Two Canoes: Jasper Valley

Furs at HBC replica fort at Fort Langley, B. C.

This selections of furs is displayed at Fort Langley, but the same furs would be found at any HBC fort in the territory. The wide selection of furs in the west (and the looming shortage of fur bearing animals east of the Rockies) is the main reason why the North West Company men crossed the Mountains to establish themselves at Spokane House, and in New Caledonia.  

In October 1823, John Work and Peter Skene Ogden are making their way west from York Factory, on Hudson Bay, to their new employment on the Pacific slopes. For Work this is the first time he has crossed the Rocky Mountains into the Columbia District, but Ogden has been here before as a North West Company [NWC] man. Now the Hudson’s Bay Company has taken over NWC territory, and Ogden is returning to the district after having gone to London to plead for a job in the new company. He succeeded in his quest, and was sent to the Snake River district where he spent many hard years leading trappers and freemen through the western part of what is now continental United States.  

In 1823, these two men are on their way to Spokane House — not Fort Vancouver. John Work will go down to Fort Vancouver eventually, but I will probably not bring him there for now. So, we will begin this post at what John Work calls the “Rocky Mountain House,” in the far east end of the Jasper Valley. We are, of course, moving west from that old house.

“October 1823, Saturday 4. Keen frost in the night, clear fine weather afterwards. Having everything prepared, I was sent off with four men and the horses, 22 in number, and part of the provisions and baggage, to proceed by land to a place where the canoes are to be left, while Mr. Ogden embarked in the canoes with the remainder of the provisions, baggage, &c. The object of taking the canoes to this place is to assist the people who may come out in the spring. As it was noon before we started we did not go far. The road was first along the shore of the Lake [Brule Lake] and [Athabasca] river & then through the woods, some part of which were very thicketty & some places very swampy in the bottom of the valleys. The mountains rising one behind the other in succession still appearing higher the farther we advance. A young man accompanies us for the purpose of hunting. He killed nothing today. But this part of the country abounds with Moose, red deer [elk] and a kind of wild sheep or goats which inhabit the mountains.

“Sunday 5. Froze keen in the night. Proceeded on our journey early this morning. Our road was through woods & along the banks of the river alternately. Over hills and cross valleys, the horses often climbing up hills which a person would imagine sufficient for wild goats to ascend. We crossed the river to the West side & then recrossed it again, which saved the necessity of ascending a very steep rock which is dangerous. This cannot be done except when the river is very low as it is at present.”

This is Miette’s Rock. In 1827, Edward Ermatinger’s incoming York Factory Express camped close to the foot of Miette’s Rock, and he wrote that it “is high and difficult to pass.” He was not referring to the pinnacle of the rock, which stood 7,600 feet above the ground, but to the large, slippery “nose” of rock that surrounded the base of the pinnacle and bulged out to a height of 1,300 feet above the Athabasca River. The point of the nose, which forced the Athabasca River to the north, was called Disaster Point because of the number of horses that slipped down its smooth surface and tumbled into the river. In his journals, a NWC Gentleman, Ross Cox, described his arduous climb over Miette’s Rock on his way north to old Jasper’s House in 1817:

…We arrived at the foot of a stupendous rock, called Le Rocher de Miette, over which we had to pass. We commenced our task a little after eleven, and at half past two arrived at its base on the northern side, where we remained an hour to refresh the horses. The road over this rock is tolerably good, but extremely steep. The horses surmounted it with great labour; and the knees of the majority of our party were put to a severe test in the ascent. From the summit we had an extensive view of the country, the general features of which do not differ materially from the scenery through which we passed the preceding day. [Ross Cox, Adventures on the Columbia River, New York: J&J Harper, 1832]

The nose of the rock no longer exists: it was blasted away when the railway was built through this valley. Work writes that the Athabasca River at this place was not only deep, but had a rapid current. But to continue with the journal:

“Except this place where we crossed [and recrossed] our road lay along the East side of the river, sometimes close on the shore and sometimes a little distance from it. The course of the river is nearly from S to N winding through the valley and the mountains rising abruptly on both sides, not in one continued chain but here and there broken by a small valley or kind of fissure, out of each of which issues a small river or creek which contributes to increase the size of the main river. The woods climb in many places a considerable distance up the sides of the mountains and often to the very summit of some of the lower ones, which creates some surprise how they can grow as there appears to be nothing but bare rocks. The summits of the other peaks appear destitute of wood and vegetables of every kind, the higher ones covered here & there with snow and some of them appear buried in the clouds. The woods which ascend highest up the sides of the mountain is pine, in the valley pine fir, & [blank in mss] are to be found. Some of the pine and [blank in mss] are of a very large size. Different kinds of willows & underwood are also met with.”

The trees that grow in the Jasper Valley itself are: Douglas Fir, White Spruce, Lodgepole Pine, Aspen, and White Birch. 

“October 1823. Monday 6. Sharp frost in the morning. Cloudy, fine weather afterwards. Proceeded on our journey a little after sunrising and arrived at the little house (where a small house was formerly kept) about 9 o’clock where the canoes had arrived a short time before us. The canoes are to be left here as the river is very difficult to Navigate farther up. Employed the remainder of the day arranging the loads for the horses.”

This is probably the location of Henry House, twenty miles from the new Jasper’s House close to Miette’s Rock. According to Aemelius Simpson, Henry’s Plain [or House] was on the east side of the Athabasca River almost directly across from the place he called Larocque’s Prairie. It seems that if the Columbia men were traveling south along the Athabasca River without the New Caledonia men, their preferred route would take them through the location of long-abandoned Henry’s House. If, however, they were traveling south and west with the New Caledonia men, they traveled along the west side of the river to Larocque’s Prairie, where the two parties sorted their goods and separated. As always, there is more than one trail through this valley.

“The river here is considerably narrower than below & the current very strong, the course nearly South winding up a narrow valley between ridges of high mountains, some of which are covered with wood of a small size nearly to the summit, others are topped with snow. We found two wild mountain sheep, as they are called, which the hunters killed and left on the road for us. They are the same colour as reindeer & have the same kind of hair except a small quantity of very fine wool next the skin, they have also a large white spot on the rump round the tail which is short like that of a deer. They somewhat resemble a sheep in shape & have crooked horns exactly like rams. These inhabit the lower peaks of the mountain and there is another kind shaped like goats and white which keep on the highest peak…

“October 1823. Tuesday 7. Set out on our journey a little after sunrising. Our road lay along the West side of the river, sometimes close to the river & sometimes at some distance in the woods. The woods were in general pretty clear some places, however they were recently burnt and had fallen and rendered the track difficult. We had also some steep hills to ascend. The woods were chiefly fir. In the afternoon we passed a fork of the river where a branch falls in from the Westard [sic]. A very little above this we crossed the S.E. or main branch of the river and stopped on the West side of it for the night — this is called the Grand Traverse. The course of the river is still nearly Southerly with a very strong current, but might be navigated with light canoes this far. The hunter who accompanied us killed nothing.”

In 1827, Edward Ermatinger reported that this piece of road was “much encumbered with fallen wood.” It is difficult to ascertain where George Traill Allan is on his 1831 journey west, but he is probably describing the same piece of road:

Today we entered a point of wood and found the track so blocked up with fallen trees as to render it almost impassable to our horse. The mountains as seen today were really splendid, a thick fog having concealed the base, the summits appear, as it were, to tower above the skies. [Journal of a Voyage from Norway House to Fort Vancouver, 1831]

The Grande Traverse mentioned above is at the junction of the Whirlpool River with the Athabasca. In some journals it was called “The Hole,” because of the pool of deep water they encountered there. The later express men hardly mentioned it. Here is what Thomas Lowe said of the Grande Traverse, as he travels toward Athabasca Pass in October 1848:

[Reached] the Grand Traverse about 10 am and crossed without taking off the loads. Michel & the two others had arranged the Boat, but we did not require it. The Road beyond the Grand Traverse was very bad, and we had a great many trees to clear out of the way….

So the road from the Grande Traverse was no better than the road they had travelled to get to the Whirlpool River itself. It was never an easy journey up this valley, although it might have been made easier as dead wood was cleared away. However, I see little evidence in the journals that much work was done to clear the roads. 

The incoming gentlemen of this canoe brigade have already passed through (and probably camped at) the Campement de Vache [Buffalo Encampment]. They will soon reach Campement d’Orignal, or Moose Encampment, in the narrow Whirlpool River valley. At Campement d’Orignal they will be 28 miles from Miette’s Rock, near which the new Jasper’s House was later built. 

So in this post we have traveled from the old Rocky Mountain House past the later location of Jasper’s House on Jasper Lake. We have then continued up the Athabasca River to the place where the Whirlpool River flows in at the Grande Traverse. In a future post these two gentlemen will continue their journey up the narrow, winding valley of the Whirlpool River, to Athabasca Pass itself. John Work has some great descriptions of walking through Athabasca Pass, by the way, and of his journey down the west side of the Rocky Mountains. 

To go back to the beginning of this series, go here:

To go back to the last John Work post, go here:

When the next post is written, it will appear here:  It will probably be a George Simpson post, however. (It is).

The next John Work post is published, and found here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.