The Forest by Stewart Edward White
XIII. The Hills.
We explained carefully to Dick that he had lit on the only spot in the Halfway Pool where the water was at once deep enough to break his fall and not too deep to stand in. We also pointed out that he had escaped being telescoped or drowned by the merest hair's-breadth. From this we drew moral conclusions. It did us good, but undoubtedly Dick knew it already.
Now we gave our attention to the wetness of garments, for we were chilled blue. A big fire and a clothes-rack of forked sticks and a sapling, an open-air change, a lunch of hot tea and trout and cold galette and beans, a pipe--and then the inevitable summing up.
We had in two and a half days made the easier half of the distance to the Falls. At this rate we would consume a week or more in reaching the starting-point of our explorations. It was a question whether we could stand a week of ice-water and the heavy labour combined. Ordinarily we might be able to abandon the canoe and push on afoot, as we were accustomed to do when trout-fishing, but that involved fording the river three times--a feat manifestly impossible in present freshet conditions.
"I t'ink we quit heem," said Billy.
But then I was seized with an inspiration. Judging by the configuration of the hills, the River bent sharply above the Falls. Why would it not be possible to cut loose entirely at this point, to strike across through the forest, and so to come out on the upper reaches? Remained only the probability of our being able, encumbered by a pack, to scale the mountains.
"Billy," said I, "have you ever been over in those hills?".
"No," said he.
"Do you know anything about the country? Are there any trails?"
"Dat countree is belong Tawabinisay. He know heem. I don' know heem. I t'ink he is have many hills, some lak'."
"Do you think we can climb those hills with packs?"
Billy cast a doubtful glance on Dick. Then his eye lit up.
"Tawabinisay is tell me 'bout dat Lak' Kawagama. P'rhaps we fine heem."
In so saying Billy decided the attempt. What angler on the River has not discussed--again idly, again academically--that mysterious Lake alive with the burnished copper trout, lying hidden and wonderful in the high hills, clear as crystal, bottomed with gravel like a fountain, shaped like a great crescent whose curves were haunted of forest trees grim and awesome with the solemnity of the primeval? That its exact location was known to Tawabinisay alone, that the trail to it was purposely blinded and muddled with the crossing of many little ponds, that the route was laborious--all those things, along with the minor details so dear to winter fire-chats, were matters of notoriety. Probably more expeditions to Kawagama have been planned--in February--than would fill a volume with an account of anticipated adventures. Only, none of them ever came off. We were accustomed to gaze at the forbidden cliff ramparts of the hills, to think of the Idiot's Delight, and the Halfway Pool, and the Organ Pool, and the Burned Rock Pool, and the Rolling Stone Pool, and all the rest of them even up to the Big Falls; and so we would quietly allow our February plannings to lapse. One man Tawabinisay had honoured. But this man, named Clement, a banker from Peoria, had proved unworthy. Tawabinisay told how he caught trout, many, many trout, and piled them on the shores of Kawagama to defile the air. Subsequently this same "sportsman" buried another big catch on the beach of Superior. These and other exploits finally earned him his exclusion from the delectable land. I give his name because I have personally talked with his guides, and heard their circumstantial accounts of his performances. Unless three or four woodsmen are fearful liars, I do Mr. Clement no injustice.
Since then Tawabinisay had hidden himself behind his impenetrable grin.
So you can easily see that the discovery of Kawagama would be a feat worthy even high hills.
That afternoon we rested and made our cache. A cache in the forest country is simply a heavily constructed rustic platform on which provisions and clothing are laid and wrapped completely about in sheets of canoe bark tied firmly with strips of cedar bark, or withes made from a bush whose appearance I know well, but whose name I cannot say. In this receptacle we left all our canned goods, our extra clothing, and our Dutch oven. We retained for transportation some pork, flour, rice, baking-powder, oatmeal, sugar, and tea, cooking utensils, blankets, the tent, fishing-tackle, and the little pistol. As we were about to go into the high country where presumably both game and fish might lack, we were forced to take a full supply for four--counting Deuce as one--to last ten days. The packs counted up about one hundred and fifteen pounds of grub, twenty pounds of blankets, ten of tent, say eight or ten of hardware including the axe, about twenty of duffel. This was further increased by the idiosyncrasy of Billy. He, like most woodsmen, was wedded to a single utterly foolish article of personal belonging, which he worshipped as a fetish, and without which he was unhappy. In his case it was a huge winter overcoat that must have weighed fifteen pounds. The total amounted to about one hundred and ninety pounds. We gave Dick twenty, I took seventy-six, and Billy shouldered the rest.
The carrying we did with the universal tump-line. This is usually described as a strap passed about a pack and across the forehead of the bearer. The description is incorrect. It passes across the top of the head. The weight should rest on the small of the back just above the hips--not on the broad of the back as most beginners place it. Then the chin should be dropped, the body slanted sharply forward, and you may be able to stagger forty rods at your first attempt.
Use soon accustoms you to carrying, however. The first time I ever did any packing I had a hard time stumbling a few hundred feet over a hill portage with just fifty pounds on my back. By the end of that same trip I could carry a hundred pounds and a lot of miscellaneous traps, like canoe-poles and guns, without serious inconvenience and over a long portage. This quickly-gained power comes partly from a strengthening of the muscles of the neck, but more from a mastery of balance. A pack can twist you as suddenly and expertly on your back as the best of wrestlers. It has a head lock on you, and you have to go or break your neck. After a time you adjust your movements, just as after a time you can travel on snow-shoes through heavy down timber without taking conscious thought as to the placing of your feet.
But at first packing is as near infernal punishment as merely mundane conditions can compass. Sixteen brand-new muscles ache, at first dully, then sharply, then intolerably, until it seems you cannot bear it another second. You are unable to keep your feet. A stagger means an effort at recovery, and an effort at recovery means that you trip when you place your feet, and that means, if you are lucky enough not to be thrown, an extra tweak for every one of the sixteen new muscles. At first you rest every time you feel tired. Then you begin to feel very tired every fifty feet. Then you have to do the best you can, and prove the pluck that is in you.
Mr. Tom Friant, an old woodsman of wide experience, has often told me with relish of his first try at carrying. He had about sixty pounds, and his companion double that amount. Mr. Friant stood it a few centuries and then sat down. He couldn't have moved another step if a gun had been at his ear.
"What's the matter?" asked his companion.
"Del," said Friant, "I'm all in. I can't navigate. Here's where I quit."
"Can't you carry her any farther?"
"Not an inch."
"Well, pile her on. I'll carry her for you."
Friant looked at him a moment in silent amazement.
"Do you mean to say that you are going to carry your pack and mine too?"
"That's what I mean to say. I'll do it if I have to."
Friant drew a long breath.
"Well," said he at last, "if a little sawed-off cuss like you can wiggle under a hundred and eighty, I guess I can make it under sixty."
"That's right," said Del imperturbably. "If you think you can, you can."
"And I did," ends Friant, with a chuckle.
Therein lies the whole secret. The work is irksome, sometimes even painful, but if you think you can do it, you can, for though great is the protest of the human frame against what it considers abuse, greater is the power of a man's grit.
We carried the canoe above the larger eddies, where we embarked ourselves and our packs for traverse, leaving Deuce under strict command to await a second trip. Deuce disregarded the strict command. From disobedience came great peril, for when he attempted to swim across after us he was carried downstream, involved in a whirlpool, sucked under, and nearly drowned. We could do nothing but watch. When, finally, the River spued out a frightened and bedraggled dog, we drew a breath of very genuine relief, for Deuce was dear to us through much association.
The canoe we turned bottom up and left in the bushes, and so we set off through the forest.
At the end of fifteen minutes we began to mount a gentle ascent. The gentle ascent speedily became a sharp slope, the sharp slope an abrupt hill, and the latter finally an almost sheer face of rock and thin soil. We laid hold doggedly of little cedars; we dug our fingers into little crevices, and felt for the same with our toes; we perspired in streams and breathed in gasps; we held the strained muscles of our necks rigid, for the twisting of a pack meant here a dangerous fall; we flattened ourselves against the face of the mountain with always the heavy, ceaseless pull of the tump-line attempting to tear us backward from our holds. And so at last, when the muscles of our thighs refused to strengthen our legs for the ascent of another foot, we would turn our backs to the slant and sink gratefully into the only real luxury in the world.
For be it known that real luxury cannot be bought; it must be worked for. I refer to luxury as the exquisite savour of a pleasant sensation. The keenest sense-impressions are undoubtedly those of contrast. In looking back over a variety of experience, I have no hesitation at all in selecting as the moment in which I have experienced the liveliest physical pleasure one hot afternoon in July. The thermometer might have stood anywhere. We would have placed childlike trust in any of its statements, even three figures great. Our way had led through unbroken forest oppressed by low brush and an underfooting of brakes. There had been hills. Our clothes were wringing wet, to the last stitch; even the leather of the tump-line was saturated. The hot air we gulped down did not seem to satisfy our craving for oxygen any more than lukewarm water ever seems to cut a real thirst. The woods were literally like an oven in their hot dryness. Finally we skirted a little hill, and at the base of that hill a great tree had fallen, and through the aperture thus made in the forest a tiny current of cool air flowed like a stream. It was not a great current, nor a wide; if we moved three feet in any direction, we were out of it. But we sat us down directly across its flow. And never have dinners or wines or men or women, or talks of books or scenery or adventure or sport, or the softest, daintiest refinements of man's invention given me the half of luxury I drank in from that little breeze. So the commonest things--a dash of cool water on the wrists, a gulp of hot tea, a warm, dry blanket, a whiff of tobacco, a ray of sunshine--are more really the luxuries than all the comforts and sybaritisms we buy. Undoubtedly the latter would also rise to the higher category if we were to work for their essence instead of merely signing club cheques or paying party calls for them.
Which means that when we three would rest our packs against the side of that hill, and drop our head-straps below our chins, we were not at all to be pitied, even though the forest growth denied us the encouragement of knowing how much farther we had to go.
Before us the trees dropped away rapidly, so that twenty feet out in a straight line we were looking directly into their tops. There, quite on an equality with their own airy estate, we could watch the fly-catchers and warblers conducting their small affairs of the chase. It lent us the illusion of imponderability; we felt that we too might be able to rest securely on graceful gossamer twigs. And sometimes, through a chance opening, we could see down over billows of waving leaves to a single little spot of blue, like a turquoise sunk in folds of green velvet, which meant that the River was dropping below us. This, in the mercy of the Red Gods, was meant as encouragement.
The time came, however, when the ramparts we scaled rose sheer and bare in impregnability. Nothing could be done on the straight line, so we turned sharp to the north. The way was difficult, for it lay over great fragments of rock stricken from the cliff by winter, and further rendered treacherous by the moss and wet by a thousand trickles of water. At the end of one hour we found what might be called a ravine, if you happened not to be particular, or a steep cleft in the precipice if you were. Here we deserted the open air for piled-up brushy tangles, many sharp-cornered rock fragments, and a choked streamlet. Finally the whole outfit abruptly ceased. We climbed ten feet of crevices and stood on the ridge.
The forest trees shut us in our own little area, so that we were for the moment unable to look abroad over the country.
The descent, abrupt where we had mounted, stretched away gently toward the north and west. And on that slope, protected as it was from the severer storms that sweep up the open valleys in winter, stood the most magnificent primeval forest it has ever been my fortune to behold. The huge maple, beech, and birch trees lifted column-like straight up to a lucent green canopy, always twinkling and shifting in the wind and the sunlight. Below grew a thin screen of underbrush, through which we had no difficulty at all in pushing, but which threw about us face-high a tender green partition. The effect was that of a pew in an old-fashioned church, so that, though we shared the upper stillnesses, a certain delightful privacy of our own seemed assured us. This privacy we knew to be assured also to many creatures besides ourselves. On the other side of the screen of broad leaves we sensed the presence of life. It did not intrude on us, nor were we permitted to intrude on it. But it was there. We heard it rustling, pattering, scrambling, whispering, scurrying with a rush of wings. More subtly we felt it, as one knows of a presence in a darkened room. By the exercise of imagination and experience we identified it in its manifestations--the squirrel, the partridge, the weasel, the spruce hens, once or twice the deer. We knew it saw us perfectly, although we could not see it, and that gave us an impression of companionship; so the forest was not lonely.
Next to this double sense of isolation and company was the feeling of transparent shadow. The forest was thick and cool. Only rarely did the sun find an orifice in the roof through which to pour a splash of liquid gold. All the rest was in shadow. But the shadow was that of the bottom of the sea--cool, green, and, above all, transparent. We saw into the depth of it, but dimly, as we would see into the green recesses of a tropic ocean. It possessed the same liquid quality. Finally the illusion overcame us completely. We bathed in the shadows as though they were palpable, and from that came great refreshment.
Under foot the soil was springy with the mould of numberless autumns. The axe had never hurried slow old servant decay. Once in a while we came across a prostrate trunk lying in the trough of destruction its fall had occasioned. But the rest of the time we trod a carpet to the making of which centuries of dead forest warriors had wrapped themselves in mould and soft moss and gentle dissolution. Sometimes a faint rounded shell of former fair proportion swelled above the level, to crumble to punkwood at the lightest touch of our feet. Or, again, the simulacrum of a tree trunk would bravely oppose our path, only to melt away into nothing, like the opposing phantoms of Aeneas, when we placed a knee against it for the surmounting.
If the pine woods be characterized by cathedral solemnity, and the cedars and tamaracks by certain horrifical gloom, and the popples by a silvery sunshine, and the berry-clearings by grateful heat and the homely manner of familiar birds, then the great hardwood must be known as the dwelling-place of transparent shadows, of cool green lucency, and the repository of immemorial cheerful forest tradition which the traveller can hear of, but which he is never permitted actually to know.
In this lovable mystery we journeyed all the rest of that morning. The packs were heavy with the first day's weight, and we were tired from our climb; but the deep physical joy of going on and ever on into unknown valleys, down a long, gentle slope that must lead somewhere, through things animate and things of an almost animate life, opening silently before us to give us passage, and closing as silently behind us after we had passed--these made us forget our aches and fatigues for the moment.
At noon we boiled tea near a little spring of clear, cold water. As yet we had no opportunity of seeing farther than the closing in of many trees. We were, as far as external appearances went, no more advanced than our first resting-place after surmounting the ridge. This effect is constant in the great forests. You are in a treadmill--though a pleasant one withal. Your camp of to-day differs only in non-essentials from that of yesterday, and your camp of to-morrow will probably be almost exactly like to-day's. Only when you reach your objective point do you come to a full realization that you have not been the Sisyphus of the Red Gods.
Deuce returning from exploration brought indubitable evidence of porcupines. We picked the barbed little weapons from his face and nose and tongue with much difficulty for ourselves and much pain for Deuce. We offered consolation by voicing for his dumbness his undoubted intention to avoid all future porcupines. Then we took up the afternoon tramp.
Now at last through the trees appeared the gleam of water. Tawabinisay had said that Kawagama was the only lake in its district. We therefore became quite excited at this sapphire promise. Our packs were thrown aside, and like school-boys we raced down the declivity to the shore.