Ramparts of the Mackenzie River

Furs at HBC replica fort at Fort Langley, B. C.
This selections of furs is displayed at Fort Langley, but the same furs would be found at any HBC fort in the territory.

So in July 1851, Robert Campbell reached the Peel’s River Post and began his journey to the Mackenzie River, which he would follow south to Fort Simpson. This year he was bringing in his Fort Selkirk supplies by this route, for the first and only time. As you know, in 1852, his post was destroyed by the Chilcats!

Campbell reached the Peel’s River post on Sunday July 6, 1851. On Wednesday 9, his journal read:

Men arranging the Boat — we come off at 8 p.m with immense packs and bid adieu to my kind friends Mr. Murray, [Augustus Richard] Peers, and their ladies. Camped in sight of the fort.

Thursday 10th July. We came off at 3 a.m. Hoisted sail about 11 a.m. Soon after we entered the Mackenzie. Camped half way up the Ramparts River — sailed to their entrance.

So, what are the Ramparts? To a HBC man, ramparts are “rocks and steep banks along the river,” as Robert Campbell learned on his way up the Porcupine River. I thought that the Mackenzie River Ramparts were just south of Fort Good Hope, and it was here that the river was blocked every year by ice. But this is untrue — I look at the maps in Jamie Bastedo’s book, Northwest Territories, I realize that the Ramparts Plateau is well north of Fort Good Hope, and that this plateau must run all the way south to the narrow section of the Mackenzie River which is actually called the Ramparts. I thought that Robert Campbell was travelling fast for someone who was rowing or poling up the river — he is not. He is just calling the river that flows through the northernmost part of the Ramparts Plateau the Ramparts River, I think. Of course, we also have to remember that this is a transcription, and the man who transcribed the journal might have erred.

The other thing I have just realized, of course, is that the Fort might not be in the same place today, as it was in 1851 or 1852. According to Jamie Bastedo’s book it had various locations:

The first Fort Good Hope was the most northerly trading post of the North West Company when it was established in 1804 on the left bank of the Mackenzie near Thunder River. In 1826 the fort was moved 160 kilometers upstream to Manitou Island where it operated until rammed by ice during the spring flood of 1839. That same year the third Fort Good Hope sprang up, high and dry, at its current location.

So this is its third location, located at a place that is unaffected by flooding. However, in 1844 uncontrolled hunting around the post caused mass starvation: fortunately by 1859 the game animals had returned. Anyway, Robert Campbell’s journal continues all the way upriver to Fort Good Hope, which is at the same place we find it today:

Friday 11th. No wind. Passed several fishing parties of Loucheux [now Kutchin] Indians. Camped at point Gras [fat, or fatty].

Saturday 12th. The water now so high that the river is covered with drifting wood. Camped at [illegible] river.

Sunday 13th. Camped lower end long reach. The water falling a little.

Monday 14th. Camped on the long reach opposite the mountains. Flies very troublesome — tremendously so.

Tuesday 15th. Camped above [Loon?] River. Very warm and sultry and flies very bad.

Wednesday 16th July 1851. Reached the hospitable home of Mr. [Angus] McBeath, Fort Good Hope, in the evening, and meet a hearty welcome from himself and Mrs. McBeath.

This is what another HBC man had to say of the section of river to the south, as he was coming downriver through the narrows of the Ramparts, heading north toward Fort Good Hope. I’m giving you lots of north and south directions, because, to me, this river is running the wrong way! (Of course it isn’t, it just seems that way!)

Below this part… there is nothing to rivet the eye of the traveller till we come in sight of the Ramparts of Fort Good Hope. When viewed from above (from the south, or upriver) these natural ramparts are visible from a distance of three or four miles and if the day be cloudless and the sun shining on the rocks, which are of a whitish grey stone, a very pleasing picture is presented… In a quarter of an hour we were in the Ramparts where the channel, but five minutes before more than a mile in width, was now pouring its waters through a passage of scarcely a hundred and fifty yards. The rocks on either side, which are high, are of a tabular form with perpendicular sides, and clothed with a stunted growth of pine. In some parts the rock is turreted and looks romantic, and if the day is calm the even plashing of the oars awake the echoes.

The base of this defile of rock is smoothed by the action of the ice of successive ages as it forces its passage. What a commotion must there be caused every spring at the breaking up of the ice as it comes driving on before an impetuous current; what crushing, heaving, and convulsion must there be at this spot.

Last spring (1851) the water rose to such a height that vast blocks of ice were heaved on the top of the rocks. This defile is more than a mile in length, finally emerging at the lower end (something like leaving a railway tunnel), the rocky valley assumes its usual width and a distant view of Fort Good Hope is obtained.

Augustus Richard Peers, Journal 1842-52, BCA

The river that comes into the Mackenzie at the Ramparts is even today called Ramparts River. To the south of the Ramparts is the Ramparts Rapids, “which can be extremely dangerous in low water,” according to Jamie Bastedo, author of Northwest Territories: Transcanada Trail Official Guide [Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2010]. “After Hume Island, make sure that you veer to the river-right” to avoid these rapids. “The surest, safest course is to hug the southeast shore, watching out for erratic but passable turbulence near the mouth of the canyon. The upshot: Stay Right!” This is the same advice that our fur trade clerk gives a little further down in this post.

Here’s what Jamie Bastedo says about the Ramparts:

The magnificent Ramparts, or Fee Yee as this area is known in Slavey, is the only canyon-like feature on the Mackenzie. Along this dramatic 12-kilometer stretch of river, fossil-studded limestone walls rise 80 metres out of the water like castle battlements. The Ramparts is a traditionally important fishery for Fort Good Hope. In the distance past, it served as defence against raiding parties, including Inuit from the coast. Numerous archaeological artifacts found on the clifftops and adjoining valleys attest to this area’s timeless cultural value. Peregrine falcons nest here as do several colonies of cliff swallows — which you may see picked out of the air by a falcon. Watch for occasional trails along the way that will take you to the top for a unique view of the river. Halfway through the Ramparts, a short hike up a pronounced side canyon on river left leads you to a landscape reminiscent of the canyonlands of the southwestern United States.

Our young fur trade clerk has plenty to say of the Rampart Rapids, that were just south of the Ramparts themselves. This is what he wrote in his Narrative, as he came north, downriver just after he passed what he called Beaver Tail Mountain. We will see, perhaps, in the next post, whether or not this mountain carries the same name today.

Should the passage [water] be low, a rapid extends from shore to shore and is rather dangerous at very low water. We descended along the right shore and ran the rapid without accident although the boat was heavy, and in a quarter of an hour we were in the Ramparts….

Alexander Mackenzie came down the river in 1789. Lets see what he has to say of the Ramparts, and the Rapids that come before them! On July 7 he reached the section of the river above the Ramparts Rapids:

We learned from these people that we were close by the other great rapid, and that there were several lodges of their Relatives there. 4 Canoes followed us, a Man in each, to shew us where to take the Road to go down the Rapid. They like the other people told us many discouraging Stories… The River appeared quite shut up with high perpendicular White Rocks, this did not at all please us. We went ashore to try to visit the Rapid, but there was no possibility of seeing any thing. The Indians made a great Noise about it, but at last we thought when they ventured to go down it with their small Canoes, we might venture it with ours, so we followed them at a small distance. We came between the steep Rock I mention as above but did not find the Current stronger than elsewhere. We were still in Expectation of coming to the Rapid till they told us there was no other but what we saw. The River is not above 300 yards wide overhere (in breadth), I sounded and found 50 fathoms water… This narrow Channel [the Ramparts] is 3 miles long and course N.N.E. then we steer N. 3 miles..

This quote is from The Journals and Letters of Alexander Mackenzie, edited by W. Kay Lamb [McMillan of Canada, 1970] and the footnote at the bottom of the page says that Mackenzie greatly underestimated the distances he traveled. The mileages he indicted totalled only 36, but it seems clear that he had covered at least 85 miles.

So we began our journey at Peel’s River post, and made it past the Ramparts Plateau, to the Ramparts and the Rampart Rapids. In our next post we will meet the dangerous Sans Sault Rapids, and continue upriver from there. Destination: Fort Simpson!

When the next post is published, it will appear here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

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