Descending the Columbia River

Columbia River

This is the Columbia River near Castlegar, close to the mouth of the Kootenay River, looking toward the Arrow Lakes. This image is from the Columbia Basin of Regional History, the Valemount Historical Society & Kootenay Gallery of Art, History & Science, image number 0131.0349.

I thought that for this series on the Columbia River, I might be able to access and read Samuel Black’s journal of his descent of the river in 1825. He would not be travelling with the incoming York Factory Express, of course, as that didn’t exist until the next year. But the boats were the same as those used by the Express, and the Columbia River remained unchanged. 

So I booked the microfilm reel that held Sam Black’s journal, and turned up at the appointed time at the Archives to read it. But before I went down there, I read what the editor of Sam Black’s 1824 Journal had to say. The record of Black’s descent of the Columbia River is a part of Black’s Rocky Mountain Journal, and both the original and a microfilm copy are in the B.C. Archives. Here goes:

Returning safely from the Finlay River journey, Black spent the winter of 1824-25 with Hugh Faries at Dunvegan, with a couple of months away in charge of Fort Vermilion while its clerk in charge was recovering from a gunshot wound. On May 19, 1825, Black left Dunvegan with Chief Trader William Connolly from New Caledonia, and the two travellers arrived at York Factory on June 26. 

In the “Minutes of Council held at York Factory this second day of July” 1825, Samuel Black was appointed to Fort Colvile in the Department of the Columbia, and on July 21, “. . .at 6 am eight Loaded Boats left with the undermentioned Gentlemen . . . Rodk. McLeod & Samuel Black Esqr., Messrs Edwd & Francis Ermatinger, Columbia…” They went by way of Edmonton, leaving there on September 23 with horses. Later the party divided, Black and Edward Ermatinger going by way of Boat Encampment and down the Columbia River by canoe.

So we have all just learned that the incoming Express of 1826 was not the first Express to have used the Athabasca Portage. Knowing the condition of the trail in 1826, I can guess that the express-men had quite a journey to Fort Assiniboine in 1825!

But the journal:

At the end of this small notebook is a diary of Black’s trip down the Columbia in the fall of 1825, leaving Boat Encampment on October 23 and arriving at Spokane House on October 30 and Okanogan River on November 4. The remainder of this section is in pencil and barely legible. As usual Black comments on the geology and rock structures of the country through which he passes and have evidently progressed in this science since 1824 — the word “Schist” now makes its appearance in his writing. He is much taken, also, with the open country of the Dry Belt and its big ponderosa pines and white, silty soil. . .

So, hard to read, he said. And so it was. I got hold of the microfilm and loaded it onto the last available machine, which was the worst machine the Archives has. But even as I jerked my way through the reel and found Black’s journal, I could easily see that there was no way I was going to be able to read what he had to say. A shame: it is an important journal but we will never read it because we cannot access the original and the microfilm copy is not readible.

So that project being abandoned, I can still write about the descent of the Columbia River in those days, because our Express men left many good descriptions of it. The first thing to know about the Columbia River is that, in comparison to the rivers on the east side of the Rockies, it was a large, forceful, and rocky river, full of fierce rapids far worse than any the men had so far seen, and not in any way friendly! The word, Dalles, was used regularly on this side of the Mountains. The French word, Dalles, translates as slabs, or paving stones, and the water-filled Dalles along this river were named for the slab-like rock walls that forced the river’s water into narrow, rock-filled channels that frightened the men who were more used to the gentle rivers on the east side of the Rockies.

So, lets hear what a few of the gentlemen who kept these journals had to say of the Columbia River. One man said of their time at Boat Encampment, “Rain during the night, the morning foggy. Our crews were employed in using the early part of the day arranging our boats and preparing for our voyage down the Columbia River.” The boats that had been left here in the spring were repaired and water-proofed, and the caches that had also been dug in the spring and disguised to prevent the First Nations people from finding them, were also uncovered and their contents (the liquor, for example) brought back to the boats. I found this description among the journal entries, and it pleases me to know that this might have happened at this spot every year, as the men came into the territory:

Started at 7 am and arrived at the end of the Portage [Boat Encampment] about half past 10. Found Mr. John Warren Dease, Esq., and family here — people occupied the remainder of the day making paddles, etc.

Paddles? Yes. These Columbia River boats were made in the form of wooden canoes, and the men paddled them downriver! A gentleman who was new to this territory described these boats: “our party being Embarked in three Boats constructed in imitation of Canoes, including Mr. [John Warren] Dease’s, and consisting of about 33 hands.”

So here’s the first quote, which will bring the incoming Express men to the first rapid on the Columbia River — St. Martins Rapid.

Fine weather in the forenoon, but snow afterwards. Started after breakfast from Boat Encampment with four boats, 7 men and 28 pieces per boat. The River is in a fine state, and we got a short distance below St. Martin’s Rapid.

St. Martin’s Rapid was always known to be treacherous. Like many of the rapids along this course, it had many names, and was probably the same rapid as Edward Ermatinger’s Rapide Croche [Crooked Rapid], or modern day Gordon Rapid. In September 1825, the NWC employee Joseph St. Martin drowned in the Columbia River, quite possibly in the rapid that bore his name. Here’s another description of what I presume is St. Martin’s Rapid:

The crooked Rapid which we ran in the afternoon is the worst considering it is formed by a sudden bend of the River to the SE and large Masses of Rock, which renders them very dangerous. A number of tributary streams fell in from the different ravines as we pass along.

Here’s another interesting journal entry: “Left Boat Encampment this morning at 7 o’clock, and proceeded on during the day without accident or detention. Encamped a few miles below Pork Eater’s Point.” I have no idea where Pork Eater’s Point was, but it was almost certainly somewhere south of St. Martin’s Rapid!

The next obstacle in the Columbia River, as you will see in this quote, is Les Dalles des Morts, or Death Rapid.

Beautiful day. Ran St. Martin’s Rapid early, and breakfasted a short distance above the Rapid des Morts. In running the latter Pierre’s boat took in a good deal of water, as he had to run straight through the middle of the heavy waves, not being able to put into the eddy on account of the awkwardness of the crew, who were too frightened to do as they were ordered.

As you can see, above, the men who were new to the territory were frightened stiff by this river, which was much more violent than any river they had travelled on the east side of the Rocky Mountains. Another major difference: they were travelling downriver. And the river ran fast! As one gentlemen wrote as he was leaving Boat Encampment: “We embarked on the far famed Columbia, which runs here with tremendous velocity.” Another gentleman noted that “The Breadth of the River is about 100 to 150 yards, its Banks generally Rocky and bounded by immense Mountains on both sides.” A frightening river, indeed. Here is another description of the Dalles des Morts:

The Morning Hazy. At 7 am we run the Upper Dalles Rapids, a very grand shoot, the running of which is attended with considerable danger and requires great Skill on the part of the Steersmen and Bowsmen. The passengers and paper chest are landed at the head of the Rapids, a very proper precaution.

No one died at Les Dalles des Morts. Or at least the deaths that gave this fearsome rapid its name were not caused by drowning. In 1817, seven NWC men making their way south from Boat Encampment lost canoes and provisions, but not lives, to the rapids. One by one they died of starvation and cannibalism in the woods. Only one man survived to be rescued by First Nations men and returned to Spokane House.

The next Dalles along this river is never mentioned by the incoming Express men, but some people died at this place. It is called Priest’s Rapids, and was one of the fastest rapids along this stretch of river, with its current running at more than 20 miles per hour. Here, two French Canadian priests drowned. This is probably the same rapids where two botanists  (Robert Wallace and wife, and Peter Banks) and nine other people drowned in October 1838.

So, here’s a description of the next Dalles along this river:

In the morning we passed the upper Dalles [Les Dalles des Morts] and towards noon the lesser Dalles, these are places where the river is contracted very narrow and the whole body of water rushes with great violence between steep craggy rocks. The boats ran down it very well.

This latter rapid was the Little Dalles — one of three rapids called the Little Dalles on this river. The first (coming upriver from Fort Vancouver) was in the Nespelem Canyon east of Fort Okanogan; the second was just north of Fort Colvile but south of the boundary line (it became the location of an American customs house which was a great inconvenience to the HBC men at Fort Shepherd, established 1855). This Little Dalles is in what is now called Little Dalles Canyon, just north of Revelstoke, B.C., and thirty miles north of the Upper Arrow Lake [called by the HBC men Upper Lake]. The Little Dalles canyon in fact contained four sets of rapids, and the northernmost of these rapids was later named Steamboat Rapids. Here is another description of this dark, gloomy, rapid-filled canyon:

It cleared up at 9 am & continued fair with a cold & sharp wind during the day. We saw a few Indians (Sinixt) in two very curiously constructed Canoes. In the afternoon we ran the 2nd Dalles Rapids, our Boats shipping a good deal of Water. The scenery about these rapids is very fine. At six pm we entered the Upper [Arrow] Lake & encampt upon a low flat at its Entrance, having come about 80 miles during the day.

To get here they had to travel past the Big Eddy, but Thomas Lowe is the only man who ever mentioned this massive whirlpool, and as he only spoke of it on the way out, not coming in, it must have been easy to bypass. Next along the river was James Douglas’s Chutes au Bovil, which appeared to be just north of the Upper Arrow Lake (it might even have been Thomas Lowe’s Big Eddy). Coming downriver, the next place of interest is the Upper Arrow Lake. These two Arrow Lakes had lower water levels in the times of the York Factory Express, than they have today. Sadly, if you are paddling these lakes today, you must be careful near the shoreline because of the stumps of trees that were downed to clear the forests along the edges of the lakes before they were flooded. The image above is the Lower Arrow Lake as it is today. But in these early days, the lakes were narrower and the narrows between the lakes were really narrow — nothing more than a stretch of the Columbia River.

Fine weather. Breakfasted at the entrance of the upper Lake. Pulled against a strong head wind all day, and encamped about the middle of the Lake. Before encamping it began to rain, and rained until past midnight when it cleared up and the moon rose. We then pushed off, and pulled until daylight, when we found ourselves near the end of the lake.

As you can see, these weren’t and aren’t little lakes — it generally took the Express men two days to pass through each lake. One of the men says that “our days track has been through a Lake which I estimate about 50 miles nearly North & South, its average breadth about 3 Miles, about its middle rather broader. It is generally bounded by Rocky Shores & its depth appears considerable.” Here is a description of the Narrows between the two lakes: 

The communication between the Lakes is a continuation of River for about six Leagues. On Entering the [Lower] Arrow Lake, it runs to the SW and gradually turns to the SSE & on passing the Arrow Rock, a remarkable cliff on the left, it turns to the ESE & SE. The Arrow Rock, so named on Account of a round Hole in its face full of Arrows, said to have been fired at it by Indians when practicing the Bow and Arrow before a War excursion.

Clerk A. C. Anderson described the Arrow Rock, saying that “on arriving at the rock in question the Indian Canoe men all shot arrows at the rock, many of which stuck in the moss, which I believe was considered to be lucky.” Another gentleman reported that the water of the lake was a sea-green colour, “from which I would infer that it has a great depth.” Yet another traveller recorded that: 

The morning fine and clear weather, but towards daylight a Thick Fog hung over the bed of the River. At 6.45 we completed our descent of the Arrow Lake, which I estimate to be about 20 Leagues in extent. We then re-entered the river. Immediately below this Entry McGillivray’s River joins the main branch. It is a River of considerable importance & appears little less than the branch we are following. 

If you need to know, a League is three French Miles, and a French Mile is a bit longer than an English Mile.

McGillivray’s River is today’s Kootenay River. Another gentlemen wrote that “McGillivray’s is a large river. The hills along the river are not so high as hitherto, the wood is also getting much thinner and of a smaller growth. It is probable that the country a little way from the river is fine plains.” South of McGillivray’s River is the mouth of the Pend-d’Oreille, “another important stream. It issues from between two rocky precipices & forms a considerable cascade at its Mouth.” This is what the early NWC traders called the Flathead. Another gentleman writes of this stretch of river:

Along our track the Columbia received the addition of three very large streams, viz, McGillivrays [Kootenay], Flathead [Pend-d’Oreille], and Mutton Blanche [Whitesheep River], the last comparatively small, these extensive supplys [sic] rendering it a grand stream. But the principal change is in the depth & force, there being little apparent change in its breadth. Its course is obstructed by numerous rapids.

Yes, indeed, the Big and Little Tincup [or Kootenay] Rapids are [or were] just below the mouth of the Kootenay River. The Waterloo Eddy is here, as is the China Rapids, located a few miles below Kootenay Rapids. Then there is the Two Mile Rapids just south of the American border, and Steamboat Rapids 7 miles south of the border. After that comes the second Little Dalles! Here is how they were described by men who were coming in with the Express:

At noon we passed the junction of the White Sheep River. At 1.30 we ran Dalles Rapids, a long shoot bounded by steep Rocky Cliffs & having a remarkable block of Rock rising perpendicular in the bed or the river of considerable height. 

The Little Dalles may have been challenge going upriver, but they are hardly mentioned in the journals coming downriver! But Paul Kane did describe it differently. He said:

About noon we ran through the Little Dalles, which, though short, is a series of dangerous whirlpools which can only be passed with the greatest precaution…”

The next stop: Fort Colvile. “Beautiful clear weather. Breakfasted at Dease’s Encampment, and arrived at Colvile a little after noon. Had the boats hauled up on the beach and the pieces taken into the Fort.” And once again, Paul Kane has the most interesting thing to say of Fort Colvile, on his arrival there with the Express in 1846.

 At Fort Colvile we were most hospitably entertained by Mr. [John Lee] Lewes, who was in charge. We remained here three days, during which time the men did little else but eat and sleep. The rapidity with which they changed their appearance was astonishing. Some of them became so much improved in looks, that it was with difficulty we could recognize our voyageurs.

Sadly, one of the things you must remember as you read this post, is that all these rapids and historic spots are drowned by the dams on the Columbia River. These Dalles and Chutes don’t exist anymore, except in our imagination, and in our stories. 

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