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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir Alexander McKenzie

Chapter V - The Ascent of the Great River

ALL readers of Mackenzie's journal experience great disappointment as they reach his account of his nearest approach to the Arctic Sea. The rise of the sea tide was surely a certain indication to him that he was near the ocean. The appearance of ice-fields, seen by him from the heights of the islands among which he passed, suggested to him the frozen surface of the Arctic Sea. For some reason he turned back, having only reached the delta of the great river which he had been descending. Why did he do this?

Not a reflection of regret do we find, nor is any indication given that he considered his northward journey ended, save for his erection of the post on which his name was engraved. An unobservant reader would suppose as he describes his journey among the islands of the delta that he was following the same course down stream as lie had been pursuing for the preceding six weeks.

However, closer attention will show that on July 16th, after discussing with the Indian guide the possibility of the party meeting with friendly Indians, who might inform them further of the route, Mackenzie received the information that he would not likely meet them unless it were at a small river coning from the east -which fell into the great one. The journal says: "We accordingly made for the river, and stemmed the current." Here is the first indication that the explorer had given up his journey, and was now ascending the river.

The delta of the great river had been full of interest for the whole party. One day Mackenzie's men saw a great many animals in the water which they had thought at first were pieces of ice. These they found to be whales, and the party took to their boats in hot pursuit. The prey, however, evaded the pursuers, and it was well. As the explorer says, "it was a very fortunate circumstance that we failed in our attempt to overtake them, as a stroke from the tail of one of these enormous fish would have dashed the canoe to pieces."

Before getting; back from this vain expedition a fierce north-east wind arose, and a heavy fog fell; the waters rose in violence, and the party reached the land with the greatest difficulty. The only satisfactory course seemed to be to keep in the lee of the islands, which, as already mentioned, lie called the Whale Islands, on the greatest of which he had encamped.

We are thus left to infer the reasons for his hasty return, which the explorer seems to attempt so ingeniously to gloss over. The Indians had found it difficult to obtain much game, the party had not more than five hundred pounds of food supply on hand, and the prospect of facing an Arctic winter with its decreasing amount of game was, even to so brave a man as Alexander Mackenzie, sufficiently alarming. The islands on which they had encamped were exposed to the winds off the icefields, and they here found the weather at the season which elsewhere would be the middle of summer, most severe. The entry in the journal for July 15th is: "As the evening approached the wind increased, and the weather became cold. Two swans were the only provision which the hunters procured for us."

Moreover, there are constant indications that the guide wished to return homeward, and the "English chief " after reaching the lower portions of the river gave evidence very clearly that he would prefer to be back in his own region of Athabaska. Certainly the ice on the lower part of the river suggested that the short summer would soon be over, and pointed to the necessity of hastening southward. Mackenzie's reticence in regard to the reason for his sudden departure southward is undoubtedly very remarkable.

One remark alone in the later part of his voyage may give a clue to his course of action. On August 13th, nearly a month after the return voyage was begun, the feeling of distrust between the "English chief" and the commander showed itself very clearly. After giving an account of the altercation, Mackenzie, in the journal, says: "I stated to bun that I had corrie a great way, and at a very considerable expense, without having completed the object of my wishes, and that I suspected he had concealed from inc a principal part of what the natives had told him respecting the country, lest he should have been obliged to follow me." Here, then, seems the explanation that a cabal had been made against Mackenzie by reason of which he could not obtain the necessary information to enable him to proceed. It would have been more satisfactory to us if the explorer, who had so nearly accomplished his object, had taken us into his confidence.

On the day of their return southward Mackenzie records seeing the first spruce tree that had been in view for some time. He makes the remark that it is extraordinary that there should be any wood whatever in a country where the ground never thaws below five inches from the surface. But as the ascent of the river was made the weather became pleasant, and the evidences of animal life in the flocks of wild fowl and their young became more frequent.

Numbers of the natives, not seen on the way down the river and who were strange to the ways of white men, were now met. "They were alarmed at the firearms in our hands, and asked us not to discharge them in their presence." When they saw the explorer engaged in writing, their curiosity was excited. 'Through the medium of the "English chief" Mackenzie ascertained that these Indians had learned from the Eskimos, whom they had met, that they had seen large canoes (ships) full of white men, to the westward, eight or ten winters before, from whom they had obtained iron in exchange for leather. The expanse of water where they had met them was called by them Belboullay Toe or White Man's Lake.

On July 24th the exploring party passed a small river, on each side of which the Indians and Eskimos collected flint. The bank was crumbling away in places, and among the debris were found pieces of petroleum, having the appearance of yellow wax. A few days more brought the returning travellers to the zone of huckle-berries, raspberries, and that fruit widespread throughout the fur trader's country, the Saskatoon berry, known to the French-Canadians as poire.

Fifteen days after the return journey was begun Mackenzie's party reached the entrance of the rushing stream running into the great river from Great Bear Lake. Being now the first day of the month of August the explorers passed here the first night, since leaving Lake Athabaska, in which it was dark enough to see the stars. As the party came to this precipitous part of the river they were compelled to take to the shore, and, walking along it, to use their towing lines to drag the canoes up the stream. At times on the banks of the river, at this point, their attention was called to the whole bank giving off a sulphurous smell. The source of this odour proved to be a seam of coal which had been on fire for years.

About August 11th Mackenzie began to find the "English chief" restless and moody. The wily leader seems to have been afraid that the explorer would leave the great river, and explore some of the larger tributaries coming into it from the east. The "English chief" had told some of the French-Canadians that he intended before the party reached Slave Lake to leave them, and make a visit to a tribe of Indians, whom he knew.

It was at this juncture that the "English chief" drew upon himself the reproaches of Mackenzie, to which reference has been made. When rebuked the "English chief" denied the charges made by the explorer, stated that he would not accompany the party any further, and after the Indian fashion gave way to a loud and bitter lamentation, in which his relatives assisted him in their vociferations of grief, though they gave as their excuse that their tears flowed for their dead friends. Mackenzie, after two hours of this extravagant sorrow, soothed their wounded feelings, and the chief returned to his allegiance.

On August 22nd the party was rejoiced at reach-in; Great Slave Lake; here, making use of sails on their canoes, they greatly hastened their speed. Two days afterwards the worried explorer was rejoiced to meet his trader Leroux, whom the had left on the lake to pursue the fur trade. Leroux had not succeeded very well, but had visited a band of Indians on Martin Lake, and obtained a number of peltries. While on Great Slave Lake Mackenzie matured a plan for sending Leroux, under the guidance of the "English chief" to visit the Beaver Indians, whose country lay to the west. When he reached Leroux' house, which had been built at the mouth of Yellow Knife River, and which afterwards became known as Fort Providence, he tells us "he spent the whole night making the necessary arrangements for the embarkation of the morning, and in preparing instructions for Leroux."

Leaving his faithful trader Leroux, whose name as a pioneer has ever since been associated with Great Slave Lake, Mackenzie and his party struck across the lake, and after a somewhat stormy passage arrived at the entrance of the river running from the south into Slave Lake, at which point Leroux' first house for trading had been built. The ascent of the river—the Slave—had now to be made, and its rapids and fierce eddies required skill in his canoemen, 'though the effort of the ascent was not, on the whole, more arduous than that of the descent had been.

To face the well-known portages gave some variety and excitement to the sturdy French-Canadians, who had gone the whole journey without a murmur, and who had the greatest confidence in L'ecossais, commanding and imperative as he was to them and to all. Ten days sufficed to traverse the distance of something more than two hundred and sixty miles, and the fact that on the day before their arrival at Lake Athabaska " it froze hard during the night, and was very cold throughout the day," showed llo`v fortunate the party was in reaching its destination at the very spot where they had encamped on June 3rd.
The last entry of the journal is as follows September 12th, 1789. "The weather was cloudy, and also very cold. At eight we embarked with a northeast wind, and entered the Lake of the Hills. About ten the wind veered to the westward, and was as strong as we could bear it with the high sail, so that we arrived at Fort Chipewyan by three in the afternoon, where we found Mr. McLeod with five men busily employed in building a new house. Thus, then, we concluded this voyage, -which had occupied the considerable space of one hundred and two days."

The results of this great journey of Alexander Mackenzie down La Grande Riviere are worthy of consideration:-

1. There was opened up to the knowledge of the world a region some two thousand miles in length, with resources of coal, petroleum, salt, and furs that are only now beginning to be fully known.

2. Mackenzie, from conference with the Indians met on the lower Mackenzie River, established the existence and course of the Yukon River more correctly than it was laid down on the maps for two generations following his time. He made out that the Yukon emptied into Norton Sound rather than into the Arctic Sea, as some early maps give it.

3. The great explorer, though of a commanding spirit, adopted in treating the Indians the pacific measures which have always been successful with them, and began the policy which was consistently followed by the Hudson's Bay Company during the century just closed.

4. While the daring leader took with him a certain quantity of provisions, leaving at Ile a la Cache a small supply of pemmican for his return journey, yet in the main lie adopted the policy afterwards followed by the Arctic explorer, Dr. John Rae, on his great journey tip the west coast of Hudson Bay in search of Franklin, viz., of depending on the game and fish that might be secured along the line of exploration. Mackenzie's journal gives minute accounts' of the number of ducks, geese, swans, beavers, reindeer, and fish obtained en route.

5. The explorer gathered much useful knowledge from Indian and Eskimo hearsay and experience, which led him to infer from their story of Belboullay Toe or White Man's Lake (or Sea) that they were speaking of the great Pacific Ocean, and referred to Spanish expeditions or perhaps to the voyage of the celebrated Captain Cook up the west coast of America some ten or eleven years before.

Mackenzie, by his determined courage, reticence, and prudence, by his shrewdness and intelligence, and by his consummate leadership, added not only to the sum total of British Heroism, but also on this voyage secured the experience and laid the foundation for the greater expedition by which he was to gain his chief fame as being the first white man north of Mexico to cross the continent to the Pacific Ocean.

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