Zizania aquatica), so much prized by the Indians as an article of food, and also the favourite of many wild birds, especially the reed-bird or rice-bunting. The grain of the zizania was not yet ripe, but the ears were tolerably well filled, and Lucien saw that it would do for his purpose. He therefore waded in, and stripped off into his vessel as much as he wanted.

“I am safe for rice-soup, at all events,” soliloquised he, “but I think I can do still better;” and he continued on around the shore, and shortly after struck into some heavy timber that grew in a damp, rich soil. He had walked about an hundred yards farther, when he was seen to stoop and examine some object on the ground.

“It ought to be found here,” he muttered to himself; “this is the very soil for it,—yes, here we have it!”

The object over which he was stooping was a plant, but its leaves appeared shrivelled, or rather quite withered away. The upper part of a bulbous root, however, was just visible above the surface. It was a bulb of the wild leek (Allium tricoccum.) The leaves, when young, are about six inches in length, of a flat shape and often three inches broad; but, strange to say, they shrivel or die off very early in the season,—even before the plant flowers, and then it is difficult to find the bulb.

Lucien, however, had sharp eyes for such things; and in a short while he had rooted out several bulbs as large as pigeons’ eggs, and deposited them in his birchen vessel. He now turned to go back to camp, satisfied with what he had obtained. He had the rice to give consistency to his soup, and the leek-roots to flavour it with. That would be enough.

As he was walking over a piece of boggy ground his eye was attracted to a singular plant, whose tall stem rose high above the grass. It was full eight feet in height, and at its top there was an umbel of conspicuous white flowers. Its leaves were large, lobed, and toothed, and the stem itself was over an inch in diameter, with furrows running longitudinally. Lucien had never seen the plant before, although he had often heard accounts of it, and he at once recognised it from its botanical description. It was the celebrated “cow parsnip” (Heracleum lanatum). Its stem was jointed and hollow, and Lucien had heard that the Indians called it in their language “flute-stem,” as they often used it to make their rude musical instruments from, and also a sort of whistle or “call,” by which they were enabled to imitate and decoy several kinds of deer. But there was another use to which the plant was put, of which the naturalist was not aware. Norman, who had been wandering about, came up at this moment, and seeing Lucien standing by the plant, uttered a joyful “Hulloh!”

“Well,” inquired Lucien, “what pleases you, coz?”

“Why, the flute-stem, of course. You talked of making a soup. It will help you, I fancy.”

“How?” demanded Lucien.

“Why, the young stems are good eating, and the roots, if you will; but the young shoots are better. Both Indians and voyageurs eat them in soup, and are fond of them. It’s a famous thing, I assure you.”

“Let us gather some, then,” said Lucien; and the cousins commenced cutting off such stems as were still young and tender. As soon as they had obtained enough, they took their way back to the camp. Basil had already arrived with a fine prairie hen (Tetrao cupido) which he had shot, and Norman had brought back a squirrel; so that, with François’s fish, of which a sufficient number had been caught, Lucien was likely to be able to keep his promise about the dinner.

François, however, could not yet comprehend how the soup was to be boiled in a wooden pot; and, indeed, Basil was unable to guess. Norman, however, knew well enough, for he had travelled through the country of the Assinoboil Indians, who take their name from this very thing. He had also witnessed the operation performed by Crees, Chippewas, and even voyageurs, where metal or earthen pots could not be obtained.

On the next day the mystery was cleared up to Basil and François. Lucien first collected a number of stones—about as large as paving-stones. He chose such as were hard and smooth. These he flung into the cinders, where they soon became red-hot. The water and meat were now put into the bark pot, and then one stone after another,—each being taken out as it got cooled,—until the water came to a fierce boil. The rice and other ingredients were added at the proper time, and in a short while an excellent soup was made. So much, then, for the soup, and the boiled dishes with vegetables. The roast, of course, was easily made ready upon green-wood spits, and the “game” was cooked in a similar way. The fish were broiled upon the red cinders, and eaten, as is usual, after the soup. There were no puddings or pies, though, no doubt, Lucien could have made such had they been wanted. In their place there was an excellent service of fruit. There were strawberries and raspberries, one sort of which found wild in this region is of a most delicious flavour. There were gooseberries and currants; but the most delicious fruit, and that which François liked best, was a small berry of a dark blue colour, not unlike the huckleberry, but much sweeter and of higher flavour. It grows on a low bush or shrub with ovate leaves; and this bush when it blossoms is so covered with beautiful white flowers, that neither leaves nor branches can be seen. There are no less than four varieties of it known, two of which attain to the height of twenty feet or more. The French Canadians call it “le poire,” but in most parts of America it is known as the “service-berry,” although several other names are given to it in different districts. Lucien informed his companions, while they were crushing its sweet purplish fruit between their teeth, that its botanical name is Amelanchier.

“Now,” remarked François, “if we only had a cup of coffee and a glass of wine, we might say that we had dined in fashionable style.”

“I think,” replied Lucien, “we are better without the wine, and as for the other I cannot give you that, but I fancy I can provide you with a cup of tea if you only allow me a little time.”

“Tea!” screamed François; “why, there’s not a leaf of tea nearer than China; and for the sugar, not a grain within hundreds of miles!”

“Come, Frank,” said Lucien, “nature has not been so ungenerous here,—even in such luxuries as tea and sugar. Look yonder! You see those large trees with the dark-coloured trunks. What are they?”

“Sugar-maples,” replied François.

“Well,” said Lucien, “I think even at this late season we might contrive to extract sap enough from them to sweeten a cup of tea. You may try, while I go in search of the tea-plant.”

“Upon my word, Luce, you are equal to a wholesale grocery. Very well. Come, Basil, we’ll tap the maples; let the captain go with Luce.”

The boys, separating into pairs, walked off in different directions. Lucien and his companion soon lighted upon the object of their search in the same wet bottom where they had procured the Heracleum. It was a branching shrub, not over two feet in height, with small leaves of a deep green colour above, but whitish and woolly underneath. It is a plant well-known throughout most of the Hudson’s Bay territory by the name of “Labrador tea-plant;” and is so called because the Canadian voyageurs, and other travellers through these northern districts, often drink it as tea. It is one of theEricaceae, or heath tribe, of the genus Ledum—though it is not a true heath, as, strange to say, no true heath is found upon the continent of America.

There are two kinds of it known,—the “narrow-leafed” and “broad-leafed;” and the former makes the best tea. But the pretty white flowers of the plant are better for the purpose than the leaves of either variety; and these it was that were now gathered by Lucien and Norman. They require to be dried before the decoction is made; but this can be done in a short time over a fire; and so in a short time it was done, Norman having parched them upon heated stones. Meanwhile Basil and François had obtained the sugar-water, and Lucien having washed his soup-kettle clean, and once more made his boiling stones red-hot, prepared the beverage; and then it was served out in the tin cup, and all partook of it. Norman had drunk the Labrador tea before, and was rather fond of it, but his Southern cousins did not much relish it. Its peculiar flavour, which somewhat resembles rhubarb, was not at all to the liking of François. All, however, admitted that it produced a cheering effect upon their spirits; and, after drinking it, they felt in that peculiarly happy state of mind which one experiences after a cup of the real “Bohea.”

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