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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Mackenzie of Canada
Mark S. Wade

published by
William Blackwood & Sons Ltd.
Edinburgh and London 1927

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 4

 p32  Chapter III

The Exploration of the Mackenzie River

At nine o'clock on the morning of July 14th, 1789, while the Parisians, vociferating the cry "to the Bastille," were hastening, frenzied with conflicting passions and emotions, to batter down the gates of that hated fortress and raze its walls to the ground, Alexander Mackenzie gazed upon a far different scene — a school of whales disporting in the waters of the Arctic Ocean, for he had achieved an objective he had determined upon, the exploration of the great river of the north.

From west of the Rocky Mountains, carried in the first instance by the natives, there had come to the ears of the fur‑traders rumours of a land beyond that opposing barrier, a land of promise; not flowing with milk and honey perhaps, but rich in beaver and other fur‑bearing animals. Other reports had also reached them from England of the maritime fur‑traders, of the voyages of Captain James Cook and other explorers by sea. Their interest was excited and their appetite for adventure whetted by these rumours and reports. A few of the fur‑traders were endowed with rather a passion for adventure and exploration than the more prosaic bartering for furs, and more than one of them longed to penetrate that frowning rampart of snowclad peaks, to see for themselves what lay at the other side — a wild virgin country they were told, of forests of vast extent, of rugged mountain ranges, of rapid tempestuous streams, of smiling valleys,  p33 peopled by natives of strange language and treacherous disposition.

There was, however, something more than the desire to explore and exploit a virgin field. Always there was lurking at the back of it a yearning to search for that great western sea that lay in the indefinite somewhere beyond those frowning however-piercing fastnesses. Alexander Mackenzie felt that yearning, and was the first of the Nor'‑Westers to give rein to it. He knew that a mighty river flowed out of Athabasca Lake and emptied into Great Slave Lake — the North-Westers Grant and Laurent Le Roux had built winter quarters there in 1786, — and out of Great Slave Lake an unknown river ran through unexplored country. Perhaps it might lead to the western sea; who could tell? At any rate, Mackenzie decided to explore it, to descend it and ascertain what lay at the distant end of it. (Note B.)

Until Alexander Mackenzie lifted the veil that had hitherto concealed from the eyes and knowledge of civilised man the mysteries of the unknown country that lay to the west and north of the trading posts of Athabasca (afterwards renamed Fort Chipewyan when removed to the Lake of the Hills), Fort Resolution, and Fort Providence, no attempt worthy of note had been made by either Pond, Le Roux, or Cuthbert Grant to explore those rivers, or the lands they drained. Those traders had rested content with what imperfect information they could glean from the Indians who came to trade with them, or from others whom they casually encountered in the course of the peregrinations about the country under their jurisdiction. Not so Mackenzie. He did not rest content with the meagre details ascertained in such haphazard fashion, and having determined to see for himself first what the great river of the north might reveal, he prepared for a voyage of discovery.

The preparations Mackenzie considered necessary for such an undertaking were of the simplest kind. No  p34 elaborate equipment was laboriously collected and more laboriously conveyed along the route of march or voyage, to hamper their movements and impede their progress. A good gun for every man, an abundant supply of powder and ball — those were the days of muzzle-loaders and flint-locks, — a limited quantity of provisions — the gun and fishing-line or net must be the main reliance for adequate sustenance, — some merchandise and trinkets for presents wherewith to gain the goodwill of natives met en route, and blankets for each man, sufficed for the longest journey. Some of the traders — Mackenzie was one of these — carried with them a small supply of spirits; others, David Thompson for example, would have none of it, and proved that trading and travelling, even under the most arduous conditions, could be done as well, if not better, without it. Such, then, was the nature of the preparations for a voyage of exploration into an unknown region for an unknown period and an unknown distance.

Now that he was able to engage in this venture, and having secured full control of the situation respecting carrying on the business of the North‑West Company in his district, he decided to abandon his first policy of retrenchment and to embark upon a new, or more correctly perhaps return to the former, line of action. The trading post on Great Slave Lake was to be reopened again under Le Roux, and a new post established on the river that flowed from the west — Peace River — into Slave River. Doubtless Mackenzie was not unmindful of the advantage that would accrue from having an outpost on the Peace River when the time came for him to turn his attention to western exploration, for there can be no question that he had already made up his mind to break through the Rocky Mountains at the first opportunity. To the Peace River, therefore, in 1788 he sent one Boyer, who established a post, some authorities say, at the junction of Little Red River with the Peace,  p35 while others place it higher up above Loon River. Mackenzie coached his cousin Roderick in the management of affairs during his absence, and with a heart full of hope and resolution set out on his great adventure.

In his narrative of the descent of the Mackenzie River, for so the mighty waterway was named in honour of him who first reached its mouth, the explorer relates in simple language a tale worthy of more elaborate setting. The story begins with sentence: "June 1789, Wednesday, 3. — We embarked at nine in the morning at Fort Chepewyan,º on the South side of the Lake of the Hills, in latitude 58.40 North, and in longitude 110.30 West from Greenwich, and compass has sixteen degrees variation East, in a canoe made of birch bark." In that canoe, besides Mackenzie, were four Canadians — two having their wives with them — and a German. The Canadians were Francois Barrieau, Charles Ducette, Joseph Landry, and Pierre De Lorme; the German was a young man named John Steinbruick. In a second canoe, in charge of Le Roux, were bestowed the bulk of their supplies, together with goods for trading and presents; and in still another canoe an Indian known as English Chief, his two wives, and some followers. English Chief derived his name from the fact, states Mackenzie, that he had been a "principal leader of his countrymen who were in the habit of carrying furs to Churchill Factory, Hudson's Bay, and till of late very much attached to the interest of that company."

The canoes used by the fur‑traders were made of birch bark and were manned by voyageurs, a hardy class inured from youth to the use of the paddle. Many of them were French-Iroquois half-bloods, others were of unadulterated French parentage. Colonel Landmann, who travelled by canoe from Lachine to St Joseph with William M'Gillivray in 1798, describes the canoes as of two main types: a larger sort employed on the rivers and lakes east of Grand Portage, and a smaller type used west of that  p36 place. Of the first kind, Landmann says:

"These canoes were exceedingly strong and capacious. They were about thirty‑six feet in length by six feet wide near the middle, and although the birch bark which formed a thin external coating over their ribs of white cedar, and their longitudinal laths of the same wood, appeared to compose but a flimsy vessel, yet they usually carried a weight of five tons. It may be well to state that this cargo was very carefully stored in order to remove any unequal pressure, which would have been fatal to such vessel. Four poles, three or four inches at their thickest ends, denominated by the Canadian grand-perchº were laid side by side in the middle of the bottom of the canoe. On these poles the cargo was carefully arranged so that all the weight rested on them, and none allowed to press against the bare and unprotected sides of the canoe. Every package was made up of the weight of ninety pounds, and none heavier. The five tons included the provision for ten men, sufficient to support them during about twenty to twenty‑two days. Each canoe was provided with a mast and lug‑sail, and also each man had a ten‑foot pole of good ash, shod with an iron ferrule at each end, for assisting the men towing with a long line in ascending the rapids. The paddles were supplied by the canoe‑men, each bringing his own. Each canoe had also a camp-kettle provided by the owners, as also a few Hambro lines, a bundle of watep, roots of the pine-tree, for stitching any seam that might burst, a parcel of gum of a resinous nature for paying over the seams when leaky, a piece of birch bark for repairs, hatchet, crooked knife, and a few more indispensable articles."

The north canoes, as those used on the waters west of Grand Portage were called, were about half the size of the Ottawa River route canoes, with a capacity of a ton and a half and carrying four or five men.

Of the voyageurs the same authority says:

No men  p37 in the world are more severely worked than are these Canadian voyageurs. I have known them to work in a canoe twenty hours out of twenty-four, and go at that rate during a fortnight or three weeks without a day of rest or a diminution of labour; but it is not with impunity they so exert themselves; they lose much flesh in the performance of such journeys, though the amount of food they consume is incredible. They smoke almost incessantly, and sing peculiar songs, which are the same their fathers and grandfathers and probably their great-grandfathers sang before them; the time is about the same as that of our military quick marches, and is marked by the movement of their paddles. They rest from five to ten minutes every two hours, when they refill their pipes; it is more common for them to describe distances by so many pipes, than in any other way."

The foreman, or "le maître," had his place in the bow, and as soon as the last piece of cargo had been bestowed, the crew at their posts, and the passengers embarked, he gave the word to start, the paddles plunged into the water, and the men burst into song as they began their voyage. A prime favourite of these chansons de voyage was the lively En Roulant, the story of "Three Fairy Ducks" —

"Derrière chez nous, il y a un étang,

En roulant ma boule.

Trois beaux canards s'en vont baignant,

En roulant ma boule.

Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant,

En roulant, ma boule roulant,

En roulant, ma boule."

Verse after verse is lustily sung, all hands joining in the chorus and swinging their paddles vigorously in perfect rhythm. Or the leader might, perchance, prefer the  p38 greatest favourite of all, "A la Claire Fontaine," with its plaintive chorus —

"Long is it I have loved thee,

Thee shall I love alway,

My dearest;

Long is it I have loved thee,

Thee shall I love alway."

Simple-minded fellows were these muscular, hard-drinking, hard-working voyageurs, superstitious, volatile, laughter-loving; inclined to grumble and growl when things went amiss, but amenable to discipline when properly approached. Mackenzie had the happy faculty of knowing, apparently intuitively, how to handle them, and had frequent occasion to apply that knowledge.

In gay spirits the voyage of discovery was begun, and doubtless the four voyageurs and their German comrade awoke the echoes of the Lake of the Hills with their rousing choruses as they paddled away from the landing-place and headed for the Slave River.

After leaving the fort the canoes hugged the south shore for twenty miles to the west, and after making a traverse of nine miles in a northerly direction they entered the Rocher River, also known as the Rivière de Quatre Fourches, into which Athabasca Lake empties after the river freshets have subsided, or through whose channel the overflow of the Peace River pours into the lake when the rains and melting snows of spring fill the streams to capacity. Mackenzie took the precaution of making this detour rather than risk the crossing of the open expanse of the lake, because of the possibility of encountering one of the sudden squalls which not infrequently arise on the northern lakes, and render their navigation dangerous. He merely followed the usual custom of making several traverses with the object of keeping as much as possible in touch with the land should an emergency demand a speedy landing. Having entered the  p39 river — which becomes Slave River after joining with the waters of the Peace — they proceeded seven miles down-stream, encamping for the night at seven o'clock in the evening. The total distance travelled that first day in the day hours since leaving the fort was thirty‑six miles. Mackenzie makes the following note in his journal: "One of the hunters killed a goose and a couple of ducks; at the same time the canoe was taken out of the water to be gummed."

Embarking at four o'clock in the morning of the following day, Thursday, June 4th, the journey was resumed, and after paddling a distance of ten miles the Peace River — it is thirty miles from Fort Chipewyan by the route taken by river steamers to‑day — was reached. How his heart must have quickened its beats and how his eyes must have kindled at the sight of that stream, at that spot "upwards of a mile broad," for was it not by following it to the west that he hoped in the not far distant future to win a way through the mountain barrier and reach the Pacific, should his present adventure not produce that result? Having made a note of the width of the Peace River at its mouth, Mackenzie adds, "and its current is stronger than that of the channel which communicates with the lake. It there, indeed, assumes the name of the Slave River." At half-past seven that evening they made camp and unloaded the canoes. "Here we arrived at the mouth of Dog River, where we landed and unloaded our canoes at half-past seven in the evening, on the East side and close by the rapids." This camping-ground was apparently near the site of the present Smith's Landing, below which are the sixteen miles of rapids, the chief of which are the Rapids of the Damned and the Rapids of the Drowned, at which last Cuthbert Grant had lost, as already stated, five of his men, two canoes, and some merchandise in 1786.

Mackenzie gives the distance travelled that day as  p40 sixty‑one miles. If we deduct from this the ten miles done at the early part of the day, from their camping-ground of the night before to Peace River, the remaining distance stands at fifty‑one miles. This is underestimated. The actual distance from Peace River to Smith's Landing at the head of the rapids of the Slave River is seventy miles. It has been suggested that Mackenzie habitually underestimated mileage with the object of leading his men to think they had not covered such a long distance as was the case in reality. Be this as it may, Mackenzie's miles seem to be of that elastic quality which has been expressed as "a mile and a bitee," although he occasionally miscalculated in the other direction.

Until recent years, comparatively recent that is, every pound of goods had to be taken over these rapids by frequent portages. Mackenzie portaged six times. Travellers since his day give seven as the necessary carrying places. At a later date the Hudson's Bay Company avoided all that labour and delay by instituting a Red River cart transport for the entire sixteen miles between the Landing and Fort Smith, and still later a tramway was provided. But there was then neither Smith's Landing, nor Fort Smith, nor transport other than the broad backs and toughened muscles of the crew. Some conception may be formed of the dangerous and turbulent nature of these rapids from the fact that in the course of that sixteen miles of rushing water there is a total drop of two hundred and forty feet, equivalent to fifteen feet to the mile, but in reality considerably in excess of that at the places where portaging is essential. That stretch of churning, boiling, white water is enough to make the stoutest-hearted voyageurs hesitate before daring to attempt the run. The Indians accompanying Mackenzie lost one of their canoes at the portage called the "Mountain," near which is a dangerous fall. The frail birch-bark craft was in charge of an Indian woman, and in some manner it got caught in the current, was  p41 whirled over the falls, and instantly dashed to pieces. The woman managed to escape death by casting herself into the river while there was yet time to save herself.

As Mackenzie gazed at the swirling rapids at the "Mountain," his glance rested for a space upon a wooded island in the very midst of the turmoil of waters. Upon it he saw numbers of the White Pelican (Pelecanus erythorhynchos). They gave no heed to the proximity of man. No doubt they felt perfectly secure from harm in that so well-guarded sanctuary. That island is the farthest north breeding-place of that species.

The whole of Friday, June 5th, was consumed in passing this danger zone, yet despite the frequent portages, they travelled that day, according to the figures given by Mackenzie, no less a distance than thirty miles, under the circumstances a most excellent day's work. The following day, however, Saturday, 6th, the time lost at the carrying-places was fully made up. Notwithstanding a strong head wind that materially interfered with their progress, and cold so intense that "the Indians were obliged to use their mittens," they covered seventy‑six miles. This was made possible by embarking at half-past two in the morning and continuing steadily until six o'clock in the evening, when they landed and made camp. What a foremost place the question occupies of maintaining the commissariat well provided, is shown by the frequent reference made by the explorer to the success or otherwise that attend the hunters. "In this day's progress," he notes under this date, "we killed seven geese and six ducks, and nets were also set in a small adjacent river."

On Sunday, June 7th, the journey was resumed at half-past three in the morning, but, after forcing a landing to prevent their goods becoming wet, rain compelled them to halt for the day at half-past three in the afternoon. "The Indians killed a couple of geese and as many ducks." Le Roux, however, and those with him  p42 did not camp when Mackenzie did, but continued on their way in search of a camping-ground more to their liking. The following day the inclemency of the weather, wind and rain, obliged Mackenzie to remain in camp all day. Tuesday, 9th, saw them once again en route, a start being made at half-past two in the morning, and soon after two hunters who had been gone for two days rejoined them, bringing with them as the fruit of their prowess four beavers and ten geese. Sixteen miles of paddling took them to Great Slave Lake, which they found still filled with ice except along the shore. Turning east they kept along the inside of a long sand-bank, frequently touching bottom on account of the shallowness of the water, for five miles, which took them to "the houses erected by Messrs. Grant and Le Roux in 1786." There they found Le Roux and his party, who had parted company with Mackenzie on Sunday, 7th.

Mackenzie found time to observe the characteristics of the country through which he passed. He noted the conditions existing along Slave River, and compared them with those obtaining at the lake. "The banks of the river both above and below the rapids," he states," were on both sides covered with the various kinds​1 of wood common to this country, particularly the Western side, the land being lower and consisting of a rich black soil. This artificial ground is carried down by the stream and rests upon driftwood, so as to be eight or ten feet deep. The eastern banks are more elevated, and the soil a yellow clay mixed with gravel; so that the trees are neither so large or numerous as on the opposite shore. The ground was not thawed above fourteen inches in depth; notwithstanding, the leaf was at its full growth; while along the lake there was scarcely any appearance of verdure. . . . The mud‑banks in the river are covered with wild-fowl; and we this morning killed two swans, ten geese, and one beaver,  p43 without suffering the delay of an hour; so that we might soon have filled the canoe with them if that had been our object." Notwithstanding this abundance of game to be had for the asking, it is significant that immediately upon landing at Great Slave Lake recourse was had to fishing, Mackenzie naïvely observing, "I then ordered the nets to be set, as it was absolutely necessary that the stores provided for our future voyage should remain untouched. The fish we now caught were carp, poisson inconnu,​2 white fish, and trout." From this it would almost appear that preference was given to fish over game, or at least wild-fowl.

Next day the explorer sent two Indians to a lake nine miles distant which, they said, was frequented by animals of various kinds, and on the succeeding day, Thursday, 11th, while the women of the party were engaged in gathering wild berries, which abounded near the camp, Mackenzie with one man proceeded to a small island near at hand and added to the larder "some dozens of swans', geese, and duck eggs," and shot two ducks and one goose. That evening the Indians who had been sent off on a hunting expedition the preceding day returned almost empty-handed, having succeeded only in killing a swan and a grey crane. Every day, however, something in the way of fresh food was brought into camp, and on Saturday, 13th, one of the hunters who had been to Slave River returned with a bag of three beaver and fourteen geese, at the same time bringing what was less welcome, three families of Indians who had left Athabasca at the same time as Mackenzie; they came empty-handed, not even a duck among them, pleading in excuse for their improvidence that they had travelled too rapidly to permit of their procuring sufficient food for their needs! which meant, of course, that they would have to be fed by Mackenzie — a drain upon  p44 his supplies that he would not relish but could not refuse.

It was not until Monday, June 15th, that the ice permitted the expedition to move from the camp. At sunset they embarked and made a traverse, and shortly before midnight landed on an island, where they camped. At that hour the light was sufficient to enable Mackenzie to read and write with comfort. So light were the nights that they had not seen a star since leaving the rapids on Slave River. The following day strong winds again delayed embarkation until one o'clock noon, the course followed being in the same direction as that of the preceding day, among a chain of islands under whose shelter they hoped to cross to the north shore of the lake, but the presence of ice interfered with their progress. The delay was accepted with patience, the easier borne perhaps because of the abundance of fish caught. Two of the hunters killed a reindeer and its fawn, upon which they feasted with relish. Rain, thunder-storms, and cold winds did not add to their comfort, but it is worthy of note that not one word of complaint was made by Mackenzie or his men, who accepted with becoming fortitude and resignation conditions beyond the power of man to alter, which would indeed appear to be the natural state of mind for any reasonable to harbour, but which is more frequently utterly absent, being replaced by ill‑temper, impatience, and irritability.

At five o'clock in the afternoon of Sunday, June 21st, the ice permitted of some progress being made, and they covered a distance of fifteen miles in the lee of the islands, upon one of which they camped within three miles of the north shore, which they were prevented by the ice from reaching. Upon another island in the group they saw some reindeer, and Mackenzie sent the hunters there to get some. In this they were successful, easily killing five large and two small ones. In remembrance of this fortunate accession to their supplies the island was  p45 promptly named Isle de Carreboeuf. "I sat up the whole of this night to observe the setting and rising of the sun. The orb was beneath the horizon four hours twenty‑two minutes, and rose North 20° East by compass. It, however, froze so hard that, during the sun's disappearance, the water was covered with ice half a quarter of an inch thick."

The route taken by Mackenzie after leaving Fort Resolution, "the houses built by Messrs Grant and Le Roux in 1786," was in a general easterly direction until the chain of islands was reached, and by threading a way through the passage between them he came within three miles of the north shore. From that point he skirted along shore towards the west. Leaving the island where he had watched the sun set and rise at half-past three A.M., after travelling fifteen miles it blew so hard they were driven to take refuge on an island. There they cached two bags of pemmican for the use of Le Roux and his men upon their return journey, and on that account they named the island Isle à la Cache. There Mackenzie took an observation, and gives the position as 61° 53′ N, with a compass variation of two points. Resting there from half-past nine until the violence of the wind abated, they again got afloat, and steering west by north among the islands, not meeting with any ice, they camped for the night upon an island at eight o'clock, enduring the torments inflicted by clouds of mosquitoes, for it is remarkable that in those latitudes no sooner does the sun begin to melt the ice and snow than myriads of these pests appear as if by magic.

On Tuesday, June 23rd, they re‑embarked at half-past three, and after travelling westerly for over thirty miles landed on the mainland, the north shore of Great Slave Lake, at half-past two in the afternoon, at a place where were three lodges of Red‑Knife Indians, "so called from their copper knives," explains Mackenzie.  p46 (They are sometimes called Yellow Knives.) Intelligence of the arrival of the traders spread from this small native settlement to other lodges of the same tribe at a little distance. From these Indians on the following day Le Roux purchased a quantity of furs, "upwards of eight packs of good beaver and marten skins." The Indian known as English Chief, who had set out from Fort Chipewyan with Mackenzie, collected from these same natives a hundred skins in payment of debts owing to him, and forty of these he handed over to Le Roux in settlement of indebtedness incurred two years before at Fort Resolution. With the remainder he purchased some rum and other articles from the trader, and, says Mackenzie, "I added a small quantity of that liquor as an encouraging present to him and his young son." From these Indians Mackenzie failed to extract any useful information about the river that emptied out of the lake, with the exception of the situation of the outlet of the lake itself, and, as this was an important matter, Mackenzie engaged one of the Red Knives to guide them to it. To further facilitate progress he purchased a large new canoe for the use of the guide, with whom went two of Mackenzie's Indians from Athabasca.

Keen as he was on the exploratory work he had commenced, Mackenzie did not overlook an opportunity for advancing the business interests of his company, and he informed the Red Knives that although he would continue his journey on the morrow, Le Roux would remain amongst them, and that if those of their own tribe living at a distance, and for whom they had sent, brought with them plenty of skins, the traders would go for further supplies and come back to establish a fort there. Mackenzie took advantage of the moment to indite letters to Roderick Mackenzie and to A. N. M'Leod, as this would be the last opportunity he would have until his return to send any communication to his associates.

Bidding adieu to Le Roux and his men at three o'clock  p47 on Thursday morning, June 25th, to the accompaniment of a volley of small arms, Mackenzie and his companions left the Red Knife village to begin in earnest his voyage of discovery. Once the descent of the unknown waterway discharging from the lake was commenced, with the exception of a comparatively short distance, a region not yet visited by white man would be entered upon. It soon transpired that the Red Knife whom they had taken as a guide to the outlet of the lake was of very little service to them. Eight years had passed since he had last visited that spot, and his imperfect knowledge resulted in a great loss of time and energy, inasmuch as he led them to enter several bays which proved to have no outlet whatever. Mackenzie observed deserted lodges on shore, other evidences of the natives having made use of that part of the country at one time. From time to time the hunters succeeded in adding swans, beaver, deer, ptarmigan, and other game to the larder, and the abundance of wild berries of various sorts was noted.

Sunday, 28th, brought no relief to their anxiety. A heavy wind and sea gave them so much trouble that, says Mackenzie, "we were obliged to make use of our large kettle to keep our canoe from filling, although we did not carry above three feet sail. The Indians very narrowly escaped. . . . The English Chief was very much irritated against the Red‑Knife Indian, and even threatened to murder him, for having undertaken to guide us in a course of which he was ignorant; nor had we any reason to be satisfied with him, though he still continued to encourage us by declaring that he recollected having passed from the river through the woods to the place where he had landed." Fortunately the irascible English Chief did not put his dire threat into execution, and the next morning, Monday, 29th, brought an end to their anxiety. Embarking at four o'clock, they rounded a point, one of the horns of the blind bay into which the Red Knife had taken them the evening before, at half- p48 past five, and found themselves in a channel separated from the main body of the river by an island fourteen miles in length. Passing the island they found the current strong, with a depth of water varying from two to five fathoms.

More than four full days had been consumed in arriving at the river after leaving the trader Le Roux at the Red Knife lodges. In that period they had covered many miles by the use of sail and paddle in making their course westerly, and despite the anger of English Chief, and the more temperate dissatisfaction of the leader of the expedition, at their guide's incompetence, they had done exceedingly well to accomplish so much. It must be remembered that Great Slave Lake is a very large sheet of water, its area being ten thousand square miles. Its greatest length is about three hundred miles, and its extreme width fifty miles. Its shores are indented with numerous bays, some of them very deep, thus creating a coast-line of great length. Ice, fog, and wind militated against setting a straight course for an outlet seen only once eight years before by the Indian guide. As it turned out, the river could have been found quite as easily without a guide as with. Nor did the Red Knife prove of any service to them after they entered the river, for, soon coming to what is now known as Little Lake, an expansion of the Mackenzie River below the outlet of Great Slave Lake, they were at a loss what course to take to find its outlet, nor could the guide help them since he had never "explored beyond our present situation." After floundering about in shallows for some time they eventually recovered the proper channel and continued their way.

Their guide told them that "a river falls in from the North, which takes its rise in the Horn Mountain, now in sight, which is the country of the Beaver Indians; and that he and his relations frequently meet on the river." The stream referred to is that afterwards spoken of by  p49 Mackenzie as Yellow Knife River, where the following year he established a trading post.

Leaving camp at four o'clock A.M. on the 30th, the last day of June, they ran down the river for a distance of fifty-seven miles, and at six in the afternoon "there was an appearance of bad weather; we landed, therefore, for the night; but before we could pitch our tents a violent tempest came on, with thunder, lightning, and rain, which, however, soon ceased, but not before we had suffered the inconvenience of being drenched by it. The Indians were very much fatigued, having been employed in running after wild-fowl, which had lately cast their feathers; they, however, caught five swans and the same number of geese."

Resuming the voyage at half-past four on the morning of July 1st, in a short time the river narrowed to about half a mile, with a strong current and high banks on either hand. After proceeding thirty-three miles, making frequent soundings as was Mackenzie's custom, the all‑important lead was lost. "Here I lost my lead," wrote the explorer, "which had fastened at the bottom with part of the line, the current running so strong that we could not clear it with eight paddles, and the strength of the line, which was equal to four paddles." This loss was sustained about twenty-four miles above the confluence of the Liard River, which Mackenzie designates as "the river of the Mountains," which "falls in from the southward." The word Liard means poplar, with which timber the banks of the tributary are lined. He describes it as a large river whose mouth is half a mile wide.

Six miles below the junction of the Liard they landed opposite an island on which they cached two bags of pemmican for their use upon the return journey. Another reason for thus lightening the cargo was because they were in daily expectation of coming to some falls of which they had been forewarned by the Indians, and their  p50 canoe being heavily laden, it was sound policy to reduce the load. The Indians, however, did not approve of caching the pemmican, for they professed to believe that they could not possibly make the return voyage until the following season, and by that time it would be spoiled! Resuming their way the following day at half-past five on a foggy morning, at nine o'clock they sighted a cluster of mountains that stretched as far as they could see to the southward and "whose tops were lost in the clouds," which were neither more or less than the main range of the Rocky Mountains at whose base the river flows for a long distance, until indeed their height gradually dwindles until they are lost in the low lands bordering the Arctic. In illustration of the unreliable testimony of the Indians on some occasions, may be cited the incident recorded by Mackenzie that afternoon. "At noon," he writes, "there was lightning, thunder, and rain, and at one we came abreast of the mountains; their summits appeared to be barren and rocky, but their declivities were covered with wood; they appeared also to be sprinkled with white stones, which glistened in the sun, and were called by the Indians manetoeaseniah, or spirit stones. "I suspected they were Talc." Here indeed did "distance lend enchantment to the view," for he confesses that on their return journey "these appearances were dissolved, as they were nothing more than patches of snow."

So imbued were they all with the belief that ahead of them lay dangerous falls, that they were frequently persuaded that they actually heard the roar of the rapids close at hand, but it was not until four o'clock the following afternoon, July 3rd, that they encountered anything worthy the name. Mackenzie observes in his journal under that date: "Since four in the afternoon the current has been so strong that it was at length in an actual ebullition, and produced an hissing sound like a kettle of water in a moderate state of boiling." An  p51 hour before entering that rapid water the explorer had observed a river that "fell in from the north," which means the east. The stream referred to is Willow River, over four hundred miles distant from Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake.

Possibly because he was hugging the north or east shore, Mackenzie appears to have missed observing the North Nahanni River which joins the Mackenzie from the south or west side, ninety miles below the confluence of the Liard and sixteen miles above Willow River. The noise of the waters as they rush over the shallow bar is clearly heard across the Mackenzie, there a mile wide.

Mackenzie did not waste time on his expedition. Whenever possible he travelled early and late, breaking camp at an hour when the stall‑fed townspeople were still snoring in their comfortable beds. The Indians with him did not find this mode of travel to their liking. They infinitely preferred to take life — and travel — less strenuously. Time is not "the essence" of anything to them. It is a commodity they have in plenty, and they think nothing of it. Haste and hurry are foreign to their nature. They marvelled at Mackenzie's eagerness to push onward, but protested in vain. Had he listened to their counsels his expedition would have resulted in failure, probably in disaster. Mindful of his object he pressed on, calling into play his shrewd tact, occasionally cajoling, sometimes compelling, the reluctant Indians, but always there was the iron hand under the velvet glove. He would not permit their indolence to deter him from prosecuting his journey with all the ardour of the enthusiast.

Camping at eight in the evening at the foot of a high hill, which in some parts rose perpendicular from the river, the explorer immediately ascended it in the company of two of his men and some Indians. An hour and a half of hard climbing took them to the top, where, to Mackenzie's surprise, he found an abandoned Indian  p52 camp. The Indians accompanying him told him that it is usual for unarmed natives to choose such elevated sites for their residence, as they are thus better protected from their enemies. All around him Mackenzie saw other peaks as high as that he was on, and in the valleys between were numerous glistening lakes swarming with swans. The mosquitoes were so thick and troublesome that Mackenzie was unable to remain on the summit long, and speedily returned to the camp.

On July 4th they covered seventy miles, the river running with as strong a current as on the preceding afternoon, passing the mouths of "the river between two mountains," Le Vieux Grand Lac River, and Gravel River on the way. Although they had started at five in the morning they did not encamp for the night until eight o'clock, at which hour they hauled the canoes out of the water and erected their tents on an island. The hunters did not succeed in adding much provision that day, one goose being all they brought into camp. One of them had shot a beaver, but it had sunk before he could recover it. That night Mackenzie noted that the sun set at fifty-three minutes past nine, and rose again on the morning of the 5th at seven minutes before two. Shortly after sunrise they embarked, passing a number of islands and observing ahead a ridge of snow-clad mountains. After making about twenty miles they "saw several smokes on the north shore" which they believed to proceed from Indian lodges, and Mackenzie immediately ordered the canoes to make for the shore. As they approached the land they observed the natives running about in great confusion, some making for their canoes, others hastening to the shelter of the belt of trees on the bank. Mackenzie sent his hunters ashore first to parley with such as remained, but it was only after all Mackenzie's men had landed and unloaded their canoes and pitched their tents, that the affrighted natives were convinced that no hostile intent was directed against  p53 them. They were ultimately induced to visit the camp of the strangers, and their reception speedily assured them they had nothing to fear, whereupon they hailed their companions and bade them join them.

The encampment comprised five families numbering from twenty-five to thirty people all told, of the Slave and Dog Rib tribes. Following his usual custom Mackenzie made them smoke, but they did not appear to know the use of tobacco, nor did the serving out of grog afford them any satisfaction, but when the travellers made them presents of knives, beads, flints, hatchets, and similar articles they became almost too friendly, and it proved difficult to keep them out of the tents. If Mackenzie hoped to obtain from these Indians any useful information about the route still before him, he was doomed to disappointment. They told him that it would require several winters — a winter or "snow" meaning a year — to get to the sea, and they would be old men before they could return. They further assured Mackenzie that there were two impassable falls or rapids in the river ahead of them, the nearest of which was a thirty days' march distant, and that they would encounter monsters of such horrid shapes and destructive powers that only the most vivid imagination could conjure up. It is probable that they had either seen or heard of whales, which occasionally entered the Mackenzie River and ascended it for some distance, or, as one of the monsters was described as being of huge stature bearing enormous wings, that they may have heard rumours, passed from tribe to tribe, of sailing ships seen by the natives on the Pacific coast.

While these fairy tales did not impress Mackenzie, they had a far greater effect upon his Indians, who, already weary of the long voyage, the long hours of toil, readily seized upon the opportunity to add their contribution to the Jeremiads of the natives. They told their leader that there were very few animals in the  p54 country ahead of them, and they would starve if he persisted in going on, and that would probably be the least of the evils that might befall them! With infinite patience and tact Mackenzie succeeded in showing them how foolish were their fears, and he even induced them to persuade one of the natives to accompany the expedition in "consideration of a small kettle, an axe, a knife, and some other articles," but when the hour of re‑embarkation arrived, the new recruit was loth to fulfil his bargain. Mackenzie, however, was equal to the occasion, for he naïvely observes, "we may be said, after the delay of an hour, to have compelled him to embark." Before taking his place in the canoe the recruit cut off a lock of his hair, fastened a part of it to that of his wife, blowing on it three times with "the utmost violence in his power." The same ceremony he observed in the case of his two children, but the meaning of this rite Mackenzie could not discover. That the explorer had made a favourable impression on these people may be gathered from the fact that, during their short stay with them, they danced and sang for the entertainment of their visitors. At four o'clock in the afternoon Mackenzie resumed his journey after extracting a promise from the natives that they would remain at that place till the autumn, pending the possible return of the travellers and their kinsman.

Mackenzie describes them as being

"a meagre, ugly, ill‑made people, particularly about the legs, which are very clumsy and covered with scabs. The latter circumstance proceeds from their habitually restoring them before the fire. Many of them appeared to be in a very unhealthy state, which is owing, as I imagine, from their natural filthiness. They are of a moderate stature, and as far as could be discovered, are of a fairer complexion than the generality of Indians who are the natives of warmer climates."

 p55  "Some of them have their hair of a great length; while others suffer a long tress to fall behind, and the rest of the hair is cut so short as to expose their ears, but no other attention whatever is paid to it. The beards of some of the old men were long, and the rest had them pulled out by the roots so that not a hair could be seen on their chins. The men have two double lines, either black or blue, tattooed upon each cheek from the ear to the nose. The gristle of the latter is perforated so as to admit a goose-quill or a small piece of wood to be passed through the orifice. Their clothing is made of the dressed skins of the rein or moose deer, though more commonly of the former. These they prepare in the hair for winter, and make shirts of both, which reach to the middle of their thighs. Some of them are decorated with an embroidery of very neat workman­ship, with porcupine quills and the hair of the moose coloured red, black, yellow, and white. Their upper garments are sufficiently large to cover the whole body with a fringe around the bottom, and are used both when sleeping and awake. Their leggings come half‑way up the thigh, and are sewed to the shoes; they are embroidered round the ancle and upon every seam. The dress of the women is the same as that of the men."

Bracelets and anklets made of horn, bone, or wood, and belts, garters, and head-bands of strips of leather embroidered with stained porcupine quills and bear claws, formed their ornaments. Their weapons consisted of bows and arrows, spears, daggers, and clubs. The arrows were thirty inches long, and barbed with bone, horn, flint, copper, or iron. Their canoes are small, pointed at both ends, somewhat resembling those used on the Columbia River, and generally carry but one person, seldom more than two.

Beyond the brief mention of having observed the smoke on the shore, Mackenzie passes over the incident. He may have been of the opinion that it came from  p56 wood fires, but he seems not to have taken any steps at that time to ascertain what caused it. Upon his return journey, however, he ascertained the true reason. The smoke came from the burning lignite that for over a century has never been extinguished, the "boucans," a vast tertiary deposit of alternate layers of friable schist, lignite, pipe-clay, and vegetable mould. The schists are in a state of combustion winter and summer, but the subterranean fire, which shows itself on the surface through smoke-holes "stinking of bitumen," is intermittent.

After proceeding about six miles they passed the mouth of Great Bear River, which empties out of Great Bear Lake. This tributary is from two to three hundred yards wide at its mouth, according to the season. Mackenzie gave its width as one hundred yards. Its water is a beautiful greenish-blue colour. Six miles beyond Great Bear River a wind-storm, accompanied by rain, compelled them to make a landing and camp for the night. Their new guide malingered in the hope of being sent back to his people. In this he was disappointed. In place of letting him go, a guard was set over him to prevent him making off during the night.

On Monday, July 6th, they were afloat again at three o'clock in the morning, and made, according to Mackenzie, seventy miles before camping at seven-thirty in the evening. Mackenzie records having observed a river flowing into the Mackenzie from the west, and "I also discovered a strong rippling current or rapid which ran close under a steep precipice of the hill." The rapids he mentions are the San Sault, and within the distance of seven miles above them two rivers empty into the Mackenzie from the west — the Carcajou, ninety miles below Great Bear River, and Mountain River, five miles farther down-stream from the Carcajou. Accompanied by one of the hunters Mackenzie began the ascent of the hill, but before they got half‑way they were almost  p57 suffocated by clouds of mosquitoes, and were compelled to give up the attempt and return to their camp. The place where Mackenzie camped that night must have been close to the San Sault Rapids, and instead of having travelled seventy miles that day, they had made at least ten miles more.

The following morning the canoes crossed to the opposite side of the river to avoid the rapid, which is confined to the east side only; "but," says the explorer, "we might have spared ourselves this trouble, as there would have been no danger in continuing our course,"a and yet this was one of the two formidable impassable falls they had been threatened with by the companions of their new guide! The San Sault rapids are caused by a ledge of rock that extends one‑third of the way across the river — which at that point is a mile and a quarter wide — and which at low‑water is barely covered. At flood of the river the rapids make a considerable amount of noise, but offer no obstacle to river steamers.

Continuing down-stream for seventeen miles from the San Sault Rapids they came to the mouth of a river that flowed from the eastward, and there they landed at "an encampment of four fires, all the inhabitants of which ran off with the utmost speed, except an old man and an old woman." The guide called out to the fugitives, begging them to remain, but without effect. The old man, however, walked towards them without hesitation, stating that he was too old to be anxious to escape death; "at the same time he pulled his grey hair from his head by handfuls to distribute among us, and implored our favour for himself and his relations." Surely a pathetic exhibition of unselfish regard for the safety of his people that none could have resisted! Amicable relations, however, were soon established between the strangers and the eighteen people at the encampment, and the usual presents successfully relieved their alarms. The natives, in return, provided the visitors  p58 with a meal of boiled fish. The guide, once more in touch with people who spoke his own tongue and followed customs like his own, was again seized with nostalgia, and was so eager to return to his own people that Mackenzie was under the necessity of forcing him into the canoe.

The natives told Mackenzie of the existence of another great rapid a short distance down-stream, and, in their turn, recounted such a tale of difficulties and dangers to be faced as might have daunted a less determined man. Seeing he was not to be persuaded, four canoes, with a man in each, followed Mackenzie to point out to him the safe channels through the rapids. Two miles took them to where "the river appeared to be enclosed, as it were, with lofty, perpendicular, white rocks, which did not afford us a very agreeable prospect." Mackenzie landed in order to examine the rapid, but they failed to observe anything worthy the name. Although the Indians still spoke in exaggerated terms of the dangers of the alleged rapids, they descended the stream, and, when Mackenzie followed, admitted that there was no other rapid excepting that they were then navigating.

Here again is another instance of Mackenzie's underestimation of distances. He gives that from San Sault Rapids to the rapids just mentioned, at the head of the cañon known as the Ramparts, as nineteen miles. The actual distance is thirty-nine miles. While Mackenzie notes the Indian encampment near a river flowing from the eastward, he fails to mention two streams, the Beaver River and a smaller tributary, that enter from the west a short distance above the last rapids. The explorer states that the river at the Ramparts is "not above three hundred yards in breadth," but on sounding gave a depth of fifty fathoms. More recent observers give the width of the river at that point at various figures, ranging from five hundred yards to half a mile. Notwithstanding the narrowing of the river  p59 the current is not perceptibly increased, this being accounted for by the great depth of three hundred feet, the current running at a rate not exceeding four or five miles an hour. This cañon, bounded by rocky ramparts of limestone rising to two hundred and fifty feet above the river, continues for seven miles (Mackenzie says three miles), the width of the river increasing to a mile and a half at the lower end. Ice jams are prone to occur in the cañon, and it is related that on one occasion a derelict canoe was lifted by the ice and deposited upon the top of the cliff above.

[image ALT: A photograph of a wide expanse of water, maybe a kilometer wide at points, with swells and small waves appearing to be about 50 cm high: in the foreground, one of them is breaking into foam. In the distance, on the left, a flat coastline at some height off the water; to the right, close to viewer, we see that the coastline, of the same type, is formed of a continuous line of cliffs easily 50 meters tall, in which sedimentary layers can clearly be distinguished. A very few, very thin conifers grow on top of these cliffs. It is a view of 'The Ramparts', on the lower Mackenzie River in northern Canada.]

The Ramparts, Lower Mackenzie River.

At the head of the Ramparts they encountered more natives, six families, who presented them with a quantity of fish, white fish and poisson inconnu, and another of unnamed variety of a greenish colour, probably the grayling.​3 Mackenzie gave them a few presents and left them, the men following in fifteen canoes. Six miles farther down they came to another Indian encampment "of three or more families, containing twenty‑two persons," which was situated on the bank of a river of a considerable appearance, which came from the eastward. This is Hare Indian River, which is two hundred yards wide at its mouth, and which has its rise in the range of hills north-west of Great Bear Lake. Two miles above Hare Indian River is the present Fort Good Hope, which is just under the Arctic Circle. From the natives at this encampment on the Hare Indian River, Mackenzie received gifts of hares and partridges. In return he made them the usual presents, and they undertook to have skins there for him upon his return journey.

Resuming the voyage, five miles farther on they fell in with a small native camp and landed. From them  p60 Mackenzie obtained two dozen hares. Four miles lower down Mackenzie camped at nine at night, two of the men from the native camp following them in canoes. The guide renewed his complaints, now expressing his apprehensions of the Esquimaux who would be met when they neared the sea, and whom he represented as very wicked people who would kill them all. The following morning they embarked at half-past two and soon saw more Indians, to whom they gave presents but did not land, and a short distance below, observing several smokes on the shore, the travellers landed. Upon their approach the natives fled, but the Indians accompanying Mackenzie persuaded them to return to their fires. Some of them were clad in hare skins and belonged to the Hare tribe, so called because their diet consists almost wholly of hares and fish. They numbered twenty-five, all of whom received presents from Mackenzie. Here the disgruntled guide was given his liberty. He had become a perfect nuisance, having to be guarded every moment they were ashore. One of the Hares agreed to go in his place, but repented his bargain and tried to get out of it, but Mackenzie compelled him to embark.

At noon a small native camp consisting of three men, as many women, and two children was observed. Mackenzie landed and found they had just returned from a hunting expedition with some venison, which was in such a bad state that the explorer declined a present of a portion of it. These people told marvellous tales of dangers ahead, and warned them that behind an island opposite the camp there was a Manitoe or spirit in the river, that swallowed every person that approached it. Mackenzie did not care to waste the time necessary to test the truth of the story, and after making presents continued his course, fog prevailing the greater part of the day. They were now well within the Arctic Circle.

Thursday morning, July 9th, revealed the desertion of their new guide. The two Indians who had followed  p61 them from the encampment a short distance below Hare Indian River had continued to keep in their company, and Mackenzie pressed one of them, much against his will, into the service to fill the breach. At half-past three the voyage was resumed, and soon a smoke on the east bank informed them of another native camp. As the canoes neared the shore the guide called out to the natives, but what he said none of the travellers understood. He told Mackenzie that they were wicked cruel people, but that did not deter the explorer from his purpose. The native women and children took to the woods, but the men stood their ground, and, from their shouting, appeared to be in a state of anger. The guide, however, pacified them, Mackenzie gave them presents, and soon the fugitives joined the party. Mackenzie noticed that the language spoken was not the same as that of the Hares, and that they were of a more pleasing appearance, full-bodied and healthy-looking, and clean in their persons. English Chief could understand them, but was himself not understood by them. They were probably of the Loocheux tribe, inhabiting the district intervening between the Hares and the Esquimaux. From the latter, their hereditary foes, they obtained iron and other articles. Legend says that the Loocheux forced the Esquimaux north. If that be correct, they rendered the latter a good service, for their country is superior to that occupied by the Loocheux. From time immemorial there has been bad blood between the two, and fighting took place frequently. In the '60's, in a pitched battle, the last that took place, only two Loocheux escaped alive, while not one Esquimaux was killed. The Hudson Bay trader at Fort Macpherson paid the blood price of the slain Loocheux, and thus prevented a vendetta.

Their arms and utensils differed but little from those seen at other camps. Their shirts, instead of being cut square at the bottom, tapered to a point from the belt  p62 down to the knee, and were embellished with a fringe. Their leggings, unusually long, were fastened by a cord round the waist. One of the men was dressed in a garment made of the skins of the musk‑rat. "Their peculiar mode of tying the hair is as follows," describes Mackenzie: "that which grows on the temples or the forepart of the skull is formed into two queues, hanging down before the ears; that of the scalps or crown is fashioned in the same manner to the back of the neck, and is then tied with the rest of the hair at some distance from the head. A thin cord is employed for these purposes, and very neatly worked with hair, artificially coloured. The women, and indeed some of the men, let their hair hang loose on their shoulders, whether it be long or short." From these people Mackenzie and his men purchased moose skins and buckskin shirts.

One of the Loocheux consented to go with them as a guide, but when Mackenzie's men fired a volley of powder only, he would have withdrawn had not the explorer explained that it was merely a signal of friendship. Those people had never before heard the report of a gun. He insisted, however, in going in his own canoe, but soon asked to be taken in with the travellers, inspired thereto by the songs of two of his brothers who followed in their canoes. "On our putting to shore," says Mackenzie, "in order to leave his canoe, he informed us that on the opposite hill the Esquimaux, three winters before, killed his grandfather."

At four o'clock in the afternoon another smoke sent the canoes to the west shore. The natives made "a most terrible uproar, talking with great vociferation, and running about as if they were deprived of their senses, while the greater part of the women, with the children, fled away." Mackenzie believed that "if we had been without people to introduce us, they would have attempted some violence against us, for when the Indians send away their women and children it is always  p63 with a hostile design." They were, however, soon pacified, and presents put them all on a friendly footing. The encampment consisted of forty people in all. Mackenzie names them Deguthes Dinees​b or Quarrellers. Doubtless they also were Loocheux. As Mackenzie was about to re‑embark the guide expressed a wish to remain behind, giving as his excuse that he feared they would not return, and also that the Esquimaux might kill all hands. These objections were overruled, and in the end he consented to go on and gave no further trouble. Eight canoes followed the expedition as they resumed the voyage. That night camp was made on the east side of the river, and, from natives found there, Mackenzie learned that from the encampment he had visited that morning the distance overland on the east side to the sea was not long, and that from his present camp by proceeding westward it was still shorter. At that place Mackenzie observed "a large quantity of wild flax, the growth of last year, laying on the ground, and the new plants were sprouting up through it," and this be it remembered well within the Arctic Circle.

Embarking at four o'clock on the morning of the 10th, they noticed that the river banks were very low and the land in general low‑lying, except the mountains whose bases were ten miles distant. A short distance below the starting-point the river widened considerably, "and runs through various channels formed by islands." Mackenzie had arrived at the delta of the river. The delta is one hundred miles long from north to south, and seventy wide at its broadest point. Which channel to follow was the question then to be decided. The guide naturally enough gave preference to the easternmost channel, inasmuch as it was the farthest removed from the Esquimaux, the hereditary enemies of his people. Mackenzie, however, chose the middle channel. That day he took an observation and records the latitude as 67° 47′ N. This surprised him, since it gave his position  p64 farther north and more to the east​c than he had expected, from which he deduced the river must empty "into the Hyperborean Sea; and," he adds resolutely, "though it was probable that, from want of provision, we could not return to Athabasca in the course of the season, I nevertheless determined to penetrate to the discharge of them."

The new guide now in his turn began to weary of his position, and exerted himself to dissuade the two Indian hunters from proceeding farther, and to such good purpose that, Mackenzie states, the hunters became so disheartened "that I was confident they would have left me if it had been in their power." He was obliged to placate them by promising he would turn back in seven days more if they did not reach the sea then. The natives who had followed them in their own canoes on the previous day returned to their homes that morning.

On Saturday, 11th, Mackenzie sat up all night to observe the sun, and at half an hour after midnight awakened one of his men to view a spectacle he had never seen before — the midnight sun. The man, thinking the day far advanced, began calling his companions, and Mackenzie had some ado to persuade them that it was but a short time past midnight. At a quarter before four they embarked, and at noon landed at a place where some Esquimaux had recently camped. They counted where fifty or sixty fires had burned. Scattered about were pieces of whalebone, burned leather, and other indications of the presence of man, "and there was the singular appearance of a spruce fir, stripped of its branches to the top like an English May‑Pole." This peculiarly trimmed tree, with a tuft left at the top, is known as a lob‑stick, which may be described as a sort of memorial erected in honour of some one who had passed that way, and whose companions salute it whenever they again visit that locality. At Point Separation, the place where Sir John Franklin and Dr Richardson  p65 parted on July 3rd, 1826, two lobsticks were prepared to mark the occasion. Twenty‑two years subsequently Richardson again visited Point Separation, and he records under date July 30th, 1848: "In compliance with my instructions, a case of pemmican was buried at this tree on the Point, and placed in it, along with the pemmican, a bottle containing a memorandum of the Expedition, and such information respecting the Company's post as I judged would be useful to the boat party should they reach this river. The lower branches of the tree were lopped off, a part of its trunk denuded of bark, and a broad arrow painted thereon with red paint. In performing these duties at this place, I could not but recall to mind the evening of July 3rd, 1826, passed on the very same spot with Sir John Franklin. We were then full of joyous anticipation." It may be observed that in 1849 two boats of the Plover visited the spot and duly found the pemmican. In whose honour the lobstick observed by Mackenzie had been prepared is unknown.

Continuing down the channel the river widened for a distance of about five miles, and then flowed in a number of narrow meandering streams between low‑lying islands. At four in the afternoon they landed at a place where there were three native huts, in some measure resembling the keekwillie houses formerly used by the Indians in Southern British Columbia. There, too, they found whalebone, floats of poplar bark for nets, sledge runners, and posts upon which the Esquimaux hung their nets to dry. Embarking again, they did not camp for the night until eight o'clock, having travelled fifty-four miles that day. They had not seen a single Esquimaux, although fresh footprints indicated some had been in that neighbourhood recently. Again the discontent of his men broke out owing to the tales told them by the guide. He asserted that another day would take them to a large lake — the Arctic, — although neither  p66 he nor his friends had ever seen that particular part of it. He told also of whales, polar bears, and another large animal — probably the walrus. The gift of a capote to English Chief and of a moose skin to the guide pacified the one and silenced the other. These bribes kept them quiet for the nonce.

Next day, Sunday, 12th, they again embarked and proceeded on the same meandering course as on the previous day, landing at ten o'clock where stood four huts, the same as those seen the day before, and beside them runners of sledges were laid together as though in readiness for the return of their owners. A large stone kettle, pieces of nets made of sinews, and other articles were also seen. Mackenzie says in his journal of that date: "When we had satisfied our curiosity we re‑embarked, but were at a loss what course to steer, as our guide seemed to be as ignorant of this country as ourselves. Though the current was very strong, we appeared to have come to the entrance of the lake." He took an observation, which gave his position as 69° 1′ N. Continuing the same course for fifteen miles to the most westerly point of a high island, they found that "the lake was quite open to us to the westward, and out of the channel of the river there was not more than four feet of water, and in some places the death did not exceed one foot. From the shallowness of the water it was impossible to coast to the westward. At five o'clock we arrived at the island, and during the last fifteen miles five feet was the deepest water. The lake now appeared to be covered with ice for about two leagues' distance, and no land ahead, so that we were prevented from proceeding in this direction by the ice and the shallowness of the water along the shore. We landed at the boundary of our voyage in this direction." Accompanied by English Chief, Mackenzie ascended to the highest part of the island, and from that vantage-point surveyed all around. Solid ice extended from the south-west to  p67 the eastward; to the south-west a chain of mountains loomed dimly in the distance, stretching to the north beyond the edge of the ice.

Mackenzie was indeed nearly at the end of his journey. It has been remarked by some who have followed the records of his daring exploit, that he did not express any regret at failing to reach the sea. He did, however, indirectly voice that regret, if only to assert the loyalty of those he calls "my people," by whom he surely must have meant only his Canadians, for the Indians would have been only too happy had he cut short his expedition long before he began the return voyage. "My people could not at this time refrain from expressions of real concern," he wrote, "that they were obliged to return without reaching the sea; indeed, the hope of attaining this object encouraged them to bear, without repining, the hardships of our unremitting voyage. For some time past their spirits were animated by the expectation that another day would bring them to the Mer d'ouest; and even in our present situation they declared their readiness to follow me wherever I should be pleased to lead them."

That night the rising water, the incoming tide, obliged them to rise from their beds on mother earth and remove the baggage to drier ground. At noon on the 13th Mackenzie took another observation and found their position to be 69° 14′ N. That afternoon he again climbed to the highest point of the island to reconnoitre. A heavy wind that had been blowing since noon had not moved the ice. Far away to the north-west he could just distinguish two small islands in the ice. It continued to blow that evening, and was still blowing when the camp stirred the following morning. As he had not retired until three o'clock in the morning he did not rise until nine, when he was aroused to decide what strange animals were those his men saw disporting in the water. They were whales, and he at once embarked with his crew in  p68 the canoe and set off in pursuit of the huge creatures. They failed to overtake them, which in calmer moments Mackenzie considered most fortunate, "as a stroke from the tail of one of these enormous fish would have dashed the canoe to pieces." The whales were the Beluga or White Whale, one of the chief articles of food of the Arctic Esquimaux.

The fog lifting at noon, Mackenzie embarked to make an inspection of the ice, but after being not more than an hour on the water a high wind sprang up which compelled them to hasten to land, narrowly escaped disaster. Continuing their way in the shelter of some islands, Mackenzie sought in vain for Esquimaux, whom he was anxious to fall in with in order to obtain information from them. At eight o'clock they landed on the eastern end of the island they had left in the earlier part of the day, and which Mackenzie had named Whale Island, a long narrow island. That morning he had caused a post to be erected near their camp at the western end of the island, and on it he carved his name, the latitude, 69° 14′ N, the number of men with him, and the duration of their stay there.

At four o'clock on Wednesday morning, 15th, Mackenzie perceived that the water had again invaded their baggage. When they had seen the rise and fall of the water at the western end of the island, they had at the time attributed it to the wind, but as the wind had not changed on this second occasion it was necessary to find another and the real cause of the occurrence, and Mackenzie decided that the tide was responsible. An observation taken at noon gave their position as 69° 7′ N. The following day Mackenzie observed the rise and fall of the tide more closely, and found that it varied from sixteen to eighteen inches only. At some parts of the Arctic coast — e.g., that part between the Mackenzie River and Point Barrow, the rise is from eight to fifteen  p69 inches; farther east, the rise increases to as much as three or four feet.

On the 16th, Thursday, they again embarked about seven o'clock and steered under sail for the islands, Mackenzie still hoping to fall in with some Esquimaux, but in this he was disappointed. The guide asserted that they had probably gone to their distant hunting and fishing grounds, and none would likely be met with "unless at a small river that falls into the great one (Mackenzie) from the eastwards, at a considerable distance from our immediate situation. We accordingly made for the river and stemmed the current."

In those last ten words Mackenzie announces the beginning of the return journey. There were excellent reasons why he should not delay in retra­cing his steps. Their reserve provisions had run so low, only five hundred pounds in weight remaining, that there was barely sufficient to last fifteen people, the strength of the expedition at that time, twelve days without contributions by the hunters. Hemmed in by ice, any material advance was out of the question, and the season of the year, together with the discontent of the Indians with him, made it hazardous to defer the departure for the south. Mackenzie accepted the situation and set his face homewards to Fort Chipewyan.

It has been asserted that Mackenzie did not actually reach the Arctic Ocean, but only penetrated as far as the delta of the great river that bears his name. It is pointed out in support of this contention that Mackenzie himself, in his published voyages, states that his men were concerned "because they were obliged to return without reaching the sea; indeed, the hope of attaining this object encouraged them to bear, without repining, the hardships of our unremitting voyage. For some time past their spirits were animated by the expectation that another day would bring them to the Mer d'ouest;  p70 and even in our present situation they declared their readiness to follow me wherever I should be pleased to lead them." This is taken to be irrefutable internal evidence that Mackenzie failed in his prime object.

There is, however, another meaning to be read into those words. His men, and he himself without doubt, had hoped to reach, by the river they had followed, the western sea, the Mer d'ouest, and sail upon its surface. Instead, they had arrived at the Arctic Ocean and found further progress barred by the ice, thus preventing them continuing the voyage to the goal of their cherished hopes, the Mer d'ouest. From Whale Island Mackenzie had scanned the horizon in every direction. Close at hand lay a stretch of open water, that in which they had pursued the Beluga whales. Enclosing that space a barrier of ice extended far in the distance, and beyond its gleaming surface lay the open sea. These conditions are frequently found at the mouth of the Mackenzie. Had the wind shifted the ice — as Mackenzie hoped it would — he and his men would have been enabled to sail at will upon the frozen ocean, and, if so disposed, follow the coast to Point Barrow and through Behring Strait into the Pacific Ocean, the western sea of their dreams. In the northerly offing Mackenzie discerned, dimly, two small islands; elsewhere nothing but ice and water, conclusive evidence that they had emerged from the delta of the river and had reached the sea itself, as a glance at the accompanying map will show.

[image ALT: A schematic map of the delta of the Mackenzie River in Northern Canada, a large river delta with many channels and islands. The main river, labeled 'Mackenzie River', enters from the southeast, flows west for a bit, then straight north for a longer distance. The larger islands are labeled Halkett, Langley, Ellice, Richards, Pitt, Herschell, and Whale; two lakes are also labeled, Campbell and Setidgi. The map shows two latitude lines (65 and 70 degrees North) and two longitude lines (135 and 136 degrees West).]

Arctic Ocean and Mackenzie R. Delta.

Whale Island, marked with a ×, Alex. Mackenzie's Farthest North Land.

The words "stemmed the current" are interpreted by some to indicate that Mackenzie was still in the river and could not have reached the sea for that reason, a conclusion that is not sustained by the facts. It might be said with equal truth that Simon Fraser did not reach the Pacific when he descended the Fraser River, because he did not cross the Gulf of Georgia, navigate the strait of Juan de Fuca, and enter the Pacific off Cape Flattery. Between him and the full expanse of ocean lay the archipelago  p72 in the Gulf of Georgia and the larger Vancouver Island. No one would have the temerity, however, to deliberately assert that Fraser did not reach the Pacific. In the same way it might be said of Mackenzie himself that on his second great journey across the Rocky Mountains to the waters of Bentinck Inlet, he did not reach the Pacific because he was only on an arm of the sea many miles distant from open water, with islands intervening. Splitting of hairs is a puerile pursuit, and leads nowhere.

It is stated, in support of the content that Mackenzie did actually reach the Arctic, that he was still in the current of the river, and that when he began his homeward journey he "stemmed the current." This is quite true; he did stem the current, but he also said, first, "we made for the river," showing his belief that he had reached the sea.

It is not uncommon for river currents to reach far into the body of water that receives them. Taking the Fraser River as an instance of this, it will recur to those who have read Captain Vancouver's journals that while still a considerable distance from land they felt the current and observed floating debris, indicating the proximity of a river of considerable volume, but neither he nor the Spanish navigators, Galiano and Valdez, actually saw the river, and ultimately went away convinced that there was none there, notwithstanding the evidence of their senses and the shallowness of the water indicating alluvial deposits brought down from the Hinterland by some river. So it is with the Mackenzie. The pouring of that vast volume of water into the Arctic is attended by a strong current reaching far into the sea.

It has been remarked that Mackenzie does not say anything in his journal to show disappointment at the result of his journey; perhaps this abstention from complaint may be accounted for by his knowledge that he had done what he set out to do, to descend the river  p73 to its mouth. Those who maintain that Mackenzie did not reach the sea further quote, in support of their position, the following passage from Mackenzie's journal, under date of August 13th, while on the voyage up‑stream: "The English Chief was very much displeased at my reproaches, and expressed himself to me in person to that effect. This was the very opportunity which I wanted, to make him acquainted with my dissatisfaction for some time past. I stated to him that I had come a great way, at a very considerable expense, without having completed the object of my wishes." Can any one state positively what the complete object of Mackenzie's wishes was, if not to reach the Western Sea? It is possible, but not likely, that he may have made the statement to the English Chief to impress upon him the extent of his displeasure with that somewhat rascally individual. The North‑West Passage was still an alluring bait to explorers; and if Mackenzie could have succeeded in rounding Alaska and reaching some of the Russian posts on the north-west coast, he would have accomplished something material towards the solution of the question.

Mackenzie's observations, which are reasonably accurate, prove that he did enter the Arctic Ocean, even if his ignorance of the fact at the time is admitted. He gives the latitude of the west end of Whale Island, his most northerly landing, as 69° 14′ N, and the position of his camp at the eastern end of the same island as 69° 7′ N, which are substantially correct. Both those points tally with recent observations of the position of Whale Island, which cartographers place well clear of the delta in the open sea. It is quite clear, therefore, that Mackenzie fulfilled his determination "to penetrate to the discharge" of the river into the Hyperborean Sea, even though he may not have accomplished all he had hoped to do.

The Author's Notes:

1 White spruce, Banksian pine, willows, alder, and poplars.

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2 The "poisson inconnu," a species akin to salmon, and weighing from eight to thirty pounds.

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3 Mackenzie describes the colour as greenish, which may be sufficiently accurate to apply to the grayling, which is often called bluefish in the north, the colour being a bluish-green or greenish-blue. It is the shape of a trout, takes the fly, and is excellent eating. It occurs throughout the region from Peace River to the Arctic Ocean.

Thayer's Notes:

a The text as printed does not include the closing quotation mark; this is my guess.

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b Our author and his printer, no doubt accidentally, have added one more orthography to an already large array of spellings for this very small and obscure tribe. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, ed. Frederick Webb Hodge, Part 2, p834, transcribes their name as Tukkuthkutchin and lists among 29 transcriptions of the native word (and a similar number of unrelated names and translations, plus two clear misprints), three by Mackenzie:

"Deguthbee Dinees. — Mackenzie, Voy., 49, 1802. [. . .] Deguthee Dine. — Mackenzie, Voy., II, 213, 1802. Deguthee Dinees. — Mackenzie, Voy., 51, 1801."

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c Our author has obviously compressed something here, since latitude gives no indication of east-west position. We have not been told whether Mackenzie carried with him a chronometer (a new device at the time, and very expensive), but from what our author has written on p34, it seems very unlikely. The common method at the time for determining longitude was by lunar distances, requiring a sextant and a copy of the current Nautical Almanac.

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Page updated: 26 Oct 18