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Song of the Spirit River

Song of the Spirit River – Elizabeth’s Sill

Gordon Fraser’s book, “Song of the Spirit River,” was published in September 2016. The short stories in the book flow along like the Rouge River, meandering through stories of the people who first settled in the region — into the world today. The quiet of the bush and the roar of the river are reflected in Mr. Fraser’s stories, as the people of the community experienced joys and sorrows. Mr. Fraser wanted to share his book with people during this uncertain time, we will be bringing you chapters of his book for free, here on The Review’s website.

Copies of this book are available from The Review. Email: [email protected] to pre-pay for your copy and arrange for safe pick-up at The Review.

And now: here is the second chapter of “Song of the Spirit River.”

Elizabeth’s Sill

The Rouge River in Argenteuil County in western Quebec is a wild little river. Today, it has become a popular spot where people play on white water with rafts, kayaks and canoes. Few of those who come to challenge the rapids and dance on the eddies pause to think about those who have gone before.
Native tribes from ancient times knew the Rouge as the Spirit River. Then for 160 years, from 1808 to 1968, log drives took place along this waterway from as far upstream as Mont Laurier.
During the days when men used the spring rush to deliver their hard-earned harvest to the Ottawa River and the sawmills of Calumet and Hawkesbury, the Rouge was not a toy, but a way of life. To its banks each winter, workers came from all over Ontario and Quebec to labour in the forests and live in the shanties.
Beginning at the point where the Rouge enters the Ottawa, the water moves slowly. By the time the logs arrived here after their long journey, the work of the shanty men was almost done. In these quiet pools, the logs were formed into rafts ready for delivery.
Following the Rouge upstream, the river runs faster. The banks are rocky and come close together as the stream tumbles down through the mountains. The river must drop over 100 feet and pass over a series of chutes known as the Seven Sisters on its last run to the Ottawa. Above the Seven Sisters, the Rouge again widens out and runs smoothly, except for smaller falls and rapids all the way up to a big waterfall known as Bell’s Falls.
The mountains in this area are not tall but rough, with cuts and ridges that make travel difficult. So in the early days, only a few settlers lived in the valleys and highlands that surround the Rouge. One spot where a family did live was above the Seven Sisters on the east side of the river.
That place, known since logger days as Elizabeth’s Sill, stands covered with spruce trees planted over 90 years ago. Magnificent trees tower above a forest floor thick with the needles and cones of decades. Not many know or care that buried under that litter lie the foundation stones of a house and barn. Even more obscure are the remains of wooden fences marked here and there by mounds where the refuse from fields was dumped.
It’s a place where silence does not exist. The river takes a turn, tumbling over one single step carved from the mountain rock. This type of drop was called a “sill” by the logger men and from this sill arises a constant din. In wintertime, the river gurgles as it passes under or around the ice which forms there. During summer and fall, a pleasant sound of water splashing on rocks fills the air. But in the spring, the Rouge crashes and roars in its mad rush to the Ottawa.

The Moors: about 40 acres sloping gently from the river’s edge to where rocks rise forming long finger valleys that cut far into the surrounding hills. Facing southwest, with the river to the front and the fast-rising mountains behind, it is a pleasant spot to be; except in the spring.
To this place in the early 1800’s came a family: father, mother and young son. Happy to be out of Ireland, willing to face life in the backwoods, the Moores bought the land nicknamed the Moors by early loggers who had worked there.
Thomas Moore raised his first log cabin not far from the shore, planting potatoes, hemp and buckwheat in some open spaces where white oaks had once stood. Then he built a barn large enough to hold his meagre stock and what hay he could scavenge.
Margaret worked shoulder to shoulder with her husband in the toil of pulling stumps and cleaning land. Her days began at the first light of dawn and ended when she could push herself no more. She pounded and wove the hemp fibres and ground the buckwheat into flour. Potatoes were carefully stored in clean sand under the cabin floor.
Ezeriah, ten years old when he arrived, took to the woods like a fish to water. He, too, toiled at endless chores every day, but always he found some time to enter those cuts in the hills that led away from his home. He trapped rabbits in the thickets and pulled trout from the river. From the first time his father let him carry a musket while he wandered, the Moore house rarely went short of meat.
In the early years, the Moores improved their piece of land and found that where they lived was a natural gathering place. There were not many who travelled the backwoods, but of those who did, some found their way to the Moors. Roving bands of Algonquin stopped, beaching their canoes in front of Thomas’ cabin. Men searching for minerals arrived, asking about rock formations. Then came the loggers.
Logging had consisted of only a few men running small drives when the Moores arrived. The war with the United States was finished and Napoleon long since conquered, so the need for the huge oak trees which grew in this area waned low. But sawmills in Calumet and Hawkesbury were developing an appetite and now the drives began in earnest.
The Moors, which had been only snow-covered meadows in past winters, became a landing spot: a place where logs were gathered to await the spring rush. The water runs slowly both above and below the sill, allowing ice to form thick along the shores. The cuts through which the spring run-off pours down to the Rouge formed the paths for the skid teams as they went farther and farther into the virgin forest.
The sixth year that the Moores occupied this spot by the river was the first year a log jam formed at the sill – that fateful step in the river bottom just in front of their house.
The warm spring sun melted the snow quickly. On both banks of the Rouge for miles above, men laboured, pulling the fruit of their winter’s work out to the ice and the expected break-up. Then a warm heavy rain fell, washing all the wood down at the same time. One single log jammed in the rock sill and faster than could be imagined, the river filled with ice and logs, the level rising fast.
Within an hour the water rose higher than the banks – so fast that the Moores had only time to hurry themselves and their stock to high ground, then watch the flood eddying around their house and barn. By late afternoon all they could see were the roofs of buildings showing between logs and chunks of ice. As darkness set, something cracked. With one awful groan the jam gave way.
The Moore family spent that night huddled in the pouring rain surrounded by their cows, horse, and what pigs and chickens they had time to find, while in the pitch black, the noises receded. Morning light showed their moor littered with ice and debris and no trace of their house or barn.
The Moores were not destitute for long. From out of the hills behind the log drive followed the loggers. When they saw the destruction caused by the jam they all joined in and helped rebuild. More than 50 workers; axe men, sawyers, carpenters and cooks, all put their efforts to a task. Within two weeks, a new house and barn stood, above the level of the flood.
The Indians whom Margaret had welcomed to her door returned with garments of leather and baskets. Far-flung neighbours donated the necessities so that by planting time, their life was back together.
Elizabeth Moore came into the world that summer: Sixteen years younger than her brother, blond hair, blue eyes, and pretty as a button. Her arrival changed the Moore household almost as much as the log jam. What had been a rough and tumble household took on a more gentle appearance as Margaret fussed over her new baby girl.
Elizabeth’s arrival prompted Thomas to work harder on the property, planting more crops and planning a new vocation: supplying the logging camps with fresh foods in winter.
For brother Ezeriah, a new baby sister changed his life hardly at all. He loved Elizabeth dearly, stopping to cuddle her or to make her laugh at shapes of shadows on the walls. But at 16, he was rarely in the house. Besides his chores and hunting, he worked with the loggers and was looking forward to his second winter in the shanties.
After that log jam, the river bosses took great care to keep it from happening again. To the Moors each spring thereafter would come a crew of the best men; handpicked from among the shanties to closely watch the descent of the logs over the sill, able to act quickly should another jam commence. They did this partly out of compassion for the Moores but mostly because of the damage caused to the wood from being tossed around so severely.
As the years went by, the annual meeting at the Moors became a matter of pride for the shanty men. When the snow began to melt and the spring sun shone strong, the bosses would call the names of those chosen to guide the logs over the sill and on to the cataracts of the Seven Sisters. To be part of the gathering at the Moors meant recognition as the best at your trade and was an honour highly held.

Twenty-two years after Thomas and Margaret built their first log cabin, the yearly log drive was a common event. The Moores had prospered, clearing and using all the flat land available for cash crops and pasture.
Ezeriah had departed to enlist for military service, his sense of adventure taking him to the city and the recruiting office.
Elizabeth was 16, getting ready to be 17, when the shanty men began to prepare for the drive that year. Her hair shone honey-blond, though not so light as when a child, her eyes a most wonderful shade of deep blue.
Her mother’s joy and the apple of her father’s eye, she was known far and wide among the men in the logging camps. Those chosen to run the logs over the sill would see her and then stories would spread about the flowering beauty of Elizabeth Moore. Young men looked upon their comrades with envy as bags were packed for the trip to the Moors. They, too, wished for even a glimpse of her face.
Throughout the camps, the rough men held her as a symbol of purity and good. All were aware of her arrival at womanhood but not even the slightest hint of suggestiveness was permitted. To have harmed her would have meant instant death or worse to the perpetrator. Elizabeth, the girl at the sill; a gift to behold and the image of everything they laboured for.
Elizabeth was a hard-working child, always helping her mother with the tasks of the house. Still, her greatest joy lay with the gardens. Vegetables thrived under her care, but flowers did even better, especially those in her own little flower patch. At a sheltered place just about in line with the sill in the river, high enough to be well out of the way of the spring flood waters, Elizabeth had made a little garden with all her favourite blooms.
She knew the routine of the spring drives and looked forward to the arrival of the loggers. She liked the colour and the dashing spirits of the men who came to direct the logs: the men were so strong, so confident, and so gentle with her.
One young man chosen this spring was Duncan MacLeod. Nineteen years old, four years of experience under his belt, his ability with an axe and his talent of running over logs caught the drive boss’s eye. He would be going to the Moors.
Duncan stood six-foot-four, wide-shouldered and narrow at the hip. Black hair and a permanent smile that only got larger when things got tough, he had become a favourite of the hands.
Duncan arrived at the Moors, strolling out of the forest on a beautiful spring day. Elizabeth saw him coming from where she worked, cleaning her flower garden and from the first time he flashed his big grin at her, she was in love.
Duncan could not have guessed this at the time. He saw the blond-haired girl kneeling among the crocuses and felt so overcome that his smile almost forsake him. He wished he had been able to say something, or even give a wave, but the shock of actually seeing Elizabeth allowed him only one shy grin before she turned away.
The dozen or so loggers who came to work at the Moors lived in a large cabin built many years before for the purpose. Mrs. Moore did the cooking and provided the food, forming another reason why men wanted this assignment: a woman’s cooking.
Elizabeth helped her mother prepare and serve the meals, so her path crossed with Duncan’s several times each day. She was taken by the way he could handle himself among the crew of older men, though they rarely spoke.
Duncan worked all day trying to think of something clever and pleasant to say to her, if he had the chance, only to get red in the cheeks and trip over his own feet when their eyes so much as met. Yet somehow, they both knew something was special.
Elizabeth smiled at all the men and some of the more daring took her hand or passed small remarks. But others, like Duncan, felt so shy as to hardly acknowledge her presence. Still, she was the darling of all.
One whose shyness prevented him from anything more than noticing Elizabeth was Charles Labelle. A middle-aged man, he stayed a loner and alone. Somewhere behind him lay a personal tragedy of which he spoke not a word, though rumour said his family had perished in a raging flood on his home farm far up on the Saguenay. Since then, he worked the forests, living quietly and drifting deeper into himself.

As happens every spring along the Rouge, the combination of warm sun and rain quickly melted the snow. Everyone knew that the number of logs would be high, for the winter had been good and the saw mills waited hungrily. The workers at the Moors were ready for the rush they knew must surely come.
They passed their time during the day chopping channels in the river ice, helping nature clear the path to the Seven Sisters and the Ottawa. When the first of the logs began to appear, mixed with great chunks of ice, the men directed all to the channel and open water. The work was hard but spirits ran high, laughter sometimes drowning out the sounds of the sill.
More ice broke under the pressure of rising water and the flow of logs became thicker. Men laboured from before dawn till well after dark, pushing with pike poles and running over the spinning logs to remove any potential snags before a jam could occur. The river ran smoothly.
Elizabeth enjoyed watching the men as they danced on the slippery logs; calling directions to each other, teasing and cajoling. She would sit among her flowers, safe on the sunny little ledge, and admire Duncan as he darted this way and that, using the logs as stepping stones. Or marvel at the great hulking strength of Charles Labelle when he drove his pike pole into a stubborn log and pushed it into open water.
Then one afternoon when the sun shone warm, a single tree trunk, ripped from the river bank somewhere upstream caught a root right in the middle of the sill. Within minutes logs began to back up as more and more piled against the big snag.
Charles Labelle was the first to see the jam begin. With amazing lightness for his huge size, he ran over the fast-gathering timbers and began to chop the offending log right through the middle. Duncan MacLeod quickly joined Charles and soon wood chips the size of saucers filled the air as the axe men worked in harmony.
The foreman looked on with great concern. His practiced eye watched the upper end of the jam for any signs, knowing the dangers of movement there. Two of his best men were at it while the others waited, ready to direct the logs when the jam did begin to break.
Charles and Duncan swung their razor-edged axes, both aware that at any moment they would have to dash for their lives. Then, when they felt a small tremor of the log on which they stood, they both turned and ran across the tightly packed jam. The severed tree trunk gave way under the pressure of wood and water with a great “crack”, sending a piece of broken root flying through the air. It stuck Charles on the back of the head just as he reached the shore. He fell, knocked unconscious.
Several men pulled him to safety but he had been hit hard and the wound was deep. For all his troubles and the efforts of he and Duncan, the whole jam moved just a short distance then stuck again tighter than before.
In the warm spring sunshine, the river should have been running smoothly. Instead it now simmered, jammed from shore to shore, backing up quickly upstream. Logs and ice struck the higher end of the mass, adding their weight to the pack.
The foreman knew he had a problem, for the way the logs were stuck required that axe men cut on both sides of the jam; work hazardous to the extreme. When the logs began to move, there might be little time for escape. He must call for volunteers, single men preferred, and Charles was down with a blow to the head.
When the request went out, Duncan MacLeod’s hand was the first one up. Next, a big black man named Beauregard Bix lifted his high. He also had no dependant family and loved the chance to flirt with danger. While Margaret Moore stitched Charles’ head, Duncan and Beauregard took their places, one on either side of the river, right on the foremost edge of the jam. They worked in unison, cutting the key logs, preparing for the rush they knew must certainly happen.
Elizabeth sat in her favourite place where the flowers of spring were showing and watched the men, especially Duncan, as they laboured. As the day wore on, the foreman made a decision; they would not actually break the jam until the next morning. The men had worked hard since before sunrise and shadows were gathering deep at the Moors.
By first light, loggers gathered at the edge of the tight packed jam. The morning dawned clear with blue skies and a light frost. The whole pasture at the Moors as well as the river to the west bank showed a sea of bark. Logs were packed so tight the surface was as solid as a floor. The Moores’ buildings and Elizabeth’s small garden at the edge of the sill were virtually the only places remaining free of timber.
Men took positions along the edges, loosening logs there and watching for any movement. Duncan and Beauregard made their way towards their work places, right at the very front edge of the sleeping mass. Elizabeth scampered around the tight-packed logs to her watching spot in her garden.
Tensions grew as one by one, key logs were cut to within a hair’s breadth of breaking, awaiting only one last swipe to sever and snap. Preparations seemed almost ready. All along the edges, men watched and waited. Soon, when the last cuts were made, everything would go with a swoop.
At the very upper edge of the jam, the foreman kept his practised eyes peeled. All of a sudden he saw something which made him turn pale; a massive wedge of ice completely submerged coming fast, straight under the log pack. He had time only to shout a warning when the flow disappeared beneath the logs.
Somewhere under the surface the incredible weight of the ice struck the solid tangle of wood. Something had to move and that movement was up. Huge timbers rose like lava from a volcano. Beauregard turned from his axe work and saw the tumbling logs coming to engulf him. He looked at the distance to shore and then jumped into the water, preferring the chance of drowning to being crushed.
Duncan’s position lay closer to some rocks than Beauregard’s. He took a great leap as the first logs shot past him and was well on his way to safety when he saw Elizabeth.
Her little garden, which had seemed so high and safe, now stood at the same level as the mass of wood that circled and churned as if in some giant washing machine. Everyone saw her predicament at the same time but only Duncan could help her. He turned.
Into a wall of twisting spinning timber he ran, and he almost got to her. But everybody watched in horror as one pole shot up, knocking him into the froth, and Duncan disappeared forever.
Now Elizabeth stood stranded on a small stone in the middle of an ocean of wood and ice. She called to the men who were frozen in their tracks, too far away to do any good. One man made an attempt to cross the logs but made only a few steps before he sank and had to be pulled to shore.
Disaster seemed certain for with each moment the breaking jam gained force, threatening at any instant to carry away both Elizabeth and her small refuge.
Then, as if from out of nowhere, Charles Labelle was running over the churning surface. Where footing seemed impossible he ran, still wearing the bandages on his head. He stumbled and sank but pulled himself up again and continued. When he reached Elizabeth, he picked her up like a rag doll under his arm and turned to the nearest safety.
By now the whole river surface as well as the open areas of the Moors was a raging torrent as the unearthly force of the breaking jam gained speed. Charles shot into the middle of this, carrying his precious load, making only a short distance before his feet were knocked out from under him. He went down hard, turning to take the fall himself, landing on a sharp log.
Again he raised himself, cradling Elizabeth in his arms, and a great cheer went up from the men on the shore. His shirt was soaked with blood but on he went, safety and solid rock just steps away. Charles ran where it seemed a man must surely sink. Logs beneath him groaned and twisted, shooting up out of the foam like mere toothpicks.
Strong arms waited to grab him as he approached the rocks, Elizabeth clutching tight to his neck. Then a log reared right in front of him and he fell backwards into the water. He held Elizabeth over his head trying to protect her from the tumbling timbers.
Safety lay ten feet away but it might as well have been ten miles, and seconds turned to hours while Charles struggled to raise himself. Somehow he gained his footing and in that moment he gave a mighty heave, throwing Elizabeth to those who waited arms outstretched.
They caught her and instantly she was transported to safety and high ground, leaving only Charles Labelle in danger. Free of his load, Charles almost managed to grasp the end of a pike pole held out by his comrades, but a huge log crushed him hard and drove him out away from the rocks.
Elizabeth had time only to turn when she saw the man who saved her go under for the last time. The jam was moving at full force and no living thing had any chance in the middle of that. Charles Labelle managed only eye contact and a weak smile to Elizabeth before he was carried under.
Nothing on earth could have stopped the flow of logs and water. With the power of ten thousand horses charging at the same time and a terrible groan, the jam broke loose. For more than two hours, the river spewed ice and wood until finally by mid-afternoon, the water flowed within its banks and logs floated freely.
No sign of Beauregard, Duncan, or Charles was ever seen again. Little wonder either, for just to see the broken and mangled timbers when they finally floated out to the Ottawa was enough to cause pity. A human body could never have survived.

The Moors ceased being an inviting spot that day. To Elizabeth, the sound of water over rocks became an unbearable reminder of the wonderful souls who died in her rescue; her one true love lost before they even shared as much as an embrace. She took a job in Hawkesbury, then found her way to Montreal, never to be heard from again.
Thomas and Margaret lived out the remainder of their days at that sad bend in the river with the sounds of the sill in their ears. Margaret grew more and more silent until one morning she did not awaken. Thomas gave up on his animals and his pastures, relying on the loggers to eke out a meagre living.
Finally the logging companies blasted the rock from the middle of the sill, booming the logs farther downstream closer to the Seven Sisters.
But among the shanties, the stories lived on. Tales of a beautiful girl named Elizabeth who once lived at the sill, and the bravery of the men who faced the fury of a raging river to save her. It became known as Elizabeth’s sill; that place just above the Sisters.
Brush grew around the Moores’ buildings, but nobody lived there after the death of Thomas. Occasional hunters or travellers shared the space with squirrels and porcupines until the roof caved in. Then it remained completely abandoned.
The brush grew to trees until they, too, were cut and those which now exist planted. It remains a sad place. Any who come to camp or sit on the rocks often do not stay long. Melancholy replaces the expected tranquility.
Today, dark spruces tower over the old Moors, stray daffodils sprout from a forgotten garden. Nothing remains to tell of those who gave their lives for another. The place is now as deserted as when Thomas and Margaret first arrived.
Yet if you were to make your way up to the top of the Seven Sisters, past the beaches where the rafting companies come ashore, you might find the Moors. There in the never-silence is a song, a lament for true love, sung by the Spirits of those who died for it.