# Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, effected by the Officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the years 1836—39/Chapter IV

CHAPTER IV.

Descent from Athabasca to the Polar Sea.

Having, with Chief Factor Smith's kind and liberal assistance, satisfactorily completed every arrangement, the expedition took its departure, on the evening of Thursday the 1st of June, from Fort Chipewyan, under a salute, which we returned with three hearty cheers. As soon as the first shade of regret at parting from so sincere a friend had passed away, we warmly congratulated each other on being at length fairly embarked in the interesting service of discovery. Our hopes of achieving what far more distinguished names had left undone were high, and we may be pardoned if we exulted in the flattering prospect. Traversing the western extremity of the Athabasca Lake, we entered Rocky River, its principal outlet, and encamped. We formed a small but happy party; and as our white tents glittered in the rays of the sun, now declining to the horizon after his long diurnal course, with the broad river running in front, and around us the green woods, the view was pleasing, if not picturesque.

The succeeding morning broke sweetly, and we were on the water at 3 o'clock. The day proved sultry, but a gentle northerly breeze occasionally freshened the air, and the men rowed with energy. Passing the confluence of the noble Peace River, we entered the augmented volume of the Great Slave River, which we descended for upwards of thirty miles, and encamped. It thundered and rained a little in the evening. We could not help being struck with the rapid advance of vegetation, now that we were beyond the chilling influence of the lake. Here the bright green of the poplar and willow blended with and lightened the deeper and more durable verdure of the pine.

On the 3rd we were favoured with a fine breeze on the quarter, and our craft shot swiftly down the wide stream for nearly forty miles; when, coming to a rapid, we lowered sail, and ran it in excellent style. The Cassette Portage soon followed, and at its north end we encamped early; a heavy rain falling, which continued throughout the night. In the afternoon we saw some Indians, from whom we obtained an acceptable supply of fresh moose meat.

4th.—We were involved all day among portages and rapids; the river rushing impetuously, in numerous channels, among rocky wooded islands, with a breadth of from one to two miles. Many patches of snow still adhered to the river banks. We encamped on the Mountain Portage.

A considerable part of the 6th was occupied by the Pelican Portage, and that of The Drowned. The desert-bird frequents the first in prodigious numbers; and the rocky islands, a mile out in the stream, were crowded with their white ranks reposing after their morning's fishing. After passing these turbulent barriers, we descended the now tranquil river for about five leagues, and found our hunters (who had been despatched two days a-head), with a large camp of other Chipewyans, squatted, like so many beavers, in their lodges on the muddy banks of the Salt River. We chose our station in the neighbouring woods.

On the morning of the 6th I mustered in the camp three of the largest canoes, and ascended Salt River, in order to procure a supply of its most useful production, and to view the beautiful plain represented with so much spirit by Back's able pencil. The distance to the opening of the plain exceeds twenty miles, following the tortuous course of the stream, which is shallow, and, as we advanced, became salt as brine. We had not the good fortune to fall in with buffaloes, though their tracks, and those of moose and bears, were numerous; but consoled ourselves in an attack upon the wild fowl attracted hither by the briny waters. There were swans; Canada and laughing geese; several species of ducks, the most remarkable of which were the beautiful light blue; and a very small but splendidly variegated teal, so tame as almost to allow itself to be caught with the hand. We had not to search long for salt: a single mound on the plain furnished us with thirty bags of the finest quality, and seemed undiminished by the removal of a quantity sufficient for our own wants, and for the supply of the Athabasca and Mackenzie River districts. A mountain, which terminates the plain at the distance of four or five miles, glistened as if incrusted with the same pure white substance. From the hill-sides gush delicious springs of fresh water. Having finished our work, we bivouacked and feasted under as lovely an evening sky as fancy could paint. A sudden gust of wind, which bent the tall pines and poplars like wands, cleared off the musquitoes; and we enjoyed a few hours of refreshing rest in the soft twilight, for there was no longer any night in these regions.

We returned to the boats the following day at noon. The interval had been employed by the carpenter in re-caulking the seams opened by the frost and heat, which rendered them perfectly tight during the remainder of the voyage. As soon as this operation was completed, we re-embarked, and descended Slave River for twenty miles.

The 8th was fine, but a fresh north-west wind much retarded our progress; and, though we were on the water fourteen hours, we advanced little more than forty miles. The Indian flotilla came up to us while ashore breakfasting. They had two large beavers on board, just killed, and a little cub, which they picked up as it was helplessly carried down by the stream. We encamped at Stony Point, which was strewed with fragments of gypsum. Our journey next day was precisely similar. Though travelling directly northward, the warm limestone bed over which the river flows nourished an advanced vegetation. We several times put ashore, and availing ourselves of the willowy covert, here in full leaf, shot a number of geese that were basking on the sunny beach. We halted at a late hour below the channel called Rivière à Jean.

Following the principal mouth of the river, on the morning of the 10th we entered Great Slave Lake. Every eye was directed across that inland sea, and great was our mortification when, with the glass, we discerned an unbroken line of ice embracing the land beyond Moose-deer Island. We advanced to the edge of that unwelcome barrier; but it was firm and immoveable, threatening us with a long detention. Turning within the islands, a portage, performed with the aid of canoes, brought our provisions and other property, in the course of the day, to Fort Resolution; the boats crossing the shallows light.

From the 10th to the 21st of June the ice kept us prisoners at Fort Resolution, occasionally retreating a mile or two, as if to tantalize us, then closing and driving the fishermen and their nets ashore.

On the 12th we indulged our people with a dance, though the constant daylight was rather unfavourable to the dark complexions of the ladies. It was concluded by a general supper, at which tea was the beverage, all intoxicating liquors being, as already noticed, excluded from this sober land.

The 13th was marked by a thunderstorm of a terrible violence, unusual in these high latitudes; to which succeeded a week of beautiful weather. The games and sports of the people without the gates were generally at their height at midnight, when the coolness of the atmosphere incited to exertion. At every shout the echoes ran along the floating ice in the bay, passing from one fragment to another, and producing a succession of sounds, that became gradually softer and fainter, till they seemed to mingle with the horizon. The mirage, too, exhibited some curious appearances. Mr. Dease vaccinated all the young people, Indian or half-breed, at the place; a benefit already conferred on the whole concourse of natives at Fort Chipewyan. Several sets of azimuths made the variation here 37° 16′ 30″ E. The variation found by Back, in 1833, was 37° 20′ and by Franklin, in 1825, 29° 16′ 9″ E. For the last four years, then, the quantity would seem to have remained nearly stationary, but from 1825 to 1833 to have increased annually one degree; while at Fort Chipewyan, as formerly stated, the annual increase, since 1825, has only been about three minutes. Local attraction and difference of instruments have probably a share in these discrepancies, which might otherwise throw some light upon the motion of the magnetic pole. In this manner was the delay beguiled; but our main object languished, and many an anxious glance was directed to the ice, which a southerly breeze at length wafted outwards on the morning of the 21st. We now embarked in the Goliah all the dogs I had brought with me from Bed River, which, with some additions, numbered twenty-one, the complement of seven sledges, and proved most unruly passengers.

We set sail in the forenoon of the 21st, having despatched our hunters along shore two or three days before. The day was delightful, the wind light; and we had advanced about forty miles, when we found the Indians encamped on a point close to the fixed ice, and with them we put up late in the evening. A westerly wind opened a passage for us during the night. After pulling against it for a few hours, and forcing our way in many places through the loose ice, we landed to breakfast in Sulphur Cove. The springs here are well worthy of inspection. They are large, clear, and leave a deep sulphureous deposit wherever their waters run, as well as in the fountains themselves. The wind blew strongly now; and our Indian companions, having to repair their canoes, had not come up. They at last made their appearance; and, the breeze falling, we started at 6 p. m. and proceeded all night.

At 5 in the morning of the 23rd we made Hay River, and, the ice being jammed to the shore close beyond it, we halted for the remainder of the day. A net set across the stream supplied us with a number of dory and inconnu, while its banks furnished wild onions in abundance.

On the 24th we found the ice in many places still wedged-in to the land, and, though we pushed through it with unabated energy all day, it was midnight when we reached the head of the great river Mackenzie, where we encamped.

Sunday, 25th.—After rowing against a strong contrary wind, to very little purpose, all the morning, we caught sight of the Fort Simpson boats ascending the current under sail. We immediately landed on a small island, and spent the rest of the day with our esteemed friend Chief Trader M'Pherson. There were several arrangements to concert with that gentleman touching the expedition; which done, he resumed his route to Portage la Loche about midnight, and we remained wind-bound on our islet. We afterwards learned that he experienced quite as much difficulty as ourselves in making his way through the ice of Great Slave Lake.

The gale moderating on the 26th, we took our departure in the afternoon. After a couple of hours' tough pulling, during which we shipped some water, and were assailed by several heavy squalls with rain, the wind came round upon our starboard bow. Setting sail,—for the boats stood well within four points,—we made tolerable progress till 10 p. m., when we put ashore for supper, and to wait for our Indian squadron, now left far behind. The richness of the foliage on the banks of the Mackenzie, after issuing from the inhospitable climate of Great Slave Lake, was refreshing to the eye; but the musquitoes acted as a check upon our admiration, and we were glad to re-embark before midnight.

The weather was now beautiful; a light cool breeze played upon the water; our men were in high spirits, and lightened the labours of the oar with the enlivening strains of the Canadian voyageur songs. Soon after 2 a. m., just as the sun emerged in glory from his short rest, "firing the high tops of the eastern pines," we approached the first camp we had yet seen of the Dog-rib Indians. They came out in their curiously-shaped canoes to welcome us ashore, their animated gestures and sparkling eyes testifying the pleasure they derived from the meeting. Their tents were pitched on a pretty point, just within the margin of the green wood, where we held an hour's talk with these kind inoffensive people. I noticed some fine faces among the younger men; and the women, though not so good-looking, have an affectionate and pleasing address. They all, down to the very children, expressed their thanks by the French abbreyiation, "merci," for the various articles presented to them; a most agreeable contrast to the sullen indifference of the Chipewyans. Our hunters not making their appearance, we engaged one or two of the most active youths to escort them to Fort Simpson, and pursued our way.

Several more Dog-ribs were passed during the day; and at 10 p. m. we landed at one of their huts, placed on an island near the site of the ill-fated Livingstone's establishment, who, with most of his crew, was massacred by the Esquimaux, many years ago, on his attempting to open a trade with them. The children and dogs were huddled together asleep when we arrived, and formed rather a queer group. We continued our route at 11, and, having rowed for an hour, lashed the boats together, and resigned them to the guidance of the wide deep stream.

When we awoke on the 28th, we found that we had drifted three or four leagues with the current. The morning sun shone brilliantly, tinging the broad waters and the wood-crowned cliffs with golden hues. The verdure on the banks was luxuriant, and, viewed in that glowing light, the scenery produced a very imposing effect. A fine breeze bore us swiftly down the stream, and, crossing the mouth of the picturesque River of the Mountains, we reached Fort Simpson.

Our hunters cast up in the forenoon of the 29th. They had stove one of their canoes, had narrowly escaped foundering in the attempt to follow us near the shore in the boisterous weather of the 26th, and were much fatigued. The fields here looked well, but the young barley had a troublesome enemy in the passenger pigeons. Except one in Salt River, we saw none of these graceful birds elsewhere throughout our journey. The wild rose and a variety of flowers ornamented the woods. From two meridional observations, the latitude of this establishment is 61° 51′ 25″ N.; the variation of the compass 37° 10′ E.; and, at a subsequent period, the longitude, 121° 25′ 15″ W. was obtained from a number of lunar distances. The latitude deduced by Sir John Franklin, in 1825, from the dead reckoning, was 62° 11′, being nearly twenty miles too far to the north; an error easily accounted for by the difficulty of making a just allowance for the strength of an unequal current. The temperature in the shade at noon was 62°. We had some blacksmith-work to get executed, provisions and sledges to take on boards and other matters to arrange, which occupied the time till sunset, when we set our sails to a light southerly breeze. At no great distance we passed a conflagration of the woods on the river bank, which at one moment threw a long reflected beam of light across the water, and, the next, broke into a thousand quivering flashes on the curling eddies.

At 2 o'clock the following morning we came in view of a branch of the great Rocky Mountain chain. The day was lovely, and I fed my eyes with gazing on scenery so novel and romantic, that forcibly recalled to mind my native highlands. At noon we passed within a few miles of the mountains, where they cause the river to change its course from west to north. Their summits were still streaked with snow, but on the face of the cliffs we distinctly perceived the stratification noticed by Sir John Franklin. At midnight the men took in their oars, and we drifted down the stream.

July 1.—When our labours were resumed at 5 o'clock, we found ourselves at the foot of "the hill by the river side" ascended by that dauntless traveller, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, in July 1789. A camp of Dog-ribs stood on the opposite bank: they were much alarmed, and were taking to flight, when we called out to them who we were, upon which they instantly turned their canoes towards us. They were in dread, they said, of the Mountain Indians, and did not know what to make of our noiseless approach. We treated them to their favourite luxury, tobacco, and fell in with many more of them during the day. At 10 p. m. we reached Fort Norman, having travelled two hundred and fifty miles in exactly forty-eight hours.

At this northerly spot, situated in lat. 64° 40′, a small quantity of green barley, and of potatoes, almost as big as pigeon eggs, is now annually raised. I was afterwards surprised to find this vain attempt to vanquish nature made even at Fort Good Hope, with turnips and radishes. Next day our hunters cast up about noon. We hired three Dog-ribs to guide and complete the crew of the luggage-boat to Dease River, at the north-eastern extremity of Great Bear Lake, where our winter quarters were to be established. John Hitch, our boat-builder, was intrusted with the execution of this most important duty, assisted by John Norquay and Laurent Cartier, fishermen, and François Framond, a rough carpenter. Ritch's instructions were, to erect the necessary buildings on a very small scale, agreeably to a plan drawn by me, to establish a fishery in the best situation he could discover, and to keep our Chipewyan hunters and the native Indians employed in collecting the meat of the reindeer and musk-ox against our return from the coast. From the trading goods we selected such articles as we considered most suitable for presents to the Esquimaux; the rest, together with a small surplus of provisions, was to be deposited at our new establishment. The stock of provisions appropriated to our coasting voyage, and the long retreat from the mouth of the Mackenzie to winter quarters, was thirty bags of pemican, each weighing ninety pounds, and ten hundred-weight of Red River flour. This was an ample allowance for the whole season of open water; and we found that the union of flour with the pemican produced a saving of one-third in the consumption. Three pounds of pemican alone form a man's daily ration; but, though the food is highly nourishing, it soon becomes distasteful and cloying. With the flour it makes an excellent, and not unpalatable, soup, or rather "bergoo," which formed our own sustenance, as well as the men's, and was relished by all. These victuals were used by the crews without any restriction; and it was ascertained, at the end of the voyage, that the average daily consumption had been exactly two pounds per man. Our crews for the sea were composed of the following individuals:—

 James M'Kay, Steersman, Highlander.[1] Greorge Sinclair, Ditto, Half-breed.[1] François Felix, Bowman, Canadian.[2] Pierre Morin, Ditto, Ditto. George Flett, Middleman, Orkney sailor. Charles Begg, Ditto, Ditto. William McDonald, Ditto, Highlander. Hector Morrison, Ditto, Ditto. John M'Key, Ditto, Canadian Highlander. Peter Taylor, Ditto, Half-breed[1] Francois Boucher, ${\displaystyle {\Bigg \}}}$ Half-breed lads, fifteen or sixteen years of age. Ferdinand Wentzel,

Everything being thus settled, we all took pur departure together at sunset.

After a splendid trial at the oar, which served to shew the superiority of the little sea-boats, we came in view of Bear Lake River, at 3 o'clock on the morning of the 3rd. We landed a short distance above it, where Ritch embarked a supply of unctuous earth to whitewash our intended residence, and he was directed to pro- cure some black chalk near Port Franklin. Wood-coal was in a state of combustion for several miles on both sides of the Mackenzie, and these natural fires seem to have spread considerably since last described by Dr. Richardson. The jets of smoke, issuing in many places from the perpendicular face of the clayey cliff presented a singular spectacle. The combustion had in many places scorched the layers of unctuous earth that interstratify the coal formation, and turned their surface to a lively red colour. After spending some time ashore in the exami- nation of these curious phenomena, we parted from our comrades with three hearty huzzas, displaying the British ensigns as we launched into the broad, swift stream. On either hand rose the Rocky Mountains and the Eastern Hills, now shadowed by floating clouds, now reflecting from their snowy peaks the dazzling sunshine. The scene was to me enchanting, and its excitement was increased by our rapid descent of the river. We saw a few Indians during the day, from whom we procured some of the fish called Back's grayling, the "wing-like fin" of the Esquimaux. Our progress was continued, as usual, all night.

Early the following morning, a light breeze filled our sails for a while, but soon died away. We breakfasted on the curious madrepore rocks above "the Rapid," which we descended at noon. In the evening we spoke a large camp of Hare Indians, who were fishing in the eddies along The Ramparts. That singular defile is well named; but its only garrison consisted of a legion of swallows that nestle in the summits of its rocky precipices. These now echoed with the shouts of the natives, who followed us, with their whole pigmy fleet, to Fort Good Hope, which we reached between 8 and 9 o'clock, and were joyfully welcomed by Mr. Bell, who is son-in-law to Mr. Dease.

The establishment is now placed on the right bank of the river, opposite the upper Manitoo Island, where it stood for several years. The new situation is elevated; a precaution rendered necessary by the entire destruction, in June, 1836, of the former post, at the disruption of the ice, which rushed down with such overwhelming force as to sweep almost completely over the island, though several miles in extent, cutting, down the timber, like grass before the scythe, and burying the place under two fathoms water. The terrified residents took to their boat, and escaped, almost miraculously, into a small lake in the centre of the island. There the ruins of the overthrown wood averted the fury of the inundation; and in this place of refuge they remained, with the ice tossed up in huge fragments, forming a gigantic wall around them, till the danger was past. We found here five Loucheux, from whom we learned the distressing fact, that three of their tribe had been killed, and a fourth desperately wounded, by the Esquimaux in tbe preceding month. This unhappy quarrel precluded the prosecution of a design, which we had formed, of taking two of the Loucheux with us to the coast as substitutes for Esquimaux interpreters; although the men who had been applied to by Mr. Bell were desirous of accompauying us at all risks. These people are distinguished from every other Indian tribe with which we are acquainted by the frankness and candour of their demeanour. Their bold countenances give expression to their filings, and a bloody intent with them lurks not under a smile. Among the aborigines of North America, the Loucheux alone have never imbrued their hands in the blood of the whites. They amused us during the night with their dances, which abound in extravagant gestures, and demand violent exertion. The Hare Indians afterwards exhibited theirs, in which many of the younger women joined; whilst the old ones got up a crying-match, at a little distance, for some relative whom they had recently lost.

On the 5th, we had a conference with the Loucheux, in which we declined their reiterated offers to send two, or more, of their number with us along the sea-coast, assigning the late murders as the cause of this resolution. At the same time we laboured to dissuade them from their plans of retaliation and revenge. They expressed their sorrow at our determination to expose the lives of so small a party among such a treacherous people as the Esquimaux; earnestly cautioned us to be on our guard in every meeting with these perfidious savages, especially in the act of embarking, the moment they usually select for an attack; and declared, that if the latter injured us—whom, in common with all the whites, they regarded as their fathers and friends,—the whole tribe would combine to exact a terrible vengeance. To this comfortable assurance we replied, that we ourselves entertained no apprehensions, and therefore enjoined them to banish all useless fears on our account. It is but justice to the Esquimaux to state, that, from our inquiries, the Loucheux appear to have drawn the above chastisement upon themselves. For several years they had exacted, and received, a gift, as "blood-money," from the former, on account of a Loucheux whom they asserted to have died of his wounds in an old encounter. On this last occasion three of the Loucheux repeated the annual demand, with which the Esquimaux were about to comply, when imfortunately the very man, so long re- ported dead, made his appearance. On this, the Esquimaux, after reviling the Loucheux for their falsehood and extortion, fell upon them; and, of the four, one only escaped, wounded, by flying to the woods. The traders have long been at great pains to effect a permanent reconciliation between these hereditary enemies. For this purpose, in 1817, and again in 1819, Mr. Dease gave considerable presents to the Loucheux chief to negotiate a peace, which lasted for several years.

We waited to obtain some observations, which gave the lat. 66° 16′ N., variation 44° 12′ 3″ E. The temperature of the air was 72°. We then took our final departure for the ocean, and soon crossed the Arctic circle. At 9 p.m. we put ashore for supper, and at 10 re-embarked.

The weather on the 6th was still warmer, the thermometer in the shade standing at 77° and rising 30° higher when exposed to the sun in the boat. The majestic river and its high banks were steeped in a flood of light, and, except the diminutive size of the wood, there was nothing in the landscape to suggest the thought that we had penetrated so far into the regions of the north. At 5 p. m. we reached the spot where Fort Good Hope stood during Sir John Franklin's last expedition, and landed to obtain the variation; after which we pursued our route throughout the night. On the 7th the stunted woods were in several places on fire. The river banks were lined with straggling huts of the Loucheux, formed of green branches. The inhabitants of these primitive dwellings came off in numbers, in their canoes, to visit us, and loud were their vociferations as we came successively in sight of their little camps. The aged hobbled after us along the beach, the women whined and simpered after their most attractive fashion, and the children, "in puris naturalibus," crowded round our gaily painted boats to see the wonders they contained. Wherever we landed, logs were instantly carried to the water's edge, to enable us to step ashore dry-shod. A small present of tobacco to each of the men, with a few beads or needles distributed among the women and children, satisfied their modest desires; and, for a trifling remuneration, they supplied us with as much fresh and half-dried fish as we chose to take on board. We remarked among them some knives and buttons, apparently of Russian manufacture, obtained from the Esquimaux during their intervals of amicable intercourse. The deer-skin jackets of the men have long flaps behind, reaching almost to the ground, and shaped like a beaver's tail. Like their neighbours of the sea, both sexes wear breeches; a distinctive costume from that of the other northern tribes. In the afternoon we passed through "the Narrows," where the Loucheux chief was encamped, like a brave general protecting his frontier. We had given a passage from Fort Good Hope to one of his young men, who seemed to consider himself as not a little honoured by our attentions; and he now explained to the chief our intention not to take any of his people to the coast. Yet such was their confidence in or regard for us, that several again volunteered their services. After thanking them, and acknowledging their kindness by some small gifts, we re-embarked. We had provided ourselves with an Esquimaux vocabulary, which we hoped would serve our purpose in our intercourse with that singular race; but, to guard more effectually against danger, we now issued to each of the men a gun and ammunition, to be used only at our express command. We supped at Point Separation; and, as we passed the mouth of Peel River, had the satisfaction, new to most of the party, of beholding the sun at midnight, more than his own diameter elevated above the horizon.

Just as our people were almost exhausted with rowing and the merciless assaults of the musquitoes, a gentle northerly breeze sprang up in the forenoon of the 8th, and for a while cleared the air of our tormentors. We saw, in the course of the morning, two reindeer, and a female moose followed by her fawns, but very few wild fowl. Several fine views of the Rocky Mountains opened as we passed down the vdnding western channel. Landing in the evening on an islet in an expansion of the stream, we found a câche of dried fish, wooden sledges shod with bone, reindeer horns, and other articles left by the Esquimaux. We disturbed nothing, but appended to the stage a few trinkets, with a hieroglyphical letter carved on bark, intimating that the donors were white men, in two boats, on their way to the western sea. After supping we resumed our nocturnal route.