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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir Alexander McKenzie


Chapter VIII - Over the Great Divide

THE great voyage was now begun (May 9th, 1793). The party started out full of hope. On the Peace River, as the travellers Butler, Gordon, and others have told us, the scenery is beautiful, the banks are fertile, and animal life is abundant. An elk killed and a buffalo wounded were the achievements of the young men as they landed for the night encampment.

Mackenzie thus describes the river:—"This magnificent theatre of nature has all the decorations which the trees and animals of the country can afford it; groves of poplars in every shape vary the scene; and their intervals are enlightened with vast herds of elks and buffaloes; the former choosing the steeps arid uplands, and the latter preferring the plains. . . . The whole country displayed an exuberant verdure; time trees that bear a blossom were advancing fast to that delightful appearance, and the velvet rind of their branches reflecting the oblique rays of a rising or setting sun, added a splendid gaiety to the scene, which no expressions of mine are qualified to describe."

The men of the voyage were, however, too intent on this enterprise to be delayed by the hunt or by the fertile valleys. The banks soon rose to greater heights, and the navigation became even more difficult. The cascades and rapids became correspondingly more trying, and soon the first band of Rocky Mountain Indians who were questioned failed to tell anything of the route beyond the first mountains, though they took much interest in the proposed expedition. Within three days of starting it became evident that bears were very numerous. Along the bank footprints were seen of the great grizzly, the terror of Indian and trader alike. The monotony was varied by the voyageurs having to gum their canoe, which had already met hard usage; by stopping to examine an island with .canoe-birch growing upon it; by passing the entry of a tributary river; and by watching the shore for bears and buffaloes.

A dangerous rapid well-nigh put an end to their canoe on the tenth day out, and thus some delay occurred. Again en route the party saw the strength of the stream increase. The shore rose three hundred feet above the water, and on the following day the members of the party were compelled to cut steps in a soft stone wall around a boiling rapid, in doing which their canoe was broken. No bark was found with which to mend it, and poles were used to steady the canoe till at last in a bottomless whirlpool all help failed. The river became one continuous rapid, and even the well-trained voyageur's were thoroughly alarmed.

Discontent now very naturally began to prevail among the men. Mackenzie had little hope himself. Further progress up the river by canoe seemed impossible. Clambering with his Indians to the heights above the river the explorer took observations, and his own account of the situation is: "The river is not more than fifty yards wide, and flows between stupendous rocks, from whence huge fragments sometimes tumble down, and falling from such height form the beach between the rocky projections."

It seemed as if an impassable barrier had been reached. Mackenzie sent Mackay and the men up the steep banks to explore, and they returned through woods, over steep hills, and through deep valleys, with the news that the rapids extended for three leagues. They were not, however, discouraged, and the narrator states that a "kettle of wild rice, sweetened with sugar, along with the usual regale of rum," renewed their courage.

After the return of this scouting party, the resolve was taken to fight a way through the obstacles, and persevere in the ,journey. Cutting a road through the thicket, and up rocky steeps, slow progress was made—a mile on one day, three miles the next—over steep hills, dragging the canoe on the toilsome march, until, after making about eight miles in three days, they succeeded in passing above the falls of the river, and in bringing up all their baggage. A longer route taken by the Indians could have been followed. It was probably a foolish thing to take the more direct way, but it was certainly an exhibition of British endurance. The fall that had been passed was the one of which the River Indians had asserted that it was equal to Niagara. Iii this they were of course mistaken.

The rapids passed, the canoe was again committed to the opposing stream, and the journey resumed. They were now completely surrounded by mountains, whose tops were perhaps fifteen hundred feet above the stream. The altitude was beginning to influence the temperature. The journey, though near the end of May, was sometimes interrupted by the party landing to build a fire, on which occasion what the commander continues to call a "regale" of rum was always indulged in with satisfaction.

On the last day of the month the forks of the Peace River were reached, and the party was much troubled as to which branch of the stream should be followed. Mackenzie was anxious to take that coming from the north-west, but the old Indian guide insisted that by taking that from the south-east a carrying-place would soon be reached by which another large river would be accessible. On one of the last days of the month the commander himself began to feel that his voyage was becoming a heavy burden. Thoughts of the lower country recurred to him, and he took an empty rum-keg, and after writing a full account of his voyage thus far, placed it in the keg, which he carefully sealed up and committed to the rushing river to be carried perhaps to some kind friend, or to be picked up by some other explorer as his last memorial. The crew, also driven nearly to desperation, in their fancy heard It discharge of firearms, which arose entirely from their disturbed imaginations. They were quite mistaken as to its being a war party of the Kinistineaux, as no Indians appeared.

Mackenzie, Mackay, and all their followers were now becoming sceptical as to there being any carrying-place over the mountain height. The leader and his lieutenant, leaving the canoe, betook themselves to a mountain on the river bank, laboriously clambered to the top of it, and Mackenzie climbed the highest tree on the height. He saw only a vast wooded expanse before him. The mid-day sun proved very hot to the party shut up in the forest, and mosquitoes were a continual plague.

On the return of the two spies their canoe was gone, whether up or down stream they could not tell. Great anxiety and many gloomy surmises filled their minds, but in time the crew, which had found tI1e river exceedingly difficult, appeared. The strong current had broken their canoe, and thus delayed them.
On Sunday, Junk 9th, the party was surprised to hear confused sounds in front of them. They proceeded from some Indians who had chanced to see them, and had become much alarmed. Not knowing how strong or in what mood their unseen neighbours might be, Mackenzie directed his boatmen to cross to the opposite side of the river. When they were not more than half way across the river, two men appeared upon the cliff brandishing their spears, and showing their bows and arrows in token of defiance, meanwhile shouting loudly. After parleying, however, they were reassured, and the party joined them on the shore. They had never seen white men before. They examined the newcomers with the greatest care. The whole Indian encampment proved small. There were only three men, three women, and seven or eight boys and girls.

Mackenzie's hopes of finding the carrying-place, and the way over the height, now began to rise again. The Indians, however, professed the utmost ignorance of any such thing. The explorer plied them , with presents, gave sweets to the children, and made himself most friendly. They still denied any knowledge of the road he sought. Time is of value in dealing with Indians, and so Mackenzie continued to delay, hoping to gain the much desired information. Their reticence was probably ignorance and mental obliquity rather than any studied concealment.

One evening one of the men lingered by the fire after the others had retired. In talking he let fall a reference to a great river, and pointed significantly up the river on which they were. Pressed by Mackenzie he at length admitted that there was a great river flowing towards the mid-day sun (south), of which a branch flowed near the river up which they were proceeding. He stated also that there was a small river leading from the Peace River into three small lakes connected by portages, and that these emptied into the great south river. He denied any knowledge, however, that the great river emptied into the sea.

Before giving up the matter with the Indian, Mackenzie succeeded in getting a map of the region, with its rivers and lakes drawn on a strip of bark by a piece of coal. One of the Indians was now induced to act as guide to the desired spot.

On the day after the interview with the friendly Indian the party started, and two days afterwards quitted the main branch, and, working their way in the canoe painfully up the encumbered stream, reached the first small lake. The whole country in the neighbourhood was flooded, so that the canoe passed among the branches of the trees. They were surrounded by the evidences of life. No Indians were met, but beavers abounded; swans were numerous ; ducks and geese were plentiful in this secluded re--treat; tracks of the moose were visible; blue jays, yellow-heads, and one humming-bird cheered their hearts; and wild parsnips, of which the voyageurs were fond, grew in abundance.

On June 12th, 1793, Mackenzie makes the important announcement:—"The lake is about two miles in length, east by south, and from three to five hundred yards wide. This I consider as the highest and southernmost source of the Unijah or Peace River " (latitude 54° 24' north, longitude 121' west). It was a long way from this mountain jungle to the mouth of the river which he had seen when approaching the Arctic Sea.

Hope had now reached fruition. The height of land had been gained. The boat crew landed and unloaded their canoe, and here they saw running over a low ridge of land—eight hundred and seventeen paces long—a beaten path to another lake. On each side of the lake was a mountain, the space of the lake between them being about a quarter of a mile. A cache of Indian supplies—nets, hooks, and some implements—was found. Mackenzie took what lie wanted of them, and left in exchange a knife, fire steels, beads, awls, etc. At this point two streams tumble down the rocks from the right and flow eastward towards the other lake; and from the left two other streams pour down the rocks and empty into the lake they were approaching. Proceeding west the water was now flowing with them, and they were beginning to descend the western slope. Six miles from the third lake a careful and painful effort was made, and the western side was reached. The river ran with "great rapidity, and rushed impetuously over a bed of flat stones." Beside this far west stream they encamped for the night.

The boiling waters of this treacherous river were worse than anything they had seen on Peace River. On the resumption of the journey after their long portage the canoe had been dashed with fury on the rocks. Then a few holes were stove in the bottom, and the sad condition of the voyageurs was such that the "Indians without attempting to help, sat down and gave vent to their tears." The canoe escaped destruction, although ammunition and some utensils of value were lost. While mending the shattered canoe Mackenzie despatched two of his men through the westward thickets to find the great river they were seeking.

On June 19th Mackenzie makes this announcement: "The morning was foggy, and at three we were on the water."

The story of the succeeding days need hardly be given. The travellers were on the stream which Simon Fraser descended in 1806, this has always been regarded as one of the most dangerous feats ever undertaken by Ivan. With every variety of anxiety and hardship they courageously braced themselves to the effort, and for three days continued the descent.

On the way a band of intelligent Indians was met, whose chief was a sagamore of great age and wisdom. The old chief informed the explorer that he was not on the way to the western sea. He was going southward, and the sea lay to the west. Provisions were getting short, and the prospect was that, if any time were lost, there could be no return to Lake Athabaska during the season then in progress. He was informed that he should have left the Nechaco, or Fraser River, a considerable distance up, by a small tributary flowing into it from the west.

To turn back is not easy for any one, much less to a man of Alexander Mackenzie's stamp. But the Indians adhered to their former statements, and startled him with their frankness. One said, "What can be the reason that you are so particular and anxious in your enquiries of us respecting a knowledge of this country? Do not you white men know everything in the world?"

These were hard questions for the explorer. Mackenzie gathered his company around him, and laid before them the alternative of going back, or of going on and proceeding by the land route to the sea. To his surprise and gratification they all, declared in favour of the march to the sea. Mackay, the faithful lieutenant, engraved the explorer's naive and the date of arrival at this farthest point down the Fraser River on a tree upon the banks of the stream.

Arid now on the west side of the great divide the party is pausing before the return journey up the furious Fraser.


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