From Ile-a-la-Crosse to the Clearwater River

The Flintlock gun

The Voyageur and his flintlock gun

In our dueling journals — that of John Work, 1823, and of Archibald McDonald, 1828 — we have reached the post of Ile-a-la-Crosse, on Lac Ile-a-la-Crosse. As you know by my last post in this series, John Work and Peter Skene Ogden took the southward leading Beaver River west to the Moose portage, where they are now stuck (that story will come later in this series, but I need to do some research first). This journey will end on the banks of the Clearwater River.

In 1828, Archibald McDonald and Governor George Simpson arrived at Ile-a-la-Crosse, which was then under the command of Mr. George Deschambeault. My guide to the routes east of the Rockies, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, tells me that: 

The first post here was established by Thomas Frobisher in 1776 on a peninsula where the Cree sometimes played lacrosse. Catering to both Cree and Dene trappers, it was often a rather contentious place. From the northwest end of Lac Ile-a-la-Crosse, the brigades followed the river north and west to Peter Pond Lake and followed swift, shallow Methye River north to Lac La Loche.

From Lac La Loche they would follow the rivers north to cross the height of land between the eastward flowing Churchill River, to the Clearwater River, which flowed into the Athabasca River. This was the route that opened up the Athabasca district for the North West Company! 

So, on Tuesday August 5, 1828, Governor George Simpson and Archibald McDonald began their journey north and west from Ile-a-la-Crosse. In case you are curious, Archibald McDonald was traveling west to take over the charge of Fort Langley, on the lower Fraser River:

Got under weigh at half-past three am. with unusual glee in the three canoes. Just as we were putting ashore for breakfast, Cadotte cast up with his three boats from the Portage with 157 packs and 3 kegs castoreum, the returns of the McKenzie’s River district for outfit 1827… Dined at the narrows of Lac du Boeuf at three. Head wind all day. Encamped at a point NW of the old Fort, it being too late to attempt a large traverse to the east shore, and there being every appearance of bad weather.

There may have once been an old post on this river. The notes in the book, which are extensive, do not tell me the answer to that question, but someone else may know.

Wednesday 6th. It was not yet two o’clock this morning when we made a move against a strong head wind, which towards day-light increased to a gale, with heavy rain, and which rendered our landing on one of the points within a few leagues of the river La Loche, a matter of some difficulty. Breakfasted early, and waited for a moderation in the weather till about noon.

One of the journals I have found talks about the joys of traveling in the York Boats in a heavy rainfall. What this gentlemen wrote about traveling in a York Boat through a rainstorm, would apply here: 

Rain is a disagreeable thing at any time but particularly in an open boat. True, you may manage to keep yourself dry by submitting to be smothered under the oil cloth, but you soon find this even worse than the rain, and so it was with me. As there was no alternative I chose the lesser evil of the two and submitted to the pelting of the pitiless storm. Ere long the rain came down tout bon as the halfbreeds expressed it, and from the thick and murky state of the sky it was evident we were in for a soaking unless we sought the friendly shelter of the land which but an hour or two before we were so glad to leave.

[Alexis] L’Esperance, seeing there was no use in contending with the element, uttered the signal for landing and we, ere long, found ourselves under the lee of a high and well wooded bank. [E/B/P34, BCA]

McDonald’s 1828 journal continues, with the weather clearing up in the afternoon:

Were at the Forks of Pembina River at half-past three. Commenced McLeod’s Portage near five o’clock, and reached the upper end all safe before eight. Fine weather in the afternoon. Killed a few rabbits along the banks of the river. Water remarkably low.

Thursday 7th. Cold frosty morning. Water still the same until we got to the Lake about two p.m. where we left the Isle a la Crosse canoe, and a note for Mr. Stuart [Chief Factor John Stuart, who was then in charge of Lesser Slave Lake district]. Sailed across the Lake, about half-way met fifteen or twenty Chipweyan [sic] Indians with their wives and families in as many canoes. Ten of them joined us in the evening at the second Pose, close to the little creek, and will give us a lift on this portage of twelve miles tomorrow…

Pose is a voyaging word meaning a rest, or resting place, in a long Portage. It comes from the French word reposer, to rest. They have reached the end of the lake and are making their way across the Methye Portage. The journal continues:

Friday 8th. About four o’clock a.m. made a start. The eight boutes carrying the canoes, and the other five men of each of the canoes with the assistance of the ten Indians in carrying the loading, were able to remove everything in one haul [trip] by a succession of poses of 500 to 600 yards each..

Boutes is a word that applies to the bowsman and steersman in each boat or canoe. It is French, and the editor says it means “ends,” a definition which my dictionary agrees with. The word is pronounced “boots.”

We reached the south shore of Little Lake by nine, where we breakfasted. This Lake is about two miles in circumference, and is two thirds of the distance. We crossed it with canoes and baggage about eleven, and the last one-third took us to two pm, but the canoes and Indians did not arrive before four. We gummed [the canoes] for three quarters of an hour, and again embarked.

Gumming was a process used by the voyageurs to make their canoes [and boats] waterproof. I will have to write about this — I have an excellent description of gumming the Columbia Boats, but not one of gumming the birch bark canoes. When I write about it, I will put the link here: 

Made the whole of the Mud Portage by seven, and encamped, that the men may enjoy two or three extra glasses of spirits tonight, which they would have had in making the portage had we had no Indians about us. Before parting with the latter [the Natives], we settled with them in the most satisfactory manner (to them). First, the Governor addressed them at some length on their good behaviour since they have become reduced to one trading house, the good policy of continuing so, the propriety of discontinuing the use of spirituous liquors, and ending in pointing out to them the expediency of nursing the beaver in their lands. After giving each, as a matter of great indulgence, a glass of weak rum, they got notes on Mr. Chief Factor [John] Charles at Isle a la Crosse [sic] for a fathom of tobacco, &c. This has been a fine dry day, and not too warm. Delightful prospect down this river.

“This river” is the Clearwater River, and the views down its valley were spectacular! The Methye Portage, or Portage La Loche, is 20 kilometers long. It begins at Lac la Loche and ends on the banks of the Clearwater River. Surprisingly, it is a nearly level road through open spruce and jack pine forests, according to Exploring the fur Trade routes of North America. There were two small lakes in the portage, only one of which was mentioned above. The trail winds between the lakes and suddenly leads to the celebrated viewpoint of the Clearwater River. To explore this for yourselves, you will find that the closest community to this place is La Loche, in northern Saskatchewan.

Archibald McDonald’s journal is found in the book, Peace River: A canoe voyage from Hudson’s Bay to Pacific, published in 1872 and edited by Malcolm McLeod, son of John McLeod Sr.

To return to the beginning of this thread, go to:

When the next leg of Governor Simpson’s journey is posted, it will appear here:

John Work has, however, left Isle-a-la-Crosse by another route: the Beaver River to Lac la Biche. His story has been written in a post you may already have read. It if you have not, it is found here, and I will now separate the two threads so you can follow both, or only one.

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