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Chapter 3

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 5

 p74  Chapter IV

The Return to Fort Chipewyan

Turning his back on the Arctic Ocean, Mackenzie began the ascent of the Grand River on July 16th, keeping to the easterly side. In the afternoon the water was everywhere so shallow that they could touch bottom with the paddles. Camping at seven in the evening they set the nets as usual, and the Indian hunters killed two geese, two cranes, and a white owl. The writer does not know whether white owl makes a delectable dish or not, but can vouch for the delicacy of their eggs. Once within shelter of the river they found an amelioration of the climate. "Since we entered the river," says Mackenzie — and here is additional testimony to his having been out of it — "we experienced a very agreeable change in the temperature in the air; but this pleasant circumstance was not without inconvenience, as it subjected us to the persecution of the mosquitoes."

It is remarkable what myriads of these pests infest the Arctic and sub‑Arctic regions. Throughout the northern country, no sooner does the heat of the sun begin to melt the ice and snow than clouds of mosquitoes seem to spring out of the very ice itself. And not only are these winged torments present in countless millions, but enormous hosts of other flies assail the unprotected human. One traveller says of them:

"We thought we had met mosquitoes on the Athabasca. The Athabasca mosquito is gentle, ineffective, compared with his  p75 cousin of Smith's Portage. Dr Sussex sits on the waggon seat behind and explains the mosquito. He tells us that they are of the 'order Diptera' (sub‑order Nemocera), 'and chiefly of the family Culicidae,' and he also goes so far as to tell us that they 'annoy man.' As we bump along in the muskeg and the creatures surround us in a smother, he ventures to assert that 'the life of the adult insect is very short,' and that it is the female who stings. The doctor is a born instructor. We learn that 'the natural food of the mosquito is a drop or two of the juice of a plant.' We suspect the doctor of fagging up on mosquito out of some convent dictionary while we have been at Fond du Lac. He is like the parson introduced by his friend of the cloth. 'Brother Jones will now give an address on Satan. I bespeak him for him your courteous attention, as the reverend gentleman has been preparing this address for weeks, and comes to you full of his subject.'

"The adult mosquito may have a short life, but it is life crammed full of interest; if the natural food of the mosquito is the sweet juice of a pretty flower, then a lot of them in this latitude are imperilling their digestion on an unnatural commissariat. And if the female mosquitoes do all the fine work, there is a great scarcity of male mosquitoes on Smith's Portage, and once more in the North the suffragette comes into her own."​1

On taking up the nets on Friday morning, 17th, they found only six fish, a mere aggravation to the appetites of the ravenously hungry men. Embarking at four o'clock in the morning, they passed four encampments which appeared to have been recently inhabited. They landed on a small island near the eastern shore, which Mackenzie believed to be possessed "somewhat of a sacred character," the top being covered with graves. About the graves they found various dishes and other utensils, as well as a canoe and sledges, which had been  p76 the property in life of those who could now use them no more. The frame of the canoe was fastened with whalebone. The sledges, four to eight feet in length, had wooden runners two inches thick, shod with small pieces of horn fastened with wooden pegs.

Early in the afternoon they came to the first spruce tree they had seen for some time. "There are very few of them on the mainland, and they are very small," comments Mackenzie. "Those are larger which are found on the islands, where they grow in patches, close together. It is, indeed, very extraordinary that there should be any wood whatever in a country where the ground never thaws above five inches from the surface."

Going into camp for the night at seven in the evening, the explorer ascended to the highest point in the vicinity, and obtained "a delightful view of the river, dividing into innumerable streams, meandering through islands, some of which were covered with wood, others with grass. The mountains that formed the opposite horizon were at the distance of forty miles. The inland view was neither so extensive nor agreeable, being terminated by a near range of bleak barren hills, between which are small lakes or ponds, while the surrounding country is covered with tufts of moss, without the shade of a single tree. Along the hills is a kind of fence made with branches, where the natives had set snares to catch white partridges."2

The hunters, who had been on shore all day foraging, only brought in two crane and one goose.

Hauling in the nets on the morning of the 18th, they were found to be empty — not a very promising outlook for the day's provender. At 3 A.M. they resumed the journey against the current, passing several deserted camping grounds, where, however, the footprints of human beings were very fresh in the sand, and must have been made very recently. Mackenzie's expectations of  p77 meeting some of these natives at the tributary river to which the guide was now conducting them ran very high.

He also observed during the day a number of "lob‑sticks" in several places, and explains that they denote the immediate abode of the natives, and probably serve for signals to direct each other to their respective winter quarters. In the valleys and low lands near the river they found abundance of cranberries, the fruit of two seasons being picked off the same plant. Mackenzie was no botanist, and remarks that he saw "a great variety of other plants and herbs, whose names and properties are unknown to me."

That day the hunters met with better success, killing two reindeer and eight geese, and the well-supplied larder came as a welcome relief, for the mouldy pemmican which had formed the major part of their diet when game or fish was scarce was not provocative of either appetite or satisfaction.

Mackenzie did not sit in the canoe all day while his men laboured at the paddle. Frequently he landed, and, accompanied by one or more of the party, walked along the banks, taking note of whatever appealed to him as of interest. Walking on this day with English Chief, he found it very disagreeable and fatiguing, the country being one continual morass except on the barren hills. He observed that the face of the high land towards the river was in some places rocky, and in others a mixture of sand and stone, veined with a kind of red earth with which the natives bedaub themselves.

When they embarked on the morning of Sunday, 19th, they discovered that their guide, the Loocheux, had disappeared, leaving behind him his bow and arrows and also the moose robe Mackenzie had furnished him with, "and went off in his shirt, though the weather was very cold." Mackenzie questioned the Indian hunters whether they knew why the Loocheux had deserted them, but they could only attribute it to fear: first, lest he should  p78 be enslaved; and second, because of his alarm when he had seen how easily they had killed the two deer the previous day. That day they killed twenty‑two young geese. "They were of a small kind," remarks Mackenzie regretfully.

That evening they made their camp near an abandoned Indian camping-ground, about which were strewn pieces of bone, horn, &c., showing that the natives had been engaged while there in making arms and other requisites.

Embarking at three in the morning of the 20th, they passed in the forenoon the tributary where Mackenzie had hoped to see some Esquimaux, but there were no signs of any to be seen, much to his disappointment. Rain fell all morning, and early in the afternoon it fell so heavily, accompanied by high wind, that they were driven to make camp at two o'clock. Notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, they succeeded in killing fifteen geese and four swans. Mackenzie noticed that the hills near at hand were clothed with spruce and small birch trees to their very summits.

On the 21st they embarked at the early hour of half-past one in the morning, and at ten were clear of the delta, passing the last of the islands between which the numerous channels meandered at that hour. Once more in the main stream, recourse was had to tracking — i.e., hauling the canoes along by means of a line — this method proving more expeditious than the paddles alone. At half-past eight that evening they landed at the same spot where they had camped on the 9th inst., where they had observed the wild flax growing. An hour after making camp some of the natives appeared, among them the brother of their runaway guide. Mackenzie's explanation of the desertion did not satisfy this man, but he expressed his readiness to believe anything the explorer would tell him if he were given a few beads! Instead of complying with this modest request, Mackenzie gave the fellow his brother's bow and arrows which had  p79 been left behind when he deserted. At this place Mackenzie saw the sun set for the first time since his former visit there. He observed that the river had gone down three feet since that time.

Breaking camp the next morning, the men tracking, Mackenzie walked with the Indians to their encampment. It took three hours of hard walking to reach the huts. There being a large quantity of fish hung up to dry, Mackenzie purchased as many as could be stowed in the canoe, paying a few strings of beads for them. From these people they learned that the Esquimaux had told them that they had seen "large canoes full of white men to the westward eight or ten winters ago, from whom they obtained iron in exchange for leather." These were probably Russian or British ships on the place or the Behring Sea.

Resuming the ascent of the river on the 23rd, they found progress difficult owing to the nature of the beach. At five in the afternoon the Indians put ashore in order to camp, but, to their disgust and annoyance, Mackenzie pushed on, making his camp at the same site as on the 8th on the downward voyage. At ten o'clock the Indians rejoined him there in a sulky mood. During the past six days they had not touched any of their reserve store of provisions. In that period they had eaten two reindeer, four swans, forty-five geese, and a considerable quantity of fish. "But it is to be considered," remarks Mackenzie, "that we were ten men and four women. I have always observed that the north men possessed very hearty appetites, but they were very much exceeded by those with me since we entered this river. I should really have thought it absolute gluttony in my people if my own appetite had not increased in similar proportion."

Embarking at 5 A.M. on Friday, 24th, they were obliged to resort to the line soon after starting; it was impossible to make any progress against the current with the paddles. Later on an aft wind enabled them to hoist a sail, which  p80 gave them a considerable relief, for the men re‑embarked and enjoyed a rest. At one place, where the Indians resort for flints, they found "pieces of petroleum which bears a resemblance to yellow wax, but is more friable." English Chief told Mackenzie that rocks of a similar kind are found at the back of Great Slave Lake, where the Chipewyan get their copper. At noon they landed near a native lodge, the women and children hiding in the woods as usual, leaving three men with drawn bows to resist the intruders. The usual conference followed, and goodwill obtained by giving presents. One of Mackenzie's Indians having broken a paddle, attempted to take a good one by force from one of the natives. Mackenzie interposed and prevented this being done, much to the gratification of the owner, who must have been surprised at this act of clemency on the part of a body of men so superior in numbers. That night the travellers camped at seven o'clock, and were visited by an Indian they had seen before, who remained with them until nine, when he returned to his own lodge.

At a quarter past three the journey was resumed on the 25th, and as the force of the current had abated they could use the paddles again. They passed several native encampments they had not observed on their way down. At seven o'clock a thunder-storm broke, and although they landed and unloaded the canoes and erected the tents as quickly as possible, it struck them with so much violence as to threaten to sweep everything away. The ridge-pole of Mackenzie's tent, a stout timber three inches in diameter, was snapped in two, and the men were obliged to lie flat upon the ground to escape injury from the stones that were hurled through the air by the wind like so much sand. On Sunday morning, 26th, they embarked at four o'clock, and at eight landed at an Indian camp of three lodges, whose occupants were asleep, and were greatly alarmed when awakened by the visitors, though most of them had seen the party on  p81 the downward journey. From these people, in return for some beads and other trifles, a large quantity of fresh-caught poisson inconnu was obtained.

Among the natives at this encampment was a Dog‑rib Indian, an exile from his own country, whom English Chief understood as readily as if they were fellow-countryman, who stated that he had learned from the Hare Indians, among whom he now lived, that on the other side of the mountains to the south-west is a river which falls into the White Man's Lake — in this instance the Pacific Ocean — very much larger than the one they were then on, and that the natives there are very wicked, and kill ordinary men with a glance from their eyes — the evil eye with a vengeance! The Hare Indians apparently settled the North‑West Passage question easily enough, according to the Dog‑rib, who stated that there is no known communication by water with this river, the natives who saw it went over the mountains.

Filled as he was with thought for the needs and safety of his party and the mission upon which they were engaged, Mackenzie did not forget, as has already been pointed out, his rôle of fur‑trader. The Dog‑rib having said that there were some beavers in the country, Mackenzie improved the occasion. "I told him," he writes, "to hunt it, and desire the others to do the same, as well as martens, foxes, beaver-eater or wolverine, &c., which they might carry to barter for iron with his own nation, who are supplied with goods by us near their country." At this same place Mackenzie had to exercise the utmost vigilance to prevent his Indians abducting a Hare Indian woman to whom they had taken a fancy, and in this connection he states that the Indians with him were ever ready to take what they could from the natives without payment or any return.

At noon that same day they passed a river which the natives called the Winter Road River, coming in from the eastward. They were again enabled to use the sail, and  p82 did not camp until half-past seven in the evening. On the morrow, Monday, 27th, they embarked at half-past two in the morning, and at seven landed at the native camp near the Rampart rapids which they had visited on the 7th. Although these people had on the former occasion promised to have a stock of furs, &c., brought from a distant lake by the time of Mackenzie's return, he found they had done nothing. From them, however, he tried to obtain some information about the river the Dog‑rib had told him of, and which evidently interested him extremely. One of them said he had been told by Indians of other tribes that the river beyond the mountains flowed into "the great lake," and that at its mouth was a White Man's Fort. With this information as a basis, Mackenzie attempted to solve the problem of the geography of that sea and river. He says: "This I took to be Unalascha Fort, and consequently the river to the west to be Cook's River, and that the body of water or sea into which this river discharges itself at Whale Island communicates with Norton Sound." The western river was not, however, Cook's River, as he surmised, but the Yukon. That the mouth of the Mackenzie communicates with Norton Sound was a better founded supposition, but the distance between the two was evidently a great deal longer than Mackenzie imagined. Even at that date there was little known about the geography of the north-west coast. In the map published in 'Beechey's Voyages,' on which is shown the course of H. M. S. Blossom in 1825‑6, there is no indication of the existence of the Yukon River. The Mackenzie is marked by a short line only (Note C.)

As the natives at this camp informed Mackenzie that a short distance farther up the river there were some people who inhabited the region of "the opposite mountains," the Rockies, he proceeded thither, arriving at ten in the forenoon. He had not arrived a moment too soon. His own Indians had preceded him, and in some unexplained  p83 manner had succeeded in arousing the hostility of the people Mackenzie wished to interview, who had seized the canoe of the visiting Indians, and in the struggle that ensued the frail craft was broken. Mackenzie's men were about to revenge the insult when he reached the spot and threw oil on the troubled waters. But although Mackenzie remained there until the following morning, he did not succeed in extracting from them any more definite information about the western river about which his curiosity was aroused than what he had already gathered from the natives farther down-stream. They recounted many absurd tales of the wonderful powers of the people living in that distant region. Mackenzie, however, formed the opinion that they knew more than they were willing to divulge. He bluntly told them so, and threatened that if they did not frankly disclose what they knew, he would compel one of their number to guide him to the mysterious river. This threat alarmed them so much that they told him they would surely die if he took any of them away. At the same time they tried to persuade English Chief to remain with them, telling him that he would be killed if he continued with Mackenzie, and, strange to say, these arguments almost prevailed. As an illustration of the masterful way Mackenzie had in dealing with Indians, an incident that occurred at this camp may be mentioned. One of the native dogs would persist in sniffing around the explorer's baggage, doubtless incited by the scent of the reserve store of pemmican, &c., and in vain had the animal been driven off time and again, and the natives told to keep their dogs away. Mackenzie deliberately shot the creature. The report of the pistol, and the instantaneous death of the dog as a result, so alarmed the natives that the women took their children on their backs and fled to the woods, and the woman to whom the dog belonged declared in the deepest woe that the loss of her five children the preceding winter had not affected  p84 her so much as did the death of her dog. The gift of a few beads, however, speedily removed the weight of woe. From these people Mackenzie obtained a supply of dry and fresh fish and a quantity of whortleberries, for which they received payment in kind — awls, beads, knives, &c.

Leaving this camp at four o'clock the following morning, July 28th, they visited the fishing-nets set by their hosts, and, at their invitation, helped themselves to what fish they found caught in them. Ascending the Rampart rapids without any trouble, they visited some native lodges where was much fish but no people. Some of Mackenzie's Indians appropriated certain articles they found in the lodges, but he would not permit them to take them without payment being made by leaving beads and other articles in lieu of the things taken. Mackenzie himself took a net, and left a large knife in payment for it. Continuing the voyage, at one o'clock at noonº they landed again where a fire was burning, but the natives who had kindled it were in hiding. The hunters soon found them and two hundred geese they had killed, most of the birds being in an advanced state of decomposition. Mackenzie picked out thirty‑six that were eatable, and paid for them in the usual manner, and then departed, camping for the night at eight o'clock. Shortly afterwards a violent storm blew down the tents and deluged their camp with rain.

On Wednesday, 29th, embarking at four, with an aft wind that sent them along at a lively rate, they reached the San Sault rapids at ten o'clock, and were obliged to use the line to get up, the current being much stronger than when they went down. The water had fallen five feet in the interval. The next day they were able to use the sail a good part of the day, and they camped in the evening at seven o'clock. On Friday, the last day of July, after a rainy night, they resumed the journey at nine, and continued until a quarter before eight, killing seven geese en route. Shoals and sand-banks prevented  p85 Mackenzie from travelling along the west bank, which he desired to explore, particularly to ascertain what rivers came in from that direction. He had to cross over to the east side and ascend along that shore.

In the afternoon of the first day of August, which fell on a Saturday, Mackenzie landed at the Indian encampment six miles below the mouth of Great Bear River, and camped on the same ground he had occupied on July 5th. From the natives there he sought to obtain further information about the western river, but his interpreter, English Chief, seemed unwilling to ask the questions dictated by Mackenzie, who formed the opinion that this reluctance sprang from a fear lest, if satisfactory answers were received, another expedition would be at once undertaken, and the return to Athabasca postponed indefinitely. Mackenzie makes a note of the interesting fact that "This is the first night since our departure from Athabasca when it was sufficiently dark to render the stars visible."

The following morning progress was resumed, the men tracking as before. Mackenzie walked with the Indians, who advanced more rapidly than the men with the heavier canoes, because he suspected they wished to arrive at the next native settlement before him. Crossing Bear River in the Indians' small canoe, they continued walking until five in the afternoon, when they noticed several smokes ahead. Thinking they were approaching a camp of the natives, they hurried forward, but were not so engrossed as to overlook the strong sulphureous smell then prevailing, and at length they "discovered that the whole bank was on fire for a very considerable distance. It proved to be a coal mine, to which the fire had been communicated from an old Indian encampment. The beach was covered with coals." This was the same place Mackenzie had visited on the morning of July 5th, and had failed at that time to discover the origin of the smoke that had induced him to land there.

 p86  Ever since Mackenzie's journey on the "Grand River," as it was sometimes called, when he first noted the burning beds of coal and the salt deposits along its banks, the interest of geologists and prospectors has been aroused in its possibilities as a mineral-producing region. Its remoteness, the question of cheap transportation, and the labour problem have militated against its development, and its resources have been only cursorily investigated. What little is known of the potentialities of the district is the fruit of surveys made under the direction of the Geological Survey of Canada and the Topographical Surveys. Writing in his report of the information he had obtained respecting the economic minerals found in the Mackenzie Valley, Mr William Ogilvie, D. L. S., referring to the burning coal seen by Mackenzie, says:

"About three and a half miles above Fort Norman, on the east bank of the river, two extensive exposures of lignite crop out. The upper one is overlaid by about fifty feet of clay and a few feet of friable sandstone, and is about fifteen feet thick. The other seam is probably forty feet below this. When I was then it was nearly all under water. It is said to be as thick as, if not thicker than, the upper one.

"The upper seam has been on fire for over one hundred years, as it was burning when Sir Alexander Mackenzie passed in 1789. The place is locally known as le Boucan. The fire extends at present about two miles along the river, not continuously but at intervals. When I passed it was burning in three or four places. After it has burned a certain distance into the seam the overlying mass of clay falls down, and to some extent suppresses the fire. This clay is in time baked into a red‑coloured rock, in which are found innumerable impressions of leaves of plants. . . . Traces of this red rock were noticed on the bank fourteen miles below Fort Norman, but no trace of lignite was seen near it, having probably been all burned.

 p87  "The burning seam appears to be of poor quality, containing much shale and sand, which is converted by heat into scoriae. It did not appear to me that it would be difficult to cut off all the burning places, and thus stop the further advance of the fire, which is destroying what yet may be of use. In order to find if the combustion could be checked I took a shovel at one place, and soon had all the burning coal for a short distance cut off completely, so that the fire ceased for a time at that spot. It is a pity that at least an attempt to put out the fire is not made. Many persons in that district have an idea that it is subterraneous, and that the seat of it cannot be reached. This is a mistake, as at the point mentioned I cleaned off the fire from the face of the seam to its base, and found underneath no sign of burning. The lower seam appears to be of better quality. . . ."

Arriving at the lodges they found them vacant. Well-beaten tracks a short distance away, and certain signs left by the natives, indicated they had gone in that direction, and Mackenzie sent one of the French Canadians and two Indians to see if they could find them. English Chief declined to go when requested, the first instance of refusing to do as the explorer desired. At a later hour the search party returned empty-handed, and the following morning the journey was resumed, but, beyond passing other native camps, the day's journey was without incident. On the 4th, 5th, and 6th their progress was much the same, tracking the first two days as before; but on the 6th a favourable aft wind enabled them to hoist the sail, and, with the aid of the paddles, much better headway was made.

Embarking at half-past three A.M. on Friday, 7th, they shot a reindeer that had apparently been attacked by wolves. The next day Mackenzie sent the hunters out for meat, but, after being absent all day, they returned without having secured anything. The forenoon of the  p88 10th took them to a place opposite the mountains on which they had seen the patches of snow, taken for Spirit Stones by the Indians, on July 2nd. Mackenzie landed, and with one Indian set out to ascend one of the hills. Forcing a way through a thick forest growth of spruce, birch, and poplar, they came to more open ground covered with small pines, and this was succeeded by muskeg, in which Mackenzie sank up to his armpits. The marsh being impassable, he had to return to the river camp, reaching it at midnight, worn out with fatigue and without accomplishing his purpose.

As they had left their hunters on the other side of the river the day before, a traverse was made on the 11th to pick them up. When the men rejoined the canoes it was to bring a lean bag: they had killed only one beaver and a few hares. Having picked up his men, Mackenzie wished to return to the opposite side, with the hope of meeting with the natives whose tracks had been seen near their former camp. He desired English Chief to accompany him, but that worthy again proved reluctant, and for the same reason — viz., that Mackenzie might learn something that would send him off on a new exploration and they should be obliged to go with him. One of the Canadians told Mackenzie confidentially that English Chief, his wives, and followers intended to desert the party when they approached Great Slave Lake, in order to go to the country of the Beaver Indians. Notwithstanding English Chief's backwardness, the river was recrossed, but no sign of the Indians was made in the evening after they had added fifteen young geese to their larder.

On the 12th, Wednesday, renewed attempts were made to get in touch with the natives, but without any better success, although English Chief was again pressed into service by Mackenzie, and again showed the same hesitation to comply. This attitude of the fellow aroused  p89 Mackenzie's ire, and the following day, August 13th, matters came to a head, an open rupture being narrowly averted. That morning they had passed several more recent camping-places of the natives, but of the people nothing whatever was seen. It may be that Mackenzie's opinion, that the natives deliberately avoided his party, was well founded. At seven in the morning they came to the island below Liard River where two bags of pemmican had been cached on the downward trip. This was recovered, and proved very acceptable. Shortly afterwards the smoke of an Indian camp was seen, and Mackenzie ordered a landing to be made as quickly as possible. Some of his men pursuing a flock of geese fired at the birds, and the reports so alarmed the natives that they hauled their canoes on shore and concealed themselves in the woods. It was found they had not only left their canoes, four in number, but other articles as well, which Mackenzie's Indians immediately proceeded to appropriate. Mackenzie rebuked English Chief for permitting the theft. That rebuke was the last straw. English Chief resented it, and told Mackenzie so in unmistakable terms. "This was the very opportunity which I wanted," declares the explorer, "to make him acquainted with my dissatisfaction for some time past." The vials of wrath were uncorked, and the contents poured out without stint. English Chief was told that he had concealed information that should have been disclosed to him, and that he had not looked after the natives as he should have done, and much more to the same purpose, all of which irritated the English Chief, who, after denying the charges levelled against him, expressed his determination not to accompany Mackenzie any farther, and that, though without ammunition, he could subsist as did the natives, and he would remain with them. This dispute set all his people agog with excitement. Lamentations loud and bitter filled the air. For two hours they indulged in this form of grief, and  p90 then Mackenzie, who admits he could not well have done without them, soothed their sorrow, induced the chief to change his intention of abandoning him, and peace again prevailed. To remove any discontent, Mackenzie permitted his Indians to take most of the articles the natives had left behind in their flight, but in payment he left some cloth, several knives, and other articles. English Chief, still on his dignity, would not accept any of the things he and his fellows had coveted before the quarrel with Mackenzie. That night, however, after making camp near Liard River, Mackenzie invited English Chief to sup with him, and treated him to a "dram or two," which effectually dispelled the remnant of his heart-burning, and he took the precaution to present him with a further supply of spirits to carry to his lodge to prevent a recurrence of his chagrin.

During the two days following good progress was made, and on the third day, August 16th, they found the current so moderate that they advanced almost as rapidly as upon still water. Everything appeared to be running smoothly. Since the flare‑up on the 13th there had been no further difficulty with any of the Indians, and every day's voyage was accomplished without dissension. On the 22nd, Saturday, the entrance to Great Slave Lake was reached, and the next day they entered it. Following the north-east shore, with the intention of visiting the spot where Mackenzie had left Le Roux, who had been instructed to remain there until the fall, on the afternoon of the 24th they encountered Le Roux himself, accompanied by an Indian and his family, in a canoe: they had been out for twenty-five days on a hunting excursion. Le Roux reported that he had visited Lac la Martre — a considerable sheet of water lying between Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake, and which is connected by a river flowing into the north arm of Great Slave Lake — and had there secured a quantity of skins from the Indians he had met there. High winds and rough seas rendered  p91 progress slow and hazardous, and so alarmed the Indians that they announced their intention of not accompanying Mackenzie any farther. They nevertheless followed him to "M. Le Roux's house," later known as Fort Rae, where they all arrived on the afternoon of Sunday, 30th, one week after entering the lake. From the stores there Mackenzie paid the Indians who had been his fellow-voyagers with "a plentiful equipment of iron-ware, ammunition, tobacco, &c.," as a recompense for their services. He requested English Chief to visit the Beaver Indians and influence them to carry their furs to M. Le Roux, who would winter in the country at his post on the north shore of the lake.

After sitting up all night making arrangements for continuing the journey the next morning and preparing instructions for the guidance of M. Le Roux, farewells were exchanged at five o'clock A.M. on Monday, and Mackenzie set out to cross the lake to the south shore. Fort Resolution was reached at seven o'clock in the evening of Wednesday, September 2nd, Slave River the next day, and, in the afternoon of the 8th, the Portage des Noyes, where they camped. The following day they cleared the rapids, and repaired the canoe, which had been damaged in the process of portaging and ascending the river, the entire day being consumed in passing this dangerous place.

Falling in with a small party of Indians returning from a war expedition into a hostile country, one of whom was sick, Mackenzie had an opportunity to exercise his skill as a physician. "This man had conceived an idea," explains Mackenzie, "that the people with whom he had been at war had thrown medicine at him, which had caused his present complaint, and that he despaired of recovery. The natives are so superstitious that this idea alone was sufficient to kill him. Of this weakness I took advantage, and assured him that if he would never go to war with such poor defenceless people I would  p92 cure him. To this proposition he readily consented, and on my giving him medicine, which consisted of Turlington's balsam mixed with water, I declared that it would lose its effect if he was not sincere in the promise that he made me. In short, he actually recovered, was true to his engagements, and on all occasions manifested his gratitude to me." It was by such means as this that Mackenzie paved the way for a good understanding with the Indians he encountered, and fostered amicable relations between them and the company he represented.

On September 12th Mackenzie entered the Lake of the Hills, and, a favourable wind enabling them to hoist sail, at three o'clock in the afternoon they reached Fort Chipewyan, where they found M'Leod, with five men, busily employed in building a new house. "Here," says Mackenzie — and there must have been a great sense of relief and satisfaction in his thoughts as well as his words — "here, then, we concluded this voyage, which had occupied the considerable space of one hundred and two days" — modest words, indeed, in which to chronicle the achievement that placed him in the front rank of explorers and discoverers, entitled to a niche in the hall of fame along with La Salle, Verendrye, Mungo Park, and the rest of the intrepid crew of discoverers.

In that one hundred and two days he had journeyed, from Fort Chipewyan to Whale Island and return, a distance of 2990 miles by canoe. The river from Fort Providence to Whale Island had never been explored before by a white man, nor had any individual native ever made the complete journey. Mackenzie River is one of the longest and broadest streams in the world, and drains an area of over six hundred and seventy thousand square miles. It is unique in that a large part of its basin is situated on the farther side of a great mountain chain, the Rockies, which traverse it for one thousand three hundred miles nearly. Two of its principal tributaries, the Liard and Peace Rivers, arise west of the  p93 Rocky Mountains, which they pierce on their way to join the main stream. A third tributary, the Athabasca, the Elk River of the old traders, has its source and basin wholly east of the mountain range. Of these three tributaries the Peace is the longest and largest, whose principal branch, the Finlay, has its source in Lake Thudade in British Columbia. From Great Slave Lake, where Mackenzie's voyage of discovery really began, to the sea the Mackenzie is a noble imposing river, with an average width of one mile, with occasional expansions for long distances of twice that breadth. Clusters of islands occur in its channel at intervals all the way down, while the Rocky Mountains and other ranges that are spurs of the central series run parallel for part of its course. Its current in average stages of water has a velocity of four miles an hour, which is materially increased at the numerous rapids that mark its course.

The journey was one not to be lightly undertaken, and Mackenzie fully realised the dangers that lurked everywhere along the route and dogged his every footstep. There were not only the dangers provided by the river itself — rapids, shoals, submerged rocks, and snags, — but there were the territories of several tribes of Indians to be traversed — Indians who had never seen a white man, and some of them hostile to the natives he necessarily took with him as hunters and interpreters. There were dangers on shore from wild animals, and there was always the haunting spectre that has brought ruin and disaster to so many expeditions of discovery, starvation, to be provided against, not always an easy matter, even in a country where game is abundant. But all these dangers he faced and overcame. His treatment of the natives he encountered was most commendable. His great object was to make friends, to establish peaceful relations between the fur‑traders and those who could furnish a continuous supply of furs, the commodity Mackenzie and his associates in business were desirous  p94 of acquiring. That the river he had thus explored to its mouth, to the Arctic Sea itself, should be named after him — not by himself but by others who recognised the great service he had done to geographical knowledge — was only a fitting testimony to the value placed upon his achievement; and yet the task he so successfully accomplished in 1789 possessed only a tithe of the importance of what he had yet to perform — a task he had already set himself, to discover that western river that would carry him to the western sea.

The Author's Notes:

1 Cameron's 'The New North.'

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2 Ptarmigan.

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Page updated: 1 Oct 19