David Douglas’s Rockies

Kinbasket Lake

“Kinbasket Lake, and miles of wood debris onshore.” This manufactured lake is at the Big Bend of the Columbia, where Boat Encampment once stood, and we are probably looking east, toward the Wood River. Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, Valemount Historical Society & Kootenay Gallery of Art, History & Science. Image 0127.0454 (Valemount Historical Society)

In 1827, botanist David Douglas travelled out of the Columbia District with Edward Ermatinger’s outgoing York Factory Express. In this section of his journal we will be reading a description of David Douglas’s Rockies. The first part of this short series is here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/david-douglas/

This section of David Douglas’s journey through the Rockies begins at Boat Encampment, which is, as you know, at what we currently call the Big Bend of the Columbia River. All this is buried under Kinbasket Lake (see image above), and is no longer visible: It is such a shame and so much history is buried under the lake’s waters, but there is nothing we can do about it now.

But in days past, it was a historic place, as it lay on the west end of the land portage through the Rockies. As you know, David Thompson built the first Columbia boats at Boat Encampment in 1811. As I say in The York Factory Express:

Instead of bluffing his way past the hostiles, Thompson made his way north to cross the mountains via the Athabasca Pass, a route little known to the NWC men at this time. On January 10, 1811, he and his men reached the top of the mountains. A week later they stumbled onto the banks of the Columbia River and set up camp on the Canoe River. There was no good birch bark to be found here, so he designed his canoe of cedar boats, on which design all later Columbia River boats were based.

The ending of the last paragraph is probably my favourite writing in the entire book: Thompson’s “route over Athabasca Pass proved so successful that the North West Company adopted it as their annual summer route in and out of the territory. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of men crossed over this steep trail in the nine years that followed. When in 1821 the NWC merged with the HBC, their trail worked so efficiently that there was little reason to search for an alternate route. By the time Ermatinger’s express climbed over the pass in 1827, it had been in use seventeen years. When twenty-two-year-old John Charles traversed it in 1849, the trail was seventeen years older than he was.”

And so, let us continue the story of David Douglas’s Rockies. Everyone I write of passed over this trail, just as David Douglas did in 1827. But his story was a little different from others who crossed the Rockies — because of course he was an Englishman who had to explore further! 

So here is David Douglas’s journal, as he is heading east over the Rockies from Boat Encampment:

On Saturday the 28th, having packed the whole of my journals in a tin box, and carrying a case of seeds and a shirt or two tied up in a bundle, we commenced our march across the mountains in an easterly direction, first entering a low swampy piece of ground about three miles long, knee-deep of water, and covered with rotten ice through which we sank more than a foot down at every step that we took. Then we crossed a deep muddy creek and entered a point of wood, principally consisting of Pine, P. Balsamea, nigra, alba, and Strobus, together with Thuja plicata

David Douglas’s Rockies would, of course, include a listing of the plants and trees he ran across: he was a botanist, after all. Thuja plicata is Western Red Cedar, and in his journals David Thompson complained that they grew to an enormous size in the Rockies! Pinus Balsamae is actually albies balsamea, or balsam fir. Pinus nigra is here today but it is an introduced tree, a two-needled pine: that likely makes it what I grew up calling “jack pine,” or shore pine: Pinus Banksiana is its’ proper name, and I do know that Pinus Banksiana is found in Athabasca Pass. Pinus alba is another European fir called silver fir, with flat needles and a resinous pine-scented essential oil. This is silver fir, and for your information there is a silver fir essential oil — who knew? Pinus strobus is the name for Eastern white pine today. It is a five-needled pine, so a white pine.  

About eleven we entered the snow which was four to seven feet deep, moist, and soft, which together with the fallen timber made walking in snow shoes very fatiguing. We camped that night on the West side of the middle branch of the Columbia [the Wood River]. Except two species of Squirrel, we saw no animals. 

Sunday the 29th, min heat 23 degrees, max 43 degrees. After a sound and refreshing night’s rest we started at four this morning, proceeding for six miles due East; in the course of which we made as many traverses or fordings of the river, which was two and a half to three feet deep, clear, and with a powerful current. Though the breadth did not exceed twenty-five to fifty yards, the length of time passed in the water was considerable, for the feet cannot with safety be lifted from the bottom as if once the water gets under the soles of the feet (which should glided along to prevent this), over goes the whole person. In very powerful currents it is necessary to pass in a body, and the one supporting the other, in an oblique direction.

Then we came to a level valley three miles broad, dry at this season, but during the summer forming an inland lake bounded by the mountains.

That would be during the freshets, and this is why the trail through the Rockies and over the Athabasca Pass was never used in summertime. Truly, the HBC men were trapped in the territory until that mountain lake subsided once again to its normal level. 

Our course was afterwards due East for four miles, and in this short distance we made seven fordings more. We did not require snow-shoes here, as there was a fine, hard, solid crust, but on coming out of the water and trotting along on the hoar-frost, we found it intensely cold, and all our clothing that was wet immediately became cased with ice; still no inconvenience of any consequence was sustained. About nine we entered another point of wood where we had recourse to our snow-shoes, and finding the snow becoming quite soft towards noon, we camped for the day, having travelled fifteen miles…

At night a large Wolverine came to our camp to steal, for which he was shot.

Edward Ermatinger said that “a wolverine hovers about our camp and Mr. Douglas wounds him but he escapes.” David Douglas’s journal of his journey through the Rockies continues: 

We saw great numbers of Anas Canadensis [Canada goose] and one female of Tetrao Canadensis [spruce grouse]. (It should be noted that on Twitter, Canada geese are called “Cobra Chickens,” and everyone has a video to post!)

On Monday the 30th the heat was just the same as the day before, our elevation was seven hundred feet above the river. The route lay through a wood and a valley precisely similar to those we had passed yesterday, and during a walk of two miles and a half, we were obliged to ford the river seven times, keeping in a direct line from point to point. Four more miles, and as many times crossing the river, brought us to the termination of this platform or valley, and here the stream parts into two branches, the larger one flowing from the North, the other from due East.

David Douglas and the other men who are accompanying him on this journey through the Rockies have now reached the junction of Pacific Creek with the Wood. This is where they will leave the banks of Wood River and climb the hill that will lead them to the top of the plateau, or ridge, that separates the Wood River from Pacific Creek’s upper valley. They are still not at Athabasca Pass at this point, but from the top of the ridge they can see it looming over them…

We crossed at the angle between the two streams, and commenced our ascent of the Big Hill. The snow being so deep, at least six feet, the markings on the trees which indicated the path were frequently hid, and we found it no easy matter to keep the track.

Ermatinger wrote of this difficulty too, when he said: “The road thro’ these woods is very bad and difficult to be found, not being distinctly marked as was the case in the point we passed yesterday. This causes much additional labour to the people and often leads them out of their way, not one of them knowing the road properly. If the person returning with the horses in the fall and best acquainted with the proper track were desired to mark the trees sufficiently high not to be hidden by the snow it would be a great relief to the people going out in the spring.” And so deep snow covered the hashmarks that marked the trail through the Rockies: a problem that would not occur the following year. David Douglas’s journal continues: 

The steep ascent, the deep gullies, the brushwood and fallen timber, rendered walking very laborious. We encamped two miles up the. hill, having gained five miles today. The timber gradually becoming smaller, no new plants or animals were added to our store.

May 1st, Tuesday. This morning the thermometer stood at 2 degrees below Zero, and the maximum heat at noon was 44 degrees! We continued ascending and had the satisfaction at ten to reach the summit [of the Big Hill], where we made a short pause to rest ourselves, and then descended the eastern side of the Big Hill to a small round open piece of ground through which flowed the smaller or East branch of the river [Pacific Creek], being the same as we had left yesterday at the western base of the Big Hill. To the right is a small point of low stunted wood of Pinus nigra, alba, and Banksiana. Near this place we started at mid-day a fine male specimen of Tetrao Franklinii, which I preserved with great care. Being well rested by one o’clock, I set out with the view of ascending what seemed to be the highest peak on the North. Its height does not appear to be less than 16,000 or 17,000 feet above the level of the sea. 

The Tetrao Franklinii is a sub-species of the spruce grouse and is found is Washington, Oregon, Montana, British Columbia, and in the Rocky Mountains. So this is where Douglas takes off to climb a mountain on one side or the other of Athabasca Pass, directly from the Express men’s camp in the Pacific Creek valley, I believe, and leaving the Express men behind him. I don’t think he has a guide with him either. So let’s see where he is. David Douglas’s adventure in the Rockies continues: 

After passing over the lower ridge, I came to about 1,200 feet of by far the most difficult and fatiguing walking I ever experienced, and the utmost care was required to tread safely over the crust of snow…. The view from the summit is of too awful a cast to afford pleasure. Nothing can be seen, in every direction, far as the eye can reach, except mountains, towering above each other, rugged beyond all description; while the dazzling reflection from the snow, the heavenly azure of the solid glaciers, with the rainbow tints of their shattered fragments, and the enormous icicles suspended from the perpendicular rocks, and the majestic but terrible avalanches hurling themselves from the more exposed southerly rocks, produced a crash and groaned through the distant valleys with a sound only equalled by that of an earthquake… This peak, the highest yet known in the Northern Continent of America, I felt a sincere pleasure in naming “Mount Brown,” in honour of R. Brown, Esq., the illustrious Botanist, a man no less distinguished by the amiable qualities of his mind than by his scientific attainment. A little to the southward is one nearly of the same height, rising into a sharper point: this I name “Mount Hooker,” in honour of my early patron, the Professor of Botany in the University of Glasgow. This mountain, however, I was not able to climb…

Others were able to climb Mount Hooker, however, and they left some photos for us to share: see below. 

Whirlpool River

The Whirlpool River from Mount Hooker, August 8, 1978. Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, Valemount Historical Society, & Kootenay Gallery of Art, History & Science, image 0047.1324

This image, above, looks to the east down the valley of the Athabasca River from the top of Mount Hooker. And, below….

Athabasca Pass

This is Athabasca Pass, as seen from Mount Hooker on August 8, 1972. To the right and not in the picture is the Whirlpool River, to the left Pacific Creek Valley and the Wood River. This is image 0047.0867 from Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, Valemount Historical Society, & Kootenay Galley of Art, History & Science.

Mountains everywhere, he said, and now you know what that means. This image looks from Mount Hooker, toward Mount Brown — the mountain that David Douglas had climbed. Athabasca Pass itself is hidden away behind the shoulder of Mount Hooker. Now you can see how rugged this country is!

So, officially, David Douglas has reached Athabasca Pass — the pass that leads him and his party through the Rockies — and I still have enough information remaining to write another blogpost, which will appear here when it is written: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/david-douglas-athabasca-river/

But, in the meantime, if you want to order The York Factory Express, you can do so here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ If you want a signed copy, then talk to me through the contact sheet of my website. Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved.

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