Mountain Passes: Athabasca Pass

Athabasca Pass is located in the Canadian Rockies, on the Continental Divide between Alberta and British Columbia. During the early 1800s it was an important pass on the highly lucrative fur-trade route, with furs trapped west of the Rockies carried eastward and shipped to England.

The first non-Indian to see Athabasca Pass was David Thompson, perhaps the greatest European explorer of the North American continent. David Thompson was Welsh, born in London in 1770. Although his family lived in poverty, he was able to attend the Gray Coat Charity School, where he excelled in mathematics. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to the fur-trading Northwest Company and sailed to Canada. There he would have been a clerk working on books indoors, except for the fact that he broke his leg so badly that he spent a long time recovering. During that time, he was taught how to use a compass and sextant and locate the exact position of land forms by sighting the stars. 

Thompson became so good at determining location that the rival Hudson Bay Company hired him as a mapmaker. In 1798 he mapped the upper Missouri River and the Mandan villages. When Lewis and Clark explored that area of the continent in 1804, it was David Thompson’s maps that they used.

Because Thompson used a sextant to site the stars and determine the exact location of rivers, lakes, mountains, and even forts, the First Nations people called him Koo Koo Sint — he who looks at stars.

In 1807 Thompson was the first Euro-Canadian to cross Howse Pass in the Canadian Rockies. The native tribes such as the Kootenay and Piegan (Blackfeet)  had been using this pass for centuries, and shared its location with Thompson. Using Howse Pass, Thompson and other fur traders crossed the Canadian Rockies yearly, bringing furs back east. 

But First Nations people (in this case the Piegans) resented being cut out of the fur trade business. They resented white people taking over their land. They especially resented that Thompson’s men traded weapons to the Kootenays and Nez Perce, who were enemies of the Piegans.  When David Thompson and his group of trappers tried to cross Howse Pass in 1810, he was warned away — the Piegans had blocked the pass. Even though Thompson was highly respected by the indigenous tribes, his life was in danger — he left Howse Pass and headed north, convinced he would find another way through the Rocky Mountains.

Thompson headed north during the month of November — winter was fast approaching. In fact, it had arrived in the Canadian Rockies. In preparation for heading north, Thompson and his group of thirteen hunters/trappers spent nearly three weeks building dogsleds and snowshoes.  With the help of an Iroquois guide named Tomas, they did find a pass further north. Thompson called it Athabasca Pass, after nearby Lake Athabasca. The pass was 30 miles long.

Thompson’s men grumbled all the way — the going was very, very difficult. In crossing, the men sank into snow up to their kneecaps. When they tested the snow with a 20-foot pole, the pole did not touch bottom. The temperature was minus 30 degrees, the winds howled, and there were no game animals to eat, so the traders were forced to eat dogs and horses, much like the Lewis and Clark expedition would do in Lolo Pass. 

Mountain Range: Canadian Rockies
Elevation: 5,751 feet
Location: On the Continental Divide between Alberta and British Columbia, in Jasper National Park, Canada.

One man who made the crossing of Athabasca Pass wrote: “We were obliged to stop every moment to take breath, so stiff was the ascent. . . . On either side were immense glaciers or icebound rocks.” But where others saw difficulty, David Thompson saw beauty. He wrote that the pass was “a most exhilarating sight, but . . . a heavy gale of wind, much more a mountain storm, would have buried us beneath it. . . . . My men were not at their ease, yet when night came they admired the brilliancy of the stars, and as one of them said, he thought he could almost touch them with his hand.”

Despite the difficulty of the climb and the steeper descent heading west and the glaciers and the ice and snow, Athabasca Pass was a safer trading route than Howse Pass. For nearly forty years this far-north pass was the most-used pass in the Canadian Rockies. the main route used by traders of all kinds. But then, with the coming of the Canadian Railroad, the pass was abandoned by traders and travelers.

During the 28 years that he worked out west, David Thompson traveled 55,000 miles and covered eight million square miles of land. He explored the entire length of the Columbia River, which runs from the Continental Divide into the Pacific Ocean. He found the headwaters of the Mississippi River and mapped the lands and waters around them.

After the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, David Thompson was asked to map the new borders — both sides accepted his findings without question. And much later, when he was 58 years old, Thompson was asked to determine the boundary between Canada and the United States from Lake Superior westward. Again, his decision was accepted without question, so great a cartographer was he, and so trusted. Many have called David Thompson “the greatest land geographer ever.”

In 1971 Athabasca Pass was declared a National Landmark by Canada. It lies in the southwest corner of Jasper National Park and is enjoyed by hikers. Blazes left on trees by Thompson and his men two-hundred years ago are still visible.

Athabasca Pass

Centuries of slumber
broken by a brief flurry
of fur trade glory,
and then a rolling over
and back to sleep.

___________________

Barbara Gregorich’s previous post on mountain passes was Lolo Pass.

Mountain Passes: Lolo Pass

The Bitterroot range of the Rocky Mountains is even today considered one of the most impenetrable of mountain ranges — meaning that it is very difficult for humans to move through it by foot, horseback, car, truck, or all-terrain vehicle. And if it is difficult today, imagine how it was back in 1805, when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark entered this tangle of 10,000-foot peaks, thick timber, and strewn boulders. 

Lewis and Clark and their expedition companions in the Corps of Discovery were the first Euro-Americans to see this vast territory.  Along the way they were helped by Indian guides such as Sacagawea, who carried her infant son.

When the expedition reached Lolo Pass, they camped there alongside a stream, then began traversing the pass the next morning. The going was extremely difficult, with deep snow drifts, sharp rocks, and thick trees. By the third day there was no more meat and no wild game in sight. The explorers resorted to eating soup, fish, berries, and roots. They ate three of their horses. Then they ate a coyote. They were extremely cold and depressed because of the difficulty of the mountains. When their food ran out, they ate candles to fill their empty stomachs. Crossing the the mountain range through Lolo Pass took eleven days.

On the eleventh day, the sick and starving Corps of Discovery stumbled out of the Bitterroot Mountain Range. They were met by the Nez Perce Indians, who had never seen white or black men before. But the Nez Perce recognized pain and courage, and they fed the group, saving their lives. In his journal Clark called the Nez Perce “the most hospitable, honest and sincere people that we have met with in our voyage.”

Lolo Pass

Mountain Range: Bitterroot  Mountains
Elevation: 5,235 feet
Grade: 5.5%
Location: On the Montana-Idaho border, in the Bitterroot National Forest.

Lewis and Clark made it to the Pacific Ocean and wintered near the mouth of the Columbia River, in a fort they built. During the winter the men repaired old clothes and sewed new ones. By the time they left the coast on March 23, 1806, they had sewn 358 pairs of moccasins out of elkhide and deerhide — almost one dozen pair of shoes per person.

Eager to return home after nearly three years of very difficult travel, the Corps moved swiftly, knowing that once they re-crossed Lolo Pass, the waters would flow homeward and they would make good time.

img_6297_1_11But Lolo Pass was not ready to let anybody cross. When the Corps reached the Bitterroot Range in May, the Nez Perce warned them that the pass was covered in very deep snow: it would be impossible to cross until June Or maybe even July.

The explorers waited for a few weeks, but on June 10 they could contain their impatience no longer: despite warnings from the Nez Perce, Lewis and Clark set out through Lolo Pass once again.

This proved to be a mistake. Fifteen-foot-deep snow drifts filled the pass, rendering the path invisible. There was no grass for the horses to eat and, once again, no game for the hunters to hunt. Having barely survived Lolo Pass once, Lewis and Clark recognized the danger more readily on the second crossing —  they could starve to death, or they could just barely make it to the other side, where there would be no Nez Perce waiting to help them. 

The explorers turned back to the Nez Perce camp. For the first time in its long journey, the Corps of Discovery had retreated. This dejected and depressed them all. They knew not what lay ahead. By the time Lolo Pass was crossable, could they make it back to the Mandan villages before bitter winter set in? 

At last, on June 25, with the help of two young Nez Perce guides, the Lewis and Clark expedition tackled Lolo Pass again. This time they made it through: by the Fourth of July they were on the east side of the Bitterroot Range, heading downhill and downstream toward home.

stelprdb5246119Traveling faster than they imagined possible, the explorers reached the villages on August 14 and three days later left the Mandans, headed homeward. Approximately five weeks later, on September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery reached St. Louis. 

Three years had gone by since the explorers left Pittsburgh, more than two years since they left St. Louis. Citizens were astounded: many had given up the explorers for dead. As well they might have been had it not been for the Nez Perce.

Decades later, the Nez Perce, cheated out of their lands by the false treaties of the United States, were pursued by the US Cavalry. The Nez Perce eluded the Cavalry by fleeing eastward and crossing Lolo Pass at night. Hoping to escape to Canada, they were stopped forty miles short of the border. 

Today two historic trails — the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the Nez Perce Trail —  cross through Lolo Pass.

Lolo Pass

Eastern
men rush westward,
western tribes flee northward —
pass stands still, monument and
witness.

You can read Barbara Gregorich’s earlier blog on mountain passes, Panther Pass.

Mountain Passes: Panther Pass

Contrary to common perception, Europeans didn’t first occupy the land that became the United States in an east-to-west direction. The Spanish marched from south to north, establishing the town of Santa Fe in 1610, ten years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

French missionaries and explorers, on the other hand, moved through the new land from north to south, using the waterways of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to establish contact with native tribes of what are today Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Arkansas. On the lakes and rivers, of course, the French encountered no mountains and no mountain passes.

The Spanish, moving across the land by foot and on horseback, did encounter mountains. So it should come as no surprise that they encountered mountain passes. (It’s said that the first European to discover a mountain pass in what is today the US was Coronado, who in 1540 marched through the pass called La Glorieta, southeast of Santa Fe, searching for legendary cities of gold.) One of the passes traversed by the Spanish was named after the mountain lions that roamed North America. The North American mountain lion goes by various names in different parts of the continent: cougar, puma, catamount, and panther.

In southwestern Texas the puma is called a panther. In the Chisos Mountains of the Big Bend area, the panther preys mainly on deer and javelinas (wild pigs). And although these large cats prowled throughout the Chisos Mountains, the place they were most often spotted was in a particular mountain pass. Naturally this pass came to be called Panther Pass. The Chisos Mountains, incidentally, are the southernmost mountain range in the US, and are also entirely contained within the boundaries of Big Bend National Park (1,252 square miles). 

Named after the giant turn the Rio Grande makes as it flows east to the Gulf of Mexico, the Big Bend area is spectacular. This is a land of wide variety: harsh desert, rugged mountains, bountiful river. It’s populated by shrubs, cacti, trees, reptiles, birds, and mammals, many of them found nowhere else in the United States. Mainly, though, the land of the Big Bend is desert. Until modern times only Indians native to the area could survive there. They knew which roots provided food, which plants provided moisture, which caves provided shelter. 

Panther Pass

Mountain Range: Chisos Mountains.
Elevation: 5,770 feet
Grade: 15% in some places
Location: In Big Bend National Park, southwestern Texas.

Although the desert was not suitable for farming, it was rumored to contain another kind of wealth: gold. And gold was a lure to the Spanish, who forced natives to mine both silver and gold. This new-world wealth was then loaded onto ships that sailed to Spain. 

Eventually mines are mined out or abandoned for some other reason. Then legends of lost mines spring up. Possibly because so many miners kept the location of their mines secret, the legends were believed. 

One of these many legends says that the Spanish forced prisoners to work in a fabulous mine north of the Rio Grande. This mine was located on what is today called Lost Mine Peak, in the Chisos Mountains. According to legend, the prisoners marched from the Spanish stronghold, Presidio [Fort] San Vicente, which sat on a bluff above the Rio Grande, through the desert, through Panther Pass, and into the dark mine. The gold mine was so rich, legend has it, that the Spanish  blindfolded the prisoners en route so that not one of them would never know its exact location.

Big-Bend-Lost-Mine-Trail2

Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Mountains

How does a gold mine get “lost”? Legends always have an answer. In the case of the Panther Pass gold mine, legend says that the Commanche, who did not want Europeans taking their silver, their gold, or their land, raided the mine and killed everyone in it. Then they sealed the mine entrance with rocks and covered it with brush so that nobody could ever find it again. 

But legends of lost gold mines always give hope to treasure hunters, and the legend of the Panther Pass mine is no different. Supposedly if a person stands in the chapel door of Presidio San Vicente on Easter Sunday, the sun’s first rays will shine on the exact location of the Lost Mine.    

Thousands of prospectors and treasure hunters have looked for the Lost Mine, but nobody has found it. Perhaps that’s because all that remains of Presidio San Vicente are adobe ruins. Or perhaps it’s because Easter Sunday falls on a different date each year. Or maybe it’s because the Earth wobbles on its axis as it rotates, so never again will the first rays of the sun on Easter Sunday strike exactly where they struck 300-some years ago. Or, perhaps . . . the entire legend is total fabrication.

Most likely nobody has found the Lost Mine because it never existed. As they move through the world, humans leave records behind: records of births and deaths, records of ownership, and records of profit or loss. Nowhere in Spain, Mexico, or Texas is there any kind of written record (ledgers, letters, deeds) of a gold mine just beyond Panther Pass. 

But don’t let that stop you. If you’re set on treasure hunting, you can drive or bike an asphalted road through Panther Pass, cross the Lost Mine Trail, and start looking.

Panther Pass

No lost gold
mine-yours-theirs,
there’s nothing where
the puma yowls
and prowls
the arid rocks.

________________

You can read Barbara Gregorich’s earlier blog on mountain passes, The Cumberland Gap.

Mountain Passes: The Cumberland Gap

When I was in third grade, my mother gave me a book whose stories told about mountain passes in history. As a result I became fascinated by mountain passes. Once I started to drive and travel across the US, I encountered mountain passes in person and became even more interested in their location and  importance.

Years ago I wrote the manuscript of a nonfiction picture book on twelve important mountain passes in US history. For each mountain pass I wrote a poem, boxed statistics, and prose. The manuscript was almost published, but ultimately wasn’t, because to produce it the way the editor envisioned it would have cost too much. I then rewrote the information as a nonfiction Middle Grades book, but there was no interest in the subject among the publishers I queried.

5543-004-252355F0All the information I collected on mountain passes is still in storage. But this is the era of the blog, and my blog is titled “Much to Write About,” and so I’m going to write briefly about mountain passes. Not all at once, but off and on.

The first important mountain pass in US history (the land wasn’t the United States yet) was the Cumberland Gap, which was formed in the Appalachian Mountains by wind erosion over hundreds of thousands of years. For tens of thousands of years the pass was traversed by animals, and for thousands of years by Indian tribes such as the Lenape, Cherokee, Miami, and Shawnee, as they crossed from one side of the mountains to the other to engage in trade and also warfare.

The pass, or rumors of it, was known to English colonists as early as the 1670s. But it wasn’t until 1750 that Thomas Walker (physician and explorer, and the man appointed guardian of young Thomas Jefferson after the death of Peter Jefferson) mapped the location of the Cumberland Gap.

Cumberland Gap
Mountain Range: Appalachian Mountains
Elevation: 1,601 feet above sea level
Grade: about 4%
Location: Near the point where the states of
Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.

As soon as the Gap’s location was made known, a few hardy men and women began to walk westward into the land of Indian tribes, taking the barest of possessions with them:  a knife, a gun, and the clothes on their back. Everything else they needed, they found or built on the other side of the mountains, or traded for with the Indian tribes.

Cumberland_GapMost people, though, wanted to take some possessions with them. Bedding, perhaps, and cooking utensils. So in 1775 the Transylvania Land Company hired Daniel Boone to hack a road through the Cumberland Gap. Boone and his crew of thirty men cleared away brush, axed small trees, and hauled away fallen logs, blazing the steep, rough, and narrow Wilderness Road.  The cleared path allowed people to cross on horseback. Twenty years later, the Wilderness Road was widened so that wagons could pass through.

More than 300,000 people poured through the Gap (into Indian lands) and claimed the land as their own. In 1792 Kentucky became the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains.Today the Cumberland Gap and area surrounding it are part of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, visited by more than one million people each year.

Cumberland Gap

Nature’s wall blocked
their reach,
but not for long.

Carts, cattle, people —
through the breach
and gone.

________________

To cross a mountain pass is to enter another world. To read a book is to enter another world, too. Jack and Larry, one of Barbara Gregorich’s many books, opens into the world of 1910-1920 major league baseball.