[Illustration: Traders’ Boats running the Rapids of the Athabasca River.]
Pierre de la Verendrye had heard of a region to the south much frequented by the Assiniboine Indians, who had conducted Radisson to the Sea of the North fifty years before—the Forks where the Assiniboine River joins the Red, and the city of Winnipeg stands to-day. It was reported that game was plentiful here. Two hundred tepees of Assiniboines were awaiting the explorer. His forces were worn with their marching, but in a few weeks the glaze of ice above the fathomless drifts of snow would be too rotten for travel, and not until June would the riverways be clear for canoes. But such a scant supply of goods had his partners sent up that poor De la Verendrye had nothing to trade with the waiting Assiniboines. Sending his sons forward to reconnoitre the Forks of the Assiniboine,—the modern Winnipeg,—he set out for Montreal as soon as navigation opened, taking with him fourteen great canoes of precious furs.
The fourteen canoe loads proved his salvation. As long as there were furs and prospects of furs, his partners would back the enterprise of finding the Western Sea. The winter of 1738 was spent as the guest of the governor at Chateau St. Louis. The partners were satisfied, and plucked up hope of their venture. They would advance provisions in proportion to earnings. By September he was back at Fort Maurepas on Lake Winnipeg, pushing for the undiscovered bourne of the Western Sea. Leaving orders for trade with the chief clerk at Maurepas, De la Verendrye picked out his most intrepid men; and in September of 1738, for the first time in history, white men glided up the ochre-colored, muddy current of the Red for the Forks of the Assiniboine. Ten Cree wigwams and two war chiefs awaited De la Verendrye on the low flats of what are now known as South Winnipeg. Not the fabled Western Sea, but an illimitable ocean of rolling prairie—the long russet grass rising and falling to the wind like waves to the run of invisible feet—stretched out before the eager eyes of the explorer. Northward lay the autumn-tinged brushwood of Red River. South, shimmering in the purple mists of Indian summer, was Red River Valley. Westward the sun hung like a red shield, close to the horizon, over vast reaches of prairie billowing to the sky-line in the tide of a boundless ocean. Such was the discovery of the Canadian Northwest.