Two Canoes: Peace River Canyon

The Flintlock gun

It has been said that these voyageurs used their sash as a Tump line for carrying the loads across portages, and perhaps they sometimes did. However, in later years at least, they were supplied a leather strap with loops that they wrapped around their load, and carried two packs on their backs with the supporting strap over their forehead. If you did it right, it wasn’t that hard to do.     

In 1828, Governor George Simpson and Chief Trader Archibald McDonald made their way from Hudson Bay to the Peace River, on their way west to Fort Langley. McDonald had been sent west to take charge of that new post, but he and Simpson took the long way round. Their goal was to find out if they could bring their furs to Fort Langley, from New Caledonia, by the Fraser River.

Archibald McDonald kept the journal, which has been published under the title of Peace River: Canoe Voyage from Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific. At this point in the tale, the canoes are approaching the Peace River Canyon — not an easy portage across the range of mountains that separates modern day British Columbia from Alberta. Some went by water, and some overland. I suspect the men who traveled by water had the easier journey!

Tuesday, 2nd [September 1824]… Arrived at the portage at five. Immediately, eight men with the two canoes proceeded by water, and with the remaining ten we made the first pose [“pause”] of the portage with something like forty pieces. Encamped on the first fine level above the water, and have the old Mountain House right opposite on the south side. Near where we landed, the rocks in several places, poured out spouts of water as if coming from the mouth of a gun.

Rocky Mountain House, on the Peace River, was not far from the NWC post of Hudson Hope, which was one of the posts closed shortly after the HBC took over. From Dunvegan to Rocky Mountain House it was about one hundred and eighty miles, according to Nor’Wester Daniel Harmon.

Wednesday, 3rd — By four, the canoes were under weigh. Reached the top of the last high bank and breakfasted at eleven. About a mile of the worst road in Christendom. After midday, resumed the journey, and with unspeakable misery to the poor men got to a small swamp, a little more than another mile. Ourselves, however, with the necessary baggage, pushed on to a little clear stream ahead, not quite half a mile, and encamped late. No people having passed this way for the last three years, and, of course, no clearance made in a road that at best must be an infamous one, presented a horrible appearance to-day, and whatever be the fate of the canoes and men by water, I think, of the two evils, they have chosen the least; in fact, without considerable labour the way would be impracticable for passing the canoes [by portage, overland]. A large moose buck passed us in the woods this morning.

Thursday, 4th — Returned early to men left behind last night, and got all on to Little Creek by eight, without further delay to them than in taking a good draught of water. Carried on very well, on tolerably clear ground, till we came to another watering place called La Vacelle [the editor says: probably “La Vaisselle,” vessel, as in crockery or dishes], about four miles on, and breakfasted after midday, although the whole property was not that length.

In traveling through this portage in 1824, Sam Black called what appears to be this same place, “L Petite Veille,” and this was identified by the editor as “The Little Lookout” — quite a different translation than that given by the editor above. I think it likely that Archibald McDonald’s handwriting was hard to read: not too surprising under the circumstances.

As we were contriving how to get on to the next water the best way we could, the canoe men fortunately met us, which enabled all hands to effect the pose completely; and here we are, within three short miles of the River. With the exception of the first four hours to-day the road was passable, but many of our pieces were most awkward, such as our taureau [pemican in bags] that were made almost round, and to mend the matter, in parchment skins so that to keep one on the top of another was next to an impossibility.

Augustus Peers has an excellent description of the method of portaging the goods, using a Tump line. He was traveling with the Athabasca brigade to Methye Portage in about 1843:

Next morning the boats again arrived about breakfast time, and after the hungry crews had demolished half a dozen capacious kettles of robbibo [pemmican stew], the work of transportation commenced. Each piece weighs eighty-four pounds, and two such pieces are carried at a time by each of the men who are provided with a portage strap of leather. The porter attaches both ends of his strap [around] one piece which he slings on his back, placing the loop of this strap over his forehead. Then, with his hands, which are entirely free, he takes up the second piece and lifting it over his head drops it on the first. Thus loaded, off he sets at a shuffling trot to the other end of the portage where he deposits his load and returns for another. I have elsewhere spoken of the loads these half-castes will carry. They take a delight in showing off their prowess and contend, one with another, in carrying heavy loads. Some will not only carry but actually load themselves with five or six such pieces, to do which requires no small amount of physical force. The Scotch and Orkney men, although they ultimately become good porters, find this sort of duty, at first, irksome and harassing and are generally glad to avail themselves of the friendly support of a tree to rest their loads against, while two or three brules, as the half-breeds are scornfully termed by the Canadians, will come sweeping past in a headlong race, jeering them with “Hello, boy! Come along!” It not infrequently happens that one will trip his foot in some branch or stump and fall prostrate with the full weight of his load, one hundred and sixty-eight pounds, on his body, hurting him severely.

Using a Tump line to portage a load of goods was a skill, as Harold Kemp learned. His book Northern Trader: the Last Days of the Fur Trade [U of Regina Press, 2014] is a great read, especially if you want to learn more about the Revillon Freres, for whom he worked:

Where our canoe-men tied their pack-straps round a hundred-pound piece, piled another hundred-pound piece atop of it, squatted down cross-legged while they adjusted the head-band, heaved themselves up and jogged off, I shambled down the portage with scarcely seventy pounds. The further I went, the more my neck muscles bulged. Sweat ran into my eyes as the sand flies bore into my ears. My legs wobbled, and no thirst-crazed derelict in the desert prayed more for the sight of water than I did. For the sight of water would spell the end of the portage and the end of my suffering. But I reached it, allowed my load to fall with a crash, and stood there trembling. The Indians howled with glee…

I had to learn all this by experience. But when those men roared at me on the portage, mimicked by shambling walk and my wobbling knees, I flushed with embarrassment and resentment… And then.. then the laughter suddenly stopped. Pat, one of the canoe men, came over. He spoke fluent English.

“Tough, eh? That’s because you haven’t the hang of it.” He pointed to my pack-strap, tied round a forty-pound box of bread. “You’ve got it tied too short. The whole load is just below your shoulders. And that bedroll… Next trip I’ll show you how it’s done.”

On that second trip he took another box, but he tied so long a loop in the pack-strap that the bottom of the box rested on the lower part of my back. On top of this and leaning solidly against my head he piled a rolled-up tent. “How’s that?” he asked. He need not have asked. Instead of a dragging weight that yanked my head back, chafed my shoulders and bulged my neck muscles, I had a bigger load that was distributed evenly, left my shoulders free and held my head comfortably forward. Pat gave me a push, and a laugh. He said, prophetically, “You’ll be carrying your two-hundred with the rest of us before this trip is over.”

So there you are: a good description of how to use the Tump line. And who were the Revillon Freres? They were another fur trade company that competed with the HBC. They were French, but had a store in New York City where they sold their furs. Their employees came as far west as the Athabasca River: there are some good photographs in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, that you can view online.

Anyway, let’s continue with Archibald McDonald’s journey through the Peace River Canyon:

It would appear that the canoe men had a most miraculous escape yesterday. The Guide’s canoe, with himself and three men, were within an ace of going to perdition over one of the most formidable cascades they had to encounter. The navigation is excessively bad and hazardous. We have been very fortunate in the weather of late.

Friday, 5th — Fine day again. Without encountering anything remarkable, we all arrived at the upper end of the portage by eight; the road was good, and we had but three loads over and above the charge of each man. The canoes requiring a complete overhauling, the men washing and mending their shirts and trowsers, and otherwise much in want of a little repose, the Governor has given the rest of the day for that purpose, and he is himself writing a few letters… In the afternoon we amused ourselves shooting at marks, playing the flute, bag-pipes, &c. A half-breed of an Indian we have had from the Fort returns tomorrow morning with the canoe from the other end of the portage. In the course of the afternoon Doctor [Richard] Hamlyn and myself took a stroll down to the first cascades from here, there the water has worked its way into the rock in a remarkable degree, and the whole of the country above this barrier, as far as we see, indicating a strong proof of the edge not giving way to the water many centuries ago, and, of course, forming a higher fall than is the case at present.

The party seems to have now passed through the Peace River Canyon: they have reached the other side and will continue their journey toward McLeod’s Lake. We will leave them here. When the next post in Governor Simpson’s journey west is posted, it will appear here:

When the next John Work post is published, it will appear here:

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

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

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