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The Adventures of Paul Kane: Part 6

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The Adventures of Paul Kane: Part 6

Journey Over the Rocky Mountains

On October 6th, Kane and twenty engages, most of them of Iroquois extraction, set out on horseback for Fort Assiniboine, on the banks of the Athabasca River. They brought sixty five horses with them to haul their provisions and the packs of otter skins intended for the Russians. Slowly, they rode northwest over the prairies and reached their destination on October 10th. After repairing some boats they found at the fort, they proceeded up the Athabasca River, labouriously hauling their boats upriver by using tracklines.

On October 15th, the temperature plummetted and snow began to fall. The travellers decided that six of them ought to bring the Russian’s furs back to Fort Assiniboine. The remainder continued on, subsisting on pemmican, and on fresh moose, bear, and beaver meat, as they tracked and portaged their way towards the Rocky Mountains.

On October 28th, the party passed the mouth of what is known today as Oldman Creek, which Kane called the “Old Man’s River”, writing, “The Indians say that an evil spirit once came down this river- which is so rapid that no canoe can ascend it- and that having reached its mouth, where it enters the Athabasca, he made five steps down, leaving a rapid at every steps down, leaving a rapid at every step. These rapids are a mile apart. After which he returned and went up his own river, and has not since been heard of.”

The company followed the Athabasca River towards the Athabasca Pass, proceeding along the northern shore of Jasper Lake. The temperature dropped, and the wind began to howl. On November 3rd, the travellers were rocked to sleep by the roots of the pine trees, which moved up and down as the trees to which they were attached were buffetted by the wind.

The travellers made their way to a HBC post called Jasper House, where they enjoyed a feast of mountain sheep and acquired a number of horses. There, Kane hired a local Shuswap Indian to make him a pair of snowshoes.

After spending a day at Jasper House, the brigade crossed Jasper Lake by canoe and continued south through the mountains. When the snow proved too deep for the horses, the party returned to Jasper House, acquired more snowshoes, and proceeded south through the Athabasca Pass on foot.

Kane and his companions were obliged to wade through the ice-cold headwaters of the Athabasca and Columbia Rivers thirty seven times on the way to their next stopping place, called Boat Encampment. They reached their destination on November 15th, finding that an HBC crew sent from Fort Vancouver to meet them there was preparing to leave without them, thinking that they had been unable to make the journey over the mountain pass. Kane and his companions gratefully received the provisions that their welcoming party had brought for them and plunged in their canoes down the Columbia River.


Journey to Fort Vancouver

“Few who read this journal,” Kane wrote, “surrounded by the comforts of civilised life, will be able to imagine the heartfelt satisfaction with which we exchanged the wearisome snowshoe for the comfortable boats, and the painful anxiety of half-satisfied appetites for a well-stocked larder. True it was, that the innumerable rapids of the Columbia were filled with dangers of no ordinary character, and that it required the constant exercise of all our energy and skill to escape their perils, but we now had health and high spirits to help us. We no longer had to toil on in clothes frozen stiff from wading across torrents, half-famished, and with the consciouseness ever before us, that whatever were our hardships and fatigue, rest was sure destruction in the cold solitutes of those dreary mountains.”

Kane and the Columbia Brigade paddled down the Columbia River, shooting several dangerous rapids and avoiding the occasional whirlpool. On November 20th, they arrived at an HBC trading post called Fort Colville, situated in what is now the state of Washington.

They continued downriver, portaging around the Kettle Falls. While shooting the Cascades Rapids, which Kane called the “Grand Rapid”, two of the company’s boats were destroyed, and its occupants barely managed to escape that turbulent stretch of river with their lives. A few members of the party returned upriver to Colville to purchase an addition boat, and to replace some of the provisions lost in the river, delaying the brigade two days.

Paul Kane’s interpretation of Kettle Falls.

On November 28th, the party reached an HBC trading post called Fort Okanagan. The following day, they reached another HBC fort called Fort Walla-Walla, at which they decided to remain for five days. The crew completed their voyage to Fort Vancouver in four days, suffering from incessant rain the whole way.

“Fort Vancouver,” Kane wrote, “the Indian name of which is Katchutequa, or ‘the Plain,’ is the largest post in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dominions, and has usually two chief factors, with eight or ten clerks and 200 voyageurs, residing there. Our society was also enlivened by the addition of the officers of Her Majesty’s ship of war the ‘Modeste’, which had been on this station for two years, and lay in the river opposite the establishment. The buildings are enclosed by strong pickets about sixxteen feet high, with bastions for cannon at the corners. The men, with their Indian wives, live in log huts near the margin of the river, forming a little village- quite a Babel of languages, as the inhabitants are a mixture of English, French, Iroquois, Sandwich Islanders, Crees and Chinooks.”

One of the subjects whom Kane sketched at Fort Vancouver was a Chinook chief named Casanov. Once a powerful chief, Casanov’s influence was greatly reduced when his tribe was decimated by diseases they acquired from white fur traders. In his younger days, Casanov hired an assassin to murder anyone he didn’t like. The assassin eventually eloped with one of Casanov’s ten wives. Furious, the chief tracked down the lovers and killed them both.

Kane remained in Fort Vancouver for about a month, learning the history, customs, and some of the language of the local Chinook Indians. Then, on January 10th, 1847, he travalled down the Columbia River with a trader named Mr. Mackenlie until he reached the mouth of the Willamette River. He proceeded up that waterway until he reached Oregon City.

Kane stayed in Mr. Mackenlie’s home in Oregon City for three weeks. While sitting by the fireplace, the old trader told Kane tales of his adventures while serving as factor of forts in New Caledonia and Walla-Walla. Kane then accompanied a Jesuit missionary named Father Acolti further upriver and overland on horseback to his Roman Catholic mission.

Following his visit with the missionary, Kane returned to Fort Vancouver, encountering and sketching a band of Klackamuss Indians along the way. He stayed in Fort Vancouver until March 25th, spending much of his time horse racing, hunting, and engaging in prototypical rodeo sports with the sailors from the Modeste.

Once, while visiting with sailors on the Modeste, a huge naked Indian came aboard the ship and stode around with a serious expression, examining various artifacts with which he was unacquainted. The ship’s purser, prompted by a sentiment of hospitality, gave the Indian one of his petticoats. Although the garment was far too small for the native, he was delighted with the present and struggled to put it on. “Having, however, suceeded in getting into it,” Kane wrote, “he perambulated the deck with tenfold dignity, and the whole ship’s crew yelled with laughter. The extraordinary noise brought us all on deck, and, amongst others, the captain came up. Even his dignity could not withstand the absurdity of the figure, to which he immediately added, by sending his steward down for an old cocked hat of his, which was given to the Indian. When this was mounted the figure was cmoplete; and seldom has the deck of one of Her Majesty’s ships been the scene of such uproarious and violent laughter. I made several efforts to make a sketch of the Indian before I could succeed; and though I at length did so, yet I fear that the picture would give but a faint idea of the cause of all our merriment.”

On March 25th, 1847, Kane decided to cross the Strait of George to Vancouver Island. Embarking in a canoe, he paddled down the Columbia River. Along the way, Kane made a sketch of Mount St. Helens, the slopes of which the Indians told him was inabited by scoocums, “a race of beings of a different species, who were cannibals”, and that ponds in its vicinity were home to a strange type of fish which had heads like bears.

Paul Kane’s interpretation of Mount St. Helens.

Instead of following the Columbia to the coast, Kane and the Indian guides who accompanied him headed up the Cowlitz River when they reacehd its mouth. On its banks was an Indian burial ground which Kane decided to visit and sketch. The dead were placed in canoes, which were, in turn, placed on scaffolds in the trees. Various goods which the dead were thought to require in the next life were placed around each coffin. Each artifact was deliberately broken or rendered useless in some way, the Indians believing that the Great Spirit would fix them in the afterlife.

After visiting with a band of Cowlitz Indians, Kane and his crew portaged to the Nisqually River. They followed that river to its mouth in Puget Sound, on the shores of which stood a great Nisqually Indian village.

Continued in The Adventures of Paul Kane: Part 7.

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I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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