Athabasca Pass

Committee's Punch Bowl Laes

This image of the Committee’s Punch Bowl Lakes, in Athabasca Pass, is image number na-3490-26 in Glenbow Archives, and I have used it with their permission.

The subject of this post is the Athabasca Pass, and the Hudson’s Bay Company men who used this route to reach the Columbia District from the Saskatchewan. In 1826, Aemilius Simpson came west with the incoming York Factory Express: otherwise called the Columbia Express for its destination on the Columbia River. This was his first time across the country, and his journal is very good, and so what he sees he writes about. However, there are lots of other views as well, taken from other journals written other gentlemen. Yes, only the gentlemen kept journals: for the most part, the voyageurs were illiterate. 

Simpson had earlier written, when he first saw the Mountains his Express was to cross:

This morning a Thick Fog which cleared up at 9 am, at 11 we came in sight of the Rocky Mountains, in the SW, their lofty summits towering up to the Vaulted Heavens seemed to bid defiance to the efforts of Man to gain their eminences, it was not therefore easy for the traveler to divest himself from feeling anticipated hardships on beholding this stupendous Mass of Mountains which he was about to Cross, & was it necessary to pursue our route across their Summits, I doubt much to practicability of gaining an access to the West side of this stupendous Barrier — but detached Mountains form Grand defiles, it is by these that the traveler is enabled to make his way across the Mountains.

That is exactly true, and it is Athabasca Pass that was the grand defile that these men will travel through to make their way to the Columbia River, at Boat Encampment. So this is what Simpson says as he approaches and passes through Athabasca Pass: 

The [Whirlpool] River has now dwindled away to a pretty stream, its course very much through flats or Battures confined by stupendous mountains, in some places again it forces its way through ravines and Cliffs of Rock. . . We passed immense glaciers of Ice, that appear from the earliest time to have resisted the power of the Sun, and are now as compact as the Mountains that enclose them. They impart a frigidity to the surrounding atmosphere and cast a cheerless aspect over the Scene, that is by no means agreeable to the passing traveler, however much they may excite his curiosity.

That is all he says, and the next day he is passing down the Big Hill, on the west side of the Mountains. I think he was intimidated by these Mountains and the pass that cut through them, both of which certainly deserve more attention than they got from him! So let’s see what other journal keepers have to say. One says:

Hard frost in the morning. Proceeded early on our journey, sometimes along the river which got very narrow, & sometimes through points of wood where the road was frequently very difficult on account of mires and fallen wood.

Another writes that “on passing today between the mountains I perceived at some distance large mases of ice suspended, as it were in the air, to have a nearer view of which I took a gallop in that direction. Sometimes when the path lies near the base of the mountains that are so bedecked, traveling becomes dangerous by these immense masses suddenly giving way.” In fact, in one year, they did give way:

We heard frequently at a great distance a noise similar to thunder and which we attributed to the ice falling from the mountains. It is not many years since a gentleman had a very narrow escape by one of those masses falling directly behind him.

I would love to know which gentleman that was, but I do not have his journal. I only know that this occurred before 1831. If anyone has this story in their family history, can you please let me know which gentleman was almost crushed by the ice falling behind his horse as he approached Athabasca Pass.

In this next journal, the gentleman writes: “Started at 8 am and encamped near the height of land, having passed thro’ some very bad swamps and mires during the day. View of the mountains very grand. One ahead all day clearing the road in different places, and as the track is much worse farther on 4 will start early tomorrow morning for the same purpose.” So again, we have bogs and swamps along the Whirlpool River, that Aemilius Simpson did not speak of. And again:

We commenced our March at 6.30 and having come thro’ a defile over ground intersected Swamps and small Streams or Brooks, & bearing a stint’d growth of Pines, we arrived at the Committee’s Punch Bowl, which forms the Source of two small streams running in opposite directions: one to the West being one of the sources of the Columbia River, the other to the East, forming one of the Sources of the Athabasca.

Another gentleman, or perhaps the same man, noted that at the time he arrived at the lakes, they were “only a small & nearly circular Sheet of water, having the great depth, but at certain seasons it forms a considerable reservoir.” A third gentleman has a much better description of the passage through Athabasca Pass itself:

In the afternoon we crossed the height of land. This though so named is in the narrow valley which we have been following and is enclosed between high mountains topped with snow. That on the left hand or East side is called McGillivray’s Rock in honor of Mr. McGillivray who was the head man of the NWC [North West Company]. It is a very high mountain [Mount Hooker]. The one opposite to it tho’ less elevated is also very high. {Mount Browne]. Between these two mountains are situated three small Lakes all in a line. In the one we first come to the branch of the Elk or Athabasca River which we have been following has its source and is at first very narrow. In the third Lake, the foul or faint-hearted river, which empties itself into the Columbia, rises. The Middle Lake empties itself into the third one & when the water is high it also runs into the first one so that in the season of high water, both the above rivers may be said to have their rise in this Lake, though they run in opposite directions.

It was a hostile place, so perhaps Aemilius Simpson was right to be afraid of it. Ross Cox also described Athabasca Pass, this time on his journey out of the region in April 1817:

At one P.M we arrived at two small lakes, between which we encamped. They are only a few hundred feet each in circumference, and the distance between them does not exceed twenty-five or thirty feet.  They lie at the most level part of the height of land, and are situated between an immense cut of the Rocky Mountains. From them two rivers take their rise, which pursue different courses, . . The country round our encampment presented the wildest and most terrific appearance of desolation that can be well imagined. The sun shining on a range of stupendous glaciers threw a chilling brightness over the chaotic mass of rocks, ice, and snow, by which we were surrounded. . . One of our rough-spun, unsophisticated Canadians, after gazing upwards for some time in silent wonder, exclaimed with much vehemence, “I’ll take my oath, my dear friends, that God Almighty never made such a place!

Today, the creek or river which runs east out of the first of the three small Lakes is called Whirlpool River, and it does run into the Athabasca (which used to be called the Elk by the early fur traders). The Athabasca runs into the Mackenzie and its waters are eventually discharged into the Arctic Ocean.

But the river that runs westward is very interesting, historically. You may or may not remember that one of the above gentlemen called it the “foul or faint-hearted river.” That was David Thompson’s name for the rivers that took him down the hill to Boat Encampment, and he gave them that name in January 1811, when he crossed Athabasca Pass for the first time. He named the collection of rivers for the men who accompanied him across the mountains this year: Du Nord and two other men, who had come from one of the Saskatchewan District’s posts, balked at every obstacle on their way to the Columbia River, before telling Thompson they would return home to the Saskatchewan. The name lasted for ten or so years, as I believe it was John Work, who came out in 1823, that used it. In later years the first of this collection of rivers was named Pacific Creek, because it led the incoming Express men down the hill toward the Pacific Ocean. 

But it would not lead them all the way to the Columbia River. Pacific Creek is a very interesting little creek all on its own, and I will try to write about it in a while. I got a lot of information on Athabasca Pass in one of the guide books: Life of the Trail: 6 Historic Heights in Athabasca Pass, Fortress Lake & Tonquin Valley [Rocky Mountain Books, 2011], written by Emerson Sanford & Janice Sanford Beck. One of the two authors hiked the pass, running into some difficulties that might be expected at any height of land — in this case, it was the residue of a snow-slide which had “filled the trail with a jungle of criss-crossed trees and other debris piled more than three metres high, with no way to get around the mess.” None of the fur traders who walked through the pass spoke of this problem (but they did send men with axes ahead). But the author of the section went on to say: “I set up camp near one of the three lakes straddling the Continental Divide. I found the area inundated with mosquitoes, remarkable for both their quantity and their persistence.” None of the fur traders spoke of that issue either, but they were probably used to mosquitoes. “After dinner I decided to wash off the sweat accumulated,” and “soon discovered that the stones lining the shore and the lake bottom itself were covered in wet moss. They were so slippery that. . .” I didn’t record what happened to him, but it would be fun to know. Did he fall in?

Dr. Henry Tuzo also described his crossing of Athabasca Pass, in a letter that appears in Charlotte Gray’s book, Canada: A Portrait in Letters 1800-2000, [Toronto: Doubleday, 2003] and in the guide book, Life of the Trail, mentioned above. Tuzo crossed the pass in 1853, along with Henry Shuttleworth, William Charles, and someone with the initials J.M. Here’s what he said:

Onwards we went now meandering along the valley of the Athabasca and again climbing some adjacent hill until we arrived at the height of land in the pass between Mount Hooker & Mount Browne which is about 6400 feet above the level of the sea. Here I saw what is called the Committee’s Punch Bowl, a small Lake, from one side of which runs the Athabasca into the Arctic Ocean and from the other the Noble Columbia [Pacific Creek] into the Pacific. Although there was no snow at the foot of the mountains, yet here it was 4 feet deep and as cold as I ever felt it in Canada — besides being quite barren and very bleak.

A very unfriendly place, indeed! And yet almost everyone who came to the west side of the Rocky Mountains passed through this historic place. In fact, the lakes were surrounded by trees on which signs had been carved into their trunks (or perhaps on boards, nailed), with the names or initials of the gentlemen who had crossed the pass. There were some very interesting names on those boards, the author said. But the men did not linger here: and who can blame them!

You can order a copy of The York Factory Express through your favorite bookstore, or via Amazon. For American booksellers, the distributor for Ronsdale Press in the United States is Independent Publishers Group. Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.