Across the Rocky Mountains in a Birchbark Canoe

Over three summers Robert Twigger led an expedition in a birchbark canoe from Lake Athebasca, on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border in Central Northern Canada, to Bella Coola on the Pacific coast.


The journey followed the one taken by Alexander Mackenzie who in 1793, looking for a trade route, crossed the Rocky Mountains in a birchbark canoe; becoming the first white man to cross North America.


Robert's account of the journey is written up in his book 'Voyageur - Across the Rocky Mountains in a Birchbark Canoe'.


Here is an extract from the first chapter:

“I have dined with Lords and Ladies, chatted with Queen Victoria and have been formally received by the Emperor Napoleon III, yet my most cherished memories come from a leaky tent, a bark canoe and the vast and mysterious wilderness of Canada.” Sir William Logan, Founder of the Geological Survey of Canada 1842 Part One “For most men, rest is stagnation, activity madness.” Epicurus


-CHAPTER ONE- Pitt Rivers Dreaming

The canoe was not silver coloured like a silver birch but light golden brown. It sat on a vast expanse of water. The water was still and double sided, reaching down into its depths through the mirror image of the boat, the trees and the sky. The intensity of the sky's blueness seemed necessary. It had something to do with the greenness of the pines. For some reason I was wearing a weatherbeaten buckskin jacket with long fringes and a coonskin cap with a furry ringed tail hanging down my neck. A collie dog panted in the bow of the boat and the sun glinted off the sights of my rifle. All my gear was in a canvas Duluth bag with a tumpline, a head band, to make the carrying easier. Was I alone? I couldn't tell. In this waking dream the most solid figure was the boat, fashioned from bark and just floating, floating in its perfect way. Like the water the boat rested on, the dream had depth. It was made from memories and desire and was as real as anything else in my dreamlike suburban existence.

I was writer living on the edge of Oxford with a reliable Japanese car parked in my drive and a fistful of unpaid bills on my exquisite pine block kitchen table. I was forever looking out of the window and seeing the wind in the eucalyptus trees that towered above everyone else's tiny garden. Then one day the trees grew too tall and they cut the tops off giving me a better view of everyone's satellite dish and TV antennae. At night I pissed in my back garden, and zipping up I'd try to recognize stars in the night sky through the sodium haze of the streetlights. By day I wrestled with earning a living for my small family. This involved large amounts of time not writing in a shed at the bottom of the garden.


The shed was homebuilt and on hot days smelt of pine resin and wood preservative. It encouraged the dream. I had once built a coracle as a child and floated inside it along a stream near my house. I can still feel the immense shock of the cold water as the thing capsized on its maiden voyage. I dragged with a friend an old war surplus aluminium kayak along a wider river that was mostly too shallow for paddling. That took one day twenty five years ago and it's still as sharp as everyday reality in my mind.


This dream of travel and adventure needed appeasement. I took to visiting the Pitt Rivers museum where native boats form part of the display. Modern museums with their worthy instructional aims bored me as a child. I only liked the science museum in London and the Pitt Rivers Ethnological Museum in Oxford. The Pitt Rivers was a magician's cave of artifacts, with Japanese katana and Chinese matchlocks on the walls and dug out canoes suspended from the high ceiling. In a central glass cabinet were shrunken heads from Peru, including, for comparison, a modern one shrunken for the tourist trade. Tourist shrunken heads have furry faces- real ones are shaved smooth. In between not writing I took to visiting again the Pitt Rivers, which has, thankfully, not changed since my childhood. I went alone and stared deeply at Inuit anoraks made from chewed seal skin and Naga spears decorated with human hair. The exercise of walking to the museum helped too. I was forever trying to get my life into balance: stiff walk, weird exhibits then back to the more mundane necessities of life- or so I half-hoped.


In the museum bookshop I found a pamphlet entitled “The Algonquin Birchbark canoe”. At the cash till the woman said, “You've seen our one have you?”

The Pitt Rivers is famously dark. Those with poor eyesight have to squint at the labels penned in faded Indian ink. The corners of the museum are especially dark and in twenty five years of visiting I had never really taken much notice of what treasures the corners hid. But armed with the pamphlet I went back. And there, high up on the wall of the darkest corner was a birchbark canoe. It had been there all along, waiting to be discovered, dark brown with age, the seams sealed with blackened pitch or resin, the pine root sewing fist tight and reflecting the small amount of light there was. It was too high up to touch. I could see how I'd missed it all these years. It was set back over a display cabinet, hard to see unless you were looking for it. I took the pamphlet home and showed it to my son, who was three and he gurgled with delight at the picture on the cover- a canoe on a blue lake floating on its exact reflection.

I thought the way to deal with dreams was to hand them on to your kids. Pass the buck as you earn the next one. I took my son to the woods for the first time to find a birchtree and its fabled bark. I had permission from the forest manager to fell a tree that needed felling anyway, and remove its bark. I was far more excited than my son, who, being tiny and not very steady on his feet, soon lost interest in the novelty of tripping over tree roots and falling into nettle patches. Never mind- I was introducing my son to the woods. This was how a lifelong passion might begin. He cheered up when we found the tree. It was blocking a path and needed to be removed. I hoped it would provide enough bark for me to make a model of a canoe for my son. I was full of such good intentions and largely ignoring my son who was prattling away, “What's this in the hole? It's a buzzy fly. It's a big black fly. Go away buzz fly. AAAAAAAAAGGGGGHHHH.”

It's a sound no parent wants to hear. My son had just been stung on the finger by something black that buzzed. Maybe a hornet or a rare kind of killer bumblebee. He was sobbing and his finger was swelling mightily. He hated the woods. Probably for life. I ran through the trees carrying him to the car and drove at high speed to the nearest pharmacy obsessing about analaphtic shock reactions and hyper allergies. It was a hot day and warm in the car and when I came out of the pharmacists with the drugs he was fast asleep in his special carseat, head drooped forward over the harness. His finger was already going down, looking normal again.


In my spare time I took to walking further, across the fields and even wading through the Cherwell river to make things more exciting. Wading through rivers with your boots around your neck was immensely satisfying. I felt my range had suddenly increased. It was almost like having a boat. Then one day I was attacked by a black swan whilst I was midstream at a point where the river bed was particulary rocky and not at all conducive to moving fast. I retreated with stubbed toes. Beaten back by a mere bird! A rather large bully of a bird I might add, but still? I was going soft at the edges.


The way dreams communicate with us is through coincidence. The coincidences keep piling up until you can't ignore them any longer. Out of the blue a friend sent me an anthology of travel writing. One of the pieces was an extract from the journal of Alexander Mackenzie. The first man to cross North America, fifteen years before Lewis and Clark. He traveled by birchbark canoe. The journal was out of print and I almost forgot about it. A few weeks later, in a secondhand bookshop in a neighboring town I was looking through the Arctic/Antarctic collection when I came across Mackenzie's journals, with notes, expensive at £50 but it had to be bought. I read the story of his expedition from Lake Athabasca to the Pacific Ocean that night at my pine block kitchen table. It was a story involving compass directions, flies, attacks by Indians, mutinous French voyageurs, grizzly bears, pemmican, wrecked canoes rebuilt from trees at hand, deadly rapids, trade goods and beaver pelts, getting lost and seeing for the first time the aquatic jewel of the Pacific ocean caught in the chink of two snow capped mountains.


The dream had become something I could rely on. An unwarranted sense of certainty was growing and I thought, maybe, just maybe I will build a birchbark canoe and be the second person to cross north America in this way. In a flurry of research I had discovered that Mackenzie had taken a route that was indirect and never repeated, not until the modern era of plastic boats and outboard motors. If I followed, or rather we followed, I'd need a team, the exact route in a birchbark canoe we'd be the first to retrace his route in a traditional craft since 1793.


Jean-Francois was my new friend, a telephone friend I spoke to each night from the junk room in my house which had become the command center of my 'expedition'. I use inverted commas not out of any sense of modesty but because at that time I was only able to think about my endeavors with a kind of ironical glee- I was bunking off, doing something only other people such as Thor Heyerdahl and Ranulph Fiennes did- go on an expedition. A part of me refused to take seriously the concept of 'expeditions' in an age that routinely expected to soon be sending people to Mars. Expeditions were for poor deluded fools who regretted being born in the late twentieth century. Expeditions were for people who couldn't accept the fact that the world was all explored. Expeditions were for wealthy nitwits looking for kicks in speedboats and balloons. And another part of me, the part that insisted on using the word 'expedition' despite having to make the ironic concession, knew that all of the above were lies.


Anyway, I was talking to my new pal Jean-Francois who I had tracked down to the Yukon, and who made birchbark canoes as part of an ongoing art project, when suddenly he turned nasty on me. “You need someone like me on such a trip. You cross a lot of Indian Reserves. They do a lot of drinking on the Reserves and they don't like intruders, Europeans.” Despite his French accent the word carried the implication that Jean-Francois was somehow an honorary Indian, “I speak their language. A leetle,” he added, a rare concession to modesty, “I know how they think.” “And I never go anywhere in the bush without a gun.” I had found him through the internet, and though he seemed promising at first, full of enthusiasm for building a canoe and traveling with me, he soon started imposing conditions and when I resisted, dropping sinister hints. “I know your type,” he said, “You won't make eet.” The internet was full of concerned advice. Another chance correspondent in a canoe chatroom told me: “I stand in awe of the achievements of men like Mackenzie and John Rae. Alongside them our modern achievements look so puny. I have traveled some of the rivers they traveled and goodness knows how they did it. I counsel you strongly to have a four wheel drive back-up, satellite telephone and perhaps a small outboard motor for convenience.” What put off most modern canoeists was that the journey went over a mountain range. And to climb that range meant paddling over a thousand miles against the current, largely along the inaccurately named Peace River. Against a current that could be wickedly powerful. Mackenzie wrote of the Peace: “It was with the utmost difficulties that we could prevent the canoe from being dashed to pieces against the rocks by the violence of the eddies, the river above us, as far as we could see, was one white sheet of foaming water.” Another Internet buddy was briefer. “Do you want to drown? Because you will.”


In the late seventeenth century the Pacific coast of North America had been visited by European sailors. European fur traders had pushed from the Atlantic as far as Lake Athabasca in Northern Canada. But, apart from the narrower isthmus of Mexico, no one had linked the two up and crossed the entire continent. The impulse to cross America was not merely one of exploration. There was the possibility of great wealth in obtaining fur, needed in Europe for the 'beaver' hats everyone demanded. There was also the political advantage of claiming territory. In 1793, Twelve years before Lewis and Clark's monumental expedition, which is often wrongly ascribed as 'the first to cross America', Alexander Mackenzie, a Scotsman with nine companions in twenty five foot birchbark canoe, became the first to cross North America. Mackenzie was born sometime between 1762 and 1764 in Stornoway, the chief town of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. He grew up on a farm and his mother died when he was still a child. It is likely that his first language was Gaelic. At 12 years of age he emigrated with his family to New York and then Montreal. At 16, he entered the fur trade as a clerk in a fur warehouse. At 22 he was offered a partnership “on condition that I would proceed to the Indian country in the following spring.” He arrived at the Athabasca River, in what is now Northern Alberta in 1787 and spent the winter with Peter Pond, a fur trader who had killed a man in a duel in Detroit. Pond was notoriously tough and difficult but he had a dream: to expand the fur business as far as the Pacific Ocean. Mackenzie learnt from Pond how to deal skillfully with native people. He also became inspired by Pond's dream. Before he was 30 he set out to achieve it.


Mackenzie's first attempt ended in failure. He reached the Arctic ocean rather than the Pacific. Two years later, in 1792, he set out again, this time with better native information. They spoke of 'the stinking lake' across the mountains. He went from the fur trading base of Fort Chipewyan and ascended the Peace River 800 km to what is now Peace River town. Here he over wintered. This was the furthest west anyone had been. The following summer he set out with nine companions: a twenty two year old assistant called Mr Mackay, six French Canadian paddlers, voyageurs, two Beaver Indian guides and a dog. To approach the mountains they had to travel continuously against the current of the mile wide Peace River. It was a most physically grueling task- day after day of paddling, towing, wading and poling against a strong current fed by glacier water from the Rockies. Slowly he clawed his way forward until he reached the Finlay River. Here he wanted to turn right, but he was persuaded by an Indian guide to go left, again against the current of the Parsnip River. He entered the narrower and narrower confines of the Rocky Mountain Trench before reaching the dry land that separates the Arctic drainage system from the Pacific. It is a gap of only 817 paces, along a muddy undulating path. After two more narrow lakes Mackenzie was now going downstream, down what he aptly named Bad River. Mackenzie wrecked the fragile canoe and almost drowned. His men spent four days gathering birchbark and pine resin and pine roots to fix it. They cut a trail through boggy forest to meet the Herrick which is a vast wide tributary of the Fraser. From then on it was easy, until the terrible canyons of the river again wrecked the boat. They rebuilt it and hid it for the return journey and set out to walk to the ocean.

Several guides had told Mackenzie of a 'grease trail' walked by natives who traded oolikan fish oil with the Nuxhalk coastal Indians. They found the trail and in 17 days walked 350 km to the Pacific coast. There Mackenzie borrowed dugouts to go a further 50 kilometres up the fiord that leads from Bella Coola. Here he finally ran into truly belligerent Indians and was forced to retreat in a hurry. On a rock that is still there today he painted 'Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land the twenty-second of July one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.' As a commercial route his was a failure. But he was first, and for that he achieved glory, riches and a knighthood though his health was ruined. He died in his native Scotland before he was 58.


One of the diseases of modernity is an inordinate longing for the primitive. I had fallen victim to that disease long ago. As a teenager I had loved the books of Thor Heyerdahl, which, despite their academic intention to test theories about long distance travel by primitive raft, are really about re-experiencing the primitive, and so finding adventure in a world that denies it. Building a primitive bark canoe, a design that had not changed for thousands of years I could do, in my own small way, what Heyerdahl had done. I could get back to the primitive and find adventure.


Instead of proving an academic theory my alibi would be tracking Alexander Mackenzie and his Voyageurs. The Voyageurs were the men who paddled the fur trade canoes across the lakes and rivers of North America. Most of them were French. The ones who were good at singing were paid $5 a year more, as were the bowman and the steersman. They sat in great canoes up to thirty six feet long each with a waterproof bundle of belongings and a two quart capacity sponge at his feet. The sponge was for dealing with leaks. Voyageurs wore red caps and colourful cummerbunds and drank rum until they fell over and passed out. They swore in French and mocked anyone who couldn't carry at least two bundles of fur on a portage. A bundle weighed 90lbs, and a portage, which was a carrying of boat and belongings between two pieces of water could be anything from 100 metres to twenty miles. Interestingly it is possible to cross Canada by water making no portage longer than 13km, though the route is very circuitous, but it shows how much water there is in the place.


Mackenzie was a cut above the Voyageurs in terms of ambition and self-education, though he was every bit as tough. He used a ratty old cloak as a sleeping bag, for a pillow he used the box containing his sextant. In eight days he traversed the return journey from the coast, 350 kms of hard mountainous terrain, in shoes that had fallen apart. Almost everyday he had to deal with the mutinous voyageurs who didn't mind hard work but objected to going up rivers that promised nothing except death in swirling water or at the hands of angry Indians. I made a list on the back of a drawing my son gave me of a canoe. He had copied it from pictures in Edwin Tappan Adney's classic “Skin boats and bark canoes of North America”. It wasn't a bad drawing but he had filled the boat with stick people. I didn't have any. I needed a team. I needed a boat. I needed training.


The list went: Qualifications? Team? Training? Birchbark canoe?


Qualifications. My own experience of canoeing was negligible. I wasn't even sure of the right way to paddle a Canadian canoe, though I had some experience of kayaks. As a teenager I'd taken a course in eskimo rolling at the local swimming pool. Eskimoes always wear their anorak hoods up when they roll, as the Pitt Rivers exhibit demonstrates. Unfortunately in the swimming pool we had to roll again and again without wearing a hood. For days after my ears would be dribbling chlorinated water. Perhaps it was the shape of my ears, tailor made for scooping up water. Whatever the reason I was put off the eskimo approach to canoeing. But Canadian canoes were different. You can't roll them for one thing unless they're full of flotation material. They're bigger and more comfortable. I'd done a lot of camping- but most of it in places like Hampshire. I'd also been on a survival course run by survival expert Ray Mears- but that was also in Hampshire. I had made several long trips in jungles in Indonesia- but always with guides and people who knew how to gut a civet cat or build a quick bamboo bridge. Never been on my own in serious wilderness.


Team. My first thought for a companion was Ben. He was Australian, very tall, strong and had learnt to put up with me when we shared a tiny room with two others in Japan. Ben liked swimming in rivers and playing a tin whistle. He had the usual Australian expertise with the outback. His parents had been naked hippies living in the 1970s and Ben had been toughened by the experience. He was able to exist on low quality food whilst sustaining elevating conversation. He worked as a computer animator but was so keen he quit the job to come on the trip. A team of one. I'd need others, at the very least one other. It would have to be someone with experience of paddling birchbark canoes in Canada- a skill that is not common. The chances of finding that person in Canada were greatest so I put off searching and concentrated instead on training.


Training. Everyday I walked briskly down to Bardwell road punt station and hired a plastic Canadian canoe. The puntmaster, a large, underemployed man with goggle eyes was something of a canoeing enthusiast. He gave me a few hints as to the right way to 'J' stroke. This is a canoe paddling stroke that is awkward to get used to- I'd have to go over five hundred miles before it felt even slightly natural, but there on the still, weedy calm of the Cherwell river I practiced with avid concentration. I went both with and against the current on the little Cherwell and found no difference between the two. This gave me a welcome but entirely false sense of optimism. The google eyed man watched me with increasing interest. “You going on a trip somewhere?” he asked. “Canada,” I replied, “Across the Rocky mountains in a birchbark canoe.” He looked at me with disbelief. Then he realized I was serious. “You do it mate,” he gestured vaguely at the neat lawns of the houses that bordered the river Cherwell, as if dismissing them.“You fuckin' do it.” Now all I needed was a boat.