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053 David Thompson heads west, and do mountain pine beetles increase the risk of forest fires?

This week I wrap up the story of David Thompson as he sets his sights on the mountain west. I also look at whether or not mountain pine beetle infestations increase the risk of forest fire.

David Thompson heads west

Last week, I ended the story of David Thompson with his leaving the employment of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and joining the rival Northwest Company.

As Thompson began his journey to the west, he described the landscape of the great plains:

“The climate is good, the winters about five months, the summers are warm, and autumn has many fine days. The soil is rich and deep, and [there is] much vegetation mould from the annual decay of the leaves of the forest trees, and the grass of the meadows: civilization will no doubt extend over these low hills; they are well adapted for raising of cattle; and when the wolves are destroyed, also for sheep; and agriculture will succeed to a pastoral life, so far as markets can be formed in the country, but no further; for Canada is too distant and difficult of access. The only port open to them is York Factory on the dismal shores of Hudson’s Bay, open four months in the year. And to go to York Factory and return will require all that part of the summer which cannot be spared: but when a civilized population shall cover the countries, means will be found to make its produce find a market.”

Thompson, better than most, recognized the vastness of the Canadian wilderness. In time, the prairies would become settled, and many more ports would become open to Canadian products.

As he continued his journey west, he described the tranquillity of the Bow River.

“The Bow River flows through the most pleasant of the plains, and is the great resort of the bison and the red deer (or elk), and also of the natives; the soil appears good along its wholes extent, but for the most part is bare of woods, and those that remain are fast diminishing by fire.”

He continued:

“The rivers that roll through this immense unbroken body of land of plains and forests, are so beautifully distributed; all their banks so admirably adjusted to the volumes of water that flow between them, that neither the heaviest rains nor the melting of the snows of the mountains inundate the adjacent country. In all seasons, the Indians, the bisons, and deer repose on their banks in perfect security. Whoever calmly views the admirable formation and distribution of the rivers so wonderfully conducted to their several seas; must confess the whole to have been traced by the forger of the Great Supreme Artificer for the most benevolent purposes, both to his creature man, and the numerous animals he has made, none of whom can exist without water.”

Thompson was a deeply religious man and his journal is filled with his reflections on how the landscape was shaped by both the powers of nature, but also from the hand of God.

Thompson was also charged with looking for fossils of dinosaurs and mammoths during his travels. While he succeeded in many things, this was one area where he failed. He writes:

“Not a single fossil bone of an Elephant, Rhinocerous, or Mammoth has been found in all Canada nor about any of the Great Lakes, and valley of the [St.] Lawrence, and north-ward to the Arctic Circle, although almost all these countries are sufficiently known; nor has the travels of Captain Franklin in the Arctic Regions been attended with any success on this subject. On the west side of the Rocky Mountains, I passed six years of discovery, yet not a vestige that these great Animals once existed in those parts could be found. “

Despite his not finding any fossil evidence, the first nations believed that the mountains were still the home of mammoths.

Thompson described the first nations of the plains:

“THE Indians of the Plains are of various Tribes and of several languages which have no affinity with each other. The Stone Indians are a large tribe of the Sieux Nation, and speak a dialect, differing little from the Sieux tongue, the softest and most pleasing to the ear of all the indian languages. They have always been, and are, in strict alliance with the Nahathaways, and their hunting grounds are on the left bank of the Saskatchewan and eastward and southward to the upper part of the Red River, and their number 400 Tents each containing about eight souls, in all 3200”

Thompson was referring to the Stoney and Cree Indians. The Stoney’s were part of the Sioux nation but had become separated from their eastern relatives and had since allied with the Cree.

He continued:

“THE Peeagans, with the tribes of the Blood, and Blackfeet Indians, who all speak the same language, are the most powerful of the western and northern plains, and by right of conquest have their west boundary to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, southward to the north branches of the Missisourie, eastward for about three hundred miles from the Mountains and northward to the upper part of the Saskatchewan. Other tribes of their allies also at times hunt on part of the above, and a great extent of the Plains, and these great Plains place them under different circumstances, and give them peculiar traits of character from those that hunt in the forests. These latter live a peaceable life, with hard labor, to procure provisions and clothing for their families, in summer they make use of canoes, and in winter haul on sleds all they have, in their frequent removals from place to place.

On the other hand the Indians of the Plains make no use of canoes, frequently stay many days in a place, and when they remove have horses and dogs, both in summer and winter to carry their baggage and provisions: they have no hard labor, but have powerful enemies which keep them constantly on the watch and are never secure but in large camps”

The Peagan, Blood and Blackfeet were all closely allied and over time, they displaced the Kootenays, Salish, and the Snake Indians. Thompson also mentions the Fall Indians, today known as the Gros Ventre, which were driven out of the area by the Stoney and Cree Indians.

Thompson described the war chief of the Peigan, a solid man by the name of Kootenae Appe or Kootenay Man:

“his stature was six feet six inches, tall and erect, he appeared to be of Bone and Sinew with no more flesh, than absolutely required; his countenance manly, but not stern, his features prominent, nose somewhat aquiline, his manners kind and mild; his word was sacred, he was both loved and respected, and his people often wished him to take a more active part in their affairs but he confined himself to War, and the care of the camp in which he was, which was generally of fifty to one hundred tents, generally a full day’s march nearer to the Snake Indians than any other camp…

Kootanae Appe by his five wives had twenty-two sons and four daughters. His grown-up sons were as tall as himself and the others promised the same. He was friendly to the White Men, and in his speeches reminded his people of the great benefit of [which] the Traders were to them, and that it was by their means they had so many useful articles, and guns for hunting, and to conquer their enemies. “

Thompson continues:

“He had acquired his present station and influence from his conduct in war. He was utterly averse to small parties, except for horse stealing, which too often brought great hardships and loss of life. He seldom took the field with less than two hundred warriors but frequently with many more; his policy was to get as many of the allies to join him as possible, by which all might have a share of the honour and plunder, and thus avoid those jealousies and envyings so common amongst the Chiefs. He praised every Chief that in the least deserved it, but never appeared to regard fame as worth his notice yet always took care to deserve it, for all his expeditions were successful.”

Unlike so many white men that saw only savages when dealing with first nations, Thompson could see the entire cross-section of society within Peigan villages:

“The character of all these people appear[s] to be brave, steady and deliberate, but on becoming acquainted with them there is no want of individual character, and almost every character in civilized society can be traced among them, from the gravity of a judge to a merry jester, and from open hearted generosity to the avaricious miser. This last character is more detested by them, than by us, from their precarious manner of life, requiring assistance from each other, and their general character. Especially in provisions is great attention [paid] to those that are unfortunate in the chace, and the tent of a sick man is well supplied.”

Thompson described the various languages of the Plains Indians:

“The Languages of this continent on the east and north sides of the Mountains as compared with those of Europe may be classed as resembling in utterance. The Sieux and Stone Indian to the Italian. The Nahathaway and Chipaway with their dialects to the French. The Peeagan with their allies, the Blood and Black feet Indians to the English, and the northern people, the Dinnae, or Chepawyans to the German.”

The Peigan patrolled the mountain front in order to keep their enemies, the Kootenay, today known as the Ktunaxa, from crossing the mountains and trading with the white men for guns.

Fortunately, in 1807, the expedition of Lewis and Clark was travelling along the Missouri River and Lewis shot two Peigan Indians. The Peigan abandoned the mountains in order to head south to seek revenge. Thompson and his men took advantage of this temporary absence.

After leaving Rocky Mountain House on May 10, Thompson, along with his wife Charlotte Small, and their children made their way to the pass.

While Finan McDonald took a canoe with supplies, Thompson road along the north side of the river, reaching Kootenay Plain, at the south end of Abraham Lake on June 3, and just 3 days later they were at the forks of the North Saskatchewan River near present-day Saskatchewan River Crossing. Here he had to head inland towards the pass.

As Thompson wrote:

“the murder of two Peagan Indians by Captain Lewis of the United States, drew the Peagans to the Mississouri to revenge their deaths; and thus gave me an opportunity to cross the Mountains by the defiles of the Saskatchewan River, which led to the head waters of the Columbia River, and we there builded Log Houses, and strongly stockaded it on three sides, the other side resting on the steep bank of the River: the Logs of the House, and the Stockades, Bastions &c were of a peculiar kind of a heavy resinous Fir, of a rough black bark. It was clean grown to about twenty feet, when it threw off a head of long rude branches, with a long narrow leaf for a Fir, which was annually shed, and became from green to a red color. The Stockades were all ball proof, as well as the Logs of the Houses.”

Thompson was forced to abandon the canoes just a few miles beyond the forks and they had to continue on horses, packing their supplies with them. They reached the pass on June 25, and descended the Blaeberry River to its confluence with the Columbia River.

The previous season, Thompson had sent Jaco Finlay across the pass and he had built a canoe and left it for Thompson. Unfortunately, it had been destroyed by the winter and Thompson and his men spent several days building new canoes and repacking their supplies.

With the canoes built and loaded, they continued down the Columbia River to present day Windermere Lake. He paddled just a few kilometres south of the lake and built Kootenae House, the first trading post on the Columbia River.

He spent the rest of the season here trading with the Kootenay Indians and capturing wild horses which were plentiful in the region. Thompson knew there would be consequences for violating the Piegan blockade and sure enough, in mid-November, two Peigans crossed the pass, as he put it:

“to see how I was situated; I showed the strength of the Stockades, and Bastions, and told them I know you are come as Spies, and intend to destroy us, but many of you will die before you do so; go back to your countrymen and tell them so; which they did, and we remained quiet for the winter; I knew the danger of the place we were in, but could not help it: As soon as the Mountains were passable I sent off the Clerk and Men with the Furrs collected, among which were one hundred of the Mountain Goat Skins with their long silky hair, of a foot in length of a white color, tinged at the lower end with a very light shade of yellow. Some of the ignorant self sufficient partners of the Company ridiculed such an article for the London Market; there they went and sold at first sight for a guinea a skin, and half as much more for another Lot, but there were no more. These same partners then wrote to me to procure as many as possible, I returned for answer, the hunting of the goat was both dangerous and laborious, and for their ignorant ridicule I would send no more, and I kept my word.

I had now to prepare for a more serious visit from the Peagans who had met in council, and it was determined to send forty men, under a secondary Chief to destroy the trading Post, and us with it, they came and pitched their Tents close before the Gate, which was well barred.

I had six men with me, and ten guns, well loaded, the House was perforated with large augur holes, as well as the Bastions, thus they remained for three weeks without daring to attack us. We had a small stock of dried provisions which we made go as far as possible; they thought to make us suffer for want of water as the bank we were on was about 20 feet high and very steep, but at night, by a strong cord we quietly and gently let down two brass Kettles each holding four Gallons, and drew them up full; which was enough for us: They were at a loss what to do, for Kootanae Appee the War Chief, had publickly told the Chief of this party, (which was formed against his advice) to remember he had Men confided to his care, whom he must bring back, that he was sent to destroy the Enemies not to lose his Men: Finding us always on the watch, they did not think proper to risque their lives, when at the end of three weeks they suddenly decamped; I thought it a ruse de guerre, I afterwards learned that some of them hunting saw some Kootanaes who were also hunting, and as what was done was an act of aggression, something like an act of War; they decamped to cross the mountains to join their own Tribe while all was well with them: the return of this party without success occasioned a strong sensation among the Peeagans. The Civil Chief harangued them, and gave his advice to form a strong war party under Kootanae Appee the War Chief and directly to crush the white Men and the Natives on the west side of the Mountains, before they became well armed, They have always been our slaves (Prisoners) and now they will pretend to equal us; no, we must not suffer this, we must at once crush them. We know them to be desperate Men, and we must destroy them, before they become too powerful for us; the War Chief coolly observed I shall lead the battle according to the will of the Tribe, but we cannot smoke to the Great Spirit for success, as we usually do, it is now about ten winters since we made peace with them, they have tented and hunted with us, and because they have guns and iron headed Arrows, we must break our word of peace with them: We are now called upon to go to war with a people better armed than ourselves; be it so, let the Warriors get ready; in ten nights I will call on them. The old, and the intelligent Men, severely blamed the speech of the Civil Chief, they remarked, “ the older he gets, the less sense [he possesses].” On the ninth night the War Chief made a short speech, to have each man to take full ten days of dried provisions, for we shall soon leave the country of the Bison, after which we must not fire a shot, or we shall be discovered: On the tenth night he made his final speech, and exhorting the Warriors and their Chiefs to have their Arms in good order, and not forget dried provisions, he named a place; there I shall be the morrow evening, and those who now march with me, there I shall wait for you five nights, and then march to cross the Mountains; at the end of this time about three hundred Warriors under three Chiefs assembled; and took their route across the Mountains by the Stag River, and by the defiles of another River of the same name, came on the Columbia, about full twenty miles from me; as usual, by another pass of the Mountains, they sent two Men to see the strength of the House; I showed them all round the place, and they staid that night. I plainly saw that a War Party was again formed, to be better conducted than the last; and I prepared Presents to avert it: the next morning two Kootanae Men arrived, their eyes glared on the Peagans like Tigers, this was most fortunate; I told them to sit down and smoke which they did; I then called the two Peagans out, and enquired of them which way they intended to return. They pointed to the northward. I told them to go to Kootanae Appee and his War Party, who were only a days journey from us, and delivering to them the Presents I had made up, to be off directly, as I could not protect them, for you know you are on these lands as Enemies; the Presents were six feet of Tobacco to the Chief, to be smoked among them, three feet with a fine pipe of red porphyry and an ornamented Pipe Stem; eighteen inches to each of the three Chiefs, and a small piece to each of themselves, and telling them they had no right to be in the Kootanae Country: to haste away; for the Kootanaes would soon be here, and they will fight for their trading Post: In all that regarded the Peeagans I chanced to be right, it was all guess work. Intimately acquainted with the Indians, the Country and the Seasons, I argued and acted on probabilities; I was afterwards informed that the two Peeagans went direct to the camp of the War Party, delivered the Presents and the Message and sat down, upon which the War Chief exclaimed, what can we do with this man, our women cannot mend a pair of shoes, but he sees them, alluding to my Astronomical Observations; then in a thoughful mood he laid the pipe and stem, with the several pieces of Tobacco on the ground, and said, what is to be done with these, if we proceed, nothing of what is before us can be accepted; the eldest of [the] three Chiefs, wistfully eyeing the Tobacco, of which they had none; at length he said, You all know me, who I am, and what I am; I have attacked Tents, my knife could cut through them, and our enemies had no defence against us, and I am ready to do so again, but to go and fight against Logs of Wood, that a Ball cannot go through, and with people we cannot see and with whom we are at peace, is what I am averse to, I go no further. He then cut the end of the Tobacco, filled the red pipe, fitted the stem, and handed it to Kootanae Appee, saying it was not you that brought us here, but the foolish Sakatow (Civil Chief) who, himself never goes to War; they all smoked, took the Tobacco, and returned, very much to the satisfaction of Kootanae Appe my steady friend; thus by the mercy of good Providence I averted this danger;

The next spring, Thompson and his family returned over Howse Pass, but had to eat several of their horses when they couldn’t find any wildlife to shoot for provisions. After crossing the Pass, Thompson and some of his men continued all the way to Rainy Lake, Ontario where they delivered the furs they had collected and then stocked up on trade goods.

Thompson was also ordered to bring 2 kegs of alcohol with him, but he had always forbidden the trade of whiskey in his presence. He wrote:

“[We] embarked the Furrs, and with five men set off for the Rainy River House and arrived July 22, where we landed our cargo of Furrs, then made up an assortment of Goods, for two Canoes, each carrying twenty pieces of ninety pounds weight; among which I was obliged to take two Kegs of Alcohol, over ruled by my Partners (Mess” Dond McTavish and Jo McDonald [of] Gart[h]) for I had made it a law to myself, that no alcohol should pass the Mountains in my company, and thus be clear of the sad sight of drunkeness, and it’s many evils: but these gentlemen insisted upon alcohol being the most profitable article that could be taken for the indian trade. In this I knew they had miscalculated; accordingly when we came to the defiles of the Mountains, I placed the two Kegs of Alcohol on a vicious horse; and by noon the Kegs were empty, and in pieces, the Horse rubbing his load against the Rocks to get rid of it; I wrote to my partners what I had done; and that I would do the same to every Keg of Alcohol, and for the next six years I had charge of the furr trade on the west side of the Mountains, no further attempt was made to introduce spirituous Liquors.”

Thompson returned to Kootenai House and in the winter of 1808-09, he stayed through the winter. The snow also brought safety from the Peigans as the snow was too deep for a war party to cross the Pass in winter.

After briefly crossing Howse Pass again in the spring of 1809, Thompson returned to the west side of the mountains and headed south towards Idaho and built Kullyspell House near present-day Sand Point, where he traded with the Salish, Skeetshoo, and Kootenay Indians in the area. He wrote:

“Our arrival rejoiced them very much, for except the four Kootanaes their only arms were a few rude lances, and flint headed Arrows. Good bowmen as they are, these arrow heads broke against the Shield of tough Bison hide, or even against thick leather could do no harm; their only aim was the face: these they were now to exchange for Guns, Ammunition and Iron headed arrows, and thus be on an equality with their enemies, for they were fully their equals in courage: but I informed them, that to procure these advantages they must not pass days and nights in gambling, but be industrious in hunting and working of Beaver and other furrs, all which they promised”

He continued:

“All those who could procure Guns soon became good shots, which the Peeagan Indians, their enemies in the next battle severely felt; for they are not good shots, except a few; they are accustomed to fire at the Bison on horseback, within a few feet of the animal, it gives them no practice at long shots at small marks. On the contrary, the Indians on the west side of the Mountains are accustomed to fire at the small Antelope at a distance of one hundred and twenty yards, which is a great advantage in battle, where everyone marks out his man.”

In the fall of 1809, Thompson built a small trading post that he called Saleesh House, near present-day Thompson Falls, Montana. He spent the winter of 1809-10 there and in the spring made several exploratory trips in the area around the post.

Over the winter, the hottest trade item had been in weaponry. He writes:

“The Saleesh Indians during the winter had traded up-wards of twenty guns from me, with several hundreds of iron arrow heads, with which they thought themselves a fair match for the Peeagan Indians in battle on the Plains.”

Over the summer, Thompson aided the Salish in a skirmish with the Peigan. Although the battle was pretty much a draw, the change in the balance of power brought on by Thompsons weapons made the Peigan even more determined to punish the traders that crossed the mountains to trade with their enemies.

In the summer of 1810, David crossed back into Alberta over Howse Pass for the last time. As he approached the pass, he came across tracks left behind by Peigan scouts that were just a few hours old. They managed to slip through undetected.

He travelled all the way to Rainy Lake where he reprovisioned for another trip to the Columbia. He returned to the Saskatchewan River to make his way over Howse Pass. Thompson writes:

“The manner of furnishing the Men with Provisions, was by hunting these animals, and bringing their meat by Horses to the Canoes a supply for full three days; when we appointed a place to meet them with a fresh supply; thus the Canoes proceeded to within twenty miles of the east foot of the Mountains; we had given them a full supply for three days, and Mr William Henry, the two Indians and myself proceeded to the foot of the Mountains , where we killed three Red Deer, made a Stage and placed the meat on it in safety to wait the Canoes.  This was on the 13th October 1810, and we expected the Canoes to arrive late on the 16th or early on the 17th at latest, but they did not make their appearance; our oldest Hunter of about forty years of age as usual rose very early in the morning and looking at the Stage of Meat, said to me, I have had bad dreams, this meat will never be eaten, he then saddled his Horse and rode off.

Somewhat alarmed at his ominous expression and the non-arrival of the canoes, I told Mr Henry and the Indian to proceed thro’ the Woods down along the River in search of the Canoes, and see what detained them, with positive orders not to fire a shot but in self defence; about eight in the evening they returned, and related, that a few miles below us they had seen a camp of Peeagans on the bank of the River, that a short distance below the camp, they had descended the bank to the River side, and found where the Canoes had been. They had made a low rampart of Stones to defend themselves, and there was blood on the stones; they went below this and fired a shot in hopes of an answer from the Canoes, but it was not returned: I told them they had acted very foolishly, that the Peeagans would be on us very early in the morning, and that we must start at the dawn of day, and ride for our lives; on this we acted the next morning, and rode off, leaving the meat: the country we had to pass over was an open forest, but we had to cross, or ride round so many fallen trees that active Men on foot could easily keep up with us; the Peeagans had very early arrived at the Stage of meat and directly followed the tracks of the Horses, and would in the evening have come up with us, but providentially about one in afternoon snow came on which covered our tracks and retarded them; about an hour after, as they related, they came on three grizled Bears direct on the track (they were smelling the tracks of the Horses) they were fully perswaded that I had placed the Bears there to prevent any further pursuit; nor could any arguments to the contrary make them believe otherwise and this belief was a mercy to us: we rode on through the Woods until it was nearly dark, when we were obliged to stop; we remained quiet awaiting our fortune, when finding all quiet, we made a small fire, and passed the night with some anxiety; my situation precluded sleep, cut off from my men, uncertain where to find them, and equally so of the movements of the Indians, I was at a loss what to do, or which way to proceed; morning came and I had to determine what course to take, after being much perplexed whether I should take to the defiles of the Mountains and see if the Men and Horses were safe that were left there; or try and find my Men and Canoes. I determined upon the latter as of the most importance; on the second day we found them about forty miles below the Indians, at a trading Post lately deserted; here after much consultations, we fully perceived we had no further hopes of passing in safety by the defiles of the Saskatchewan River, and that we must now change our route to the defiles of the Athabasca River which would place us in safety, but would be attended with great inconvenience, fatigue, suffering and privation; but there was no alternative.”

They reached the Athabasca River on Nov 29. By Dec 4, the winter conditions made it impossible to continue on horseback. Thompson and his men set about the task of making snowshoes and sleds to cross the mountains, as well as log huts for the supplies and a shelter for them stay warm as they prepared for their journey. The temperature dropped to -35 C as the winter set in. He writes:

“Our whole attention for the present was turned to hunting and securing provisions; having now made Snow Shoes, and Sleds, on the 30th day of December  we commenced our journey to cross the Mountains and proceeded up the Athabasca River, sometimes on it’s [sic]shoals and ice, and at times through the woods of it’s [sic]banks. The soil was sandy and a Gale of Wind drifted it to lie on the low branched pines, of wretched growth, for Snow does not lie on Sand Hills; On the 31st December we proceeded but slowly and I had to reduce the weight of the Loads of the Dogs to less than two thirds, and make a Log Hoard to secure what we left…”

It was the 5th of January 1811 when they began their push for the summit of Athabasca Pass:

“by 11 AM set off with eight Sleds, to each two dogs, with goods and Provisions to cross the Mountains, and three Horses to assist us as far as the depth of the Snow will permit. We are now entering the defiles of the Rocky Mountains by the Athabasca River, the woods of Pine are stunted, full of branches to the ground, and the Aspin, Willow &c not much better: strange to say, here is a strong belief that the haunt of the Mammoth, is about this defile, I questioned several, none could positively say, they had seen him, but their belief I found firm and not to be shaken. I remarked to them, that such an enormous heavy Animal must leave indelible marks of his feet, and his feeding. This they all acknowledged, and that they had never seen any marks of him, and therefore could show me none. All I could say did not shake their belief in his existence.”

By the 10th of January, they were approaching the pass, and warm winds from the Pacific began to moderate the temperatures: He writes:

“the view now before us was an ascent of deep snow, in all appearance to the height of land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it was to me a most exhilarating sight, but to my uneducated men a dreadful sight, they had no scientific object in view, their feelings were of the place they were; our guide Thomas told us, that although we could barely find wood to make a fire, we must now provide wood to pass the following night on the height of the defile we were in, and which we had to follow; my men were the most hardy that could be picked out of a hundred brave hardy Men, but the scene of desolation before us was dreadful, and I knew it, a heavy gale of wind much more a mountain storm would have buried us beneath it, but thank God the weather was fine…”

As they slept atop Athabasca Pass on a clear night with Thompson’s beloved stars dazzling in the night sky, Thompson wondered:

“Many reflections came on my mind; a new world was in a manner before me, and my object was to be at the Pacific Ocean before the month of August,  how were we to find Provisions, and how many Men would remain with me, for they were dispirited, amidst various thoughts I fell asleep on my bed of Snow.”

The descent was treacherous due to the extremely deep snow and the exceedingly steep gradient they had to negotiate:

“Early next morning we began our descent, here we soon found ourselves not only with a change of climate, but more so of Forest Trees, we had not gone half a mile before we came to fine tall clean grown Pines of eighteen feet girth. The descent was so steep that the Dogs could not guide the Sleds, and often came across the Trees with some force, the Dogs on one side and the Sled on the other, which gave us some trouble to disentangle them; after a hurried day’s march down the mountain we came, on a Brook and camped on the Snow, it being too deep to clear away.”

Finally, on January 26, Thompson and his men reached the shores of the Columbia River. The descent had taken every bit of fortitude they could muster. He writes:

“Thus we continued day after day to march a few miles,  as the Snow was too wet and too deep to allow the dogs to make any progress; on the 26th we put up on the banks of the Columbia River, my Men had become so disheartened, sitting down every half mile, and perfectly lost at all they saw around them so utterly different from the east side of the Mountains, four of them deserted to return back; and I was not sorry to be rid of them, as for more than a month past they had been very useless, in short they became an incumbrance on me, and the other men were equally so to be rid of them”

Thompson opened up the Pacific trade and this same year travelled all the way down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean at Fort Astoria. This fort had only recently been built by American John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company.

Along the way, he traded with many groups of first nations and set up trade routes that would be used for some time by the Northwest, and later, the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The following year, 1812, he travelled for the last time over Athabasca Pass and all the way to Fort William. Here there was news that the Americans had declared war on the British and with some urgency, he departed with canoes to get all the summers furs to Montreal. By the middle of August 1812, they arrived in Montreal where Thompson set up residence in Terrebonne, north of the city.

He retired from the fur trade and received a generous pension from the Northwest Company and set about finishing his great map, a summary of his lifetime exploring the wilderness of Canada and the United States.

He never returned to the far west, although his legacy will ever remain. Later, he surveyed the boundary line between the U.S. and Canada as far west as Lake of the Woods in Ontario.

During his lifetime, Thompson mapped some 4.9 million square kilometres and travelled some 90,000 kilometres by horseback, foot, snowshoe, dogsled, and canoe. In total area, he surveyed 1/5 of the North American continent and earned him the title of the greatest land geographer that ever lived.

Unfortunately, in his later years, he fell on hard times financially and died penniless in 1857. He was buried in an unmarked grave and his book detailing his 28 years in the fur trade was left unfinished.

Few explorers deserve as much credit as Thompson, yet few have received so little. His narrative, upon which these stories are based, was not published until 1916 by geologist Joseph Burr Tyrell, after whom Alberta’s Royal Tyrell Museum was named.

Next up – Do pine beetles increase forest fire risk?

Pine Beetles and Forest Fires

As California continues to suffer from extensive forest fires, we are constantly reminded of the impacts that warming climates are having on western forests. The past few years have seen vast amounts of forests burned, along with millions of dollars in private property, the climate is continuing to warm and the fires will likely become a more regular part of our landscape in the future.

I’ve talked about fires in numerous episodes, most recently in episode 43. You can hear that episode at The future of fire management and our perception of fire needs to change as the changing realities become the new norm. Currently, there are three main problems that plague the mountain west:

  1. We simply have too many trees. Prior to the establishment of our first parks and the mandate of our first wardens as fire guardians, fire was a much more prevalent part of the mountain landscape. We simply didn’t have the extensive forests that we have today. Fire has always been a huge part of our landscape – until people designated it as the enemy and began to suppress every fire that started.
  2. Warming climates are bringing longer and more prolonged droughts. I’m sure that in the final tally, 2017 will go down in history as one of the driest years in Alberta since the dust bowl. I’ve been here for more than 30-years and I’ve never seen a year with almost 100 days with no significant moisture. We really dodged the bullet here in the central Rockies this year as flames broke out to the south in Waterton, and across British Columbia.
  3. We are building too much on the forest fringe. Everybody loves to have a house in the suburbs, with forest nearby and trails to explore. Unfortunately, in many of the most damaging fires, it’s the homes on this forest fringe that are at the greatest risk. If we look back at the fires this summer in British Columbia, much of the worst damage was in those subdivisions right on the forest margins.

Our challenge as we look to the future is to recognize that fire is natural and critical to the health of our ecosystem. While warming temperatures have increased the ability of mountain pine beetles to spread to new territories and to reach epidemic levels, this would not have been possible if we simply had fewer trees – as was the case historically.

In the short term, we need to focus on what do we do to help reduce the damage of fires on communities while learning to welcome them in wilderness areas. Warming climates are going to bring fires and we need to be ready to let them burn when homes and infrastructure are not at risk. More extensive fires today bring reduced risks tomorrow.

If we put more money into fireproofing communities, we can help make sure that when the fires come, we are much more prepared to limit damage to our properties. A recent story in the Jasper’s Fitzhugh Newspaper reported that Parks Canada will spend $200,000 over each of the two years to cut down some of the trees killed by mountain pine beetle that are closest to the townsite. They’ll focus initially along Bonhomme Street, the long winding road that forms the western boundary of the community.

Removing fuel adjacent to the townsite is an important step in helping to reduce the impact of fires moving towards the town boundary. The first step of this program will remove dead trees that lie within 250 m of homes, and the plan is scalable so that it can expand as additional funds become available.

Jasper has been ravaged by pine beetles for the past few years and a view from any of the local peaks shows vast damage to the forests throughout the Athabasca Valley and the surrounding area. Jasper residents are justifiably concerned over the fire risk as these dead trees potentially form ready fuel for fires in the area.

One piece of good news can be found in a 2015 study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that shows that forests destroyed by beetles, despite what might seem to be a logical conclusion, did NOT significantly increase fire risk.

The study looked at the years between 2002 and 2013, and attempted to find a correlation between forest fires burned and mountain pine beetles. Essentially, it was looking to see if thousands of hectares of dead trees increased the risk of fire across those same forests.

In order to understand the study, we need to look at the ways in which pine beetles change the forests they attack. When an infestation begins, large-diametre trees are attacked first. As the population grows, trees of smaller diametre also fall victim. The highest mortality seems to be amongst lodgepole and ponderosa pine forests. Here in the Rockies, lodgepole is the principal pine tree affected.

Drought conditions make trees more susceptible to beetle attacks while also making it favourable for the beetles to reproduce in large numbers.

When pine trees first die, the needles fade to a red colour, and this is the stage that Jasper is in at the moment. The belief is that these trees become more flammable with all the dead needles and that crown fires will be more likely to start in these stands.

After three years or so, the dead needles and twigs drop to the forest floor, giving the stand a grey appearance, and potentially increasing the fuel on the forest floor. More fuel on the forest floor can potentially act as a ladder, helping fires to climb upwards towards the crown.

In this study, researchers found no connection between areas that burned and mountain pine beetle infestation. Instead, fires seemed to be driven by other factors such as elevation, slope, cover type, and stand structure.

In fact, the study very clearly states:

“Across the western United States, the total annual area burned did not increase during the steep rise in the cumulative area of mountain pine beetle infestation from 2000 to 2013. Similarly, there was no increase in the annual area burned in any mountain pine beetle host cover type.”

The study showed that “the area burned was similar regardless of the presence or absence of mountain pine beetle infestation.”

Despite the hypothesis that red-stage infestations would increase the incidence of crown fires, and that grey stage would increase ground fires, the study showed that the area burned was not significantly greater than expected due to these forest conditions. As they put it:

“Despite the widespread public perception that forests affected by recent MPB (mountain pine beetle) outbreaks are more likely to burn, we find that the annual area burned across the western United States is unaffected by MPB (mountain pine beetle) infestation. Our results show that the area burned in red-stage and/or grey-stage MPB (mountain pine beetle) infestation during the three peak years of widespread fire following a widespread MPB (mountain pine beetle) outbreak was equivalent to the expected area burned independent of MPB activity.”

The report continues:

“Although tree removal to reduce tree-fall risks to homes, recreational sites, and communication and power infrastructures is clearly justified, MPB infestation has not fundamentally altered the risk of burning.”

Jasper’s program of removing dead trees close to residents is still a good program of basic fire prevention. Communities like Banff, Jasper, and Canmore all exist right on that forest fringe, and as such are highly susceptible to fire.

This is just a single report, and more research is needed to see if additional studies confirm the results or show that perhaps these dead trees do have an impact on fires in western Canada.

We are still at very high risk even if pine beetle-killed trees don’t increase fire risk. Drought definitely increases the risk of large-scale fires, as does the denseness of our forest canopy across the mountain west.

We need to build support for much more extensive programs of prescribed burns as well as to let fires in more wild areas burn themselves out. If we want to reduce our risk of large wildfires, we need to be fire smart and restore the natural role of fire to the landscape. That means a landscape with less forest and more mixed stands of trees and grassland.

And with that, it’s time to wrap this episode up. If you’re looking to visit the Rockies this year, be sure to visit for all of your guiding needs. For the past 30 years, we’ve been helping visitors to the mountain west combine amazing experiences with the opportunity to gain an understanding of the landscape around us.

If you’d like to reach out personally, you can hit me up on Twitter @wardcameron or drop me a line by visiting the show notes at, and with that said, the sun’s out and it’s time to go hiking. I’ll talk to you next week.


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