Rainier Low Key

March, 1797

When Arnaud began to snowshoe his trapline early in the morning, the weather was calm and warm—warm, that is, for early March this far north. One mile into his eight mile snowshoe trudge he sensed the change in the atmosphere. Arnaud, wise in the ways of the northern forest, knew a storm would engulf him before he made it back. He felt not fear but confidence.

It was a balancing act. Timid men did not trap enough furs to buy supplies or provide themselves enough forest materials and meat. Daring men got caught in storms or had mortal accidents. But then again, in the great virgin forests of the North American continent, even the balance point could be fatal.

Arnaud was an experienced voyageur who had given up the long paddles deep into Canada, choosing instead to trap two hundred miles from the fort at Grand Portage. At thirty-one he was older than most of the French who worked for the English Northwest Fur Company. Arnaud had no thought of what had happened to most of the Voyageurs who had come here ahead of him.

Because he had sewn his fur clothing himself as taught to him by older voyageurs who learned from the native peoples, Arnaud trusted the fur to keep him warm and dry. His hut was waiting for his return, well-built and well-stocked, as taught to him by the Ojibwe, among whom he sometimes lived, but not this winter. Arnaud preferred being alone during the hardest part of the winter. He would trap until the thaw came. Then he would return for Rendezvous at the fort on Lake Superior at the lower end of Le Grand Portage. At Rendezvous would gather trappers, Ojibwe, voyageurs, and coureurs de bois. In the previous two winters he had trapped deep into the Canadian forest. This year he stayed closer to the fort. And close to his Ojibwe wife.

Arnaud had been told about the new boundary drawn along the Pigeon River and farther west. It was of no concern to him. As far as he could see, it was a border between the English and other English, which made no sense. The outside world had never made much sense to him. The forest—now that made sense. He had learned how to obey its rules. Every year younger men, mostly French, arrived and were sent into the forest with voyageurs and coureurs de bois. The forest thinned their numbers. Arnaud had survived and was proud of his survival.

The storm hit when he was at the far end of the loop of the trapline. Fortune was with him, as it sometimes was. And sometimes was not. The fierce wind and assaulting snow and ice pellets were at his back for his return to the hut. In more good fortune, three of his traps did their job—an otter, a weasel, and a beaver, which was the most prized of all. Despite the white-out of the storm, he knew where he was every step of the way. To not know where you were in a white out was to die. Moving slowly, not rushing, was the key. Impatience was a killer. When his snowshoes landed on the curving lakeshore, he knew, although he could not see them, that two tall islands stood to his left. Now he had to slow his pace even more to find the trail that led up to his hut. Inattention was a killer. By keeping his right side in the brush he sensed the opening. He took off his snowshoes and climbed the forty feet up onto the cleared platform above the lake. He stood and took several deep breaths, which were needed after the climb and the mental effort of finding his way back in the storm.

The fire was out in his hut. He could not find any embers with which to relight the fire. Never mind. As always, he had ample timber and dry wood stored in the hut. After the flint and steel set the spark and after the tinder had ignited the dry twigs and after the twigs had ignited branches and after the larger wood was blazing, the wind drew the smoke quickly through the small hole in the roof. When the fire warmed the confined space of the hut enough for him to work in bare hands, he skinned and stretched the three new pelts.

As he cooked today’s beaver tail, he chewed on venison jerky. Despite the wind buffeting the birch bark of the hut, he knew it would stand. He had been a diligent student of the Ojibwe, a people he admired, especially now that he had an Ojibwe daughter down by the fort. He thought of her as only Ojibwe, never as any part French. Late storms such as this one could be fierce but seldom lasted for as long as did the January and February storms. In any case, his cache of pelts was good. He did not need to press hard for more.

Patience. Remember. Patience.

During the night as he lay wrapped in fur blankets by the fire, he dreamed of France, of Les Cevennes, the high hills in the center of France where he was raised in poverty. His family was Protestant. The old Catholic-Protestant feud still simmered, although not in open warfare as he had in recent past. The Protestants were the ones who lived at a disadvantage. He dreamed of his mother and father hardened by their years of toil to feed their large family, large families being necessary to farm their poor land and to labor for the gentry. As the oldest son, Arnaud was expected to stay and work to feed his siblings, the number of which he could not remember. Instead, Arnaud had run off to the Atlantic ports, where he first heard of Canada. He signed onto a ship sailing to to the West Indies, from where he signed onto a British ship sailing to Quebec, where he jumped ship. In another year at seventeen years old he helped paddle a freighter canoe up to Lake Superior and then back to Montreal. The next year he paddled back to the Northwest Fur Company outpost at Grand Portage and stayed. At five feet four inches and beginning to layer muscle onto his thick-boned frame, he was an ideal candidate to become a voyageur. He was, as even he knew, too ignorant to become a coureurs de bois, the men who went far inland to trade goods for pelts with the many native tribes they met.

Arnaud did not know he was approaching the age of his parents when he ran away. He had no thought for his family, even after his dreams, which did not linger long after he awoke. Life to Arnaud and to the voyageurs and white trappers was only about The Now. Except for the learned survival skills and their escapes from poverty, abuse, or the law, the past was past. No one asked or cared about anyone’s past. Arnaud, like all the white men in the forest, looked forward only as far as Rendezvous. Life was short for the French woodsmen and long for the English factors. So it had been in Les Cevennes for the peasants and the gentry. So it would always be.

The storm blew for three days. Arnaud went out only to relieve himself and to gather dry and dead wood a few hundred yards off in the forest. The immediate area had been picked clean by Arnaud and the Ojibwe band who had camped with him last fall. This site had long been used by the Ojibwe and those who came before them. Arnaud cut blazes on trees to find his way back in the white-out with arm loads of wood.

He had no worry about food. A hindquarter of a deer hung in the hut. Jerky was in decent supply, but he would have to build up more before he paddled out. His tea was low, enough for a month, if he rationed it. His flour sack held only a few last cups of flour. A few times before he had before survived on only meat.

When the storm ended, he attended his three traplines to poor results. Then suddenly, as it rarely did, spring hit early and fast. Trails, lakes, and rivers became mush. Because spring awoke hormones in the animals, trapping would be good for awhile, but he had to be cautious on the melting lakes and streams. On one last hunting trip to the two islands he shot a young buck. The meat would be tough this time of year, but he could jerk it to keep for the trip out. With his flour and tea gone, he lived off the unappetizing meat of the trapped animals.

As the lake ice melted, he daydreamed of his wife and daughter. If the thaw held, he would soon paddle north to the Pigeon River and arrive a few weeks ahead of Rendezvous. He began to bundle up his pelts in rope-tied heavy blocks. When he lifted the first one, he felt a pull in his groin. On his way in last fall, he had felt the same pull when carrying the lighter packs of supplies. Twice in December he had felt slight spasms in his groin. Having felt none after that, he assumed he had healed over the winter.

Whatever. It was one more reason to be patient, to be slow and careful.

While skinning out his last hide, a young fox, his mind drifted off to the fort. His knife slipped off a leg bone and sliced into the top of his thumb, a fortunate place in which to be cut on the hand. On the front of the thumb it would have interfered with his paddling. Yet again he was reminded how dangerous were impatience and inattention.

After his canoe had spent the winter buried in snow, it had to be repaired. Two sections of birch bark needed replacement. The seams needed to be resealed with pitch, which was easy to collect in spring.

The thaw lasted. In fits and starts. But it had lasted. The thaw freed the lake of ice. All was ready. It was time. The hut he left in place for anyone to use. Maybe he would come back here next year. Maybe he would head farther west.

Favoring his left side, the side of the groin pull, he was slow carry his hides and supplies down to the lake. When the canoe was loaded and balanced, he paddled from the shore. More good fortune: the groin injury did not hamper his paddling. It was on the many portages where he would be slowed down. For now, his spirits were high. He was on his way. As he paddled he sang French songs he had learned at Rendezvous. He had a good singing voice, except it was hoarse from months of little use. He sang and paddled the few miles to the first rock painting. He ignored the images but used the painting to indicate his first turn over a small rapids into a river which flowed a few hundred yards into another lake. In the first three days he advanced forty-five miles.

On his fourth day, when he passed another wall of rock paintings, he knew he had reached the tricky part of navigation. From his lake-level view in the canoe all small bays looked the same, all stands of trees looked alike. Then he found the right small bay and the right stand of white pines. As he limped through the several carries across the eight-hundred-yard portage, he was confident of both his route and his progress.

That night, as he slept under his canoe, the cold rains came. Rain continued the next day with a stiff northeast breeze cutting across his bow. The portages were even more dangerous with their slick mud over frozen soil. Because of two long portages, he made only six miles that day. He was not concerned. The forest put up these encumbrances. A man pressed on. A man was patient. When he did reach the Pigeon, it would be an easy ride to the upper end of Le Grand Portage, where he could find help to carry his packs the nine miles down to the fort.

After relenting for the night, the rain returned the next morning mixed with ice pellets. The next portage was short. After two carries, he lifted the heaviest pack of pelts and headed up the trail. He did not see the rock under its thin coating of ice. His foot slipped; down he crashed. The pack crushed him to the ground. He almost heard the tear in his groin. Leaving the pack where it fell, he drug the canoe up to it and then gathered his supplies from both ends of the portage, which took two hours. Holed up under his canoe, he managed to start a fire with the dry tinder and wood he carried in a pack. Once the fire was going, he used it to dry out wood he gathered from near the canoe. Off and on he dozed, as the pain allowed. He would rest tomorrow. Another two days lost did not matter. He would still make it to the fort early. He would spend the summer with his wife and daughter healing up.

In the middle of the night his lower abdomen was gripped by searing pain, from which he awoke and then passed out. In the morning he awoke with the fire burned down to nothing. As he tried to gather wood, he vomited blood, on which he choked. Coughing out the blood increased the pain. He crawled back under the canoe and passed out.

In the middle of the day he awoke, unaware the rain had stopped. He did not sense the hypothermia in his body. He lay on his side, his vision blurry.

He slept.

An hour later he awoke only briefly.

In the summer two foraging Ojibwe men found his disarticulated bones. Forest animals, as is their right, had claimed him and the meat he carried.

Two weeks later the two men brought Arnaud’s packs of skins to the fort for trade. They received the poor exchange always given to the Native Americans, but what they received would help sustain their band through the next winter when they camped in a clearing above a lake with two small islands.

©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017