Native Bridges in the Fraser Canyon

Squa-zown to Fort Langley

Anderson River [Boston Bar] to the Lower Fraser River south and west of Forts Yale and Hope. CM/F9 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives. Detail from original map.

At Fort Alexandria, the first days of April 1847 came in pleasant and warm, though snow still lay on the ground. On April 23, Montrose McGillivray arrived at the fort with dispatches from Peter Skene Ogden. Ogden had written to ask Anderson to explore the lower Fraser River, south of the Thompson River.

Anderson set off from Kamloops on May 19. This was his second expedition to Fort Langley, and this year his path led him through the Nicola Valley. From the west end of the Lake he followed the river to its mouth [at modern day Spences Bridge]. After crossing Nicola River in canoes borrowed from the Natives, they walked down the south bank of the Thompson River until they met their Sto:Lo guide, Pahallak.

Pahallak led Anderson’s party to the Fraser River and down its rocky east bank. They crossed one flooding river well above its usual ford on a log; to return to the Fraser River they scaled the edge of a cliff “with the aid of a long withe of plane, fixed there permanently by the Natives for the purpose.” This first passage over the easiest of the Native bridges Anderson would have to cross, may not have appeared difficult, but it was nothing in comparison to what his party would face downriver.

By May 28 the explorers were just north of modern day Yale, having avoided passing through Hell’s Gate Canyon by crossing over the mountain on the Fraser River’s east shore.They had crossed the river in Native canoes in the area around Spuzzum Creek, so were now on the west bank. Between them and Fort Langley were forbidding cliffs that rose straight from the rapid-filled river, crowned by the Native bridge they were expected to use. It must have been a fearsome sight.

Pahallak led the six men up the cliffs by a stony path, to a “dangerous causeway of cedar boards connecting the several projecting points of a precipice.” What Anderson didn’t mention in his journal, was that these boards were poles that rested one end on the broken rocks of the narrow trail, while the other end was suspended, by deer-hide ropes, from the overhanging cliffs. The suspended end of the board was probably joined to one or more cedar poles, some suspended from the cliff in the same manner, others resting on the rocks. The Natives crossed their flimsy bridges by clutching the rock face and inching their way across, knowing that one false step would cause the poles to sway out and dump the traveler into the foaming rapids below.

Thirty years earlier, Simon Fraser had ventured over similar bridges as he passed through Hell’s Gate Canyon (which these explorers had avoided). In his journal, Fraser noted that his men “had to pass where no human being should venture.” In 1847, Anderson and his five men made their crossing in safety, and followed the rocky trail back to solid ground at the future spot of Fort Yale. This was their last barrier. At the village immediately south of the native bridge, the explorers borrowed a canoe and paddled their way to Fort Langley.

In 1848, the incoming brigade used this same trail on their return to Fort St. James from Fort Langley. The Natives who assisted them in carrying the goods upriver used their familiar Native bridge, rather than the Douglas portage. Ten years later, American goldminers used many of these same bridges to make their way into the goldfields. But Anderson did not travel over them a second time.

For an image of these bridges (I will illustrate this blogpost eventually), see: Stephen Hume, Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia (Harbour, 2008), p. 267.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. All rights reserved.