Read Chapter IX of Through the Mackenzie Basin, free online book, by Charles Mair, on

The Athabasca River Region.

We were now traversing perhaps the most interesting region in all the North. In the neighbourhood of McMurray there are several tar-wells, so called, and there, if a hole is scraped in the bank, it slowly fills in with tar mingled with sand. This is separated by boiling, and is used, in its native state, for gumming canoes and boats. Farther up are immense towering banks, the tar oozing at every pore, and underlaid by great overlapping dykes of disintegrated limestone, alternating with lofty clay exposures, crowned with poplar, spruce and pine. On the 15th we were still following the right bank, and, anon, past giant clay escarpments along it, everywhere streaked with oozing tar, and smelling like an old ship.

These tar cliffs are here hundreds of feet high, of a bold and impressive grandeur, and crowned with firs which seem dwarfed to the passer-by. The impregnated clay appears to be constantly falling off the almost sheer face of the slate-brown cliffs, in great sheets, which plunge into the river’s edge in broken masses. The opposite river bank is much more depressed, and is clothed with dense forest.

The tar, whatever it may be otherwise, is a fuel, and burned in our camp-fires like coal. That this region is stored with a substance of great economic value is beyond all doubt, and, when the hour of development comes, it will, I believe, prove to be one of the wonders of Northern Canada. We were all deeply impressed by this scene of Nature’s chemistry, and realized what a vast storehouse of not only hidden but exposed resources we possess in this enormous country. What is unseen can only be conjectured; but what is seen would make any region famous. We now came once more to outcrops of limestone in regular layers, with disintegrated masses overlying them, or sandwiched between their solid courses. A lovely niche, at one point, was scooped out of the rock, over the coping of which poured a thin sheet of water, evidently impregnated with mineral, and staining the rock down which it poured with variegated tints of bronze, beautified by the morning sun.

With characteristic grandeur the bends of the river “shouldered” into each other, giving the expanses the appearance of lakelets; and after a succession of these we came to the first rapid, “The Mountain” Watchikwe Powistic so called from a peak at its head, which towered to a great height above the neighbouring banks. The rapid extends diagonally across the river in a low cascade, with a curve inward towards the left shore. It was decided to unload and make the portage, and a very ticklish one it was. The boats, of course, had to be hauled up stream by the trackers, and grasping their line I got safely over, and was thankful. How the trackers managed to hold on was to me a mystery; but the steep and slippery bank was mere child’s play to them. The right bank, from its break and downward, bears a very thick growth of alders, and here we found the wild onion, and a plant resembling spearmint.

In the evening we reached the next rapid, called the Cascades Nepe Kabatekik “Where the water falls,” and camping there, we had a symposium in our tent, which I could not enjoy, having headache and heartburn, a nasty combination. The 16th was the hottest day of the season a hard one on the trackers, who now pulled along walls of solid limestone, perpendicular or stepped, or wrought into elaborate cornices, as if by the art of some giant stonecutter. At one place we came to a lovely little rideau, and on the opposite shore were two curious caves, scooped out of the rock, and supported by Egyptian-like columns wrought by the age-action of water.

Towards evening we reached the Crooked Rapid Kahwakak o Powestik and here the portage path followed on the summit of the limestone rampart, which the viscous gumbo-slides made almost impassable in rainy weather, and indeed very dangerous, forming, at the time we passed, pits of mud and broken masses of half-hard clay, along the very verge of the wall of rock, likely at any moment to give way and precipitate one into the raging torrent below. At other parts the path was jammed out to the wall-edge, to be stepped round with a gulp in the throat. But these and other features of a like interesting character, though a lively experience to the tenderfoot, were of no account whatever to those wonderful trackers. At one of the worst spots I was hesitating as to how and where I should step next, when a carrier, returning for his load, seeing my fix, humped his back with a laugh and gave me a lift over.

We camped for the night below a point where the river makes a sharp bend, parallel with its course. This we surmounted in the morning, following a rounded wall of limestone, for all the world like a decayed rampart of some ancient city. A wide floor of rock at its base made beautiful walking to a place where the lofty escarpment showed exposures of limestone underlying an enormous mass of dark sandstone, topped by tar-clay. It is a portentous cliff, bearing a curiously Eastern look, as if some great pyramid had been riven vertically, and the exposed surface scarred and scooped by the weather into a multitude of antic hollows, grotesque projections, and unimaginable shapes. Here, also, the knives of passers-by had carved numerous autographs, marring the majestic cliff with their ludicrous incongruity. Are we not all sinners in this way? “John Jones,” cut into a fantastic buttress which would fittingly adorn a wizard’s temple, may be a poor exhibit of human vanity; but, after all, the real John Jones is more imperishable than the rock, which seems scaling, anyway, from the top, and may, by and by, carry the inscriptions with it. It was hard to tear one’s self away from such a wonderful structure as this, the most striking feature of its kind on the whole river.

Farther on, escarped banks, consisting of boulders and pebbles imbedded in tenacious clay, rose to a great height, their tops clothed with rich moss, and wooded with a close growth of pine, the hollows being full of delicious raspberries, now dead ripe.

By and by we encountered the Long Rapids Kaukinwauk Powestik and, some hours afterwards, entered the Middle Rapid Tuwao Powestik the worst we had yet come to, full of boulders and sharp rocks, with a strong current. Very dexterous management was required here on the part of steersman and bowman; a snapt line or a moment’s neglect, and a swing to broadside would have followed, and spelled ruin.

It was evening before this rapid was surmounted, and all hands, dog-tired with the long day’s pull, were glad to camp at the foot of the Boiler Rapid, the next in our ascent, and so called from the wrecking of a scow containing a boiler for one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s steamers. It was the most uncomfortable of camps, the night being close, and filled with the small and bloodthirsty Athabasca mosquito, by all odds the most vicious of its kind. This rapid is strewn with boulders which show above water, making it a very “nice” and toilsome thing to steer and track a boat safely over it, but the tracking path itself is stony and firm, a fortunate thing at such a place. There are no exposures of rock at the foot of this rapid; but along its upper part runs a ledge of asphalt-like rock as smooth as a street pavement, with an outer edge as neatly rounded as if done with a chisel. This was the finest bit of tracking path on the river, excepting, perhaps, the great pavement beneath the cliff at the Long Rapids.

In this region the river scenery changes to a succession of cut-banks, exposed in all directions, and in almost all situations. Immense towering hills of sand, or clay, are cut down vertically, some facing the river, others at right angles to it, and others inland, and almost inclosed by projecting shoulders of the wooded heights. These cut-banks carry layers of stone here and there, and are specked with boulders, and in some places massed into projecting crests, which threaten destruction to the passer-by. Otherwise the scenery is desolate, mountainous always, and wooded, but with much burnt timber, which gives a dreary look to the region. The cut-banks are unique, however, and would make the fortune of an Eastern river, though here little noticed on account of their number.

It was now the 18th, and the weather was intensely hot, foreboding change and the August freshet. We had camped about eight miles below the Burnt Rapid, and the men were very tired, having been in the water pretty much since morning. Directly opposite our camp was a colossal cliff of clay, around which, looking upward, the river bent sharply to the south-west, very striking as seen beneath an almost full moon breaking from a pile of snowy clouds, whilst dark and threatening masses gathered to the north. The early, foggy morning revealed the freshet. The river, which had risen during the night, and had forced the trackers from their beds to higher ground, was littered from bank to bank with floating trees, logs and stumps, lifted from many a drift up stream, and borne down by the furious current. At one of the short breathing spells the water rose two inches in twenty minutes, and the tracking became exceedingly bad, the men floundering to their waists in water, or footing it insecurely on steep and slippery ledges along the water’s marge. About mid-day the anticipated change took place in the weather. Thick clouds closed in with a driving rain and a high raw wind, presaging the end of summer.

It was now, of course, very bad going, and camp was made, in the heavy rain, on a high flat about two miles below the Burnt Rapid. Though a tough spot to get up to, the flat proved to be a prime place for our camp, with plenty of dead fallen and standing timber, and soon four or five “long fires” were blazing, a substantial supper discussed, and comfort succeeded misery. The next day (Sunday) was much enjoyed as a day of rest, the half-breeds at their beloved games, the officials writing letters. The weather was variable; the clouds broke and gathered by turns, with slight rain towards evening, and then it cleared. As a night camp it was picturesque, the full moon in the south gleaming over the turbid water, and the boatmen lounging around the files like so many brigands.

Next morning we surmounted the Brule Rapid Pusitao Powestik short but powerful, with a sharp pointed rock at its head, very troublesome to get around. Above this rapid the bank consists of a solid, vertical rampart of red sandstone, its base and top and every crack and crevice clothed with a rich vegetation a most beautiful and striking scene, forming a gigantic amphitheatre, concentred by the seeming closing-in of the left bank at Point Brule upon the long straight line of sandstone wall on the right. Nothing finer, indeed, could be imagined in all this remarkable river’s remarkable scenery than this impressive view, not from jutting peaks, for the sky-line of the banks runs parallel with the water, but from the antique grandeur of their sweep and apparent junction.

That afternoon we rounded Point Brule, a high, bold cliff of sandstone with three “lop-sticks” upon its top. The Indian’s lop-stick, called by the Cree piskootenusk, is a sort of living talisman which he connects in some mysterious way with his own fate, and which he will often go many miles out of his direct course to visit. Even white men fall in with the fetish, and one of the three we saw was called “Lambert’s lop-stick.” I myself had one made for me by Gros Oreilles, the Saulteau Chief, nearly forty years ago, in the forest east of Pointe du Chene, in what is now Manitoba. They are made by stripping a tall spruce tree of a deep ring of branches, leaving the top and bottom ones intact. The tree seems to thrive all the same, and is a very noticeable, and not infrequent, object throughout the whole Thickwood Indian country.

Just opposite the cliff referred to, the Little Buffalo, a swift creek, enters between two bold shoulders of hills, and on its western side are the wonderful gas springs. The “amphitheatre,” sweeps around to, and is cloven by, that stream, its elevation on the west side being lofty, and deeply grooved from its summit downward, the whole locality at the time of our visit being covered with raspberry bushes loaded with fruit.

The gas escapes from a hole in the ground near the water’s edge in a pillar of flame about thirty inches high, and which has been burning time out of mind. It also bubbles, or, rather, foams up, for several yards in the river, rising at low water even as far out as mid-stream. There is a level plateau at the springs, several acres in extent, backed by a range of hills, and if a stake is driven anywhere into this, and withdrawn, the gas, it is said, follows at once. They are but another unique feature of this astonishing stream.

For a long distance the upper prairie level exposes good soil, always clay loam, and there can be little doubt that there is much fertile land in this district. That night we slept, or tried to sleep, in the boat, and made a very early start on a raw, cloudy morning, the tracking being mainly in the water. We now passed great cliffs of sandstone, some almost shrouded in the woods, and came upon many peculiar circular stones, as large as, and much resembling, mill-stones. Towards evening we passed Pointe la Biche, and met Mr. Connor, a trader, with two loaded York boats, going north, and whom we silently blessed, for he brought additional mail for ourselves. What can equal the delight in the wilderness of hearing from home! It was impossible to make Grand Rapids, and we camped where we were, the night cold and raw, but enlivened by the reading and re-reading of letters and newspapers.

Next morning, crossing the right bank of the river, and leaving the boat, we walked to the foot of Grand Rapids. Our path, if it could be called such, lay over a toilsome jumble of huge, sharp-edged rocks, overhung by a beetling cliff of reddish-yellow sandstone, much of which seemed on the point of falling. This whole bank, like so much of this part of the river, is planted, almost at regular intervals, with the great circular rocks already referred to. These globular or circular masses are a curious feature of this region. They have been shaped, no doubt, by the action of eddying water, yet are so numerous, and so much alike, as to bespeak some abnormally uniform conditions in the past.

The Grand Rapids Kitchi Powestik the most formidable on the river, are divided by a narrow, wooded island, over a quarter of a mile in length, upon which the Hudson’s Bay Company have a wooden tramway, the cars being pushed along by hand. Towards the foot of the island is a smaller one near the left shore, and here is the larger cascade, a very violent rapid, with a fall from the crest to the foot of the island of thirty feet, more or less. The narrower passage is to the right of the island, and is called the “Free Traders’ Channel.” The river, in full freshet, was very muddy-looking, detracting much from the beauty of the rapids.

The Hudson’s Bay Company have storehouses at each end of the tramway, but for their own use only. Free traders have to portage their supplies over a very rough path beneath the cliffs. Both banks of the river are of sandstone, capped on the left by a wall of cream-coloured rock, seventy or eighty feet in height, at a guess. A creek comes in from the west which has cloven the sandstone bank almost to the water’s edge; and running along the top of these sandstone formations are, everywhere, thick layers of coal, which is also found, in a great bed, on the opposite shore, and about three miles back from the river. The coal had been used by a trapper there, and is a good burner and heater, leaving little ash or clinker. These coal beds seem to extend in all directions, on both sides of the river, and underlie a very large extent of country. The inland country for some eight or ten miles had been examined by Sergeant Anderson, of the Mounted Police post here, who described it as consisting of wide ridges, or tables, of first-rate soil, divided by shallow muskegs; a good farming locality, with abundance of large, merchantable spruce timber. Moose were plentiful in the region, and it was a capital one for marten, one white trapper, the winter before our visit, having secured over a hundred skins.

On the 25th we left our comfortable spruce beds and “long fires,” and tracked on to House River, which we reached at nine a.m. Here there is a low-lying, desolate-looking, but memorable, “Point,” neighboured by a concave sweep of bank. The House is a small tributary from the east, but very long, rising far inland; and here begins the pack-trail to Fort McMurray, about one hundred miles in length, and which might easily be converted into a waggon-road, as also another which runs to Lac la Biche. Both trails run through a good farming country, and the former waggon-road would avoid all the dangers and laborious rapids whose wearisome ascent has been described.

The Point itself is tragic ground, showing now but a few deserted cabins and some Indian graves one of which had a white paling around it, the others being covered with gray cotton which looked like little tents in the distance. These were the graves of an Indian and his wife and four children, who had pitched through from Lac la Biche to hunt, and who all died together of diphtheria in this lonely spot. But here, too, many years ago, a priest was murdered and eaten by a weeghteko, an Iroquois from Caughnawaga. The lunatic afterwards took an Indian girl into the depths of the forest, and, after cohabiting with her for some time, killed and devoured her. Upon the fact becoming known, and being pursued by her tribe, he fled to the scene of his horrible banquet, and there took his own life. Having rowed across the river for better tracking, as we crawled painfully along, the melancholy Point with its lonely graves, deserted cabins and cannibal legend receded into eerie distance and wrapped itself once more in congenial solitude.

The men continued tracking until ten a.m. much of the time wading along banks heavily overhung with alders, or along high, sheer walls of rock, up to the armpits in the swift current. The country passed through was one giant mass of forest, pine and poplar, resting generally upon loamy clay a good agricultural country in the main, similar to many parts of Ontario when a wilderness.

We camped at the Joli Fou Rapids, having only made about fifteen miles. It was a beautiful spot, a pebbly shore, with fine open forest behind, evidently a favourite camping-place in winter. Next morning the trackers, having recrossed for better footing, got into a swale of the worst kind, which hampered them greatly, as the swift river was now at its height and covered with gnarled driftwood.

The foliage here and there showed signs of change, some poplars yellowing already along the immediate banks, and the familiar scent of autumn was in the air. In a word, the change so familiar in Manitoba in August had taken place here, to be followed by a balmy September and the fine fall weather of the North, said to surpass that of the East in mildness by day, though perhaps sharper by night. We were now but a few miles from the last obstruction, the Pelican Rapids, and pushed on in the morning along banks of a coal-like blackness, loose and friable, with thin cracks and fissures running in all directions, the forest behind being the usual mixture of spruce and poplar. By midday we were at the rapids, by no means formidable, but with a ticklish place or two, and got to Pelican Portage in the evening, where were several shanties and a Hudson’s Bay freighting station. Here, too, is a well which was sunk for petroleum, but which struck gas instead, blowing up the borer. It was then spouting with a great noise like the blowing-off of steam, and, situated at such a distance from the shaft at the Landing and from the Point Brule spiracle described, indicated, throughout the district, available resources of light, heat and power so vast as almost to beggar imagining.

Mr. Ross having obtained on the 14th the adhesion of the Crees to the Treaty at Wahpooskow, it was now decided that the Scrip Commission should make the canoe trip to that lake, whilst Mr. Laird and party would go on to Athabasca Landing on their way home. Accordingly Matcheese “The Teaser” a noted Indian runner, was dispatched with our letters to the Landing, 120 miles up the river. This Indian, it was said, had once run from the Landing to Edmonton, ninety-five miles, in a single day, and had been known to carry 500 pounds over a portage in one load. I myself saw him shoulder 350 pounds of our outfit and start off with it over a rough path. He was slightly built, and could not have weighed much over nine stone, but was what he looked to be, a bundle of iron muscles and nerves.

On the 29th Mr. Laird and party bade us good-bye, and an hour later we set out on our interesting canoe trip to the Wahpooskow, a journey which led us into the heart of the interior, and proved to be one of the most agreeable of our experiences.