The Forest by Stewart Edward White
XIV. On Walking Through the Woods.
We found ourselves peering through the thicket at a little reed and grass grown body of water a few acres in extent. A short detour to the right led us to an outlet--a brook of width and dash that convinced us the little pond was only a stopping-place in the stream, and not a headwater as we had at first imagined. Then a nearer approach led us past pointed tree-stumps exquisitely chiselled with the marks of teeth; so we knew we looked, not on a natural pond, but on the work of beavers.
I examined the dam more closely. It was a marvel of engineering skill in the accuracy with which the big trees had been felled exactly along the most effective lines, the efficiency of the filling in, and the just estimate of the waste water to be allowed. We named the place obviously Beaver Pond, resumed our packs, and pushed on.
Now I must be permitted to celebrate by a little the pluck of Dick. He was quite unused to the tump-line, comparatively inexperienced in woods-walking, and weighed but one hundred and thirty-five pounds. Yet not once in the course of that trip did he bewail his fate. Towards the close of this first afternoon I dropped behind to see how he was making it. The boy had his head down, his lips shut tight together, his legs well straddled apart. As I watched he stumbled badly over the merest twig.
"Dick," said I, "are you tired?"
"Yes," he confessed frankly.
"Can you make it another half-hour?"
"I guess so; I'll try."
At the end of the half-hour we dropped our packs. Dick had manifested no impatience--not once had he even asked how nearly time was up--but now he breathed a deep sigh of relief.
"I thought you were never going to stop," said he simply.
From Dick those words meant a good deal. For woods-walking differs as widely from ordinary walking as trap-shooting from field-shooting. A good pedestrian may tire very quickly in the forest. No two successive steps are of the same length; no two successive steps fall on the same quality of footing; no two successive steps are on the same level. Those three are the major elements of fatigue. Add further the facts that your way is continually obstructed both by real difficulties--such as trees, trunks, and rocks--and lesser annoyances, such as branches, bushes, and even spider-webs. These things all combine against endurance. The inexperienced does not know how to meet them with a minimum of effort. The tenderfoot is in a constant state of muscular and mental rigidity against a fall or a stumble or a cut across the face from some one of the infinitely numerous woods scourges. This rigidity speedily exhausts the vital force.
So much for the philosophy of it. Its practical side might be infinitely extended. Woodsmen are tough and enduring and in good condition; but no more so than the average college athlete. Time and again I have seen men of the latter class walked to a standstill. I mean exactly that. They knew, and were justly proud, of their physical condition, and they hated to acknowledge, even to themselves, that the rest of us were more enduring. As a consequence they played on their nerve, beyond their physical powers. When the collapse came it was complete. I remember very well a crew of men turning out from a lumber camp on the Sturgeon River to bring in on a litter a young fellow who had given out while attempting to follow Bethel Bristol through a hard day. Bristol said he dropped finally as though he had been struck on the head. The woodsman had thereupon built him a little fire, made him as comfortable as possible with both coats, and hiked for assistance. I once went into the woods with a prominent college athlete. We walked rather hard over a rough country until noon. Then the athlete lay on his back for the rest of the day, while I finished alone the business we had come on.
Now, these instances do not imply that Bristol, and certainly not myself, were any stronger physically, or possessed more nervous force, than the men we had tired out. Either of them on a road could have trailed us, step for step, and as long as we pleased. But we knew the game.
It comes at the last to be entirely a matter of experience. Any man can walk in the woods all day at some gait. But his speed will depend on his skill. It is exactly like making your way through heavy, dry sand. As long as you restrain yourself to a certain leisurely plodding, you get along without extraordinary effort, while even a slight increase of speed drags fiercely at your feet. So it is with the woods. As long as you walk slowly enough, so that you can pick your footing and lift aside easily the branches that menace your face, you will expend little nervous energy. But the slightest pressing, the slightest inclination to go beyond what may be called your physical foresight, lands you immediately in difficulties. You stumble, you break through the brush, you shut your eyes to avoid sharp switchings. The reservoir of your energy is open full cock. In about an hour you feel very, very tired.
This principle holds rigidly true of every one, from the softest tenderfoot to the expertest forest-runner. For each there exists a normal rate of travel, beyond which are penalties. Only, the forest-runner, by long use, has raised the exponent of his powers. Perhaps as a working hypothesis the following might be recommended: One good step is worth six stumbling steps; go only fast enough to assure that good one.
You will learn, besides, a number of things practically which memory cannot summon to order for instance here. "Brush slanted across your path is easier lifted over your head and dropped behind you than pushed aside," will do as an example.
A good woods-walker progresses without apparent hurry. I have followed the disappearing back of Tawabinisay when, as my companion elegantly expressed it, "if you stopped to spit you got lost." Tawabinisay wandered through the forest, his hands in his pockets, humming a little Indian hymn. And we were breaking madly along behind him with the crashing of many timbers.
Of your discoveries probably one of the most impressive will be that in the bright lexicon of woodscraft the word "mile" has been entirely left out. To count by miles is a useless and ornamental elegance of civilization. Some of us once worked hard all one day only to camp three miles downstream from our resting-place of the night before. And the following day we ran nearly sixty with the current. The space of measured country known as a mile may hold you five minutes or five hours from your destination. The Indian counts by time, and after a little you follow his example. "Four miles to Kettle Portage" means nothing. "Two hours to Kettle Portage" does. Only when an Indian tells you two hours you would do well to count it as four.
Well, our trip practically amounted to seven days to nowhere; or perhaps seven days to everywhere would be more accurate. It was all in the high hills until the last day and a half, and generally in the hardwood forests. Twice we intersected and followed for short distances Indian trails, neither of which apparently had been travelled since the original party that had made them. They led across country for greater or lesser distances in the direction we wished to travel, and then turned aside. Three times we blundered on little meadows of moose-grass. Invariably they were tramped muddy like a cattle-yard where the great animals had stood as lately as the night before. Caribou were not uncommon. There were a few deer, but not many, for the most of the deer country lies to the south of this our district. Partridge, as we had anticipated, lacked in such high country.
In the course of the five days and a half we were in the hills we discovered six lakes of various sizes. The smallest was a mere pond; the largest would measure some three or four miles in diameter. We came upon that very late one afternoon. A brook of some size crossed our way, so, as was our habit, we promptly turned upstream to discover its source. In the high country the head-waters are never more than a few miles distant; and at the same time the magnitude of this indicated a lake rather than a spring as the supply. The lake might be Kawagama.
Our packs had grown to be very heavy, for they had already the weight of nine hours piled on top. And the stream was exceedingly difficult to follow. It flowed in one of those aggravating little ravines whose banks are too high and steep and uneven for good footing, and whose beds are choked with a too abundant growth. In addition, there had fallen many trees over which one had to climb. We kept at it for perhaps an hour. The brook continued of the same size, and the country of the same character. Dick for the first time suggested that it might be well to camp.
"We've got good water here," he argued, quite justly, "and we can push on to-morrow just as well as to-night."
We balanced our packs against a prostrate tree-trunk. Billy contributed his indirect share to the argument.
"I lak' to have the job mak' heem this countree all over," he sighed. "I mak' heem more level."
"All right," I agreed; "you fellows sit here and rest a minute, and I'll take a whirl a little ways ahead."
I slipped my tump-line and started on light. After carrying a heavy pack so long, I seemed to tread on air. The thicket, before so formidable, amounted to nothing at all. Perhaps the consciousness that the day's work was in reality over lent a little factitious energy to my tired legs. At any rate, the projected two hundred feet of my investigations stretched to a good quarter-mile. At the end of that space I debouched on a widening of the ravine. The hardwood ran off into cedars. I pushed through the stiff rods and yielding fans of the latter, and all at once found myself leaning out over the waters of the lake.
It was almost an exact oval, and lay in a cup of hills. Three wooded islands, swimming like ducks in the placid evening waters, added a touch of diversity. A huge white rock balanced the composition to the left, and a single white sea-gull, like a snowflake against pines, brooded on its top.
I looked abroad to where the perfect reflection of the hills confused the shore line. I looked down through five feet of crystal water to where pebbles shimmered in refraction. I noted the low rocks jutting from the wood's shelter whereon one might stand to cast a fly. Then I turned and yelled and yelled and yelled again at the forest.
Billy came through the brush, crashing in his haste. He looked long and comprehendingly. Without further speech, we turned back to where Dick was guarding the packs.
That youth we found profoundly indifferent.
"Kawagama," we cried, "a quarter-mile ahead."
He turned on us a lack-lustre eye.
"You going to camp here?" he inquired dully.
"Course not! We'll go on and camp at the lake."
"All right," he replied.
We resumed our packs, a little stiffly and reluctantly, for we had tasted of woods-travel without them. At the lake we rested.
"Going to camp here?" inquired Dick.
We looked about, but noted that the ground under the cedars was hummocky, and that the hardwood grew on a slope. Besides, we wanted to camp as near the shore as possible. Probably a trifle further along there would be a point of high land and delightful little paper-birches.
"No," we answered cheerfully, "this isn't much good. Suppose we push along a ways and find something better."
"All right," Dick replied.
We walked perhaps a half-mile more to the westward before we discovered what we wanted, stopping from time to time to discuss the merits of this or that place. Billy and I were feeling pretty good. After such a week Kawagama was a tonic. Finally we agreed.
"This'll do," said we.
"Thank God!" said Dick unexpectedly, and dropped his pack to the ground with a thud, and sat on it.
I looked at him closely. Then I undid my own pack. "Billy," said I, "start in on grub. Never mind the tent just now."
"A' right," grinned Billy. He had been making his own observations.
"Dick," said I, "let's go down and sit on the rock over the water. We might fish a little."
"All right," Dick replied.
He stumbled dully after me to the shore.
"Dick," I continued, "you're a kid, and you have high principles, and your mother wouldn't like it, but I'm going to prescribe for you, and I'm going to insist on your following the prescription. This flask does not contain fly-dope--that's in the other flask--it contains whisky. I have had it in my pack since we started, and it has not been opened. I don't believe in whisky in the woods; not because I am temperance, but because a man can't travel on it. But here is where you break your heaven-born principles. Drink."
Dick hesitated, then he drank. By the time grub was ready his vitality had come to normal, and so he was able to digest his food and get some good out of it; otherwise he could not have done so. Thus he furnished an admirable example of the only real use for whisky in woods-travel. Also it was the nearest Dick ever came to being completely played out.
That evening was delightful. We sat on the rock and watched the long North Country twilight steal up like a gray cloud from the east. Two loons called to each other, now in the shrill maniac laughter, now with the long, mournful cry. It needed just that one touch to finish the picture. We were looking, had we but known it, on a lake no white man had ever visited before. Clement alone had seen Kawagama, so in our ignorance we attained much the same mental attitude. For I may as well let you into the secret; this was not the fabled lake after all. We found that out later from Tawabinisay. But it was beautiful enough, and wild enough, and strange enough in its splendid wilderness isolation to fill the heart of the explorer with a great content.
Having thus, as we thought, attained the primary object of our explorations, we determined on trying now for the second--that is, the investigation of the upper reaches of the River. Trout we had not accomplished at this lake, but the existence of fish of some sort was attested by the presence of the two loons and the gull, so we laid our non-success to fisherman's luck. After two false starts we managed to strike into a good country near enough our direction. The travel was much the same as before. The second day, however, we came to a surveyor's base-line cut through the woods. Then we followed that as a matter of convenience. The base-line, cut the fall before, was the only evidence of man we saw in the high country. It meant nothing in itself, but was intended as a starting-point for the township surveys, whenever the country should become civilized enough to warrant them. That condition of affairs might not occur for years to come. Therefore the line was cut out clear for a width of twenty feet.
We continued along it as along a trail until we discovered our last lake--a body of water possessing many radiating arms. This was the nearest we came to the real Kawagama. If we had skirted the lake, mounted the ridge, followed a creek-bed, mounted another ridge, and descended a slope, we should have made our discovery. Later we did just that, under the guidance of Tawabinisay himself. Floating in the birch canoe we carried with us we looked back at the very spot on which we stood this morning.
But we turned sharp to the left, and so missed our chance. However, we were in a happy frame of mind, for we imagined we had really made the desired discovery.
Nothing of moment happened until we reached the valley of the River. Then we found we were treed. We had been travelling all the time among hills and valleys, to be sure, but on a high elevation. Even the bottom lands, in which lay the lakes, were several hundred feet above Superior. Now we emerged from the forest to find ourselves on bold mountains at least seven or eight hundred feet above the main valley. And in the main valley we could make out the River.
It was rather dizzy work. Three or four times we ventured over the rounded crest of the hill, only to return after forty or fifty feet because the slope had become too abrupt. This grew to be monotonous and aggravating. It looked as though we might have to parallel the River's course, like scouts watching an army, on the top of the hill. Finally a little ravine gave us hope. We scrambled down it; ended in a very steep slant, and finished at a sheer tangle of cedar-roots. The latter we attempted. Billy went on ahead. I let the packs down to him by means of a tump-line. He balanced them on roof; until I had climbed below him. And so on. It was exactly like letting a bucket down a well. If one of the packs had slipped off the cedar-roots, it would have dropped like a plummet to the valley, and landed on Heaven knows what. The same might be said of ourselves. We did this because we were angry all through.
Then we came to the end of the cedar-roots. Right and left offered nothing; below was a sheer, bare drop. Absolutely nothing remained but to climb back, heavy packs and all, to the top of the mountain. False hopes had wasted a good half day and innumerable foot-pounds. Billy and I saw red. We bowed our heads and snaked those packs to the top of the mountain at a gait that ordinarily would have tired us out in fifty feet. Dick did not attempt to keep up. When we reached the top we sat down to wait for him. After a while he appeared, climbing leisurely. He gazed on us from behind the mask of his Indian imperturbability. Then he grinned. That did us good, for we all three laughed aloud, and buckled down to business in a better frame of mind.
That day we discovered a most beautiful waterfall. A stream about twenty feet in width, and with a good volume of water, dropped some three hundred feet or more into the River. It was across the valley from us, so we had a good view of its beauties. Our estimates of its height were carefully made on the basis of some standing pine that grew near its foot.
And then we entered a steep little ravine, and descended it with misgivings to a canon, and walked easily down the canon to a slope that took us by barely sensible gradations to a wooded plain. At six o'clock we stood on the banks of the River, and the hills were behind us.
Of our down-stream travel there is little really to be said. We established a number of facts--that the River dashes most scenically from rapid to rapid, so that the stagnant pool theory is henceforth untenable; that the hills get higher and wilder the farther you penetrate to the interior, and their cliffs and rock-precipices bolder and more naked; that there are trout in the upper reaches, but not so large as in the lower pools; and, above all, that travel is not a joy for ever.
For we could not ford the River above the Falls--it is too deep and swift. As a consequence, we had often to climb, often to break through the narrowest thicket strips, and once to feel our way cautiously along a sunken ledge under a sheer rock cliff. That was Billy's idea. We came to the sheer rock cliff after a pretty hard scramble, and we were most loth to do the necessary climbing. Billy suggested that we might be able to wade. As the pool below the cliff was black water and of indeterminate depth, we scouted the idea. Billy, however, poked around with a stick, and, as I have said, discovered a little ledge about a foot and a half wide and about two feet and a half below the surface. This was spectacular, but we did it. A slip meant a swim and the loss of the pack. We did not happen to slip. Shortly after, we came to the Big Falls, and so after further painful experiment descended joyfully into known country.
The freshet had gone down, the weather had warmed, the sun shone, we caught trout for lunch below the Big Falls; everything was lovely. By three o'clock, after thrice wading the stream, we regained our canoe--now at least forty feet from the water. We paddled across. Deuce followed easily, where a week before he had been sucked down and nearly drowned. We opened the cache and changed our very travel-stained garments. We cooked ourselves a luxurious meal. We built a friendship-fire. And at last we stretched our tired bodies full length on balsam a foot thick, and gazed drowsily at the canvas-blurred moon before sinking to a dreamless sleep.