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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XXVIII. Life in a Log-Hut

The log-hut was finished on the 1st of September, and not a day too soon; for on that very day the winter set in with full severity. A heavy fall of snow came down in the night; and next morning, when our voyageurs looked abroad, the ground was covered to the depth of a foot, or more; and the ice upon the lake was also white. Walking through the great wreaths now became very difficult; and the next thing to be done was the making of “snow-shoes.”

Snow-shoes are an invention of the Indians; and, in the winter of the Arctic regions of America, are an article almost as indispensable as clothing itself. Without them, travelling afoot would be impossible. In these countries, as already stated, the snow often covers the ground to the depth of many feet; and remains without any considerable diminution for six, and, in some years, eight or nine months. At times, it is frozen hard enough on the surface to bear a man without the snow-shoes; but oftener on account of thaws and fresh falls, it becomes quite soft, and at such times travelling over it is both difficult and dangerous. To avoid both the difficulty and the danger, the Indians make use of this very singular sort of foot-wear—called “snow-shoes” by the English, and “raquets” by the Canadian voyageurs. They are used by all the Indian tribes of the Hudson’s Bay territory; and were it not for them these people would be confined to one place for months together, and could not follow the deer or other game. As almost all savages are improvident, and none more so than the North American Indians, were they prevented for a season from going out to hunt, whole tribes would starve. Indeed, many individuals of them perish with hunger as it is; and the life of all these Indians is nothing more than one continued struggle for food enough to sustain them. In summer they are often in the midst of plenty; slaughtering deer and buffalo by hundreds, taking out only the tongues, and recklessly leaving the flesh to the wolves! In winter the very same Indians may be seen without a pound of meat in their encampment—the lives of themselves and their families depending upon the success of a single day’s hunt!

But let us return to the snow-shoes. Let us see what they are, and learn how they are made.

Any boy who has snared sparrows in snow-time, has, no doubt, done so by tying his snares upon a hoop netted across with twine or other small cord. Now, if he will conceive his hoop bent into an oblong shape—something like what the figure of a boat turned on its mouth would make in snow—and if he will also fancy the netting to consist of thongs of twisted deer-hide woven somewhat closely together, he will get a very good idea of an Indian snow-shoe. It is usually from three to four feet long, by about a foot wide at the middle part, from which it tapers gently to a point, both at the heel and toe. The frame, as I have said, is like the hoop of a boy’s bird-snare. It is made of light, tough wood, and, of course, carefully bent and polished with the knife. The slender branches of the “scrub-pine” (Pinus Banksiana) are esteemed excellent for this purpose, as their wood is light, flexible and tough in its fibres. This is also a favourite tree, where it grows, to make tent-poles, canoe-timbers, and other implements required by the Indians; and these people use so much of it for their arrows, that it has received from the Canadian voyageurs the name of bois de flèche (arrow-wood).

Well, then, the frame of the snow-shoes being bent to its proper shape, two transverse bars are placed across near the middle, and several inches from each other. They are for the foot to rest upon, as well as to give strength to the whole structure. These being made fast, the netting is woven on, and extends over the whole frame, with the exception of a little space in front of the bars where the ball of the foot is to rest. This space is left free of netting, in order to allow play to the toes while walking. The mesh-work is made of thongs usually cut from the parchment-skin of a deer, and twisted. Sometimes twisted intestines are used, and the netting exactly resembles that seen in “racquets” for ball play.

The snow-shoe, when finished, is simply fastened upon the foot by means of straps or thongs; and a pair of them thus placed, will present a surface to the snow of nearly six square feet—more, if required, by making them larger. But this is enough to sustain the heaviest man upon the softest snow, and an Indian thus “shod” will skim over the surface like a skater.

The shoes used by all tribes of Indians are not alike in shape. There are fashions and fancies in this respect. Some are made—as among the Chippewa Indians—with one side of the frame nearly straight; and these, of course, will not do for either foot, but are “rights and lefts.” Generally, however, the shape is such that the snow-shoe will fit either foot.

The snow-shoes having now become a necessary thing, our young voyageurs set about making a complete set for the whole party—that is, no less than four pairs. Norman was the “shoemaker,” and Norman knew how. He could splice the frames, and work in the netting, equal to an Indian squaw. Of course all the others assisted him. Lucien cut the moose-skin into fine regular strips; Basil waded off through the snow, and procured the frames from the wood of the scrub-pine-trees where he had encountered the porcupine; and then he and François trimmed them with their knives, and sweated them in the hot ashes until they became dry, and ready for the hands of the “shoemaker.”

This work occupied them several days, and then each had a pair of shoes fitted to his size and weight.

The next consideration was, to lay in a stock of meat. The moose had furnished them with enough for present use, but that would not last long, as there was no bread nor anything else to eat with it. Persons in their situation require a great deal of meat to sustain them, much more than those who live in great cities, who eat a variety of substances, and drink many kinds of drinks. The healthy voyageur is rarely without a keen appetite; and meat by itself is a food that speedily digests, and makes way for a fresh meal; so that the ration usually allowed to the employés of the fur companies would appear large enough to supply the table of several families. For instance, in some parts of the Hudson’s Bay territory, the voyageur is allowed eight pounds of buffalo-meat per diem! And yet it is all eaten by him, and sometimes deemed barely sufficient. A single deer, therefore, or even a buffalo, lasts a party of voyageurs for a very short time, since they have no other substance, such as bread or vegetables, to help it out. It was necessary, then, that our travellers should use all their diligence in laying up a stock of dried meat, before the winter became too cold for them to hunt. There was another consideration—their clothing. They all had clothing sufficient for such weather as they had yet experienced; but that would never do for the winter of the Great Slave Lake, and they knew it. Many deer must be killed, and many hides dressed, before they could make a full set of clothing for all, as well as a set of deerskin blankets, which would be much needed.

As soon as the snow-shoes were finished, therefore, Basil and Norman went out each day upon long hunting expeditions, from which they rarely returned before nightfall. Sometimes they brought with them a deer, of the caribou or reindeer species, and the “woodland” variety, which were plenty at this place. They only carried to camp the best parts with the skin, as the flesh of the woodland caribou is not much esteemed. It is larger than the other kind—the “Barren Ground caribou,” weighing about one hundred and fifty pounds; but both its venison and hide are of inferior quality to those of the latter species. Sometimes our hunters killed smaller game; and on several occasions they returned without having emptied their guns at all. But there was one day that made up for several—one grand day when they were extremely successful, and on which they killed a whole herd of moose, consisting of five individuals—the old bull, a spike buck—that is, a young buck, whose horns had not yet got antlers upon them—the cow, and two calves. These they had tracked and followed for a long distance, and had succeeded, at length, in running into a valley where the snow was exceedingly deep, and where the moose became entangled. There had been a shower of rain the day before that had melted the surface of the snow; and this had again frozen into an icy crust, upon which the deer lacerated their ankles at every plunge, leaving a track of blood behind them as they ran. Under these circumstances they were easily trailed, and Basil and Norman, skimming along upon their snow-shoes, soon came up with them, and shot first one and then another, until the whole herd were stretched in the valley. They then butchered them, and hung the hides and quarters upon high branches, so as to secure them from wolves and wolverenes. When the job was finished, the whole place looked like a great slaughter-yard! Next day a rude sledge was constructed; and the voyageurs, returning in full force, transported the meat to camp. Huge fires were kindled outside the hut, and several days were spent in cutting up and drying the flesh. Had our travellers been certain that the frost would have continued all winter, this would not have been necessary—since the meat was already frozen as hard as a brick. But they knew that a sudden thaw would spoil it; and, as there was plenty of good firewood on the spot, they were not going to run the risk of losing it in that way.

They had now enough provision to last them for months; and hunting became no longer necessary, except to obtain fresh meat—which was, of course, preferable to the dry stock. Hunting, also, gave them exercise and amusement—both of which were necessary to their health; for to remain idle and inactive in a situation such as that in which they were placed is the worst possible plan, and is sure to engender both sickness and ennui. Indeed, the last grew upon them, notwithstanding all the pains they took to prevent it. There were days on which the cold was so extreme, that they could not put their noses out of the door without the danger of having them frost-bitten—although each had now a complete suit of deerskin clothing, made by Lucien, the “tailor” of the party. Upon such days they were fain to remain shut up in their hut; and, seated around their huge log-fire, they passed the time in cleaning their guns, mending their nets, stitching their clothes, and such-like employments. These days were far from being their dullest; for, what with the varied and scientific knowledge of Lucien, which he took pleasure in imparting to his companions—what with the practical experience of Norman amid scenes of Arctic life, and the many “voyageur tales” he could tell—what with François’ merry jokes and bon mots—and what with Basil’s talent for listening—not the least important element in a good conversazione,—our quartette of young voyageurs found their indoor days anything but dull.

This was all well enough for a while. For a month or two they bore their odd kind of life cheerfully enough; but the prospect of nearly six months more of it began to appal them, when they reflected upon it; and they soon found themselves longing for a change. Hunting adventures, that at other times would have interested them, now occurred without creating any excitement; and the whole routine of their employments seemed monotonous. Nearly all of them were boys of an active character of mind; and most of them were old enough to reason about the value of time. Their idea of such a long isolation from civilised life, and, above all, the being debarred from following any useful pursuit, began to impress some of them forcibly. Others, as François, could not be contented for a very great stretch of time with any sort of life; so that all of them began to sigh for a change.

One day, while conversing upon this theme, a bold proposal was made by Basil. It was, that they should “strike camp,” and continue their journey. This proposal took the others by surprise, but they were all just in the frame of mind to entertain and discuss it; and a long consultation was held upon the point. François chimed in with the proposal at once; while Lucien, more cautious, did not exactly oppose, but rather offered the reasons that were against it, and pointed out the perils of the undertaking. Norman, of course, was appealed to—all of them looking to him as one whose advice, upon that question at least, was more valuable than their own.

Norman admitted the dangers pointed out by Lucien, but believed that they might overcome them by a proper caution. On the whole, Norman approved of the plan, and it was at length adopted. Perhaps Norman’s habitual prudence was to some extent influenced on this occasion by the very natural desire he had of returning to what he considered his home. He had now been absent nearly two years, and was desirous of once more seeing his father and his old companions at the Fort. There was another feeling that influenced nearly all of them: that was ambition. They knew that to make such a journey would be something of a feat, and they wished to have the credit of performing it. To minds like that of Basil, even the danger had something attractive in it. It was resolved then to break up the encampment, and continue their journey.

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