Two Canoes: John Work comes down the Columbia River

Lower Arrow Lake

Looking northward up the Lower Arrow Lake toward the modern-day “Narrows”

So in the last John Work journal, he and Peter Skene Ogden had reached Boat Encampment, having come down the Big Hill from Athabasca Pass. In this bit of journal, he will make it all the way to the Upper Arrow Lake. The year is 1823 — three years before the York Factory Express began to make this journey down the river. But the trail was an old one, used every year by the North West Company men who crossed the mountains into the Columbia District by the dozens. It is not known how many men walked over the trail by 1823, but the number must have been in the high hundreds, if not thousands.

So John Work begins his journey down the Columbia River from Boat Encampment to Upper Arrow Lake in October 1823:

Tuesday 14. Thick fog in the morning. Employed the greater part of the day preparing to fall down the Columbia and to send back the horses, part of which are to be loaded with bales of Red corded cloth which is not saleable in the Columbia.

This place is surrounded with high hills, many of which are topped with snow, and covered thickly with wood near the base.

Wednesday 15. Thick fog in the morning, raw cold Weather. Wind Southerly. Embarked at 9 o’clock, and proceeded down the Columbia River, in three boats or kind of wooden canoes, worked by 8 Men each, who row with paddles and not oars. These boats will carry about 55 pieces and are made of a light construction so that 12 men can carry them across the portages. The boats are very little loaded having only some Indian corn besides what we brought across with us. The Columbia all the way we have come is a fine, large, deep river with high hills on each side, several of which are topped with snow. There are a great many strong rapids & the current all the way is very strong. One of the boats being leaky we encamped early a little above what is called the upper Dalles. The course of the river nearly S. Mr. [Alexander] Kennedy & Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden are in one boat, Mr. [Alexander] Ross in another, and me in the third. The horse-keeper is to set out on his return with the horses [from Boat Encampment], accompanied by two men who are going out.

Thursday 16. Thick fog in the morning. Light clouds, fine weather afterwards. Continued our journey early, and in the evening encamped in the upper end of the upper [Arrow] Lake. In the forepart of the day the current was very strong & the rapids so frequent and so strong that they might be said to be almost one continued rapid. Towards evening the rapids were not so frequent nor the current so strong. In the morning we passed the Upper Dalles & towards noon the lesser dalles — these are places where the river is contracted very narrow and the whole body of water rushes with great violence between steep, craggy rocks. The boats ran down it very well…

As you see, above, John Work’s canoes came downriver through the rapids: they didn’t line the boats down. It is October, and the freshets are finished for the year and the water level lower. Nevertheless, Work’s “Upper Dalles” was the Dalles des Morts, or Death Rapids: the “Lesser Dalles” the Little Dalles, or today’s Steamboat Rapid, in the Little Dalles Canyon at Revelstoke, B.C. As the water in the Columbia River, and in the Upper Arrow Lake, is higher than it used to be, these rapids aren’t as rough as they used to be. But David Douglas described this rapid in 1827, as he was going upriver from the Upper Arrow Lake in Edward Ermatinger’s outgoing York Factory Express:

Where the river takes a sudden bend, and to all appearances is lost in the mountains, a scene of the most terrific grandeur presents itself; the whole torrent is confined to a breadth of thirty-five yards, and tossed in rapids, whirlpools and eddies; on both sides are mountains towering to the height of six or eight thousand feet from their base, rising with rugged perpendicular precipices from the very bed of the river, covered with dead timber of enormous growth, the roots of which, laid bare by the torrents, and now hurled by the violence of the wind from their original high places, come hurrying down the stream, bringing enormous fragments of earth attached to their roots, and spreading devastation all before them. The sun feebly tipped the mountain-tops as we passed this place, and, seen through the shadowy pines, imparted a melancholy air to the whole gloomy scene. [David Douglas, “Douglas’s Journey to Hudson’s Bay,” in Companion to the Botanical Magazine… [London: Edward Couchman, 1836]]

Frightening! Work, who had spent his HBC career on gentler rivers east of the Rocky Mountains, must have been terrified. However, his journal continues:

The general course of the river was rather to the W. of South, with steep hills on both sides, some of which are topped with snow, others covered with wood to the very summit. On the upper parts of the hills the wood appears to be of a small growth. On the low points it is of a larger size. Several small streams fall into the river from the valleys between the hills. The recent marks of beaver was seen at different places.

Where we encamped we found two lodges of Indians, containing two men and some women and children. These are the first Natives we have seen in this side of the mountain. The children were quite naked, & the men had no clothing except a robe or blanket of skin which they had wrapt about them. The women were better covered and had their hair ornamented with beads. They had scarcely any European articles of clothing about them. One of the lodges was of oblong form and constructed with poles and the external covering cedar bark, this appeared to be not only a dwelling but also a kind of store as considerable quantities of dried salmon and other articles were deposited here. The other lodge was of a circular form composed of poles covered with [a] kind of mats made of bull-rushes sewed together. Their utensils & vessels were made of birch bark, some of skin and some of small roots of trees platted together. They had a number of small dogs. Some beaver skins were traded from them, also a few dried salmon & a little dried meat. Some very good nuts were also got from them…

Nuts? I wonder what kind of nuts these would have been? If anyone knows the answer, I would love to know what they are.

The meat was not well cured and the salmon were very poor. These people use birch bark canoes which are of a different construction from those in the other side of the mountains.

These canoes were almost certainly the sturgeon-nosed canoes that David Thompson described. Jack Nisbet writes, in Mapmaker’s Eye, that “The next day, Thompson pushed off from Kettle Falls, into the only section of the Columbia he had not yet charted. This country was frequented by the Lakes (Sinixt) tribe; a group of them accompanied the Nor’Westers as far as the Arrow Lakes in what is now southern British Columbia.” There is, by the way, a new book on the Sinixt people: it is called Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way, by Marilyn James and Taress Alexis. It is a “Lively introduction to Indigenous Sinixt Culture through discussions of traditional & contemporary Sinixt stories,” according to B.C. Bookworld, Spring 2018, and is published by MAA Press, at Even though the Sinixt were distant from any fur trade fort, the HBC men were familiar with them, as they traded for bear or mule-deer meat, and obtained snow shoes from these people every year on their way upriver to Boat Encampment. In later years, much of Fort Colvile’s furs came from Sinixt hunters.

But John Work’s journal continues as he reaches the Upper Arrow Lake and travels through it:

Embarked at break of day and encamped late a little below the lower end of the Lake which is reckoned about 30 Miles in length. Our course through the Lake was about S by E. This Lake is not very wide, it is surrounded by steep hills generally covered with wood to the tops, some of their summits have no wood but are covered with snow. The shores are generally bold & rocky, except some coves and low points which has wood of a larger growth than what is on the sides of the stoney [sic] hills.

On the opposite side of the river where we encamped there was an Indian lodge, from which two Indian Men, a woman, & boy, came & brought 5 salmon which would weigh 20 to 30 lbs. each. We had some of it dressed for supper but it was not good. The salmon come out of the sea in immense numbers & are said never to return. They are remarkably fine when they first enter the river but in a short time get quite lean and finally get so emaciated that they die; they continue still struggling against the stream while they have life. Notwithstanding that the mountains are reckoned 1,000 Miles from the sea, yet many of the salmon get that length before they die. The Natives are now splitting and drying these dead and dieing [sic] fish for their winter’s provisions. A couple of beaver skins & a small piece of fresh meat were traded from the above Indians.

This is a good place to pause: we have reached the south end of Upper Arrow Lake or the part of the Columbia River that runs between the two lakes. It was much narrower than it is now, as the Columbia River is controlled by dams and the water is higher than it used to be. We are lucky that in Canada our river is mostly recognizable: in United States it is not.

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Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “Two Canoes: John Work comes down the Columbia River

  1. Claire Smith-Burns

    This section of John Work’s journal brings back memories of an archaeological survey I worked on in 1978 before the construction of the Revelstoke Dam. We were given a long, narrow wood river boat with a small outboard engine, some paddles and life jackets to survey from Mica Dam downriver to Revelstoke. I hate to think what Worksafe BC would have to say about this arrangement in 2018! We brought whatever boating experience we may have had with us for this treacherous mission (plus our dog). I well remember my fear as we approached areas like Death Rapids (named for obvious reasons) and Priest Rapids (apparently named after some priests who went over the rapids and did not live to tell the tale). Many times we clung to branches along gorges while one of us tried to resurrect the outboard engine which had quit working yet again! During one of the episodes, our dog jumped from the boat to a ledge and we had “fun” trying to encourage him back onboard while also trying not to capsize and go over Death Rapids. I can well imagine the frights experienced by Work and his party! I am lucky to be here today to tell the tale! Serendipitously, John Work’s daughter, Catherine, was my Great-great Grandfather’s first wife…

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      WorkSafe would NOT have approved! Thank you for your story — you should write it up somewhere, say B.C. History. At least Work and his party had people who knew what they were doing, and who knew the river! He was also descending it in October, when the water was quite low (though low water makes the rapids worse, I think).

      I am still laughing! The crazy things we do in our youth!

  2. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

    Beaked Hazelnut is a possible, as is Chestnut. Also hickory, beech, oaks, pine, and rose. A.C Anderson’s son, James, wrote “Trees and Shrubs, Food, Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of British Columbia” but the book offers little help on this. If you look at, there are plenty of nut trees around — its just figuring out which are native to B.C., and which grow at the Arrow Lakes.

  3. Tom Holloway

    As I recall (but can’t recall a source right now), Priest’s rapid was so called from an Indian, perhaps a shaman, who sat on the bank pontificating like a preacher. High water tended to flood over the rocky obstacles, making it easier to float down, rather than portage.

  4. Tom Holloway

    I found the source of the naming of Priest’s Rapid: Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Columbia River (London: Smith and Elder, 1849). This is Ross’s account of his time with John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, based at Astoria. On p. 134: Going up the Columbia in 1811, Ross’s Party camped at a “strong and rocky rapid” and were met by a group of Indians, led by “a tall, meagre, middle-aged Indian. . . . He was called Ha-qui-laugh, which signifies doctor, or rather priest. . . . We named the pace ‘Priest’s Rapid’ after him.”

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Yes, and that is the Priests Rapids on the lower River. You are exactly right. But as far as I know, in the days of the York Factory Express, there were no Priests Rapids in the upper river near Revelstoke — yet they seem to exist. These rapids might have been named after 1849, or else they remain unmentioned in the various journals I collected. But I remember there was a time on the upper river, when a bunch of priests jumped out of the boats when they were terrified by the river and drowned themselves and their wives….. That might be the origin of the name. I mentally connect it with John Tod coming downriver, will find his biography and see.

    2. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Here it is, in John Tod’s biography, “John Tod, Rebel in the Ranks,” written by Robert C. Belyk. They were coming downriver with incoming express in 1838, when John Tod went ahead in the first boat, leaving two boats behind. The third boat came downriver, the people and passengers frightened by the Dalles des morts. They survived that, but at the Little Dalles a botanist took up his young wife in his arms and jumped overboard, planning to swim to the river banks. As a result of his jumping off the boat, it overturned, and twelve people drowned. Three children’s bodies were recovered and buried at a post on the Arrow Lakes. Archibald McDonald of Fort Colvile called it one of the most appalling calamities on the Columbia River. John McLoughlin Jr. was there, but he survived.

    3. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      The incident is also mentioned in “This Blessed Wilderness: Archibald McDonald’s Letters from the Columbia,” by Jean Murray Cole. In a letter to John McLoughlin Jr., he writes on 27 October, “The two Indian arrived here this forenoon with the melancholy intelligence of what took place at the Dalles des Morts.” Footnote says: “John Tod had charge of a large party coming down from Boat Encampment when one of the boats capsized in the Dalles. Twelve of the twenty-six occupants drowned, including Robert Wallace (a visiting English botanist) and his bride Maria (George Simpson’s daughter by Betsy Sinclair [who wed Robert Miles after Simpson deserted her at York Factory in 1822]; Peter Banks (another botanist), Pierre LeBlanc (a carpenter), three other HBC servants (kenneth McDonald, Fabien Vital, and Jean Baptiste Lalibert), and five children (three of LeBlanc’s and two of Andre Chalifoux’s). To James Douglas he writes: “No fewer than 12 souls perished below the Dalles des Morts on the 24th as you will see by Mr. John McLoughlin’s [Jr.] letter of the 17th here inclosed..”

      1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

        Hmmm, Tom. I’m not sure above story has anything to do with Priests Rapids on the upper Columbia, though. There is a Priests Rapids, on The Columbia River north of Downie Creek, Kootenay District. Well, looking at the map, Downie Creek flows into the Columbia at Revelstoke, so that’s about right. It is definitely in the Little Dalles Canyon, if not Steamboat Rapids itself.

  5. Claire Smith-Burns

    Thank you for investigating Priest Rapids and reporting the horrifying tale of the 12 who perished at the Dalles des Morts (Death Rapids). If I had known of this back when we were surveying the Columbia, I probably would never have gotten in that boat! BTW, we didn’t find any evidence of Indigenous peoples along the Upper Columbia but we did find plenty of evidence of mining activity (from the time of the Big Bend Gold Rush in the mid-1860’s and still on-going at the time of our survey), including the site of old “City of Ophir” inland from the river. I conducted the research and survey of these historic sites and found that the Ministry of Mines annual reports were very useful in understanding the settlement and mining activity going on along the Upper Columbia and it’s tributaries in the 1860’s. I wonder if there was any mention of Priest Rapids in those reports?