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Mackenzie discovered the legendary river which led westwards into the Pacific Ocean

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History, Rivers on Friday, 30 August 2013

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This edited article about Alexander Mackenzie originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Alexander Mackenzie, picture, image, illustration

A perilous moment for Mackenzie and his guides by W R S Stott

When the canoes capsized, they had to struggle for their lives. The Bad River was certainly living up to its name!

The boy decided to explore the group of rocks which lay like giant grey seals dozing in the sea. The local fisher-lads had been warned to keep away from the rocks, but 12-year-old Alex thought he had time to run out to them at low tide and then race back to shore.

Taking off his shoes and socks, he dashed towards the boulders. Before he had reached them the water was up to his knees, and as he scrambled on to the highest rock, he saw that the incoming sea had cut him off from land.

Many another boy might have panicked, and so lost his life, but Alex kept his head. He knew that in a few hours’ time the tide would fall again, and that then he would be able to make his way to safety.

So he lay down and calmly went to sleep, while the waves rolled and crashed against the rocks. Night fell, and a party of fishermen set out to look for him. They found him still asleep, with the sea breaking around his curled-up body.

This happened in 1767. Four years later, Alexander Mackenzie was still in search of adventure. Moving to Glasgow, he worked his passage as a deckhand to Montreal and the lure of the New World. He arrived in Canada without a penny to his name; what possessions he had were tied up in a bundle which he carried over his shoulder.

He had been ashore for only a few days when he became fascinated by the voyageurs, the half-breeds and French Canadians who made a precarious living by trading in fur with the Indians who lived beside the great inland lakes. Alexander resolved that one day he too would journey by foot and canoe with the voyageurs.

First of all, though, he had to learn all he could about the trade; so he became a clerk with a firm of wealthy Scottish merchants, and spent the next few years sitting on a stool, absorbing everything there was to know about the buying and transportation of furs.

In 1785, he was made a partner in the company, and in the following year he went on his first canoe trip to Lake Superior.

It was on this voyage that he heard the Indians he traded with speak of a legendary river which led westwards into the Pacific Ocean. If such a river existed, it would change the whole face of Canada. The country could be opened up, and trading operations would no longer be hampered by the mountains, which made it almost impossible to transport goods overland from the east to the west coast.

Mackenzie decided to investigate this, but it took him four years to organise an expedition. The expedition started out from Fort Chippewyan in Alberta on 3rd June, 1789. It was only a small outfit. There were four canoes which young Mackenzie had designed himself, and the crew was composed largely of voyageurs and Indians.

For the first few days, the adventures had to battle their way through swarms of mosquitoes, intense cold, and heavy rain. Finally they reached the Great Slave Lake, and it was there that Mackenzie discovered the river that only the Indians had previously believed existed.

Mackenzie paddled along the river’s course, and discovered that, instead of wending westwards, it made its way to the north, towards Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.

At first the startled explorer kept this knowledge to himself; but as the canoes thrust into icy water and the snow-capped Rocky Mountains fell away to the side of them, the Indians and voyageurs began to get frightened. They had heard tales of the “murderous” and allegedly cannibalistic Eskimoes who lived in the far north. They thought they might never get back again, and threatened to quit.

It was only by talking to them in three languages – English, French, and the Chippewyan dialect – that Mackenzie was able to keep them loyal. He said that he was going ahead, even if he had to make the journey alone. He pointed out that if any of the others turned back now, they would probably die anyway. Their best chance of survival was to stick together.

The explorers struggled on until 13th July, when they reached the shores of the Arctic Ocean. There they pitched camp and, after spending three days chasing white whales, set out on the return voyage.

The trip back was even harder going than the journey northwards.

To begin with, the current was too strong to paddle against, and for much of the way the canoes had to be hauled through the water and over miles of mosquito-infested swamp land. By the time they arrived at the Great Slave Lake, the men were almost out of food. Their tents had been blown away by gale-force winds, and they were suffering from exhaustion and exposure.

In spite of this, Mackenzie got his team to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at Fort Chippewyan. The expedition had travelled 3,000 miles in 102 days, and Mackenzie’s courage and iron resolution had put a new and important river on the map of Canada (it was named the Mackenzie River after him). Added to this, he had opened the way to the north-west territory, which covered more than 700,000 square miles.

Alexander Mackenzie was hailed as one of Canada’s greatest heroes, but his ambitions were not satisfied yet. He was still anxious to pioneer a route to the Pacific.

To prepare for his second major expedition, he sailed to England and studied for a term at Cambridge University. With an added knowledge of geography, navigation, and astronomy, he went back to Canada feeling that no venture would be too difficult for him. On 10th October, 1792, he led a two-canoe party from Fort Chippewyan in an attempt to cross “the lip of the Universe.”

No man had ever penetrated the barrier of the Rocky Mountains, and by the time Mackenzie and his companions reached the aptly-named Bad River, even he was prepared to admit defeat. At one stage the canoes capsized and were broken to pieces by rocks. The explorers escaped from drowning by clinging to the debris of the canoes until they were washed ashore. They then repaired the boats as best they could with bark and gum, and resolved to finish the journey.

On the way to the coast, Mackenzie had to deal with treacherous guides, a war-party of fierce Indians, and rebellion which he quelled by holding loaded pistols to his voyageurs’ heads.

Eventually the travellers stumbled on to the hot, white sand of the Pacific shore. Mackenzie borrowed some red paint from a friendly Indian, and wrote on the face of a nearby rock: Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land, the 22nd of July, 1793.

From then until his death in 1820, the explorer was honoured throughout Canada and Britain. To satisfy public curiosity, he published an exciting account of his adventures called Voyages from Montreal to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans. He was knighted in 1802, and spent his last days quietly farming in his native Scotland.

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