Saturday, April 11, 2009

David Douglass, a 19th Century chameleon

The essence of the river is to always move forward. Those who travel upon it must sometimes stop to rest, and then can only watch the water move along without them.

So, you think you have a tough life, do you?

David Bates Douglass was a lover of books, a soldier during the War of 1812, a teacher, an engineer and, as will be obvious here, an explorer. Later in life, he became a college president. He also was a chameleon, it seems to me. Here are some words from one of his journals, these particular entries written in the year 1820 while on an expedition over land and water in what 38 years later would become the State of Minnesota.

By David Bates Douglass

July 12 – Took leave of the St. Louis (river) about 6 this morning and commenced the ascent of the Savanna (river). The difficulties of this river we had been taught to anticipate as even greater than those of the St. Louis, on account of the shags (growths of weeds) which break the canoes unless the water be very high .... The ascent was rather tedious, pushing the canoes forward with poles through a continual series of narrow short turns, but nothing more. The breadth of the river for 12 miles averages 12 to 20 yards. Beyond this its banks lose their upland character and become more open, inclining to marsh. A few miles further they become decidedly so, insomuch that in some places the river is almost lost among the high grass, reeds and wild rice. The water is always, however, sufficiently deep. At half past one we reached the portage 25 miles by the river and discharged our canoes.

A mile below the place of discharge the river separates into two branches both of which take their rise in the tamarack swamps a few miles on each side; we took the northern one. This portage for the 3 first poses is considered very bad, and the Doctor and myself went forward to ascertain the fact. For almost the first time we verify the representation in all its awful particulars. Going two hundred yards from the creek we found ourselves in a desperate tamarack swamp as full of water as a sponge. The poles which had been laid were of little service. The canoe men had to spread beyond them and the single loads hurt their feet on the rough sharp points so much that they betook themselves of choice to the mud.

The Doctor stopped at the first pose. I with my 100 pound pack as before pushed on, keeping to the poles as much as possible but obliged some times to quit them at the expense of footing myself in 2 ½ feet of quagmire. The second pose was much the worst and to add to the misery, a smart shower of rain came on when I was in the middle of it. Reaching the end I proceeded on without resting and soon after found myself on firm ground to the third pose. The canoes (3 of them) came up soon after and were carried two poses farther. This, with 7 kegs to the third and 3 to the first pose, completed the day's work which our pilot again considered a very great one. Returned to the creek where our tents had been pitched with every disposition to consider a supper of unleavened bread a real luxury and a bed in the wet earth a solid comfort – rain and mosquitoes to the contrary notwithstanding.

July 13 – Recommended the portage and by 12 o'clock got all our baggage over the three bad poses. Our men, however, suffer much fatigue .... By 6 in the afternoon continuing our labour we got up to the middle of the portage – road tolerable good. While the latter loads were bringing up, I walked forward to the end of the portage and paced off the distance and took the courses. The mosquitoes which had been very troublesome on the rivers St. Louis and Savanna became almost intolerable here. Joined to the sandflys and gnats, each vying with the other in the vigor of their attacks, they almost drove me crazy during the short time. We have here also a new enemy in a large sort of horsefly who pierces the skin with the pain almost equal to that of a wasp’s sting. No one who has not been exposed to a similar inconvenience can appreciate our suffering from these insects.

July 14 – The last night has been uncommonly cold for the season and the dews as we have lately experienced extremely heavy. Commenced the final work of the portage before 4 o’clock, and at 12 had conveyed everything far beyond the second pose from the end – nearly half were to the end of the portage when our walking party .... arrived with a party of Indians. They had been upwards of three days on the walk to Sandy Lake, the distance of which, from the Portage au Coteaux by their route, they estimated at nearly 70 miles. They speak of the great part of the country as marshy and marish (marshy) inclining to ponds in many places, and the woods as being greatly obstructed with windfalls.

Now, some more background information ....

David Bates Douglass was part of the Lewis Cass expedition of 1820 assigned by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to explore the northern Great Lakes and go on into the upper Mississippi River region. I decided to post these journal entries for two reasons. To begin, this includes details of the portage from the St. Louis/Savanna rivers toward Sandy Lake, west of Duluth, Minnesota. I have "run" this portage, with the journal of David Douglass in my hand, and have first-hand acquaintance with the descendants of his horseflies and mosquitoes. (By the way, "Wolf Lake" is along the trail.)

The portage trail probably will be there forever, a deep rut, much of it in water ranging from ankle to knee deep, cut and worn by the feet of thousands of travelers over the course of thousands of years. The trail belonged to ancient Native Americans before we white boys took to it, and then later abandoned it for concrete highways.

The other reason is to illustrate that there is a very distinct difference between taking a float down a lazy river between point A and point B in a rented canoe, and retracing (if not actually reliving) history. Such experiences, for me, are undertaken to know and to feel as best as I am able the reality of those who have come before me.

Many places yet remain where it is possible to hear only the natural sounds of nature, to look at the sky and see no jet trails and, in that manner, jump 100 years or 10,000 years into the past. During such minutes, sometimes stretching even into days, it can as easily be yesterday as it is today. The only sense of time that exists is that which you allow to be in your mind. It is a glimpse of immortality.

Music Note: Listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd ....
Specifically: "Lynyrd Skynyrd – Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd"
The lyrics from "Free Bird:"

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now,
'Cause there's too many places I've got to see.
But, if I stay here with you, girl,
Things just couldn't be the same.
'Cause I'm as free as a bird now,
And this bird you can not change.
Ohhhhh And this bird you can not change.
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can't change.

Bye, bye, baby it's been a sweet love.
Though this feeling I can't change.
But please don't take it so badly,
'Cause Lord knows I'm to blame.
But, if I stay here with you girl,
Things just couldn't be the same.
Cause I'm as free as a bird now,
And this bird you'll never change.
Ohhhhh And this bird you can not change.
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can't change.

6 comments:

TheChicGeek said...

Great post, Fram :) I love the history and the picture is perfect. Between the two I want to jump in a canoe and travel down that river too. "Such experiences, for me, are undertaken to know and to feel as best as I am able the reality of those who have come before me." That speaks from the heart of a true adventurer. I can relate to that. I feel much the same way when I'm off in the wilderness on my own. I like to imagine myself as a Native American experiencing the unspoiled beauty fresh and new. There is no greater feeling :)

Have a Happy Day!

Katy said...

Gosh Fram, that's extrordinary. Very tough. Thank you for sharing this with us, amazing.

"The only sense of time that exists is that which you allow to be in your mind. It is a glimpse of immortality" - I love this. So true, so hard to capture. I love the way you've expressed it.

Free Bird is one of my all-time top tunes. I think I mentioned before I heard it for the 1st time driving across an endless landscape of red desert on my trip to the Mid West. Fabulous and magical, the song and the scenery.

Happy Easter Fram, too :-)

Fram said...

Sometimes these urges to see what is around the next river bend are driven by simple curiosity and other times, I feel, by some physical reaction no less demanding than hunger or thirst.

I think if I have a definable religion, Kelly, that it comes close to pantheism. There is absolute, encompassing life to be felt and absorbed in woodlands, or even in a desert, that I do not find present in any town, large or small.

By the way, the front seat of the canoe is not occupied, and is waiting for someone to jump in.

Fram said...

Yes, Katy, I remember you "talking" about your introduction to "Free Bird." Mine was in a small, all-night restaurant, with a young lady, after making the rounds of a few bars. On a juke box device mounted on the wall in our booth, I was flipping through the selections. I said, "Lie-Nerd, Sky-Nerd, who are they?" She laughed at me and explained. Women always seem to know more than I do. The song immediately became my favorite.

And, yes, the pain and suffering of actually traveling a river rather than floating from parkland to parkland are there to be experienced (and enjoyed?). When you made your remark yesterday about the reality of living somewhere remote, I thought to myself, "Wait until she sees tomorrow's piece."

Natalie said...

Part II
“How much do I know about Fraam”
…I know that the young man on that photograph with long hair
is you.

Fram said...

You've heard of the fifth amendment, Natalie?

Something special ....