by Robert A. Poirier
Baraka Books, 2013
The river flowed unnoticed for thousands of years. One day, a group of people pulled their canoes up onto its shore. Was it to bathe, or to fish, or perhaps to bury one of their own? Whatever the reason, the people stayed. After they pulled their canoes ashore and set up camp, no one had a desire to leave.
It wasn’t long before someone gave the river a name. They called it Àndeg Zibi. Nobody knew why. That was the river’s name and, according to the elders, Àndeg Zibi had always been the river’s name.
From that time on, the river was a source of food and water, a means of transportation, and its shores a quiet place of meditation for the people of Àndeg Zibi, or the Àndeg Zibi Anishinàbek. It was not a sudden thing. An occasional white trapper was seen paddling upstream. Rifle shots were heard in the distance. Early one morning, they heard the ring of an axe coming through the forest. A dirt road soon appeared along the shores of the Àndeg Zibi, on their side of the river. Groups of young men arrived, walking or driving carts pulled by horses. Soon after came men and women in horse-drawn wagons. The wagons were heavily loaded and the metal-shod wheels left deep tracks in the road. The settlers moved slowly along the dirt road and the Àndeg Zibi Anishinàbek examined them as they would some strange, new animal.
New settlers arrived almost daily. They set up their camps a little more than two miles north of the community. Still, life along the Àndeg Zibi remained relatively unchanged for the Àndeg Zibi Anishinàbek. The young men paddled upriver during the spawning time of the pickerel and some went fishing for bass in the deep-water places along the river. During the fall, hunting parties paddled their long bark canoes north in search of moose for their winter food supply. Winter was trapping time and young men travelled to their trap lines on snowshoes, with packs on their backs or hauling supplies on narrow toboggans northward on the frozen Àndeg Zibi. They spent weeks, sometimes months, in the bush and some stayed there all winter, returning just before breakup in the spring.
But changes do occur, sometimes so slowly that we fail to notice them. Gradually, changes were brought to bear upon the Àndeg Zibi Anishinàbek. That they could no longer leave their canoes without worry of them being stolen was a minor detail. That they had to portage their canoes across the rusty railroad tracks, a recent addition to the settlers’ way of life, and then walk through the muddy dirt road before setting their canoes down in the water, was not a major issue either. Nor was the proximity of the new settlement to their community a source of trouble. It wasn’t long before some of these new settlers came to visit their Algonquin neighbours, bearing gifts of food and tools in exchange for tanned hides and moccasins, and especially for the Anishinàbe snowshoes.
The new settlement became a village, with people building houses on both sides of the river. They had named their little village, Kitegewaki, or Farmland. Most of the newly arrived people were farmers, or would be as soon as the land was cleared. A store was built along the east bank of the Àndeg Zibi. It was only a matter of time before Anishinàbe customers walked through its doors. They came to trade their winter stock of furs for items that, until then, were available only at the trading post many paddling days south. Now, they purchased rifles and tents, heavy wool blankets, and axes as well as files to keep the blades sharp, and all of these were just a short canoe trip from their homes.
One item had changed the lives of many of the younger men in the Ándeg Zibi community. It was not something that could be purchased at the store in Kitigewaki. As a rule, no one ever paid for this particular item. Most often it began as a gift from one person to another. Like everything else that occurred there, this ritual was increasingly repeated from one year to the next. One day, no one remembers when, one of the white settlers visited the community carrying a furry bundle in his arms, a puppy, which he offered as a gift to one of the children. The puppy grew up, strong and friendly, and soon parents of other children went looking for similar puppies in the village of Kitigewaki. In no time at all, the community was host to a large number of these furry animals that the white settlers referred to as wolf dogs. They were, in fact, Alaskan Malamutes, the same breed of dog that their Anishinàbe cousins used for travelling across the barren ice fields. Even though change was normally slow in coming to the Àndeg Zibi community, the transition from men hauling toboggans to riding a basket sled pulled by a team of Alaskan Malamutes was a fairly rapid one. The young men had seen some of the white trappers with their dogs in harness, hauling supplies to their winter camps. The leather harness, its thick round collar stuffed with deer hair, was simple enough to put together. There were expert snowshoe men in the community who easily copied the basket sleds for any man who wanted one.
Another major change occurred among the Àndeg Zibi Anishinàbek. This change affected all but the eldest members of the community who had no interest whatsoever in learning the language of the white settlers. Before a second generation of Anishinàbe sled-dog handlers came to be, the white settlers of Kitigewaki bestowed upon the lovely, gentle Àndeg Zibi, the name, Crow River. Most people referred to the river as, simply, the Crow. It was not completely disrespectful. After all, Àndeg Zibi is “Crow River” in the language of the Algonquin people.
The elders of the community continued to snowshoe quietly westward to set traps and snares for both meat and furs. But most of the trapping was done further north. These trappers were the younger men and women of the community who travelled by dog team. Sometimes, two or more couples would team up on their trap lines, sharing a canvas tent and equipment and returning to the community after short stays in the bush.
Armand and Tina Towahibì were very successful trappers. Armand was especially well-known for his ability as a sled-dog trainer. He and Tina had a team of Malamutes that were not only strong brutes but extremely fast as well. Armand’s best friend, Johnny Kinòje, had raised a team with the same bloodline as Armand’s dogs. In fact, his first two puppies came from Armand’s lead dog, Meetik.
Armand and Tina always trapped together. They did everything together. Sometimes, they invited their good friends, Johnny Kinòje and his wife Evangeline, to join them on the trail as their trap lines were close to one another. They travelled on the Crow, each going to their respective trap lines and, at day’s end, they met back at the prospector tent they had set up previously, somewhere between their two lines. Soon after their arrival at the camp, Armand and Johnny went about cutting and splitting firewood. Then the dogs were fed. Tina and Evangeline feathered balsam branches for the camp bed and, after, they prepared supper on a tin stove. During supper, they talked about the day’s work, how well the dogs had behaved or, if not, what had to be done to change things. Johnny told some of his famous stories. He was known as the best storyteller in the whole community. All four stretched out on the canvas tarpaulin covering the balsam boughs, listening to Johnny’s story and drinking a last cup of tea. And then, it was time; Armand lowered the wick on the oil lamp as the others quickly slipped into their sleeping bags. On a clear night, the light from the stars created a soft glow inside the tent, a shade of darkness seen in no other place. There were puffing sounds coming from the tin stove, a last piece of wood thrown onto the fire before they turned in for the night. They might hear the occasional ring of metal chain as one of the Malamutes stood up to stretch or change positions in its sleeping place on the stake chain. A dog might yawn or more than likely, curl its lips back to expose threatening fangs and growl a warning to its nearest neighbours. When the two couples camped together, there were fourteen Malamutes on the stake line. This made for a very long chain stretched between two trees. It also created a situation that could lead to trouble, especially if Meetik or any of the other female dogs happened to be in a loving way. On very cold nights, they could hear the poplar trunks cracking and the river ice expanding and producing the haunting sounds that draw the attention of even the most experienced camper.
* * *
One morning, Johnny and Evangeline said goodbye to her mother and they joined Armand and Tina in the dog yard behind their cabin. All four worked quickly, preparing for another trip north on the Crow. It would probably be their last trip of the season. It had been a good year and, already, they had a lot of quality furs. This would be their last camping trip before spring breakup. Both couples were looking forward to being together in the bush. The dogs were in excellent shape, having covered many miles on the trap lines and the frozen Crow River.
On this particular night, the sun had set well below the spruce and pine and the undulating blackness of the mountains to the west. It was dark but when there was a break in the clouds, the flat, snow-covered Àndeg Zibi was suddenly lit up by a full moon and soft shadows appeared along its shores.
Just above the western shoreline, two human figures sat silhouetted before a fire. The dry, dead spruce cracked and spewed parts of itself into the night beyond. The man and the woman sat on their snowshoes in the snow with their feet stretched out towards the fire.
“What will we do?” the woman said.
“Eat,” the man answered.
“I mean, after.”
The man stirred stew in a large metal cup. He looked at the woman.
“Eat,” he said. “Tomorrow, we head back.”
“But the others!” the woman sobbed.
The man ate from his cup with a spoon. When he had finished, he rinsed the cup with snow and poured tea into it from a blackened tea pail sitting next to the fire. The woman wiped a hand across her nose. She had stopped crying. She picked up her cup and spoon and began to eat.
“It’s cold,” she said.
“Put it back in the pot.”
The woman lifted the cover off the pot. Steam arose from within it. She emptied the stew from her cup into the pot and moved the pot closer to the fire.
“Here,” the man said. He held the tea pail by its wire handle and poured tea into her cup.
It was a quiet night. Only the fire made a sound. Sometimes, they heard a poplar cracking.
“Do you think we have enough wood?”
“Don’t worry about the wood. There’s plenty of wood.”
“What if we fall asleep? The fire will go out.”
“What do you mean, nothing? Don’t you worry about anything, Armand?”
The man reached into a canvas bag. He did not look into the bag but felt around inside it as he stared towards the fire.
“Here, soak these,” he said.
The dried dates that were hard from the cold softened in the hot tea. The woman chewed the dates and turned her head away from the smoke of the fire blowing her way. When she looked back towards the fire, the man was gone.
“Armand?” she called.
The man did not answer but she could hear the short lengths of chain as the dogs stood up and tried pulling away from the confines of the stake line. Often, she had watched Armand checking the dogs before going to bed. There was a rapport between Armand and his seven Malamutes and the extreme contrasts in the dogs had always intrigued her; the loving canine rubbing up against the man as he stroked it caressingly and, then, the bared threatening fangs as Armand moved on to the next dog on the line.
Seven Malamutes, all with tails curved above their backs, vying for the man’s attention, to respond affectionately to his touch or to snarl and tear at fur and flesh of their teammates on the line.
Armand stayed a little longer caressing Meetik with his bared hand. When he finished, he turned his back on the dogs and urinated on the snow. It had been a long day. Armand was tired. Both Armand and Tina were tired. It was going to be a very cold night and they were tired; that alone could be dangerous.
“Yes,” she replied.
Tina scraped at the bottom of her cup with the spoon. The juice from the stew had frozen around the inside of the cup. Armand threw two large chunks of wood onto the fire. He walked past the fire and disappeared into the darkness. The two new chunks ignited together and, in the soft light that they spread out over the snow, Tina could see Armand and the sled and each dog’s harness spread out on the trail just as they had left them. Armand bent over the sled. He removed the elastic ties and peeled back the canvas tarpaulin.
“Tina, come here,” he said.
The woman stood up and walked through the deep snow to the sled. She was tired and just lifting her feet out of the deep snow to walk had winded her. Armand handed her one edge of a folded groundsheet and motioned that he wanted her to spread it out on the snow. Onto this canvas sheet, they began to unload the contents of the sled; canvas bags of food, kitchen utensils, oil lamp and fuel, sleeping bag, shovel blade and handle. He slipped the shovel handle into its blade, inserted the holding pin, and handed the shovel to the woman.
“Here,” he said. “Make a hole just big enough.”
Tina understood. They had done this before, in spring, when the evenings were only cool and they had been too tired, or too late to set up a tent. Now, there was no tent. They had been using Johnny’s tent on this trip. The tent and stove had been packed in Johnny’s sled.
Armand walked ahead of her towards the fire. He picked up the axe and disappeared into the thick evergreen forest. Tina began to shovel. The snow came out in solid chunks and she piled them close around the hole. As she worked, the ring of Armand’s axe came through the darkness to her. The hole was finished when Armand returned. He dumped the load of balsam boughs by the hole and walked back into the bush. He worked steadily, cutting branches in the dark and thinking of nothing but what he had to do next. That was all there was. He had been caught like this before. Do one thing at a time, in its time, then the next thing when its time comes.
Tina had done a good job. The branches were well feathered, from the front of the hole nearest to the fire towards the back. The aroma of crushed balsam boughs mingled with the smoke from the fire and together they gave the hole some semblance of a place of comfort and security. Armand dropped his second load of branches by the hole and Tina immediately began removing the softer green branches from the woody stems. This last bundle was enough to complete the balsam bed.
Armand returned to the sled. He removed the canvas tarpaulin, the one that had covered all of their supplies in the sled, and dragged it across the snow to the fire.
“Here,” he said, handing Tina two points of the tarpaulin.
Tina stood with her back to the fire. She held her arms outstretched, keeping the tarpaulin open. Armand stood above and behind the hole. He pulled the tarpaulin taut and, together, they let it drop to the bed of branches. The tarp was doubled. After they had placed it such that it overlapped the back wall of the snow hole and its folded end covered the foot of the balsam bed, Armand peeled one layer forward, towards the fire. He handed it to Tina who pulled the section towards herself and folded it neatly across the opening of the hole. This part would be used later, to keep frost from forming on the sleeping bag.
Armand returned to the sled. He turned it over, leaving the metal-shod runners facing upwards. He gathered up the long string of dog harnesses and placed them in a pile between the runners. That way they were less likely to be torn to bits should one of the dogs escape from the stake line during the night. He returned to the fire carrying a long, slender bag. He opened the bag and began pulling out the green, down-filled sleeping bag that he tossed onto the tarpaulin.
“There,” he said when he had finished. “Be sure to shake up the feathers.”
Armand folded the empty bag over the handle of the shovel that stood upright in the snow. It was important that everything should be in its place, always in its proper place, and this had nothing to do with neatness, or tidiness, or any of a multitude of obsessions of any kind. To Armand and any of the people who had survived extremely cold nights in the bush, being able to find things, quickly and without searching, could often mean the difference between staying alive and freezing to death.
Tina stretched the sleeping bag to its full length, shaking the downy fill to life. She folded the tarp over the sleeping bag and made a neat fold just at the opening of the bag.
Armand removed his parka and stuffed it into the sleeping bag sack. He motioned to Tina to do the same. He worked quickly, stuffing her parka into the sack. He tied the bag shut and tossed it to the woman. She peeled back the upper portion of the sleeping bag and put the stuffed sack, now a pillow, into its place. She sat on the tarp, tapped her feet together sharply to remove any snow, and slipped inside the sleeping bag.
The man threw two more chunks of wood onto the fire. He sat on the tarp, next to the woman, tapped his feet together, and slipped into the sleeping bag. He reached forward and pulled the tarp up to their chins.
The wood cracked and the flames danced with the shadows of the forest. It was quiet and cold, very cold. The man and the woman lay next to each other in the sleeping bag with only their faces showing and both of them wearing heavily knitted wool toques. Their breath came in slow, rhythmic clouds of steam, and they were warmed by each other’s body heat that stayed inside with them. Silently, they watched the fire slowly dying and waited for sleep to come.
But sleep would not come. The things that had to be done, each in its own time, were done now. It was very cold but everything had been taken care of. Now, they were safe. The body was safe and warm. There was only the mind to care for, to comfort and prepare for what was to come.
“Armand?” the woman whispered. She did not want to wake him if he was sleeping.
“Yes,” he answered.
The woman rolled onto her side and rested her head on his chest.
“Armand, what will we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s not our fault, is it?”
“It’s nobody’s fault. It was the ice, that’s all.”
The woman began to cry. She held onto him and cried with her head on his chest. The man wrapped his arms over her back and held her to him. He looked up through the branches of the tall white pine above them. He could see the stars through the spaces between the branches, clear and bright as they were the previous night and so they would be tomorrow night and a thousand, thousand nights after. Only the clouds could trick you into believing that they were not always there. In two months, maybe less, the ice would be gone and the tracks of the runners and the jagged hole where Evangeline and Johnny and their seven Malamutes went through would also have disappeared.
There would only be waves crossing where they had gone down. No one could tell, just looking there, that two people’s lives had ended on the Crow. Two wonderful, good, happy friends and their seven Malamutes struggling in their harnesses right up to the end, the leader’s paws still fighting the thin ice as the weight of the sled, and Johnny and Evangeline, dragged them under.
Armand tried not to think about it, but it was too clear. Yes, so very clear. He could still hear the whines of the dogs, and Evangeline coughing up water the last time he saw her face.
“Tina,” he said. “Stop, Tina. It won’t help.”
He could feel the woman’s head nodding in agreement. Still, she continued to cry softly. At last, the crying stopped but there was a tremor to her breathing. Armand avoided speaking to her. He rubbed the back of her shoulders and waited. She would be exhausted soon and with exhaustion would come calm and, perhaps, sleep. Not peaceful sleep, but tired, disturbing excursions of the mind, a time of unconsciousness to pass away time. He would not sleep. He knew that. He would be awake in the night, with the stars, and he would go over it all in his mind and how he would do each thing in its turn.
After he had notified the Mounties at Kitigewaki, and fed the dogs, he would walk up the path to the old house where Evangeline and Johnny had lived with her mother. He would tell her what a fine trip it had been going over Potato Mountain and along the Crow, and how sad it was that, just two days from home, the ice was bad in one place, the place where Evangeline and Johnny went down. She was an old woman who knew plenty about sled dogs. She would become angry, and she would scream that no good leader would walk on bad ice. She would curse Kayak, Johnny’s lead dog, and all of his predecessors and all of his descendants that might have been. Finally, she would sit down, swaying back and forth and crying that mournful lament for the dead.
Armand felt Tina’s warmness on his chest. He caressed her shoulders, and her neck, and he held her to him. She was a strong woman. When many days had passed and she had accepted and adjusted to her great loss, that Evangeline and Johnny were no more, she would be strong. He would need her in the night, for he would not sleep, he would not easily adjust, and he would need her to hold him close to her, to remind him always, that she was still with him. He would sell the team. They were good mutts, all of them, and he knew several men who would be willing to take Meetik, and he knew they would treat her well. There would be no more trips to the trap line, at least not on the Crow. In summer, of course, they would fish and they would go for moose in the fall. But his canoe would never glide over that spot on the Crow, even if it was the best, deepest place for bass.
The woman stirred. She drew closer and the warmth of their bodies joined together through the layers of heavy clothing.
“Armand?” she said.
“Aren’t you tired? You must be so tired.”
“No, I’m all right.”
“You want me to get off? Maybe you’ll sleep then.”
“No, Tina. Stay.”
The dying embers of the fire snapped in the cold silence of the night. A wind had begun to blow and whistle through the needles of the pine. Still, they heard it. Both Tina and Armand lifted their heads and listened to the mournful lament of a lone grey wolf paying tribute to its seven cousins who would never pad trails on the Crow again. Now, only their spirits would lope along the frozen Àndeg Zibi, like the spirits of the elders who paddle this great river as they did so many generations past.