David Thompson (1770-1857) was a surveyor and trader who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company (1785-1796) and then for the North West Company (1797-1812). Consider one of North America’s great pathfinders and surveyors, he is recorded to have travelled over 100,000 km by canoe, horse or foot in his travels through western North America between 1785 and 1812. In 1807, Thompson became the first to cross and establish permanent trading forts west of the divide and would eventually explore British Columbia, Washington, Montana and Idaho. In July of 1811, Thompson reached the mouth of the Columbia, a river first explored by Captain George Vancouver’s second in command Lieutenant William Broughton, and later reached by Lewis and Clark in 1805.
After being stopped from crossing Howse Pass (his original route across the mountains) in the early fall of 1810, Thompson swung north and eventually followed the Athabasca River to the present day town site of Jasper, Alberta. After rest and final preparations, he began his journey up the Athabasca to the mouth of the Whirlpool River, where he began its ascension with the intention of crossing the mountains over Athabasca Pass. Although we can’t be sure exactly where, Thompson would record in his journals a curious find of large tracks of an unknown animal just above the mouth of the Whirlpool on 7 January 1811.
In his journal Thompsons records: “January 7, 1811 Continuing our journey in the afternoon we came on the track of a large animal, the snow about six inches deep on the ice; I measured it; four large toes each of four inches in length; to each a short claw; the ball of the foot sunk three inches lower than the toes, the hinder part of the foot did not mark well, the length fourteen inches, by eight inches in breadth, walking from north to south, and having passed about six hours. We were in no humour to follow him; the Men and Indians would have it to be a young mammoth and I held it to be the track of a large old grizzled bear; yet the shortness of the nails, the ball of the foot, and its great size was not that of a Bear, otherwise that of a very large old Bear, his claws worn away; this the Indians would not allow.”
40 years later, while writing the draft of his Narrative, David Thompson expanded on his experience further: “January 7th continuing our journey in the afternoon we came on the track of a large animal, the snow about six inches deep on the ice; I measured it; four large toes each of four inches in length, to each a short claw; the ball of the foot sunk three inches lower than the toes. The hinder part of the foot did not mark well, the length fourteen inches, by eight inches in breadth, walking from north to south, and having passed about six hours. We were in no humour to follow him; the Men and Indians would have it to be a young mammouth [sic] and I held it to be the track of a large old grizzly bear; yet the shortness of the nails, the ball of the foot, and its great size was not that of a Bear, otherwise that of a very large old Bear, his claws worn away, the Indians would not allow.”
This event must have stayed in Thompson’s mind because he again mentions the incident later in his narrative: “I now recur to what I have already noticed in the early part of last winter, when proceeding up the Athabaska River to cross the Mountains, in company with….Men and four hunters, on one of the channels of the River we came to the track of a large animal, which measured fourteen inches in length by eight inches in breadth by a tape line. As the snow was about six inches in depth the track was well defined, and we could see it for a full one hundred yards from us, this animal was proceeding from north to south. We did not attempt to follow it, we had no time for it, and the Hunters, eager as they are to follow and shoot every animal made no attempt follow this beast, for what could the balls of our fowling guns do against such an animal. Report from old times had made the head branches of this River, and the Mountains in the vicinity the abode of one, or more, very large animals, to which I never appeared to give credence; for these reports appeared to arise from the fondness for the marvellous so common to mankind: but the sight of the track of that large beast staggered me, and I often thought of it, yet never could bring myself to believe such an animal existed, but thought it might be the track of some monster Bear.”
David Thompson was not satisfied that the prints he found were those of an old grizzled bear and his curiosity of the track itself clearly intrigued him. Always the keen observer, he describes the track in detail including the depth of the track from front to back as if puzzling over the weight distribution as the animal walked. We should also consider that David Thompson only describes one kind of track and if the tracks he found were those of a bear, both front and rear paw tracks would have been described. He clearly describes indigenous folk lore, and what appears to be a healthy respect for the animal that made the track. It should also be of note that Thompson was not one to mention his men in his journals but on rare occasions, when he felt it was necessary to highlight an event, he did so. The fact that his voyageurs and both his Metis and Indigenous guides refused to follow the tracks further exemplifies the event. For something like this to “stagger” David Thompson, a man who had to this point had spent 26 years in the wilderness, it must of been quite the sight.
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