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David Thompson: Vol IV ~ Treacherous Crossing, 1808 : Articles & Resources

by Donna Ward, Northwoods Press


Canoe on the Fraser RiverMen had died at this very spot on the Kootenai River, being dashed to pieces as their canoe went into the vortex of a whirlpool. As the spring warmth melted the snow the rivers became more swollen each day, boiling and churning their way through canyon walls. This was dangerous country. Only the roughest and bravest could survive, and even then their chances were slim. Studying the river with steely resolve was one of the wild country’s bravest explorers, tougher and more determined than anyone else.


“We need expert help,” David Thompson stated to his companions. “We cannot traverse these mountains in this weather without finding an Indian to guide us.”


Abandoning the canoes and weak with hunger, the five traders hoisted their heavy load of furs and stumbled over the sharp rocks which cut their shoes to ribbons. Surely along this trail they would come to an Indian village, but how far would that be? In the evening, they came upon the remains of a rancid antelope carcass which an eagle was tearing at. Famished, they boiled and ate it and were sick all night.


David Thompson knew this would be a difficult passage, but he had to get away from Kootenae House before the Piegan Indians decided once again to come against the traders. He left early in the spring to get the furs to the partners in the east. Was he leading his men to their death?


The next morning they staggered into a Kootenai camp. The villagers were welcoming but could only spare them a few dried carp and some bitter moss bread, made of the black moss which grows on tree trunks.


The old Kootenai chief told Thompson “A few days ago, forty-seven Piegans came to our camp. They stole thirty-five of our horses and I killed one of the enemy.”


David Thompson sighed. Alas, the war would continue! “Is there anyone who will guide us on our journey?” he asked.


After much persuasion they secured a guide and with renewed confidence they mounted horses and were on their way. Within a few days the men were stopped again at the edge of a rushing torrent. They chopped down a large cedar tree which fell across the river as a bridge. With much difficulty, they hauled all their packs and then, with strong ropes, their horses through the water. Finally, exhausted, they began to set up camp while their guide went hunting. The hunter was unsuccessful and they all went to bed hungry. The next morning, they discovered the Kootenai guide was gone with all his belongings. Now their situation was desperate.


“Let us pray to the Almighty to relieve us,” David told his men. He sent two traders back to the Kootenai camp and not one warrior in the village was willing to journey during this dangerous flood season.


“You are all cowards,” cried the chief. “These traders bring us arms, ammunition and all kinds of good things. I will lead them myself.”


Much encouraged, the reunited troop stumbled on, up and down steep mountainsides. They crossed many mountain streams over felled logs, but coming again to a swollen river, the chief traversed up and down the river bank. “This is too wide,” he said. “We will have to make a canoe.”


David Thompson wrote in his journal, “Hungry and tired with heavy hearts we set to work and got the materials ready to put together the next morning. In the evening our guide returned, quite undetermined what to do; the sharp rocks had cut our horses, they could be traced by their blood.”1

Log Jam in the Canyon

 Morice Canyon Log Jam shows thow how the water flowed during the spring floods compared to the depth in the photo. Taken by Jerome Charaoui (cc by sa) Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.






The next morning, their guide decided to forego the canoe construction and the group continued on up the riverside. At length, they came to another Indian encampment, and received food and directions. By now they had been tramping for six weeks. Rivers, which in autumn, were no more than a foot deep in water, became impassible rushing floods in the spring.


The party continued on, struggling each day to find game, toiling up and down through rugged country. They came to a place where a river was narrow but the current was strong. They cut down large cedars and pines to fall across the river and form a bridge, but the torrent was so rapid that every tree thrown in was broken or swept away. As their last hope, they cut a huge tree, three meters thick, but as it fell across the stream, it bent at the middle and was caught by the current. The top was torn from the opposite bank and the huge timber tossed like a straw headlong down the river. Despairing, they laboured on to a place where the river split into five channels and they had to struggle over each crossing. At the deepest spot, David lost sixty pounds of beaver furs when the rope broke and the package tumbled away through the rapids. Exploring the west was David’s passion, but the partners wanted furs.  Without them, his employment would be gone and he felt the loss deeply.


At last, after having tramped through waist deep flooded meadows; fording many swollen rivers; hiking on crippled feet through cold and hunger, the traders finally made it to the crest of the most easterly range of the Rockies. Their guide bid them a hearty farewell and they separated ways. David Thompson gave thanks to God for bringing them safely through this treacherous land.


This story is true, taken from the journals of David Thompson published as David Thompson’s Narrative. They can be viewed online at the Champlain Society.



Thompson, David. David Thompson's Narrative, 1784-1812, p. 284


 © 2007 Donna Ward