Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, effected by the Officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the years 1836—39/Chapter II
Description of a Winter Journey from Red River to Athabasca.
In the afternoon of the 1st of December, the day I had fixed upon for quitting the colony on my long winter journey to Athabasca, I bade adieu to my kind and much esteemed friend, Chief Factor Christie, to the worthy clergymen, and the other gentlemen forming the little society of the place, all of whom breathed the warmest wishes for our welfare and success. The autumn had been long and beautiful, and the snow had not yet cast its white mantle upon the earth. I was therefore obliged to set out with horses and carts, which conveyed our baggage to the Manitobah Lake. My gay cariole and three sledges followed, light drawn by the dogs, and attended by three drivers—chosen men—who completed the little party bound for the distant north. I started from Fort Garry on horseback, escorted by three or four of the young gentlemen belonging to the establishment. Our ride was enlivened by a spirited wolf-hunt, one of our ordinary pastimes in the plains which environ the colony, where the horses are trained to the pursuit of the buffalo and wolf, and to stand fire at full speed. At sunset we rejoined our little caravan, which encamped on a bushy knoll about two leagues from Fort Garry. After spending some hours with me, my young friends retraced their steps homewards, and left us to our night's repose.
The waning moon shone brilliantly when we awoke; and, taking an early breakfast, we all started on foot. The morning was cold, but exhilarating. The sun, rising in cloudless splendour, threw his horizontal rays across the wide plain, and, illuminating the hoar-frost upon the long dry grass, gave to the expanse around us the appearance of a silver-spangled sea. At noon we halted for a short time at a cluster of trees, in whose shade we obtained sufficient snow for our horses and dogs, in lieu of water, a luxury not to be found in these arid plains. The country traversed was studded with a few copses of poplar and dwarf oak; but a great part of it having been swept by the running fires, so frequent and terrible in the prairies, presented a blackened and dismal aspect. I noticed a number of small natural mounds, on which lay frag ments of limestone, the great basis of the plain region; and quantities of little shells were strewed about in every direction. After travelling twenty-seven miles, we took up our quarters at sunset in a grove on a slight eminence, which my guide dignified by the name of " "
On the 3rd we passed Shoal Lake, a place where the half-breed settlers kill a great many wild fowl in the fall and spring; after which our course changed from north-west to west, winding through a country agreeably varied with woods and plains. The former abounded in white hares (lepus Americanus); and, as our equipage moved leisurely on, we enjoyed an excellent and profitable day's sport. In the afternoon we reached the borders of Manitobah Lake, and procured a night's lodging in the houses of some "freemen," of whom we found eleven families resident there. These people subsist chiefly by hunting and fishing; they possess a few horses and cattle, and, though separated from their fellow-men, seemed to live quite happily. I ascertained the latitude of this spot, by a meridian altitude of Jupiter, to be 50° 22’ 45’’ N. I shall not fatigue the reader by always recording the result of my observations, which may appear more properly in an Appendix. Suffice it to remark, that, throughout the journey northward, I took bearings with a pocket compass; and, at night, determined our situation by altitudes of the planets or fixed stars.
The Manitobah Lake had but recently assumed its icy covering, which, as far as the eye could distinguish, rose in huge masses, as if forbidding all farther progress. So formidable was its appearance that the people endeavoured to dissuade me from prosecuting that route; but I resolved to persevere, and, dismissing our wheeled vehicles, we soon had our baggage snugly stowed upon the sledges. The cariole intended for myself I appropriated to the carriage of my books, instruments, &c., and preferred performing the whole journey to Athabasca on foot. Two of the young freemen agreed to afford us the assistance of their dogs to the Company's nearest post; and, at each establishment on the route, I, in like manner, procured the aid of a couple of fresh men to accompany us to the next. Then began the flourishing of whips, the shouts of the drivers, and the howling of the refractory dogs—all blending together in one horrible outcry. For some distance we found the ice almost impracticable, but on doubling a point the broken rugged masses gave place to a smooth and glassy level. To walk on such a surface, with the moccassins or soft leather shoes of the country, was next to impossible; we were, however, provided with iron crampets, which we strapped on in much the same manner as the Kamschatdales wear their "posluki," or ice-shoes. Thus secured from many an awkward fall, we advanced rapidly, but found it no easy matter to keep pace with our dogs, who, rejoicing in the ease with which they now dragged their burdens, scampered along at a great rate. The young ice, as yet but a few inches thick, crashed and rumbled like thunder under our tread. About noon a violent storm of snow-drift suddenly arose, and compelled us to seek shelter among the spreading oaks and elms that ornament the banks of this extensive lake.
On the 5th we travelled thirty-four miles, our course lying north-west, across a series of gently rounded bays fringed with rushes. The wind blew piercingly cold, so that when overheated we stopped to cut a hole for water; our clothes, gloves, and caps immediately became solid, and we were glad to run again to acquire fresh warmth.
We resumed our route on the 6th, at an early hour. When daylight appeared, the Dauphin Mountain rose before us, blue in the distance, forming a highly agreeable object in that level country. Our route led chiefly through a little archipelago, which conducted us at noon to a small trading post, called Manitobah-house. There we were delighted to cast off, for the remainder of the day, our galling iron shoes—real instruments of torture, which, long before we had done with them, forced us with groans to acknowledge that our feet were, indeed, made of clay.
In soil and climate this place equals Red River; barley, wheat, and potatoes, yielding, in most seasons, excellent returns. The lake produces very fine white-fish (coregonus albus); on some of its tributary streams tolerable salt is obtained by the freemen from saline springs, and the wild hop grows in many places in great profusion, and of good quality. In the evening a warm couch was spread for me in the corner of a large room, round which, on wooden bedsteads, lay my host Richard, his wife, and half a dozen grown-up daughters!
At noon of the following day we passed through a narrow strait, that gives to the whole lake the name of Manitobah, or Evil Spirit, by which the Saulteaux Indians believe it to have been formerly haunted. According to their account, terrible sounds used to be heard here, and fearful sights seen ; among others, huge snakes with horns! and it was not till after the establishment of a trading post near the spot, by the Canadians, who, with their singing and noise, seared the demons away, that the natives ventured to pass by this place of dread.
On the 8th we advanced thirty-three miles, of which the passage of an extensive bay occupied twenty-eight. The ice in this bay was intersected by large and dangerous rents, into one of which, while running heedlessly before the dogs, I fell; but, luckily seizing an upright fragment on the brink, I extricated myself, at the mere ex- pense of a wetting. During the succeeding night it blew furiously from the northward; and when we got up at daybreak, we shook from our blankets a quantity of snow, none of which, unfortunately, adhered to the slippery ice. Our route followed the south side of the lake, from point to point, and at three p.m. we reached Portage la Prairie, a slip of land two miles broad, separating the Manitobah from the Winipēgoos or Lesser Winipeg Lake.
The Winipēgoos is a more extensive body of water than its sister lake, and in summer is brackish; but our route only comprehended a portion of sixty miles, which we easily accomplished in two days. The Duck Mountain forms a very conspicuous object in the western quarter. The grey mists of morning were curling up its rugged sides when it first broke gratefully on our sight. At its base issue several saline springs, where the freemen manufacture salt, for sale to the Company at Norway-house. The oak region terminates here; but the shores of the lake are tolerably well clothed with elm, poplar, and a few ash, birch, and pine trees. This is particularly the case with Red Deer Island, which is large, and affords shelter to many of the fleet and graceful animals from which it derives its name. As we approached it, on the 11th, we perceived a red fox sporting upon the beach. He stood for a while looking at us, till, the dogs getting scent of him, off they went, cariole, sledges, and all, in full chase, utterly regardless of their drivers' cries; but reynard was unencumbered, and soon plunged into the thickest of the wood, where the sledges became entangled, and the laughable pursuit ceased. Crossing an arm of Duck Bay, twenty miles broad, where the ice, having become fixed in a gale of wind, was piled up in high sharp ridges, we encamped in a wood of pines, the first we had yet met with. Their evergreen branches form the favourite bed of the winter voyager—a comfort we did not fail to enjoy. A river that empties itself into this bay, and bears the same name, is much resorted to by the Saulteaux. Several of them visited us in the evening, with a supply of fresh fish, for which they were liberally paid; and a share of our supper, and our news, made the poor fellows quite happy.
12th.—We now left behind us, with pleasure, the tedious large lakes; and, after suspending our iron shoes to the trees, with the first faint streak of day (between six and seven o'clock) we struck out across land for Swan River. The path was very intricate, and in many places imperceptible to the keenest ordinary eyes; but one of my native companions knew it well, and set us right when at fault. As an instance of the almost instinctive knowledge which guides the Indian unerringly through the pathless forest, I may here mention that this track was first marked out by one who was an utter stranger to the country it traverses, and had merely been once at Swan Lake from a different quarter; yet, though somewhat winding in its course, in order to follow the best ground, I found its general direction uniformly the same. There was still so little snow on the ground, that, though our tiny vehicles needed a track no more than eighteen inches wide, the sharp twigs and fallen timber tore the luckless cariole to tatters. Our route lay through woods, small lakes, and swamps ; the former abounding with three different species of grouse — the spotted, ruffed, and prairie, or sharp-tailed, (tetrao Canadensis, cupido? et phasianellus,) which, as I walked a-head, afforded me plentiful sport. In the afternoon we fell upon the trail of a solitary Indian, who had passed the day before, and killed a lynx on our path. We likewise saw an old camp of the natives, and several graves rudely constructed with logs—simple, but affecting memorials of the "stoics of the wood, the men without a tear." The weather was soft and overcast; and, after travelling nine hours without intermission, we only made good about twenty-one miles. We put up on the borders of a narrow piece of water, called Long Lake, and partook of a sumptuous repast—the produce of my day's shooting.
Next day the track became, if possible, worse, and more difficult to trace, in consequence of the fast-falling snow. At noon we found ourselves on the banks of Swan Lake, across which a violent storm was sweeping. Fortunately, the wind was on our backs ; and, immediately losing sight of land, we proceeded due west for Fir Bay, a distance of six miles. About the middle of this passage we came suddenly upon a space of weak ice, only an inch thick, and partially covered with water. It was an awkward pre dicament, for advance we must; we, therefore, laid ourselves upon the sledges, and, our weight thus pressing on an extended surface, our sagacious dogs carried us safely over the danger. From Fir Bay, two miles of a swampy portage conducted us to Swan River, close to the tents of some freemen, who subsist by hunting, fishing, and mailing salt and maple sugar. We entramped a few miles further, in a fine wood of elm. After the men had gone to rest, the dry grass on which they lay caught fire, and before they were aroused their blankets were in a blaze; but, fortunately, the sleepers escaped unscorched.
It snowed incessantly during the 14th, making it heavy travelling for both men and dogs. Our route now bent to the south-west, sometimes ascending the winding river for several miles, but more frequently leading direct through the bordering country. The latter consists of swampy meadows, alternating with woods of poplar fringed with willow, and a few straggling clumps of pine.
The industry of man may, in some future age, convert this wilderness into a habitable land, as the climate is good, and barley, potatoes, and other vegetable produce have been raised at several points along Swan River.
On the 15th we came again in view of the Duck Mountain, now lying to the southward of us. We had, in fact, made a circuit round it, to avoid its rude and impassable heights. We soon after crossed an open streamlet, close to a bend of the river, from whose high bank we looked upon a noble prospect. From west to north lay outstretched the blue line of the Porcupine Hills, which are densely wooded to the very summit; while from east to south-west extended the more lofty elevation of the Duck Mountain, encircling a vast extent of flat country, pleasingly diversified with wood and plain, through which, far as the eye could reach, might be traced the river's wandering course.
On the following morning we crossed a branch of the Thunder Hills, two miles in breadth. These hills afforded us some amusement in running down their steep declivities, an exercise the more acceptable as the weather had become very cold. In the plain beyond them we saw several tracks of red-deer, and fell in with an Indian family bound on a hunting excursion. In the evening we crossed Swan River for the last time, and, availing ourselves of the moonlight, struck off through an uneven country, partially covered with underwood, for Fort Pelly, twelve miles distant. We reached it at 8 p.m., and the gates were soon thrown open by Mr. Setter, to give us admittance and a hearty welcome. Our day's journey was thirty-seven miles, but being able to use snow-shoes for a part of it, materially lightened the fatigue.
Fort Pelly is a compact well-ordered little place, sheltered from the north by a range of woods, with the Assiniboine winding a short distance in front. The only Indians there, during our visit, were a Saulteaux family, who, having suffered from privation, were kindly received, housed, and fed till they could resume the chase with a prospect of success. My observations place the establishment in lat. 51° 46' 20" N., long. 102° 5' W. Variation 17" E.
Sunday the 18th was made a day of rest and thankfulness. The sky was bright and cloudless, the thermometer standing at minus 25°.
On the 19th the temperature fell to —44°; but, being amply supplied with all things necessary, we took our departure in the forenoon. Our path was an Indian horse-track, which now wound beneath, now ascended, a line of gently undulating eminences, while on our left lay the woods that border the tortuous course of the Assiniboine. In the evening we crossed that river where it turns to the north, and encamped in a small group of poplars. The night was intensely cold, and I literally burned my fingers with the sextant, while taking the usual observations. I afterwards adopted the precaution of using very thin shamoy gloves, and have often taken observations at still lower temperatures without injury.
We resumed our march at 4 o'clock the following morning. The moon, now near the full, shone coldly bright, and, as she sunk towards the west, threw long shadows on the snow, causing every bush and tree to assume strange and startling shapes. After proceeding fourteen miles, we were glad to halt in a thicket, for breakfast, soon after sunrise. Having completed this cheering operation, we with better heart gave our faces to the cold, which a westerly wind rendered doubly piercing. A fine pointer, though defended from the searching cold by a warm cloth coat and shoes to match, lay down and refused to stir till I drove him before me with the whip. Our route led due west, leaving the Assiniboine far to the north; and traversing a hillocky country, tolerably wooded, and abounding in small lakes and swamps, we saw numerous tracks of lynxes and wolves in pursuit of hares ; and found suspended on the trees, by the natives, several splendid antlers of the stag. Quitting the horse-track, we encamped at the foot of the Nut Hills. We started next day at the same early hour, and, while in the act of moving out of our bivouac, a troop of prairie wolves came howling around it, as if impatient to seize on anything we might have left. The morning was intolerably cold; and it required our utmost exertions to keep the blood in circulation, and to preserve our faces from freezing. I afterwards ascertained, at Fort Chipewyan, that this was the coldest day of the whole winter there, the thermometer being at —46°. We encamped at the west end of Stony Lake, having travelled twenty-nine miles, through a country consisting of narrow plains, studded with clumps of poplar, and an abundance of underwood, interspersed with little lakes and swamps. A great part of it had been recently overrun by fire; and the only interesting feature it presented was a view, on the left, of the low range of the Beaver Hills, which we could distinguish to be thickly covered with timber. The buffalo frequents this quarter, and we passed several of its old beaten tracks.
On the 22d we made similar progress. In the forenoon we crossed Fishing Lake, six miles wide; then changing our course from west to west-north-west, we struck out into the immense prairies which stretch from thence to the Saskatchewan River. After travelling over the shaggy frozen grass, which bore some recent traces of red-deer, for a few miles, we fell upon a tract of country that the fire had bared to the very soil. The light snowy covering rested on the blackened plain, and our poor dogs once more went on with comparative ease. Far on our right appeared a line of low woods, shooting out from the Nut Hills in an immense curve, the extremity or horn of which we reached at our usual camping hour.
We were now at the commencement of a plain, twenty miles in breadth, which my guide required daylight to cross; we therefore breakfasted, and started at 7 o'clock. The wind blew strongly from the westward; and to face it, where there was not a shrub, or even a blade of grass, to break its force, with a temperature of at least —40°, was a serious undertaking. Muffling up our faces with shawls, pieces of blanket, and leather, in such a manner as to leave only the eyes exposed, we braved the blast. Each eyelash was speedily bedizened with a heavy crop of icicles, and we were obliged, every now and then, to turn our backs to the wind, and thaw off these obstructions with our half-frozen fingers. Early in the afternoon we reached what are called the Cross Woods, where we were glad to make the best lodging we could for the night, there being another wide prairie on the opposite side. Notwithstanding every precaution, two of the men were injured by the cold; one a half-breed from Fort Pelly, who afterwards, at Carlton, lamented his inability to dance in consequence of his frozen heels. Neither bird nor beast was seen during the day; the intense cold haying driven all living things, but ourselves, to the shelter of the woods.
Next morning we made an early start, and crossed the plain, which is fourteen miles wide, before breakfast. A few willows were thinly scattered over its barren surface, and we had a view of the low range of the Touchwood Hills, extending from south to south-east. We could again discern the deeply-curved woods on our right; in fact, we were travelling from one distant point of them to another, as if traversing successive bays of the sea, to which these great plains, that on the left reach to the Rocky Mountains, may well be likened. "Lac aux Plumes," a very large salt lake, which derives its name from the multitude of wild fowl that moult there every summer, lies near this part of our route. We breakfasted in the Moose Woods, and I observed the lat. 52° 4' 16" N., variation 18° 4' 16" E. The cold continued to be dreadfully severe. Crossing another prairie, about half the breadth of the last, we encamped in a cluster of small poplars, near "the two openings," or vistas, in the woods, as seen from the plain.
Christmas-day, Sunday, the 25th.—On shaking off our slumbers this glad morning, a troop of wolves were "baying the moon" as she rode in a cloudless sky. The country before us being intricate, we could not start till daylight; and, when we sallied forth on our day's march, the weather had moderated. About two miles from our resting-place we passed over a round hill, and stood a while on its summit to enjoy the boundless prospect. From west to south stretched a vast plain, separated from another, of which we had a bird's eye glimpse to the north-east, by the broad belt of woods which we had been skirting along; while, before us, in our line of march, lay outspread a seemingly endless tract of open underwood, varied by gently swelling eminences. For seven miles our route led west-north-west, through thickets and over hillocks; it then changed to west for fourteen miles, through a more open country, consisting of rising grounds, or "côteaus," with bare ridges, and sides clothed with dwarf poplar and brushwood; while here and there, in the hollows, we crossed large ponds, scarcely deserving, on this continent, the title of lakes. They have no outlet; and, on cutting through the ice for water, we generally found it putrid: such, however, is its scarcity in that level country, that we were often fain to use it when most nauseous, taking the precaution of imbibing it through snow, which purifies it in some slight degree. We now turned west-south-west for eight miles, keeping along a broad and rather winding ridge, which appeared to furnish the buffalo with a regular road of ingress to the woods. Several tracks of moose-deer were also seen during the day. After sunset we took up our quarters in a small clump of poplars. The whole country having been ravaged by fire, we could not find dry grass, as usual, for our beds, and spread our Christmas couch on willow branches; rough indeed, but rendered smooth to us by health and exercise.
Next day we continued the same direction for twelve miles; and, though I remonstrated with our half-breed guide on his leading us too much to the southward, Pierre persisted in his own accurate knowledge of the route; till suddenly we emerged into the open plains, where an illimitable snow-covered waste alone met the view. We made for an eminence five miles distant, whence we gained a full view of the extraordinary country in which we now found ourselves. What are here called plains, consist of a collection of barren hills and hollows, tossed together in a wild wave-like form, as if some ocean had been suddenly petrified while heaving its huge billows in a tumultuous swell. Sinclair, one of my men, informed me that he had from Fort Pelly traversed, in the summer season, a similar country, extending to the borders of the Missouri. From our elevation we could discern, due north, our eagerly looked-for mark, the Birch Hill, by which lay our lost route. Being thus re-assured, a smart walk of thirteen miles brought us to the external fringe of underwood, in which we halted at sunset. The loose snow made the walking this day irksome; but we had many a capital race, as the sledges shot down the steep hillsides. It was rather dangerous footing on these declivities, garnished as they were with badger-holes, which, being concealed by the snow, repeatedly entrapped our legs, and capsized us, though we fortunately escaped without fractures. The country is completely intersected by buffalo-roads: we saw many skeletons and one or two recent tracks of these animals; but no living creature, except a fox that started from his burrow on the top of one of the bare hills, and a pair of lean ravens, which attended us for the greater part of the day. A strong southerly wind blew during the night.
At daylight on the 27th we found that a strong thaw had taken place, which rendered the travelling execrable; our route was full of deviations, which my guide declared necessary to avoid a rough thickety country. The fact was, the man was again at fault; and I was on the point of taking the guidance out of his hands, to shape a straight course for Carlton, when I found him kneeling on a hillock, with what purpose I know not; but, on questioning him, he said he recognised a low hill before us. On reaching it, we found ourselves in the midst, as it were, of a grand amphitheatre, being on every side surrounded by superior woody ridges. A few miles further lies the "Lake of the Moose Deer;" after passing which we gained the top of a range of round hills, extending across our route, where we lodged in a little hollow at sunset. In the course of the day we saw several tracks of buffalo bulls, and shot some partridges.
With the dawn we were again in motion. A light fog overhung the earth, which the rising sun soon dissipated, lighting up its fragments, as they rolled away, with bright and changeful hues. Our route traversed patches of brushwood, prairies abounding in small lakes, and two broad low ranges of hills, at the base of the last of which we encamped. Our course all day was west-north-west by the compass. Walking was laborious in the extreme, the snow being soft, the grass long, and the ground lumpy; so that, though we only advanced twenty-three miles, we were all tired enough in the evening.
29th.—The cloudy weather having prevented me from obtaining observations during the night, I was desirous of taking a meridional altitude of Arcturus in the morning twilight, which placed us in lat. 52° 40' 36" N.; then, starting a little before sunrise, we proceeded across the plain. The morning, for the depth of winter, was exceedingly beautiful; and we had not gone far when we espied, on the top of a little eminence before us, four red-deer, inhaling the fresh breeze. They stood gazing at us for some time; and two of the party were preparing to creep towards them through a bushy dingle, when the beautiful creatures took the alarm, and, darting down the declivity with the speed of light, gained the woods and disappeared. At noon we found ourselves on the lofty banks of the South Branch, or Bow River, which is here a quarter of a mile wide, and well wooded with poplar, aspen, and birch. Descending to the stream, we came upon an open space, where the clear current rushed sparkling over its stony bed ; and we quaffed an ample draught of the pure element, deliciously refreshing after the foul and smoky snow-water of the plains. Then, mounting the steep bank on the opposite side, we pushed our way, through thicket and swamp, to the White Hill, a bare elevation, commanding a view of the open plains to the westward, and, to the east, of a wooded hilly country, with the broad river wending its way majestically through it. We encamped at Duck Lake, which is three or four miles long.
Next morning, after breakfasting, and making our simple toilet, we set out for Carlton, situated on the south side of the Saskatchewan River. There we were greeted by Chief Factor Pruden with a frank and cordial welcome; and, at his pressing request, I consented to pass our New-Year holidays with him. There were no bands of the plain Indians in the neighbourhood, and none of the alarms consequent on their appearance. In the course of the preceding summer they had several times fired into the place, which is defended by high palisades, planted with wall-pieces. Provisions were unusually scarce, the great fires in autumn having driven the buffalo to a distance; but one of the Cree hunters was fortunate enough to kill a female moose and her two fawns within a short distance of the establishment.
On the 2nd a dance was given in the hall, at which Mr. Pruden's fine family, with all the other inmates, young and old, attended, decked in their gayest attire; and gave full scope to the passion for dancing inherent in all the natives of the country. The following day was employed in making pemican for our journey, and in getting everything in readiness to resume it on the morrow. There is some ground in cultivation here, and Mr. Pruden was justly proud of the sleek hides of the cattle and horses in his stable.
4th.—Being now reinforced with fresh men and dogs, we set out at a rapid rate. After crossing the river, which is nearly half a mile broad, we entered an open country, consisting of low, round, grassy hills, interspersed with clumps of poplar, and occasionally of pines, and with many small lakes; a range of hills, called "La Montague Forte," appearing far on our left. We travelled on till dusk, when we encamped in a valley.
We started next morning at 4 o'clock. It was exceedingly dark, but we luckily fell upon a path made by some people who had lately passed towards Green Lake. The snow increased in quantity as we advanced, and the country came more close and woody. After a walk of fifteen miles, we reached Shell River, a little stream; where we found, near an old Cree camp, several skins of the throat of the moose-deer suspended on poles, which are esteemed by the natives as charms of great efficacy in their conjuring. Sixteen or seventeen miles beyond this rivulet, we passed by Salt Lake, which is narrow, but of considerable length: its waters are unfit for use. A hill on its east side is clothed with fine birch, and thither the Carlton people resort to procure materials for constructing their sledges. Proceeding seven miles farther, we came upon a streamlet containing fine water, ironically named by the voyageurs "La Grande Riviere," on the banks of which, amongst pines, we halted for the night.
We started on the 6th at the same hour. The weather continued mild for the season, and cloudy, as if it would snow. After proceeding a distance of eight miles, chiefly occupied by four pieces of water, the largest of which is denominated Fishing Lake, we entered the boundary of the pine forest, in lat. 53° 30' N. Two leagues of a very rough, uneven path brought us to another rivulet, open in several places, and very serpentine in its course, often expanding into small lakes, and originating in one, at the distance of ten or eleven miles. It traverses a pretty valley, the land rising gradually on either side. Three or four miles through thick woods lead thence to Otter Lake, five miles long, but not exceeding a quarter of a mile in breadth. We saw on the snow several marks of the valuable fur-animal from which it takes its name. Beyond this we crossed six little lakes, when, finding a fine camping-place, we halted after sunset, having travelled thirty-seven miles. One of the men had a narrow escape, his gun going off while carelessly fastened upon the sledge behind which he was walking.
Next morning we crossed six more "lakelets," separated from each other by very close woods, in passing through which the extreme darkness rendered it necessary to advance in a stooping posture, cautiously guarding our eyes from the low hanging branches: the space thus occupied was five miles. Then followed a hilly tract of fourteen miles in extent, dividing the waters which flow towards the Saskatchewan and Churchill rivers; about the middle of which we fell upon a streamlet winding through a valley, with elevated woody sides. Along this valley we descended, occasionally crossing the brook, which the recent mild weather had caused to overflow in many places, to our no small inconvenience. At length, between 10 and 11 a.m., we reached Green Lake, where we stopped to breakfast, with enviable appetites. This lake is narrow, and its reaches assume various bearings, like those of a large river; its length is about seventeen miles. Finding the ice level, and not much encumbered with snow, we trotted briskly over it, and reached the little post at its extremity about sunset. Here we found some Crees, who, having been unsuccessful in hunting, were living for a time on the produce of the abundant fishery made by the people of the place at the commencement of the winter season.
A considerable quantity of snow fell during the night, and the morning of the 8th was very boisterous. At 5 a.m. we started, and, following a few turns of the stream by which Green Lake discharges itself into Beaver River, we turned off into a very bad, swampy track, leading to the two Duck Lakes, each half a league long, and nearly as far asunder. A short portage brought us to the banks of Beaver River, which is about the same size as Swan River, and similarly wooded. Descending it for twelve miles, we came to some rapids, which never freeze. Close to the open water we saw three otters, but they plunged into the stream before we could approach within shot. We had now resumed our snow-shoes, but the fresh fall made the march very fatiguing both for men and dogs; and at 4 p.m. the violence of the gale obliged us to encamp.
We were again on the river the following morning at 4 o'clock; the weather desperately cold, with a violent north-west wind. We breakfasted at the foot of the "Turned-boat Hill," so called from its peculiar shape. The general thickness of the ice was about eighteen inches; but there were several open rapids, where the current ran with considerable force, pursuing a very irregular course, and rendering the ice extremely rough and difficult of passage. But upon the whole we made good progress, and early in the afternoon reached the point where we quitted the river, which describes a long circuit to the right before falling into Lac la Crosse, five miles to the east of the establishment. Perch River, a small stream, joins Beaver River two reaches lower down, and erroneously appears in some maps as "Riv. Lac la Ronge." This lake is fed by the Montreal River, which issues from Lac Assiniboine, a large body of water, extending, it is said, to within a day's journey of Green Lake, and abounding in fine white-fish. We traversed part of the Long Lake Chain, and encamped in a grove of splendid pines, having travelled forty miles.
The morning of the 10th was clear, but piercingly cold. We were under way at 3 o'clock, and passed the remainder of Long Lakes. We then struck due north by the pole-star, and after travelling fourteen miles, including five more small lakes, we reached Lac la Crosse at daylight, and breakfasted. The lake here comes almost to a point, and expands very gradually for sixteen miles; when, having attained the breadth of half a league, this long arm unites to the main body, which is eight miles across to the establishment. There being but little snow on the ice, we ran all the way, and early in the afternoon we were most kindly and hospitably received by Chief Factor Mackenzie.
It was my intention to await at this place the arrival of an express, soon expected from Athabasca, in case there should be any arrangements to make respecting the additional supply of goods and provisions required by the expedition. The weather continued mild, with some heavy falls of snow. The "Fort" is neat and compact, the surrounding country low and swampy. The fishery, in the lake close at hand, yields a constant supply of fresh and wholesome food, summer and winter; the little farm is productive, and the few domestic cattle maintained were in excellent condition. I noticed a number of ravens stalking about quite familiarly among the people and the dogs, and almost making their way into the houses. They are considered useful, during the heats of summer, in cleansing the beach of fish refuse, and are therefore treated with nearly as much consideration as the stork was by the ancients and is at this day in Holland.
On the 13th I sent back my Carlton auxiliaries, after all hands had been gratified by a "ball," at which one of my companions, who was a capital fiddler, officiated as chief musician. A party of Chipewyans came in with an assortment of furs. They had been living in abundance on moose-deer, and were clothed in the same manner as the people of the establishment. The Chipewyans are the most provident of all the northern tribes; and, since the union of the rival companies in 1821, their numbers are decidedly on the increase. The longitude of the place, deduced from three sets of lunar distances, with stars on either side of the moon, was 107° 54′ 30″ W., differing only six seconds from that found by Sir John Franklin in 1825.
On the 20th the long-looked for couriers arrived, with letters from Mr. Dease, communicating the welfare of the expedition. After writing on its affairs to the gentlemen in charge of York Factory, Norway House, and Red River, and being most liberally supplied, by my worthy friend Mr. Mackenzie, with everything requisite for the journey, we took our departure the same night.
At our usual breakfast hour, on the 21st, we reached Clear Lake, a tolerable day's walk on snow-shoes. Our route thence to Athabasca being precisely that followed by Sir John Franklin, scarcely needs the minute description which I have given of the preceding portion. Adhering to the general line of the summer water communication, the road was not so readily mistaken as heretofore; and we were able to make a great part of our way during the night, which all experienced snow-travellers know to be less wearisome to the spirits than broad day, when the traverses of lakes, and long reaches of rivers, are seen in all their tedious extent, and the eyes are oppressed by the glare of the snow. The remainder was, consequently, the most rapid part of our journey. The weather was dark and snowy. Three large wolves followed us, and a pair of white owls serenaded us with their harsh notes during the night, as we lay on Buffalo Lake. Next morning we set out at 2 o'clock. A dense fog concealed the land, and hid the Buffalo Mountain, so dreaded by superstitious voyagers; but we took our course west-north-west, across a very wide bay. After a smart walk of eight hours, in which we advanced twenty-eight miles, we landed for breakfast near the extremity of the lake, where we found the ice to be three feet thick. We encamped in the Methye River.
On the 23rd we started at 3 a. m. Some time before daylight there was a magnificent display of the aurora borealis commencing with an arch of singular lustre in the north, which suddenly flashed up towards the zenith, and represented the interior of a stupendous cone, the apex and upper part being of the bright yellow hue, while the lower assumed a very rich carmine colour. I had scarcely time to admire this resplendent phenomenon, when it disappeared. We pursued as direct a line as the country permitted, now following the river, where we found it straight, then traversing the intervening woods. Our moonlight transit disturbed from their sleeping-places a couple of foxes, and several large coveys of white partridges. Early in the afternoon we reached Methye Lake, near the middle of which, on a long projecting point, we encamped, among firs of great size. While crossing the lake, I witnessed an extraordinary effect of the mirage caused by the rays of the evening sun. It covered the land to the west with a mist-like veil; and the ice, even close around us, appeared to dance with a strange undulating motion, as if tossed up and down on a heavy swell. I was walking about half a mile a-head of the rest of the party, and, chancing to look back, the people seemed to be seated on their sledges; but on their arrival at the encampment, when I taxed them with their laziness, they assured me that they had been on foot the whole time, and that I had also appeared to them in a recumbent attitude, borne forward as it were by some unseen power. Our dogs showing symptoms of sore feet, we equipped them all in shoes of white cloth.
After I had ascertained the latitude 56° 28′ 48.5″ N., we quitted our snug quarters at 3 a.m. of the 24th. Scarcely had we started when the weather became overcast and snowy; but we took our course, by compass, across the remaining section of the lake, to the celebrated Portage la Loche. The snow was very deep throughout this formidable barrier; and the white hares, which had been strangers to us since leaving Lac la Crosse, now often leaped across our path. From the hills on the north side, a thousand feet in height, we obtained that noble view of the Clear Water River, which has been drawn with so much truth and beauty by Sir George Back; though the dark day, and the livery of winter, were unfavourable to our full enjoyment of the prospect. Launching down the steep and slippery descents, we turned off to the left, and halted for breakfast on the bank of a streamlet flowing into the Clear Water River, distant fourteen miles from the creek which the boats enter at the end of this long carrying-place. The Indians sometimes strike off from hence, through a hilly wooded country, direct to Athabasca Lake, and, as I knew that a saving of at least two days in distance might be effected by that route, I was desirous of adopting it; but none of my men had ever followed it, and, from the report of the natives, they declared it to be impracticable with sledges; we therefore turned our faces down the deep and picturesque valley of the Clear Water River, and advanced as usual till sunset. This is the best plan on such journeys, as the preparation of the encampment takes more time and labour, and, is never so well done, after nightfall. One of the pines, under shelter of which we took up our night's lodgings, measured three yards in girth, at five feet from the ground.
25th.—There fell a light rain during the night, and a dense mist hung low down upon the sides of the lofty hills. We soon reached a narrow channel, where the stream rushes impetuously between overhanging turret-shaped rocks, and descended it for upwards of a mile; the water boiling and hissing under our feet, with numerous open places on either side of us. Proceeding alternately upon the river and through the woods, we crossed "Portage la Bonne," where two Indians had recently cut their hieroglyphics on the trees, to notify to their friends that they had passed on a hunting excursion, and what animals they had killed. This is a fine country for the chase, and so little frequented in the winter, that it may be regarded as an extensive preserve. We saw three moose-deer on the top of one of the hills; and their tracks, and those of the wood-buffalo, were numerous in every direction. The valley of the river is entirely sheltered from the inclement north and north-west winds, but its exposure to the east usually renders the snow deep and soft, as we found to our cost. It had rained smartly here in the beginning of the month, while it snowed elsewhere, and over the sharp crust produced by the rain a foot of fresh snow had fallen. Our poor dogs sunk through both, and, with all our precautions, their paws were sorely galled. The passage of the cascades was rendered hazardous by a number of treacherous holes in the ice, which the snow concealed. Ten miles lower down, some strong sulphur springs issue from the left bank of the river, in a narrow channel formed by an island, leaving a copious deposit on the stones over which they flow. The water was nauseous to my people; but, being accustomed to the powerful mineral springs of Strath Peffer, I took a liberal draught, which doubly whetted the keen edge of hunger. We encamped soon after, and, the snow falling very heavily, we made ourselves covered huts with pine branches, in which we considered ourselves superbly lodged.
The travelling next morning was excessively bad. The weather was cloudy, and even oppressively mild for the violent exertion of wading through deep snow; but with the dawn a cool westerly breeze sprung up, which refreshed us, and rendered the atmosphere beautifully clear. Just before breakfasting we saw, on the northern hills, a large moose and a band of five wood-buffaloes sunning their fat sides—a sight sufficient to make the mouths of pemican-eaters water; but they were beyond our reach, and, taking the alarm, quickly disappeared. The declivities of the hills seemed, as we passed along, completely chequered with the tracks of these and smaller animals. We slept at the mouth of the Pembina, or Red Willow River.
On the 27th our route lay chiefly along the river; the hills enclosing it became lower, and approached nearer together, depriving the valley of its former romantic character. A walk of seventeen miles brought us to the confluence of Clear Water River with the Athabasca. From the high point of "the forks" we enjoyed a fine view of that majestic stream, stretching away to the north, its broad bosom studded with numerous wooded islands, which give it a grand lake-like appearance. We now emerged from the deep soft snows of the valley, through which, as well as during the whole journey, I had myself raised the road, my companions being sufficiently occupied, each with the care of his sledge. The dogs, in fact, were so accustomed to follow me, that when, at any time, I quitted my usual station in front, they stopped, kept looking wistfully back, and the whips of their drivers failed to inspire them with the same ardour, till I resumed the lead, when they testified their satisfaction by straining to keep at my heels, the leader often thrusting forward his black muzzle to be caressed. This fondness usually procured me the close society of a whole posse of them during the night, which, when not extremely cold, was anything but agreeable. By marks on the snow it appeared that the owls (strix cinerea) were making sad havoc among the hares. In the evening a lynx sprang up the bank, at the very spot we were making for, and, on looking out, we saw our old friends, the wolves, following us at a respectful distance. They regularly established their night's quarters on the opposite side of the river.
Next morning a strong cold north wind blew, driving in our faces a storm of snow which almost blinded us. We marched against it for several hours, when, at an island, we fell in with a Chipewyan hunter, visiting his traps, and invited him to share our breakfast. After messing with the people, I gave him a cup of tea and a handful of biscuit, when I was no less surprised than pleased to see the poor fellow reserve the latter, to carry to his children at the lodge. At noon we spoke another hunter belonging to the same camp; he had just killed a badger, which be was taking home. These men were well-clothed, and supplied from Fort Chipewyan with everything necessary for this mode of life. The weather changed, and became clear and very cold. In many places we found the ice covered with water, which had overflowed from tributary creeks, and from open places in the river itself. The snow, too, was soft and deep; and our progress was much retarded by these circumstances. At dusk we encamped below the upper tar springs, among the huge pines and poplars, which are everywhere of a growth worthy of the noble stream whose banks they shelter and adorn.
It snowed as usual during the night, and the morning of the 29th was piercingly cold, a strong north wind sweeping up the exceedingly long reaches leading to Pierre au Calumet. Our dogs began to knock up one by one, and three were untackled all day. These lagged behind, unobserved, in the afternoon; and I had to send a man back to look for them. He met them just as our pertinacious followers, the wolves, were coming up; and saved the poor animals, who were in no condition to resist such powerful adversaries. In the plain districts many horses yearly fall a prey to their voracity.
The 30th was intensely cold, with a penetrating head wind, and not an incident occurred to vary the scene as we passed down the long monotonous reaches of the river.
The cold during the succeeding night was excessive. At the end of sixteen miles we made a land-cut of two miles in length to avoid a détour. The wolves having become very daring, lured on by the prints of the dogs' bleeding feet, I lay in wait for them, after the rest of the party had passed, and fired upon the foremost as they dashed up the bank, which effectually checked the pursuit. We encamped at the mouth of a small creek, thirty miles from Fort Chipewyan.
1st February.—This being the day I had fixed, on leaving Red River, for my arrival at Fort Chipewyan, we were on the move at 2 a. m. The morning was windy, but not cold; the sky was clear, and a vivid arch of the aurora spanned it to the north, but speedily resolved itself into a thousand flashes and coruscations of extreme brilliancy. Leaving the main channel by which the Athabasca pours its waters into the lake, we struck across the land to a minor branch, called the Embarras. We followed its narrow and devious course for several miles, rousing the moose-deer from their lairs by the noise of our dog-bells. Crossing a short portage, we reached Lake Mamawee, where we despatched the small remainder of our provisions. Then continuing onwards with accelerated speed, at 3 p. m. we were warmly welcomed by Chief Factors Smith and Dease, who did not expect me for more than a month to come.
Thus happily terminated a winter journey of 1277 statute miles. In the wilderness time and space seem equally a blank, and for the same reason—the paucity of objects to mark or diversify their passage; but, in my opinion, the real secret of the little account which is made of distance in these North American wilds is, that there is nothing to pay. Every assistance is promptly rendered to the traveller without fee or reward, while health and high spirits smile at the fatigues of the way.
- In consequence of the good treatment they received, half the number that left Red River with me reached Athabasca—the longest continuous journey ever performed by the same dogs. The others I exchanged on the route.
FromFort Garry to Fort Pelly 394 miles. „Fort Pelly to Carlton 276 „ „Carlton to Isle à la Crosse 236 „ „Isle à la Crosse to Fort Chipewyan 371 „ 1277