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David Thompson

I am a huge fan of David Thompson. He was one of the original expanders of the West, definitely undercelebrated as one who opened the west for those, like us, who follow.
I read his Narratives – and you can too. Windows to the 1800’s: they speak like today. Some ponderous editor got hold of them and prefaced them with 45 or so pages of bleak and pointless recounting of the journeys.
Then at page 50 or so – brilliant clarity and an original voice speaks through the ages directly to us. No Victorian prose here!
A polar bear poked its considerable head into a winter hunt tent near York Factory. The squaw wife faced down the bear and wailed away with a hammer at its skull, forcing a retreat – then turned her rage at her husband’s cowardice in shinnying up a pole – she blasting away while cursing her useless spouse, and expelling the howling bear. Wow. Life on the northwest frontier. Thompson, who as a mere teenager pressed into the Hudson’s Bay Company, was then a reluctant apprentice. He transcended that to capitalize on astronomy and surveying learnings from his British school and put them to good use.
A later vignette:
Thompson, hearing falls ahead near Chipewyan, way up north near where Alberta meets Saskatchewan now. Reacting a bit slow, goes over. Two indian guides, supplies, sextant and all as he stands in the tail of the canoe, then head over ass hundreds of miles from nearest humans while all tumbles over helplessly, shattered and scattered on the rocks below and in the rushing waters. Emerging spluttering having recovered a few vitals [including sextant and surveying notes – that’s what he was all about!] only to discover the skin of the sole of his foot had been torn aside. Left on the rivershore with one canoe, almost nothing for supply, injured, Indian guides still there. And he made it back!
To the point. Thompson paddling through unmapped waterways on behalf of the NorthWest company from Thunder Bay westward. They were the entrepreneurial upstart crew – Canadians having pulled away from HBC – the old ponderous Britco who first opened the north via Churchill. The breakaways came up through the Great Lakes and made their way to Winnipeg. They harnessed the energy of the voyageurs – the indomitable Québécois who powered canoes – well, anywhere through the West.
And I’m sitting regally at 38000′ eating WestJet chips and looking down at the labyrinth of lakes. I can clearly see a way through!
Go up this waterway, dodge left, go around this curving shoreline, across the open lake, to the opposite end, a short portage leads to the next course. The shining sparkling water, all laid out for me like the map he would create faithfully and painfully from ground truth.
It’s so easy from up here. I don’t have to contend with the flies, the confusing marsh land, the as yet undecoded track that might lead from here – to where?
Thomson just took it on – and described it, most eloquently. To take it to his eye level, using currents and intuitive senses [and, gallantly ascribed, the gifts of his indian guides, whom he generously credits] to find a way.
And find a way, he did. Not before seeing the first Indian villages ravaged by smallpox. In the southwest of Alberta, and northwest of Montana, coming upon settlements decimated – soulless. A few dispirited remainders trying to understand what curse had visited them with dead all around in a pleasant peaceful prairie summer.
This all came up later when Elaine and I were driving past Blaeberry. On TC1 north of Golden, you come to the plant that sources all the white sand for regional golf courses. Then you skip over a narrow canyon defile near the wolf sanctuary where the Blaeberry river issues from the Howse pass.
Here, Thompson wintered, in the early 1800’s. He had come over Athabaska Pass and reached the Columbia. Building a cabin, they hunkered in, waited out the spring, then went south, not north. They could have gone the way of the Big Bend but ended up feeling their way down the Kootenay through the area we now know as Cranbrook via Moyie Valley through the very tough country of the Spokane Indians.
The passage is remarkably described. He rejoined the Columbia near the Tri-cities south of Spokane and flowed downstream all the way to the outflow at Astoria. His arrival at the Pacific in 1812 evoked astonishment from the fur trappers manning the fort there. “Where’d you guys come from?”
Thompson’s description of encountering pockets of Indians who knew nothing of those up or downstream, but of receiving their hospitality, just continuing sailing on into the unknown – are riveting.

Can’t see any remembrance of Thompson at Blaeberry. The Narratives are out of print and can only be read by the PDF referred to. Scarcely little elsewhere [whoops – see below]. Elaine thinks I should take on righting that wrong. He was the original surveyor, indomitable, courageous but respectful of those whose lands he traversed. He opened the way to our occupation of the West.
What do you think?
PS. Son Evan just alerted me to Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Opening of the Canadian West which I’ve just started. Here it is on Amazon


Doug Bouey
Catalyst Strategic Consultants Ltd.

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Doug Bouey, President
Catalyst Strategic Consultants Ltd.

Calgary, AB // Phone: 403.777.1144


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