Streaked foam told the voyageurs where they were approaching rapids. Alert as a hawk, the bowman stroked for the shore; and his stroke was answered by all paddles. If the water were high enough to carry the canoes above rocks, and the rapids were not too violent, several of the boatmen leaped out to knees in water, and “tracked” the canoes up stream; but this was unusual with loaded craft. The bowman steadied the beached keel. Each man landed with pack on his back, lighted his pipe, and trotted away over portages so dank and slippery that only a moccasined foot could gain hold. On long portages, camp-fires were kindled and the kettles slung on the crotched sticks for the evening meal. At night, the voyageurs slept under the overturned canoes, or lay on the sand with bare faces to the sky. Morning mist had not risen till all the boats were once more breasting the flood of the Ottawa. For a month the canoe prows met the current when a portage lifted the fleet out of the Ottawa into a shallow stream flowing toward Lake Nipissing, and from Lake Nipissing to Lake Huron. The change was a welcome relief. The canoes now rode with the current; and when a wind sprang up astern, blanket sails were hoisted that let the boatmen lie back, paddles athwart. Going with the stream, the voyageurs would “run”—“sauter les rapides”—the safest of the cataracts. Bowman, not steersman, was the pilot of such “runs.” A faint, far swish as of night wind, little forward leaps and swirls of the current, the blur of trees on either bank, were signs to the bowman. He rose in his place. A thrust of the steel-shod pole at a rock in mid-stream—the rock raced past; a throb of the keel to the live waters below—the bowman crouches back, lightening the prow just as a rider “lifts” his horse to the leap; a sudden splash—the thing has happened—the canoe has run the rapids or shot the falls.
[Illustration: “Each man landed with pack on his back, and trotted away over portages.”]
Pause was made at Lake Huron for favorable weather; and a rear wind would carry the canoes at a bouncing pace clear across to Michilimackinac, at the mouth of Lake Michigan. This was the chief fur post of the lakes at that time. All the boats bound east or west, Sioux and Cree and Iroquois and Fox, traders’ and priests’ and outlaws’—stopped at Michilimackinac. Vice and brandy and religion were the characteristics of the fort.
[Illustration: A Cree Indian of the Minnesota Borderlands.]
This was familiar ground to De la Verendrye. It was at the lonely fur post of Nepigon, north of Michilimackinac, in the midst of a wilderness forest, that he had eaten his heart out with baffled ambition from 1728 to 1730, when he descended to Montreal to lay before M. de Beauharnois, the governor, plans for the discovery of the Western Sea. Born at Three Rivers in 1686, where the passion for discovery and Radisson’s fame were in the very air and