Anderson’s Journey Home

birchbark canoe

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

On Friday August 10, 1855, James Anderson begins his journey home, leaving the Adelaide Peninsula behind him. With his crew, he “Left our encampment at 3 1/2 a.m. The ice was very close and cemented together with new ice, so that we made slow progress and injured the canoes.” His journal of his journey home continues:

We therefore breakfasted early and afterwards got along a little better. When we arrived at the strait [that] separated Montreal Island from the West main, the Halkett boat was launched and a small island examined, on which were some old Esquimaux encampments.

The Halkett boat was the same Halkett boat that Chief Factor John Rae had used on his expedition across the Arctic just a year or so earlier, when he started off from Repulse Bay (northern shore of Hudson Bay) and travelled across country to Castor and Pollux River — a river that flowed westward into the Arctic Ocean some distance north of Chantrey Inlet. Have I explained what a Halkett boat is? This particular Halkett boat was specifically designed for Arctic travel by Lt. Peter Halkett in the 1840s, and was made of a rubber-impregnated fabric that could be both inflated and collapsed. In fact, Anderson and his men had carried this boat all the way down the Great Fish River to Montreal Island, but he had made no mention of it until they put it to use on the Adelaide Peninsula. He speaks of this interesting boat for the first time on August 8, when he says: “Early this morning 4 of the best men were ferried across in the Halkett boat, and the whole of Maconochie’s Island was minutely examined without success.” His journal continues, and at this point they are no longer travelling in the Halkett boat, but in the now-shaky canoes they had brought all the way downriver from Great Slave Lake:

We afterwards proceeded along the South shore of Montreal Island, which we found nearly clear of ice, and after examining the Traverse from a high mountain, determined on risking it, though the Eastern bank appeared to be lined with ice. We crossed with a fine breeze aided by the paddle and got through the ice easily, there being large openings between the floes. The breeze increased to half a gale and we continued on till 11 1/2 pm, when we encamped at Point Backhouse, shortly after which it began to rain at intervals, and blow still harder. 

James Green Stewart’s journal tells us that when the reached the eastern shore of Chantrey Inlet, they found “the sea.. so high on the rocks that we had to continue on to [Point] Backhouse, where we arrived at 10 1/2 pm and camped.” (You will see that the times that Anderson said they camped, and that Stewat said, differed.) Point Backhouse is on the eastern shore of Chantrey Inlet, north of the mouth of the Great Fish River and east of Montreal Island. “Two seals were seen at this point,” Anderson writes. “Heather is pretty plentiful, but there are no traces of deer.” In 1834, Captain George Back had named and described Point Backhouse. This is what Back wrote in his Narrative (he is heading northward up the east coast of Chantrey Inlet, Victoria Headland being slightly north of the mouth of the Great Fish River): 

The appearance of so much ice to the westward determined me to keep along the high shore where we were; and having rounded Victoria headland, we passed a picturesque waterfall tumbling from the rocks above, and came to a high craggy point which I named after my friend, John Backhouse, Esquire, the able and excellent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Near this was a tolerably large island, and some others were seen more to the westward.

James Anderson’s journal continues. “Saturday 11th. Unable to move. Blowing very hard between W and N all day, with squalls of rain. (Note: ice came in again. Most fortunate we got across yesterday).” His journal continues:

Sunday 12th [August 1855]. Unable to leave the encampment before mid-day; it then lulled a little and we embarked. It was still blowing very fresh from the N.W. with a heavy sea, but we kept on and encamped at sunset above our encampment of the 30th [July. This encampment was on the Thlewycho or Great Fish River, halfway between the mouth of the River and the Rapids leading into Lake Franklin]. Showers of rain all day, which turned to snow in the evening. Very cold — I never experienced such piercing winds as blow on this coast; all of us are in winter rig, but still chilled to the bone. No deer seen today, 3 starving wolves came close to the canoes and stole a piece of pemmican; fortunately for them all the guns were wet. (Note: mountains white this evening with snow).

In his own journal, Stewart notes that “the wolves seem so close to us this morning that the men were throwing pemmican to them, which they greedily devoured. When wolves starve here at this season, what would we do were we [unfortunate] enough to winter.” Anderson’s journal continues, below:

Monday 13th. Left at 3 a.m. Just after embarking it began to snow and then rain heavily, and this was the case, with a slight interval, all day. Saw the Esquimaux at the Rapids leading to Lake Franklin.

Back also saw these same Inuit, both at the rapids at the mouth of Montressor River, and at the shallow rapid that led into Lake Franklin from the north. This is what George Back wrote in his Narrative

We encamped near the next rapid. It blew too hard on the following morning to allow us to move, and we saw the Esquimaux watching us from behind the rocks. About noon, two of them brought their kieyaks [kayaks] to the water’s edge opposite to us, with the intention, as we supposed, of crossing over; but having waited until the wind fell without any further attempt on their part to move, I left a bag of pemmican on another heap of stones as a further substantial proof of our kind intentions, and finally push off, taking the western rapid, which communicated with Lake Franklin. Its shallowness gave us much trouble, but with the aid of the line the boat was at length hauled up. The sails were immediately set; and though there was a considerable sea in the more exposed part of the lake, we scarcely took in a drop of water.

It is not clear which rapid Anderson took on his return journey home (but I think it is almost certainly the western rapid — that is, the same rapid that Back used). His journal continues, however, with a description of the Inuit they met: 

They now number 3 families; consist of 5 men, 3 women, and about 12 lads and children. Endeavoured by all means in our power to find out if they had papers of any description but they had none. They showed us sundry articles got from the boat, such as tin boilers about 18 inches long by 12 inches broad; an oval frying-pan; doz iron & copper boilers and tin soup tureens, a Ferrier’s chisel, a fragment of a handsaw, a piece of the [white] metal plate of a thermometer and of an ivory rule. Most of the paddles were made out of ash oars, pieces of mahogany, elm, and pine. [These were not woods that grew in the Arctic, so they can only have come from a ship.] They made us understand that they had not seen the ships which had been wrecked, but had heard of it from others, and again showed us by signs the crews of the vessels had died from starvation. We got Esquimaux boots &c for the men, and made them presents of a grafting saw each, fish spears, seal spears, knives and glass and sundry trifles for the ladies.

“Esquimaux boots:” this is very interesting, indeed. “Among the most highly esteemed articles of native clothing are Eskimo boots,” historian Eric Ross writes in his book, Beyond the River and the Bay. “These are worn to above the knee by both the men and women. The foot is of moose-skin, and the upper part is of seal-skin with the hair off. Both are sewed neatly together so as to be perfectly water-tight.” Anderson’s journal continues, as he and his men make their way through Franklin Lake:

We got a little aft wind in Lake Franklin. I encamped at the head of the rapid before arriving at McKay’s Peak, but Mr. Stewart below it, having broken his canoe very badly. No animals whatever seen. (Note: the Esquimaux were just leaving, their fish caches were made. They were leaving for some pass to watch for deer.)

August 1855. Thlewycho. Upward. Tuesday 14th. Mr. Stewart arrived at 4 am [from his camp at the bottom of the rapid] and we then left. The water had fallen so much that we ascended McKay’s Peak Rapid with the paddle; an aft N.E. wind helped us on famously and [we] encamped late, considerably above Back’s encampment of 26th July. It was raining the whole day; just before encamping a fine rainbow made its appearance. A solitary starving wolf was seen today.

Back’s encampment on the 26th July, as he was coming downriver, was recognizable to Anderson; being north of Mount Meadowbank and under the lee of a high rock, and opposite a solitary bank of sand at the mouth of a small river that had appeared, to Back, to be a favorite resort of geese. Anderson’s journal of his journey home from the Arctic Ocean continues:

Wednesday 15th. We were all so wet and stiff that no one awoke till late. We left at 4 3/4 a.m. The rainbow of last night did not deceive us; the day was beautifully clear and warm and we carried sail with a fine N.E. breeze for half the day, and made fine progress, having encamped at the Rapids below Wolf’s Rapid.

Back had also made good progress on this part of the river, which he described in his Narrative:

A fine leading wind took us to the foot of some rapids, and subsequently to Mount Meadowbank, on whose shelving side many musk-oxen and deer were feeding. In the afternoon we picked up our cache of ammunition, and by avoiding a wide opening shortened the distance to the next rapids. The tracking along the banks of this part, which was steep and covered with large boulders mixed with smaller round stones, was exceedingly fatiguing from the uncertainty of the footing, the shingly surface generally sliding away under the pressure of each step, so that the people were constantly falling and hurting themselves. The lowness of the water too caused the navigation of many parts to be exceedingly intricate, and some which, in descending, the boat had passed over were now quite dry; nevertheless, we made such good progress that at night we encamped below the Wolf Rapid.

So, it seems that Wolf Rapid is a good place to end this blogpost, and when I write the next post in this series we will continue on from that point. You will, of course, remember, that in coming down the river, Back had named these rapids for the nine white wolves that had prowled around a herd of muskoxen within a few hundred yards of his camp. He had also noted, with some amusement, that “the animals whose name it bore seemed to be keeping a brisk look-out for what might happen,” as his boat went down the rapids. Perhaps they hoped for an easy meal.

If you want to start at this beginning of this journey, go here:

When the next blogpost is written, it will appear here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.

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