Read Lost in the Barrens Online

Authors: Farley Mowat

Lost in the Barrens

BOOK: Lost in the Barrens


For R
who will probably try to be one

For M
who would make a good one

For J
who is a real Indian already



Jamie and Awasin

old. It had been a year since Jamie Macnair left Toronto, the city of his birth, to take up a new life in the subarctic forests of northern Canada. Beside the shores of Macnair Lake the tamaracks were greening now after the
winter's blackness. Out on the lake great loons cried shrilly. As Jamie squatted in front of the log cabin, helping his uncle bale up the winter's catch of furs, he tried to remember how he had felt on that day, a year past, when he climbed out of the train at the lonely frontier town called The Pas to meet his uncle.

Jamie's uncle, Angus Macnair, had been a trader in the arctic, the master of a sealing schooner in the Bering Sea, and finally a trapper who roamed over the broad forests of the north. To Jamie, his uncle was almost a legend, and when the telegram came from him it filled the boy with excitement.



That eagerly awaited letter had brought with it some unhappiness for Jamie. It had reminded him sharply of the tragedy of his parents' deaths in a car accident seven years ago. And it had made clear something he had never really faced before—that apart from his uncle, whom he had never seen, he was truly alone. During the past seven years he had taken the security of the boarding school for granted. But, reading Angus Macnair's letter, he realized that it was no real home, and had never been one.

Jamie was nine when his parents died, and Angus Macnair had become his guardian, for he was the boy's only close relative. It was Angus who had picked the boarding school in Toronto, and it was a good one too, for Angus
wanted only the best for his nephew. For seven years Angus had run his trap line with furious energy in order to meet the cost of the school. But in the past two years the fur market had dropped almost out of sight, and the money was nearly at an end.

Angus had explained it in his letter.

“And so you see, Jamie,” he wrote. “I can no longer keep you at the school. You could maybe stay on in Toronto and get a job, but you're too young for that, and anyhow I hoped you'd rather come with me. It's long past time we got to know each other. So I took the chance you'd want it this way. Your ticket is in the envelope along with enough money for the trip. And I'll be waiting, lad, and hoping that you'll come.”

Angus need have had no doubts. For years past Jamie had loved to read about the north and for years Angus Macnair had been his idol.


In the last week of June, Jamie found himself bundled aboard the Trans-Canada train with the farewells of his school friends still ringing in his ears. For two days the train rolled westward, then it turned abruptly north through the province of Manitoba. The dark jack-pine forests began to swallow up the prairie farmlands and the train rolled on, more slowly now, over the rough roadbed leading to the frontier country.

Five hundred miles and two days north from Winnipeg, the train drew up by a rough wooden platform. Jamie climbed uncertainly down to stand staring at the rough
shanties and the nearby forests that threatened to sweep in and engulf the little settlement of The Pas.

A huge, red-bearded man in a buckskin jacket strode forward and caught the boy hard about the shoulders in a bear hug.

“Do ye not know me, Jamie?” he cried. And then, grinning at Jamie's stammering reply, he tightened his hold on the boy's shoulder and swung him round.

“You've come to meet the north, my lad,” he said, “and I'm thinking you'll be in love with it before the month is out.”

Angus Macnair had been a good prophet, for during the six-week canoe trip north to Macnair Lake, Jamie had become fascinated by the wild face of this new world. Now, a year later, he was really a part of that world. The year in the forests had swelled his shoulders with new muscles so that he looked taller than his five-foot-eight. Summer suns and winter winds had tanned his face. His blue eyes were sharp and alert under his tousled mat of fair hair.

And the little cabin by the shores of the lake had become his home—his first real home since his parents died.

Built within a stone's throw of the sandy shore, the cabin was nevertheless almost surrounded by the sheltering forests. No winter gales could reach it, and the log walls, well chinked with moss and clay, were proof against the sharpest frosts. Crouched comfortably among the trees, it looked out through two small windows over a lake that was a glittering expanse of blue in summer and a vast white plain in winter.

Inside, it was divided into two rooms. The largest was the living room. It had two bunks built against the side walls. A potbellied Quebec heater stood in the center of the floor, glowing cherry-red in the winter days. Beside the stove a long, roughhewn table stretched almost across the room and at either end of it stood a big, homemade easy chair upholstered with black-bear hide. Shelves along the rough log walls held guns, a number of wood carvings done by the Indians, and the well-worn rows of Angus's books. On the split-log floors half a dozen Indian-tanned deer hides made soft rugs.

The tiny kitchen in the rear was cut off from the main cabin by a log partition, and behind the partition Angus cooked the solid and simple meals of the northland.

Although the cabin was four hundred miles from civilization, and two hundred miles from the nearest white man, Jamie had not found it lonely. Not twenty miles away was the settlement of a band of Woodland Cree Indians. These fine and sturdy people had long been Angus Macnair's best friends and they soon became Jamie's friends as well. Alphonse Meewasin, headman of the Crees, had been Angus's stout companion on a hundred journeys and it was only natural that Alphonse's son, Awasin, should become almost a brother to young Jamie.

In appearance Awasin was Jamie's opposite. He was lean as a whip, with long black hair that hung almost to his shoulders. His eyes too were black, and they smiled as often as his mouth—and that was very often. For three seasons Awasin had attended the Indian school in far-off
Pelican Narrows, so that he could read and speak English almost as well as any city boy. But most of his life had been lived in the heart of the forests and the wilderness was as much a part of him as his own skin.

Jamie and Awasin had taken to each other at once, and Awasin had appointed himself Jamie's teacher. Quickly Jamie became competent with a paddle and at driving a string of dogs. He learned to shoot well and he learned enough about trapping to earn the money for a .22 rifle of his own. Most important, under the instruction of Awasin and of Angus Macnair, Jamie learned to feel something of the forceful love of life that belongs particularly to those who dwell in the high arctic forests.

It had been a year filled to the brim with new adventures, and as Jamie wound a rawhide strap around a pile of muskrat pelts his imagination was reliving those events. With a start he looked up to see a slim cedar canoe rounding a nearby point.

Awasin was in the bow, waving his paddle in greeting. And in the stern Alphonse stolidly chewed his old pipe as he thrust his paddle into the icy waters of the lake.



The Camp of the Crees

, were frequent visitors to the Macnair cabin, but this morning they had come for a special reason. Alphonse had long suspected that the nearest fur trader, two hundred miles south, was cheating the Crees. He had spoken of his suspicions to Angus, and at last Angus had suggested that Alphonse should go with him on the long trip south to The Pas, where there was an honest market. After conference
with the hunters of his band, Alphonse had decided to take his friend's advice.

Alphonse's decision meant that Angus's original plans for the journey south now had to be altered. He had intended to take Jamie with him, but even his big freight canoe would not carry all the Cree furs, the two men, and Jamie. So it was arranged that Jamie would remain with Alphonse's family at the Cree camp on nearby Thanout Lake until the two men returned, six or eight weeks later.

“I hope you'll not mind missing the trip, Jamie,” Angus said.

Jamie shook his head emphatically. “Awasin and I will have a better time right here.”

Angus was well pleased at Jamie's willingness to stay in the forests rather than visit civilization again.

“Good lad!” he said. “I'll not forget ye when I do the shopping in The Pas. There'll be a brand-new hunting rifle for ye in my pack when I get home and in the meantime you can use my thirty-thirty, for a woodsman should have a real rifle of his own.”

Jamie straightened his shoulders with pride, for this loan of a heavy-caliber rifle meant that Angus considered him to be almost a man.

“You'll do well enough when I'm gone,” Angus continued, “but remember one thing. Awasin knows more about the north than you'll ever know. He'll be the boss, and if ye forget it, I'll remind you with the flat of my paddle when I get back again!”

Awasin took immediate advantage of Angus's command.

“That's right!” he said. “I'm boss. So you go down to the canoe and clean those fish we brought for supper!”

“Hey!” Jamie cried indignantly. “That's not what my uncle meant! Last one to the canoe cleans the fish himself!”

The boys raced down the slope, collided near the canoe and fell together in a rough-and-tumble wrestling match.

Alphonse watched with a smile. “When the dog pup and the fox cub play together, the gods are pleased,” he said. “Those two will come to no harm. But in any case, my brother Solomon will watch them, and my wife will see to it that they lack for nothing.”

Three days later the big canoe pulled away from the shores of Thanout Lake, loaded to the gunwales with bales of fur. Awasin and Jamie watched it out of sight, in company with the men and women of the Cree camp. Then they turned up the shady slope where the dozen log cabins of the Crees nestled against the dark green forests.

Jamie had looked forward to a summer of fishing, hunting and exploring with Awasin, but soon he found that plans were being made for him by other people. Marie Meewasin, Alphonse's fat and jovial wife, kept the two boys busy from dawn till dusk. Fish nets had to be tended, wood gathered, dogs fed. A dozen other tasks filled the daylight hours.

In exchange for all this, Marie fed the boys hot bannocks made from flour, baking powder, water and sugar;
roast lake trout and whitefish; fried deermeat or spruce grouse; and gallons of the hot, sweet tea the Indians love so well.

It was a good life, but such a busy one that Jamie's dreams of an exploring expedition seemed doomed. Always there was work to be done. Three weeks passed and it was well into July. Then one evening Awasin's Uncle Solomon appeared unexpectedly in the cabin door.

Solomon spoke abruptly. “There are visitors upon the lake,” he said. “Three canoes of the Deer Eaters come from the north. They will land in an hour's time and you, Awasin, must greet them on the shore, for you are the Chief's son.”

He vanished and Jamie asked, “
are the Deer Eaters, Awasin?”

Awasin was frowning. “They are the Idthen Eldeli, a band of Chipeweyans who live about a hundred miles north of us. In the old days we used to fight them. But Alphonse made friends with them a long time back, and now they sometimes pay us a visit. Usually when something's wrong.”

Awasin bolted down the rest of his supper and started for the door. “You stay here!” he said over his shoulder to Jamie, and his words were an order.

Jamie muttered rebelliously, but did as he had been told. He stood in the doorway and watched three birch-bark canoes paddle leisurely out of the evening mist toward the shore. Two men were in each canoe, small men dressed entirely in deerskin clothing instead of in blue
jeans and bright cotton shirts like the Crees who waited on the beach.

When they were a few feet from land the visitors let their canoes drift. One of them called out a greeting in a deep, guttural voice. Instantly Awasin answered in the same strange language. The canoes landed and the six Idthen Eldeli hunters climbed out and stood facing the group of waiting Crees.

A number of Cree women now hurried down to the shore carrying fish, flour and tea. The Chipeweyans started a fire and in a short time they were eating ravenously while their leader stood apart with Awasin and Solomon. The strange chief, Denikazi, was a powerful, squat man of middle age with very dark skin that had been pitted by smallpox.

At last he and Awasin, with Solomon following, came up the slope and entered the cabin. Denikazi's jet-black eyes flickered over Jamie briefly, then ignored him. Jamie sat quietly in a corner while Marie made tea and the men talked in the Chipeweyan tongue.

An hour later, when Denikazi had gone back to his own men, Awasin satisfied Jamie's curiosity about the visit.

Denikazi was chief of the Kasmere Lake band of Chipeweyans who lived on the edge of the Barrenland plains. They were called Deer Eaters because their whole lives were dependent on the caribou—a kind of reindeer found in the high arctic in immense herds.

The caribou spend the summers out on the plains, but in the fall they migrate by the tens of thousands into the
forests, where they spend the winter. The Chipeweyans eat almost nothing but deermeat and bannocks. The only trapping they do is to kill enough white foxes to trade for ammunition and a little flour and tea.

The preceding winter had been a bad one for foxes, and as a result, Denikazi's band had no pelts to trade for ammunition. The fur trader refused to give them credit, so that spring the Deer Eaters had been unable to kill enough caribou to last through the summer. Now famine was upon them and already the dogs were starving to death. The people would soon starve too, and so Denikazi had come to his ancient enemies, the Crees, for help.

“They need food to last a month, and shells as well,” Awasin continued. “Denikazi plans to take a hunting party right out into the Barrenlands to find the deer on the summer range and bring home enough dried meat to last till fall. He must be really desperate to risk going into the plains. That's Eskimo country. Once, a long time ago, the Chips used to hunt out there regularly, but they used to fight the Eskimos whenever they met. In those days the Chips had rifles and the Eskimos didn't. Then the Eskimos got rifles and fought back. The Idthen Eldeli haven't dared go far out in the plains since.”

“Are you going to help them?” Jamie wanted to know.

Awasin's mouth set stubbornly. “Yes,” he replied. “My Uncle Solomon doesn't think we should. He says it's probably just a trick to get things from us. But my father has never turned a hungry man away.”

Marie came to Awasin's side. She put her hand on his
shoulder and spoke softly to him. “You are your mother's son as well,” she said, “and no one of our race has ever refused food to those who starve!”

Awasin smiled up at her. “I'm sure it's no trick, Mother,” he said, “but if it is—I know a way to find out. I could go back with the Chips to Kasmere Lake and
how bad things are. I'd carry the ammunition in my own canoe, and if Denikazi really needs it, then I can hand it over.”

Jamie jumped to his feet. “You mean
go!” he shouted. “You don't leave

Marie laughed. “I think my son thought of this plan just to get out of work,” she said. “But it is a good plan for it will settle Solomon's doubts. Also it will get you two out from under my feet for a few days. Denikazi will let no harm come to a son of Alphonse Meewasin.”

“Then we
go?” Awasin cried.

His mother nodded her head.

Fairly stuttering with excitement, the two boys raced out of the cabin to spread the news. Marie watched them from the doorway, with a broad smile.

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