[Illustration: Alexander Mackenzie, from a Painting of the Explorer.]
Far north of the Missouri beyond the borderlands flows the Saskatchewan. As far north again, beyond the Saskatchewan, flows another great river, the Athabasca, into Athabasca Lake, on whose blue shores to the north lies a little white-washed fort of some twenty log houses, large barn-like stores, a Catholic chapel, an Episcopal mission, and a biggish residence of pretence for the chief trader. This is Fort Chipewyan. At certain seasons Indian tepees dot the surrounding plains; and bronze-faced savages, clad in the ill-fitting garments of white people, shamble about the stores, or sit haunched round the shady sides of the log houses, smoking long-stemmed pipes. These are the Chipewyans come in from their hunting-grounds; but for the most part the fort seems chiefly populated by regiments of husky dogs, shaggy-coated, with the sharp nose of the fox, which spend the long winters in harness coasting the white wilderness, and pass the summers basking lazily all day long except when the bell rings for fish time, when half a hundred huskies scramble wildly for the first meat thrown.
A century ago Chipewyan was much the same as to-day, except that it lay on the south side of the lake. Mails came only once in two years instead of monthly, and rival traders were engaged in the merry game of slitting each other’s throats. All together, it wasn’t exactly the place for ambition to dream; but ambition was there in the person of Alexander Mackenzie, the young fur trader, dreaming what he hardly dared hope. Business men fight shy of dreamers; so Mackenzie told his dreams to no one but his cousin Roderick, whom he pledged to secrecy. For fifty years the British government had offered a reward of 20,000 pounds to any one who should discover a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The hope of such a passageway had led many navigators on bootless voyages; and here was Mackenzie with the same bee in his bonnet. To the north of Chipewyan he saw a mighty river, more than a mile wide in places, walled in by great ramparts, and flowing to unknown seas. To the west he saw another river rolling through the far mountains. Where did this river come from, and where did both rivers go? Mackenzie was not the man to leave vital questions unanswered. He determined to find out; but difficulties lay in the way. He couldn’t leave the Athabascan posts. That was overcome by getting his cousin Roderick to take charge. The Northwest Fur Company, which had succeeded the French fur traders of Quebec and Montreal when Canada passed from the hands of the French to the English, wouldn’t assume any cost or risk for exploring unknown seas. This was more niggardly than the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had paid all cost of outlay for its explorers; but Mackenzie assumed risk and cost himself. Then the Indians hesitated to act as guides; so Mackenzie hired guides when he could, seized them by compulsion when he couldn’t hire them, and went ahead without guides when they escaped.