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HomeNL-2009-09 Tales of the North

Plain Tales of the North
by Capt. Thierry Mallet
(Introduction by John Rich)

I have on my bookshelf a small old volume with browning pages called "Plain Tales of the North", by Capt. Thierry Mallet, published in 1925. I recently pulled it off the shelf for a re-read. It consists of a series of short stories, each only one or two small pages in length.

Mallet worked for a company called Revillon Frères, a fur trading and luxury goods company, which competed with the more famous Hudson Bay Company. Part of his job for 20 years was to inspect trading posts on the outskirts of civilization in northern Canada. This book is a collection of stories from his adventures in those remote places.

The company financed the filming of the 1922 movie "Nanook of the North", which was filmed at one of their trading posts. The firm served as the conduit by which furs were brought out of the wilderness, often by canoe, where they would end up worn on the shoulders of the wealthy in places like New York, London and Paris. Revillon Frères has now become the cosmetic company... Revlon.

The following are two stories from this book about those early days of canoeing in the far north wilderness.
A Moose Story
It never pays to take any liberties with a wild animal when one believes that the latter is at one's mercy.

In 1908, two Indians, when crossing a large lake in Northern Ontario in a small canoe, came across a big bull moose swimming from an island to the mainland. They needed the meat but preferred waiting until the animal was near land before shooting it. They accordingly decided to have some fun! The man at the bow found a rope, lassoed the moose by its antlers, then tied the other end of the rope to the front thwart.After that the two Indians squatted down at the bottom of the canoe, yelling sarcastic remarks to the poor wild-eyed animal which was towing them with the strength of a good sized tug.

When this strange outfit drew near the shore, the man in the bow picked up his rifle. It was an old, single barrel muzzle loader. He aimed carefully and pressed the trigger, but the weapon missed fire. Pulling up the hammer, he repeated the performance with the same result. Meanwhile, the moose was touching bottom. The Indian, realizing that the cap in his gun was wet, began to search frantically for a new one. In his excitement he forgot to pull out his knife and cut the rope. At that spot, the bottom of the lake sloped up abruptly. Before the man could find a new cap, the moose was halfway up to his shoulders in the water. With an angry shake of the head and a loud snort, the enraged animal bounded forward. In a second the canoe upset, pitching men and freight into six feet of icy cold water.

When the two Indians came up to the surface, the first thing they saw was the stern of their canoe vanishing in the bush. That was also the last they ever saw of either moose or canoe.

Crestfallen, shivering and hungry, they reached the trading station one day later - sadder, wiser and on foot.
A Birch Bark Canoe
A canoe, may she be a 16-foot cruiser, or a 22-foot freighter, is at all times a small craft, especially on a lake when the nearest shore happens to be a very long distance off.

Men who live in the far North pass all their time on the water as soon as the ice disappears in the spring. They are so accustomed to their cranky canoes that it never occurs to them to bother about what they should do if, by any chance, something unusual happens. But in case of emergency they think and act very quickly. I had an example of it a few years ago on Abitibi Lake.

Two Indians were freighting a heavy load of hardware in a birch bark canoe. They had a head wind and the waves were pretty high. The man at the bow thought the canoe was packed too much by the stern and shouted over his shoulder to the steersman to shift some of the load forward. The latter, from his seat in the stern, seized a 25-pound bag of lead shot at his feet and threw it five feet or so in front of him towards the middle of the canoe. The bag landed in an empty space right at the bottom of the canoe. The craft was old and rotten. The bag of shot simply broke the ribs, tore a gaping hole in the birch bark and disappeared straight down to the bottom of the lake.

Instantly the water started pouring in. One mile from shore, a nasty sea running and a leak larger than a man's head which would fill and sink any canoe in a few minutes.

The steersman gave one yell and then jumped like a huge frog, landing in a sitting position right in the middle of that hole. He stuck there, shivering, with water to his waist, until the bowman, realizing the danger and paddling madly for shore, succeeded at last in beaching the canoe high and dry.

The author, Capt. Thierry Mallet