A Frozen Diary: Glimpses of the Barren Lands
OUR camp had been pitched at the foot of a great, bleak, ragged hill, a few feet from the swirling waters of the Kazan River. The two small green tents, pegged down tight with heavy rocks, shivered and rippled under the faint touch of the northern breeze. A thin wisp of smoke rose from the embers of the fire.
Eleven o’clock, and the sun had just set under a threatening bank of clouds far away to the northwest. It was the last day of June and daylight still. But the whole country seemed bathed in gray, boulders, moss, sand, even the few willow shrubs scattered far apart in the hollows of the hills. Half a mile away, upstream, the caribouskin topeks of an Eskimo settlement, fading away amid the background, were hardly visible to the eye.
Three small gray specks could be seen moving slowly above our camp. Human shapes, but so puny, so insignificant-looking against the wild rocky side of that immense hill! Bending down, then straightening up, they seemed to totter aimlessly through the chaos of stone, searching for some hidden treasure.
Curiosity, or perhaps a touch of loneliness, suddenly moved me to leave camp and join those three forlorn figures so far away above me near the sky line.
Slowly I made my way along the steep incline, following at first the bed of a dried-up stream. Little by little the river sank beneath me, while the breeze, increasing in strength, whistled past, lashing and stinging my face and hands. I had lost sight momentarily of the three diminutive figures which had lured me on to these heights. After a while a reindeer trail enabled me to leave the coulee and led me again in the right direction, through a gigantic mass of granite which the frost of thousands of years had plucked from the summit of the hill and hurled hundreds of feet below.
At last I was able to reach the other side of the avalanche of rocks and suddenly emerged comparatively in the open, on the brim of a slight depression at the bottom of which a few dead willow bushes showed their bleached branches above the stones and the gray moss. There I found the three silent figures huddled close together, gathering, one by one, the twigs of the precious wood. Two little girls, nine or ten years old, so small, so helpless, and an aged woman, so old, so frail, that my first thought was to marvel at the idea of their being able to climb so far from their camp to that lonely spot.
An Eskimo great-grandmother and her two great-granddaughters, all three contributing their share to the support of the tribe. Intent on their work, or most probably too shy to look up at the strange white man whom, until then, they had only seen at a distance, they gave me full opportunity to watch them.
All were dressed alike, in boots, trousers, and coats of caribou skin. The children wore little round leather caps reaching far over their ears, the crown decorated with bead work designs. One of them carried on the wrist, as a bracelet, a narrow strip of bright red flannel. Their faces were round and healthy, the skin sunburned to a dark copper color, but their checks showed a tinge of blood which gave them, under the tan, a peculiar complexion like the color of a ripe plum. Their little hands were bare and black, the scratches caused by the dead twigs showing plainly in white, while their fingers seemed cramped with the cold.
The old woman was bareheaded, quite bald at the top of the head, with long wisps of gray hair waving in the wind. The skin of her neck and face had turned black, dried up like an old piece of parchment. Her cheeks were sunken and her cheek bones protruded horribly. Her open mouth showed bare gums, for her teeth were all gone, and her throat, thin and bare as a vulture’s neck, showed the muscles like cords. Her hands were as thin as the hands of a skeleton, the tip of each finger curved in like a claw. Her eyes, once black, now light gray, remained half closed, deep down in their sockets.
She was stone blind.
Squatting on her heels, she held, spread in front of her, a small reindeer skin. As soon as the children dropped a branch beside her she felt for it gropingly; then, her hands closing on it greedily, like talons, she would break it into small pieces, a few inches long, which she carefully placed on the mat at her feet.
Both little girls, while searching diligently through the clumps of dead willows for what they could break off and carry away, kept absolutely silent. Not only did they never call to one another when one of them needed help, but they seemed to watch each other intently whenever they could. Now and then one of them would hit the ground two or three times with the flat of her hand. If the other had her head turned away at the time, she appeared to be startled and always wheeled round to look. Then both children would make funny little motions with their hands at one another.
The little girls were deaf and dumb.
After a while they had gathered all the wood the reindeer skin could contain. Then the children went up to the old woman and conveyed to her the idea that it was time to go home. One of them took her hands in hers and guided them to two corners of the mat, while the other tapped her gently on the shoulder.
The old, old woman understood. Slowly and carefully she tied up the four corners of the caribou skin over the twigs, silently watched by the little girls. Groaning, she rose to her feel, tottering with weakness and old age, and with a great effort swung the small bundle over her back. Then one little girl took her by the hand, while the other, standing behind, grasped the tail of her caribou coat. Slowly, very slowly, step by step they went their way, following a reindeer trail around rocks, over stones, down, down the hill, straight toward their camp, the old woman carrying painfully for the young, the deaf and dumb leading and steering safely the blind.
Dawn. The sun had hardly set when once more it flashed above the horizon, for we were still at the beginning of July. From the top of a hill where I had been lying, watching the country, the Barren Lands stretched northward indefinitely. Not a tree in sight. Rocks, more rocks. Huge plateaus covered with moss, then lakes — small ones, large ones, in every direction, a hundred lakes, all blue, gleaming in the sunshine. Exactly in front of me to the north, on the other side of a deep hollow shaped like a crater, a long narrow ledge of sand ran lengthways, forming the top of another hill only a few feet lower than mine. In a straight line, barely forty yards separated the two spots. Sheltered from the northwest wind behind a cairn of stones erected there by some roaming Eskimo hunter, I was completely hidden.
Suddenly something caught the corner of my right eye as I watched the distant shores of a lake to my left. A lone wolf, a great big arctic wolf, had silently appeared on the ridge and was standing, facing me, absolutely unconscious of my presence.
Scarcely daring to breathe, rigid, motionless, I watched the huge beast in the full glory of his strength and beauty. Pure white except for a black streak running from the forehead down the neck and the middle of the back to the end of the tail, I judged him to weigh one hundred and fifty pounds and to be twice the size of a very large dog. Head erect, ears pointed, his tail curved down, the brush only an inch or so from the ground, he calmly gazed around him. His eyes had a bright gold tinge in them. They rested a second on the top of the cairn above my head, then swept farther away, past me, to the right.
After that, slowly he lowered his head, the muscles playing round his neck and shoulders, and sniffed disdainfully at the sand at his feet. Raising his head again swiftly, he pointed his muzzle straight up to the sky and began to howl. First a deep, low howl coming from far down his throat, then rising and rising until it reached a shrill, haunting note, ending abruptly in a short, sharp cry. Twice again, without moving from where he stood, he sent out that long, nerveracking call.
Then — something in me snapped. I could not stand the tension any longer. I felt that I had to show myself. 1 refused to be peering any more through the crack between two stones. I wanted that wolf to see me. I wanted to be face to face with him.
Without a noise, in one movement I rose to my full height, stepping away from my hiding place. The wolf flinched slightly, his legs bending a little under him. The hair on the crest of his neck rose, his ears flattened back, and he bared his teeth in a noiseless snarl. For the space of a second, perhaps two, he remained there, looking straight at me. Then, with a mighty sweep of his legs, his body straightened like a bow. He flung himself backward over the ridge and disappeared like a ghost, without making a sound.
Noon. Our canoe swept round a sharp curve of the river, rode the last waves of the rapid, and shot into the backwater under a high rocky bank, in the lee of a hill.
A family of Eskimos watched us land. They were traveling upstream and had stopped there to ‘make fire’ among a few willow trees.
My men started collecting sufficient firewood to boil a kettle of tea, and the natives helped them, hoping to share our meal. I strolled away, examining the Eskimos’ outfit, strewn on the shore. Six husky dogs, each tied to a rock by the chain of a fox trap, rose, cringing and snarling, as I passed them. A kayak stood upright against a boulder. An old wooden canoe was fastened to the bank by a long rope of reindeer hide. A handful of pemmican was thrown carelessly on the ground, while beside it lay a large platter made of old castaway planking, containing a few sundried fish.
Forty feet away, upstream, a mass of loose rocks strewn on the bank caught my eye. But what really attracted my attention was a patch of color amid the gray of the stones.
I approached to find, sitting in a little hollow between two boulders, a tiny little girl. She was about four years old. Dressed in caribou hide, with coat, trousers, and boots, she was bareheaded except for a thick band of native copper which encircled her forehead just above the eyes. Her mother had tied round her fat little ‘tummy’ a wide strip of bright red stroud, in the form of a sash. That was what I had seen from the camp. The child was busy playing with something white which she was rolling back and forth on a little flat rock between her knees. It reminded me of the movement of an Indian squaw crushing barley with a round stone. The child looked up and gazed at me thoughtfully for a few seconds. Her little round dark face was shining and her eyes were very black and serious between the slanting eyelids. Then, satisfied, she looked down again and went on with her game, crooning to herself in baby Husky which sounded very weird.
At that moment her mother called out sharply from the camp fire. Obediently she rose and toddled away, leaving her toy behind her.
I stooped and picked it up. It was a human skull, a very, very old one, covered with mildew. Moss had crept into the sockets of the eyes and inside the cranium. I turned it round and round in my hands, wondering a little at the strangeness of my discovery, when I remembered the mass of loose stones. At a glance I recognized a very old grave. Eskimos bury their dead on the surface of the ground, for no one can dig down more than a foot or so without finding rock or ice. I realized that the mound of stones which had been piled so long ago over the body had fallen apart, and that the baby girl, playing about, must have seen the skull between some of the stones and picked it up.
Just as I was going to throw it away I saw something dark on the forehead. Looking closer, I found that it was a large round lead bullet which had just pierced the forehead from the inside, remaining wedged into the bone. Turning the skull once more, I also found, at the base, the hole which it had made going in. With some effort I extracted the bullet with my knife. It was a round ball, of an unknown calibre. No firearm dating as far back as half a century had ever fired it. The little girl had been playing with the skull of an Eskimo who had been shot, — possibly a direct ancestor of hers, who knows? — and not only shot, but plainly murdered from behind.
We had been wind-bound for two days. Twice we had attempted to get out on Yathkyed Lake; twice we had been forced to turn round, with water pouring in over the gunwales of our canoe, and to seek shelter in the river. Finally we gave it up and pitched our camp a mile or so upstream, in the lee of a rock on the edge of a small sandy cove, where the river narrowed to barely one hundred yards.
On the other side of the water the country rose slightly, and extended for miles and miles without a tree, a shrub, or a rock to relieve its appalling monotony. Just a desert of gray moss, rolling in waves away from us, as far as the eye could see.
We were sitting round a little fire which we constantly fed with small dry twigs picked up here and there on the beach, when we saw across the river, on the horizon, a small yellow streak which seemed to be moving toward us. It looked exactly like a huge caterpillar creeping on the ground. We watched it intently. The yellow streak, little by little, grew in length and width until suddenly, in a second, it spread into a large spot, which, widening and widening on either side, still kept moving in our direction. It reminded me then of a swarm of locusts, such as one sees in South America, spreading over the fields after dropping to earth in a cloud from the sky.
In a few minutes the yellow patch had grown to such a size that we realized, far as we were from it, that it covered many acres. After that we began to see in the mass of yellow hundreds and thousands of tiny dots which moved individually. Then we knew what it was. It was a great herd of reindeer, the Barren Land caribou, migrating south.
Spellbound, we remained beside our camp fire, watching probably the most stupendous sight of wild game in North America since the bygone days of the buffalo.
On and on the horde came, straight for the narrows of the river where we were camped. While the flanks of the herd stretched irregularly a mile or so on each side of the head, the latter remained plainly pointed in the same direction. One felt instinctively the unswerving leadership which governed that immense multitude. For two hours we sat there, looking and looking, until the caribou were only a few yards from the water’s edge, right across the river from where we were.
An old doe, nearly white, led by twenty lengths; then came three or four full-grown bucks, walking side by side. After them started a column of animals of all sizes and descriptions. That column widened like a fan until it lost itself on either side of a swarm of caribou, so closely packed together that acres and acres of gray moss were completely hidden by their moving bodies. And the noise of their hoofs and the breathing of their lungs sounded like far-away thunder.
When the old doe reached the water, she stopped. The bucks joined her on either side. Little by little, right and left, thousands of animals lined the bank for over a mile. Behind them thousands more, which could not make their way through the closed ranks in front of them, stopped. Then all their heads went up, bucks, does, yearlings, fawns, and, motionless, they looked at the Kazan River. Not a sound could be heard. My eyes ached under the strain. Beside me I could feel one of my Indians trembling like a leaf in his excitement. I started counting and reached three thousand. Then I gave it up. There were too many.
After what seemed to us an interminable pause, the leading doe and the big bucks moved forward. Unhesitatingly they walked slowly down the bank, took to the water, and started to swim across, straight for our little sandy cove.
In an instant the whole herd had moved, and with a roar of clattering hoofs, rolling stones, and churning waters, all the animals were pouring down the bank and breasting the icy current until the river foamed. On and on they came, swimming madly to the nearest point of the opposite shore. Nothing could stop them. Nothing could make them swerve.
As soon as they landed they raced up the bank, giving way to the next ones behind them. We were standing up, then, behind our fire. The first ones saw us from the water, but they never changed their direction until they touched bottom. Then they scattered slightly on either side, giving us room. The next ones followed suit. And for what seemed to us an eternity we were surrounded by a sea of caribou galloping madly inland.
Finally the last one went by, a very small fawn, his mouth open and his tongue hanging out. Then silence reigned supreme again. The Barren Lands resumed their aspect of utter desolation. And nothing was left to show that the great herd of caribou had passed, save countless tracks on the sand and millions of gray hairs floating down the river to the sea.
We were waiting for two Eskimo dog trains to haul us across Hekwa-Leekwa Lake. It was the tenth of July and the ice of the lake was still solid, lying unbroken from shore to shore. Eighty miles long, twenty-five miles wide, it was still sleeping under its white winter covering. Around it, on land, it was already summer, with little flowers showing their heads between the stones, stray willow clumps waving their new green leaves in the breeze, and countless birds singing and flitting about beside their nests. Walking inland, I decided to climb the highest hill which could be seen in those parts. It rose about three miles from the river and lake and towered above the surrounding country, very much in the shape of a pyramid.
The weather was bright and clear and the heat of the sun radiated from the rocks, but every puff of wind blowing over the ice of the lake was like the frozen breath of the Arctic itself.
I toiled slowly up and up the steep incline, zigzagging among boulders and through coulees of loose stones, watching the horizon receding gradually from me, obeying unconsciously the call which comes to all white men in the wilderness and which bids them go on and on, through forest, up or down rivers, across lakes, over mountains, searching, ever searching for something new.
I reached the summit at last,— just a few square feet of level ground, — and there I found an Eskimo grave. Five feet high, seven feet long, it was entirely made out of loose rocks which had been brought up there by hand, one by one, and neatly piled one on top of the other, over the dead. Thus it formed a solid block on which, one would think, neither weather nor time could make the slightest impression. Forming part of the landscape itself, that grave seemed to be there for all eternity.
At the head of it, a few feet away, a spear stood erect, stuck deep in the ground and solidly wedged in at the base between heavy rocks. The point was of native copper. From it fluttered, in rags, the remains of a deerskin coat.
At the foot lay, side by side, a kayak with its paddle and harpoon and a twenty-foot sleigh with its set of dog harness and a snow knife. Both kayak and sleigh were held down by stones carefully placed along their entire length.
On the grave itself I found a rifle, a small kettle with a handful of tea leaves inside, a little wooden box containing ten cartridges, a pipe, a plug of tobacco, matches, a knife, a small telescope, and a neatly coiled rawhide belt. One could see that everything had been lying there a few weeks only. No inscription of any sort. But the weapons showed that it was a man who had been buried in that lonely spot.
As I leaned against the grave, my eyes wandered around. I tried to picture to myself the faithful companions of the deceased hunter struggling up that hill, bearing on their shoulders the rigid body of their dead; their search for those hundreds of rocks, and the work of piling them, one by one, for hours and hours, until the mound was able to defy the efforts of the wild animals and the incessant pressure of the years to come; finally the long descent to the camp, to bring up again, one by one, the precious belongings of the deceased.
To me, there alone, leaning on that grave on the top of that immense hill, the whole undertaking seemed incredible. The more I thought, the more I marveled, searching for the motive which had prompted those natives, not only to choose that almost inaccessible spot to lay their dead at rest, but to abandon unhesitatingly on his grave that wealth of articles which I knew represented an immense value to them, in their constant bitter struggle for mere existence.
Pagans they were — pagans they still remain. Although they have a certain code to which they are faithful, unlike the old Indians they have no form of worship. Still that grave, those weapons, those articles of daily use, of absolute necessity, carefully laid near the body from which the spirit has just flown — ail these must have had a meaning, must prove that somewhere in the innermost part of their hearts there exists a hope, a belief in after life, something to look forward to when the last day comes.
And while I thought those thoughts I pulled out my pipe and filled it slowly. It was time for me to go; the icy wind from the lake made me shudder with cold. As I turned for a last look at the grave, my eyes fell on the little wooden box. Then an impulse struck me. I opened the box, took a handful of tobacco out of my pouch, and laid it carefully inside, closing the lid securely.
The long, long trail was nearly over as far as the Barren Lands were concerned. We were on Ennadai Lake, halfway across already, and our canoe ploughed its way through water as still as a mirror.
It was August, and one already felt the unmistakable touch of the fall. Long strings of duck were flying in all directions, while on land we could see small herds of caribou already migrating to the south. Everything was still. The splash of our paddles as they dipped into the clear water of the lake seemed all out of proportion to the dead silence which surrounded us, while our voices brought out long muffled echoes from the nearest hills.
Hour after hour we glided on, intent on reaching the end of the lake before dark. Little by little the sun went down behind us. Just before sunset we went through the last narrows and entered the southern bay into which the Kazan River flows. And then suddenly the first trees since we had entered the Barren Lands two months before came into view. The rays of the dying sun fell, slanting, on their green branches, and to our tired eyes the first spruces and tamaracks of the Canadian forest seemed to welcome us home.
Instinctively we stopped paddling, letting our canoe drift slowly forward, while we looked back for the last time on the bleak northern land through which we had toiled for weeks.
The sun was setting, like a huge ball of fire, and the lake far away to the north was beginning to flame. Around us the water had lost its tinge of blue, streaks of purple appearing here and there on its glassy surface. The hills glowed pink where they faced the sunset, while the other side was lost in deep shadows.
A mile away from us, on the extreme southern point of a ridge of rocks, four human figures stood motionless, silhouetted black against the crimson of the sky. The last Eskimos of the Barren Lands, watching us go south toward the unknown country of plenty, where lives the white man!
From where I sat in my canoe I sent them a mute good-bye. Those four tiny dots appeared to me very forlorn and pathetic.
There they were, at the edge of their native land, but looking south, as if straining for something which was not theirs to have. To me it looked as if they realized that they could come up to where they were but no farther, that an unwritten law forbade them to follow our footsteps, and that the gates of Paradise, the gates of the rich Country of Trees, were closed to them forever.