Nevertheless, human activity is never more intense than in winter: wearing snowshoes, without which they would sink deep into the snow, hunters and travelers move rapidly across loose powdery snow; I join a drawing and a description of this indispensable item we owe to the natives' skill and which is a true masterpiece if one cares to study it in detail: the snowshoe consists of an elongated frame made of a single strip of wood, curved round and fastened together at the ends to form a long sharp tail. The snowshoe is more than one meter long and thirty centimeters wide.
The space within the frame is filled with a webbing of thin taut leather strips, leaving a small square opening; finally, strong leather thongs are fixed to the frame. The total weight of a pair of snowshoes is one kilogram only. One wears the snowshoe by placing one's foot on the center of the webbing, with the toes inside the square opening, so they are free to play; the thongs are used to fasten the foot in that position and do not allow it any other movement than the snowshoe's, except for the heel, which can move in the vertical plane. The aft part of the snowshoe is heavier than the fore part: it drags in the snow, thus alleviating the walker's exertion.
Thanks to this footwear, the foot presses onto the snow through an area fifteen times larger than its own and sinks in only a few centimeters into powdery snow. In order for the feet to play more freely, they are enveloped into several layers of woolen cloth maintained by a native moccasin, which is a deerskin well fastened by laces and totally impervious to humidity and cold. When snow has covered the swamps, rivers, brush, ditches, Canadians go everywhere they need, carrying up to forty kilos of various supplies and covering, when necessary, eighty kilometers in a day, this even despite the fact that snow lacks consistency during the first winter months; later, when the snow has packed down and the trails are hardened, one can use a sled to carry his load: the product of his hunt or others, by harnessing dogs to a simple wooden plate. At night, camping consists in digging into the snow down to the ground and settling down in this more or less roomy hole, after covering it with branches. This quickly-built abode is very warm indeed; in fact, one lights up a small fire in there and the hunter falls asleep, doubling up under his blanket. These customs have in fact been handed down to us by the natives.
The spring heat quickly follows winter, the ground surfaces once more and with it not only vegetation but a myriad of insects; this is a paradise for entomologists; I was lucky enough to meet some of them in those wastes, and they told me about the fantastic number of varieties of moths they happened to capture in a single night. Flies, which abound, do not spare man, this in the form of mosquitoes, black flies, and fire flies. Fortunately, these insects seldom show up in clearings and only torment wood runners, who indeed suffer very much in summer.
Indians have left few traces of their presence in these thick forests. We sometimes came upon an isolated wigwam in some natural clearing or a small village, next to a wider lake which provided them with fish, which is their favorite staple diet. We had the opportunity to visit one of those villages on the shores of Whitefish Lake, which communicates with Lake Huron through Georgian Bay. Even in full peacetime, these savages instinctively guard against a surprise attack, and the village was stepped up along the flank of a peninsula.
We had to cross a branch of the lake, this thanks to a canoe that we were lucky to see going by, driven by a Canadian hunter. Our arrival was immediately signaled by the barking of a pack of dogs of all sizes and races, and it was not the least gallantry on our part to brave the rage of these wild beasts in order to reach the wigwams. The village seemed uninhabited since, despite the dogs' howling, nobody showed up; yet the smoke that emerged from the hollow top of those conical huts proved that they were occupied. Their inhabitants did not change anything to whatever they were doing, even when we entered; their indifference seemed extraordinary; not a word for us, not a move, not even a glance; this was, fully, the Red Indians' so often described impassiveness; our small presents consisting of tobacco, cigars and small change were accepted but with no obvious sign of gratitude: the furniture inside these birch bark huts was a curious mix of old Red Indian style and of products of our industry: a bow next to a flint-stone gun, a cast iron cooking pot next to their own type of crude pot, birch bark baskets, artistically woven and full of blueberries (the most abundant fruit here, which feeds red and white men as well as many birds during the cold season), some deer and beaver pelts waiting for traders to come by.
The customs of these Red Indians do not seem to have changed during our already long occupation, and they hardly know a few words of our tongue. Our cultivation methods do not really tempt them, they have no cattle, except their dogs which help them hunt, pull their sleds, act as guards, feed on peelings and bones, and are themselves eaten from time to time; they are thus about one hundred thousand over all of Canada's vast territory, and they are becoming progressively extinct, just as their buffaloes, so abundant and on which they lived, already have. The misery of these Indians has forced the government to give them some supplies each year and to allocate them exclusive territories, but we have here a sample of the human race that will not take long to disappear and will only survive in the form of half-breeds, since the white man's blood, particularly in the North-West, has been mixing with theirs for a long time now through the contact of trappers and wood runners. These half-breeds work and reproduce.
When one reads the descriptions of the first explorers who came to those parts, one is surprised by the abundance and relative fearlessness of the big game; the Red Indians, together with the bears, lived in affluence and during centuries only had to sharpen their hunting and fishing skills while, as far as agriculture was concerned, small corn fields sufficed to meet their needs. All their intelligence focused on those limited occupations made them become unequaled hunters, to the extent that they seemed gifted of senses highly superior to ours when it came to tracking game; we have seen how perfect their snowshoes are, but in order to travel over water, their canoe is just as remarkable; two men can easily carry over long distances a canoe big enough to accommodate eight men and their small packs; this canoe is made of thin birch bark pieces sewn together with strips of the same material. Resting on a light wooden frame, the joints are lined with resin. In such a frail craft, they paddle upstream currents that are so fast that our own boats cannot clear them; they cross lakes that are sometimes as rough as the sea; I would add that, despite their skill, they sometimes capsize, and since the waters of these lakes are very cold, they are doomed if the shore lies at a certain distance, since the best of swimmers is soon helpless, seized by the cold.
Fishing is naturally less difficult than tracking game, this being particularly due to the great abundance of fish in the transparent waters of these lakes and rivers; our race which, thanks to its firearms, has reduced the numbers of Canada's game to the point that it has now ceased to be a major resource in the vicinity of populated areas has, on the other hand, developed the exploitation of their fishing grounds to the highest level; indeed, in 1891, the number of Canadian fishermen ran above 65,000, this including sea and fresh water fishing, and their production grossed one hundred million francs. Canada's salmons and lobsters arrive in great amounts, not mentioning purely marine fish.
One wonders how the lakes' so limpid water can feed the trouts, white fish and others that proliferate there, but an experiment we conducted in the waters of Lake Erie seems to clarify the subject: Mr. Jules de Guerre, my colleague from the Paris Société de Géographie and a natural scientist, had given us a conical, closely-knit silk net that my son trailed at the back of the canoe, while a heavy stone maintained it at a certain depth. After a few minutes, the pointed bottom end of the net was filled with a jelly-like material entirely formed of microscopic creatures; we pulled the net from the water, poured this living jelly into a small tube filled with alcohol, and shut in, for the return trip, those creatures which, though invisible to the naked eye, are nevertheless, according to Mr. de Guerre, full-fledged crustacea. I wondered if this fish food would not be suitable to man and if future gourmets would not order full dishes of these new-style lobsters; the American lakes are large and would provide abundant supply.
It is well known that seal hunting has raised disputes between Canada's Englishmen and the United States Americans: the issue is that seals spend the winter on Canada's western coasts from where they migrate massively, in springtime, to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, this in order to spend the warm season there and breed their young. It is then that the Americans, owners of the Pribilof Islands, kill these animals, while the English only hunt them in the open ocean during their migration. We have collected information about this hunt, which we provide here to the keener readers: it is around February that the seals swim northward in thick herds, remaining in the open ocean; they pass by the coasts of British Columbia, all along to the shores of Alaska: this is where the hunting schooners are waiting with boats that spend all day at sea with a crewman, Chinese or Indian, and a white man at the bow, armed with a Winchester rifle. The sea is generally rough and the Indian must primarily maintain the balance with his oars. The shooter watches the surface of the sea around him, and as soon as the head of a seal emerges for air, if it is at a convenient range, it is shot; however, since the boat and the seal are constantly in motion, the result of the shot is uncertain in all cases: dead, wounded or missed, the seal disappears. The Indian steers the boat in the direction where the seal had emerged, while the shooter grabs a harpoon: if the seal is dead or seriously wounded, it will sink slowly and one has time to haul it back to the surface with the harpoon; however, one must hurry, because a dead seal will sink very deep. This hunt destroys a great number of animals which are lost, and if the hunting schooners were allowed to follow the herds all the way to the Bering Strait were they regroup, the seals would become extinct within a few years.
As for the Indians, their hunting procedure is different; they only sail out at sea when the latter is calm, as they know that the seals also take advantage of this situation to come to the surface to rest and sleep, which they cannot do by rough sea; in order to sleep, the seal adopts a special position: it floats on its back, crossing its front flippers on its chest; the water level reaches its chin, and it sleeps so profoundly that the arrow or the blade never misses it.
The seals are skinned as they are brought onboard the schooners, and their silky pelts, salted and piled up, end up on our markets where at present they cost one hundred francs each.
Seal hunting is easier at the Pribilof Islands: the natives disembark on the islands au jour, i.e. around two a.m., and scare away the seals which unsuspectingly flop towards other natives who shoot them or hit them on the head with a club. Fortunately, the number of animals to be killed each year has been limited, as they already have disappeared from the South Seas, Cape Horn and elsewhere, to the extent that nine tenths of these pelts now come from the Bering Sea.
The fur seal is two meters long and weighs two to three hundred kilos; it is not dangerous to man because of its lack of agility on land, but one should beware of its mouth with strong teeth. Anyway, this defenseless animal is destined to disappear. There were millions of them twenty years ago in the Bering Sea only; nowadays, they are estimated to number less than one million. The English ladies, who are the greatest consumers of this quite elegant fur – when well prepared and well dyed – will be very saddened indeed by this disappearance, and one wishes that, at least in order to retain this article of clothing, the two great English and American peoples do not go to the extent of bombarding each other as they almost did recently...
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