New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Starving, Fly-Bitten, and Lost in the Woods

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Starving, Fly-Bitten, and Lost in the Woods

Sir James Alexander was commissioned by the British in 1844 to survey a new military road between ‘The Bend’ (Moncton) and Grand Falls. This was a long and difficult job, and was completed in stages. As we join him, he has been in Boisetown, where he is met by Colonel Hayne, the Chief Commissioner of the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick Land Company, and a Dr. Gem.

Alexander and his party then return to Fredericton before setting out for the Miramichi to find a good location for a bridge to carry his military road. They are ill-equipped and become lost in the woods. This is their story of survival and of other similar tragedies avoided.

The story is condensed and edited from Alexander’s L’Acadie or Seven Years Explorations, London, 1849.

Tavern built of logs at Stanley, N.B., 1835.

Library and Archives Canada, via website of the Visual Gallery of Historic New Brunswick


I brought our team into Fredericton in a couple of wagons. They were considerably worn both in their person and their clothes, from the hard and constant service in the forest during the last two months.

I remained a short time in Fredericton to prepare reports and maps, and I record with great satisfaction the many attentions shown me by the Lieutenant-Governor and his family, also by the worthy Attorney-General, Mr. Peters, Mr. Parker, the Master of the Rolls, Mr. Street, Solicitor-General, &c. I also made two or three very agreeable excursions with my friend Professor Robb, by the thriving Harvey Settlement to the beautiful Oromocto Lake, &c. whilst waiting to hear from Lieutenants Simmons and Woods, with whose work I was to connect mine.

To lose no time, however, I prepared for an expedition to the Upper Miramichi, to ascertain where it could be crossed by a bridge for the military road. I left for Stanley in a light wagon, Colonel Hayne having proposed to accompany me from that place (the principal station of the Land Company) towards the Miramichi, and to make all necessary arrangements.

To reach Stanley we went along the Boisetown road to the mouth of the Tay Creek, then by a new, narrow and indifferent road, to Stanley. My driver said he could reach our destination, twenty-five miles from Fredericton, in three hours, but we took from four p.m. till eleven at night before we saw the place, having been obliged to lead the horse for many miles in the dark, and to lift the wagon over felled trees.

The Settlement of Stanley consisted at this time of a few scattered houses, a church, a mill, (with a dam, and no fish-way,) a tavern, carpenter’s and blacksmith’s shops, &c. It is situated on a steep slope, on the south bank of the Nashwaak River. There was a good deal of land cleared about the settlement, and the north bank consisted of valuable hard wood ridges. I received every civility and attention from Colonel and Mrs. Hayne, at their house, but as he was not able to start at once, I was obliged to remain at Stanley for two days.

The Colonel sent to Boisetown, to direct two men with a canoe and provisions to go up the Miramichi, and to meet us at the outlet of the Miramichi Lake, below the point I wished to look for bridge sites. On the morning of the sixth of August, I left Stanley on foot, and accompanied by Colonel Hayne, who brought with him his Scotch surveyor, Mr. Waugh, and three men to carry packs (Archie Duncan, Duncan Buchanan, and Thomas Pelton). There was to have been an Indian guide but he did not appear, and Archie Duncan was now to be the guide as far as the Miramichi Lake, beyond which he had heard of lumber tracks, which might lead us to the main river. We did not expect what was to be the upshot of this uncertainty.

Travelling first north and then north-west, along a new road, we passed through hardwood, with good land, for many miles, but the thermometer was at seventy-five degrees, “the biting point” for mosquitoes and black flies. There was not a breath of air, we were bathed in perspiration, and exceedingly tormented with poisonous insects, which were very numerous after the recent rain.

After accomplishing ten miles, we halted to boil the tea kettle and eat. A loaf of bread and a few crackers were produced. We found that through some carelessness the more substantial viands had been forgotten. It was a bad beginning; no Indian guide, and no meat for perhaps three days, and with hard walking, but we did our best with the bread and tea, and continued our route.

We passed down two very steep descents, and ascended a steep acclivity, crossing streams, running apparently to the Nashwaak and to the Taxes Rivers, and at sunset found ourselves at a small Indian camp, or empty hut, covered with bark, and used in the winter as a hunting lodge. This was about twenty miles from Stanley, at the Napadogan Lake.

A grouse had been shot, and it was carefully divided, with a little bread for supper, among the six. We did not pass a very comfortable night. We were most of us very hungry, the night was hot and close, flies bit us, one of the men snored terrifically, and cried out in his sleep, thinking a wild beast had got hold of him, and there was a disagreeable smell of old bears’ meat in the hut. I understood we were to have climbed a high hill before we reached the Miramichi, and when I asked our guide on the morning of the 7th where it was, he said it was ten miles on our right.

We passed round the west side of the Napadogan Lake. Its shores were swampy, a belt of moss was all round, and there were thick forests of spruce, balsam, dwarf maple, &c. There were many wild ducks on the Lake, but they prudently kept well in the middle of it. Otter were also seen, and we should have eaten them if we could have got them into our frying pan.

About four miles through swampy ground brought us to the Miramichi Lake, which was not noticed in any map. This is a beautiful piece of water, two miles long, with a fine strand of sand, and hills about it, covered with hardwood. Finding two Indian canoes and paddles, we pushed off into the Lake, and caught a few chub, which we speedily devoured. The Lake is said to abound in salmon and trout, but we did not see any.

Wading in the water up to our knees along the east shore, and sometimes up to our middles to avoid the entangled forest, we reached the Lake Brook or outlet, after one and a half miles of this aquatic journey. We crossed ourselves and baggage in the leaky canoes over the deep outlet, and drawing up the canoes in a place of safety, we went some distance along the west bank of the Lake Brook.

Our guide, however, crossing over the Brook, said he had found the lumber-track which was to take us to the Miramichi. We accordingly forded the Brook up to our haunches, and found ourselves in a swampy plain with a high hill in the distance. We went on by old lumber-tracks, sometimes losing the track altogether, till the guide appeared to know nothing of the country. At seven p.m. we halted, and made a rough camp with crutches, poles, and boughs, supped on four crackers each, and went to sleep, but not very comfortably; our hunger was terrible, and it was evident we had quite lost our way.

On the 8th, it was determined to make a bold effort to reach the Miramichi. We were up at four a.m., breakfasted on four crackers and a drink of water, and followed Duncan, the guide. He led through alder-beds, in which we sank to our knees, and got heavy falls, and I was deeply cut in the right hand with an axe. At last, seeing that the guide had completely lost himself, and that the remains of a lumber-camp which he found was at least fifteen years old, and all the tracks were overgrown, I said to Colonel Hayne that it was absurd to follow these old tracks any longer, and that, as we were now evidently lost in the woods, we should try and get the party to the Miramichi with the assistance of my pocket-compass.

I now took the place of Duncan, and steered a N.E. course. Buchanan, my acting henchman, a Skye Highlander, a very willing, strong, and good man, ascended a tree by felling a young spruce against it, thus mounting a natural ladder; but he could make nothing of the country except boundless forests and distant ridges. Continuing on, we found ourselves at the base of a wooded hill, and still pursuing a N.E. direction, we ascended painfully to the summit, the poor men with the packs of blankets, frying-pan, kettle, &c., being in a much reduced state.

I pulled my belt to the last hole, and it then slipped down over my haunches. I sat down and looked at my leather leggings, and I thought that if we did not get out that day, they must be roasted and eaten tomorrow, moccasins and all. In fact, I was inclined to pound, roast, and eat them on the spot. All the party looked very pale and attenuated, and yet the remorseless flies continued to draw the blood out of us as greedily as ever.

I climbed a high tree on the hill and I saw a vast prospect of forest ridges N., N.E. and E. of us, but no water and no river. I saw indications of a valley far before us, to the N.E. It was a long walk to it, but it seemed our only chance of escape. We stalked down the hill, and I expected every moment that the men would give in; but they did not, though often resting. One of the Scotchmen, reflecting on our case, said, “We must just do the best we can; we’ve seen a good few of paths, but no the right wan.”

I now thought that our best plan was to follow the first brook we fell in with, running to the N. or N.E.; and at two p.m., the glad sound of rushing waters met our ears. We followed the stream; the ground rapidly fell, and our spirits and hopes rose. We found a recent lumber-track, followed it, crossed a larger brook, foaming over a rocky bed, then passed a large lumber-camp, and at three p.m. we greeted with cheers the broad and sparkling waters of the Miramichi.

We were, of course, all of us considerably torn and worn; the legs of my trousers were in shreds, and the back was burnt out of my jacket. It had been left on a log to dry, and the men had unwittingly made a fire there. Our skin was poisoned, body and limbs, with the flies, and our hunger was raging. Throwing off encumbrances, all who had hooks commenced wading and earnestly fishing, and salmon, trout, and chub, of one pound weight soon rewarded our exertions. Hastily making fires, we roasted and ate the fish greedily before they were well warmed through, and our strength was restored. We had much reason to be thankful; if we had got involved in swamps, and been lost much longer, some of the party would have perished.

People are lost in the woods every year in New Brunswick; some never appear again; they sink exhausted, and their bodies are devoured by wild beasts. The anxiety they suffer before the close of the scene must be fearfully intense, besides the pangs of hunger. A boy had been lost for five days in the woods. People went to search for him; they found him alive, but with his face destroyed with flies; he had lived on berries, and was so beside himself with fear, that he had not thought of eating a biscuit which was in his pocket all the time. He said that the owls swooped down at him, and pecked at him, thinking his face was raw meat.

A very intelligent surveyor and good draftsman, Mr. Grant, whom I saw in New Brunswick, was lost last year for five days in the woods of the Tobique. His narrative was painfully interesting. He had left his party to explore, and missed the surveyed line in burnt woods. It was the 5th of November, it rained, and he had neither fire, food, nor shelter. Next day it snowed, and he crouched for shelter at night under low bushes, in woods, after having walked for about thirty-five hours his endeavors to escape from the wilderness. On the 7th, he lost the needle of his compass, his hands being benumbed, and after reaching a river, he fell from weakness. He could not find a berry to eat, and fancied he saw Indians near him, but it was a delusion of the brain. Crawling on his hands and knees towards shelter, he passed the night under the roots of a tree. Having pulled off his boots to let the water run out, he could not get them on again, and his feet were frozen hard on the morning of the 8th. He crawled to the river, and tried to thaw them in the stream. He wrote on slips of paper how he was lost, and sent them down the stream on split chips of wood. Crawling back among some alders and long grass, he resigned himself into the hands of the Almighty.

His sufferings from hunger were most severe. On the 9th, he dragged himself to the river to drink, and in the night it rained in torrents. On the 10th, to his great joy, he saw a party of woodsmen with horses on the opposite side of the river, but he could make no sound to arrest their attention. After some hours they returned, and by a violent effort, he uttered a wild cry, they saw him and rescued him, and with great care, he was recovered.


Written by johnwood1946

July 19, 2017 at 8:35 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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