Rivière des Roches to Great Slave Lake

A sturgeon-nosed boat on the Athabasca River.

This is one of the sturgeon nosed boats used on the Athabasca River after 1835. This image, na-1338-20 is used with the permission of Glenbow Archives. Note the powerful sweep oar, mentioned in the journals at the end of this post.

The river that flowed north from Athabasca Lake was not the Mackenzie, but the Rivière des Roches, which led boats into the Slave. Somewhere north of Athabasca Lake was the junction of the Peace River, which flowed from the west. So any of the North West Company men, and those who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in New Caledonia, would have come down the Peace River to the Slave, and then paddled south, against the current of the Rivière des Roches, into Athabasca Lake. Let’s see what our Klondike explorers had to say of this section of the river. Rivers are funny things, and sometimes behave different than you would expect them to! In his “Trail of /98, by the All Canadian Route,” Earnest J. Corp had this to say of the river he called the La Roche River:

Leaving Chipewyan, our route lay across the end of the Lake, where a short river named the La Roche is found. This river, where it joins the mouth of the Peace River, forms the Slave River, which runs into Great Slave Lake. The country between the Athabasca Lake and the mouth of the Peace River is practically flat, so that the waters of the Peace River coming from the South get to flood this before the Lake has risen, causing the slow running La Roche River to reverse its flow and go back into the Lake for a day or two.

We had been told this by our Guide, and, when the reverse flow started we got out and tracked our boat downstream to the junction of the Peace. Another party who were a few hours behind us happened to tie up for the night just before the reverse flow started. Next morning, starting out, they appeared to be going upstream, and had quite an argument about it. Not knowing of this peculiarity of the river, they thought they were dreaming, so pulled shore to figure out what was wrong. Soon another party came along and explained things, to their great relief. Here at the junction of the Peace River, were great whirlpools. Our boat got sucked into one and was whirled round and round, and we had a hard time getting out of it. 

Here, at the mouth of the Peace River, we came in contact with quite a number of men who had left Edmonton in the fall of /97 to go overland to the Klondyke from there, some of whom we knew from Hamilton. It appears that the thrifty, wide-awake business men and store-keepers of Edmonton had hired a gang of men to cut a trail from Edmonton about fifty miles out into the country, supposedly in the direction of the Yukon, with a dead end, and called it the overland trail to Yukon. Many outfits started out with pack horses, or sleds, but few made it through, more turned back. I was told by several men who followed it through the winter that in the Swan Hills dead horses by the score lay across the trail. Those who got through to the Peace River, after a hard winter’s trip, built boats and came down the river, where we met them.

Our next hard work occurred when we came to the mountain portage. Here the river takes a short u-turn around a high rocky point, over which freight and boats had to be packed, as the river opposite this rocky shoulder was impassible to boats, being a mass of boulders. The boats were hauled up by block and tackle, lowered down to the water and reloaded. From here to Smith’s Landing (now called Fort Fitzgerald) is easy going, but from here the river is a succession of rapids for about fifteen miles, and travellers had the choice of making several short portages or getting their goods across to Fort Smith hauled by an ox team. Fort Smith is at the head of navigation for the H.B. Company steamboat plying between here and Fort McPherson near the mouth of the Mackenzie during the short summer.

Leaving Fort Smith, our next port of call was Fort Resolution, where the Slave River enters the Great Slave Lake, which we reached without incident. From there our journey continued along the south shore of this great inland sea to Hay River, where at the time there was a Protestant Missionary and his wife, and an Indian School taught by a young white school teacher. We stopped here over night, and next day with a favourable breeze we reached Fort Providence. Now, being well on in the month of June, the continuous daylight enabled us to make fast progress, running day and night. Close by this H.B. Post was a large Catholic Mission and Convent, and word had been left with the Factor [at Fort Providence] to ask the first Doctor who came by, to please call, as one of the Sisters was sick. So the Doctor with our party made the call, and I went along with him. While he was in treating the patient, I looked over the garden, and was surprised to see what a lovely, well-kept garden it was so far North. All kinds of vegetables and flowers were growing luxuriously. Next day we started down the great Mackenzie River…

So let’s see what Jamie Bastedo has to say, in his modern guide, Northwest Territories: Trans Canada Trail Official Guide [Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010]. He begins the paddling journey at Fort Smith, and only speaks of the Slave River and not the Klondikers’ La Roche River: the fur traders Rivière des Roches. Fair enough: this book is about the section of the Trans Canada Trail that is actually in the Northwest Territories, and Fort Smith is, he says, “on the Alberta-Northwest Territories border.” This is what he has to say of the section of the river around Smith Falls and north of that place.

The Slave is a large, lazy river, second in grandeur only to the Mackenzie. It winds north from Alberta’s Peace and Athabasca River systems. From the late 1700s to the mid 1900s, the Slave served as a key artery in the “Gateway to the North,” linking Canada’s resource-rich northwest to the rest of the world… The Slave marks the natural boundary between the rolling Canadian Shield to the east, and the lowland plains of the Slave River valley to the west. Except for the four sets of magnificent rapids in the 30-kilometer stretch between Fort Fitzgerald and Fort Smith, the Slave is a quiet, flat-water paddle all the way to Fort Resolution…

In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie set off from Fort Chipewyan, on Athabasca Lake, to find the Pacific Ocean. So confident was he that he would end up there he titled his journal: “Journal of a Voyage performed by Order of the N[orth]W[est] Company, in a Bark Canoe in search of a Passage by Water through the N.W. Continent of America from Athabasca to the Pacific Ocean in Summer 1789.” This information comes from The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, edited by W. Kaye Lamb, [Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1970]. He started his journey from the old Fort Chipewyan, built in 1788 by Roderick McKenzie, on Old Fort Point, a headland about eight miles east of the mouth of the Athabasca River, according to a footnote. In 1804 the fort was moved to its present location on the north shore of Athabasca Lake. Athabasca Lake is often called Lake of the Hills in older journals. (I am making this easier to read by taking out a bunch of brackets, mis-spellings, and punctuation found in the published journal. Also know that he under-estimated the distances he traveled, and over-estimated the width of the river he was on, according to the editor.)

Wednesday June 3. At 9 o’clock embarked at Fort Chipewyan, on the south side of the Lake of the Hills, in latitude 58.4 N…, Mr. [Laurent] Leroux with canoe for Slave Lake in Company. The crew consisted of four Canadians, two of whom were attended by their wives, and a German; we were accompanied also by an Indian, who had acquired the title of English Chief, and his two wives…. 

Steered W 21 Miles, then N.N.West 9 Miles when we entered the River, or one of the Branches or Outlets of this Lake, of which there are several.

The editor’s footnote says as this point: “Mackenzie was entering the main channel of the Slave River, which flows north from Lake Athabasca to Great Slave Lake, a distance of about 290 miles. Between Lake Athabasca and the junction with the Peace River (about 30 miles) it is called the Rivière des Rochers. The South Rapids, 100 miles downstream,  are the only serious obstruction on the Slave.” To continue:

We steer North 6 Miles. Then N.N.E 2 Miles. Here we camp’d at 7 o’Clock P.M. Our Hunters kill’d a Goose and pair Ducks. One of the Men shot a Duck which he swam for, our Canoe being taken out of the Water and the other Men Gumming her. 

Thursday June 4. Embarked at 4 this Morning and steered N.N.E. 1/2 Miles, N 11 1/2 [Miles], N. 2 Miles, then W.N. 1 1/2 Mile, N.N.W 1/2 Mile, W.N.W. 2 Miles. Here this Branch joins the Peace River being the lowest, downstream of the several branches. Its very remarkable that in all those Branches the Current when the Peace River is high in May and August run into the Lake, which in the other months of the year returns its waters to them: from the Lake to this place, the branch is nor more than 200 yards wide, nor less than 120. The Banks are low, here and there a Huge Rock rises above them. The lowland is well-covered with Wood, such as white Birch, Spruce or Pine of different Kinds, Poplar, Willows of three Kinds and Aspen Tree. In this River we find the Current stronger than that of the channel that communicates with the lake. It here, indeed, assumes the name of the Slave River, it is about a Mile wide here, and its Course N.W. 2 Miles, N.N.W. through Islands 6 Miles…

But you did notice that Mackenzie also described the flooding or reversal of the Rivière des Roches by the Peace in the seasons of high water? Interesting, but very confusing to someone who does not know this little habit of the river. North of the Peace junction he describes the various rapids that make up the Smith Rapids: the Cassette, the Pelican, the Mountain, and the Rapids of the Drowned.

Land, unload our Canoes at the Dog River (which joins the Slave about a mile below Fitzgerald, or Smith Landing, where goods are portaged around the Smith Rapids.) 

Friday June 5. We embarked at 3 oClock this Morning and unloaded our Canoe at this first Rapid. Here we enter a small River, or Channel which is occasioned by Islands. In half an hours time we came to the Carriers place (Carriers Rapids). It’s 380 paces long, and good except at the further End. We had some Difficulty in loading, there being a quantity of Ice not yet thawed. From this to the next are 6 miles to the Portage d’Embarrass occasioned by Drift wood filling the small Channel, it’s 1,020 paces long. From there to the next portage 1 1/2 Miles, it is 350 Paces long, to the next not above 150 yards. It’s about the same length. From here to the carrying place called the Mountain, about 4 Miles, and we enter the Grand River [the main channel of the Slave]. This small River [behind the row of islands] is by much the best Road there being no Danger, tho’ I believe a shorter road might be found upon the Outside of the Island and not so many Carry Places. The Mountain portage is 335 paces long, and from here to the Pelican Portage 820 paces, about a mile, all dangerous Rapids. The landing is very steep and quite close to the fall. All Hands were for some time handing the loading and Canoe up the Hill… From where we started this Morning the Course is about NW and distance 15 miles. From this to the next Carrying Place is about 9 Miles in which distance there are 3 Rapids. Course NW by W. The portage is very bad and 535 Paces long. Our Canoes light passed on the Outside of an Island opposite, made a portage of not more than the length of a Canoe. In rapids upon the other side of the river, there were 5 Men drowned and a Canoe and some pieces lost going to the Slave Lake fall 1786 under charge of Mr. C[uthbert] Grant [the elder], which occasioned this place to be called the Portage des Noyés [Portage of the Drowned]. From this we steered S.W. 6 Miles and camped upon Point Du Roch half past 5 p.m.

Point Du Roch is today’s Bell Rock, a massive limestone cliff which looms up from a point on the river bank. This would be the end of the long portage that is spoken of in the Gairdner & Harrison Prospector’s Guide Map and Pamphlet to the Omenica, Cassiar, Liard, Klondyke and Yukon Gold Fields via the Edmonton Route. In this guide, George Gairdner and A. G. Harrison have this to say of this short piece of river:

Chipewyan to Smith Landing, 102 miles: Ten miles beyond Chipewyan we enter the Rocky River, which after its junction with one of the branches of the Peace River is called the Slave River; a fine large stream without obstruction until we reach Smith Portage. 

No warnings there of the reversing river in this guidebook! I wonder if they knew about it? I wonder how many readers of this guide were fooled by this reversing river? His advice continues here:

It would be better for those unaccustomed to dangerous navigation to get boats and supplies taken over this portage by the freighters, who will transport supplies across the portage at $10 a ton. This portage, 16 miles, is made to avoid five portages and endless rapids, where accidents have taken place and several men have been drowned. Fort Smith, at the north end of the portage, is a lively enough place in summer when the steamboats meet and news is exchanged, but like many other northern posts, the life in winter is mere existence and nothing more.

Fort Smith to Resolution, 194 miles: This part of the river is easy to navigate. Neither rapids nor shoals, and no obstructions. When Great Slave Lake is reached, the route to be taken when the water is not high is by the main channel to Moose Island, and thence swing to Fort Resolution, a conglomerate village composed of a Hudson’s Bay Post, missions, freemen’s houses, and Indian lodges. There is a good garden here.

I have been looking at all my other fur trade records and am finding little in the way of descriptions of this river north of Athabasca Lake. Archibald McDonald, who kept Governor Simpson’s journal, said nothing, and the editor added almost nothing. Augustus Peers had little to say of the Rivière des Roches in his journal, but he does describe the Slave River between Athabasca Lake and Great Slave Lake. I will also give his description of Athabasca Lake here, too, as it will be of interest to those who are following the Klondikers north:

On the 10th [August] we entered Athabasca Lake and after coasting along the southwest shore arrived at Fort Athabasca [Fort Chipewyan?] where we remained part of the day. In the spring and autumn when the wildfowl are passing, this lake teems with them and such is the cackling and gabbling they make, the inhabitants of the fort are sometimes prevented from sleeping. The people receive a small amount of ammunition and feed themselves without drawing on the resources of the fort. Even the women will sometimes shoulder a gun and forage for themselves. Although it was not then the proper season for the fowl when I passed through this lake, nevertheless there were vast flights of geese and ducks of every sort along the sedgy shore and we shot several as they flew within range. I am sorry to say that my time was not my own; with a quantity of ammunition and a canoe I would have been content to pass a month there alone…

Below Athabasca [below Great Slave Lake, on the Slave River] we passed a succession of portages and rapids, the most remarkable of which are the Mountain and Pelican portages. At the former the scenery is very picturesque. The river here has a considerable fall over a ledge of rocks to avoid which the boats are hauled over the hill and launched again below the fall. I was told that a young Indian with his sister, while hunting ducks in the river above the fall in a canoe, were drawn into the current and in spite of their exertions they were drawn to the verge of the cascade and the next moment disappeared in the boiling flood, never to be found again.

At the Pelican — so called from the number of those birds to be seen setting on the rocks in the midst of the rapids — the cargoes are merely discharged and boats run down the rapids. At one part, near the foot of this rapid, the water is continually rising and falling, forming a hole or whirlpool several feet deep. It sometimes happens that a boat will arrive at the place when the water is at the lowest, when it will make a headlong plunge into the hole, smothering the crews with spray as the waves break over her bows. Those, however, who are fortunate to arrive when the pool is full ride smoothly over it and escape scatheless.

It is a very exciting sight to watch a boat running a dangerous rapid. The utmost skill of the steersman is then required to prevent the boat from being dashed to pieces against the hidden rocks. Now you will see her rushing with resistless force towards a rock against which the water foams and boils. Its destruction seems inevitable, when a well-timed and vigorous stroke from the sweep-oar sends out her head, glancing the rock, and the next moment she arrives in safety in the less turbulent water below.

It would be folly in one unacquainted with the dangers to attempt to run a difficult rapid, and as we had some steersmen in our brigade who had not sufficient faith in their skill the guide ran their boats for them. These last named rapids are close together, and the river is here very wide, the rapids extending nearly across the channel which is strewed with numerous rocks on which the “desert birds” sit in listless security. This is about the most northerly flight of the pelican; indeed I was surprised to see them in this part of the country. They do not appear to be of such a large size as those I had seen from a warmer clime. The feathers are eagerly sought after by the women as they are superior to goose feathers for the purpose of embroidery.

We shortly arrived at Great Slave Lake, but as the weather was too boisterous with a head wind, we were compelled to put ashore on a low willow island where we passed the day. While the men were gathering fire-wood from a pile of drift-wood they unconsciously disturbed a wasp’s nest which adhered to the under side of a log, and in an instant we had the whole colony about our ears and several men were stung. I took the nest as a curiosity, but afterwards made gun wadding of it, for which purpose it was well-adapted, being soft, tough, and elastic.

The next morning the wind was still adverse, but as there seems no likelihood of its shifting and as Fort Resolution was not far off, we resolved to make a push for it, and accordingly embarked and after a very fatiguing pull of a few hours along the shore of the lake we reached the fort.

The country at this part of the lake is low and uninteresting. Fort Resolution is resorted to by the Slave and Mountain Indians who bring large quantities of dried moose-deer meat and excellent white fish, and trout are caught in abundance in the lake. Potatoes, barley, and some of the more hardy vegetables are grown here during the short summer… I had often read in the days of my youth of Great Slave Lake, never dreaming I was destined to visit it. It is a vast sheet of water indented by deep bays and dotted by numerous islands, some of which are dreary and desolate. To such depth does it freeze in winter that the ice is found, in exposed places when the snow has blown off, to be six and seven feet in thickness. At the time of its setting fast in the fall the young ice is constantly driven about by the ever changing winds, and is piled up mound on mound to a height of several feet, forming vast ridges. Winter travelling on it is very dangerous, as the wind is liable to rise at any moment, drivng the frozen snow in clouds before it. The traveller’s only chance of safety is to throw himself down till the storm subsides and the weather clears up, to allow him to continue his course guided by distant points of land and other objects.

I have one more piece of information for you, from my Bible: Exploring the fur Trade Routes of North America, by Barbara Huck et al [Winnipeg: Heartland, 2002]. This speaks of the reason why the NWC moved Fort Chipewyan, on Athabasca Lake [where this post began], from its location on Old Fort Point:

The first Fort Chipewyan… was built by Roderick McKenzie in 1788 on a rocky point on the south shore of the lake, where the fishing was good. However less than a decade of trading there convinced the company to move, not once, but twice; by 1803 they were building in high ground on the northwest shore, where today’s community of Fort Chipewyan still stands. One of the problems was that the Peace River had a habit of pushing spring ice out into the lake where it jammed around the old fort site, preventing the canoes or boats from embarking as early as they might. A position near the delta allowed an earlier departure for the brigades, a distinct advantage where the season was already short.

So we have now arrived are now at Fort Resolution, on Great Slave Lake. North of this lake the Mackenzie River led explorers, fur traders, and Klondikers north to Fort Simpson and beyond. For the Klondikers there were a number of trails into the gold-fields — the Liard was one of them, but there were others. Hang onto your hats, because we are going to explore some of them!

To return to the first post in this series, click here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/klondike-trail/

When the next post is written, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/klondike-trail-6/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.