The Liard River

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. It doesn’t sound as if the portage on the Liard River was as easy as this one, nor do I know whether they used boats or canoes. The loads, however, would have been just as heavy as these appear to be.

The Liard River once played a significant role in the fur trade of the North: it was the river that led from Fort Simpson, on the Mackenzie River north of Great Slave Lake, to the HBC posts in what we later called the Yukon. This, from a book titled Canoeing North into the Unknown: A record of River Travel: 1874 to 1974, written by Bruce W. Hodgins & Gwyneth Hoyle:

About 1823, Fort Liard was established as a Hudson’s Bay Post about 180 kilometers up the lower section of the Liard River, above the mouth of the South Nahanni. To confuse matters, the Company later built Lower Post on the upper Liard at the mouth of the Dease River. The intention was to extend the trade routes into the unexplored hinterland of the southern Yukon. The Liard River has canyons, the Little Canyon and the Grand Canyon, and it has Hell’s Gate, the Devil’s Portage around the Devil’s Gorge, and Mountain Portage, names which explain the respect and trepidation with which the voyageurs approached the river, known by Robert Campbell as the “River of Malediction.” The difficulties of travelling the Liard curtailed the fur-trade activities, and other than Fort Liard and Lower Post, other posts using the river were soon abandoned.

The North Nahanni River flows into the Mackenzie north of Fort Simpson, while the South Nahanni flows south, from the same region, into the Liard east of Hell Gate canyon: the Liard flows into the Mackenzie at Fort Simpson. Up the Liard River is the Fort Nelson River, which flows from the south. I noticed that Patterson, whose story comes later in this post, seemed to call the Liard River the Fort Nelson River — and perhaps that is what the Liard River used to be called. 

So according to this book, in 1824 Murdock McPherson of the HBC traveled the mid-Liard basin up as far as the Beaver River. In 1831, John McLeod, also of the HBC, paddled from Fort Simpson up the Mackenzie, Liard, and Frances Rivers to Lake Simpson, which would be modern-day Frances Lake — Frances River now being part of the Liard River, which has its source in Frances Lake. In 1832, Fort Halkett was built on the upper river.  It had the Mountain Portage rapids to its north, and the Devil’s Rapids (in Devil’s Gorge), the Rapids of the Drowned, and Hell Gate, to its south! 

To continue: In 1836, Robert Campbell ascended the river as far as the Dease River, where he built a post on Dease Lake: that is probably the first Fort Halkett. Then in 1837, he spent the winter at Fort Halkett [2nd location], at the junction of the Liard and the Smith River. He called the Liard “Bell River,” for John Bell, not being aware that it was the same river that John McLeod had already explored. In 1840, Campbell ascended the river from Fort Halkett to Frances Lake, naming the lake for Frances Simpson, the wife of Governor George Simpson. He continued up the Finlayson River to Finlayson’s Lake and crossed the height of land to the Pelly River (upper Yukon River). There he established the Pelly Banks post as a transportation post, and Fort Selkirk, where his Pelly River flowed into what is now called the Yukon River [Today the Pelly River IS part of the Yukon River]. This was always a provisions-poor territory, and all the trade goods and provisions for these upriver posts were shipped in, by boat or canoe, through the Liard River canyons from Fort Simpson. With disastrous results, of course, as you see by this post: 

So knowing this, I searched for R.M. Patterson’s book, Dangerous River, thinking that it was about the Liard. It was not: though he went up the Liard to reach the Nahanni, he hardly mentioned the first river. He did however, write an article about his side-journey up the Liard to Hell Gate, which was published in the Beaver Magazine in Spring 1955. It is titled “Liard River Voyage.” So, let’s see what he has to say:

With the slow unveiling of the sun, colour flooded back into a rain-washed world and, with it, hope. At mid-day we loaded up and that afternoon, shortly after passing the abandoned post of Nelson Forks, we came to the Liard and turned upstream. The canoe we were using was a 20′ Chestnut “Ogilvy Special,” 36″x13″, square-ended — and to drive it we had a 5 1/2 h.p. Johnson “Seahorse” 1954…We intended to make it upstream some seventy miles to Hell Gate on the Liard, in the foothills of the Rockies… What kind of water we should meet, however, we had little idea (it proved to be faster than we had expected)…

So, we now know that the Hell Gate is seventy miles up the Liard River from its junction with the Mackenzie River. From my map I know it is just beyond Toad River, which flows in from the south.

We worked out way up around the great bends where the Liard, crooked as a snake, races down through a maze of gravelly, wooded islands and sandbars and one wonders which way to turn for the best. Low plateaus stood back from the river, and there was one view to the north-west, of the stony summits of the Mackenzie Mountains. Then these vanished behind nearer hills and we came to the Beaver River… 

There is a range of mountains called the Mackenzie Mountains — and then there is the Rockies. The Beaver River is west of the Petitot river where Fort Liard was built, and a little west of the Fort Nelson River, up which river the first Fort Halkett was built in 1829, and from whence it was moved in 1832.

We went up the Liard: coping as best we might with the morning mists that are a feature of this river. They seem to come down about five or six am on most mornings and can be so thick as to delay the start until ten or even eleven: so we travelled far into the evenings. Extremely fast water soon gave place to a slacker current, and picturesque bluffs of sandstone and conglomerate rose sheer out of deep water on the southern shore. We came to a place where, for the first time, the mighty Liard is crowded together into one narrow stream between high cliffs. Then we turned south into a long stretch of shale cutbanks and islands with swifter water than ever before — and the two of us marched up the beaches, hauling on the trackline as the voyageurs of the Company used to do when the Liard was the only known route to the Cassiar country and the Yukon. That evening we camped in warm, dry spruce above a boulder beach and, under those trees, I was amazed to find one single, lonely plant of devil’s club, that curse of the Selkirk’s and of the coast range…

The next day, at midday, they hauled their canoe up a very strong riffle which they later learned was called Starke’s Riffle. Just above it, the Scatter River flowed into the Liard. That night they camped opposite Lepine Creek. From that camp it was a short distance to Toad Creek and the site of the old Toad River post. “The site is on the north shore in the lee of a great cape of sandstone and shale. The buildings were still standing when McConnell passed by [in 1887 or so], though they had already been abandoned by the Company sometime previously.” The Toad River flowed into the larger river from a deep gloomy valley, and for everyone who traveled up this river, it was the boundary line between the navigable sections of the Liard, and the dangerous canyons ahead. 

Five miles upstream we made camp where the clear blue water of the Grayling falls into the Liard’s green, and from our landing place we had the first close view of the northern Rockies — bare, brown summits against the cloudless evening sky. Late on the following day, with several small canyons behind us, we came to the foot of a strong riffle where the Liard swept at speed round a big island. Up it we went, the kicker running all out, climbing slowly the hill of racing water. At the head of the riffle, with tall cliffs on the right and a gravel beach with cliffs beyond it on the left, the current slackened. I cut the engine to a gentle hum and the canoe crept forward into a rock-walled mountain lake. I stared at my cousin and he stared at me. “My god,” he said, “Where’s the Liard gone?”

The HBC men had the same experience with this section of the river. In his book, Fur Trade and Exploration: Opening the Far Northwest, 1821-1852 [UBC Press, 1983], Theodore J. Karamanski writes about the time that McLeod came up the river in 1831: 

At first there was no noticeable difference. the explorers passed by several high cliffs with steep rock faces reaching down to the river’s bank, but they came across none of the deep canyons that they had been warned about. After passing by one minor riffle, they entered a large, deep lakelike section of river. High hills ringed the water, creating the impression that the Liard has disappeared. It was quiet and peaceful, hardly the cauldron of foaming water that the Indians had described. The North canoe glided across the peaceful pool. The only sounds were the methodical movements of the voyageurs’ paddles. Then suddenly, as the canoe rounded a point, Hell Gate was before them. Three hundred feet of weathered limestone, its sheer face resembled aged bronze doors because the gold stone was streaked and disfigured by black and green patches of lichen, It was the gateway to the worst rapids in Rupert’s Land, and the future grave of many a voyageur.

The canyon was a mile long. The water constrained by the walls of the Gate, which were 150 feet apart, boiled and twisted until its fury was spent in the calm pool below. McLeod and his voyageurs after some difficulty made it through the canyon. The first hurdle was behind them, but what lay ahead?

For Patterson and his friend who came up the river in the early 1850s, the mysterious lake that McLeod described in his journals was some eighty acres in size and there was no sound of water ahead. It was evening and they found a good camping spot where “the sun was shut off from this basin by the wooded hills and there were no shadows thrown: there was nothing to be seen that might indicate current except the faintest of lines down the centre of the water. Quietly, we got into the canoe and paddled away along the rocky shore. Supper could wait till we had found which way the river went…” He’s a good writer!

Hell Gate is a narrow channel, with sheer walls, cut through an anticlinal ridge of limestone which crosses the river’s path. On the left shore an older channel, also vertical-sided, is now abandoned except at high water — the two canyons thus making an island between them of water-worn rock, crowned with trees. The main channel of the Gate must be enormously deep: a strong riffle at its head caused the whole length of the Gate to be agitated by strong eddies and boils which, as we drifted past in the canoe, could be seen to rise and burst on the surface with considerable force, driving the water against the canyon walls. With care the Gate was passable for a canoe, but this was the end of the trail for us — we had an appointment with Nahanni Butte, some 240 miles down river… There was no time to travel on by canoe into the canyon country. Instead, we would see all we could on foot.

We camped there, by the lagoon, for two days and three nights. The late afternoon of the second day found us some four miles up the Liard, at the foot of the next canyon.

The next canyon in the river is the one that confines the Rapids of the Drowned. These rapids were even more dangerous than those in Hell Gate. According to Theodore Karamanski, “The Liard at this point veers sharply from the north, but the massive flow of the river has difficulty changing direction so suddenly. The result is that the full force of the current collides violently with the high sandstone banks. The river, furious and foamy white from its unexpected collision, then spills over the rapid’s second feature, a ledge of rock extending boldly from the north shore. The Rapids of the Drowned are among the most lethal hazards on the Liard. Their macabre name dates from a tragic mishap in 1840, when five voyageurs and a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk were to perish there. McLeod led his party up the south bank of the rapids, where there was room to track their canoe.” In his article, Patterson wrote:

Rarely have I seen so beautiful a sight as this was at that hour. We lay among the dwarf spruce on a sun-warmed ledge high above the river, peering down into the canyon. Right out of the sun the Liard came. At the head of the gorge the tossing waves of a riffle flashed in the sunlight — they seemed to surge across the river and vanish into some rocky basin that we could not see. In the canyon itself, between its plunging walls, the boils and eddies writhed and twisted like silver snakes on the surface of the green water. Far ahead, the profile of a peaked and broad shouldered mountain heaved up, outlined in the golden haze. It was a river idealized — a calendar picture of some artist’s dream; but, this time, it was a dream come true…

Through this canyon that lay below us there had passed many an expedition of the eighteen thirties and eighteen forties, sent out by the Hudson’s Bay Company from Fort Simpson to explore the lands “beyond the Mountain.” John McLeod had come this way, headed for Dease Lake and Terror Bridge on the Tooya River, and Robert Campbell, bound for Campbell’s Portage and the Pelly. They passed not only once but many times and at all seasons, and Dr. G.M. Dawson writes of them: “Less resolute men would scarcely have entertained the idea of utilizing, as an avenue of trade, a river so perilous of navigation as the Liard had proved to be when explored. So long, however, as this appeared to be the most practicable route into the country beyond the mountains its abandonment was not even contemplated. Neither distance nor danger appear to have been taken into account…”

And so we have the story of the lower Liard River, as far to the west as the Rapids of the Drowned. I have more on this river, and when I post it, you will discover it here:

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