National Geographic : 1955 Aug
Across Canada by Mackenzie's Track Following the Fur Trader's Canoe Highway, Author and Family Find Northland Travel Still an Adventure BY RALPH GRAY National Geographic Magazine Staff T WELVE years before Lewis and Clark blazed their historic trail across Amer ica, fur trader Alexander Mackenzie painted his name in vermilion-stained bear grease on the rugged coast of British Colum bia and thanked God for bringing him safely through Canada's wilderness. This first man to cross the continent north of narrow Mexico was as spellbound by the limitless and fruitful land as are today's trans Canada travelers. Struggling westward, he reported "mountains and valleys... wide spreading forest... lakes and rivers" suc ceeding each other in bewildering array. Sixteen decades later, I traced the Scottish explorer's general route from Montreal to the tiny Pacific fishing port of Bella Coola-and saw the many changes man had made. The beaver-pelt provinces which Mackenzie added to Montreal's fur empire had flowered into farms, cities, pulp and paper operations, fish eries, oil fields, lumbering and mining com munities (color map, page 198). "Passions and Fears ... to Control" Mackenzie and his companions "possessed no accommodations or conveniences but such as could be contained in the burden on [their] shoulders." I traveled in a Plymouth station wagon, also by airplane, boat, jeep, and horseback. To a list of other hardships recounted in the preface of his journal, Mackenzie added, "I had, also, the passions and fears of [my followers] to control and subdue." Here I was one with him, for my three children accompanied me, and they were just of an age to need occasional controlling and subduing. But after three months and 15,000 miles of living out of a station-wagon tail gate, I had to admit that Judith, 13, Mary Ellen, 11, and Will, 7, had come of age as National Geographic travelers. For their mother the trip provided the first real opportunity of seeing her native land. Jean, my wife, was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, two years after her parents had migrated from Scotland. The family moved to the United States when Jean was only 9. "I've never been back," she reminded the children as we crossed the border and headed for the St. Lawrence River and Montreal.* Now all thoughts turned to picking up "Mackenzie's Track." I followed a side road that ran to the river. On the left bank stood Canada's leading metropolis-the French world's second city and one of North Amer ica's busiest ports (page 192). Rapids Mark the Trail's Start There, at the head of deepwater navigation, French Canada long ago planted its most flourishing outpost. In midstream we saw wild waters frothing at their last rocky ob struction before tidewater. "Lachine Rapids," I said. "They stopped the French ships. But beyond, Indian canoes took explorers on through the wilderness, searching for a Northwest Passage." A birch-bark canoe highway pushed inland via lakes and rivers, a veritable national road of Canada. Guided by Indians, Champlain marked the trail along the Ottawa and French Rivers to Lake Huron's Georgian Bay. Others extended it into Lake Superior. Following the Lake of the Woods route, a native-born Canadian, La Verendrye, arrived at the site of Winnipeg in 1738; there a fort was built. Furs were the lure. National rivalries over beaver pelts helped bring about the downfall of French Canada. Britain formally annexed the land in 1763, about the time Alexander Mackenzie was born in Scotland. He arrived *See "Sea to Lakes on the St. Lawrence," by George W. Long, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1950. In previous articles in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, Mr. Gray has brought American pioneer history vividly to life by revisiting the scenes of great events and presenting them as they appear today. His "Vacation Tour Through Lincoln Land," in the February, 1952, Magazine, won a Freedoms Founda tion award. In the June, 1953, issue appeared his memorable article, "Following the Trail of Lewis and Clark." Mr. Gray, Chief of the National Geographic Society's School Service, retraced Mackenzie's track just 160 years after the Scot reached the Pacific. The photographic survey of the route in color re quired nearly two years, 1953-54. - The Editor.