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On The Trail To Peace River.

By the afternoon of the 12th we had finished our work at the lake, and in the evening left the scene of so much amusement, and its lively and intelligent people, not without regret. Having said good-bye to Bishop Clut and his clergy, and to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s people, and others, we passed on to Salt Creek, which we crossed at dusk, and then to the South Heart River Otaye Sepe where we camped for the night. This affluent of the lake has a broad but sluggish current, its grassy banks sloping gently to the water’s edge, like some Ontario river the beau ideal of a pike stream. The Church of England mission was established here in charge of the Reverend Mr. Holmes, who had shown us every kindness during our long stay. As boats can ascend in high water to this point, the Hudson’s Bay Company had a couple of large warehouses close by, standing alone, and filled with all kinds of goods. The trail led for many miles up a long, easy ascent, through a timber country, to an upper plateau, with, after passing the Heart River, occasional small patches of prairie on the wayside. The plateau itself is the anticlinal down which the North Heart flows to Peace River, which it joins at the crossing.

The trail so far had been good, but after crossing Slippery Creek it proved to be almost a continuous mud-hole, due to its extreme narrowness and the wet weather, closely bordered, as much of it was, by dense forests. It revealed a good farming country, however, free from stones, and the soil a rich, loamy clay throughout. It was well timbered, in some places, with the finest white poplar I had yet seen. The grass was luxuriant, and the region teemed with tiger-lilies, yarrow, and the wild rose.

The Little Prairie, as it is called, is really a lovely region, in appearance resembling the Saskatchewan country. There was an old Hudson’s Bay cattle station here, at that time deserted, and here, too, we were charmed with a mirage of indescribable beauty, an enchanting portal to the mighty Peace, which we reached about mid-day on the 15th of July.

The view up the Peace River from the high prairie level is singularly beautiful, the river disclosing a series of reaches, like inland lakes, far to the west, whilst from the south comes the immense valley of the Heart, and, farther up, the Smoky River, a great tributary which drains a large extent of prairie country mixed with timber.

To the north spreads upward, and backward to its summit, the vast bank of the river, varied as to surface by rounded bare hills and valleys and flats sprinkled with aspens, cherries, and saskatoons, the latter loaded with ripe fruit.

The banks of the Peace River are a country in themselves, in which, particularly on the north side, numerous homesteads might be, and indeed have been, carved out. Descending to the river, we found a Hudson’s Bay Company and Police post. The river here is about a third of a mile wide, and was in freshet, with a current, we thought, of about six miles an hour.

At Smoky River we met a couple of prospectors, Mr. Tryon, a nephew of the ill-fated Admiral, and Mr. Cooper Blachford, down from the Poker Flat mining-camp, this side the Finlay Rapids, in the Selwyn Mountains. They reached that camp by way of Ashcroft, B.C., in twenty-two days, the Peace River route being very much longer and more difficult. They described the camp there as a promising one, with much gold-bearing quartz in sight, but the cost of provisions and the extreme difficulty of development under the circumstances held it back.

There being but a few half-breeds here, we crossed the river, and decided to go on to Fort Dunvegan, and on our return complete our scrip issue at the Landing; so, partly on horseback and partly by waggon, we made our way to our first camp. The trail lay along and up and down the immense bank of the river, debouching at one place at the site of old Fort McLeod, and passing the fine St. Germain farm, with as beautiful fields of yellowing wheat as one would wish to see.

Here we got an abundant supply of vegetables, and in this ride our first taste of the Peace River mosquito or, rather, that animal got its first taste of us. It is needless to dwell upon this pest. Like the fleas in Italy, it has been overdone in description, and yet beggars it.

All along the trail were old buffalo paths and willows. Indeed, we saw them everywhere we went on land, showing how numerous those animals were in times past. In 1793 Sir Alexander Mackenzie describes them as grazing in great numbers along these very banks, the calves frisking about their dams, and moose and red deer were equally numerous. In 1828 Sir George Simpson made a canoe journey to the Coast by way of this river, and they were still very numerous. The existing tradition is that, some sixty years ago, a winter occurred of unexampled severity and depth of snow, in which nearly all the herds perished, and never recovered their footing on the upper river. The wood buffalo still exists on Great Slave River, but, where we were, the only memorials of the animal were its paths and wallows, and its bones half-buried in the fertile earth.

On the morning of the 17th we topped the crest of the bank, and found ourselves at once in a magnificent prairie country, which swept northward, varied by beautiful belts of timber, as far as Bear Lake, to which we made a detour, then westerly to Old Wives Lake Nootooquay Sakaigon and on to our night camp at Burnt River, twenty-two miles from Dunvegan. The great prairie is as flat as a table, and is the exact counterpart of Portage Plains, in Manitoba, or a number of them, with the addition of belts and beautiful islands of timber, the soil being a loamy clay, unmistakably fertile. Nothing could excel the beauty of this region, not even the fairest portions of Manitoba or Saskatchewan.

On the 18th we finished our drive over a like beautiful prairie, slightly rolling, dotted with similar clumps of timber like a great park, and carpeted with ripe strawberries and flowers, including the wild mignonette, the lupin, and the phlox.

Descending a very long and crooked ravine, we reached the river flat at last, upon which is situated Fort Dunvegan, called after the stronghold of the McLeods of Skye, but alas! with no McCrimmon to welcome us with his echoing pipes! Chief-factor McDonald, in his scanty journal of Sir George Simpson’s canoe voyage in 1828 from Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific, does not give the date at which this post was established, but mentions its abandonment in 1823, owing to the murder of a Mr. Hughes and four men at Fort St. John by the Beaver Indians. It had been re-established by Chief-trader Campbell. Simpson, Mr. McDonald, and Mr. McGillivray, who had embarked at Fort Chipewyan, where Sir George himself had served his clerkship, spent a day at Dunvegan in August, resting and getting fresh supplies. The warring traders had united in 1821, and this voyage was undertaken in order to harmonize the Indians, who, from the bay to the coast, particularly across the mountains, had become fierce partisans of one or other of the great companies.

Sir George had his McCrimmon with him in the shape of his piper, Colin Fraser, who played and paraded before the Indians most impressively in full Highland costume. Deer and buffalo were numerous in the region, and, during the day, thirteen sacks of pemmican were made for the party from materials stored at the fort. Simpson was famous in those days for his swift journeys with his celebrated Iroquois canoemen. They were made by Canot du Maitre as it was called, the largest bark canoe made by the Indians, carrying about six tons and a crew of sixteen paddlers, and which ascended as far as Fort William. Thence further progress was made in the much smaller “North Canoes” to all points west of Lake Superior. This particular journey of nearly 3,200 miles, made almost entirely by canoe, was completed from York Factory to Fort Langley, near the mouth of Fraser River, in sixty-five days of actual paddling, an average of about fifty miles a day, nearly all up stream.

Only two buildings of the old fort remained at the time of our visit, both in a ruinous condition. The old fireplaces and the roofs of spruce bark, a covering much used in the country, were still sound, and several cellars indicated where the other buildings had stood. The later post is about a gunshot to the east of them, and the whole site had certainly been well chosen, being completely sheltered by the immensely high banks of the great and deep river, whose bends “shouldered” and seemed to shut in the place east and west, also by the “Caps,” two very high hills forming the bank on each side of the river, so called from their fancied resemblance to a skull-cap. The river here is over four hundred yards in width, and its banks, from the water’s edge to the upper prairie level are some six hundred feet or more in height; but, as the trail leads, the ascent of the great slope is about a mile in length.

A number of townships had been blocked here, at one time, by Mr. Ogilvie, D.L.S., but not subdivided, Fort Dunvegan being situated, if I mistake not, in the south-west corner of Township 80, Range 4, west of the Sixth Meridian.

The Roman Catholic Mission east of the fort was found to be beautifully sheltered, and neighboured by fine fields of wheat and a garden full of green peas and new potatoes. But this was on the flat. There was no farming whatever on the north side, on the upper and beautiful prairies described. A Mr. Milton had tried, it was said, about ten miles east of Dunvegan, but did not make a success of it.

Near the fort a raft was moored, on which had descended a party of four Americans. They were from the State of Wyoming, and had made their way the previous summer, by way of St. John and the Pine River, to the Nelson, a tributary of the Liard. They had had poor luck, in fact no luck at all; and this was the story of every returning party we met which had been prospecting on the various tributaries of the Peace and Liard towards the mountains. The cost of supplies, the varying and uncertain yield, but, above all, the brief season in which it is possible to work, barely six weeks had dissipated by sad experience the bright dreams of wealth which had lured them from comfortable homes. Between seven and eight hundred people had gone up to those regions via Edmonton, bound for the Yukon, many of whom, after a tale of suffering which might have filled its boomsters’ souls with remorse, had found solitary graves, and the remainder were slowly toiling out of the country, having sunk what means they possessed in the vain pursuit of gold. They brought a rumour with them that some whites who had robbed the Indians on the Upper Liard had been murdered. It was not known what white men had penetrated to that desolate region, and the rumour was discredited; at all events, it was never verified.

The treaty had been effected at Dunvegan, on the 6th, with a few Beaver Indians, who still lingered by their tepees, pitched to the west on the opposite shore. The half-breeds had camped near the fort pending our arrival, and we found them a very intelligent people, indeed, with some interesting relics of the old regime still amongst them. One, in particular, had canoed from Lachine with Simpson sixty years before. He was still lively and active, and a patriarch of the half-breed community. Large families we found to be the rule here, some parents boasting of twelve or thirteen children under age. This, and their healthy looks, spoke well for the climate, and their condition otherwise was promising, being comfortably clad, all speaking more or less English or French, whilst many could read and write.

Our work being completed here, we set out for the Crossing by waggon, our route lying over the same majestic prairies, and reached the Landing the second night, passing the Roman Catholic and Church of England Missions on the way. The former Mission is an extensive establishment, with a fine farm and garden. Indeed, with the exception of primitive outlying stations, all the principal Roman Catholic Missions, by their extent and completeness, put our own more meagrely endowed establishments into rather painful contrast.

A great concourse of natives was at the Landing awaiting our arrival. The place was covered with tepees and tents, and no less than four trading marquees had been pitched pending the scrip issue, which it took some time to complete.

Near the Landing were the mill and farm of a namesake of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. His father, indeed, was a cousin of the renowned explorer who gave his name to the great river of the North. This father, under whom, Mr. Mackenzie said, Lord Strathcona had spent his first year as a clerk in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service, was drowned, with nine Iroquois, whilst running the Lachine Rapids in a bark canoe. His son came to Peace River in 1863, and his career, as he told it to me, will bear repeating. He was born at Three Rivers, in Lower Canada, in 1843, and was sent to Scotland to be educated, remaining there until he was eighteen years of age. In 1861 he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service, wintering first at Norway House under Chief factor William Sinclair, but removed to Peace River, became a chief-trader there in 1872, and, after some years of service, retired, and has lived at the Crossing ever since.

The Landing, he told me, used to be known as “The Forks,” it being here that the Smoky River joins the Peace; and here were concentrated, in bygone days, the posts and rivalries of the great fur companies. The remains of the North-West Company’s fort are still visible on the north bank, a few miles above the Landing. On the south shore, in the angle of the two rivers, stood the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fort, whilst the old X. Y. Company’s post, at that time the best equipped on the river, stood on the north bank opposite the Smoky.

In a delightful afternoon spent in rambling over this interesting neighbourhood, Mr. Mackenzie made out for me the site of the latter establishment, now in the midst of a dense thicket of nettles, shrubs, and saplings. In this locality the antagonisms of old had full play not only those of the traders, but of the Indians and the river exhibited much more life and movement then than at the time of our visit.

In remote days a constant warfare had been kept up by the Crees on the river, who, just as they invaded the Blackfeet on the Saskatchewan, encroached here upon the Beavers at that time a brave, numerous and warlike tribe, but now decayed almost to extinction, the victims, it is said, of incestuous intercourse. The Beavers had also an enemy in their congeners, the Chipewyans, the three nations seemingly dividing the great river between them. But neither succeeded in giving a permanent name to it. The Unjigah, its majestic and proper name, or the Tsa-hoo-dene-desay “The Beaver Indian River” or the Amiskoo eeinnu Sepe of the Crees, which has the same meaning, has not taken root in our maps. The traditional peace made between its warring tribes gave it its name, the Riviere la Paix of the French, which we have adopted, and by this name the river will doubtless be known when the Indians, whose home it has been for ages, have disappeared.

On the 24th our work here was completed, and we took to our boats, which were to float us down to Vermilion and Athabasca Lake. During our stay, however, I had noted all the information that could be gained respecting the Upper Peace as an agricultural region, some of which I have already given. The knowledge obtainable about the fertile areas of the hinterlands of a vast unsurveyed country like this, though not very ample, was no doubt trustworthy as far as it went.

Trappers and traders are confined to the water, as a rule, and see little land away from the shores of streams and lakes. The only people who, through their employments, knew the interior well were the Indians and half-breed hunters. It was the statements of these, therefore, and of the few prosperous farmers and stockmen scattered here and there, which afforded us our only reliable knowledge.

The most extensive prairies adjacent to the Upper Peace River are those to the north already described. The nearest on the south side are the prairies of Spirit River, a small stream which divides several townships of first-class black, loamy soil, well wooded in parts, but with considerable prairie. The nearest farmer and rancher to Dunvegan, Mr. C. Brymner, who had lived for ten years on Spirit River, told me that during seven of these, though frost had touched his grain, particularly in June, it had done little serious harm. It was a fine hay country, he said, even the ridge hay being good, and therefore a good region for cattle, he himself having at the time over a hundred head, which fed out late in the fall and very early in the spring, owing to the Chinook winds, which enter the region and temper its climate. Southeast of Fort St. John there is a considerable area known as Pooscapee’s Prairie, getting its name from an old Indian chief, and which was well spoken of, but which we did not see.

A much more extensive open country, however, is the Grand Prairie, to the south-west of the Crossing, which connects with the Spirit River country, and is drained by the Smoky River and its branches, and by its tributary, the Wapiti. There is no dispute as to whether this should or should not be called a prairie country. As a matter of fact, it is an extensive district suitable for immediate cultivation, and containing, as well, valuable timber for lumber, fencing and building.

The first inquiry the intending immigrant makes is about frost. At the Dunvegan and St. Augustine Mission farms, on the river bank above the Landing, Father Busson told me that White Russian and Red Fyfe wheat had been raised since 1881, and during all these years it had never been seriously injured, whilst the yield has reached as high as thirty-five bushels to the acre. Seeding began about the middle of April, and harvesting about the middle of August. He was of opinion that along the rim of the upper prairie level wheat would ripen, but farther back he thought it unsafe, and so no doubt it is for the present. Mr. Brick’s fine farm, opposite the Six Islands, and other farms also, were a success, but, of course, all these were along the river. With regard to the upper level, I heard opinions adverse to Father Busson’s, though, like his, conjectural. The inconsiderable height above the sea (Lefroy, I think, puts the upper level at about 1,600 feet), the prolonged sunlight, the whole night being penetrated with it though the sun has set, together with good methods of farming, will no doubt get rid of frost, which strikes here just as it has in every new settlement in Manitoba, and in fact throughout a great portion of the continent.

There were complaints, however, of a worse enemy than frost, namely, drought, which we were told was a characteristic feature of those magnificent prairies to the north. The wiry grass is very short there, something like the Milk River grass in Southern Alberta, and hay is scarce. This drawback will doubtless be got over hereafter by dry farming, or better still by irrigation, should the lakes to the north prove to be available.

I have pointed out disadvantages which in all likelihood will disappear with time and settlement by good farmers. It is a region, I believe, predestined to agriculture; but, in some localities, the rainfall, as has been said, is rather scant for good husbandry, and, therefore, farming to the north of the river, on the upper level, is not as yet an assured success. To the south better conditions prevail, and thither no doubt the stream of immigration will first trend.

Altogether we estimated the prairie areas of the upper river at about half a million acres, with much country, in addition, which resembles the Dauphin District in Manitoba, covered with willows and the like, which, if they can be pulled out by horse-power, as is done there, will not be very expensive to clear. There is, of course, any quantity of timber for building and fencing, though much has been destroyed by fire, the varieties being those common to the whole country. To the south, in the Yellowhead, and on the Upper Athabasca and its tributaries, there is considerable prairie also, more easily reached than Peace River; but this is apart from my subject. I may say, in conclusion, that the Upper Peace River country is a very fine one, drained by a vast and navigable river, compared with which the Saskatchewan must yield the palm, and, beyond doubt, this will be the first region to attract settlement and railway development.

Aside from settlers and a railway, the chief needs of the country are a good waggon-road to Edmonton and mail facilities, which were almost non-existent when we were there, but which have recently been to some extent supplied. Nearly three months had elapsed since we entered the country, and not a letter or paper had reached us from the outer world at any point. The imports into the country were increasing very fast, and, through competition and fashion, its principal furs were immensely more valuable than in the past.

As for the natives of the region, we found them a very worthy people, whose progress in the forms of civilized life, and to a certain extent in its elegances, was a constant surprise to us. As for the country, it was plain that all we met were making a good living in it, not by fur alone, but by successful farming, and that its settlement was but a question of time.