James Anderson on the Back River

birchbark canoe

James Anderson and James Green Stewart descended the Back River in canoes that were not nearly so well made as this one. Image of a birchbark canoe on a Canadian River, from Glenbow Archives, image na-843-14, used with their permission

On July 16, 1855, James Anderson and James Green Stewart continued their journey down the Back River, travelling from Lake Beechy northward, toward the Arctic Ocean. As you already know, these two HBC men are heading north to the Arctic, to investigate reports received from Governor Simpson. As much as four years earlier, some white men who might have been Sir John Franklin’s men had been spotted by the Inuit, apparently making their slow way south from the Arctic Ocean after their ships had been frozen into the ice. It appeared, from reports, that these men were walking across the frozen Barren Lands to the south, heading for the civilization of any HBC fort they could find and following, or hoping to follow, the Back River (also known as the Great Fish River) south to safety. It was an impossible quest, and they dd not survive it. 

“Left our encampment at 2 3/4 am,” Anderson wrote in his journal, “and passed Lake Beechy with a fine breeze aft. A complete portage was made at the Cascades; all the Rapids below it were safely run with full cargoes with the exception of one, where the canoes were lightened of a few pieces and 3 men each.” It clearly did not take a long time for the HBC men to pass through Beechy Lake and reach the banks of the Back River once again: the Cascades mentioned above were at the bottom end of the lake. Here is how George Back described the “falls” at the end of Beechy Lake in 1834:

By 10 am the mountains had dwindled to hills, which soon gave place to sand-banks, especially to the right; an ominous indication of the future course of the stream. The lake, which I have named after my friend Captain Beechey [Beechy] visibly decreased in breadth, and at length discharged itself by what from the loud roar that was heard long before we got to it, was conjectured to be a fall, but which was found to be in fact an awful series of cascades, nearly two miles in length, and making, in the whole, a descent of about sixty feet. The right bank was the most favourable for a portage, which we commenced without loss of time, while the two steersmen were dispatched to examine the falls. Their report was, “that it was possible the boat might be got down, but they did not see how she ever could be got up again…”

Anderson described an event that happened in Lake Beechy, and goes on to tell more of their journey down the Back River twenty years after Back made his journey down the river. “Saw a doe and her fawn cross a narrow part of Lake Beechy; 2 wolves were waiting for them: the poor creature was in a sad dilemma, afraid to return on account of us, and to land for the wolves — we shouted and drove the wolves off, and I trust the poor animals escaped their fangs.” It is a pleasure to see the empathy that James Anderson showed in his journal: I have not thought of him as an empathetic man (and as you will find out, he often was not).  Observed a great change in the temperature since leaving Lake Beechy — it is much warmer; Capt. Back observed the same thing, and accounted for it by the distance from Bathurst Inlet being increased. Made a cache of a bale of dried meat at our encampment of last night, and of one bag Pemmican at the head of the Cascades of Beechy’s Lake.” Anderson’s men would return home by the Back River, and they would pick up the caches on their way back to Great Slave Lake. 

Anderson’s descriptions continue as they descend the Back River: “The current carried us on very swiftly and we encamped at 9 1/2 pm at the “Sand Cliffs” passed by Back on the afternoon of the 16th Inst [July 1834]; his descriptions of the scenery is most correct — it is beautiful indeed. The mosses which are in full flower and in patches on the cliffs with their green leaves and purple flowers on the cream coloured sand look most beautiful. Back saw immense numbers of Reindeer and Musk Oxen in this part of the River; we saw but 10 of the former and about 40 of the latter — 28 of these were in one drove; they were of all sizes — the calves look like black pigs.”

Reindeer are, of course, what we  call Caribou in North America. Every Hudson’s Bay man called them reindeer, however, and they were perfectly correct: reindeer and caribou are the same species — Rangifor tarandus. But you have to be careful, funnily enough: there are some reindeer in Alaska that were imported from Finland, and even though they are identical to our caribou, they are called reindeer! 

It’s a personal thing, I guess, but I always notice James Anderson’s descriptions of natural objects in his writing: his brother, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, often described the plants and animals he came across in his writing. Both boys came from a family in which there were, and still are, a good number of naturalists: it is something that seems to run in the Anderson-Seton family.

But let us continue with our story: In 1834, George Back’s boat travelled down the Back River much more slowly than Anderson’s two canoes did; Anderson had expert paddlers with him, who were really responsible for the success (and non-success) of the expedition. I might tell you about the non-success part later, if I am so inclined, because that is a very important part of James’s story.

I also feel it is an important part of Anderson’s journey to investigate Back’s journals, as he described the places he had been while Anderson often only remarked that Back’s description was good. In fact, Anderson carried a copy of Back’s book downriver with him, and it (and its maps) acted as Anderson’s guide down the Back River. As a result, if we want to know what the place looked like (and we do), we have to read Sir George 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 [London, 1836]. Back was a naval officer, a Commander, I believe, and was not yet knighted when he made this expedition. Here is his biography, if you want to learn more about him: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/back_george_10E.html 

These two parties of men were following the Back River toward the north, although it did not always seem to head in that direction. Here is George Back’s description of the Sand Cliffs that he and his men passed on July 16, 1834:

We embarked before 4 am., and a strong current carried us to a broad part of the river which, I was rejoiced to see, took a sudden turn to the northward; but at a detached conical hill, somewhat further on, it again bent suddenly to the southward, and as there was no passage perceptible at its farther extremity, the crew jocosely said we should be sucked under ground. However, an extremely sharp angle led us between cliffs in a contracted channel into a rapid, at the foot of which it was necessary to land to avoid another, the waves of which were too high to allow of its being run with the cargo. When lightened the boat ran it uninjured. A loud roar of rushing water, heard for the distance of about a mile, had prepared us for a long line of rapids which now appeared, breaking their furious way through mounds and ranges of precipitous sand-hills of the most fantastic outline. Some of them (the sand-hills) resembled parts of old ruins or turrets, and would have offered pleasing subjects for sketching. The course of the river became afterwards more tortuous, and its clear blue tint yielded to an olive green, more or less dark according to the character of the muddy tributaries which poured in their contents from both sides… We glided quickly along with the strong current, passed by peaked sand-hills, which rose like artificial structures amidst low shelving prairies, covered with deer to the amount of many thousands.

I like Back’s descriptions. The land along the banks of the Back River was littered with dozens of sand-hills, not in this part of the river only, but most of the way downriver. I presume these sand-hills are kames, mounds of gravel and sediment deposited along the front of a slowly melting Laurentide Ice-sheet that covered this landscape for thousands of years. But in the summertime there was lots of wildlife here, as James Anderson’s journal tells us. “Killed 4 Canada Geese and 18 Grey wavies [Grey geese], which are now moulting — they gave all hands a severe run to catch them.” In an appendix to Back’s Narrative, naturalist Dr. John Richardson described the moult that the Canada goose goes through: 

In the month of July the old birds moult, and may be seen in every river, followed by their young brood, not fully feathered and incapable of flying. When pursued they dive repeatedly, but are soon fatigued, and make for the shore…

Did you know that all members of the geese family in the Northern hemisphere moult every year, in the summertime, when they are unable to fly? I think that pretty much explains the aggressive actions of the “cobra chickens” (as Canada Geese are fondly called on Twitter). Back also described the goose chase that he and his men endured a little further down the Back River: 

Once indeed, some of the party imagined that they saw tents; but these, as we advanced proved to be nothing but a solitary and luxuriant border of fine willows, the secure retreat of hundreds of geese, which having lately cast their large quill feathers were unable to fly; though, aided by instinct and good legs for running, they frequently eluded our most active hunters. If in the water — which, however, they took all pains to avoid — they had recourse to diving; and on rising to breathe, merely exposed their heads and a small part of the back, so that often they were not seen, and still oftener missed when fired at. On land, they either had a fair run for it, or plunged into any cover that happened to be near, through which, however thick, they waddled sufficiently quick to double on their pursuers, and lead them into many ludicrous situations which called forth the merriest of the rest.

And so we will pause as the men chase cobra chickens, and catch them. To return to the beginning of this series, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-andersons-journey/

When the next section of James Anderson’s journal is published, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/james-andersons-journey-9/ 

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

2 thoughts on “James Anderson on the Back River

  1. Gordon MacIvor

    Hi Nancy;
    Another fine story you wrote.
    I always enjoy reading them.
    A Saturday treat with a cup of coffee.
    Curiosity here: what ever happened to your new book?