As we have said, Mackenzie took nine men with him on this occasion, our friends Reuben, Lawrence, and Swiftarrow being among the number, and two of them being young Indian hunters of that region, who were supposed to be acquainted with at least part of the route they were about to pursue, and who were to act as interpreters. English Chief had long before left his former master, and no women were allowed to go with the party—even Darkeye was left behind! There was one other member of the party whom we must not omit to mention—namely, a large dog named Wolf.
On the 9th of May 1793, Mackenzie left the fort in charge of his interpreter, pushed off into the waters of the Peace River, turned the canoe's bow westward, and the voyage of discovery began.
A few days afterwards they passed through scenery which all confessed was the most beautiful they had ever beheld.
"'Tis like a glimpse o' paradise," exclaimed Reuben, as the whole party rested on their paddles for a few minutes to gaze upon it.
"Ho!" exclaimed Swiftarrow, with a nod to his friend, which evidently was meant for assent.
"Betterer nor the Hudson," said Ducette, one of the Canadians, with a look of admiration.
"Does it beat Scottisland, monsieur?" asked Lawrence, with a somewhat sly expression.
"Well, ahem," replied Mackenzie with hesitation, "it's not exactly—that is, it is vastly different and truly magnificent—they won't compare, Lawrence; they won't compare!"
The region did indeed merit all that could be said in its praise. The ground on the west side of the river—which was wide and full of lovely wooded islets—rose at intervals to a considerable height, and stretched inwards to a great distance; at the foot of every slope there was a soft, grassy lawn, broken here and there by abrupt precipices, which were fringed with exuberant verdure. Shrubs and trees of every kind, in clumps and in groves, crested the heights or nestled in the hollows: among them were groves of poplar, with the white spruce and soft birch, and other trees; while the banks abounded with alders and willows. Those that bore blossom were just opening their bright buds, and the setting sun cast a rich golden light over all, as though the glory of the beneficent Creator were shining on His gorgeous handiwork. But that beautiful wilderness did not blossom and bloom in solitude. It was tenanted and enjoyed by countless numbers of living creatures. Wherever the travellers turned their eyes, vast herds of elk and buffaloes were to be seen, the latter sporting with their young ones on the plains, the former preferring to browse on the slopes and uplands; and innumerable birds of all shapes and sizes enlivened the scene with their varied gyrations, and filled the air with melody.
It seemed, indeed, a species of paradise; but not far from it the travellers were painfully reminded of its terrestrial nature by the sight of a wide-spread conflagration, which carried fierce destruction over the whole plain, and left black ruin behind; and still further on Mackenzie was robbed of the pleasurable feelings due to the influence of sweet scenery, by the baleful influence of man in the shape of a chief of the Beaver Indians with a hunting-party. He tried to push on past these Indians, but they kept up with the canoe, running along shore, and when night approached he was compelled to encamp with them. The consequence was, as he had feared, that these people attempted to terrify his young Indian interpreters with dreadful accounts of the land beyond, and succeeded so far that it was with the utmost difficulty that they could be persuaded to remain with the expedition.
Next night they encamped at a spot where a stream fell into the Peace River from the north.
"Voila! w'at is dis?" exclaimed Ducette, as he leaped on shore.
"The fut-print of a grizzly bar," said Reuben, stooping to examine and measure the mark; "an oncommon big 'un, too—full nine inches wide. I wouldn't like to embrace that bar."
The den, or place where this monster or some of its kindred had spent the winter, was also found not far-off. It was ten feet deep, horizontally, five feet high, and six feet wide.
"I wish we could find him," said Lawrence as he kindled the camp-fire.
"Ha! Swiftarrow has found something better," said Mackenzie, as the Indian strode into camp laden with the tongue, marrow-bones, and other choice portions of an elk which he had killed a short distance down the river.
Lawrence had his wish next day, for they found a grizzly bear so fierce-looking and large that it was well for him he was in the canoe struggling with rapids at the time, for he was reckless enough to have attacked it single-handed—a very dangerous proceeding, and a thing that the Indians never do. They appear to think that at least three men are necessary to the destruction of this much and justly feared monster of the mountains.
Lawrence looked at Bruin with a feeling of bloodthirsty desire; Bruin looked at Lawrence with an expression of stupid curiosity; and then slowly, not to say sulkily, retired into his native forest. Next day they beheld a more gratifying sight,—namely, the snow-capped Rocky Mountains themselves, within the rugged portals of which their canoe passed not long afterwards. Here, as was to be expected, the river became narrower and more turbulent, and ere long the explorers had to face dangers and difficulties which tested their courage and endurance to the uttermost.
DIFFICULTIES AND DANGERS FACED AND OVERCOME.
Their entrance on the difficult navigation of the mountains was inaugurated by an accident to the canoe. It was a slight one, however,—a rub against a rock which cracked the bark, and compelled them to land and spend an hour or so in mending it.
The current here was very strong, and creeping up along the banks was dangerous, owing to the masses of rock that frequently fell from the cliffs.
At one turn of the river in particular, a loud noise was heard, "Look out!" cried Mackenzie.
Before any one could well understand what danger threatened them, an enormous mass of rock was seen to bound down the banks right abreast of them, crashing through trees and bushes, and sending down showers of smaller stones. The men paddled with all their might, but the rock came straight at them, struck a flat piece of the cliff; and bursting like a bombshell, descended round them in a shower of small pieces, none of which, however, touched them, although many fell very near.
Coming one afternoon to a place where the current was stronger than usual, Mackenzie landed with Reuben, Lawrence, and Ducette, in order to lighten the canoe. They ascended the hills, which were covered with cypress, and but little encumbered with underwood. Here they found a beaten path, made either by Indians or wild animals. After walking a mile along it, they fell in with a herd of buffaloes with their young ones.
"Hist!" whispered Reuben, throwing forward the muzzle of his gun with the instinct of a hunter.
"Don't fire," said Mackenzie, arresting his arm; "it may alarm the natives, if any should chance to be within earshot. Send Wolf at them, Ducette."
Wolf, who belonged to Ducette, and had followed his master, was a splendid fellow,—not unlike the animal after which he had been named. He was well trained too, and kept foot and tongue equally under command, until his master's wishes were made known. Hearing his name mentioned, he cocked his ears and gazed up in Ducette's face.
"Allons donc, Wolf," said Ducette.
Instantly the dog made a magnificent rush into the midst of the herd, which scattered right and left, and seized a young calf by the nose! The creature, though young, was powerful, and for some time struggled bravely; but the hound held on with deadly firmness, and worried the calf—to such an extent that in a short time Ducette was able to run in and despatch it.
To skin and dismember the carcase was a matter of little difficulty to these hunters, who were all expert butchers. They had just completed the work, and were congratulating each other on this accession of veal to the larder when a shot was heard in the direction of the canoe. It was immediately followed by another.
"The signal to recall us," said Mackenzie. "Gather up the meat, lads; come, be smart. Give them a couple of shots, Reuben, in reply."
The shots were fired, and, pushing down the hill through very close underwood, they soon came upon the canoe at the foot of a rapid which it was deemed impossible to ascend. What seemed impossible to some of his men, however, was by no means impossible to Mackenzie himself. He surveyed their position, saw that the succession of rapids above were indeed impracticable on that side of the river, but observed that on the other side it seemed possible to continue the ascent. The chief danger lay in attempting to cross with a heavily-laden canoe; but the attempt was made, and proved successful.
The dangers and mishaps which now assailed them in succession were enough to have damped the ardour of the most resolute pioneer; but there are some natures which cannot be quelled, whose motto in all circumstances seem to be "Victory or death!" Of such a spirit was Alexander Mackenzie, although some of his men would fain have turned back. Indeed, the overcoming of their objection to proceed sometimes cost him more trouble than overcoming the difficulties of the navigation.
On reaching the other side of the river, they towed the canoe along an island, and advanced well enough till they reached the extremity of it, when the line had to be exchanged for the paddles. In attempting to clear the point of the island, they were driven with great violence on a stony shore, and the frail canoe received considerable injury. To land and unload was the work of a few minutes; but it took a long time to repair the damage, by fitting in new pieces of bark and re-gumming the exposed seams. Part of the cargo, also, had to be opened and dried. This accomplished, they carried the whole across the point which had damaged them, reloaded and embarked. But it was now seen that it was not possible to advance farther up that side of the river either by paddling, hauling with the line, or pushing with poles. There remained only the alternative, therefore, of returning by the way they had come, or recrossing the river despite the strength of the current and the fact that there were several cascades just below them, to get into which would have involved canoe and men in certain destruction.
"Ve can nevair do it. Monsieur dare not!" whispered Ducette to Reuben, as they floated for a few moments in an eddy.
Reuben glanced at his leader, who stood up in the canoe surveying the boiling rapids with a stern, intent gaze, and said quietly, "He'll try."
"Now, my lads, shove out with a will—ho!" said Mackenzie, sitting down.
Lawrence, who was steering, dipped his paddle vigorously, the men followed suit, the canoe shot into the stream, and in a moment gained the sheltering eddy below an island, which was shaped somewhat like a table with a thick centre leg—or a mushroom. There were several such islands of solid rock in the river. They had been formed apparently by the action of the current—doubtless also of ice—cutting away their lower part, and leaving the mushroom-like tops, on which numbers of geese found a convenient breeding-place. From one to another of these islands the canoe shot in this way, thus decreasing the width of the final traverse. They paused a little longer at the last island, then shot into the stream, and, with a splendid sweep, gained the other side.
But here their case was little improved, for the current was almost as violent as that from which they had escaped. The craggy banks being low enough, however, to admit of the tracking-line being used, the men landed and towed the canoe till they came to the foot of the most rapid cascade they had yet seen. To ascend being impossible, they unloaded and carried everything over a rocky point; relaunched, reloaded, and continued to track with the line: but the dangers attending this operation had now seriously increased, for stones both small and great came continually rolling down the bank, and the steepness of the ground was such that the risk of the men slipping and falling into the water became imminent; besides which they had frequently to pass outside of trees which overhung the precipices; at such times a false step or a slip might have proved fatal. Presently they came to a sheer impassable precipice, where the men had to embark and take to poling up the stream; but ere long they got into water too deep for the poles, and recourse was again had to the tracking-line. Coming to another precipice, they were again checked; but Mackenzie, finding that the rock was soft, cut steps in it for the distance of about twenty feet, and thus passing along, leaped, at the risk of his life, on a small rock below, where he received those who followed him on his shoulders. Thus four of them passed, and managed to drag up the canoe, though they damaged her in doing so. They had now reached a spot where the canoe could be repaired, and fortunately found a dead tree which had fallen from the cliffs above. But for this, fire could not have been kindled there, as no wood was to be procured within a mile of the place; in which case the repairs could not have been accomplished.
Thus yard by yard these hardy pioneers advanced by means of the line, the paddle, or the pole, sometimes carrying the lading, sometimes the canoe as well, and often within a hairbreadth of destruction. Indeed, nothing but the coolness, courage, and skill of all concerned could, under God, have brought them safely through the fatigues and dangers of that tremendous day.
But they had not yet done with it. Having surmounted these and many other difficulties, they reached a place where it became absolutely necessary to make a traverse across an unusually strong current. Here the men silently showed their estimate of the danger by stripping themselves to their shirts, that they might be the better prepared to swim for their lives, in case of accident to the canoe! Fortunately the traverse was made successfully, and then at noon Mackenzie stopped and went ashore to take an altitude. While he was thus engaged, the men fastened the canoe and left it; but so insecure was the fastening that the current sheered her off, and if it had not happened that one of the men had remained in her and held on to the line, they would then and there have been deprived of every means of advancing or returning, as well as of present subsistence!
Despite the alarming nature of this incident, and the interference of a cloud that sought to neutralise the sun, our persevering traveller completed his observations, and proved the luckless spot to be situated in 56 degrees north latitude.
The rapidity of the current increased so much here, that in the distance of two miles they were compelled to unload four times and carry everything except the canoe; and even when thus light they found it difficult to prevent her being dashed to pieces against the rocks by the violence of the eddies.
The last danger they encountered was the worst. They came to a place where the river was nothing less than one continuous rapid, and they took everything out of the canoe, intending to tow her up with the line, only a few of the men being left in her. At length, however, the tumultuous heaving of the water was so great that a wave struck the canoe's bow and broke the line. The dismay of those on shore may be imagined, for now it seemed as if nothing could save their comrades from destruction; and certainly no human power did save them on that occasion; for, while they grasped the sides of the canoe helplessly, another wave drove them with a wild surge out of the tumbling water; so that the men were enabled to thrust her ashore; and, strange to say, though the frail vessel had been carried by tossing swells over rocks which were left naked a moment later, she had received no material injury.
This last accident, coupled with the fact that the river as far as they could see was a sheet of white foaming water, induced the leader of the band to give up all idea of advancing farther at that point by water.
But do not imagine, good reader, that this implied the desertion of the canoe. On the contrary, that accommodating vessel having hitherto carried our pioneers, they now proposed to carry it—as shall be related presently.
Mackenzie met the grumbling discontent of his men with an order to ascend the hill and encamp there for the night.
"Vraiment—it all very easy to say go up dere and camp for de noit,— mais I will go not farder!" growled Ducette, as he threw a heavy bag of provisions on his back and trudged sulkily up the hill.
The two young Indians evidently approved of this sentiment, and one or two of the other men seemed inclined to echo it; but Reuben and Lawrence laughed as they each shouldered a burden,—and the former said it was his firm conviction that nothing would, could, or should stop Monsieur Mackenzie but the Pacific Ocean.
The precipitous bank of the river, or "hill," up which they were desired to carry the tents, provisions, etcetera, necessary for their encampment, was so steep and encumbered with wood and scrub, that it might of itself have formed a sufficiently disheartening obstacle to men less accustomed to hardships; nevertheless, they braced themselves to it with wonted vigour, pushed through the scrub, felled trees to facilitate their ascent, and climbed like monkeys by the stems, until they gained the summit, where very soon a roaring fire was covered with bubbling kettles and broiling steaks and marrow-bones.
Meanwhile Mackenzie, accompanied by Swiftarrow, went off on foot to survey the river ahead. He walked as long as daylight permitted, but found that there seemed to be no end to the rapids and cascades, and returned to camp with worn-out moccasins and wounded feet. During the excursion he came on several old encampments of the Knisteneaux Indians, which must have been formed during war expeditions, a decided proof, he thought, of the savage and bloodthirsty nature of that people, seeing that their natural hunting-grounds were very far removed from those almost inaccessible regions.
It now became too apparent to the leader of the expedition that the mountain at this place must be crossed on foot, with the canoe and its heavy lading on the shoulders of himself and his men; but before deciding on this course, he resolved to despatch Reuben and three men with the two Indian interpreters to proceed along the line of the river until they should reach a navigable part of it. Accordingly, next day this party set out. Mackenzie remained in camp to superintend the repairing of the canoe and take observations. He was successful in obtaining correct time, and found the latitude to be 56 degrees 8 minutes.
At sunset the exploring party returned. They had penetrated the thick woods, ascended hills, descended valleys, and had finally got above the rapids, a distance of about three leagues; but their account of the difficulties in the way of advancing was very discouraging indeed. Mackenzie had foreseen this, and had made suitable preparations to counteract the evil effects thereof. In their absence he had prepared for them an enormous kettle of wild rice highly sweetened with sugar. When the tired, hungry, and footsore men sat down to this they became quite willing to listen to their leader's arguments in favour of a bold advance, and when the hearty supper was washed down with a liberal allowance of rum, and finished off with a pipe, they avowed themselves ready to face anything! In this satisfactory state of mind they retired to rest, while their leader sat up in the hope of obtaining an observation of Jupiter and his first satellite, which laudable aim was frustrated by cloudy weather.
DEEPER AND DEEPER INTO THE UNKNOWN WILDERNESS.
Next day the arduous work of cutting a road through the forest and up the mountainside was begun.
At daybreak their leader assembled the men. "Now, my lads," said he, "the work before us for the next two or three days will be very stiff, but it would be a disgrace to us if after having come so far, we were so soon—only a little beyond the middle of May—to give in because of a few difficulties. Besides, I am strongly of opinion that we cannot now be far from the height of land, and you know well enough that the moment we set foot on the other side of the topmost ridge of the mountains it will be all down stream. Let us set to work, then, with a will. Take your axes and cut your way through everything. The trees here are, as you see, of small growth. Cut those of them that stand conveniently in such a way as that they shall fall parallel with the intended road, but don't sever them quite through so that they make a sort of railing on each side. Come, Lawrence, I'm glad to see that you are ready to begin, like a good pioneer—show them an example."
Lawrence, who was the only one of the listening band who chanced to have his axe on his shoulder, smiled when thus addressed, and, turning round, exclaimed "Voila!" as he swayed the axe aloft and sent it sweeping at one stroke through a young tree, which fell with a crash and covered half of the party with its branches.
A general laugh followed, and immediately the whole band set to work with their axes, headed by Mackenzie himself.
From early morning till sunset they toiled during the next three days, almost without cessation, except for meals. They cut their way from the margin of the river, where the rocks and ground shelved so steeply that one false step of any of the men would have been followed by a headlong plunge into the water. Over the ridge, and down into a hollow beyond, and up the mountain farther on, they hewed a broad track, by which they conveyed the baggage and then carried up the canoe. This latter was an extremely difficult operation at the first part of the road, requiring the united efforts of the whole party. Being lifted on the shoulders of some of the men, the tracking-rope was fastened to the bow, and others of the party went in advance and took a couple of turns of the rope round a stump. The bearers then advanced steadily up the steep side of the mountain till they reached those who, by holding on to the rope, relieved them of any downward weight. The rope was then shifted to a stump farther up, and the advance was continued. Thus they may be said to have warped the canoe up the mountain! By two in the afternoon everything was got to the summit. Then Mackenzie, axe in hand, led the way forward. The progress was slow, the work exhausting. Through every species of country they cut their way. Here the trees were large and the ground encumbered with little underwood; there, the land was strewn with the trunks of fallen timber, where fire had passed with desolating power years before, and in its place had sprung up extensive copses of so close a growth, and so choked up with briars, that it was all but impossible to cut through them. Poplar, birch, cypress, red-pine, spruce, willow, alder, arrow-wood, red-wood, hard, and other trees,—all fell before the bright axes of the voyageurs, with gooseberry-bushes, currant-bushes, briars, and other shrubs innumerable. It must not be supposed that they did this heavy work with absolute impunity. No, there was many a bruise and blow from falling trees, and even the shrubs were successful not only in tearing trousers and leggings, but also in doing considerable damage to skin and flesh. So toilsome was the labour, that at the close of one of the days they had advanced only three miles.
On the afternoon of the third day they finally came out in triumph on the banks of the river above the cascades, having cut a road of about nine miles in extent.
Once again, then, behold them afloat and paddling up stream—still westward—with hopes animated and fortune smiling, or, as Reuben put it, with "a gale of luck blowin' right astarn." Reuben, be it observed, had consorted with sailors in his day down the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and had picked up a little of their slang.
But their good fortune never lasted long at a time. Their progress being very slow, it was found advisable to send the young Indian interpreters on shore to lighten the canoe and to hunt as they advanced. They frequently killed elk and other game. On one of these occasions Swiftarrow was nearly killed. He had been sent to fetch the choice parts of an elk which they had shot, when a big rock fell from the cliffs above, and was dashed to pieces at his very feet. Just after this incident a violent fall of rain took place, obliging them to remain in camp for a day. Then driftwood barred the river, and an opening had to be forced through it. Then more cascades appeared to check their advance; and, worst of all, just as they began to hope that the height of land was gained, an opening in the hills revealed a range of blue mountains far ahead of them, running south and north as far as the eye could reach. To add to their perplexities, they came to a fork in the river, one branch running due west, the other in a southerly direction.
"Follow the westerly branch," said one; "that must be the right one."
"Not so sure o' that," observed Reuben; "the end of a track don't needsesarly p'int out the gin'ral run of it."
"You are right, Reuben," said Mackenzie; "besides, I have been warned of this very branch by an old Indian whom I met last winter, and who said he had been up here in his youth. Therefore, though appearances are against it, I shall follow the southern branch."
Mackenzie was right in this determination, as it afterwards proved, but most of his men grumbled very much at the time, because the southerly branch, besides appearing to be the wrong one, was a very rapid and dangerous stream. They knew by that time, however, that nothing could bend their leader's will, so they submitted, though with a bad grace.
Here an immense number of beaver were seen, and a gladsome sight it was to the fur-trader, because beaver skins at that time were in great repute—silk hats not having, as yet, beaten them off the field and reduced their value to almost nothing. In some places these sagacious and busy animals had cut down several acres of large poplars. At this place, too, they had an alarm, some of the men declaring that they had heard shots fired by Indians in the woods. A whole night was therefore spent on the qui vive, although it turned out to be a false alarm.
One morning, the weather being fine and the river more manageable than usual, Mackenzie landed with Reuben and the two Indians, to ascend an adjacent mountain, telling his men to proceed in the canoe diligently, and directing them to fire two shots if they should require his return, agreeing that he would do the same if he should wish them to wait for him. Nothing was gained by this attempt to obtain a better prospect. On descending to the river they fired two shots, as agreed on, but no answer was received. Again they tried it, but the deep silence was only broken by an echo and by the rushing of the river.
"They're behind us," suggested Reuben.
"They've overshot us," said the Indians.
Again two shots were fired, but still no reply came. Mackenzie's mind was at once filled with anxious fears lest some accident should have befallen his canoe, while he reproached himself for having left them even for a brief period in such dangerous navigation.
In these circumstances he turned to consult with his men.
"It's my opinion," said Reuben, "that they've diskivered more rapids than they bargained for, and are out of earshot behind us; so we'd better make tracks down stream till we find 'em."
"Not so," said the elder of the Indians; "without doubt the canoe is dashed to pieces, and our comrades are even now with their forefathers. We shall see them no more; and my advice is that we construct a raft and try to return on it to the lands whence we came."
Anxious though he was, Mackenzie could scarce refrain from laughing at the prompt way in which the red man had consigned his comrades to destruction. "Come," said he, "we won't give them up quite so readily as you seem inclined to. We shall make at least one effort to find them."
It was now arranged that Reuben and one of the Indians should remain at the spot where they then were, kindle a large fire, and send branches down the stream from time to time, as a signal to their comrades if they chanced to be below, and that Mackenzie with the other Indian should walk up the bank of the river several miles. This was done; but they returned after some hours to the fire, having seen nothing of the canoe.
As evening was now approaching, they became thoroughly alarmed, and a more rigorous plan of search was instituted. Reuben was sent off with one Indian to proceed down the river as far as he could go before night came on, with directions to continue the journey in the morning as far as to the place where they had encamped the preceding evening. Mackenzie with the other Indian again went off up the river, intending to make a thorough search in that direction. They had no food with them, but, having their guns and the means of making fire, they had no anxiety on that score, except in regard to an immediate meal, for game was scarcer than usual at that particular spot.
It was agreed that if both should fail of success, they were to return to the place where they then separated. But their anxieties were brought to an end sooner than they had hoped for. Not very long after parting, Mackenzie heard a very far-off shot, and then another, and in a few minutes an answering double shot at a still greater distance. These being the concerted signals, he knew that the canoe party must have been discovered by Reuben; he therefore retraced his steps with a light heart, despite the fact that he had worn the moccasins off his feet, and was completely drenched with rain. It turned out that the delay had been occasioned by the breaking of the canoe, and the consequent necessity of landing to repair damages. Indeed, the sorely-battered craft had become almost a wreck. As a fitting climax to this disastrous day, the night finished off with thunder, lightning, and rain.
While thus forcing their way to the head-waters of the river, they met with a small party of miserable-looking natives, who received them at first with violent demonstrations of an intention to immolate them on the spot if they should dare to land. It was evident that the poor creatures had been subjected to bad treatment and deception by other and more powerful tribes, because they remained in a state of great suspicion and anxiety even after the interpreter had stated earnestly that the intentions of the white men were friendly, and after gifts had been presented to them. By degrees, however, they became more confident, and as their anxieties diminished their curiosity increased.
"I do believe," said Lawrence, "that the critters have never seen white folk before."
To most people it might have seemed ridiculous to have heard that bronzed voyageur calling himself and his brown-faced, smoke-dried, weather-worn companions, by the title of white people; but Lawrence referred to the natural colour of the race to which he belonged.
"They do seem rather koorious," observed Reuben, as one of the Indians timidly touched his arm and looked wonderingly up into his blue eyes.
It was found, however, that these natives had heard of white people, though they had not seen them; moreover, they displayed a number of knives and iron implements which they said had been procured from people inhabiting the banks of a river which might be reached over a carrying-place of "eleven days in length," and which river flowed in an opposite direction from the Peace River. These people, they said, travelled during a moon to get to the country of another tribe who dwelt in houses, and these again extended their journeys to the sea, or, as they called it, the "Stinking Lake," where they exchanged their furs with white people, like our pioneers, who came to the coast of that lake in canoes as big as islands!
Here, then, at last, was definite information, and the enterprising discoverer was not long in availing himself of it. After gratifying his new friends with sundry little gifts, a feed of pemmican, which they relished amazingly, and a taste of sugar to tickle their palates, he gained their confidence so much as to induce one of them to be his guide, and immediately pushed forward.
In the course of the following week they gained the much-longed-for height of land, and found two lakelets within a quarter of a mile of each other, from one of which the waters find their way through Peace River, on the east side of the mountains, into the Arctic Sea, while from the other the waters flow south and west through the great River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.
But the succession of disasters that befell them here, and the difficulties of the route—for it could not be called navigation—threw all their previous experiences into the shade. One day, having made a portage, they relaunched the canoe and began the well-nigh forgotten process of descending stream. They had not gone far when they struck a rock and were driven down sideways with great violence, Mackenzie, followed by his men, jumped into the shallow to turn the canoe straight, but in a moment the water deepened and they had to scramble inboard again hurriedly. Swiftarrow by some mischance was left behind to struggle on shore as best he might. Before they could resume their paddles they struck again; the stem of the canoe was shattered like an egg-shell and hung only by the gunwales, so that Lawrence, who was steering, had to quit his place. The violence of the stroke drove them to the opposite side of the river, where the bow met with the same fate. At that moment Reuben seized the branches of a small overhanging tree in a desperate hope of checking the canoe, but the tree proved so elastic that he was jerked on shore in an instant as if by magic, and the canoe swept over a cascade, where several holes were broken in her bottom and nearly all the bars started. At the same moment the wreck fell flat on the water; all the men jumped out, and Ducette, whose courage forsook him, shouted, "Save yourselves!"
"Not so! Hold on to the canoe, men," cried Mackenzie sternly. The men obeyed, and thus prevented the total loss of everything. Yard by yard, on the verge of destruction they waded down the rapid, and guided the wreck into shallow water, where some held her fast while the others, who were quickly joined by Reuben and Swiftarrow, carried the lading safely ashore. On this occasion several things were lost, the chief of these being their whole stock of bullets, but they had plenty of shot left from which ball could be made.
One might have thought this was at last sufficient to have turned them back—so at least thought most of the men, who began to look rebellious—but Mackenzie partly compelled, partly encouraged them to advance. The canoe was dragged ashore and repaired, or rather reconstructed, and eventually through indescribable difficulties he reached the navigable stream which forms the head-waters of the Columbia River. This he descended a considerable distance, and met with many of the natives, who told him that the country below abounded with game and the river with fish; but as the course of the latter ran towards the south, and the distance by it to the sea was described as being extremely great, he deemed it advisable to retrace his course a short way and then strike westward overland to the Pacific.
The old canoe being now little better than a wreck, birch-bark was procured and a new canoe built, after which the stream was ascended until a spot was reached where the natives were in the habit of starting overland for the sea coast. Here the canoe was hidden, an Indian guide procured, and then these indomitable pioneers prepared to cross the wilderness on foot.
We follow our travellers now over the last portion of their trying journey. Well would it have been for them if they could have followed their route as easily as you and I, reader, follow them in imagination. Over mountain and swamp, through forest and brake, in heat and in cold, sunshine and rain, they plodded wearily but resolutely on towards the far west, until they reached the farthest west of all, where the great continent dips into the greater Pacific.
At starting on this overland route they buried some provisions, and putting in a place of security their canoe and such stores as they did not require or could not carry, they set out, each man laden with a burden varying from forty-five to ninety pounds weight, besides arms and ammunition. They were led by an Indian guide with several of his relations, and followed by their dog Wolf. This guide was deemed necessary, not so much to show the way as to introduce them to the various tribes through whose territory they should have to pass.
It takes a large portion of a quarto volume to recount their interesting adventures by the way. How then, can we presume to attempt a fair narrative in a few pages? The thing is impossible. We can but refer our readers to Mackenzie's ponderous journal, in which, embedded amongst a mass of important details, will be found a record of one of the most interesting voyages ever undertaken.
As a matter of course difficulties assailed them at the outset. This would seem to be the universal experience of pioneers. Game latterly had begun to grow scarce, so that, their provisions being low, they were obliged to go on short allowance—two meals a day. Their food, being pemmican, required no cooking. Mingled heat, mosquitoes, sandflies, and a rugged country, with short commons, and danger, as well as worry from savages, was the beginning—and pretty much the middle and end—of their experience. They were soon joined by an elderly man and three other natives, and not only did these three Indians, but all the others along the route, harass them by their caprice, unfaithfulness, and childish petulance, and self-will.
One day their guide resolved to leave them; then, without being solicited to stay, he changed his mind and went on with them. Again, one night, at a time when they were anxious not to lose him, Mackenzie, who knew he meant to take leave quietly, asked him to sleep with him. He willingly consented, the white man's cloak being a snug covering, and thus was he guarded! but his guardian suffered severe consequences owing to the filthy state of the Indian, whose garments were indescribable, his body being smeared with red earth, and his hair with fish-oil!
Coming to a lake they observed the sky grow very black. "A thunder-storm brewin'," suggested Reuben.
"Encamp, and up with the tent, boys," said Mackenzie.
The tent! It was a misnomer, their only shelter being a sheet of thin oiled cloth and the overhanging trees. Down came a deluge that kept them very close for a time; then, on resuming the march, the guide was requested to go in advance and brush the water off the bushes, but he coolly declined. Mackenzie himself therefore undertook the duty. During this storm the ground was rendered white with hailstones as large as a musket ball. The third day they met natives who received them well. These were going to the great river to fish, and seemed—unlike many other tribes—to venerate age, for they carried on their backs by turns a poor old woman who was quite blind and infirm. Farther on they met other Indians on their way to the same great river, which abounded with salmon. These told them that they would soon reach a river, neither large nor long, which entered an arm of the sea, and where a great wooden canoe with white people was said to be frequently seen!
"Here is encouragement for us; let us push on," said Mackenzie. "Push on," echoed Reuben and Lawrence and some of the other men; but some grumbled at the hardships they had to endure, and the short allowance of provisions, while the Indians threatened to desert them.
Mackenzie must have had something very peculiar in his look and manner, for he seemed to possess the faculty of saying little in reply to his men, and yet of constraining them to follow him. Doubtless, had some one else written his journal we should have learned the secret. It seems as if, when rebellion was looking blackest and the storm about to burst, instead of commanding or disputing, he calmly held his tongue and went off to take an observation of the sun, and on that process being completed, he almost invariably found his men in a more tractable condition! Occasionally we read of quiet remonstrance or grave reasoning, and frequently of hearty encouragement and wise counsel, but never of violence, although he was sorely tried. Perchance they knew that he was dangerous to trifle with! We cannot tell, but certainly he seems to have been a splendid manager of men.
At last they reached an Indian village where they were hospitably entertained, and presented with as much roasted salmon as they required. These people lived almost exclusively on fish and berries; were more cleanly than other tribes, and apparently less addicted to war or hunting. Here two new guides were obtained, and the people conciliated with gifts of beads, knives, and other trinkets.
Leaving them they spent a wretched night on the shores of a lake, deluged with rain and tormented with sandflies and mosquitoes—the former being perhaps the greatest pests of the country. Soon the guides grew tired of their mode of travelling, and the allowance of provisions had to be still further reduced. Fearing that they might run short altogether, Mackenzie ordered Reuben and his son to fall behind, bury some pemmican in reserve for their return, and make a fire over the spot to conceal the fact that it had been dug into. They were now on two-thirds of their regular allowance. Soon afterwards they came to a river too deep to ford, but one of their guides swam across and brought over a raft that lay on the other side. This ferried most of them over, but Swiftarrow and some of the others preferred to swim across.
At length, after many days of suffering and toil they crossed the last range of mountains and began to descend. Here magnificent cedars and other trees were seen, some of the former being fully eighteen feet in circumference. The natives whom they met with were sometimes stern, sometimes kind, but always suspicious at first. The soothing effects of gifts, however, were pretty much the same in all. Still the party had several narrow escapes.
On one occasion Mackenzie, when alone, was surrounded and seized, but he soon freed himself, and just at that moment when his life seemed to hang on a hair, Reuben Guff happened to come up, and the natives took to flight. Some of these natives were very expert canoe-men, caught salmon by means of weirs, dwelt in wooden houses elevated on poles, boiled their food in water-tight baskets by putting red-hot stones into them, made cakes of the inner rind of the hemlock sprinkled with oil, and seemed to have a rooted antipathy to flesh of every kind. Some of the salmon they caught were fully forty pounds' weight. The chief of one tribe said that, ten years before, he had gone down to the sea in a large canoe, and there had met with two large vessels full of white men who treated him very kindly. These, Mackenzie concluded, must have been the ships of Captain Cook, an opinion which was strengthened by the discovery that the chief's canoe was ornamented with sea-otters' teeth, which bear some resemblance to human teeth, for which they had been mistaken by the great navigator. At last, on the 20th of July, the heroic perseverance of Mackenzie met with its reward. On that day he obtained a canoe, and descending a river, entered an arm of the Pacific! He did not himself, indeed, deem the object of the expedition attained until he had battled on for a couple of days longer—in the face of the opposition of his own men and hostility of the natives—and had obtained reliable observations which settled beyond all dispute, his exact position on the globe. But to all intents and purposes he had accomplished his great object on that day,—namely, the crossing of the American Wilderness to the Pacific Ocean.
Even in the midst of his triumph this long-enduring man was worried by petty trials, for one of the Indian guides took it into his head to desert. As he was the son of a chief, and, it was to be feared, might prejudice the natives against them, Reuben Guff was directed to pursue him. That worthy took with him Swiftarrow, and exerting his long sinewy legs to the utmost, soon overtook the fugitive and brought him back. But it was no part of Mackenzie's plan to tyrannise over men. He received the deserter kindly, gave him a pair of moccasins, some provisions, a silk handkerchief, and some good advice, and then sent him back to his friends. The other Indian who remained with them succeeded about the same time in killing a large porcupine, which was very acceptable to all—especially to its captor, who ate so largely of it as to be obliged to undergo a prolonged period of repose in order to sleep it off.
At length, being in a state of semi-starvation, with a leaky canoe, and unfriendly natives around, Mackenzie took a last observation, which gave 52 degrees 20 minutes 48 second North latitude and 128 degrres 2 minutes West longitude.
Then he turned his face eastward. Before quitting the coast, however, a smooth rock was selected and thereon was written, in large letters, with a mixture of melted grease and vermilion, this brief memorial—"Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three."
The return journey was scarcely less arduous than the outward, but they undertook it with the knowledge that every step carried them nearer home, and with the exhilarating consciousness that their labours had been crowned with success. Besides this, they now knew what lay before them each day—as far as the route was concerned—and at the various places where provisions had been secreted the party was strengthened and enabled to advance with greater vigour. On arriving at the Great River they found their canoe, goods, and provisions just as they had left them about five weeks before. Here they made preparations for proceeding to the head-waters of the Columbia River, crossing over to those of the Peace River, and so returning by the way they had come. In order to mark this happy point in the expedition, Mackenzie treated himself and men to a dram, "but,"—observe that I quote his words, reader,—"we had been so long without tasting any spirituous liquor, that we had Lost all relish for it!" Rejoice in that testimony, ye teetotallers. Think of it, ye topers. Put it in your pipes, ye smokers—and make the most of it!
"Nearing home at last, boys," said Mackenzie many weeks afterwards, as, having descended the turbulent Peace River, they rounded a point of land and came in sight of their old winter-quarters; "shake out the flag, and give them a volley and a cheer."
The men obeyed, and were in such high spirits, and made such active use of their paddles, that they reached the landing-place before the two men who had been left there in the spring, could recover their senses sufficiently to answer their questions! But this was not home yet. Some days had still to elapse ere these toil-worn men could lay aside their paddles and rest their wearied limbs.
At last, after an absence of eleven months, they reached Fort Chipewyan, where their leader resumed the duties of the fur-trade, and Swiftarrow once more kissed the brown cheek of Darkeye, who filled his heart with grim delight by placing in his paternal arms a soft, round, fat, little brown female baby, with eyes as dark and bright as her own, and a nose which was a miniature facsimile of its father's.
One week after their arrival, Reuben and Lawrence, Swiftarrow and Darkeye, entered Mackenzie's room to bid him farewell.
"I'm sorry you are bent on leaving me," said their former leader; "but you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have contributed greatly to the success of our two expeditions. You have indeed proved yourselves able pioneers."
"Thank'ee, sir," said Reuben, while a quiet smile of satisfaction lighted up his grave features. "It was all along a hobby o' mine, an' of Lawrence too, to do a bit o' diskivery; an' now we're content—for it ain't possible, I fancy, to do much more in that line than push your canoe into the Frozen Sea on the one hand, or the Pacific on the other. It's harder work than I thowt it would be—though I didn't expect child's play neither; an' it's our opinion, sir, that you are the only man in the country as could have done it at all. We intend now to go back to the settlements. As for the red-skin," he added, glancing at Swiftarrow, "he ha'n't got no ambition one way or another as to diskivery; but he's a good and true man, nevertheless, you'll allow. And now, sir, farewell. May a blessing from above rest on you and yours."
Saying this the bold backwoodsman shook Mackenzie by the hand and left the room. Every one in the fort was on the bank to bid them farewell. Silently they stepped into their canoe, and in a few minutes had paddled out of sight into the great wilderness of wood and water.
Reader, our tale, if such it may be styled, is told. As for the hero whose steps for a time we have so closely followed, he became one of the most noted traders, as he was now one of the most celebrated discoverers, in North America. He afterwards became for a time the travelling companion in America of the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria; was knighted in acknowledgment of his great and important achievements; married one of Scotland's fair daughters; and finally died in the midst of his native Highland hills, leaving behind him a volume which—as we said at the beginning—proves him to have been one of the most vigorous, persevering, manly, and successful pioneers that ever traversed the continent of North America.
EXTRACT OF LETTER REFERRED TO ON PAGE 85.
From William Mackenzie, Esquire, of Gairloch, to George Mackenzie, Esquire, of Avoch, dated Leamington, 24th May 1856.
When in Stockholm in 1824, Lord Blomfield, our Minister there, did me the honour of presenting me to the King, Bernadotte, father of the present King of Sweden.
At the King's special request, the audience was a private one, and I was further especially requested to oblige by coming in my full Highland dress. The audience lasted fully an hour. Such an interest did Napoleon's first and most fortunate Marshal take in everything that was Highland, not even the skiandhu escaped him.
I now come to your family portion of the audience.
As we chatted on, old Bernadotte (leaning familiarly upon my O'Keachan claymore) was pleased to say in that suaviter in modo for which his eagle eye so fitted him, "Yes, I repeat it, you Highlanders are deservedly proud of your country. Your forefathers and your people are a race apart, distinct from all the rest of Britain in high moral as well as martial bearing, and long, I hope, may you feel and show it outwardly by this noble distinction in dress. But allow me to observe, Sir, that in your family name, in the name of Mackenzie, there is a very predominant lustre, which shall never be obliterated from my mind. Pray, are you connected in any way with Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the celebrated North American traveller, whose name and researches are immortalised by his discoveries in the Arctic Ocean, and of the river which since then does honour to his name?" I informed His Majesty that as a boy I had known him well, and that our family and his were nearly connected. This seemed to give me still greater favour with him, for, familiarly putting his hand on my shoulder-brooch, he replied that on that account alone his making my acquaintance gave him greater satisfaction. He then proceeded to tell Lord Blomfield and me how your father's name had become familiar to him, and so much valued in his eyes. He said that at one time Napoleon had arranged to distract the affairs of Britain by attacking her in her Canadian possessions—not by a direct descent upon them, but by a route which men expected would take England quite by surprise and prove infallible.
That route was to be up the Mississippi, Ohio, etcetera, up to our Canadian border lakes. For this arrangements were to be made with America, New Orleans occupied as a pied a terre by France, etcetera, etcetera. The organisation and command of this gigantic enterprise, as Bernadotte said, "was given to me by the Emperor, with instructions to make myself master of every work which could bear upon it, and the facilities the nature of the country afforded. Foremost amongst these the work of your namesake (Sir Alexander Mackenzie) was recommended, but how to get at it, with all communications with England interdicted, all knowledge of English unknown to me, seemed a difficulty not easily to be got over. However, as every one knows, my then master, l'Empereur, was not the man to be overcome by such small difficulties. The book, a huge quarto, was procured through the smugglers, and in an inconceivably short space of time most admirably translated into French for my especial use. [A copy of this translation was found in Napoleon's library at St. Helena.] I need hardly say with what interest I perused and reperused that admirable work, till I had made myself so thoroughly master of it that I could almost fancy myself," this he said laughing heartily, "taking your Canadas en revers from the upper waters; and ever since I have never ceased to look upon the name and think of the author with more than ordinary respect and esteem."
After a short pause and a long-drawn breath, almost amounting to a sigh, accompanied by a look at Blomfield and a most expressive "Ah, milord, que de changes depuis ces jours-la," Bernadotte concluded by saying that the Russian campaign had knocked that of Canada on the head until Russia was crushed! but it had pleased God to ordain it otherwise, "et maintenant me voila Roi de Suede"—his exact words as he concluded these compliments to your father.