About the Author

Farley Mowat

Farley Mowat was born in Belleville, Ontario, in 1921. He began writing upon his return from serving in World War II, and has since written 44 books. He spent much of his youth in Saskatoon, and has lived in Ontario, Cape Breton and Newfoundland, while travelling frequently to Canada's far north. Throughout, Mowat has remained a determined environmentalist, despairing at the ceaseless work of human cruelty. Yet his ability to capture the tragic comedy of human life on earth has made him a national treasure in Canada, and a beloved storyteller to readers around the world. His internationally celebrated books include People of the Deer, The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, Sea of Slaughter, and The Boat Who Wouldn't Float.

Books by this Author

Aftermath

Travels in a Post-War World
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And No Birds Sang

And No Birds Sang

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also available: Audiobook (cassette) eBook
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Bay of Spirits

Bay of Spirits

A Love Story
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

Such was the nature of the creature that lay awaiting me at dockside when I disembarked at Port aux Basques. Already laden to her marks, the SS Baccalieu was noisily blowing off surplus steam, which veiled her black hull and white-­painted upperworks.

She was not going to be crowded on this trip. Instead of her usual complement of a hundred or so passengers, she was carrying only seventy-­five. Her blushing young purser, who was new to his job, gave me cabin B on the upper deck. It was a wonder of Victorian elegance gone a little shoddy: creaky wicker chairs, worn Persian carpet, etched glass in the alleyway door, and an enormous English “water closet” almost big enough to serve as a sitz bath.

I had barely taken all this in when the ship’s whistle let out a throaty roar and Baccalieu began to throb with the slow revolution of her great propeller shaft. I rushed on deck to find we were underway; but there was little to see. Night had fallen and the weather was chill and “thick-­a-­fog,” as a passing deckhand unnecessarily noted. Never mind. I retreated to the snug warmth of my cabin for a good night’s sleep.

It was not to be. At 11:30 p.m. a deckhand knocked hard upon my door to tell me the captain wanted me on the bridge.

Half expecting we would be taking to the lifeboats, I flung on my clothing, hurried across the bridge deck, and entered the wheelhouse — the holy of holies on any ship. A squat figure took shape in the darkness within and introduced himself.

“Ernie Riggs, skipper of this one. Heard you’ve been in the salvage boats out of Halifax. Thought you might like to help us take this old she-­cunt into Rose Blanche . . . if we can get in. Nasty little place. Tight as a crab’s arsehole.”

I did not know if the captain was serious or not. There was certainly nothing I could do to help. The night was black as death and the fog almost too thick to breathe. Pretending I ­wasn’t there, I backed into a corner and watched and listened as Skipper Riggs and the helmsman took Baccalieu through a maze of reefs into an unseen and unseeable little harbour, then laid her alongside a wooden wharf that I never even saw until the lines went ashore and the fog-­diffused glow from a lamp on the shore told me we were there.

I remained on the bridge most of the rest of that black night so as not to miss the succeeding episodes of Riggs Dares All — a harrowing life-­and-­death adventure in real time.

Coming in to La Poille two hours later, Riggs could not have been able to see much farther than the nose on his face. Furthermore, Baccalieu’s searchlight was out of order and her old-­fashioned radar useless at close quarters. None of this seemed to concern Riggs as he paced rapidly back and forth, muttering to himself:

“Oh you she-­cunt! Where’s she going? Narrow place this . . . very narrow place. Fucking narrow place. ­Can’t turn her here. Oh hell, s’pose I got to try.”

Then, as the end of a dock miraculously appeared about ten feet off our bows: “Never goin’ to make it. Lard Jesus, not going to make it!”

When people on the dock began yelling that we were going to make a hole in their island, Riggs stepped out on the bridge wing and shouted back:

“What’re you silly fuckers worryin’ about? We’re right as houses! Finest kind!”

With which he pulled the engine telegraph to full astern, and Baccalieu kissed the dock.

An hour later we continued on our way and, with the coming of a pallid dawn, Riggs turned the bridge over to the second mate and took me with him down to the saloon for breakfast.

“You’ll do, Little Man,” he said over his fourth mug of tea. “Long as you knows enough to keep your mouth shut when you’re ignorant, you’re welcome aboard of this one.”

Through our subsequent friendship he continued to call me Little Man, and to treat me with the affectionate impatience he might have shown a slightly backward son. I learned a lot about Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders from Skipper Riggs.

A ruddy-­faced, burly lump of a man, Riggs had been born in the small settlement of Burin on the shores of Placentia Bay. He was as much a child of the sea as of the land. At the age of eight he had gone to the Grand Banks aboard a fishing schooner owned by an uncle. By the time he was twelve he had a berth as fo’c’sle hand, and at fifteen was fishing down the Labrador. At twenty he got his mate’s papers and signed on aboard an English tramp freighter to spend the next several years travelling the world and, incidentally, picking up some of the worst of the argot used by British seamen. In 1936 he became the freighter’s Master. In 1943 she was sunk under him by a German U-­boat. After the war, so he told me, he decided to “settle down, so I married a maid from Fortune and, I supposes you could say, married the Baccalieu as well.”

His was hardly a settled life. He had managed to get home for Christmas only once since 1946. His working schedule consisted of two months aboard his ship, followed by a month ashore. When he got home he was often unable to sleep, only able to doze with one ear cocked for trouble. He seldom slept while on board because the ship ran day and night and he was usually on the bridge, and always on call.

Although he could, and did, gorgeously curse the world around him, and everything in it including his beloved Baccalieu, he never seemed to have a hard word for any of his crew, though he had no patience with shore-­side management.

“I got to keep the old bitch going come hell or high water, into and out of places a duck would leave alone. Places there ­ain’t even room to change your mind, and do it any time, day or night, in any kind of weather. They’s got to be accidents, and there is. And when some damn fool thing goes wrong, the skipper gets suspension, whether he be at fault or no. But we ­don’t do it for they office fuckers in St. John’s. We works for the people on the coast. The thanks we gits comes from them. I believe there’s nothing on God’s earth they ­wouldn’t do for we. Or we for they.”

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Born Naked

Born Naked

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Eastern Passage

Eastern Passage

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

1
IN FROM THE COLD
 
 
We had been waiting almost a month for Gunnar’s plane when, on the first day of October, I stepped out of the cabin to find the nearby gravel ridges alive with dense flocks of ptarmigan making their way south ahead of winter. When I paddled off to haul the net upon which we were now largely dependent for food, I had to break through a scum of ice that had formed overnight. There could be no doubt about it – if we were not picked up within the next few days, we would be marooned for another six or seven weeks until, and if, a ski-equipped plane could land on the frozen bay.
 
We woke on October 9 to a falling thermometer, a plunging barometer, and a sky darkening with snow clouds. A storm was brewing, and even the usually irrepressible Tegpa was reluctant to go outside until, just before noon, he flung himself at the cabin door in a paroxysm of barking.
 
Seconds later the Norseman roared low over the crest of the Ghost Hills and slammed down on Windy Bay, its floats shattering the skim ice like a hardball smashing a plate-glass window. Gunnar had finally arrived. Although more than a month late, he offered no explanation or apology. When I pressed for one, he replied casually:
 
“Pranged a drifting oil barrel on take-off a while back. Buggered a float and this old bitch pretty near sank. Took a while to patch her up. But what the hell, let’s get the show on the fuckin’ road!”
 
Time was always of the essence with Gunnar. I heaved our gear (it didn’t amount to much) on board, while Fran and Tegpa squeezed into the cramped little cabin even as Gunnar began opening the throttle and Andy shouted his goodbyes.
 
“Gonna be tight gettin’ to Brochet before dark,” Gunnar yelled to Fran and me. “Might have to spend the night on some godforsaken moose pond the middle of nowhere. But what the hell, there’s a bottle of rum in the back pocket of my seat. Have yourselves a snort . . . just don’t be givin’ that damn dog none! Don’t want no drunken dog aboard!”
 
Fran and I got a close-up of the world below us that day because there was a head wind to deal with, and in order to conserve gas Gunnar kept the Norseman, as he said later, “close enough to the goddamn trees if they’d been cherry trees we coulda’ picked a goddamn basketful.”
 
We flew on, fighting the wind while a shaggy carpet of spruce and Jack pine dotted with lakes and fragmented by streams and rivers slid by close beneath. Then abruptly we were over open water and Gunnar was shouting that this was Reindeer Lake.
 
A hundred and fifty miles long and fifty wide, contained by several thousand miles of convoluted shoreline, Reindeer Lake was the centre of the ancestral wintering ground for what in 1948 may have been as many as a quarter of a million Barren Ground caribou. The area was also home to about three hundred humans – Woodland Crees, Chipewyans (Dene), Metis, and a scattering of white trappers. There were only two settlements – a small one at the appropriately named South End, and Brochet, only slightly larger and at the north end.
 
Brochet was not much to look at as Gunnar slammed the plane down on the bay in front of the settlement. Two dozen log shanties squatted haphazardly along half a mile of sandy foreshore and three sketchily fenced compounds enclosed a handful of frame structures. Two of the compounds were owned by competing trading firms; the third belonged to the Roman Catholic mission and boasted a grand new church, the glitter of whose sixty-foot steeple encased in sheet metal could be seen miles away.
 
Having visited Brochet on two previous occasions, I was not dismayed. Frances may have been, but was so relieved to have escaped from the Barren Lands and at finding herself comfortingly surrounded by trees again that not even the coolness of our reception daunted her.
 
We clambered ashore under the glacial gaze of foxy-faced and soutane-clad Fr. André Darveaux, second-in-command of the Roman Catholic mission; aging Jim Cummins, a former trapper who was now the game warden for a region encompassing about fifty thousand square miles; and willowy Jim Johnson, clerk of a trading post belonging to an entrepreneur named Isaac Schieff, who lived several hundred miles farther south. Neither of Brochet’s most prominent residents – Bill Garbut, the long-time manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s sprawling, white-painted, red-roofed trading post, and white-haired Fr. Joseph Egenolf, head of the mission and the uncrowned king of the Reindeer Lake country – was in evidence.
 
Nominally, Brochet’s population included about 250 aboriginals and people of mixed blood, but most of these spent the better part of the year widely dispersed at fishing stations and winter camps. The day we arrived, fewer than two dozen were at the settlement and none showed any desire to be friendly with Fran or me, though they did seem much taken by Tegpa, whose impressive appearance and assured behaviour was in marked contrast to that of their own dogs.
 
Brochet possessed two of the three elements that made up the ruling triumvirate of most northern Canadian communities in those days. The missionaries and traders were well established, but the usually ubiquitous detachment of Royal Canadian Mounted Police was absent. There were, however, two soldiers of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals operating a weather station as part of an extensive surveillance system being constructed across the top of the continent to contain the godless communists of the Soviet Union. As a recent survivor of the Second World War bitterly averse to being sucked into another world holocaust, I would have kept my distance from the “weather station” had not my employer decreed otherwise.
 
A letter from the federal Department of Mines and Resources had been awaiting my arrival at Brochet. From it I learned that Andy and I (no mention made of my wife) were to winter with the soldiers in a small barracks attached to the station. However, when I approached the corporal in charge about this he told me he was under strict orders to deny civilian access to his high-security installation. The most he was prepared to do was let me send a radiogram to my department, apprising my employer of the situation and asking for instructions.
 
These came four days later, brusquely ordering me to make my own arrangements. Fran was indignant – though I was not.
 
“Typical SNAFU,” I told her. “Situation Normal All Fucked Up. Fact is, we’re probably lucky to be left to our own devices.”
 
She was not easily reassured, or perhaps she glimpsed an opportunity.
 
“They don’t seem to care what happens to us. Mightn’t it be best if you resigned the job and we just went on home?”
 
“I’m not going to do that, Fran. The cement heads have screwed up as usual, but we’ll get by. I’ll have a gab with the old game warden. Seems like a decent kind. Might help us out.”
 
Jim Cummins wasn’t much help on that front, but I did find out why our reception had been so reserved.
 
“Brochet heard you was coming, couple of months ago. Schieff’s manager spread the word you’d been up to some shady business – you and Charlie Schweder, when you canoed through here last summer. Said the Mounties was looking into it. You really pissed Isaac off when you bought your supplies for the rest of your trip from the Bay instead of from him. I’d like to help you and your pretty missus, but I got to stay neutral here . . . you understand?”
 
I thought to see what could be done for us by the Hudson’s Bay Company but the manager was away on a journey to South End.
 
Winter was almost upon us, and we were without shelter and had no stocks of food or fuel. Moreover we felt more and more like interlopers in a tightly knit and unwelcoming community. Our prospects did not seem bright as we sought temporary shelter in a shack that was already occupied by a horde of red-backed mice. They, at least, welcomed us, acting as if we and our sleeping bags (especially our sleeping bags) were a gift from the gods.
 
We were rescued by Father Egenolf, big-nosed, white-haired, lean as a whippet, with a bony handshake that could have crushed a baseball. He came striding through our doorway one morning, his rust-coloured soutane hanging about his ankles, to tell us he had just returned from a distant fish camp where he had been netting a winter’s supply of whitefish and lake trout for the three human and fifteen canine residents of his mission.
 
The Egg (as he was familiarly called, though never to his face) and I had met briefly during the summer of 1947. Now he gave me a tepid smile but lit up like a lantern as he grasped Fran’s hand and kissed it with Gallic fervour.
 
Hélas! Here is a demoiselle in distress, non? I shall rescue her!”
 
Soutane swirling, he led us to a log cabin belonging to a Cree family currently wintering at South End.
 
Eighteen feet square and one storey high, the cabin had one room and a tiny, windowless attic. The logs had been plastered with a yellowish mixture of mud and dry grass but most of this had fallen off, exposing numerous cracks and gaps. The tarpaper on the steeply pitched roof was in tatters and the panes in the three small windows cracked and grimy. The only furniture was a battered cast-iron cookstove at the far end of a room floored with rough-hewn planks and ankle-deep in debris.
 
Father Egenolf arranged for us to rent this, the only unoccupied house in Brochet, for five dollars a month. The price was certainly right.
 
Having found a home for us, the Egg also provided a rusty, metal-framed bed, a lumpy mattress, and a splintered table. Then he gave us a month’s supply of firewood. Despite being surrounded by the world’s largest forest, firewood was precious stuff because most suitable trees within ten miles of Brochet had long since been consumed.
 
We still had to acquire a supply of basic food stuffs (flour, sugar, baking powder, oatmeal, bacon, and lard), together with everything else needed to keep us alive until spring. Neither of the trading posts had much to offer, most of their staples having already been purchased and carried off to camps and cabins on winter traplines. And Schieff’s manager refused to let us have even a small portion of what remained in his store.
 
We had better luck at the Bay. Its manager – big, bluff British expatriate Bill Garbut – was initially wary of me but his elfin wife, Renée, immediately took to Fran. She loaned Fran priceless items of household equipment and winter clothing, while Bill gave me access to what remained of his post’s stock and, at Renée’s prodding, even provided scarce food supplies from their own private storeroom. Our acquisitions included fifty one-pound blocks of butter that had gone rancid and been “condemned” to be used as dog feed. I bought the lot, paying only a token sum, having discovered the rancidity was mainly restricted to the surface of the blocks, leaving the inner portion reasonably edible.
 
We spent the next few weeks furiously engaged in homemaking. Almost everything we needed was in short supply or non-existent, so we made do. Tools were few and primitive, yet we eventually put together a home that was not only comfortable but even stylish – by Brochet standards.
 
The smoke-grimed ceiling and dingy walls became resplendent with canary-yellow canoe enamel. I patched together cupboards, shelves, two chairs, and a kitchen counter from scraps of old packing cases, and Fran made curtains from the cheap but colourful cotton prints the Bay sold as women’s dress goods. I sealed off the attic with layers of wrapping paper, converting it into a deep-freeze for caribou, fish, ptarmigan, rabbits, even a hind quarter of moose kindly sent our way by the game warden. I rolled several new layers of tarpaper over the roof and nailed saplings on top as protection from blizzards and winter gales. I caulked the log walls inside and out with strips of waste sacking and finally piled sand high against the foundation logs to keep out the worst winter drafts and all but the most persistent voles and mice.
 
Water and sanitation presented special problems. In summer every household supplied itself with water scooped by the pailful from the lake, and in winter from holes chopped through the lake ice, which froze to a thickness of several feet.
 
Toilets were non-existent, except in the traders’ homes, some of which boasted chemical lavatories. The rest of us made do with vestigial outhouses sited anywhere from a dozen feet to a dozen yards from the cabins they served. Ours was a doorless, roofless construct with three skeletal walls and a horizontal pole bridging a shallow hole. It wasn’t even really ours. Rather, it was a communal facility used by anybody and everybody living nearby. It was also a favourite hangout for some of Brochet’s many stray and hungry dogs.
 
The prospect of my wife having to wait in line during a howling blizzard with the temperature at forty degrees below zero weighed heavily upon me. So I installed an empty ten-gallon lard pail in our attic that I made accessible by means of a trap door in the ceiling and a spruce-pole ladder. With the temperature well below zero, the attic was no place to linger: the cold up there quickly froze everything solid. Once a week I wrestled the icy pail down from its eyrie, rolled it outside and away from the house, then thawed it for an hour or more over an open fire so I could empty it.
 
The thawing of the bucket always drew an audience. A circle of ravenous dogs would form around me, drawing closer and closer until I drove them back with threatening gestures and shouts. A few human youngsters might also be present, watchful but, like the dogs, silent. They bestowed a descriptive name upon me – one still remembered when, twenty-six years later, I revisited Brochet in the company of Manitoba’s then-premier, Edward Schreyer.
 
On that occasion a grinning Cree man amongst those gathered at the float dock to greet the dignitaries was heard to say, “So . . . Dogsoup Maker come back, eh? Wonder what he going to cook this time?”
 
 
Winter was in full swing before the first ski-equipped plane risked touching down on the ice at Brochet. It brought mail – including a stiff reprimand from my employer for having wasted my time and taxpayers’ money the previous summer trying to ameliorate the desperate conditions of the Inuit I had encountered in southern Keewatin Territory. The letter concluded with these words:
 
“You are herewith instructed to refrain from meddling in matters outside your jurisdiction and to leave all such matters to competent authority.”
 
To say I was upset by this would be to put it far too mildly. I railed against the ignorance and stupidity of the Ottawa mandarins, until Frances pulled me up.
 
“They probably will fire you if you carry on like this, though I don’t suppose that will stop you. . . . Maybe you ought to quit this job now, then we could go back home where you could tell the papers what you’ve found out.”
 
I had only recently been told by Father Egenolf’s assistant of a mass grave for about forty Chipewyan men, women, and children who had perished in or near the settlement the previous spring of some unidentified disease. One that never was identified because the government doctor for the district was not able to find time to visit Brochet until a month after the lethal epidemic had run its course.
 
“We lose half our Idthen Eldeli [People of the Caribou] here and out at the camps,” the young priest told me, smiling sadly. “Eh bien. They live like dogs, les pauvres. Peut-être it is better if the Lord takes them to His House for then they will be saved.”
 
With these words sticking in my craw, I thought long and hard about what Fran had suggested. Should I tell my bosses in Ottawa to go to hell? And try writing something for the press about the abominable treatment of the native peoples I was seeing?
 
I had something else to think about as well. Having spent nearly five years as a sanctioned killer of my own kind, I was becoming increasingly averse to killing any living thing except to maintain the lives of me and mine. I was especially reluctant to slaughter caribou and wolves, as was required of me “in the interest of amassing scientific knowledge.” But I was finding it hard to abandon the ambition I had nurtured since childhood of becoming a professional zoologist.
 
It was Hobson’s choice, and the days slipped by without me making a decision.
 
 
Clock time had very little significance to those wintering in a community like Brochet. Our day began at dawn when, rousted by Tegpa’s cold nose thrust into my face, I would scramble out of bed, rush to the cookstove, light the kindling I had carefully arranged the night before, then scoot back to the comfort of the double sleeping bag I shared with Fran to wait until the frigid cabin had warmed up at least to the freezing point.
 
When we could no longer see the frosty vapour of our breath, we would get up and, having broken the ice in the bucket, have a brief wash. Thereafter Fran would cook breakfast, usually cornmeal or oatmeal porridge with a slice or two of cold deer meat on the side, and our own homemade bread washed down by tea thickened and sweetened with evaporated milk.
 
As breakfast cooked, I would trot down to the lake armed with a twenty-pound iron bar flattened at one end in the form of a chisel, with which I would bash through the six or seven inches of new ice that had sealed our “well” during the night. Then, while Tegpa did his rounds, asserting and advertising his mastery over the local canines, I would shuttle five-gallon buckets of water back to the cabin.
 
Breakfast over, Fran would tackle her household chores, cooking, cleaning, mending our clothing, and doing the washing, while keeping the stove parsimoniously stoked with precious firewood, which was always in short supply. In the afternoons, weather permitting, she might snowshoe the half mile to the Bay for something she needed, or just to visit Renée. Or she might visit one of our closer neighbours, there to drink endless mugs of tea with the women and children while wrestling with the difficulty of trying to converse in a mixture of English, Cree, and Dene.
 
If the weather was reasonable (not more than thirty below and no blizzard blowing), I would strap on snowshoes and, accompanied by Tegpa, set off to check my trapline, which, to the bewilderment of the locals, consisted of fifty ordinary household mouse traps set under logs, tree stumps, or at inscrutable little holes in the snow. I did this because I was under instructions from my employer to “collect representative small mammals for taxonomic purposes and population analysis.”
 
Tegpa and I regularly travelled ten or fifteen miles through frost-brittle Jack pine forest counting caribou and wolves (as much by their tracks as by their physical presence), and keeping a sharp lookout for ptarmigan or chicken (sharp-tailed grouse), which could be potted with a .22, not as specimens but to help fill our stomachs. Also I always carried a short axe in case we might come upon a stand of birch or tamarack previous generations had somehow overlooked.
 
I loved these excursions, as did Tegpa, and though we may not have learned a great deal about the specified “study species,” we made the acquaintance of whisky-jacks (Canada jays), boreal chickadees, occasional ladder-backed woodpeckers, a porcupine, a great grey owl, and, on one truly momentous occasion, a wolverine, who looked us over challengingly from a few yards away until I unslung my .22, whereupon he pissed contemptuously in our direction before slogging off, belly deep in snow, with never a backward glance.
 
On occasion, I might join one of the local trappers in his carriole (a toboggan with built-up canvas sides, hauled by dogs) for a trip to a fish cache or trapping cabin as much as fifty miles away in the labyrinthine world of Reindeer Lake’s boreal forest. On such excursions, I saw herds of caribou numbering as many as two or three hundred spending the daylight hours far out on the lake ice, where they could see would-be hunters, human or lupine, long before these could approach close enough to be a threat.
 
I had been instructed to “collect” up to a hundred caribou of all ages, together with as many wolves as I could shoot, trap, or poison, and had been provided with rifles, steel leghold traps, and cyanide bait for this purpose. I had been further instructed to dissect and minutely examine every specimen procured. External and internal parasites were to be identified, counted, and preserved in alcohol. The condition and state of development of sexual organs was to be ascertained, and a full range of foetuses preserved for future study. Stomach and bowel contents were to be analyzed – and so it went, ad nauseam.
 
I failed to comply.
 
Perhaps I refrained because of the growing conviction that studying animals alive in their own undisturbed habitat might reveal more truths about them than could be uncovered by gun and scalpel. I killed only one caribou during my time at Brochet, and it died not for Science but to provide food for the three of us. Moreover, I killed no wolves, nor did I make any attempt to do so.
 
During the long winter evenings Fran and I were often visited by neighbours, both white and native, or went visiting them. Few owned radios so conversation was the entertainment. They were exceptional storytellers, and even most of the youngsters had good tales to tell. After these visits, I would sometimes stay up past midnight, scribbling notes about travellers, hunters, missionaries, trappers, lovers, and losers; about Cree, Idthen Eldeli, Metis and whites, and the lives they led.
 
A bent toward writing was increasingly preoccupying me, and Fran’s suggestion that I might have it in me to become a full-time writer seemed almost credible. I began spending a lot more time at my portable typewriter than in filling notebooks with scientific data as a dedicated biologist would have done. Of particular moment, I started expanding an account I had sketched earlier about the terrible events the year before that had decimated the Barren Land Inuit – especially the Ihalmiut of the Kazan River country.
 
By mid-November I had what I thought might be a publishable account of this disaster so, with Fran’s encouragement and acting on the assumption that I might as well start at the top, I titled it Eskimo Spring, addressed it to the editor of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly magazine in Boston, USA, and sent it off with the next mail plane.
 
Then, feeling cocky at having perhaps loosened the fetters binding me to Ottawa, I decided to take a week off and travel by dog team to South End, a hundred and fifty miles away to see how the caribou, wolves, and people to the south were making out.
 
I borrowed a dog team and carriole from Shorty Laird, a white trapper temporarily laid up with a bad leg, and made ready to depart one crystalline morning with the mercury registering thirty below and just a breath of wind.
 
Shorty’s eight dogs had been tied up for three weeks and were wild to run. It took me and two teenaged helpers half an hour to manhandle them into the harness, attaching them to the fifteen-foot-long carriole, which held my grub box, fifty pounds of frozen fish for dog feed, my sleeping bag and rifle, and a small packsack of odds and ends. I had tied the carriole to a stump while we harnessed the dogs, but somebody prematurely slipped the securing knot and, before I could jump aboard, the dogs were off like cannonballs. A fifty-foot brake rope was always towed behind the carriole in case of such emergencies, and I just managed to grab the free end as it whipped by and wrap it around one wrist, after which I was dragged through the settlement on my back at about thirty miles an hour.
 
Somehow I managed to swing myself around so I could use my feet as a brake. This got me nowhere and, once the dogs had dragged me onto the slick lake ice, there remained no further possibility of stopping or even slowing them. Nevertheless, I hung on for perhaps a quarter of a mile, while my arms felt as if they were being wrenched from their sockets; then I let go.
 
I got shakily to my feet as carriole and dogs grew small in the distance. Looking back, I could see a small troop of neighbours ranged along the shore, motionless as gargoyles but undoubtedly enjoying to the full the spectacular discomfiture of the tenderfoot.
 
As I limped grimly back to make arrangements for a search team to pursue the runaways, I knew I had secured a permanent place in Brochet’s panoply of stories.
 
 
The cold intensified as December settled in, and the mud chinking of our cabin could not keep it out. Although the indoor temperature at waist level remained tolerable, water spilled on the floor froze almost immediately.
 
Slipping on a patch of this instant ice brought me inspiration. I began saving our waste water, which I then heated in galvanized pails on the back of the stove. When I had a couple of full pails ready, I would carry them outside, add as much snow as possible, then slather this slush on the outer walls of the house, where it froze instantly. When our cabin was ice-sheathed up to the level of the ceiling, it became much more liveable. Soon almost every cabin in Brochet acquired similar igloo-like armour and my stock went up a little.
 
In mid-December a small bush plane belonging to one of Isaac Schieff’s many interlocking little companies slithered to a halt on the ice of Brochet Bay to unload freight for his trading post, together with some mail.
 
There were letters for both Fran and me – not all bearing good news. A stiffly worded epistle from the University of Toronto informed me that my college had decided not to let me complete my current year extramurally – an arrangement that had been agreed upon before I went north in the spring of 1947. I was on notice that if I wanted a degree I would have to resume classes in Toronto by mid-January of the coming year.
 
Fran was outraged by what we both felt was a low blow, but I had mixed feelings. I had always known that a career in science would require me to obtain a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and finally a doctorate, but this academic climb to success had never had any attraction for me. Now I was tempted to use this setback as an excuse for abandoning academe altogether and becoming an unfettered “naturalist” able – perhaps – to make a living studying the wild ones alive and in the wild. I might have done it then and there had not Frances been dubious.
 
Schieff’s plane’s principal cargo was liquor, and most of the customers celebrated fiercely over the next several days and nights, turning Brochet into Bedlam. Guns blasted salutes at all hours – and not all were aimed at nothing. To Father Egenolf’s helpless fury, several bullet holes appeared in the steeple of his new church.
 
Fights erupted between employees and adherents of the Bay and of Schieff’s company. Combatants included white and Metis trappers, together with drifters from a commercial fishing venture Schieff had started. The hullabaloo was enough to put the caribou and wolf populations to flight and even to persuade many of the resident ravens to seek safety in the woods.
 
One night, when the temperature had sunk to forty-five below zero, two Metis men failed to find their way home after a bash at Schieff’s and froze to death. I thought it a wonder more did not meet a similar fate. Indeed, Fran and I thawed out and resuscitated one unfortunate who, wearing little more than a flannel shirt and torn trousers, passed out in a snowdrift near our cabin. Had Tegpa not drawn our attention to him, he might never have awakened.
 
Our concern about what was going on was not shared by others. When I spoke about it to Jim Cummins, the game warden, who was also the magistrate, he offered this nonchalant advice.
 
“Don’t let it bother you. If people gets enough liquor into them they’ll stay warm even if hell freezes over. Anyhow, this lot of booze’ll run out soon enough, then they’ll quiet down.”
 
Binge drinking and wild parties were not the worst of it. Fran was unnerved and I was infuriated by the hostility unleashed by some “under-the-influence” white residents. One evening Schieff’s manager (whom I will call Belson) barged into our home to announce belligerently that he had come for Tegpa, whom he fancied as a new leader of his dog team and had already several times tried to buy. I had always refused, so now he tried a different tack.
 
“Your goddamn husky’s been into my fish shed stuffing his gut. Either you pay me twenty-five bucks for the fish he stole and turn him over to me for my team . . . or I’ll shoot the fucker dead first chance I get.”
 
He then stamped out of the cabin, sweeping Fran’s china teapot (a precious loan from Renée Garbut) off the kitchen counter, shattering it into tiny fragments. When I told the usually affable Bill Garbut about this incident, his benevolent expression hardened into a scowl.
 
“That son of a bitch would shoot his own mother for the fun of it. The way he screws the natives – and it’s more ways than one – makes me puke. . . . Let me tell you a little story about him.
 
“There used to be a Chip kid here with a wizened-up arm from polio he got when he was a baby. He had epilepsy too – took fits. He wasn’t too smart but he always tried to do his best. His family was part of the Hatchet Lake band but Nazee – that was his name – couldn’t make it out on the land with the rest of them so the mission was supposed to be looking after him.
 
“He got by, running errands and doing odd jobs nobody else would do. A lot of them for Belson, who paid the kid with spoiled stuff from his store nobody would buy.
 
“Winter evenings, Belson and his cronies – white trappers and the like – would amuse themselves giving Nazee lemon extract and when he was tipsy – the stuff’s three-quarters alcohol – make him strip to the buff and dance round a red-hot pot-belly stove. Crippled like he was, he would sometimes fall against the stove.
 
“Then they’d give him some more extract, and get out the marking hammer.
 
“You know what that is, don’t you? Hammer with sharp little nails set into its head, used to bash a fox skin or any fur to make a pattern into it. Kind of a trademark that shows the skin belongs to your outfit.
 
“Those bastards would pay Nazee with shots of extract, or sometimes a nickel or even a dime, to let them bash him with Schieff’s hammer. Mostly they’d do it on his backside, but sometimes on his crippled arm or his legs, under his clothes where it wouldn’t show.
 
“When I got wind of that, I sent for the boy and when Renée and I saw the brand hammered into that wizened arm I sent a message down to Belson offering to shoot him if he done it again. When I told Egenolf about it, he just shrugged and said it was in God’s hands. The sanctimonious old bugger! I sure and hell knew whose hands that kid was in, and it wasn’t God’s!
 
“Renée wanted us to keep the kid around but I couldn’t do that because Company policy don’t run to charity. Anyhow, the kid went someplace else. Don’t know where. But that bastard Belson’s still around! I keep hoping somebody’ll fill him full of lead.”
 
 
During this drunken period, the native people kept a low profile and some withdrew to their bush camps. They even stayed clear of Fran and me. I wondered why, but concluded they probably thought we whites were all alike. Perhaps we gave them occasion to think so. After the Garbuts threw a party to celebrate the first anniversary of our marriage, I wrote in my journal:
 
The main refreshment was punch made of about a quart of grain alcohol from my scientific supplies, a couple of bottles of Vat 69 out of Bill’s private stock, a lot of Renée’s homemade beer, some cans of grapefruit segments, a bottle of maple syrup, some mouldy lemons, and a good big dollop of cayenne pepper. After a few mugs of this Bill was reborn as an Apache and danced wildly about to music he made himself – the mating call of a bull moose.
 
Some Crees just in from South End with fur to trade found the post door locked and our lot whooping it up inside. They stood outside the frosted windows peering in at the antics of the “master race.” Wonder what they thought of it all. Don’t think I’ll ask.
 
Jim Cummins had been right about one thing: when the planeload of liquor was gone, Brochet quieted down. Hardly a soul was to be seen outdoors during the brief daylight hours and at night even the occupied cabins seemed to belong to an abandoned settlement. Almost the only sign of life was underfed dogs drifting about like disembodied spirits.
 
The next plane to arrive was a Norseman chartered by the federal Department of Indian Affairs. It brought in a Dr. Robert Yule on the last of four visits scheduled for 1948 to provide for the medical requirements of the natives who lived at or traded to Brochet. Amiable, middle-aged Dr. Yule might have chosen a better time to perform his duties. On the day he arrived, there were fewer than twenty natives in the settlement – the rest being far away at winter camps or on their traplines. Had the good doctor chosen to delay his visit until the Christmas season, the entire population of the region would have been gathered here. He and his plane stayed with us exactly twenty-five minutes – Bill Garbut timed it – while the doctor saw (but did not treat) a Dene youth with a broken leg that had already begun to set crookedly, and several elderly people to whom he handed out large white pills he carried loose in his pocket. They looked like after-dinner mints but Bill claimed they were laxatives. Then he gave us all a smiling farewell and flew back to his home in The Pas.
 
His departure left me seething, for he had been responsible for the health of the natives of the region during the fearful epidemic in the spring of 1947 when at least two hundred men, women, and children – an accurate count was never made – perished of a disease that was never diagnosed because no doctor visited any of the afflicted camps. But I had visited several of them while making the canoe journey between Reindeer and Nueltin Lakes four months after the dying and had seen many of the hurriedly made graves which now housed the inhabitants of those otherwise-deserted sites.
 
The memory of those graves and the mass grave Father Darveaux had told me about impelled me to write a report about the abominable way the natives of this region were being treated. I detailed the government’s failure to provide medical aid or help of any sort during the 1947 epidemic and concluded my tirade with a bald account of the treatment the crippled boy, Nazee, had received.
 
Before sending my outburst to my superiors in Ottawa, I showed it to Bill Garbut. He said little, other than to ask my permission to make a copy of the Nazee story. I was not surprised when, a few days later, he told me he had arranged to have the copy mailed anonymously from Winnipeg to Isaac Schieff.
 
“That money-grubbing old bugger hired Belson after the Bay fired him for frigging with the mail. Schieff knew he was no damn good. Maybe this’ll give him some second thoughts. He’s scared shitless of the press.”
 
Within a week, the moccasin telegraph was spreading the news that Belson was being replaced by Schieff’s son as manager at Brochet.
 
 
By mid-December, with Christmas fast approaching, Brochet was filling up.
 
One by one the empty cabins are sprouting smoke from their tin chimneys as the human and dog population swells. It’s a rather mysterious phenomenon because they all seem to arrive in the middle of the night. You wake up in the morning and there they are! Tents are going up too, which means the Barren Land Chips have begun to arrive all the way from Nueltin Lake. The traders are busier than beavers. Lots of activity and lots of chicanery as furs are swapped for gewgaws, gadgets, and sometimes even useful stuff like food and ammunition.
 
A week later I wrote:
 
The settlement is overflowing with a couple of hundred adults and at least sixty children. The trading posts are jam-packed from morning until night. Brochet Bay looks like a dog rodeo, with teams racing over it every direction and sled tracks as thick as threads in a white handkerchief. The mission is doing a roaring business too, collecting furs for tithes, hearing confessions, selling pardons, and, I wouldn’t doubt, indulgences.
 
Although it’s running mostly on tea now instead of booze, which has pretty well run out, the social life never seems to stop. Candles and oil lanterns burn all night in every cabin and the natives, most of whom haven’t seen each other for a couple of months, just never seem to get enough visiting. Dog teams are as thick as taxis in New York and cries of “Hew” and “Haw” (left and right) sound like a hassle of mad ravens. The teams compete for right of way and there are glorious free-for-all dog fights with lots of cursing in Cree, Chip, English, and canine. When we go walkabout we carry good thick sticks to keep the dog mob at bay. At night there is a deafening cacophony from two or three hundred hungry dogs each wanting another chunk of whitefish or caribou. Little mountains of crushed bones, fish scales, deer hair, and dog shit grow like mushrooms around every dog tethering post. Things were actually quieter around here when the booze was on the go.
 
Christmas is the main celebration of the year because winter dog travel makes it possible for almost everyone – men, women, youngsters, and old folks – to come to Brochet even from the most distant camps. But though most of the natives are nominally Christians – Catholics – neither religion nor trade is the principal draw. The big attraction is human companionship: the need and opportunity to renew the sense of belonging to a family, clan, or tribe.
 
Christmas becomes the time, and Brochet the place for far-flung and wandering people to see and touch one another; a time for young guys and gals to make out, with marriage often the outcome; a time and place for old folk to circulate and pass on the knowledge they’ve acquired; a time for storytelling, dances, “socials.” A time and place for the renewal and repair of the human fabric.
 
There is something else as well.
 
This annual get-together is almost certainly fuelled by an ancient, maybe instinctive, need to renew the allegiance that not only binds human beings to one another, but cements all living things into the single, super-entity that constitutes life on earth.
 
These people are doing what their pagan ancestors (and ours too) used to do every year at the time of the winter solstice: they are refurbishing and strengthening their essential connections to the mother-with-a-thousand-names who is the mother of us all.
 
For nearly two thousand years Christianity has been trying to make over this celebration, and refashion it into a weapon we can use in our ongoing war to subjugate all the world and (madmen’s dream!) even the universe, to serve our boundless ambitions and insatiable desires.
 
This isn’t the kind of dream my native neighbours seem to have. I believe they’d be content with what they had, with their old ways and old beliefs – if only we’d let them.
 
 
Nineteen forty-nine was almost upon us, but Frances and I had not yet decided what course to steer.
 
One morning while I was out on the bay chipping at nearly a foot of new ice that had formed in our well overnight, I saw the corporal from the weather station knocking on the door of our cabin. He had brought us a radiogram. By the time I got back with the water, he was gone but Fran wordlessly handed me the flimsy. Unlike most government communications, this one was concise and to the point.
 
AS OF DECEMBER THIRTY ONE YOUR SERVICES HAVE BEEN DEEMED REDUNDANT
 
R A GIBSON
DEPUTY COMMISSIONER NORTHWEST TERRITORIES OF CANADA AND DEPUTY MINISTER DEPARTMENT OF MINES AND RESOURCES CANADA
 
“Looks like they got my report,” I said a little ruefully.
 
Fran was half smiling, half crying. “Well, what now?”
 
“As if you didn’t know,” I said and kissed her. “Goodbye, Brushy . . . Hello Toronto. Hope Tegpa can handle it!”
 
Our removal was neither quickly nor easily arranged. Pulling up the rootlets we had established and packing our few belongings did not take long, but finding a plane to take us out was more demanding. The Schieff Norseman seemed the obvious answer, but the post’s new manager equivocated until it was obvious we were never going to be flown out by his company’s plane. Eventually I arranged for a charter from Flin Flon, but a week of fierce storms intervened before a plane could pick us up.
 
January 5th. Lovely day, clear, bright, and, thank God, no wind. We’re bunking in with the Garbuts while we wait, but this morning we walked back to the cabin to say goodbye. Bit of a heart-breaker, those tacky chintz curtains, the egg-yellow walls with the bare spots where we had pinned up pictures cut from old magazines, all the stuff we made and did to help the old place turn itself into a home. Now all of a sudden it’s empty as a biscuit tin. I hope the Moiestie family comes back and lives in it again. It won’t last long without people.*
 
* When I revisited Brochet in 1974, the house was still standing. It was the last log building still in use, all the others having been replaced with prefabricated plywood boxes. A young Cree couple was camping in it until they, too, could acquire a modern box.

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Gorillas in the Mist
Excerpt

— 1 —
 
Neither destiny nor fate took me to Africa. Nor was it romance. I had a deep wish to see and live with wild animals in a world that hadn't yet been completely changed by humans. I guess I really wanted to go backward in time. From my childhood I believed that was what going to Africa would be, but by 1963, when I was first able to make a trip there, it was not that way anymore. There were only a few places other than the deserts and the swamps that hadn't been overrun by peo ple. Almost at the end of my trip I found the place I had been looking for.
 
Right in the heart of central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat, are great, old volcanoes towering up almost fifteen thousand feet, and nearly covered with rich, green rain forest – the Virungas.
 
Going to Africa was one of many dreams that filled Dian Fossey's lonely childhood. Her father, George Fossey, son of an English immigrant, was a big, affable, outdoorsy type who loved his little daughter but hated his impoverished life as an insurance agent in San Francisco. In consequence he drank too much, which got him into trouble with the law and finally brought on a divorce that took him out of Dian's life in 1938 when she was six. A year later her mother, Kitty, married Richard Price, an ambitious, hard-driving building contractor. In the beginning, George Fossey tried to keep in touch with Dian, sending her pictures of himself in his navy uniform during the war; but even his name was taboo in the Price household and eventually he drifted out of sight.
 
Although she dutifully called him Daddy, Dian's stepfather never adopted her. Richard Price was a stern traditionalist who believed that children should be properly disciplined. Until she was ten, Dian was not even permitted to take her evening meal with Richard and Kitty, but ate in the kitchen with the housekeeper. "I had always been brought up to think that children dined with adults when they were becoming adults," Price offered in justification.
 
Like many lonely children Dian loved animals and took comfort from their undemanding acceptance of her; yet she was not permitted any pets of her own except for a goldfish, upon which she lavished the affection that had few other outlets. The death of the fish left her desolate.
 
I cried for a week when I found him floating belly up in the bowl in my room. My parents thought it was good riddance, so I never got another. A friend at school offered me a hamster, but they considered it dirty, so that was out.

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Lost in the Barrens
Excerpt

Chapter 1
Jamie and Awasin
The month of June was growing old. It had been a year since Jamie Macnair left Toronto, the city of his birth, to take up a new life in the subarctic forests of northern Canada. Beside the shores of Macnair Lake the tamaracks were greening now after the winter’s blackness. Out on the lake great loons cried shrilly. As Jamie squatted in front of the log cabin, helping his uncle bale up the winter’s catch of furs, he tried to remember how he had felt on that day, a year past, when he climbed out of the train at the lonely frontier town called The Pas to meet his uncle.

Jamie’s uncle, Angus Macnair, had been a trader in the arctic, the master of a sealing schooner in the Bering Sea, and finally a trapper who roamed over the broad forests of the north. To Jamie, his uncle was almost a legend, and when the telegram came from him it filled the boy with excitement.

ARRANGEMENTS MADE FOR YOU TO JOIN ME AT THE PAS STOP LETTER WITH DETAILS FOLLOWS.
ANGUS MACNAIR

That eagerly awaited letter had brought with it some unhappiness for Jamie. It had reminded him sharply of the tragedy of his parents’ deaths in a car accident seven years ago. And it had made clear something he had never really faced before – that apart from his uncle, whom he had never seen, he was truly alone. During the past seven years he had taken the security of the boarding school for granted. But, reading Angus Macnair’s letter, he realized that it was no real home, and had never been one.

Jamie was nine when his parents died, and Angus Macnair had become his guardian, for he was the boy’s only close relative. It was Angus who had picked the boarding school in Toronto, and it was a good one too, for Angus wanted only the best for his nephew. For seven years Angus had run his trap line with furious energy in order to meet the cost of the school. But in the past two years the fur market had dropped almost out of sight, and the money was nearly at an end.

Angus had explained it in his letter.

“And so you see, Jamie,” he wrote. “I can no longer keep you at the school. You could maybe stay on in Toronto and get a job, but you’re too young for that, and anyhow I hoped you’d rather come with me. It’s long past time we got to know each other. So I took the chance you’d want it this way. Your ticket is in the envelope along with enough money for the trip. And I’ll be waiting, lad, and hoping that you’ll come.”

Angus need have had no doubts. For years past Jamie had loved to read about the north and for years Angus Macnair had been his idol.

 
In the last week of June, Jamie found himself bundled aboard the Trans-Canada train with the farewells of his school friends still ringing in his ears. For two days the train rolled westward, then it turned abruptly north through the province of Manitoba. The dark jack-pine forests began to swallow up the prairie farmlands and the train rolled on, more slowly now, over the rough roadbed leading to the frontier country.

Five hundred miles and two days north from Winnipeg, the train drew up by a rough wooden platform. Jamie climbed uncertainly down to stand staring at the rough shanties and the nearby forests that threatened to sweep in and engulf the little settlement of The Pas.

A huge, red-bearded man in a buckskin jacket strode forward and caught the boy hard about the shoulders in a bear hug.

“Do ye not know me, Jamie?” he cried. And then, grinning at Jamie’s stammering reply, he tightened his hold on the boy’s shoulder and swung him round.

“You’ve come to meet the north, my lad,” he said, “and I’m thinking you’ll be in love with it before the month is out.”

Angus Macnair had been a good prophet, for during the six-week canoe trip north to Macnair Lake, Jamie had become fascinated by the wild face of this new world. Now, a year later, he was really a part of that world. The year in the forests had swelled his shoulders with new muscles so that he looked taller than his five-foot-eight. Summer suns and winter winds had tanned his face. His blue eyes were sharp and alert under his tousled mat of fair hair.

And the little cabin by the shores of the lake had become his home – his first real home since his parents died.

Built within a stone’s throw of the sandy shore, the cabin was nevertheless almost surrounded by the sheltering forests. No winter gales could reach it, and the log walls, well chinked with moss and clay, were proof against the sharpest frosts. Crouched comfortably among the trees, it looked out through two small windows over a lake that was a glittering expanse of blue in summer and a vast white plain in winter.

Inside, it was divided into two rooms. The largest was the living room. It had two bunks built against the side walls. A potbellied Quebec heater stood in the center of the floor, glowing cherry-red in the winter days. Beside the stove a long, roughhewn table stretched almost across the room and at either end of it stood a big, homemade easy chair upholstered with black-bear hide. Shelves along the rough log walls held guns, a number of wood carvings done by the Indians, and the well-worn rows of Angus’s books. On the split-log floors half a dozen Indian-tanned deer hides made soft rugs.

The tiny kitchen in the rear was cut off from the main cabin by a log partition, and behind the partition Angus cooked the solid and simple meals of the northland.

Although the cabin was four hundred miles from civilization, and two hundred miles from the nearest white man, Jamie had not found it lonely. Not twenty miles away was the settlement of a band of Woodland Cree Indians. These fine and sturdy people had long been Angus Macnair’s best friends and they soon became Jamie’s friends as well. Alphonse Meewasin, headman of the Crees, had been Angus’s stout companion on a hundred journeys and it was only natural that Alphonse’s son, Awasin, should become almost a brother to young Jamie.

In appearance Awasin was Jamie’s opposite. He was lean as a whip, with long black hair that hung almost to his shoulders. His eyes too were black, and they smiled as often as his mouth – and that was very often. For three seasons Awasin had attended the Indian school in far-off Pelican Narrows, so that he could read and speak English almost as well as any city boy. But most of his life had been lived in the heart of the forests and the wilderness was as much a part of him as his own skin.

Jamie and Awasin had taken to each other at once, and Awasin had appointed himself Jamie’s teacher. Quickly Jamie became competent with a paddle and at driving a string of dogs. He learned to shoot well and he learned enough about trapping to earn the money for a .22 rifle of his own. Most important, under the instruction of Awasin and of Angus Macnair, Jamie learned to feel something of the forceful love of life that belongs particularly to those who dwell in the high arctic forests.

It had been a year filled to the brim with new adventures, and as Jamie wound a rawhide strap around a pile of muskrat pelts his imagination was reliving those events. With a start he looked up to see a slim cedar canoe rounding a nearby point.

Awasin was in the bow, waving his paddle in greeting. And in the stern Alphonse stolidly chewed his old pipe as he thrust his paddle into the icy waters of the lake.

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My Father's Son

My Father's Son

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Never Cry Wolf

Never Cry Wolf

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Excerpt

Chapter 1
The Lupine Project
It is a long way in time and space from the bathroom of my Grandmother Mowat’s house in Oakville, Ontario, to the bottom of a wolf den in the Barren Lands of central Keewatin, and I have no intention of retracing the entire road which lies between. Nevertheless, there must be a beginning to any tale; and the story of my sojourn amongst the wolves begins properly in Granny’s bathroom.

When I was five years old I had still not given any indication – as most gifted children do well before that age – of where my future lay. Perhaps because they were disappointed by my failure to declare myself, my parents took me to Oakville and abandoned me to the care of my grandparents while they went off on a holiday.

The Oakville house – “Greenhedges” it was called – was a singularly genteel establishment, and I did not feel at home there. My cousin, who was resident in Greenhedges and was some years older than myself, had already found his métier, which lay in the military field, and had amassed a formidable army of lead soldiers with which he was single-mindedly preparing himself to become a second Wellington. My loutish inability to play Napoleon exasperated him so much that he refused to have anything to do with me except under the most formal circumstances.

Grandmother, an aristocratic lady of Welsh descent who had never forgiven her husband for having been a retail hardware merchant, tolerated me but terrified me too. She terrified most people, including Grandfather, who had long since sought surcease in assumed deafness. He used to while away the days as calm and unruffled as Buddha, ensconced in a great leather chair and apparently oblivious to the storms which swirled through the corridors of Greenhedges. And yet I know for a fact that he could hear the word “whiskey” if it was whispered in a room three stories removed from where he sat.

Because there were no soulmates for me at Greenhedges, I took to roaming about by myself, resolutely eschewing the expenditure of energy on anything even remotely useful; and thereby, if anyone had had the sense to see it, giving a perfectly clear indication of the pattern of my future.

One hot summer day I was meandering aimlessly beside a little local creek when I came upon a stagnant pool. In the bottom, and only just covered with green scum, three catfish lay gasping out their lives. They interested me. I dragged them up on the bank with a stick and waited expectantly for them to die; but this they refused to do. Just when I was convinced that they were quite dead, they would open their broad ugly jaws and give another gasp. I was so impressed by their stubborn refusal to accept their fate that I found a tin can, put them in it along with some scum, and took them home.

I had begun to like them, in an abstract sort of way, and wished to know them better. But the problem of where to keep them while our acquaintanceship ripened was a major one. There were no washtubs in Greenhedges. There was a bathtub, but the stopper did not fit and consequently it would not hold water for more than a few minutes. By bedtime I had still not resolved the problem and, since I felt that even these doughty fish could hardly survive an entire night in the tin can, I was driven to the admittedly desperate expedient of finding temporary lodgings for them in the bowl of Granny’s old-fashioned toilet.

I was too young at the time to appreciate the special problems which old age brings in its train. It was one of these problems which was directly responsible for the dramatic and unexpected encounter which took place between my grandmother and the catfish during the small hours of the ensuing night.

It was a traumatic experience for Granny, and for me, and probably for the catfish too. Throughout the rest of her life Granny refused to eat fish of any kind, and always carried a high-powered flashlight with her during her nocturnal peregrinations. I cannot be as certain about the effect on the catfish, for my unfeeling cousin – once the hooferaw had died down a little – callously flushed the toilet. As for myself, the effect was to engender in me a lasting affinity for the lesser beasts of the animal kingdom. In a word, the affair of the catfish marked the beginning of my career, first as a naturalist, and later as a biologist. I had started on my way to the wolf den.

My infatuation with the study of animate nature grew rapidly into a full-fledged love affair. I found that even the human beings with whom the study brought me into contact could be fascinating too. My first mentor was a middle-aged Scotsman who gained his livelihood delivering ice, but who was in fact an ardent amateur mammalogist. At a tender age he had developed mange, or leprosy, or some other such infantile disease, and had lost all his hair, never to recover it – a tragedy which may have had a bearing on the fact that, when I knew him, he had already devoted fifteen years of his life to a study of the relationship between summer molt and incipient narcissism in pocket gophers. This man had become so intimate with gophers that he could charm them with sibilant whistles until they would emerge from their underground retreats and passively allow him to examine the hair on their backs.

Nor were the professional biologists with whom I later came into contact one whit less interesting. When I was eighteen I spent a summer doing field work in the company of another mammalogist, seventy years of age, who was replete with degrees and whose towering stature in the world of science had been earned largely by an exhaustive study of uterine scars in shrews. This man, a revered professor at a large American university, knew more about the uteri of shrews than any other man has ever known. Furthermore he could talk about his subject with real enthusiasm. Death will find me long before I tire of contemplating an evening spent in his company during which he enthralled a mixed audience consisting of a fur trader, a Cree Indian matron, and an Anglican missionary, with an hour-long monologue on sexual aberrations in female pygmy shrews. (The trader misconstrued the tenor of the discourse; but the missionary, inured by years of humorless dissertations, soon put him right.)

My early years as a naturalist were free and fascinating, but as I entered manhood and found that my avocation must now become my vocation, the walls began to close in. The happy days of the universal scholar who was able to take a keen interest in all phases of natural history were at an end, and I was forced to recognize the unpalatable necessity of specializing, if I was to succeed as a professional biologist. Nevertheless, as I began my academic training at the university, I found it difficult to choose the narrow path.

For a time I debated whether or not to follow the lead of a friend of mine who was specializing in scatology – the study of the excretory droppings of animals – and who later became a high-ranking scatologist with the United States Biological Survey. But although I found the subject mildly interesting, it failed to rouse my enthusiasm to the pitch where I could wish to make it my lifework. Besides, the field was overcrowded.

My personal predelictions lay towards studies of living animals in their own habitat. Being a literal fellow, I took the word biology – which means the study of life – at its face value. I was sorely puzzled by the paradox that many of my contemporaries tended to shy as far away from living things as they could get, and chose to restrict themselves instead to the aseptic atmosphere of laboratories where they used dead – often very dead – animal material as their subject matter. In fact, during my time at the university it was becoming unfashionable to have anything to do with animals, even dead ones. The new biologists were concentrating on statistical and analytical research, whereby the raw material of life became no more than fodder for the nourishment of calculating machines.

My inability to adjust to the new trends had an adverse effect upon my professional expectations. While my fellow students were already establishing themselves in various esoteric specialties, most of which they invented for themselves on the theory that if you are the only specialist in a given field you need fear no competition, I was still unable to deflect my interests from the general to the particular. As graduation approached I found that the majority of my contemporaries were assured of excellent research jobs while I seemed to have nothing particular to offer in the biological marketplace. It was, therefore, inevitable that I should end up working for the Government.

The die was cast one winter’s day when I received a summons from the Dominion Wildlife Service informing me that I had been hired at the munificent salary of one hundred and twenty dollars a month, and that I “would” report to Ottawa at once.

I obeyed this peremptory order with hardly more than a twitch of subdued rebelliousness, for if I had learned anything during my years at the university it was that the scientific hierarchy requires a high standard of obedience, if not subservience, from its acolytes.

Two days later I arrived in the windswept, gray-souled capital of Canada and found my way into the dingy labyrinth which housed the Wildlife Service. Here I presented myself to the Chief Mammalogist, whom I had known as a school chum in more carefree days. But alas, he had now metamorphosed into a full-blown scientist, and was so shrouded in professional dignity that it was all I could do to refrain from making him a profound obeisance.

Through the next several days I was subjected to something called “orientation” – a process which, so far as I could see, was designed to reduce me to a malleable state of hopeless depression. At any rate, the legions of Dantesque bureaucrats whom I visited in their gloomy, Formalin-smelling dens, where they spent interminable hours compiling dreary data or originating meaningless memos, did nothing to rouse in me much devotion to my new employment. The only thing I actually learned during this period was that, by comparison with the bureaucratic hierarchy in Ottawa, the scientific hierarchy was a brotherhood of anarchy.

This was driven home one memorable day when, having at last been certified as fit for inspection, I was paraded into the office of the Deputy Minister, where I so far forgot myself as to address him as “Mister.” My escort of the moment, all white-faced and trembling, immediately rushed me out of the Presence and took me by devious ways to the men’s washroom. Having first knelt down and peered under the doors of all the cubicles to make absolutely certain we were alone and could not be overheard, he explained in an agonized whisper that I must never, on pain of banishment, address the Deputy as anything but “Chief,” or, barring that, by his Boer War title of “Colonel.”

Military titles were de rigeur. All memos were signed Captain-this or Lieutenant-that if they originated from the lower echelons; or Colonel-this and Brigadier-that if they came down from on high. Those members of the staff who had not had the opportunity to acquire even quasi-military status were reduced to the expedient of inventing suitable ranks – field ranks if they were senior men, and subaltern ranks for the juniors. Not everyone took this matter with due solemnity, and I met one new employee in the fishery section who distinguished himself briefly by sending a memo up to the Chief signed “J. Smith, Acting Lance-Corporal.” A week later this foolhardy youth was on his way to the northernmost tip of Ellesmere Island, there to spend his exile living in an igloo while studying the life history of the nine-spined stickleback.

Levity was not looked upon with favor anywhere in those austere offices, as I discovered for myself while attending a conference concerning my first assignment.

A tentative list of the material requirements for this assignment lay on the conference table, surrounded by many grave countenances. It was a formidable document, made out in quintuplicate – as was the official rule – and imposingly headed:

DESIDERATA FOR THE LUPINE PROJECT

Having already been unnerved by the gravity of the gathering, I lost my head completely when the assembly began to consider the twelfth item listed in this horrendous document:

Paper, toilet, Government standard: 12 rolls.

An austere suggestion by the representative of the Finance Department that, in the interest of economy, the quantity of this item might be reduced, providing the field party (which was me) exercised all due restraint, sent me into an hysterical spasm of giggling. I mastered myself almost instantly, but it was too late. The two most senior men, both “majors,” rose to their feet, bowed coldly, and left the room without a word.

The Ottawa ordeal drew toward its end; but the climax was still to come. One early spring morning I was called to the office of the senior officer who was my direct chief, for a final interview before departing “into the field.”

My chief sat behind a massive desk whose dusty surface was littered with yellowing groundhog skulls (he had been studying rates of tooth decay in groundhogs ever since he joined the Department in 1897). At his back hung the frowning, bearded portrait of an extinct mammalogist who glared balefully down upon me. The smell of Formalin swirled about like the fetid breath of an undertaker’s back parlor.

After a long silence, during which he toyed portentously with some of his skulls, my chief began his briefing. There was a solemnity about the occasion which would have done justice to the briefing of a special agent about to be entrusted with the assassination of a Head of State.

“As you are aware, Lieutenant Mowat,” my chief began, “the Canis lupus problem has become one of national importance. Within this past year alone this Department has received no less than thirty-seven memoranda from Members of the House of Commons, all expressing the deep concern of their constituents that we ought to do something about the wolf. Most of the complaints have come from such civic-minded and disinterested groups as various Fish and Game clubs, while members of the business community – in particular the manufacturers of some well-known brands of ammunition – have lent their weight to the support of these legitimate grievances of the voting public of this Great Dominion, because their grievance is the complaint that the wolves are killing all the deer, and more and more of our fellow citizens are coming back from more and more hunts with less and less deer.

“As you may possibly have heard, my predecessor supplied the Minister with an explanation of this situation in which it was his contention that there were fewer deer because the hunters had increased to the point where they outnumbered the deer about five to one. The Minister, in all good faith, read this fallacious statement in the House of Commons, and he was promptly shouted down by Members howling ‘Liar!’ and ‘Wolf-lover!’

“Three days later my predecessor retired to civilian life, and the Minister issued a press statement: ‘The Department of Mines and Resources is determined to do everything in its power to curb the carnage being wreaked upon the deer population by hordes of wolves. A full-scale investigation of this vital problem, employing the full resources of the Department, is to be launched at once. The people of this country can rest assured that the Government of which I have the honor to be a member will leave no stone unturned to put an end to this intolerable situation.’”

At this juncture my chief seized a particularly robust groundhog skull and began rhythmically clacking its jaws together as if to emphasize his final words:

“You, Lieutenant Mowat, have been chosen for this great task! It only remains for you to go out into the field at once and tackle this work in a manner worthy of the great traditions of this Department. The wolf, Lieutenant Mowat, is now your problem!”

Somehow I staggered to my feet, and with an involuntary motion brought my right hand up in a smart salute before fleeing from the room.

I fled from Ottawa too…that self-same night, aboard a Canadian Air Force transport plane. My immediate destination was Churchill, on the western shore of Hudson Bay; but beyond that, somewhere in the desolate wastes of the subarctic Barren Lands, lay my ultimate objective – the wolf himself.

From the Paperback edition.

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No Man's River

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Otherwise

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Chapter 20: People of the Deer
Gunnar finally appeared (more than a week overdue) and landed with his usual panache. Although we were greatly cheered to see him, we were angry to find he had nothing for the Ihalmiut. According to his account, the Churchill RCMP detachment (which was responsible for “native administration”) had received no authorization to release relief supplies.

I scribbled an angry telegram about this for Gunnar to dispatch to Ottawa. There was no time to do more since Gunnar was anxious to get us to our destination and return to his base before daylight ended.

Hastily we loaded our gear and ourselves (including an apprehensive Tegpa) aboard the Norseman. Without the least hesitation, Ohoto, whom we had persuaded to accompany us, climbed into the co-pilot’s seat and nodding his understanding of Gunnar’s pantomimed warning not to touch any of the controls.

Overloaded with supplies for six weeks, an extra forty-five gallons of avgas for Gunnar’s return to Churchill, and the new canoe lashed to the starboard float, the Norseman at first refused to fly.
Roaring down the bay at full throttle, we were perilously close to the Duck Islets before Gunnar was able to rock it free of the water. I thought we were goners as we passed over the islets with only inches to spare, but Ohoto, leaning as far forward as his seatbelt would allow, was ecstatic.

. . .

“There! Angikuni! The Great Lake! My people’s place!”

Gunnar set the Norseman down in a little cove backed by a naked headland near which, so Ohoto proudly told us, he himself had been born.

In a tearing hurry to be rid of us, for it was growing late and he would have to find his way back to Churchill in semi-darkness, Gunnar remained in the pilot’s seat, keeping the engine ticking over while the three of us launched the canoe and ferried ourselves and our gear to a tiny gravel beach.

We had not seen any Caribou during our flight and their absence had made Andy and me distinctly uneasy for, despite Ohoto’s assurances that vast herds would appear, we could not get on with our investigations of their lives while they were absent. While Andy and Ohoto pitched our two tents, I climbed the long slope of the brooding hill behind the cove for a closer look at the country. The view from the crest was stunning. To the north, west, and east the tundra rolled into infinity like gigantic billows in a frozen sea.

. . .

Rather reluctantly Ohoto accompanied me on my first exploration, which was to the nearby cove where he had been born. At first I could see nothing to indicate that the grassy bench behind the beach had ever been occupied by human beings. Then Ohoto peeled some moss away from what proved to be a ring of boulders twenty feet in diameter that had once anchored a deerskin topay — a tent.

The topay which had once stood here had belonged, Ohoto said, to his grandfather Utuwiak and both Ohoto and his father had been born in it. Poking around the rest of the site I found seven more tent circles, all apparently of about the same age. Together they may have housed fifty or sixty people.

Where had all the people gone? What had become of them?

I turned to Ohoto, but he was not his usual helpful self. He would tell me nothing except to mutter a few words about “the great dying.” And he was very anxious to be gone from this place of his ancestors. When I started scratching around inside one of the circles, he abruptly abandoned me and trotted off toward our own camp, paying no attention to my attempts to persuade him to return.

Annoyed, I continued on alone around the shore of the bay past a series of paired stone pillars that had once supported kayaks and came upon an even more extensive settlement site of more than two dozen tent rings, some as much as twenty-four feet in diameter. The tents raised over them must have been the size of small houses.

This camp was protected on the landward northern side by massive granite outcrops frost- fractured into a chaos of angular fragments and studded with odd- looking protuberances. When I climbed up to investigate these I found they were rock- built graves. Although originally roofed with flat stones, many had been opened by wild weather and wild animals. Human skulls gaped up at me from the mossy depths of some.

Unnerved by so many dead (I counted thirty-one clearly recognizable graves among many more reduced to mere piles of rocky rubble), I returned to our outpost, but found little comfort there. Andy had just returned from a long trek across the plains to the north and gloomily reported having seen neither caribou nor recent signs of any. Ohoto was in a despondent mood from which he emerged only long enough to assure me he would not go near any more old encampments of his people. Tegpa alone seemed cheerful, and it was in his company that I continued my attempt to discover what I could about the empty camps — and the full graves.

Although examining the graves was an unsettling and unsavoury business, I hoped the tools, weapons, and ornaments placed in them for the use of their occupants in the afterlife might be revealing of how these people had lived.

One thing was evident: they had not suffered from any shortage of material goods. Many well- made hunting and household artefacts of flint, soapstone, bone, and wood, together with trade goods including guns, iron snow- knives, steel hatchets and knives, and copper cooking pots accompanied most of the dead.

The majority appeared to have perished during one relatively brief period. The first to go had been buried in well-constructed graves farthest from the camp and provided with ample grave goods. Later victims had been interred ever closer to the tent circles, in increasingly makeshift graves, and with fewer grave goods. The last burials hardly deserved the name. One that I literally stumbled across was no more than a jumble of human bones (of an adult and a child) scattered within one of the tent rings, suggesting that no one from this tent had survived to bury them.

Starvation could hardly have been the killer since the many stone-built meat caches sealed with heavy rocks standing in and around the camp were full of animal bones, suggesting that the meat which had once clothed them had gone uneaten except by worms.

Neither was there any indication of assault by other human beings. The bones of the dead were not broken or cut, nor had the graves been pillaged. Furthermore, kayaks and dog sleds (among the most precious possessions of the deer people) had not been taken. I found the decayed remnants of at least seven kayaks crumpled between stone pillars that had once raised them out of harm’s way.

The evidence was unequivocal — many people had once lived around the shore of Kinetua Bay.

Now there were none.

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Owls in the Family

Owls in the Family

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Chapter 1
One May morning my friend Bruce and I went for a hike on the prairie.

Spring was late that year in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Snowdrifts still clung along the steep banks of the river in the shelter of the cottonwood trees. The river was icy with thaw water and, as we crossed over the Railroad Bridge, we could feel a cold breath rising from it. But we felt another breath, a gentle one, blowing across the distant wheat fields and smelling like warm sun shining on soft mud. It was the spring wind, and the smell of it made us walk faster. We were in a hurry to get out of the city and into the real prairie, where you can climb a fence post and see for about a million miles – that’s how flat the prairie is.

The great thing about Saskatoon was the way it ended sharp all around its edge. There were no outskirts to Saskatoon. When you stepped off the end of the Railroad Bridge you stepped right onto the prairie and there you were – free as the gophers.

Gophers were the commonest thing on the prairie. The little mounds of yellow dirt around their burrows were so thick, sometimes, it looked as if the fields had yellow measles.

But this day Bruce and I weren’t interested in gophers. We were looking for an owl’s-nest. We had decided that we wanted some pet owls, and if you want pet owls you have to find a nest and get the young ones out of it.

We headed for the nearest of the clumps of cottonwood trees that dot the prairies, and which are called “bluffs” out in Saskatchewan. The ground was spongy under our sneakers, and it squooshed when we hit a wet place. A big jack rabbit bounced up right under my feet, and scared me so much I jumped almost as high as he did. And as we came nearer the bluff, two crows came zooming out of it and swooped down on us, cawing their heads off.

Bluffs are funny places in the spring. The cottonwood trees shed a kind of white fluffy stuff that looks like snow. Sometimes it’s so thick it comes right over the top of your sneakers and you get a queer feeling that you really are walking through snow, even though the sun on your back is making you sweat right through your shirt.

We walked through this bluff, scuffing our feet in the cottonwood snow and stirring it up in clouds. We kept looking up; and after a while, sure enough, we saw a big mess of twigs high up in a poplar.

“All right,” Bruce said to the two crows which were swooping and hollering at us. “If you want me to snitch your eggs – I will!”

With that he handed me his haversack and began to shinny up the tree.

It was an easy climb because cottonwood poplars always have lots of branches. When he got to the nest and looked into it I yelled up at him: “Any eggs?” Bruce grinned but he wouldn’t answer. I could see him doing something with his free hand – the one he wasn’t holding on with – and I knew there were eggs there all right. I watched, and sure enough he was popping them into his mouth so he could carry them down out of the tree.

We always carried eggs down out of trees that way. The only thing was, crows’ eggs are pretty big, and if you have to stuff three or four of them into your mouth it nearly chokes you.

Bruce started to climb down. When he got about ten feet from the ground he stepped on a rotten branch. Poplar branches are always rotten near the ground, and you have to watch out for them. I guess Bruce forgot. Anyway, the branch broke and he slid the rest of the way and lit on his seat with a good hard bump.

All the eggs had broken, and Bruce was spitting out shells and eggs all over the cottonwood snow. I got laughing so hard I couldn’t even talk. When Bruce got most of the eggs spat out he came for me and tackled me, and we had a fight. It didn’t last long, because it was too hot to really fight, so Bruce ate a sardine sandwich to get the taste of crows’ eggs out of his mouth and then we started across the prairie again to search through other bluffs until we found an owl’s-nest.

I guess we searched about a hundred bluffs that morning, but we never saw an owl. We were getting hungry by then, so we made a sort of nest for ourselves on the ground, out of poplar snow and branches. We curled up in it and opened our haversacks.

Bruce had sandwiches and a lemon in his. He was the only boy I ever knew who liked to eat lemons. He said they were better than oranges, any day of the week.

I had a hard-boiled egg and just for fun I reached over and cracked the shell on Bruce’s head. He yelled, and we had another fight, and rolled all over his sardine sandwiches.

We were just finishing our lunch when a wood gopher came snuffling along through the cottonwood snow. Wood gophers are gray and have big bushy tails. This one came right up to us and, when I held a crust out to him, he shuffled up and took it out of my hand.

“Got no sense,” said Bruce. “You might have been a coyote, and then where’d he be at?”

“Heck,” I said. “He’s got more sense than you. Do I look like a coyote?”

The gopher didn’t say anything. He just took the crust and scuttled away to his hole somewhere. We picked up our haversacks. The sun was as bright as fireworks and the sky was so clear you could look right through it – like looking through a blue window. We started to walk.

All of a sudden Bruce stopped so fast that I bumped into him.

“Lookee!” he said, and pointed to a bluff about half a mile away. There must have been a million crows around it. It looked as if the bluff was on fire and filling the sky with black smoke – that’s how many crows there were.

When you see a bunch of crows all yelling their heads off at something, you can almost bet it’s an owl they’re after. Crows and owls hate each other, and when a crow spots an owl, he’ll call every other crow for miles and they all join in and mob the owl.

We headed for that bluff at a run. The crows saw us coming but they were too excited to pay much attention. We were nearly deaf with their racket by the time we reached the edge of the trees. I was ahead of Bruce when I saw something big and slow go drifting out of one poplar into another. It was a great horned owl, the biggest kind of owl there is, and as soon as it flew, the whole lot of crows came swooping down on it, cawing like fury. I noticed they were careful not to get too close.

Bruce and I started to hunt for the nest. After a while, the owl got more worried about us than about the crows and away he went. He flew low over the fields, almost touching the ground. That way the crows couldn’t dive on him. If they tried it they would shoot past him and crash into the dirt.

There wasn’t any owl’s-nest in that bluff after all, but we didn’t worry. We knew the nest would have to be in some bluff not too far away. All we had to do was look.

We looked in different bluffs all afternoon. We found seven crows’-nests, a red-tailed hawk’s-nest, and three magpies’-nests. I tore the seat out of my trousers climbing to the hawk’s-nest, and we both got Russian thistles in our sneakers, so we had sore feet. It got hotter and hotter, and we were so thirsty I could have eaten a lemon myself, except that Bruce didn’t have any more.

It was past suppertime when we started back toward the railroad. By then we were pretending we were a couple of Arabs lost in the desert. Our camels had died of thirst, and we were going to die too unless we found some water pretty soon.

“Listen,” Bruce said. “There’s an old well at Haultain Corner. If we cut over past Barney’s Slough to the section road, we can get a drink.”

“Too late,” I told him. “Good-by, old pal, old Sheik. I am doomed. Go on and leave me lay.”

“Oh, nuts,” said Bruce. “I’m thirsty. C’mon, let’s go.”

So we cut past Barney’s Slough and there were about a thousand mallard ducks on it. They all jumped into the air as we went by and their wings made a sound like a freight train going over a bridge.

“Wish I had my dad’s gun!” said Bruce.

But I was wondering why on the prairies they call lakes and ponds “sloughs.” I still don’t know why. But that’s what they’re called in Saskatoon.
 

There was one big bluff between us and Haultain Corner. It was too far to go around it, so we walked right through it. Anyway, it was cooler in among the trees. When we were about halfway through I spotted a crow’s-nest in a big old cottonwood.

“Bet it’s empty,” I said to Bruce. But the truth was that I was just too hot and tired to climb any more trees. Bruce felt the same way, and we walked past. But I took one last look up at it, and there, sticking over the edge of the nest, was the biggest bunch of tail feathers you ever saw. My heart jumped right into my throat and I grabbed Bruce by the shirt and pointed up.

It was a great horned owl all right. We kept as quiet as we could, so as not to scare her, and then we looked around the bottom of the tree. There were bits of rabbits and gophers, and lots of owl pellets. When owls catch something, they eat the whole thing–bones and fur and all. Then, after a while, they burp and spit out a ball of hair and bones. That’s an owl pellet.

“By Gang! We found it!” Bruce whispered.

I found it,” I said.

“Okay,” said Bruce. “You found it, then. So how about you climbing up and seeing how many young ones are in it?”

“Nothing doing, old pal,” I replied. “I found the nest. So if you want one of the owlets, you climb up and have a look.”

Neither of us was keen to climb that tree. The old owl was sticking close to her nest, and you can’t always tell how fierce an owl is going to be. They can be pretty fierce sometimes.

“Say,” said Bruce after a while, “why don’t we just leave her be for now? Might scare her into leaving the nest for good if we climbed up. What say we get Mr. Miller, and come back tomorrow?”

Mr. Miller was one of our teachers. Bruce and I liked him because he liked the prairie too. He was a great one for taking pictures of birds and things. We knew he would be crazy to get some pictures of the owl – and Mr. Miller never minded climbing trees.

“Sure,” I said. “Good idea.”

We went off to Haultain Corner and got a drink of water that tasted like old nails, out of the broken pump. Then we walked on home. That night I told Dad about the owl’s-nest, and he looked at Mother, and all he said was:

“Oh NO! Not owls too.”

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People of the Deer

People of the Deer

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Sea of Slaughter

Sea of Slaughter

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Sibir

Sibir

My Discovery of Siberia
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Snow Walker, The

Snow Walker, The

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The Black Joke

The Black Joke

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Chapter 1
The Spences and the Ship

One wind­whipped summer day in the year 1735, a black­hulled ship came storming in from seaward toward the mountain walls which guard the southern coast of Newfoundland. All the canvas she could carry was bent to her tall spars, and she was closing on the rock­ribbed coast at such a furious pace it seemed inevitable she must meet destruction in the surf that boiled and spouted at the foot of the sea-cliffs.

Just over the horizon astern of her a squadron of French men-of­war was straining to overhaul the fleeing ship. Aboard the Frenchmen a hundred cannon were primed and loaded, waiting for the moment when the massed fire of the squadron could rip the black ship into fragments.

The fleeing vessel, sardonically named Black Joke by her master, John Phillip, was one of the most notorious privateers in Atlantic waters, and for two years French merchant shipping bound for Canada had suffered her plundering. But on this summer day the vengeful French naval squadron had almost trapped her off the island of St. Pierre, and now she was running for her life.

In the waist of the privateer stood a young man named Jonathan Spence. Two months earlier he had been an ordinary seaman on an English ship which had crossed the Atlantic to fish on the cod­rich grounds of the eastern Newfoundland coast. Spence’s ship had been lying anchored in Acquaforte Harbour one day when the dawn light revealed the presence of a newcomer, a slim black vessel, lying across the narrow harbor entrance and commanding the anchored fishermen with her long brass cannon.

There was consternation in the fishing fleet as the officers recognized the infamous Black Joke. The captains had no alternative but to obey Phillip’s “request” that their crews be mustered on the decks. And they could do nothing but look on miserably as he addressed the crews, promising good wages and high adventure in his service.

Phillip’s audience was attentive. In those days the crews of fishing ships were little better than slaves. And so, when Phillip’s bully­boat rowed away from the fleet, it carried the pick of the young and able fishermen; and amongst them was young Spence.

Jonathan Spence enjoyed his service with Phillip even though it was a life of hard sailing and occasionally of hard fighting. But Jonathan had a great desire to be his own master. He had already fallen in love with Newfoundland, wild and formidable as it was with its great inland mountains, sea­racked shores, and dark spruce forests. And he had made up his mind to settle on the island, never to return to England where starvation and a serf’s lot awaited him.

But a settler’s life on the much­frequented eastern shores was a precarious business at best, for the owners and officers of the English fishing ships considered the settlers to be intruders into their fishing preserves and the conflict between the two groups was often bloody.

Things were different on the south coast of Newfoundland. Here the deep fords and coves were so well protected by off­lying reefs and shoals that fishing vessels seldom ventured near them. Only a few men knew the secrets of that coast — and Captain John Phillip was one of them.

His knowledge served him well on the day Black Joke fled from the French squadron. He held Black Joke upon her course even though the green hands in his crew were sure he was taking them all to their deaths. The massive sea­cliffs seemed close enough to touch, when suddenly a cleft opened in the rock wall ahead. It was a mere slit in the face of the mountains, but the black ship drove unhesitatingly into it and in an instant had vanished from the face of the gray ocean.

The slit, no more than a hundred yards wide, twisted and turned between thousand­foot walls until it ended abruptly in an almost circular harbor, half a mile in diameter. The harbor looked rather like the crater of an extinct volcano, except that its floor was sunk under deep water and the steep surrounding slopes were clothed in forests. Tumbling down from the high rim were several bright rivers, and, almost in the center of the crater, were two small islets between which ships could moor in perfect safety from any wind that blew.

Even before Black Joke had dropped anchor, Jonathan Spence had decided that this secret place was where he would make his home.

Jonathan had worked well during his time with Phillip and so, after vainly trying to persuade the young man to stay with the ship, the pirate skipper granted his request that he be set ashore. Phillip also provided Jonathan with tools, arms, and ammunition, and with sufficient stores to support him through his first winter. Three days later Black Joke sailed, and Jonathan was left alone in the harbor which Phillip had named Ship Hole.
Black Joke returned in the following spring to find a well­built cabin on the shore of Ship Hole and a healthy but exceedingly lonely Jonathan Spence rowing anxiously out to greet the pirate ship.

Jonathan’s loneliness did not last long. A few days earlier Black Joke had captured a vessel bound for Quebec with a cargo of unwilling young women from France who were destined to become wives to the garrison soldiers in the citadel. The young women had begged Phillip to set them ashore in some free land and he had promised to take them to New England. But while the vessel lay in Ship Hole Jonathan caught the eye of one black-eyed lass who was ready and willing to join this sturdy young man in building a life in the Newfoundland wilderness. Phillip married the pair of them before he sailed, and from that day onward Ship Hole was never without the sound of human voices.

Two centuries after Ship Hole received its first inhabitants, a man who was Jonathan’s namesake stepped out into the spring sunshine from the doorway of a two­story frame house overlooking the harbor. This latter-day Jonathan Spence was a square­built man in his forties, ruddy­skinned, and with shaggy brown hair shadowing his deep­set blue eyes. He looked what he was — a man of the sea.

On this spring day he gazed out over a familiar scene. The sun came streaming down over the surrounding cliffs and glinted from the white-painted walls of a dozen almost identical wooden homes which straggled along the south slopes. Ship Hole stood revealed as a typical Newfoundland fishing village, with its handful of houses facing the waterfront; its small square church, and the more imposing and concentrated cluster of buildings and wharves belonging to the local merchant. There were no roads in Ship Hole or vehicles either. Narrow, twisting paths connected the various parts of the settlement; but the sea was the real highway, and the whole life of the inhabitants depended on the sea. It was to the sea that the Ship Hole men went for their livelihood, for they were all fishermen, and it was by the sea that the only communications with the outside world were maintained. Inland lay hundreds of miles of mountain plateau and caribou barrens across which only the local Micmac Indians could make their way.

It was to the sea that Jonathan Spence’s thoughts turned as he looked out toward the twin islets, between which a cluster of five schooners lay closely moored. They were two­masted fishing vessels; “laid-up” now, as they had been all winter, with their sailing gear stowed away on shore, so that they looked sleepy and abandoned in the bright spring sun. But there was one amongst them which stood out from her sisters as a ballerina would stand out in a crowd of folk dancers. Her slim, black­painted hull had a grace and delicacy which was unique amongst the rough­built, hard-working fishing ships. Although she was too far away for Jonathan to be able to read the name painted in gold along each bow, he knew it as well as his own. She was the Black Joke; and she belonged to him.

A vessel called Black Joke had belonged to each succeeding generation of Spences since the days when the first Jonathan came to Ship Hole in Phillip’s pirate ship, and into the present Black Joke had gone all the experience and knowledge gained from generations of seamen and shipwrights.

Work on her had begun six years earlier, when Jonathan and his brother Kent had gone far back into the country to search out the trees destined for her timbers. It had taken weeks to find the right trees, to fell them and limb them, and to roll the logs down to the nearest rivers. In the spring the two men had rafted the chosen logs and towed them out to the coast where a trading schooner had picked them up and brought them on to Ship Hole.

Since there was no sawmill to do the work, Jonathan and Kent had to shape the timbers by hand, using axes and adzes exactly as the first Jonathan Spence had done. Planks to sheathe the timbers, two inches thick, ten to fifteen feet long, and often a foot wide, had to be whipsawed out of solid logs — also by hand.

All that summer the timbers and piles of planks were left to season, and the following autumn the ship began to build. She took shape on a piece of relatively level ground between the house and the beach. Day after day the two men worked with their shipwright’s tools, using only a hand-carved model of the ship for guide and plans.

They worked in any and every kind of weather; in bright sun, in snowstorms, and in blinding rain. By spring the frame was up and planked, and one fine day the ship was ready for the launch. The whole population of Ship Hole was on hand to watch and help as the wedges were knocked out from under her and she slid down wooden ways greased with rotted cod livers, and met the water with a mighty splash.

Among those who watched the launch, none was prouder than two small boys who shouted with enthusiasm when the vessel built by their two fathers rode off into the harbor as light and lovely as a gull. Peter Spence, who was Jonathan’s son, was so carried away that he ran heedlessly down the ways, slipped on the cod oil, and shot out into the water in the wake of the schooner as if he was also being launched. His companion and first cousin, Kye Spence, Kent’s only son, thereupon distinguished himself by throwing the first object he could find at Peter to help him keep afloat. Unfortunately the first thing he found was a stone net­weight. The stone was no help to the floundering Peter, but Kye’s action gave rise to such a burst of laughter from the onlookers that the lad rushed home in tears and hid in bed. Here he was shortly joined by a chastened Peter, half­drowned and half­frozen, and wrapped in so many woolen petticoats belonging to his mother that he looked more like a rag doll than like a boy.

The launching of Black Joke was something the two children would remember all their lives. It was a lucky launching, and luck was with the ship.

When she had been fitted out and rigged, she sailed from Ship Hole with Jonathan as master and Kent as mate, and with a crew of four other local fishermen. She made her first fishing voyage to the far­off coasts of Labrador, and she was gone three months. When she returned, it was with a full cargo of salt cod in her hold. She had made a “bumper voyage.” She had also proved herself to be one of the best and ablest sailors in the entire Labrador fishing fleet which numbered several hundred schooners.

The following year the brothers sailed her far out in the Atlantic to fish on the Grand Banks. Here she showed her worth to some of the best fishing vessels in the world, the big Banks schooners out of Gloucester and Lunenburg. Small as she was — she was only 80 tons as compared to the 200­ton Yankee and Canadian Bankers — she was able to carry sail in weather which forced the bigger ships to heave­to, and if there was another ship on the Banks that year who could catch her when she had a favoring breeze, Black Joke never met her.

On her first two voyages she made a considerable local reputation as a fast and lucky ship, but on her third voyage she made a name for herself right across the Atlantic. During the autumn of her third year afloat she made a charter voyage from St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, to Oporto in Portugal with a full cargo of dried cod. Sailed by her two owners and a four­man crew, she made the passage clean across the western ocean in twelve days — a time not many big steamships could easily surpass. It was a passage that old John Phillip himself would have envied, and it made Black Joke’s name famous wherever sailing men got together.

As Jonathan looked across the harbor at her on this fine spring day, he should have been happy, but in fact he was deeply troubled. The great depression of the ’30’s was in full swing, and hard times had come to Newfoundland. Though the seas were still full of codfish, markets and money seemed to have vanished. Fishermen could hardly give away their catch, let alone sell it. In every outport it was the same story — near starvation, and growing debts to the local merchants upon whom the fishermen were dependent for the miserable rations of flour, molasses, and tea which had now become their staple diet.

Few of the merchants were generous men, and fewer still believed in charity. In Ship Hole four of the five schooners belonging to the place had already passed into the hands of the local merchant, Simon Barnes, as part payment of their ex­owner’s debts. Black Joke still remained free because the Spences had always fought shy of the merchant. The Spences had always paid their own way, for they had seen how easy it was to fall into debt to the merchant for food, clothing, or for fishing gear — and how difficult it was to escape again. They had observed that many outport people eventually came to be working for the merchant rather than for themselves.

Consequently, the Spence family bought little from Barnes, and sold even less to him. They preferred the adventurous alternative of sailing to St. John’s each autumn with their summer catch of cod and selling it there. When they sailed home again, they would bring with them most of the supplies they would need in the year ahead.

The independence of the Spences did not endear them to Simon Barnes. Not only was he unable to make a profit on them, but their example was a dangerous one, for it tended to spread to other fishing families.

Jonathan knew perfectly well how Barnes felt, and he was worried. Ever since his brother Kent had been lost at sea during the annual seal hunt two years earlier, Jonathan had been hard put to keep things going. Black Joke was still free of debt, but Jonathan knew that unless he could find work for her, work that would bring in cash money, he would eventually lose her. He had thought of making a voyage to Labrador or to the Banks fishery — but what was the use of that when he would be unable to sell his fish for even enough to pay the cost of grub for his crew? He had thought of risking Black Joke in a voyage to the ice after seals, but the loss of his brother in a vessel even larger than Black Joke made him realize that this would be too foolhardy a venture. For a time he had hoped to be able to charter the ship to one of the big St. John’s fish merchants for a spring voyage to carry salt cod to the Caribbean. With her reputation for fast sailing, she ought to have had no trouble finding charters; but merchants stick together, and Barnes had persuaded the merchants in St. John’s not to give Black Joke an opportunity.

Jonathan was still staring at his ship, and puzzling over her future — and his own — when the door behind him swung open and he was almost bowled over as the two boys of the household, Peter and Kye, came bursting through the doorway wrestling fiercely with one another. Quick as a cat, Jonathan recovered himself and with one swift lunge grabbed each boy by the back of his homespun jersey.

They were an oddly assorted pair. Peter was lean and lanky with a wild mop of sandy hair and piercing blue eyes. His face was crimson with wind and sun, except for a thick band of freckles across his nose and cheekbones. By nature he was an enthusiast, often reckless, and usually heedless of the troubles he was storing up for himself.

Kye was of a different build: heavy­set and chunky with lank black hair and a face as brown and round as that of an Indian, which was not surprising, for his mother, who had died when he was born, had been a Micmac from the nearby Indian settlement of Conne River. Kye was of a different nature from his cousin, tending to be more stolid and cautious, though he had a droll wit and an easy and engaging smile.

“By the Harry,” Jonathan said when the lads had stopped struggling. “Is it bear cubs I have in this house — or b’ys? Answer me, ye whelps, or I’ll skin ye and find out!”

He gave them both an affectionate shake that almost loosened their heads from their shoulders. Still panting, Peter wriggled in his father’s heavy grasp.

“Leave be, sorr, please,” he begged. “’Twas just that Kye said Black Joke would have the dry rot afore we ever got around to givin’ her an overhaul, and I told him ’twas he had the dry rot — in his head!”

Jonathan chuckled and released them. They stood before him looking sheepish. Good sturdy lads for their years, he thought to himself. It’s a sad thing that Kent can’t see his own boy now.

“Well, ye meant nothin’ by it, Kye,” he said aloud. “And ye may not be so far off the mark. The truth of it is I can see nothin’ for the ship to do; no work at all. Still . . . that’s no reason to neglect her. And broodin’ and thinkin’ won’t keep her fit. It’s past time we turned­to and got her into shape. Come on then, ye pair of connors! Down to the stage with ye and we’ll do some proper work.”

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The Boat Who Wouldn't Float
Excerpt

1

Conception

I have an ingrained fear of auctions dating back to the third year of my life. In that year my father attended an auction as a means of passing an aimless afternoon, and he came away from it the bewildered possessor of thirty hives of bees and all the paraphernalia of an apiarist. Unable to rid himself of his purchase, he became perforce a beekeeper, and for the next two years I lived almost exclusively on a diet of soda biscuits and honey. Then the gods smiled on us and all the bees died of something called foul brood, enabling us to return to some semblance of a normal life.

Auctions remain associated in my subconscious mind with great catastrophes. I normally avoid them like the plague, but one April day not many years ago I too fell victim to the siren call. It happened in a sleepy little Lake Ontario town which once had been a major port for the great fleets of barley schooners that vanished forever shortly after the turn of the century. In that town there lived a ship chandler who refused to accept the coming of steam and the death of sail, and who kept his shop and stock intact for half a century, waiting for the day when a sailorman would again come knocking on his door. None did. He died, and his heirs decided to auction off the old man's junk so they could turn the building into a pool hall.

I happened to be passing through that town on auction day accompanied by a young lady for whom I had conceived a certain passion. However, her passion was primarily reserved for auctions. When she saw the auction sign she insisted that we attend. I steeled myself to buy nothing, but as I stood in the dim and ancient store which was still redolent of Stockholm tar, oilskins, and dusty canvas, something snapped within me.

Among the attitudes I acquired from my father was a romantic and Conradian predilection for the sea and ships. Like him I had often found surcease from the miseries I brought upon myself by spending hours immersed in books about the cruises of small boats to far-distant corners of the oceanic world. Ten years before the day of the auction I had anchored myself to a patch of eroded sand hills in central Ontario, about as far from the sea as a man could get. There I had labored to make grass, trees, vegetables, and mine own self take root. My labors had been in vain. Drought killed the grass. Sawflies and rabbits girdled the trees. Wireworms ate the vegetables. Far from rooting me into the Good Earth, a decade of servitude to the mingy soil only served to fuel a spirit of rebellion the intensity of which I had not begun to suspect until I stood in the old ship chandler's store physically surrounded by a world I had previously known only in the imagination.

I bought. I bought and I bought and I bought. I bought enough nautical gear out of another age to fill an outbuilding on my parched little farm. I am my father's son, and so the story of the bees had to repeat itself to an inevitable conclusion.

It happens that I have a friend who is a publisher and who feels much the same way about the book business as I do about dirt farming. Jack McClelland is a romantic, although he blanches at the word and vehemently denies it. During the war he served as skipper of M.T.B.'s (Motor Torpedo Boats) and other such small and dashing craft, and although he returned at war's end to the drabness of the business world, his spirit remained on the bridge of an M.T.B. streaking through the gray Atlantic wastes, guns blazing at the dim specters of German E-boats hopelessly trying to evade their fates. Jack owns a cottage on the Muskoka Lakes and there he keeps an old-fashioned knife-bowed, mahogany launch which in the dark of the moon sometimes metamorphoses into an M.T.B., to the distress of occasional lovers drifting on the still waters in canoes.

One night a few weeks after I bought the departed chandler's stock, Jack McClelland and I were moored to a bar in Toronto. It was a dismal day in a dismal city so we stayed moored to the bar for several hours. I kept no notes of what was said nor do I recall with clarity how it all came to pass. I know only that before the night ended we were committed to buying ourselves an oceangoing vessel in which to roam the salt seas over.

We decided we should do things the old-fashioned way (we both have something of the Drake and Nelson complex), and this meant buying an old-fashioned boat, the kind of wooden boat that once was sailed by iron men.

The only place we knew where such a boat might be procured was in the remote and foggy island of Newfoundland. Consequently, one morning in early May I flew off to that island's ancient capital, St. John's, where I had arranged to meet a red-bearded, coldly blue-eyed iconoclast named Harold Horwood, who was reputed to know more about Newfoundland's scattered little outport villages than any living man. Despite the fact that I was a mainlander, and Harold abhors mainlanders, he had agreed to help me in my quest. I am not sure why he did so but perhaps the unraveling of this chronicle will provide a hint.

Harold took me to visit scores of tiny fishing villages clinging like cold treacle to the wave-battered cliffs of the great island. He showed me boats ranging from fourteen-foot dories to the rotting majesty of a five-hundred-ton, three-masted schooner. Unfortunately, those vessels that were still sufficiently seaworthy to leave the wharf were not for sale, and those that could be had within my range (Jack had astutely placed a limit of a thousand dollars on the purchase price) were either so old and tired that piss-a-beds (the local names for dandelions) were sprouting from their decks, or they were taking a well-earned rest on the harbor bottom with only their upperworks awash.

Time was drawing on and we were no forwarder. Harold's red beard jutted at an increasingly belligerent angle, his frosty eyes took on a gimlet stare and his temper grew worse and worse. He was not used to being thwarted and he did not like it. He arranged to have a news item printed in the papers describing the arrival of a rich mainlander who was looking for a local schooner.

Two days later he informed me that he had found the perfect vessel. She was, he said, a small two-masted schooner of the type known generally as a jack boat and, more specifically, as a Southern Shore bummer. I can't say that the name enthralled me, but by this time I too was growing desperate, so I agreed to go and look at her.

She lay hauled out at Muddy Hole, a small fishing village on the east coast of the Avalon Peninsula — a coast that is rather inexplicably called the Southern Shore, perhaps because it lies south of St. John's and St. John's is, in its own eyes at least, the center of the universe.

Tourist maps showed Muddy Hole as being connected to St. John's by road. This was a typical Newfoundland "jolly." Muddy Hole was not connected to St. John's at all except by a tenuous trail which, it is believed, was made some centuries ago by a very old caribou who was not only blind but also afflicted with the staggers.

In any event it took us six hours to follow where he had led. It was a typical spring day on the east coast of the island. A full gale was blowing from seaward, hurling slanting rain heavily against the car. The Grand Banks fog, which is forever lurking just off the coast, had driven in over the high headlands and obscured everything from view. Guided by some aboriginal instinct inherited from his seagoing ancestors, Harold somehow kept the course and just before ten o'clock, in impenetrable darkness, we arrived at Muddy Hole.

I had to take his word for it. The twin cones of the headlights revealed nothing but rain and fog. Harold rushed me from the car and a moment later was pounding on an unseen door. It opened to allow us to enter a tiny, brilliantly lighted, steaming-hot kitchen, where I was introduced to the brothers Mike and Paddy Hallohan. Dressed in thick homespun sweaters, heavy rubber boots and black serge trousers, they looked like a couple of characters out of a smuggling yarn by Robert Louis Stevenson. Harold introduced me, explaining that I was the "mainland feller" who had come to see their boat.

The brothers wasted no time. Rigging me up in oilskins and a sou'wester they herded me out into the storm.

The rain beat down so heavily that it almost masked the thunder of breakers which seemed to be directly below me, and no great distance away.

" 'Tis a grand night for a wreck!" Paddy bellowed cheerfully.

It was also a grand night to fall over a cliff and break one's neck, a matter of more immediate concern to me as I followed close on Paddy's heels down a steep path that was so slippery your average goat would have thought twice about attempting it. Paddy's storm lantern, fueled for economy reasons with crude cod-liver oil, gave only a symbolic flicker of light through a dense cloud of rancid smoke. Nevertheless the smoke was useful. It enabled me to keep track of my guide simply by following my nose.

Twenty minutes later I bumped heavily into Paddy and was bumped into as heavily by Mike, who had been following close behind. Paddy thrust the lamp forward and I caught a glimpse of his gnomelike face, streaming with rain and nearly split in two by a maniacal grin.

"Thar she be, Skipper! T'foinest little bummer on t'Southern Shore o' Newfoundland!"

I could see nothing. I put out my hand and touched the flank of something curved and wet. Paddy shoved the lantern forward to reveal reflections from the most repellent shade of green paint I have ever seen. The color reminded me of the naked belly of a long-dead German corpse with whom I once shared a foxhole in Sicily. I snatched my hand away.

Mike roared in my ear. "Now dat you'se seen her, me dear man, us'll nip on back to t'house and have a drop o' tay." Whereupon Mike and Paddy nipped, leaving me stumbling anxiously in their wake.

Safely in the kitchen once more, I found that Harold had never left that warm sanctuary. He later explained that he had felt it would have been an intrusion for him to be present at my first moment of communion with my new love. Harold is such a thoughtful man.

By this time I was soaked, depressed, and very cold, but the Hallohan brothers and their ancient mother, who now appeared from a back room, went to work on me. They began by feeding me a vast plate of salt beef and turnips boiled with salt cod, which in turn engendered within me a monumental thirst. At this juncture the brothers brought out a crock of Screech.

Screech is a drink peculiar to Newfoundland. In times gone by, it was made by pouring boiling water into empty rum barrels to dissolve whatever rummish remains might have lingered there. Molasses and yeast were added to the black, resultant fluid, and this mixture was allowed to ferment for a decent length of time before it was distilled. Sometimes it was aged for a few days in a jar containing a plug of nigger-twist chewing tobacco.

However, the old ways have given way to the new, and Screech is now a different beast. It is the worst conceivable quality of Caribbean rum, bottled by the Newfoundland government under the Screech label, and sold to poor devils who have no great desire to continue living. It is not as powerful as it used to be, but this defect can be, and often is, remedied by the addition of quantities of lemon extract. Screech is usually served mixed with boiling water. In its consequent neargaseous state the transfer of the alcohol to the bloodstream is instantaneous. Very little is wasted in the digestive tract.

This was my first experience with Screech and nobody had warned me. Harold sat back with an evil glitter in his eye and watched with delight as I tried to quench my thirst. At least I think he did. My memories of the balance of that evening are unclear.

At a much later date I was to be accused by Jack of having bought our boat while drunk, or of having bought her sight unseen, or both. The last part of the accusation is certainly not true. As I sat in the overwhelming heat of the kitchen with steam rising to maximum pressure inside my own boilers, the brothers Hallohan drew on the wizardry of their Irish ancestors and conjured up for me a picture of their little schooner with such vivid imagery that I saw her as clearly as if she had been in the kitchen with us. When I eventually threw my arms around Paddy's neck and thrust a bundle of bills into his shark-skin-textured hand, I knew with sublime certainty that I had found the perfect vessel.

As we drove back to St. John's the next morning Harold rhapsodized about the simple-hearted, honest, God-fearing Irish fishermen of the Southern Shore.

"They'd give you their shirt as soon as look at you," he said. "Generous? Migod, there's nobody in the whole world like them! You're some lucky they took to you."

In a way I suppose Harold was right. Because if the Hallohans had not taken to me I might have remained in Ontario, where I could conceivably have become a solid citizen. I bear the Hallohans no ill will, but I hope I never again get "took to" the way I was taken to on that memorable night at Muddy Hole.

Two days later I returned to Muddy Hole to do a survey of my vessel and to get my first sober (in the sense of calm, appraising) look at her. Seen from a distance she was indeed a pretty little thing, despite her nauseous color. A true schooner hull in a miniature, she measured thirty-one feet on deck with a nine-foot beam and a four-foot draft. But she was rough! On close inspection she looked as though she had been flung together by a band of our paleolithic ancestors — able shipbuilders perhaps, but equipped only with stone adzes.

Her appointments and accommodations left a great deal to be desired. She was flush-decked, with three narrow fishing wells in each of which one man could stand and jig for cod, and with two intervening fishholds in each of which the ghosts of a million long-dead cod tenaciously lingered. Right up in her eyes was a cuddy two feet high, three feet wide, and three feet long, into which one very small man could squeeze if he did not mind assuming the fetal position. There was also an engine room, a dark hole in which lurked the enormous phallus of a single-cylinder, make-and-break (but mostly broke) gasoline engine.

Her rigging also left something to be desired. Her two masts had apparently been manufactured out of a couple of Harry Lauder’s walking sticks. They were stayed with lengths of telephone wire and cod line. Her sails were patched like Joseph’s coat and seemed to be of equivalent antiquity. Her bowsprit was hardly more than a mop handle tied in place with netting twine. It did not appear to me that the Hallohans had sailed her very much. I was to hear later that they had never sailed her and shared the general conviction of everyone in Muddy Hole that any attempt to do so would probably prove fatal.

She was not a clean little vessel. In truth, she stank. Her bilges had not been cleaned since the day she was built and they were encrusted with a glutinous layer of fish slime, fish blood, and fish gurry to a depth of several inches. This was not because of bad housekeeping. It was done “a­purpose” as the Muddy Holers told me after I had spent a solid week trying to clean her out.

“Ye see, Skipper,” one of them explained, “dese bummers now, dey be built o’ green wood, and when dey dries, dey spreads. Devil a seam can ye keep tight wit’ corkin (caulking). But dey seals dersel’s, ye might say, wit’ gurry and blood, and dat’s what keeps dey tight.”

I have never since had reason to doubt his words.

Since the sum the Hallohans had demanded for their vessel was, oddly enough, exactly the sum I had to spend, and since this nameless boat (the Hallohans had never christened her, referring to her only as She, or sometimes as That Bitch) was not yet ready to go to Samoa around Cape Horn, I had to make a serious decision.

The question really was whether to walk away from her forever, telling Jack McClelland a suitable lie about having been waylaid by highwaymen in St. John’s, or whether to try and brazen it out and somehow make a vessel out of a sow’s ear. Because I am essentially a coward, and anyway Jack is onto my lies, I chose the latter course.

Upon asking the Hallohans where I could find a boat­builder who could make some necessary changes for me I was directed to Enarchos Coffin — the very man who had built the boat four years earlier. Enos, as he was called, was a lean, lank, dehydrated stick of a man. In his younger days he had been a master shipwright in Fortune Bay building vessels for the Grand Banks fishery, but when the Banking fleet faded into glory he was reduced to building small boats for local fishermen. The boats he built were beautifully designed; but a combination of poverty amongst his customers, a shortage of decent wood, failing vision, and old age, somewhat affected the quality of his workmanship. The Hallohan boat was the last one he had built and was to be the last he would ever build.

When I went to visit him, armed with an appropriate bottle, he was living in a large, ramshackle house in company with his seven unmarried daughters. Enos proved amiable and garrulous. The Southern Shore dialect is almost unintelligible to the ear of an outsider and when it is delivered at a machine­gun clip it becomes totally incomprehensible. For the first hour or two of our acquaintance I understood not a single word he addressed to me. However after the first burst of speed had run its course he slowed down a little and I was able to understand quite a lot.

He said he was delighted to hear I had bought the boat; but when he heard what I had paid for her, he was only able to cure his attack of apoplexy by drinking half the bottle of rum, neat.

“Lard livin’ Jasus!” he screeched when he got his breath back. “An’ I built her for they pirates fer two hunnert dollars!”

At which point I snatched the bottle from him and drank the other half of it, neat.

When we had recovered our breath I asked him if he would undertake repairs, modifications, and a general refit. He willingly agreed. We arranged that he would fit a false keel and outside ballast; a cabin trunk over the fish wells; bunks, tables, lockers, and other internal essentials; re­spar, re­rig her properly, and do a hundred other smaller but necessary jobs. Enos thought the work would take him about two months to complete.

I returned to St. John’s and thence to Ontario in moderately good spirits. I did not worry about the boat being ready on time, since we did not plan on sailing her until mid­summer. Occasionally I wrote to Enos (he himself could neither read nor write) and one or other of his strapping daughters would reply with a scrawled postcard of which this one is typical:

Dear Mister Mote
Dad say yor boat come fine lots fish this month Gert got her baby.
Nellie Coffin

During the waiting months Jack and I dreamed many a dream and made many a plan. We agreed that I should precede him to Newfoundland near the end of June taking with me a jeep­load of gear and equipment, and that I would have the few finishing touches to the boat completed so that she would be ready to sail when Jack arrived in mid-July. After that, well, we would see. Bermuda, the Azores, Rio de Janeiro — the world lay waiting!

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The Curse of the Viking Grave
Excerpt

Chapter 1
Schoolroom in the Bush

On the windswept ice of a lake in northern Manitoba two ravens sat hunched beside the frozen carcass of a caribou. Foxes and wolves had left precious little meat on the bones of the dead animal and the ravens circled each other threateningly while the sound of their harsh, disputing voices echoed across the subarctic silence of the lake.

Shambling through the dark woods along the shore, a wolverine raised his heavy head and listened. The cries of the ravens told him there was food nearby, and so he swung purposefully out on the ice in the direction of the birds.

On the north shore of the lake, where a clump of spruce trees stood thick and tall, a white husky sniffed the frigid air. He caught the musky taint of wolverine and his hackles rose. Throwing back his head he howled a challenge down the lake. At once a dozen other huskies sprang to their feet and joined in the wailing chorus.

Nestled snugly amongst the protecting trees near where the dogs were tethered stood a long, low cabin whose two windows stared owlishly out over Macnair Lake. Inside this cabin Angus Macnair put down a book he had been reading aloud and stepped to the nearest window. He watched the dogs intently for a moment or two, then, with a shake of his red, piratical beard, he turned to face three boys who were watching him expectantly.

“Nay, lads. ’Tisna caribou they dogs is howlin’ after. Wolves maybe . . . or a wolverine. But dinna fuss yersel’s, they caribou wull soon be comin’ back this way and then we’ll hae fresh meat again.”

He settled himself into a chair, picked up the book and continued with the lesson for the day.

Angus Macnair hardly looked the part of a schoolteacher. He was a massive and craggy-faced trapper who had lived in the Canadian northlands since leaving the Orkney Islands at the age of thirteen. The schoolroom was the Macnair cabin, a cluttered and low-ceilinged log structure redolent with the gamey smell from scores of pelts that hung drying from the rafters. Here Angus taught school for three days each week. During the remainder of the week teacher and students were absent from Macnair Lake, tending their traplines which ran for as much as fifty miles to the north, east, west and south.

As Angus continued reading, his nephew Jamie listened from his perch on a log beside the sheet-iron stove. Jamie’s blue­eyed, sharp­featured face, under a mat of unkempt blond hair, was bent over a wooden stretcher balanced on his knees, as with practiced hand he scraped the flesh side of a fox skin with a blunt knife blade.

Next to him, on the edge of a log bunk, sat Awasin Meewasin, the son of the chief of the Cree Indians who lived at nearby Thanout Lake. Awasin was lean and dark, black­eyed and black-haired, and as taut and wiry as a rabbit snare.

The third “student” was by all odds the most striking member of the trio. His amiable, high­cheekboned face would have seemed Oriental had it not been for his wide blue eyes and the tangle of flaming red hair hanging over his forehead. This was Peetyuk. His father had been a wandering English trapper named Frank Anderson. Many years earlier Anderson had gone far out into the open Barrens to the north of Macnair Lake to spend a winter trapping white fox. Here he had met and married an Eskimo woman. Shortly before the birth of his child, Anderson had gone through the spring ice of a lake and had been drowned, leaving his son Peetyuk to be raised by the Eskimos.

The boys were particularly interested in the book Angus was reading them this day. It was a history of the early Norwegian voyages to America made long before the time of Columbus. The chapter Angus had begun that morning described how, about the year 1360, a Viking expedition sailed to Greenland and then on to North America, perhaps by way of Hudson Bay. Then it told of the finding of a strangely inscribed stone at Kensington, Minnesota, in 1898. This stone bore a message in Runic, the ancient writing of the Nordic peoples.

“When the inscription was translated,” Angus continued, “it proved to be a record left by eight Swedes and twenty Norwegians on an exploring journey to the west. The runes told how the party camped one night on an island in a lake. The next day most of them went fishing, leaving ten men to guard the camp. When the fishermen returned they found their comrades dead and covered with blood. The runes also spoke of an additional ten men who had been left to guard the expedition’s ship at a place on the sea fourteen days’ distance from the scene of the massacre. The date carved on the stone was 1362 . . .”

Angus looked up. “Here’s a picture of yon stane, wi’ all its markin’s,” he told the boys. “Aye, Jamie and they look verra like the markin’s on the wee bit o’ lead Jamie and Awasin found awa out on the Barrens last summer. Fetch it to me, Jamie, and we’ll hae a look.”

Jamie jumped to his feet and from a shelf under the rafters brought down a piece of sheet lead about six inches square. The boys clustered around Angus as the trapper laid the little lead plaque on the page opposite the drawing of the Kensington Stone.

“Nae doot about it! The markin’s are the same sort. I wouldna wonder if the cache where ye found yon bit of lead was made by the self­same lot what carved yon stane. Och! ’Tis too bad we canna read the writin’, laddies.”

Jamie’s eyes shone with excitement. “If the writing is the same, then the other stuff we saw at that cache must be Norse too. I’ll bet it’s worth a fortune!”

“A fortune? Aye. But if they things ye found are truly Norse they’re worth a guid deal mair than money, lad. ’Twould maybe help to write a whole new chapter in the history of America. In any case we’ll surely make a trip out to yon place come summertime — though wi’ considerable more care than you two took.”

Jamie and Awasin had the grace to look shame­faced. They were remembering only too vividly their nearly fatal journey of the previous year when they accompanied a Chipeweyan hunting party on a visit to the Barrenlands and discovered the mysterious cache. Through their own willfulness they became separated from the Indians, lost their canoe and most of their gear on a rapid, and were then forced to spend several months struggling desperately to survive the Barrenlands winter. In the end they escaped with their lives only because they were lucky enough to encounter Peetyuk and the Eskimos.*

Angus closed the book and put it carefully on a shelf with the score or so of well­worn volumes which formed his treasured library.

“School’s over for the week,” he told the boys. “Awa’ wi’ ye the noo and do yere chores while I cook up a meal.”

When the boys had gone outside Angus stood at the window for a minute and watched them fondly. Peetyuk was busy chopping birch logs into stove lengths while Jamie and Awasin took turns wielding a long ice­chisel to open a water hole in the frozen lake. As Angus watched he pondered on the circumstances which had brought these three to his once lonely cabin.

Jamie had come to him from a southern Canadian city three years earlier when he lost both his parents in an automobile accident, leaving Angus as his only living relative. During those years Jamie had changed from a rather puny boy to a tough and competent youth who was now almost as much at home in the subarctic forests as was Awasin, who had been born there.

The farthest south Awasin had ever been was to the mission school at Pelican Narrows (a mere two hundred miles away), where he had learned to speak and read good English. But Awasin hungered after knowledge, and when Angus Macnair began schooling Jamie, Awasin easily persuaded his father, Alphonse Meewasin, to let him spend the winter months at the Macnair cabin as one of Angus’s students.

Peetyuk came to join the little group at Macnair Lake as a result of his accidental meeting with Jamie and Awasin in the Barrenlands. The Eskimo band to which Peetyuk’s mother belonged brought the two rescued boys south to safety. When the Eskimos returned to their own country they left Peetyuk in Angus Macnair’s care since they believed it was time for the boy to learn something of the world of his dead father, Frank Anderson.

By the time the woodbox and the water pails were full Angus had lunch ready. It consisted of a savory mess of barley boiled up with dried caribou meat and a slab of fat pork. Big chunks of fresh sourdough bread and pint mugs of sweet black tea went with it.

The boys lingered long over the meal, discussing plans for a summer expedition to the Barrens to revisit the strange stone cache. They might have spent the whole of the short winter afternoon talking about the projected trip if Angus had not recalled them to reality.

“Och, laddies! This is no way to make a catch of fur. Awa’ wi’ ye noo! And see to it ye bring hame a fine load o’ pelts. We’ll be wantin’ the money to pay for new canoes and a’ the other gear we’ll be needin’ for yon trip tae Eskimo Land.”

Setting the example himself, Angus pulled on his big parka, his deerskin mittens and his heavy moccasins. When he shouldered his pack and started for the door, the boys were close behind him.

In his hurry to be the first away Jamie sprinted to his cariole (the narrow toboggan which bush trappers favor), where he dumped his pack before springing to the dog­line to unleash his huskies. He had three dogs. Two were small, rangy beasts which had belonged to his uncle. The third was a huge white husky called Fang — one of two lost Eskimo dogs Awasin and Jamie had found out on the Barrens.

The yard now became a pandemonium of shouting boys and howling dogs. Peetyuk was the first to get his team harnessed, and with a derisive shout of farewell he jumped on the tail end of his long Eskimo sled and went careening off to the southward over the lake ice. Jamie and Awasin got away a few moments later. For a while their teams ran neck and neck, each straining to draw ahead of the other. But when Jamie began shouting “Chaw! Chaw!” his team obediently turned left, swinging toward the eastern side of the lake.

Angus was still methodically hitching up his dogs as the two carioles and the sled raced away from the cabin. He shook his head as he watched the wild progress of the three boys, but he was smiling.

“Juliet, lass,” he said as he tightened his lead dog’s belly strap, “they’re a’ three of them as daft as badgers.”

Juliet whined in reply, then thrust her shoulders against the traces, giving the signal to the other dogs to take a strain. Sedately she led the team out onto the ice and Angus’s cariole turned away on the long northern trail.

The chill silence of a January afternoon settled down over the cabin as a last fugitive wisp of blue smoke curled upward through the old black chimney pipe.

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