Anderson and the River of Rapids

birchbark canoe

Image of a birchbark canoe on a Canadian River, from Glenbow Archives, image na-843-14, used with their permission

James Anderson is continuing his way up the Back River, having spent the night just north of Baillie’s River. Now it is time to ascend the long rapid — the Cascades — just south of that river. It is probably the same for you as it is for me: I find it hard to remember that although they are heading toward the south (more or less), they are paddling their canoes up the Great Fish River, against its heavy flow. It is a river of rapids, it seems, at least on their return journey.

It was August 24, 1855, when James Anderson and his men “Ascended the Cascades, etc., above Baillie’s River; made 2 decharges. Encamped at the Sand Cliffs a little below our encampment of the 17th ulto [July, when he had encamped at the north end of Beechey’s Lake.] For a wonder it did not rain until mid-day, and was positively warm when walking; it then began to rain and we had occasional showers till evening. Four deer and a wolf seen. Numerous flights of laughing geese going to the southward. The wind helped us on after midday.” The laughing geese made a laughing noise as they flew: well, all geese do that to a degree, but the laughing geese must have made a more audible noise.

So Anderson and his men have almost reached Beechey Lake. Beechey Lake lies west of Lake Garry and is the last of the Sideways Lakes — that is the series of lakes that lead anyone who follows the river toward the east, going downriver, or the west coming up. His men have paddled through tiny Lake McDougall without mentioning it. All four of these lakes — that is: Pelly, Garry, McDougall, and Beechey — have complicated shapes, with many arms going in every direction. It must be difficult to find your way through some of these lakes without getting lost in one of the numerous large (or small) bays. On August 24, Stewart’s journal reads: 

Started at 2 1/2 am, passed this river. Breakfasted at Lockhart’s Fall and passed through the sandbanks and hills to Beechey’s Lake where we encamped. Showers of rain at intervals but on the whole the day was fine.

So they were actually at McDougall Lake in the above post, but camped at one of the rapids that led out of that lake. This is what Stewart says on the day, August 25: “Started at 2 1/2 am. with the line. Strong head wind all day, passed one encampment and in the evening arrived at Fiddler’s portage, which we crossed and encamped at the east end. Saw a band of Musk Cattle today, the first we have seen since we left the Sea, indeed the last we saw were in the river on our way down. The weather was cold and raw with showers of sleet and rain to keep us from getting mouldy. Soon after starting my [blank] canoe was broken in rounding a strong point. We got on shore before the canoe filled. This accident delayed us sometime, our line also broke in the Stewart’s Rapid, clashing so much on the rock beach cuts them in a very short time.” It sounds as if the men in Stewart’s canoe, at least, had been naming the landmarks along the river for the men who were in the canoes. Fiddler’s portage would have been named for either John or Henry Fidler, brothers, one a steersman, the other one of the paddlers in the canoes. John Fidler would have been the steersman in Stewart’s canoe.

James Anderson’s journal continues on August 25th: “Left at 2 am [from the rapid above McDougall Lake], wind blowing fresh from the westward with frequent showers of rain and hail. Mr. [James Green] Stewart’s canoe again broken before breakfast, which retarded us a little. We encamped at 9 pm at Beechey’s Lake at the head of the Cascades. This was, of course, a complete portage. The canoes are now distressingly heavy, particularly mine.”

So these Cascades led from McDougall Lake to Beechey Lake, where the party is now. A ‘complete portage’ means that the men unloaded the canoes completely, and brought them empty up the rapids (perhaps carrying them, as they do in some portages). After that, they would have portaged all the goods and baggage up to the place where the canoes had been carried, and they would reload the canoes, which also took time and energy. One did not just throw the baggage into the canoes: they arranged it, carefully, so that the two canoes carried equal loads, and so that the loads were balanced, equally, on each side of the canoe.

I find it interesting, however, that the canoes are getting so heavy, as so far as I know birchbark canoes do not absorb the water as other bark canoes do. Perhaps I am wrong: I am no expert on this. You will also notice how often Anderson mentions the delays caused by the regular breakage of Stewart’s canoe: it is a sign that Anderson is very annoyed, and he takes his anger out on Stewart, unfortunately.  

So on this day, the two canoes made their way southward, up the length of Beechey Lake, and westward up the succession of rapids and falls that faced them as they re-entered the downward-flowing Great Fish River. At this point the river turns from the west to the southwest, and they are pointing their noses toward Musk Ox Lake and Lake Aylmer. They will not get as far as Aylmer Lake in this blogpost, I suspect, but we might make it as far as Musk Ox Lake. Anderson’s journal continues:

No deer seen, but about 20 Musk Oxen were grazing on the left of the river below the Cascades…. It appears that much rain has fallen about here. Lake Beechey has only fallen about 6 inches. [Because the season of the spring freshets was over, the water in the lake should have been lower.] Took up our cache in good order, except a bag containing some meat, which the wolves had got at and devoured. Two of these beasts were seen in the portage. The men gave two of the sand cliffs to Messrs [James] Lockhart and [James Green] Stewart.

And again, only the men in Stewart’s canoe were naming landmarks for the gentlemen that were part of this expedition up the Great Fish River, as far as I can see. James Lockhart was the HBC man in charge of Fort Reliance, at the very north east end of McLeod’s Bay, Great Slave Lake. We will run into him at a later date, as he is the man in charge of ensuring that supplies and provisions were waiting for Anderson’s party, should they be delayed on their journey home. James Anderson’s journal continues here:

Sunday 26th [August]. The canoes required so much gumming, etc. that it was 4 3/4 am before we left. Strong head winds accompanied by rain and sleet prevailed all day and retarded our progress; much water was shipped and our crazy canoes bent with every wave. 20 or 30 Musk Oxen were seen but no deer. Encamped at dusk about 5 miles above the Willow Islands at the head of Lake Beechey. Froze hard at night. 

On Monday August 27, they left early amidst rain, though it cleared up at noon. “We rejoiced to see the sun; towards evening the rain re-commenced.” The wind helped them up the river, and they encamped that night “when it was nearly pitch dark at foot of the Long Rapids below where we left our canoe on the 15th ultimo [July].” Anderson’s journal tells us that this was at Malley’s Rapids: today it appears that this rapid is called Paulet’s Rapid. “Mr. Stewart’s canoe was again badly broken and he was obliged to encamp below us. With this exception the long line of rapids in this day’s march was ascended without accident.” 

James Stewart’s journal says of that incident: “Started at 2 1/2 am with the same weather. Passed Malley Rapids, put up sail, broke our canoe and encamped at the foot of Malley’s Rapids. Mr. A encamped on the opposite side of the river,” and at the head of the rapid. You can imagine the two men seething in their separate camps! Notice, too, that Stewart has two Malley Rapids in this day’s record, so I think he has his rapids confused. No mention has been made of Escape Rapid, Wolf Rapids, and Hawk Rapids — all rapids that were named by Back, or by Anderson on his way down the river. Easy enough to mis-name a rapid, I think, as there so many!

On August 28, Anderson reported that: “Detained till 5.40 waiting for Mr. Stewart: this delay is most vexatious. Everything was hard frozen this morning; the tent was as stiff as a board. Found our first cache in good order and took all the perches, masts & yards of the canoes left there for poles. The canoe was also broken up for firewood.” This is the place where they had left the third canoe as they were coming downriver. “Met with no breakages today. Encamped above dusk at the Rapid where Captain Back repaired his boat and sent back his carpenters.” This was at the same unnamed falls below Musk Ox Rapid where, on July 14, Anderson indicated that Back nearly lost his boat. His journal continues: 

A little snow fell before breakfast, but afterwards the day turned out beautifully fine — but very cold, though the wind was fresh from the southward, which retarded us much… The river is lower than on our way down, but not so low as I had anticipated.

These men will make Musk Ox Rapid and Lake in this post, so we now have a destination. Anderson’s journal reads: “Left at the usual hour. Just below Musk Ox Rapid a small band of deer was seen, one of which, a fat buck, was shot by Mustagan. Musk Ox Rapid was very shoal; its ascent by the canoes light and the carriage of the pieces occupied upwards of six hours. The canoes were completely ungummed and it took 1 35/60 (1 hour and 35 minutes) to take the traverse, hard paddling (across Musk Ox Lake). The day was the first day without rain (and beautifully clear) that we have had since leaving Point Ogle (on the Arctic Sea).”

And so they are at Musk Ox Lake, and they know they will make it home again. When the next section of their journal is published, it will appear here: 

To return to the beginning of this journey, go here:

Also, did any of you figure out that James Anderson was my great-grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s older brother. I am writing about family again!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.