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The Barren Ground of Northern Canada
Chapter XV

On November 5th I camped at the head of the canon with my crew, Murdo, John, Charlie, a half-breed from Quesnelle, and Pat, a full-blooded Siccanee from Fraser Lake ready to make a start up-stream the following morning with a long narrow canoe dug out of a cottonwood log. But in the night the weather changed; snow fell heavily, a severe frost set in, and ice was forming rapidly along the banks. Baptiste, the Iroquois, who had come across the portage to see us off, had brought me a dozen pair of the best moose-skin moccasins from his daughters, who were beyond compare the belles of Hudson’s Hope. Baptiste had spent many years of his life in this part of the country, and I was quite ready to listen to his opinion on the chances of getting through to Macleod’s Lake. He would not hear of our starting with a canoe under the changed conditions of weather: it was the winter; the ice would catch us in less than three days, and we should be lucky if we could get back on foot through the deep' snow. His advice was to wait a fortnight till the river set fast, and occupy ourselves in making hand-sleighs, while he would make us five pairs of snow-shoes, and then we might walk the two hundred miles to Macleod’s Lake in comfort. Accordingly I gave orders for the lodge, which we still had with us, to be pitched in a clump of poplars a short distance above Barrow’s house, and we busied ourselves with cutting birch and bending sleighs in readiness for our trip.

The cold snap continued for several days, but very little ice was running, although the eddies and backwaters were frozen up; then the weather grew milder again, and I could see that we had missed our chance. It was past the middle of November, and the river, by all. accounts, is usually frozen solid at this time of year; it seemed too risky to start out so late to try and make a passage with open water. Meantime we were taking things easily when, as it turned out, we should have been travelling; there was not much to shoot beyond wood-grouse and rabbits, but with these we could keep the pot going, and time went pleasantly enough in short expeditions into the surrounding hills.

And now a warm Chinook wind came sweeping across from the Pacific, and' licked up the snow from the ground, while the ice broke away from the banks and drifted down in little floes to be ground to pieces in the canon. I could bear the inactivity no longer, and, with a recklessness that I had plenty of opportunity to repent later on, gave orders on November 25th for the canoe to be got ready on the morrow to start up-stream and take the chances of being caught by the ice in the main range of the Rocky Mountains. I consulted Charlie and Pat about the route, and they both said they could make no mistake in finding the way to the Hudson’s Bay Fort on Macleod’s Lake, as they had just come down the river, and Charlie had made the journey the year before; if we could succeed in getting to the junction of the Findlay and Parsnip, just beyond the big mountains, before the ice caught us, there could be no difficulty in reaching the fort on foot in about four days’ travel.

At the risk of being verbose and boring any reader who has struggled thus far through the record of my wanderings in the North, I must now enter somewhat fully into the details of travel, and describe minutely the events that happened during the next month, in order to answer once for all the numerous questions that I have been asked as to what took place on that terrible winter journey in the Rocky Mountains. When I reached civilization again, and found that part of the story had leaked out, I received plenty of gratuitous advice as to what I should have done and where I should have gone, from people who had never themselves been in a like predicament, and had no further knowledge of hardship than perhaps having had to pay a long price for a second-rate dinner. I discovered that the easiest method of satisfying them was to let them tell the tale of my adventures in their own way, and assent readily to their convincing proofs that if they had been there all would have gone well. I admit freely that it was a stupid act to leave a supply-post so late in the year, unprovided as we were with the necessary outfit for winter travelling; but think I was justified in trusting to the local knowledge of my native guides to bring our party in safety to Macleod’s Lake after we were forced to abandon the canoe.

Walter Macdonald, a son of Mr. Ewen Macdonald of Lesser Slave Lake, and Tom Barrow both gave me every assistance in their power to provision my crew for what is usually an eight or nine days’ journey. Meat was not to be had, and there was little chance of finding big game along the course of the river, but a hundred pounds of flour, a few pounds of beans and rice, and a small sack of potatoes, besides plenty of tea and tobacco, would surely last us this short journey, and, even if we found it impossible to travel quickly, a few days of short rations could easily be endured.

It was late in the afternoon of Wednesday, November 26th, when I started the canoe off, and the sun was down before I had settled up accounts and said good-bye to the friends whom I did not expect to meet again for many a long day. The moon was full, and I had no difficulty in finding my way six miles through the woods to an old miner’s cabin at which we had arranged to camp for the night. At the first streak of dawn we were off again, travelling our best with two and sometimes three men on the line; the current was strong, but the tracking on the gravel-bars perfect. That night there was a heavy snowstorm, while the ground froze hard and caused many a nasty fall on the slippery stones during the next two days. On Saturday morning cakes of soft ice began to run, but we found that most of them were brought down by a large tributary coming from the north, and above its mouth the river was comparatively clear of ice. The same afternoon we reached the entrance to the main range of mountains, and under the first peak of the chain tracked up a strong rush of water with a heavy sea at its foot, commonly known as the Polpar/ Rapid, a curious corruption of la Rapide qui ne parle pas, so named by the old voyageurs from the absence of the roar of waters which usually gives ample warning of the proximity of a rapid. Part of the cargo we portaged to keep it dry, and above the strong water lay a quiet stretch of river, winding away in the gloomy black chasm between the huge mountains, which in many places takes the form of a sheer bluff hanging over the stream.

We camped just above the Polpar, and another night’s snow made the tracking worse than ever; often it was necessary to put the line aboard and take to the paddles, to struggle round some steep point upon which a coating of frozen snow made it impossible to stand. Ice was running in large pans and steering was difficult, but we got on fairly well, and were far in the heart of the mountains when we camped on Sunday night under one of the steepest and most forbidding peaks that I ever remember to have seen in any part of the Rockies.

Monday was really cold, and our difficulties increased; the tow-line was sheeted with ice and three times its ordinary weight, while the channel was in many places almost blocked; poles and paddles had to be handled with numbed fingers, and our moccasins from constant wading turned into heavy lumps of ice; but we pushed on, and at nightfall had passed the mountains and emerged into a more inviting country. It was evident, however, that canoe-work was nearly over for the year, but we determined to make one more attempt, as the junction of the Findlay and Parsnip was not far ahead, and there was just a chance that the ice was coming from the Findlay and we might find the Parsnip, up which our course lay, clear enough for navigation. On Tuesday we made the most dangerous day’s travel that I ever experienced in a canoe; the river was far too full of ice to handle even a “dug-out” with safety, and we had to make many crossings in the swift current among the running floes. I made it a point that everyone should keep on the same side of the river to assure our all being together in case of accident and we had several narrow escapes from being nipped. At dinner-time we came in sight of the broken water of the Findlay Rapid, and found the big eddy on the south side of the river completely blocked with ice. We went through the risky manoeuvre of skirting the edge of the eddy with the floes whirling round us in the strong running water, and, finding a solid spot, hauled the canoe over the ice to the shore, making a halfmile portage to the foot of the rapid. A very close shave of capsizing filled the canoe with water; but the second attempt at tracking through the swift current and blocks of ice was more successful, and, as the short day was drawing to its close, we were paddling under a high bluff which prevented our using the tracking-line. Here darkness caught us, and our position was perilous in the extreme; the current was so strong that our best pace was required to stem it at all, and many times we had to drift back to avoid collision with the ice that was grinding past us. A couple of hours hard work brought us to the first spot at which we could effect a landing, but it was no easy matter to carry the cargo up the frozen bank; we secured the canoe as well as we could, and found ourselves on a small fiat covered with willows and abundance of firewood. Towards midnight the grinding of the ice became less noticeable and before daylight ceased entirely; the river above us had set fast and further water-travel was impossible. When morning broke we saw the Findlay branch completely jambed with ice stretching away to the north-west, and the Parsnip bending sharply to the south presented a similar appearance.

A glance at our position is not out of place, and a good map might have saved us from the serious trouble we afterwards experienced.

Far away in the mountains of British Columbia, in a country little known to the white man and at no great distance from the Pacific Ocean, the Findlay River has its source, while the Parsnip rises close under the Rocky Mountains on their west side, and, skirting the foot-hills, joins the Findlay at the spot where we now encamped. Below the junction the stream, already of considerable size and known as the Peace River, pours through the black rent in the backbone of the North American continent many thousands of feet below the summits of the mountains, and takes its course towards the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the great Mackenzie. The most extraordinary feature in this reversion of the laws of Nature is the extreme tranquillity of the stream in passing through the main range, for with the exception of the Findlay and Polpar Rapid, one at either end of the pass, there is no difficulty in navigating a canoe. In passing the eastern range above Hudson’s Hope the canon is rough to the last degree, and one would expect to find the same thing'among the higher mountains. A third branch, the Omineca, once a celebrated mining-camp, joins the Findlay, but is a much smaller stream. To reach Fort Macleod we had to follow the Parsnip and turn up a tributary branch known as Macleod’s River, draining Macleod’s Lake into the Parsnip.

I had another long conversation with Charlie and Pat as to the best plan of action, and pointed out to them that if there was the least doubt about finding the lake we might still get back to Hudson’s Hope, as by the aid of a few portages over ice-jambs one can travel down-stream in company with the floes long after it has become impossible to force a passage against them, and when we reached the east end of the pass it would be easy to walk through the level country. But both the guides laughed at the idea of their getting lost, and again reminded me of the fact that only a few weeks before they had come from Macleod. If we could cross the Parsnip, they said, we had only to follow the west bank till we came to the Little River, and then half a day would take us to the fort; in four days from now, or five at the latest, we should reach the end of our journey. The morning of December 4th was spent in making a scaffold on which to store my rather bulky cargo, which of course had to be left with the intention of returning from Fort Macleod with a dog-sleigh. After dinner we started on foot, every man carrying his blanket and a small load of provisions, kettles, and necessaries of various kinds. I decided to take no gun, as I only had a dozen shot-cartridges left, and a gun is always an impediment in walking through the woods, although there is a good old saying in the North that men should not part with their guns till the women throw away their babies.

One thing that I thought might cause some trouble was the fact of our having no snow-shoes, and the snow would soon be deep enough to require them. We took all our beans and rice, but left about thirty pounds of flour in a sack on the scaffold, thinking it needlessly heavy to carry, and that it was better to run short for a day or two than overload ourselves and prevent rapid travelling.

The ice was piled up high on the banks, and we began badly by climbing over a steep hill covered with such heavy timber that the pace was slow, and it was night when we came out on the bank of the Parsnip not more than four miles from our last camp. The next day we did rather better, but, getting among burnt timber and deep snow, had many heavy falls. In the evening we found a jamb in the river, and, making rather a risky crossing with the chance of our ice-bridge breaking up at any moment, camped on the Macleod side, thinking that we were now surely safe enough, and the worst thing that could happen might be a little starvation before we reached the fort. Then came two days of fair travelling, sometimes on the ice and sometimes in the woods, but the latter were so thick that it was hard to get through them at all.

I have never seen a river freeze in the remarkable manner that the Parsnip set fast this summer. The first jamb had probably taken place at the junction of the Findlay; the water had backed up till it stood at a higher level than the summer floods, and the gravel beach was deeply submerged. There was no appearance of shore-ice, as the constant rise and fall in the water prevented a gradual freezing; jambs would form and break up again, and huge blocks of ice were forced on each other in every conceivable position. Often too the ice was flooded, and it was already cold enough to freeze wet feet; the backwaters were full, and the ice on them usually under water or hanging from the banks without support; the shores were fringed with a tangled mass of willows, heavily laden with snow and their roots often standing in water, while behind, rising to the summit of rough broken hills, was the dense pine-growth of the great sub-Arctic forest.

John caused a good deal of delay by not keeping up, and I did not like to leave him far behind, as he was clumsy on the ice, and there were many treacherous spots where black running water showed in strong contrast to the snow, and the gurgle of a swift current suggested an unpleasant ending to the unlucky man who should break through. Everybody carried an axe or a stick to sound the ice, and, excepting near the banks where the water had fallen away from the ice, there were no mishaps. Further delay was caused by our frequently having to light a fire to dry moccasins and keep our feet from freezing.

On the fourth night after abandoning the canoe we camped close to a coffin hung between two trees, as Is the fashion of the Siccanees In dealing with their dead; the guide recognised this coffin, and told me we should certainly be at the fort in two days. Beans and rice were finished, but we had flour enough left for another day, and this we baked into bread to save trouble in cooking later on, and on the following day made a fair journey considering the bad state of the ice.

The next morning, after eating our last bite of bread, we were going to try for the fort, and to lighten our load left behind the kettles, for which we had no more use, while some of us were rash enough to leave our blankets; we expected to be back with the dog-sleigh in a few days, and could then pick up everything.

The water had risen again in the night and the ice was useless for travelling on, so on the guide’s advice we left the river on the west bank, and climbing the rough hills walked along the ridge in a south-westerly direction, expecting every hour to fall upon the little river running out of Macleod’s Lake. When night caught us we were still in the woods, and, although there was no supper and snow was falling softly, a bright fire and the prospect of reaching the fort in the morning kept us in good spirits enough. I was one of the unfortunates without a blanket, and was glad to see daylight come again and with it a cessation of the snowstorm. During the last few days rabbit-tracks had been frequently seen in the snow and grouse were plentiful, but we had no means of securing game of any kind.

To make as sure as possible of getting food the next day, I sent Murdo and Charlie ahead without loads to make the best of their way to the fort, while Pat and myself would stay by John, who was already in difficulties, and carry the packs.

Starting without breakfast is the worst part of these starving times. The walking for the first two hours was very hard, through a thick growth of young pines rising among the blackened stumps and fallen logs of a burnt forest, up and down steep gullies, with the snow from the branches pouring down our necks, and our loads often bringing us up with a sudden jerk as they stuck between two little trees. John soon gave up his pack, and left it hanging on a bough, where it remains probably till the present day. About mid-day we came to the end of the ridge and looked up the wide valley of the Parsnip. Far below us we could trace its windings, and branching away to the mountains in the west was a stream that Pat instantly declared to be Macleod’s River. Towards sundown we lit a fire on a high bank above the stream, and John in a fatuous manner remarked that he recognised the place where he had camped with a boat’s crew some years before. We followed the fresh tracks of our advanced party, and turning our backs on the Parsnip walked on good shore-ice till darkness compelled us to camp. I was rather surprised to find that the river was not frozen up and had much more current than I had expected, but, as both John and Pat were quite certain that all was right, I had not the least doubt that we had at last reached Macleod’s River and should arrive at the fort in good time the next day.

Another sleepless night gave me plenty of time for reflection while John was comfortably rolled up in a blanket that I had been carrying all day. Four months had passed, and many a hundred miles of lake and river travelled, since David had seen the first star on that summer’s night far away in the Barren Ground; now I thought my journey was nearly over, for two hundred miles on snow-shoes from Fort Macleod to Quesnelle, and three hundred miles of waggon-road from Quesnelle to the Canadian Pacific Railway, counted as nothing. It was true that we had not tasted food for two days, and rations had been short for some time past; but it was by no means my first experience of starvation, and to-morrow evening at the latest we should be in the midst of luxury once more. It was satisfactory to think that we had succeeded in forcing our way through the Rocky Mountains in the face of the winter, and were every day approaching a country made temperate by the breezes of the Pacific; already the cedars, to be found only on the west side of the main range, were showing among the pines.

With the first grey light in the east I roused my companions, and we started on shore-ice at a good pace with the prospect of breakfast ahead. Pat broke through shortly after leaving camp, and, as he was afraid of freezing his feet, we lit a fire to dry his moccasins, and the sun was up when we set out again. A couple of hours later we saw a thin blue column of smoke rising straight up into the sky, and a nearer approach showed that it came from the chimney of a cabin hidden in the woods; a cheering sight at first, but directly we reached the trail leading up from the river I knew that something was wrong, and something wrong at such a time meant something very wrong indeed.

I had spent too much of my life among the woods and mountains to be unable to read the easy writing in the snow; two tracks leading up the river late overnight, and the same two tracks quite fresh coming down-stream and turning up the trail. Murdo and Charlie must be in the cabin, and could not have reached the fort; if they had been coming back with supplies they would never have put ashore with starving men so close up. Pushing open the rough door we found them sitting one on each side of a small fire of cedar-chips that were just crackling into a blaze. “Have you been to the fort, Murdo?” I asked, needlessly enough. “No.” “Why not? What is the matter?” “Charlie says it is the wrong river; we are lost, like d--d fools.”

Murdo had described the situation concisely enough, and I fully realised the awful position we were in; lost and starving in the mountains with no guns to procure food, no snow-shoes with which to travel over the increasing depth of snow, and no clothes to withstand the cold of mid-winter which was already upon us.

There was still a hope, for Charlie was not quite ready to admit that he was mistaken. Our advance party , had turned back on seeing a rapid, and even now could not give me any accurate description of this obstacle to navigation; if it was so bad that a scow could not run down, it was obvious that this could not be Macleod’s River, for I knew that no portage was necessary to reach the lake. Pat was still sure that he had recognised many places this morning, but could not say anything about the log-cabin; it stood back from the river, and there was a chance that people, passing quickly down-stream, might have missed seeing it when the foliage was thick on the willows. The best plan seemed to first make sure about the rapid, so we started up-stream to inspect it. I was very doubtful of any good result coming from this move, when I saw that the strength of the current increased, and the mountains on each side of the stream grew higher and steeper. Soon we passed a newly-built beaver-house, which certainly was a strange object on the side of a travelled river, and in a couple of hours reached the rapid. Surely this was enough to make anyone turn back; a heavy shute of broken water down which no scow could ever run without being smashed to pieces; even Pat now acknowledged that he was hopelessly* lost. A valuable day had been wasted, and the sun was down before we came again to the cabin, where we decided on spending the night. Three days we had been starving, and it was fully time to take the first steps by which men in our desperate position seek to maintain life as long as possible. A thorough search in the shanty produced nothing of value but an old lard-tin which would serve as a kettle; there were many empty boxes, labelled with enticing names and pictures of canned fruit and of fat cattle that had been converted into “Armour’s Preserved Beef” at Kansas Gity, Missouri; a large number of rotten sacks, marked “Oregon Flour Patent Roller Process,” showed that someone had spent a winter here, and an iron bottle containing a little quicksilver proved that he had been a miner by occupation. A board, with a notice in pencil that two men, whose names I forget, had arrived here from Sandy Bar in a day and a half, conveyed no meaning to us.

Among the necessary articles that we had been carrying was a large piece of dressed moose-skin for mending moccasins, and this seemed the most edible thing we could find; five small strips, three inches in length and an inch broad, were cut off and put into the lard-tin to boil for supper. We discovered Labrador tea growing in the woods, and made a brew with the leaves as soon as we thought the moose-skin was soft enough to eat. Rabbit-snares were made by unravelling a piece of string and set in the runs, but after trying this plan on several nights not a rabbit was caught, though we sometimes had the mortification of finding a broken snare. After supper of moose-skin and Labrador tea we felt in better spirits, and with a good fire and a pipe of tobacco discussed our position seriously enough.

Euclid, when he found himself incapable of proving that any particular angle or line was the exact size that he desired, had a habit of supposing it to be of some other magnitude, and by enlarging upon the absurdity of this supposition so completely puzzled the aspiring student that he was glad to admit any statement that the inventor of the proposition suggested. This does well enough on paper, but, starving men have no time to put this plan to the test of practice, and when they find that a river is not the one they supposed it to be are at a loss to tell what stream it really is.

Charlie, Pat, and John, who had all been to Macleod’s Lake before, told me frequently that they had never heard of any river coming into the Parsnip on the west side between the Findlay and Macleod’s River. Now, in a boating journey the talk is always of points and rivers, and the mouth of any tributary is always commented upon, so it seemed unlikely that they should have passed by this large stream without noticing it; nor had they heard of any miner’s cabin, which must certainly have been spoken of in a country where houses are scarce. There was a possibility that we had come too far and missed the mouth of Macleod’s River, for we had sometimes travelled on the east side of the Parsnip to take advantage of better ice or a thinner growth of timber, and I had heard David say that the Little River was not easy for a stranger to find. In any case it was better to retrace our steps to the mouth of the stream that we had been following, to see if our guides could recognise any landmark, for the hills were conspicuous and sometimes of remarkable shape.

At daylight on December ioth we left the cabin and made tracks down-stream, taking with us the lard-tin in which we had boiled more moose-skin for breakfast. So far we had lost no strength and, with the exception of John, who was always behind, were going strong and well.

It was late in the afternoon when we reached the river and once again stood on the bank of the Parsnip. Across on the east side rose a high-cut bank of yellow clay, a mark that any one should recognise who had ever seen it before; but Charlie and Pat both put on a hopeless blank expression when I asked them if they knew the place. No, they said, they had never seen it before in their lives. Six weeks before they had passed right under that cut bank in a scow, and less than forty miles up-stream would have taken us to the fort if we had only known it. These men were a half-breed and an Indian, supposed to be gifted with that extraordinary instinct of* finding their way in all circumstances which is denied to the white man. John was just as much to blame, although it was some years ago that he travelled down the Parsnip; long afterwards, when all the trouble was over, he confided to me, as an excuse for his ignorance, that he had been very drunk when he left Macleod and was unable to make any accurate observations as to courses and distances.

There was nothing to be done but turn down the Parsnip again and keep a bright look-out for the mouth of the little river, in case we had passed it. The ice was too much flooded to walk on, and we camped high up on the mountainside in heavy falling snow. Another misfortune befell us here; the bottom of the lard-tin was burnt out during the process of melting snow, and we had to give up the small comfort of moose-skin and wild tea. Murdo and myself spent a wretched night cowering over the fire with the snow falling down our backs, for we were still without blankets; daylight saw us struggling through the thick growth of young pines and an increased depth of snow, till at noon, when everybody was thoroughly exhausted and John had nearly given up all hope, we found ourselves stopped on the side-hill by a series of bluffs which no one felt equal to scaling. Fifteen hundred feet below us lay the river, and as a desperate alternative we descended the mountain, with many bruises from stumbling over logs hidden by the snow, to find that the water had fallen in the night, and the ice, though rough in the extreme, was dry enough to travel on. After the night had closed down over the forest we reached the place where the kettles and blankets had been left, and things looked a little brighter with the prospect of tea and a night’s sleep; but we knew now that Fort Macleod must lie behind us, although there was little inducement to make another attempt to reach it with such untrustworthy guides. Our only chance of life was to reach the entrance of the Peace River Pass, where thirty pounds of flour lay on a rough scaffold exposed to the mercy of the wolverines!

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