Wednesday, 11 January 2012

UP THE NEPIGON by Elizabeth Taylor

Be Still Thy Heart, this is from Harper's Magazine 1889

Red Rock, The Hudson's Bay Company's Post at the mouth of the Nepigon.
F. Adams drawing.
Harper's Magazine page 309, 1889
Part One:
We started on our trip up the Nepigon one bright August afternoon. My companions were to join me at the foot of Lake Helen, above the rapids on the river, and I had a solitary walk of a mile through the woods that cover the high banks of the Nepigon at Red Rock - which is the Hudson's Bay Company Post on the north shore of Lake Superior, where all camping-parties prepare for the voyage up the river. Three lovely young girls in their pretty light dresses gathered on the piazza to wave me good-bye, and I turned away from the hospitable home, feeling like a tramp in my rough camp-dress. From time to time I looked back for another glimpse of the post, with its red roofs and white walls brilliant among the dark pines that surround it.

The air was full of the spicy odours of cedars and hemlocks, and the half-sweet, half-bitter fragrance of the poplars; not a sound was heard but the bell-like note of the "Peabody Bird" or white-throated sparrow, and the occasional splash of a trout in the swift current far below, where the Nepigon foams and tumbles along to the bay, and at intervals the plaintive call of the black-throated green warbler. Above my head came his sad, languid refrain of "Hear me, Saint Theresa!" as Wilson Flagg interprets it . To my ears that afternoon it brought suggestions of doubt and misgiving. I was about to start on a canoe trip of one hundred and twenty miles in a birch-bark canoe, with perfect strangers, with Indian guides to paddle us. We were going to a mission of the English Church on a bay in Lake Nepigon, sixty miles away, to be present at an Indian annual payment.

The head of our party was the wife of the missionary, who, with her little boy, an Indian woman, two Indian guides and myself made up the company. We embarked on the shores of Lake Helen the lowest of the five lakes that break the course of the river on its way from Lake Nepigon forty-five miles north of Red Rock.

One canoe held our party, tents, blankets, personal baggage, with provisions not only for ourselves, but for the man left in charge at the mission. It was astonishing to one who had never seen a "birch-bark" loaded before to find what a quantity could be stowed away in it, and when that was done, and it seemed quite impossible for it to hold anything more and float, one after another of our party climbed in, and the guide motioned for me to come down to the shore. I looked over the lake we were to cross, where the waves were running high with a strong north wind, and climbed down the bank and into the canoe with the calmness of despair. Before we camped that night my opinion of a birch-bark had undergone a great change. At first it seemed as if we should certainly be swamped, but as each wave swept by, and the canoe lightly rose and fell with only the crest of the wave curling in once in awhile, the fear passed away, and a delightful feeling of exhilaration took its place.

As we neared the upper end of the lake the water grew calmer, and the turn into the river was very beautiful. Here and there on the banks were the tents of the families of the Indian guides, and we were greeted by a chorus from the Indian dogs that stood on the shore in long rows, with noses uplifted in the air, howling dismally.

It was after sundown that night when we made our camp at the foot of the "Long Portage" above Camp Alexander; upon the brow of the hill, the dark woods around us, and the rapids below thundering by with a deep roar, we partook of a banquet fit for gods and men: bacon fried with onions, and eaten from a tin plate with an uncertain steel fork.

The next morning by seven o'clock we were toiling over the portage of two and a half miles. On this day we experienced the trials that, sooner or later, try  the patience of the camper. Heat, fog, a slow drizzle, black flies, musquitoes (her spelling) and punkies by the thousand; everything wet and disagreeable, the portage rough and stony. It was just as well to have this experience at first, for after that, whenever anything went wrong, we had only to recall that morning on the long portage, and everything seemed to brighten.

By noon we were on our way up the river,  passing through Lake Jessie and Maria, and stopping only to make a short portage of two hundred and fifty yards at Split Rock, where the river is divided by a great tower of rock several hundred feet high, around which the water foams incessantly.

The sun was just setting when we drew near the rocky island on which we were to camp that night. There, in the rapids, was a canoe with two gentlemen fly-fishing, and as we stopped to exchange greetings, we had the delight of seeing four magnificent trout landed, one fine fish by one angler, and others at a cast by his companion.

We hoped to reach the shores of Lake Nepigon next day, but evening found us at the southern end of the mile portage that separated us from it. The day had been delightful, for our route lay through some of the finest views on the river, over two lakes and the two miles of the beautiful Pine Portage, past numberless rapids and islands, and between frowning cliffs of black trap rock, that rise in one place to a height of six hundred feet. It was while crossing one of the small portages that I saw my first "Whisky Jack."  All along the way I had been looking for him - I had heard so much of his self-confident ways and impertinent curiosity, and was anxious to make his acquaintance. As I was sitting at the upper end of the portage, waiting for the guides, a large, bluish slate-coloured bird flitted lightly down to within a few yards of my resting-place. He paid no attention whatever to me, but began arranging his plumage with a preoccupied air, as if his thoughts were far away. He made quite an elaborate toilet, shaking up the loose, fluffy masses of feathers, stretching his wings and pluming himself carefully. I moved a little from time to time to attract his attention, and he occasionally glanced at me with a rather bored air, as if my presence was undesirable, but showed not the slightest sign of fear. After some time, he left his perch, and uttering a low call, sailed gracefully away.

Among some of the Indian tribes he is known as the "Wischashon" and that was changed by the white men into Whisky John, and so to Whisky Jack. The Ojibwas, I believe, call him the "Guin-qui-shi."

This is a very long article so I will do it in series like the Beardmore Relics. Thank you for your patience.

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