By Genot “Winter Elk” Picor
My last entry recalled the fate of two of our companions who perished in the Lac Huron maelstrom, and the near devastation wreaked upon us by the storm. We were stranded somewhere between the upper d’etroit river and the eastward point the Saguinam Bay peninsula.
I recovered my journal from the flotsam which was surprisingly unscathed by the near disaster that took two of our companions. I had wrapped the journal tightly in oiled buckskin to protect it from the elements and tucked it safely away in my baggage. The box in which it was packed was found some distance on the shore. The maelstrom that nearly wiped us out was slow to subside, dumping nearly a foot of snow on us hapless souls as it proceeded to the southwest. We sought shelter under our two remaining canoes for two days, surviving on our scant provisions and good spirits.
Gradually, some of the toile et peaux (canvas and skins) dried by the fire, which we kept alive with great care. The buffalo hides that Achille had procured prior to our journey were surprisingly resilient to the moisture that soaked us through. As the hours passed and our clothing dried, we entertained ourselves with stories, many of which we had told before. We acted as though we had heard them for the first time in order to buoy our spirits. Had we fallen into a deep sleep, we might have frozen to death.
The snow that had fallen over the two days eventually melted away, leaving the ground soaked and slippery. We had decided to press onward, to the north with hopes of eventually reaching our homes along the Straits of Mackinac. In my mind, I bid farewell to the stand of trees that had protected us from the vicious northeast wind. Now that we were fully dry, we loaded our canoes, taking with us only what was essential. Even with the reduced load, the two canoes were packed full and low to the waterline.
Lac Huron had not yet iced over and navigation was still possible. By the time we reached the eastern tip of Saguinam Bay (Saginaw Bay at Point Aux Barques), Achille estimated we were about 50 leagues or 125 miles from the Straits of Mackinac. If we were to cross open water from the eastern tip of the Saguinam peninsula to the village of Chief Otawas (now called Tawas), we might be able to save two days. We questioned the wisdom of such an action and arguments erupted among the men. Squalls were unpredictable and the cold of early December was gripping us. Our hands and feet were numb.
Good sense prevailed and we followed the shore of Saguinam Bay, arriving at the island at the mouth of the Saguinam River where we had camped in August. We recalled with some humor the night we battled swarms of mosquitos on that very spot during the month of July. Unknown to us at the time, Achille reminded us of the post that was occupied by the Saguinam Voyageur Brigade, a short distance up the river. Our two canoes proceeded with some hope that we would be given shelter and hospitality, but upon arriving at our destination, we found the post had been abandoned.
A light, misty snow was swirling in the air, so we decided to make use of the abandoned barracks. We had the good sense to not abandon our tools and fusils de chasse (hunting rifles). Some of the men went off to forage for food. Others set traps or hunted. I, along with my companion Devereux decided to spear or net fish along the river. A structure behind the barracks would be used for a smokehouse to preserve our meat and fish. Stored inside the smokehouse were more tools to be used at our will should they be required. Achille and Mainard stayed behind to gather firewood, and if need be, to fell a tree for that purpose.
Our practical decision to avoid risking open water was indeed the right one, for within a few hours, a steady snowfall was closing in our surroundings. When we had returned to the barracks with our bounty, Mainard was acting in a most peculiar manner. He was bumping into tables and chairs. Finding utensils for cooking had become most difficult. It was as if he had been blinded by some unknown sorcery. Mainard plopped onto the puncheon floor of the barracks and rested against the stone hearth. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath.
“Mes amis, je ne peux pas voir (My friends, I cannot see)!” he announced.
Everyone stopped what they were doing and rushed to his side to offer assistance.
Achille huffed and then spoke.
“Sometime diss ‘appens to ‘im when duh wedder change quick!”
Mainard opened his eyes and stared blankly ahead.
I looked back over my shoulder and frowned at Achille. I thought he should have been kinder to our friend. I addressed Mainard.
“Tell us how we can help you,” I offered.
“It goin’ tuh pass I ‘ope. It ‘ard to say ‘bout what I see,” he whispered.
“Then you can see something?” I asked.
“Ouais (Yes) ! It look like un croissant brillant (a bright crescent). It get larger and spread out like a wave,” he said, imitating the movement of the hallucination with his fingers. “Den, I get un mal à la tête (a headache) after it go away.*
None of us, save for Achille, had ever heard of such a thing, and the knowledge of this unknown malady had come to him from being with Mainard for decades. Within the hour, the affliction had passed, and Mainard fell into a deep sleep that was punctuated by his snoring. That night, the steady fall of snow continued. We woke the following morning to clear, pristine skies and bone-numbing cold. The heavy west wind penetrated the loose chinking between the logged walls of the barracks. We scrambled to find any material that could fill the open cracks. The deep and drifting snow prevented us from traveling far, and we soon resigned ourselves to being imprisoned in the barracks for the winter.
If I survived the winter, I would be regarded as “un hivernant” (winter dweller) in every sense of the word. This new status elevated me above that of a simple engagé or mangeur de lard (seasonal voyageur who often ate pork ) who returned home after the season. As I was relishing in my newfound rank, I realized this would be mon premier Noël loin de chez moi (my first Christmas away from home). My joy changed to sadness.
We were soon faced with another hardship. The barracks were not meant to be occupied during the winter. Some of the cedar shingles had rotted and gone without repair. Over the next few days, the interior warmth from within our shelter melted the bottom layer of snow, which assailed us with “steady drips of rain” on the inside of the structure. At night, the melted snow froze and gradually accumulated over many days into a heavy layer ice without our knowledge. This weight caused the roof to give way at its weakest point. After a sudden snap, splintered wood and ice came crashing down on us one afternoon. Thankfully, no one was injured. Tiny glistening diamonds of snow and dust rose and fell like fairies as the sun poured in from above, as if to mock our powerless plight.
On a échangé plein de gros mots et puis, on a beaucoup rigolé (A barrage of French cursing was followed by peals of laughter). I was impressed by how quickly the men got to work to repair the damage. I offered my services, as raw and unlearned as they were.
“Diss ain’ nuttin,’” said Achille. “I once spend duh winter inna birch wigwam wit one of my wives.…We git diss fix fass Yvain. Duh boys know what tuh do.”
This was the first time Achille had ever called me by my first name. I had risen twice in status within one week! The snow and ice was scraped off the slanted roof and came crashing down below. The men were able to make repairs over a few days by scrounging for materials. A few “bateaux (boats)” and ramshackle structures had been found upstream and their materials were salvaged. Nails were scarce. Some of the men, who were skilled as charpentiers (carpenters) employed an auger to drill holes. I was assigned to whittle hickory branches into small rods. They called these rods “les gros clous du hickory (hickory nails).” They were malleted into place through the drilled holes. After the roof was reinforced with joists and the splintered cedar shingles were replaced, we were prepared to settle in for a long winter. Our food stores were plentiful for now. Hunting would be difficult without “raquettes (snowshoes),” but we could always fish if need be. We feared we might succumb to “mal de la terre (scurvy) until FitzOsbern discovered several “arbres de vie (trees of life)*” not far from our shelter.
On 20 December, 1805, we were greeted by a clan of Ojibwa traveling north. They had spotted the rising smoke from our chimney and requested shelter. Achille agreed for they might have goods for which we could trade.
The Ojibwa knew of the Catholic religion, but were reluctant to embrace our faith. Regardless, we invited them to partake in our feast of Réveillon (Christmas Eve) dinner. Our meal for the evening was boiled carpe and venison, stew made from salted pork, dried corn, flour, wild rice and the tubers from cattails that had been dug out from under the ice of a nearby pond.
A fearsome looking fellow among them demanded brandy, but Achille refused. Our brandy was to be used only for medicinal purposes. Still, he persisted. Those among his clan tried to calm him and he relented for a time. He sat in the corner, brooding comme un enfant gâté (like a spoiled child).
Devereux asked in the Ojibwa language why they were traveling by foot during the winter. One among them replied there had been a disagreement of some sort at their Black River village between them and the Americans. They were headed north to the village of Saganing (Saganing) where they might find refuge among their kin. None would not elaborate on the circumstances of their sudden departure from Black River.
As the night wore on, our brigade and our invited guests drifted off to sleep after our conversations waned. We were suddenly awakened by the shouts of the fearsome brooder, who was holding a knife to Achille’s throat! Some in the room cowered and drew back, while others made a step toward the assailant. The malcontent pressed the tip of the blade into Achille’s neck until a delicate trickle of blood made its way down to his chest. Through it all, Achille showed no fear or anxiety. I think the malcontent was yelling “ishkodewaaboo,” or something thereof. Devereux retrieved a bottle of brandy from our supplies and handed it to Achille’s attacker. He pushed Achille into the crowd of onlookers and rushed outside into the frigid night, brandy in hand. None among us chose to pursue him. Personne (No one)! Two solid wooden planks bolted the door from the inside should he decide to return. We took turns keeping watch throughout the night. In the morning we began our search for him. We found him not far from the barracks, frozen to death with an empty bottle of brandy half-buried in the snow. “La chaleur de l’eau de vie a envahi son esprit comme le diable lui-même mais la froideur de l’hiver a volé son corps.” (The warmth of the brandy invaded his spirit like the devil himself but the cold of the winter stole his body).” And such was the nature of my first Réveillon away from home.
*Mainard suffers from a condition called ocular migraines. Some people report experiencing this condition prior to severe changes in the weather. Today, arbres de vie are called arborvitaes. Many thanks to Mdme. Stephanie Hope-Potier, teacher of the French language, Bloomfield Hills Public Schools, for her assistance with the French colloquialisms.
My First Réveillon Away from Home as told by Genot “Winter Elk” Picor for The Storykeepers Project From Voyageur Tales © 2019 Genot Picor. Published on Voyageur Heritage with permission of the author.