Anderson at Beechy Lake

birchbark canoe

Image of a birchbark canoe on a Canadian River, from Glenbow Archives, image na-843-14, used with their permission

In my last post of this series, we left James Anderson and his party of men camped at the exact same spot that Captain George Back had camped at almost twenty years years earlier, in 1834. It is August 19, 1855, and they are encamped on the shores of Lake Garry. Beechy’s Lake, where we will end this post, still lies many river miles ahead of them.

An aside, here: This “Journeys” manuscript is being edited right now, but there will still be lots of work to do on it. This series of threads may look useless, but it will sit quietly on my website until such time as the book approaches publication — in the same fashion that my Brigades posts have done. And while we are on this subject: as you know, my future book, “The HBC Brigades,” will likely be published in spring of 2024, and so whenever I go out to promote my published book, The York Factory Express, I will also be speaking about “The HBC Brigades.” People who live in Washington State have plenty to look forward to.

I am talking to quite a few historical groups in Washington State about speaking gigs, and they will schedule me in for the fall and winter of 2023-2024 when they are ready. So, if you know of any groups down there that I would be unfamiliar with, then let me know who they are, and give me the name of the person to contact. And just so you know, I probably need more than three months notice (for grant application, etc., or for fitting these gigs in together so that I can travel from one to another without returning home.) These visits can go into the spring of next year: they may have to, in fact, to be affordable. 

So, let’s start with James Anderson’s journal, as his party reaches Lake Garry and then continues the journey southward, toward Great Slave Lake and his home at Fort Simpson, on Mackenzie’s River. In his journal he writes, on August 19, 1855:  “This first part of the day was clear and calm which enabled us to dry our clothes, only to be again wetted in the evening by heavy rain. Wind variable. We carried sail about 2 hours as far as the 2nd sand hill from nearly the first one. At the last long rapid coming up a décharge [unloading] was made, it being shallow. Saw swamp berries for the first time coming up; they were 2/3 formed. The men chose to compliment me by calling the fine sand hill in the middle of the channel connecting Lake Garry with Lake McDougall, “Anderson’s Hill.”” Naming a feature of land after a gentleman was always a voyageur tradition, much the same as naming a Maypole tree or a lobstick. It was generally done to get a regale of rum from the gentleman who was so honoured, but of course, Anderson’s men were perfectly aware that the party carried no barrel of rum.

So, on to Beechy Lake: On Monday August 20th, Anderson’s journal read: “Heavy rain and strong gale last night from various points. It was still raining when we embarked at 3 am; it cleared up partially afterwards. At the rapid between Lake Garry and Pelly we saw some Esquimaux [Inuit], then only women and children when we passed on our way up and then ran away, but now the men were there and they came to us immediately. They had various articles used by us in the trade, which they must get from the Churchill Esquimaux. There were 3 women, 6 children, and 6 men (2 very old, 1 middle-aged, and 3 young men), 2 of them we had previously seen at McKinley’s River….We gave them knives, spears, dags [short knives], scissors, etc., and parted famous friends. They gave us some deer’s meat. Encamped at sunset near the head of Lake Pelly. The wind was strong ahead all day…” Anderson also noted that both the deer, and the Canada Geese, were heading southward — a sign that an Arctic winter was approaching.

On August 21st, the party reached the end of Lake Pelly and re-entered the Great Fish River, which was, of course, still flowing against them. Beechy Lake still lay ahead of them, but it was coming closer all the time. “It was miserable weather when we embarked at 3 am,” he said, “Blowing fresh and raining. At Bullen’s River we hoisted sail and carried it for about half the day. We were much incommoded by sand banks above Bullen’s River, the same was the case in a minor degree when going down.” This inconvenience was caused by the freshets, or lack of freshets in this case. Earlier in the year the river water carried snow and melted ice downstream toward the Arctic. Later in the summer the waters in all these river fall, and the sand banks cause more problems. This happens everywhere: you will have noticed, in The York Factory Express, that the same happened in the North Saskatchewan River. In going out to York Factory the water was high and the boats skimmed over the sandbanks: when they came home the sandbanks were exposed and caused the Express men a great deal of trouble.

James Anderson’s journal continues, as he looks forward to reaching Beechy Lake: “The water in Lake Garry and above it does not appear to have fallen so much as below it. Below and at McKinley’s River we saw the same Esquimaux as when descending. There were 8 tents, about 10 men were present and 8 women and several children. The women are all of very low stature, good-looking; the young women are only tattooed after they have children. Saw several stone kettles made with 5 slabs sandstone cemented together. These Esquimaux seem a remarkably harmless, honest and clean race — clothing, canoes and tents made of deerskins; have many of our articles of trade. They made us understand that they came down McKinley’s River, but that it was nearly dry at present. The wind headed us towards the evening and the rain never ceased. We encamped a piece above McKinley’s River. Everything we have now is soaked with rain. We have found plenty of willows since reaching Lake Garry.” That must have cheered the men: willows made good, hot,  fires, and their appearance was also a sign that the HBC men were approaching their destination — or were at least leaving the Barren Lands behind them.

Back’s men also had a hard haul up this section of the river, all the way to Hawk Rapids (which is, of course, still ahead of Anderson’s party, and still some distance from Beechy Lake). Here is what Back wrote in his Narrative:

On the 4th [September 1834], a hard gale from the N.W. indicated the commencement of the fall weather; and while we were traveling, many hundreds of geese flew high past us to the south. It was necessary to haul the boat all day; and we ascended between sixteen and twenty rapids, which owing to the shallowness of the water, were very troublesome. Sand-banks and islands appeared in every direction, and so changed was the face of the river that it was not easy to recognize it. In he centre of the Hawk Rapid the line broke, and threw us into a very critical situation… As we advanced, the shoals and bars greatly impeded our progress; so that, in an ordinary season, the navigation would have been impracticable even for the boat entirely light. 

So Captain Back and his men have reached Hawk’s Rapids. James Anderson’s journal continues, with his arrival at Hawk Rapid on Wednesday, August 22. “Left early. Three Esquimaux came to see us start and accompanied us a short distance. Alders are seen at the Hawk Rapids for the first time. The long line of rapids below and above Hawk Rapid were safely ascended; it began began to rain very hard and continued without cessation till at last I could not endure seeing the men suffering so much, and encamped [at] 5 1/2 pm, 5 hours above Hawk Rapid, among the sand banks. Mr. [James Green] Stewart’s canoe cannot keep up with mine and retards us considerably. The fact is both canoes are now dreadfully leaky and his the worst. Some ripe berries & crowberries were picked — the leaf is red. Several wolves, gulls, and crows were below Hawk Rapids feasting on the drowned deer, but not a deer was seen either today or yesterday. Several bands of Canada geese and grey wavies [grey geese] going to the Southward…” The geese would reach Beechy Lake much sooner than these HBC gentlemen would: how the men must have wished for wings to carry them home more quickly!

“Thursday, 23rd. Heavy rain all night. Left at 2 1/2 am amidst drizzling. It cleared up at breakfast and enabled us to partially dry our clothes, etc., but heavy showers soon wetted us again. The sun, however, shone out at intervals. I encamped at 6 1/2 pm (to avoid a heavy storm which threatened us) a little below Baillie’s River. The wind assisted us a little today, and the men paddled well, but our progress was much impeded by sand bars which rendered the channel of the river most tortuous…”  

Back, who you will have noticed is travelling up the Great Fish River, toward Beechy Lake, two weeks later in the year than Anderson’s party, experienced some difficulty at Baillie’s River. Anderson might even have made the choice to return from Montreal Island earlier in the summer, because of Back’s experiences with the weather. Here is what Back wrote in his Narrative:

September 8th [1834]. The morning was gloomy; but as the wind had fallen, we gladly availed ourselves of the opportunity to get away, though the current was strong and the weather so thick that it was sometimes difficult to find the right channel. About 9 the sun broke out, and allowed us to dry our wet clothes. Passing Baillie’s River we ascended the long rapid where the first Esquimaux marks were seen, and found the country on either side quite converted into a swamp. Towards evening a N.W. gale came on, with sleet and snow, and the next morning all the creeks were solidly frozen. The cold was indeed excessive; and what with snow, squalls, and mist, we did not make much progress. The water had risen considerably, and the mud and sand cliffs were worn into innumerable ravines from the constant drainage of the upper lands. It occupied the better part of a day to get past the cascades, and a most laborious and hazardous service it was.

Brrr! Anderson’s journal tells us how his men paddled past the same scenery that Captain Back described above: “Friday 24th. Ascended the Cascades, etc, above Baillie’s River; made 2 décharges. Encamped late at the Sand Cliffs, a little below our encampment of the 17th ulto [July, when he had encamped at the north end of Beechy Lake.] “For a wonder it did not rain until midday, and was positively warm when walking, it then began to rain and we had occasional showers till evening. Four deer and a wolf seen. Numerous flights of laughing geese going to the southward. The wind helped us on after midday.”

“Saturday 25th. Left at 2 1/2 am., wind blowing fresh from the westward with frequent showers of rain and hail. Mr. Stewart’s canoe again broken before breakfast, which retarded us a little. We encamped at 9 pm at Beechy’s Lake at the head of the Cascades. This was, of course a complete portage. The canoes are now distressingly heavy, particularly mine.”

And so, James Anderson and his men have reached Beechy Lake.

I find it interesting that these canoes are getting so heavy, but birchbark canoes do get waterlogged. In fact I have found plenty of cases in the records, where birchbank canoes were sunk in the rivers to allow them to absorb water and to become less fragile and dry. Keeping the canoes wet was very much a part of travelling in them: but keeping the canoes wet were not a problem for James Anderson and his men, as there was plenty of rainfall to moisten the canoes. But one must remember that these two canoes were lined with canvas when built, and I can easily imagine that soaking-wet canvas can become very very heavy, very quickly, and that it is almost impossible to dry. Perhaps James Green Stewart’s journals will have something to add to this problem: we will see when I post them on this blog. That will not be yet, of course.

So James Anderson, James Green Stewart, and their men have reached Beechy Lake. Ahead of them lies Musk Ox Rapids and Lake, and Sussex Lake, where they will make their choice on their route home. Will they take the long Mountain Portage to McLeod Bay, on Great Slave Lake? Or will they find another route home? What do you think?

To return to the beginning of this journey, go here 

 When the next post is written in this series, it will appear here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved. 





2 thoughts on “Anderson at Beechy Lake

  1. John Hansen

    More stunning accounts of travel with heavy goods and vessels, over rocks and through freezing lagoons.

    I will now stit down and try to relax after reading that, and try not to compare my efforts and stamina to those who made these regular journeys.

    If only similar accounts existed for the River Tyne where I was born and sail.

    These accounts link us to those who lived and died in past years, and who made efforts to trail blaze and pathfind the routes we now take for granted.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Hi, John. Glad you are enjoying it! You will obviously enjoy the “Journeys” book which is just being edited — James Anderson’s is not the only transportation story in the North West Territories!