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Get Walking! Franklin Crosses the Methye Portage

For the week of Monday, June 29, 2015

On July 4, 1825, Sir John Franklin and the crew of his Second Arctic Expedition began to cross the gruelling Methye Portage, which linked Lac la Loche and the Clearwater River on the border of present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta. Over the course of a week, these men would traverse one of the longest and most important sections of Canada’s historic fur trade routes.

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George Back sketched this scene during the expedition’s passage of the Methye Portage in 1825
© George Back / Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1955-102-25

Although Franklin is best known for the disappearance of his 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, before that he was no stranger to what is now the Canadian Arctic. During his Second Arctic Expedition, he travelled from New York City to the mouth of the Mackenzie River in the western Arctic, following many of Canada’s northern lakes and rivers on the way. From February 1825 to September 1827, he and his men covered thousands of kilometres, relying on known fur trade routes and their First Nations translators and guides, Augustus and Ooligbuck.

The Methye Portage was infamous as the longest overland section of the canoe route between Lake Superior and the Athabasca River. First Nations guides had earlier introduced this well-known portage to explorer Peter Pond in 1778. From then on, the portage saw near-constant use by fur traders and explorers alike until 1883, when the Canadian Pacific Railway reached Calgary and provided an easier method of transportation.

Maps from Franklin’s first expedition show the Methye Portage.
© University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections

For Franklin and his 23-man crew, crossing the Methye Portage required a full week of exhausting effort because of a large amount of cumbersome equipment: 116 packs, each weighing between 32 and 41 kilograms (70- 90 lbs) had to be portaged. According to Franklin’s journal, they would rise daily at 3 a.m. to carry the packs to the next water source along the path. After a short rest, they then went back for their three canoes, the smallest of which required eight men to carry it!

For its significance to trade and exploration, Methye Portage is designated as a National Historic Event and Peter Pond, as the first European to cross it, a National Historic Person. Sir John Franklin is also a National Historic Person, and more than 30 National Historic Sites and Events figure in his Second Arctic Expedition. For more on Franklin’s expeditions, read Lost in the Arctic and In Pursuit of the Erebus and Terror: An Arctic Mystery in the This Week in History archives.

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