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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir Alexander McKenzie


Chapter IV - A Dash to the Arctic Sea

THE dream cherished by Alexander Mackenzie, that he should find a new way to the Arctic Ocean, was not a mere vain ambition. Nearly twenty years before, Samuel Hearne, the explorer of the English company from Hudson Bay, had succeeded in reaching the Arctic Ocean by way of Lake Athapapuskow, and thence north-eastward along the Copper Mine River to the frozen sea.

Hearne's exploration, whether looked at from the point of view of the enormous distance, the fact that it was accomplished after two previous failures, the lack of experience and scientific training of the man, or the bravery of the explorer, had been a marvel. Tree, he had made a mistake in placing the mouth of the Copper Kline River nearly four degrees farther north than it should have been, but he had succeeded in his most hazardous attempt.

As the representative of a rival company, and as he believed, of a more energetic company, Alexander Mackenzie heard with nervous interest from the tales of the Indians who visited Fort Chipewyan of a vast river rivalling the Saskatchewan or the Churchill, and on which the white man had never set eyes.

Roderick McKenzie had now gained command of the details of management, and his adventurous cousin felt that lie might at length strike to the north and add his name to the list of great national explorers—perhaps to be the discover of the nortliwest passage sought for so ardently by his predecessors. All thins being well prepared Alexander Mackenzie started on his voyage. WT e have his own account of the memorable journey to which we shall refer. Never did a recital of exploits begin in so modest and even commonplace a way as this:-

Journal of a Voyage, &c.

June, 1789. Wednesday, 3. "We embarked at nine in the morning at Fort Chipewyan, on the south side of tlic Lake of the Hills . . . . in a canoe made of birch-bark."

To make a successful voyage in the wilds of the far north the great requisite is a reliable crew and a good band of followers. Hearne had found this out. Mackenzie himself knew it well from his half-dozen years of western exploration and trade. He had secured a guide, the "English chief," who was a true successor of Matonnabee, Hearne's famous guide. The "English chief" had often made the journey from Lake Athabaska to Hudson Bay to trade with the English company, and had thus gained his name. With his two wives and two young Indians in one canoe, and his followers and slaves to act as interpreters and food providers in another, the chief accompanied the "Kitehe Okema "—Mackenzie.

Mackenzie led the way in his own canoe, accompanied by four French-Canadians, two of them having their wives, and a steady young German named John Steinbruck. His four Canadians deserve mention. They were Francois Barricau, Charles Ducette, Joseph Landry, and Pierre De Lorme.

Leroux had before, as we have seen, penetrated the northern route to Great Slave Lake, and now he was at Fort Chipewyan to assist the explorer in his great departure for the north. Leroux was taking merchandize with him to trade in Slave Lake, but the other canoes being overloaded, Mackenzie required him to take clothing and merchandize to serve the advance party when they should leave Slave Lake behind, and push forward into the great unknown.

All being ready the brigade started on its way on June 3rd, 1789, crossed Lake Athabaska, twenty miles wide, to a river that led out of the lake, and for seven miles further the party pushed on, interrupted by the hunters stopping to shoot a wild goose and a couple of ducks. Camp was soon made and the journey was well begun on the first day. The next day they followed the tortuous stream to every point of the compass, until, after a ten miles' spurt, the branch joined Peace River, the vast stream coming from the west.

Some confusion is caused by travellers stating that the Peace River empties into Lake Athabaska, and by others declaring that Lake Athabaska flows towards Peace River. Both are correct. During high water the channel followed by Mackenzie runs from the river into the lake, but at other times, as in this first voyage, the lake flows into the river.

The Peace River, which rises to the west of the Rocky Mountains and flows through them, is, at the point where Mackenzie reached it, a mighty stream, a mile broad. Indeed, from this point of junction the river changes its name, and flowing northwards to Great Slave Lake, is known as Slave River.

After reaching Slave River the party hurried forward, making twenty-four and a half miles, and then enjoyed the excitement of running the upper rapids. Camp was not struck until they had made thirty-six and a half miles more, thus accomplishing seventy-one miles as their day's work. The camp was at the junction of the Doi; amid Slave Rivers and just above the second rapids of the Slave River.

The next day was one of difficulty. Two rapids required the unloading of the goods at the Decharbe, as the road around the rapids is called; the load only is taken over the carrying-place, and the canoes are floated light down the rapids. Twelve painful miles followed, in which there were the three dangerous portages called D'Embarras, Mountain, and Pelican, besides one or two smaller carrying places, and other dangerous rapids. From this part of the river onward are fierce rapids, boiling caldrons, and whirling eddies. Some twenty-one miles brought needed rest to men and Indians. The watchful hunters had provided themselves on. the way with a fine quarry of geese, ducks, and beavers.

The fourth day out the party pushed on with marvellous energy, under Mackenzie's fierce driving, making seventy-two miles, and were only prevented from doing as great things on the following day by cold winds and pelting rain, after they had gone about forty-four miles. Another day in camp was lost by this storm, and on June 9th an early start brought thern to Great Slave Lake at nine o'clock in the morning, after a short but rather difficult run of fifteen miles.

This journey over fierce rapids, driftwood eddies, and rocky portages, in the face of strong headwinds, and with stoppages to provide food, over a distance of two hundred and seventy-two miles in less than a week, shows the remarkable power of inspiration that Alexander Mackenzie had, and is a tribute as well to the strength, skill, and hardihood of his chosen band of French-Canadians and Indians.

Great Slave Lake now presented a dismal sight to the impetuous Voyageurs. A biting wind blew towards them, but at least they were free from the troublesome mosquitoes, which had been their constant attendants down the river. Mackenzie now began to realize that he was approaching the Arctic regions. Trees grew on the banks of the streams in a yellow clay mixed with gravel, though in low levels there was a rich black soil. Although it was the middle of June the ground was not thawed more than fourteen inches deep, and the shore of the lake had not a spot of green upon it. The explorer heard from the Indians that near by were wide plains frequented by herds of buffalo, and that moose and reindeer were found in the woods. Many beavers built their houses on the smaller lakes and rivers. Swans, geese, and ducks appeared in vast numbers. It was near this spot, now reached by the explorer at Great Slave Lake, that Leroux and his party had three years before built their houses.

For twelve days the party moved along the shore of the lake, now avoiding the floating ice, now protecting themselves from the copious rains, and always seeking by a northward trend to gain the outlet, which was to lead then on their journey to the north.

Before leaving the lake Mackenzie met the Yellow Knife Indians who came with their peltries to trade with Leroux. After the bartering was over the explorer addressed the assembled savages and informed their of his intended visit to the north, that his traders would remain at this spot until their friends and relatives came to trade, and that, if the trade should be important enough, he would build a fort upon the lake. They promised, in return, great things, and sought the protection of the "Kitche Okema" from the Chipewyans, cello, they declared, tyrannized over them.

All needed supplies having been transferred from Leroux, canoes to his own, on June 25th Mackenzie started for his northern voyage, amid volleys from the small arms of the traders, who were being left behind. With parting admonitions to send his communications back to Roderick McKenzie at Fort Chipewyan the explorer paddled cheerfully off to the northern solitudes. For no less than four days the party moved hither and thither, under the leadership of a Yellow Knife guide, seeking for the river that was to lead them to the north. Well. nigh discouraged, they at length succeeded, by going round the long point of an island, in finding the looked-for channel on the south-west of Great Slave Lake. Passing a shallow some ten miles wide, going gradually westward, the party reached the river, where the width was narrowed to half a mile, and where the current became stronger. By the last day of the month they were running westward, with the Horn Mountains in sight on their left, extending from east to west.

On July 1st the brigade was fairly under weigh, though the frequent rains and clouds of mosquitoes made their journey most uncomfortable. After travelling for four days the scenery of the country completely changed, and they were among Indians, who were very wary and inaccessible. It was only after the "English chief" had succeeded in reaching these shy natives that they consented to meet Mackenzie, and they came to him with much trepidation.

Mackenzie's own account of their meeting is graphic: "There were five families, consisting of twenty-five or thirty persons, and of two different tribes, the Slave and Dog-Rib Indians. We made them smoke, though it was evident they did not know the use of tobacco; we likewise supplied them with grog; but I am disposed to think that they accepted our civilities rather from fear than inclination. We acquired a more effectual influence over them by the distribution of knives, beads, awls, rings, gartering, fire-steels, flints, and hatchets, so that they became more familiar even than we expected, for we could not keep them out of our tents, though I did not observe that they attempted to purloin anything."

Mackenzie states that they told him fabulous stories about the river, which he was bound to explore. They were certain that it would take several winters for him to reach the sea, and that old age would overtake him and his followers before they could return. Horrid monsters and evil spirits they declared would have to be opposed and conquered, besides two impassable falls barred the passage down the river. Though this information did not alarm the resolute leader, yet it carried consternation among his Indians, who firmly believed that as they went farther north the game would become scarcer.

Pushing on, however, day by day the party made remarkable progress, and on the fifth day of July they passed the mouth of the Great Bear River which pours into the Mackenzie the sea-green coloured water of the great drainage area of Great Bear Lake—the largest lake in the fur traders' domain, containing, as it does, no less than fourteen thousand square miles.

On leaving the party of Dog-Rib Indians, Mackenzie had compelled one of the men of the tribe to accompany him as guide; he was now induced to let him return. His next guide was obtained from a second band of Indians they had met, known as the Hare Indians, but Ile was unwilling to go far. Another guide escaped after leading them a short distance.

As they proceeded northward the explorers met new races of Indians. Mackenzie describes them with much interest. On the tenth of the month he met a tribe called the Degutbee Dinees or the Quarrellers, who gave the pleasing information that the distance to the sea was not great. The explorer's attention was also attracted by a range of snowy mountains to the westward, which ran parallel to his course. He now found by observation that lie had reached 67 47' north latitude. His latest guide tried to persuade him to go no further, being afraid of the Eskimos. Mackenzie, however, insisted on pressing forward, and took the middle channel, which contained a larger body of water. The party had evidently reached the delta of the great river which has since borne their leader's name. Landing on an island on Sunday, July 12th, Mackenzie and the "English chief" ascended to the highest point, "from which," says the explorer in his matter-of-fact fashion, "we discovered the solid ice extending from the south-west by compass to the eastward." The hope was now high in the breasts of the whole party, especially in the French-Canadians, that they were about to reach the western sea, for which La Verendrye and many other Nor'-Wester and Hudson's Bay Company leaders had sighed in vain. It was noticed that during the night the baggage in their encampment was being reached by the rising of the water.

On the fourteenth of the month Mackenzie gave orders to man the canoes, and then lie forced his way in the face of a fierce wind that threatened to engulf his craft. Thus he sought to reach the sea. He landed at eight o'clock on a considerable island, which he called Whale Island, and in giving an account of this makes an important entry in his journal: "This morning I ordered a post to be erected close to our tents, on which I engraved the latitude [elsewhere stated by him to be 69 7' of the place, my own name, the number of persons which I had with me, and the time we remained there."

Early next morning it was found that the water had again risen and invaded their baggage, and they began to surmise that this was the rising of the ocean tide. The party were now within a short distance of the Arctic Sea, and were very anxious to reach that towards which they had so strenuously striven. They found themselves a degree or two within the Arctic circle, and were amazed to see that they were in the land of the midnight sun. This being accomplished the commander was satisfied, and with peremptory haste started southward on his return voyage.


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