Two Canoes: the Athabasca River

Flintlock Guns, Fort Langley

Flintlock Guns. These were the guns that all the HBC men owned and used to hunt for their food, on the Athabasca River and elsewhere. This photo was taken at Fort Langley, where re-enactors dress as fur trade employees, or as Royal Engineers (as you see). The displays of their noisy, smokey guns are amazing, and the men who build and maintain their own guns are interesting fells who enjoy sharing their information. I highly recommend Brigade Days at Fort Langley!

In 1823, John Work and Peter Skene Ogden traveled west to the Columbia District by the Athabasca River and Fort Assiniboine. Thus far, they are not paddling (or in this case, poling) up any part of the Athabasca that was traveled by the later York Factory Express, created only three years later.

In the last post, however, I left John Work’s canoes on the Red Deer River, and so I will have to bring them forward to the banks of the big river. They are now in waters that flow north to the Arctic Ocean, rather than east to Hudson Bay. Their location? Somewhere in the immediate area of Lac La Biche, Alberta, or “Red Deer Lake.”

It was afternoon by the time every thing was got across the Portage [to Red Deer Lake/Lac la Biche]. Some time was then taking up gumming the canoes. We found a number [of] Freemen and Indians encamped at the Lake, from these Mr. Ogden purchased some Beat Meat, and some fresh meat. We then embarked and crossed a Bay of the Lake where we encamped for the night. A number of the freemen and Indians came to visit us in the evening, it was then they brought the fresh provisions which they traded for Tobacco…

Beat Meat is dried and beaten meat being prepared for pemmican production. It was likely that they would have thrown it into a stewpot and boiled it to make it palatable. Fresh meat they may have roasted over the fire, but they might also have cut some up for the stewpot, along with any wild onions, berries, and any other food they were able to harvest along the banks of the river. These men were hungry, and they consumed anything that was vaguely edible! [Sometime I will blog about that!]

So here is John Work’s journal. I like his words: “weighty.” Another word he has used in the past, and which he will use in the future, is “Thicketty.” Very descriptive!

Monday 15th [September]. Weighty rain in the night and blowing strong with weighty rain in the forepart of the day. It cleared up and became a little moderate in the afternoon and [we] embarked at 2 o’clock but it began to blow so fresh with weighty rain that we were obliged to put ashore at 5 o’clock…

Tuesday 16th. Blew strong with weighty rain in the night also blew strong in the morning. It was too stormy in the morning and we did not embark till 9 o’clock when we crossed the Lake and fell down the little Red Deer River…

The river that flows out of modern-day Lac la Biche [which the locals apparently call Lac la Biche Lake, to distinguish it from Lac la Biche, the town] is called the La Biche River. So it has the same name as it had in fur trade days: Biche is the word they used for Red Deer, or Elk.

Wednesday 17th. Embarked early and proceeded down the River which we found very shallow and full of rapids. Made but a very short days work as a good deal of time was lost gumming the canoes…

Thursday 18th. Weighty rain all night. Blew a storm the greater part of the day. Embarked at sunrising and arrived at the great Red Deer River about 12 o’clock which we proceeded till 2 when we encamped to repair the canoes which are much injured with the shallowness of the little river we have just left. It is difficult to determine what is the general course of the little Red Deer River it is so winding. The banks on each side are occasionally low near the River and rise gradually into little hills. Sometimes they rise abruptly at the water edge. There are some large Pine & Poplar trees, but great part has been burnt some time ago and is now covered with small poplar & willows…

Sept. 1823. Friday 19th. Light clouds. Mild weather. Wind westerly. Embarked at sunrising and proceeded up the great Red Deer River, the waters are unusually low which is the more favourable for us as the current is slacker, it is all poling as the current is too strong to paddle against and they go quicker with poles than with the towing line. We made a very good days march, it was nearly dark when we encamped.

If they are poling, this suggests that they are going upriver — and they are. The greater Red Deer River is the Athabasca, east of Fort Assiniboine and Lesser Slave Lake. The shallow “little Red Deer River” was the La Biche River. The “Pabina,” mentioned below, is the Pembina, and the Slave River (which I had at first thought was the Athabasca), is the river that flows out of Lesser Slave Lake.

This is a fine broad & deep river, the banks bold and elevated & generally covered to the waters edge with pine and poplars and some other trees some of which are of a pretty large size. Some places the shores are only clothed with small poplars and underwood. The course of the river today was from SW to NE generally. In the evening we met a canoe with a man & two Indians, with 5 bags of pemmican and a bundle of dry meat, sent by Mr. McDonald from McLeod’s branch. This will leave us with abundance of provisions. They also brought the carcase of a moose which they killed a few days ago…

“Mr. McDonald” from the house at McLeod’s Branch [McLeod River] is Ranald McDonald, not the famous son of Archibald McDonald but another man with the same name. The so-called “house at McLeod’s Branch” was Fort Assiniboine, as you will soon see. John Work and Peter Skene Ogden had been given incorrect information on the location of the new house, which was at this time still under construction.

Saturday 20th. Cloudy fine mild weather. Embarked early, took part of the provisions from the people whom we met yesterday so that their canoe would be light that they might be able to keep company with us, which they did till noon when the Indians not being accustomed to work said they would prefer walking. The small canoe was accordingly left & the man & remainder of the provisions embarked in the other canoes, & the Indians left to make their way through the woods in the best manner they could.

We made a good day’s march. The appearance of the river is much the same as yesterday except that the woods are of a smaller growth & chiefly poplar. The general course was NW, the current pretty strong and some places stiff rapids. The shores are some places composed of black earth and sand & some places entirely stones near the water. The stones are generally worn round with the action of the current and in many places as regularly bedded as an ill paved street…

Sunday 21st. Cloudy. Blowing fresh part of the day from the N’ward. Embarked at day light and reached the mouth of Slave River in the evening when we encamped. The River shores &c had the same appearance as yesterday. We here found some bark and other articles sent from Slave Lake for us to take to the Mountain, but could not take them except a leather lodge. We took a little of the bark to repair our canoes. Mr. Ogden left a bag of pemmican for Mr. [William] Connolly in lieu of the one he got from his man at Moose Portage. He also left the beat meat which he got from the freemen at Red Deer Lake, as it will not now be required…

The “Mountain” Work refers to here is Athabasca Pass, though it is likely they were supposed to leave the birch bark at the current post in the Jasper valley. William Connolly, later of New Caledonia, was at this time in charge of the post at Lesser Slave Lake, and the pemmican Work and Ogden picked up from the man at Lac la Biche was to be part of Connolly’s provisions for the outgoing canoe brigades to York Factory.

Monday 22nd. Embarked at sunrising and proceeded up the river, which has much the same appearance as yesterday but the general course appears to be SW, it is very winding and some islands. It blew very strong from the NE part of the day. We encamped at a river called Pabine  [Pembina] which falls in on the south side of the river.

Tuesday 23rd. Embarked at daylight and in the afternoon passed the Five Islands. [I think I asked about the Five Islands in the previous post, and here they are, in the Athabasca River]. The course of the river though in some places very winding was early the same as yesterday but the strong rapids are more frequent, indeed the current is getting still stronger the farther up we come. Towards the afternoon the [shores] were clothed with wood of a larger growth and a greater proportion of pine..

Wednesday 24th. Sharp frost in the morning. Cloudy mild though cold weather afterwards. Embarked at day light and about noon arrived at a new House which Mr. McDonald, the gentlemen who is superintending the building, calls Fort Assiniboyne, it is situated on the north side of the River. This is the House which was to have been built at McLeod’s Branch, the distance of which is four days work up the River, so that we were surprised at understanding that the buildings were here.

John Work and Peter Skene Ogden have arrived at Fort Assiniboine, on the Athabasca River north of Edmonton House. The post was located on the north side of the river across from a large island.

The fur trade at Lesser Slave Lake, to the east, was in decline, and Fort Assiniboine was built to improve transportation lines as the HBC struggled to become more efficient in its operations. There were Native trails between Fort Assiniboine and Edmonton House, on the North Saskatchewan. In 1826 a better trail was opened between the two posts, and in 1826 the first York Factory Express came through Fort Assiniboine. Here they exchanged their canoes for horses, and rode south, across the Assiniboine Portage, to Edmonton House. Later in the year they would return, exchanging their horses for the canoes they had come downriver in. Yes, canoes: in the early years there were no bateaux or boats on the Athabasca River — at least none that the York Factory Express men used.

For most of its history, Fort Assiniboine existed to serve the men of the York Factory Express, and it was abandoned in the mid-1850’s when the Columbia men no longer came out over the mountains. By 1859, there was nothing left but a few rotting huts standing alone on a beautiful level prairie several miles in extent, 30 feet above the water of the river. It later became a stop on the Klondike Trail. There is still a small town there: a hamlet, on the north bank of the river. The town sports a Hudson Bay style historical museum known as the Fort Assiniboine Museum; and it also has the world’s largest wagon wheel, and the world’s largest pick axe. The pick axe might have been used on the HBC’s Assiniboine Portage [Athabasca Portage]: the wagon came later. Much later.

When the next John Work/Peter Skene Ogden post is published, it will appear here:

When the next post in the Two Canoes thread is published (probably following Governor Simpson west), it will appear here:

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

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