Au Pays de l’Ours Noir: Part 9

Excerpt from Au Pays de L”Ours Noir

Dispatches of a Missionary 1897 by Father

 Adrien Gabriel Morice



Translated by Neil Wylie and Garry Girvan

The Carrier in the Quesnel area

When I was leaving them (the Carrier in Quesnel) a difficulty presented itself. I was to carry on my mission further upriver to the Blackwater. Who would take me there? A Journey on horseback is a pleasure to the Indian, but when it is a matter of paddling or poling up a torrent like the Fraser and clambering the length of rapids like that at Cottonwood Canyon (even) the bravest hesitate.
Nevertheless I quickly found two good oarsmen and persuaded them that to give to the priest is to give to God who will repay a hundredfold. These motives of faith are really necessary to undertake a job like the one I offered without (any) other remuneration. It was the month of July, and you would have to see the rapids as it is in that season in order to get an exact idea of what it it like. There is certainly no White man daring enough to venture there.
Imagine a river carrying five or six times as much water as the Seine at Paris being suddenly shut in by two granite mountains which narrow its bed almost by half. Scatter at the bottom of this gorge some enormous blocks of rocks, and see the result; the waves bounce off, banging and breaking against each other, throwing in the air billows of foam which fall back to repeat the process a few paces further down and produce between the two cliffs such a deafening roar that the voice of the man next to you is lost in space, cannot reach your ear even when he is shouting hard enough to split his lungs.

Such is the rapids which my two devoted companions had to get up while I was watching them maneuver  and praying God to keep them from all harm. The top of the mountain cliff had been hewed by the pick-axe and there I perched.

Naturally the pole and paddle can hardly serve in chasms like that: the tow line is the only thing that can pull up your canoe which goes its way dancing and pirouetting on the waves and threatens at each instant to capsize. But to tow a canoe one has to land, and I need hardly say that there is no sandy shore, no convenient bank. The Indian must move like the chamois and cling as best he can to the crevices in the rocks which line the raging flood, while his partner who remains in the boat prevents it from smashing to smithereens against the rocks by keeping it off with the paddle.

The rapids at Cottonwood Canyon is not less than  half a mile long. It took us a half day of superhuman effort to get up (them) and about three minutes to go down. Going down, unless it is in autumn, one travels generally with two canoes, making the portage with one canoe to the foot of the rapids and using it to catch the other which is pushed in the water. Our traveling canoes being of strong wood and not of bark as they are east of the (Rocky) Mountains, one only makes this portage at the last extremity. The bark canoes used here are those which the hunters make for a season, while going around their hunting territories.
The population of Blackwater is small but at the time of my visit it  was composed of good Christians. There were some who were not at the rendezvous because a party of them were about ten miles away in the interior with a young girl who was dying. I had to go and attend to her. Her relations and friends took advantage of my being there to reconcile themselves to God, for nearly all the Carriers are baptized.
The return journey to Quesnel was as quick and enjoyable as the first part has been slow and laborious. We were going down rapidly carried away by the flood which had given us so much opposition on the way up when one of our boatmen signed to us to be silent and pointed to a black dot on the shore a quarter of a mile down river. His argus-like eyes had spotted a bear.
Immediately the oars were put without noise into the boat, for if Martin (the bear) has not very good eyesight, he has an acutely fine ear to make up for it.
 An instant and the animal plunged into the undergrowth beside the river.
 “He heard us“, says Michael, “but it is a pity we could surely do with his meat”.
 “But no, there he is back again,” whispers his companion.
Indeed the bear appeared again, and even went to the water to cross the river. The faces on my men were expansive, as the spider which feels sure of its prey.
We let the brown beast get as far as the middle then paddle hard to reach him.  He then sees the danger but it is too late. With the rifle held almost at point blank, Michael delivers the shot.
 A curl of blood mixes with the yellowish water of the river showing that it is hit. Meanwhile the current has brought our craft close to the monster who is soon less than a foot from me.
 “Lltchut, Lltchut ouet theutilloel! Catch him! catch him!, he is going to sink!” shouted Michael.
 I had never been close to a bear this size, and I admit for a moment  that I hesitated to seize him. But  so as not to let him sink to the bottom, I put out my hand to get him. In the blink of an eye  the animal had raised its head, and as the natives say, it was within a finger’s breadth of  snapping my hand. He was only slightly wounded in the neck.
“If he had got you, you would be gone,” cried my two companions in chorus. “In the state of rage he was in he would not have let you go easily and he would have had us all capsized.”
 While Michael reloads his rifle, the other oarsman tries to finish off the bear with his paddle. Wasted effort, the animal just shreds it, then taking hold of our canoe, he sinks his terrible teeth on either side of the zinc which strengthens the bow. It took no less that four shots to persuade him to resists no more.
 Once again I reckoned that the missionary was protected by a special Providence.


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