The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter XIV.

Some Excursions.

It did not take long to furnish the new abode. A camp-bed was set up in the hall, and the carpenter Mac-Nab constructed a most substantial table, around which were ranged fixed benches. A few movable seats and two enormous presses completed the furniture of this apartment. The inner room, which was also ready, was divided by solid partitions into six dormitories, the two end ones alone being lighted by windows looking to the front and back. The only furniture was a bed and a table. Mrs Paulina Barnett and Madge were installed in one which looked immediately out upon the lake. Hobson offered the other with the window in it to Thomas Black, and the astronomer took immediate possession of it. The Lieutenant’s own room was a dark cell adjoining the hall, with no window but a bull’s eye pierced through the partition. Mrs Joliffe, Mrs Mac-Nab, and Mrs Rae, with their husbands, occupied the other dormitories. These good people agreed so well together that it would have been a pity to separate them. Moreover, an addition was expected shortly to the little colony; and Mac-Nab had already gone so far as to secure the services of Mrs Barnett as god-mother, an honour which gave the good woman much satisfaction. The sledges had been entirely unloaded, and the bedding carried into the different rooms. All utensils, stores, and provisions which were not required for immediate use were stowed away in a garret, to which a ladder gave access. The winter clothing-such as boots, overcoats, furs, and skins-were also taken there, and protected from the damp in large chests. As soon as these arrangements were completed, the Lieutenant began to provide for the heating of the house.

Knowing that the most energetic measures were necessary to combat the severity of the Arctic winter, and that during the weeks of intensest cold there would be no possibility of leaving the house to forage for supplies, he ordered a quantity of fuel to be brought from the wooded hills in the neighbourhood, and took care to obtain a plentiful store of oil from the seals which abounded on the shore.

In obedience to his orders, and under his directions, the house was provided with a condensing apparatus which would receive the internal moisture, and was so constructed that the ice which would form in it could easily be removed.

This question of heating was a very serious one to the Lieutenant.

“I am a native of the Polar regions, madam,” he often said to Mrs Barnett; “I have some experience in these matters, and I have read over and over again books written by those who have wintered in these latitudes. It is impossible to take too many precautions in preparing to pass a winter in the Arctic regions, and nothing must be left to chance where a single neglect may prove fatal to the enterprise.”

“Very true, Mr Hobson,” replied Mrs Barnett; “and you have evidently made up your mind to conquer the cold; but there is the food to be thought of too.”

“Yes, indeed; I have been thinking of that, and mean to make all possible use of the produce of the country so as to economise our stores. As soon as we can, we will make some foraging expeditions. We need not think about the furs at present, for there will be plenty of time during the winter to stock the Company’s depôts. Besides, the furred animals have not got their winter clothing on yet, and the skins would lose fifty per cent. of their value if taken now. Let us content ourselves for the present with provisioning Fort Hope. Reindeer, elk, - and any wapitis that may have ventured so far north are the only game worth our notice just now; it will be no small undertaking to provide food for twenty people and sixty dogs.”

The Lieutenant loved order, and determined to do everything in the most methodical manner, feeling confident that if his companions would help him to the utmost of their power, nothing need be wanting to the success of the expedition.

The weather at this season was almost always fine, and might be expected to continue so for five weeks longer, when the snow would begin to fall. It was very important that the carpenters-should make all possible use of the interval; and as soon as the principal house was finished, Hobson set them to work to build an enormous kennel or shed in which to keep the teams of dogs. This doghouse was built at the very foot of the promontory, against the hill, and about forty yards to the right of the house. Barracks for the accommodation of the men were to be built opposite this kennel on the left, while the store and powder magazines were to occupy the front of the enclosure.

Hobson determined with almost excessive prudence to have the Factory enclosed before the winter set in. A strong fence of pointed stakes, planted firmly in the ground, was set up as a protection against the inroads of wild animals or the hostilities of the natives. The Lieutenant had not forgotten an outrage which had been committed along the coast at no great distance from Fort Hope, and he well knew how essential it was to be safe from a coup de main. The factory was therefore entirely encircled, and at each extremity of the lagoon Mac-Nab undertook to erect a wooden sentry-box commanding the coast-line, from which a watch could be kept without any danger. The men worked indefatigably, and it seemed likely that everything would be finished before the cold season set in.

In the meantime hunting parties were organised. The capture of seals being put off for a more convenient season, the sportsmen prepared to supply the fort with game, which might be dried and preserved for consumption during the bad season.

Accordingly Marbre and Sabine, sometimes accompanied by the Lieutenant and Sergeant Long, whose experience was invaluable, scoured the country daily for miles round; and it was no uncommon sight to see Mrs Paulina Barnett join them and step briskly along shouldering her gun bravely, and never allowing herself to be outstripped by her companions.

Throughout the month of August these expeditions were continued with great success, and the store of provisions increased rapidly. Marbre and Sabine were skilled in all the artifices which sportsmen employ in stalking their prey-particularly the reindeer, which are exceedingly wary. How patiently they would face the wind lest the creature’s keen sense of smell should warn it of their approach! and how cunningly they lured it on to its destruction by displaying the magnificent antlers of some former victim above the birch-bushes!

They found a useful alley (sic) in a certain little traitorous bird to which the Indians have given the name of “monitor.” It is a kind of daylight owl, about the size of a pigeon, and has earned its name by its habit of calling the attention of hunters to their quarry, by uttering a sharp note like the cry of a child.

When about fifty reindeer, or, to give them their Indian name, “caribous,” had been brought down by the guns, the flesh was cut into long strips for food, the skins being kept to be tanned and used for shoe-leather.

Besides the caribous, there were also plenty of Polar hares, which formed an agreeable addition to the larder. They were much less timorous than the European species, and allowed themselves to be caught in great numbers. They belong to the rodent family, and have long ears, brown eyes, and a soft fur resembling swan’s down. They weigh from ten to fifteen pounds each, and their flesh is excellent. Hundreds of them were cared for winter use, and the remainder converted into excellent pies by the skilful hands of Mrs Joliffe.

While making provision for future wants, the daily supplies were not neglected. In addition to the Polar bares, which underwent every variety of culinary treatment from Mrs Joliffe, and won for her compliments innumerable from hunters and workmen alike, many waterfowl figured in the bill of fare. Besides the ducks which abounded on the shores of the lagoon, large flocks of grouse congregated round the clumps of stunted willows. They belong, as their zoological name implies, to the partridge family, and might be aptly described as white partridges with long black-spotted feathers in the tail. The Indians call them willow-fowl; but to a European sportsman they are neither more nor less than blackcock (Tetrao tetrix). When roasted slightly before a quick clear fire they proved delicious.

Then there were the supplies furnished by lake and stream. Sergeant Long was a first-rate angler, and nothing could surpass the skill and patience with which he whipped the water and cast his s line. The faithful Madge, another worthy disciple of Isaak Walton was perhaps his only equal. Day after day the two sallied forth together rod in hand, to spend the day in mute companionship by the river-side, whence they were sure to return in triumph laden with some splendid specimens of the salmon tribe.

But to return to our sportsmen; they soon found that their hunting excursions were not to be free from peril. Hobson perceived with some alarm that bears were very numerous in the neighbourhood and that scarcely a day passed without one or more of them being sighted. Sometimes these unwelcome visitors belonged to the family of brown bears, so common throughout the whole “Cursed Land; “but now and then a solitary specimen of the formidable Polar bear warned the hunters what dangers they might have to encounter so soon as the first frost should drive great numbers of these fearful animals to the neighbourhood of Cape Bathurst. Every book of Arctic explorations is full of accounts of the frequent perils to which travellers and whalers are exposed from the ferocity of these animals.

Now and then, too, a distant pack of wolves was seen, which receded like a wave at the approach of the hunters, or the sound of their bark was heard as they followed the trail of a reindeer or wapiti. These creatures were large grey wolves, about three feet high, with long tails, whose fur becomes white in the winter. They abounded in this part of the country, where food was plentiful; and frequented wooded spots, where they lived in holes like foxes. During the temperate season, when they could get as much as they wanted to eat, they were scarcely dangerous, and fled with the characteristic cowardice of their race at the first sign of pursuit; but when impelled by hunger, their numbers rendered them very formidable; and from the fact of their lairs being close at hand, they never left the country even in the depth of winter.

One day the sportsmen returned to Fort Hope, bringing with them an unpleasant-looking animal, which neither Mrs Paulina Barnett nor the astronomer, Thomas Black, had ever before seen. It was a carnivorous creature of the plantigrada family, and greatly resembled the American glutton, being strongly built, with short legs, and, like all animals of the feline tribe, a very supple back; its eyes were small and horny, and it was armed with curved claws and formidable jaws.

“What is this horrid creature?” inquired Mrs Paulina Barnett of Sabine, who replied in his usual sententious manner —

“A Scotchman would call it a ‘quick-hatch,’ an Indian an ‘okelcoo-haw-gew,’ and a Canadian a ‘carcajou.”’

“And what do you call it?”

“A wolverene, ma’am,” returned Sabine, much delighted with the elegant way in which he had rounded his sentence.

The wolverene, as this strange quadruped is called by zoologists, lives in hollow trees or rocky caves, whence it issues at night and creates great havoc amongst beavers, musk-rats, and other rodents, sometimes fighting with a fox or a wolf for its spoils. Its chief characteristics are great cunning, immense muscular power, and an acute sense of smell. It is found in very high latitudes; and the short fur with which it is clothed becomes almost black in the winter months, and forms a large item in the Company’s exports.

During their excursions the settlers paid as much attention to the Flora of the country as to its Fauna; but in those regions vegetation, has necessarily a hard struggle for existence, as it must brave every season of the year, whereas the animals are able to migrate to a warmer climate during the winter.

The hills on the eastern side, of the lake were well covered with pine and fir trees; and Jaspar also noticed the “tacamahac,” a species of poplar which grows to a great height and shoots forth yellowish leaves which turn green in the autumn. These trees and larches were, however, few and sickly looking, as if they found the oblique rays of the sun insufficient to make them thrive. The black fir, or Norway spruce fir, throve better, especially when situated in ravines well sheltered from the north wind. The young shoots of this tree are very valuable, yielding a favourite beverage known in North America as “ spruce-beer.” A good crop of these branchlets was gathered in and stored in the cellar of Fort Hope. There were also the dwarf birch, a shrub about two feet high, native to very cold climates, and whole thickets of cedars, which are so valuable for fuel.

Of vegetables which could be easily grown and used for food, this barren land yielded but few; and Mrs Joliffe, who took a great interest in “ economic “ botany, only met with .two plants which were available in cooking.

One of these, a bulb, very difficult to classify, because its leaves fall off just at the flowering season, turned out to be a wild leek, and yielded a good crop of onions, each about the size of an egg.

The other plant was that known throughout North America as “Labrador tea;” it grew abundantly on the shores of the lagoon between the clumps of willow and arbutus, and formed the principal food of the Polar hares. Steeped in boiling water, and flavoured with a few drops of brandy or gin, it formed an excellent beverage, and served to economise the supply of China tea which the party had brought from Fort Reliance.

Knowing the scarcity of vegetables, Jaspar Hobson had plenty of seeds with him, chiefly sorrel and scurvy-grass (Cochlearia), the antiscorbutic properties of which are invaluable in these latitudes. In choosing the site of the settlement, such care bad been taken to find a spot sheltered from the keen blasts, which shrivel vegetation like a fire, that there was every chance of these seeds yielding a good crop in the ensuing season.

The dispensary of the new fort contained other antiscorbutics, in the shape of casks of lemon and lime juice, both of which are absolutely indispensable to an Arctic expedition. Still the greatest economy was necessary with regard to the stores, as a long period of bad weather might cut off the communication between Fort Hope and the southern stations.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24