Cascade eight

Harry Drabik

They were here first.

I’d guess it rare for a resident or visitor to I Falls, Superior, Marquette, Thunder Bay or Babbitt to give much thought to the War of 1812 or the follow-up treaty by Webster-Ashburton. But there it is. 

Important heads in London, Washington and maybe Ottawa did the important thinking for us. Thus the NW Angle and somewhat unknowable border protocols. As those memorialized in grand portraits knew little of us, we largely thought them irrelevant. Border logging lived in no fear of treaty police. No local shooting a goose or wetting a line thought in terms of border violations and law breaking. In a sense, the border didn’t exist.

I’m not going to propound one way or other. Things then are not things now when legal experts might be called on to settle the fate of an international versus a provincial fish. What I will say is such argument would be loud, colorful and never set paddle, oar or outboard along the border. As I see it, I’m blessed knowing I don’t know much, a condition well suited to me. In terms of the border running Pigeon River, reaching S. Fowl serves as a noggin scratcher.

Fur traders described S. Fowl as a river becoming a falls and rapids near the dam’s present location. Lots of drowned wood and marshy land suggest this is so. N and S Fowl were joined where the Royal enters. 

The short Royal River goes to the John Lakes near a feature (a clue) is called the millpond. The toll of lake and river changing took place over two centuries of beaver trapping and logging isn’t clear, but the suggestion is substantial. Inferences can be made over high-water, low and bypass portages, but determining what’s new and what preexisted needs more than my view to settle. 

These are convoluted issues made more so knowing that a hundred years past there was less concern over niceties. Trappers did as they’d always, so did loggers, and same with wardens cabin-lodge builders plopping down and making do with whatever could be found.

Unrecorded change is nothing new or unusual. Similar, maybe, to kids in my time borrowing a boat or raft for an afternoon and then returning it as and where found. Perhaps a dam blocking a border river was illegal, but unless someone complained who’d know or care? 

Things, at times big, took place and were overlooked. If you fish the connect between S and N Fowl you’ll note a possible channel around 10 feet down. Possible reverbed? Possible. 

But at the same time I have to allow that the removal of beaver allowed invasion of trees and marsh into former backwaters and ponds. Why does the Pigeon basin intrigue me? Maybe it crept in through the bottoms of my toddler feet.

I was well beyond toddling when I asked Cal Rutstrum about Mountain, next lake above N Fowl. My curiosity piqued by his 1920 photos of that lake showing lots more shore than I’d ever seen. I asked. 

Cal talked about things of greater interest to him. Understandable. He credited his life to the kindness of some native women on Mountain who got him through an awful illness. I guess if you were sick enough to eat raw bear organs, the cure would be miraculous. 

Health from natural eating became a Cal passion. Given the circumstance it’s understandable Cal didn’t pay all the attention to the shoreline I’d have liked.

In consequence, I’ll have to try my best. Mountain is a big lake, not 10 miles long but easily near eight. Even a foot of increased water would give a sizeable head. 

The dam remains where Mountain empties into the Fowls looked considerably more than a one foot increase. Say you stocked logs on the ice waiting the spring flood when your dam would be shot and the timber sent downstream. Easier, I hold, said than done. How’s your timing? Got to be good to ensure your timber goes down in one go. 

And of course, you have to go with it to untangle jams and carry on from one catch-point to the next. Drives were a madhouse of roaring water and logs a flying, an event continuous, round-the-clock, no time off for sleep or visiting home. 

I think it sounds awful, and that’s not including the considerable environmental price.

Flooding lakes and dynamiting dams was a common way to move logs by water to mills. As I suggested, beaver were flooders before we were, and as animal sympathists have often reminded me when I offer a non-Bambi view, “They were here first.” 

The “here first” defense is not heard regarding ticks, leeches or mosquitoes. Only noble species are allowed the dignity of being at the head of the queue. Whether by thousands of beaver doing uncounted small impondments or loggers doing a doozey there was considerable environmental impact and corresponding change.

 If we consider the numbers of fur bearers removed we’re left with an environmental puzzle if we try to slot beaver back into the northland. Impossible to pin down, but worth gendering.

On a more historic footing the W end of Mountain has one of the few instances where French traders departed significantly from native routes. The big new (Gran neuf) carry used two miles of portage to replace a series of puddle-lakes and short carries. I’ve done all of these. For a light modern canoe the puddle lakes and portages are easy, but I doubt they were seen as anything but a nuisance removed by a two-mile trek. 

Exactly what was Gran neuf and what was rail grade is more than I can speak to, but I’d think a rail grade suggests timber moving east (remember the border lakes favor movement east-west over north-south.

The northland many of us love and try to protect has a quite convoluted past, including curious twists that make a person pause. I’m hopeful, however, there will be searchers who take the tack of learning to read and listen to voices of the earth itself more than authorities quoting sources.