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