Chapter 12: Who are the "Savages?"

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CHAPTER 12:  Who are the Savages

The second night out was almost as bad at first. But then, around eleven p.m., after they had been up and moving for five hours, they saw the full moon appear from behind an enormous cluster of clouds. A hopeful sign.

There were no clouds behind the moon so the travelers knew they would have light for a while. But if the moon gave them eyes, it could do the same for the Iroquois. They had to pay more attention to the river banks.

The canoes were silent but the inexperience of the paddlers, the swiftly moving water slithering around the crafts, the crisp striking of a paddle on drift ice, combined to give a sound of work. The grunts and low curses of the men as they pushed upstream, trying to keep on-course and in reach of, or at least in sight of, the other canoes, punctuated the forest and river sounds.

It was not the quietest group to go on a canoe voyage in Canada.

April sun burned through the cloud and loosened drift-ice, and broken tree branches that had been wrenched off by the wind or heavy snow, and these pieces floated free and fast.

Traveling in darkness avoided that noise but the river was not silent at night. The roar of the rapids and the swirling, rushing sound of water whirling over large rocks and falling into turbulent whirlpools did not cease. The late winter wind, low on the water, would have bitten into the canoeists' faces had they paddled by day. At night the wind was higher; it crashed through the treetops, bending them, slicing through the branches and keeping up a continuous racket. Forty and sixty feet above the canoeists the wind whooped and whipped the trees that replied, creaking and groaning.

Sometimes in the night, a chill would descend, and the wind would stop. It was always a surprise. There would be a deep stillness and silence. Suddenly there would be a short, fast bluster and then the sharp crack of a tree. The tree would not fall or rock, merely crack as if a bone had been subject to too much pressure. It sounded as if the frozen ribs of a man were being crunched in the shell of his body. None of the men heard this sound without feeling the power of the winter.

It was the twenty-second of April 1660. Winter had arrived ahead of schedule in early November and was now, finally, almost over. Instead of more snowstorms or cold spells, April brought a promise of spring. The days became longer, persuading the winter to give up its claim on the land. On the south side of the river-bank, the snow had melted; some plants were seen poking up through the damp earth.

On the north side, some snow still sat under the protective arms of trees. In the forest away from the water, the depth of the snow depended on the trees. If many evergreens clustered together the ground might be bare beneath them; if the area was full of maples, ash or oak the snow would have a grainy texture and be a foot deeper. If the area was treeless and unprotected maybe several feet of snow would be on the ground, more, in places where drifting snow had piled up.

Water, not cold, was the main problem now. The river showed its greatest turbulence and power at a rapid. The drift-ice came crashing down on the rocks, air-borne to disintegrate on a rock further downstream. In the forest, the winter ended silently, gently, as the snow evaporated, and the buds broke through, but at the rapids, it died kicking and screaming.


April 24th

It took them three days to negotiate the rough water. The fourth day, April 24th, they rested and repaired canoes. The scouting details went out. This time Jean Lecompte and Nicholas Josselin worked their way up the river, walking along the bank, climbing over rocks.