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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XXXVII. The "Alarm Bird" and the Caribou

“There wasn’t much ‘adventure’ in my day’s sport,” said he, “though I might call it a ‘bird-adventure’ too, for if it hadn’t been for a bird I shouldn’t have had it. I shot a deer—that’s all. But maybe it would be curious for you to know how I came to find the animal, so I’ll tell you.

“The first thing I did after leaving here was to climb the hill yonder,”—here Norman pointed to a long hill that sloped up from the opposite shore of the lake, and which was the direction he had taken, as Basil and François had gone right and left.

“I saw neither bird, beast, nor track, until I had reached the top of the hill. There I got a good view of the country ahead. I saw it was very rocky, without a stick of timber, and did not look very promising for game. ‘It’s no use going that way,’ I says to myself; ‘I’ll keep along the ridge, above where Frank’s gone. He may drive some varmint out of the hollow, and I’ll get a crack at it, as it comes over the hill.’

“I was about to turn to the left when I heard the skreek of a bird away ahead of me. I looked in that direction; and, sure enough, saw one wheeling about in the air, right above the rocky jumble with which the country was covered.

“Now it’s a mighty curious bird that I saw. It’s a sort of an owl, but, I should say myself, there’s a sprinkling of the hawk in it—for it’s as much like the one as the other.”

“No doubt,” interrupted Lucien, “it was one of the day owls of these Northern regions, some of which approach very near to the hawks, both in shape and habits. This peculiarity arises from the fact of the long summer day—of weeks in duration—within the Arctic circle, requiring them to hunt for their prey, just as hawks do; and therefore Nature has gifted them with certain peculiarities that make them resemble these birds. They want the very broad faces and large tufted heads of the true owls; besides the ears, which in the latter are remarkable for their size, and also for being operculated, or with lids, in the former are not much larger than in other birds of prey. The small hawk-owl (Strix funerea), which is altogether a Northern bird, is one of this kind.”

“Very well,” continued Norman, “what you say may be very true, cousin Luce; I only know that the bird I am speaking about is a mighty curious little creature. It ain’t bigger than a pigeon, and is of a mottled-brown colour; but what I call it curious for is this:—Whenever it sees any creature passing from place to place, it mounts up into the air, and hovers above them, keeping up a constant screeching, like the squalling of a child—and that’s anything but agreeable. It does so, not only in the neighbourhood of its nest—like the plover and some other birds—but it will sometimes follow a travelling party for hours together, and for miles across the country. From this circumstance the Indians of these parts call it the ‘alarm bird,’ or ‘bird of warning,’ because it often makes them aware of the approach either of their enemies or of strangers. Sometimes it alarms and startles the game, while the hunter is crawling up to it; and I have known it to bother myself for a while of a day, when I was after grouse. It’s a great favourite with the Indians though—as it often guides them to deer, or musk-oxen, by its flying and screaming above where these animals are feeding.

“Just in the same way it guided me. I knew, from the movements of the bird, that there must be something among the rocks. I couldn’t tell what, but I hoped it would turn out to be some creature that was eatable; so I changed my intention, and struck out for the place where it was.

“It was a good half-mile from the hill, and it cost me considerable clambering over the rocks, before I reached the ground. I thought to get near enough to see what it was, without drawing the bird upon myself, and I crouched from hummock to hummock; but the sharp-eyed creature caught sight of me, and came screeching over my head. I kept on without noticing it; but as I was obliged to go round some large rocks, I lost the direction, and soon found myself wandering back into my own trail. I could do nothing, therefore, until the bird should leave me, and fly back to whatever had first set it a-going. In order that it might do so, I crept in under a big stone that jutted out, and lay quiet a bit, watching it. It soon flew off, and commenced wheeling about in the air, not more than three hundred yards from where I lay. This time I took good bearings, and then went on. I did not care for the bird to guide me any longer, for I observed there was an open spot ahead, and I was sure that there I would see something. And sure enough I did. On peeping round the end of a rock, I spied a herd of about fifty deer. They were reindeer, of course, as there are no others upon the ‘Barren Grounds,’ and I saw they were all does—for at this season the bucks keep altogether in the woods. Some of them were pawing the snow to get at the moss, while others were standing by the rocks, and tearing off the lichens with their teeth. It so happened that I had the wind of them, else they would have scented me and made off, for I was within a hundred yards of the nearest. I was not afraid of their taking fright, so long as they could only see part of my body—for these deer are so stupid, or rather so curious, that almost anything will draw them within shot. Knowing this, I practised a trick that had often helped me before; and that was to move the barrel of my gun, up and down, with the same sort of motion as the deer make with their horns, when rubbing their necks against a rock or tree. If I’d had a set of antlers, it would have been all the better; but the other answered well enough. It happened the animals were not very wild, as, likely, they hadn’t been hunted for a good while. I bellowed at the same time,—for I know how to imitate their call—and, in less than a minute’s time, I got several of them within range. Then I took aim, and knocked one over, and the rest ran off. That,” said Norman, “ended my adventure—unless you call the carrying a good hundred pounds weight of deer-meat all the way back to camp part of it. If so, I can assure you that it was by far the most unpleasant part.”

Here Norman finished his narration, and a conversation was carried on upon the subject of reindeer, or, as these animals are termed, in America, “caribou.”

Lucien said that the reindeer (Cervus tarandus) is found in the Northern regions of Europe and Asia as well as in America, but that there were several varieties of them, and perhaps there were different species. Those of Lapland are most celebrated, because they not only draw sledges, but also furnish food, clothing, and many other commodities for their owners. In the north of Asia, the Tungusians have a much larger sort, which they ride upon; and the Koreki, who dwell upon the borders of Kamschatka, possess vast herds of reindeer—some rich individuals owning as many as ten or twenty thousand!

It is not certain that the reindeer of America is exactly the same as either of the kinds mentioned; and indeed in America itself there are two very distinct kinds—perhaps a third. Two kinds are well-known, that differ from each other in size, and also in habits. One is the “Barren Ground caribou,” and the other, the “Woodland caribou.” The former is one of the smallest of the deer kind—the bucks weighing little over one hundred pounds. As its name implies, it frequents the Barren Grounds, although in winter it also seeks the shelter of wooded tracts. Upon the Barren Grounds, and the desolate shores and islands of the Arctic Sea, it is the only kind of deer found, except at one or two points, as the mouth of the Mackenzie River—which happens to be a wooded country, and there the moose also is met with. Nature seems to have gifted the Barren Ground caribou with such tastes and habits, that a fertile country and a genial clime would not be a pleasant home for it. It seems adapted to the bleak, sterile countries in which it dwells, and where its favourite food—the mosses and lichens—is found. In the short summer of the Arctic regions, it ranges still farther north; and its traces have been found wherever the Northern navigators have gone. It must remain among the icy islands of the Arctic Sea until winter be considerably advanced, or until the sea is so frozen as to allow it to get back to the shores of the continent.

The “Woodland caribou” is a larger variety—a Woodland doe being about as big as a Barren Ground buck—although the horns of the latter species are larger and more branching than those of the former. The Woodland kind are found around the shores of Hudson’s Bay, and in other wooded tracts that lie in the southern parts of the fur countries—into which the Barren Ground caribou never penetrates. They also migrate annually, but, strange to say, their spring migrations are southward, while, at the same season, their cousins of the Barren Grounds are making their way northward to the shores of the Arctic Sea. This is a very singular difference in their habits, and along with their difference in bulk, form, etcetera, entitles them to be ranked as separate species of deer. The flesh of the Woodland caribou is not esteemed so good an article of food as that of the other; and, as it inhabits a district where many large animals are found, it is not considered of so much importance in the economy of human life. The “Barren Ground caribou,” on the other hand, is an indispensable animal to various tribes of Indians, as well as to the Esquimaux. Without it, these people would be unable to dwell where they do; and although they have not domesticated it, and trained it to draught, like the Laplanders, it forms their main source of subsistence, and there is no part of its body which they do not turn to some useful purpose. Of its horns they form their fish-spears and hooks, and, previous to the introduction of iron by the Europeans, their ice-chisels and various other utensils. Their scraping or currying knives are made from the split shin-bones. The skins make their clothing, tent-covers, beds, and blankets. The raw-hide, cleared of the hair and cut into thongs, serves for snares, bow-strings, net-lines, and every other sort of ropes. The finer thongs make netting for snow-shoes—an indispensable article to these people—and of these thongs fish-nets are also woven; while the tendons of the muscles, when split, serve for fine sewing-thread. Besides these uses, the flesh of the caribou is the food of many tribes, Indians and Esquimaux, for most of the year; and, indeed, it may be looked upon as their staple article of subsistence. There is hardly any part of it (even the horns, when soft) that is not eaten and relished by them. Were it not for the immense herds of these creatures that roam over the country, they would soon be exterminated—for they are easily approached, and the Indians have very little difficulty, during the summer season, in killing as many as they please.

Norman next gave a description of the various modes of hunting the caribou practised by the Indians and Esquimaux; such as driving them into a pound, snaring them, decoying and shooting them with arrows, and also a singular way which the Esquimaux have of taking them in a pit-trap built in the snow.

“The sides of the trap,” said he, “are built of slabs of snow, cut as if to make a snow-house. An inclined plane of snow leads to the entrance of the pit, which is about five feet deep, and large enough within to hold several deer. The exterior of the trap is banked up on all sides with snow; but so steep are these sides left, that the deer can only get up by the inclined plane which leads to the entrance. A great slab of snow is then placed over the mouth of the pit, and revolves on two axles of wood. This slab will carry the deer until it has passed the line of the axles, when its weight overbalances one side, and the animal is precipitated into the pit. The slab then comes back into a horizontal position as before, and is ready to receive another deer. The animals are attracted by moss and lichens placed for them on the opposite side of the trap—in such a way that they cannot be reached without crossing the slab. In this sort of trap several deer are frequently caught during a single day.”

Norman knew another mode of hunting practised by the Esquimaux, and proposed that the party should proceed in search of the herd upon the following day; when, should they succeed in finding the deer, he would show them how the thing was done: and he had no doubt of their being able to make a good hunt of it. All agreed to this proposal, as it would be of great importance to them to kill a large number of these animals. It is true they had now provision enough to serve for several days—but there were perhaps months, not days, to be provided for. They believed that they could not be far from the wooded countries near the banks of the Mackenzie, as some kinds of the animal they had met with were only to be found near timber during the winter season. But what of that? Even on the banks of the great river itself they might not succeed in procuring game. They resolved, therefore, to track the herd of deer which Norman had seen; and for this purpose they agreed to make a stay of some days at their present camp.

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