- Historic Sites
First By Land
The river that disappointed him bears his name, but Alexander Mackenzie’s great achievement in slogging to the Pacific is now almost forgotten.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
Fork Fort, as he called it, was nothing more than a cluster of small log cabins surrounded by a palisade fence. It lay on a bank of the Peace River near the fork of the Smoky in what is now northern Alberta, several hundred miles north of the present United States-Canadian border and about as far west as modern Boise, Idaho; near that site today stands the little town of Peace River. This was as far as he could go before the winter of 1792-93 set in and froze his river routes. In the spring he readied his supplies, and on May 9, 1793, he and nine men—one Scotsman, six French-Canadians, and two Indian hunters—pushed off to conquer the Rocky Mountains in a canoe.
You might suppose that a man who could undertake such an adventure must have been ice-cold, steel-hard, and utterly fearless. Such indeed was the thin-lipped, gray-eyed young man as his canoemen saw him; but secretly he was tormented, torn by doubts and fears, and unsure of his own abilities. “I am so vexed and disturbed of late,” he wrote before the start of the journey, “that I cannot sit down to anything steadily.” If his timorous men had known it, the trip might never have gotten started, but Mackenzie was able to mask his feelings behind a calm, impassive face.
At first the trip went smoothly. Each morning Mackenzie woke his men at about 3 A.M. Among voyageurs it was the custom then to order a dram of rum all around, then in a matter of minutes roll the blankets up and be off in the canoe, puffing clay pipes and sometimes chanting a canoeman’s ballad for several hours of hard paddling before breakfast. With a few brief pauses, Mackenzie’s men continued on all day until 7 P.M., when they stopped, cooked dinner, pitched the tent, and then rolled themselves in their blankets and fell asleep on the hard ground. For eight days they proceeded in this fashion up the Peace River into the foothills of the Rockies, through a succession of green meadows and rolling hills; then, at 2 P.M. on May 17, they could for the first time see in the distance the faint snow-capped peaks of the Rockies. Soon afterward their troubles began.
As they approached the mountains, the river grew narrower and swifter, and the banks on either side became steep, rising sheer and rocky. By the nineteenth of May they were deep into the Peace River Canyon, an almost 25-mile-long zigzag slash in the backbone of the mountain range. Instead of smoothly paddling upstream as they had for the first eight days, now they had to fight for every yard against the rushing water, with the fragile canoe creaking and lurching under them. Their goods got soaked, had to be unpacked and dried in the sun, were repacked, and got soaked again.
So the day went—towing, poling, paddling, repairing rips in the canoe with spruce fibers and pine gum, unpacking to portage around impassable places, escaping from one near-disaster only to face another, until the sun went down and the chill wind bit into their fingers. “I could not but reflect, with infinite anxiety, on the hazard of my enterprize,” Mackenzie later admitted; but he concealed his anxiety behind a front of crisp command and constant reassurance to his exhausted and frightened men.
The next day was even worse. In one two-mile stretch they had to unload, portage, and reload four times, and finally they reached a spot from which they could see nothing ahead but unbroken rapids. There was a narrow beach of broken rock fragments just wide enough to permit them to tow the bouncing canoe along while the bowman and steersman stayed aboard and fought to keep her from being smashed against the rocks. Yard by yard, step by step, they worked their way upstream. Then suddenly one extraviolent wave broke over the bow and snapped the strained towline with a sickening twang.
For an endless instant Mackenzie watched, horrified, as his only means of transportation and the men in the boat were swept backwards toward destruction. But in the next second another freakish wave swept the canoe up and over a line of jagged rocks and washed her, unscratched, within a few feet of the bank. The canoemen instantly beached her and tumbled onto land, where the others joined them, shaken, white-faced, and muttering rebelliously.
Several men spoke out plainly, saying that it was impossible to proceed; the Indians had all told them so long ago; they would go no further. Mackenzie ignored all this and brusquely ordered the most outspoken of the men to get busy and find a way up the side of the canyon in order to locate a suitable camp site for the night. He summoned one of his two Indians to follow him and went off at once to reconnoiter. Behind him the voyageurs, their mood of rebellion nipped short, sullenly got to work.
The canyon ahead, as Mackenzie learned after a two-hour trip, was absolutely impassable, and its banks were too steep for portaging. He could think of no alternative except to carry the 25-foot canoe and its ton and a half of goods up and over the densely forested mountain, rejoining the river on the other side of it where presumably the canyon would end. It was, as he noted in his daily logbook, an “alarming” prospect; but a day of rest and preparation, and a hot meal of wild rice and sugar with the “usual regale” of rum on the side, gave his men courage enough to try it.