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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 X

< 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 X.

Ascent of Dease River.—Passage of the Dismal Lakes on the Ice.—Dangerous Descent of the Coppermine.—Flight of the Esquimaux.


Having, after repeated missions up Dease River, ascertained, on the 6th of June, that the first flush of water had passed off, and the ice ceased descending, we immediately put the party in motion. Leaving Ritch and two men at Fort Confidence, we set out with only four men per boat, two having (as already mentioned) been stationed at Kendall River in charge of the provisions for the coasting voyage. Our very limited personal baggage, provisions for the journey to the Coppermine, the canvass canoes, and snow-shoes for the whole party in case of being surprised by winter on our return, were carried over the ice to the mouth of the river, where we encamped. In that sheltered spot the first signs of vegetation had appeared, and the catkins of the willow were fully an inch long. On the lake, the ice was still from four to five feet thick.

In the forenoon of the 7th was commenced the ascent of Dease River; the weather clear, but cold. The navigation proved a succession of rapids; and the banks, obstructed by willows and other trees, rendered the tracking very la- borious. We encamped at a place where the stream has forced its way through a precipitous chasm, leaving a detached rock in the midst, to which our Orkney-men gave the name of "The Old Man of Hoy." Several large hawks and a numerous colony of swallows occupied the cliffs. The latter birds we afterwards found in a similar situation at the mouth of Kendall River. As they are never seen at Fort Confidence, it is probable that, in their passage northward, they avoid the frozen expanse of Great Bear Lake altogether, and make straight for their accustomed rocky haunts.

8th.—The fatigue of ascending the rapids, often waistdeep in the water, was aggravated by a hard frost and a piercing head wind. As we advanced, however, we found a good deal of still water, where the oars could be used. Enormous drifts of snow clung to the banks. In one place a fallen fragment had grounded in mid-stream, forming a temporary islet, upon which stood an Indian mark, directing us to the carcases of two deer placed in a tree. As we approached the spot, another huge mass of snow tumbled down, and well-nigh put an end to all our discoveries. At 3 P.M. a shout issued from among the trees on the south side of the riirer; and a young Indian soon came forth, breathless with running, to inform us that the camp was situated some distance off, at the foot of a conspicuous hill. Ordering our people to put up for the night, we told the youth to guide us to it; which he did, through bushes, and swamps newly coated with ice. At the camp we found a scene of savage feasting, for the hunters had slaughtered a number of musk-cattle. These animals descend from the barren mountains at this period, and resort for a while to the borders of the woods, in order, it is said, to rub off their cumbersome winter coat of hair. The natives were here snugly lodged in leather tents, instead of their usual open huts of branches. It was pleasing to think that the comfort and abundatice they enjoyed were in a great measure our own work, and the many smiling faces that crowded round us evinced their affectionate regard. After partaking the hospitality of the tents, we selected six young men to assist our feeble crews up the remainder of the river, and across the portage to the Dismal Lakes; and, with these auxiliaries, we returned to the boats at a late hour.

In the course of this day we shot several Canada geese, and found some of their eggs among the rocks: they had for some time deserted Great Bear Lake. The noisy pintailed and black diving-ducks were pretty numerous on the river, as were the willow grouse in the bordering woods. The latter were now pairing; and the male, with his white plumage and rich brown-coloured neck, looked extremely handsome, as, perched on the top of a tree, he crowed and called to his mate. The marks of vegetation observed at the month of the river had disappeared; the small lakes were everywhere frozen; snow still lay in the woods, and clothed the hill-sides.

On the 9th, after passing the south branch of the river, which falls in from the mountains in lat. 67° 1′ N., long. 118° 12′ W., we ascended during the rest of the day about fifteen small rapids, though the Indians had assured us that the whole was still water. The intervals between them are, however, smooth and deep; the stream flowing through a sandy plain thinly skirted with wood, and bounded by a range of snow-clad hills on either hand. Our young savages very willingly received civilized names, (John, Louis, Pierre, Michel, Hunter, and Stranger,) but it was a less easy matter to teach them to keep time with the oar. Many deer were seen, and one small herd was browsing so near the bank that the Indians gave them chase; but, the foolish fellows having in their hurry slipped in balls over charges of shot, two of their guns burst, and one of them narrowly escaped a shattered hand. The weather was dark and cold, and the water had fallen four or five feet from the ice-marks. In arriving at a rapid much stronger than the rest, one of the boats sustained some damage from the sharp stones: it was repaired in the course of the night.

10th.—Marmot Rapid, so called from the number of those little animals' burrows in the neighbourhood, occupied us some time this morning, and there were several shallows between it and my tempestuous encampment of 29th March. When we halted, soon after, for breakfast, our quick-sighted hunters espied a musk-bull feeding at some distance among the willows. After they had fired several shots at him ineffectually, he took the direction of the boats; but, stumbling into a deep creek, swam out to the river, where he was wounded in the act of crossing. The animal instantly turned about and endeavoured to climb the bank where we stood, his eyes darting fire, and his nostrils distended with pain and rage; but he soon fell pierced with bullets. We found his flesh very good. A pair of large white wolves were prowling about the river; and the ravages of the barren-ground bear (ursus arctos) were observed in several places. Beyond this the stream divides into four branches, of which we chose the largest, flowing from the northward through a sterile waste. It is a mere sandy rivulet; in some places a fathom deep, in others not a foot. At length angular granite rocks began to project from the bottom; and at 8 P.M. we encamped at the foot of a succession of stony rapids.

All next day we were detained by a storm of wind, snow, and rain. I noticed the first moss in flower, its lowly blossoms flourishing unharmed amidst the war of the elements. The few dwarf withered spruces within reach of our encampment were expended in firing.

In the forenoon of the 12th the storm abated, and we resumed our route. In ten hours we advanced six miles, nearly half of which was portage-work, with a fine level reindeer path following the windings of the brook. This brought us to the little lake which I had in the winter fixed upon for the commencement of the portage across the height of land. Up to this point, which is not far from its source, Dease River, including all its windings, measures about seventy miles, and, considering its small size, certainly exceeded our expectations, though it is only in the month of June that it is navigable any distance even for small canoes.

The next three days proved fine, and the portage, which is six miles in length, was nearly surmounted. The boats were dragged over, one at a time, by all hands, and the baggage deposited half-way. We pitched our tents on the side of one of the conical shingle hills that form the approach to the Dismal Lakes. On the banks of the little lake already mentioned I chanced to find a white wolfs den, containing four fine brindled pups. I immediately took possession of the prize, and carried them on my back across the portage, intending to send them to Fort Confidence by the Indians, and to train them to the sledge. Their dam, attracted by their cries, rushed to the rescue, and lost her life; the more cowardly male contented himself with howling all night on an adjoining eminence.

The 16th brought a tempest of wind and snow from the north-east, which rendered our exposed position intolerable. My young pets were peculiarly sensitive to the cold; and, though I carefully wrapped them up in my cloak, nothing less would serve them than to crawl under the blankets and huddle beside me. They were coaxing little creatures, and, having prodigious appetites, I found no difficulty in inducing them to change their diet.

On the 17th the ground was hard frozen; but, the wind decreasing in the afternoon, we carried forward our baggage to the Dismal Lakes, where the ice lay as solid as in mid-winter, and the hills glistened with snow. A branch of the Copper Mountains stretches along the northern side of these lakes, out of view, except at the lower part near Kendall River, where the natives report having found large masses of metal. Some metalliferous stones were picked up here, but we had no leisure to prosecute our researches farther.

At 4 o'clock next morning, having fixed the boats firmly upon stout iron-shod sledges brought with us for the purpose, and placed in them the oars and baggage, we hoisted the sails to a fair wind, and, placing the crews at the drag-ropes, set out at the rate of two knots an hour over the ice, colours flying. This extraordinary spectacle will long be a subject of tradition among the natives. The snow still adhering to the surface of the lake much impeded our progress, but could not damp the ardour which our strange and successful march excited. With the aid of the breeze we advanced fifteen miles, nearly half the length of this chain of lakes, and encamped in a little bay sheltered by an island, where we collected willows enough to cook our supper. The weather continued very cold. Stones, placed like Esquimaux marks, appeared on the summits of the hills, and a human skeleton was found between two rocks.

On the 19th, at 3 A.M., we were again on the lake, crossing on snow-shoes the deep and partially thawed snow-banks that lined the shore. The wind was adverse, and the ice rough, but now almost bare. In two open sandy narrows, between the lakes, the boats were taken off the runners, and committed to the water; and after traversing the last lake, three miles long, they were finally launched into their own element. A single bend of the stream brought us, at 3 P.M., to our provision station, where we were delighted to find Flett and Morrison safe and well. Their hunters had latterly been tolerably successful in the chase; and two of these active fellows consented at once to accompany us on our voyage, notwithstanding their dread of the Esquimaux, and of the unknown perils of the sea. Both were Fort Good Hope Hare Indians, and were named Larocque, and Maccaconce (Anglicè, Little Keg), and proved in the sequel no contemptible auxiliaries. We made them clip their shaggy locks; and all hands clubbed to equip them in thorough voyageur costume, which wonderfully improved their outward man.

Part of the following day was occupied in trimming the boats, and embarking the provisions, which comprehended twenty-eight bags of pemican, six hundred-weight of flour, and about three hundred pounds of dried venison, an ample stock for three months. The six young Indians, who had rendered us such valuable aid, received notes on Fort Confidence to the value of a beaver-skin each for every day of their absence from the camp, besides presents of tobacco, shoes, &c., and departed well pleased with our liberality. The day was beautiful, and at 2 P.M. we commenced the descent of Kendall River. It is little better than a series of rapids, many of them strong; but the expertness of our crews carried us triumphantly down. As we approached the main river, large banks of snow and ice overhung the stream; and, on our emerging from the steep rocky chasm through which it rushes into the Coppermine, our surprise may be imagined at beholding the ample channel of the latter—there dilated among islands—still covered with ice. We encamped on the same spot where I had breakfasted on the 2nd of April. Our arrival was evidently premature; but we had now achieved what the men had long regarded as one of the most dubious and difficult portions of our enterprise, and they were in high good-humour on that account. As for myself, my repeated winter journeys had entirely satisfied me of the practicability of the route in the spring, and they were the means of ensuring our success. The temperature this evening rose to 62°, and a few feeble musquitoes began to flit about.

On the 21st a strong and warm south wind blew. Kendall River became turbid, and rose upwards of two feet. Great havoc ensued among the ice, and the open lead of the Coppermine, which yesterday appeared a mere thread, now expanded into a rapid stream. We made excursions along its banks, and two deer were shot.

22d.—Considering the passage practicable, we quitted our harbour at 10 A.M. The current bore us with great velocity through the yet narrow channel between the fixed ice and the steep western bank of the river, where there was no possibility of landing. A few miles lower down the stream contracts; and the ice was gone, leaving a tremendous wall on either side. We took advantage of an occasional eddy to scramble ashore in pursuit of reindeer and musk-cattle, which were grazing in every little valley. A fresh breeze from the north favoured our approach; and the heedless deer were sometimes feeding so near the brink, that we fired at them out of the boats as we glanced past. It was princely sport, and a supply of venison for several days rewarded our exertions. These deer were all lean bucks; the does being already on the coast, casting their young. At length quantities of ice came driving down, disputing the passage with us, and rendering the descent of the narrow, crooked rapids extremely hazardous; for, besides what was visible, we several times struck against water-logged masses that were floating down beneath the surface. It need not be thought extraordinary that ice, saturated with water, should sink, like timber in the same condition. In the beginning of summer, when the porous and dissolving ice has thus attained the same specific gravity with the supporting element, and trembles as it were in the balance, any unusual agitation is sufficient to cause its submersion. In this way it often happens that large lakes, which in the evening are covered with ice, after a windy night, present next morning a perfectly clear surface to the anxious traveller. At other times, for the same reason, the ice of lakes, which in calm weather only breaks up when thoroughly decayed, as soon as it has entered the rapid current of a river almost entirely disappears. The ice which covers the rivers themselves being, on the contrary, rent by the force of the current while yet comparatively sound, is usually carried down a great distance, even to the ocean. At 5 P.M. we reached the head of a formidable rapid, where, after the cargoes had been carried for nearly a mile, the boats were run down safely, though half filled by the heavy waves that broke over them. A rocky point, which turned aside the torrent, offering a secure harbour, we encamped. During the night a vast quantity of ice mingled with drift wood drove past, and, blocking up some of the contractions of the river below, occasioned a sudden rise in the water.

We dared not move during the two following days on account of the continued and swift descent of the ice. Though the sun no longer set, a cold fog from the sea came up the valley of the river every night.

Tired of delay, we resolved to start at all hazards on the 25th, and pushed out at 8 in the morning. From Sir John Franklin's description of the lower part of the Coppermine, we anticipated a day of dangers and excitement; nor were we disappointed. Franklin made his descent ou the 15th of July, when the river had fallen to its summer level; but we were swept down by the spring flood, now at its very height. The swollen and tumultuous stream was still strewed with loose ice, while the inaccessible banks were piled up with ponderous fragments. The day was bright and lovely as we shot down rapid after rapid; in many of which we had to pull for our lives, to keep out of the suction of the precipices, along whose base the breakers raged and foamed with overwhelming fury. Shortly before noon we came in sight of Escape Rapid of Franklin, and a glance at the overhanging cliffs told us that there was no alternative but to run down with full cargo. In an instant we were in the vortex; and, before we were aware, my boat was borne towards an isolated rock, which the boiling surge almost concealed. To clear it on the outside was no longer possible; our only chance of safety was to run between it and the lofty eastern cliff. The word was passed, and every breath was hushed. A stream, which dashed down upon us over the brow of the precipice more than a hundred feet in height, mingled with the spray that whirled upwards from the rapid, forming a terrific shower-bath. The pass was about eight feet wide, and the error of a single foot on either side would have been instant destruction. As, guided by Sinclair's consummate skill, the boat shot safely through those jaws of death, an involuntary cheer arose. Our next impulse was to turn round to view the fate of our comrades behind. They had profited by the peril we incurred, and kept without the treacherous rock in time. The waves there were still higher, and for a while we lost sight of our friends. When they emerged, the first object visible was the bowman disgorging part of an intrusive wave which he had swallowed, and looking half-drowned. Mr. Dease afterwards told me that the spray, which completely enveloped them, formed a gorgeous rainbow around the boat. After discharging the water shipped, we continued our descent, till, at 2 P.M., we were arrested, about a mile above the Bloody Fall, by a barrier of ice stretching across the river. Putting about, we were fortunate in finding a safe eddy under some steep white earth cliffs, and encamped on a grassy plain stretching out from their base, and affording the double advantage of drift wood and a brook of clear water. We eagerly climbed the highest hills, and gazed on a wide expanse of sea covered with a dazzling sheet of ice, dotted with dark rocky islands; while far north rose the lofty headlands of Cape Kendall and Cape Heame, the latter blue in the distance. The Bloody Fall itself was free; but immediately below it, and from thence to the coast, the river was choked with ice. We found no recent traces of Esquimaux at the fall; but next day many tracks were seen in a plain to the west of the Coppermine, lying between it and a fine deep stream flowing to the northward. This latter river here approaches within two leagues of the Coppermine, and seemed equally large; a short distance higher up it bends off to the westward. Its banks are clothed with willows, and its course appeared tranquil. We had much pleasure in naming it Richardson River, after that resolute and scientific traveller. Several old camping-places, sledges, pieces of wrought wood, &c., were found on the adjacent hills. Various flowers were here in bloom; and, in low damp situations, the verdure of grass and willows relieved the eye, in the midst of ice and barrenness. A female marmot, big with young, was caught, and would soon have become tame, could we have conveniently kept her. The lively little creature seemed to feel quite at ease under a reversed tin dish, till released to join her mate, who, from an adjoining heap of stones, occasionally testified his impatience at her captivity by a sharp shrill whistle.

The bar of ice between us and the Bloody Fall having broken up, two men were despatched to the coast on the 27th to examine the state of the ice. On their return, in the evening, they reported the river to be still blocked up; and that the sea-ice adhered firmly to the beach, without the least appearance of decay, or indication of water in any direction. They brought us a fine salmon-trout, which they had rescued from a bevy of gulls, engaged in the act of dragging it alive out of the river. The waters were still too high for setting our nets, but on the final liberation of the river, two days afterwards, they subsided rapidly. A gunshot below our encampment, the face of a hill, undermined by the stream, kept falling down in large heaps with a tremendous noise, and obliged us to remove the boats higher up, in shelter of the grounded ice. The remaining days of June were fine, but cool. Our hunters killed several deer: these, with some geese, which we shot, kept our stock of pemican almost untouched. My observations placed our encampment in lat. 67° 42′ 52″ N., long, (by lunar distances) 115° 49′ 30″ W.; variation 54° 17′ 30″ E.

July 1st.—After a halt of five days we descended to the fall. The portage occupied six or seven hours, the boats having to be carried about half a mile. On its northern side we found two skulls, the sole remaining memorial of the atrocious massacre of the Esquimaux by Hearne's Chipewyans in 1772. Several ancient stone circles, indicating the camping-place of these ill-fated people, were quite overgrown with willows. Some of the wooden pegs of Franklin's tents of 1821 still stood in the ground; and, in the reach below, old ropes, tarpaulins, wrappers, &c., left by Richardson's party in 1826, lay scattered about. At the bottom of the fall the flat shore to the foot of the hills, several hundred yards from the river, was occupied by icy fragments, for the most part six feet thick. We proceeded to within three miles of the sea, when an accident obliged us to encamp. Numbers of laughing geese were hatching on the borders of the ponds and swamps in the adjacent plain. During the stillness of the night the roar of the Bloody Fall was plainly audible, although six miles distant. There was a hard frost at the time.

On the 2nd, one of the men, proceeding a little way along the coasts descried two tents of Esquimaux, but returned unseen by the inmates. Next day, Mr. Dease and some of our people, walking near the mouth of the river, suddenly came in sight of four Esquimaux, apparently a man, a boy, and two women, who had just halted on a hillock to pitch their tents. Immediately on perceiving our party, the poor creatures took to flight; the women and boy wading across a shallow channel to an island lying in the mouth of the river, while the man embarked in the only kayak they had, and paddled out into the stream. Upon this, Mr. Dease advanced alone to the water-side, and made signs to the latter to come ashore. Strange to say, he complied; probably, from very fear. On landing, he broke off two spear-heads, and presented them, in token of amity, to Mr. Dease; who, in return, cut some buttons from his coat and gave them to his new acquaintance. They then sat down on the grass together, and a broken dialogue ensued, in which the Esquimaux pointedly inquired whether the white men were accompanied by their families; a circumstance that, in savage life, usually denotes pacific intentions. Mr. Dease evaded the question, but assured him of a friendly reception and liberal gifts at our encampment. The stranger was about six feet high, stout, and well-looking, with brown hair. He wore no labrets; and his tonsure was triangular, the apex being towards the back of the head. The interview over, to all appearance satisfactorily, he re-embarked in his canoe. In a very short time he and his family appeared on the ice, which yet adhered to the island on the seaward side, and made off at a great rate towards a distant and lofty group of islands. On Mr. Dease's return, we removed to the vicinity of the spot where the fugitives had abandoned their property; which included a leather lodge; skins of deer and seals, for bedding, clothing, and boots; a kettle, lamps, and dishes, hollowed out of a soft grey stone; bows and arrows; an ice-trench, knives, and other implements, formed of native copper; pieces of whalebone; and various articles left by Dr. Richardson's party, such as tin canisters, pieces of gunlocks, strips of red cloth, a pencil, and some painted fragments of the Dolphin and Union. At the water-side lay an excellent wooden sledge, thirteen feet long and two feet wide, which they were towing up the river, after it had served to convey their baggage thither on the ice. There was also a quantity of deer's flesh in an almost putrid state. We gathered all these things together, and carefully covered them over with the leather tent, and with poles and stones. Four dogs remained behind; one of which was in the last stage of starvation, but soon recovered under our care. Though we supplied the poor deserted brutes with food, they continued shy of us, till one night that a troop of six wolves pursued them to our tents, where they instinctively took refuge. In order to save these useful animals, and, if possible, restore them to their owners, we carried them with us on our quitting the river a fortnight afterwards.

The weather in the early part of the month was, for the most part, dark and stormy. The northerly or ice winds were piercingly cold, and charged with fog, snow, and deluges of rain, against which our tent, made of light inferior sheeting, formed a wretched defence: our men were rather better lodged.

On the 7th, Sinclair was sent along the coast to examine anew the condition of the ice. He returned from the mouth of an unfordable river, nine miles to the eastward, probably the same that Hearne ascended on his return, and which passes through a branch of the Coppermine. The ice everywhere lay solid and unbroken upon the very sand, affording no hope of a speedy liberation. Tracing up the stream, which inclined towards the Coppermine, he perceived on its opposite bank five tents of the natives; but when we made an attempt, two days afterwards, to open a communication with them, they and their habitations had disappeared.

The 8th being a calm mild day, the musquitoes commenced their assaults; and the deer, driven from the valleys by these persecuting insects, were seen crossing the ice to the numerous islands scattered without the river.

To vary the scene, we made an excursion on the 11th, with a light boat, to the westward, with the view of exploring the mouth of Richardson River, which I concluded to fell into the unknown bottom of Back's Inlet. After coasting five miles, we were stopped by the fixed ice; but from the summit of a lofty range of rocks we discerned in the north-north-west a piece of open water, undoubtedly caused by the influx of the stream. On the sandy beach were the tracks of nine Esquimaux, who had apparently passed in great haste a few days before, probably terrified by the distant report of our guns, or by falling upon some of our hunting-tracks. Could these poor creatures comprehend our kindly feelings towards them, they would be eager, like their western countrymen, to profit by our visit, instead of flying from us on every side. Upon the rocks were numerous stone circles, caches, and marks; and in a valley I observed a turf deer-pound of the preceding year. Here, again, we found some remains of Richardson's mahogany boats. Next day, one of our Indians, while out goose-shooting, came unawares upon two Esquimaux, who were travelling from the eastward towards the Bloody Fall, where the season for drying salmon now commences. He took off his cap and waved it to them, but (as he acknowledged) running away at the same time; and the strangers seemed as little disposed for intercourse as himself.

On the 13th, the sun's lower limb almost touched the horizon at midnight. At this period the banks of the river were adorned with a profusion of flowers, which contributed to enrich Mr. Dease's herbal. The nets produced, during our detention, one hundred and forty fish, chiefly Arctic salmon, large salmon-trout, and tullibee; with a few methy, white-fish, red sucking-carp, and diminutive flounders. I obtained an excellent series of solar altitudes and lunar distances, which place the mouth of the Coppermine in lat. 68° 48′ 27″ N., long. 115° 31′ 15″ W. ; being 37 seconds to the northward, 5′ 34″, or about two miles, to the eastward of the position determined by Sir John Franklin; but he was encamped on the west, and we on the east side of the river. The variation was 53° 47′ 54″ E. ; being an increase of 7° 22′ 2″ since 1821, or 26 minutes per annum. There was but one diurnal tide, and the rise and fall of the water varied from five to seven inches. At this date I find, by Ritch's journal, that the ice on Great Bear Lake was still perfectly solid, and continued unbroken till the beginning of August; which may be considered the average term of its disruption,[1] being a full month later than Great Slave Lake, between which and Athabasca there is a like difference.

On the evening of the 16th, having observed some signs of an opening in the ice to the east-ward, we removed to an island lying outside the mouth of the river. Here I had a fine observation at midnight of the sun's upper limb, elevated just four minutes above the visible horizon; the height of the eye being eight feet, the temperature 38° imd the barometer assumed at 30 inches. The resulting latitude, using Lynn's admirable tables, is 67° 52′ 59″; the true position was 67° 49′ 54″. On this occasion, therefore, the actual horizontal refraction exceeded the tabular by 3′ 5″; indeed, during the succeeding morning, there was much mirage, indicating a highly refractive state of the atmosphere.[2] The shores of these islands, and all the neighbouring coasts were abundantly stored with small crooked drift wood, brought down by the Coppermine river,


  1. The bay of Fort Franklin, at the head of the grand outlet to the southward, is clear of ice much earlier, but furnishes no criterion of its state on the main body and northern parts of this immense lake.
  2. The following year I frequently repeated these midnight observations, between the Coppermine and Cape Barrow, when the result, for the most part, fell ten miles to the southward of the noon latitude, which corresponds with Dr. M'Kay's scale of corrections for the spheroidal figure of the earth.