Dec. 22, 2021

Caribou Hunting in Nova Scotia - September 25, 1873

Caribou Hunting in Nova Scotia - September 25, 1873

A far reaching journey through forests and across barrens in pursuit of Caribou

More Episode Information:

Truro, Nova Scotia 1889

Prince of Wales Hotel in Truro, Nova Scotia 1889

Purdys Stagecoach Stop - Advertisement

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer (April 27, 1820 – December 8, 1903) was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, and sociologist famous for his hypothesis of social Darwinism whereby superior physical force shapes history. Spencer originated the expression "survival of the fittest", which he coined in Principles of Biology (1864) after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Spencer developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. As a polymath, he contributed to a wide range of subjects, including ethics, religion, anthropology, economics, political theory, philosophy, literature, astronomy, biology, sociology, and psychology. During his lifetime he achieved tremendous authority, mainly in English-speaking academia.

Spencer was considered “the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century" and by the 1870s he had become the most celebrated philosopher of the age but his influence declined sharply after 1900.



Hunting Caribou in Nova Scotia

Cobequid Mountains, Near Westchester, Nova Scotia

September 8th, 1873.


Dear Editor Forest and Stream: —

Thanks to some instructions given by you to me, as to time and locality, while in your city in June last, I have had the satisfaction of killing my first caribou. As I had informed you, when last I had the pleasure of seeing you, I was not unfamiliar with hunting this animal, having killed three caribou in 1871, and two last year in New Brunswick.

My traps I had sent to a friend in Halifax about the middle of August, and I found them in good order on arrival. At Halifax I stayed a day, and bought a Hudson Bay frieze coat, an admirable protection for bad weather. This with two rubber blankets, a bag or so of buck shot, and a special kind of camp hatchet, made for me deftly by a clever Irish blacksmith, completed my list of purchases.

Early next morning after an admirable breakfast at the Halifax House, I took the Inter-Colonial railway to Truro, stopping there at the Prince of Wales Hotel, kept by the most jovial of hosts and Scots, Mr. McKenzie. Truro is a charming little village at the head of an arm of the Bay of Fundy, and is much visited, being the best place to see the wonderful tidal action of the water, known as the Bore.

Every fine day hundreds of people drawn from all parts of the world assemble on the bridge which spans the Salmon River, awaiting the coming of the huge tidal wave. Sometimes when wind and tide favor, it rises like a wall, ten feet high, and sweeps on up the Sound. I know of no phenomenon which impresses one more vividly with the idea of the grand, rhythmic power of nature, and I fancy if Herbert Spencer had ever seen it, he would have used it as an illustration. I took some pains to measure accurately the absolute rise of the tide. Taking my sea tackle and sinker, and letting it fall until it touched the bottom, at low water, landing the sinker fast in the mud, and marking the length of the line afterwards, where it was just on the top of the water, the difference I found to be sixty-four feet, eleven inches. Its approach is heralded by a deep, sullen roar.

At Truro I remained all day, having to make arrangements for the hiring of horse and buggy for a week or so, not only to carry me and my traps to Purdy's, some thirty-five miles distant, but to facilitate any movements I might desire to make. Next morning, with a very good horse, and a rough but strong vehicle, furnished me by McKenzie, I started on my way, my road having been quite thoroughly explained to me. The country I passed through was magnificent. Dark, umbrageous spruce woods, sombre in character, were relieved occasionally by the brighter colored maples. Sometimes gloomy gorges, hardly wide enough for the buggy to pass through, were almost sepulchral from the heavy shadows of the mountains.

In one place the road led along a mere shelf of rock, the Londonderry, a noble stream, rushing along below me. It was a rough road, so that it was almost nightfall before I reached Purdy's. There I found myself in admirable quarters. To the kindness of the host, Mr. Purdy, was added the more delicate attentions of the Misses Purdy, three very handsome and highly educated women. As Purdy's was to be my base of operations, I immediately commenced getting together my supplies, and the question of guides was paramount. I had the choice of several excellent men. Following the advice of my host, I chose George Beesewanger, a native of the place, and secured his services, agreeing to pay him $1.50 a day and to find him. My second guide I was instructed to find later.

At Purdy's I laid in the heavy rations, such as pork, tea, coffee, flour, Indian meal, etc...T here never was such a glorious view as I had from my window when I rose next morning. Far, far below me were interminable forests of spruce, huge billows of green leaves, surging to and fro with the breeze, and away beyond lay placidly the dark blue waters of the Bay of Fundy. I tarried here fully three days — days of delightful laziness, pure days of sensuous enjoyment pretending, it is true, to perfect my arrangements, just breathing in the fragrance of the glorious woods, perhaps a little indifferent as to caribou. At last Beese (the final "wanger" to his name I shall drop in the future as quite superfluous) said to me at dinner that "he thought matters were now in good trim, and that he felt it was caribou weather, and that it was time to go to Castlereagh. "

In Castlereagh dwelt John Gamble, a famous moose and caribou hunter, who tilled a farm there. Taking horse and buggy, well laden down with provisions, we left Purdy's, and reached Castlereagh, a sparsely peopled settlement, at about dusk. Gamble I found at prayers. There was something inexpressibly solemn in the picture I saw there. In the small rough house were assembled the family, and by the flickering fire Gamble was reading to them the prayers, in deep, sonorous language. I hesitated almost to tell my errand. The last amen was pronounced with unction, when I told him the purpose of my coming. "I was for caribou, and would he join me for ten days or so." He quickly assented, and seemed pleased to go.

A more wild place than Castlereagh, as to topography, I never saw. It is the ideal of a spot where civilization ends and a wilderness begins. The people who live here, some forty souls all told, are scattered over an area of about fifty miles. They are all Scotch-Irish, were among the early settlers of the island, and are strictly religious and trustworthy. Their honesty may be shown by the fact that a lock on a door is unknown. Their ideas are primitive, and their language Scotch-English, with a dialect of their own. With but few wants, ignorant of the world or its surroundings, many of them, perhaps, have never, save when hunting, gone out of the shadows of their woods. Everything was arranged for an early start.

My party had now an addition George Gamble, a highly intelligent lad of sixteen, with the pseudonym of "Dandy," going with us. Gamble had located a lodge for moose and caribou some six miles from the settlement, which was our objective point.

Next morning, before dawn, we started, dividing the buggy-load between us, the horse and vehicle remaining at Castlereagh. My battery consisted of a Remington, a Ballard, and a smooth bore No. 10. My guides told me that it would be a long and tedious tramp, uphill all the way, and so it proved to be. Bass river, quite a brawling stream, waist deep, was forded; no easy task for me, "heavily accoutred" as I was, and, after a scramble up its steep, rocky banks, at last we struck the woodlands. Here we visited what Dandy called Porcupine Den, when Dandy soon ousted a porcupine, which he slew. Here we halted, took a bite, and started again after some ten minutes' rest, and, skirting the woods, a half hour before sundown reached Gamble's lodge, just on the edge of the caribou barren.

The lodge was well built; three of the walls were of logs, the other made of piled stones. The floor had been well rammed down, and it was sweet and clean. Near it gurgled a limpid spring. What struck me most about these Nova Scotia woods was the intense, almost painful stillness. Nature must take her kief here, to awaken later, when, in a paroxysm of passion, with icy blasts she lays low the majestic trees.

Beese, Gamble, and Dandy in a trice had everything in military order. Of cooking paraphernalia, a kettle and a frying pan made up the catalogue. Of fragile china or stronger delf had we none. In a half hour, with pliant birch bark and threads of withewood, cups, dishes, and plates were improvised, quite as useful and more durable than those made by the potter's wheel. Fresh spruce boughs of aromatic fragrance, so excellent for consumptives, were spread on the floor. Dandy had killed four grouse as we left Castlereagh, and a good supper was assured us.

Gamble was desirous of having variety in the menu, and on his assuring me that there was a stream positively not more than forty yards off, I thought I would try for a trout, though I was terribly tired out. With line in hand, cutting a pole as I went, baiting my hook with some white grub picked from a dead tree, in ten minutes I had some dozen trout. They were small ones, scarcely half pound fish, but gamey and pleasant to catch. With Gamble as chef de cuisine, I watched the way he cooked them. The fish were cleaned, not scaled; heads and tails and fins were all left on. Each one was dipped into a birch bark dish, filled with meal, inside a piece of fat bacon was inserted, a place was made for it in the hot coals, and in ten minutes the fish was withdrawn, done to a turn.

The grouse were stuffed with wild cranberries, hung from the ceiling with a bit of twine, put before the fire, and Dandy was set to basting them. How good a pottage de Porcupine is I do not know, but I must confess that maple sugar as a condiment to a porcupine, though original, is not to be despised. A famous pot of tea was then brewed, and we had bread from the settlement. Hardly was tea swallowed, our pipes smoked, and the least nip of rum taken, than I got drowsy, and think I must have tumbled on the spruce bough covered floor just as I was, for in the morning, between the last word I had spoken or heard, and the song Dandy was singing (some quaint old stave) outside the lodge at daybreak, there seemed to have been but the interval of a second.

Looking at Beese, who was still sleeping, I noticed he held his pipe tightly clutched between his teeth. I ran to my trout stream, took a single refreshing dip, and strolled about some little, and arrived just in time for a glorious breakfast.

Our first day was one simply of prospecting and finding out the lay of the land. A caribou barren (we were on the verge of one) may be described as a plateau, covered with a thick grey moss two or three inches thick, on which grows the cranberry. Here and there it is dotted over with huge quartz boulders, covered at their bases with that most succulent of mosses, the lichen, on which the caribou principally feeds. A barren is most always intersected by a running stream, and there are occasional clumps of spruce. This tree always looks dark and sombre, and long trails of funereal-like moss hang like weepers from the limbs. On this moss, too, the caribou feeds. The trees are mostly stunted. This is not owing to the winds, for the barrens are generally encircled by the thick woods, which would keep off the blast, but their low growth is an effect of the soil.

Dig where you may in the ground, when you have passed through the cushion of moss there is a morass below. To tread on this carpet of moss may be the poetry of motion as far as softness of footfall goes, but until one is accustomed to its yielding nature it makes walking quite fatiguing. There are no rambles on a barren nothing but the cranberry and whortleberry. The particular barren we were to reconnoiter had an area of some 800 acres and was completely enclosed.

The caribou being the most sensitive and observant of the deer species, the utmost silence is necessary when hunting them, so when skirting the barren, save by some mute signs interchanged as to direction, hunters never speak. We all kept together for a mile from the camp, when we divided, Gamble going with me in a southeasterly direction, and Beese and Dandy striking northwest. The woods on our route soon opened, and the walking became easy Gamble pointed out a tree of black spruce, a perfect giant which he made a sign I should climb. It was not difficult to scale, and when fairly on top, with my race-glass I scanned the barren we were skirting. I had a beautiful view of our barren, and of several barrens beyond, fully ten miles distant. On our barren I saw no sign of an animal, but on a barren I should have judged five miles off with my glass I plainly made out two caribou. Gamble on my descending and announcing the fact, expressed some doubt, but on ascending himself verified the statement.

Sometime about mid-day we found Beese and Dandy, and after lunching we proceeded homewards by a different route. Dandy was the first to find caribou tracks, which he did cleverly in the afternoon. How he saw it I cannot understand, and it was some time before I could see it, but caribou foot it was, and a little further on the spot where one had laid down was pointed out to me by Gamble. It was determined not to follow up their track, but to still keep up the study of the country, so that in case one of the party got astray, which would probably have been myself, we might have a better chance of finding our quarters.

That night, around the camp-fire, Beese told me a hunting story about killing and landing moose, which I at first was inclined to doubt, until Gamble asserted its truthfulness. Some seven years before, Beese said that hunting with two Indians in a rather small canoe, on the headwaters of the River Philip, they had shot a bull and a cow moose. Moose meat was scarce at the settlement, and it was a question how to get their carcasses home, as the canoe was too small to hold even 100 pounds of additional weight, and the two moose would gross 1,800 pounds. One of the Indians suggested making a boat of the bull moose and using it for transporting the cow. The bull was opened and disemboweled, the head was cut off, the neck sewed up, he was split carefully, ribs of wood were built into him, and he was launched into the stream, and so, loaded with the cow, was safely towed to the settlement, twenty miles distant.

Next morning it rained heavily, and our camp was thoroughly cleaned and guns overhauled. In the afternoon, the rain having changed to a drizzle, Gamble proposed our going to Rock Lake, some three miles distant. After rather a wet walk of an hour we reached the lake, and Gamble built a raft. One peculiarity of the lake was that it was always bubbling, abounding probably with springs.

I had taken a light fly rod, and with a coachman hackle and Blue Professor made a cast or two without success. Later I tried a yellow Dun with no better luck, when choosing a Miller and a bug the trout rose rapidly. In a half hour I had secured eighteen fish, of about two pounds each. A flock of black duck on the upper edge of the lake attracted our attention, and I killed five. Of course, this shooting was done at some distance from the barren, as a single gun fired in its immediate proximity would have cleaned the ground of the caribou for a week.

Fresh food now becoming scarce, as we had determined not to shoot any more, we smoked our ducks for the future, hanging them in the smoke of the chimney. Next day we started just at daybreak. The sun rose clear, dispelling the mist, and Gamble said it was "a fine hunting morn, and that it would fetch caribou. " Dandy was left in camp, and Gamble, Beese, and myself made the party. It was our intention not to return without a caribou. We made directly for the barren, but saw no sign. We now boldly crossed it, plunged into the deep forest beyond, skirted the second barren, and found here moose tracks three weeks old, but no sign of caribou. Here we came across an old Indian camp, which, being in good order, we took possession of, studying its bearings in case we should have to retrace our steps and spend the night there.

We kept on through the second barren, going round a pretty lake, where Gamble set some otter traps. Still no trace of our game. The sun was now but an hour high. As the forests become dark at five o'clock, when it is light on the barrens until eight, we determined to push on through the third barren as far as we could and camp there, so as to be near the fourth barren early next morning. After our supper of bread and pork, without tea, we wrapped ourselves up in our blankets and slept soundly.

We were now fully twenty miles from camp, as the bird flies, and fully thirty-five by the route we had taken, Economy Lake being south of us, and we had some two miles yet to make before we could reach the fourth barren. It was dark when Gamble quietly awakened me. We ate our breakfast quickly, and walked fully two hours before dawn cleared the sky. As soon as it was light Gamble climbed a tree. The country he said had changed somewhat, as it had been seven years since he had been at this barren. As he slid down the tree, by the expression of his face and the glitter of his eye I felt sure he had seen caribou. "Five of them in the barren, not more nor a mile off, a feeding, sir." That was all. Now, with the utmost precaution we traced our steps. Just on the south side of the barren we found a distinct trail, which the caribou had made through the woods.

Their tracks resembled these made by cattle, only a little more elongated, for the caribou has rather long, low hoofs. The dung was even fresh, and not much larger than that voided by sheep. They had evidently laid down during the night at this very spot, as little bits of hair were visible. We followed the track in Indian file, Gamble leading, I in the middle, and Beese in the rear. The gait was a slow one, and our feet were cautiously placed on the ground, fearful that even a twig should crack. Not a word was spoken. With one hand on his gun, the other behind him, Gamble would signal with his outstretched fingers which way we should go, or whether we should halt. The track was almost 400 yards long, and a small stream had to be crossed. Silently as otters we went through it. Just then the barren opened on us.

We rested for a few moments, then got to the last screen of trees, and saw for the first time our caribou. They were hidden by a slight fringe of spruce boughs, and were not more than 600 yards off. About 400 yards distant in the barren there stood a huge boulder, of a greyish white, glistening in the bright morning sun, and throwing off sparkles of light from the quartz crystals in it.

Could we reach it ?

If able to do that there would be the chance of a shot.

We all dropped to the ground, and crawled slowly on the moss, worming our way round smaller boulders until we reached it. Looking stealthfully over the top of it, I was now sure that the caribou were just within long rifle shot. We waited fully five minutes (it seemed to me five hours), hoping the caribou would come nearer. When we saw them first the herd — made up of two old bucks, two male yearlings, and a doe — were playing together; now they were feeding.

Thinking Gamble the better shot, I had given him my Ballard, reserving the Remington for myself. Every moment I expected the caribou would move further off. Though they could not wind us, every now and then the nearest buck would pause, slowly raise his head, and look around him, as if on his guard.

Gamble looked inquiringly at me, as if asking what to do. I made the motion of firing. Indicating the buck I wanted to shoot at, I left Gamble to pick out any one he chose. I carefully took a resting shot on a sharp edge of the boulder. Presently the furthest buck came a trifle quartering towards me, and taking the most careful of shots, with a fine bead, aiming at the brisket, I let him have it. Almost instantly afterwards Gamble fired. My buck fell dead in his tracks. Gamble's caribou gave one single, short leap, and fell dead not ten yards from mine. One long, exulting shout sounded through the barren as we screamed with excitement. The next moment Gamble was down into the barren with gleaming knife in hand, and the throats of two noble caribou were cut. The buck I had killed was the finest of the two, and would have weighed 300 pounds. Gamble's buck was a trifle lighter.

The horns on mine were only fair as to size, while Gamble's were the most magnificent ones as to size and spread I had ever seen. My eight hundred miles of travel were amply repaid. "If my grandsire drew a long bow at Hastings," I must plead it as an excuse for entering somewhat into the exact distance we fired at these animals. Pacing it off, I found that my buck was killed at a trifle under 186 yards, and Gamble's at 170. We rested for a while, and, seated on our animals, ate and drank as only hungry and excited men can.

Now came the question of how to get, them to the lodge, some forty miles distant. Gamble's and Beese's woodcraft then came into play. In a half hour, with their axes they had fashioned a sledge of hackmatack, on which the caribou were placed. Long withewood traces were made, and, like horses, we went in double harness. Awful hard work it was. There was a little stream some three miles off which emptied into Economy Lake, and here was where our hauling would end and water transportation begin.

Seven mortal hours did it take us before we accomplished those three miles. At sundown we reached the stream. A fire was built, our last bit of pork was devoured, a cup of coffee, was made, and we all soon went to sleep, thoroughly used up men. Next morning was again fine and clear, a trifle cold, but every particle of fatigue had left us. There is some peculiarity in this rare mountain air, which makes a breath of it send the blood through the lungs with renewed and freshened vigor. Gamble proposed making a straight line for camp, and finding Dandy, who would walk to Castlereagh, and from thence take the horse and buggy to Economy Lake and meet us.

It was no sooner proposed than off he started, going off with that splendid swinging gait which only one who treads these native wilds can acquire. Beese now built a raft; it was but the matter of an hour. The game was loaded on, and we were just about pushing off into the stream which emptied into the lake, not more than half a mile beyond, when a pleasant morning breeze sprung up. Here I must confess that what nautical knowledge I may have had now came to me as if by inspiration. From a large birch tree we took some sheets of bark. Under my direction Beese sawed them, a mast and a spar were rigged up, a pennon of birch, bark was hoisted to the fore, and with a regular latine sail we went spinning down the lake, much to Beese's amusement.

At the foot of the lake Ave found a settler's cabin, and here we moored our raft, From the settler we hired a span of oxen and a cart, and, loading our caribou, leisurely reached Economy. There, sure enough, was Dandy, waiting for us.

I am writing this at Purdy's, in delightful quarters once more. In a week or so I will go for moose, just as soon as Gamble has made his crop. I shall take Gamble with me, of course, and Beese and Dandy, for better hunters or more trustworthy people I never came across. Gamble says we may safely call the moose on the next full moon.

T. F. 0. T.