by Dorthea Calverley
Unknown to the Bay men, there was sort of hole in the natural walls surrounding the Peace River country. A Northwester named Peter Pond found it. Although he is hardly known to history, perhaps he and not Alexander Mackenzie should be commemorated as the man who opened the gateway to our country. True, there is no record that he ever saw the Peace River, but he knew about it, and it was he who sent Mackenzie on his famous quests to the Arctic and the Pacific. It happened this way …
It is not known when the first French coureurs de bois began working westward around the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territory by way of the Great Lakes from Montreal. After England conquered Canada, adventurous Scotsmen, who quite justifiably had no love for the English, joined the French entrepreneurs. They were not organized as a company at this time, but they recognized that together they could do more than independently. They built a large establishment on Lake Superior at Grand Portage, so ships stronger than canoes could survive the terrible storms of Lake Superior to carry the furs by the easiest, quickest route to Montreal, and on to the markets of Europe. As soon as the ice went out, brigades of light canoes set out up the big lakes and connecting rivers of present day Manitoba to reach the Indians before they could get to the rivers leading to the English forts on the Bay. Soon it became clear that a gathering place for furs, to which the Indians could come was better than relying on chance meetings. This advance post was Ile-a-la-Crosse just east of the Peace River watershed. Of course, they had no right to put it there because Lac Ile-a-la-Crosse is part of the Churchill River system that drains into Hudson’s Bay, but the Nor’westers would not let a little thing like that bother them. Besides which the Bay employees, comfortable in their posts on the Hudson’s Bay, knew nothing about it – yet. To this place came an old Norwest fur trader, Peter Pond, full of curiosity about what lay beyond. He set out up the Churchill River to find out. In doing so he sneaked into the Peace River Territory that had been supplying the finest furs to the Hudson’s Bay forts. The proud old company got its first rude jolt, and neither it nor the Peace River Country has ever been the same.
It was a tough journey up the rivers linking a chain of lovely lakes until he reached Lac la Loche or Methye Lake. His Indian guides told him of a portage they had used from ancient times, over to another river which (so they said) led eventually to the “stinking lake” – the ocean. An accident of nature brought the Norwest trader to the Peace River area perhaps a hundred years before the Hudson’s Bay Company might have bothered. Over a low, sandy ridge, sparsely covered with pine and spruce, the feet of moose and Indians had made an easy path for eight miles to a little lake. Here the voyageurs eased their back of the bite of the pack strap. Three miles further on, the path dropped down a steep hill to the Clearwater River, a tributary of the Athabasca. Thus the Peace River Country became the property of the Nor’westers by right of discovery for its waters were not covered by the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly. This was the Methye Portage, which became the busiest hub in the great trade.