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Chapter 5

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 7

 p111  Chapter VI

From Forks Fort to Fraser River

At seven o'clock in the evening of Thursday, May 9th, 1793, Alexander Mackenzie left Forks Fort, and began the memorable voyage which took him to the Pacific Ocean. After proceeding up the Peace River for less than three miles, camp was made for the night. The expedition consisted of ten men, including himself. His companions were Alexander Mackay, his lieutenant, an experienced capable man, who had arrived at Fort Chipewyan a few weeks before Mackenzie left there for the Peace River; two Indians as hunters and interpreters; and six French-Canadians — Joseph Landry, Charles Ducette, Francois Beaulieux, Baptist Bisson, Francois Courtois, and Jacques Beauchamp. The two first-named, Landry and Ducette, had accompanied him on his voyage down the Mackenzie to the Arctic Ocean. They took with them provisions, goods for presents, arms, ammunition, and baggage to the amount of three thousand pounds in weight — and a dog. The craft in which the ten men and the freight were bestowed was a birch bark canoe twenty-five feet long, four feet nine inches beam, and twenty‑six inches deep — so light that two men could carry it on a good trail three or four miles without having to stop to rest. To take care of the fort and supply the Indians with ammunition during the summer, he left two men, who shed tears in anticipation of the dangers their friends were about to encounter,  p112 while Mackenzie's companions offered up their prayers for a safe return.

It seems odd that Mackenzie should have taken a dog with him on this expedition, considering the necessity of carefully husbanding their food-supply; and a dog requires a good deal of food. There is, however, a good deal to be said for the companion­ship of a dog. Captain Butler found it so when he followed in Mackenzie's footsteps eighty years afterwards, across the Rocky Mountains and as far as the forks of the Peace River. It does not transpire that Mackenzie's dog served any particular purpose, either for hunting or as guardian during the watches of the night, and it is possible that the animal was a pet, and nothing more, that Mackenzie did not care to leave behind.

During his sojourn at his winter residence Mackenzie had taken several observations to ascertain the position of the fort, which he found to be 56° 9′ N. latitude and 117° 35′ 15″ W. longitude. More recent observations give the latitude as 56° 30′ and longitude 119° 15′. In 1802 David Thompson visited "The Forks" fort, and gave its latitude identical with that given by Mackenzie.

On Friday, the 10th — perhaps Mackenzie started on Thursday to avoid the calamities that beginning a journey on a Friday is alleged to entail — the westward-bound travellers embarked at a quarter-past three in the morning, the morning being bright, clear, and sharp; but about noon a landing had to be made to gum the canoe, which had sprung a leak owing to the heavy load. Mackenzie took advantage of the delay to make an observation, and fixed his position as latitude 55° 58′ 48″. Upon resuming the journey, they had not gone more than a mile and a half when Mackenzie dropped his pocket compass overboard.

Mackenzie was most favourably impressed by the country through which the river runs above Smoky River, and he committed his impressions to paper.

"From the  p113 place which we quitted this morning (10th), the west side of the river displayed a succession of the most beautiful scenery I had ever beheld. The ground rises at intervals to a considerable height, and stretching inwards to a considerable distance. At every interval or pause in the rise there is a very gently ascending space or lawn, which is alternate with abrupt precipices to the summit of the whole, or, at least, as far as the eye could distinguish. This magnificent theatre of nature has all the decorations which the trees and animals of the country can afford it. Groves of poplars in every shape vary the scene, and the intervals are enlivened with vast herds of elks and buffaloes, the former choosing the steeps and uplands, and the latter preferring the plains. At this time the buffaloes were attended with their young ones, who were frisking about them; and it appeared that the elks would soon exhibit the same enlivening circumstance. The whole country displayed an exuberant verdure: the trees that bear a blossom were advancing fast to that delightful appearance, and the velvet rind of their branches reflecting the oblique rays of a rising or setting sun, added a splendid gaiety to the scene, which no expressions of mine are qualified to describe."

This vivid word-picture of the passing scene shows that, besides being a good man of business, he was gifted with a poetic sense that must have served him well during his lonely wanderings.

The Peace was rising, beginning to respond to the spring freshet, and the current so gained in strength that poling served their advance better than the paddles. On the 11th, facing a head wind, they embarked again at four o'clock A.M., and, to lighten the overladen canoe, all the fresh meat that their hunters had secured the evening before, the flesh of an elk, was left behind, save that already put in the pot. After proceeding between six and seven miles, Mackenzie took an observation, and found his position to be 55° 55′ 3″ N. latitude.

 p114  Three miles beyond the whole prairie was on fire, and the head wind so violent, filling the canoe, that the party landed for a respite. A short distance farther on they fell in with a Beaver chief and companions on a hunting expedition. Mackenzie, with seasonable discretion, did not camp there, fearing that his Indians might be discouraged from continuing with him. Fate was unkind to him on this occasion, for several of the Beavers, running along the river banks to keep up with the canoe, maintained a conversation with his men, who became so absorbed in the verbal exchange that they ran the canoe on a rock, necessitating a landing for repairs, and camp was made for the night. Mackenzie's two hunters paid a visit to the camp of the Beavers, whose chief, accompanied by another man, came to Mackenzie and told a bad luck story of a shortage of tobacco and ammunition. The trader promptly referred them to the fort near Smoky River, where they could obtain an abundance of either, or both, "if they were active and industrious" in obtaining furs. The chief suggested that Mackenzie should allow him the use of the canoe to carry himself and family across the river. As this was not altogether to Mackenzie's liking, he was momentarily at a loss to know what excuse to make without giving offence, and happily ventured the opinion that inasmuch as the canoe was destined to carry him and his men on a voyage of much consequence, no woman could be permitted to enter it. The chief immediately concurred in this, and returned to his own camp, quite satisfied with a present of tobacco. It was this resourcefulness in dealing with the natives that enabled Mackenzie to maintain amicable relations with them under trying conditions. Some of the chief's party spent the night in Mackenzie's camp, and from them he learned that it would take ten days to reach the mountains. Mackenzie's hunters returned to his camp on Sunday, 12th, morning, but when they dressed themselves in the clothing given  p115 to them before leaving the Forks, he feared that they had "some latent design," probably desertion.

That day they killed an elk, and when they camped for the night on an island they were again visited by Indians, the greater part of whom were what Mackenzie called Rocky Mountain Indians.

He sought to obtain some useful information from them, but they all pleaded ignorance of the country lying beyond the first mountain, but this ignorance did not hinder them from alleging that the rapids would prevent the travellers from attaining their object. Mackenzie had expected to find with this band of natives an old man who had on a previous occasion given him some information about the country they were about to enter, and who had advised the trader to take the southern branch of the river when he came to the forks beyond the mountains, and from which a portage of day's march would take him to another large river; and to show his good faith he promised that his son, who had accompanied him to the river referred to, should go with him as guide. This son was the guide who had deserted from the fort at the Forks on the eve of the departure of the expedition. Mackenzie now asked about this old man, but to his disappointment learned that he was absent, and not likely to return for a month.

On Monday morning, 13th, to Mackenzie's surprise, the Indian who had induced the proposed guide to desert at the Forks now presented himself, and offered to go in his place. His offer was not accepted, because he knew nothing whatever of the distant country. Mackenzie would have liked nothing better than to have administered a sound chastisement to the rascal, but feared that should he do so it might result in his two hunters being seduced from their allegiance, and they were too essential to him to run the risk of losing them. As quickly as he could get the camp moving, the journey was resumed, much to the chagrin of his hunters, who had  p116 urged him to spend the day there. In the course of the afternoon an observation gave their position as 56° 17′ 44″ N. On the 14th he again took an altitude, and worked out the position as 56° 1′ 19″ N. Two and a half miles beyond the spot where he made the observation he passed what he terms Bear River, which "falls in from the east." This is the present Beatton River.

On Thursday, 16th, he observed "a considerable river which discharged itself by several streams," called Sinew River, which is now named Pine River. It is one hundred yards wide in its lower part. Mackenzie remarks: "This spot would be an excellent situation for a fort or factory, as there is plenty of wood, and every reason to believe that the country abounds in beaver." A few years later, at the junction of the Peace and Pine, Fort St John was originally placed, and there remained until 1874, when a new fort was built on the south bank of Peace River, fifteen miles above the confluence with Pine River. When David Thompson ascended the Peace from Smoky River in 1804 he visited fort St John, which he called Rocky Mountain House, which is not to be confused with the Rocky Mountain House at Hudson's, established by Simon Fraser in 1805. In 1823 the Sekenais Indians attacked the original Fort St John, and killed several men engaged there. This caused the abandonment of the fort for fifty years, when it was rebuilt in the new position. Still later it was again moved, this time to the north bank of the Peace, its present situation.

That night, 16th, they camped at seven o'clock. "The land above the spot where we encamped spreads into an extensive plain," remarks Mackenzie. "The country is so crowded with animals as to have the appearance, in some places, of a stall-yard." Under such conditions of abundant game, Mackay and one of the men killed two elk and mortally wounded a buffalo.

It froze that night, and the air was quite sharp when they embarked on the 17th. At two in the afternoon  p117 the Rocky Mountains came into view, their summits covered with snow, and that day they ascended several rapids. That night it again froze hard.

Embarking at four o'clock in the morning of the 18th, they had not gone two hundred yards before they had to put to shore again to repair damage to the canoe, and later in the afternoon they ran on a snag, necessitating a further landing for repairs, two hours being lost on that occasion. Then a storm broke, and compelled them to make camp for the night at six o'clock. The current during the day increased in velocity; so strong was it that the following, Mackenzie, Mackay, and the two hunters, landed in order to lighten the canoe. Climbing the hills, they soon found a beaten path made by deer and buffalo which ford the river thereabouts. They soon fell in with a herd of buffalo, but Mackenzie would not allow the hunters to shoot them lest the report of firearms might alarm any Indians who might be in the vicinity, some of whom he daily expected to encounter. "Our dog," however, was sent after them, and brought down a calf. While the hunters were skinning the animal two gun reports were heard, and Mackenzie immediately answered by a similar signal. This was followed by another report, and Mackenzie and his companions hastened down the river, where they learned that the canoe was at the foot of a strong rapid with falls beyond, and that a portage would be necessary. These were the first rapids of which the Indians had warned Mackenzie.

The voyageurs wanted to make a portage, but Mackenzie, with the daring that formed part of his nature, decided otherwise, and how the passage was effected cannot be better related than by quoting his own words:

The account which had been given me of the rapids was perfectly correct, though by crossing to the other side, I must acknowledge with some risk in such a heavy-laden canoe, the river appeared to me to be practicable as far as we could see; the traverse, therefore, was  p118 attempted, and proved successful. We now towed the canoe along an island, and proceeded without any considerable difficulty till we reached the extremity of it, when the line could no longer be employed; and in endeavouring to clear the point of the island, the canoe was driven with such violence on a stony shore as to receive considerable injury. We now employed every exertion in our power to repair the breach that had been made, as well as to dry such articles of our loading as more immediately required it. We then transported the whole across the point, when we reloaded, and continued our course about three-quarters of a mile. We could now proceed no farther on this side of the water, and the traverse was rendered extremely dangerous, not only from the strength of the current but by the cascades just below us, which, if we got among them, would have involved us and the canoe in one common destruction. We had no other alternative than to return by the same course we came, or to hazard the traverse, the river on this side being bounded by a range of steep overhanging rocks, beneath which the current was driven on with resistless impetuosity from the cascades. Here are several small islands of solid rock, covered with a small portion of verdure, which have been worn away by the constant force of the current, and occasionally, as I presume, of ice at the water's edge, so as to be reduced in that part to one‑fourth the extent of the upper surface, presenting, as it were, so many large tables, each of which was supported by a pedestal of a more circumscribed projection. . . . By crossing from one to the other of these islands we came at length to the main traverse, on which we ventured, and were successful in our passage. Mr Mackay and the Indians, who observed our manoeuvres from the top of a rock, were in continual alarm for our safety."

It is noteworthy that Mackenzie and the voyageurs alone risked their lives in this undertaking. The Indians, for whose safety the explorer was  p119 always more concerned than for his own, were sent out of danger's way. He never sent his men to do anything that he would not undertake himself.

Difficult and dangerous as had been this proceeding, as bad and worse still confronted them. Using a sixty-fathom line, the canoe was towed up the swift water on the west side until farther progress was impossible, and a portage of a hundred and twenty paces had to be made. When the canoe was reloaded, Mackenzie and some of the men ascended the river bank and watched the voyageurs toiling below them. "My present situation," says Mackenzie, "was so elevated that the men, who were coming up a strong point, could not hear me, though I called to them with the utmost strength of my voice to lighten the canoe of part of its lading. And here I could not but reflect, with infinite anxiety, on the hazard of my enterprise. One false step of those attached to the line, or the breaking of the line itself, would have at once consigned the canoe, and everything it contained, to instant destruction. It, however, ascended the rapid in perfect security, but new dangers immediately presented themselves, for stones, both small and great, were continually rolling from the bank, so as to render the situation of those who were dragging the canoe beneath it extremely perilous; besides, they were at every step in danger, from the steepness of the ground, of falling into the water; nor was my solicitude diminished by my being necessarily removed at times from the sight of them."

Travelling through the forest, Mackenzie came to an enclosure made by the Indians for the capture of elk. Reaching the river again after tramping for some hours, he was perturbed by not seeing any sign of the canoe. He sent Mackay back to ascertain the reason of the delay, while he continued on for a mile and a half to examine the river still farther ahead, and "came to a part where the river washes the feet of lofty precipices,  p120 and presented, in the form of rapids and cascades, a succession of difficulties to our navigation." As the canoe still did not come, Mackenzie retraced his steps to where he had parted from Mackay, and then to his satisfaction saw his men carrying the canoe over a rocky point. "Their difficulties had been great indeed, and the canoe had been broken; but they had persevered with success, and, having passed the carrying-place, we proceeded with the line as far as I had already been."

A man sent forward to make an examination of the river returned at nightfall with the report that it would be impracticable to pass several points. The following morning, however, they set out, and "with infinite difficulty passed along the foot of a rock, which, fortunately, was not a hard stone, so that we were enabled to cut steps in it for the distance of twenty feet, from which, at the hazard of my life, I leaped," says Mackenzie, "on a small rock below, where I received those who followed me on my shoulders. In this manner four of us passed and dragged up the canoe, in which attempt we broke her."

A dry tree provided fuel for a fire, over which they melted the pitch for the repair of the canoe, and, to prepare for future needs, two men were sent to procure a further supply of birch bark. When the canoe was ready the journey was resumed, progress being made by poling and towing. A traverse being found necessary at a place where the water was very rapid, some of the men stripped to their shirts that they might be better prepared for swimming in case of accident, but the crossing was made without other mishap than that of shipping of water. Mackenzie took an observation, and found the latitude to be 56° N, which, he remarks in his journal, "has since been proved to be tolerably correct." Continuing up‑stream, the velocity of the current increased, and in two miles they had to unload and portage four times, and at five o'clock in the afternoon they  p121 came to where the river was one continuous rapid. Again unloading, the canoe was towed with much difficulty and danger until, a wave striking the bow, the line parted, the canoe swept away, and the men in it faced what all thought certain death. For a moment it seemed that the expedition would come to an abortive end then and there, but another wave drove the frail craft into an eddy, where it was seized upon by eager hands and taken ashore. As far as could be seen ahead of them, the river was one white sheet of foaming water.

The perils and dangers they had met with, and the toil and labour of overcoming almost insurmountable obstacles, did not fail to affect the spirits of the men. They began to murmur, to whisper among themselves that it was useless to proceed, that they would be obliged to return to their starting-point. Mackenzie dealt with the malcontents in a way peculiarly his own: he bade them exert themselves in climbing the high river-bank and camp there for the night. While they were thus engaged, he, accompanied by an Indian, proceeded up‑stream until the light failed. Everywhere he saw a succession of rapids and falls, and he came to the conclusion that farther progress by water was impossible. Had the water been at a higher stage, as it would be in the course of a week or two, he would not have been able to ascend to the point he had already attained. There the river is not more than fifty yards wide, and flows between stupendous rocks. From the precipices above great fragments of rock fell and strewed the edge of the river, and along the face of the cliffs Mackenzie observed a seam of "bituminous substance which resembles coal." Mackay and the Indians, who journeyed by land, passed "several chasms in the earth that emitted heat and smoke, which diffused a strong sulphureous stench."

They had departed from the Forks Fort on May 9th, and, after a strenuous journey lasting eleven days, had reached the eastern boundary of the great cañon, a distance  p122 of one hundred and forty-eight miles, according to Mackenzie, from the starting-point.​1 Before they could again resume the voyage by water, they must first pass the formidable Rocky Mountain Portage, an arduous undertaking over a mountain trail of twelve miles. The trail cuts across country, forming the base of an isosceles triangle, whose apex points to the south. The two sides of the triangle, formed by the Peace River cañon, measure over twenty miles. In that distance the water descends 270 feet. Above the river tower precipices, which sometimes attained 1000 feet in height. The Peace itself, tearing wildly through the deep narrow gorge, tumbling over falls, rushing impetuously down rocky rapids, lashed everywhere into seething white water, presents a spectacle awful in its grandeur.

On Wednesday, May 22nd, the task of carrying everything they possessed over the twelve-mile portage was commenced. First the canoe, and afterwards the baggage, provisions, &c., were conveyed with infinite toil, and no little danger, from the river below to the camping ground on the heights above, "a very perilous undertaking, as one false step of any of the people concerned in it would have been instantly followed by falling headlong into the water." Men were set to work cutting a road, others following with the goods and the canoe. Mackenzie was everywhere, superintending, lending a hand with the canoe, using an axe to fell trees with the trail-makers. All Thursday they worked, always inspired by the example and cheerfulness of the leader. Deep ravines and steep ascents were encountered, but they and all obstacles were overcome by Mackenzie's indomitable will. On the third day, Friday, the descent to the river began, and at four o'clock in the afternoon it was reached, a short distance above the head of the rapids, at the place visited by Mackay on the 21st. Two hundred yards below, the  p123 river plunged at a terrific velocity between perpendicular rocks only thirty-five yards apart.

All of the next day, Saturday, 25th, was occupied in making poles, putting the canoe in order, and preparing for the next stage of the journey. It was near this spot that at a later date the Hudson's Bay Company established Cust's House. At the foot of the rapids, where the portage began, Simon Fraser built Rocky Mountain House in 1805. The name of the place was later changed to Hudson's Hope, which it still retains.

Before leaving that camp at five o'clock, Saturday afternoon, to resume the journey, Mackenzie erected a pole, to which he attached a knife, flint and steel, beads, &c., as a token of amity to the Indians, and to this collection one of his hunters added a small piece of wood, chewed at one end into a sort of brush, to denote abundance of game in that locality. They then embarked, and after proceeding a mile and three-quarters, with high hills all around them, Mackenzie observed and noted one on the south side that towered above all the rest. This was the Buffalo's Head, the view from whose summit is so graphically described by Captain Butler in the 'Wild North Land.' From there, in April 1872, Butler gazed upon "a mass of yellow grass and blue anemones." Mackenzie, however, passed it by, and after making about four miles against a stiff current and a rising stream, camped for the night.

Although near the end of May, the men complained much of the cold in their fingers, and on Sunday, when the voyage was resumed, they were obliged to use poles instead of paddles on that account. The passing of a "small river . . . from the north" on that day is noted. This was Eight Mile Creek, it being that distance above Cust's House. Sixteen miles were made that day, camp being made at seven P.M. On Monday the hunters killed a stag, the second deer they had secured since leaving the head of the portage. Passing Carbon River they  p124 encountered several rapids, but did not have to make a portage until the following day, at the Rapids qui ne parleº pas, a misnomer, inasmuch as the noise made is heard for quite a distance. Mackenzie does not note having passed the Na‑bes‑che or Otter-tail River, just before coming to the rapids.

To keep his men contented and in good humour, Mackenzie would give them a "regale," or treat, generally of grog or a tot of rum, after an arduous day's work, or some special exertion or occasion. These repeated libations made great inroads in the supply of liquor, and the last of a keg of the spirit was consumed on Wednesday, May 29th. Mackenzie thereupon conceived the idea of writing an account of the journey from the Forks, placing the written paper in the keg and turning it adrift on the river. With the thought came execution. The story was written, the sheet of paper thrust into the keg through the bung-hole, which was then closed securely, and he "consigned this epistolary cargo to the mercy of the current." Needless to say, nothing more was ever heard of either keg or letter: it probably came to grief in the passage through the cañon.

The following day they passed Clearwater River, which flows from the south, and on Friday morning passed the mouth of Barnard River, a mountain torrent by which they "were very much endangered." So cold were the men at nine in the forenoon that a landing was made and a fire lighted. The heat thus generated and a "regale" of rum soon restored them to a more comfortable condition, and they again embarked. They passed mountain after mountain, one of which now bears the name of Mount Selwyn, and on proceeding a few miles farther they "arrived at the fork, one branch running west-north-west, and the other south-south-east." The first or northerly branch, the largest and longest, was afterwards ascended in 1798 by James Finlay, left in charge of the New Establishment in 1793, and bears his name.  p125 The southerly branch is the Parsnip River. Which of the two to follow Mackenzie did not know. His own inclination was to take the northerly fork, "as it appeared to me to be the most likely to bring us nearest to the part where I wished to fall upon the Pacific Ocean," from which it is evident he still entertained the hope of finding the river of whose existence he had been told by the Dog‑rib and Hare Indians of the Mackenzie, and which he thought must be Cook's River. But he remembered the advice he had received at Smoky River from the old Beaver Indians, who had frequently visited Peace River district on war expeditions against the Sekenais, and who had warned him, Mackenzie, not on any account to follow it, as it was "lost in various branches among the mountains, and there was not any great river near it," which would indicate that the old man knew that part of the country quite well. On the contrary, Mackenzie was urged by the old warrior to follow the south branch, by which they would reach a carrying-place which would take them to another large river.

Fortunately for the outcome of the expedition, Mackenzie set aside his own wishes and resolved to take the advice of one who had first‑hand knowledge. His men expressed their wish that he should ascend the Finlay, mainly because the Parsnip was the more rapid stream. Mackenzie, however, having fully decided what to do, ordered the steersman to stem the current of the Parsnip. So great was the resistance offered their progress by the velocity of the river that it took the whole afternoon to ascend three miles. This circumstance, and the hardships they had hitherto endured, aroused the discontent of the men, who freely cursed the Parsnip and the whole excursion. Mackenzie was obliged again to exercise his tact and diplomacy in handling a delicate situation, and this he did to such good purpose that he convinced them of his determination to proceed despite every obstacle and untoward condition.

 p126  Day after day they toiled against the rushing tide. Day after day the volume and velocity of the river increased, augmenting their labour. Mention is made of passing a large river on the right, Nation River, but the mouth of Pack River leading to M'Leod Lake seems to have been unobserved. This may be accounted for by the explorer's custom of occasionally taking a nap while en route. From Monday, May 27th, until June 4th his journal fails to show the courses of the voyage. He candidly explains the omission thus: "From this day to the 4th of June the courses of my voyage are omitted. I lost the book that contained them. I was in the habit of sometimes indulging myself with a short doze in the canoe, and I imagine that the branches of the trees brushed the book from me when I was in such a situation." The same reason may explain several other omissions as well.

On June 5th, Mackenzie, Mackay, and the two Indian hunters landed with the intention of ascending a hill to make a reconnaissance, the voyageurs being instructed to continue the journey and to give certain signals by gun‑fire if necessary. The reconnaissance was duly made, and, proceeding in the direction of up‑stream, the river was in due time regained. Gun‑shot signals were given without any answer being received. Whether the canoe was below or above them was a question none could answer. Mackay and one Indian went down‑stream, while Mackenzie and the other hunter took the opposite direction. Mackenzie blamed himself for his imprudence in leaving his people, "an act of indiscretion which might have put an end to the voyage I had so much at heart." They were tired and hungry. No game was seen all that day. Mackenzie and his companion gave up the search, and were in the act of preparing couches of branches of evergreens whereon to pass the night when they heard the discharge of firearms from down‑stream. Weary as they were they struggled to rejoin their comrades, and it was almost dark when they reached the  p127 camp. The voyageurs excused their slow progress by alleging the canoe had broken. Mackenzie professed to believe them, and consoled them with the comforting "regale." On the 7th he took observations to learn his position, which he found to be 55° 2′ 51″ N. latitude and 122° 35′ 50″ W. longitude.

They now began to be anxious about the "carrying-place" of which they had been told, and their only hope of obtaining any information about it was in falling in with some natives, of whom they had as yet not seen any. On Sunday, June 9th, however, after a long day's travel, the smell of wood smoke assailed their nostrils — the smell of a camp fire, — and they heard the noise of people moving confusedly in the woods, from which signs they knew they had disturbed a party of Indians at their encampment, who had observed their approach while themselves remained unseen. No less unprepared for possible hostilities were the travellers, and Mackenzie ordered the canoe to be paddled to the opposite side of the river. Before half the distance had been accomplished two men appeared on the bank, brandishing their spears, displaying their bows and arrows, and accompanying their hostile gestures with loud cries. Despite the overtures of peace held out to them for acceptance, they declared they would discharge their arrows at the white men if they attempted to make a landing before they were fully satisfied of their peaceful intentions. Ultimately this was done to their satisfaction. They laid aside their weapons, and Mackenzie landed and took each of them by the hand, whereupon one of them tremulously drew his knife from his sleeve and presented it to the explorer as a sign of his submission. "They examined us," says Mackenzie, "and everything about us with a minute and suspicious attention. They had heard, indeed, of white men, but this was the first time that they had ever seen a human being of a complexion different from their own." One of the men was sent to fetch back  p128 the others of the party, who had fled for safety, and who now returned. The entire party of Indians when all were assembled consisted of three men, three women, and seven or eight children, of the Sekenais tribe.

Mackenzie determined to camp near them until they became quite accustomed to his presence, and intended asking them for all the information they could give about the rivers and the country in general. Had he not fallen in with any natives, it had been his intention to land at what he considered a favourable place for finding the "carrying-place," and then sending parties out in several directions to search for another river. If this failed, he would return down the Parsnip and ascend the Finlay.

Mackenzie landed at three in the afternoon, and two hours later the fugitive women and children came in, with scratched legs and bleeding feet, for in their haste of flight they had left their moccasins and leggings behind them. To console them for their discomfort and to gain their good opinion, Mackenzie gave them presents of beads and other articles, and some pemmican. Their confidence thus restored, the explorer began to question them, but his inquiries did not elicit much information from them beyond that a moon's travel to the west there were "other tribes, who live in houses . . . and . . . extend their journies to the sea coast, or, to use their expression, the Stinking Lake, where they trade with people like us, that come there in vessels as big as islands." But all inquiries about a great river met with nothing but professions of ignorance of the existence of such a stream. In vain did Mackenzie promise to bring ships laden with goods to the mouth of it if they would but show it to him or tell him where to find it; in vain did he promise to furnish them with everything they might want, and to make peace between them and the Beaver Indians, if they would, on his return, accompany him across the Rocky Mountains. None of these undertakings advanced the object of his inquiries. Nor did he  p129 meet with any better success next day when he again renewed his questioning. All he could extract from them was a repetition of what they had already told him, with the addition that they had themselves just come from another stream, which they declared to be a branch of that they were then on.

This negative state of affairs greatly perturbed Mackenzie, and he almost decided to abandon the canoe and go overland, but further reflection soon convinced him of the futility of such a course, because of the inability to carry sufficient provision and presents to ensure their safety. To continue the journey up the Parsnip seemed useless; to abandon the enterprise altogether was a thought too painful to indulge in. In the midst of this state of perplexity and anxious solicitude came unexpected relief. One of the Indians remaining by the camp fire, apart from his companions, began conversing with the interpreters about a great river, and Mackenzie speedily learned that he knew of a large stream flowing towards the mid‑day sun, a branch of which ran not far from the stream they were then navigating. Mackenzie induced him to draw the course of the great river on a piece of bark, the result of the interview being the resurrection of hope and confidence. This unlooked‑for information did not come to light until the second day after falling in with the Indians. Within an hour after receiving it Mackenzie bade the Sekenais good‑bye, and, after an exchange of gifts and other courtesies, with one of their number as guide resumed his journey up the Parsnip.

Three days later, on Wednesday, 12th June, after following a narrow meandering stream, they arrived at a small lake about two miles long, which Mackenzie considered as the highest and southernmost source of the Peace River, and whose position he found to be 54° 24′ N. latitude and 121° W. longitude. There they landed and unloaded the canoe. A portage of eight hundred and  p130 seventeen paces by a well-beaten path led over a low ridge, the summit of the water-shed separating the affluents of the Parsnip, whose waters ultimately empty into the Arctic Ocean through the Mackenzie River from the sources of the Fraser River, which flows into the Pacific. At the beginning of the portage they found several canoes left there by the natives, together with baskets containing various articles hanging on the trees. In the baskets were nets, hooks, traps, &c. Some of these Mackenzie took, leaving in exchange a knife, beads, awls, &c., as was his custom.

The portage conducted them to another small lake, on which they embarked. Traversing this, they descended a short stream into still another lake, out of which ran Bad River, now named James Creek, which took them into the Fraser. Mackenzie had intended walking part of the distance along Bad River, but his men, apprehensive of what lay before them, expressed a wish that he should go in the canoe with them, so that if they were lost he would perish with them. To placate them he did as they requested. It soon became evident that their fears were not without foundation. After making a portage past a rapid the canoe was reladen, and the journey resumed. Almost immediately the canoe struck, and the force of the current drove it sideways down the river. They all jumped out to remedy this disaster, but coming to deep water were obliged to scramble on board again with the utmost haste, one man being left on the bar. The others had barely regained their places when the canoe drove against a rock, which shattered the stern so that the steersman could not keep his place; and while this new trouble was still engaging their care, the current forced the canoe against the shore and smashed the bow, and, as if this did not sufficiently discommode them, they encountered a cascade, and suffered several punctures in the bottom of the canoe, and all the supporting bars or thwarts were started, so that the vessel  p131 lay flat upon the water, and it was only after the severest exertions that they reached shore with the remnants of the wreck and such of the cargo that had not gone to the bottom, the most important loss being their entire stock of bullets, which was lost beyond recovery. Fortunately the powder escaped a wetting, but most of the other things were soaked, and had to be spread out to dry.

The men were much downcast by this accident, and gave free vent to their misgivings. Mackenzie paid no attention to their complaints until their panic passed and they were warmed and comforted by a hearty meal, not omitting "rum enough to raise their spirits." Then, and not until then, he harangued them, pointing out that the danger they had just encountered arose from their ignorance of the river and not from any danger to navigation. They would in future profit by the lesson learned from the occurrence. He urged upon them "the honour of conquering disasters," and the disgrace that would attend them should they return home without having attained the object of the expedition. He reminded them of the courage and resolution which was the peculiar boast of the north men, and that he looked to them to sustain the reputation enjoyed by men of their breed and calling. As for the loss of the bullets, had they not abundance of shot out of which a further supply could be made?

This address had the desired effect. The men proposed to abandon the wrecked canoe and carry their goods to the river, which the guide said was not far distant. But this plan did not receive the approval of their leader. Instead, he sent two of the Canadians and an Indian to obtain a supply of birch bark, and to proceed as far as the river itself if they could do so within the day. Night fell, and as they did not return Mackenzie became uneasy. To his intense relief about ten o'clock he heard a shout, and shortly afterwards the Indian entered the camp, his clothes torn to rags, bringing a small quantity  p132 of inferior bark. He had parted with the two Canadians at sunset. Of the river or creek upon which they then were he gave a discouraging account, describing it as a succession of rapids and falls and snags.

While this reconnaissance was being made, Mackenzie and the others spent the day in patching up the badly used canoe. That day also, says Mackenzie in his journal, "we had an escape which I must add to the many instances of good-fortune which I experienced in this perilous expedition. The powder had been spread out, to the amount of eighty pounds, to receive the air; and in this situation one of the men carelessly and composedly walked across it with a lighted pipe in his mouth, but without any ill consequence from such an act of criminal negligcence. I need not add that one spark might have put a period to all my anxiety and ambition."

At noon Mackenzie took an observation, and gave the latitude as 54° 23′ N. He observed trees and plants which he had not seen elsewhere north of latitude 52° — cedar, hemlock, maple, &c.

The next morning, Friday, while the work of repairing the canoe was in progress, the two Canadian scouts came in, hungry, cold, and ragged, with a report substantially the same as that of the Indian. They had seen the larger river, however, but were of the opinion it would be necessary to carry everything to it, owing to the obstacles to navigation in the stream they had embarked on. The canoe was patched up, and on Saturday the journey was continued, four men in the canoe, the others carrying on shore part of the freight. That morning Mackenzie experienced the first instance of disobedience to mar the journey. Beauchamp flatly refused to embark in the canoe when ordered. Under the circumstances Mackenzie did not deem it expedient to inflict severe punishment, "but as he had the general character of a simple fellow among his companions and had been frightened out of what little sense he possessed by our late dangers, I  p133 rather preferred to consider him as unworthy of accompanying us, and to represent him as an object of ridicule and contempt for his pusillanimous behaviour, though, in fact, he was a very useful, active, and laborious man."

At the close of the day they assembled round a blazing fire, and the entire party were enlivened by a "regale," while, their good spirits being restored, they enjoyed in anticipation the pleasures of emerging from the present difficulties and continuing the way gliding down a strong and steady stream.

Sunday did not prove as lucky a day for them as had Saturday, for not only was a hole broken in the canoe bottom while descending a rapid, but a toilsome portage through deep mud so discouraged the men that their murmurs broke forth afresh. Four men were assigned to the task of carrying the canoe, which, what with patches and gum, was become so heavy that two men could not carry it more than a hundred yards without being relieved. The other two men and Mackenzie followed with the cargo. The extent of their progress that day was only two miles. So discouraged were the men that Mackenzie found it necessary to again give them a dram of rum. After the others had crept into their blankets Mackenzie sat up until midnight, as he had made a practice of doing, to keep watch over the guide. At twelve he awoke Mackay to relieve him.

Whether Mackay fell asleep or not is not told; probably he dozed during his watch. Be that as it may, the guide escaped, as Mackenzie was informed by Mackay at three o'clock in the morning. Immediate search was made, but without avail, the darkness and the Indian's cunning knowledge of woodcraft favouring the flight. The search was abandoned, nor was any further time wasted in renewing the chase when daylight came, all energies being directed in pursuing the voyage.

Travelling alternately by land and water, cutting a road through the forest growth when portaging became  p134 necessary, at eight o'clock in the evening of Monday, June 17th, the party arrived at the bank of the "great river," the north branch (now called Herrick Creek) of the North Fork (Upper M'Gregor River) of the Fraser. To Mackenzie, the discoverer, it was an unknown unnamed river, a stream no white man had seen before, upon which he and his companions were the first civilised beings to embark. Had Mackenzie observed and ascended Pack River in place of continuing up the Parsnip, he would have reached the Fraser a considerable distance lower down at a saving of much time and energy.

The achievement is chronicled by Mackenzie in his customary matter-of‑fact manner; but simple as are the few words in which he tells of it, it is easy to read the inner delight of the man. "At length we enjoyed," he says, "after all our toil and anxiety, the inexpressible satisfaction of finding ourselves on the bank of a navigable river on the west side of the first great range of mountains."

The Author's Note:

1 Selwyn made the distance 152 miles; Dawson gave it as 208 miles.

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Page updated: 1 Jan 17