by Dorthea Calverley
A long time ago, when this part of the continent was green after the melting of the last great glacier, the present site of the town of Peace River was a well-known place on the oldest of all trails on this continent. About twenty-five thousand years ago, dark-skinned nomads from Asia walked down a tundra corridor between the last two great glaciers to cover the land as the Arctic ice cap does today. “Sagitawa” the Indians called this spot (now Peace River Town) – the meeting of the waters. If the bones of the men who first knew it were ever found, they would be five or six times as old as the ancient Pyramids of Egypt, built in 3000 BC. Until the white men came it was used constantly by war parties of Cree or Beavers, going north or south. The last peoples to come from Asia are believed to be the Athapaskan-speakers, of which our Beavers are a branch.
From Sagitawa, another old war trail led west up the Peace River, beyond the present Portage Mountain Dam to the forks of the Finlay and Parsnip rivers, then both north and south into the Rocky Mountain trench. Before the white men came the Indians lived off the land and traveled light, for they carried no furs for sale, and no trade goods. Between watersheds or around rapids and waterfalls it was a simple matter to pick up a bark canoe and make a portage following the game trails the animals had made around rough water. Over the portage trails, as centuries passed, well-trodden paths were made, winding among the rocks, and, by the easiest of grades, over or around hills. Thus, if Mackenzie had only found it, he could have walked a centuries-old path, around the fearsome Rocky Mountain Canyon, instead of slashing an incredibly difficult one over his famous portage.
In the year 1970-71, the head geologist, Prof. W.H. Matthews of the University of British Columbia undertook the study and mapping of these “inside passages” of ancient travel and transportation, starting at Fort St. John. He and those who follow him will open, at its earliest chapters, the book of history which may record us, too, as passing travelers.
Coming closer to the times of recorded history, we must recognize that the whole country was laced with other footpaths along old-established routes. The Peace River Country Indians were game hunters of the land roaming, grazing animals, principally the wood bison or buffalo. Wherever there were prairies, like Grande Prairie, Pouce Coupe Prairie, and Rose Prairie, the Indians would follow the beasts, which traveled as any old cow does, from pasture to pasture by the line of least resistance. Having neither dogs nor ponies until recent times, the Indians walked and the women wore the paths the deepest, for they bore on their backs loads up to two hundred pounds, while they dragged a narrow sledge carrying up to three hundred pounds more. Later they performed the same services for the invading white man, who merely followed his Indian guides. Then, rather comically, these same white men proclaimed themselves “discoverers”. “Explorers” they were, but as “discoverers”, they were merely followers along well-known trails and waterways.