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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 XVI

< 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


Wintry return to Fort Confidence.—Passage of Great Bear Lake, and ascent of the Mackenzie.—Arrival at Fort Simpson, and journey on the snow from thence to Red River.

Ascending to the Bloody Fall on the evening of the 16th of September, the first thing we saw was a long pole, to which was attached the pair of boots promised by the "Dancer," as we called him, to Mr. Dease in June. Though he and all his friends had already taken their departure, the Dancer will be no loser by this extraordinary trait of good-faith. At the Bloody Fall we left one of our sweet little craft, the sails, masts, ironworks, some dressed leather, skins, old nets, and oilcloths, besides the surplus of our pemican,[1] which, from age and long exposure to sea-damp, was become very mouldy. The whole was securely covered up, and will prove a valuable acquisition to the poor natives, who are not likely soon again to see the face of a white man. With the strength and dexterity of our double crew the remaining boat was worked expeditiously up the stream. Escape Rapid was passed, and the first little withered trees attained on the 17th. It was completely winter. Snow continued falling and driving before the wind; the frost was severe and permanent. From the ledges of the cliffs hung enormous clusters of icicles; and the tracking-ground became doubly dangerous, the rocks being in many places sheeted with ice. Poor Ooligbuck nearly lost his life, in consequence of becoming giddy while climbing a steep place which the rest of the party had surmounted. Fortunately he retained presence of mind enough to cast himself flat on the point of a rock and bellow for assistance. The alarm being given, two or three of his companions hurried back, and hauled him up with a rope. Our Hare Indians were nearly as bad crag-climbers, and were of very little service in this part of the journey. The river was considerably higher than in the preceding September; and the power of the water so great, that the towing-line, formed of the spliced rigging, twice snapped asunder. To Mr. Dease and myself, who walked across the country, each in his own direction, the severe weather was rather advantageous than otherwise, as the swamps were frozen, and the snow on the hills was not yet sufficiently deep to impede our progress much.

The day we left the Bloody Fall, while still together, we gave chase to a huge grizzly bear, that terror of the Indians. Bruin, with his shuffling gait, proved too nimble for us, and four shots were fired after him without effect. We followed up his track for some distance, thinking he was wounded, but in vain: his footprints in the snow measured fifteen inches by six! The monster had been amusing himself with digging up marmots and lemmings; the deep forrows in the frozen ground, and the large stones removed, bearing witness to his prodigious strength.

All the birds of passage had fled; the only species that remained being ravens, owlets, snow buntlings, and partridges, now white. There were few deer near the coast; but among the Copper Mountains, which I crossed on the 20th, the bucks and does were congregating in great numbers. That evening we reached the point where our over-land journey to Great Bear Lake was to commence. Here our remaining boat, our tents, powder, ice-trenches, in short, everything but books, instruments, and absolute necessaries, were shared between our two faithful Hare Indians, Larocque and Maccaconce, who were to return to the spot with their friends at some future day for this valuable present.

The fore-part of the 21st was employed in preparing for the journey across the barren grounds. Every man provided himself with a lump of pemican proportioned to his appetite; and, after bidding a last adieu to the Coppermine, and our forlorn and deserted little bark, we set out for Kendall River. Stopping on the way to quench our thirst at a brook, we were surprised, on breaking the ice, to see a swarm of small fish dart past, which from their shape and colour we concluded to be the fry of the Arctic salmon. Though piercingly cold, we set to work amongst the stones, and in a short time caught a sufficient number with our hands (Scotticè gumped) to furnish us with a luxurious supper. Our fire that night, on the south bank of Kendall River, attracted to us six young Indians, whom Ritch had despatched a week before to bring us news of the arrival, on the 8th, of the fall-boat from Mackenzie River. Their assistance was most acceptable to our people, as the snow lay deep on our line of march.

On the 22nd and 23rd we bivouacked on the south branches of Kendall and Dease Bivers, in the only two clumps of pine on the route. The snow continued falling, and it drove before the biting north and west winds; and often, when we were plunging over the knees in mountain hollows, or amongst the rocks, vain regrets were muttered at having left our snow-shoes on the coast. We, however, trudged on stoutly, crossed many small lakes on the ice, and were glad to find much less snow on the Bear Lake side of the height of land.

On the 24th we breakfasted at the somewhat early hour of 3 A.M., being resolved to reach the establishment by a forced march. On the way we picked up several more Indians, who proved a hinderance to us, as some were suffering from having had their feet frost-bitten before they joined us. This was a most bitter day of wind and frost on the bare hill-sides. At noon we gained the shelter of the woods that fringe Dease River, near the "Old Man of Hoy." There we made a fire to thaw and dry our shoes, and wait for stragglers. Then, directing our course for the lower rapid, we found a boat lying ready for us, into which the whole party—now numbering twenty-eight souls—embarked; and in the teeth of a strong north-west gale, with blinding snow, and a temperature of 14° we reached at dusk the friendly shelter of Fort Confidence.

Its solitary inmates rejoiced at our return; and for once we learned, without apprehension, that the £all fisheries were a total failure. I despair of conveying an idea of the scene enacted by the natives during the two following days, which were occupied in settling with them, and packing up our own goods. They hurried in from all quarters; and, as everybody wanted everything, the distribution of our commodities was rather a difficult problem. As for the clamour of young and old, Bedlam itself cannot match the ordeal we underwent. Ritch having already recompensed the Indians for all services rendered during the summer, the supplies we were now enabled to dispense were mostly gratuitous. Our spare guns, kettles, ironwork, dogs, and sledges were given to the most deserving: all were furnished with ammunition for hunting their way to the regular trading-posts on the Mackenzie; our old clothes graced the persons of our young fellow-travellers; and last, not least, the whole assemblage was abundantly fed.

In the afternoon of the 26th this noisy scene was brought to a close, and we took a last leave of Fort Confidence. Larocque and Maccaconce, some of the old men, and the youths who had been most about us, appeared affected as we shook hands with them; but all the rest were too busily engaged in rifling our forlorn abode to notice our departure. Even before finally quitting the house, the parchment windows were cut out by the women and children; the legs of the few miserable chairs and tables were torn off; and, by the time we were out of sight, I verily believe that not a single nail remained undrawn, or a scrap of any sort unappropriated, on the premises.

Including four servants and three Indians from Mackenzie River, our party numbered twenty-six souls, besides twenty dogs. The Goliah and the Fort Simpson boat carried us all. Our passage across Great Bear Lake was cold and boisterous in the extreme. For four whole days we were unable to shew our faces to the wintry storms; and in crossing the wide traverses of the lake we took in much water, which, freezing as it fell, converted the sails, oars, cordage, the boats themselves, and everything in them, into shapeless masses of ice. But so happy were all at the prospect of quitting this dismal region, that the present hardships were borne with the utmost good-humour. We even found subject for mirth in the mishaps of those whom the rude waves splashed over, converting their outer garments into unseemly humps and concretions of ice. Some, who lay down in this condition against the sides of the boats, got firmly frozen to the planks; and a wag remarked to his comrades, "It's all up with us, boys! don't you see we are fast already?" Our canine companions too were transformed into the most grotesque objects. In the body of the lake, betwixt Cape M'Donell and the Scented-grass Mountain, white partridges lay dead upon the waves, having been drowned in attempting to cross over in the stormy weather.

The bay of Fort Franklin was much encumbered with ice as we crossed it to the river-head on the evening of the 4th of October. It was, indeed, high time for us to escape from Great Bear Lake; for the temperature, which was —4° when we encamped, fell ten degrees lower in the course of the night, and the vast lake shut its portals behind us. We descended Bear Lake River amongst thick driving ice; but on reaching the Mackenzie, on the morning of the 6th, were rejoiced to find its majestic stream still clear, though lined with ice and snow. There was, in fact, a sensible diminution of the cold immediately on issuing from the northern tributary.

Nearly the whole of the following day was spent at Fort Norman in thawing the boats with fire, by which process we relieved them of at least a ton of ice. The baggage was at the same time dried, and various articles left behind, to lighten the boats as much as possible; since the very early and rigorous commencement of the winter threatened serious obstructions on the voyage to Fort Simpson, still before us. Mr. M'Beath had been unusually successful with his garden, and treated us to some tolerable potatoes, the first vegetables we had tasted for more than two years.

After three days' tracking the weather resumed all its severity, accompanied, fortunately for us, by violent northerly winds, which, while they shattered and dispersed the rapidly forming ice, enabled us to stem the current under close-reefed sails. The boats once more became uncouth masses of ice, and nearly all our people suffered from acute pains and swellings in the limbs, caused by the excessive cold. We saw a good many Indians, who supplied us with some fresh moose meat, of which they appeared to have an ample store.

At noon of the 14th, after forcing bur way, at no small risk, through the torrent of ice poured out by the River of the Mountains, we reached Fort Simpson, to the surprise and joy of our valuable friend Chief Trader M'Pherson, who had for some time abandoned all hopes of our arrival this year.

The ice continued driving down the River of the Mountains till the 3rd of November, when it finally stopped; and, nineteen days later, the broad surface of the Mackenzie itself became one solid rugged mass, the temperature at the time being below —20°. Mr. M'Pherson informed me that the coldest winter-winds felt at Fort Simpson are the south-eastern, being those which blow over the frozen expanse of Great Slave Lake; while the westerly, which descend from the Rocky Mountains, sometimes produce a thaw! The variation of the compass I found had decreased from 37° 10′ in June 1837, to 35° 15′ in October 1839.

The winter subsistence of the few people who are enabled to remain at this establishment consists almost wholly of fish, brought down in boats from Great Slave Lake by the last open water. Mr. M'Pherson had, indeed, succeeded this season in raising five hundred bushels of potatoes; but these, and other vegetables, are considered by the voyageurs and their families throughout the country as merely extra to the almost incredible rations of fish and flesh which they consume. Our evening recreations at Fort Simpson were chiefly musical; and, as Mr. Mcpherson's cook excelled on that martial but decried instrument the bagpipes, the people were frequently entertained with a dance in the hall. My own time was fully occupied in completing the calculations, and drawing the map of our eastern discoveries.

Winter travelling with dogs being impracticable through the dense and fallen woods which cover the face of the country, I was obliged to wait till the river-ice was considered safe, and sufficiently covered with snow.

On Monday the 2nd of December I took leave of my kind friends, and set out for Great Slave Lake with a party of ten men, partly belonging to the expedition, partly to Fort Simpson. We found the ice terribly rough, tossed up like the waves of the sea; proving the struggle made by the mighty stream against the all-conquering power of the frost. It often required a couple of men, walking ahead with axes, to hew a way for their companions and the dog-sledges; and on one occasion we had to mount the steep bank of the river, and cut a lane through the woods. Some of my men lagged very much, through fatigue; but on the eighth morning the whole party, with one exception, reached "Big Island," which divides into two huge arms the waters of Great Slave Lake as thej pour into the Mackenzie.

Here I found Mr. Mowat, with about twenty men,—all the spare hands of Mackenzie River district,—fishing for their subsistence; also several Indian families, living in the same manner. I had brought with me several nets and other necessaries for this party, which was now increased by several of my men. With the rest I crossed Great Slave Lake, which was nearly as rugged as the Mackenzie itself; rendering it necessary to steer straight out from each encampment, and not approach land again till the evening. I generally roused my companions at 2 A. M., and in about an hour we had our fire kindled, breakfast despatched, and commenced our day's journey; which continued till after sunset, without any other interruption than stopping to drink at cracks in the ice.

From Fort Resolution, which we reached at noon on the 13th, I sent back the expedition men and dogs; with instructions to employ the month of January in making caches of fish from Big Island, at daily stages, down the Mackenzie; and about the 1st of February to repair to Fort Simpson, for the purpose of conveying Mr. Dease and family from thence to Athabasca, I retained with myself our two steersmen, M'Kay and Sinclair, in order that the poor fellows might have the earliest opportunity of rejoining their families at Red River. A cariole and dogs, the valued gift of my friend and relative Mr. M'Pherson, materially lightened my own fatigue: for when the road was good I rode; when bad, I put on my snow-shoes.

Starting again on the 28th, and travelling with great rapidity, I entered the romantic Clearwater River on the 1st of January, crossed the lofty ridge of Portage la Loche on the 3rd, and in the dead of night on the 5th, after a day of seventy miles with two of my companions, reached Isle a la Crosse. My worthy friend Mr. Mackenzie was astonished to learn that I had accomplished in nine days a journey never before performed under eleven or twelve, and more frequently occupying fifteen or eighteen. Our reception, as usual, was most hospitable; and the fatigue of my party, the rear-guard of whom arrived the following evening, did not prevent their enjoying a ball and tea-supper.

Quitting Isle à la Crosse on the 8th, I travelled to Carlton with a party which is annually sent across to the Saskatchewan to fetch grease for making pemican. We reached Green Lake on the second day; and in two days more, immediately on emerging into the plain country, fell in with buffaloes. To a stranger, the buffalo bull, with his large hump, fierce aspect, and long beard that almost sweeps the ground, would, I think, appear the most formidable animal in America, even more so than the panther or grizzly bear.

On the 13th, after losing our way long before daylight, and finding it again by the compass, we arrived at Carlton, where I remained till the 15th. The buffaloes were so numerous about this place, that I found Mr. Small removing his haystacks to the fort, to save them from being entirely devoured. In the vicinity were three camps of Assiniboines, whom that gentleman seemed to consider disagreeable and dangerous neighbours. Each camp had its buffalo pound, into which they drove forty or fifty animals daily; and I afterwards learned that, in other places, these pounds were actually formed of piled-up carcases! As might be supposed, the stores of Carlton were groaning with meat, and the very dogs were fed on beef-steaks.

At Red River the buffaloes are now seldom taken in pounds. In the summer and fall, large parties of the half-breed hunters, all mounted on their small Indian horses, which are well broke in to this sport, scatter themselves over the plains, camping generally in the open air, or in leather lodges, and under their provision carts. As soon as the buffaloes are perceived, the young men gallop after them, and either partially surround them on the plain, or endeavour to drive them into some little valley, or neck of land projecting into a lake, where escape is difficult. A running fire then opens all along the line. The hunters reload their guns while their horses are in full career; the bullets are carried in the mouth, and dropped into the barrel without any wadding; their small whips are attached by a band to the right wrist; the sagacious horse of his own accord follows the animal his master has singled out, and brings him alongside, like a war-ship laying herself by the enemy. In this way many buffaloes in succession are shot by the same hunter, and hundreds fall in a single race. No sight can be livelier than a camp of successful hunters. They generally pitch in some clump or point of woods; the provision carts form the outer circle, to which the horses are tied; fires blaze in every direction; the men smoke their pipes, or arrange their fire-arms; while the women are employed in cooking. Everywhere you hear the laugh and the jest, and the repasts are sumptuous. While the men hunt, the females are occupied in drying the spare meat, or converting it into pemican. This now far-famed provender of the wilderness is formed by pounding the choice parts of the meat very small, putting it into bags made of the skin of the slain animal, into which a proportion[2] of melted fet is then poured; and the whole being strongly compressed, and sewed up, constitutes the best and most portable article of provision for the voyageur, and one which with proper care will keep for a long period.

In the winter season this sport assumes a more various character. When the snow is not deep, the buffaloes may be run on horseback, as in the summer; indeed, if numerous, they beat such a track with their broad hoofs that they are easily pursued: at other times they are approached by the hunter "crawling" on the snow. He walks cautiously up to within a certain distance, far enough not to alarm the herd; then prostrates himself on the snow; drags himself along on his belly, with his gun trailing after him; and in this manner frequently proceeds a long way before he can get within reach, when the buffaloes are shy. When fatigued with this laborious and unnatural motion, he stops to draw breath, and throws up a little heap of snow before him, to screen him from his prey; and some are said to be so dexterous in this mode of approach as actually to drive aside with their guns the old bulls, who form the outer guard of the band, in order to select the choicest of the cows. As a disguise, a close dun-coloured cap, furnished with upright ears, is often worn by the experienced hunter, to give him the appearance of a wolf; for, from constant association, that ravenous beast is regarded by the buffalo without dread. In the spring of the year, when there is a hard crust on the snow, produced by alternate thaw and frost the buffaloes are frequently run down by the hunters, and stabbed with their daggers, while floundering in the deep drifts, which yield to their weight, but support their pursuers, who wear snow-shoes; and in this way, which is the easiest and safest of all, the unfortunate animals fall a prey even to women and boys. Among the Assiniboines, and other Plain tribes, who lead this unlaborious and almost enviable life, the bow is still more used than the gun; and it is to this circumstance that the preservation of the whites in the trading-posts on the banks of the Saskatchewan and Missouri is mainly owing.

In the New York Albion of the 23rd November, 1839, I fell in with an admirable article on the colonization of New Zealand; the following extract from which presents, I fear, too true a picture of savage life. "We are not aware of any authentic instance of a tribe of savage fishen or hunters becoming settled and agricultural, even by any pressure from without, much less from their own unaided efforts. So far from adopting civilized habits, the experience of America and New Holland has shewn that the savage hovers on the advancing frontier of civilization, till he finally disappears along with the game which afforded him support. There appears to be something in the unsettled life of a hunter which produces a change in the bodily organisation, gradualiy unfitting the individual, and perhaps ultimately the race, from being brought under the influence of a sedentary life. Those Europeans who have lived among the Indians of America for some years can seldom be reconciled to a steady and uniform course of life; and in Indians themselves the tendency becomes hereditary and almost incurable. Hence even the Indian child, when brought up in a populous city, and educated in the arts and religion of civilized men, often betrays his dislike to a settled life, and endeavours by all means to rejoin his wild countrymen of the woods."

For six days beyond Carlton we travelled amongst the buffaloes, which covered the open country in myriads. Our dogs, habituated to the sight, shewed no inclination to pursue them, and we ourselves had little time to spare for hunting. On one occasion, when we were benighted in the plains near Quill Lake, we took up our quarters in a willow-bush, evacuated the moment before by an old bull and his followers, whose lair served us for an encampment. There are few sounds more melancholy than the nightly howling of the troops of wolves that attend the motions of the buffalo. The mind is oppressed, as it were, with a feeling of intense loneliness. The only Indians we met on this part of our route were a small party of Plain Crees, and two or three Saulteaux.

In the afternoon of the 22nd we reached Fort Pelly, where we were very kindly welcomed by Dr. Todd, and where we remained the following day. The weather was very cold, the thermometer being at —37°; the snow grew deeper as we advanced, and the encampments were open and bad.

I passed this time by way of Qu'appelle, instead of Manitobah, and halted on the 27th at a post called "Beaver Creek," though the beavers have long since disappeared. Arriving there late in the evening, I found that I had only missed, by an hour or two, a famous Plain chief called "The Man who holds the Knife," with his large and troublesome gang, who in all probability would have dogged my little party had they known of our approach. We passed far to the southward of our old landmarks the Duck and Dauphin Mountains, which overlook, on this side, a varied landscape of wood and plain; crossed the southern arm of Manitobah Lake, fifteen miles wide, in a perfect tempest; and were next day met by an old Saulteaux acquaintance, "Terre Grasse,"" returning comfortably drunk from this settlement, with his wife and party, whose appearance struck me as squalid, and inferior to that of the tribes more remote from civilization.

On the 2nd of February I was welcomed at the White Horse Plain with unbounded hospitality by Mr. Cuthbert Grant, Warden of the Plains; and, on proceeding to Fort Garry, received the hearty congratulations of my excellent friends Chief Factors Finlayson and Ross, the former of whom had lately succeeded Mr. Christie as Governor of Red River.

  1. Total consumption on this voyage:
    15 ½ bags of pemican.
    4 ½ ditto of flour.
    1 ditto of grease.
    21 pieces, or 6 per month.
  2. 50lbs. pounded meat, and 40lbs. grease, make a bag of pemican.