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Nation Making, a story of New Zealand

Chapter XXII. — Salmon Introduction

page 207

Chapter XXII.
Salmon Introduction.

Noble gift by America to New Zealand.—A boat's crew.—Nation Makers.—On the River.—A New Zealand Morning.—River scenery.—In the rapids.—A Maori Hercules.—'Steady boys.'—A tough Struggle.—Victory.—A Titanic quern grinder.—Forest tints.—Shadows.—'Spell ho.'—Snags, Rocks, and Rapids in the River.—Tent pitching.—Locating the ova.—Kindly links.—Down Stream.—'There she goes.'—The tent in the forest.—Moonlight on the River.—A Morning Chorus.—New Zealand song Birds.—A feathered Bandmaster.—The Coming Day.—The Roar of the Rapid.—In the Cataract.—Through it.

SOME years ago the Fish Commissioners of the United States generously presented to the Colony of New Zealand, a million salmon ova. Having had some experience in Fish culture, the New Zealand Government asked me to take charge of a portion of the ova for location in the Northern rivers, and to forward the remainder to various points in the South Island. Though I had no great faith in the success of the operation in the Northern rivers, owing to the mild climate and the great abundance of eels in nearly every river, I undertook the work.

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How I deposited ova and young salmon in most of our principal rivers; how I travelled hundreds of miles in boats and canoes; how both Europeans and Maories heartily assisted me, would be a long story to tell, and probably when told, would be of no particular interest to anybody. I shall therefore describe but a few of the expeditions, of the many I accomplished, and these only by way of giving my readers some idea of New Zealand rivers, in a state of nature, with some glimpses of New Zealand settlers and scenery.

By rail and steamer, I conveyed 50,000 salmon ova to the Northern Wairoa river, meeting there an open steam launch placed at my disposal by Government. Favoured by a strong flowing tide, the launch sped swiftly up the noble river to a point near the Falls at the head of the navigation. At this point I transferred my ova chests and ice boxes to a strong boat, manned by four stalwart fellows, half bushmen half boatmen, good specimens of the strong hardy men who, in the forests and rivers, are taking their full share of the work of Nation Making in New Zealand.

Up at four o'clock next morning, whilst breakfast was cooking, I put fresh ice into the ova boxes by way of keeping my little friends cool and comfortable. During breakfast a solitary 'blight bird' warbled forth its gentle morning song, quickly imitated and improved upon by a Tui, the New Zealand mocking bird.

At six o'clock we resumed our places in the boat, long stout poles having been provided for the rapids we were approaching. Nothing could exceed the page 209quiet and placid beauty of the morning and the scene. The measured strokes of the oars, rippling the inexpressible stillness of the limpid river, every tree, every tint of the living green of the wooded banks, reflected with exquisite delicacy and beauty by the glassy water. The deep green foliage of the Karaka, mingled with the emerald tints of the weeping willow, marking here and there, the long abandoned site of some ancient Maori village, whilst a lovely tree-fern spread the shadow of its silvery fronds on the bosom of the rosy-tinted river; or a giant Kauri reared its lofty, leafy crown, heavenwards in the transparent morning sky, a veritable monarch of the forest primeval.

Whilst the oars fall with a measured cadence, we hear a roar ahead, and rounding a sandy point we come in sight of the rapid, or rather cataract we had heard so much about. Huge rocks and moss-covered boulders bristle from bank to bank, flanking a wall of rock over which the whole volume of the Mangakahia river breaks with deafening roar, in a line of snow-white foam. Two hands in the bows stand by with ready poles, two more grip their oars for a strong and steady pull. My pilot, Te Puke, a Maori Hercules, tow-line in hand, wading, where a shallow served, or, springing from boulder to boulder, we slowly forge ahead.

'Steady boys, steady,' roars Captain Lowrie at the helm, 'down with your oars, out with boat hooks.'

And holding on for dear life to sharp rocky ledges, jutting here and there above the foaming, surging waters, our buoyant little craft, tossing about like a shell, the fierce cataract raising the water in a crystal page 210curve high above either gunwale, we barely hold our own.

' Now boys, now. Heave ho!'

And straining every muscle to hold every inch we made, the tow-line drawn taut as a fiddle string over the brawny shoulder of the Maori—balanced like a veritable Hercules, on a slippery boulder—for one instant, it seemed as though our united efforts, and even his giant strength, must yield. One moment more of such fearful tension, and he must fall backwards into the roaring cataract. That instant, the boat hook in the bow gains an inch of purchase more, and every muscle strained like knotted rope strands, he holds his ground.

'Now boys, now. All together.'

A moment of supreme and vigorous battle, and the Maori, with one mighty effort, slowly heaves forward his giant frame, and at last, at last, the bows cleave the glassy wave, where it breaks and rushes down the fall, and we are once more in still water.

One joyous shout announces our well-earned victory, and running our gallant craft into a quiet little cove we spring ashore and rest our weary limbs.

After an hour's well-earned rest, we resumed our course up the river. At one point, I noticed a huge boulder lying on the river bank, very much the shape of a Titanic quern stone, as if some old giant in mythic times, had ground his grain, and worn it into a perfect geometric figure, or, as a modern geologist would confidently assure you, marking in this sunny clime, page 211the existence of a glacial period a million years or so ago. Whatever of truth there may be, or may not be in these myths, ancient or modern, there, the huge round stone lay, a striking object of geometric beauty and immemorial age.

Frequently, jutting rocks projected their stony points half way across the river, making to me, sitting in the stern in full enjoyment of the changing scene, pictures of striking beauty, but to the stalwart fellows handling the oars, making the exercise of force and skill a constant necessity.

Resting for a minute in a quiet reach, after a stiff pull against a rapid, a solitary mocking bird greeted us with a curious medley of sound, now, with notes closely resembling the sharpening of a saw, followed by two or three notes full of melody, deep and rich, then again imitating the creaking of the file, reminding me of a carpenter sharpening his saw, whistling gaily in the intervals, as if to compensate himself for the screeching discords of his occupation.

Day after day, and all day long, we were pulling and poling amongst or over snags, of which this unexplored river was full, or forging our toilsome way over rapids, or gliding swiftly along many a quiet reach, or sweeping gaily round a noble bend. Richly tinted forest clothed both banks of the beautiful river, one moment reposing in deep shadow, the next, every twig, and frond, and leaf delicately pencilled in the brilliant sunshine.

As evening approached, the wooded points lay in page 212deeper shadow, the opposite bends being gilded with the mellow tints of departing day. It is impossible to describe the effect of the living green of the forest foliage in this sunny southern land, passing from the deep rich tints of the Puriri and Karaka, to the soft golden hues of the Mahoe and Ongaonga, as they were mirrored, with still more delicate and softened tones of colour, in the placid reaches of the glassy river as we swept along.

At intervals, a rugged cliff or rocky point, scored and wrecked by the tremendous floods of a thousand winters, served by their bold and Titanic masses, to lend a greater charm to a hundred wooded knolls of exquisite beauty, on this most lovely of all New Zealand rivers.

As we steadily worked our way up stream, our progress became more difficult. Snags in every form of mossy beauty, or in gnarled and naked ugliness, barred our way with a tangled network of roots and stumps. In pulling up this river, a score of rapids and a thousand snags taxed to the utmost, the pluck and bottom of my boatmen, now struggling in a boil of foaming water, now, with concentrated vigour, forcing our little craft over a submerged tree athwart the stream, up a glassy sheet of green and shining water.

'Spell ho,' were welcome words to the hardy oarsmen, and though revelling amongst scenes rapidly changing from picturesque and placid beauty, to fierce and exciting struggles, I was not sorry for their sakes, when we came at last, to the village of the Maori Chief Te Wero page 213In my numerous expeditions on New Zealand rivers for acclimatization purposes, it was never my lot to contend with such a host of difficulties, as I met with on the Mangakahia river, and I certainly never sat behind a better, or more gallant crew, than the hardy fellows who had fought their way through every difficulty, and brought me and my precious ova to their destined goal without a single casualty.

Finding here a location for the salmon ova, suitable in all respects, I asked Te Wero's permission to place them in the river, to which he readily consented. We pitched our tent on a grassy knoll overlooking the spot I had selected, and enjoyed our rustic fare as none but those can do, who have spent a succession of summer days, both hot and long, in pulling and poling up a river, filled with snags and rapids, and have arrived at last, at the welcome end of all their toils.

After a hearty meal, we adjourned at Te Wero's request to one of the houses in his village. Here pipes were lit, and we passed the twilight hours of the summer night, in telling stories of adventure, shipwrecks and 'hairbreadch 'scapes by flood and field.' The 'yarns,' though sometimes tough, were not without a humour of their own, and served to put a fitting finish to our arduous toil.

Next morning we were up at dawn, and commenced the works I had planned the previous evening.

A little island just below a point where the stream, with a rapid current, swept round a bend, page 214leaving the other and more ancient channel almost dry, gave me the position I desired. Clearing out this channel, we brought the stream into a little bay, where the water lay nearly motionless. This stagnant condition, by the new flow of water, at once changed into a gentle ripple over the shingly bottom, and made a fine location for the little strangers, whose long wanderings were now to terminate.

This little bay I proposed to surround with a pigproof fence, after the Maori fashion, so that no inquisitive porker might poke his nose amongst my embryo friends. Two of my companions went to the neighbouring forest, and with skilful axes soon provided sharpened stakes to begin with. Another, with Te Puke's help, rapidly fenced round the little bay, Te Wero and a Maori boy lending willing aid. In this manner, the work proceeded rapidly. To fix across the entrance and exit of the water, fine wire netting to keep out eels, and then, to raise a framework of light poles over the enclosed little bay, over which we stretched a covering of thin canvas, by way of keeping out the rays of the hot sun—so making a cool shadow on the rippling stream—and to protect my red coral-like friends from the shags, kingfishers, and other feathered enemies, required vigorous efforts. By midday we finished our work, then to lunch. When that grateful meal was over, the rippling stream had cleared off all the discoloration our busy hands and feet had caused in the watery enclosure.

During our long voyage, I had carefully supplied my ova-boxes with ice, and now, I was to see whether I page 215had brought them safely through so many difficulties. I was delighted to find the ova in first-rate condition, as undisturbed in their cool mossy beds, as when they left the United States salmon house on the far distant McCloud river in California months before. With the ready help of my companions, I quickly placed 35,000 ova in the cool shingle bed, placing 15,000 more at a lonely spot a mile away.

So we finished our work. Every care had been taken to do it well; and I hoped that our labours might not be in vain. Some day, the banks of this beautiful river, will be covered with the houses and little farms of an industrious and happy people, and I trust the noble river itself will be well stored with salmon, and, when 'the King of Fishes' gladdens the hearts of the people, I hope the generous gift by our American Kin across the Sea, will not be forgotten, as one of the kindly links, which have helped to bind together that great English-speaking race, which holding so many vantage points on every continent and on every sea, is destined to lend a most potential aid in promoting peace and progress all over the world.

And now with light hearts, down stream. Our gallant little craft, which had come up the tangled river with hardly a scratch, had to run the gauntlet among snags and rapids, in better trim indeed, but impelled at many points by a swift current over rapids, snags and sunken rocks. The voyage was page 216full of excitement, and not without some danger. Swept along by whirling currents, the innumerable obstructions taxed the skill and nerve of Captain Lowrie at the helm, and the gallant fellows at the oars, to the utmost. Now, dancing merrily along a quiet reach, the next instant, caught in a boiling rapid, or running head on to a huge sunken tree athwart the stream, the rapid current swept us on in zigzag courses, often more exciting than pleasant.

Sometimes no helm, nor oar could guide our buoyant boat, and more than once she fairly took charge, and surged from gunwale to gunwale in a manner curious to behold. Again and again, the Captain roared out,

' Back your oars, boys, back your oars.'

For an instant, it seemed as if nothing could prevent her running foul of an ugly-looking rock in midstream. By a shave we missed it.

'There she goes, let her have it,' and away we danced, whipping round a picturesque point, or rushing down a rapid, twirled round and round by many a whirlpool. How we escaped coming to grief was a mystery.

By sunset we had made good way, and coming to a pretty beach, where the river swept round a wooded point, we landed, and making fast, we pitched our tent between two noble trees, towering aloft a hundred feet or more, their leafy crowns forming a lofty canopy above us. To collect wood, light our fire, boil our tea in the 'billy' (bushman's kettle) was grateful labour, toil-worn though we were. What page 217exquisite enjoyment, after the fatigues and dangers of the day, to sit around the ruddy fire, and eat our frugal meal with a zest, that no fat alderman, or gouty gourmand ever knows. No seasoned sauces, no Epicurean cookery to tickle our appetites, were needed.

And when the meal was over, to light our pipes, and lazily lounge in the brilliant moonlight, amidst the leafy stillness of the summer night—no Oriental Prince, nor modern millionaire ever revelled in happiness more simple, more pure, or more complete.

Below us, in the brilliant moonlight lay the placid river, one glorious sheet of silver sheen, not a ripple on its glassy surface. The deep, dark shadow of a wooded point lay on the opposite shore in impenetrable blackness. On our side of the river, every frond, every branch mirrored on the soft moonlit waters, presented a picture of exquisite natural beauty, no pen can describe, nor pencil delineate.

And then to sleep, and such a sleep.

At earliest dawn we were again astir. Whilst busied with our morning preparations, our old friend the Tui, or Parson Bird (so called by reason of his black plumage relieved by two white feathers at the throat), perched on a lofty tree, piped forth his joyous notes, as if to wake up the feathered tribe to give their morning song.

For a while he was the only performer, mocking with wonderful variety, the notes of half a dozen little songsters, curiously mingled with a cough, a page 218sneeze or a laugh of his own, winding up with a 'Be off. Be off.'

Directly the rosy sunbeams touched the tops of the tallest trees, the Tui's invitation was accepted, and the general chorus commenced. The Cuckoo, trilling forth its long silvery notes, appearing to come from the opposite bank, but each note coming nearer and nearer, till it mingled in the general chorus. By this time, the feathered choristers had combined to pour forth a varied melody, the like of which can only be heard in the undisturbed solitudes of the New Zealand forest.

Whenever a pause occurred in this delightful morning concert of song, the Huia or Organ Bird warbled forth a delicate solo of organ notes, not loud, but of softest, sweetest music. Then, led by the lively Tui, who seemed to act as bandmaster, the feathered throng joined in a general burst of music, whilst at every pause, the mellow notes of the Korimako tinkled forth its tune, like the tones of a silver bell.

With this charming music above us we lingered at our morning meal, till when, at length, the sun had ushered in the coming day, the music ceased.

Not a sound came from the leafy shade. The curtain had fallen, and our musical banquet had ended. But no. Once again, the lively Tui whistled forth his melodious song, and then one by one, he mimicked the notes of every bird of the band, winding up with a sneeze, and a 'Be off. Be off.'

Whether he meant the command for his com-page 219panions, or for us, I presume not to say. They were at least silent, and we could not do less than obey; and stepping aboard our trim little craft, we pulled gaily and rapidly down the river.

In a few hours, a distant roar marked our approach to the great rapid I have before described. In a little while we were upon it. It was dead low water. The noble river swept into the rock-bound pass in one grand translucent curve. Breaking as it fell, it rushed on down amongst the rocks, a roaring cataract of white and glistening foam.

'Peak your oars, boys,' sung out in clear tones the Captain.

'Steady,' and grasping the tiller ropes with a tighter grip, he headed for the roaring torrent.

Silent and still as statues, we held our breath, as our gallant craft bore down the shining curve. In an instant, she shot into the torrent, and was swept along and through the boiling, surging waves with resistless force. So tremendous was the pace, that before we had time to draw a breath, we had passed through the cataract in safety.