In this fourth instalment of the York Factory Express journals I am again looking at George Traill Allan’s 1841 express journal. He was never interested in the scenery, but he did describe many of the common experiences on this seven-month-long journey to Hudson Bay and back — talking about things the other fur traders never mentioned. The transcript of his journal is in the British Columbia Archives (A/B/40/AL5.3A).
In 1841, Allan crosses the Rocky Mountains with Fort Nisqually’s Dr. William Fraser Tolmie. On May 5, the two clerks and their party started their way up the boggy hill behind Boat Encampment, following the Wood River east toward the mountains. The fur traders’ Boat Encampment is about 2,000 feet above sea level, while the summit of Athabasca Pass, over which these men must clamber, is 5,700 feet. They will walk about twenty miles uphill to reach the base of the Rocky Mountains. At that point, the steep trail they called the Grand Cote leads them an additional 3,000 feet up the steep side of the Rockies, in a mere 7 or 8 miles.
“We now started about 10 o’clock am; not finding any snow for the first few miles, we walked in Moccasins, otherwise called Indian Shoes, along the banks of the Columbia.”
My first interruption came quickly: There were no shoes in the fur trade: everyone wore moccasins. Secondly, like all fur traders Allan calls the Wood River the Columbia, and considers it an extension of that river.
“When we entered the woods & we found ourselves in a swamp the water reaching above the Knees, our road leading that way, it was of course unavoidable, we therefore trudge along in no very comfortable trim for about two miles when we again entered the woods and finding deep snow had recourse to the snow shoes. The Doctor and I were light, but the men were heavily loaded, and many of them having never seen a snow shoe, many and great were the falls they had — The snow shoe has a very admirable and peculiar quality, when one falls down it is no easy matter to get up again, and although I felt for the poor men yet I could not altogether command my risibility though it was however sometimes my misfortune to share the same fate & Dr. Tolmie keeping me in countenance, we did not fail upon such occasions to laugh heartily at each other — The Canadian of all nations possess perhaps the best qualities for voyaging (at least in the Indian country) where we have to undergo, to use one of their own words, so much misere, however harassing their labour may have been during the day, they no sooner arrive at the encampment for the night than having supplied themselves with an excellent fire and good supper, they commence joking each other — with the greatest good humour upon the mishaps of the past day…
“I must now return to the woods where I left some of our men struggling amongst the snow, we at last, about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, managed to emerge and were fortunate enough to find along the River a small spot clear of snow where we encamped for the night. The Doctor and myself having by our walk procured excellent appetites, we made us an excellent supper — after which I generally regale myself with a pipe and enjoy the jokes of the men. I must not neglect here to mention that I was now, for the time being, obliged to join the ranks of teetotalism, we having left all our luxuries, tea and sugar excepted, in concealment near the Boat Encampment.
“Having slept soundly until 3 o’clock in the morning, the voice of our Guide an Iroquois, calling out lever lever (get up, get up) put us once more upon our legs.
“Tuesday 6th. Everything being now ready and the men loaded we started at 4. It having frozen hard during the night we found that we could travel without the snow shoes, our route laying along the River. We soon found, however, that though enabled to dispense for a time with the snow shoes that we had a more disagreeable task to perform. We had scarcely walked a mile when we were obliged to plunge into the River which we crossed seven times and found the water exceedingly cold. At last, about 8 am we once more reached the woods and lost no time in consoling ourselves with a substantial breakfast for the hardships of the morning.”
Botanist David Douglas, who went out with Edward Ermatinger’s 1827 express, described the dangers of crossing the cold and slipppery Wood River in his own journal. He said the river was “two and a half to three feet deep, clear, and with a powerful current. Though the breadth did not exceed twenty-five to fifty yards, the length of time passed in the water was considerable, for the feet cannot with safety be lifted from the bottom, as if once the water gets under the soles of the feet, which should be glided along to prevent this, over goes the whole person. In very powerful currents, it is necessary to pass in a body, and the one supporting the other, in an oblique direction.”
Allan’s journal continues: “Having rested the men and ourselves for three hours we again buckled on our armour (the snowshoes) and marched to the attack when we encountered greater disasters than we had done the day before, the snow not being sufficiently shallow to admit of our throwing off the snowshoes, and too deep and soft to permit our walking without them. About 3 o’clock pm we got once more clear of the woods & encamped at the foot of a tree which we found free from snow.
“Friday 7th. The weather clear and cold at 3 am we started & proceeding along the River without the snow shoes had nearly the same kind of route as the preceding day, only we were obliged to cross the River more frequently and found as we approached the mountain the water still colder, as much so, that upon gaining the bank our leggens [leggings] were stiff with ice, but a smart walk and a good breakfast at the base of the mountain, which we had now reached, soon banished all remembrance of misere.
“The country through which we had traveled for the last three days has nothing in its appearance to recommend it to the eye of the traveler, the River is upon both sides bound in by rather high mountains, wooded to the summits, which confine the view to the River alone. We now betook ourselves to the snow shoes and commenced the ascent which we found very steep. We managed, however, to scramble up about half way, when we encamped…” They had begun their climb up the Grand Cote to the top of the mountains.
“Saturday 8th. On raising camp this morning we found the fire had entirely disappeared, having sunk during the night almost to the ground and the snow was at least ten feet deep; cold morning with snow; again commenced the ascent which increased in steepness as we proceeded and obliged us often to crawl upon all fours.
“The Doctor & myself took each our turn in marching ahead not only in the mountains but throughout the whole journey — a task by no means easy as the snow shoe sinks much deeper before the track is formed & returns upon it a great quantity of snow (when it has as in the present case lately fallen) which forces the foot dreadfully in a long journey & often occasions the mal de racquette or snowshoe sickness which is exceedingly painful. We were both, however, fortunate enough to escape it and about 6 o’clock we gained the top of the mountain & did not certainly feel regret upon the achievement. The guide soon joining us we made a large fire long ere the men arrived almost worn out with their hard journey, which did not however prevent them quozzing each other as usual & many were the tales of misfortune recounted…
“Having refreshed ourselves we again set out — snowing fast & from fifteen to twenty feet of snow upon the ground; towards 4 pm we reached two small lakes and encamped. This place is called the Height of Land, the Columbia [Wood] River taking its rise from one of the Lakes and winding its course to the Pacific; the River Athabasca from the other & emptying itself into the Atlantic [Arctic] Ocean. The Lakes as I stated, are three, but at the season we passed invisible, from the great quantity of snow.” These lakes were the Committee’s Punch Bowl Lakes, named by Governor George Simpson in 1824.
Allan’s journal continues: “We had so far followed the course of the Columbia [Wood] & had been ascending. We now took that of the Athabasca [Whirlpool] and began to descend.
“Sunday 9th May. We set out at the usual hour & walked until 7 o’clock when we breakfasted, the walk of this morning we found equal to the toil of climbing the mountain from the great depth and softness of the snow; & the Doctor and myself going ahead as usual to beat the road for the men, we found the task anything but an easy one… At 12 o’clock noon after a march of five hours, upon emerging from a point of wood, we fell upon the sands of the River; no snow — to the men a joyful sight; and at the distance to two miles we expected to find the Horses which are always sent from Jasper’s House to meet the Express and relieve the men of their loads…
“Upon our arrival at the place were we had expected to find the Horses we met with a sad disappointment: none were there! We found the horse Keepers Lodge, or Hut, the remains of the fire, and the fresh tracks of the Horses, so that he must have decamped not two hours previous to our arrival. Upon examining his hut very narrowly we discovered a piece of wood upon which he had managed to draw with charcoal the figure of a Moose Deer and marked sixteen strokes upon which, after various conjectures, we understood that he had been waiting for us sixteen days & there being a scarcity of food for the Horses he was obliged to return to the next encampment which is called the Moose Deer encampment: the men, poor fellows, were rather cast down on arriving, as well they might — but soon recovered their spirits, on my informing them that next morning very early the Doctor, the Guide & myself would start ahead and send them the Horses; in the mean time we consoled ourselves by taking possession for the night of the hut and found it very comfortable.
“Monday 10th. We started at one o’clock this morning… after a very harassing walk of four hours (during which the grass did not grow under our feet) through a very rugged country, leading chiefly through thick woods, at one time up to the knees in water, at another in snow — we arrived at the Moose Deer Encampment but could find no Horses; however, as we proceeded on, looking anxiously from side to side we heard the report of a gun; we also fired a shot, to which another immediately responded — and in about ten minutes afterwards a man and a Boy met us on horseback and conducted us to their hut where we found the rest of the Horses and a fine fat Goose, whose death had occasioned the report of the first gun we had heard. The Hunter, a halfbreed of the Country, in about ten minutes had the goose spitted on a piece of wood & roasting before the fire a la fashion savage. It was then served up upon a pine branch & certainly I never tasted anything of the goose tribe so good…
“Immediately after breakfast I dispatched the horse keeper with his boy & all the horses to meet the men & relieve them of their loads. Being joined by the party, we continued our route and in the evening encamped along the Athabasca River.
“Tuesday 11th. This morning betimes the Hunter called me saying it was time to start. I immediately order the men to get the Horses ready, a task they set about with great alacrity rejoicing at the idea of their loads being transferred from their own backs to those of the horses. About 8 o’clock we called a halt and had breakfast — our store of eatables being now so much reduced, that having finished that meal, there only remained a few Biscuits & some tea & sugar — & not being able to reach Jasper’s House before next day it did not require a great Logician to prove that unless we picked up something betwixt that place and the encampment we should make but a sorry supper of it. I therefore before starting got Dr. Tolmie to make over the remainder of the ammunition to the Hunter — whose prowess as a sportsman we had so lately experienced in the afore-said goose…
“Wednesday 12th. Fine pleasant weather; had the Horses caught at 3 o’clock this morning, and seeing all ready, I set out ahead accompanied by Dr. Tolmie and the Guide — and after a smart ride of four hours we arrived at the tent of a fisherman and his family, situated in a most romantic spot upon the side of a beautiful lake, its waters so clear that I could see from the hill where I stood, the bottom of the Lake all over. On enquiring at the Fisherman what success, he informed me that the proceeding night he had killed with the spear one hundred white fish, part of which I desired him to send to Jasper’s House, now distant only two miles. Upon our arrival there we received a regular Highland welcome from the person in charge, Colin Fraser, formerly Piper to Governor Simpson, but now promoted to the charge of Jasper’s House. Colin lost no time in asking us what we would have for breakfast at the same time presenting his bill of far which consisted of Moose Deers and Sheeps meat & white fish; to travelers like ourselves who had the night before been obliged to hunt for a supper, there could be no choice, the whitefish, however, being just caught, carried the day, and such a hearty breakfast did we make of it as would not have disgraced Richard Coeur de Leon, when he fell foul of the Pantry set before him by the fat Friar.”
This link will lead you on to the next post in this series — I hope you are enjoying this. By the time I am finished there will be some twenty or thirty posts! http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fifth-leg/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.
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