Twelve miles below the last exposure of the tar-sands and about two miles above the mouth of Red Earth Creek a copious saline spring bubbles up, and there is an escape of sulphurretted hydrogen whose unmistakable odour follows the boat for half a mile. Kipling was right when he said, “Smells are surer than sounds or sights.”
We speak only of what we observe from the deck of a boat as we pass down this wonderful river. What is hidden is a richer story which only the coming of the railroad can bring to light.
FORT CHIPEWYAN PAST AND PRESENT
“Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their humble joys and destiny obscure.”
At seven in the morning of Sunday, June 21st, we enter Lake Athabasca, and catch our first glimpse of Fort Chipewyan. An acceptance of the invitation, “Come, shake your leg,” has kept the men busy half the night over a hot sequence of Red River jigs among “pieces” on the lower deck, and we have this superb sweep almost to ourselves.
The great lake-scape is blue and green and grey and opaline as the sun strikes it and the surface breaks to a south wind. Ours is the one craft on this inland sea, but overhead a whole navy of clouds manoeuvres, the ships of the ghostly argosy doubling themselves in the lake. As we draw in, the village takes shape. What haunts us as we look at the white houses, that crescent beach of pinkest sand? We have it! It is a print, an old woodcut of “Russian America” that we used to pore over in the days when one wore “pinnies” of flour-sacking, and “hankies” were made from meal-bags.
At one end of the village are the little smithy of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the pretentious buildings of their establishment. At the other gibbous horn of this Athens of the Athabasca rise the steeples and convent-school of the Roman Church, with the free-trading-post of Colin Fraser. Midway between is the little Church of England, and higher up and farther back the Barracks of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. The white-washed homes of the employes of The Company, little match-boxes dazzling in the sun, stretch from one end of the beach to the other. In among the half-breed populace stalk policeman and priest, red jacket keeping the dark-skinned people straight in this world and black robe laying out conditions for the world to come. So is Chipewyan fate chequered with the rouge et noir of compulsion and expediency.
[Illustration: Fort Chipewyan, Lake Athabasca]
Fort Chipewyan is the oldest post in the North, and every boulder of red gneissic rock, if we could interrogate it, has a story to tell. Peter Pond, of the North-West Company, in 1778 built a post on the Athabasca River thirty miles to the south of the lake. The far-seeing Alexander Mackenzie, in the interests of the same company, sent his cousin Roderick ten years later to build Fort Chipewyan on the lake, and for over a century this was the entrepot and emporium of the whole North. The Hudson’s Bay Company meanwhile were maintaining a post, Fort Wedderburne, not far away on Potato Island, and upon the amalgamation of the Companies in 1821 they took possession of the present Fort Chipewyan.