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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 XIV

< 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


Second Descent of the Coppermine.—Interviews with Esquimaux.—Passage of Coronation Gulph, and arrival on new ground.

Our excellent assistant Ritch was left this summer, as usual, in charge of Fort Confidence, assisted by Felix and Morrison, two men specially selected for this important duty, on account of their steady, industrious habits.

On the 15th of June the remainder of the party set out on foot for the Coppermine River. The journey was pleasant enough; for, except a little snow one day, and plenty of rain another, we enjoyed fine weather, besides a pic-nic party regularly every morning and evening. We crossed mountains, swamps, streams, and frozen lakes; shot two or three deer, and—ate them; and, finding the rapid Kendall flooded, passed over on a raft, and on the 19th had the happiness to find the three men left in charge of our boats and baggage safe and well. They informed us that the ice had ceased driving down the Coppermine on the 16th, ten days earlier than last year; and, being sensible of an equal difference in the progress of vegetation, mutual felicitations passed on the brightness of our present prospects. The next two days being very bad and boisterous, all we could do was to get the boats ready, and settle other arrangements. Our crews having undergone several changes, it may be as well here to name them over again.

1. James M'Kay, Steersman.
2. George Sinclair, Ditto.
3. Laurent Cartier, Bowman.
4. James Hope, Ditto.
5. Ooligbuck (Esquimaux Interpreter), Middleman.
6. George Flett, Ditto.
7. Charles Begg, Ditto.
8. William McDonald, Ditto.
9. John M'Key, Ditto.
10. John Norquay, Ditto.
11. Larocque, Hare Indians.
12. Maccaconce,

On the 22nd we ran down to the Bloody Fall, without stopping to make a single portage; making, in fact, light of the rapids, which the falling of the river rendered much less formidable than on the same day of the previous year, though some of them did not fail to initiate our new hands, by pouring a few harmless waves into the boats. The descent occupied nearly eleven hours, the windings of the river greatly increasing the actual distance. Our deposit of provisions in the cleft of the rock was untouched by man or beast; but slightly affected by damp, though not nearly to the extent—one half—for which, in arranging our commissariat, we had made allowance. The rudders, masts, &c. were found safe on the islet below.

The sea-ice being still perfectly solid, it was resolved to remain a few days at the Bloody Fall, to afford me an opportunity of exploring Richardson River, discovered and named by us in 1838; this indeed was our chief reason for descending the Coppermine so early.

On Monday, the 24th, I set out with the Esquimaux interpreter and four others, and fell upon the river at the end of seven miles in a west-north-west direction. Some stout willows grow upon its banks, but it is totally destitute of wood. The masses of drift ice and deep furrows in the mud shewed that there had been an inundation of not less than thirty feet perpendicular at the recent breaking up; but since then its waters had fallen with great rapidity, and were still very muddy. From thence to the bottom of Back's Inlet, into which, as I rightly conjectured last year, the Richardson falls, is a distance of only eight miles. We came in view of the inlet from the top of a range of rocks; and at the same moment perceived at some distance three tents of Esquimaux, two on the opposite side of the river, the third upon an island in the stream. Causing the rest of the party to conceal themselves among the rocks, I sent Ooligbuck forward alone, to inform the strangers of our visit, and allay their fears.[1] From our hiding-place we watched his proceedings with interest. No sooner was he seen by the people across the river than they fled towards the hills, scarcely taking time to throw down their tents, the usual signal of alarm. Equal bad fortune seemed likely to ensue at the island, the women and children running away to its farther end, whence one or two canoes stole over to the opposite side. Soon after we observed two men stop, hesitate, and at last advance to the nearest point of the island; from all which we knew that Ooligbuck had succeeded in making his sonorous voice heard across the water. I immediately proceeded with the party to the sea, only half a mile below the tents; and we made our bivouac close to the fixed ice, where we were soon joined by Ooligbuck and his new friends. They were three in number: an elderly man, named Awallook, who went on crutches from a dislocated joint; a fine young lad, his son; and a very stout man, about six feet high, with brown beard, and a countenance that would have been noble, were it not disfigured by a hideous wen on the temple. Notwithstanding Ooligbuck's assurances, they approached us with fear and trembling; and the first words they uttered were, "We are afraid." We caused them to sit down, and made them what little presents we could spare, and offered them some of our own fare—pemican—which they tasted, but immediately rejected as disagreeable to their palates; though they told us, at the same time, that they were badly off for food. Though the evening was very cold, they declined drawing close to our fire of drift wood; it would, indeed, have been contrary to their habits, for, from custom or necessity, these eastern Esquimaux never seem to think of fire as a means of imparting warmth. If these poor people were not far more industrious, provident, and ingenious than the Indian tribes of the interior, they could not exist in their bleak and barren country. The information they could give us regarding the coast and inland country amounted to little or nothing; the limits of their annual journeys being Berens' Isles, where they always pass the winter seal-hunting, and the banks of Richardson River, to which they resort every summer to kill reindeer. When asked if their river did not, like the Coppermine, abound in fish, they said they had no nets, and indeed appeared poor enough; yet, for each article we gave them, they immediately offered something in return, which was generally declined.

On being questioned, Awallook told us that he had heard there were Esquimaux far west who wore labrets, but that he had never seen any himself; that he had never heard of Great Bear Lake; that none of his tribe had been killed by Indians in his time, but that he had been told by his father of the massacre at the Bloody Fall. He soon remarked, from their darker complexions, that two of my companions, Hope and Larocque, were Indians; and the slender, agile figure of the latter was strikingly contrasted with the square, rugged forms of these natives of the sea. It seemed as if, on the northern confines of a new continent, I had together before me descendants of the nomadic Tartar and the sea-roving Scandinavian, two of the most dissimilar and widely separate races of the ancient world. A goose happening to fly past, I thoughtlessly fired, and the bird fell splash into the river; at the same moment that the Esquimaux—the two younger ones at least—tumbled over on their backs, startled at the strange and terrible phenomenon. Ooligbuck informed me that the dialect of these people differs considerably from his own (the Churchill); and that, though he understood them well enough, they had much difficulty in comprehending him, partly, I think, owing to their fears. He readily obtained permission to go and pass the night with his friends on the island, and enjoy Esquimaux hospitality. Old Awallook, it appeared, had two wives; but the young man's wife and three children were among the runaways. A score of persons flying at the sight of a single man, though a broad river flowed between, gives a most contemptible idea of their courage. The mouth of Richardson River was ascertained by observation to be in lat. 67° 53′ 57″ N., long. 115° 56′ W., variation 52° 10′ E.

Next day, on being rejoined by the Esquimaux, we walked up the river together; and, as we arrived opposite the lodge, two more men came in sight, paddling down the stream. Upon my sending one of their countrymen out to them, they ventured ashore,—a middle-aged man, and a fine frank young fellow, his nephew. The uncle proved quite a jolly character; and on Larocque's giving them a specimen of the Hare Indian dance, to set them a-going, he alone could be prevailed on to return the courtesy. In the course of the day I despatched these new-comers to the Bloody Fall with Ooligbuck, the others being still too apprehensive to undertake the visit. Mr. Dease afterwards told me, that, though received with the greatest kindness, they for some time felt uneasy among so many strangers. He took them into his tent, and gave them food to eat. A small piece was first broken off, as a sacrifice or oblation; and the remainder made the circuit of their faces before passing into their mouths. The senior took Mr. Dease's measure for a pair of boots, in a manner that would not disparage a son of Crispin; and promised to be at the mouth of the Coppermine in the fall, to deliver them personally. Maccaconce was never so proud in his life as when the young Esquimaux consented to sleep side by side with him in the same tent. My own Indian companion, Larocque, had already made strict friendship with old Awallook's son; and thus, as far as lay in our power, was the Company's desire of promoting peace and amity between the rival races accomplished.

There being now four kayaks disposable, for these people have no oomiaks or family canoes, we lashed them together two and two, and, infinitely to the delight and amusement of the party, paddled ourselves across the stream in true Esquimaux style to visit the lodge on the island. We found in it Awallook's two wives, so terrified that they dared not look up, but uttered, as we entered, some piteous words, meaning "Have mercy, have mercy on us!!" Their deerskin tent was so small that a man could barely sit upright. Their effects were all tied up, ready for flight; and one or two little children, stowed in behind the packages, disclosed their hiding-place by crying and sobbing. After presenting the ladies with some bright buttons cut off our clothes, and patting their fine dogs, which were far handsomer than themselves, we recrossed the river. Before taking leave of these timid people, I may remark that the men were quite equal to Europeans in stature, broad-chested and full-fleshed. They were comfortably dressed in deerskins, the upper garment terminating in a tail, which in one instance closely resembled in shape that of an English dress-coat! the others were rounded off at the lower corners. Narrow strips of deerskin bound their short black hair, and they had no tonsure. They were very curious to know what strange animals produced our various coloured clothing, and seemed much interested when I desired Ooligbuck to explain to them that they were partly made of the hair of an animal, much smaller than the reindeer, spun into thread and then wove, and partly of a kind of long grass manufactured in the same manner.

We then reascended the Richardson, which, at a short distance beyond where we first fell upon it, turns away westward, flowing in a wide channel, with an almost imperceptible current, through a long plain bordered on either hand by a range of rocky Mils, that slope gradually from the north, and shew an abrupt front to the south,—the general character of both mainland and highland elevations along this coast. The clayey plain and banks of the river are gashed by numerous ravines, serving as so many ducts to swell the inundation when the snow dissolves on the mountains, and were at this time so miry, that, in crossing them, we often sank over the knees in the tenacious mud.

On the 26th I continued the ascent of the river, till it separated into two branches; the principal one, as far as it could be traced, maintaining its westerly direction between the opposed lines of hills, which, at the distance of twenty or thirty miles, seemed to clasp each other, and from that junction the tranquil stream must change into a mountain torrent. Then retracing our steps in a direct line to the boats, and indulging by the way in a few "flying shots" at deer, we reached the Bloody Fall in the course of the night.

The following day was spent by the whole party in the unwonted amusement of angling. The setting-poles were converted into ponderous fishing-rods, and with hooks baited with pieces of fat meat, or fish, we succeeded in taking several Arctic or Hearne's salmon in the boiling eddies at the foot of the fall. This surprised me, for I had hardly ever heard, whilst pursuing this favourite sport at home, of the common salmon being captured with bait, except when out of season.

On the 28th we descended to the island lying just without the mouth of the Coppermine, where we halted until the 3rd of July, when the first slight opening in the ice took place. A single net, set in a narrow channel that a man might almost wade across, furnished more salmon than the whole party could consume. None of these fish exceeded twelve or fifteen pounds in weight, and the largest measured exactly three feet from the snout to the tip of the tail. They seemed to me not at all inferior in flavour to the salmon of our Scottish waters.

Ooligbuck and Sinclair went to the river to the eastward, where the latter saw Esquimaux last year. On the banks of a lake some distance beyond it they found eight tents, containing sixteen men, and about sixty persons in all; most of whom took to their heels at first, but by-and-by returned, and received our two men kindly, though they did not allow them to enter their tents. Among them was the family seen by Mr. Dease at the mouth of the Coppermine the year before, and who, as we already knew, had carried away the rich present left for them on our return from the sea.[2] This camp had passed the winter seal-hunting, on a groupe of islands within view of the coast, and were now bound on their annual inland rounds. They seemed rather better off than Awallook's smaller party; but our dull interpreter could add nothing to our own surmises regarding their mode of life, and the extent of their peregrinations. We had, in fact, accurately guessed the whole little circle of their lives.

Emerging from the Coppermine on the 3rd of July, our first day's progress was only five miles, the first week's but twenty, and it was the 18th before we could attain Cape Barrow. Just as we had effected a landing through the ice, an enormous mass of rock fell, with a loud crash, from one of the opposite islands, several miles distant. I seized upon this otherwise trivial incident as a happy omen to rally the spirits of our Indian companions, which were depressed by an evil dream that had visited one of them. He saw, in his virion, flames issuing from the mouth of a rude monumental figure of stones, erected by our people at a place where the ice detained us several days, and consuming himself with the rest of the party. When the cliff broke down, "Hark," I exclaimed, "the demon that troubled you has fallen!" After this we heard no more about him. It would have been in vain to attempt reasoning down their superstitious belief in dreams. Even the white men of our crews believed in ghosts, witchcraft, second-sight, and other similar absurdities; and nothing would induce our steersman M'Kay, though otherwise a bold fellow, to pass a single night alone.

From the rugged heights of Cape Barrow we beheld, with equal astonishment and delight, the wide extent of Coronation Gulph partially open, whereas long after this period the year before the whole party might have crossed it on foot! Besides the inferior severity of the preceding winter, the present summer was considerably warmer than that of 1838, which satisfactorily accounts for the wonderful difference in the state of the ice. The only drawback to our enjoyment of this improved aspect of affairs was the swarms of musquitoes that arose wherever we landed, even from the stony beaches and naked rocks; but the gales and cold nights soon delivered us from this shortlived nuisance. As to the natives, their caches of blubber, sledges, &c. occupied the very same situations as last year; but they themselves had all passed inland for the summer reindeer hunt. As nearly as we could reckon, the whole population from Richardson River to Cape Barrow may comprehend about fifty tents, containing from three to four hundred souls, of whom not more than one-fourth were seen by us, as already related. I obtained satisfactory observations at Cape Barrow for the dip of the needle, which proved to be 87° 13′ N.

With the benefit of strong winds, and the facilities afforded by the extensive groupe of Wilmot Islands for evading the principal streams of ice, we safely traversed the broad inlet, and on the 20th supped at Boathaven, the place of our former weary detention. The wind here blowing very fresh off the land, we ran up to Cape Franklin, which we reached soon after midnight, just one month earlier than my arrival at the same spot with my pedestrian party in 1838; and instead of the grand strait between the continent and Victoria Land being covered with an unbroken sheet of ice, as it then was, we now found an open channel, nearly two miles wide, extending along the main shore. The slopes and plains too wore a greener and more cheerful aspect, and the ground was comparatively dry. Besides mosses and dwarf carices, were to be seen flowers of various hues, wild sorrel, and an abundance of the Labrador tea-plant (ledum palustre), of very diminutive growth, but at this time covered with fragrant white blossoms. These yield a beverage less bitter and of a more delicate flavour than the plant itself.

For the next four days our progress was arrested by a violent easterly gale, which filled our tents and food with drift sand; but we had the gratification of witnessing the tail of a large body of ice arrive nearly abreast of our encampment, leaving before us a glorious expanse of water, now covered with foam.

On the 26th we again encountered the ice at Point Edwards, and encamped the same evening at Cape Alexander, alongside of much heavier masses than any we had yet seen, which in the rapid tideway had nearly crushed the boats against the rocks. In 1838, a month later, we found the strait of Victoria Land blocked up, and the sea to the eastward open; the case was now reversed. It was, however, no little satisfaction to us to observe once more two regular daily tides. It was high-water to-day at noon; the flood came from the westward, but did not exceed two feet; and it was the day of full moon. The hours of the tide at Cape Alexander throughout the year, therefore, correspond with those at Point Barrow, fifty degrees of longitude to the westward. The soundings in the strait near the land had augmented from four fathoms at Cape Franklin to eighteen at Cape Alexander. The water was thoroughly salt and beautifully clear, the bottom consisting of sand or stones. Its temperature four feet below the surface was 35° while that of the air at midday was 56°. As a substitute for drift wood, of which I well knew from last year's experience that we were no longer to expect any, we now began to use dry seaweed and dwarf willows, which, while the weather continued temperate, answered sufficiently well. The dip of the needle at Cape Alexander was 88° 15′, shewing a great stride towards the magnetic pole.

On the 27th we advanced four or five miles, in imminent peril of being carried away by the driving ice; and it was noon of the following day before we were able, by the aid of the tide, to get round Trap Cape, when we found a lane of water leading along the shore to the extreme point of my progress the previous year. The top of the cairn erected there had fallen, having been built of round stones: but we only stopped to get sights for the watch, and to raise our portable canoe out of the sand; which done, we once more entered upon ground never yet trodden by civilized man. Since Point Turnagain, the only indications of man we had observed were some graves, with arrows and other implements. As for our deer and seal hunts, and other exploits of "venerie," I shall pass them over entirely, as they were now become mere matters of course, while our whole thoughts were bent upon subjects of far higher interest. The only fact in natural history worth recording was, that the large white-backed ducks, of which we had seen none eastward of the Coppermine in 1838, this season extended their range to Cape Alexander; probably because they now found what was then wanting—an edging of open water betwixt the ice and shore, which it is their delight to skim along.

  1. He changed his long gun with a comrade for a very short one, which, in a leather cover, would, he said, look like a bow, and be less apt to attract suspicion.
  2. Indeed the man acknowledged having returned with three others after his flight, and reconnoitred our encampment in the night, but was scared by seeing some one sitting at the fire.