Liard River 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 York Boats with the use of rollers. The HBC men may have used Athabasca boats (similar to York Boats) on the Liard River in later years, although they may also have stuck to canoes.

I promised my Twitter followers I was going to keep them wet and cold over Christmas, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than to continue with this series of posts. At the same time I am writing this, of course, I am researching. In fact, my blog is mostly research. I am working one, two, or three books or stories ahead of all of you, and at some point, all of this will become relevant.

I covered the Rapids of the Drowned in the last post, found here:

I was lucky with the lower section of the river, because I found a modern-day writer who had paddled that section of the Liard. So far I haven’t found any modern explorer who wrote about coming through the rapids and canyons above the Rapids of the Drowned, and so I will have to depend on a book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years. The book is titled, Fur Trade and Exploration: Opening the Far North West, 1821-1852, written by Theodore J. Karamanski, and published both by University of British Columbia Press, and the University of Oklahoma Press, in 1983. This is an excellent book, and it covers the entire Yukon district. He ties histories together that you would not expect to be considered in the same breath. But he missed one relevant fur trade post and its stories, and I will address this omission in a post or two in the future.

After a general conversation about early explorations, Chapter 4 talks about Sam Black’s 1824 exploration of the Finlay River. Karamanski wrote:

Black’s findings were soon before Governor Simpson. The expedition’s primary goal had been geographic discovery: “to promote science” and to discover west of the Rocky Mountains a river running parallel to the Mackenzie. All that Black had seen tended to deny the existence of such a river. Simpson failed to appreciate the significance of Black’s discovery of the Stikine River… If relations between Governor Simpson and Samuel Black had not been so strained, Black’s expedition might have opened the trade of the Stikine River to the company. Instead it accomplished very little. The tangled terrain that Black traversed, the poverty of the tribes whom he met, and the difficult access to the area persuaded the company to close the book on the Finlay River region.

You will see a little more mention of Sam Black in the post that follows. I read Sam Black’s Rocky Mountain Journal and found it a wonderful read. It is a Hudson’s Bay Record Society book, titled A Journey of a Voyage From Rocky Mountain Portage in Peace River To the Sources of Finlays Branch And North West Ward In Summer 1824, edited by E.E. Rich and published in 1955. Once you read this book, you realize why historians call Sam Black a geographer!

Karamanski’s book goes on to talk of the establishment of Fort Halkett in 1823, by thirty-one year old clerk John Hutchison, who was accused of being a tippler. He built Fort Halkett on the East Branch of the Liard, on the river known today as the Fort Nelson River. That river’s name came from the HBC’s Fort Nelson, abandoned in 1812 after an Indian massacre. Hutchison’s Fort Halkett did not do well, and eventually John McLeod was sent to explore the upper Liard River, to see what was there. “On July 10 [1831], McLeod was again on his way.” He had stopped at Fort Liard, on the lower Liard River, for a few days to allow the river to fall. “The Liard River rolled toward him from the southwest, spilling from the unknown country ahead. In spite of the Indian reports that he had received and what he knew of the lower Liard River, McLeod was probably not prepared for what awaited him.” [Karamanski, p. 94]

In the last post (see above link) I included Karamanski’s descriptions of the country that McLeod passed through, as far as The Rapids of the Drowned. Once McLeod’s men passed those rapids they found a calmer stretch of river.

The river valley widened, and the stream spread itself out again, flowing among tree-covered islands and sandy beaches. The current, still unrelenting but less constrained, was much easier to manage. Since passing the Toad River four days before, McLeod’s men ha been tested severely. Ascending the Rapids of the Drowned had required every skill that the voyageurs had acquired in their years of canoe work. From their constant jumping in and out of the canoe, tracking through shallows, and pushing up rapids, the explorers were constantly wet, and by nightfall they were bone weary. When they lay down to sleep, the clouds of mosquitoes about their heads were barely noticed. [Karamanski, p. 98]

Upriver from McLeod’s camping spot was a strong riffle:

The explorers continued their river voyage at the usual early hour. Good progress was made until, in the afternoon, they came to a strong riffle. It proved impossible to overcome with the fully loaded canoe. The explorers then adopted the expedient of what was called a “décharge.” Their provisions, guns, ammunition, and the entire cargo of the canoe was portaged while a couple of the voyageurs pulled the empty canoe up the riffle. McLeod blazed the portage trail up “a high precipice.” He reached the top ahead of the others and was proceeding across a small clearing when he was “surprised to perceive an Elderly Indian coming towards me…” [Karamanski, p. 100]

An interview with this man apprised McLeod that the First Nations men never travelled the Liard in canoes, preferring to travel overland on foot. After the friendly meeting, McLeod journeyed on:

The Hudson’s Bay men were now entering the impressive Grand Canyon of the Liard. This stretch of the river is between thirty and forty miles long and is really a series of short canyons. Throughout its length the current is extremely fast… The most difficult navigation that McLeod experienced in the Grand Canyon was in a dark, narrow gorge with steep, black walls, where passage was complicated by a series of small rocky islands that divided the current and increased the intensity of the riffles. Fortunately, the voyageurs’ skill was equal to the test, and the explorers were able to press on, forcing their way through the canyon. [Karamanski, p. 102]

It is pretty clear that Karamanski has actually paddled or walked up this ferocious river! After the Grand Canyon came the Devil’s Rapids, in Devil’s Gorge:

With the Grand Canyon behind him John McLeod was immediately faced with the Devil’s Rapids. This hellish cauldron is located where the river makes a large U-shaped bend to the southwest to avoid a high mountain ridge; in its impatience to reach the Arctic Sea the Liard at that point tires of the detour and turns southward, tearing a passage through the mountains. The battle between the river and the rock has been going on for centuries, as the sheer canyon walls indicate. As the Liard deepens its path, the mountain holds on doggedly, restricting the river in places to a defile only 150 feet wide. John McLeod struggled for two days through rain and mud, making long portages, before he was able to circumvent the rapids. Later the fur traders would hack out a four-mile trail up a 1,000 foot mountain ridge to avoid this hazard. [Karamanski, p. 102-103]

The HBC men of the future would know this portage trail as “The Devil’s Portage around the Devil’s Gorge.” On the other side of the portage, the Liard was a calmer, more peaceful river. “The terrain also took on a more pleasing appearance as the high canyon walls gradually receded and gave way to tree-covered shores with long gravel beaches…” And this is interesting: Theodore Karamanski says this of the Rockies and the Mackenzie Mountains, something I had not realized, as you know from the last post in this series.

The explorers were now in the midst of the mountains. On the south was the Muskwa Range of the Rocky Mountains: prominent peaks, such as Mount Prudence and Mount Rothenberg, dominated the wooded, rounded heads of the neighbouring hills. The Liard River marks the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains; from here southward, for over one thousand miles, the great range stretches out. The continent’s backbone continues north through the Mackenzie Mountains, but they are not a branch of the Rockies proper, as they begin their march to the Arctic Sea eighty miles east of the Rockies in the vicinity of Hell Gate. This distinction, however, is a mere technicality, as the entire upper Liard region is extremely mountainous, and it is difficult to determine where one range begins and another ends. [Karamanski, p. 103]

So when I get up to the north, to Peel’s River Post (which is as far north as this story will go) I will have to remember that the men are NOT crossing the Rockies, but the Mackenzie Range, in spite of the fact that they are claiming to be crossing the Rocky Mountains. Nor will I any longer be a historian of the West of the Rockies, as I will be far north of where the Rockies run. Oh, well, I think that is a distinction I will ignore for now… But where is McLeod at this point?

Continuing up the Liard, McLeod reached the Smith River on August 1. Heretofore the old Nor’Wester had named the notable places that he had passed as their appearance warranted, or because of some incident on the journey. Slate Point and Chimney River are good examples of this practice. Beginning with the Smith River, which he named after his superior and friend, Chief Factor Edward Smith, McLeod began to adopt the practice of his acquaintance, Sir John Franklin, and dotted the landscape with the names of personal friends and prominent people who might advance his career. McLeod was attracted to the area about the Smith River. It had every appearance of being an excellent location for a trading post. His Indian guide, who left the expedition at this point to visit relatives, reported that the upper section of the Smith River abounded in beaver and that the river drained a lake that was an excellent source of fish. McLeod himself ascended the river a short distance, until he encountered some rapids. Turning back to the Liard, he made a mental note on this promising location.

The junction of the Smith River with the Liard was the future location of Fort Halkett, built here in 1837. When McLeod returned to the Liard from his excursion up the Smith River, he found both sides of the Liard River ablaze. The forest fire gave the next hazard its name — Portage Brule. But I will speak of this in the next post in this series.

But it is interesting to me to find that my great-grandfather, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, was a part of Karamanski’s story. In 1834, the HBC ship, Dryad, headed up the coast to establish a post up the Stikine River. Peter Skene Ogden was in charge of this expedition, and Anderson accompanied him (So too, did my g.g.grandfather James Birnie, and his family). A Russian officer came aboard the ship and told Ogden that if he attempted to make his way up the Stikine River to British Territory (which Ogden had every right to do), the Russians would “boxum” them. More Russians boarded the ship to advise they would not allow the Dryad up the river, and so, eventually, Ogden had to retreat. This story is told in my book, The Pathfinder, but I did not know that it was part of the story of the fur trade in the Yukon. How interesting, to be a part of that interesting history, however inadvertently, and unsuccessfully!

But if this story is part of Yukon’s history, why is Fort Taku not? It was built later, in 1840, on Taku Harbour, and was thought to be convenient for access to the interior. To my surprise, I find that the site of Fort Taku, or Fort Durham, is now the Fort Durham Site National Historic Landmark, and is in Juneau, Alaska. “In 1838, [James] Douglas was instructed to establish posts at Taku and Stikine,” Richard Mackie wrote in his book, Trading Beyond the Mountains, The British Fur Trade on the Pacific, 1793-1843 [UBC Press, 1997]. “In June 1840 he left in the Beaver to take possession of what he called the company’s ‘newly acquired territory at the coast.” James Douglas explored the lower section Taku River, “which he learned led to an ‘inland mart’ 200 miles away where the Taku Indians traded their furs; between June and August, he built Fort Taku (also known as Fort Durham) on the coast, fifteen miles south of the river.” But the Chilcat First Nations (the same First Nations who burned down Fort Selkirk, on the Yukon River) were a violent nation, and I understand on one occasion killed their slaves and stacked them against the gate of the fort, forcing the HBC traders to bury them. Thomas Lowe also told how they fired burning arrows over the walls of the fort, attempting to set the buildings afire. The fort only lasted three years on Taku Harbour before it was closed down, and the HBC men who worked there came south to help build the new Fort Victoria. I will at some point be requesting the Fort Taku records from HBCA, and when I do, perhaps I will tell more of what happened in that very interesting place!

I also thought I might ask who John McLeod was, as he was a Nor’Wester. I looked him up in Bruce Watson’s Lives Lived West of the Divide, and to my surprise, I found him! He is John McLeod Jr., born about 1794 in Lochs, Scotland. He joined the North West Company around 1816 and at the time of the 1821 coalition was made a clerk in the new company. In 1832-34 he is found in charge of Fort Halkett (and so I have the right John McLeod!) After this he came to the Columbia district, with Governor George Simpson heaping rare praise on him for his earlier work. In 1835 he was Chief Trader at Fort Vancouver, and in 1836 was sent off to observe the Rendezvous at Green River, to gather information about a possible division of territory with the American trappers. In 1838 he sailed down the coast in the Cadboro to pick up the furs of the Southern Expedition, and in 1840 he was granted furlough. He never returned to the Columbia district, but retired in 1842.

When the next post in this series is written, it will be found here: 

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