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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 XII

< 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 XII.

Journey on foot and important discoveries to the Eastward.—Return to the Coppermine, and skilful ascent of that river.—Traverse of the Barren Grounds, and arrival at Fort Confidence.


On Monday the 20th of August, at 8 A. M., we set out on our journey of discovery. My companions were five of the Company's servants and the two Indians. Each man's load at starting weighed about half a hundred-weight, comprehending a tent for the nightly shelter of the whole party, a canvass canoe, with frame and cords, to ferry us across rivers, a box of astronomical instruments, a copper kettle, two axes, guns, ammunition, and provisions for ten days; in short, our food, lodging, bedding, arms, and equipage. As for myself, my trusty double-barrel slung at my back, a telescope, compass, and dagger formed my only encumbrance; so that I might at pleasure ascend the rising grounds, to take bearings and view the coast. The plan of march I adopted was as follows:—We set out at 7 or 8 A.M., after breakfasting (which lessened the loads), and obtaining observations for longitude; and travelled for ten hours, exclusive of a halt of half an hour at noon to procure the latitude and variation. With their burdens the men advanced fully two miles an hour; our daily progress thus averaging twenty geographical, or twenty-three English miles. A fatigue party of three men attended us to our first encampment. About the middle of this day's journey we passed the extreme point to which Sir John Franklin and his officers walked in 1821. A little farther we found several old Esquimaux camping-places, and human skulls and bones were seen in various situations. One skeleton lay alongside that of a musk-bull, in such a manner as rendered it extremely probable that the dying beast had gored the hapless hunter. The coast-line continued low; our road alternately leading over sand, sharp stones, through swamps and rivulets. Large boulder rocks rose here and there upon the shore and acclivities. The ice all along was forcibly crushed upon the beach, the edging of water being so shallow that the gulls waded betwixt the ice and the sand. During the greater part of the day we were drenched with rain. The land preserved its north-north-east direction to our encampment—on the pitch of a flat cape—in lat. 68° 37′ N., long. 108° 58′ W. This spot I named Cape Franklin, as a tribute of respect, from a perfect stranger, to that enterprising and justly celebrated officer. Land, twenty or twenty-five miles off, high, and covered with snow, stretched from west to north-east, and raised apprehensions that we were entering a deep inlet or sound.

We had no sooner turned Cape Franklin on the 21st than we came in view of a very distant hill, bearing N. 82° E., which I rightly conjectured to stand not far back from the coast. The latter is remarkably straight; but the walking was very fatiguing, the shore consisting chiefly of soft, wet sands, traversed by a multitude of brooks. These descend from a range of low, stony hills, which, at the distance of two or three miles, close the inland view, and were partially clothed with moss and scanty herbage. The ice was everywhere grounded on the shore; but the weather had by this time improved, and continued so clear and moderate during the rest of the outward journey, that I daily obtained astronomical observations. A flight of white geese passed us, led on, or officered, by three large grey ones (anser Canadensis). Numerous flocks of these fowl were luxuriating in the fine feeding that the marshes and little bays afforded. The young geese were large and strong; but, having not yet acquired the perfect command of their wings, we captured several upon the ice. Two white wolves were skulking on the hill-side, and a brace of Alpine hares were shot. Just before encamping, we forded Hargrave River—so named by me after a particular friend: it is about a hundred yards wide. Our tent in the evening wore the semblance of a tailor's and cobbler's shop, every one being engaged in repairing the injuries his habiliments had received during the day. At this place we secured, under a heap of stones, two days' provisions, to serve for our return to the boats.

The shore next day maintained nearly the same character, and was intersected by many small streams; none of which, on our choosing proper crossing-places, reached more than waist-high. They flow over a bed of stones or sand: their waters were at this time low and clear; but their deep and rugged channels shewed that, at the melting of the snows, not a few of them become formidable torrents. The ice grew heavier as we advanced, and had been driven ashore with such violence by the gales as to plough up the shingle and raise it in heaps upon the beach. The stranded fragments were from three to six feet thick, but no icebergs were anywhere to be seen. I hoped, from this strong evidence of winds and tides, that we were not engaged in exploring a bay; though the northern land still stretched out before us, appearing in some places scarcely twenty miles distant. We found to-day the bones of a large whale and the skull of a Polar bear, and sea-wrack and shells strewed the beach. No deer were seen, but the recent print of their hoofs often appeared in the sand. In the afternoon we passed, at a distance of six miles, the conspicuous hill mentioned yesterday. It is about six hundred feet high, and received the name of Mount George, after my respected relative, Governor Simpson. Drift wood was become so scarce that we made a practice of picking up every piece we could find, an hour or two before camping-time, to prepare our supper and breakfast. Some of the men's legs were much swelled and inflamed this evening from the fatigue of their burdens, the inequalities of the ground, and the constant immersion in icy-cold water. The tide fell sixteen or eighteen inches during our stay at Point Ballenden; but, as it had been subsiding for some time previously, I think the whole rise and fall must exceed two feet. Strong new ice formed in every open spot during the calm of the night.

On the 23rd the coast led somewhat more to the northward. The travelling was exceedingly painful; the beach and slopes of the hills being formed of loose stones, varied here and there by moss, and an ample number of brooks and streams. We, however, advanced with spirit, all hands being in eager expectation respecting the great northern land, which seemed interminable. Along its distant shore the beams of the declining sun were reflected from a broad channel of open water; while, on the coast we were tracing, the ice still lay immoveable, and extended many miles to seaward. As we drew near in the evening an elevated cape, land appeared all round, and our worst fears seemed confirmed. With bitter disappointment I ascended the height, from whence a vast and splendid prospect burst suddenly upon me. The sea, as if transformed by enchantment, rolled its free waves at my feet, and beyond the reach of vision to the eastward. Islands of various shape and size overspread its surface; and the northern land terminated to the eye in a bold and lofty cape, bearing east-north-east, thirty or forty miles distant, while the continental coast trended away south-east. I stood, in fact, on a remarkable headland, at the eastern outlet of an ice-obstructed strait. On the extensive land to the northward I bestowed the name of our most gracious sovereign Queen Victoria. Its eastern visible extremity I called Cape Pelly, in compliment to the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company; and the promontory where we encamped Cape Alexander, after an only brother, who would give his right-hand to be the sharer of my journeys.

Cape Alexander is a rounded, rocky ridge, covered with loose stones,[1] four miles in width, and two or three hundred feet high. Its western part is situated in lat. 68° 56′ N., long. 106° 40′ W. The rise and fall of the tide here was little short of three feet, being the greatest yet observed by us in the Arctic seas. The weather was calm, and the tide falling, when we halted. A considerable quantity of loose ice passed to the westward, and floated back again as the water rose in the morning, affording a seeming presumption that the flood came from that quarter. A solitary deer bounded up the ascent, and along the shore ran a path beaten by those animals. Sinclair wounded one of a small herd of musk-cattle that were grazing on the banks of a lake behind the cape, but it escaped. Esquimaux marks stood upon the heights, but no recent traces of inhabitants could be found.

We next morning cut across the eastern shoulder of Cape Alexander, to Musk-ox Lake, which lies in a valley. It is half a mile long, and empties itself by a subterraneous channel, through a steep ridge of shingle, into another basin, about half its size, which was frozen to the bottom. Crossing the ice, we forded the little stream below, which, like many others, still retained drifts of snow on its banks. Our rough route led amongst large boulders, and through wet mossy tracts producing dwarf willows. The immediate coast-line continued flat, but skirted as before by low stony hills. Some ice lingered in the bays, but the sea was quite open. At the distance of nine miles we crossed another bluff cape, composed of trap rocks, where an observation gave the latitude 68° 52′ 19″ N., variation 63° East. This was the greatest deviation of the compass from the true meridian. From Boathaven to Cape Franklin the variation increased very last, since only nine miles beyond that cape it was found to be 60°. Thence advancing eastward, it fell off to 56° 30′, and again augmented as the coast trended more northerly; while from Trap Cape to our extreme point—only eleven miles in a south-easterly direction—it diminished nearly one and a half degrees. Where the direction of our journey crossed that of Ross's magnetic pole at large angles, the change of variation was rapid; when we travelled nearly in the line of that pole, the change was slow. The farther east we went, the more sluggish did the compass become; the pocket one especially often had to be shaken before it would traverse at all, and, when set upon the rocks, would sometimes remain pointing just as it was placed.

At 6 P. M. we opened what appeared a very extensive bay, running far away southward, and studded with islands. We proceeded on to a projecting point, where we encamped. From thence I could trace part of the western shores of the bay, formed by a bold curve of granitic hills; other land blending with the horizon in the E.S.E., apparently very remote. As the time allotted for outgoing was now expired, this great bay, which would have consumed many days to walk round, seemed an appropriate limit to our journey. Under any circumstances, the continued and increasing lameness of two or three of my men must have rendered my return hence imperative. I had, indeed, at one time hoped to fall in with Esquimaux, and with their assistance to reach Ross's Pillar; but we bad already explored a hundred miles of coast without encountering an inhabitant. The site of three lodges, with a little fire-place of stones apart, was found here, but they were not of this year. Cold and famine, I fear, are gradually wasting away that few in numbers and widely-scattered people. A rapid stream discharged its waters into the bay, two miles to the southward of our encampment, and was called the "Beaufort," after the learned hydrographer to the Admiralty; while the group of islands beyond received the name of the first Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Minto.

The morning of the 25th was devoted to the determination of our position, and the erection of a pillar of stones on the most elevated part of the point; then, hoisting our union-jack, I took formal possession of the country in her Majesty's name. In the pillar I deposited a brief sketch of our proceedings. It is in lat. 68° 43′ 39″ N., long, (reduced by the watch from Boathaven) 106° 3′ 0″ W.; and the variation was 60° 38′ 23″ East.

Our present discoveries were in themselves not unimportant; but their value was much enhanced by the disclosure of an open sea to the eastward, and the suggestion of a new route—along the southern coast of Victoria Land—by which that open sea might be attained, while the shores of the continent were yet environed by an impenetrable barrier of ice, as they were this season. Our portable canoe, which we had not had occasion to use, was buried in the sand at the foot of a huge round rock on the beach, and with lighter burdens we commenced retracing our steps. As we approached our encampment for the night, we had a capital deer-hunt, which ended in our dispatching a young buck in a small lake; and it was carnival time with us, for one evening at least. This was the last fine day that we enjoyed. During the remaining four occupied by our return to the boats, we had to face piercing north and westerly winds, with fog, snow, and rain, aggravated by hard frosts at night. Our march, through swamps, sand, stones, and streams, grew more and more laborious; and, being continually wet, we suffered much from the cold, for the shore did not yield sufficient fuel to dry our clothes at night. Sandpipers and other little birds lay dead in several places upon the beach, having apparently perished by the severity of the weather. We saw some herds of deer migrating southward: one magnificent buck marched before us, like a doomed victim, for two days, and was shot near our last encampment. Geese were still numerous, but quite unapproachable. We could not help enjoying the speed with which they sailed past us, high amidst the storm, in quest of more genial climates. So barren and desolate is this coast, that, during the whole journey, we did not find a single berry. The lameness of two of my men increased so much, that, after sitting down to rest themselves, they had to lay hold of each other in order to get upon their legs again. They suffered acute pain; and one of them—a sturdy Greenland sailor—was laid up for some time after our return to winter-quarters. With respect to the ice, it seemed to have made a grand move during our absence. We first encountered it, on our return, at Trap Cape, rapidly driving to the eastward. It continued to obstruct the shore all along from Cape Alexander to Cape Franklin, but there was now a clear offing that a fleet might navigate. I cast many a wistful look towards the open water, hoping to descry the sails of Mr. Dease's boat; and from time to time fired, to apprize him of our being near, in case of his keeping too far out to be distinguished through the fog: but all in vain. As the land inclined to the southward, the quantity of ice increased so much as to render the coast inaccessible; for the tendency of the westerly gales was to accumulate it on this shore.

At dusk on the 29th we returned to Boathaven, where we found our friends just as we had left them. I then learned from Mr. Dease that he could not have extricated his boat sooner than the preceding day, and did not think it worth while to risk the attempt so late.

The bad weather and advanced season now rendered every one anxious to return to winter-quarters, and I reluctantly acquiesced in the general sentiment; but, for doing so, I had reasons peculiar to myself. I considered that we could not now expect to reach Back's Great Fish River; that, by exploring a part only of the unknown coast intervening, our return to the Coppermine must be so long protracted as to preclude the possibility of taking the boats up that bad river; and that, by abandoning them on the coast to the Esquimaux, we excluded the prospect of accomplishing the whole by a third voyage, with the benefit, perhaps, of a more propitious season. Three great travellers, Hearne, Franklin, and Richardson, had successively pronounced the ascent of the Coppermine, above the Bloody Fall, to be impracticable with boats; and our people, recollecting only the violence and impetuosity of our descent, entertained the same opinion. Fully aware of the great importance of this point to any future operations, I had, with a careful eye, inspected every part of the river, and formed in my own mind the following conclusions respecting the upward navigation:— 1st. That in a river of that size there must always be a lead somewhere, of depth enough for light boats. 2nd. That the force of the rapids would be found much abated; and that, with strong ropes, the worst of them might be surmounted. 3rd. From the fury of the breakers along the base of the precipices in June, I inferred the existence, at no great depth, of a narrow projecting ledge of rock, that, bared by the falling of the waters, would afford footing to the towing party; without which the ascent must, indeed, have baffled all our efforts. These views proved in the sequel to be just and well-founded.

A furious gale from the westward, accompanied with snow, detained us till 10 in the forenoon of the 31st, when we cut our way out of our icy prison—the grave of one year's hopes. We experienced a dangerous swell among the streams of ice outside; then, steering a west-south-west course, a traverse of nine miles brought us to Harry Cook Island, so named on the former expedition. On a close approach, however, it turned out to be a cluster of six or eight rocky isles. From thence we crossed to Wilmot Islands, a very numerous group, merely seen at a distance by Sir John Franklin. Some of the northern passages were blocked up with ice, but everywhere else there was a clear sea among these islands. They are all of the trap formation, like those farther down the gulph.[2] Another traverse of ten miles extends to some islands on the eastern side, within fifteen miles of Cape Barrow. From thence we were favoured with a fine passage on an open sea; but there was a frequent fall of snow, the weather was cold and wintry, and we had some rough sailing during the dark nights. At a rocky cape, where we landed to sup at midnight, I noticed a quantity of phosphorescent substances in the water. We met no natives; and at 6 P.M. on the 3rd of September we safely re-entered the Coppermine River.

The Esquimaux had ventured back during our absence, and carried away everything except their sledge and stone kettles; leaving marks on the hillock, pointing to the seaward islands as the place of their retreat. To evince our friendly disposition, and compensate the loss of their dogs, we left them a copper kettle, two axes, as many ice-trenches, with an assortment of knives, files, hooks, awls, beads, buttons, rings, and a parcel of hoop-iron. This—to them invaluable—gift was secured in a box, on which boats and men were figured with charcoal. Next day the boats were towed up to the Bloody Fall, now diminished to a strong shelving rapid. There, in a deep cleft in the rocks, we secured ten bags of pemican, to meet the exigencies of another season. The masts, yards, rudders, and spare oars were secreted on an island below the fall. No late vestiges of the natives were anywhere discernible, though an eddy at the foot of the fall still swarmed with fish. The few blue berries that grow among the rocks were withered and fallen.

On the morning of the 5th the boats were, by M'Kay's and Sinclair's united skill, successively passed up the fall perfectly light, both crews hauling on ropes formed of the rigging spliced together for the purpose. In the lower part, where the descent was too steep, they made a launch over the rocks. In another place, the boat sheering out, the waves broke copiously into her; and the bowman was on the point of cutting the line, to save the trackers, who, ignorant of their danger, because concealed from view by a projecting point of rocks, would have been jerked into the abyss the instant the boat overset. Her depth of keel, however, prevented a catastrophe which must have happened to any of the flat-bottomed inland bateaux in the same situation. It snowed heavily, and ice an inch thick formed at night in the kettles; but our people worked their way up the rapids with equal spirit and dexterity, and we encamped two miles below the Escape.

In the passage of that dangerous rapid, the following day, Mr. Dease's boat got broken, in consequence of the line snapping, and the bowman losing his presence of mind. The injury was repaired in a few hours, and we made good ten miles. The lurking rock, which had so nearly caused our destruction on the descent, now rose high above the shrunken stream, leaving the narrow, perilous channel that saved us almost dry. At the foot of the long succession of precipices which we shot past with such amazing velocity in June, there was now, in most parts, a narrow bank or ledge exposed by the subsiding of the waters. Where this was not the case, all hands embarked; and, if no bottom could be found with the setting-poles, the boats were drawn up by means of the ice-hooks, fixed in crevices and on sharp points of the rock. In this difficult operation it was necessary actually to graze the cliffs, some fending off the boat's side; otherwise the force of the current must have overpowered our hold, and carried us down backwards. In some of the worst places short portages were made; in others, the boats took in much water; and the strain on the lines was often so great, that the trackers, even on all fours, could scarcely maintain their ground. Where bars and shallows occurred, the boats were poled up in ziz-zag fashion; or the men, getting out in the water, handed them over the obstruction. Numerous fragments of rock kept falling from the face of the cliffs as the towing parties passed under them, and one man narrowly escaped getting his leg fractured; their feet were at the same time much galled by the sharp stones which strewed their difficult path. The preceding description is equally applicable to our journey of the 7th, when we surmounted the strong rapid where we were detained on the 23rd and 24th of June. Nothing but the skill and dexterity of guides long practised, like ours, in all the intricacies of river navigation could have overcome so many obstacles: it is not, therefore, surprising that Dr. Richardson's less experienced crews should have found it necessary to relinquish the attempt, even with the "walnut shell." We felt a positive comfort in encamping once more among standing trees, though ever so diminutive.

We were now above all the bad rapids; the banks became less steep, the current regular, but swift and strong. The water had a fine sea-green colour: it was deep, and so clear, that fish were often seen by the bowmen darting alang the stony bottom. The weather grew mild under the influence of southerly breezes, to which we had long been strangers; and, in the height of the day, the sandflies even became troublesome on the immediate borders of the river. Mr. Dease and myself walked across the country, enjoyed some picturesque views of the Copper Mountains, and had excellent sport among the deer, which were tolerably numerous and in high condition.

The towing party picked up several small pieces of copper and galena washed down by the river, and passed the carcases of a number of deer that had been drowned in the rapids. At 1 in the afternoon of the 9th we reached a well-wooded spot, five or six miles below the junction of Kendall River. This being the nearest point of the Coppermine to Fort Confidence, and at the same time an eligible place for repairing the boats in the ensuing spring, we determined to deposit them here. They were accordingly hauled up into the wood, beyond the reach of the spring inundation. Three bags of pemican, two of flour, and everything else not absolutely required for the land journey, were secured from beasts of prey in a cache of ponderous stones; all that we carried with us scarcely amounting to thirty pounds each man.

On the 10th, striking straight out through thin dead woods, and barrens abounding in small lakes, we fell upon Kendall River at the end of ten miles, about half a league below our spring provision station. It was only knee-deep there, full of large stones, and, like Dease River on the opposite side of the height of land, must be quite unnavigable, except in the month of June. I may take this opportunity of observing, that the actual descent of the former stream, though its course be shorter, appeared to us little inferior to that of the latter. The Coppermine, therefore, in its course of seventy miles from Kendall River to the sea, makes a descent equal to that of the whole of Bear Lake River, itself a rapid stream, together with that of the Mackenzie, below their confluence,—a united distance of between five and six hundred miles. In the evening, as we crossed a desolate valley full of lakes, a cloud of snow geese suddenly poured over the brow of a neighbouring hill, and alighted about the lakes. Deer were scarce; but, having wounded a small one, we were surprised to see the biggest of our Esquimaux dogs, though like the rest of the party they carried bundles on their backs, rush forward and throttle the poor animal as it strove to escape.[3] The night was very cold, and our bivouac was on the side of a barren mountain.

Next day we traversed a range of wild rugged hills of naked rock, to the south branch of Kendall River: then, ascending the valley, we discovered in the evening smoke issuing out of the solitary cluster of pines where I slept on the 4th of April. We marched along the hillsides, and, when within hearing, discharged our guns; upon which several fires were simultaneously kindled. Descending from the heights, we crossed the streamlet, and found a numerous camp of Hare Indian women and children; the men being out a-hunting, or gone to Fort Confidence with meat. These kind people were delighted to see us, and offered us food. The greeting which our two hunters—their relatives—received was boisterously affectionate. The old women closed around them, hugged them over and over again, and, in the transports of their joy, even went the length of abstracting knives and sundry other small articles from their persons—doubtless as memorials of their safe and happy return. The poor fellows themselves seemed rather ashamed of this hubbub in the presence of whites, and looked as if they would gladly have dispensed with the disinterested attentions of the elderly ladies.

We travelled all the succeeding day over bare mountains covered with loose stones; the weather snowy, and bitterly cold. In the evening we descended to the borders of some lakes, where the natives had constructed a deer hedge set with nooses.

On the 13th, seeing large smokes on the north side of Dease River, we made towards them, though a good way out of our course. Falling upon a deep part of the stream, some crossed it on a raft, others found a ford. We lighted fires in conspicuous places, which were answered; and at length we were overtaken by two Indians, who, with as many others, carrying a bag of pemican, had been considerately despatched by Ritch to meet us. Fortunately we did not stand in need of their assistance; and, proceeding on, we encamped at Chollah Lake, which is three miles long, and contains some pretty islands.

On the 14th we traversed a woody tract to the north of Dease River; and came in view of Great Bear Lake at noon, from Cranberry Hill, six miles distant from the establishment. Throwing ourselves down, we regaled freely on the acid fruit, which grew profusely among the rocks; then, setting out at a quick pace, in two hours more we arrived at Fort Confidence.


  1. The prevailing surface rock was a conglomerate, while the sides of the ravines hollowed out by brooks were of red sandstone.
  2. Being unable to weather the outermost island, which is large and lofty, we ran round its south end, and called it Chapman Island, after one of the Company's Directors.
  3. These dogs, contrary to our expectation, proved very inferior in the sledge to our own European breed; their size being considerably smaller, after due allowance for their bushy coats and the shortness of their leg unfitting them for making their way through deep snow.