Timothy J. Kent
Historical Author, Paddler, and Reenactor

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpts

"The campsite was a good one, in a small clearing on the south bank of the Rivière Tahquamenon, about a mile upstream from where it emptied into Lac Supérieur. Clean, cool water flowed in the river beside the camp, and not far away a stand of dead trees, blown down by the wind some years before, offered a plentiful supply of firewood for an extended stay. The clearing was large enough to allow breezes to waft through the camp, cooling it during the heat of the day and helping to keep the mosquitoes at bay during the evenings. The early morning rays of sun could filter through the tree tops of the surrounding forest to warm the clearing, while the angle of the bend in the river enabled Sunning Otter to enjoy the last rays of sunset from across the river at dusk. It was a comfortable place.

Fox held in his right hand a narrow bar of steel that had been bent into an elongated C shape, with his fingers fitted through the central opening of the C. In his left hand, he firmly grasped an irregular piece of broken grey flint about two finger joints long. Chick. Chick. As the batte feu (firesteel) struck a razor-sharp edge of the flint, several tiny orange-hot sparks of steel were sliced off. One of them flew onto the small square of linen charcloth that Fox held on top of the flint. The little spark smoldered on its black bed of charred fabric as he placed the cloth into a nest-shaped wad of dried grass. Holding it above his face, Fox blew steadily; the charcloth glowed orange, then the wad of dry tinder suddenly burst into flame. He lost no time plunging the little fireball into the tepee-shaped arrangement of firewood, and in seconds, the flames had consumed the tiny twigs and were licking at the kindling wood. Shortly, the breakfast fire was ready, with a plentiful supply of firewood limbs stacked near at hand, the result of much labor by the boys.

The container holding the supply of charcloth and tinder fibers, a small black cow horn, was carefully closed with its wooden stopper, to ensure that the contents would stay dry. The stopper, an oval slice of wood, was gripped by a short loop of deerhide thong that protruded from a hole in the middle of the oval. Fox then returned the firesteel and flint to a small deerskin pouch, and dropped the pouch and the storage horn into the sac à feu (fire bag) which hung from his belt.

The tubular bag, made from a complete pelt of a striped skunk, had a glossy black fur and white stripe that extended the full length from the nose down to the tip of the tail. A length-wise slit in the underside between the front legs provided an opening into the bag. Fox wore the sac with its head and neck tucked up behind his waist belt and folded over the belt. He had inserted the skull of the skunk back into its original position inside the head; this prevented the thin hide bag from sliding out below his belt. To reach inside the bag, Fox raised the skunk's head and neck and pulled the bag downward until its top was halted at the belt by the thickness of the skull. The slit opening was then exposed below his belt.

Fox had earlier created his fire-starting charcloth by placing a stack of cut squares of linen into a small round tin box, a boite de fer blanc, that had a tiny hole punched through its lid. When the box was heated on glowing coals, the fabric inside had carbonized instead of burning, since it was sheltered from oxygen in the closed container. After the smoke had stopped flowing from the hole, Fox had brushed the box from the fire and let it cool before opening the lid. He then transferred the rather delicate blackened fabric to the protection of his cowhorn container...

On the last day of the stay at camp, Fox arose early with Jacques. Man and dog made their way in the quiet of early dawn over the soft bed of moss which covered the forest floor. Passing thousands of tiny delicate white flowers, they reached the large fallen tree which had been the family's source of firewood during their entire stay. Fox reviewed its years of slow growth, from a tiny twig to a young sapling to a mature tree. He then considered the fierce wind which must have swept through a few years before, breaking the large tree off at about his head height and partially uprooting several others nearby, which now leaned at an acute angle to the north. In the manner of The People, he thanked the spirit of the broken tree for providing the family with branches for fires that cooked their meals, warmed them each evening, and gave a cheerful light for times of stories, songs, and quiet. Then, Silver Fox turned and reluctantly stepped back into the twentieth century."
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"Having only munched on walnuts, dried apples, and some leftover cornmeal cakes at midday, the family was ready for a feast by evening. After Fox kindled a fire with flint and steel, he poured water from the gourd bottle into the copper pot, covered it with its carved wooden lid, and hung it from the pot hanger over the fire. All the while, he heard the soft thunk-thunk of the stone mortar and pestle, as Otter crushed dried corn.

Sitting on the buffalo robe spread out near the cooking area, she first placed in front of her on the robe a deer hide, then upon it a small boulder of grey granite with a flat top. From the birchbark makuk beside her, Otter took a small handful of dried corn kernels, which she pounded and ground on the mortar with an oblong pestle of light brown granite. As more and more kernels were added to the center of the mortar and were crushed, the white and yellow corn meal worked its way to the outer edge of the mortar, where it fell onto the deer hide. After finishing the corn, Otter also crushed two tiny black balls called poivres (pepper corns), as spice for the soup. When Fox had first brought these peppers, she had not liked the strong flavor; but now she enjoyed the interesting zest it added to meals.

Into the steaming pot, Otter poured the corn meal, ground pepper, and jerky. With a jambette (clasp knife) from the bag at her belt, she also cut in a few shavings of ginger root. As she pared the root with the folding knife, with its pine wood handle and thin iron blade in the shape of a hawk's bill, she smiled at the memory of the first time she had ever used such a knife. At first, it had seemed awkward to maintain a steady pressure with her thumb or palm on the small button at the back end of the blade, to keep it in its fully opened position. But after only a few painful pinches between blade and handle, she had made it a habit to keep the pressure steady all the while the knife was in use.

After the evening meal, the family drew close around the fire on the fur robes, and passed the time with stories of long ago, before The People had contact with the French. Otter, the last to speak, told the tale of the Moose and the Woodpecker. This was a long, entertaining story that warned against boasting. As the evening waned, the dancing yellow flames turned into sparkling orange coals and finally to darkness, with only the heated sand of the fireplace radiating its warmth."
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"On the first evening, the family walked quietly past the moonlit burial ground and up onto the wooded crest of the island. Beneath the tall maples, they flushed out two deer that had come to investigate the intruders at the south end of their island. Later, back in the canvas shelter, everyone snuggled for the night into beds of woolen blankets and robes of buffalo and black bear.

The morning of the second day, it was time to explore the crest of the island. Running on ahead, Eagle was pleased to discover a very large ancient "sugar bush." This extensive grove of venerable maples had formerly been the scene of innumerable annual maple sugar harvests. The long, angular gashes made at that time in the trees to drain the sap had long since healed into thick, uneven scars. The trees had grown so much since those harvest days that many of the scars were now ten to twelve feet above the ground. Since the dense canopy of the maple tops had shaded the forest floor, no other trees or large underbrush had grown back between the spaced maple trunks since the brush was cleared away long ago for the sugaring operation. These trees had witnessed during many springtime seasons the contented chatter around kettles of boiling sap, and the glee of the youngsters as they feasted---after a long, hungry winter---on candy of maple syrup poured over clean snow.

The introduction of copper and brass kettles and pots had greatly eased the labors of boiling down maple sap into sugar in groves such as this one. With metal containers, The People were able to concentrate the syrup much more effectively than they had formerly done using their traditional containers of wood, pottery, bark, gourd, and hide.

After the midday meal, Otter and her family set out on foot to examine the heavily wooded shoreline all around the perimeter of the island. Tracks and droppings of deer were plentiful nearly everywhere. Upon reaching the windlashed west side, with its long expanses of waterworn cobblestones, it was clear why the Old Ones had decided to place their camp year after year on the lee side of the island. There, it was sheltered from the west and northwest winds, and handy to an excellent canoe landing area, which had a sloping sand bottom free of obstructions. At the south end of the island, the moist sand at the water's edge was covered with fisher tracks. The entire area was littered with opened mussel shells that glistened white in the sun. Here was where the fisher's feast had been interrupted the day before. Nearly lay a thick tangle of fallen trees and brush, in which he had hidden his den...

When the family had earlier examined the "sugar bush," Eagle had discovered a fist-sized burl growing at about his shoulder height on one of the maples deep in the grove. The burl was a gnarled round mass of wooden growth which had been produced when some injury to the tree had healed in the distant past. Using Fox's tomahawk, which required a two-handed swing for a boy, Eagle carefully chopped the burl free from the trunk. The chopped flat side of the growth would be hollowed out, using a couteau croche (crooked knife), to produce a drinking cup. The twisted grain of the gnarled mass would be virtually unbreakable, even if the cup were dropped onto a hard surface.

While Eagle was occupied in the maple grove, Hawk located an interesting natural growth as well. A thick woody vine had grown in a spiral pattern tightly around and around a sapling. Fox felled the sapling with its captor vine for his son, and cut off a section nearly as tall as Hawk. Since the younger son did not yet have a couteau boucheron (butcher or sheath knife) of his own, he used Otter's knife to carefully peel the fresh green bark from the two intertwined elements, to fashion a walking stick.

Sitting before the canvas shelter, Otter busied herself with an iron alesne (awl) and a length of sinew thread from an elk leg tendon. She resewed the central toe seam of one of Fox's moccasins, where a knot in the original sinew had become untied and had slipped a few stitches. Keeping footwear in repair was a common and recurring task of woodland life; but it was of no concern at all to the two crows that circled high above Otter as she worked.

One grey afternoon, the boys asked if they could do one of their favorite activities, molding lead balls for the wheellock pistol. In preparation, Fox found a slender bar of plomb (lead) in the scarred old trunk, and brought it to the fire, along with his hunting bag. He drew the tomahawk from its sheath, which was sewn to the long shoulder strap of the bag. Placing the bar on a log, he chopped the soft metal into chunks about the size of a finger joint. The newly-cut surfaces glinted with a bright silver color, in the contrast to the dull grey color of the other, older surfaces. Now the boys could safely take over. Hawk jammed the pointed shaft of the black iron louche (ladle) into one end of a forearm-long section of green sapling. Into the cupped end of the ladle he dropped two of the cut chunks of lead, and placed it in the base of the flames. The wooden handle allowed him to remain at a comfortable distance from the fire while the metal heated. When the lead reached the melting point, it quickly dissolved into a thick silvery liquid. A bit of thin grey scum floated on the top, the remnants of the dull grey coating which had been on the outer surfaces of the metal when it was in chunk form.

In the meantime, Hawk opened the pliers-shaped moule de balles (ball mold) of iron, and heated its head in the coals. The heat from the head traveled past the central rivet and into the handles, but he removed the mold from the coals before the handles became too hot. Eagle then held the pliers mold in a closed position in his left hand. Positioning the spout of the ladle over the hole or vent in the top of the mold, he filled the hole until it over-flowed slightly, and carefully laid the partially empty ladle aside. Opening the mold, he dumped the hot silvery ball onto a piece of old deer hide. The heat of the metal singed and puckered the hide slightly. Before the remaining lead in the ladle had a chance to cool, Hawk quickly filled the mold a second time, and dropped a second hot ball onto the hide. As they cooled, the silver color of the two spheres slowly turned a bit grey.

The first couple of balls were somewhat misshapen, due to uneven heat within the head of the mold. But after the first pours, each product was a complete sphere. However, each ball had a short cylindrical projection, which had been formed by the lead which remained in the hole of the mold. These spurs Fox trimmed off with a knife after the balls had completely cooled, saving the trimmed remnants to be later remelted to form more gun balls. The boys traded off in the molding production during the afternoon, and took much pride in the pile of balls that they finally loaded into the small moosehide ball pouch in the hunting bag.

While his sons admired their products, Fox described to them other types of ball molds. His iron mold formed only one ball at a time. Using other larger molds, made of iron or brass, up to fourteen small shot could be cast on each side of a mold in a single pouring operation, creating a total of twenty-eight balls at a time. In addition to ball molds made from iron or brass, others consisted of two halves carved from soft stone, such as soapstone. The halves were either tied together for the molding procedure or were mounted into two wooden handles that could be fastened together and released. Many molds were also carved from hard wood. To minimize the burning damage of the hot lead, these wooden varieties were dipped into water immediately before and after being filled with the molten metal.

The notches in Fox's stick finally indicated that a week had passed at the camp; the day of departure had arrived. In the quiet of early morning as the sun came up, a northbound wedge of geese honked over the little island of serenity and ancient ways. The family broke camp and loaded the canoe, reluctant to leave the life of the island and return to the modern world. A leaden sky closed in, a brisk wind picked up, and light rain began to fall. It required all the efforts of Fox and Otter, against a strong head wind and whitecaps, to paddle out to Isle Drummond and the twentieth century."

 

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