We are still on foot, when a cry from the Kid hurries us to the hilltop. Reaching the crest, we catch our breaths. Down below lies the little village of “The Landing.” That sparkling flood beyond proves the Athabasca to be a live, northward-trending river, a river capable of carrying us with it, and no mere wiggly line on a map.
“I am the land that listens, I am the land that
Steeped in eternal beauty, crystalline waters and woods;
I wait for the men who will win me—and I will not be won in a day;
And I will not be won by weaklings, subtle, suave and mild,
But by men with the hearts of vikings, and the simple faith of a child.”
[Illustration: Athabasca Landing]
Athabasca Landing, a funnel through which percolates the whole trade between the wheat-belt and the Arctic, is the true gateway of the North. Seeing our baggage tucked away in the bar-room of the Grand Union Hotel, and snatching a hasty supper, we walk down to the river, its edges still encrusted with fragments of winter ice. It is an incomparable sunset, the light a veritable spilt spectrum, spreading itself with prodigality over the swift river.
The Athabasca, after dipping to the south, here takes a sudden northward bend. Its source is in the crest of the continent far back in the Committee’s Punch-Bowl of the Rockies, the general trend of the river being northeasterly. It is the most southerly of the three great tributaries of the mighty Mackenzie, and from its source in Rockies to embouchure in Athabasca Lake it is about seven hundred and seventy-five miles long; through a wooded valley two miles wide it runs with perhaps an average width of two hundred and fifty yards.
We are in latitude 55 deg. North, and between us and the Arctic lies an unknown country, which supports but a few hundred Indian trappers and the fur-traders of the Ancient Company in their little posts, clinging like swallows’ nests to the river banks. The wheat-plains to the south of us are so fertile and accessible that the tide of immigration has stopped south of where we stand. But that there stretches beyond us a country rich in possibilities we know, and one day this land, unknown and dubbed “barren” because unknown, will support its teeming millions. Chimerical? Why so?
Parallels of latitude are great illuminators. When we run this line of 55 deg. westward what do we strike in Asia? The southern boundary of the Russian Province of Tobolsk. Superimpose a map of that Province on a map of Canada and we find that the great Mackenzie waterway which we are to follow cuts Tobolsk almost directly through the centre. In the year 1900, Russian Tobolsk produced twenty-one million bushels of grain, grazed two and a half million head of live stock, exported one and a half million dollars’ worth of butter, and supported a population of one and a half million souls. There is not one climatic condition obtaining in the Asiatic Province that this similar section of Canada which we are about to enter does not enjoy.