Read CHAPTER EIGHT - DIFFICULTIES AND DANGERS FACED AND OVERCOME. of The Pioneers , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

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,- maïs 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.