Major W. Downie and his partner Alex MacDonald were the first to officially explore the Bute Inlet. In June 1861 Downie travelled the Homathko River, that flows from the Chilcotin Plateau to the coast. Downie travelled the Homathko River by canoe and foot for a total of 33 miles when a steep canyon forced him back.
Alfred Waddington, a merchant and a promoter, was excited at the prospect of a possible new route to the gold fields. He convinced his fellow merchants in Victoria, who faced competition from New Westminster, to give Downie’s route along the Homathko River a chance.
Alfred Penderell Waddington was born in London, England in 1801 where he attended school. After his father died in 1818 Waddington moved to France where his brothers had business interests. In 1850, he set his sights on California and the gold rush there. Waddington sailed to San Francisco in May and set up a wholesale provision firm which was soon profitable. Upon hearing of the Fraser River gold rush in 1858, Waddington came north to Victoria to set up another grocery firm.
By the end of the year, Waddington had published his observations in a book titled, The Fraser Mines Vindicated; Or, the History of Four Months. In his book, Waddington was optimistic about future gold prospects and wrote “it is beyond doubt that the other kind of dry diggings exist plentifully in the north…”
On September 19, 1861, Waddington left Victoria on the steamer Henrietta, visited the head of Bute Inlet, made friends with certain native people in Desolation Sound, navigated by steamer for 8 miles up the Homathko River and then by canoe for some distance beyond. He left five men to explore further while he returned to Victoria.The five returned to Victoria near the end of October.
Within a week, Waddington arranged for a second party. This included Robert Homfray, a surveyor who had worked for the Colonial Survey Office under J.D. Pemberton. Homfray was in charge of the group which consisted of three HBC voyageurs – Cote, Balthazzar, and Bourchier, along with Henry McNeill and two natives.
Homfray and his crew set out on October 31, 1861. Nine days later they reached the entrance to Bute Inlet. Here they were kidnapped. Fortunately, they were rescued by a chief of the Cla-oosh people whose village was in Desolation Sound. Homfray convinced the chief to guide them through the Homathko River valley.
Robert Homfray told of one log jam, twenty feet high and half-a-mile long, stretching right across the river. They proceeded up the rapids, manhandling the canoe over slippery log-jams, often up to their waists in water. He could look up and see the blue ice of glaciers above the steep walls of the river. The chief turned back. Then the weather turned bitterly cold and the ice froze on their clothes, their beards and hair. After almost losing their canoe when the tow rope broke, they decided to cache it, and proceeded on foot.
Just when they were coming to the end of their food, they encountered a tall Native, his body painted jet-black, and vermillion-colored rings around his eyes. He was pointing an arrow straight at them. They were able to convince the Native that they were friendly and they needed food. After giving them a dinner, they were told to return the way they had come. For Homfray and the others the trip back to the coast was worse than they could have imagined.
Their canoe was wrecked in a log jam, and most of their supplies lost. They salvaged some gear, including matches and two axes. It took them four days on a makeshift raft to reach the head of Bute Inlet and their buried provisions. They had to eat with their fingers and shared one empty baking-powder tin for drinking.
After riding half-way down Bute Inlet in a hollowed-out log, they were eventually rescued by the same Cla-oosh chief who brought them to his village. He later helped them return to Victoria. They had been away two months.
Waddington was more determined than ever to pursue the route. Before Homfray and his party returned, Waddington wrote a letter to Governor James Douglas and described the Homathko as a “fine level valley, from two to four miles wide, and navigable for forty miles from the mouth for steamers of four or five feet draft . . . without a single rock or other serious impediment”.