Paul Kane’s Rocky Mountains

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.

In late 1847, the artist, Paul Kane begins his hike across the Rocky Mountains from Boat Encampment to Edmonton House. This is not the time of year I would enjoy a hike across the mountains, but it is obviously something that the outgoing Fall Express men are used to.

As you know, Thomas Lowe arrived at Boat Encampment on October 29, and on October 30, he headed downriver toward Fort Colvile and, eventually, Fort Vancouver. Thomas Lowe’s story is told in my published book, The York Factory Express, which you can purchase here: 

Paul Kane was actually travelling out in the Fall Express, and he would travel over the Rocky Mountains with the Saskatchewan men who had brought Thomas Lowe down the Big Hill to Boat Encampment. From Jasper’s House he would be shipped downriver to Fort Assiniboine and Edmonton House, where normally men who came out in the Fall Express spent the winter. But let us see what Paul Kane himself has to say of his journey across the Rocky Mountains. Here we go!

October 31 — It was a beautiful morning, and we started about ten o’clock, after loading fifteen horses out of the fifty-six which Mr. Lowe had brought with him, and got the first day as far as the Grande Batteur, where we encamped.

This is clearly not the Grande Batture on the Whirlpool River, but on the Wood River itself. As you know, Kane had already learned that “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.” The HBC men on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, however, were not trapped in their territory every summer: there were other routes across the Rocky Mountains which were not so affected by the high waters of the summer freshets. 

November 1st — We passed through the Pointe des Bois [Point of Woods in the various York Factory Express journals], a distance of ten miles, by about the worst road I had ever travelled, it being cut up by so many horses having passed it a short time previously. My horse stuck in a mud hole until he sank up to his head, and it was with the greatest difficulty that one of the men and myself extricated him alive. What with the horses sticking in the mud, the packs falling off, the shouting to the animals in Cree, and swearing at them in French, there being no oaths in the Indian language, I never passed such a busy, tiresome, noisy, and disagreeable day in my life. This was a great measure owing to having so few men to look after so large a number of horses, which would not keep the road, but ran helter-skelter through the thick woods. At last we arrived at the bottom of the Grande Cote [the Big Hill] and there encamped for the night, thoroughly wearied out and disgusted with horse-driving.

Paul Kane has already told us that there were only four First Nations men who were returning with the horses to Jasper’s House: there were no Saskatchewan men here at all, it seems. Nor did the First Nations treat the HBC men with much respect: a few complained that they had to carry their own loads and guns across the portage, because the Cree had refused to do their packing for them. When he crossed the Rocky Mountains in 1850, clerk Robert Clouston noted that he “had got over the mountains without difficulty, having walked from the grand batture [Whirlpool River] to Boat Encampment in a day and a half, carrying a bag on my back and a heavy gun on my shoulder.” The HBC men were used to having the voyageurs and free-men to carry their packs, but the First Nations men were a little more independent. Good for them! Paul Kane’s Rocky Mountain journal continues:

November 2nd — We started an hour before day-break to ascend the stupendous Grande Cote, and soon found the snow becoming deeper at every step. One of our horses fell down a declivity of twenty-five to thirty feet with a heavy load on his back, and strange to say, neither deranged his load nor hurt himself. We soon had him on the track again as well as ever, except that he certainly looked a little bothered. The snow now reached up to the horses sides as we slowly toiled along, and reached the summit just as the sun sank below the horizon; but we could not stop here, as there was no food for the horses; we were therefore obliged to push on past the Committee’s Punch Bowl, a lake I have before described. [see image at top of page].

It was intensely cold, as might be supposed, in this elevated region. Although the sun shone during the day with intense brilliancy, my long beard became one solid mass of ice. It was long after dark before we arrived at the Campement de Fusei [Fusil] having met with no other place which afforded any food for the horses, and even here they had to dig the snow away with their hoofs to enablethem to get at it.

Campment de Fusil, or Gun Encampment, is now known as Kane Meadow, for Paul Kane’s short stay at the place in November, 1847. His journal continues:

A distressing occurrence took place here some years previously. Whilst a party were ascending this mountain, a lady, who was crossing to meet her husband, was in the rear, and it was not noticed until the party had encamped that she was not come up. Men were instantly sent back to seek her, After some hours’ search, they found her tracks in the snow, which they followed until they came to a perpendicular rock overhanding a roaring torrent; here all traces of her were lost, and her body was never found, notwithstanding every exertion was made to find it. Little doubt, however, could exist but that she had lost her way, and had fallen over the precipice into the torrent, which would have quickly hurried her into chasms where the foot of a man could not reach.

So, another Death and Murder story. I have run across this story in one of the Express journals, I believe, and it happened in the very early years of the trail. Does anyone know who her husband was, or who she was? And why was she left so far behind the party? I would love to know. Kane’s Rocky Mountain journal continues:

November 3rd. Last night was the coldest (according to my feelings) that I had ever experienced… I endeavoured to thaw myself by melting some snow over the fire; but the water froze upon my hair and beard, although I stood as close as I well could to a blazing fire, and I actually had to scorch my face before I could thaw the ice out. We now passed through the Grande Batture [on Whirlpool River], and, much to our relief, found the snow decreasing in depth as we descended. We succeeded in reaching the Campment de Regnalle in the evening, and camped there for the night.

Campement de Regnalle is, of course, L’Orignal, or Moose Encampment. How did I miss that, I wonder? He is still on the Whirlpool River, and the Grand Traverse is the next landmark on this river. 

November 4th — We got our breakfast and started long before day. We made good progress until about noon, when we came to a wild tract of country which appeared to have been visited years before by some terrible hurricane which had uprooted the whole forest for miles around, not leaving a tree standing; a younger growth of trees were now pushing their heads up through the fallen timber of the ancient forest. 

All the Express men described this patch of burned woods, but George Traill Allan has the best description, I think. In his 1831 journal, he writes: “Today we entered a point of wood and found the track so blocked up with fallen trees as to render it almost impassible to our horses.” Paul Kane’s journal of his journey over the Rocky Mountains continues:

We all got so hungry with our violent exercise in such a cold clear atmosphere, that we could not resist the temptation of stopping and cooking something to eat, before we entered the tangled maze before us. This was the first time we had done so, as daylight was too valuable to be wasted in sitting down, and the danger of being caught in one of the tremendous snowstorms which are so frequent in these regions, was too imminent for us not to push on to the utmost of our power. The snow often lies here to the depth of twenty or thirty feet, and one storm might have caused us the loss of the horses and baggage at least, even if we had been able to save ourselves by making snowshoes. It was, therefore, no slight temptation which could induce the men who knew the country to stop for dinner; but hunger is a good persuader, and carried the question. After dinner we pushed on with renewed strength; but it was with great difficulty that we were enabled to get the horses through the fallen and tangled woods, and it was not until after nightfall that we reached the “Grand Traverse,” where we found three men, who had been sent out to meet us and assist in driving in our sixty horses, which were as yet all safe.

The Grand Traverse is just before to the place where the Whirlpool River flows into the Athabasca. In some years the HBC men crossed the Grand Traverse with great difficulty, but Kane does not tell us what happened to his party at this crossing. His journal of his journey over the Rocky Mountains to Jasper’s House continues:

November 5th — In the morning we found the Athabasca River in a flooded state, and a heavy snowstorm had set in; we, however, proceeded to ford the rapid stream, although the snow was driving with such fury in our faces that we could not distinguish the opposite bank. The water almost covered the backs of the horses, and my pack, containing sketches and curiosities, &c., had to be carried on the shoulders of the men riding across to keep them out of the water. After fording the river we crossed La Rouge’s Prairie, and encamped on the very spot that I had slept at exactly a year previously, to the very day.

La Rouge’s Prairie? On his way through in November he called it La Row’s Prairie: and this will be Larocque’s Prairie, of course. And on November 5th, 1846, he only says he encamped on a small prairie, but did not identify it by name. Kane’s journal of his journey over the Rocky Mountains to Jasper’s House continues:

November 6th — The wind blew intensely cold, and we had to pass along the margin of a frozen lake, seven or eight miles long, over which the snow drifted furiously in our faces. It became so cold that we could no longer sit on the horses, but were obliged to dismount and drive them on before us. My beard, the growth of nearly two years, gave me much trouble, as it became heavy with ice from the freezing of my breath; even my nostrils became stopped up, and I was forced to breath through my mouth. 

Fortunately I fell in with an Indian lodge, and had an opportunity of thawing myself, so that I rode the remainder of the way to Jasper’s House with comparative comfort. There we soon forgot our troubles over a good piece of mountain sheep, which is really delicious, even when not seasoned by such hardships as we had undergone. 

At Jasper’s House he discovered that the men who were to carry him eastward by sledge, to Fort Assiniboine perhaps, had already departed, and he groused about them not waiting for him. “The weather had got so cold,” he said, “that the seven got afraid of waiting any longer, and departed without me. Had these two followed the example of their companions, I should have been obliged to spend a most dreary winter in the wretched accommodation which Jasper’s House afforded.” Fortunately for Kane, two of the men who had accompanied him to Jasper’s House, or perhaps who had remained behind, were willing to build a sledge for the journey east. They also got two wretched dogs to pull it, and these two men — whoever they were — would carry him eastward. I will tell that story in the next blogpost, which, when published, will appear here:

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

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8 thoughts on “Paul Kane’s Rocky Mountains

  1. David O Martin

    One of my all-time favorite posts! Talk about hardships – quagmires of mud, deep snows, tangled dead fall, driving snowstorms, fording flooded rivers….such vivid imagery! My favorite line, “….delicious, even when not seasoned by such hardships as we had undergone.” Thanks Nancy!
    Glad to hear treatment’s going well. We hope your doing as well as you lead us believe!

  2. Joanne Plourde

    Hi Nancy, Thank you for this adventure with Paul Kane. I love it! Regnalle…what I think is Regale because it seems like they really neeeded a boost there after that!
    The ” n” was added after two or three glass of regale!

  3. Joanne Plourde

    Hi Nancy,
    Regnalle can also be a somewhat bad pronounciation of the word L’Orignal which is in French the Moose. Since the Voyageurs did not have an education in their own language unless they came from a wealthy family or privileged family than they would pronounced in such way and the writer who did not know a lot of French words would write like they would hear it. Just like their names written down in the journals. Not always accurate.