Authors: Farley Mowat
For my sons
Schoolroom in the Bush
N THE WINDSWEPT ICE OF A LAKE
in northern Manitoba two ravens sat hunched beside the frozen carcass of a caribou. Foxes and wolves had left precious little meat on the bones of the dead animal and the ravens circled each other threateningly while the sound of their harsh, disputing voices echoed across the subarctic silence of the lake.
Shambling through the dark woods along the shore, a wolverine raised his heavy head and listened. The cries of the ravens told him there was food nearby, and so he swung purposefully out on the ice in the direction of the birds.
On the north shore of the lake, where a clump of spruce trees stood thick and tall, a white husky sniffed the frigid air. He caught the musky taint of wolverine and his hackles rose. Throwing back his head he howled a challenge down the lake. At once a dozen other huskies sprang to their feet and joined in the wailing chorus.
Nestled snugly amongst the protecting trees near where the dogs were tethered stood a long, low cabin whose two windows stared owlishly out over Macnair Lake. Inside
this cabin Angus Macnair put down a book he had been reading aloud and stepped to the nearest window. He watched the dogs intently for a moment or two, then, with a shake of his red, piratical beard, he turned to face three boys who were watching him expectantly.
“Nay, lads. Tisna caribou they dogs is howlin' after. Wolves maybeâ¦or a wolverine. But dinna fuss yersel's, they caribou wull soon be comin' back this way and then we'll hae fresh meat again.”
He settled himself into a chair, picked up the book and continued with the lesson for the day.
Angus Macnair hardly looked the part of a schoolteacher. He was a massive and craggy-faced trapper who had lived in the Canadian northlands since leaving the
Orkney Islands at the age of thirteen. The schoolroom was the Macnair cabin, a cluttered and low-ceilinged log structure redolent with the gamey smell from scores of pelts that hung drying from the rafters. Here Angus taught school for three days each week. During the remainder of the week teacher and students were absent from Macnair Lake, tending their traplines which ran for as much as fifty miles to the north, east, west and south.
As Angus continued reading, his nephew Jamie listened from his perch on a log beside the sheet-iron stove. Jamie's blue-eyed, sharp-featured face, under a mat of unkempt blond hair, was bent over a wooden stretcher balanced on his knees, as with practiced hand he scraped the flesh side of a fox skin with a blunt knife blade.
Next to him, on the edge of a log bunk, sat Awasin Meewasin, the son of the chief of the Cree Indians who lived at nearby Thanout Lake. Awasin was lean and dark, black-eyed and black-haired, and as taut and wiry as a rabbit snare.
The third “student” was by all odds the most striking member of the trio. His amiable, high-cheekboned face would have seemed Oriental had it not been for his wide blue eyes and the tangle of flaming red hair hanging over his forehead. This was Peetyuk. His father had been a wandering English trapper named Frank Anderson. Many years earlier Anderson had gone far out into the open Barrens to the north of Macnair Lake to spend a winter trapping white fox. Here he had met and married an Eskimo woman. Shortly before the birth of his child, Anderson had gone through the spring ice of a lake and had been drowned, leaving his son Peetyuk to be raised by the Eskimos.
The boys were particularly interested in the book Angus was reading them this day. It was a history of the early Norwegian voyages to America made long before the time of Columbus. The chapter Angus had begun that morning described how, about the year 1360, a Viking expedition sailed to Greenland and then on to North America, perhaps by way of Hudson Bay. Then it told of the finding of a strangely inscribed stone at Kensington, Minnesota, in 1898. This stone bore a message in Runic, the ancient writing of the Nordic peoples.
“When the inscription was translated,” Angus continued, “it proved to be a record left by eight Swedes and
twenty Norwegians on an exploring journey to the west. The runes told how the party camped one night on an island in a lake. The next day most of them went fishing, leaving ten men to guard the camp. When the fishermen returned they found their comrades dead and covered with blood. The runes also spoke of an additional ten men who had been left to guard the expedition's ship at a place on the sea fourteen days' distance from the scene of the massacre. The date carved on the stone was 1362â¦”
Angus looked up. “Here's a picture of yon stane, wi' all its markin's,” he told the boys. “Aye, Jamie and they look verra like the markin's on the wee bit o' lead Jamie and Awasin found awa out on the Barrens last summer. Fetch it to me, Jamie, and we'll hae a look.”
Jamie jumped to his feet and from a shelf under the rafters brought down a piece of sheet lead about six inches square. The boys clustered around Angus as the trapper laid the little lead plaque on the page opposite the drawing of the Kensington Stone.
“Nae doot about it! The markin's are the same sort. I wouldna wonder if the cache where ye found yon bit of lead was made by the self-same lot what carved yon stane. Och! 'Tis too bad we canna read the writin', laddies.”
Jamie's eyes shone with excitement. “If the writing
the same, then the other stuff we saw at that cache must be Norse too. I'll bet it's worth a fortune!”
“A fortune? Aye. But if they things ye found are truly Norse they're worth a guid deal mair than money, lad. 'Twould maybe help to write a whole new chapter in the history of America. In any case we'll surely make a trip out
to yon place come summertimeâthough wi' considerable more care than you two took.”
Jamie and Awasin had the grace to look shame-faced. They were remembering only too vividly their nearly fatal journey of the previous year when they accompanied a Chipeweyan hunting party on a visit to the Barrenlands and discovered the mysterious cache. Through their own willfulness they became separated from the Indians, lost their canoe and most of their gear on a rapid, and were then forced to spend several months struggling desperately to survive the Barrenlands winter. In the end they escaped with their lives only because they were lucky enough to encounter Peetyuk and the Eskimos.
Angus closed the book and put it carefully on a shelf with the score or so of well-worn volumes which formed his treasured library.
“School's over for the week,” he told the boys. “Awa' wi' ye the noo and do yere chores while I cook up a meal.”
When the boys had gone outside Angus stood at the window for a minute and watched them fondly. Peetyuk was busy chopping birch logs into stove lengths while Jamie and Awasin took turns wielding a long ice-chisel to open a water hole in the frozen lake. As Angus watched he pondered on the circumstances which had brought these three to his once lonely cabin.
Jamie had come to him from a southern Canadian city three years earlier when he lost both his parents in an au
tomobile accident, leaving Angus as his only living relative. During those years Jamie had changed from a rather puny boy to a tough and competent youth who was now almost as much at home in the subarctic forests as was Awasin, who had been born there.
The farthest south Awasin had ever been was to the mission school at Pelican Narrows (a mere two hundred miles away), where he had learned to speak and read good English. But Awasin hungered after knowledge, and when Angus Macnair began schooling Jamie, Awasin easily persuaded his father, Alphonse Meewasin, to let him spend the winter months at the Macnair cabin as one of Angus's students.
Peetyuk came to join the little group at Macnair Lake as a result of his accidental meeting with Jamie and Awasin in the Barrenlands. The Eskimo band to which Peetyuk's mother belonged brought the two rescued boys south to safety. When the Eskimos returned to their own country they left Peetyuk in Angus Macnair's care since they believed it was time for the boy to learn something of the world of his dead father, Frank Anderson.
By the time the woodbox and the water pails were full Angus had lunch ready. It consisted of a savory mess of barley boiled up with dried caribou meat and a slab of fat pork. Big chunks of fresh sourdough bread and pint mugs of sweet black tea went with it.
The boys lingered long over the meal, discussing plans for a summer expedition to the Barrens to revisit the
strange stone cache. They might have spent the whole of the short winter afternoon talking about the projected trip if Angus had not recalled them to reality.
“Och, laddies! This is no way to make a catch of fur. Awa' wi' ye noo! And see to it ye bring hame a fine load o' pelts. We'll be wantin' the money to pay for new canoes and a' the other gear we'll be needin' for yon trip tae Eskimo Land.”
Setting the example himself, Angus pulled on his big parka, his deerskin mittens and his heavy moccasins. When he shouldered his pack and started for the door, the boys were close behind him.
In his hurry to be the first away Jamie sprinted to his cariole (the narrow toboggan which bush trappers favor), where he dumped his pack before springing to the dog-line to unleash his huskies. He had three dogs. Two were small, rangy beasts which had belonged to his uncle. The third was a huge white husky called Fangâone of two lost Eskimo dogs Awasin and Jamie had found out on the Barrens.
The yard now became a pandemonium of shouting boys and howling dogs. Peetyuk was the first to get his team harnessed, and with a derisive shout of farewell he jumped on the tail end of his long Eskimo sled and went careening off to the southward over the lake ice. Jamie and Awasin got away a few moments later. For a while their teams ran neck and neck, each straining to draw ahead of the other. But when Jamie began shouting “Chaw! Chaw!” his team obediently turned left, swinging toward the eastern side of the lake.
Angus was still methodically hitching up his dogs as the two carioles and the sled raced away from the cabin. He shook his head as he watched the wild progress of the three boys, but he was smiling.
“Juliet, lass,” he said as he tightened his lead dog's belly strap, “they're a' three of them as daft as badgers.”
Juliet whined in reply, then thrust her shoulders against the traces, giving the signal to the other dogs to take a strain. Sedately she led the team out onto the ice and Angus's cariole turned away on the long northern trail.
The chill silence of a January afternoon settled down over the cabin as a last fugitive wisp of blue smoke curled upward through the old black chimney pipe.