Among the Red Indians: Chapter 8

DURING the summer months Mr. Young traveled long distances by canoe. In this land of broad lakes and rapid rivers and winding creeks, the birch-bark canoe is of the greatest use. It is to the Red Indian of the North West what the horse is to his more warlike brother on the great prairies. It is very lightly made and yet it can be loaded almost to the water's edge, and large canoes will easily carry from twelve to fifteen men.
The Indians show great skill and ingenuity in the construction of their canoes. In the first place great, care is needed in stripping the bark from the tree. A long cut is first made down the trunk of the tree, and from this the Indian begins and with his keen knife gradually peels off the whole of the bark, as high as his cut went, in one large sheet. Even when he has safely got it off the tree the greatest care is necessary in handling it, as it will split or crack very easily.
Then the framework is prepared, and is usually made of cedar, if obtainable. The pieces of birch bark have to be sewn together, and the whole is then fastened to the outer frame. The sewing is done with the long, slender roots of the balsam or larch trees, which are soaked and rubbed until they are as flexible as leather.
Great care is taken to make the canoe watertight. To accomplish this the boat is often hung between two trees and filled with water, and every place where the smallest leak is found is marked and when the canoe is emptied the weak places are well covered with melted pitch, which is obtained from the spruce and balsam trees.
Mr. Young had many exciting adventures in his journeys on the great lakes, where storms are often met with that threaten to swamp the light canoes, but the skill of his well-trained canoe men was equal to every emergency, though the waves sometimes rival those of the ocean in size.
He had especial cause to thank God on one occasion for preserving his own life and that of his two companions when caught in a storm in the middle of lake Winnipeg, a few miles from the place that was their destination. At first they rode the waves safely, but when the full force of the storm reached them their canoe was tossed about like a cork, and a wave of unusual size struck the frail craft and split the birch-bark bottom from side to side. The missionary quickly folded a blanket and carefully placed it over the rent and kneeled down upon it, and while one of the Indians baled with a tin he and the other plied their paddles for dear life. After a hard struggle they reached an island more than a mile away with their canoe half full of water. Here they were able to land and repair the damaged bottom with sail-cloth and pitch melted on the camp fire they lighted to dry their drenched bedding and clothes.
At other times his way lay along the broad rivers through the wildest country imaginable, when for miles they did not see a house, with the exception of the lodges built by the beavers. There the chief danger was from falls or rapids.
When one of these was encountered it meant a good deal of labor, as the canoe had to be dragged ashore, the bedding and provisions unloaded and the whole carried past the obstruction. In these portages one of the Indians carried the canoe on his head while Mr. Young and the other divided the remainder of their belongings between them. Sometimes the path was only a narrow ledge of rock close under a great granite cliff, at others through a treacherous swamp, or through regions so wild that there was hardly anything to indicate the right direction. As many as eight or ten of these portages might have to be made in one trip, and though when no storms or head winds hindered them they were able to travel fifty or sixty miles in a day, at other times in stormy weather they were continually drenched with the rain and their lot was anything but an enviable one.
In closing this chapter, I must tell you of one occasion when they and their canoe narrowly escaped being crushed in the ice. One spring they started on a trip before the floating ice-fields had disappeared, and after some hours they came to a place where for many miles the moving ice-fields stretched before them. Only one narrow channel of water could be seen, and anxious to get on they dashed into it and rapidly paddled along. But instead of widening as they had hoped, they found the ice slowly but surely closing in upon them. There seemed small hope of escape, but when it was so near that they could easily touch it on either side with their paddles, one of the Indians said, "Missionary, will you give me your paddle?" It was handed to him, and immediately he thrust it with his own into the water, holding the ends of them so low in the water, and horizontally under the canoe, that the blade end was out of the water on the other side of the boat. The other Indian held two paddles in a similar position. Almost immediately the ice crowded in upon them, but as the blades of the paddles were higher than the ice, of course they rested upon it for a moment.
This was what the Indians were waiting for, and using the ice as a fulcrum for their paddles, they pulled on the handle ends of them, and the canoe slid up on to the ice as it closed in and met with a crash under them. They sprang quickly out of the canoe and carried it away from where the ice was being ground to powder by the force of the impact, thankful that they had escaped by this means from the power of the ice, which would have been sufficient to crush a good-sized ship.