At eleven o’clock on the morning of the 20th of April 1660, the canoes prepared to leave Montreal again. This this time the faces of the men were fixed and determined. This time, too, Simon Grenet showed up and took his assigned place. All welcomed him with the same jeering, sarcastic banter they tossed at one another all the time. There were comments about people being late for their own funerals.
Father Chaumonot stood at the shore with Pierre de Belestre. The priest was talkative, excited:
“What of the land those men have under cultivation?”
“What of it?” replied de Belestre.”
“There are many profit-minded citizens who might take advantage of their absence, said the priest.
“Well, I shall be vigilant, “said de Belestre. “I will watch over their land and possessions and the duties each man had were given to others until the group returns.”
“Of course, of course. Still, it is dangerous out there. Do you think they mean to return?”
“I wonder,” said the priest. “It may be that they seek the kingdom of heaven. It may be that they will be martyrs for Christ. That they offer their souls to heaven for god’s work.”
“They all intend to return,” said de Belestre, irritably shaking his head. “They are far more concerned with their lives than their deaths.”
“I hope so. But how can you be so sure, commander de Belestre?”
“Because I know them. I know Dollard.” He paused, looking out over the canoes. “There are seventeen in those canoes. At home In France, we all make wills whenever we leave our province, yes? If we fear we will not return, that we might die?”
“It reflects the French fear of leaving home I suppose. And the dangers of travel.”
“True. Do you know how many of the seventeen made wills?”
“No,” said the priest.
“Two.” He turned away. The priest shrugged. Although the men were Catholic, and some were modestly religious, they were soldiers at heart and soldiers of fortune. They were young and not given to thinking of death except insofar as they might mete it out to someone else.
de Belestre watched the men on the water as they waved a somber goodbye to the fort and its people on the shore.
This morning, the wind was hard, the water rough, and the temperature so low their fingers nearly froze on the paddles. It would take an hour before their hands warmed from friction.
The travelers tried to act as a unit, but most were inexperienced. They knew what they had to do, but good technique wasn’t always at their command.
They kept in pairs of canoes, Cognac-Valets-Tavernier in the lead with Delestre-Dollard-Tiblement so that the new water could be sighted and met with something approaching confidence and Dollard could keep his eyes open. The number three and four canoes, the Jurie-Augier-Grenet, and the Hebert-Martin stayed forty meters back. The other two canoes were about sixty meters behind them, watching so that in case of trouble ahead they could better react.
The men fell silent and apprehensive as they passed Nun’s Island. They looked hard at the shoreline and saw nothing, but continued to look until long after they had passed the drowning site near the island.
They passed small marshes and islands in water that would have been smooth and enjoyable in summer. With the spring break-up, the river was bloated and surging, running over rock mounds it would later swirl around placidly. Still, the paddling wasn’t too difficult here. It was made awkward more by the lack of sleep of last night. It was also the first canoe work of the year even for the experienced canoeists and after only a few hours their backs, knees, legs, and arms were aching.
Dollard motioned the group to the shore. It was three in the afternoon, two hours past the normal stopping time for travelers who had set out around three a.m. The first day of departure was celebratory, and so they had left much later than usual. This new attempt to leave was also abnormal, however, partly because of having had to deal with the aftermath of the deaths at Nun’s Island. So on both days they were late leaving.
But because of the recent Iroquois attacks and the killing at Nun’s Island, Dollard had added another adjustment. He decided to travel at night to better escape detection. They changed the normal starting of three a.m. to eight p.m. This meant a ten hour paddling day ending at around six a.m. when there would be enough light to see. On a few days, they managed this, although it was impossible to stop every two hours. They hugged the shore and stopped when a spot was suitable.
Canoeists customarily paddled for about two hours then pulled into shore and took a rest. They judged the distances by the number of pipes smoked because familiar landmarks had a way of becoming unfamiliar along the rivers. Even Indians, who hid food along a canoe route for the return journey, frequently could not find the stuff again.
Several things conspired to hold them up. First, of course, was their poor paddling technique. Then the water was savage in spots with some ice still floating by, which could tip a canoe in an instant if a large piece should strike; and the cold hampered them.
It was not the ideal way to ‘climb’ the Ottawa, and climb they must, beginning with the rapids at Lachine. These were so formidable that Etienne Brule was the only white man to go down them alone in a canoe. Going up, portaging was the only response to the boulders churning the white water.
“God, I’m tired,” said Cognac as he threw himself on the ground after the first portage.
“Too tired to help with the stuff here?” Forges said as he and Valets pulled the canoe out of the water.
“No, no, I’ll get some wood,” said Cognac, who was already hauling himself off the earth. “Put that sail in a dry spot, will you? I don’t want my ass freezing off tonight!”
“Just get the wood,” said Valets, exhausted, barely able to speak. He pulled a sail, which all the canoes were equipped with, but which were not to be used as such this trip, and began spreading it out on a patch of earth before erecting it as a tent. Forges took the supplies out of the canoe.
Both men worked steadily for thirty minutes, and Cognac arrived. He walked with his arms behind him, pulling his musket perpendicular to his body as if he were pulling a sleigh. Two branches were hooked over the musket, one on the stock and one on the barrel. The branches trailed four feet behind Cognac on the ground. Piled across the two, long, trailing branches and resting on them, was a load of firewood.
The men used saplings to pry the sail sheet up as the back of the tent, and then they tossed fir branches on the ground underneath and finally threw their packs into the makeshift tent.
“Go over to the left a bit — just follow my trail there and you’ll get lots of wood,” said Cognac to some others who were starting their search.
“Here, take these branches. They make a good traverse — save you some time.”
Dollard sent Pilote and Robin into the bush as scouts. They were gone for half an hour or so then reported no activity in the forest and no ground signs of Indians. The French were far more likely to leave tell-tale signs of having been in a place with broken branches and footprints than the Iroquois. Nevertheless, two guards were posted and changed every two hours. Josselin and Lecompte stood the first watch.
Dollard figured a fire wouldn’t be unwise this first day, and so they made a large one after their food was cooked and sat around it.
‘What do you figure we can get in pelts, Dollard?” asked Louis Martin.
“I don’t know.”
“Ten to fifteen thousand?”
“I haven’t any idea. The price is high in France now, the highest it’s ever been. Fifteen livres a pelt. Figure three to four thousand pelts a canoe, well, who knows how many canoes we’ll get.”
“Maybe none,” said Tiblement.
“That’s right, maybe none,” said Dollard. “Maybe we will only get Iroquois. I don’t care. The best result is many dead enemy and lots of pelts. But I’m not going back to Montreal without one or the other.”
“There’s no danger of that,” said Pilote. “I have a personal total of at five.”
“You’ll have to get somebody to count them for you,” said Forges.
“Up yours, Forges!”
They went to sleep at four in the afternoon this first day and awoke at midnight. They ate and loaded the canoes. Within hours, they were at the foot of the Lachine Rapids. The sound of the rapids in the dark was like a hundred rolling thunders, all beginning separately and endless. The sound was magnified in the night, next to the water. It came out of nowhere, filling the dark, wintry air with a roar that surrounded and threatened to engulf the small band. Carefully they paddled to the shore and began the arduous task of the portage.
Birch bark canoes were light enough to be easily carried by one man but because of the treacherous footing or the chance of having a branch go through the side of a canoe, on this kind of portage, generally two men took each craft. Each man simply turned the canoe upside down, lifted it up above his head and carried it. This allowed him to see his feet and where he was putting them.
Their labor made more laborious by the dark, they unloaded their canoes, some hauling supplies, and others, in pairs, carrying an upturned craft on their shoulders. They stumbled uphill past the white flashing water. The supply carrier, walking ahead, had to guide the canoe porters by holding the bow of the craft and instructing the others where to put their feet.
It was a class in ineptitude. The darkness, the weight of supplies, the unfamiliarity with the shore, the snow, the cold, everything worked against them. They fell, cursing, almost as many times as they made safe steps. They couldn’t see each other or the trail; those underneath the canoes could only see snow and earth and that only if the light was exactly right. The sound of the rapids never left them. It seemed to be howling with delight at their predicament. It made the calling of directions impossible to hear, especially with your head buried in an upside-down canoe.
“Goddamn rapids,” said Cognac.
“Goddam snow, goddamn cold, goddamn dark,” echoed Pilote. “It’s not enough we have to portage — ‘Let’s go at night! For God’s sake, Dollard, this is idiotic!”
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