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Little Rivers Henry van Dyke

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Northward and westward the interminable forest rolls away to the shores of Hudson's Bay and the frozen wastes of Labrador. It is an immense solitude. A score of rivers empty into the lake; little ones like the Pikouabi and La Pipe, and middle-sized ones like the Ouiatehouan and La Belle Riviere, and big ones like the Mistassini and the Peribonca; and each of these streams is the clue to a labyrinth of woods and waters. The canoe-man who follows it far enough will find himself among lakes that are not named on any map; he will camp on virgin ground, and make the acquaintance of unsophisticated fish; perhaps even, like the maiden in the fairy-tale, he will meet with the little bear, and the middle-sized bear, and the great big bear.

Damon and I set out on such an expedition shortly after the nodding lilies in the Connecticut meadows had rung the noon-tide bell of summer, and when the raspberry bushes along the line of the Quebec and Lake St. John Railway had spread their afternoon collation for birds and men. At Roberval we found our four guides waiting for us, and the steamboat took us all across the lake to the Island House, at the northeast corner. There we embarked our tents and blankets, our pots and pans, and bags of flour and potatoes and bacon and other delicacies, our rods and guns, and last, but not least, our axes (without which man in the woods is a helpless creature), in two birch-bark canoes, and went flying down the Grande Decharge.

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It is a wonderful place, this outlet of Lake St. John. All the floods of twenty rivers are gathered here, and break forth through a net of islands in a double stream, divided by the broad Ile d'Alma, into the Grande Decharge and the Petite Decharge. The southern outlet is small, and flows somewhat more quietly at first. But the northern outlet is a huge confluence and tumult of waters. You see the set of the tide far out in the lake, sliding, driving, crowding, hurrying in with smooth currents and swirling eddies, toward the corner of escape. By the rocky cove where the Island House peers out through the fir-trees, the current already has a perceptible slope. It begins to boil over hidden stones in the middle, and gurgles at projecting points of rock. A mile farther down there is an islet where the stream quickens, chafes, and breaks into a rapid. Behind the islet it drops down in three or four foaming steps. On the outside it makes one long, straight rush into a line of white-crested standing waves.

As we approached, the steersman in the first canoe stood up to look over the course. The sea was high. Was it too high? The canoes were heavily loaded. Could they leap the waves? There was a quick talk among the guides as we slipped along, undecided which way to turn. Then the question seemed to settle itself, as most of these woodland questions do, as if some silent force of Nature had the casting-vote. "Sautez, sautez!" cried Ferdinand, "envoyez au large!" In a moment we were sliding down the smooth back of the rapid, directly toward the first big wave. The rocky shore went by us like a dream; we could feel the motion of the earth whirling around with us. The crest of the billow in front curled above the bow of the canoe. "Arret', arret', doucement!" A swift stroke of the paddle checked the canoe, quivering and prancing like a horse suddenly reined in. The wave ahead, as if surprised, sank and flattened for a second. The canoe leaped through the edge of it, swerved to one side, and ran gayly down along the fringe of the line of billows, into quieter water.

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Little Rivers
Henry van Dyke

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