Embedded in a rock in an obscure, pristine brook in the wilds of Newfoundland is a legendary quartz vein. The story of the vein and the wealth trapped in it is well-known, but its location has eluded six generations of Newfoundlanders. The source of the legend is Soulis (Suley) Joe, and the precious metal trapped in the vein is silver. Along the Trans-Canada Highway in Newfoundland, just west of the turnoff to Benton, is a brook called Soulis Brook, which flows out of Soulis Pond, the second major pond named after Soulis Joe, an intrepid explorer whose name is recorded for all time on old Newfoundland maps. In the summer of 2008, writer Gary Collins teamed up with Allan Keats, a great-grandson of Soulis Joe, and they set out to unearth the secret of Soulis Joe’s lost silver mine. After many weeks and months spent combing the island of Newfoundland, Gary Collins figured it out. Come along for the trip and discover the location of Soulis Joe’s Lost Mine. Canadian Aboriginal Books for Schools 2010–2011 Selection
“We were always considered thieves and lazy good-fer-nothings, b’y,” said Al. “You know, years ago, I mean. It’s an awful thing, you know, especially when you’ve worked all of your life and have never taken a thing that wasn’t your own. That feeling is gone now, thank God. Well, I hope ’tis gone. But it was there then and it took years for that attitude to be dispelled. I don’t know why we were stuck with such a label. The Beothuk, now, they stole from the white man who invaded their shores. Maybe our people did, too, years ago. To tell the truth I wouldn’t blame them. Imagine a crowd of foreigners coming here unannounced and, without any permission or even discussion, taking away their land and the animals and fish they depended on for their very survival. They were invaders, o’ man. Wherever they went the white man took what wasn’t his to take. And killed innocent people to achieve their ends. What do you think you would do under such a threat to your way of life?”
I agreed with Al, of course. It wasn’t a hard sell for me. I had always felt the same way. In their passion for more lands, the white Europeans’ domination was global. Native rights be damned.
We sat on one of the high green banks of the Shanadithit Brook north of Red Indian Lake. From my pack I pulled a bottle of warm water. Al gulped down the blue liquid named after – of all things – a gator. We were talking about the river below us, how it got its name, and the ancient people who followed the course of this river system. It was always our favourite topic and usually led to a long conversation. The Shanadithit Brook was wide and rocky. It was unusually high for midsummer. June had been a rainy month. Upstream and down it was much the same, strewn with rocks large and small, each one cresting the surface and tuning the river with a white bubbling melody. There was no defined channel that we could see, no clear way through the rocky route.
“I can’t imagine gettin’ a canoe along here, especially one made of birch bark,” I commented to Al.
“Mmm. No, don’t look good for a boat of any kind, now, does it?” he replied in a quiet, reflecting voice. “They did it, though. Walked them along, I’d say. Lugged them in places, then paddled and floated them in the good stretches. When they got to the lake, now, that must have been really hard. Digging them paddles in for miles and miles. Sure, ’tis almost always blowin’, and the wind couldn’t always be in their favour.”
We were both silent then for a long while, which was unusual for my buddy.
I leaned back among the aromatic ferns and rested my back against a huge white birch tree. I wondered if the old Indians who had traced along these wooded banks had sat in the shade of the same trees. You are too romantic, I told myself. The life of a white birch tree seldom spans one hundred years, and even if a few of the Beothuk were still around here at that time, this tree wouldn’t have been big enough to give much shade.
Maybe, though, I reasoned – refusing to let go of the possible connection – the seed from this tree had dropped from a similar one under which a tired native had rested, studying the rapids below and plotting a way through in his fragile bark.
We walked farther upriver from the woods road where the steel bridge had crossed over, and were now about a kilometre or so above the road.
“The Indians before us drank the water from this river and the cool streams that run into it, and here I am carrying store-bought water around with me wherever I go. Maybe we haven’t advanced as far as we think we have, Al, b’y.”
Al pulled the half-full blue plastic bottle away from his mouth with a sucking sound.
“One thing for sure, they didn’t drink anything blue. Not only that, much as I loves the stuff, I hates havin’ to suck from the bottle like a child.” Al followed his statement with his usual chuckle.
It was late summer and over thirty degrees, not a good day for heavy walking.
“Too hot for Newfoundlanders,” said Al. “Keeps the flies down, though. The buggers can’t stand the heat or the cold. You know, when a feller sizes it up, for a tiny creature that needs ideal situations in order to survive, all of them bitin’ insects make a good living. Yes, sir, the third plague of ancient Egypt is still around us,” he said, giving his arm a slap and killing one blackfly that didn’t seem to mind the heat. Al reads the Bible a lot.
“To boldly go where no man has banged rocks before” is how I put it when he told me of his secret wish to prospect on the moon.
“Yes, sir, an’ that I would. Right now, heart stents and all. Just imagine. The first man to look for minerals up there. No trees, no alder beds, no overburden of any kind. And best of all, no staked claims. A man could search around to his heart’s content with not a living soul around to bother him.” He was very serious, I could see. “I wonder how the ring of the hammer on the moon rocks would sound up there in that atmosphere?”
I marvelled at his dedication. He loved his trade. This tramping around, always in a searching mode, was his greatest pleasure. All of his family seemed to have the same love for this way of life. They had a special energy for “bush walking”: no bog wet enough, no alder bed dense enough, no slippery, boulder-strewn brook with its constant halo of blackflies miserable enough to faze them from their seeking way of life. The Keats family plunged through the growth with packsacks bobbing and heavy rock hammers in hand and disappeared into their trade. They are as eclectic as they are steadfast in their quest. They don’t all look alike, or in some cases resemble each other. But in their dedication and their love for the mysteries all around us they are single-minded, their abilities uncanny.
The Keatses are now a sixth-generation family of Mi’kmaq prospectors. Few family businesses can boast of six continuous generations of work in the same field. Maybe it’s their love of the forest and the solitude it gives upon leaving the well-beaten path. Still, there are a great many of us who love the forests and being “away to the hills,” and who are great hunters and exceptional woodsmen – you don’t have to be Indian or even part-Indian for that. There is something more. In the case of Allan Keats, whom I spent the summer with, the difference wasn’t easy to see, not even when I looked for it. It is more than travelling along endless forest access roads on quads, or walking among hills and precipitous ridges in all kinds of extremes, all the while searching for the unknown.
Al wouldn’t appear to be noticing anything for as far as twenty kilometres along a very bad woods road. By this time my attention would be on other things, like animal signs or the great stands of timber we were passing, or, more likely than not, how to put all of this to paper. The pursuit of minerals was for the moment forgotten. Al hadn’t stopped for the longest while. Then, all of a sudden, he would stop his machine unannounced – I learned early on not to travel too close to him – and hurry away, hammer in hand, and say, “That’s the kind of rock we’re looking for, my buddy.”
I’d join him, always eager to find something new, and I’d be amazed. I wondered how he could stay so focused the length of a very difficult trail as to find a rusty rock, no bigger than my fist, beneath the scars of traffic on the old logging road. I asked Al how he could do it.
“I don’t know, b’y. All I know is that it is something I’ve always been able to do. Maybe you’re lookin’ too hard,” he added.
“Well, now, how can a feller look too hard for something he is constantly searching for?” I wondered aloud.
“I don’t know if I can rightly explain it to you, but it’s like a feller out moose huntin’, especially a greedy feller. You know what I mean. One of them who got to have everything. You knows the type I’m talking about. He’s hunting fer moose, all right, but he wants to get one so bad, and hates to have it said that he didn’t get one, that all he sees are trees and bogs and endless cutovers. He is so engrossed in his search that he isn’t hunting at all, just staring through the woods fer moose. He missed seeing the two ears that were twitching and listening to his heavy breathing and all the noise he was making from walking too fast.
“It’s the same looking fer minerals. You have to pay attention to the little things. You know, like in life. The little things are the key to bigger things. I guess what I’m saying is, if you just be aware of what you seek, most things will come to you. You don’t need to burn your eyes out staring fer stuff, moose or minerals.”
He wanted to know if that made any sense to me. I told him that it did, and of course I meant it. It was like the old saying of not seeing the forest because of all the trees. From that day on I didn’t search for minerals the same way. I just spent my time enjoying the country that was ours, and more often than not I found many wonders that had been there all along, even some minerals. I had just been looking too hard.
Soulis Joes' Lost Mine is a number of stories in one: it's a great mystery-adventure; it's a fascinating look at prospecting for precious metals; and it's a heart-warming story about the importance of family pride.-- The Chronicle Herald --
You read this book for the same reason its namesake walked the land, to move, feel its peace, to enjoy its wonder, to pick up a few treasures along the way.-- The Pilot --
This tale also serves to cement Collins' status as one of the region's better storytellers; he has a journalist's eye for detail, his writing is crisp and lean and the narrative arc runs smooth and seamless and is well-peppered with shakes of home-spun humour.-- Atlantic Books Today --