- 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
At daybreak on the twenty-second they began one of the most outlandish jobs of portaging in the annals of exploration. At the foot of the steep slope they began felling trees with their axes, dropping them parallel to the path and not completely severed from the stumps, as per Mackenzie’s orders, so as to make a crude railing on either side. As soon as a sizeable part of the pathway had been cleared, Mackenzie put several men onto the job of bringing up the supplies.
Bit by bit they brought everything up from the river as far as the camp site, and then went back for the canoe. This they had to hoist up the cliff a yard or so at a time, one man keeping a taut bowline about a tree above while the others heaved and lifted from below. Beyond the camp site they used the same method till they reached the summit of the steep slope.
The next day the ascent became less rugged as they got beyond the canyon walls. The men continued to work in two groups, one going ahead and chopping out a path through the woods, the other bringing up the goods and the canoe. The ground was a succession of hills and defiles, and the woods gave way to thorny briar and dense underbrush which were terrible to clear away. Sometimes it must have seemed madness to go another yard. “At five,” Mackenzie later recalled, “in a state of fatigue that may be more readily conceived than expressed, we encamped near a rivulet.” They had made three miles that day.
The third day of the mountain portage went a little better, as they began to work their way down the steep slopes. By four that afternoon they had come four more miles; shaking with weariness, they suddenly emerged from a dense stand of pine and saw the river before them, calm, wide, and placid. A little way downstream it narrowed, plunged between vertical rocks, and then broke into foaming rapids. The mountain portage, about eight miles long in all, had brought them out just above the beginning of the Peace River Canyon and had pierced the first great ridge of mountains leading them into the heart of the Rockies.
Now the river wound around crookedly in an elevated area cradled by the Rocky Mountains on all sides. For six uneventful days they paddled steadily upstream, seeing signs of Indians, but meeting none. On May 31 they arrived at a fork where two rivers joined, one coming from the northwest and the other from the southeast: the former seemed to be in the right direction and was broad and calm, while the latter seemed to lie in the wrong direction and was narrow and swift.
The men argued vehemently for the former, and Mackenzie himself would have preferred it: but he believed in the wisdom of the Indians, and he was determined to follow the route an old Beaver Indian warrior had described to him months ago. He ordered his paddlers to take the southeast fork. (He was wise to follow the Indian’s advice: this fork was the Parsnip River, which was to prove a useful route; the other, now called the Finlay, would have merely lost him among steeper mountains to the north.)
In the following days Mackenzie knew many hours of discouragement and despair. The Parsnip, now at flood, was a difficult river for canoemen, so swift that any progress was exhausting. The canoe ripped open, but they patched and regummed it. Only Mackenzie’s continually varied techniques of handling his men kept them on their way: as for him. the hope of finding a portage to a west-flowing river which he could follow downstream to the Pacific seemed to fade day by day.
For already he had come nearly 400 roundabout miles and used up one month of the precious, shortlived summer: if he did not soon find the legendary portage of which the old Indian had spoken, all would be in vain. Then on the afternoon of June 9 he smelled smoke and heard the sound of people rushing about in the woods just ahead. They turned out to be a little band of rather scraggly Indians who shouted defiantly and made warlike gestures; but Mackenzie, who was sympathetic to the Indian mind, recognized that they were more frightened than bellicose. Patiently and gently he made overtures through his two Indian hunters, and after some two hours of reassurances the Indians and the explorers were assembled amiably about a campfire, exchanging gifts and information.
They told Mackenzie that they knew of no downflowing river which emptied into the “Stinking Lake” (the Indians’ name for the Pacific). The impatient explorer questioned the Indians for hours, passed a sleepless night, and was up at dawn to resume his interrogation. “The Sun, however,” he related, “had risen before they left their leafy bowers, whither they had retired with their children, having most hospitably resigned their beds, and the partners of them, to the solicitations of my young men.” Finally he learned that one of them did know of a west-flowing river, but it did not empty into the ocean. He was greatly relieved: he supposed that the native had never followed the river to the Pacific and therefore simply did not understand that it had to empty there.