The Gypsy Picnic*

19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon

“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” ~Theodore Roosevelt

Half an hour after leaving the Indian village we reached Falcon River, a narrow winding stream running in a swamp between hills. About half a mile down we struck our camp for the night, at a spot where a rude wharf or landing of logs had been built by the contractors’ haymakers. Inside a rude “corelle [corral],” or paddock, where they had kept their cattle, we pitched our tent and made a fire.

The night set in so dark and cloudy that, unless within the immediate blaze, it was impossible to see what we were doing. We were hungry, and the added luxury of potatoes made us anxious to have dinner as soon as possible. Carrière brought in wood for the night, Mr F— made up our tent, and Mr M— superintended stowing the canoes.

Meanwhile Frank put our precious potatoes in a tin kettle over the fire, and, in mistaken zeal, the frying pan of pork at the same time. The latter, of course, was cooked long before the former, so, taking it off the fire, he set it on the ground nearby. Mr M— coming up a moment after, and yielding to the universal desire to “poke the fire,” stepped into the pan of pork.

While we were laughing over his propensity for tumbling into things, Carrière, who, poor fellow, was still suffering terribly from rheumatism, limped up with a log on his shoulder, and also fell foul of the pork. At the same moment a lantern appeared in the distance, carried by Mr F—, on his return from the canoe.

Jumping over the fence, he exclaimed, “By Jove! That blaze is good. I’ll get warm before I do anything else,” and stepped back splash into the ill-fated pan of pork, making what was left of the contents fly in every direction.

“That’s a bad place for it!” said Carrière, coolly picking up the pieces, and putting it on the other side of the fire.

“Are those potatoes boiled yet?” Frank shouted from the darkness, and, being answered in the affirmative, made his appearance with the bag containing our dinner service of tin and other table necessaries. Tea made, drawn, and the potatoes boiled to a turn, Frank prepared to serve up the dinner, but looked in vain for the pork.

“I say, Carrière, what have you done with the frying pan? I left it just here!” he cried, seizing a brand from the fire for a torch. Scarcely had he uttered the words when a stumble and “O Lord!” told us that the pork was really done for this time.

Rain fell heavily all night, but held off in the morning long enough for us to get breakfast and start, which we lost no time in doing as there was a long paddle before us to our next campground.

Oh, the windings of that Falcon River! In some parts not more than a canoe’s length wide, and in none more than two, it wound in and out, up and down, this way and that. For 100 feet we were dead against the wind, then a sharp turn sent us spinning along before it, when, standing up, I held the waterproof in my outstretched arms as a sail. Each bend of the shore was so abrupt that the impetus of turning drove the canoe half a length into the long grass, and it was with some difficulty backed out. We were cut off from our companions’ canoe, but could see their heads apparently only a few feet from us, as the crow flies; but so numerous were the turns of the river between us, that they were really half a mile behind.

At noon we stopped at another haymaker’s deserted campground, and took shelter from the now pouring rain under a lean-to of poles covered with bark. A low shanty near, having a rude crank for holding a kettle over the fire, we had a comfortable lunch. Out in the open, where there were remnants of rough cultivation, was a sundial made of a jagged-edged flat piece of tin, the figures scratched with a knife. Carrière said that it was the best campground on the river, and, while a gang of men were there, was comfortable.

If anyone from the more civilized world had seen us idly lolling about on the logs, or ground, in our traveling costumes, the Indians leaning against the uprights, the baby as happy as a queen on an outspread buffalo robe, the tin plates and mugs, knives, forks, and kettles, to say nothing of the whisky keg, and general debris of a finished feast, and, at the same time, heard the steady, drenching rain descending round us, he might have wondered at the laughter, fun, and chaff in which we all indulged.

But we could not stay there all day, and the rain showing no sign of abating, we set out again. Not far from the campground we passed an Indian standing on the bank near two birchbark canoes, while up on the hill a wretched wigwam sent forth the usual number of squaws, children, and dogs to greet our approach. The Indian had no potato, no duck, no fish, no anything to sell; so, with a “Bon jour, nitchee,” we sped on.

About this time I noticed that my hat, a brown straw with green leaves somewhere among the trimming, was weeping blue tears all down my ulster. Taking the drenched and now almost colorless leaves out, I sent them afloat on the river, mentally resolving that if I ever undertook a journey of the kind again, I would have a casing of waterproof, and leave voluminous skirts and useless adornments at home.

At one of the landing spots was an upright pole, from the top of which hung half a dozen muskrats, tied together with a red string; and such is the honesty of the Indians, that they might hang there until they rotted off, before any but the rightful owner would touch them.

Carrière said the swamp was full of traps, and pointed out many spots where he knew they were placed to catch the muskrats, but which to our eyes were undistinguishable from the rest of the swamp.

On, on, down the interminable river. The rain was still falling, and we were all gradually getting numbed and quiet. Running into the shore, or spinning before the wind, no longer afforded any excitement. We progressed so far ahead of the other canoe that we could not hear even Mr K—’s “Whoop it up!” as he called the wild halloo [hello] in which he indulged whenever he thought our spirits needed raising.

Pulling up under the shelter of some bulrushes—for the wind was becoming keener every moment—we waited with chattering teeth until our comrades joined us, then we kept together better for the remainder of the way. During the afternoon we several times crossed the south or first line surveyed for the Canada Pacific Railway, which has been proved by recent inquiries the most inexpensive route. But I could not help pitying the “party” that had to work through such a wretched country.

As we neared the mouth of the river, we felt the wind gusting; and vague fears of what the weather would be like outside, and what chance there was of landing, began to assail us. However, there was nothing for it but to persevere. Near dusk, the wash of the waves on the shore warned us that we were on the Falcon Lake. Subdued by atmospheric woes, we heard the sound without comment; but it revived the drooping energies of our rowers, who put on a spurt, so that we were soon across the bay.

Beyond the point great whitecaps tossed and raged before the fury of the wind. If we could only round the point, a good campground awaited us, but it was a question whether the canoes could live through the turn. However, the alternative of landing in a swamp made it worth the attempt. Asking me if I was afraid to venture, and being answered, “Not if you are not!” Mr M— headed the canoe toward the lake.

In a moment we were abreast of the point, when Carrière said, “Better not try it, sir; it is too dark to cross the lake, and on this shore the canoe would be dashed to pieces before we could unload her.”

So we turned, and a few vigorous strokes drove the canoe well up into the long grass, where we sat a moment waiting for the next scene of the tragicomedy. It was Mr M— “in again,” but purposely this time. Rolling up their trousers as high as they could, the men jumped into the swamp, and though sinking nearly to their waists, with a “Heave-ahoy!” they pulled the loaded canoe well up to the bank. Then bidding us stay quiet until they got the tents pitched and the fire alight, they left us in the fast-gathering darkness to do that hardest work of all, which generally falls to woman’s lot—to wait.

As we sat silently there, the baby asleep, the maid telling her woes over the side of the canoe in the most heart-rending manner, we were nearly startled out of our wits by the sudden appearance of a birchbark canoe propelled by two shaggy-haired Indians, which glided into the swamp alongside of us. Listening to the ring of axes and voices on shore, then pointing to us, they asked some question in their own tongue, which we answered by pointing to the land and nodding. With an “Ugh!” they left their canoe and went on shore, where they were immediately pressed into service to unload and gather hay for our beds. In their canoe they had a “tom-tom”—an instrument something between a drum and a tambourine, which they play at all their feasts and gambling bouts—a scarlet-top-knotted cock of the woods, a small fish, a little birchbark basket with the lid tightly sewed down, and an old wornout blanket.

It was quite dark by the time we landed, cramped and cold from our long day on the river. I, however, was the best off, as I had the width of the canoe to myself, and was not afraid to move about a little, while Mrs F— had to share her seat with the maid and the baby.

We floundered helplessly up the wet path, sinking over our ankles in many places, but a glorious fire on the top of the height greeted us, and a mug of hot whisky and water—taken medicinally, of course—made us quite ready to eat a hearty dinner and dry our wet clothes. The tent was prepared; and, drying under its folds, we divested ourselves of one garment, and after drying it dived under again, to put it on while we dried the next. Hammering sticks into the ground round the fire, we soon surmounted them with an array of different-sized boots and various-colored stockings.

We held more voluminous articles to the fire ourselves, avoiding the sparks as best we might, and closing our eyes to let the smoke-drawn tears roll slowly down our cheeks, to be opened suddenly by an outcry from the other side of the fire— “Look out there, Miss F—! Your flannel skirt is burning!”

As I grasped the precious article, and quenched the sparks with my hands, I saw through the flames some of his own garments floating into the fire. The wind blew the sticks down and prostrated an impromptu clothesline with all its load, while the maid’s lugubrious [glum] countenance, as she dried petticoat after petticoat and skirt after skirt, set me speculating how much there would be left of her if she took them all off.

Our Indian visitors sat hugging their knees and holding their bare feet to the fire, gazing with stolid [unemotional] indifference at all the trouble we made over our absurd superfluities [excess] of clothing. Frank was lying on the hay nearby, threatening them with the dire vengeance he would wreak on their back if they got up during the night and burned the dry wood he had had such difficulty collecting (which was to be kept for cooking breakfast), and of how little value their life would be to them if they so much as laid a finger on the tent he was going to leave standing there (ready to occupy on his way back). The wilder his threats became, the more expressionless their face; not a gleam of intelligence crossed them when he said he knew well enough they could speak English as well as he could.

He had been taken in by Indians once, but never would Redskin impose on him again. And he laughed scornfully at the idea.

We sat up late that night, as the rain had ceased, and we had been so dull all day that we felt bound to make up for it now, especially as this was to be our last night in camp. Frank and Carrière vied with each other in relating their narrow escapes from accidents and scarcity of provisions, when Hudson Bay fare of “one pound of flour, half a pound of tea, and one pound of fat pork, or one jackfish [pike] six mile long,” would have been appreciated. These stories were varied by anecdotes of people with whom they had traveled. A trick of speaking or peculiarity of expression or action, cleverly mimicked by the Indians, punctuated their story and gave pungency [flavor] to their wit.

“All for each, and each for all, is a good motto; but only on condition that each works with might and main to so maintain himself as not to be a burden to others.” ~Theodore Roosevelt

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Winslow Homer’s Camp Fire

*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 16. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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