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HINTS TO EMIGRANTS: LETTER XVIII

LETTERS FROM PERTH,
UPPER CANADA.
BY THE
REV. WILLIAM BELL


LETTER  XVIII


IN NEW SETTLEMENTS, nothing is more common than for persons to lose themselves in the woods, and remain for days, or even weeks; and some have perished there, not being able to find their way out. One of my parishioners, soon after he settled here, was lost nine days, subsisting all the time on leaves, herbs, and roots. When he was recovered and brought back to his house, his faculties seemed somewhat impaired; and even to this day, the recollection of what he suffered, chiefly from hunger and anxiety, produces a melancholy effect upon his mind. When a person is lost, he becomes quite bewildered and stupefied. East from west, and north from south can no longer be distinguished, and anxiety takes possession of the mind, hurrying one forward probably in the wrong direction. When this misfortune happens in severe weather, the danger is very great. In passing through where there was no path, I have sometimes wandered from the proper direction, when I had not the sun for a guide, but I never went so far astray as to be in much danger, excepting once.
           On the evening of the 23rd of December, 1818, which was one of the coldest days in that winter, being on my way home from a distant part of the settlement, I wished to come by a line I had never before travelled. I walked along a creek, about two miles; but the ice at one place being bad, I broke through, and got wet to the knees. In less than half a minute my clothes were as hard as boards, the frost being intense. It is in a case of this kind that freezing is most to be dreaded. As long as one is dry, the frost makes less impression. Knowing that I was now in great danger, I travelled with the utmost expedition; but I had not proceeded half a mile farther when I again broke through at a spring. The sun was just setting, and I was still three miles from home. I turned from the creek, and struck into the wood. My trousers, stockings, and shoes were now as hard as stone, which greatly retarded my progress. My situation at this time was somewhat hazardous, my body being in a state of perspiration, and my extremities freezing. But, in a case of this kind, strange as it may appear, it is a pleasure to feel pain; for whenever a hand or a foot is frozen, it becomes insensible. On leaving the creek, I had to pass through about half a mile of cedar swamp, and here I lost my way. The snow was about a foot deep at an average; but while I climbed over fallen timber, and struggled through thickets, if I had firm footing at one step, the next I plunged in some hole up to the middle; but the exertions I made were the means of saving me. Had I stood still but a few minutes, I would have been frozen to death. After exerting myself for some time, and seeing no prospect of getting out of the swamp, I began to suspect that I was travelling in a wrong direction. The sun, which had been my only guide, was now sunk below the horizon, and there was a prospect of being benighted in the wood, with certain death as the consequence. I sprung forward with redoubled vigour; and, for near an hour, made the most strenuous exertions; but seeing no prospect of getting out, the shades of darkness falling around me, and my strength beginning to fail, I was about to sit down on a fallen tree, and resign myself to my fate; when, looking to my right, I observed that the darkness in that direction was less dense than in the others. A ray of hope sprung up, and I again set forward. I had not proceeded far, when I came to a clearing with a hut in the middle; but what was my disappointment on reaching the door, to find it uninhabited. Now, however, the danger was at an end; for by following a tract which I found in the snow, I knew I would soon reach some inhabited house. After travelling some time, I got into a well-beaten path, in which I had not proceeded far when I met two men, from whom I learned that the road led to Perth, which was distant about three miles. I now discovered where my error lay. After losing sight of the sun, I had travelled to the north-east instead of the south-east. In little more than half an hour I reached home, for I lost no time on the road. I found my family somewhat uneasy, being alarmed at my stay. After getting the clothes on my lower extremities thawed and taken off, I found that no part of my feet was frozen. My shirt was drenched with perspiration, and that which had descended from my head, hung in icicles round the ends of my hair. Since that time I have never ventured into the woods without a compass; and I would advise every one else to use the same precaution.
           In this country after the winter sets in, all wheel carriages are laid aside and nothing but sledges are used. By them lumber or grain is carried to market, firewood is drawn home, and people travel to a distance to see their friends or to transact business. In old settlements where the road is good, they form a very pleasant conveyance, and with a good horse one may travel fifty or sixty miles in a day without difficulty; but in a new settlement, where the road is encumbered with stumps, and the surface full of inequalities, both horse and rider will be sufficiently fatigued with half that distance. In a storm, however, it is as easy travelling in the woods as in the open country. In the former, you are sheltered from the piercing winds, which, in the latter, sometimes freeze the travellers nose, ears, or even fingers, before he is aware. There, too, the snow in a storm drifts so much that travelling is rendered both difficult and tedious. The truth of this I once felt, in a journey of more than one hundred miles, to attend a meeting of Presbytery. I had travelled part of the way by myself when I was joined by Messrs. Smart and McDowall. They had a double sledge, and we agreed to travel together. The snow fell thick and the air was so very cold that we were obliged to stop every three or four miles to get ourselves warmed. The road lay along the bank of the St. Lawrence, and was much exposed to the storm. The snow was drifted so much that we could scarcely tell where the road lay, except when we were guided by the fences. No vestige of the old track being visible, we were in continual danger of upsetting. About nine in the evening, we reached the house of a hospitable Dutchman, named Von Allan, one of Mr. Smart's elders. There we enjoyed very comfortable accommodations for the night. Next morning, after breakfast, we set forward to finish the journey. It no longer snowed, but both the wind and the cold had increased. No trace of a road was to be seen, the snow being deep, and drifted on the top as smooth as the surface of a lake. Except in a few spots, the horses sunk to the belly at every step, so that our progress was very slow. The wind was directly in our faces, and it was the coldest I ever encountered even in this cold country. Though we were well muffed up in great coats, and enveloped in buffalo robes, yet we could not endure the cold more than two or three miles at a time. It was well for us we were travelling a road where houses are to be met with at short distances; and here it is thought nothing strange to walk into any house come to, in a cold day, to enjoy the benefit of the fire. In spite of all the care and precautions we employed, Mr. Smart had his nose frozen, and Mr. McDowall one of his ears; but they were both speedily recovered by the application of a little snow. What would our friends on your side of the water think of travelling more than a hundred miles under such circumstances, to attend a meeting of four ministers and two elders. In the evening, we lodged at the house of a worthy Scotsman, in whose hospitable and pious family the sufferings of the preceding day were entirely forgotten. No comfort in life affords one more pleasure than religious society; and I do not know that ever I found it more refreshing than on the present occasion. In the course of the day I had been thinking of the labour and difficulty of introducing religion, and laying the foundations of churches in a new country, till the prospect appeared gloomy and discouraging; but the scene which the evening presented was so much brighter, that, with Paul on a similar occasion, I thanked God, and took courage. Our journey home was more agreeable, the weather having moderated, and the road being again tracked with passing sledges. The alteration in the temperature of the air is in this country both great and sudden. The cold in winter is sometimes dreadful, but this seldom continues more than a day or two. A few cold days are often followed by weather so mild that travelling is quite pleasant; and not many winters pass without a complete thaw in January or February, though these are the coldest months in the year. The sky in Canada is neither so serene nor the weather so steady as I was led to expect, from what I had read on the subject, but we have certainly a purer air, and fewer changes of weather, than you have. Thunder during the summer months is both frequent and loud, and twice since I came to the country I have heard thunder when frost and snow were upon the ground. Flashes of electricity are attended with a vividness and brilliancy unknown in more northern latitudes, and I have sometimes got out of bed in a dark night, during a thunder storm, to enjoy from the window, a sight of the town, completely illuminated by flashes which occurred every two or three minutes.
           The year, in this place, is about equally divided between summer and winter. The former begins about the first of May, and the latter about the first of November. The heat of summer and the cold of winter are intense for about three months, each in its season. The rest of the year is more temperate. Though vegetation begins on or before the first of May, it does not make much appearance till the earth is well warmed with the rays of the sun, when it proceeds with a rapidity unequalled in any part of Britain, and it is no unusual thing to see crops of grain sown, ripened, and cut down all in the space of three months. But it is seldom so plump as in colder climates, where it ripens more slowly.
           Storms are sometimes so violent as to do considerable damage. The most serious I have seen happened on 28th of June 1818. At about mid-day it began to thunder, attended with rain, which continued about two hours, when a violent storm, or rather hurricane, commenced, so violent that trees in all directions were prostrated on the ground. First hail, and then rain fell in torrents. The hail was as large as gooseberries, and besides doing much damage to the crops, demolished many of the windows that were exposed to its fury. I never witnessed a storm any thing like so severe. The darkness, the lightning, the peals of thunder, the rattling hail, and the deluge of rain which swept along the ground, all tended to heighten the terrific grandeur of the scene. There was not a road in the settlement which was not blocked up by trees failing across it.
           On calm summer evenings when there are any clouds in the sky, an electrical phenomenon is sometimes presented of a very sublime and interesting nature. The first time I observed it was on the evening of the 29th of June, 1818. The weather had been excessively hot for some weeks. After sunset it grew very dark, the sky being covered with thick black clouds. About nine o'clock the electric fluid began to play in a more singular and beautiful manner than I had ever witnessed. At intervals of about a minute, the western sky was illuminated, with a brilliancy and effect which I cannot describe. There was no flash, but a steady glare of light which rendered every object perfectly visible while it lasted, which was from two to three seconds each time. The evening was perfectly calm, and there was neither thunder nor rain that night, but abundance of both just before sunrise. My family and I contemplated the pleasing scene in the garden for more than half an hour, when we retired. How long it continued afterwards I did not know. The same thing I have sometimes witnessed since, though not in so striking a manner.
           Many of the settlers have suffered loss, and some of them have been almost ruined by fires. When they are burning off the timber from the land, a strong wind sometimes carries the fire much beyond the limits they have prescribed. The ground is all covered with a thick coat of leaves, which, when very dry, catch fire like tinder, the wind carrying it over the ground with great rapidity, and sometimes even setting fire to the standing trees.. If it meet fences or houses in its way, very great exertions are necessary to save them from destruction, all being built of wood, and all being very dry, for people always choose a dry season for burning off their land. When a fire gets into a dry cedar swamp it burns with great fury. The crackling noise, the vivid flames, and the volumes of dense smoke that darken the sky form a sublime spectacle.
           In a country where there are many rivers and but few bridges, you may expect to hear of numerous deaths by drowning. Our rivers that are not fordable are usually crossed in canoes. These do well enough for persons accustomed to their use, but in unskilful hands they are frequently upset. Our population in this settlement are not much accustomed to the water, and no year has passed without two or three persons being drowned. In 1820, I had a narrow escape myself in crossing the Mississippi river to preach to the people on the opposite side. A farmer had furnished a canoe, and six of us were just putting off from the shore to cross at a part where the river is very deep, when a very heavy man, in endeavouring to seat himself more comfortably, upset the canoe and set us all in the water. Fortunately we were only a few yards from the shore when the accident happened, so we all reached it in safety. Had this happened at a distance from the bank, the probability is, that we would all have been drowned, as not one among us could swim.
           Another time I had to cross the same river to preach a few miles lower down. Part of my congregation crossed with me in canoes from this side. On our return we had the same kind of conveyance, and all had got over safe except four or five who were in the last canoe. They had just put off from the shore, when one of them, who had never been in so small a vessel, in altering his position, upset the canoe. The place was not beyond their depth, and all got out safe. When they had all got across, one of them, who was a Highlander, observed that canoes were kittle things, and he would take care how he ventured into one again.
           Accidents among our new settlers are no less frequent by the failing of trees than by drowning. At first they are unskilful in conducting the operations of clearing, are not aware of the danger to which they are exposed from large trees falling across one another, or knocking branches from others while they are coming down. Every year, two or three at least have met their death this way, and many more have been seriously hurt.
END OF LETTER XVIII.          BACK TO START OF LETTER

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