The Mountain Portage, continued.

birchbark canoe

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

We ended my last blogpost at the door-like cut in the rocks called Rae’s Falls, at the end of Anderson’s Barnston Lake. Today, this is McLellan Lake, and it is just beyond the height of land on this mountain portage. As you are aware, these men are crossing the mountains that lie between Great Slave Lake, on their way to the headwaters of the Great Fish River. The Great Fish, or Back’s River, is the river that they will follow north, downriver, all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Anderson’s journal continues on Thursday, July 5, 1855.

Began to load at 3 a.m. We are very unlucky; the nets set last night produced nothing. We made six portages — two of them about 1/2 mile in length, the others short — and about 47 miles through lakes. Two of these were 12 and 13 miles in length, two of 5 and 7, 2 others very small. We are now encamped about halfway in a large lake full of islands; we saw divers [loons] and gulls in it as well as white partridges in their brown garb and traces of marmots are also seen at our present encampment. The appearance of the country is less savage. The Mountains (Granite) now rise gradually and rarely exceed 100 to 200 feet in height; their rounded summits are covered with moss and debris of rock . . . Some gravelly islands and sand-hills were seen.

When I arrived in Calgary many years ago I was astonished to see gulls flying about like they owned the place! But they migrate from the Pacific Ocean up to the Arctic, and so you will see gulls in very unexpected places! The Sandhills that Anderson mentions are a feature of the Great Fish River, and Anderson knows this from reading Captain George’s Back’s 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. This is the book that Anderson is carrying with him as a guide to the Arctic, although it is only useful once he reaches the Great Fish River. The Mountain Portage is the route that Captain Back decided NOT to take in 1834. Anderson and his party were the first HBC men to travel over this Mountain Portage, although another HBC trader, Bernard Rogan Ross, seemed to be very familiar with it. 

But back to Sandhills, which run all the way through this journal as well as through Back’s Narrative. It seems to me that these sandhills must be kames: moraine-like mounds left by the Laurentide ice-sheets that covered the entire northern continent and butted up against the slopes of the Mackenzie Mountain range 15,000 years ago or more. Does this sound likely?

Anderson’s journal continues: 

Wood is getting rare indeed; we cooked breakfast with a kind of heath today; it burns well. The weather is excessively warm, but an aft wind tempered the heat and helped us on our way; it also kept down the mosquitoes and sandflies a little. In the evening, however, they were in clouds. Set the net again. Encamped at 9 1/2 pm; men rather tired. The canoes are very heavy, particularly mine; it takes 6 men to carry her. Our route today was crooked, but the general direction is N.N.W. compass.

The heath mentioned above is likely Arctic Heather, and they will burn much more of it on their journey north: it will be the only fuel they have (and at times they won’t even have that!)

On the page opposite the notation above, Anderson wrote: “The water from this lake runs toward Lake Aylmer.” Anderson named this large, island-filled lake for his wife, Margaret, daughter of Chief Factor Roderick MacKenzie, Sr., who when he met Anderson was in charge at the Nipigon Lake post, where Anderson served as his clerk. MacKenzie sounds like such a nice man: I believe Governor Simpson said of him that he was “too honest to cheat an Indian.” I take that as a positive, but I don’t think Simpson did.

Anyway, Anderson’s journal continues:

Friday 6th — Began to load at 5 1/2 am having given the men a little extra sleep. The Indian took us into a Bay yesterday evening and we lost 1/2 hour in getting to the proper road. The remainder of the Lake was free from Islands; in some parts we had a clear horizon; it is a splendid body of water. Some rocks were still covered with ice and patches of snow were seen throughout the day; it is evident that the ice has only lately broken up. 

Margaret Lake was 23 miles in length by his estimation, and 8 or 10 miles wide in most parts. At the end of the lake, “We ran the canoes down 2 short pieces of river, but the pieces [packs] were carried as they were both shallow. This brought us to the largest lake we have yet met with.” This large lake Anderson named Back Lake, for Captain George Back. All other lakes named by Anderson have had their names changed over the years, but Back Lake bears its original name today. 

We encamped on it, after making about 30 miles. The mountains are now mostly sloping hills — some sand hills were seen in both lakes. Wood is very scarce; a patch of moderate sized spruce was, however, seen in this lake, but with this exception it is about 2 feet or 3 feet in height — the trunks are shaped like carrots; at this encampment the trees are like walking sticks (the largest) and about 1 1/2 feet in height. We shall leave even this tomorrow. A marmot [Arctic ground squirrel] was seen and 6 white grouse with 2 Canada Geese (moulting) killed. We were alarmed a little before encamping by seeing our road apparently barred by ice; fortunately we found a passage round it; it was a broad belt traversing this lake. One of our best men is sick; he has injured his testicle in some of the portages. 

The injured man is Alfred Laférte, and he does not accompany Anderson down the Great Fish River — not because he is injured, but because Anderson said he was a trouble-maker. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Anderson’s journal continues: 

Sunday 8th July. Left our encampment 5 1/2 am. The canoes are well arranged. Took up the net which yielded only 2 Trout. Got into the river at 6 am and reached the mouth at 7 1/2 am. Ran 2 good rapids. Except at the mouth of the River, we found Lake Aylmer fast . . .

The river is important to this story, and the lake also. Today both the river and the lake are named Outram. Anderson gave Outram River its name, but not the lake on which he camped. And why did he name the river Outram? His first cousin was General Sir James Outram, of fame in England and India, whose story will be found here:

So Outram River ran down into Lake Aylmer, which you will actually find on your maps, should you have maps of the Northwest Territories. You can also google the lake so you will know where it is and what it looks like. It’s a big lake, and a fishing lake for the “Copper Indians” who are guiding Anderson, and who are properly known today as the Yellowknives Dene. So, let’s carry on:

Except at the mouth of the river, we found Lake Aylmer fast; along shore, however, and the Bays afforded a passage. After paddling about 30 miles we found our passage barred. Broke a piece along shore, but at last the ice began to drive on shore in large fields and we were compelled to encamp at a short distance (a mile or two) from the portage to Sussex Lake. This is [word] provoking! The whole of the Lake to the North and Eastward is full of unbroken ice; all hands were on it chopping away, though the weather is very warm. In a shallow bay in this Lake we surprised a whole shoal of splendid salmon trout; three or four were captured by the men with their hands. 

In another copy of his journal which I have not seen, Anderson apparently writes, “All hands were in the water in a moment, and after a ludicrous scramble 4 were captured.” We will remember how Augustus Peers talked of the Metis men in travelled in the Portage la Loche boats, who jumped into the water to capture a trapped sturgeon in the shallow waters of the Sturgeon-Weir River. These First Nations men, as well as the Metis, were natural hunters and scroungers, and this is absolutely a part of their culture — as it becomes a part of the culture of any man who works in the north. You will see this again, later in Anderson’s journal, as the men scramble to catch Canada Geese for their supper.

Anderson’s journal continues 

Monday 9th — This day has been employed battling against ice by making portages (3) of about 2 1/2 miles in total length — chopping and pushing ice aside we rounded a deep bay and reached a point about 3 miles in a direct line from our encampment of last night. We are again stopped by ice and a similar day’s work is before us. Wind as usual N and cold; it froze hard last night and began to freeze at 9 1/2 pm when we encamped. One of our canoes narrowly escaped destruction by being nipped between two fields of ice — they actually met but by shoving poles under her the ice went under her bottom; all the canoes slightly damaged notwithstanding all our care. A Canada goose shot today. One of the Indians injured his foot by letting a Bag of Pemmican tumble on it — our sick man (Laférte) still unable to work. Thermometer, 39 degrees, air. Water, 34 degrees. 

Brrr! Cold. The temperatures are, of course, in Fahrenheit, so not very much above freezing as he says. I think that you can guess what we are going to be speaking of in the next section of the journal, when posted. Anderson’s men will spend quite a bit of time in chopping the ice so that they can get through this lake, and through the lake that is to follow. 

I am also finding a difference between these records that are in the British Columbia Archives, and those that are recorded in another journal I have: that is, William Barr’s Searching for Franklin: The Land Arctic Searching Expedition. A comparison between the two sets of records might help me figure out if something is missing in my account. It is almost as if a day is missing in my account, and, if so, I will have to figure it out. As I think I told you, the copies in B.C. Archives are transcripts written by James Mackenzie Anderson, son of James (A), and it is quite possible that he dropped or missed some information that was in his father’s original journal. So I will have to check this out. As it’s a good time to stop the story right now, I will do so, and let you wait in anticipation for the hard work that is to come. To return to the beginning of this series, go here:

When the next is published, it will be found here:

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

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