On August 11, 2010 I was fortunate to be a part of a team of individuals to fly to the height of land defining Athabasca Pass. Although each person was performing their own research, for their own reasons; all were there in preparation for the bicentennial of David Thompson’s crossing of the pass that occurred on January 11, 1811. We would land at the Committee Punch Bowl not far from the Historic monument and walk to what would be our camp approximately 540 metres on the Alberta side of the pass at the north end of a small lake.
My first order of business was to put up my flag at the camp. It was a source of amusement as I stated to my colleagues that I can’t go anywhere without making a political statement. I have no idea the last time a North West Company Flag actually flew at the pass; if it ever did at all. If we assume that it last occurred at the time of the merger between the HBC and the NWC (1821), it may have been 189 years since it last flew.
Those who know me know that I couldn’t have resisted this action even if I tried. David Thompson was engaged by the North West Company during the height of his western explorations and Athabasca Pass was explored therefore by a North West Company employee. The fact that our more notable explorers such as Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and Duncan McGillivray were also North West Company men, seem to elude our history. The bias has always been for the Hudson’s Bay Company, ever present with no formal denial.
I and close friends (Sharon and Joseph Cross) were at this camp for the majority of the first two days on our own.
It had been my plan to perform a toast in a special manner prior to the trip beginning. With the help of Joseph and
Sharon, we performed our own little ceremony on the shores of the Committee Punch Bowl on the BC side of the pass.
It was Joseph who suggested that we mix water that originated from water flowing to the arctic with that of the Committee Punch Bowl which flows to the Pacific. We then toasted first David Thompson and Charlotte Small, second Simon Fraser and Alexander Mackenzie, and finally to the Partners of the North West Company.
Those of you who know your history will realize the significance of this act. I am sure George Simpson was cursing me from somewhere for my perceived impertinence. However given my belief that it was the North West Company who really established the boundaries of our nation through their ‘Perseverance’, my act was fitting in my opinion.
We would have a thunder storm our first night on the pass which would partially clear some of the haze from the forest fires burning in British Columbia the week we were there. The second day brought more exploration. We would ascend the west side of the pass onto the side of Mount Brown with the goal of determining a large water fall not far away. Once at the top I could see northward down the Whirlpool River valley. I smiled as I once again heard George Simpson grumble in the distance.
The ascent equated to an elevation gain of about 450m and after 1 hour and 45 minutes of rock scrambling and sharp climbs we found ourselves n the alpine view the pass from a wonderful perspective. The view to the east of McGillivray Ridge and the Hooker Icefield (to right of ridge) was stunning.
We were joined later that day by the rest of the party who had stayed on the BC side of the pass. All of us, after dinner, walked to the monument for pictures and again to make another toast similar to the one performed the day before except this time with wine. The first toast was again to David Thompson and Charlotte Small and second to the ‘honourable’ partners of the North West Company; Merchants from Canada.
After 2 nights at the pass we began our decent the 3rd morning. The trail wasn’t what I expected and the first few kilometers took us through avalanche fields and over some wet ground. One of the striking things I saw early on during our walk down from the pass was that McGillivray ridge doesn’t look like a ridge at all; in fact it looks more like a mountain. This is especially true when looking at the ridge from the north. We would eventually reach Kane meadows; a spot named for Paul Kane the artist, and would have lunch and rest prior to our crossing of Kane River.
As most know, the depth and speed of this stream will vary in the summer months depending on the time of day. Unfortunately we would reach the river in the afternoon when the river was beginning to reach his highest and fastest. You will note that our backpacks were not completely strapped in.
We would pass some wonderful scenery on our way to our 3rd night's camp including some hanging glaciers. Later in the day after a long
haul we finally reached the Scott Gravel Flats where we camped for the evening.
The following morning we toured a canyon on the Whirlpool River not far from our campsite that was reminiscent of Athabasca Falls in terms of erosion and rock type. The water was fast and clean. I was told that the bridge located over the river at this point was established by the Alpine Club of Canada and was used frequently by those who took trips to the Scott Glacier which we could see from our camp.
Part of my research included looking for what can be described as forced points of travel. These are areas where the landscape funnels the traveller into a small area of passage. In areas such as this, you know that you are walking the same ground as those who have gone before for hundreds if not thousands of years. The picture to the right is one of those points as travelers are forced through the same narrow opening in the land scape that the Whirlpool River travels through.
Such areas provide a form of control when attempting to fit a survey that was conducted 200 years ago; be it a written description or a running survey (otherwise known as a dead reckoning). As I walked through the forced point, I couldn’t help but think of Thompson himself; travelling through here and then for a half century more, many others following his inland passage to the Pacific. As we approached the Whirlpool Junction, we crossed approximately 2 km of flats along the Whirlpool River. When we first entered the flats, I spotted wolf tracks that were faint. How fresh they were at first was difficult to tell given how wet the ground was. However the ground became much better near the middle of the flats and as we approach the tree line it became more and more apparent that the tracks were very fresh.
I recall bending down to take a picture of the track with my walking pole to provide some scale and when I stood up, I had an eerie feeling that we were being watched. It was just Sharon and I and I remember scanning the tree line along our left but saw nothing. I have spent time in the back country all my life in one capacity or another and I am never wrong about such feelings. Not wanting to make a big deal out of it I said nothing and be began walking again.
We stopped at the Warden cabin for a rest and it was not long after that we reached our campsite along Simon Creek. The second full day of walking
was much easier.
Our BC companions caught up top us an hour and a half later. It was then they informed us that they had spotted wolf tracks on top of our boot prints. Clearly we were following and then being followed by a curious pack of wolves. I saw tracks from at lest 3 individual wolves. In conversation with my friend we think there were possibly 7. We were never in danger. We were followed for about 2 km as I recall and once their curiousity was satisfied the wolves went on their way. We had a great dinner and were in camp early enough so that our final day on the Athabasca Trail would be less tiring.
We left Simon creek the next morning and proceeded at a good rate of speed until we reached the massive ascent to Moab Lake.
It was long and gruelling and I thought it would never end.
Once up to Moab Lake it was a short distance to the trail head which we reached at 4:30 in the afternoon thus ending one of my more memorable David Thompson related trips.