By James LaForest
As part of the continuing effort of collecting stories about French Canadian and Métis life from around the Great Lakes, I offer my second contribution to the collection, based on the life of my grandfather. The “Woodsman” is a kind of archetype, which is firmly embedded in the North American psyche. It is, I believe, as much a way of thinking as a way of life. It harkens back to the earliest days of European settlement in North America. He was created during the era of first contact when old worlds collided, shared, merged, and created something new. —JL
Once, not long ago, there was a man who lived in the Northwoods. He was a “Frenchman” as some said: but really he was a Canayen, a French-Canadian, an old bois brûlé from generations of coureurs des bois and adventurers. He might just as easily have been a Scotsman or Native American. But this one was a French-speaking trapper, born at the dawn of the 20th century. In life he became many things. He was gamekeeper, a trapper, a man more at home in the wilderness than in town. He was like many men who came before him, whose numbers dwindled through the decades when ‘frontier’ became a thing of the past, when words like ‘homestead’ and ‘adventurer’ began to lose meaning.
In his own age, he was called the last of his kind, a dying breed. His name was Sam. His brothers were Louis and Albert, his cousins Olivier and Josephine, Anne and Leo. At one time he was also known as Hormidas after a great-uncle. Hormidas . . . an unwieldy baptismal name that eventually gave way to the simpler Sam, and that was how he was known throughout his short life: a ranger of the woods who, like so many before him, died young at just 52.
Sam was born to parents whose families had long moved among different nations, living as their ancestors had, crossing without concern the invisible but powerful ‘medicine line’ between Canada and the United States. They were fishermen, hunters, and laborers. They were Roman Catholics and poorly read, but spoke two languages at least, played music by ear, solemn and joyous songs passed down over generations. They told stories.
Their lives were not any more simple than ours today and no less complicated in their time; in those years of migrating, the world shifted beneath their feet. Seismic shifts in industry and culture began to reshape the world, changes that would last decades, or centuries: a kind of forever. Sam’s family had moved from a place his folk had known for generations, to another place where their forebears had landed many decades before. It must have been very familiar to them in a way, just the other side of the river, but a new country all the same.
They left one place named for an Indian warrior, Tecumseh; and they left one little French-Canadian hamlet, Pointe-aux-Roches, for another across the strait, River Rouge. The names of those places reflected the shape and quality of the land, the heroes of ages past. And they reflected the inevitability of change: the amalgam of ‘River Rouge’ seems to me a sad compromise away from the earlier name Rivière Rouge, a river that courses through local history like blood. Muskrat French country.
They didn’t move alone, as a father, a mother, and children. They moved with a large family of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and many grandchildren and cousins. Their reasons for moving are lost to time, but we can guess: more opportunities, more space, maybe just a change of scenery. From a weedy lakeshore to a river bank, from one marshland to another. And, soon, they moved again, away from the riverine world of their old territory. Within a few years they left the urban periphery where they had landed with their documents and where my grandfather was born along with a brother, enfants 5 et 6 sur 12. They left for the tip of Lower Michigan, and the boy Sam would find his feet in the northern country that was not unlike the watery wilderness his parents and grandparents left before. They arrived in a new town, with a faux Indian name plucked from Hiawatha. They settled in, once again on the edge of town, across the lowland marsh, across the creek into Frenchtown, now a long forgotten speck in the northlands of America.
All through these Northwoods, rivers and streams stretch for many miles, fed by springs which in turn feed chains of ponds and lakes, estuaries forming swampland, widening their flows as they empty into the inland seas. Here is the habitat of a great variety of animal life. Today, along these rivers, you still find the sport fishermen who seek the beloved trout or angle for a sturgeon. But there is also an abundance of housing. It’s not the isolated paradise it once was. The remote cabins of previous generations have given way to developments that resemble suburbs more than vacation spots. It is still the great ‘Up North.’ But now it is fashioned in the image of a new resident, a new vacationer, for a new time, just as other people transformed the landscape in another age.
My father and grandfather and their fathers before them inhabited these woods in their time. They hiked the same swamps, balanced on the same river banks, patient for a good catch, checking traps with the season, filling their buckets with berries in the Summer heat. When I was a boy just a few decades ago, I’d ask my father and grandmother what my grandfather did for a living and they’d describe to me a “woodsman.” Woodsman. Back then, I thought that meant lumberman. But learning the stories of their lives, and so many like them, I came to understand that the axe and the lumber mill were not their fate.
They were not the bucheron driving huge logs down narrow rivers to the lumber mills. My grandfathers were the gens libre of old: free men who stood just a bit outside society, who chose nature before civilization, who chose the river and the skiff over the train and crosscut saw. My grandfather: a woodsman. He worked where and when he could, a day laborer who fed his family off the land. It was a deep and intimate knowledge of the seasons and the produce of the land that allowed him to live in the long tradition of the French Métis, a chicot, in an era when others might have starved, the Depression.
A story comes down the generations, through my aunt, of my grandfather: he was once trapping out along the Black River in the Tip of the Mitt, in the 1930’s. There came a time when he was found to be trapping on private land by its owner. Invisible lines were no less real to those who drew them on a map. He might have been cautioned, sent away, maybe even put in jail. But his skills were seen as useful to this particularly wealthy businessman, who had a grand cottage there, on Black Lake, where grandpa had set traps. Grandpa was a likeable, trustworthy person and he soon became a part-time caretaker on the estate.
According to my aunt, part of grandpa’s job was to remove unwanted animals from the property. The owner of the land, a Detroit ad man, was staying at the cottage and was having trouble sleeping because of some birds nearby that kept him up at night. He called my grandfather over and told him to get rid of them, whatever they were. So my grandfather went out at night to figure out where the birds were and to see what he could do, only to discover that the noisemakers were a pair of whippoorwills. The only way to get rid of them for good he knew was to shoot them, but the idea of killing such birds seemed to him like killing a beautiful song. The story goes that he scared the birds away all night, unwilling to kill the birds for the sake of the man’s rest. That night, the owner slept well however. The next day, grandpa went to the ad man, got his pay, and left – never to return to the man’s property. Whether or not the birds did, I can’t say.
This was my grandfather, the woodsman. He understood that animal life was part of our sustenance and what made nature work in harmony. He was a trapper. He understood the value of life, and to waste it was not harmony at all. Trapping for fur was how he made money and fed his family. His daughters still tell of fleshing pelts when they were little girls. But he respected nature in a way that a man who wanted birds killed just so he could sleep at night perhaps never could.
Though I never knew my grandfather the woodsman, he passed down to me through our family so much knowledge of how we should be, and how we should treat the world around us. So, although not in so many words, one of his teachings was surely that people who truly love nature do not wantonly destroy. People who are true ‘woodsmen’ do not hunt or fish just to make sport; they respect nature as a precious gift.
I’ve roamed these same Northwoods, floated the same rivers that my grandfather and his parents did. Their lives and traditions came down to me through the stories of life in nature relayed across the generations. Through his mother, my grandfather was French Métis, a lineage stretching back to the Kaskaskia, part of the Illinois Confederation, who lived along Lake Michigan and later the Kaskaskia River. Grandpa Sam was a real Canadien, a mixed-blood Frenchman of old. I imagine he would have been as good a guide as gamekeeper, descending from the First Nations of our lakes and from the Voyageurs. Like them, he would surely have ported the bales of fur across many a portage had he lived a century earlier.
This man, my grandfather, who died nearly 70 years ago, still lives on in the imagination and hearts of so many people who never even knew him. Maybe his strength of spirit has lived on because he was so thoroughly a woodsman and so much of how I understand him is based on what I learned from his loved ones of his connection to the nature around him: the lakes, rivers, and woodlands of the Black River country of Cheboygan and Presque Isle counties, Michigan.
During the family’s wartime sojourn in the city of Detroit, my grandfather the woodsman wrote a poem in a little autograph book for his youngest daughter in which he lamented the factory work the war effort required, longing for a return to the Northwoods. For her part, Aunt Corrine remembered that he could make music with anything he picked up, and that there seemed to be a rhythm in everything he did. Like so many generations before him, the heroic voyageurs who kept pace and time with song across the untamed wilderness of the Upper Country, he was a woodsman because he found his own rhythm in the rivers’ currents, the breeze at the top of a hill, and in the ebb and flow of physical life that both sustains and ultimately eludes us.
©James LaForest 2017