To Moose Portage, Beaver River

Beaver River flows from Beaver Lake in Alberta, southward and east into Saskatchewan, and north to the Churchill River

Beaver River flows from Beaver Lake in Alberta, southward and east into Saskatchewan, and north to the Churchill River

Two groups of canoe-men traveled west from York Factory, on their way to New Caledonia. Both groups have arrived at Ile-a-la Crosse, and their next major hurdle is the Methye Portage — or so I would have thought! But as I follow through this post and then look at the maps, I have discovered they were not heading toward the Methye Portage, but taking the great swing of the Beaver River south and eventually west to Moose Portage, at or near Lac la Biche. Feel free to argue this with me: I find this very interesting and a bit of a surprise. Worst of all, my Bible, Exploring the Fur Trader Routes of North America, has nothing on this river route! 

But let us begin: John Work’s 1823 journal begins at Ile-a-la-Crosse, on Sunday August 17, and please remember that Chief Trader Peter Skene Ogden is also here:

Overcast lowering weather. Wind easterly. A thunder storm with a violent gust of wind and very weighty rain in the afterpart of the day. The men employed in repairing the canoes effectually. As this is the last Fort we will see till we come to the Rocky Mountains , a supply of small articles was got. Also 400 lbs. of dried meat, which is the only provisions here, were got for the men, 12 in number. This will last them about 12 days, after which we will have to depend on what we may get from Indians or freemen by the way.

The next post John Work expected to see was Jasper’s House, in Athabasca Pass. Clearly at this point in time he did not know about Fort Assiniboine which was in process of being built on the Athabasca River. Arriving at that place would be a surprise to this crew of men.

Monday 18. Cloudy. Wind northerly. Embarked a little after sunrise this morning & proceeded on our journey, our course lieing [sic] nearly South across the Lake for about 8 or 9 miles to the Beaver River, up which we proceeded, and encamped at sunsetting. We had a sail wind across the Lake and in the lower part of the River, and as the current was not strong this days work may be estimated at 45 miles. The banks of the Beaver River are generally low and thickly covered with willows and small poplar of different kinds and here and there some fine pines, poplar, and other trees of a larger growth approach close to the waters edge where the banks are a little elevated. Some places the banks were pretty high and composed of a whitish sand. The lower end of the River the shores and islands are covered with high reeds, rushes and grass. We came up with a canoe in the evening, on its way to Cool Lake with a supply of requisites for that place.

John Work was still learning the French he would need to know well to work with the Canadiens now part of the HBC trade. He heard “Cool Lake” but Cold Lake was meant. It still bears that name, and its river flows out of the lake into the Beaver River somewhere in Saskatchewan.

Tuesday 19. Cloudy. Wind N. Westerly. Weighty ran in the night, thick fog in the morning and showry [sic] in the afternoon. Embarked at day light, and in a short time came to what is called the Grand Rapid, where the people had recourse to the poles to set up the canoes, indeed they were obliged to use the poles the greater part of the way as the river was mostly very shallow, the canoes frequently touching.

Does the Beaver River still carry the same name today? Yes, it does. The source of the river is just south of Lac la Biche, Alberta — it flows from Beaver Lake, flowing south to the outflow of Moose Lake and passing south of Cold Lake, Alberta, where the river from Cold Lake joins the Beaver. It continues east through Saskatchewan and then turns sharply north to flow into Lac Ile-a-la-Crosse, on the Churchill River. The Grand Rapids is still in the river: it is two sets of rapids about a kilometer apart. Green Lake, mentioned below, is on the south east corner of the river’s big swing through Saskatchewan. 

The current was also pretty strong. I can form no conjecture of the distance we have come today. We passed two parties of Indians, and got a small piece of venison from them. The most of the men were off hunting. They were complaining that provisions were scarce….

Provisions would be scarce for most of their journey west as you will see. There were not a lot of animals on this river, and hunting took time and they were in a hurry. More than that: the noise of the voyageurs’ songs would have driven the few animals there were away from the riverbanks.   

Wednesday 20. Overcast lowering weather, calm. Thick fog in the morning. Embarked early, in the forepart of the day the current was slack, but afterwards it was strong and some rapids. The river was shallow and the poles had to be frequently used in preference to the paddles…

The book, Canoe Routes of the Voyageurs, by Eric W. Morse, tells me that “Poling is possible where the stream has a fairly shallow, rocky bottom and is small enough in volume that its rapids will not swamp the canoe. Setting poles were long, strong poles, sometimes tipped with an iron ferrule, which were used to push the canoe up the side of the rapid. The voyageurs stood up for this, and though the canoe was well ballasted with cargo, poling was a technique that called for great skill and balance.”

The course of the River is very winding these two days past, its general course is a little to the Westard of south, today it appears to incline a little to the Westard.

Thursday 21. Overcast lowering weather, very little Wind. Embarked at 1/2 past 2 o’clock and made a long days work. The forepart of the day tho’ the river was very winding the course in general was a little to the Westard of South, afterwards it was nearly West… The river is remarkably shallow, the canoes often dragging along the bottom, which is mostly composed of soft mud and sand & sometimes a little stoney. The afterpart of this day the river became much narrower than hitherto. A few ducks were killed which served us for supper.

Friday 22. Weather as yesterday. Thick fog in the morning. Embarked at 4 o’clock, and made a pretty good days work. The river had much the same appearance as yesterday till towards afternoon when little green hills were seen at different distances from the shore on both sides of the river… Passed an encampment of Freemen and Indians, but got nothing from them. They say they are starving.

Saturday 23. Heavy overcast weather, the sun scarcely seen all day, some light showers in the forepart of the day, weighty rain in the after part of the night. Owing to the unfavourable appearance of the weather in the morning we did not embark till sunrising. The river is very shallow and very winding, but as the sun was not visible no idea can be formed of its general course… The hills on each side of the river are more uniform and keep in one continued ridge forming a valley between them through which the river winds alternately from the bottom of the hill on the one side to that on the other. 

The portage they called the Moose Portage was at the mouth of the Moose River, which flows out of Moose Lake. They are relatively close to Lac la Biche, however. A short distance beyond Lac la Biche they will reach the Athabasca River, south of the mouth of the Clearwater River, their usual route! Let us continue:

The men are not working with such spirit as hitherto, they are getting tired of the dried meat, it is so tough that they can scarcely eat a sufficiency of it to satisfy them.

Sunday 24. Cloudy weather. Wind Southerly. Embarked at day light, but did not make a long days work. The river was remarkably shallow, the canoes often dragging along the bottom and the men frequently obliged to go out and hand them. The paddles can scarcely ever be used, but always setting with the poles. Even where there is enough of water, from the nature of the bottom, which being composed mostly of a mixture of mud & sand, has some kind of a suction which prevents the canoe from having much way. In the morning we passed the remains of a buffaloe’s [sic] carcass in a putrid state. We saw the tracks of several buffaloe during the day, some of them quite fresh. We also saw the tracks of some bears. 

Buffalo? Yes. From the book, Beyond the River and the Bay, by Eric Ross U of Toronto Press, 1973], I discovered that buffalo are found on the Beaver River — Along the banks of the Churchill River “are few plains and those which do exist are too densely covered with trees for the buffalo to graze. The only exception is the area around its source in the Beaver River.” 

In the afternoon we passed the Portage to Cold Lake on the N.W. side of the river. This Portage is 9 mile cross Sand.

There was a house on Cold Lake as early as 1767, possibly, and it was called Cold Lake House. Obviously it still existed in 1823, in some form, and its river flowed east to join the Beaver River in Saskatchewan.

The men are still dispirited and dissatisfied with their provisions. The dried meat was not fat at first, & on their leaving IslealaCross [Ile-a-la-Crosse] they still picked out the best first, in consequence of which what now remains is the very worst of it. The shores of the river have much the appearance as yesterday. The course nearly westerly.

Monday 25. Thick fog with frost in the morning. Wind S.W. raining the greater part of the afternoon. Embarked at day light and did not encamp till nearly dark. We made a rather better days work than these days past. The river still very shallow, its course nearly Westerly. Some parts along the shores the woods were mostly pine and of a pretty large growth. What little shot we had is all expended so that we got no ducks today.

Tuesday 26. Embarked early, and arrived at the Moose Portage in the afternoon. Here a supply of Provisions were expected to be found, as is usually the case, but unfortunately nothing of the kind was to be found. Nor any marks of any white men having been here during the summer. Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden found himself now in an awkward and disagreeable situation. The men dissatisfied with the provisions which they have had for some time past, and even of that not more than one meal remaining, and little probability of getting a supply before we reached a place called the five Islands, which in a favourable state of the waters will require ten days to reach.

Where is the place he called the “Five Islands?” It might be the islands in Lac la Biche: there were seven and there may well be a cluster of five islands there, that the men called “Five islands.” But these men were not yet at Lac la Biche. They were still only at Moose Portage, where the river flowed out of Moose Lake, perhaps?

To this place as to Moose Portage the provisions were to be sent from Edmonton, and there was the same likelihood of being disappointed at the one place as the other. To reach the five Islands with the crafts was not practicable without a supply of provisions which could not be expected except by the chance of meeting with Indians, which was very precarious. Scarcely the track of an animal is to be seen about this part of the country, the woods having been recently destroyed by fire. Mr. Ogden therefore after maturely considering his situation determined on send to Edmonton for a supply of provisions and awaiting their arrival. This he considered not only the most expeditious but also the most certain method of obtaining a supply to enable him to proceed with property and dispatches under his charge… I was therefore dispatched with the men J[ean] B[aptiste] Gadwa, [blank] Gardipie & [blank} Coutell, on foot for Edmonton…

So, John Work and three men start from the shores of Lac la Biche, walking toward Edmonton for provisions. The distance is considerable: 250 miles, I believe.

Here’s a nice little description of the Beaver River which I found in the book I mentioned above: Beyond the River and the Bay, which happens to be on loan to me — very timely. The original book was written in 1811, so all of this takes place in the competitive years before the North West Company and the HBC merged — John Work is traveling west two years after the merger, which occurred in 1821:

About the turn of the century [1800] the Hudson’s Bay Company had built beside the North West Company at Lac-Ile-a-Crosse, but from the beginning, this distant outpost of the English company met with unusually fierce opposition because of its strategic position in relation to the Athabasca Country. Any further expansion of the English in this area is to be preented. Last year [1810], for instance, when the Hudson’s Bay Company tried to buy a few canoes to go up the Beaver River to settle at Green Lake, the Canadians forbade the Chipewyans to sell them any. Green Lake is situated on the edge of the Stony Region [Canadian Shield]. Beyond it, the Beaver flows through the Great Plains and in one place, near Lac d’Orignal [Moose Lake], approaches the Saskatchewan. From the plains, buffalo can be procured and from the Saskatchewan, dried meat and pemmican, which can be easily carried across to Beaver River by way of Lac d’Orignal and brought down the river to Green Lake. Thus, a post at Green Lake would have given the Hudson’s Bay Company the provision depot which it needed if it were to extend its operations….

I thought this was going to be a simple little post: Not so! Some research has been required. In the next post we will try to figure out how George Simpson and Archibald McDonald traveled west — Was it by the same route, or another? I don’t know yet.

To go back to the beginning of the Two Canoes thread, go here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/two-canoes-one/

This is John Work’s journey west from Ile-a-la-Crosse. The next post that follows him is here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/two-canoes-ten/

Governor Simpson also traveled west from Ile-a-la-Crosse, but a different route. His journey is continued here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/two-canoes-nine/

If you want to just follow the thread, go to the above link at two-canoes-nine.  

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.