James Anderson in Lake McDougall

birchbark canoe

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

Chief Trader James Anderson, and his clerk James Green Stewart, are now making their way through massive Lake McDougall on the Great Fish River, on their way north to the Arctic Ocean in 1855. They are following the path of an earlier explorer named George Back, who travelled the same river in 1834, more or less on a lark. Back returned to England and wrote his book, titled Narrative of the Arctic land expedition to the mouth of the Great Fish River, and along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, in the years 1833, 1834, and 1835. It was published in London in 1836, and James Anderson and James Stewart are using a copy of this book, with its tiny maps, as their guide on the way down the river.

In 1855, Anderson and Stewart are on a special expedition, having been sent out to search for the papers or journals of the missing men from Franklin’s two stranded ships, the Terror, and Erebus. Franklin’s men had been reported by the Inuit as starving to death near the Great Fish River four years earlier, so James Anderson and James Green Stewart did not expect to find any of them alive. But they wanted to know something of what had happened to them, and where they might have died, so James Anderson and Stewart could locate any papers and journals that might have survived the elements. 

So, as I have said, James Anderson and Stewart have now reached Lake McDougall, a massive lake that lies along the Great Fish River north of Garry Lake and Lake Pelly — the “sideways” lakes, as you will see in this post: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-anderson-11/ 

 “Much to our satisfaction the river kept to the northward and gave us the hope of making a little latitude…” Back had written in his published manuscript. He had hoped to be heading north from the two sideways lakes at last, but unfortunately… “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.” Back had plenty to say of Lake McDougall:

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!” In its large expanse the current was soon lost, and proportionate embarrassment was occasioned us in deciding on the most probable direction for striking the river [that flowed out of the north end of the lake]. Several likely openings near sand-hills were explored ineffectually between north and east, for I was unwilling to think it would be found elsewhere. We rested on the oars, but the road remained motionless, and gave no clue to the current; nor was it until I imagined that I caught the faint sound of a fall, that we reluctantly pulled along a border of firm ice which took us away due south, a direction the very opposite to that to which my wishes tended, and looking directly towards Chesterfield Inlet — the proximity of which, I will not deny, began to give me serious uneasiness. Still keeping south, we threaded a zigzag passage through a barrier of ice and were then led by the increasing noise to the end of the lake, which received the name of “Lake Macdougall,” after my friend the Lieutenant-Colonel of the gallant 79th Highlanders.

I don’t think I was able to identify who this person was — if you do identify him, let me know, please. Back’s journal continues, as they make their way out of Lake McDougall/Macdougall:

Bending short round to the left, and in a comparatively contracted channel, the whole force of the water glided smoothly but irresistibly towards two stupendous gneiss rocks, from five to eight hundred feet high, rising like islands on either side. Our first care was to secure the boat in a small curve to the left, near which the river disappeared in its descent, sending up showers of spray. We found it was not one fall, as the hollow roars had led us to believe, but a succession of falls and cascades, and whatever else is horrible in such “confusion worse confounded.” It expanded to about the breadth of four hundred yards, having near the centre an insulated rock about three hundred feet high, having the same barren and naked appearance as those on each side. From the projection of the main western shore, which concealed the opening, issued another serpentine rapid and fall; while to the right there was a strife of surge and rock, the roar of which was heard far and wide. The space occupying the centre from the first descent to the island was full of sunken rocks of unequal heights, over which the rapid foamed and boiled, and rushed with impetuous and deadly fury. At that part it was raised into an arch, while the sides were yawning and cavernous, swallowing huge masses of ice, and then again tossing the splintered fragment high into the air. A more terrific sight could not be conceived, and the impression which it produced was apparent on the countenance of the men.

This was the Rock Rapids — a nice, gentle little passage that would lead Back and his men from Lake McDougall to the Great Fish River beyond. Remember that Back’s party was travelling in a boat which had already been damaged near the keel, so he and his men had to be careful in descending this fearsome set of falls. But descend it they did — and so did James Anderson’s men, following Back’s route down the rapids in their canoes. Here is what Anderson wrote in his journal in 1855, as he describes his journey through the lake from its entrance to the falls and rapids that led out of it:

From this we struck due south to the end of Lake McDougall about 10 miles from the Rapid [where they had entered the lake]. The map [in Back’s book] is perfectly useless. We ran part of the Rock Rapids (3) but a decharge was made at the last one, after which we ran 3 Rapids and carried over two cascades and falls. We encamped at the foot of the latter (Sinclair’s Falls). All these rapids are strong and hazardous. Our Iroquois Boutes have had fine opportunities both yesterday and today of exhibiting their matchless skill. 

It was fortunate that James Anderson had a copy of Back’s Narrative: otherwise he, too, might have spent some time searching for the outlet to the lake. The Sinclair Falls that James Anderson mentioned above were actually a little way down the river, and George Back had named them (as he had also named the Rock Rapids which led out of Lake McDougall). This is what Back had to say of Sinclair’s Falls: 

An overcast and stormy might, with much rain, brought in a morning which forbade the attempt to start, as it was impracticable, with such a gale, to keep the lead in the rapid before us; so that there was no choice but to wait until it should calm. In the meantime, McKay was sent to examine the river further down, and returned about noon with an account of several rapids and a large fall not far from us, and of having seen some marks on his way. In the afternoon, the journey was resumed; and having followed the turn to the north, and got down the rapids, we made a portage at Sinclair’s Falls: so named after one of the steersmen who had been already frequently mentioned, and who was so complete a boatman as to be equal to the duty of the bow also, which station indeed he had all along filled.

James Anderson’s journal continues downriver from Sinclair Falls: “saw 6 or 7 deer and killed 13 male Canada geese. Esquimaux [Inuit] marks were very numerous above the head of Rock Rapids and below them to this spot. Made a cache of 1 bag pemmican at the Cascades above this place.” James Anderson’s journal continues:

July 1855 — Thlewycho River. Thursday 16th. Left at the usual hour. It rained last night slightly. Made a decharge at the Escape Rapid and at two of the Sand Hill Rapids, but ran the others with whole ladings; all these rapids are strong and long.

Back does not actually assign a name to Escape Rapid in his Narrative, but his crew had a very close call there. This, below, is from Back’s Narrative:

The next reach turned to the northward and became so wide that it might well have been called a lake. Such expansions always occasioned us some perplexity, from the uncertainly and difficulty there was in tracing the run of the current. In this instance, however, it was less inconstant than usual, and for a few miles continued nearly on the same course; when, after gradually contracting, it was broken by a mile of heavy and dangerous rapids. The boat was lightened, and every care taken to avoid accidents, but so overwhelming was the rush and whirl of the water that she, and consequently those in her, were twice in the most imminent danger of perishing by being plunged into one of the gulfs formed in the rocks and hollows of the rapid. It was in one of those singular and dangerous spots, which partake of the triple character of a fall, rapid, and eddy in the short space of a few yards, that the crew owed their safety solely to an unintentional disobedience of the steersman’s directions. The power of the water so far exceeded whatever had been witnessed in any of the other rivers of the country, that the same precautions successfully used elsewhere were weak and unavailing here. The steersman was endeavouring to clear a fall and some sunken rocks on the left, but the man to whom he spoke misunderstood him, and did exactly the reverse; and now, seeing the danger, the steersman swept round the boat’s stern; instantly it was caught by an eddy to right, which snapping an oar, whirled her irresistibly broadside on, so that for a moment it seemed uncertain whether the boat and all in her were to be hurled into the hollow of the fall, or dashed stern foremost on the sunken rocks. Something perhaps wiser than chance ordained it otherwise; for how it happened no account can be given, but so it was that her head swing inshore towards the beach, and thereby gave Sinclair and others an opportunity of springing into the water, and thus, by their united strength, rescuing her from her perilous situation. Now had the man to whom the first order was given understood and acted upon it, no human power could have saved the crew from being buried in the frightful abyss. Nor yet could any blame be justly attached to the steersman; he had never been so situated before; and even in this imminent peril his coolness and self-possession never forsook him. At the awful moment of suspense, when one of the crew with less nerve than his companions began to cry aloud to Heaven for aid, McKay, in a still louder voice, exclaimed, “Is this a time for praying? Pull our starboard oar…”

In so many important ways, Back’s journal made it easier for James Anderson to find his way down the river, and to avoid the dangers that Back had faced and survived. Anderson’s journal continues: “Two barren does were shot today in the water, one by Mr. Stewart, the other by E. Kipling. Two or three others were seen, and immense numbers of Canada Geese, 64 of these were killed in two runs ashore; an ermine and beaver mouse (vole, or lemming) were also killed at Escape Rapid and here. We encamped above Wolf Rapids. A cache of one bag Flour, 1 bag pemmican and a case of tea, &c, at the head of Escape Rapid. Some old Esquimaux marks and encampments seen at Escape Rapid.” 

So the next barrier was the Wolf rapids, and in his Narrative, Back described the rapid and how he gave it its name:

Within a few hundred yards of us, nine white wolves were prowling about round a herd of musk oxen, one of which was shot; but being a bull, was too strong scented to be eaten. As there was no possibility of making a portage, should it be necessary, on the side where we had encamped, at daylight of the following morning we pulled upstream to cross over, and see if it was more favourable on the other side. The descent broke over a fall five feet deep, opposite to a gloomy chasm in the rock, but as it did not reach quite to the eastern side, the boats was enabled to pass it, and then ran the Wolf rapid. Some of the animals whose name it bore seemed to be keeping a brisk look-out for what might happen.

This is likely a good place to stop and think about the wolves watching these British explorers, to see if there is a meal in them. Back’s party did safely pass Wolf Rapids, however, and so did James Anderson’s. But we will address that in the next post in this series, which when published will be found here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-anderson-13/

To return to the beginning of the entire series, you can go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-andersons-journey/ and follow it through — that is, presuming I have activated all the links. There are quite a few blogposts to follow, but I do warn you, I will leave out parts of the story.

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