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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XXIX. Travelling on Snow-Shoes

Once their resolution was taken, they lost but little time in making preparations to carry it out. Most of the articles required for such a journey were already in their hands. They had the proper dresses—snow-shoes, skin-blankets, and gloves. They had prepared for themselves sets of “snow spectacles.” These were made out of red cedar-wood. Each pair consisted of two small thin pieces, that covered the eyes, joined together and fastened on by thongs of buckskin. In each piece an oblong slit served for the eye-hole, through which the eye looked without being dazzled by the snow. Without this, or some like contrivance, travelling in the Arctic regions is painful to the eyes, and the traveller often loses his sight. Indeed, one of the most common infirmities of both the Indians and Esquimaux of these parts is blindness or soreness of the eyes, caused by the reflexion of the sunbeams from the crystals of the frozen snow. Norman was aware of this, and had made the spectacles to guard against this peril. Out of their spare skins they had made a small tent. This was to be carried along by Marengo in a light sledge, which they had long since constructed, and taught the dog to draw. Nothing else remained but to pack their provisions in the smallest bulk possible, and this was done, according to the custom of the country, by making “pemmican.” The dry meat was first pounded until it became a powder; it was then put into small skin bags, made for the purpose, and the hot melted fat was poured in and well mixed with it. This soon froze hard, and the mixture—that resembled “potted meat,”—was now ready for use, and would keep for an indefinite time without the least danger of spoiling. Buffalo-beef, moose-meat, or venison of any sort, thus prepared, is called “pemmican,” and is more portable in this shape than any other. Besides no further cooking is required—an important consideration upon those vast prairie deserts, where firewood is seldom to be procured without the trouble of carrying it a great distance.

Norman, who was the maker of the pemmican, had produced a superior article upon this occasion. Besides the pounded meat and fat, he had mixed another ingredient with it, which rendered it a most delicious food. This third ingredient was a small purple-coloured berry—of which we have already spoken—not unlike the whortleberry, but sweeter and of a higher flavour. It grows through most of the Northern regions of America; and in some places, as upon the Red River and the Elk, the bushes that produce it are seen in great plenty. When in flower, they appear almost white, so thickly are they covered with blossoms. The leaves are small, and generally of an oval shape; but there are several varieties of the bush, some of them having the dimensions and form of trees, of twenty-five feet in height. The berries have received different names in different parts of America. They are known as “shadberries,” “June-berries,” “service-berries,” and by the Canadian voyageurs they are called “le poire.” Even the botanists have given them a great variety of names, as pyrus, mespilus, aronia, crataegus, and amelanchier. No matter which may be the best name, it is enough to know that these little berries are delicious to eat when fresh, and when dried, after the manner of currants, are excellent to mix in puddings, as well as in pemmican.

Previous to the setting in of winter, our voyageurs had collected a large bagful upon the banks of the Elk, which they had dried and stored away—expecting to stand in need of them for this very purpose. They now came into use, and enabled Norman to make his pemmican of the very choicest quality. Five bags of it were put up, each weighing over thirty pounds. One of these was to be drawn upon the sledge, along with the tent, the axe, and a few other articles. The rest were to be carried by the voyageurs themselves—each shouldering one, which, along with their guns and accoutrements, would be load enough.

These arrangements being at length complete, the party bid adieu to their log-hut—gave a parting look to their little canoe, which still rested by the door—and then, shouldering their guns and bags of pemmican, set out over the frozen surface of the snow.

Of course before starting they had decided upon the route they were to take. This decision, however, had not been arrived at until after much discussion. Lucien advised that they should follow the shore of the lake until they should reach the Mackenzie River—which of course was now frozen up. Its channel, he argued, would then guide them; and, in case their provisions should run short, they would be more likely to find game upon its banks than elsewhere, as these were wooded almost to the sea—in consequence of its head-waters rising in southern latitudes, and carrying with them a warmer climate.

There was plausibility in Lucien’s argument, combined with much prudence. Norman, however, advised a contrary course. He said that they would have to make a considerable journey westward before reaching the place where the Mackenzie River flows out of the lake; and, moreover, he knew that the river itself was very crooked—in some places winding about in great curves, whose ends come near meeting each other. Should they keep the course of the river, Norman believed it would almost double their journey. A much shorter route, he said, would be obtained by striking across the country in a north-westerly direction, so as to reach the Mackenzie near where another great stream—the River of the Mountains—empties into it from the west. This would certainly be a more direct route, and they would avoid the windings of the river channel.

Norman’s reasoning prevailed. Basil and François readily agreed to his plan, and Lucien at length also gave his assent, but with some reluctance. Norman knew nothing whatever of the route he was advising them to take. His former journeys up and down the Mackenzie had been made in summer, and of course he had travelled by canoe, in company with the traders and voyageurs. He only knew that to strike across the country would be the shorter way. But “the shortest way is not always the nearest,” says the proverb; and although Lucien remembered this prudent maxim, the others did not give it a thought. Before the end of their journey they received a practical lesson of its wisdom—a lesson they were not likely to forget. But they knew not what was before them, and they started off in high spirits.

Their first three or four days’ journeys were without any event worth being chronicled. They travelled full twenty miles each day. The Southerners had become quite skilful in the management of their snow-shoes, and they skimmed along upon the icy crust at the rate of three or four miles an hour. Marengo and his sledge gave them very little trouble. There was full sixty pounds weight upon it; but to the huge dog this was a mere bagatelle, and he pulled it after him without any great strain. His harness was neatly made of moose-skin, and consisted of a collar with a back strap and traces—the traces meeting behind, where they were attached to the head of the sledge. No head-gear was necessary, as Marengo needed not to be either led or driven. The sledge consisted of two or three light planks of smooth wood, laid alongside each other, and held together by transverse bands. In front it turned up with a circular sweep, so as not to “plough” the snow; and at the top of this curved part the traces were adjusted. The load was, of course, carefully packed and tied, so that the overturning of the vehicle did no damage whatever, and it could be easily righted again. Marengo required no one to guide him, but followed quietly in the tracks of the snow-shoes, and thus avoided the trees, rocks, and other inequalities. If a rabbit or other creature started up, Marengo knew better than to go galloping after it; he felt that he had a more important duty to perform than to throw away his time upon rabbit-hunting. Each night a spot was chosen for the camp by the side of some lake or stream, where wood could be obtained for their fire. Water was got by breaking a hole in the ice, and the little tent was always set up in a sheltered situation.

Upon the fifth day after leaving the log-hut the woods began to grow thinner and more straggling; and towards night of the same day they found themselves travelling through a country, where the timber only grew here and there in small clumps, and the individual trees were small and stunted. Next day still less timber was seen upon their route; and when camping-time came, they were obliged to halt at a spot where nothing but willows could be procured for their fire. They had, in fact, arrived upon the edge of that vast wilderness, the Barren Grounds, which stretches in all its wild desolation along the Northern half of the American continent, (from the Great Slave Lake even to the shores of the Arctic Sea on the north, and to those of Hudson’s Bay on the east). This territory bears an appropriate name, for, perhaps, upon the whole surface of the earth there is no tract more barren or desolate—not even the Sahara of Africa. Both are deserts of immense extent, equally difficult to cross, and equally dangerous to the traveller. On both the traveller often perishes, but from different causes. On the Sahara it is thirst that kills; upon the Barren Grounds hunger is more frequently the destroyer. In the latter there is but little to be feared on the score of water. That exists in great plenty; or where it is not found, snow supplies its place. But there is water everywhere. Hill succeeds hill, bleak, rocky, and bare. Everywhere granite, gneiss, or other primitive rocks, show themselves. No vegetation covers the steep declivities of the hills, except the moss and lichen upon the rocks, a few willows upon the banks of streams, the dwarf birch-tree (Betula nana), or the scrub-pines, rising only to the height of a few inches, and often straggling over the earth like vines. Every hill has its valley, and every valley its lake—dark, and deep, and silent—in winter scarce to be distinguished under the snow-covered ice. The prospect in every direction exhibits a surface of rocks, or bleak hills, half covered with snow. The traveller looks around and sees no life. He listens and hears no sound. The world appears dead and wrapped in its cold winding-sheet!

Amidst just such scenes did our voyageurs find themselves on the seventh day after parting from the lake. They had heard of the Barren Grounds,—had heard many fearful stories of the sufferings of travellers who had attempted to cross them; but the description had fallen far short of the actual reality. None of them could believe in the difficulties to be encountered, and the desolateness of the scene they were to witness, until now that they found themselves in its midst; and, as they proceeded on their journey, getting farther and farther from the wooded region, their apprehensions, already aroused by the wild aspect of the country, grew stronger and stronger. They began to entertain serious fears, for they knew not how far the barren tract extended along their route. On calculation they found they had provisions enough to last them for a month. That in some measure restored their confidence; but even then, they could not help giving way to serious reflections. Should they get lost or retarded in their course by mountains, or other obstacles, it might take them longer than a month to reach some place where game was to be met with. Each day, as they advanced, they found the country more hilly and difficult. Precipices often bounded the valleys, lying directly across their track; and as these could not be scaled, it was necessary to make long détours to pass them, so that some days they actually advanced less than five miles upon their journey.

Notwithstanding these impediments, they might still have got over the Barren Grounds without further suffering than the fatigue and necessary exposure to cold; but at this time an incident occurred, that not only frustrated all their calculations, but placed them in imminent danger of perishing.

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