National Geographic : 1996 May
looking at the moon and stars, and tells you of what we know nothing." - WITH THE NAHATHAWAY, I792 and Leon lands a 15-pound northern pike, a jagged-tooth predator that Thompson called "the water wolf." I ask Leon how he'd cook the pike if he were by himself. He cuts a green pine stick and jams it up the fish's mouth, and, without gutting it, props the pike over the fire like a hot dog. The Cree, known as Nahathaway in Thompson's time, never had much use for fish. "Nothing but sad necessity can compel a Nahathaway hunter to carry away fish, and angle for them," Thompson wrote. In contrast, the Dene, who still occupy the same northern forests, found fishing honorable. "A peaceable people, abhorring bloodshed," Thompson wrote of the Dene. "The Nahathaways look on them with a sort of contempt; being themselves too much inclined to war." All this is news to Leon, a Cree traveling into Dene territory for the first time. But he is young and borrows my copy of the Thompson manuscript to ponder in his tent. We ride the Fond du Lac until it empties into Black Lake over Burr Falls, a wicked, twisting hose of water that we scan for soft spots but in which we see only possibilities of disaster. The half-mile-long portage past the falls is burned from the forest fires, the earth still smoking. I haul the canoe over it as if performing penance. That night the aurora borealis curls in celestial rapids, roiling above the glow of our campfire like river dreams. "Sometimes there would be a stillness A STARGAZING THOMPSON TRIED TO EXPLAIN LONGITUDE AND LATITUDE TO HIS FRIENDS, WHO RE GARDED HIM AS A SHAMAN. "THEIR OPINIONS WERE THAT I WAS LOOKING INTO FUTURITY." WITH HIS SEXTANT AND HOURS OF TRIGONOMETRY HE OBTAINED STARTLINGLY ACCURATE RESULTS.