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Who is David Thompson?

David Thompson, known as “the greatest land geographer who ever lived” was also the first European to descend the full length of the Columbia River. In the spring of 1811 at Boat Encampment (near the mouth of the now flooded Canoe River north of Mica Creek) he built the first of 9 canoes.

His journal reads: “Having now examined the White Birch in every quarter, for Birch Rind where with to make a Canoe for our voyage to the Pacific Ocean, without finding any even thick enough to make a dish; such is the influence of a mild climate on the rind of the Birch Tree, we had to turn our thoughts to some other material; and Cedar wood being the lightest and most pliable for a Canoe, we split out thin boards of Cedar wood of about six inches in breadth and builded a Canoe of twenty five feet in length by fifty inches in breadth, of the same form as a common Canoe, using cedar boards instead of Birch Rind, which proved to be equally light and much stronger than Birch Rind, the greatest difficulty we had was sewing the boards to each round the timbers as we had no nails we had to make use of the fine Roots of the Pine which we split. On the 16th April we had finished the Canoe and got all ready for our voyage.”

Thompson understood a lot about canoe design. He had observed indigenous designs from Hudson Bay to the Rocky Mountains and had paddled in birch and pine bark canoes. The natives really influenced him on the use of local materials. It is hard to comprehend how those few men out there in the snow, surrounded by huge trees, with only moose to eat, were so sure that they could make a boat with such primitive tools and materials that would carry them to the Pacific Ocean.

Michael Morris wrote:

David Thompson could be the world’s most accomplished land geographer and the first European to visit the Revelstoke area 206 years ago.

While working in the fur trade, he surveyed the area between Hudson Bay and the Pacific Ocean, walking and paddling over 100,000 kilometres over a 28 year period. His travelling gear consisted of a tarp, a blanket, an iron pot, a knife, a hatchet, and leather moccasins for footwear. He built his own boats and sleds, hunted most of his own food, and provided his own health care, and never lost a man in his employ.

In 1784 at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to the Hudson Bay Company and pursued his interest in nature. A broken femur at age eighteen laid him up for a winter at a trading post with a surveyor willing to teach him trigonometry and astronomy. He convinced his employers to send him to the farthest reaches of the fur trade. He really wanted to be an explorer. Thompson respected the native way of life, until it was undermined by the effects of alcohol, something he refused to trade in. He spoke 4 native languages and compiled native language dictionaries.

His most significant exploration was of the Columbia watershed in search of a practical route to the Pacific Ocean. Supply lines for the fur trade from Montreal to the Columbia region were too long for profitable trade. A route to the Pacific Ocean was needed so that ships could augment trans-continental canoe brigades.

Setting out from Rocky Mountain House in 1807, he found his way down the Blaeberry River with his Métis wife Charlotte and their three young children. (They had 13 children and were married for 60 years).

The Columbia River confounded explorers because it runs north before switching directions. At the confluence of the Blaeberry and Columbia, Thompson built a boat and headed south (upstream) knowing from Captain Vancouver’s 1793 survey that the Columbia emptied into the ocean far to the south, but not realising that he was already on the Columbia. Finally in 1811 Thompson made it to the mouth of the Columbia.

Boat Encampment (situated at the confluence of Columbia, Canoe, and Wood rivers near present day Mica Creek) became a principal staging ground for boats that shuttled furs and trade goods.