In 1902, and again in 1906, Norwegian explorers emerged from northern mists to proclaim to the world that they had sailed deeply into the waters of Canada’s Arctic. Both adventures were years in the planning and took many months to raise the necessary funds, acquire fully equipped ships and crewmen to man them, plus myriad other items, and were years in the execution. In view of the tremendous efforts required to mount these bold Arctic expeditions, it came as a complete surprise to me to learn that in 1908 it was possible for two individuals from the south to buy round-trip tickets to the Arctic Ocean from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)! That was exactly what a former British Columbia school principal, Agnes Deans Cameron, accompanied by her niece, Jessie Cameron Brown, accomplished in 1908, to become the first white women to penetrate the Arctic Circle on their own. They travelled by a combination of railway cars, open-to-the-weather stagecoaches and scows, oxcarts and river steamers. Although the women’s 1908 expedition is not comparable to the two Norwegian ones, it was still quite an accomplishment in that year for these two women to have left Chicago, cross the Arctic Circle and reach the Arctic Ocean delta of the Mackenzie River.
Agnes Deans Cameron was born in 1863 in what was then known as the Crown Colony of Victoria on Vancouver Island. In the early years of her adult life, one of the few careers open to young women was teaching. Cameron became the first schoolteacher in the small lumber settlement of Granville, which shortly after became Vancouver. She was the first woman high school teacher in British Columbia. In 1894, she became the first woman school principal in that province. In 1906, at forty-three years of age and unmarried, her career and means of livelihood were cut off. To survive, Agnes Cameron moved from Victoria to Chicago to work as a journalist and editor. It was there that she developed the idea for a fact-finding trip to Canada’s Arctic.
From Chicago to the end of steel
On a sizzling Sunday in mid-May 1908, Agnes Cameron and her niece Jessie Brown boarded a train in Chicago bound for the North. The women headed for the end of steel at Edmonton, stopping at Winnipeg and Calgary on the way. Cameron had waited until they reached Winnipeg before deciding on some crucial items for their trip: such as how to travel to the Arctic, what supplies to take, what food to buy, what to wear, etc. The Hudson’s Bay Company was very helpful in assisting the two women in every possible way to make their trip a success. The HBC was able to make all the arrangements, including providing round-trip tickets to the Arctic and a letter of credit redeemable at any point along the way. At Edmonton, the experience of the Company’s men in the North was crucial in helping the women buy the right clothes, food and camping equipment.
From Edmonton to Athabasca Landing
When Cameron and Brown left Edmonton, headed for Athabasca Landing (today Athabasca), their travelling comfort took a severe drop. The women exchanged relatively comfortable rail cars for far-from-waterproof horse-drawn stagecoaches for the next 150 km. At seven o’clock in the morning when the stagecoach for Athabasca left Edmonton, it was raining, but not just raining. In Cameron’s words, it was “no gentle sizzle-sozzol, but a sodsoaker, yea a gully-washer!” Luckily the downpour stopped at noon, but still many kilometres remained before the leaky stagecoach delivered the travel-worn women to Athabasca Landing late the following day. The trip had alternated between riding in the stagecoaches, and walking beside them up the hills to save the horses. Cameron considered Athabasca Landing “a funnel through which percolates the whole trade between the wheat-belt and the Arctic… the true gateway of the north.” It may have seemed so at the time, but things have not evolved that way.
From Athabasca to Grand Rapids and Fort McMurray
At Athabasca Landing, Cameron and her niece left the stagecoaches behind and joined the HBC Fur-Brigade making its annual transport to the posts of the Far North, taking in supplies for trading and bringing back the pelts that had been bartered for the previous winter and early spring. Big, square-ended scows, or “sturgeon-heads,” loaded with tons of freight, were already down by the shores of the Athabasca River, but nothing moved yet. The impatient white passengers could not figure out why, but all they could get from the native crews was Kee-am, which freely translated could mean, “never mind,” “don’t get excited,” “there’s plenty of time,” “it’s alright”. The spring river flow did not look right yet to the native crews, so for some time, nothing moved. Then at some magic moment, that was recognized by the First Nations Tribes, but seemed all the same to the whites, the cry of “Let’s go!” rang out.
The time to shove off had finally arrived and a flotilla of seven “sturgeon-heads,” or scows, slipped into the northflowing Athabasca River, heading for Grand Rapids some 275 kilometres downstream. Each vessel was 12 to 15 metres long with a 3.7 metre-beam and carried ten tons of freight. The oars were 6-metres long, and a sweep at the stern could be up to 12-metres long. It took a strong man indeed to handle the sweep. Arms became the motive power, but at least the current was with the rowers. Coming back would be a different story.
About 165 km downstream from Athabasca Landing, at Pelican Portage, Cameron saw and described a magnificent gas well with a gush of flame six to nine metres high. This phenomenon is a perfect example of the kind of trouble man can get into when piercing the crust of the earth (as if we need to be reminded). “Eleven years ago, seeking for petroleum, the Dominion Government had a shaft sunk here; their boring apparatus was heavy, the plunger with its attachment weighing nearly a ton. At 800 feet [250 metres] the operator broke into an ocean of gas, and the pressure blew him with the plunger and appliances into the air as a ball comes from a canon-bore…One red-headed Klonder, ignorant of gas and its ways, struck a match to this escaping stream, was blown into the bushes beyond and came out minus hair, eye-brows and red beard, the quickest and closest shave he ever had.” From that day on the gas flamed for 21 years.
Grand Rapids was a mandatory stop and portage. No loaded sturgeon-head could possibly challenge the dancing, foaming waters and survive. The scows pulled to shore on an island in the middle of the river and the portaging of the freight to the other end of the island began. Portaging the freight and lining the empty scows down the rapid took four days. What followed was 150 kilometres of rapids before
reaching Fort McMurray.
From Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan
At Fort McMurray, Cameron and her niece finally could enjoy the luxury and shelter of a small steamer, the HBC’s Grahame, to race down the remaining Athabasca rapids – no more open-to-the-weather sturgeon-head scows for now.
At this point it became obvious that there had been an important movement of the earth at some time past. A fault was clearly visible for about 110 or 130 kilometres, a fault that oozed oil or gas in many places. “Out of the overhanging banks (oil) oozes at every fissure, and into some of the bituminous tar-wells we can poke a 20-foot [6-metre] pole and find no resistance.” Today, this area is known as the Athabasca Oil Sands, or more colloquially, the Athabasca Tar Sands. Some 50 kilometres below Fort McMurray, at Fort McKay, a “fine seam of bituminous coal” provided more evidence of great geological activity in the past.
The Grahame steamed into Lake Athabasca and stopped at Fort Chipewyan, which was the oldest post in the North. It contributed great numbers of skins to the fur trade every year. Alexander Mackenzie recognized the importance of this pivotal location connecting north and south trading interests. He and his cousin Roderick built Fort Chipewyan in the interests of the North-west Company and it became known as the “entrepot and emporium” of the whole North.
Fort Chipewyan to Fond-du-Lac
Lake Athabasca is in the shape of a long, northeast appendix to the side of the northward route that Cameron and her niece were following. At the end of the lake there was, and still is, the important Indian community of Fond-du-Lac. It is to this day an isolated community reachable only by water or air. Its name means end-of-the-lake. The Chipewyan First Nations Tribes of Fond-du-Lac comprised the largest Indian community in the North. They were also the least “spoiled-by-civilization” group of aboriginals in the entire North, according to Cameron.
The Grahame with the two women reached Fond-du-Lac on June 28. First Nations Tribes encountered in this area at the time were Chipewyans. All to the south had been Cree. Many natives were assembled here eagerly awaiting the Government representatives and their yearly $5 per person treaty money.
From Fond-du-Lac back to Fort Chipewyan and on north to Fort Smith and Fort Resolution
On June 29th, Cameron and Brown left Fond-du-Lac to sail back to Fort Chipewyan and continue on their northward itinerary down the Slave River to Smith’s Landing where ox-carts provided transport from the landing to the village of Fort Smith over 25-kilometre Smith’s Portage. Cameron called it Bloody Portage because of the ravages the mosquitoes inflicted on man and beast alike. Cameron’s party overtook five ox-drawn teams that had been more than 12 hours on the trail trying to make the 25-kilometre portage. Two of their oxen had died from exhaustion and loss of blood to the hordes of mosquitoes, and a relief team had to be sent out from Fort Smith to help them complete the journey.
At Fort Smith, as was the case in Fond-du-Lac, many Chipewyans, Slavis and Dog Ribs were waiting for the government representatives. But here too, the government representatives had not yet arrived. At Fort Smith, Cameron and Brown were the beneficiaries of a significant improvement in their travelling conditions. It is there that they boarded the brand new stern-wheeler, SS The Mackenzie River, on her maiden voyage down river to the Arctic Ocean. Cameron wrote, “the nightmare that haunted us on the scows of wet negatives and spoiled films vanishes.”
On their way North, the two women stopped at Fort Resolution where treaty time was in full swing. The Government representatives had arrived and were seated at a table in the grass, handing out five dollars of treaty money to family heads for themselves and each of their dependants – wives and every unmarried member of their families. One fellow, whose name was The-Lean-Man, presented himself, claiming treaty money for himself, two wives and seventeen children. The government representative suspected stuffing of the ballot box here, so he asked The-Lean-Man to name them all. Twice he
tried his best, but could only get up to six or seven names before losing track. The fellow finally asked the interpreter to wait “a-little-sun,” and disappeared into the crowd. Half an hour later when, everyone had forgotten him, The-Lean-Man finally showed up again, followed by Mrs. Lean-Man, Sr., Mrs. Lean-Man Jr., and 17 kids. Seeing was believing, so the government representative had to cough up The-Lean-Man’s family treaty payment of $100, which was quite a fortune in those times.
Fort Resolution to Hay River, Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, Fort Wrigley, Fort Norman and on to Fort Good Hope and the Arctic Circle
Leaving Fort Resolution in early July, the pair pressed north on SS The Mackenzie River, through Great Slave Lake to Hay River, continuing down the Mackenzie and passing through Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, Fort Wrigley, Fort Norman and on to Fort Good Hope on the Arctic Circle, which they reached in broad daylight at midnight, to welcoming salvoes of saluting muskets.
At their next stop, Arctic Red River, Cameron met her first Inuit, finding them and then those Inuit of Fort McPherson (later) to be of the highest moral calibre. She quotes an RNWMP (Royal North West Mounted Police – precursors of the RCMP) to support her observation. “I have found these natives honest all the time I have been at Herschel Island [5 years]. I never heard of a case of stealing among them.”
At their next and last stop, Fort Good Hope on the Mackenzie delta, by chance, Cameron and Brown met Canada’s famous Arctic explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Stefansson referred to the meeting in his book My Life with the Eskimo, writing that he offered Cameron his services as an interpreter of the Eskimo language. He noted that she declined, saying she preferred to get her impressions first hand. Fort McPherson, on the Mackenzie River’s Arctic Ocean delta, was the most northerly point of their trip and the end of the line for SS The Mackenzie River and for the two adventurous women, Cameron and Brown.
With few exceptions, the pair’s return trip was a mirror image of their trip North. One noteworthy exception was the use of the Peace River, via Fort Vermillion and Lesser Slave Lake instead of the Athabasca River for the Fort Chipewyan to Athabasca Landing leg. Six months after starting out, Cameron and Brown were back in Chicago.
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The promising career of Agnes Deans Cameron was tragically cut short in 1912 when she died following an operation for appendicitis in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Her plans to publish other books, the titles of which occasionally appeared in bibliographies at the time, and her contribution to Canada’s culture ended just as she was entering her prime as an author.