The Forest by Stewart Edward White
XII. The River.
At a certain spot on the North Shore--I am not going to tell you where--you board one of the two or three fishing-steamers that collect from the different stations the big ice-boxes of Lake Superior whitefish. After a certain number of hours--I am not going to tell you how many--your craft will turn in toward a semicircle of bold, beautiful hills, that seem at first to be many less miles distant than the reality, and at the last to be many more miles remote than is the fact. From the prow you will make out first a uniform velvet green; then the differentiation of many shades; then the dull neutrals of rocks and crags; finally the narrow white of a pebble beach against which the waves utter continually a rattling undertone. The steamer pushes boldly in. The cool green of the water underneath changes to gray. Suddenly you make out the bottom, as through a thick green glass, and the big suckers and catfish idling over its riffled sands, inconceivably far down through the unbelievably clear liquid. So absorbed are you in this marvellous clarity that a slight, grinding jar alone brings you to yourself. The steamer's nose is actually touching the white strip of pebbles!
Now you can do one of a number of things. The forest slants down to your feet in dwindling scrub, which half conceals an abandoned log structure. This latter is the old Hudson's Bay post. Behind it is the Fur Trail, and the Fur Trail will take you three miles to Burned Rock Pool, where are spring water and mighty trout. But again, half a mile to the left, is the mouth of the River. And the River meanders charmingly through the woods of the flat country over numberless riffles and rapids, beneath various steep gravel banks, until it sweeps boldly under the cliff of the first high hill. There a rugged precipice rises sheer and jagged and damp-dark to overhanging trees clinging to the shoulder of the mountain. And precisely at that spot is a bend where the water hits square, to divide right and left in whiteness, to swirl into convolutions of foam, to lurk darkly for a moment on the edge of tumult before racing away. And there you can stand hip-deep, and just reach the eddy foam with a cast tied craftily of Royal Coachman, Parmachenee Belle, and Montreal.
From that point you are with the hills. They draw back to leave wide forest, but always they return to the River--as you would return season after season were I to tell you how--throwing across your woods-progress a sheer cliff forty or fifty feet high, shouldering you incontinently into the necessity of fording to the other side. More and more jealous they become as you penetrate, until at the Big Falls they close in entirely, warning you that here they take the wilderness to themselves. At the Big Falls anglers make their last camp. About the fire they may discuss idly various academic questions--as to whether the great inaccessible pool below the Falls really contains the legendary Biggest Trout; what direction the River takes above; whether it really becomes nothing but a series of stagnant pools connected by sluggish water-reaches; whether there are any trout above the Falls; and so on.
These questions, as I have said, are merely academic. Your true angler is a philosopher. Enough is to him worth fifteen courses, and if the finite mind of man could imagine anything to be desired as an addition to his present possessions on the River, he at least knows nothing of it. Already he commands ten miles of water--swift, clear water--running over stone, through a freshet bed so many hundreds of feet wide that he has forgotten what it means to guard his back cast. It is to be waded in the riffles, so that he can cross from one shore to the other as the mood suits him. One bank is apt to be precipitous, the other to stretch away in a mile or so of the coolest, greenest, stillest primeval forest to be imagined. Thus he can cut across the wide bends of the River, should he so desire and should haste be necessary to make camp before dark. And, last, but not least by any manner of means, there are trout.
I mean real trout--big fellows, the kind the fishers of little streams dream of but awake to call Morpheus a liar, just as they are too polite to call you a liar when you are so indiscreet as to tell them a few plain facts. I have one solemnly attested and witnessed record of twenty-nine inches, caught in running water. I saw a friend land on one cast three whose aggregate weight was four and one half pounds. I witnessed, and partly shared, an exciting struggle in which three fish on three rods were played in the same pool at the same time. They weighed just fourteen pounds. One pool, a backset, was known as the Idiot's Delight, because any one could catch fish there. I have lain on my stomach at the Burned Rock Pool and seen the great fish lying so close together as nearly to cover the bottom, rank after rank of them, and the smallest not under a half pound. As to the largest--well, every true fisherman knows him!
So it came about for many years that the natural barrier interposed by the Big Falls successfully turned the idle tide of anglers' exploration. Beyond them lay an unknown country, but you had to climb cruelly to see it, and you couldn't gain above what you already had in any case. The nearest settlement was nearly sixty miles away, so even added isolation had not its usual quickening effect on camper's effort. The River is visited by few, anyway. An occasional adventurous steam yacht pauses at the mouth, fishes a few little ones from the shallow pools there, or a few big ones from the reefs, and pushes on. It never dreams of sending an expedition to the interior. Our own people, and two other parties, are all I know of who visit the River regularly. Our camp-sites alone break the forest; our blazes alone continue the initial short cut of the Fur Trail; our names alone distinguish the various pools. We had always been satisfied to compromise with the frowning Hills. In return for the delicious necks and points and forest areas through which our clipped trails ran, we had tacitly respected the mystery of the upper reaches.
This year, however, a number of unusual conditions changed our spirit. I have perhaps neglected to state that our trip up to now had been a rather singularly damp one. Of the first fourteen days twelve had been rainy. This was only a slightly exaggerated sample for the rest of the time. As a consequence we found the River filled even to the limit of its freshet banks. The broad borders of stone beach between the stream's edge and the bushes had quite disappeared; the riffles had become rapids, and the rapids roaring torrents; the bends boiled angrily with a smashing eddy that sucked air into pirouetting cavities inches in depth. Plainly, fly-fishing was out of the question. No self-respecting trout would rise to the surface of such a moil, or abandon for syllabubs of tinsel the magnificent solidities of ground-bait such a freshet would bring down from the hills. Also the River was unfordable.
We made camp at the mouth and consulted together. Billy, the half-breed who had joined us for the labour of a permanent camp, shook his head.
"I t'ink one week, ten day," he vouchsafed. "P'rhaps she go down den. We mus' wait." We did not want to wait; the idleness of a permanent camp is the most deadly in the world.
"Billy," said I, "have you ever been above the Big Falls?"
The half-breed's eyes flashed.
"Non," he replied simply. "Ba, I lak' mak' heem firs' rate."
"All right, Billy; we'll do it."
The next day it rained, and the River went up two inches. The morning following was fair enough, but so cold you could see your breath. We began to experiment.
Now, this expedition had become a fishing vacation, so we had all the comforts of home with us. When said comforts of home were laden into the canoe, there remained forward and aft just about one square foot of space for Billy and me, and not over two inches of freeboard for the River. We could not stand up and pole; tracking with a tow-line was out of the question, because there existed no banks on which to walk; the current was too swift for paddling. So we knelt and poled. We knew it before, but we had to be convinced by trial, that two inches of freeboard will dip under the most gingerly effort. It did so. We groaned, stepped out into ice-water up to our waists, and so began the day's journey with fleeting reference to Dante's nethermost hell.
Next the shore the water was most of the time a little above our knees, but the swirl of a rushing current brought an apron of foam to our hips. Billy took the bow and pulled; I took the stern and pushed. In places our combined efforts could but just counterbalance the strength of the current. Then Billy had to hang on until I could get my shoulder against the stern for a mighty heave, the few inches gain of which he would guard as jealously as possible, until I could get into position for another shove. At other places we were in nearly to our armpits, but close under the banks where we could help ourselves by seizing bushes.
Sometimes I lost my footing entirely and trailed out behind like a streamer; sometimes Billy would be swept away, the canoe's bow would swing down-stream, and I would have to dig my heels and hang on until he had floundered upright. Fortunately for our provisions, this never happened to both at the same time. The difficulties were still further complicated by the fact that our feet speedily became so numb from the cold that we could not feel the bottom, and so were much inclined to aimless stumblings. By-and-by we got out and kicked trees to start the circulation. In the meantime the sun had retired behind thick, leaden clouds.
At the First Bend we were forced to carry some fifty feet. There the River rushed down in a smooth apron straight against the cliff, where its force actually raised the mass of water a good three feet higher than the level of the surrounding pool. I tied on a bait-hook, and two cartridges for sinkers, and in fifteen minutes had caught three trout, one of which weighed three pounds, and the others two pounds and a pound and a half respectively. At this point Dick and Deuce, who had been paralleling through the woods, joined us. We broiled the trout, and boiled tea, and shivered as near the fire as we could. That afternoon, by dint of labour and labour, and yet more labour, we made Burned Rock, and there we camped for the night, utterly beaten out by about as hard a day's travel as a man would want to undertake.
The following day was even worse, for as the natural bed of the River narrowed, we found less and less footing and swifter and swifter water. The journey to Burned Rock had been a matter of dogged hard work; this was an affair of alertness, of taking advantage of every little eddy, of breathless suspense during long seconds while the question of supremacy between our strength and the stream's was being debated. And the thermometer must have registered well towards freezing. Three times we were forced to cross the River in order to get even precarious footing. Those were the really doubtful moments. We had to get in carefully, to sit craftily, and to paddle gingerly and firmly, without attempting to counteract the downward sweep of the current. All our energies and care were given to preventing those miserable curling little waves from over-topping our precious two inches, and that miserable little canoe from departing even by a hair's-breadth from the exactly level keel. Where we were going did not matter. After an interminable interval the tail of our eyes would catch the sway of bushes near at hand.
"Now," Billy would mutter abstractedly.
With one accord we would arise from six inches of wet and step swiftly into the River. The lightened canoe would strain back; we would brace our legs. The traverse was accomplished.
Being thus under the other bank, I would hold the canoe while Billy, astraddle the other end for the purpose of depressing the water to within reach of his hand, would bail away the consequences of our crossing. Then we would make up the quarter of a mile we had lost.
We quit at the Organ Pool about three o'clock of the afternoon. Not much was said that evening.
The day following we tied into it again. This time we put Dick and Deuce on an old Indian trail that promised a short cut, with instructions to wait at the end of it. In the joyous anticipation of another wet day we forgot they had never before followed an Indian trail. Let us now turn aside to the adventures of Dick and Deuce.
Be it premised here that Dick is a regular Indian of taciturnity when it becomes a question of his own experience, so that for a long time we knew of what follows but the single explanatory monosyllable which you shall read in due time. But Dick has a beloved uncle. In moments of expansion to this relative after his return he held forth as to the happenings of that morning.
Dick and the setter managed the Indian trail for about twenty rods. They thought they managed it for perhaps twice that distance. Then it became borne in on them that the bushes went back, the faint knife-clippings, and the half weather-browned brush-cuttings that alone constitute an Indian trail had taken another direction, and that they had now their own way to make through the forest. Dick knew the direction well enough, so he broke ahead confidently. After a half-hour's walk he crossed a tiny streamlet. After another half-hour's walk he came to another. It was flowing the wrong way.
Dick did not understand this. He had never known of little streams flowing away from rivers and towards eight-hundred-foot hills. This might be a loop, of course. He resolved to follow it up-stream far enough to settle the point. The following brought him in time to a soggy little thicket with three areas of moss-covered mud and two round, pellucid pools of water about a foot in diameter. As the little stream had wound and twisted, Dick had by now lost entirely his sense of direction. He fished out his compass and set it on a rock. The River flows nearly north-east to the Big Falls, and Dick knew himself to be somewhere east of the River. The compass appeared to be wrong. Dick was a youth of sense, so he did not quarrel with the compass; he merely became doubtful as to which was the north end of the needle--the white or the black. After a few moments' puzzling he was quite at sea, and could no more remember how he had been taught as to this than you can clinch the spelling of a doubtful word after you have tried on paper a dozen variations. But being a youth of sense he did not desert the streamlet.
After a short half-mile of stumbling the apparent wrong direction in the brook's bed, he came to the River. The River was also flowing the wrong way, and uphill. Dick sat down and covered his eyes with his hands, as I had told him to do in like instance, and so managed to swing the country around where it belonged.
Now here was the River--and Dick resolved to desert it for no more short cuts--but where was the canoe?
This point remained unsettled in Dick's mind, or rather it was alternately settled in two ways. Sometimes the boy concluded we must be still below him, so he would sit on a rock to wait. Then, after a few moments, inactivity would bring him panic. The canoe must have passed this point long since, and every second he wasted stupidly sitting on that stone separated him farther from his friends and from food. Then he would tear madly through the forest. Deuce enjoyed this game, but Dick did not.
In time Dick found his farther progress along the banks cut off by a hill. The hill ended abruptly at the water's edge in a sheer rock cliff thirty feet high. This was in reality the end of the Indian trail short cut--the point where Dick was to meet us--but he did not know it. He happened for the moment to be obsessed by one of his canoe up-stream panics, so he turned inland to a spot where the hill appeared climbable, and started in to surmount the obstruction.
This was comparatively easy at first. Then the shoulder of the cliff intervened. Dick mounted still a little higher up the hill, then higher, then still higher. Far down to his left, through the trees, broiled the River. The slope of the hill to it had become steeper than a roof, and at the edge of the eaves came a cliff drop of thirty feet. Dick picked his way gingerly over curving moss-beds, assisting his balance by a number of little cedar trees. Then something happened.
Dick says the side of the hill slid out from under him. The fact of the matter is, probably, the skin-moss over loose rounded stones gave way. Dick sat down and began slowly to bump down the slant of the roof. He never really lost his equilibrium, nor until the last ten feet did he abandon the hope of checking his descent. Sometimes he did actually succeed in stopping himself for a moment; but on his attempting to follow up the advantage, the moss always slipped or the sapling let go a tenuous hold and he continued on down. At last the River flashed out below him. He saw the sheer drop. He saw the boiling eddies of the Halfway Pool, capable of sucking down a saw-log. Then, with a final rush of loose round stones, he shot the chutes feet first into space.
In the meantime Billy and I repeated our experience of the two previous days, with a few variations caused by the necessity of passing two exceptionally ugly rapids whose banks left little footing. We did this precariously, with a rope. The cold water was beginning to tell on our vitality, so that twice we went ashore and made hot tea. Just below the Halfway Pool we began to do a little figuring ahead, which is a bad thing. The Halfway Pool meant much inevitable labour, with its two swift rapids and its swirling, eddies, as sedulously to be avoided as so many steel bear-traps. Then there were a dozen others, and the three miles of riffles, and all the rest of it. At our present rate it would take us a week to make the Falls. Below the Halfway Pool we looked for Dick. He was not to be seen. This made us cross. At the Halfway Pool we intended to unload for portage, and also to ferry over Dick and the setter in the lightened canoe. The tardiness of Dick delayed the game.
However, we drew ashore to the little clearing of the Halfway Camp, made the year before, and wearily discharged our cargo. Suddenly, upstream, and apparently up in the air, we heard distinctly the excited yap of a dog. Billy and I looked at each other. Then we looked upstream.
Close under the perpendicular wall of rock, and fifty feet from the end of it, waist deep in water that swirled angrily about him, stood Dick.
I knew well enough what he was standing on--a little ledge of shale not over five or six feet in length and two feet wide--for in lower water I had often from its advantage cast a fly down below the big boulder. But I knew it to be surrounded by water fifteen feet deep. It was impossible to wade to the spot, impossible to swim to it. And why in the name of all the woods gods would a man want to wade or swim to it if he could? The affair, to our cold-benumbed intellects, was simply incomprehensible.
Billy and I spoke no word. We silently, perhaps a little fearfully, launched the empty canoe. Then we went into a space of water whose treading proved us no angels. From the slack water under the cliff we took another look. It was indeed Dick. He carried a rod-case in one hand. His fish-creel lay against his hip. His broad hat sat accurately level on his head. His face was imperturbable. Above, Deuce agonized, afraid to leap into the stream, but convinced that his duty required him to do so.
We steadied the canoe while Dick climbed in. You would have thought he was embarking at the regularly appointed rendezvous. In silence we shot the rapids, and collected Deuce from the end of the trail, whither he followed us. In silence we worked our way across to where our duffel lay scattered. In silence we disembarked.
"In Heaven's name, Dick," I demanded at last, "how did you get there?"
"Fell," said he, succinctly. And that was all.