Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter XIV

By this time it was well on in September, and eight hundred miles had to be travelled to reach the Rocky Mountains and when these were sighted there were still two hundred miles to MacLeodís Lake, the farthest point I could reasonably hope to reach by open water. The first night we camped in the Quatre Fourches, the channel connecting the lake with the main stream of Peace River. The banks were thickly peopled with Indians and half-breeds, drying whitefish which were being taken in marvellous numbers; white and grey wavies and ducks of many kinds were flying overhead in large flocks, and rising in front of the canoe at every bend of the stream; plovers and other wading birds were screaming over the marshes, and I noticed a good many snipe; but who would fire a charge of ammunition at such a wretched little mouthful when geese were plentiful? Without going out of our way to hunt, we could have loaded the canoe with wild-fowl, but of course only killed as many as we required for food.

At the end of the Quatre Fourches we passed into the main stream of Peace River, and, with a sharp westward turn, commenced our ascent of the easiest of all the Northern waterways. From its junction with the Slave River to the first range of the Rocky Mountains, with only the obstruction of the shute some forty miles below Fort Vermillion, its course is navigable throughout for a light-draught steamer, and, but for this shute, would be an invaluable route for supplying the Hudsonís Bay Companyís upper river-posts.

The lower reaches of the river present exactly the same appearance as the country we had passed through in ascending the Slave River; a broad stream with low sandy banks, densely timbered, with often a huge sand-bar, the resting-place of many geese, stretching far out into the stream. We were rather handicapped by not knowing the river and missing the best tracking; an old hand would have known all the correct crossings to take advantage of an easy bank to track from, or an eddy to paddle in. Nor could we well risk the short cuts, as a promising channel would often end in dry sand and instead of running through into the river, or turn out to be the mouth of a tributary stream. After our usual halt for dinner on the third day we saw a canoe coming down stream, and, crossing over, found that it was Dr. Mackay on his way from Vermillion; both canoes put ashore and we had the usual cup of tea and an hourís yam together. The Doctor was anxious to get back to Chipeweyan, to begin his Fall fishing and make every possible preparation for keeping up the food-supply for the winter; I had no time to spare either, and darkness must have found us camping many miles apart. These stray meetings in the wilderness are always a pleasant recollection, and on first returning to civilization one is surprised at the manner in which people pass each other with a nod, till one realises the fact that there are too many people about for a more lengthy salute. Murdo obtained leave to come with me across the mountains, subject to the condition that he was to return in the spring if he received orders to that effect from headquarters at Winnipeg.

The same evening we hauled up an insignificant rapid, caused by a contraction in the channel; a limestone formation, with many fossils, shows up here for a few miles of the riverís course, and is noticeable again at the shutes and in several spots along the river. We broke the canoe rather badly in mounting this rapid, and during the rest of our journey to Vermillion had to bale out frequently. Day after day we followed the winding course of the river, which bends and doubles on itself through the fiat country, and at last made out a landmark in the Caribou Mountains, lying to the north and stretching in that direction as far as we could see ran inviting range of hills, clear of timber on the slope, and their round summits sparsely dotted with pines; a favourite hunting ground for the Indians of Vermillion, but none of the white men of whom I made inquiry seemed to have any knowledge of the extent or nature of this solitary range, rising so conspicuously from the dead level of muskeg and pine forest.

Just as we were starting on the tenth morning a light puff of west wind brought us the first sound of a distant roar that we knew must be caused by. the shute, and a couple of hoursí tracking brought us to a small Companyís trading-post, known as Little Red River, from a stream bearing that name which here joins the Peace River from the south. The establishment was deserted, although it was to be kept open during the winter; so we passed on and soon came in sight of a low white wall of water extending across the whole width of the river. Dr. Mackay had told me to make the portage close under the fall on the south side, or we should have been at a loss to find the only place where it is possible to take the canoe out of the water. In a strong running current, with the spray falling over her bow, we put alongside a ledge of rock six feet above us, and two men, standing on a submerged ledge, not without difficulty passed everything up to the others above; the distance to carry was very short, and we were soon afloat again above the fall The shute is not more than eight feet in height, but is of course a complete barrier to navigation. I think the scene from the south bank Is one of the most beautiful in the whole course of the loveliest of rivers. It was a bright afternoon when we made the portage, and the white broken water of the cascade showed in strong contrast to the broad blue stretches above and below; several rocky, pine-covered islands stand on the brink of the overfall, as if to give a chance to any unlucky traveller who may approach too near the danger; fully three-quarters of a mile away on the far side stands the gloomy forest of black pines, relieved by a glimpse of the open side-hills of the Caribou Mountains. Another small portage was necessary a mile or two above; but from the spot where we camped that night we never had to lift canoe or skiff out of the water till we reached the foot-hills of the Rocky Mountains.

The next day we passed a couple of Cree lodges, and finding moose-meat plentiful made the most of our opportunity, as a gale of wind sprang up right ahead and prevented travel.

It was not till sundown on the eleventh day from Chipeweyan that we completed our journey of two hundred and eighty miles, and put ashore at the Companyís trading-post at Fort Vermillion. Here the appearance of the country suddenly changes; stretches of open prairie dotted with small poplars take the place of the pine-woods, and the sand-bars in the river begin to give way to gravel, and the banks rise higher and higher as one journeys up-stream. We reached Vermillion late in September, in the full glory of the autumn; the sharp morning frosts had coloured the poplar leaves with the brightest golden tints, and the blue haze of an Indian summer hung over prairie and wood. Away on the Great Slave Lake a half-breed had told me of the beauties of Vermillion as a farming country, and had explained that all the good things of the world grew there freely, so that I was prepared for the sight of wheat and barley fields, which had this year produced a more abundant harvest than usual; potatoes and other vegetables were growing luxuriously, cattle and horses were fattening on the rich prairie grassland it seemed that there was little to be gained by leaving such a fertile spot in the face of the winter that would soon be upon us.

Vermillion is also an important fur-post, and probably to-day the best in the North for beaver and marten; but there are several free-traders on the Peace River, and the Company have to carry on their business with the extra difficulty of competition, which always raises the price of fur. It is all very well to say that no Company should have the monopoly of trading over so vast a territory, but after all the Indians are little benefited by the appearance of the free-traders. The Hudsonís Bay Company have always treated the Indians fairly and leniently, taking the greatest care only to import articles absolutely necessary to the welfare of the natives. Guns, ammunition, blankets, capotes, dress-stuff for the women, and tea and tobacco, have always been the principal contents of the store; and these are sold at absurdly low prices, when the cost of the long and risky transport is considered. The Indiansí love of gaudy colours was always indulged, but the goods were of the best material. Then came the free-trader with a stock of bright cheap clothing, a variety of dazzling tinsel, or perhaps a keg of molasses, which attracted the eye and palate of the wily hunter, so that he would give up his rich furs for the worthless trash, only to find himself short of all the necessaries for maintaining life in the woods when the snow began to fall again. No amount of experience enables him to resist the temptation; but the long enduring Hudsonís Bay Company always listens to his tale of woe and helps him out of his difficulties, accepting his promise, ever readily given and as readily broken, to hand in his fur in the following spring to the officer in charge of the post. Whenever the often-told story of a band of Indians caught by the horrors of starvation reaches the fort, the Company sends to the rescue, and every winter saves many a man from death, while the free-trader, having taken as much fur as he can out of the country during a short summerís trip, is living at ease on the confines of civilization. The days are long gone by when a prime silver fox could be bought for a cotton pocket-handkerchief, but still the rumours brought from this little known Northern country attract the venturesome trader, usually to his own loss, and always to the upsetting of the Companyís wise system of dealing with the Indians.

Vermillion has a comparatively large population, outside the numerous employes of the country. Both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have missions here, and several halfbreeds have taken up an irregular method of stock-raising and small farming to help out the uncertain living afforded by fur-trapping. Mr. Lawrence, a practical hard-working farmer from Eastern Canada, has been successful with a farm three miles above the fort; but for many years to come there is not the slightest reason for that emigration of farmers to Peace River which wild enthusiasts clamour for. So much talk about this scheme has lately appeared in the Canadian newspapers, mostly, no doubt, as one of the political cries which find such favour with the statesmen of Ottawa, that I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without a word of warning to any intending settler. I made careful inquiries and observations along the whole length of Peace River, and I do not for a moment deny that in some parts of its course crops of wheat and barley may be raised in favourable seasons, as the well-managed farms of Mr. Lawrence, at Vermlillion, and Mr. Brick, higher up at Smoky River, fully attest; but these farms, and all the spots in which grain ripens, are in close proximity to the bed of the river, and here the amount of arable land is limited. Climb the steep banks and take a glance over the millions of fertile acres which the philanthropic politician wishes to see cultivated; notice the frost on a summerís morning, and make the attempt, as has often been made already, to raise a crop on this elevated plateau. In ten yearsí time this may be a cattle-country, although the hay-swamps are insufficient to ensure enough feed for the long winter; but let us have an end of this talk of sending poor settlers to starve in a land unable to supply food to the Indian, who is accustomed to a life of continual struggle with a relentless nature.

Mr. Wilson entertained me royally at the fort, but here again was the same trouble that I had found at Chipeweyan; no crew was procurable, and there was a journey of three hundred and fifty miles to Dunvegan before I had any chance of getting men. Jose and Dummy, who had both worked right well up to now, considered they were far enough away from their beloved Fort Smith; and Jose had an extra attraction in Dummyís sister, who was waiting his return to make him happy for ever, but was not very reliable in case of a more prepossessing admirer coming to the fore. Jose made a touching speech at parting: ďGod made the mountains, the lakes, and the big rivers,Ē he said. ďWhat is better than drifting down Peace River singing hymns? You are going up-stream to cross the big mountains back to your own country; I am going downstream to marry Dummyís sister; I shall think of you many times.Ē Dummy smiled and nodded affectionately, and the pair shot out into the river with my canoe, leaving me on the bank with only Murdo for my crew and no means of conveyance.

Now if I could have got a small dug-out wooden canoe, and pottered away up-stream with Murdo, tracking in turns, we should have got on very well; but unfortunately there was nothing but a large and somewhat clumsy skiff available, and this we finally had to take. The evening before we were to start I received a visit from a man whom I shall allude to as John. Long before in merry England he had seen better times, and was evidently intended by nature for a sedentary life, or any other kind of life than the physical activity necessary to accomplish quickly and successfully a boating-trip up a swift-running river; in reality he was powerful enough, and but for his extraordinary laziness might have earned a good living anywhere. John told me he wished to leave Peace River and cross the mountains To Quesnelle, and would be glad-to render me every assistance in his power if I would let him take advantage of this chance to get out of the country. In spite of the warnings of Mr. Wilson and everybody else who knew Johnís character, I went on the theory that when one is shorthanded any kind of a man is better than no man, but was speedily disabused of this idea after leaving the fort. He turned sulky when he found that I would stand no shirking, and was painfully slow on the tracking-line, awkward in letting go or tying a knot, and, although he had been five years at boating, absolutely without knowledge of the duties of bowsman or steersman. In addition to this he was just as useless in camp, and conceived a violent hatred to Murdo, who fully reciprocated the feeling. Once, on being heartily cursed while he was tracking, John threatened to desert and go back to Vermillion, but when we ran the skiff ashore and offered to help him build a raft and to give him a weekís rations, he hastily withdrew his proposition. I hoped to be able to leave him at some fort en route, but I found John was too well known, and no one would accept the horrible responsibility of keeping him for a winter on any terms. A man like this takes all the pleasure out of a journey when good temper is the almost invariable rule, and everybody takes his share of the tracking and wading, the paddling and poling, as part of the ordinary dayís work.

At this time of year, when the water is at its lowest, tracking is a comparatively easy matter, and taking half-hour spells at a sharp walk we made good dayís journeys, although we should have done much better with a canoe. It was a hard time for moccasins, but we could get them at every fort we passed; sometimes, we found an Indian encampment on the bank, and a small present of tea and tobacco to the women ensured neat patches over the gaping holes in the moose-skin soles.

The fourth day out from Vermillion we reached the mouth of Battle River coming in from the north, and found a small trading-post with a French half-breed in charge. He told us that the Indians had been killing a great many moose, and that he had already bought the dried meat of sixteen as a start towards his winter stock of provisions; black bear too were numerous on Battle River, and there were reports of grizzly having been seen. This would probably be one of the best points from which to enter the unknown country between Peace River and the Great Slave Lake.

I never remember to have seen in any part of Canada such a fine autumn as we enjoyed between Vermillion and the Rockies; there was hardly a dayís rain the whole time, and, although a sharp white frost usually made a cold camp, the days were bright and at times almost too hot for tracking. Often we saw the fresh tracks of moose and bear, but never happened to see an animal of any kind, and as we could afford no time for hunting did not fire a single shot at big game; geese and ducks we could have killed every day if there had been any necessity for doing so.

Fifteen days of continuous travel from Vermillion took us to the junction of Smoky River, the principal tributary of the Peace, flowing towards the south-west not far from some of the head-waters of the Athabasca. This junction is rather an important point, as it is close to the end of the waggon-road to the Lesser Slave Lake, lying seventy-five miles to the south. Here the trading-goods brought overland are loaded on to scows and boats, to be sent down-stream to Vermillion and up-stream to Dunvegan, St. Johnís, and Hudsonís Hope, A little above are Mr. Brickís mission and the farm that I have already spoken of, besides a settlement of half-breeds, more hunters than farmers, well known as the laziest and most worthless gang on the whole length of Peace River. Many efforts have been made to get these people to pay more attention to their potato-patches as the game is getting killed out, but all in vain; sometimes they will fence In a piece of ground and plant seed, but will take no further trouble with the crop, and generally use their fence-rails for firewood during the next winter. Lukily whitefish are very plentiful in the Lesser Slave Lake within two daysí journey, or starvation would certainly play havoc at Smoky River.

I enjoyed a long talk with Mr. Brick in his pleasant home in the wilds, where we spent a night; he kindly furnished me with supplies that I was short of, and three days afterwards we arrived at Dunvegan, another celebrated fur-post, situated on the north bank of the river at the foot of a high bluff known as the Cap. Here again was abundant evidence of the fertility of the soil in the crops harvested by the Company and the missionaries. Across the river, twenty miles away, is the Companyís cattle-ranche, where the oxen used on the waggon-road are raised and a fair amount of beef is annually killed. Some thoroughbred stock has been imported and should prove successful, but of course there is no paying market for a large amount of cattle, although there are plenty of hungry people who would be glad of a chance to eat beef.

At Dunvegan, besides Mr. Round who was in charge of the fort, I met Mr. Ewen Macdonald, the chief of Peace River District, with headquarters at Lesser Slave Lake. He had just finished his inspection of the upper river-posts, and had left Hudsonís Hope, the last establishment east of the mountains, a few days previously; he reported that the snow was already low down on the foot-hills, and advised me strongly to give up my attempt to cross the Rockies so late in the autumn. He told me, however, that a freetrader was expected in from the west side of the mountains, and if I was lucky enough to meet him I should probably be able to secure the service of some of his crew who would be returning to Quesnelle.

Above Dunvegan the valley of the river contracts, the banks rise for several hundred feet in height, and the strength of the current increases. The hundred and twenty miles to St. Johnís took us seven days and a half to travel, and in many places we had to keep two men on the line to stem the strong water; the tracking too was bad, as the banks had fallen in several spots, and John, who had been up and down the river three times before, proved a very poor pilot. The weather was colder, and a sheet of ice formed over the back waters and close to the bank out of the current.

At St. Johnís we found Mr. Gunn busy with a band of Indians who were taking their winter supplies, and I had a chance of hearing their accounts of the wilderness to the north in the direction of the Liard River; they described it as a muskeg country abounding in game and fur, but a hard district to reach, as the streams are too rapid for canoes and the swamps too soft for horses to cross. They occasionally fall in with a small band of buffalo, but have never seen them in large numbers. Sometimes by ascending Half-way River, a stream adjoining Peace River twenty-five miles above St. Johnís, they meet the Indians from Fort Nelson on the south branch of the Liard.    .

We had now passed out of the Cree-speaking belt and the language became that of the Beaver Indians, a far inferior language to Cree, resembling in sound and in many of the words some of the dialects of the Chipeweyan tongue.

Mr. Gunn had learned to speak Beaver fluently, and was now going up to Hudsonís Hope to interpret ; he was a great help to us both as pilot and on the line, and with two men always tracking we took little notice of the strong stream which we found throughout the fifty miles to the next fort.

Snow was falling heavily when we left St. Johnís, and it looked as if the winter had set in, but next day the ground was bare again, and a west wind from across the mountains blew warm as a summerís breeze. We camped for a night at the mouth of Half-way River, heading towards the north through a wide open bay which seems to invite exploration. A considerable quantity of gold dust has been taken out of some of the gravel-bars along this part of Peace River, and Half-way River is supposed to be a paradise for the miner and hunter, but I could not hear of any white man having ever penetrated far up this valley. On the afternoon of Sunday, October 26th, on rounding a bend in the river, we caught our first glimpse of the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains that I had travelled so far to reach; but the sublime is often mixed with the ludicrous, and when John in his admiration of the scenery slipped off a narrow ledge of shale along which he was tracking and fell with an oath into the river, the snowy peaks were forgotten in the joy that always greets other peopleís misfortunes in this sort of travelling.

A short distance below Hudsonís Hope we passed a remarkable group of high basaltic islands, differing entirely from anything in the neighbourhood, and affording a strong contrast to the low gravelly islands so numerous in the course of this river. In the afternoon of the 27th we unloaded the skiff and hauled her up on the beach in front of the fort, to lie there till anybody might want to run her down-stream the following spring.

Hudsonís Hope is a small unpretentious establishment, standing on the south side of Peace River, a mile below the wild canon by which this great stream forces its way through the most easterly range of the Rocky Mountains. The Indians were all encamped in their moose-skin lodges on the flat close to the fort waiting. for the trade to begin, and I was surprised to hear how few representatives of the once numerous tribe of Beavers are left. It is the same at St. Johnís and Dun vegan, and the total Indian population of the upper Peace River cannot exceed three hundred, an immense falling off since Sir Alexander Mackenzie first crossed the mountains by this route. The biggest lodge was occupied by Baptiste Testerwich, a half-breed Iroquois, descended from the Iroquois crew left here many years ago by Sir George Simpson, formerly Governor of the Hudsonís Bay 'Company. Baptiste had a house at Moberleyís Lake twelve miles to the south, and is well known as the most successful and most enduring of moose-hunters. A remarkable point about the man is his hardiness and indifference to cold; in the dead of winter he wears no socks in his moccasins, which to any other man would mean a certainty of frozen feet, and the Indians say that his feet are so hot that the snow melts in his tracks in the coldest weather.

Once again arose the trouble about guides to take us to Macleodís Lake. John had been there before, but I had already seen too much of his piloting to trust myself in his hands, and was quite sure that he would lose his way if there was the least possibility of doing so. The freetrader from across the mountains had not yet arrived, and as it was getting late in the year there was a chance of his being frozen in before he reached Hudsonís Hope. Besides the Peace River route there is the Pine River Pass, farther to the southward, heading almost directly to Macleodís Lake. A party of surveyors once came through this pass several years ago, and the Indians use it habitually in the summer; but none of the Beavers would volunteer to guide us through at this time of the year, as a heavy snowfall might be expected immediately.

I decided to wait a few days for the trader, and we had a very festive time at Hudsonís Hope; a hall was given every night, and the moose-dance, rabbit-dance, and duck-dance were kept up till the small hours. A ball is not an expensive entertainment at an out-of-the-way trading-post; no invitations are necessary, but a scrape of the fiddle at the door of the masterís house fills the ball-room in a few minutes. If the master is in a liberal state of mind, a cup of tea is provided for his guests, but in any case the river is close, and if anyone is thirsty there is plenty of water. On the third night the ceremonies were interrupted by the sound of a gunshot on the opposite bank, and an Indian came across with the news that the trader had arrived at the west end of the canon with two small scows, and that some of his crew were going back to Quesnelle.

Baptiste lent me a horse on the following day, and I rode over to interview the new arrivals. A fair trail, twelve miles in length on the north side of the river, leads to the navigable water above the canon, while the stream runs a circuitous course of probably thirty miles. I could get little information as to the nature of this canon; even the Indians seem to avoid it, and, though accounts of it have been written, nobody appears to have thoroughly explored this exceptionally rough piece of country. I went down a few miles from the west end, but found the bluffs so steep that I could seldom get a view of the water, and could form no idea . of the character of the rapids and waterfalls. There is some quiet place in the middle of the canon where the Indians cross on the ice, but beyond this they could tell me little about it.

Right in the centre of the gap by which the trail crosses stands the Bullís Head, a solitary mountain well known to travellers coming from the west, as it can be seen many miles away, and in full view to the south is a huge flat-topped mountain, covered with perpetual snow and fit to rank with any of the giants of the main range. The trail reaches a considerable elevation above the river level, and from the summit the upper waters of the Peace are seen winding away to the west, through a broad valley flanked by hills of ever increasing height, as far as the eye can. reach. Close to the river the slopes are open or thinly timbered with pine and poplar, but the big mountains are clothed nearly to their summits with the dense, almost impassable, forest growth which is such a common feature in the scenery as the Pacific Coast is approached.

At the far end of the portage, on the hank of the river, stand a rough shanty and trading-store. Here I made the acquaintance of Twelve-foot Davis, who acquired this name, not from any peculiarity of stature, but from a small though valuable mining claim of which he had been the lucky possessor in the early days of British Columbia. A typical man of his class is Davis, and his story is that of many a man who has spent his life just in advance of civilization. Born in the Eastern States of America, a íForty-niner in California, and a pioneer of the Caribou Diggings discovered far up the Fraser River in íSixty-one, he had eventually taken to fur-trading, which has ever such an attraction for the wandering spirit of the miner. Here among the mountains and rivers where formerly he sought the yellow dust he carries on his roaming life. There is a strong kinship between the two enterprises; the same uncertainty exists, and in each case the mythical stake is always just ahead. No failure ever damps the ardour of miner or fur-trader, or puts a stop to his pleasant dreams of monster nuggets and silver foxes.

Davis was making all possible haste in packing his cargo across the portage with horses; an Indian and a half-breed were going back to Quesnelle, and would gladly enter my service as guides. A small stock of goods was to be left at the west end of the portage, and Thomas Barrow, the only white man who had come down with Davis, was to remain in charge of the trading-post during the winter.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus