Next> | <Prev | ^ToC | End

Nessmuk's Adirondack Letters

By George Washington Sears ("Nessmuk") (1821-1890), 1880-3

Rough Notes from the Woods, 2

Forest and Stream, Aug. 19, 1880

FOUR miles from Moose River on the "Brown Tract Road" there is a trail turning to the right, and a white shingle is marked "Jones' Camp." Follow the trail two miles, and it forks. The left fork is again marked "Jones' Camp." The right fork has a plain shingle, marked with blue pencil as follows: "Wm. Bero, Chief St. Regis Indians." This trail leads to the "Injun Camp," as it is called here. I had met Chief William at the Moose River House; had been told that he could give me more genuine knowledge of the wilderness than any man within fifty miles. I laid myself out to cultivate Chief William, invited him to my room, showed him rifle, hatchet, fishing duffle, hooks, spears, lines and knives. When I showed him an ivory-handled Spanish knife that was really fine, though of little use to me, I saw his black eye gleam; he fell in love with that knife on sight.

I am well used to the American Aborigine. When William had done admiring that knife I made him a present of it. That won him. I am sorry to say that I supplemented the gift with a glass of firewater. A cordial invitation to visit the Indian camp followed, with an offer to carry my canoe and all the traps I desired to take.

William Bero, Chief of the St. Regis Tribe, heads a gang of twenty young braves whose tomahawk is the axe of the backwoodman, whose scalping knife is the spud of the barkpeeler. Luckily, in going in, I met William on the trail, who, with a companion, was going in to the tannery on business.

He went no further. He had promised that if I came out to his camp he would "take care of me" and he did it.

Relegating his business to his partner, he took my blanketroll and rifle away from me. He even insisted on carrying my nine-ounce rod. From the moment I met him on the trail he took possession of me, so to speak, and I followed his lead implicitly.

What a grand woodsman the fellow is!

I wanted to go to the Indian camp the first thing. Not a bit of it. He knew of a spring hole that he wanted me to fish, and I surrendered. He led me by trails and across swamps until I lost all notion of compass points, and at last brought me out on the banks of the Moose at the mouth of a cold trout stream; and then he explained that trout had been taken there the present season weighing over three pounds. I dare say he was right. But as they had been taken, of course they were not there.

I whipped the water in my best style for half an hour without a rise, while Chief William, with tamarack pole, coarse cotton line and large bass hook baited with a chunk of shiner, stood on a log below me and hauled out trout after trout in the most business-like and unartistic manner.

At last an unfortunate took my center fly--a queen--and, as I was towing him around, another victim immolated himself on the tail fly--a Romeyn. It was well. With what trout Chief Bill had snaked out we had enough, but it is hard to make any man here believe that you come to the woods for any other purpose than to catch the ultimate trout and shoot the last possible deer. I succeeded in drawing Bill off and we started for the Indian camp. He said it was "a mile 'n half." I think it was. It took an hour and a half of rapid marching to reach it. The camp was simply two bark-roofed log shanties standing among and underneath large spruce and hemlock trees. One of the whirlwinds so common in these woods would make a bad tangle of that camp.

The inmates of the shanties consisted of the fifteen choppers and peelers, with Bill's family of seven--Mrs. Bill, a portly, comely squaw; the daughter, a pretty-featured, plump young squaw with a voice like a silver bell; and four young Indians, the smallest being the inevitable papoose, on his ornately carved and painted board.

That papoose is and always has been to me a Sybilline mystery. I first made his acquaintance many years ago among the Nessmuks of Massachusetts. He was on his board, swathed, strapped and swaddled from chin to toes, immovable save that his head and neck were left free to wiggle. I next saw him among the Senecas of New York State. Then in Michigan, in Wisconsin, on the upper waters of the Mississippi; and now I meet him again in the North Woods. The same mysterious, inscrutable eyes, the same placid, patient, silent baby, varying in nothing save the board, which in Wisconsin was simply a piece of bark. In this case the board is a neat bit of handicraft. When Bill assures me that the carving was "done with a jackknife" I can hardly believe him. And when he says that the bright vermilion, blue and yellow have not been retouched in thirty-five years, I don't believe him at all. The painting is as bright as though it was put on the present season. Commend me to the papoose board. We judge men, actions and things by ultimate results.

After a royal supper of trout, cooked in a manner worthy of Delmonico's, I watched Bill's young bark-peelers as they got red around a rousing fire which they had the good sense to build under a huge hemlock. There was not a pair of round shoulders or a protruding shoulder-blade in the camp. Straight, strong, stalwart fellows, one and all. And every man of them spent the first year of his life on a papoose board.

It has been said a thousand times that Indians will not work, or only in a fitful, desultory way that amounts to nothing; and this is true of the plains Indian; also of the Cree and Chippewa, with other nomadic tribes; but not of the St. Regis or Mohawk and only in part of the Senecas and Oneidas.

As an instance of what Indian muscle can do, let me state that the day before I reached the St. Regis camp ten of Bill's barkpeelers felled and peeled 138 large hemlocks, yielding over thirty cords of bark. In most white camps a cord of bark per day is accounted fair work.

I think the papoose is glad when darkness settles down on the forest and they let up on him. He throws his arms and legs about for all the world like a white baby and crows like mad; then of a sudden his head lops over; he is asleep. I, too, turn in, but not to sleep. Three of the young Indians, including the sweet-voiced maiden, gather around the fire and sing in a low minor key and with soft pleasant voices, the Indian songs of their tribe. And at last I drop into slumber and waken five minutes later, as it seems to me. But it is daylight, and Mrs. Bill has the breakfast nearly ready. I have slept the sleep of the just man and am fresh for the day.

The maiden has got that inscrutable papoose out and is strapping him to his board for the day. When they get him fixed they will pull out from under the roots of a huge hemlock the inevitable jug of tar oil and anoint every visible part of his tawny pelt. The tar oil, well applied, will last some two hours, when it begins to fail, and venomous insects begin to wire in on you.

That papoose understands it. So long as the tar oil lasts he spends his time peering with deep, curious eyes into the gloomy depths of the forest, or, when the wind rises, watching the swaying tree tops. But at the first decided mosquito or punkie bite he gives tongue to a straight, steady yell, without any ups or downs; and Mrs. Bill comes to his relief, takes him between her knees, anoints him from neck to crown, takes him by the basket handle of his board, as one might a peck of potatoes, and stands him up against a hemlock, a log, or the shady side of the shanty. He resumes his eternal occupation of gazing at the mysteries of the forest and is placidly content.

An Indian baby is not expensive in the way of play-things.

Chief William gives me no rest. It is his undying conviction that I came to the woods for the sole purpose of shooting deer and catching trout, and I have got to do it. He hurries me off to Nelson Lake, one of the unmapped waters of the wilderness. There are three spring holes there, in which trout of two pounds have been taken the present season. It is also a good lake for "floating," as they call it here. A short time since a party went on the lake to float and succeeded, by noisy paddling, in scaring six deer out of the lake in one evening, but got no shot. I find Nelson Lake a pretty sheet of water, fringed with the fragrant pond lily that is almost universal here. Bill lays me up to the first spring hole without noise or wake, and I cast my flies across the clear cold water in vain. Chubs and shiners rush madly on the hooks, but trout will not rise. Bill takes a shapeless piece of chub, puts it on that hook of his, and presently drags out a pound trout. To say I am disgusted is putting it mildly. I am swearing mad. He explains that there is a time late in July and early in August when trout "lay deep" and will not rise to the fly. "If we had wums," says Bill, "we catch 'em." That is just my idea, and it happens that I have the "wums." Brought them with me, knowing they were not to be had in the forest. While he is paddling to the next spring hole I take off my leader and replace it with a large hook and strong snell, bait it heavily, and make a cast as the boat glides slowly within reach. It is taken on the first cast, and I bring a half-pound fish into the boat with small ceremony. Bill catches, as usual, a larger one, and then I stubbornly refuse to make another cast. He does not understand it at all, but paddles to the landing and I walk up to camp, scrape acquaintance with his daughter, who is educated, intelligent, and a school teacher among the St. Regis, speaking and writing English fluently. She showed me specimens of chirography and was pleased when I praised her handwriting, which was really fine.

Then I took the papoose by his basket handle and carried him off into the woods. I stood him up against a spruce and made him a speech in mixed Chippewa, Portuguese and English. I explained to him the brutal manner in which his ancestors had roasted and scalped my forefathers and foremothers. I brandished a big knife above his baby head, sang a snatch of Chippewa war song and gave a war whoop. A white baby would have gone into convulsions. He looked at me calmly with those dark, fathomless eyes and when I gave a final whoop, broke into a placid smile that covered his face all over like a burst of sunlight.

An Indian baby doesn't scare much.

After a dinner of trout--again--Bill left me in peace while he went to look after a bark job somewhere among the hills, and I took my blanket, hunted out a dry, cosy nook, rolled myself up and was having a grand snooze, when I was awakened by someone calling my name. It was Ye Chief Bill, and I knew he meant business. He is bound that I shall have sport if it kills me. We are to fish that spring hole again, which I don't care for, and then watch a deer lick, which I do care for. He straps on that everlasting packbasket, gets out his shooting gear, and leads off again, but by a shorter route, to the same spot I fished the night before.

I am sorry to see that Bill's shooting iron is a veritable old musket of the Continental pattern, from which two of the three bands have been abstracted to lighten the piece. He excuses himself for carrying such a clumsy concern by saying that it is the best barrel to throw buckshot that he can find, and he likes a buckshot gun for floating or lick-watching. When I see him load it with about forty grains of powder and eleven small buckshot, I lose faith in him, rather.

At the spring hole it was the same old story. The chief caught two fine trout; I landed one. I refused to throw another fly and began to pack up, to Bill's disgust and surprise. I explain that we have plenty of fish for the trout supper which he has planned, and by the time that is over it will be time to climb up to the blind for lick-watching. He acquiesces, silently stuffs his own traps and mine into that pack-basket and glides up the trail at a pace that keeps my short legs at a half-trot. As we pass up the trail Bill points out a bark-roofed camp on the side hill, where we are to put in for the night. I suggest that it may not be easy to find our way in the dark. "Got lantern," he says, and we glide on. Fifteen minutes of sharp walking and we turn to the right, cross a low ridge and come out on one of the lovely, fairylike spots that one may find every day in these woods. It is simply a moss-covered level bank on the margin of a trout stream, about twenty rods long and half as wide. But what a beautiful dry carpet it was, and the timber, all spruce and hemlock, just far enough apart for shade and elegance, with no underbrush or tangle.

All this was lost on the Indian, who only said curtly: "You make fire. I go over by lick; get some grub there." He disappears, and I proceed to make a fire, selecting a tall spruce with two projecting roots that answer as fire dogs. I soon have the tea water on, and before it comes to a boil Chief William is back. He has a lantern and ample supplies. Diving into the depths of that ever-to-be-remembered basket he brings out bread, pork, tea, sugar, butter, salt, pepper, tin drinking cups, and lastly a large round shortcake.

Shall I ever forget that supper? I still hold the opinion that the trout of this region are the sweetest and best flavored I have ever caught. Also, they are mostly of the dark orange colored sort that I like as regards the flesh. They may be no better than the white fleshed; naturalists pronounce them all the same. But I vastly prefer the rich red color. Supper over, tinware, pack-basket and camp duffle were hurried under an immense slab of bark, and the Chief led off for the lick with the silent, elastic tread of a panther.


P. S.--I have said little about the venomous flies that render the North Woods a terror and a torment to tourists, sportsmen and naturalists during the summer months. This is probably the country to which Mr. Tennyson refers when he sings of a land "Where each man walks with his head in a cloud of poisonous flies." They are nothing to me. I walk among them through these grand forest aisles safely as in a nunnery. This paper is too long already. If it finds favor I will in my next give a simple recipe by which anyone can flank punkies, mosquitoes and even the black fly.

Foot of Stillwater, Jones' Camp. (Have lost the date.)

Next> | ^Top