James Anderson on Lake Garry

birchbark canoe

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

James Anderson and James Green Stewart, and their exploring party, has now reached Lake Garry, on the Great Fish River on their way north to the Arctic Ocean in July 1855. What lay ahead of them? Well, Garry Lake was an enormous lake that ran from east to west — in fact, the Inuktitut name for the lake means “sideways,” or “crooked.” It’s both those words are perfect names for this lake, as it lies on the Back River where it jogs sideways along its crooked stream bed, through a level land with grass and sedge along the lakeshore. 

Now, to help you make sense of where they are, I am going to give you a geography lesson of sorts, without maps: The Great Fish River (also called the Thlewyecho, or Back’s River) is anything but a straight river: “sideways,” or “crooked,” works very well as a descriptor. The Great Fish begins its journey on the east side of the range of rocky hills that separates Great Slave Lake from the Barren Grounds to the east — so, it would seem that it flowed north just across the mountains from Mackenzie’s River. Well it doesn’t. From its headwaters just north of Muskox Lake, the Great Fish River flows north-east, in a wandering ribbon, until it reaches Hawk Rapids. At that place it turns east and continues in a straight line in that direction, passing through Pelly Lake and Garry Lake. The Great Fish will not turn to the north again until it flows past Mount Meadowbank — and even then it flowed north and east. It is a crooked, sideways river, and that explains why the mouth of the Great Fish River lies so far east of the mouth of Mackenzie’s River.

 Also today, Lake Garry has three different sections, separated by rapids: the Upper Garry Lake, Garry Lake, and Lower Garry Lake. The three lakes also have different elevations…. so technically, it’s not Garry Lake, but Garry Lakes. But for the HBC men in 1855, they only knew that they were in Garry Lake — a massive lake that had been named by George Back for the HBC’s London Committee deputy-governor, Nicholas Garry.

So, let’s see what experiences these men had in Garry Lake. The date is July 22, and they had sailed through Pelly Lake with little mention made of it. There is a reason for that, but I am not telling you that story right now.

This is what James Anderson had to say in his journal. He begins with the note, “Entered narrows,” and continues: 

When we reached Pelly Lake hoisted sail and carried it most part of the day. Encamped at the strait [2nd narrows] halfway in L. Garry (Back’s encampment of 20th) at 9 p.m. Saw 2 Lodges of Esquimaux [Inuit] at the Rapids between L. Pelly and Garry, but the inhabitants ran away on perceiving us; they evidently have intercourse with the Churchill Esquimaux as there are 2 tin kettles in the lodges as well as our dags. I left a few articles in each tent and left. A number of young fawns were running about the lodges — I suppose their dams have been killed. 2 bags of pemmican were cached at our encampment of last night [provisions for their return journey]. Very few deer seen; 30 geese were killed. 

“Dags,” mentioned above, are daggers of the type traded by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Back had some difficulty in Lake Garry, as did Anderson. James Anderson’s journal continues with a note of the opposite page: “Course in L. Garry.” The word “Detroit” means “strait.” This note reads:

To 2nd Detroit E by S — mark a small island with gravel etc shoved up by ice and crowned by square blocks stone in situ, but in a state of disintegration. Then through a labyrinth of islands and narrow bays to a prominent sand hill — thence to 3rd Detroit N.E., nearby mark a clump of sand hills or cut very picturesquely — thence to Rapid (point) N. by E — mark a high conical sand hill. 

Back’s journal tells us what his team’s experiences were in the lake, which was, at a certain point, covered with thick layer of ice:

The lake grew narrower as we proceeded, until there was barely room for the boat to pass with the poles. The ice here, far from being decayed, was two feet thick, green, and compact, and gave ominous token of what was in reserve for us farther north…

For several hours we continued to creep slowly to the south, sometimes wedged in the ice, at others cutting through it with axes, and breaking huge masses away — now bringing the weight of the boat and cargo to act, then lifting her with fenders on each side cautiously through the openings and thus was the way groped nearly all day till, as the sun got low, a shallow part defied every attempt to pass it. In vain did the people wade and carry the pieces to lighten the boat; still she would not float over the large stones that paved the bottom. The ice, therefore, was the only chance; and after making a portage for some distance over an extremely rotten part, she was absolutely lifted over the remaining obstructions and again loaded; after which our progress was more satisfactory, and by using the same means, though at greater intervals, we at length (at 9 p.m.) reached the open water with a strong current. But though the picturesque sand-hills seemed close to us, and the crew, half benumbed as they were from being so long in the water, exerted themselves to the utmost, and had moreover the aid of the current, still, with all this, we did not reach land until past 10 p.m.

James Anderson’s journal continues, with some of the same experiences that Back mentioned: “July 1855 — Lake Garry, Monday 23rd. Left at 4 1/2 a.m. Lost most part of the day in finding our road. We were also retarded by cutting through ice 2 feet thick. Encamped at the 3rd Straits of Lake Garry at 10 p.m. (Back’s encampment of 21st). Either we are very stupid, or the map in Back’s work is very incorrect.”

On July 21, 1834, Back had described the lake as he saw it from the summit of a hill:

I examined the lake from the summit of the hill above our encampment, and found that the current which had befriended us over the night became powerless about two hundred yards farther on; at which point the main body of the ice commenced again and stretched to an undefinable distance… A small southerly channel, however, led to some islands, and for these we steered, but soon became hampered with surrounding ice. The same mode of proceeding was therefor adopted as on the preceding day; and in four hours we were lucky enough to have advanced eight miles, though not in the direction of our course. Some open water was then seen to the north; … with a little difficulty we succeeded in reaching a lane, which ultimately led us to the mainland, against whose rocky sides the ice again abutted. A Portage was immediately made, and the boat lifted over into the water. In ten minutes we were again stopped by ice so thick that all our endeavours to cut a passage with the axes, and break it, as had been hitherto done, were utterly in vain. Another place, which seemed to offer fewer obstacles, was tried with the same result; we therefore landed and made a second portage across the rocks which brought us to a sheet of water terminating in a rapid; and this, though seldom a pleasing object to those who have to go down it, was now joyfully hailed by us as the end of a lake which had occasioned us so much trouble and delay. In summer, however, or more properly speaking, autumn, this lake must be a splendid sheet of water, wherefore, regarding it apart from the vexations which it had caused me, I bestowed upon it the name of Lake Garry, after Nicholas Garry Esq., of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

So, as you can see, travelling on these enormous rocky Northern lakes was no fun at all, at least not before the ice had melted. If we remember, Back is travelling this river earlier in the summer than Anderson is — Back beginning his journey in early June 1834, and Anderson reaching the same beginning point late in July, 1855. Also, the Englishmen under Back were travelling in a boat, Anderson and Stewart in two canoes. Clearly, all that makes a difference!

James Anderson’s journal continues: “The day has been the warmest we have had for some time. I shot a deer today, a doe I am ashamed to say, but we had no fresh provisions and the pemmican must be saved. The fawn was half grown and was, of course, allowed to live. In a bay surrounded by sand hills to the North of the sand hill at the end of the 2nd strait, Esquimaux [Inuit] encampments and signs of this Spring seen. From a height a chain of lakes leading to the N.E. were seen, by which road I think the Esquimaux come from Lake McDougall.”

Today’s MacDougall Lake is still ahead of them; once they are out of Garry Lake they have to make their way through Bullard Lake and a few other windings of the Great Fish River before they reach Lake MacDougall. Anderson’s journal continues:

Tuesday 24th. It was near midnight before the men laid down last night. I therefore allowed them to sleep till 5 1/2 a.m. We rounded all the bays in consequence of ice; we were also much retarded by cutting our way through the ice at 3 points; it was from 2 to 3 feet thick… We at last reached the Rapid at the end of L. Garry to which we joyfully bid adieu — it falls by 3 Rapids into the River leading to Lake McDougall. This rapid was easily run; at its foot a cache of pemmican (1 Bag) was made. The rapids below this, 5 in number, are all strong and dangerous, with the exception of the last one, a little below which we are encamped at 8 1/4 p.m; 2 decharges were made. At most of these rapids there are several channels. Captain Back’s map (the one affixed to his narrative) is in so small a scale as to be utterly useless in these large bodies of water. 17 geese were killed; no animals were seen with the exception of a young fox. 

Captain Back’s party also descended these same rapids and he described them in this fashion:

The following day we got away at the usual hour, with the advantage of a swift current which now swept to the northward, and in about an hour brought us to a strong rapid, the descent of which looking exceedingly like going down hill. After the usual examination, the steersmen were desirous of lightening the boat before running it, but the water was too shoal for landing and we ere obliged to pole up a small rapid to an island, when it was at length decided, as no eligible landing-place could be found above or below it, to risk the descent with the whole cargo. It was a case of necessity; so off we pushed, and in a few minutes were plunged into the midst of curling waves and large rocks; but the coolness of the crew, and the great dexterity of the bow and steersmen, avoided each danger as it arose. At length, however, one towering wave threw us on a rock, and something crashed; luckily we did not hang, for nothing could have resisted the force of the torrent, and the slightest check at such a time would have been inevitable destruction to the whole party. After being whirled to and fro by the velocity of counter currents, we escaped from this without other damage than a broken keel plate — an accident which left that part from thenceforth undefended — but rapid still followed rapid in disagreeably quick succession, and I was not a little rejoiced when w were again fairly in smooth water; for the lakes we had passed with their unknown but assuredly distant boundaries, and the numerous deep bays and other impediments to a land journey, such as I had acute reasons for remembering, made the safety of the boat a paramount consideration.

James Anderson’s journal continues, with his party’s arrival in Lake MacDougall — he spells it differently (the fur trade way — there were McDougalls in the HBC, but no MacDougalls, so far as I am aware.)

July 1855. Lake McDougall. Wednesday 25th. Left at 4 a.m. In about 3 hours paddling we reached an easy rapid; this led into an extensive sheet of water where the current became imperceptible; it ran on either hand N and S in deep bays. Land was seen in every quarter (Back said no land to be seen to the North) tho’ distant.

Back had this to say of his arrival in his Lake MacDougall:

Much to our satisfaction the river kept to the northward and gave us the hope of making a little latitude, now become extremely desirable, when suddenly, notwithstanding the long view ahead, towards which the current seemed to be setting, it turned off at a right angle, and opened into a spacious lake, the extremity of which could not be discerned. With singular eccentricity, however, it soon again trended northward through a wide space with many deep bays, some of which were totally covered with ice. The islands were also numerous; and having passed between two where there was a rapid, we came to so great an extent of water and ice, land being not visible to the north, that the steersman exclaimed, “All the lakes we had yet seen are nothing to this one!” …..

Back has plenty to say of Lake MacDougall, and we will cover this large lake in the next post, which will be found here when published: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-anderson-12/ 

You will be pleased to know that this book, which includes all the journeys in the “Journeys” thread, will be edited in February and March of 2022 — this year! Then I will have the job of changing what needs to be changed, of strengthening the arguments, of adding new information into the manuscript, and then submitting it to publisher. So it’s on the way, but it will be a few years before it is published. Yes, its unbelievable how long a time it takes to publish a book after writing it! 

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

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