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Mountain-scenery. — A Midnight Illumination. — The Valley of the West Branch. — A Blasted Tree. —
Skeletons. — A Moose Yard. — Fishing in the West Branch. — Wash scouts ahead, and makes an Agreeable Discovery.
WE packed up our luggage, and, going round the head of the pond to the westward (to avoid the crags on the east side), went on during the forenoon past the pond.
For dinner we had another “hasty-pudding,” with maple-sugar, and some exceedingly cold water from a spring at the foot of the mountain-ridge which formed the north-west side of the pond-basin.
During the afternoon we toiled up the side of this mountain through a mixed growth of beeches, maples, and birches. Toward the summit spruces began, low, shaggy, and black, as if dwarfed by bleak winds. The summit itself is a line of granite ledges, rising bare and gray above the dark evergreens. After some searching for crevices and cracks, we climbed up and stood on the crest fairly above the line of tree-tops. Wash had been a little ahead. Turning as he gained the top, he looked off, and gave an involuntary
“Hurrah!” In a moment more I was beside him.
“Grand, isn’t it?” he exclaimed.
Raed and Wade came climbing up; and we all stood enjoying the magnificent view. The whole country to the southward was spread out as in a picture. The pond we had passed was at our feet, though really four or five miles away. Far to the southward rose the two peaks, separated by the deep valley through which we had come up into the “brulé” three days before. Seven shining ponds were in sight. Over the whole landscape there rested, like a glorious tide, the bright, warm light of the waning sun. But not a trace of human habitation could be detected throughout the region. The wilderness enclosed us on all sides. The ponds sparkled, the streams glided onward, and the breezes rustled through the moving tree-tops; but man was absent.
“And vet the world existed for millions of years before human eyes ever saw it,” said Raed; “a wilderness just like this, with nothing save the forests and the wild beasts. This is how the world looked before man with his axe and his fire had come into it. Panthers and bears were then the rulers of this continent, and held all the lower animals under the despotism of their bloody appetites.”
“I wish it had never been worse governed since!” exclaimed Wade sententiously.
Raed looked blank at that. Wash laughed, and suggested that we should go across the ledges and see what we could discover on the north side. A walk of twenty rods over a bare, rough ledge brought us to the brink of a “fall-off” of twenty or thirty feet, down to where the tops of the spruces showed over the rocks. The view on this side was wilder and grander than the other; but it lacked the sunny beauty of the southward landscape, as all northward views must. Below us was a great valley; and it needed not Mount Katahdin towering in sombre grandeur twenty miles to the north-east, nor an occasional silvery gleam half hidden by the forest, to make us recognize it as the Valley of the West Branch.
The silvery glimpses along the sink of the valley led off to a broad sheet of water, half hidden in distant haze, which we identified as Lake Chesuncook, through which the West Branch flows.
The appearance of Mount Katahdin from this point was rugged and forbidding. It was not a single peak, but an assemblage of peaks — four at least — resting on one broad, block-like base. Even at this distance it seemed to tower above us with a certain imposing vastness. There were patches, or spots, entirely nude of trees, and looking gray and bare. Our little pocket-glass revealed them as precipices and cliffs, which, com pared with the known dimensions of the mountain, must have been many hundred feet in height.
“Ho for old Katahdin!” shouted Wash, “the home of the Indian Devil, where Pomoola reigns in scowling majesty!”
“And where our future fortunes lie — in lead!” added Raed. “We must never forget the legendary lead.”
“Looks as if there might be a nice place for shot-towers,” said Wade, with the glass still directed toward one of the gray precipices.
“But where’s the hay-farm?” said Raed, turning to me; “the clearing on the river that you told us of?”
This clearing has been described to me as near the West Branch, not many miles below the foot of Lake Chesuncook. As very much depended on our being able to reach this place, we scanned the whole valley along the river with some little anxiety; but no signs of a clearing were discernible from where we stood.
Meanwhile the sinking sun bade us prepare for night. Going along the ridge to a place where the ledges were less steep, we made our way down a little from the summit to a clump of very thick, shaggy spruces standing at the foot of the moist rocks. About the trunk of one of the largest of these Wash kindled a fire; Wade began to gather wood; Raed was unpacking eggs and get ting the kettle ready; while I followed along at the roots of the ledges to find a spring, — that sine qua non of all wildwood voyagers, young or old. Trickling out of a mossy crevice, I soon espied it with its silvery tinkling, and cool, moist breath. Hail, daughter of the rocks! I run forward to make its acquaintance by means of the gill dipper, and carefully taste the water to see that no noxious oxides had tainted its pure bounty.
Four eggs apiece and another “pudding” made up our supper.
From Wade’s observation by means of the aneroid, the spot where we were encamped was twenty-five hundred and ninety feet above the sea-level, — about that. Wade always added the “about that,” to have us bear in mind that the aneroid might not be absolutely correct.
I had found nothing of importance in the mineralogical line, unless I mention a very beautiful fragment of rose quartz which I had picked up at the foot of the ledges on the other side; and Wash’s remark concerning it, that he should like to have a house with the walls built of rose quartz in the place of brick or brown stone.
Raed spoke of the huge granite ledges which formed the crest of the mountain.
“Why is it,” said Wade, “that this granite is on the very summit of the mountain, while the lower parts of the same mountain are of a different kind of rock, — a kind you call sandstone?”
“To understand that,” replied Raed, “you must bear in mind two things: first, that sand stone is a rock formed by the action of water; second, that granite is a rock formed by the ac tion of fire, or, as some geologists think, of fire and steam together. Many ages ago, the continent is thought to have been under water, — under the ocean. It was then that the sandstone which forms the sides of this mountain was formed — laid down as it is termed — on the bottom of the sea. The rivers, you know, are constantly bearing mud and earth into the sea, which settles to the bottom, layer after layer, and finally, by its own weight, consolidates into stone. But, after many ages, the continent of America gradually rose above the waters, — very much, perhaps, as the Scandinavian peninsula is now rising gradually higher and higher each century. Be sides these slow changes of level, there have also been more sudden and violent changes, — upheavals they are called, — by the sudden action of which mountains and long mountain-chains are thrown up. This mountain was doubtless formed in this way: The sandstone beds swelled up like a bubble, from some internal pressure; and, breaking apart at the top here, a mass of granite gushed out from within, either in a mol ten or a liquid state. Granite, you know, is composed of quartz and felspar and mica mingled together. Internal heat from some source had melted or dissolved this quartz, felspar, and mica, and mingled them together to form granite.”
“You speak of internal heat from ‘some source;’ why, the whole interior of the earth is a mass of fire and lava; is it not?” demanded Wash.
“That was long believed; but the idea is now pretty thoroughly exploded,” said Raed. “Indeed, some of the best geologists have always doubted it.”
“Why, I thought everybody believed that the inside of the earth was in a molten state,” said Wade.
“The best geologists now reject the idea wholly,” replied Raed, “for reasons I will try to explain at some other time. It is getting rather late now.”
“I say, Raed,” cried Wade, “did you post up on all this geology this last spring?”
“Mostly,” said Raed, laughing. “I knew little or nothing about it before we planned this expedition for the yacht. That set me to studying, you know. All a fellow needs is a stimulus. But let’s ‘turn in,’ and get rested for to-morrow.”
There were no mosquitoes here; too high up for them. I hacked off the spruce-boughs for our bed; Wade put more wood on the fire, piling it around the trunk of the spruce, which stood over the blaze like a huge umbrella, with its wide, drooping boughs, pendent mosses, and knobs of gum, that fried with the rising heat; while Raed and Wash carried off flaming brands to kindle a second fire a few rods away to warn off prowlers. There was some talk of standing guard; “but we were all pretty sleepy, and concluded to risk it. It was very cosy under the blankets, with our feet to the fire, and the thick evergreen tops to keep off the dew. The last thing I remember was watching the blaze leaping up against the trunk of the spruce;... then came dreams,... from which I was awakened by a prodigious shake, accompanied by shouts and a loud crackling roar. Leaping up, a bright glare blinded my eyes. I pitched against some body, and was pulled and hustled away by Raed. All this in an instant, when I saw the great spruce under which we were sleeping wrapped in flames from top to bottom. Our fire about the roots of it had run up on the scorched bark, and caught into the top. Trailing mosses, gum, and the mass of dry twigs and foliage, blazed like a huge scintillating firework, with a noise like the snapping of a thousand gun-caps. Raed had been the first to wake. Ding-bat was barking. We all scrambled out together to escape the shower of burning twigs and the scorching heat.
“Gracious!” exclaimed Vade.
“I-gad-e-o!” from Wash, his very nearest approach to profanity.
“Rush in, fellows, and save the things!” shouted Raed.
All our buckets, guns, ammunition, kettle, etc., which had been set only a few feet from the fire, together with our blankets, were right under the blazing mass.
“Rush in! grab one thing at a time! — like this!” and Raed darted under the fiery umbrella and dragged out the blankets, smoking and smelling pretty strong, but with only a few little holes burned in them.
Wade, following his example, brought out one of the buckets; Wash got the other considerably scorched on one side; I secured the kettle and the shot-gun; and Raed, making another dive, brought out the rifle and hatchet.
“There!” exclaimed he, puffing. “Let her blaze! Didn’t break those eggs, did you, Wash?” Thanks to the meal, the remaining eggs were all right. We carried the things back a few rods, and sat down on the rocks to get breath.
The flames streamed up through the spruce top to the height of forty or fifty feet. It was, in very truth, a pillar of fire. The rough, gray ledges above reflected the ruddy glare, and all the darkened forest below started out into view. A few minutes sufficed to burn out the twigs and gum. But, meanwhile, the blaze had communicated to the adjoining spruces. The whole clump was speedily enveloped in flames; though the first had burned to the bare branches, and stood like a blackened skeleton.
“There’s a bonfire for you,” exclaimed Wash, “such as these wild crags never saw before, I guess!”
As many as a dozen spruces and firs — in fact, the whole clump in which we were encamped — were now afire. A tremendous crackling, and the roaring rush of the air drawn in by the conflagration, resounded from the rocks. Quite a number of small birds, disturbed from their roosts or their nests, darted out of the thick tops, and flew round and round the blaze: we thought we saw several drop into it. Two or three larger birds (owls or hawks) started out from the crag above, and went flapping off into the darkness. Once we heard the sharp yap of a fox from the top of the ledges, — a querulous note, half way between a howl and a dog-bark. We could imagine little Reynard staring with picked nose and round suspicious eye from the top of the rocks, till surprise and wonder had elicited this ejaculatory yap. Ding-bat instantly responded in the best of Chinese doggerel. But, though a foreign tongue, I think Reynard understood. He said no more. The barking, however, received an answer from another quarter. Far down the mountain side to the westward there arose a distant, far-borne howl. Wash pronounced it the howl of a gray wolf; and it certainly sounded as much like a wolf as anything.
The fire soon burned out. The night, banished for a time, began to close in upon us again. On looking to the watch, it was found to be but a few minutes past eleven. We crept back to our fire, which still smouldered at the roots of the denuded spruce; and shaking up our bed of green boughs, which had not burned, we moved it a little back out of the smut, and went to bed again.
“No need of standing guard,” remarked Raed. “We’ve had fire enough to warn off all the big cats, I reckon.”
We were soon asleep; and the sunlight was glinting aslant the rocks when I next awoke. The blackened spruces still smoked lazily, bearing witness to last night’s illumination.
While Wash and Raed were boiling the remaining twelve eggs, Wade and I climbed to the top of the ledges again to see if it were possible to discover any indication of the “hay-farm” by means of a morning smoke, which might be sup posed to be rising at about this time. But the whole river-valley was filled with a vast tide of fog, which rose almost to our feet. As well seek to decry a sunken wreck on the bed of the Atlantic.
We ate our breakfast of eggs and a single cooky with more anxiety than we had previously felt since starting. There was just meal and sugar enough left for one pudding. Unless we could reach the hay-farm by night-fall, we should have to depend on whatever we might shoot, or catch from the river, for our supper.
In an hour we were on our way, going due north down the side of the mountain. It was decided to make a “bee-line” for the river, then follow up in search of the clearing.
By nine o’clock the fog had lifted, and the sun shone down brightly through the lofty tree-tops. We were passing through a growth of great beauty and size. Basswoods, fully three feet in diameter, rose, like tall columns, fifty and sixty feet without a branch. Mixed with these forest monarchs were hemlocks and white-pines, with their roughly-furrowed bark of dark weathered red. One of these great hemlocks drew our attention from having a small splintery groove running down the trunk. Glancing up to the top, we saw that it was dead, gray and sear. The tree was what lumber-men call “winding.” The groove, we had observed followed the grain of the wood, and passed clean around the trunk ere reaching the ground. I was just saying that the tree had been struck by lightning, and that such instances were very common in the woods; when Wash exclaimed,‑
“See there, fellows!” pointing to the ground near the foot of the hemlock. “Look at that!”
“Bones!” said Raed.
“Skeletons!” cried Wade.
Partially covered with twigs and leaves lay the undisturbed skeletons of three animals. At first we had fancied they were human; and a terrible vision of murder or starvation rose in imagination. But, on clearing away the rubbish, it was evident that they were caribou-deer. One was considerably larger and more massive than the others, suggesting the idea that it was a buck and two does, or perhaps an old female with two half-grown fawns: we were uncertain which was most probable. Taking into account their nearness to the blasted hemlock, Raed was of the opinion that they had been killed by the same stroke of lightning; though how the carcasses should have been left undisturbed by the many carnivorous prowlers, that could hardly fail to nose them out, was not so easily explained, unless we believe the theory of certain old woods men who say that “no critter will ever tech another that’s been struck by lightnin’.” But that either the gray wolf or the glutton (Gulo luscus) should respect the seal of the electric death-stroke seems rather nice for them, especially after what we saw of the latter animal on the coast of Labrador.*
The character of the forest gradually changed as we proceeded. Maples, ashes, and balsam-firs began to take the place of the loftier trees. Clumps of alders showed here and there; and about eleven o’clock a cool breeze, rustling among the hitherto-motionless boughs, announced our approach to the river. Ten minutes more, and through the opening forest our eyes were gladdened by the broad blue channel of the West Branch. The water was low; at least, we judged so from the marks on the banks. The stream was perhaps twenty rods wide, — as wide as the Merrimack at Concord, or the Androscoggin at Lewiston. At the place where we struck it, the current, though not swift, was yet far from sluggish, moving forward with a calm, steady sweep, that, contrasted with the forest-set shores, had a certain grand seeming. Half a mile above, however, as we followed up the bank, we came to what might with tolerable propriety be termed rapids, the pas sage of which with a canoe would have been at tended with some danger. Piles of driftwood were strewn along the bank. Great trees washed out by the roots hung stranded upon the black ledges that here and there rose above the water. There was quite a perceptible roar from the cur rent where it fretted on the bowlders that showed out in the channel. Patches of yellow-white foam had gathered in the lee of the rocks.
Building a fire, we dipped up water from the river, and, suspending our kettle, soon had the pudding bubbling. There was barely enough to satisfy four of us, hungry as we were. Ding-bat looked on very wistfully. We gave him the scrapings of the kettle, which he ate at one mouthful, dog-fashion.
“There is one advantage in being out of provisions,” remarked Wash as we took up our empty buckets. “We don’t have it to lug.”
But this was rather poor consolation: we thought so, at least, as we trailed on up the river with but a rather hazy prospect of reaching the hay-farm, the very existence of which we had come to doubt.
About four o’clock we passed a tract where the bark had been gnawed from all the trees and bushes. For a space of a quarter of a mile along the hillside, which sloped down to the river, nearly all the shrubbery was dead from this cause, looking as if blasted by fire. I had heard of such spots; and it only needed the excrement which covered the ground to convince me that it was an old “moose-yard,” — a place where a herd of moose had spent several months during the past winter, after the snow had got too deep for them to range about. In confirmation of this conclusion, Wade stumbled upon the discarded antlers of a stag lying partially under the leaves. These had probably been shed during the winter; perhaps not till as late as February, though they are commonly dropped during December or January. Having an idea that moose-horn was valuable, Wash made a rather boyish attempt to shoulder them, and so take them along with him to the hay- farm; but, as the weight could not have been less than fifty or sixty pounds, he soon dropped them.
Raed was bidding us notice that nearly all the stones and bowlders were of granite, — “stray fragments from Mount Katahdin,” he said.
Instinctively we turned our eyes northward, where the grand old mountain towered in massive grandeur, its gray crags and beetling precipices looming high over the forest on the other bank. Farther on, the shore was heaped with water-worn pebbles as large as a goose-egg, and from that up to the size of a big pumpkin. These were once rough fragments of granite broken from the ledges. For ages the current has washed and rolled them over each other, till at last they have grown round and smooth as marbles.
“They’ve been rounding off and smoothing a thousand years, perhaps,” remarked Wade.
“Yes, a hundred thousand! said Raed. “These pebbles (tossing one in the air) are older than the Pyramids; older than Adam; older than the pretended records of Babylon, or the genealogy of the Turkish sultans.”
“They’re very much like those used to pave the streets with,” said Wash; “like those they bring from the beach at Nahant.”
“Yes; and worn and smoothed by the same great agent, — water” (plunging the pebble into the river).
The sun was getting low; and still no signs of the clearing. As we should be obliged to fish for our supper, Raed gave the order to halt, build a fire, and get out our fish-hooks. A red squirrel was barking from the bough of a black-ash. Wash dropped him off with the shot-gun for bait. While Wade was building a fire (that was generally his business), the rest of us cut some alder fishing- poles, and, stringing our hooks, baited them, and dropped into the river where the foam had collected above a rick of drift logs. Instantly I felt a tug, and threw out a fine, heavy trout, his speckled sides flashing in the sun. Raed had out another ere I had got mine off the hook. Wash, meanwhile, had gone farther up the bank. Half an hour soon passes when one is busy pulling out trout. We had thirty-seven, weighing from one to three pounds, wriggling and hopping on the bank, when the sun, going behind the trees, admonished us to draw in our lines. Wade had stood looking on.
“Where’s Wash?” asked Raed.
We looked round.
“He went up the stream,” said I. “Up there fishing, I guess.”
“Wash!” shouted Raed.
“HOLLO!” making the forest resound.
“Can’t be he’s fallen into the river, can it,” demanded Raed, hastily untying his line, “or that anything has pounced upon him?”
“We must look him up!” exclaimed Wade, running to fetch the guns.
“You are sure you saw him going up the bank,” said Raed.
I was tolerably sure of it. We hurried on up the stream, looking carefully to the water, and with sharp glances off among the trees, — twenty, thirty, forty rods. Not a trace nor a track.
“Strange!” muttered Raed apprehensively. “Let’s go on, though.”
On we went nearly as much farther; when we suddenly espied Wash running down the bank towards us, hat in hand.
“Where have you been ?” cried Raed. “What do you mean by going off without letting us know?”
“I’ve found it!” shouted Wash. “I’ve found the hay-farm! It’s all right; not more’n half a mile farther. I thought I’d scout ahead a little while you were fishing. I came out into the clearing.”
“Hurrah!” shouted Wade. “Let’s hurry back and get the things!”________________________________
* See second volume of this series.