All Canadian Route 2

Portaging and packing around a difficult rapid

This image na-1406-48 is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives and shows the men portaging around a difficult rapid, carrying packs and hauling the Boats with the use of rollers.

Well, this week we will catch these Ontario “greenhorns” up to all the other groups of men who, in previous posts, are attempting to find their way to the Klondike goldfields from Edmonton and Athabasca Landing. In my last post, here: we left Earnest Corp, Jack Phillips, Dr. Dillabough Jr., Charles Krugg, Vic McFarland, and Alf Willis, at what I think was the Boiler Rapids, on the Athabasca River east of Fort Assiniboine. The next section of their journey will bring them past these rapids and through the Grand Rapids of the Athabasca River.

So, lets dig up the file and see where we’re going! This is a continuation of “An All-Canadian Trail of /98,” by Ernest J. Corp, from the B.C. Archives [E/E/C81, BCA] They have reached what Corp called “the Cascades.”

Continuing our journey, we next came to what is called the cascades. This is caused by a rim of rock stretching across the [Athabasca] River, over which the water flows as over a dam, the drop being from six to nine feet according to the stage of water. 

As the Athabasca River often suffered from periods of drought in its upper watershed, I suspect that the the drop would most often be nine feet, rather than six.

Empty boats can safely be jumped over, whereas a heavily laden boat may quite likely dive in head-first and swamp. The accepted procedure is to lower the loaded boats along the bank to the very brink of the falls, tie them to rings fastened in the rock by the Hudson’s Bay Company for this purpose. After which the empty boats are hauled back upstream a short distance, rowed out, and jumped over, and brought back to the bank about fifty feet from where they were unloaded, and again reloaded. Here again we came very near to losing the big scow of our party, and all its contents…

You will remember that these fellows are described as “greenhorns.” Although they had hired an experienced guide to get them downriver and through the Grand Rapids, they were not always in his direct sight. Perhaps he should have taken them over the route he expected them to travel.

A loaded boat going down the river is brought to the bank, a strong stern line attached and held on to by several men, and lowered slowly toward the cascades, while a light line is attached to the bow of the boat with just one or two men to hold it. The guide, getting on board, called out, “All right, let her come!” This went all right until the men holding the stern line, instead of climbing up over the point of the rocks, mistakenly followed the river bank until they arrived where the rock jutting out into the deep water cut off further advance. Now the guide began shouting “Let her come! let her come!” We answered, “We can’t!” but the roar of the falls nearly drowned our voices. Then the guide shouted “Why in H… don’t you let her come?” Now, one after another, the men holding back on the stern line dropped off as they came to the rock, which jutting out into the water, cut off any view between the boat and the men on the line. Finally, with the guide’s frenzied shouts of “Let her come!” we let go of the stern line. The boat immediately swung out, and we heard the guide say, “My God, they have let us go — make fast the bow line!” The boat swung around in an arc, and was hanging half over the falls, with nothing but the light tracking line holding it from certain destruction. Luckily there were lots of men waiting here, and they jumped into the boat at the risk of their lives and unloaded about eight tons in as many minutes. The empty boat was then dropped over the falls, hauled out, and, with the help of a Spanish windlass, pulled back into shore, and was ready to proceed after a little patching and caulking. The other boat was lowered without incident.

So these boats did make their way over the Boiler Rapids, though not without incident. Next came the Grand Rapids.

Our next stop was the Grand Rapids. These rapids are too dangerous, if not impossible, to run, so boats are rowed across to Grand Island, which lies parallel to the rapids, and is about a mile and a half long. Here boats are unloaded and freight packed across the island to the lower end, which is just below the rapids, the empty boats carefully loaded to this point, re-loaded and again are ready to proceed. Here we paid off our guide, Billy Clark, who returned up-river to guide other parties. these guides made big money (we paid him one hundred dollars), but it was well worth the fee, as it was an uncertain and risky occupation, especially with a bunch of greenhorns like us.

Well, that was easy! I thought it would be tougher than that to pass the Grand Rapids!

Next we came to Fort McMurray (now Waterways and the end of steel). Now it was easy going to Lake Athabasca and Fort Chipewyan…

I knew that Fort McMurray was called McMurray for many years, but I have not heard of the “Waterways” name before now. But here’s a little of its history: Fur trader Peter Pond stopped at the junction of these two rivers in 1778, and it appears there were a number of North West Company posts in this region over the next few years. In 1787, the first major North West Company post was built at Fort Chipewyan, north of present day Fort McMurray and on the western tip of Athabasca Lake (according to ). In 1828, HBCGovernor George Simpson reached this junction in the rivers, on his journey to New Caledonia. See:  And of course, the other explorers of the Mackenzie River also reached that same point in their journeys north, as you will see here: 

In 1870, the Hudson’s Bay Company under Henry John Moberly (and here is his story:  ) established a major post at this point and named it for HBC factor William McMurray. In 1883, the first steamship made its journey along the Athabasca River from Athabasca Landing: its name was S.S. Grahame, and it might have been the steamship that lost its boiler at Boiler Falls, giving that place its name. The railway that eventually reached the outskirts of the town of Fort McMurray was called the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia article, which says that “the track was further extended to the Hangingstone River and what would become Waterways, now a Fort McMurray neighbourhood.” Waterways and Fort McMurray incorporated as the village of McMurray in 1947, and in 1962 the town of McMurray changed its name back to its original Fort McMurray.

So lets continue Earnest Corp’s story as he continues his way down the Athabasca River toward Athabasca Lake. He misses many of the landmarks mentioned in the accompanying posts above, so it is worth while reading them all if you want to have a better picture of the river he is travelling down.

Now it was easy going to Lake Athabasca and Fort Chipewyan. This lake swarms with a variety of fish. Our companion boat put a gill net out to get a few fish for breakfast, but soon had to haul it up for fear of losing it to the swarms of fish getting caught in it. Chipewyan was swarming with hungry, howling Indian dogs. Fish seemed to be the chief diet for both Indians and dogs. The Indians had nets out all the time, and would go out and bring in a boat load of fish when they felt like it and toss them out to the dogs. Between times, the dogs were more like a howling pack of wolves, and boats had to be watched all the time or the dogs would soon clean it out of anything eatable.

I am sure that more than a few men who were headed to the Klondike lost their provisions to the First Nations dogs! The First Nations peoples that live around Fort Chipewyan are the Cree [Mikisew Cree], and Denesuline, or Chipewyan. Before the fur traders came, they were semi-nomads who congregated at lakes in the summer to fish, to hunt game and berries and to reconnect with other nations. In the autumn they dispersed for their winter territory, travelling by canoe, snowshoes, and toboggan. They hunted for moose and elk with bow and arrow, and woodland caribou were snared or speared. Some even hunted for barren-ground caribou — and it appears that this was an animal with “immense cultural importance” to the Desesuline. When the fur traders arrived the First Nations men had access to guns and became less nomadic, and communal hunting tended to give way to individual hunting and trapping for furs. 

I might be talking a little about the Barren Lands sometime in the future, as we explore one man’s journey north to the Arctic Ocean — but this is not yet. The fur traders found the Barren Lands intimidating (and this was in summertime!) When this journey begins, I will post it here so you can follow along:

And the next post in this Klondike gold fields series will be here, when written:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.