First By Land

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Having persuaded one of the Indians to accompany the party as a guide. Mackenzie pushed off again. For two days they worked their way up ever-narrower and shallower streams until they reached a tiny lake which was the source of the Parsnip-Peace system. Here they found a beaten path, apparently a much-used portage, and carried their goods and their canoe along it. As they passed over a low ridge, Mackenzie saw several rivulets tumbling down some nearby rocks; two of the streams flowed back to the cast, and two others flowed on toward the west. “We are now going with the stream,” he noted confidently.

But the first week of the descent was frightfully difficult. They were wrecked once in a boiling rapids and later had to cut a portage through forest and swamp for three days. Finally they arrived at a wide navigable river (later named the Fraser) which flowed southerly before winding toward the Pacific. Down this river they proceeded with relative ease, gaining more mileage in three days than they had in the previous seven or eight.

Thus far there had been many a situation where only Mackenzie’s courage—vastly greater than that of the tough, forest-hardened men under him—had pulled the expedition through: now came an even more remarkable example of that cold, perfect self-control which he was so often able to assume at will. On their fourth day along the Fraser, a large group of Indian warriors swarmed out onto the river bank, shouting fiercely and loosing a volley of arrows that dropped all around the canoe.

Mackenzie wanted desperately to talk to them about the river route ahead, but no words of his Indian hunters could pacify the wild mob. Finally, relying on his own insight into Indian psychology, he decided on a daring approach, beaching his canoe on the opposite shore, he ordered his men to remain in sight of the hostile warriors, while he himself walked alone far up the bank.

As he expected, two of the braves now came over in a canoe, curious and eager to inspect him, yet still more frightened than bloodthirsty. With soft words, friendly gestures, and the offer of mirrors and some beads, he soon made friends with them and sent them back to their tribe to carry the word. In a short time the explorers and the Carrier Indians (as they were later called by white men) were gathered together, jabbering away at each other without hostility.

At first adverse reports of the river beyond did not deter Mackenzie; but as he continued downstream they were repeated with a discouraging frequency. The Carrier Indians told him that the Fraser not only became wild and impassable, but that warlike tribes would certainly annihilate his little band. In any event, the river was said to be very long and roundabout and altogether too slow a route for Mackenzie’s diminished supplies.

Mackenzie was dreadfully downcast, thinking of the wasted effort and the impossibility of continuing downstream. As often happened, he betook himself to one side to mull in solitude. But soon, as he later told the story, “instead of continuing to indulge [these reflections], I determined to proceed with resolution, and set future events at defiance.” Knowing from coastal exploration data where the Pacific lay, and knowing his own present position, he calculated there were about 200 miles remaining and decided to strike off overland and walk toward the Pacific. If this seemed a wild scheme, it was at least better than giving up altogether.

But what would be the point of such an endeavor, even if it succeeded? He had started out to find a fur-trade route to the Pacific, but a route that involved a two-week walk would be totally impractical. In that sense, his exploration was already a failure.

Yet Mackenzie had long since lost his purely monetary motives and now was being driven on by the desire for pure knowledge. Alexander Mackenzie, a bewhiskered, hard-working mercantile adventurer, was thoroughly under the sway of that most civilized quality we call “intellectual curiosity.”

Before quitting the river, Mackenzie spent several days having his men build a complete new canoe from fresh bark and cached it and some food for their return. On July 4 they finally struck off on foot with an Indian guide. Their departure point was just above the Blackwater River, a small branch of the Fraser which lies in the central part of British Columbia.

For the next two weeks they struggled westward, laboring up and down the mountain slopes with ninety-pound packs of food and gear on their backs. Gradually the portage eased as they descended from the semibarren uplands into the luxuriant forests of the Pacific coastal slope. A young brave would guide them from his tribe’s village to that of the next tribe, where he would introduce them, get from Mackenzie a knife or piece of cloth in payment, and then return home. Mackenzie would meanwhile dicker for a new guide for the next day. At no time did Mackenzie’s men actually have to repel an Indian attack; Mackenzie was almost invariably able to calm the hostility and fear of the Indians and in every case to continue his journey without disaster.