The Forest by Stewart Edward White
I. The Calling.
"The Red Gods make their medicine again."
Some time in February, when the snow and sleet have shut out from the wearied mind even the memory of spring, the man of the woods generally receives his first inspiration. He may catch it from some companion's chance remark, a glance at the map, a vague recollection of a dim past conversation, or it may flash on him from the mere pronouncement of a name. The first faint thrill of discovery leaves him cool, but gradually, with the increasing enthusiasm of cogitation, the idea gains body, until finally it has grown to plan fit for discussion.
Of these many quickening potencies of inspiration, the mere name of a place seems to strike deepest at the heart of romance. Colour, mystery, the vastnesses of unexplored space are there, symbolized compactly for the aliment of imagination. It lures the fancy as a fly lures the trout. Mattagami, Peace River, Kananaw, the House of the Touchwood Hills, Rupert's House, the Land of Little Sticks, Flying Post, Conjuror's House--how the syllables roll from the tongue, what pictures rise in instant response to their suggestion! The journey of a thousand miles seems not too great a price to pay for the sight of a place called the Hills of Silence, for acquaintance with the people who dwell there, perhaps for a glimpse of the saga-spirit that so named its environment. On the other hand, one would feel but little desire to visit Muggin's Corners, even though at their crossing one were assured of the deepest flavour of the Far North.
The first response to the red god's summons is almost invariably the production of a fly-book and the complete rearrangement of all its contents. The next is a resumption of practice with the little pistol. The third, and last, is pencil and paper, and lists of grub and duffel, and estimates of routes and expenses, and correspondence with men who spell queerly, bear down heavily with blunt pencils, and agree to be at Black Beaver Portage on a certain date. Now, though the February snow and sleet still shut him in, the spring has draw very near. He can feel the warmth of her breath rustling through his reviving memories.
There are said to be sixty-eight roads to heaven, of which but one is the true way, although here and there a by-path offers experimental variety to the restless and bold. The true way for the man in the woods to attain the elusive best of his wilderness experience is to go as light as possible, and the by-paths of departure from that principle lead only to the slightly increased carrying possibilities of open-water canoe trips, and permanent camps.
But these prove to be not very independent side paths, never diverging so far from the main road that one may dare hope to conceal from a vigilant eye that he is not going light.
To go light is to play the game fairly. The man in the woods matches himself against the forces of nature. In the towns he is warmed and fed and clothed so spontaneously and easily that after a time he perforce begins to doubt himself, to wonder whether his powers are not atrophied from disuse. And so, with his naked soul, he fronts the wilderness. It is a test, a measuring of strength, a proving of his essential pluck and resourcefulness and manhood, an assurance of man's highest potency, the ability to endure and to take care of himself. In just so far as he substitutes the ready-made of civilization for the wit-made of the forest, the pneumatic bed for the balsam boughs, in just so far is he relying on other men and other men's labour to take care of him. To exactly that extent is the test invalidated. He has not proved a courteous antagonist, for he has not stripped to the contest.
To go light is to play the game sensibly. For even when it is not so earnest, nor the stake so high, a certain common-sense should take the place on a lower plane of the fair-play sense on the higher. A great many people find enjoyment in merely playing with nature. Through vacation they relax their minds, exercise mildly their bodies, and freshen the colours of their outlook on life. Such people like to live comfortably, work little, and enjoy existence lazily. Instead of modifying themselves to fit the life of the wilderness, they modify their city methods to fit open-air conditions. They do not need to strip to the contest, for contest there is none, and Indian packers are cheap at a dollar a day. But even so the problem of the greatest comfort--defining comfort as an accurate balance of effort expended to results obtained--can be solved only by the one formula. And that formula is, again, go light, for a superabundance of paraphernalia proves always more of a care than a satisfaction. When the woods offer you a thing ready made, it is the merest foolishness to transport that same thing a hundred miles for the sake of the manufacturer's trademark.
I once met an outfit in the North Woods, plodding diligently across portage, laden like the camels of the desert. Three Indians swarmed back and forth a half-dozen trips apiece. An Indian can carry over two hundred pounds. That evening a half-breed and I visited their camp and examined their outfit, always with growing wonder. They had tent-poles and about fifty pounds of hardwood tent pegs--in a wooded country where such things can be had for a clip of the axe. They had a system of ringed iron bars which could be so fitted together as to form a low open grill on which trout could be broiled--weight twenty pounds, and split wood necessary for its efficiency. They had air mattresses and camp-chairs and oil lanterns. They had corpulent duffel bags apiece that would stand alone, and enough changes of clothes to last out dry-skinned a week's rain. And the leader of the party wore the wrinkled brow of tribulation. For he had to keep track of everything and see that package number twenty-eight was not left, and that package number sixteen did not get wet; that the pneumatic bed did not get punctured, and that the canned goods did. Beside which, the caravan was moving at the majestic rate of about five miles a day.
Now tent-pegs can always be cut, and trout broiled beautifully by a dozen other ways, and candle lanterns fold up, and balsam can be laid in such a manner as to be as springy as a pneumatic mattress, and camp-chairs, if desired, can be quickly constructed with an axe, and clothes can always be washed or dried as long as fire burns and water runs, and any one of fifty other items of laborious burden could have been ingeniously and quickly substituted by any one of the Indians. It was not that we concealed a bucolic scorn of effete but solid comfort; only it did seem ridiculous that a man should cumber himself with a fifth wheel on a smoothly macadamized road.
The next morning Billy and I went cheerfully on our way. We were carrying an axe, a gun, blankets, an extra pair of drawers and socks apiece, a little grub, and an eight-pound shelter tent. We had been out a week, and we were having a good time.