Amid the excited crowd gathered at the wharf in San Francisco, Rube Rains held the last copy of “The Hand-book and Map to THE GOLD REGION of Frazer’s and Thompson’s Rivers” by Alexander C. Anderson – late Chief Trader Hudson Bay Co’s service”
Two days later, Rains walked aboard an overcrowded ship with his mining provisions. Everyone was talking about gold as they lined up to buy tickets on the next ship bound for Victoria. There were people from all sorts of backgrounds and professions gathered together for the sole purpose of the pursuit of becoming rich. As an actuary, Rains hoped he would be among the percentage that would succeed.
The steamboat swayed and rocked forward with the waves. When he wasn’t being pitched about he found a small area to read the handbook.
Alexander Caulfield Anderson had several pages of words in the trading language called “Chinook” which Rains found interesting. Every now and then he shut his eyes and tested his knowledge before looking at the page.
“What are you reading?” someone asked.
“I’m learning a few phrases in Chinook in case I need to acquire a canoe.” Rains held up the handbook.
The two chatted for a bit and Rains learned his name was Silas Crane, a seasoned gold prospector from the California gold rush.
Over the course of the trip, Rains read aloud snippets from the handbook to a small crowd of gold seekers.
“Frazer’s River discharges itself into the Gulf of Georgia, a little to the north of the 49th parallel. At the distance of 160 miles from its mouth, it is joined by Thompson’s River, a large stream flowing eastward. Here, and in its immediate vicinity, the diggings which are now creating so much excitement, have been in progress since last Summer.”
Rains looked up and saw the other men were mulling over this fact.
He continued reading:
“Horses are not procurable here, nor if procurable, is the country suited for their subsistence. The navigation of the Falls at high water cannot be accomplished; nor indeed, is the upper portion of the river to be navigated without difficulty at that stage.
At the lower, stage, these difficulties are so far modified that they may be overcome by portages; but it is to be premised that a certain amount of skill and experience in canoe navigation is a necessary condition of the undertaking.
Rains looked up. “How many here have paddled a canoe?”
“Paddling the canoe is easy, just a case of dipping the oar into the water, nothing to worry about. I can’t believe they don’t have horses up there, though. It would sure make packing supplies much easier,” Crane said.
When the ship dropped anchor at Fort Victoria, Rains was pleasantly surprised to find comfortable lodging. It was hard to imagine anything about the hardships that lay ahead of them while staying in this bucolic village.
The first order of business was to purchase a mining licence for five dollars from the Hudson Bay Company. For an extra fee they converted his American money into British coins. He was persuaded to buy food supplies including some dried pemmican and tobacco for possible barter or exchange. Fortunately, Rains had brought with him a pan and a pickax which were rumoured to be in short supply.
After spending more money than he’d anticipated, Rains decided he wouldn’t have enough for a ticket on a steamboat. Instead, he went down to the beach where large cedar canoes were lined in a row with several native paddlers on the beach offering to take prospectors as far as Fort Langley. Rains tried a few words in Chinook but the man spoke English well enough that it wasn’t necessary.
Rains and two other gold seekers boarded a large canoe. There was more than enough room for their supplies and the paddlers set off.
Before long, they started singing and paddled with the rhythm of the music. The canoe pulled forward easily and within a short time Vancouver Island became scarcely visible.
One of the paddlers shouted out instructions to another and with swift, well-practiced movements, a sail was erected and turned in a direction that propelled the craft forward at an even greater speed.
Rains marvelled at the way the sleek craft sliced through the dark blue seawater; it’s speed rivalled that of any steamboat.
They were about half way across the strait when the signal was given to bring down the mast and the waves started rolling forward pushing the nose of the canoe upward. Rains and the others held on while one of the paddlers grabbed a cedar bailer and tossed it in his direction.
“Tlil-a-sit!” He gestured.
Rains took it from him and started bailing. Silas Crane took his tin mug and did the same.
Crane was laughing to the point of being hysterical, raising his cup to see how fast the rain could fill it. “Shall we toast the Queen?” he shouted as the downpour started.
Rains nodded grimly as he pulled his hat down. His teeth were chattering almost uncontrollably. By the time they reached the mouth of the Fraser, the clouds had blown away and his clothes began to dry in the steady breeze.
“It’s almost as wide as the Mississippi,” marvelled Crane.
Rains looked around as the canoe sped past a sand bar. Just ahead was another canoe and in the distance was the inky grey streak left behind by the steamer.
After two more hours, the canoe pulled up to the edge of a fine gravel shore. In the distance was a large bastion behind an imposing palisade.
The paddlers jumped out first, followed by the prospectors. Rains straightened his cramped legs and leaped towards dry ground. Fort Langley at last, he thought to himself.
Upon entering the gate, he could see several sturdy buildings made with large timbers. Looking around he noticed how quiet it seemed. He had been expecting a town not a place that was scarcely inhabited.
Where was everybody? Where the canoes he had spotted earlier along the river? Rains caught up with the others who were talking to a cooper with a few staves at his feet.
It turned out the cooper was interested to know where they were heading.
“Up the Fraser river? You’re going to have a hard time getting past the Falls,” Rains heard him tell the others.
“We have a map of the route to take,” Rains said as he approached.
The cooper and the others turned to look at Rains as he pulled out the handbook and showed him the map.
With a gnarled finger, the cooper followed the dotted line, nodding his head from time to time.
“You’ll want to take a canoe to Fort Hope and then this route that goes along the Coquihalla River northeast to Fort Kamloops then west along the Nicola and the Thompson.”
He paused for a second, “I’ll be darned – they’ve marked Ballenden’s grave on here.”
“What happened to him?” Crane asked.
The Fraser River is surrounded by tall canyons, the likes of you probably haven’t seen before. There’s Black Canyon and Hell’s Gate and the only way you can get through there is clinging to those rock faces with your bare hands. The natives have their own way of getting down to the river and do their fishing but if you want to bring any supplies around at all, you have to go inland.”
The cooper leaned on a spade and Rains watched as the others set down their packs.
“Back in ’48 the Company taking supplies on a new trail from Fort Kamloops to here, but it wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be. Horses had a difficult time of it – too steep. The fellow who wrote this book, Alexander Caulfield Anderson, well he was stuck with the task of finding a better route for the Company, so he found this route which was only used a few times.
There was a group of them heading up but too many horses for so few men. I knew there were going to be problems, having taken the route myself once. You’ve got to get every horse one by one down the steep embankment to a bridge by the river but each step is precarious.
At that time of year there’s always a large number of Indians who congregate along the banks of the Fraser at that time and you wondered if someone was going to take advantage of the situation. There is no game along there you know, just fish and a lot of times the people go hungry before the fish come along again.
As I was saying, on this one trip the group took some time leaving Simon’s House on the west side of the Fraser. Some of the group got way ahead and the others got stuck behind and the rain was coming down. The horses were slipping and sliding under the weight of their packs and some of them were straying off the trail completely trying to find something to eat. Each man was to look after at least ten horses and it was a trouble to look after them all. By the time they reached camp at the foot of Big Hill it was past night fall after some grub had been served. Some people were upset about it, seeing as there was no food for them or their horses. The next day Ballenden was found shot dead and the Company man said he’d shot himself.”
There was silence for a moment, the Rains asked the question on everyone’s mind:
“Do you believe he shot himself?”
The cooper looked away for a moment and then cleared his throat.
“Ballenden was a good lad and a lot of people were sorry to hear he went like that. Let’s put it this way, the trail will drive you mad, for sure. If you can get through marching up to the gold fields as they say, then you’re an honourable man.”
With that, the cooper left them thinking about things. Then Crane jumped up, “I’m going to find us a canoe for Fort Hope.”
Note: Tlil-a-sit is a Chinook word meaning bail out