Mituvemeg’s people, the Algonquin, roamed in a broad area from Labrador to Lake Superior, an area they called their ‘vital space.’ The Iroquois had invaded that vital space in their quest for furs. At first, the Algonquin had been able to exact tribute from the Iroquois for passing through their territory. Now, the Iroquois no longer bothered to pay anyone anything except when it suited them in a treaty, which usually meant they were having difficulty on another front and needed some breathing space.
The Algonquin were hunters and trappers; nomads who moved often and traveled light; warriors who loved adventure and hated farming. Their ingenuity was reflected in their inventions: the birch bark canoe, the snowshoe, and the toboggan. They knew the vast waterways of their country as if maps had been soaked into their brains in their mothers’ wombs. They were expert and sincere traders, and they maintained long and complex relationships. They despised the Iroquois high-handedness.
“Iroquois” was an Algonquin word meaning “Genuine Vipers.” The Iroquois called themselves Haudenosaunee. Huron (who called themselves Wendat) was an Iroquian language originally somewhat different from that spoken b the Iroquois—but even among themselves the Iroquois spoke different dialects.
The Huron were the major trading partners of the Algonquin and allies because the Iroquois push for furs had interrupted the Algonquin way of life almost as much as it had the Huron.
Mituvemeg had become a war chief because he excelled in battle. He was grave and valorous, a man who instilled fear into an Iroquois war party even if badly outnumbered. In battle, he became like a raging animal. He had no thought that he could lose. There was no doubt, no hesitation. He reacted automatically and with deadly results. Time after time surrounded by Iroquois, he would emerge from a pile of enemy bodies. The Iroquois feared him and the Algonquin respected him.
As for Annahotaha, his knowledge of the enemy was never questioned and action taken upon his suggestions was never regretted. No chief had any power except what he could muster through eloquence and example. Annahotaha had become a chief this way. But once a chief you must prove you belong as one. Poor judgment, poor discussion in council, lack of bravery, lack of verifiably correct decisions, all of these would limit and finally discount a person from being chief.
Annahotaha’s bravery and lack of personal concern in war was legendary. His skill at out-thinking the Iroquois, who were masters of duplicity, won as many victories as his military astuteness or his bravery. Annahotaha had never had any trouble. Never had he to buy followers with presents, although he often gave of what he had like the other Huron. There was no warrior in the country who could surpass Annahotaha in his life’s work. He was simply, repeatedly, unarguably the best man in the wars.
These were the reputations of the two chiefs, who sat and smoked and rested briefly before continuing their quest to join Dollard’s band. Annahotaha and Mituvemeg traveled by day not wanting to waste any time before catching up with the French, and they covered the head waters at the tip of Montreal Island in a couple of hours. Every hour or so one brave would stop paddling to rest, re-light his pipe, take a drink or urinate. The French preferred to go ashore every two hours or so because urinating while in a canoe is practically impossible unless you use your drinking bowl. Which is exactly what the Indians did.
Afterward they rinsed the wooden bowls in the river, but later that evening they used them again for the sagamite. Fish or no fish, the French felt that that gave the sagamite a flavor they could well do without.
On and on they paddled, their muscles rippling like the water coursing round the silent canoes. They knelt in the canoes and leaned against the thwarts in the natural position. Kneeling lowered the center of gravity, stabilized the craft, was the most comfortable position for the paddler, and was the least tiring because the whole body got behind the paddling strokes. The French had tried to do everything with their arms at first, and they got tired quickly.
At the bow of their canoes, the Huron had an insignia of something that was special to them. It was always a simple but recognizable design. Mituvemeg used a bear; Annahotaha, a bird. The designs had a practical use too: they indicated the bow. The canoes looked reversible, but they were not. On the hull, one piece of birch bark was sewn to another, and the slight overlap at the join faced the stern so that when the canoe scraped over a rock it would not tear the bark. A canoe lasted an Indian ten years if he cared for it properly, and since it was his main transportation, his life-saver, he cared for it.
When the French first arrived in Canada, the Indians surrounded the ships in their frail craft while the French lowered row-boats to take them ashore. When the row-boats had been lowered and the French headed for the shore they were quickly out-stripped by the swift, agile canoes. The French were astonished: not only were the canoes much faster than their heavy row-boats but the Indians could see where they were going. It made an indelible impression and disposed the French to learn more from the Indians.
Even in rough water the Huron and Algonquin paddlers made scarcely a sound. Their strokes were so beautifully blended, the arms rising and falling in concert, that they looked from the shore, like dozens of pumps, each connected through the water with each other. They did not talk but only paddled in short, smooth, powerful strokes on the straightaway; short, choppy, insistent, governing strokes in hard water. With short strokes, their arms never got tired. The French with their long strokes got arm, shoulder and back aches. The sixteen canoes skimmed the river, their paddle strokes whisking the water.
When they reached the first portage, the Indians paddled up the rapids farther than the French. When they disembarked, they did so with no wasted motion. Every man knew his job. One brave hoisted the canoe over his head; another took the guns and ammunition and a third ran ahead to check the route for Iroquois. All done silently. When there was information to communicate, an order to be given, a question to be asked, it was done silently. The Indians were naturally laconic, but in the forest the Indians were like the breezes: they belonged, they were part of the forest, they were silent.
Silently, swiftly they made the portage. Then they slid the canoes noiselessly into the water — the stern man, barefoot, pushing off — and before he was settled on the craft, the other two or three paddlers had set up a pulsating rhythmic motion. The canoe was gliding over the water helped by the final kick against rock from the stern. What the seventeen Frenchmen had covered in three days the Indians covered in one and a half.
Annahotaha and Mituvemeg had no idea how far ahead the Frenchmen were up-river or how far the Iroquois were, coming down-river. They just hoped that they would meet their Dollard before the Iroquois did.