A Canoe Ride through the Wisconsin Wilderness: Reisen in Nordamerika Chapter 22

July 28, 2019

By Leo

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The Austrian writer, adventurer, and academic, Karl Ritter von Scherzer traveled the United States along with Moritz Wagner in 1852 and 1853.  Their original German-language publication of Reisen in Nordamerika is free online through Google Books (image: wikimedia commons).

Chapter 21 of Wagner and Scherzer’s Reisen in Nordamerika in den Jahren 1852 und 1853 appeared on Chequamegon History in three posts in 2013.  Chapter 22 continues the story, as Carl Scherzer describes his trip up the full length of the Brule River in September 1852, riding in a birchbark canoe guided by two La Pointe voyageurs:  Souverain Denis and Jean Baptiste Belanger.

Chapter 22 lacks the variety and historical significance of chapter 21 (Ontonagon to the Mouth of the Bois-Brule), but even in Google-based translation, it maintains much of Scherzer’s beautiful (often comical) prose, that should be appreciated by readers with a fondness for canoeing.  It also includes the lyrics of an authentic voyageur song that does not appear to be published anywhere else on the web.

Themes in this chapter also continue ideas explored in other Chequamegon History posts.  If you wish to read more about the absolute misery encountered by inexperienced canoeists on the Brule, be sure to read the account of Lt. James Allen who accompanied Henry Schoolcraft to Lake Itasca in 1832.  If reading Chapter 22 makes you think that mid 19th-century European travel writers superficially appreciated Ojibwe culture more than American writers, but that their romanticism contained the seeds of dangerously-racist ideas, be sure to check out J. G. Kohl’s Remarks on the Conversion of the Canadian Indians, another Google-aided German translation first published in English right here on Chequamegon History.       

Enjoy:

XXII

A Canoe Ride through the Wisconsin Wilderness

The Rivière du Bois Brülé or Burnt Wood River (Indian: Wisakoda) has a rocky riverbed and runs east-southeast. Its serpentine curves are navigable close to 100 miles, nearly from the source to the mouth by canoes. It has 240 rapids, varying in length, alternating with smooth surface for a length of eighty miles. Most of the rapids have a one-foot, but many an eight to ten-foot slope. Four of them are so dangerous, they require portage, that is, they must be bypassed, and the boat and baggage are carried past the most dangerous points on land.

The width of the river changes tremendously. At its mouth, it is probably ninety feet wide, then sometimes narrows down to a few feet, and then expands just as quickly to the dimension of a considerable waterway. Its total slope from its source to its mouth in Lake Superior is about 600 feet. We therefore had the doubly-difficult task of overcoming river and the slope.

We took our frugal lunch of bacon and tea on a small mound of sand. We looked back and saw, probably for the last time in our eyes, but lasting forever in our memories, Lake Superior.

Amorin Mello has covered both postal irregularities and early surveys of northern Wisconsin, here on Chequamegon History.

It should be noted that such letters are not uncommon in this great primeval forest, where bald towering tree trunks are more reliable postmen than the whims of hunting Indians, ignorant of their duties.  Suddenly, Baptiste cried out, “Une lettre! Une lettre!” Mounted on a high pole, a letter hung wrapped in birch bark. It was addressed to a “Surveyor in the wilds of Lake Superior”–truly, an extended address! The letter was accompanied by a slip of paper, also in English, in which the readers, insofar as it did not concern them, were requested to leave it undamaged in its eye-catching position.

In winter, when Lake Superior is often unnavigable for months, the postal connection with La Pointe is an arduous forest path taking nine days to reach St. Croix Falls. Since it sometimes happens that the frivolous mix-bloods, growing weary of their postal duties hang their letters on the next branch and happily return to their favorite activity: hunting the wild forest thickets. The pack sits on the tree until a more-conscientious wanderer happens upon it. Thus, it takes three months to travel a road that would be covered in as many days in civilized area with modern transportation.

Birches (betula papyracea), elms, poplars, ash trees (fraxinus sambucifolia), and oak trees make up the bulk of these primeval forests. However, spruce, pine (pinus resinosa), firs, (abies balsamea and alba), cedars and juniper trees appear in such a pleasant mixture that their dark green forms a magnificent base note for the deciduous wood, as it bleaches golden in the autumn.

Within a half hour, the clear light-green water, 6 feet deep at the entrance, dropped to half a foot. From this, one may get a sense of the lightness of our birch-barked vehicle. In spite of the people, travel utensils, and provisions, probably amounting to 800 pounds of load, it glided gently, without even brushing the shallow riverbed.

The further we went up the river, the more virgin and primeval the forest, and the wilder and wilder the little waterway became. At places, tree trunks had fallen across the river and completely blocked our way. We had to take up the handy carpenter’s ax to cut a passage through. Under such navigational conditions, the oars lay quietly against the walls of the canoe, and long, hand-hewn poles were our only means of locomotion.

A heavy rain left us short on time to look for a bivouac. We spent the night in the woods under old spruce trees. Their trunks were more than 120 feet in height. Every night, we tied the thermometer to a tree branch out of the wind, and then recorded our observations in the morning. That was the only time we were able to maintain a regular hour of observation.

Friday, September 24, 53°F. Yesterday’s heavy rain has stopped, and as far as you can tell from under our green jungle canopy, the sky is quite clear and cloudless.

We continued the journey at 8 o’clock. At points, wind-broken spruce and beech hung from both sides, their still-green jewelry forming arcs of triumph across the river.

The splendorous color of the forests is enhanced by the mighty brush of autumn. You can already notice the work of this brilliant painter on the foliage of the oaks and elms. Only the stiff firs and ancient spruces, seen against the sky, allow the autumn storms to rush past without changing their defiant green.

We had a short portage to make, and a part of the provisions and effects had to be carried over the rapids. Landed at 12 o’clock for lunch. Our canoe was already severely damaged by the low water level and numerous rocky cliffs, and it began to fill with water. Now, all our luggage had to be brought to the shore and the empty boat had to be turned over to wrap the leaky areas watertight again.

For the whole afternoon’s journey, the same wild character of nature prevailed. Trees on opposite banks bent in pyramids and wrapped around each other at the summit. Sturdy roots of ash, elms, oaks having lost their balance, hung like an arched bridge over the surface of the water. All around, the eye sees the rugged beauty of the forest. Little has changed in nature or navigation in the two hundred years since the first missionary in a birch canoe passed through this wilderness.

At points, the thicket clears, the land becomes flatter, the river broadens, small lush archipelagoes rise, and the scenery gains the prestige of a modern park. In such areas, the wild rice (Zizania aquatica) comes into view. Along with hunting and fishing, it constitutes a staple food of the Indians. A marsh plant, it usually grows only in lowlands (sloughs), which are 8 to 10 inches under water for most of the year.

Oumalouminee:  while manoomin (wild rice) is at the root of it, the Ojibwe-Algonquian word Omanoominii (Oumalouminee on early French maps) actually means “Wild Rice People” (i.e. the Menominee Nation or the St. Croix (Folle Avoine) Ojibwe.  

The harvest happens in the autumn, in a simple and effortless way. The Indians drive their slender canoes through the reeds into the middle of the rice fields. They bend the ears from both sides over the boat, and then beat out the fruit with fists and sticks, where it falls to the floor of the canoe. Most of the time, they roast the rice (Oumalouminee) and enjoy it boiled in water. Sometimes, however, when this seems too much trouble for them, the humble forest-dwellers are content to chew the raw fruit like kinikinik or smoking tobacco as a noonday meal.

When we asked Souverain how far we still had to go to the next portage, he replied that it might still be a distance of two pipes (deux pipes), by which he meant to say that we would arrive after the time in which one is able to smoke two pipes.

The black rocky bottom of the river makes the water so dark, it becomes very difficult to distinguish the sharp slightly-covered, rocks from the water, and so our boat received more than one jolt and leak. At half past four, we had to make a second portage of half a mile in length. Both the boat and the baggage had to be carried through the forest. We camped at the other end of the trail at the edge of a northern beech forest. Evening, 7 o’clock 48° F.

Saturday, 25th of September, 40° F. Heavily clouded horizon, windless, rainy. Our matches got wet and prevented us from starting a fire. Finally, a flint was found in a tin, but the gathered wood was green and wet, and took a long time to burn. After 7 o’clock, we set out. Exclusively hardwood vegetation, now, namely ash, elm, silver poplar and birch, which would seem to indicate a milder climate.

The remnants of Indian night camps are noticed at many points in the forest: the charred fire, the fresh tree-branches placed in the ground where the kettle hung above the flame, the dry wooden skeletons that were once wigwams.

Several jumbles of tree branches had to be chopped in half this morning with the ax in order to make a passage for us. Only half an hour after our departure from bivouac, we arrived at the third portage. Under heavy rain, we carried the effects through the forest on a trail that only occasionally hinted at ancient, long-weathered tracks. This time, the canoe could be pulled over the rapids, but only through a heroic decision of the two leaders to wade alongside it in the frosty, cold river. At 8:30, this painstaking portage was over, and the journey across the less-dangerous rapids continued in the canoe.

Souverain Denis (Danie), a celebrated voyageur of La Pointe was around 67 years old in 1852, when Scherzer hired him to lead the voyage from La Pointe to Stillwater in the Minnesota Territory.

In the afternoon, more coniferous trees appeared, especially on the right bank. The rapids often continued for miles, and Souverain, the admiral of our birch-barked frigate, to whom was entrusted our destiny, had more than a hard row to hoe. Twice, shying away from the effort of cutting, we boldly passed over mighty tree trunks fallen into the river. Several times, our barge slid so narrowly under tree trunks hanging over the water there was scarcely enough space left us, lying with our backs against the bottom, to squeeze under with our slender canoe.

Despite the reappearance of softwood vegetation, the area visibly takes on a different character as it gradually changes from the hilly landscape of Lake Superior to the flat prairie ground of the West. The trees in the forest become less dense, while willows, cypresses, larches, and Thuja occidentalis are more frequently seen. On the banks, young saplings proudly take the place of the noble-stemmed spruce.

Based on our experiences so far, we would not recommend that future travelers rely too much on hunting and fishing while traveling through these wilderness areas. The almost incessant rapids give the river a current far too strong for it to be a popular habitat for fish, and the game is usually scanty along the shore. In addition, the gun often suffers much from the water, which the powerful sweep of the poles and paddles sends over the side of the canoe. Due to this moisture, which is almost unavoidable in such a small space, even the best-measured shots often fail.

Once, it was inspiring to see the keen-eyed Souverain pick out a water snipe among the bushes. Not knowing its mortal danger, it promenaded itself carelessly in search of food. We approached quietly with the boat, drawing near to fell the victim with the shotgun, and Souverain shot his enemy-snipe-weapon. The shot failed. A second and third had the same fate. The charges had been dampened by prolonged rain.

1._wilson27s_snipe._gallinago_wilsoni_bon._2._american_woodcock._philohela_minor_gray_lccn2017660746(wikimedia) Wasserschnepfe is a generic German term for several species in the family Scolopacidae (snipes and sandpipers). Wilson’s Snipe (left) or the American Woodcock (right) are likely candidates for the suicidal Brule bird.  Hypochondria was used as a synonym for depression in the 19th century–see the opening paragraph of Moby Dick for an example.

Quite remarkably, the poor animal had still not left its dangerous post, as if it were overpowered by melancholy, and would receive the mortal shot as a blessing. The fourth charge finally did its duty. The snipe staggered and fell dead in a nearby bush. She was haggard and skinny, and seemed to have truly suffered from hypochondria. In the evening, we shot a duck. General joy was had over their fatigue, and we lustily enjoyed a good evening meal.

In the final hours of the journey, the river assumes a regular, almost canal-like course, which for some miles continued in a straight line. The rapids become rarer, but the river is densely covered with rock, which hides itself under the smooth barren surface of the water. Surprised by nightfall, and in the deceitful twilight not daring to go further among the aforementioned jagged rocks, we bivouacked close to the shore in a flat, swampy area.

As a rule, since we were on the Bois-Brülé river, we drove for ten hours a day, from 7 o’clock in the morning until 5 o’clock in the evening, unless rain or canoe repairs prevented us. Every morning, before we left, we prepared our breakfast, and made a very short stop at lunchtime. We pitched our tent only at the resting hour of the evening, when possible on a hill in an area where the presence of numerous dry logs could suffice for preparing a comfortable night fire.

Only a few years removed from the Great Famine, Wagner and Scherzer visited America during a period of massive Irish immigration, which they discuss elsewhere in their travelogue.

After the two voyageurs had cut down and brought in 12 to 18 pieces of spruce or birch trunks in the forest, they usually left it to us to keep the fire at proper heat. No sooner had our evening meal been consumed, which, like the selection at the court of an Irish emigrant’s table–one day bacon and tea, and the next day tea and bacon–the two voyageurs, fatigued by the hard work of the day, would fall asleep. Our traveling companion, wrapped in a thick buffalo robe, found no more attraction in this body-strengthening pleasure. So we were faced with a choice, stoke or freeze.

Every night, we would get up four or five times to set new tree trunks on the dying glow. And when the fire flared up again, we’d sit a while and watch the joyous flaming wave, and think of our friends across the ocean. And as this new flame intensified, new glowing thoughts and feelings rose in us again and again, for the fire possesses the same miraculous power as the sea or the blue sky. One can gaze into it for hours and yet cannot get enough of it. One laughs and cries, becomes sad then cheerful again. – The logs that we burned last night, certainly amounted to half a cord of wood!

Sunday, September 25, 5:30, snowfall. A good fire in front of our tent makes it easier for us to bear the cold and the bad weather. All night long, we heard the cries of many flocks of ducks moving cheerfully off to the west. In the forest, now, one hears only the lonely lamentations of a woodpecker, his flight inhibited and decrepit, he could not follow the young flyers and is left behind. The snowfall prevents the boat from popping up, and we are forced to wait for better weather in this swampy, frosty wilderness.

7 o’clock, 35° F. A shot was fired nearby. It was probably the hunting rifle of wandering Indians.

Around 9:30, a canoe came up with an Indian and his squaw (Indian woman). It was the postman of La Pointe who had picked up the letters in St Croix and was on the way home. As soon as he saw our camp, he stopped, got out, and he and his wife warmed themselves by our brightly-lit fire.

The postman of La Pointe described here does not seem to be John Morrison, the mail carrier listed in the 1850 censusBoozhoo:  hello! greetings! (Ojibwe People’s Dictionary)

He was a poor, one-eyed devil. In his little boat he brought wild rice (folle avoine) tucked under animal skins, which he wished to exchange for resin to repair his damaged canoe. The shot we heard a few hours earlier fell from his shotgun, but the duck he aimed never did. The postman did not seem to be in a hurry. He talked to the voyageurs for more than an hour, then said good-bye and Boshu* to the fire’s warmth and to us.

[*Boshu, also bojoo or bojo, is undoubtedly a corruption of the French “Bon jour,” which is used by all Indian tribes on this side of the Mississippi for all kinds of greetings in the widest sense of the word. In general, the Chippewa language is teeming with English expressions, for which they have no name in their own language. The same is the case with the Indians of British Guiana, who have included many Spanish words in their language: cabarita, billy goat (Indian: cabaritü), sapatu, shoe (Indian zapato), aracabusca, firearm (Indian: arcabug). It deserves great attention at a time when we seem more inclined than ever to draw conclusions about the descent of peoples from certain similarities in languages. Comp. Dr. W. H. Brett, Dr. Thomas Jung, etc.]

11 o’clock in the morning. After the snow stopped, we quickly patched some areas on the boat, damaged by the sharp rocks. After a short snack of bacon and salt meat, we proceeded further up the river. We intended to continue, without further delay in a southwesterly direction, until dawn, hoping to escape this frighteningly-cold region.

The scenery and nature remained the same as yesterday. Hardwood, among which the American elm (ulmus americana) prevails. With its imposing height and rich crown of leaves, it is a major ornament of the American forests. With the shallow shores, rice marshes and trees hanging over the river under the weight of their leaves, our canoe laboriously sighs under its oppressive cargo. The rapids start again. The river is about 40 feet wide.

About 2:30, we passed through ten minutes of rapids, whose completion required the full effort of our two canotiers. In addition to the countless rocks, we passed through the lowest water levels, over uprooted trees that had fallen into the river. Our journey now resembled the pushing of a cart than it did the light gliding of a birch canoe. It was a fight with the water and nature. We were in danger of wounds to our heads and eyes, passing close under the wild bushy oaks and spruces that jutted into the water.

The landscape afforded variety of rich, picturesque views. Every bend, every new opening, showed the visitor a new image. At times, the river extended to the breadth of a lake, and cedars, cypresses, thujas, and all the green foliage of the swamp vegetation becomes visible. Where the rapids stop, the mirror-clear, calm water comes alive with trout and swimming birds. All at once, however, the picture will close, and the two shores form an incessantly-bright green alley, through which the smooth river stretches like a long white vein of silver.

Bakinawaan:  win over/ beat in a contest or game (Ojibwe People’s Dictionary)

By evening, our little boat was suffering greatly from the incoming cold. At sunset, we camped on the so-called Victory Grounds (pakui-aouon). It is a cleared piece of forest, about 40 feet above the river, that forms a kind of plateau, upon which bloody battles must have taken place in former centuries between the Sioux and Chippewas.

The Revolutions of 1848 were critical in the early development of Czech nationalism in the Austrian Empire.   Being from Vienna, Scherzer may have been acutely sensitive to dissatisfaction in nearby Prague.

The cause of the hatred between these two tribes of Indians remains an object of research. However, one only needs to mention the name one tribe, to a person of the other in order to provoke his rage. Against this, even the hatred of the Czechs, who in the blessed year of Revolution wished to devour all of Germany, pales in comparison. For as often as the Sioux come into contact with Chippewa Indians, they will certainly commit a murder, because according to their legal concepts, it is their duty to scalp as many Chippewas as possible.

Scherzer wrote Joseph Austrian at La Pointe for the lyrics of the Chanson canadienne, and while the Reisen does not identify the family of Jean Baptiste (the most common men’s name at La Pointe), Joseph Austrian’s memoirs suggest the singer was “one Balange,” presumably Jean Baptiste Belanger.

In the evening, when the tent is pitched, the night’s wood is felled and carried in from the forest, the fire is lighted and a small meal is prepared and consumed, the four of us would sit still for a while around the warming fire. We would listen to the voyageurs tell us about their experiences and destinies, and about the savagery of the whites and the gentleness of the Indians. Sometimes, they also sing songs that have strangely found their way from the home of the troubadours to these soundless primeval forests of the north*. Here we repeat one that Jean Baptiste sang out this evening with much emotion, as he lay carelessly, disregarding the flickers of the burning fire:

Chanson canadienne
(Canadien song)

Buvons tous le verre à la main,
Buvons du vin ensemble;
Quand on boit du vin sans dessein,
Le meilleur n’en vaut guère.
Pour moi je trouve le vin bon,
Quand j’en bois avec ma Lison.

(Let’s drink down the glasses, in our hands,
Let’s drink wine together;
When you drink wine without purpose,
Even the best is not worth it.
For me, I find the wine tastes good,
When I drink with my Lison.)

Depuis longtemps que je vous dis:
Belle Iris je vous aime,
Je vous aime si tendrement,
Soyez moi donc fidèle,
Car vous auriez en peu de temps,
Un amant qui vous aime.

(For a long time I have been telling you:
Beautiful Iris I love you,
I love you so dearly,
Be faithful to me,
For in a short time you will have,
A lover who loves you.)

Belle Iris, de tous vos amants
Faites une différence,
Je ne suis pas le plus charmant
Mais je suis le plus tendre.
Si j’étais seul auprès de vous,
Je passerais les moments les plus doux.

(Beautiful Iris, of all your lovers
Make a difference,
I am not the most charming
But I am the most tender.
If I were alone with you,
I would have the sweetest moments.)

Allons donc nous y promener,
Sous ces sombres feuillages,
Nous entendrons le rossignol chanter
Qui dit dans son langage,
Dans son joli chant d’oiseau,
Adieu amants volages.

(Let’s go for a walk,
Under the dark foliage,
We will hear the nightingale
Who sings in his language,
In his pretty bird song,
Farewell lovers.)

“Ah! rendez-moi mon coeur,
Maman me le demande.”
“”Il est à vous, si vous, pouvez le reprendre.
Il est confondu dans le mien,
Je ne saurais lequel est le tien.””

(“Ah! Give me back my heart,
Mother asks me.”
“It’s yours, if you can, take it back.
It is mixed up with mine,
I will not know which is yours.”)

[*It is a common observation that the painted native forest dwellers of America are not as eloquent as their much-simpler dressed German counterparts. Although we passed through the forests of Wisconsin, Missouri, and Ohio in all seasons, we never heard as beautiful and funny singing as in the German hall. It is as if nature wanted to compensate the German forest singer for his lack of splendor through the richer gift of song. Comp. Franz v. Neuwied and Agassiz, Lake superior etc., p. 68 u. 382, respectively.]

Monday, September 27th, 35°F. Sky is completely changed, haunting cold. The snow began to fall so thickly, we had to stop again, after a short time, to build an invigorating fire in a cedar forest amidst swamp and morass. But when the flame began to grow, its warmth reached the snowy branches of the cedar trees. The snow turned to water and fell upon us as heavy rain. We were all thoroughly soaked, and the fingers of the two canoe handlers were so frozen by the biting snow they could not paddle the ship. So we sought, as well as it was possible under such unfavorable weather conditions, to warm ourselves, and finally resumed our journey at noon under snow, rain, and a sharp north wind.

12 o’clock, 42°F. Soon after our embarkation, we had to make a small portage, and happily bypassed La Clef de Brülé, a number of rapids, which in their dangerous places are called by the voyageurs “The Key to the River”.

Cedarwood now grows almost exclusively on both banks, down to the river’s edge. They sometimes seem so harshly thrown over one another that the canoe can pass through only with difficulty.

american_medicinal_plants_28plate_16529_28602544095329american_medicinal_plants_28plate_16629_28602599656029“Cedar,” used generically on today’s Brule River could only mean the Whitecedar or Arbor Vitae Thuja occidentalis (top).  Curiously, however, Scherzer specifically distinguishes Thuja from Juniperus virginiana or redcedar (bottom) and describes the latter as more common, even though J. virginiana is not found this far north.

2:30 48°F. The snowflakes have changed to raindrops with the increasing temperature. Gradually, the rain stopped, and there was overcast, but rain-free weather. We now reached the Campement des Cedres, the only place up to the source of the river, where one still finds enough wood to prepare a night fire as all tree species except cedars (juniperus virginiana) are now becoming sparse along the shores. The discomfort of travel is now joined by a feeling of an unshakeable cold.

We therefore resolved to reach the navigable end of the Bois Brülé river that evening, and our captains endeavored to reach it before nightfall.

The rapids had now stopped, but another no-less uncomfortable and dangerous guest turned against us. The bushes of alders (alnus incana), willows, berberis, etc. grew on both banks. In their undisturbed growth, they had become so impenetrable that at the first sight of these thousands of closely intertwined branches, we often thought it impossible to break through with a canoe. The river was completely invisible in these thick, shady hangings, and hoe, pole, and fists had to be activated to fight all these natural hindrances.

Sometimes, we could only pass through horizontally, with our heads back to the bottom of the canoe. Closing our eyes to the relentless branches, we completely abandoned ourselves to the care of the brave Souverain. His face and hands scratched by the tiny branches, he undauntedly strove forward with unspeakable effort. Only a few times, when these forest barricades grew too overpowering, we heard a half-desperate, “mais c’est impossible!”

In September of 1852, it was still an open question of whether the Ojibwe would be removed west from Wisconsin.  The disastrous Sandy Lake Removal of two years earlier was partially prompted by trading interests wishing to focus westward.

This wild overgrowth of the two banks, which gave our boat journey more of a character of first voyage of discovery than that of following a well-trodden path, can only be explained by the circumstance that the river is only seldom traveled up to its source. Earlier, when La Pointe was the Fur Company’s trading post, several hundred canoes loaded with commodities traveled this route every year, and from there they crossed to the various trading places of Upper Mississippi. But since Indians, forest animals and fur traders have moved westward, the cheerful waters of the Bois Brülé often trickle by, through entire seasons, without being cut by the keel of a boat, and the lush vegetation of its shores is free to reach across and embrace in wild passion.

In this case, the “grand portage” or “great carrying place” referred to is the Brule-St. Croix portage, separating the waters of Lake Superior from the waters of the Mississippi.

Around 5 o’clock, we found the water of the river so low in several places that we decided to give some relief to the canoe by continuing the rest of the journey to the source of the river on foot. We walked back a mile and a half along a forest path, under the most unfavorable conditions. Our bodies wrapped from head to toe in India rubber, we sat with our travel companions against the moving forest, while the two voyageurs with canoe and effects followed the course of the river to meet us again at the grand portage.

Hardly could a hike offer more variety. Without the slightest indication of the path to be taken by the usual old footprints and tree cuts, we fought thorn bushes through deep snow, then passed through wild grain as tall as man, swiftly mowing it under our boots. In the hurry to disembark, we left our compass in the boat, so we could only guess what direction we should start navigating to find the so-called “Great Carrying Place.”

We wandered the wilderness, sweaty and fatigued, unable to move with any speed. The night was already falling, and as our innumerable “hallos,” went unanswered by our captain, we fell silent in the solitude of the forest, coming to terms with the idea of spending the night in these cold, fever-inducing swamps. All of the sudden, the voices of the voyageurs resounded like a hallelujah. We had to be very close to them, so we gained fresh courage against the complaints of pressing each step forcibly through dense undergrowth of thorny shrubs.

Drenched and chilled, we finally reached the Portage on a hill above some young cedars, and found the Voyageurs already occupied with the clearing and patching of the canoe. Unlike ourselves, our travel companion and the two Canadians had no rain-resistant rubber outfits, and were even more exposed to the cold, wet weather. For a time, the shivering appearance of our companion made us fear for his health.

In addition, we soon learned of a new misfortune. The snow cover and lack of wood in the vicinity prevented us from pitching our tent preparing a good fire as fast as our condition might desire. Besides, all our packs had gotten wet, and the provisions were in a poor state of edibility.

Our first concern, when we finally succeeded in pitching the tent and building a fire, was to dry our underwear and garments. All around us, hanging from tree branches and ropes were scattered cloths, spread out and drained of color. In our haste to remove the uncomfortable liquid from our needed garments through the warming power of the flame, we brought them into too-close contact with the wildly-flickering fire. Regrettably, they were soon covered in traces of scorch marks.

Nothing in our preceding traveling conditions had so deeply embittered us or made us as morose as these recent events. It is true that none of us complained, but each man stood in perfect silence before the burning logs, and regrettably stared at whatever soaked garment he was holding in his outstretched arms before the drying glow. Our medicines in vulgar condition, and our books, writings, documents, and physical instruments, all partially corrupted or totally broken, there was not a single piece of our effects which did not bear some lasting trace of damage.

The only consolation was that the snowstorm ended, and the overcast sky dissipated into a bright, starry, moonlit night, which made the prospect of a more favorable morning and forgetting the troubles of today, less and less difficult to fathom.

A short distance from the Portage is the inconspicuous source of the Bois-Brule River, in the marshes all around.* Only a single small stream pours into it during its long, winding course to Lake Superior. The Campement du Portage, where the travelers usually camp, is situated on a small hill, adorned with a serene cedar and spruce approach. While it may present a charming bivouac during a pleasant, warmer season. The eerie conditions under which we spent the night on the cold, damp ground could not possibly give us an idea of their summer loveliness.

[*The water of the Bois-brule River is about 12-14° Fahrenheit cooler than that of the La Croix River, for which may be explained by its forest-shaded banks being almost inaccessible to sunbeams, as well as its proximity to Lake Superior.]

In winter, when the river freezes along its entire length, it must be a marvelous sight: the wild rapids suddenly frozen by the harsh power of frost, and transformed into the strangest shapes and ice formations.

S.

 

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