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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XIX. An Odd Sort of Decoy-Duck

Two days after the adventure with the blaireau, the young voyageurs arrived at Cumberland House—one of the most celebrated posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The chief factor, who resided there, was a friend of Norman’s father, and of course the youths were received with the warmest hospitality, and entertained during their stay in the best manner the place afforded. They did not make a long stay, however, as they wished to complete their journey before the winter should set in, when canoe-travelling would become impossible. During winter, not only the lakes, but the most rapid rivers of these Northern regions, become frozen up, and remain so for many months. Nearly the whole surface of the earth is buried under deep snow, and travelling can only be done with snow-shoes, or with sledges drawn by dogs. These are the modes practised by the Indians, the Esquimaux, and the few white traders and trappers who have occasion in winter to pass from one point to another of that icy and desolate region.

Travelling under such circumstances is not only difficult and laborious, but is extremely perilous. Food cannot always be obtained—supplies fall short, or become exhausted—game is scarce, or cannot be found at all, as at that season many of the quadrupeds and most of the birds have forsaken the country, and migrated to the South—and whole parties of travellers—even Indians, who can eat anything living or dead, roast or raw—often perish from hunger.

Our travellers were well acquainted with these facts; and being anxious, therefore, to get to the end of their journey before the winter should come down upon them, made all haste to proceed. Of course they obtained a new “outfit” at the Fort; but they took with them only such articles as were absolutely necessary, as they had many portages to make before they could reach the waters of the Mackenzie River. As it required two of the party to carry the canoe, with a few little things besides, all the baggage was comprised in such loads as the others could manage; and of course that was not a great deal, for François was but a lad, and Lucien was far from being in robust health. A light axe, a few cooking utensils, with a small stock of provisions, and of course their guns, formed the bulk of their loads.

After leaving the Fort they kept for several days’ journey up the Saskatchewan. They then took leave of that river, and ascended a small stream that emptied into it from the north. Making their first portage over a “divide,” they reached another small stream that ran in quite a different direction, emptying itself into one of the branches of the Mississippi, or Churchill River. Following this in a north-westerly course, and making numerous other portages, they reached Lake La Crosse, and afterwards in succession, Lakes Clear, Buffalo, and Methy. A long “portage” from the last-mentioned lake brought them to the head of a stream known as the “Clear Water;” and launching their canoe upon this, they floated down to its mouth, and entered the main stream of the Elk, or Athabasca, one of the most beautiful rivers of America. They were now in reality upon the waters of the Mackenzie itself, for the Elk, after passing through the Athabasca Lake, takes from thence the name of Slave River, and having traversed Great Slave Lake, becomes the Mackenzie—under which name it continues on to the Arctic Ocean. Having got, therefore, upon the main head-water of the stream which they intended to traverse, they floated along in their canoe with light hearts and high hopes. It is true they had yet fifteen hundred miles to travel, but they believed that it was all down-hill work now; and as they had still nearly two months of summer before them, they doubted not being able to accomplish the voyage in good time.

On they floated down-stream, feasting their eyes as they went—for the scenery of the Elk valley is of a most picturesque and pleasing character; and the broad bosom of the stream itself, studded with wooded islands, looked to our travellers more like a continuation of lakes than a running river. Now they glided along without using an oar, borne onward by the current; then they would take a spell at the paddles, while the beautiful Canadian boat-song could be heard as it came from the tiny craft, and the appropriate chorus “Row, brothers, row!” echoed from the adjacent shores. No part of their journey was more pleasant than while descending the romantic Elk.

They found plenty of fresh provisions, both in the stream itself and on its banks. They caught salmon in the water, and the silver-coloured hyodon, known among the voyageurs by the name of “Dore.” They shot both ducks and geese, and roast-duck or goose had become an everyday dinner with them. Of the geese there were several species. There were “snow-geese,” so called from their beautiful white plumage; and “laughing geese,” that derive their name from the circumstance that their call resembles the laugh of a man. The Indians decoy these by striking their open hand repeatedly over the mouth while uttering the syllable “wah.” They also saw the “Brent goose,” a well-known species, and the “Canada goose,” which is the wild goose par excellence. Another species resembling the latter, called the “barnacle goose,” was seen by our travellers. Besides these, Lucien informed them that there were several other smaller kinds that inhabit the northern countries of America. These valuable birds are objects of great interest to the people of the fur countries for months in the year. Whole tribes of Indians look to them as a means of support.

With regard to ducks, there was one species which our travellers had not yet met with, and for which they were every day upon the look-out. This was the far-famed “canvass-back,” so justly celebrated among the epicures of America. None of them had ever eaten of it, as it is not known in Louisiana, but only upon the Atlantic coast of the United States. Norman, however, had heard of its existence in the Rocky Mountains—where it is said to breed—as well as in other parts of the fur countries, and they were in hopes that they might fall in with it upon the waters of the Athabasca. Lucien was, of course, well acquainted with its “biography,” and could have recognised one at sight; and as they glided along he volunteered to give his companions some information, not only about this particular species, but about the whole genus of these interesting birds.

“The canvass-back,” began he, “is perhaps the most celebrated and highly-prized of all the ducks, on account of the exquisite flavour of its flesh—which is thought by some epicures to be superior to that of all other birds. It is not a large duck—rarely weighing over three pounds—and its plumage is far from equalling in beauty that of many other species. It has a red or chestnut-coloured head, a shining black breast, while the greater part of its body is of a greyish colour; but upon close examination this grey is found to be produced by a whitish ground minutely mottled with zig-zag black lines. I believe it is this mottling, combined with the colour, which somewhat resembles the appearance and texture of ship’s canvass, that has given the bird its trivial name; but there is some obscurity about the origin of this. In colour, however, it so nearly resembles the ‘pochard,’ or ‘red-head’ of Europe, and its near congener the red-head (Anas ferina) of America, that at a distance it is difficult to distinguish them from each other. The last-mentioned species is always found associated with the canvass-backs, and are even sold for the latter in the markets of New York and Philadelphia. A naturalist, however, can easily distinguish them by their bills and eyes. The canvass-back has red eyes, with a greenish black bill, nearly straight; while the eyes of the red-head are of an orange yellow, its bill bluish and concave along the upper ridge.

“The canvass-back is known in natural history as Anas valisneria, and this specific name is given to it because it feeds upon the roots of an aquatic plant, a species of ‘tape-grass,’ or ‘eel-grass;’ but botanically called ‘Valisneria,’ after the Italian botanist, Antonio Valisneri. This grass grows in slow-flowing streams, and also on shoals by the seaside—where the water, from the influx of rivers, is only brackish. The water where it grows is usually three to five feet in depth, and the plant itself rises above the surface to the height of two feet or more, with grass-like leaves of a deep green colour. Its roots are white and succulent, and bear some resemblance to celery—hence the plant is known among the duck-hunters as ‘wild celery.’ It is upon these roots the canvass-back almost exclusively feeds, and they give to the flesh of these birds its peculiar and pleasant flavour. Wherever the valisneria grows in quantity, as in the Chesapeake Bay and some rivers, like the Hudson, there the canvass-backs resort, and are rarely seen elsewhere. They do not eat the leaves but only the white soft roots, which they dive for and pluck up with great dexterity. The leaves when stripped of the root are suffered to float off upon the surface of the water; and where the ducks have been feeding, large quantities of them, under the name of ‘grass wrack,’ are thrown by the wind and tide upon the adjacent shores.

“Shooting the canvass-backs is a source of profit to hundreds of gunners who live around the Chesapeake Bay, as these birds command a high price in the markets of the American cities. Disputes have arisen between the fowlers of different States around the Bay about the right of shooting upon it; and vessels full of armed men—ready to make war upon one another—have gone out on this account. But the government of these States succeeded in settling the matter peacefully, and to the satisfaction of all parties.”

The canoe at this moment shot round a bend, and a long smooth expanse of the river appeared before the eyes of our voyageurs. They could see that upon one side another stream ran in, with a very sluggish current; and around the mouth of this, and for a good stretch below it, there appeared a green sedge-like water-grass, or rushes. Near the border of this sedge, and in a part of it that was thin, a flock of wild fowl was diving and feeding. They were small, and evidently ducks; but the distance was yet too great for the boys to make out to what species they belonged. A single large swan—a trumpeter—was upon the water, between the shore and the ducks, and was gradually making towards the latter. François immediately loaded one of his barrels with swan, or rather “buck” shot, and Basil looked to his rifle. The ducks were not thought of—the trumpeter was to be the game. Lucien took out his telescope, and commenced observing the flock. They had not intended to use any precaution in approaching the birds, as they were not extremely anxious about getting a shot, and were permitting the canoe to glide gently towards them. An exclamation from Lucien, however, caused them to change their tactics. He directed them suddenly to “hold water” and stop the canoe, at the same time telling them that the birds ahead were the very sort about which they had been conversing—the “canvass-backs.” He had no doubt of it, judging from their colour, size, and peculiar movements.

The announcement produced a new excitement. All four were desirous not only of shooting, but of eating, a canvass-back; and arrangements were set about to effect the former. It was known to all that the canvass-backs are among the shyest of water-fowl, so much so that it is difficult to approach them unless under cover. While feeding, it is said, they keep sentinels on the look-out. Whether this be true or not, it is certain that they never all dive together, some always remaining above water, and apparently watching while the others are under. A plan to get near them was necessary, and one was suggested by Norman, which was to tie bushes around the sides of the canoe, so as to hide both the vessel and those in it. This plan was at once adopted—the canoe was paddled up to the bank—thick bushes were cut, and tied along the gunwale; and then our voyageurs climbed in, and laying themselves as low as possible, commenced paddling gently downward in the direction of the ducks. The rifles were laid aside, as they could be of little service with such game. François’ double-barrel was the arm upon which dependence was now placed; and François himself leaned forward in the bow in order to be ready, while the others attended to the guidance of the vessel. The buck-shot had been drawn out, and a smaller kind substituted. The swan was no longer cared for or even thought of.

In about a quarter of an hour’s time, the canoe, gliding silently along the edge of the sedge—which was the wild celery (Valisneria spiralis)—came near the place where the ducks were; and the boys, peeping through the leafy screen, could now see the birds plainly. They saw that they were not all canvass-backs, but that three distinct kinds of ducks were feeding together. One sort was the canvass-backs themselves, and a second kind very much resembled them, except that they were a size smaller. These were the “red-heads” or “pochards.” The third species was different from either. They had also heads of a reddish colour, but of a brighter red, and marked by a white band that ran from the root of the bill over the crown. This mark enabled Lucien at once to tell the species. They were widgeons (Anas Americana); but the most singular thing that was now observed by our voyageurs was the terms upon which these three kinds of birds lived with each other. It appeared that the widgeon obtained its food by a regular system of robbery and plunder perpetrated upon the community of the canvass-backs. The latter, as Lucien had said, feeds upon the roots of the valisneria; but for these it is obliged to dive to the depth of four or five feet, and also to spend some time at the bottom while plucking them up. Now the widgeon is as fond of the “celery” as the canvass-back, but the former is not a diver—in fact, never goes under water except when washing itself or in play, and it has therefore no means of procuring the desired roots. Mark, then, the plan that it takes to effect this end. Seated as near as is safe to the canvass-back, it waits until the latter makes his somersault and goes down. It (the widgeon) then darts forward so as to be sufficiently close, and, pausing again, scans the surface with eager eye. It can tell where the other is at work, as the blades of the plant at which it is tugging are seen to move above the water. These at length disappear, pulled down as the plant is dragged from its root, and almost at the same instant the canvass-back comes up holding the root between his mandibles. But the widgeon is ready for him. He has calculated the exact spot where the other will rise; and, before the latter can open his eyes or get them clear of the water, the widgeon darts forward, snatches the luscious morsel from his bill, and makes off with it. Conflicts sometimes ensue; but the widgeon, knowing himself to be the lesser and weaker bird, never stands to give battle, but secures his prize through his superior agility. On the other hand, the canvass-back rarely attempts to follow him, as he knows that the other is swifter upon the water than he. He only looks after his lost root with an air of chagrin, and then, reflecting that there is “plenty more where it came from,” kicks up its heels, and once more plunges to the bottom.

The red-head rarely interferes with either, as he is contented to feed upon the leaves and stalks, at all times floating in plenty upon the surface.

As the canoe glided near, those on board watched these curious manoeuvres of the birds with feelings of interest. They saw, moreover, that the “trumpeter” had arrived among them, and the ducks seemed to take no notice of him. Lucien was struck with something unusual in the appearance of the swan. Its plumage seemed ruffled and on end, and it glided along in a stiff and unnatural manner. It moved its neck neither to one side nor the other, but held its head bent forward, until its bill almost touched the water, in the attitude that these birds adopt when feeding upon something near the surface. Lucien said nothing to his companions, as they were all silent, lest they might frighten the ducks; but Basil and Norman had also remarked the strange look and conduct of the trumpeter. François’ eyes were bent only upon the ducks, and he did not heed the other.

As they came closer, first Lucien, and then Basil and Norman, saw something else that puzzled them. Whenever the swan approached any of the ducks, these were observed to disappear under the water. At first, the boys thought that they merely dived to get out of his way, but it was not exactly in the same manner as the others were diving for the roots. Moreover, none of those that went down in the neighbourhood of the swan were seen to come up again!

There was something very odd in all this, and the three boys, thinking so at the same time, were about to communicate their thoughts to one another, when the double crack of François’ gun drove the thing, for a moment, out of their heads; and they all looked over the bushes to see how many canvass-backs had been killed. Several were seen dead or fluttering along the surface; but no one counted them, for a strange, and even terrible, object now presented itself to the astonished senses of all. If the conduct of the swan had been odd before, it was now doubly so. Instead of flying off after the shot, as all expected it would do, it was now seen to dance and plunge about on the water, uttering loud screams, that resembled the human voice far more than any other sounds! Then it rose as if pitched into the air, and fell on its back some distance off; while in its place was seen a dark, round object moving through the water, as if making for the bank, and uttering, as it went, the same hideous human-like screams!

This dark object was no other than the poll of a human being; and the river shallowing towards the bank, it rose higher and higher above the water, until the boys could distinguish the glistening neck and naked shoulders of a red and brawny Indian! All was now explained. The Indian had been duck-hunting, and had used the stuffed skin of the swan as his disguise; and hence the puzzling motions of the bird. He had not noticed the canoe—concealed as it was—until the loud crack of François’ gun had startled him from his work. This, and the heads and white faces of the boys peeping over the bushes, had frightened him, even more than he had them. Perhaps they were the first white faces he had ever seen. But, whether or not, sadly frightened he was; for, on reaching the bank, he did not stop, but ran off into the woods, howling and yelling as if Old Nick had been after him: and no doubt he believed that such was the case.

The travellers picked up the swan-skin out of curiosity; and, in addition to the ducks which François had killed, they found nearly a score of these birds, which the Indian had dropped in his fright, and that had afterwards risen to the surface. These were strung together, and all had their necks broken.

After getting them aboard, the canoe was cleared of the bushes; and the paddles being once more called into service, the little craft shot down-stream like an arrow.

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