James Anderson on Lake Franklin

birchbark canoe

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

In this blogpost, James Anderson (A), and his clerk James Green Stewart, will make their way down the Great Fish River, from Wolf Rapids to another large lake called Lake Franklin. In the last blogpost, we left James Anderson, and his party of men, camped at the top of Wolf Rapids. On the next day (which was Friday July 27th, 1855), Anderson wrote in his journal: “The Wolf and 9 other rapids were run with whole cargoes; they are all strong, some with whirlpools which must be dangerous in high water.”

The Thlewycho, or Great Fish River, was not an easy river to find their way down, it seemed. On the 27th James Anderson wrote: “One-third this day nearly was lost by our mistaking a channel of the River which led us into a deep bay at the bottom of which was a small river [Meadowbank River, perhaps?] It appears to be frequented by the Esquimaux. The above occurred above Mt. Meadowbank. It was blowing a tempest with rain which prevented the steersman from observing the current in this Lake-like expansion of the River… ” As you already know, James Anderson is using as his guide down the Great Fish or Back River, George Back’s published 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. In 1834, George Back had named Mount Meadowbank, and gave a good description of it in his Narrative:

A glimpse of sun at noon gave the latitude 66 degrees, 66′ 24″N, nearly abreast of a picturesque and commanding mountains with steep sloping sides to the south-west, where cattle [musk ox?] were feeding, but to the northward broken into fearful precipices and overhanging cliffs, inaccessible to the foot of man. It was by far the most conspicuous eminence we had seen; and from some fancied likeness, the people said, “Here’s Hoy Head — give way, boys, we are no far from the sea.”

Hoy Head is in the Orkney Islands, of course, and Back’s men were British and Scottish and familiar with the Islands, one of which was Hoy. The quote continues: 

The remark took me in imagination to Auld Rickie; and I called the hill Mount Meadowbank, in honor of the learned Lord of that name.

James Anderson’s journal continues: “Saturday 28th. Left at the usual hour. The day was fine which gave us an opportunity of drying our clothes while breakfasting, only to be wetted again by the spray arising from a strong head wind which retarded us very much. Four rapids were run, 3 of them very strong. The eddies or whirlpools strain the canoes very much; we cannot keep them tight — they are evidently getting shaky.” This was a concern, as Anderson and his men depended on their canoes to get home again.

Back also described this series of falls and rapids in his Narrative

After a course of six miles to the south-east, the river again veered northerly, rushing with fearful impetuosity among rocks and large stones which raised such whirlpools in the rapids as would have put the strength of a canoe in jeopardy. The boat’s breadth of beam and steady trim kept her up in such trials; but though we escaped the rapid, we had a narrow chance of being dashed on the beach by the eddy. The low projecting point of rock, against which we had been thus almost thrown and then whirled away from by the receding current, was remarkable for a row of piled stones or slabs, placed a few feet apart, which as we shot the rapid, were at first mistaken for figures gazing at us. On the neighbouring hills and mountains were many more of a similar construction, which, we could easily understand, might serve for marks to guide the natives through the country; but for what purpose this “picquet” mounted guard at the foot of the rapid, was not quite so clear to our comprehensions.

It may have been a little spooky, however. James Anderson’s journal continues: “Two plovers and immense numbers of Canada geese were seen — 20 were killed. Two deer were also seen close (does), one of them had a fawn with a leg broken, but the little creature managed to ascend a steep and rugged mountain pretty swiftly on 3 legs. Some good-sized willows were gathered. Extensive patches of snow on the right bank of the River. We encamped late a little above Montresor River. (Note: I was nearly upset by the canoe grazing a stone. It was only a shave — the gum only was rubbed off).” Back had also described and named Montresor River:

 In the afternoon, the stream took a wide sweep; and at a bay to the westward, half screened by huge rocks, it received another large tributary, which I named after Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Montresor.

James Anderson’s journal continues: “Sunday 29th. Left early. Ran a bad rapid above Montresor River, in which Mr. Stewart’s canoe was completely ungummed.” The seams of these canoes were water-proofed with purified spruce resin, tallow (suet), and charcoal, and the warmed mixture was applied to all the birchbark seams on the outer canoe surface. Rough water would make the canoe bend and flex enough to pop off large chunks of resin, and re-gumming a canoe would have been, at times, a daily if not hourly chore. “We were consequently obliged to put on shore at 6 o’clock to gum, where we breakfasted likewise, and made a cache of 1 beg Pemmican and 1 bag flour. The rapid at McKay’s Peak was little more than a strong current.” In his Narrative, Back described the river and the mountain he called McKay’s Peak, and the rapid that followed:

The swollen river now rolled on in sullen and deathlike silence, long undisturbed by anything louder than an occasional bubbling caused by the uneveness of the bottom. But the shores got nearer and nearer, and, for a space, it was quite uncertain in what quarter we should go.

There was a rocky hill, so remarkably formed as to have attracted the attention of all of us for some time. The base which was equal in height to the surrounding mountains, was one enormous mass of round grey rock, surmounted by a large cone of the same substance, which so exactly resembled in outline the crater of a volcano, and was withal so black, that it required no straining of the imagination to conceive it one. At a distance it was taken for an island; but as we advanced, we found it to be a part of the eastern shore and were soon made aware that the contracted outlet of the river lay at its foot. On our landing, the steersman [who was named McKay] volunteered to ascend it, to get, as he termed it, “a good look at the river,” and in consequence we christened it McKay’s Peak. From its giddy height the the rapid looked as even and smooth as oil; and in that supposition, having taken the precaution to lighten the boat forward, we pushed off, and the next minute were in it. I think I shall never forget the moment of the first descent down what cannot be more fitly described than as a steep hill. There was not, it is true, a single break in the smoothness of the surface; but with such wild swiftness were we borne along, that it required our extremest efforts, the very tug of life, to keep the boat clear of the gigantic waves below and we succeeded at last only to be tossed about in the Charybdis of its almost irresistible whirlpools.

Back’s descriptions are so vivid they made the river come to life! James Anderson also experienced some difficulty in the rapid below McKay’s Peak, although the canoes took it more easily than Back’s boat had done. “In the rapid below it, my canoe was nearly broken, tho’ it was an easy one. We had to contend against a strong wind all day; in the evening this was accompanied by soaking Scotch mist. This compelled me to encamp in case I should miss my road, at 7 pm, near the outlet of Franklin Lake. Esquimaux marks numerous and traces fresh. Saw Esquimaux ducks, no animals were seen, but abundance of Canada geese of which 53 were killed at one run — they are beginning to fly… Two small black-headed gulls attacked us at the encampment, even striking at our hats.”

Back described the rapids at the mouth of Lake Franklin, above which James Anderson’s party had encamped. His description of the large lake (named by him for John Franklin, who is not yet knighted) is also contained in his Narrative

Having got out of this trouble, nothing loath, we breathed more freely again in the wide stream, which now carried us gently forward. Craggy rocks, as before, bordered each side, the western being the more open of the two, with undulating prairie. At the end of six miles, a sandy bluff from the left seemed to bar the river, but, on drawing closer, it proved, as expected, the beginning of another rapid, which, however, was more civil than the last; and allowed us to pass with a few good-humoured buffetings to make us free of its waters. 

When we had fairly entered the mountainous country, and the river had taken a decided turn to the northward, I certainly did not contemplate any other interruption than rapids or falls; my astonishment will therefore be understood, when, from the foot of the rapids, we emerged into the expanse of a spacious lake, bounded only by the horizon, and stretching away in a direction about N.N.W. For a while the current was felt, and guided us on; but soon the old difficulty was experienced, and we had again to grope our way towards the river as we might. A cold head wind with rain did not aid this operation, and as the evening was already far advanced, we encamped — after which divine service was read in the tent. I had already been to the summit of a tolerably high hill, but could not descry any land; there was, however, much ice in a N.N.W bearing, and the space between the western shore and us, which might be from five to six miles, was quickly filling up by the drifting masses from the main body.

Back’s party had travelled down the river a few months earlier in the summer than Anderson’s party had done: hence the ice that still remained in the lake. James Anderson’s journal continues, as he passes over the rapids that Back has just described, above, and paddles into Lake Franklin. “Monday 30th. Left early. The rapids at the outlet of Lake Franklin were partly passed by a portage and partly run. At their foot we saw 3 Equimaux Lodges, in which were an elderly man, 3 women, and a host of children, the others being absent. Large numbers of whitefish and trout were hung out to dry, as well as some deer meat. The lodges were made of Musk ox skins dressed with the hair inwards. These people made us understand that a party of white men had starved to death (at the sea) after their vessels were destroyed. Two of Dr. Rae’s men understand many words and phrases. In their lodges were copper and tin kettles, both round and of a square form — longer than broad — evidently belonging to cooking stoves. Various pieces of wood, poles and boards of ash, oak, white pine and mahogany, were about the lodges, also a brass letter clip, but nothing to identify any person. Some of the boards were painted white. Nothing could be learned about books or manuscripts — the absence of the interpreters is a sad blow to us…”

Copper and tin kettles is something that these Inuit would not own: nor was brass. Nor would they have boards of ash, oak, and mahogany, whether painted or not — although they might have obtained them by trade, of course. Still, it appears that, at last, James Anderson and James Green Stewart have stumbled upon a few clues as to what might have happened to Sir John Franklin’s men on the Arctic Ocean, when their ships, Erebus, and Terror, were caught in the ice and they were forced to abandon them. As you know from my first post of this series, these two HBC men were sent out by Sir John Franklin’s wife, Lady Franklin, and Governor George Simpson of the HBC, to search for proof of Franklin’s supposed death by starvation, and the possible but unlikely rescue of the last remnants of men who might still have survived that same starvation. But most of all, Anderson was instructed to retrieve any papers, journals, or manuscripts that Franklin himself might have left behind — hence the phrase, “Nothing could be learned about books or manuscripts.”

I will leave you here, but in a future blogpost these men will continue their journey through Lake Franklin. They are fairly close to the Arctic Ocean right now, so we are getting places! As you will eventually see, some men in this group of men kept secrets from the others, and this Inuit camp at the mouth of Lake Franklin was one of the first places where one man apparently listened to a story that he kept secret from another. 

To start reading from the beginning of this series, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-andersons-journey/

When the next post in this series is published, you will find it here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-anderson-14/

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

4 thoughts on “James Anderson on Lake Franklin

  1. Peter Solhjell

    Nancy, WHEN are you going to do something on the BELLA COOLA POST ????
    Please! I can help you with couple of photos and a sketch.