Paul Kane’s “Big Hill”

Committee's Punch Bowl Laes

This image of the Committee’s Punch Bowl Lakes, in Athabasca Pass, is image number na-3490-26 in Glenbow Archives, and I have used it with their permission.

So in 1846, Paul Kane and the few remaining men of the incoming York Factory Express spent their night trying to keep warm at their encampment on the shores of Committee’s Punch Bowl Lake, in Athabasca Pass. They were crossing the Rocky Mountains toward the west very late in the year — in November instead of October — and snow and ice lay everywhere. By the way, I still haven’t discovered why this incoming express is travelling so late in the year, but it appears to have begun its journey from York Factory later than other incoming expresses. As I have no journal for the outgoing York Factory Express express for that year, I have no idea (yet) if it ran on time or was also late! A little mystery, which I might eventually solve. 

So, on November 13:

The lake being frozen over to some depth, we walked across it, and shortly after commenced the descent of the grand cote, having been seven days continually ascending [Jasper Valley, from Jasper’s House]. The descent was so steep, that it took us only one day to get down to nearly the same level as that of Jasper’s House. The descent was a work of great difficulty on snow-shoes, particularly for those carrying loads; their feet frequently slipped from under them, and the loads rolled down the hill. Some of the men, indeed, adopted the mode of rolling such loads as would not be injured down before them. On reaching the bottom, we found eight men waiting, whom [Montrose] McGillivray and the guide had sent on to assist us to Boat Encampment, and we all encamped together. 

As you already know from this series, Montrose McGillivray had been sent ahead with the guide to alert the men waiting for them at Boat Encampment that the express was late, but on its way. Now, do you have any idea who the guide is this year? It is Joseph Tayentas, an Iroquois man. Tayentas (born about 1809) joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1832, and in the years 1835 and 1836 took out the York Factory Express, according to Bruce McIntyre Watson in his Lives Lived West of the Divide.  He died in February 1848, when Michel Kaonasse took over as guide for the express. In Thomas Lowe’s 1847 journal, Joseph Tayentas was “Big Joe.” In his 1848 journal, Michel Kaonasse was “Big Michel.” Size mattered in this business, when the guide had to control a bunch of unruly, testosterone-filled young men, all of whom were ready to challenge his authority!

Thomas Lowe also wrote of Joseph Tayentas’s death:

23rd, Wednesday [February, 1848] Strong breezes up the River. Early this morning Joe Tayentas died of inflammation of the lungs, after an illness of only 4 days. He was guide to York Factory for 8 years running, and was one of the most efficient men in the Columbia. His loss will be much felt.

If Joe Tayentas was guide for eight years running, then he would have been guide for the York Factory Express every summer from 1840 to 1847, including the 1842 express that was in the charge of Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Which means I might have an image of him, drawn by A.C. Anderson. Paul Kane’s journal continues:

November 14th — I remained at the camp fire finishing one of my sketches, the men having made a very early start in order to reach Boat Encampment, where they would get a fresh supply of provisions, ours being nearly exhausted. As soon as I had finished my sketch I followed them and soon arrived at a river about seventy yards across, and with a very rapid current.

Now I have not read the journal of any visitor to the fur trade where that visitor has not done stupid things, not being aware of the dangers of getting lost in these parts, or over-confident that he would survive the danger! Certainly Paul Kane was no exception to this rule. After all he shot a grizzly, not knowing whether or not he could stop it in his tracks: no HBC man would have attempted the shot, knowing that a bullet often does not stop a grizzly! For your information, this is how the HBC men crossed these deep, cold, fast rivers — according to George Traill Allan:

[the river was] two and a half to three feet deep, clear, and with a powerful current. Though the breadth did not exceed twenty five to fifty yards, the length of time passed in the water was considerable, for the feet cannot with safety be lifted from the bottom, as if once the water gets under the soles of the feet, which should be glided along to prevent this, over goes the whole person. In very powerful currents, it is necessary to pass in a body, and the one supporting the other, in an oblique direction.

Yes, George Traill Allan was talking about the Wood River — the same river that Paul Kane was now traversing alone! Had Kane slipped, he would have just disappeared in the river and been lost. All the voyageurs knew how dangerous this river was, but no man had the power to tell Kane to stay with them, if he did not want to. So, here is Kane’s story:

Having followed their tracks in the snow to the edge of the river, and seeing the strength of the current, I began to look for other tracks, under the impression that they might possibly have discovered a way to get round it. But I was soon undeceived by seeing it in the snow on the other side of the path they had beaten down on the opposite bank

That’s the way it’s written (above). He could use an editor, frankly. His journal continues: 

Nothing, therefore, remained but for me to take off my snow-shoes, and make the traverse. The water was up to my middle, and filled with drift ice, some pieces of which struck me, and nearly forced me down the stream. I found on coming out of the water my capote and leggings frozen stiff. My difficulties, however, were only beginning, as I was soon obliged to cross again four times, when, my legs becoming completely benumbed, I dared not venture on the fifth until I had restored the circulation by running up and down the beach. I had to cross twelve others in a similar manner, being seventeen in all, before I overtook the rest of the party at the encampment.

Of course the Wood River has its freshets, like every other river on the continent! As Kane remarks, at these times the river is impassible: “The reason of these frequent crossings is that the only pass across the mountains is the gorge formed by the Athabasca at one side, and the Columbia [Wood] at the other; and the beds of these torrents can only be crossed in the spring before the thaws commence, or in the fall after the severe weather has set in. During the summer the melting of the mountain snow and ice renders them utterly impracticable.” So, the men who worked west of the Rocky Mountains were locked in by snow and ice all winter, and by high water all summer. The only time they could cross to the other side of the mountains (by the Athabasca Pass) was in spring and in the fall. Kane’s narrative continues:

November 15th — It will be easily imagined with what regret we left a warm fire and comfortable encampment, to plunge at once into one of the deepest crossings we had yet encountered, covered like the preceding with running ice. Here, as in many other of the crossings, our only means of withstanding the force of the current was for all to go abreast shoulder to shoulder, in a line parallel with it, each man being supported by all below him.

Just as George Traill Allan had said! Now, had you forgotten that there is a woman travelling in this incoming Express?

Mrs. Lane, although it was necessary to carry her in the arms of two powerful men across the river, acquitted herself in other respects as well as any of us. One of the greatest annoyances accompanying the use of snow-shoes, is that of having to take them off on entering a river, and replacing them over the wet and frozen moccasins on coming out of it.

Before stopping to breakfast this morning, we crossed the river twenty-five times, and twelve times more before camping; having waded it thirty-seven times in all during the day.

Funny how none of the incoming York Factory Express men complained about the number of times they were forced to cross this river! Because of this, I think I did not give enough credit for the difficulty of this journey down the Wood River to Boat Encampment in my book, The York Factory Express. Oh, well, it’s all material for promotional talks, I suppose.

But the scenery is spectacular! His story continues:

The Columbia [Wood River] here makes long reaches, to and fro, through a valley, in some  places three miles wide, and backed with stupendous mountains, rearing their snowy tops above the clouds, and forming here and there immense glaciers, reflecting the rays of the sun with extreme brilliancy and prismatic beauty. The last part of the route lay through a slimy lake or swamp, frozen over, but not with sufficient solidity to bear us, so that we had to wade above our knees in a dense mass of snow, ice, and mud, there being there being no such thing as a dry spot to afford a moment’s respite from the scarcely endurable severity of the cold, under which I thought I must have sunk exhausted.

At length, however, we arrived at Boat Encampment, about 5 pm., almost perishing with cold and hunger, having tasted nothing since what I have already termed breakfast, which consisted only of a small supply of soup made of pemmican, this being the mode of making the most of a small quantity of it. On our arrival we found a good fire blazing, and some soup made from pork and corn, brought from Fort Vancouver [likely Fort Colvile], boiling in the pot, which I attacked with so much avidity, that one of the men, fearing I might take too much in my present exhausted state, politely walked off with the bowl and its contents.

“Don’t be so greedy, Kane — leave some food for the others!” I think was the message here. As they had been at Boat Encampment for such a long time (thirty-nine days, as you can see below), these men might also have been short of provisions.

The men had been here waiting our arrival for thirty-nine days, and would have returned to Fort Vancouver the next day, had not the guide [Joe Tayentas] and [Montrose] McGillivray opportunely arrived in time to prevent them, as they thought we had either been cut off by the Indians, or that we had found it impossible to cross the mountains. In fact, they were clearing the snow out of the boats preparatory to starting. Had our messengers not arrived in time, it would most likely have proved fatal to us all, as we could not have re-crossed the mountains without provisions.

So here we have Paul Kane’s narrative of his crossing the Rocky Mountains in 1846. In a short time the incoming express will continue their journey down the Columbia River to Forts Colvile and Vancouver. The gentlemen at these posts have been waiting a long time for the incoming express-men, and have no idea what has happened to delay them so long. 

The other thing that happens at Boat Encampment in normal years, is that some gentlemen always go out with the horses, who have supposedly been able to make their way down to Boat Encampment. This is not a normal year. I don’t think that any gentlemen who had intended to go out could have continued their journey toward the east, but would have returned to Forts Colvile or Vancouver, to go out with the spring express. So if you are researching your family history, and your ancestor was supposed to go out in the 1846 “Fall Express” to spend the winter at Edmonton House, this is why it did not happen the way they had planned.

Next post in this series: Down the Columbia River to Fort Colvile, and beyond. It’s November 16 when they will begin that journey — the last leg. Paul Kane and the other gentlemen of the York Factory Express will reach Fort Vancouver on November 29. One month late. The usual time for reaching Fort Vancouver with the incoming York Factory Express [Columbia Express], was late October or the first few days of November!

If you want to purchase The York Factory Express, go to: 

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

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.





3 thoughts on “Paul Kane’s “Big Hill”

  1. Ilene

    I’ve just begun reading your history articles and may have missed information.
    I’m curious about how these people could cross rivers, get soaked and not suffer frostbite?
    Did they dry out their clothing? Or were the inner layers waterproof?

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      No, for the most part they just kept walking. They would light fires to dry out a little at breakfast time, perhaps, and when they reached their encampment at night. I found one instance in which they stopped to light a fire to warm up their men who were freezing, but only one. I am sure there were more instances, of course, than that one time. The inner layers were not waterproof at all. And they wore wool, and leather perhaps.

  2. Hammerson Peters

    Is it possible that the brigade Kane joined was delayed while waiting to accumulate the big batch of furs the HBC was supposed to annually pay to the Russians (for access to their territory along the Alaskan Panhandle)? I vaguely recall reading something about that in his memoir, maybe near the part where he was waiting at Norway House prior to the big westward journey.

    On a separate note, I sent you an email a few days ago, and would be delighted to read your response, sent at your convenience. I hope it didn’t wind up in the junk folder.

    I love your work, by the way, and am always very impressed by your research.