Two Canoes Through the Fraser Canyon

Fraser River looking south from Saddle Rock tunnel toward Spuzzum and Yale, B.C.

In 1828 Governor Simpson came down this river to Fort Langley. This image shows the Fraser River north of Yale, but south of the canyons which the two canoes and one boat traversed, with some difficulty. Those hills in the background are probably the same mountains that bind the Black Canyon.

In this last leg of the Two Canoes series, I will bring Governor George Simpson down the Fraser River, from the mouth of the Thompson River to Fort Langley. Those of you who live in British Columbia will understand that he is paddling through the Fraser Canyon. Fortunately, he is making this journey in October, when the river waters are low. On the Columbia River high water made for whirlpools: with low water the rapids are more intense. It is probably true of the Fraser as well.

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So, here we are! Let us begin. There are many places along this journey where I have taken guesses at where they are, and if some of you have paddled or otherwise traveled down this river, I would like it very much if you would confirm my guesses, or tell me where I have gone wrong. Thanking you ahead of time!

They begin at the mouth of the Thompson River, where “the Indians that were assembled around the camp in such a novel scene being addressed, and the necessary arrangements for the prosecution of our own voyage being made, we started at one p.m…

The Governor took his own canoe with eight men. A gale of wind that commenced three days ago seemed to increase this afternoon, consequently our progress was slow and hazardous. Although none of the rapids from the Forks to this place [McDonald’s Dalles] are bad, yet we found them dangerous, and did not perform the distance — 4 miles below the Forks — before five o’clock. The boat went down the dalles, but the canoes not daring to follow, [the boat] was brought up again on the line, and here we are for the night in a very bad encampment. The Indians hereabouts are about the usual number. Their salmon fishery must be over, for not one is there to be seen on their stages now. One accompanies us to the sea: he has been there already…

So if they are camping at a “dalles” or rapid four or so miles south of the forks of the rivers, then I presume that McDonald’s Dalles are the modern-day rapids at Jackass Mountain, rapids which gave Simon Fraser and John Stuart some trouble. But the Nor’Westers had descended the river in May, at the beginning of the summer freshets when the water ran swift and high between its banks and whirlpools formed. When Simpson’s party came downriver, its waters were lower but the rapids more intense.

Thursday, 9th [October]. Weather moderate. Off at six, when we could well see in the dalles. Governor embarked in the boat with me, and Mr. [James Murray] Yale took his place in the canoe. Were soon in a long rapid, with a small stream from the mountains on the right hand, at foot [of rapids]. Good run to Allitza River on the same side, which we passed at eight leaving the other about half way. Strong whirlpools below, which forced Bernard to return and descend on the opposite side (the right). From this place, where we were detained three quarters of an hour, we had a good run over a current of great velocity to the Sandy River, which we made about nine, and breakfasted. Gumming, and running dalles till twelve.

So the Allitza River might be the Nahatlatch, and the Sandy is, perhaps, Speyum Creek. Any disagreement here?

This is a bad piece of navigation. Here also, we took on board Latzie, one of the Coutamine [Nlaka’pamux] Chiefs. Five hundred yards lower down made use of our lines, and at the foot of the same cascade, on the right hand carried the canoes, and here were detained repairing, gumming, &c., for two hours. The boat ran the portage part of the river, but required great skill and vigilance. Many Indians about us here, but they behaved well. The boat had a peep at the next place before the canoes came on. This place we call the Gate Dalles. Very good going down, but should a line be required to ascend, it will be a task of some difficulty to pass it on either side. First rapid of another nature at three: then a smooth piece of a few miles before we came to Mr. Yale’s River, which has also a strong rapid at its mouth, and to get down, the guide was induced to land the passengers and two men out of each canoe. There was some delay before they could ford the river.

When Anderson walked down the river banks in 1847, he and his men were carried across Ainsley Creek in Indigenous canoes, but waded through the other creeks they came across. So Yale’s River might be Ainsley Creek. Is there a strong rapid at its mouth? And which rapids might the Gates Dalles be?

Left this place at four, and in twenty minutes arrived at the head of the Fall. Examined it minutely. Boat undertook to run right down mid-channel: did so, keeping rather in eddy to the right, and did not ship more [water] than we had on one or two occasions already. No passengers and only eight men were in the boat. The canoes crossed to the west side, and made a portage over a good sandy beach of about two hundred yards… After a detention of about three quarters of an hour, we again pushed on, and at a quarter past five encamped in a small sandy bay on the west side, surrounded by detached rocks for fifty or sixty paces back, behind which, on both sides of the river, rose mountains almost perpendicular, and of incredible height, well clothed in the lower part with Pine, Fir, and Cedar trees. A number of the natives soon gathered about us, and continued to arrive from below throughout the night, with large flambeaux [torches] to direct their steps…

Our course today is about south. The river made no great bends, but owing to occasional delays, and being often in strong eddies and whirlpools, our distance cannot be estimated at more than fifty miles. At least half the distance the river is deeply imbedded in the solid rock, and the other half is of bold rapids, with, however, plenty of water all over. The mountains in so part of this day’s work recede from the very edge of the water…

So, sandy beaches somewhere north of the Canyon itself? This sounds like they are in the North Bend and Boston Bar region. Anderson’s River has a nice sandy beach at its mouth. The next day they would pass Hell’s Gate and Black Canyon — but would it take only twenty-five minutes to pass through these two canyons? It might.

 Friday 10th. The river in no part of this day’s work was more than a hundred and twenty paces, and often not quite half that in width…

At Hell’s Gate itself, the canyon walls are only 345 meters apart — 110 feet. Below is the high-walled, curving Black Canyon, where Simon Fraser gave up on using his canoes and traveled by Indigenous trails to the bottom of the canyon. This is what he had to say of that rugged trail:

“The road was inconceivably bad. We had to pass many difficult rocks, defiles and precipices, through which there is a kind of beaten path used by the natives, and made passable by means of scaffolds, bridges and ladders… We had to ascend precipices by means of ladders composed of two long poles placed upright and parallel with sticks crossways tied with twigs… the ladders were often so slack that the smallest breeze put them in motion — swinging them against the rocks. The Indians.. thought nothing of these difficulties, but went up and down these wild places with the same agility as sailors do on board of ships… I have been for a long period among the Rocky Mountains, but have never seen any thing equal to this country… We had to pass where no human being should venture. Yet in those places there is a regular footpath impressed, or rather indented, upon the very rocks.”

But Governor Simpson came downriver by boat and canoe, in October, of course, when the water level is much lower than in June when Fraser came downriver. His journal continues:

Started at broad-daylight, and in twenty-five minutes came to head of Simpson’s Falls, where the river is choked up by a most solid rock of about half an acre in extent. Examined it along the west shore, but conceived the run on that side extremely dangerous, and owing to the immense rocks all over, to carry was impossible. The East lead was then determined upon, crossed, and run without landing on that side, by the Guide who rushed on with his bark canoe, and a safe arrival below was effected, but not without much risk in the whirlpools against the enemy (the rocks) that hung over us. The boat followed, but did not suffer by the eddies so much, as it did by being swallowed into the swell of the Fall, out of which the utmost power of twelve paddles could not keep it. The second canoe having the advantage of being behind, came on with great precaution.

To the HBC men, “Falls” are rapids, and here they are running the rapids at Lady Franklin’s Rock. It is interesting to understand that the rapids the HBC men always called “the falls”were originally named “Simpson’s Falls,” for the Governor himself.

A few hundred yards below this, we came to the next and last run, which was steep but uniform. Then the river began evidently to assume a different form. The water was settled, the beach flatter, and vegetation more profuse.

At eight passed a large camp on right, which could only have been abandoned a few weeks before. Behind it sprang up a lofty, rocky Mountain in the shape of a cone, and being the last on that side, we celebrated it by the name of Sugar Loaf Mountain.

The large abandoned camp would be at modern-day Yale, and Sugar Loaf Mountain is the round rocky mountain behind Yale. I wonder what its modern-day name is, if it has one. Perhaps someone will tell me. Perhaps it has no name.

Continued our descent till half-past-nine, and landed for breakfast, which did not detain us forty minutes, treating our people with some of the taureau [beef] we had at Dunvegan. None of the small rivers to the left attracted our particular notice.

At quarter to two, passed the mouth of “Lilliwhit” [Harrison’s] River, a stream of some size, as in indicated where Mr. F. Ermatinger arrived on its banks, a day’s journey west of second Peselive [Lillooet] Lake in August, 1827, and as appears in his report to me on the subject, “Thompson’s River Correspondence 1827-28.”

For me, this is the most fascinating part of this journal. Francis Ermatinger, then at Kamloops, explored the lake route to the Fraser River — the same that Anderson followed in 1846. I never knew how far he had gone. But it is clear he made it all the way to Fort Langley, though his arrival is not mentioned in the journals of that place. Sadly, his report is lost. I would have loved to have read it.

Another river, half-a-league below, on opposite shore, which comes from the neighbourhood of Mount Baker, rich in beaver according to our guide’s account. At half-past three o’clock met the tide from the Pacific Ocean. Work’s River on the right at five. Head of McMillan’s Island at seven, and arrived at Fort Langley precisely at eight, where we found Mr. McMillan himself, Messrs. [Donald] Manson and [Francis] Annance, and twenty men.

On or before his arrival at Fort Langley, Governor Simpson decided that Fraser’s River could not be used by the HBC men to bring their furs to the Pacific. You might actually enjoy what he said of the descent of Fraser’s River:

“We accordingly continued our Voyage, having only remained an hour or two at the Forks [of Thompson’s River], and almost immediately on starting, the character and appearance of the navigation became totally changed, assuming those of the very worst parts of Thompson’s River; every new reach, as we descended, bringing to view fresh and more alarming dangerous. The banks now erected themselves into perpendicular Mountains of Rock from the water’s edge, the tops enveloped in clouds, and the lower parts dismal and rugged in the extreme; the descent of the Stream very rapid, the reaches short, and at the close of many of them the Rocks (which at times assumed singularly grotesque & fantastic shapes and at others all the different orders of architecture on a most stupendous scale) overhanging the foaming Waters, pent up, to from 20 to 30 yards wide, running with immense velocity and momentarily threatening to sweep us to destruction. In many places there was no possibility of landing to examine the dangers to which we approached, so that we were frequently hurried into Rapids before we could ascertain how they ought to be taken, through which the craft shot like the flight of an Arrow into deep whirlpools which seemed to sport in twirling us about, and passing us from one to another, until their strength became exhausted by the pressure of the stream, and leaving our water logged craft in a sinking state. In this manner, the greater part of two Days was occupied, in which we only made about 70 miles distance, as much time was lost in communicating with the natives, who were exceedingly numerous and perfectly amazed and much terrified at seeing us, yet shewed no hostility, altho’ they must have been aware that we were quite in their power….

“Frazer’s River can no longer be thought of as a practicable communication with the interior; it was never wholly passed by water before, and in all probability never will again: the banks to do not admit of Portages being made, and in many places it would be impossible to use the line on account of the height of the projecting Rocks which afford no footing: and altho’ we ran all the Rapids in safety, being perfectly light, and having three of the most skilful Bowsmen in the country, whose skill however was of little avail at times, I should consider the passage down to be certain Death in nine attempts out of Ten. I shall therefore no longer talk of it as a navigable stream.” [Simpson’s 1828 Journey to the Columbia [London: Hudsons Bay Record Society, 1947] pp. 36-39].

Archibald McDonald also gave a good description of the first Fort Langley, which he was to take charge of.

Saturday, 11th. This Establishment was begun in the early part of August 1827, with the above complement of people and the assistance of the schooner Cadboro, and as many more during the space of six weeks. The Fort is 135 by 120, with two good bastions, and a gallery of four feet wide all round. A building [blank in mss] feet long, of three compartments for the men, a small log house of two compartments, in which the gentlemen now reside, and a store of about [blank in mss] feet are now occupied, besides which there are two other buildings, one a good dwelling house with an excellent cellar and a spacious garret, a couple of well finished chimneys are up, and the whole inside now ready for wainscoting and partitioning, four large windows in front, one in each end, and one with a corresponding door in the back. The other is a low building with only two square rooms and a fire place in each, and a kitchen adjoining made of slab. The out door work consists of three fields, each planted with thirty bushels of potatoes, and look well. The provision shed, exclusive of table stores, is furnished with three thousand dried salmon, sixteen tierces salted ditto,

At this time the fort stood on the south bank of the Fraser, west of McMillan Island. In 1839 it was destroyed by fire, and the new post rebuilt a few kilometers upstream where it was closer to the fort’s farms. In 1844, James Murray Yale, who had descended the Fraser River with Governor Simpson, became the Chief Trader in charge of Fort Langley. He was more familiar with the Fraser River than anyone else in the territory, but no one listened to him when he warned of its dangers.

To return to the first post in this series, go here:

I don’t think there will be more posts in this series.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.