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Canada’s Lewis and Clark: Alexander Mackenzie

When it came to continent crossing, the noted U.S. explorers were a step behind Canada's Alexander Mackenzie. And until you hike his namesake trail, you can't truly appreciate the toughness of his journey or the magnitude of his accomplishment.

Curtains of pellet snow filter through the pines as a spring squall rolls gently across British Columbia’s Coast Range. Darryl Czuchra and I climb slowly up the relentless switchbacks toward Hump Lake, working our way over snowdrifts and timber deadfalls. As the snow deepens with altitude, trail markers and axe blazes disappear beneath the white. In the Bella Coola Valley 4,000 feet below us, flowers are blooming and grizzlies are foraging for fresh spring grasses, but here on the Interior Plateau, winter still reigns supreme.

In lieu of a visible trail, we follow a line of fresh wolf tracks through the primal forests, tiptoeing over the barely frozen crust. Fortunately, this lone wolf seems to know the route, so we continue on, all the while climbing toward the alpine region of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park along the Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail. Considering the history that led to this trail’s designation, it’s entirely appropriate that we’re following the tracks of another. Here, there’s a long tradition of white men trailing the locals.

In July of 1793, a 29-year-old Scotsman named Alexander Mackenzie, working for the fur-trapping Northwest Company, traveled this same route through what is now British Columbia. Accompanied by seven French-Canadian voyageurs, two native porters, and a dog, he eventually reached the Pacific Ocean and became the first to cross North America, beating Lewis and Clark by a good 12 years.

As I stomp along in my high-tech apparel and dry boots, my thoughts wander back to Mackenzie and crew and their epic journey. What must it have been like for them, trotting 20 to 30 miles a day through this landscape, clad in buckskin and moccasins, carrying 90-pound sacks of pemmican on their backs? Did they, like me, gasp for air and wonder how long it was to the next ridge? Or were they so inured by years of wilderness living that it was just another daily routine?

For all their toughness and determination, neither Mackenzie nor Lewis and Clark forged their way without help through what today is often thought of as an empty, uncharted wilderness. When they wanted to know where to go, they could ask directions from the numerous natives they met along the way. In Mackenzie’s case, for nearly two-thirds of his Canadian crossing he retraced already well-traveled voyageur waterways. Then, when he reached northeast Alberta, he followed native advice and paddled down winding streams and chain lakes to the Fraser River in present-day British Columbia.

It was there that the resident Nazcotins, who were part of the Southern Carrier tribe, told him of fierce rapids and hostile tribes farther downstream. The Nazcotin recommended that Mackenzie’s men leave their birchbark canoes behind and continue westward on what the natives called “The Great Road,” one of many “grease trails” that linked the coastal Haida peoples with the Athabascans in the vast Canadian interior. Along this webwork of paths, the Carrier middlemen hauled moose hides and obsidian they traded for seashells, otter pelts, and the rendered oil of the eulachon fish. Eulachon oil, or grease, was valued for its calories and vitamin content. This thriving native economy made for constant foot traffic, and even in 1793, Mackenzie described the Great Road as “very good and well traced.”

And so would Darryl and I, although Mackenzie was smart enough to be here in July. Right now it’s May, hard on the heels of a winter that saw record snowfall in British Columbia, and we’re scouting the place to shoot Anyplace Wild’s Season Three premiere. The Great Road won’t emerge for months, and aside from the wolf who laid the tracks in front of us, the rest of the locals are in warmer locales.

This 216-mile overland portion of Mackenzie’s 5,000-mile journey is known as the Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail, a designation that came officially in 1982. (His entire, coast-to-coast course is known as the Alexander Mackenzie Voyageur Route.) The trail’s naming overlooked its ancient origins and understandably miffed the local Ulgatchuz and Nuxalk tribes who used it for centuries and still refer to the path as the Nuxalk-Carrier Route. But to give credit where due, the tribes undoubtedly followed even earlier inhabitants, like the caribou and wolves who still migrate through the area.

The Great Road/Carrier Route led Mackenzie westward along the West Road River, across the rambling Chilcotin Plateau, the Dean River, and the Rainbow Range to what is now the Bella Coola Valley. From there, they paddled downriver and out to the Pacific where, beset by powerful and warlike coastal tribes, the explorer scrawled a brief inscription before turning around: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, 22nd July, 1793.” A replica of the famous words is there today.

The wolf tracks wander off among thickets and cliff bands–apparently searching for better rabbit hunting–so Darryl and I are reduced to guessing which forest hallways are the trail and which are buried streams. As we zigzag and backtrack, the dense spruce trees creak and moan in the mountain breezes, and wisps of lichen sway lazily from their branches. About the time we pass Hump Lake, the snowstorm gives way to brilliant blue sky. The warming air brings a promise of emerging spring.

To gain a view of the surrounding countryside, we climb to some bare-topped hills, where we spread our maps, eat lunch, and scout the surroundings. Twenty miles east of us, Hunlen Falls thunders 1,300 feet into its water-carved gorge; huge, even at this distance. Rugged canyons and vast plateaus roll northward to the red and ocher talus of the Rainbow Range, the peaks the natives called Tsitsutl, “the mountains that bleed.” Across the deep gorge of the Bella Coola Valley, the Pacific Ranges soar upward to block the southern horizon. Stupendous Mountain, named by Mackenzie, rises in snow-clad tiers, and beyond it, layer upon layer of rugged peaks and towering spires march south toward Vancouver before disappearing. From this anonymous hilltop, it’s startlingly obvious that the Mackenzie Heritage Trail is a magnificent journey in its own right, but it only scratches the surface of this immense and striking country.

As I scan the surrounding countryside, it’s easy to imagine that these deep forests and precipitous gorges both frustrated and awed Mackenzie and his men as they searched for a Northwest Passage to the trade markets of China. The colors of the Rainbows and the spires of the Pacific Ranges probably elicited gasps of admiration and dread. We’ll never know, though. While the ambitious young Scotsman’s journals vividly describe the cultures he encountered, he barely mentions his emotional impressions of the land. Modern pilgrims must be content with speculation, or as Canadian outdoor guide Geoffrey Peake told me, “To really understand what these early explorers accomplished and the hardships they underwent, you’ve got to study history with your boots.”

From our high point, Darryl and I have other hardships in mind: the kind our film crew will face if they try to cross the snow-choked Rainbows anytime soon. The route won’t be snow-free for months, so we’ll have to look for alternate locations. Even though we’ve just humped camping gear up 4,500 feet of mountain, we pack up and plunge-step down toward the lupine and buttercups of the Bella Coola Valley. It’s tough to leave such a panorama, but we’re off to discover other wonders along the “Great Road.”

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