The Back River

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 I am continuing the story of the journey that James Anderson and James Green Stewart made to the Arctic Ocean in summer 1855. James Anderson was Chief Factor in charge of the Mackenzie’s River District, with his home at Fort Simpson, Mackenzie River. James Green Stewart had come north from Carlton House to join Anderson as his second in charge: Stewart had previously worked under Robert Campbell at Fort Selkirk, on the Yukon River (you can find Robert Campbell’s story on this site as well as Stewart’s previous history). I do not have Stewart’s journal, however, and cannot get a copy of it until this pandemic clears up and we can access archives once more!

So as we go along this series, remember that I do not know what Stewart says of these happenings. In some places, what he has to say is very important to the story. But then, do I want to tell you the complete story? No. I want to pique your curiosity.

So, James Anderson and James Green Stewart and their men have reached Lake Aylmer, a large lake in the Northwest Territories, east and slightly north of Great Slave Lake. We have been following Anderson’s Mountain Portage map to this point, but it is not useful any longer. The date at which we finished the last blogpost is July 9, 1855. So, let us continue his journey north:

Tuesday 10th. Wind NNE and piercing cold. The ice all froze in a coiled mass, and to give it time to soften we left only at 10 am. The whole day was spent in breaking through ice and making portages — of the latter 4 were made, say 1 1/2 miles. We are obliged to round all the bays; some of them are very deep. I really think we have not made ten miles of direct distance. We are now in a bay, the N and N.E. portion of which is formed of sand hills and is, I trust, the Sandhill Bay of Back.

“The Sandhill Bay of Back.” Let me explain this place-naming. As you may or may not remember from the beginning of this series, this party will join the track of Sir George Back’s journey to the Arctic Ocean in 1834. George Back was a Royal Navy officer who had accompanied John Franklin to York Factory, on two of his Arctic Land Expeditions in 1819, and in 1824. [The story of the first expedition is told in Anthony Brandt’s book, The Man Who Ate His Boots, published by Anchor Books in 2011.] On these two expeditions, Franklin and his men had explored half the length of the northern coastline of the North American continent, and this served to whet Back’s appetite for more exploration. In 1833 he set out once again, with an attempt to explore the Thlew-ee-choh or Great Fish River north to the Arctic Ocean, from Great Slave Lake. In 1833 he located the headwaters of the river that would later be named for him, but it was August and too late in the year to descend the river. On June 7, 1834, he and his party left Artillery Lake (east of Great Slave Lake), and travelled through Clinton-Colden and Aylmer Lakes, to reach the headwaters of the Great Fish River. The descent of the river took them a month, and Back and his men spent three weeks exploring Chantry Inlet before poor weather sent them home again. They were back in their Fort Reliance, on Great Slave Lake, in September, 1834. In March 1835 Back left for England, where he wrote and published his book, 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. The book was published in London in 1836, and in 1855 James Anderson was using this book, and its maps, as his guide to the Great Fish River — by now sometimes called the Back River.   

So, at Lake Aylmer, James Anderson’s route joins George Back’s exploration, 21 years later! On his way to locate the Great Fish River Back named both Clinton-Colden Lake, and Lake Aylmer. Anderson used Back’s names for the lakes, and they are still in use today. This is how George Back’s described his “Sandhill Bay.”

I went along a range of sandhills with my glass, but could see nothing of the men. The country was formed of gently undulating hills, whose surfaces were covered with large fragments of rocks, and a coarse gravelly soil, which afforded nutriment to some miserable dwarf birch. The tea plant, crow, and cranberry shrubs also grew there, but were entirely unproductive. In the swamps, occupying every valley, the plant of the whortleberry was occasionally found, but, as in the former case, without fruit.

From the top of the Sandhills, Back could see Sussex Lake ahead — the source of the Thlew-co-choch or Great Fish River! Of course it wasn’t called Sussex Lake, until Back gave it its new name. James Anderson’s journal continues:

We have still much ice to break through before reaching the bottom. The men, notwithstanding their working among ice and water, are in famous spirits, and many a joke and laugh is raised at the expense of those who run a risk of breaking through weak portions of the ice — in general it is about 2 1/2 to 3 feet thick and sound except close along shore. Encamped at 10 1/2 pm. Unable to set the nets.

Wednesday 11th. Wind moderate and variable; cloudy with occasional showers. Left our encampment at 11 am., having waited to allow the ice to soften a little. Just before starting a crack appeared at the next point, across to the other shore; along the side we were on was choked by ice, and though the risk was great, I was determined on attempting it; fortunately the wind was very light, and after a sharp paddle we got safe through. We then had 4 hours of uninterrupted paddling, when ice again bound the road. Another crack appeared in the ice which we immediately entered and recrossed to the opposite side. We were as nearly crushed as possible; 2 canoes only succeeded in crossing, the third had to retreat and take a passage across higher up, but then with the exception of a decharge reached the bottom of what we considered Sand Hill Bay of Back. All our Indian guides were ignorant of this particular portion, having come either from the River falling into this Lake or from Clinton-Colden Lake overland.

Good paddlers (which these men certainly were) can paddle at speeds of up to 3 miles an hour, and in 2 1/2 hours can paddle a distance of ten miles. And, as I have explained before in this series, the First Nations people who accompanied James Anderson were “Copper Indians,” or Yellowknives Dene. Both Aylmer and Clinton-Colden Lakes are their fishing lakes, and they apparently did not come to the north end of enormous Aylmer Lake. James Anderson’s journal continues:

On surmounting a high sand hill we immediately recognized Sussex Lake from Sir G. Back’s admirable drawing. The river running from it is nearly dry, and we are now cutting across to an elbow of the river by a chain of these banks and portages; the first one is made . .  I never saw a region as destitute of animal life — since leaving [Great] Slave Lake, we have seen a white wolf and a marmot, some divers, perhaps 20 Canada geese, as many gulls, a few plover, some bands of grouse and a few small birds. One Indian has lamed himself and our sick man is still hors de combat; fortunately notwithstanding the dreadfully severe labour they have undergone, the others are well and full of spirits. 

The next day they will reach the “Thlewecho River,” as Anderson calls it. George Back called it the Thlew-co-choch, which is close enough. Above I have also used Thlew-ee-co. I don’t seem to have standardized the spelling in my manuscript and I will have to decide on one. But is there a standard spelling? I located William Barr’s Searching for Franklin, and he spells it many different ways: Thleeychodese, Thlewee-cho-dezza, Thle-wee-choch, Thlewycho, and finally, Thlewychodese.

Anyway, to continue with James Anderson’s journey to the Thlew-ee-co: 

Thlewyecho River. Thursday 12th. The day commenced by making 3 portages and traversing 2 small tarns, which brought us to the River which is at present nearly dry — the distance from the Lake (Aylmer) is about 2 miles of portage and one of lake. We then crossed it and make another portage of 1 miles to a small lake, after crossing which we made two more portages — the river being still almost dry — of 1/4 and 1 miles. We then encamped at 9 pm, men very tired and several lame. Mr. Stewart and I went on ahead to view our road and determine on the best places for portages — two are before us, one short and the other long. Saw 2 white wolves and had a long shot at one of them — a grey wavy was killed today. Our Indians are still ignorant of the route; we are guiding ourselves by Back’s journal — his description of the route is so minute and correct that it is needless for me to say anything. The wind was strong from the North and very cold. No mosquitoes tonight — they were in clouds this morning. 

A grey wavy is a grey goose, named for the wavy lines they present as they fly south (or north, for that matter.) So what does Back have to say about this portage? Well, he had some unexpected problems. He and his men were travelling in boats, not canoes, that they had built on Artillery Lake, north of Clinton-Colden Lake. Here’s his story:

The morning of the 28th being fine, I obtained sights which corroborated those taken the previous year [1833] on the same spot [Sandhill Bay]. Having ordered everything to be taken out of the boat preparatory to dragging her across the portage, about a quarter of a mile in breadth, to the Thlew-ee-choh, my astonishment may be conceived when information was brought me that the carpenters would not answer for the consequences of such a step, as the wood of which she was built was too soft to allow of her being dragged over that or any other portage. This was the first time that any such notion about the quality of the wood had been intimated; for otherwise, though it might have cost us incredible trouble, a different and tougher kind should have been procured from Fort Resolution, or even farther . .  It was a contretemps for which I certainly was not prepared; and my only chance of surmounting the difficulty was the possibility that the crew might be able to carry her . . The moment of lifting the boat up was one of intense anxiety; and it is impossible to describe the burst of my feelings, when I saw the men walk away with her. The task, however, though successfully accomplished, was a severe one, and taxed their strength to the utmost. Twice one of my best men of the party declared he knew not if he should stand or fall when, from the inequality of the ground, the weight pressed particularly on him . . . At 1 pm the boat was launched upon the Thlew-ee-choch; but as the river was open only in and about the shallow rapids of the upper parts (for the lake was its source) . . . 

So Back and his men did reach the headwaters of the Thlew-ee-choch River, but without describing the portages. Their journey, and James Anderson’s also, will continue down the river to Musk-Ox Lake, where they will have more adventures. Anderson’s canoes, badly built as they were, performed much better than Back’s boat, and the HBC men made a faster journey downriver than the Englishmen did. But these stories will be told in future blogposts, and the next one to be published will be found here:

To return to the beginning of this series, you can go here:

Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.