PART SIX: The Homeward Journey - the beginning
We were up and busy, preparing for our homeward journey, at five o'clock next morning, and by seven were on our way across the southern part of Lake Nepigon, bound for the head of the river, twenty miles away. We stopped for dinner on an island, and then hurried on. Aside from the anglers that visit these shores, few people in the States know of the existence of this beautiful lake. Yet, as far back as 1679, Daniel Greysolon du Luth explored the country around here, and founded a trading post on the north-eastern corner of the lake to divert the trade of the Indians from the English that had already begun to traffic with them on the shores of Hudson's Bay.
THE MEANING OF NEPIGON
There is much discussion about the meaning of the word "Nepigon." It is evidently a contraction, by the whites, of an Indian name. On a Franquelin map of 1688 the lake is found , and is called Lac Alepimigon. Our Joseph, an educated, very intelligent guide, spelled it Uh-ne-me-bu-gung, and said it meant " the endless waters." A French Canadian missionary of Lake Superior, who made a careful study of the Ojibwas for years, spells it A-nim-i-bi-gong (the same word as our guide's, but differing in spelling, as the Indian and French modes always do), and he still addresses in this way the letters that he sends to far away post toward the northern part of the lake. Another guide said that the meaning could not be given exactly in English; with expressive gestures he tried to give the idea of a brimming bowl, of a great quantity of water. Most anglers, after making hasty enquiries of Indians here, leave the locality confidently asserting that the river should be called Nip-ke-gon, from "nipi," water, and "kego'" fish - which is quite absurd.
The lake is about ninety miles long and fifty wide, has over five hundred and eighty miles of coast- line, and Professor Robert Bell, in his Government report, estimates that there are more than one thousand islands ranging in size from one to eight miles in diameter to small ones of an acre or so in extent. The shores in some parts are comparatively low , and suitable for agriculture, but our journey of that day led us by bold, rugged highlands, frowning cliffs of black trap rock seamed with quartz, that rose in some places to dizzy heights from the water's edge, with their summits crowned with the dense virgin forests. Here and there delicate sprays of white flowers, gleaming like stars against the dark rock, swayed gracefully in the light breeze, and seemed to add, by contrast, to the forbidding grandeur around them.
We passed one island that was simply a huge mass of jagged rocks, almost covered with a bright orange-colored lichen. Here hundreds of large gulls have their homes in the breeding-season, but as we passed by we startled only a few, that swept by us with a plaintive cry.
It was one of those rarely quiet days, a cool, sweet breath crossed the water, and the lake looked like a great shimmering bowl of mother-of-pearl. We were very tired with our early start, and lay back among the tents and baggage, dozing sometimes, and waking often to miss nothing that we should pass. On either side were many islands, but away to the north the water stretch to the horizon. The guides were very quiet, and no sounds were heard but the faint plash of the paddles, the sighing of the pines as we passed near some cliff, and once in a while a far-off, wild cry of a loon.
So, hour after hour passed, and the cliffs grew darker, and the shadows crept down over the hills and lay on the water, the islands began to close in about us, the canoe seemed to spring forward in the swift current that now set in, and as I was about to question Joseph, he began to sing, in a low voice
"Row, brothers, row, the stream runs fast,
The rapids are near, and the daylight's past."
and just then I heard the low boom of the falls, and I saw in the distance flashes of white where the river makes its first plunge over the rocky precipice - the beautiful "Virgin Falls."
Continued in Part Seven: a day spent at Virgin Falls