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The Glittering Mountains of Canada
Chapter IX. Athabaska Pass and the Voyageurs, 1846-1872

“Even where all men go, none may have stopped; what all men see, none may have observed

James D. Forbes

The fur-trade was now at its height and, for more than forty years after David Douglas, groups of travellers continued to cross the Continental Divide by way of Athabaska Pass. Few indeed are the individuals who were able or took the trouble to write down their experiences; yet those who did so form a strangely interesting company—a priest, a soldier, an artist, a physician, a surveyor. Remarkable it is that the diverse pursuits of these men should eventually lead them through a common ground; fortunate that their dissimilar viewpoints were for a little while united in the interpretation of the wonders of nature. What matter if the interpretation was often vague and faulty? The wonder of it is that every man who left a written record of his journey—though his outlook in other respects differed completely from that of his fellow-travellers—was spellbound by the natural marvels confronting him.

In April, 1846, the Jesuit Father, Pierre Jean De Smet—he who first described the geysers of the Yellowstone—en route to Oregon Missions, crossed the pass westward. Spending some time in the Athabaska Valley, and being well received by its inhabitants, he informs us1 that “Lake Jasper, eight miles in length, is situated at the base of the first great mountain chain. The fort of the same name, and the second lake, are twenty miles higher, and in the heart of the mountains. The rivers Violin and Medicine on the southern side, and the Assiniboine on the northern, must be crossed to arrive there, and to reach the height of land at the du Committee s Punch Bowl, we cross the rivers Maligne, Gens de Colets, Miette and Trou, which we ascended to its source.”

The missionary gives a sympathetic description of his leave-taking: “As the time approached at which time I was to leave my children in Christ, they earnestly begged leave to honor me, before my departure, with a little ceremony to prove their attachment, and that their children might always remember him who had first put them in the way of life. Each one discharged his musket in the direction of the highest mountain, a large rock jutting out in the form of a sugar-loaf, and with three loud hurrahs gave it my name. This mountain is more than 14,000 feet high and is covered with perpetual snow. On the 25th of April, I bade farewell to my kind friend Mr. Frazer, and his amiable children, who had treated me with every mark of attention and kindness.”

Roche de Smet is still a landmark of Jasper Park, but the visitor of today will not recognize it from the description of the worthy father!

De Smet further describes his route, and the objects which interested him: “We resumed our journey the following day and arrived about nightfall on the banks of the Athabaska, at the spot called the ‘Great Crossing.’ Here we deviated from the course of that river, and entered the valley de la Fourche du Trou. As we approached the highlands the snow became much deeper. On the 1st of May, we reached the great Bature, which has all the appearance of a lake just drained of its waters. Here we pitched our tent to await the arrival of people from Columbia, who always pass by this route on the way to Canada and York Factory. Not far from the place of our encampment, we found a new object of surprise and admiration. An immense mountain of pure ice, 1500 feet high, enclosed between two enormous rocks. So great is the transparency of this beautiful ice, that we can easily distinguish objects in it to the depth of more than six feet. One would say, by its appearance, that in some sudden and extraordinary swell of the river, immense icebergs had been forced between these rocks, and had there piled themselves on one another, so as to form this magnificent glacier. What gives some color of probability to this conjecture is, that on the other side of the glacier, there is a large lake of considerable elevation.1 From the base of this gigantic iceberg, the river Trou takes its rise.”

All this information De Smet has been communicating in letters to his friends at home: “You have learned that I had arrived at the base of the Great Glacier, the source of the river du Trou, which is a tributary of the Athabaska, or Elk River. I will now give your reverence the continuation of my arduous and difficult journey across the main chain of the Rocky Mountains, and down the Columbia, on my return to my dear brethren in Oregon.

“Towards the evening of the 6th of May, we discovered, at the distance of about three miles, the approach of two men on snow-shoes, who soon joined us. They proved to be the fore-runners of the English Company, which, in the spring of each year, go from Fort Vancouver to York Factory, situated at the mouth of the river Nelson, near the fifty-eighth degree north latitude. In the morning my little train was early ready; we proceeded, and after a march of eight miles we fell in with the gentlemen of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The time of our reunion was short, but interesting and joyful. The great melting of the snow had already begun, and we were obliged to be on the alert to cross in due time, the now swelling rapids and rivers.

“The news between travellers, who meet in the mountains is quickly conveyed to one another. The leaders of the company were my old friends, Mr. Ermatinger, of the Honorable Hudson’s Bay Company, and two distinguished officers of the English army, Captains Ward [Warre] and Vavasseur [Vavasour], whom I had the honour of entertaining last year at the Great Kalispel Lake. Capt. Ward is the gentleman who had the kindness to take charge of my letters for the States and for Europe.

“Fifteen Indians of the Kettle-Fall tribe accompanied him. Many of them had scaled the mountains with one hundred and fifty pounds weight upon their backs.”

The gentlemen encountered by De Smet are worthy of some notice. In 1845, when there was a possibility of trouble between England and the United States regarding the Oregon boundary, Capt. Henry J Warre,. and Lieut. M. Vavasour, R.E., were sent by the British Government on a secret mission to seek out routes for troops through the Rocky Mountains. Returning, they left Fort Vancouver on March 26, 1846, travelling via Fort Colville to Boat Encampment at the Columbia Loop.

Captain Warre’s account of the crossing of Athabaska Pass is brief; but he seems to have been none the less impressed, for he says,2 “We had for many days been surrounded by magnificent mountains, and had passed through such a beautiful country, that the effect of this grand and solitary scene was partially destroyed by the sublimity of that which had preceded it. The mountains are about 10,000 feet in height, unequalled in any part of Switzerland for the ruggedness of their peaks and beauty of form, capped and dazzling in their white mantle of snow.

“On the fourth day we ascended the ‘Grande Cote’ to the height of land on which are situated two small lakes, from whence flow two rivers, the waters of which flow into different oceans—the Columbia into the Pacific, and the Athabaska into the Frozen Ocean.

“We had scarcely walked ten miles, when the joyful sound of human voices assured us of more immediate relief, and we soon encountered a party of men who had been sent to meet us with provisions, accompanied by Le Pere de Smet, a jesuit priest from Belgium, and chief of the Roman Catholic missionaries in the Columbia district, who was on his return to that part of Oregon.”

Captain Warre was a trained artist: he published his journal, now one of the rarest items in the literature of the Northwest. The plates accompanying the few pages of text are exquisitely done, and present the earliest attempt to illustrate adequately the scenery of the Columbia Valley.

Following De Smet came the wandering artist, Paul Kane, to whom Governor George Simpson had granted permission to cross with the Hudson’s Bay Express. Kane’s purpose was to make portraits and pictures among the various Indian tribes—a work which he carried into effect.

Of his westward crossing, in November, 1846, he writes: “We were now close upon the mountains, and it is scarcely possible to conceive the intense force with which the wind howled through the gap formed by the perpendicular rock called ‘Miette’s Rock,’ 1500 feet high, on the one side, and a lofty mountain on the other. The former derives its appelation from a French voyageur, who climbed its summit and sat smoking his pipe, with his legs hanging over the fearful abyss.

“Today we attained what is called the Height of Land. there is a small lake at this eminence called the Committee’s Punchbowl; this forms the headwaters of the branch of the Columbia River on the west side of the mountains, and of the Athabasca on the east side. It is about three-quarters of a mile in circumference, and is remarkable as giving rise to two such mighty rivers; the waters of the one emptying into the Pacific Ocean, and the other into the Arctic Sea. We encamped on its margin, with difficulty protecting ourselves from the intense cold.

“The lake being frozen over to some depth, we walked across it, and shortly after commenced the descent of the Grande Cote, having been seven days continually ascending. The descent was so steep, that it took us only one day to get down to nearly the same level as that of Jasper’s House. The descent was a work of great difficulty on snow-shoes, particularly for those carrying loads; their feet frequently slipped from under them, and the loads rolled down the hill. Some of the men, indeed, adopted the mode of rolling such loads as would not be injured down before them. On reaching the bottom, we found eight men waiting, whom M’Gillverey and the guide had sent on to assist us to Boat Encampment, and we all encamped together.”

Kane and his party took ten days between Jasper House and Boat Encampment—fast time for loaded men under winter conditions of travel. Just a year later, we find the artist returning homeward over the pass. He took the hardships of the road without grumbling and not without a certain good-humour: “We started one hour before daybreak to ascend the stupendous Grand Cote, and soon found the snow becoming deeper at every step. One of our horses fell down a declivity of twenty-five to thirty feet with a heavy load on his back, and, strange to say, neither deranged his load nor hurt himself. We soon had him on the track again as well as ever, except that he certainly looked a little bothered. The snow now reached up to the horses’ sides as we toiled along, and reached the summit just as the sun sank below the horizon; but we could not stop here, as there was no food for the horses. We were therefore obliged to push on past the Committee’s Punch Bowl, a lake I have before described.

“It was intensely cold, as might be supposed, in this elevated region. Although the sun shone during the day with intense brilliancy, my long beard became a solid mass of ice.”

What a picture it must have made—that lonely procession, passing the frozen summit lake, in the twilight; the bothered pack-horse (how well-packed he must have been!) led by an artist-adventurer, burdened, in that pre-Gillette era, with his frozen whiskers!

But a more modern day was dawning. The British Government, interested in locating passes and routes suitable for railroads, sent out an Expedition, under Captain John Palliser, which remained in the field during the years 1857-60. Their physician and chief explorer was Dr. Hector, afterward Sir James Hector, a man renowned among the Indians for the cures he made among their people; and well remembered for his long and speedy winter-journeys with dog-teams.

In February, 1859, Dr. Hector was at Jasper House contemplating a visit to Athabaska Pass. He mentions4 that Jasper House “is a small post of the Hudson’s Bay Company which had been abandoned for some years, but was this winter again occupied and placed under the charge of Mr. Moberly, who received us most kindly.

“Jasper House is beautifully situated on an open plain, about six miles in extent, within the first range of mountains. As the valley makes a bend above and below, it appears to be completely encircled by mountains, which rise from 4000 to 5000 feet, with bold craggy outlines; the little group of buildings which form the ‘fort’ have been constructed, in keeping with their picturesque situation, after the Swiss style, with overhanging roofs and trellised porticos. The dwelling-house and two stores form three sides of a square, and these, with a little detached hut, form the whole of this remote establishment. The general direction of the valley of the Athabasca through the mountains seems to be from south to north, with a very little easting. Four miles below the fort the Athabasca receives a large tributary from the W. N. W., which is known either as the Assiniboine or the Snake Indian River. Opposite to the fort, from the opposite direction, comes Rocky River, and these two streams, with the Athabasca, define four great mountain masses. Thus, on the east side of the river there is the Roche Miette, which although really some miles distant, seems to overhang the fort. Higher up the valley is Roche Jacques, and on the west side of the valley, and opposite to these two, we have the Roche de Smet and Roche Ronde. These names were given long ago to the mountains, at a time when a great number travelled by this route across the mountains.”

Dr. Hector always enjoyed a mountain-scramble, for a few days later he notes, “I started with Moberly to ascend the Roche Miette, and as we had to follow down the valley for some miles and cross the river, we took the horses with us so far. I now saw where we had forded the river the other night in the dark, and it certainly looked an ugly place, and if we had only seen where we were going, we might have hesitated to attempt it. Having ridden about six miles from the fort, we left our horses, and commenced the ascent of the mountain, carrying with us a small pair of snow-shoes, with which to cross any bad places we might come to; but as we found the snow was everywhere hard, with a glassy surface that supported our weight, we soon left them behind. Indeed it was only at intervals that we required to cross patches of snow, for we followed a ridge or ‘crate,’ as they call it, from which it had been swept by the violent wind of the last few days. After a long and steep climb, we reached a sharp peak far above any vegetation, and which, as measured by the aneroid, is 3500 feet above the valley. The great cubical block which forms the top of this mountain, still towered above us for 2000 feet, and is quite inaccessible from this side, and is said to have been only once ascended from the south side by a hunter named Miette, after whom it was named.”

On February 10th Dr. Hector started up the Athabaska, in company with Moberly, the guide Tekarra, and a Canadian named Arkand. On the following day they reached a point opposite to Miette’s House where there was once a trading post, at the point where the track branches up the Caledonian Valley to Fraser River, from that which leads to Boat Encampment and the Columbia.

Dr. Hector was now on the present site of Jasper, describing it as follows: “The valley of the Athabasca, above Miette’s House, is very wide, and is bounded to the east by a long mountain composed of the earth shales, with only a few detached masses of the more massive strata capping them. We now descended to the south, and passed the Campement du roches, where we found many signs of former travellers, and among others our friend Hardisty’s5 name, written on a tree last summer as he returned from the Boat Encampment, where he had been sent to meet Mr. Dallas. We then reached the Prairie des Vaches, where we encamped, intending to take our horses no further, as beyond this point there is little or no pasture at any season, but especially in winter.”

No further progress was made, because “Tekarra’s foot is so much inflamed with his hunting exertions, that he will not be able to guide us up the valley to the Committee’s Punch Bowl, so I changed my plan and followed up the main stream of the Athabasca instead. At noon we reached the mouth of Whirlpool River, which is the stream that descends from the Committee’s Punch Bowl, and I found the latitude 52° 46' 54". Leaving the rest to follow up the Athabasca, I ascended a mountain opposite to the valley of Whirlpool River, and had a fine view up it towards the Boat Encampment. Having been directed by Tekarra, I easily recognized Mount Brown and Mount Hooker, which are much like the mountains toward the source of the North Saskatchewan. They seemed distant thirty miles to the south by west. At night fall we encamped where high rocky banks begin to hem in the river.

“After following up the river for ten miles we found it became quite a mountain torrent, hemmed in by lofty and rugged mountains, two of which, that were very prominent, I named after my friends, Mr. Christie7 of Edmonton, and Moberly.”

Then came the later, final exploring for the railroads. During the summer of 1872, Walter Moberly, having been ordered to discontinue his survey for the Canadian Pacific Railroad through Howse Pass, came northward across Athabasca Pass.

On the Columbia River he writes,8 “We ran many rapids and portaged others, then came to a lake which I named ‘Kinbaskit,’ much to the old chief’s delight.”

Moberly did not go all the way to Boat Encampment, but says that on August 27th, “We resumed our journey and crossed a high ridge, from which the view was magnificent, part of the Selkirk Mountains, where we could see hundreds of snow-capped peaks. We waded the [Wood] River many times, and camped at the foot of Mount Brown, opposite the old camping ground of the H. B. Company.

“We now began the steep ascent by the old H. B. Company’s trail to reach the depression between Mounts Brown and Hooker—the ‘Athabasca Pass’— gaining an elevated valley, with grassy glades and groves of firs. Where the walking was fair we made good headway, and camped a short distance north of the celebrated ‘Committee’s Punch Bowl.’ Following along, and gradually ascending Mount Brown, we saw a grizzly bear above us, and shot a ptarmigan, and then coming on a well-beaten cariboo trail, reached the top of a ridge, with a high conical peak immediately on our right, and a mass of hard perpetual snow on the north side of the ridge, down which we went with difficulty, seeing the fresh tracks of four cariboo. There was a fine view from the top of this ridge, the mountains in the north forming a magnificent amphitheatre, some five miles in width, and the innumerable torrents, dashing down the rocks, with white foam like silver spray, the thick groves of dark fir, the grassy flats and many small lakes, or ponds, rendering it enchanting.

“From what I saw of it, my impression is that there is a pass through from the Canoe to the Whirlpool River, which at some future time may be utilised, but I cannot be quite certain of the pass, as my examination was very limited, and, therefore, imperfect. The stream I followed is the true source of the Fraser, and I had thus been within a comparatively short time at the sources of the two large rivers of the Pacific Coast, the Columbia and the Fraser.”

Moberly later returned to Kinbasket Lake and assisted in getting the remainder of his outfit to the site of Henry House, where they wintered. His description6 indicates the difficulties under which the early survey parties labored: “On the evening of the 1st of October the trail was passable though not finished, as a great deal of corduroying was needed to the foot of Mount Hooker, a distance of about twenty miles from the Columbia, and nearly all the animals on the way between the Boat Encampment and the above point. On the 2nd I started back for Party T, from the foot of the mountains, taking Messrs. Green and Hall a part of the way up Mount Hooker to show them where to open the trail and get the supplies to. My endeavor now was to get the supplies all to the height of land, the ascent to which in one place is at an angle of about seventy-five degrees, so that should I not be able to pack them all the way to the Athabasca depot, before being stopped by the snow, they would be over the height of land, and there would be a descending grade along the Whirlpool and Athabasca rivers over which to convey them on dog-sleds.”

Thus we have followed the stories of the voyageurs over a period of sixty years, forming a historic tradition excelled in by no other area of the Canadian Alps. The narratives are many, scarcely two in exact agreement as to detail, exaggerated as were the tales of the early European alpine wanderers: yet all possessing a certain fascination in the evident appeal of natural phenomena to men unaccustomed to mountain travel, but nevertheless impressed by the strange wonders of a higher level.

Athabaska Pass was one of the first trans-continental gateways of North America—the first through which came any large number of white people. Through it passed pioneers to whom, in a measure, we owe the foundation of civilization on the North American Continent. Fortunate are we that something of their story has been preserved. How utterly strange that their difficult “Height of Land” should become an alpine playground of today!

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