Two Canoes: the Athabasca River

Canoe on a lake in the Okanagan

This is the Okanagan’s Lac Vaseux (Muddy Lake) with canoe.

I am really allergic today (and have been all week) — so much so that I can hardly write at all, and will post something that does not involve a whole lot of thinking. Allergies are no fun at all, and this year my body has decided to be allergic to grass [I guess]. So lets do John Work’s journal, as he travels up the Athabasca River west of newly constructed Fort Assiniboine. 

“Wed. 24th [September 1823]. Sharp frost in the morning…. Embarked at day light and about noon arrived at a new House which Mr. Ranald McDonald, the gentlemen who is superintending the building, calls Fort Assinboyne… [see last post in this series for more information]. The course of the river this forenoon may be about S.W. and the general appearance of the shore and woods much the same as yesterday afternoon, the woods generally of a larger growth and more pine than poplar. One part of the South shore has been burned a short time ago. The current is still getting stronger the farther we advance up the River, this morning we had some strong Rapids. Yesterday coming up a rapid my steersman’s pole broke & he went overboard and with difficulty gained a beach.” There are stories about the Canadien voyageurs not being able to swim: but, yes, they could.

“We stopped to get our canoes repaired and to get a supply of provisions. The men commenced repairing the canoes immediately.

“Thursday 25. Light clouds, fine mild weather. The men resumed the repairs of the canoes at day light, and had them completed by four o’clock in the afternoon, when having received what provisions were necessary, we Embarked and continued our journey up the river. The Indians whom we left on Saturday last arrived a short time before we came off. 

“Friday 26. Sharp frost in the night, clear fine weather during the day. Embarked at daylight, and made a long day’s march. The course of the river was very winding but in general nearly S.W. We passed a good many island which divide the river into a number of channels. The banks in some places are very high, rising abruptly from the Water’s edge. The low points are thickly covered with wood, chiefly pine and some of it of a large growth. In the faces of some of the banks close to the water, I observed a strata of coal, it appeared to be nearly 2 feet in thickness. One of the men fired at a beaver and wounded him. We have seen several places where beaver have been working since we entered the river.

“Saturday 27. Sharp frost in the night. Weather as yesterday. Embarked at daylight, and made a long days march, passed McLeod’s Branch in the evening.” McLeod’s Branch is, of course, the mouth of McLeod River, and they are now in the vicinity of the modern-day town of Whitecourt, Alberta. “The course of the river was in general the same as yesterday, and divided into different channels by a great many islands. The banks have the same appearance as yesterday, plenty of coals at several places along the shore. The current is still getting stronger the farther we get up the river, the rapids are also more frequent, and larger. The men are very tired at night, having no respite but setting with the poles all day.”

I learned a bit about poling boats and canoes upriver. The men always stand to pole. The poles are always set at an angle into the river, and the poles always rest against the gunwales of their boat or canoe. There are few images that show this: one is in the Glenbow Archives and can be viewed online under Image No: NA-1598-1. Another [the best] is on page 196 of the book Songs Upon the Rivers, by Robert Foxcurran, Michel Bouchard, and Sebastien Malette. How did I learn about this? I saw a documentary introducing a film titled The Romance of the Far Fur Country [Five Door Films], where a man from the North saw the image of men poling their boat upriver and described to the film-maker, in detail, why they were doing what they were doing. It was a falling-off-the-chair-moment, so relevant to my York Factory Express story.

But let’s return to John Work’s journey up the Athabasca River. 

“Sunday 28. Light clouds. Fine mild weather. Continued our voyage at daylight. The course of the river was nearly West or rather to the N’ward of W, & very winding. The current still strong and a great many strong rapids. The banks were in some places lower than these days past, & thickly covered with wood, chiefly pine. I also observed some fir and silver pine trees, besides poplar & birch. I did not see so many coals as these two days past. Yesterday we passed two Indian canoes, one on each side of the river, their owners were probably off in the woods hunting.

“Monday 29. Cloudy Lowering weather. Some light rain in the morning. Embarked at daylight and made a good days work. In the evening we encamped at the lower end of a range of hills. The course of the river was about SW in general. The banks have much the same appearance as yesterday, but no coals were to be seen along the shore. We passed an Indian canoe, it was made of skin stretched over small poles bent to the form of a canoe and of a very rude construction. 

“Tuesday 30. Weighty rain in the night. Clear fine weather during the day. Embarked at daylight. The river’s course was in general nearly the same as yesterday though very winding. It got rather narrower during the day, the current stronger and the rapids more frequent and larger & stronger than hitherto. The banks are very high and often consist of solid rock in strata, of a soft kind, except where they are perfectly perpendicular, they are covered with wood, chiefly pine, to the water edge. Indeed the river appears now to be running through a range of hills. Passed a fire in the forenoon where some Indians had passed the night.

“October 1823. Wednesday 1st. Overcast. Embarked at daylight and made a good days march. The course of the river lay nearly SW through ranges of hills, the current very strong and the rapids so frequent that they might be considered as almost one continued rapid till we got above the Cross rapid [Rapids de Croix] where the river got a little wider and the current not altogether so strong, the rapids were not altogether so thick. The banks were very high and covered chiefly with pine. In the afternoon we got the first sight of the mountains which appeared to bear from about SE to NW. Saw a red deer [elk] in the evening.”

They have arrived in the immediate vicinity of Hinton, Alberta, where the “first grand outline of the Rocky Mountains bursts upon the view.” All the York Factory Express men called it the “Mountain View,” and Paul Kane said that the voyageurs gave a loud cheer on seeing the mountains — another tradition of the fur trade never mentioned in the gentlemen’s journals. 

“Thursday 2. Blew a storm in the night with weighty rain and snow towards morning. The ground was quite white in the morning with sharp frost. Embarked at Sunrising, but the wind blowing strong ahead we did not make such a good days march as usual. The course of the river still nearly SW, the banks high, indeed the course appears to be through a number of hills ranged up on each side, and the Mountains are occasionally seen rising up behind them. The current is still very strong and the water getting shallower than usual.

“Friday 3. Hard frost in the morning, clear fine weather afterwards. Embarked at daylight and arrived at Rocky Mountain House at 8 o’clock in the morning. The river continues nearly the same course and breadth, the water shallower & the current very strong till we arrive at the Fort, which is built on a small Lake, very shallow, and embosomed in the mountains whose peaks are rising up round about it on three sides. Employed the remainder of the day making preparations to cross the Portage with horses.”

As far as I am aware, this is the original location of Jasper’s House on Brule Lake, and the post’s early name was Rocky Mountain House. This is what the authors of Exploring The Fur Trade Routes of North America say: 

On the heels of David Thompson’s successful journey to the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811, the North West Company quickly realized that pack trains crossing the Rockies over Athabasca Pass would need a supply post on the eastern side. Two years later, a small post was built at the outlet of what was then called Brule Lake, but is now known as Jasper Lake, in actuality a widening of the Athabasca River. 

Briefly named Rocky Mountain House — a rather confusing title since it was the same as the large NWC fort on the Saskatchewan River to the southwest — the post was known by 1815 as Jasper Hawse’s House (or sometimes as a pun, Jasper’s Hawse)…. In 1829, Jasper House II was rebuilt a small distance downstream [upstream?] on the left bank of the river at the junction of the Snake Indian River.”

If you have read my York Factory Express thread, you will realize that they are traveling in birchbark canoes, which are faster than the boats they later used. When did they switch from canoes to boats on the Athabasca? You will have to read my York Factory Express book when it is finally published [it is being submitted to publishers now] — an extraordinarily long process! 

If you want to go back to the last post in John Work’s canoe journey west, go here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/two-canoes-twelve/

To return to the beginning of the series which includes two different journeys west, go here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/two-canoes-one/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.

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