Anderson on the Great Fish River

birchbark canoe

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

In 1855, James Anderson (A), Chief Trader in the Hudson’s Bay Company, continues his journey down the Back, or Great Fish River toward the Arctic Ocean. He had been sent north from Great Slave Lake to search for the bodies of the lost Franklin’s men, who had been seen by the Inuit four years earlier, trudging north across the Barren Lands toward the civilization of an HBC post. There was no chance at all that these men were still alive; the journey was made to recover paper and journals that would tell the world (well, Great Britain) what had happened to them.

We left Anderson and his party at their campsite, where they chased and killed some Canadian geese. To see that story, go here: And so, James Anderson continues his journey down the Great Fish River. “I 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, and I trust the poor animals escaped their fangs. Observed a great change in the temperature since leaving Lake Beechy — it is much warmer. Captain 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.

There was a falls at the end of Lake Beechy, which was described by Captain George Back, an English explorer who had journeyed down the same river and lake some ten years earlier:

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, 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 despatched 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 would be got up again;” a consideration of no great moment yet, when we were not out of walking distance from the house, whatever it might become afterwards.

Now, you will see here that I am spelling “Beechy” in various ways — Beechy, and Beechey. James Anderson always spelled it Beechy, but George Back used Beechey. When you are a writer with a manuscript to submit, however, you must be consistent in your spelling of every single name and word! So I learned a trick from my editor: make a list of the words and names you use throughout the manuscript, and use that list as a quick guide to the spelling of those same names and words. I have a list for my manuscript: but I haven’t dipped into it for this series of blogposts. But when I do, I find that the name “Beechy” (or “Beechey”) should always be spelled “Beechey.” So, consider that done — in the manuscript, at least!

James Anderson’s journal continues: “Wednesday 18th [July]. Left our encampment at 4 3/4 am. The Canoes were lightened at the 2nd Cascade and portages made at the 1st cascade and the “dalles” previous to arriving at Baillie’s River; that stream is now only a few yards in width, tho’ when the water is high it is evidently an imposing stream. Encamped at 9 pm about halfway between Baillie’s and Warren’s River.”

Back had seen Esquimaux marks at Baillie’s River, which flowed into the Great Fish River north of the cascades at the northern end of Beechey Lake: “The stream after these agitations settled into a calm though not a very gentle current

which swept us opposite a magnificent river, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, joining the Thlew-ee-choh [the Great Fish River] from the eastward. Some Esquimaux marks on the banks seemed to point this out as their line of route; and I was far from being convinced that it was not the The-lew [likely Back referred to the Thelon River, which was north and east of this place], however much that opinion might be at variance with the accounts we had received from the Indians. Whatever it was, it received the name of Baillie’s River, after my worthy friend, George Baillie, Esquire, Agent General for Crown Colonies.

Anderson’s journal continues, with his description of his search for Esquimaux marks at Baillie’s River: “24 geese were killed, they are all males — no young ones are to be seen. A few musk oxen and deer were seen. The weather was clear and warm. I searched minutely for the Esquimaux marks mentioned by Back but saw none, either on the banks of the river or on the Gneiss Mountains mentioned by Back.”

But, as James Anderson’s journal stated: “Along the bank of the River small stones were often found placed one on the top of the other, but this is evidently done by the washing away of the sand from the stones. Two of Dr. [John] Rae’s men [who were actually members of Anderson’s crew] say that they do not resemble Esquimaux marks.” George Back also described these piles of stones:

The land then became more uneven, and soon changed into hills, partly composed of bare rocks, with loose masses on them. On one, indeed, something higher than the rest, we thought for a long time there was a man; but afterwards the general opinion determined it to be a heap of stones, possibly placed there by the Esquimaux. And this was the more probable, as on arriving opposite to another wide tributary, called, after his Majesty’s Counsul at New York, Buchanan’s River, a great number of marks were seen distributed at particular points, and on commanding eminences along the banks, apparently for the purpose of either frightening the deer, which were plentiful as usual, into a particular course, or as places of ambush when in quest of them….

Somewhere on their day’s journey both parties had passed Warren’s River, to the northward of Baillie’s River, which George Back had named for Captain Superintendent Sir Samuel Warren of Woolwich Dock Yard. Back described the Great Fish River beyond Warren’s River in this fashion:

The banks were higher, sometimes rising into cliffs, but of the same dry and sandy character, barren and cheerless. Again, trending more to the eastward, we passed Jervoise River, another large tributary from the right; and then came to a low sandy opening, which seemed to be completely shut in, until at the northern limit a rapid channel led us among some rocks that appeared to extend from an adjacent height toward a range of hills to the northwest. The sun being too low to allow of our running the rapids before us, we encamped. There were some musk oxen here; but neither they nor even the deer or geese were startled, unless they saw some one actually going toward them. 

James Anderson’s journal reads: “Thursday 19th. Raining and blowing a gale from N.E. which prevented us from leaving until 6 3/4 am. About 1 pm it began to rain and did not cease until we encamped at 6 1/2 pm at the head of the Hawk Rapids. Just before we encamped it rained so heavily and blew so hard that the bowmen could not distinguish the leads. Saw no musk oxen to-day, but perhaps 100 deer…The so-called Esquimaux Marks are seen on the edge of every sandy or gravelly hill, but nowhere else; they point or run in every direction according as the river runs. Blue lupins are found here in great profusion, and several other flowers, among others the dandelion. Warren and Jervois’s River were dry.”

Anderson’s men ran Hawk Rapids with ease in their canoes, and Anderson considered them strong but not dangerous. However, in 1834, George Back’s men had difficulty in them:

Early in the following morning we pushed out into the beginning of the rapids, when the boat was twirled about in whirlpools against the oars; and but for the amazing strength of McKay, who steered, it must inevitably have been crushed against the faces of the protruding rocks. As we entered the defile, the rocks on the right presented a high and perpendicular front, so slaty and regular that it needed no force of imagination to suppose them severed at one great blow from the opposite range; which, craggy, broken, and overhanging, towered in stratified and many-coloured masses far above the chafing torrent. There was a deep and settled gloom in the abyss — the effect of which was heightened by the hollow roar of the rapid, still in deep shade, and by the screaming of three large hawks, which frightened from their aeries were hovering high above the middle of the pass, and gazing fixedly upon the first intruders on their solitude; so that I felt relieved, as it were from a load, when we once more burst forth into the bright sunshine of day. 

Back did not name this rapid-filled chasm “Hawk Rapids,” but Anderson used the name, and it fits.  I wonder if one travels down the Great Fish River today, whether those hawks will still be there, circling in astonishment over the intruding boat or canoe that dares venture through that dark chasm. It might be fun to visit if only to see the hawks still circling. 

We will stop here, for a while. Both parties will continue their journey down the Great Fish River toward the Arctic Ocean, and both will describe McKinley’s River, which closely followed Hawk Rapid. “Still widening, the river rolled on without obstruction, Back wrote, “being here large enough to remind me of the Mackenzie.” So the Great Fish River was not a small river, although it seemed to still flow “most provokingly to the eastward,” according to Back. This will be continued in the next blogpost, where Anderson, at least, will meet his first Inuit.

To return to the beginning of this thread, go here:

When the next post is published, it will appear here: 

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



2 thoughts on “Anderson on the Great Fish River