Out of the Frozen North


OUR solitary tent was pitched on the high, steep banks of Slave River. Below, the Rapids of the Drowned boomed like distant surf, and from our camp we could hear the loons laughing and see the white pelicans hovering above the whirlpools. Across the river a dark spruce forest stretched to the north and east, growing more stunted and scattered until the last gnarled stem was reached in the Great Barren Lands. A sad, lonely place it was to us young hunters,— “ tenderfeet,” —feeling for the first time the spell of the “Far North.” Perhaps we were influenced unconsciously by the name of the rapids, commemorating, as it did, a tragic story of death there a hundred years ago.

However, we thoroughly enjoyed our camp life, and the time passed swiftly in shooting, cooking, and studying new birds. It seemed strange to hear robins and whitethroated sparrows singing after ten o’clock at night ; and as for the hermit thrushes, they never went to bed at all. John Burroughs has described well their serene, liquid notes : “ Oh holy ! holy ! Oh spheral! spheral! Oh clear away ! clear airny ! ” Every night a fine singer chanted these words leisurely from the trees below our tent. What with the charm of his performance and the strange sunsets, we did not often keep early hours.

The latitude of Slave River is not high enough for the midnight sun, but the disk remained out of sight only a short time.

As it dipped below the northern horizon an arch of rose or gold formed above the place where it disappeared ; and soon, a little to the right, another arch appeared. This brightened as the other faded, and then it was “ to-morrow,” and we turned in to our beds of spruce boughs just as the first rays shot upwards.

One evening we had a visitor, a priest or “ Father,” returning from the south to his mission near the Arctic Sea. We plied him eagerly with questions about a land we hoped later to explore. And, sitting wrapped up in our blankets (for the night air was keen), we heard tales of bear and reindeer, of Eskimos, of famine years, and of the winter when wolves were seized with rabies, and boldly attacked men and dogs. There was one story which I will leave the Father to tell, omitting only the names of persons and places.

“ In a remote post of the Fur Company a man lay dying. In former years he had lived at another post, five hundred miles farther south, and now his thoughts turned to a little mission graveyard where his wife was buried. Calling two friends — the only other white men at the post — to his bedside, he begged that his body might be taken to the distant mission and buried there. They promised ; and the man turned his face to the wall and died.

“ Some time passed before it was possible for the men to leave the post, and meantime the body rested in the ever frozen soil of the muskeg. At last, in the dead of winter, with Indian servants and dogs, they started on their long journey to the south. One toboggan drawn by four dogs carried their provisions and blankets, and on another was the body of their friend, sewed up in skins and securely lashed with thongs.

“ On such winter journeys it is customary to start by three or four o’clock in the morning, and to ‘ make camp’ about two o’clock in the afternoon, while there is still light enough to gather firewood. During the day men and dogs travel on the river ice ; but the bivouac is made on the high banks, where a scanty growth of evergreens affords fuel and some shelter.

“You know that country is one of utter solitude in winter. The reindeer have gone southward, the Indians have followed them, and the far posts have no communication with one another. They lie about three hundred miles apart, and in that distance there is not a cabin, an Indian tepee, or a trail to be seen ; only the stunted spruces and a waste of frozen snow.

“ The winter was unusually severe ; fierce storms delayed the men on their journey, and their provisions were running low, the dogs having been put already on half allowance. A halt was made one evening at the foot of a steep slope. Leaving the toboggans with their burdens and the dogs below, the men climbed to the summit to select a camping-place. They were soon at work cutting wood and scraping away the snow. Suddenly from below rang out in a sharp, stern voice the word of command usually given to the Indian dogs,—‘Marche! Marche! Marche!’ Astounded, the men stared blankly into one another’s eyes. What could be coming, at that time, in that wilderness ? Then all sprang to their feet and ran to the edge of the bank. There was nothing to be seen but the great frozen river, the black line of forest, and the wind-driven snow ; but the dogs were cowering in a frightened group, and the wrappings of the body were torn where the starving creatures had been attacking it.”

The Father paused, and, in a hush that followed, the thrush’s song, “Oh holy! holy ! ” rose high and clear.

“ What do you think, Father ? ” we both asked in a breath.

The priest smiled a non-committal smile, and, rising, pointed to the north. The sunset glow had died away. The sky above the coming sun was brightening fast. Another day had dawned above the Rapids of the Drowned.