From Hunter- Trader- Trapper by “Martin Hunter”
I got an idea of relating the story of ‘A-Gat” from reading in the last number of hunter-Trader-Trapper, of the “Lost Hunter’s Contest”, in which several men are to do certain achievements in a limited time with restricted equipment. This trial, I take it , will be attempted and no doubt performed by men of bush experience, to whom, providing they go into a rabbit country, it will only be fun.
What “A-Gat”, an old woman, crippled in her lower limbs , accomplished with no accessories but a broken bladed jack-knife is set forth in the following story.
In the spring of 1869, that is, Spring on the great watershed, albeit the month of June, I saw one morning a queer looking craft propelled by a single paddle, in the hands of a woman, slowly approaching the shore on which our Post was built. The craft was so devoid of any set lines I hastened to the beach to receive the new arrival.
I recognized the occupant as an old woman by the name of “A-Gat” belonging to a certain band of our Northern Indians. I also recognized by her appearance that she had passed through some severe privations.
I had her carefully transported, at once, to one of our men’s houses and placed under the care of the man’s wife, a very careful and tender woman.
Her craft I had lifted from the water and carried into one of the sheds and this is a description of this unique vessel. Length eight feet, breadth two feet. Two round poles for gunwales, tied together at each end and extended midship by one bar which was merely whipped at each end on to the gunwales by wattap or roots.
The sheathing of the craft was composed of nineteen pieces of birch bark of different sizes and shapes all of which had been laboriously sewed together and to the gunwale with roots from the spruce tree. The shell was extended and given a certain amount of rigidity by five timbers, three abaft of the only bar and two between it and the bow.
All we found in the craft after the old woman had been taken to the house was a birch basket smeared with an inside coating of clay: packed inside the clay protection we found a quantity of broken up rotten wood, in the heart of which was a tiny fire. (In the olden days Indians often carried fire in this way for months to be blown up into a blaze when a camp fire was required.)
One small-sized rabbit-skin robe, a broken single-blade jack-knife with a bare two inches of the blade remaining, the hind leg of a rabbit roasted, and a drinking cup in the shape of a deep saucer made of birch bark and held together by a cleft stick. Her one and only paddle was merely a piece of split cedar fashioned roughly to shape and about four feet long. The foregoing is everything that poor old woman possessed and brought to the Post.
With care and attention, good food and warmth, in two days she was strong enough to be questioned and this is the story I drew from her:
Among the Indians who had cared for her during the past winter she numbered children and grandchildren. After their moose hunt to the south they came and camped on Maple island, a large Island on Lake Victoria, situated about fifty miles to the south of our Post and frequented each April by same band of Indians for the syrup and sugar the trees produced.
The Wapoos band of that year consisted of three men, four women and several children, and old “A-Gat” was one of the number. With abundance of smoked moose meat, an occasional rabbit and sugar en masse they lived sumptuously all the month of April and up to the middle of May.
One morning in May they broke camp and began carrying their belongings down the mountainside to the lake where their canoes had been cached on the Indian’s arrival.
“A-Gat” was told to remain at the camp fire until all was ready to embark when the two men would carry her down on a stretcher.
The rascals never returned and never intended to. They were tired of dragging and carrying the poor old woman about and had deliberately left her on that island to live or starve.
When night came on and no return of the Indians, the old woman recognized the fact that she had been deserted. She had heard of such things being done before by Indians, why should they not do this to her?
However, like a brave old woman, she set to work at once to make the best of things. She replenished the fire and drew herself on hands and knees about the old camp scraping for what she could find. Apart from the old knife already mentioned she only discovered some scraps of smoked meat, a few bones and a small piece of parchment. As she had no matches, flint or steel it behoved her to preserve fire above everything else.
In properly prepared rotten wood fire can be kept aglow for several days and this she saw to as her first duty to her salvation.
As there was yet snow in rocky crevices near the camp which could be converted into water A-Gat remained at the old place for several days, crawling about the bush on her hands and knees to any promising birch tree that she could peel a sheet from.
With her half-bladed knife she hacked down two sound young tamaracs for the gunwales of her canoe.
As the ground became clear of frost on the sunny side of the mountain she dug up her roots to sew the sheets of bark together and gathered gum from the spruce trees to pay her seams when her craft would reach the proper stage of advancement. The scraps she found about the old camp proved sufficient to sustain her for a few days. The old bones were then pounded up to extract the marrow and other fatty particles. This she succeeded in doing by making a large bark kettle well gummed at the seams. Into this she put the crushed bones with plenty of water, into which, from time to time she dropped hot stones raked from the fire, replaced by ones that had already done their part towards heating the water. This work she did after night had settled in for as long as there remained any day light she kept at other necessary work.
Before starvation overtook her, she had to crawl to a not very distant clump of young trees a resort for rabbits… There she broke down young wood for them to feed upon. When they were tamed down by feeding unmolested for a few nights she set snares made out of twisted strands of the inner bark of the cedar.
As she advanced her work for the canoe requirement, she caught and smoke-dried several of these little food supplies.
The poor old woman must have had a great system and worked every minute of her time. Just think of the handicaps she laboured under, her inability to walk a step or even assume and erect position. Yet able-bodies people of half her age would have given up in despair and simply laid down and died.
The lake lay a quarter mile distant from the mountain top, the descent was not in any way precipitous, but rather a gentle slope. A-Gat, however, knew that if once she made the lake shore she would never be able to return. The necessity of going down, canoe and all, presented itself before her reasoning powers and so she decided to construct her craft at the old camp and work her way down by gentle stages.
All her material being ready the sheets of bark, the roots to sew them together, the gunwales, the timbers, the gum to serve the seams and a plentiful supply of dried rabbit meat for her subsistence, A-Gat set to work on the construction of her craft that was to carry her to white people and safety.
An awl to pierce the bark in sewing a canoe is an essential tool but A-Gat had none. To overcome this want, she used a dry, hard branch sharpened to a point and then made harder by shoving it into hot ashes several times, she affixed this to a palm and a good substitute for a steel awl was ready for use.
I need not lengthen this article by following the building of her rough craft, suffice to say in three days she had her canoe ready and the start was for the next morning.
As the canoe and her belongings had to be dragged to the water’s edge and to do so over rough uneven ground would destroy the bark and gum, she hit upon a plan for it protection by tying branches of balsam boughs in three places along the canoe’s bottom and adjusting them from time to time as they became displaced.
Consider the laborious work entailed on this descent. The old woman had to crawl the length of the canoe each time she moved it and then work ahead till the stern was in her hands and repeat this for a quarter of a mile. Even when the descent was favourable for a gentle shove she dare not loose command of its motion in case it would come to grief against some tree or rock.
At last the lake was reached and as its surface lay calm before her the old woman decided to embark at once and make what progress she could towards the Post.
Being paralysed in her lower limbs she had great difficulty in embarking and debarking from her craft, a proper and suitable flat shore was absolutely necessary.
After availing herself of every calm she eventually arrived at the Post as has already been stated and these she became a pensioner of the Company to the end of her days.
Her cruel and unnatural relatives hearing of her escape from the island and her reception at the Post feared being punished and attached themselves thence-forth to a new trading Post several hundred miles away.
I kept that fearful and wonderfully made craft in our shed as a curiosity and left it there on my removal to another district.
I heard from my successor at that Post of the death of old A-Gat several years after my departure, well looked after during her declining years and decently buried at the end.