Paul Kane on the Columbia River

Arrow Lake on the Columbia River

Along the Columbia River, the “View of [Lower] Arrow Lake from above Shields Point, looking east towards the narrows on the Arrow Lake, circa 1932 [cropped]. Source: George Morris “Bill” Wadds Collection, Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, Valemount Historical Society & Kootenay Gallery of Art, History & Science, image 2360.0298

In this post on Paul Kane’s journey to the Pacific Slopes (otherwise known as the west side of the Rocky Mountains), we are leaving Boat Encampment and making our way down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver. Here is what Paul Kane has to say of leaving Boat Encampment, at the Big Bend of the Columbia River.

On leaving Boat Encampment, I did not take any sketches, although the scenery was exceedingly grand; the rapidity with which we now travelled, and the necessity for doing so owing to the lateness of the season, prevented me; and as I was determined to return by the same route, I knew that I should then have plenty of time and opportunity.

Paul Kane would go out with the fall Express of 1847, where at Boat Encampment once again, he would meet Thomas Lowe, the leader of that year’s York Factory Express. As Thomas Lowe’s incoming brigade crossed the mountains, Lowe walked ahead of his men to reach Boat Encampment, at the junction of the Wood River with the Columbia River. On October 29, 1847, he wrote: “Arrived at Boat Encampment in the afternoon, where we found Mr. [Paul] Kane, two sons of Dr. [John Frederick] Kennedy’s, and 12 men. They brought up the two boats from [Fort] Colvile, which with the two we left here in the Spring will make 4 boats in all to go down the river with. Mr. Kane and the two boys are to cross the Mountains with the horses, but I am afraid they will find much difficulty in getting across owing to the depth of snow. They have been waiting here for us for 20 days, but there is still an abundance of provisions left.”

Paul Kane’s journal continued with the note: “I shall therefore give a mere outline of my rapid journey to Fort Vancouver, a distance of 1,200 miles down the Columbia River, which we accomplished in fifteen days, and which afterwards took me four months to ascend.” He gives a good description of the Columbia Boats he travelled downriver in:

November 16th — Our two boats were by this time ready; they were formed canoe fashion, with round bottoms of boards, clinker built. On leaving Boat Encampment the scene is exceedingly grand; immense mountains receding further and further in the distance on every side. Few who read this journal, surrounded by the comforts of civilized life, will be able to imagine the heartfelt satisfaction with which we exchanged the wearisome snow-shoe for the comfortable boats, and the painful anxiety of half-satisfied appetites for a well-stocked larder. True it was, that the innumerable rapids of the Columbia River were filled with dangers of no ordinary character, and that it required the constant exercise of all our energy and skill to escape their perils, but we now had health and high spirits to help us. We no longer had to toil on in clothes frozen stiff from wading across torrents, half-famished, and with the consciousness ever before us, that whatever were our hardships and fatigue, rest was sure destruction in the cold solitudes of those dreary mountains. [Paul Kane, Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America, from Canada to Vancouver’s Island and Oregon through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Territory and Back Again, [Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1968] p.113

About three hours after our departure, we shot the celebrated “Dalle de Mort” [Les Dalles des Morts, or Death Rapids]. It is about three miles long and is the most dangerous of all the rapids on the Columbia” River.

November 17th and 18th — We passed through the two lakes, and were obliged to work night and day to avail ourselves of the calm weather, although the snow fell without ceasing. 

These are what the people of the time would have called “the Upper Lake,” and “the Arrow Lake” — now called the Upper and Lower Arrow Lakes. His journal continues: 

November 19th — We again entered the current of the river, where the men were enabled to rest for a few hours. 

November 20th — About noon we ran through the Little Dalle, which, though short, is a series of dangerous whirlpools, which can only be passed with the greatest precaution, and arrived safely at [Fort] Colvile at 6 o’clock in the evening. Here we were most hospitably entertained by Mr. Lewis [John Lee Lewes], who was in charge. We remained here three days, during which time the men did little else but eat and sleep. The rapidity with which they changed their appearance was astonishing. Some of them became so much improved in looks, that it was with difficulty we could recognize our voyageurs.

Colvile is beautifully situated about a mile above the fall of the Chaudière or Kettle Falls; it exceeds in height any other fall on the Columbia, and derives its name from the round holes that the water has hollowed out in the rocks, resembling cauldrons of various sizes. To avoid this fall we had to carry our boats a distance of two miles over a hill two or three hundred feet high. [This journal entry is edited by me, so it makes better sense]

No one else mentions the changes that a long rest at Fort Colvile made to their men. In fact, as far as I can see from the journals, the incoming Express spent little time at Fort Colvile, but continued their journey down the river. The 1826 Express spent one day there, but only because the gentleman in charge wanted a copy of the Minutes, which had to be hand-copied by his clerk. In 1827, Edward Ermatinger arrived at Fort Colvile, and left two days later when the boats were gummed and repaired.In 1831, George Traill Allan said they remained for about two days and then departed. In 1835, James Douglas arrived at the fort, and departed the next day.  In 1847 Thomas Lowe spent three days at the fort, and in 1848, another three days, and he says that his men were busy hauling the boats across the portage. So I would say that in 1846, Paul Kane’s experience differed from the experience of most incoming Expresses, because of the lateness of the season.

By the way, I have discovered, by accident, that both the incoming Express of 1845, and that of 1846, were delayed by occurrences beyond their control. I’ve had this information all along: I just had to re-find it. In 1848 the problem was fixed, as reported by Governor George Simpson in a letter to the Members of the Board of Management, dated June 24, 1848, in which he writes:

The late arrival of the Express at Vancouver during the past two years must necessarily have been attended with much inconvenience to the service, and we have given particular instructions to the gentleman in charge of the Saskatchewan, to use his best endeavours to have the express forwarded as early in the season as possible in future, & from the measures that have been taken, together with the favourable state of the water, we are in hopes Mr. [Thomas] Lowe may reach Fort Vancouver this year at the latter end of October. From the information we have received from the gentleman in charge of the Saskatchewan, from Mr. Lowe, & from the Columbia Guide, we find that the craft now in use on the Athabasca River are not the large unwieldy boats you suppose them to be, but light hardy craft of small draft of water better adapted ro the navigation than any other we have in our power to substitute. The delay during the past two years arose from causes of which we trust there may not be a recurrence. [D.4/37, HBCA].

So the Fort Vancouver gentlemen blamed the Athabasca boats for the Express’s delays, but they were no longer the problem, according to Thomas Lowe and his Guide, Joseph Tayentas. Obviously, the cause of their delay was NOT the problem of waiting for the Russian furs at York Factory, as I have also thought. I am left with the strong impression that Edmonton House’s  Chief Factor, John Rowand, wanted to spend more time at York Factory every summer, possibly delaying until the London Ship arrived in early to mid-August. Naturally, as the Express travelled west with the Saskatchewan Brigades, their journey west was also delayed until too late in the year to be safe.

However, the above letter does continue, with this short paragraph: “We have to beg that the express from the Columbia may be sent out sufficiently early next season to reach Edmonton before the departure of the Saskatchewan Brigade, which is intended to start about the 15 May.” In the journals I have, the Express always left Fort Vancouver on the Monday that followed May 20. I don’t have the outgoing journals for 1845 and 1846 — did they leave later in the spring in those years, and arrive at Edmonton House later in the summer? I don’t know. 

Anyway, we do not know the answer right now. Paul Kane’s journal continues: “We encamped in the evening a few miles below the [Kettle] Falls.” It was November 23rd, and some First Nations men who had been “prowling” around their camp stole some of their clothes. On November 24:

We arrived at the Grand Rapid [Rickey Rapid], which the boats were obliged to run. I, however, preferred getting out to walk, with the object of making some sketches. I had proceeded nearly three miles along the shore, when I felt somewhat astonished at not seeing the boats…

He returned up the Columbia River and saw that one boat, that occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Richard Lane, was stuck on a rock in the middle of the rapid, “which had stove in her side.”

The conduct of the men evinced great presence of mind. The instant she struck, they had sprung on the gunwale next the rock, and by their united weight kept her lying upon it. The water foamed and raged around them with fearful violence. Had she slipped off, they must all have been dashed to pieces among the rocks and rapids below; as it was, they managed to maintain their position until the crew of the other boat, which had run the rapids safely, had unloaded and dragged the empty boat up the rapids again. They then succeeded in throwing a line to their hapless companions. But there was still considerable danger, lest in hauling the empty boat towards them they might pull themselves off the rock; they at length, however, succeeded by cautious management in getting the boat alongside, and embarking in safety. In a moment afterwards their own boat slipped from the rock and was dashed to pieces…

These voyageurs who worked in the Express were true boatmen, and must have saved many a gentleman’s life on these journeys across the continent. 

We had, in consequence of this mishap, to send back overland to Colvile for another boat. This detained us until the morning of the 26th. We now continued our journey rapidly and safely, and arrived at Okanagan [Fort Okanogan] on the evening of 28th November. Our provisions had run short, and we were compelled to shoot one of the horses of the establishment, which we roasted, and found very palatable. In our emergency the men partook of it so voraciously that some of them were unable to work the next day. 

Like the First Nations peoples who were their ancestors, the Métis voyageurs starved themselves when there no food, but ate enormous quantities of meat when it was available! In 1826, Aemilius Simpson wrote that “you would suppose it impossible that our men could devour so much at a meal, but on seeing a single man very deliberately attacking six pounds of Meat for his supper, you are soon conscious of the real cause.” Nothing changed west of the Rocky Mountains. When food was abundant, they ate!

Here is the last section of Paul Kane’s journal:

November 29th — We continued our course, and in four days arrived at Fort Walla-Walla. Here we remained till December 4th, when we entered that part of the country which is annually visited by an almost continuous rain for five months of the year, and during the remainder of our voyage to Fort Vancouver, which we reached on the 8th December, we were exposed in our open boats to an incessant shower. Mr. [James] Douglas and Mr. {Peter Skene] Ogden, the two chief factors in charge of the fort, came down to the landing, a distance of about half a mile, to welcome us on our arrival, all hopes of which they had given up, and conducted us up to the fort, where we were entertained with the most liberal hospitality.

So that is the end of Paul Kane’s journey into the territory west of the Rocky Mountains. His journal, however, will continue, when he leaves — but not for a while yet. It will follow on the completion of Thomas Lowe’s 1849 upriver journey to “Walla Walla,” which will, when published, be here: (Thomas Lowe’s 1849 journey does not end at Walla Walla, as you will find out).

If you want to go to the first post in this series, go here:

When we pick up Paul Kane’s journal of the return journey, it will continue here: 

You can order my book, The York Factory Express, through your local bookstore or via Amazon. For American booksellers, the distributor for Ronsdale Press in the United States is Independent Publishers Group. Thank you!

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




2 thoughts on “Paul Kane on the Columbia River

  1. Tom Holloway

    This is very informative, especially for someone interested in river travel, as I am. I do have one question: when you say “Obviously, the cause of their delay was NOT the problem of waiting for the Russian furs at York Factory, as I have also thought.” What are the “Russian furs” you refer to? I’m aware of the exchange of beaver for land otter furs in the west, part of the 1839 contract between HBC and the Russian American Company, but how did that involve York Factory?

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      The furs for the Russian posts were ALWAYS carried in by the incoming York Factory Express (it was a huge hassle for them some years). From Edmonton House, I think, but perhaps from further East; it’s hard to tell from the journals. It was suggested to me that the delay might have been the men waiting for the delivery of furs from England via the incoming London Ships, but that is not so.