Reisen in Nordamerika: From Ontonagon to the mouth of the Bois-brule (Part 3)

December 14, 2013

CAUTION: This translation was made using Google Translate by someone who neither speaks nor reads German. It should not be considered accurate by scholarly standards.

Our last excerpt from Wagner and Scherzer’s Reisen in Nordamerika in den Jahren 1852 und 1853.  The Austrian travelers chronicled their time at La Pointe in September 1852.  In this one, we will read of their adventures in my favorite part of the world, the south shore of Lake Superior between La Pointe and the Brule River.  160 years later, residents of Red Cliff, Little Sand Bay, Cornucopia, Bark Point, Herbster, and Port Wing will still recognize many of the natural features described here, and more interesting anecdotes can add to the small amount of written historical documentation of this part of the world.  Enjoy:

Red Sandstone:  South Shore of Lake Superior:  from David Dale Owen’s Report of a Geological Survey of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota (1852).

XXI

From Ontonagon to the mouth of the Bois-brule River–Canoe ride to Magdalen Island–Porcupine Mountains–Camping in the open air–A dangerous canoe landing at night–A hospitable Jewish family–The island of La Pointe–The American Fur Company–The voyageurs or courriers de bois–Old Buffalo, the 90 year-old Chippewa chief–A schoolhouse and an examination–The Austrian Franciscan monk–Sunday mass and reflections on the Catholic missions–Continuing the journey by sail–Nous sommes degrades–A canoeman and apostle of temperance–Fond du lac–Sauvons-nous!

Since the weather was favorable, we decided prospects were right for our trip to the mouth of the Burnt Wood (Bois-brulé) River. We made all the necessary travel arrangements that evening, and even bought supplies of bacon and salted beef for fourteen days of “wild life.” We were also compelled to buy a new birch canoe*, to allow the two Canadians who will conduct us on the waters of the Bois-brulé and La Croix Rivers, through the wilds of Wisconsin to Stillwater, to make the return journey by water instead of through the woods on foot, and we had not been able to arrange for borrowing a boat.

(*These canoes are the only vehicles used by the Indians to navigate the lake. They are either made of a framework of cedar wood and covered with birch bark, with the individual parts made watertight with pitch, or they can also be carved out of a single spruce trunk hollowed to where two or three can sit. The former are preferred for their greater ease and convenience, but the latter are more durable, safer, and less expensive. Our canoe was made of birch bark and measured 18′ in length and 4′ in width. We bought it for 15 dollars, and we were very pleased when we were able to get rid of it at the end of our trip for five dollars).

Monday, September 20th, 53° F. Overcast weather but the lake completely calm, we left accompanied by the pious blessings of the Island’s Franciscan monk.

This time our boat carried a light burden. The captain stayed back out of concern there would be too many hardships and inconveniences. It was very strange to see such an experienced traveler unwisely refuse to carry a proper thick rain coat. With thin boots, a light Carbonari, and a few underwear tied in a small bundle, he took leave of us to shiver in the elements. Addio Capitano!

Our traveling companions were now a young Frenchman and two Canadians, Souverain and Jean Baptiste. The latter two were entrusted with managing the canoe. Souverain, though his thin gray hair, his toothless mouth, and his wrinkled face betrayed the features of advanced age, he was undoubtedly the more able and accomplished of the two voyageurs. Baptiste, however, strong and tireless in his youth, was an excellent complement to the old man.

Indian Sugar Camp (1850) by Seth Eastman, as depicted in Schoolcraft’s Information Respecting the History, Conditions and Prospect of the Indian Tribes of the United States, 1847-1857 (Digitized by Wisconsin Historical Society; Image ID: 9829).

We passed the Apostle Islands, 12 in number, most of which, including “Spook Island” are planted almost exclusively with maple trees (Acer saccharinum), from which the Indians prepare sugar. Every year in March and April, they make deep transverse incisions, from which, like the dripping pitch extracted from pine trees, a fresh green juice flows. Every tree can be tapped 5-6 years, in such a way to be made controllable, before the tree is disabled and is only good for the fire. In La Pointe, about 10 Indian families produce 1000-1500 pounds of sugar every year. In Bad River, there are more than 20 Indian families, who collectively produce 20,000 pounds. A pound of maple sugar is obtained by the traders for one shilling (twelve and one half cents) delivered to the Indians in kind.

Spook Island:  Devil’s Island
Riviere au Sable:  Sand River

We passed several miles of 40-60 foot high red sandstone cliffs, which the lashing tide had formed into the most picturesque architectural forms, among which arch and pillar structures were most prevalent. Several were formed in such a way as to create columned caverns under which a canoe could easily pass. The under-washing of this gigantic mass of rock may explain the gradual extension of the south shore.

Favored by a northwest wind, we had already covered 21 miles in 6 hours, and arrived at Riviere au Sable. We could clearly make out the north shore 50 miles distant, and the mountain chain of the British Territories, whose highest point, according to Dr. Norwood of Cincinnati is 1650 feet.

As with lucky speculators in the trading cities, our canoeists wanted to exploit the favorable wind direction even more. They turned their only protection against the cold, blue and white blankets, into excellent sails. They tied together cloth on one side to secure the oar, while they used green pine branches on the other side to maintain tension against the wind. It always remains dangerous, however, to attach a sail to so volatile a vehicle as a canoe, for a single contrary wind shock can cause the canoe to lose balance and leave the drivers to pay for their daring with terrible flooding.

Bay of Siscawit River:  Siskiwit River (now Cornucopia Beach).

In the evening, just as we were about to pitch our camp at the bay of Siscawit River, we were surprised by a terrible rain that drenched the greater part of our effects and brought great danger to our physical instruments. We were, for a long time, without the benefit of a warm fire, but our perseverance gradually allowed our flickering light to defeat the dampness, and we had flame to cook our modest supper. One often camps at the mouths of these numerous small tributaries of Lake Superior. It has always been this way, and the reason is that during stormy seas on the open water, the bays that surround the mouths of these rivers protect you from the wind and waves.

The small canvas tent, lent to us by the hospitable postmaster in Ontonagon, served us beyond expectation as powerful protection from the cold and wetness. We soon found ourselves under the soaked canvas roof in comfort we hardly thought possible in such harsh camp conditions. We must admit, however, that our foresight in bringing suits made of India rubber to spread on the ground, spared us the rheumatic breaths of the damp earth beneath us.

Tuesday, September 21, 53°F. Persistent rain and completely clouded-over sky with little chance of favorable traveling weather. During the night, the rains became so heavy that they seeped in through the canvas in several areas. Our laundry bags were totally soaked, and there was no opportunity to dry them. When camping like this, one should always keep items requiring special protection in the rear of the tent, and all care should be made to not let them touch the stretched canvas, which once wet will keep everything damp for weeks.

This morning, we had to celebrate wind, that is, a violent northeast wind prevented us from proceeding any further. “Nos sommes dégradés,” the old captain sighed, and told us how he was once stranded by violent storms, and had nothing but a dry biscuit to eat for four days. We held a small war council without a general, but with merely reason to guide us, and decided that due to this delay, we should limit our meals so that we would only enjoy the salted meat every other day. Decreasing to half rations, was necessary, as we were on the treacherous Lake Superior, which as already noted, often makes travel impossible or highly dangerous for weeks on end. Once we reached its desired tributary, the mouth of the Bois-brulé River, we would have no more fear of such a wicked delay from wind and waves.

Around 6 o’clock in the evening, the waves took on a less dangerous character. We quickly pulled down our tent, packed our belongings, and hastily boarded our already-floating boat. In boarding a canoe, caution must always be used to avoid stepping harshly with the whole foot above certain cedar ribs. This can disturb the equilibrium which can have the consequence of losing your effects, or even your life.

After an hour, we had followed a fierce north wind to Pointe aux écorces looking for a refuge. We wandered along the shore until after dark, but the rugged rocky reefs made landing impossible. Finally, we found sandbars, and pitched our tents near a tamarack swamp. Those who travel without a tent can usually find shelter from the rigors of the weather by setting the canoe at the proper angle and finding room underneath it.

Pointe aux ecorces:  Bark Point
Riviere aux Attacas:  Cranberry River (Now Herbster Beach)
Apacha River:  Flagg (Apakwa) River (Now Port Wing).

We camped in a group of pines as tall as the sky. At the foot of these ancient tree trunks, our fire burned like a flaming sacrifice of the ancients. As the two voyageurs fell fast asleep at the entrance of the tent, we continued to feed sticks into the fire so as to not lose its benevolent warmth. Our fire was basically built into the base of a great pine, which gave the whole scene a picturesque backdrop, until the whole thing fell during the night with a heavy crash. This brought us all to our feet, sober and alert. There was no danger, however, as we had put numerous cuts into the tree so that it would fall away from us in the event it gave way.

Wednesday, September 22, 64°F. Northwest wind. The cheerful light of the morning sun woke us weary sleepers early. The seas were pretty rough. Once we had the infamous Point aux écorces at our back, we heard the roar of the busy oncoming waves. The red sandstone remains the predominant formation. The green hills of a moderate height, almost 50′, are embraced by a wide belt of spruce, Scotch Pine, birch, and beech. The more we approach the western end of the lake, Fond du lac, the narrower the space between the southern and northern shores becomes.

At the Riviere aux Attacas, we landed for breakfast. This time, there was bacon, whitefish, tea, butter, and hardtack, all remnants of the past brought from La Pointe. The songs our guides sang to strengthen the heart were far more modest and ethical than the erotic verses of our previous voyageurs who brought us from Ontonagon to La Pointe. The brilliant sunshine gave way to a completely cloudy sky, and a terrible northwest wind blew us into the bay of Apacha River, and there we resignedly made our night camp even though the Bruly River, as the natives call it for short, was only 12 miles away.

In the evening, we unconsciously discovered Souverain’s severe, but honorable, strength of character. We had brought a bottle of franzbranntwein, more for health than to tickle the tongue, and we poured each of our leaders a glass of this invigorating stomach potion. The younger, Baptiste, opened his throat widely and readily, but Souverain steadfastly refused even though he had worked hard all day and had taken little food.

We were curious and asked him about the cause of this refusal. He told us how he was inclined too much toward the spirituous fluids, and that to combat this, as few years ago he joined a temperance society and pledged in writing to abstain for fifty long years from all liquors. Since then, he has had not a drop of wine. His total abstinence went so far that he was not even moved to enjoy a rice broth in which we had mixed a few drops of the franzbranntwein, to give our guides more power.

This incident reminded the Canadians of some humorous anecdotes from living memory. Souverain told of an elder mix-blood who joined him for a limited period of temperance, with the lovely intent of indulging all the more joyously after the “dry” time. Baptiste told of a fisherman in La Pointe, who, since the sale of alcohol is prohibited on the island under penalty of 200 dollars, would get intoxicated almost every day with a bottle of burning hot peppermint water. Since this liquid, when used at low doses, is an excellent and popular remedy for stomach ailments, it was not easy to restrict its sale. Therefore, to save the life of this islander, the magistrate issued a special edict that the sale of peppermint is only allowed in small vials for medicine.

7 o’clock in the evening, 53°F. A gorgeous aurora borealis creates wisps and horizontal streaks of rapidly-changing dreamlike light.

Thursday, September 23, 63°F. We left early, around half past 7 o’clock. The abundant ashes of our extinguished fire, the tree trunk where our kettle hung, and the thin supports, under which our tent assumed its triangular shape, were the only traces left behind as a memorial of our presence.

Galette:  Le Galette (lugalade, “lug”), is known as bannock in Anishinaabe communities with less French influence.

Although a fairly violent south wind blew, he came from the mainland, so the waves on the lake were fairly calm, unlike those of his antagonist the engulfing north wind who yesterday threw the water up on the shore. For breakfast, we had tea, fried bacon, and galette. The latter is a composite made of kneaded flour, water, and compressed yeast dough, that seems extremely difficult to digest. It is usually prepared every morning by a practiced hand, and is gladly enjoyed, even preferred, by the voyageur.

The shotgun of our traveling companions produced a duck that will provide us with an excellent lunch. It is striking how much the forests along the banks are already emptied by Indian rifles. Temporary flocks of ducks and geese, in their autumn migration to a more southerly area, were the only wild species we encountered on our long journey. Likewise, the fishing in this season is extremely sparse, and he who leaves during these journeys to hunt or fish alone, will soon labor hard and bitterly regret his mistake.

Fond du Lac Village, At St. Louis River from David Dale Owen’s Report of a Geological Survey of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota (1852).

From the Bois Brule River to Fond du Lac, it’s about 21 miles, but to the mission and settlement on the St. Louis River, it’s about 42 miles. We could easily see with the naked eye, the contours of those western hills that mark the limit of this huge navigable water. And so, before we sailed up the Bruly, we paused to behold the joyous satisfaction of reaching the end of this enormous water, now reflecting the sky, on which we had spent 23 busy, enjoyable, and instructive days.

At 11 o’clock in the morning, we finally reached the destination we had anxiously waited for, the Bois-brulé River. Its discharge into Lake Superior was unusually low, but its flow was still very powerful. For our canoemen, it was a matter of routine to skillfully avoid a fatal collision with the bare rocky ridges at the landing.

Our captain had now thrown aside the oars as the long boat poles served better to find the sandy gaps among the rocks. Souverain stood at the upper end of the canoe and directed. He watched with a sharp eye for the moment when the perfect wave would come to our aid and carry us to the landing, and with the signal cry of, “Sauvons-nous!” it came suddenly, and we were borne to shore. We were at the mouth of the Bois-brulé River.

The End, for now…

CAUTION: This translation was made using Google Translate by someone who neither speaks nor reads German. It should not be considered accurate by scholarly standards.

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2 Responses to “Reisen in Nordamerika: From Ontonagon to the mouth of the Bois-brule (Part 3)”

  1. Linda Bryan said

    I am delighted to be a new subscriber to the Chequamegon History blog. May I ask the owner’s name?

    I am researching some of the same materials that you are and would enjoy discussing them.

    Linda Bryan, Maplewood Minn.

    ________________________________

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