The Preposterous Pathfinder


Although he was undoubtedly exaggerating the Indian menace, Beltrami had made a bold decision. The journey up the Red Lake River was not an easy task. The stream ran strong and there were numerous rapids, all of which had to be portaged knee-deep on the slippery rocks as the little group dragged its canoe forward. The interpreter turned back almost immediately, and Beltrami was left to communicate with the two Chippewa by gestures. At first the Indians behaved well, and Beltrami’s little party made good progress. Then on August 14 they ran into trouble. The Chippewa were ambushed by a marauding band of Sioux, and although Beltrami escaped injury (the Sioux fled as soon as they saw his white skin), one of his guides was shot through the arm. The ambush gave the Chippewa a bad fright and they refused to go any farther by water lest the Sioux attack again. Beltrami tried to be firm, but it was useless. After a brief argument in sign language, the two Indians gathered up their belongings and decamped into the woods, leaving the Italian sitting disconsolately on the bank with his baggage and a canoe he did not know how to paddle. “I imagine, my dear Countess,” he wrote, “that you will feel the frightfulness of my situation at this crucial moment more strongly than I can express it. I really can scarcely help shuddering … whenever I think of it.”

According to his own version of that momentous day Beltrami rose to the occasion magnificently. First he mused on the late of Robinson Crusoe. Next he loaded his musket in case he had to defend himself against the white bears “which abound near the Red River” (and which, he stated, sustained themselves during their winter hibernation by sucking the fat from their paws). Then he resolved that at all costs he would continue his journey in search of the mysterious source. At that point his adventures took a comic turn, which he had the grace to describe: I jumped into my canoe and began rowing. But I was totally unacquainted with the almost magical art by which a single person guides a canoe, and particularly a canoe formed of bark, the lightness of which is overpowered by the current, and the conduct of which requires extreme dexterity. Frequently, instead of proceeding up the river, I descended; a circumstance which by no means shortened my voyage. Renewed efforts made me lose my equilibrium, the canoe upset, and admitted a considerable quantity of water. My whole cargo was wetted. I leaped into the water, drew the canoe on land, and laid it to drain with the keel upwards. I then loaded it again, taking care to place the wetted part of my effects uppermost, to be dried by the sun. I then resumed my route.

For some hours this erratic progress continued, and, it we are to believe the incurably optimistic Italian, he was thoroughly amused by his efforts at paddling. Indeed, he told the Countess that he could “scarcely help incessantly smiling,” even though it was quite obvious that he was making little or no headway. Unabashed, he tried another means of locomotion: I threw myself into the water up to my waist, and commenced a promenade of a rather unusual kind, drawing the canoe after me with a thong from a buffaloe’s hide, which I had fastened to the prow. The first day of my expedition, the 15th of the month, was employed in this manner, and I did not stop till the evening. It was natural to expect that I should be fatigued; but I was not in the least so. While thus dragging after me my canoe, with a cord over my shoulder, an oar in my hand for my support, my back stooping, my head looking down, holding conversation with the fishes beneath, and making incessant windings in the river, in order to sound its depths, that I might most safely pass; I must leave to your imagination to conceive the variety and interest of the ideas which rapidly passed in review before my mind!

Despite the discomforts of his situation, Beltrami was having the time of his life. He saw himself as a successor of the intrepid heroes of Roman legend, sternly pushing forward to his goal against all obstacles. From time to time he was forced to resume his feeble attempts at paddling, but always found that he could not master the art and made more headway by wading upstream. Everything was soaking wet--baggage, provisions, weapons, bedding, and himself. At night it was impossible to light a fire to dry out his belongings because the renegade Chippewa had stolen his flint, so he slept in his sodden clothing and relied on the morning sunshine to warm his chilled body. To add to his discomfort, the weather was sultry and there were many thundershowers. Beltrami himself did not care—wading in the river, he could hardly have been wetter—but his baggage was drenched and began to grow moldy. Therefore on the third day of his extraordinary trek he unpacked the ultimate item in his gentleman-traveller kit—a large umbrella covered with red silk. This he unfolded and stuck upright in the canoe so that his luggage was sheltered from the rain. Then he plunged back into the water, took up the tow rope, and proceeded on his “promenade.”