Peter Pond and the Mythic Methye
At an overgrown landing in a small cove
not far from the Saskatchewan-Alberta border,
Clearwater River runners will encounter
a path leading steeply up to a forested
ridge. A short hike into the woodland above
reveals an historic trail. Worn down by
the feet of countless aboriginal hunters,
voyageurs, pack horses and moose, and deeply
rutted by the wheels of fur-laden ox-carts,
the route extends 20 kilometres over a pine
and spruce-covered sandy ridge.
Just after navigating the last
set of rapids below Lloyd Lake,
on the upper stretch of the
Clearwater, paddlers will be
treated to the sight of vivid,
red ochre paintings on the rocky
outcroppings that line the riverbank.
These aboriginal "pictographs",
preserved by the dryness of
the steep rock face, are the
furthest north and west of all
such sites documented in Saskatchewan.
Like other remarkably similar
rock paintings across northern
Canada, they are thought to
be about 250 years old, relatively
recent archaeological evidence
of First Nations habitation
that may go back as many as
5,000 years. Beaver, Cree and
Chipewayn First Nations peoples
all have historical ties to
the Clearwater River.
The legendary Methye Portage (also known
as Portage La Loche) spans a plateau separating
the Clearwater River from Lac La Loche,
and marks a continental divide between the
Churchill and Athabasca-Mackenzie river
systems. In 1778, this short stretch of
land became one of the busiest hubs of the
19th century fur trade, opening up the rich
fur country of the North West to the merchants
The portage was no secret
to First Nations tribes, who had followed
its path since ancient times. But it was
a revelation to Peter Pond, a maverick New
England fur trader who had joined forces
with other independent traders in an effort
to bypass the fur monopoly of the Hudson's
In the spring of 1778, Pond and his 5-canoe
party of "free trader" voyageurs
slipped past Hudson Bay Company-controlled
Fort Cumberland, on the Saskatchewan River.
They began a perilous, difficult and uncharted
journey through the chain of lakes and rapids
that made up the Sturgeon-Weir River, and
the Churchill River. Eventually reaching
Lac La Loche, the Pond struggled on through
a winding creek to a sandy ridge, spurred
on by the assurances of knowledgeable aboriginal
guides, who advised him that the portage
would lead to a westward flowing river.
When he traversed the plateau and looked
out over the waters of the Clearwater River,
Peter Pond became the first white man known
to have crossed from the Hudson's Bay watershed
to the Arctic river system.
Peter Pond's discovery
of a western water route put an abrupt end
to the Hudson Bay Company's longstanding
fur trading monopoly. Since the Company's
"Rupert's Land" trading rights
extended only to lands draining into Hudson's
Bay, Peace River-Athabasca Country became
fair game for rival fur traders. Pond himself
continued immediately down the Clearwater
to the Athabasca, stopping just short of
Lake Athabasca to build a trading post.
As free traders gradually coalesced into
the Montreal-based North West Company, the
Methye Portage became a valuable advantage
over the rival Hudson's Bay Company. For
the next 40 years, the portage was the only
overland connection between east and west.
During its hundred years of active use,
thousands of tonnes of furs were hauled
up the steep embankment that bordered the
Clearwater River, and carried south to the
ragged chain of lakes and rivers that led
to the eastward-flowing Churchill River.
The trip along the portage was long and
arduous, requiring many stops, but the exorbitant
value of the pelts provided ample incentive.
Initially, Cree porters where hired to carry
the heavy packs, but horses and ox carts
were eventually pressed into service. When
the North West Company merged with the Hudson's
Bay Company in 1821, freight volumes carried
along the portage increased, with cargo
ferried from one York boat to another.
The portage was used continually until
1886, when it was replaced by an alternate
route from Edmonton north to Athabasca Landing.
In addition to furs, the Methye Portage
also carried a steady stream of explorers,
adventurers and entrepreneurs. Among the
notable figures that crossed the ridge were
David Thompson, Sir Alexander Mackenzie,
Sir John Franklin and Sir George Simpson.
Today, the historic trail is marked by
a National Historic Plaque which commemorates
its role as a major doorway to the west.
The North West
Company: Fur Trading Upstart
When a group of Montreal merchants under
the leadership of Simon McTavish officially
created the North West Company in 1783,
they met with opposition from another independent
firm, Gregory and McLeod. The two companies
finally merged in 1787, but dissension continued
to plague the young business. Sir Alexander
Mackenzie, McTavish's partner, broke away
to form yet another rival, the XY Company.
Mackenzie reunited with the North West Company
when McTavish died in 1804.
The fledgling alliance of fur traders and
Montreal merchants that sent Peter Pond
into the uncharted waters of the Northwest
was born of a bitter rivalry with the Hudson's
Bay Company. Prior to 1783, the group was
a loose conglomeration of French and Scottish
merchants and voyageurs, all seeking to
operate independently of the English-dominated
Rupert's Land monopoly.
In addition to finding an overland route
to the waterways of the west, the North
West Company also expanded into the United
States. The Southwest Company, established
by American businessman John Jacob Astor,
was at various times a rival and an ally,
and led to North West Company interests
on the Pacific Northwest coast.
By 1810, rivalry between the North
West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company
had become bitter and sometimes violent.
Years of conflict, including tragic confrontations
with Lord Selkirk's Red River settlers,
eventually led to the absorption of the
North West Company by the Hudson's Bay Company
in 1821. In spite of its stormy history and
often dubious business practices, the adventurous
spirit which characterized the North West
Company led to some of the greatest exploration
expeditions of the era. Alexander Mackenzie's
voyages to the Arctic and the Pacific and
David Thompson's surveys of the west were
all carried out in the course of North West