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Jasper National Park of Canada

Athabasca Pass National Historic Site

Plaque Text: Athabasca Pass

In January 1811, David Thompson, guided by Thomas the Iroquois, was the first white man to cross the Rockies through this pass. Thence he led his party down the Wood River to the place on the Columbia River later called Boat Encampment. Governor George Simpson subsequently named the small lake at the top of the pass "the Committee's Punch Bowl" - a reference to the London Committee of the Hudson's Bay Company. For almost half a century, the Athabasca Pass was part of the main fur trade route between Canada and the Oregon country.

On the scene:

By 1810, the fur trade had expanded west across the continental divide. Competition was mounting to reach further into unexplored lands. David Thompson of the North West Company had already set up posts throughout the upper and middle Columbia River valley.

Urgency arose to reach the mouth of the Columbia River when New York-based fur trader, John Jacob Astor, entered the race. Planning to reach the mouth of the Columbia River by ship around Cape Horn, Astor's goal was to establish a port and inland fur-trading posts in what is now Washington State. If he succeeded, the North West Company would face serious competition.

David Thompson was dispatched overland to lay claim to the fur-rich region before Astor. His first route across the continental divide, Howse Pass, was blocked by Pikani (Peigan) Indians, forcing Thompson to find a new route. In January of 1811, he and his men, guided by Thomas the Iroquois, reached the summit Athabasca Pass. Once over the pass, they wintered at Boat Encampment on the Columbia River, reaching the Pacific Ocean the following spring, only two weeks after Astor.

Thompson's route to the Pacific over the Athabasca Pass would become one of the most important East-West transportation links of the Canadian fur trade.

Timeline:

  • Prehistory - Athabasca Pass used occasionally by aboriginal peoples as a transportation corridor.
  • 1800 - Ktunaxa (Kootenay) tribe sends a party east across the continental divide to meet with fur traders at Rocky Mountain House. This angers the local Pikani tribe, who are anxious to keep firearms from rival tribes.
  • 1801 - Thompson sends two men back across the mountains with the Ktunaxa as trade ambassadors.
  • 1807 - Thompson crosses Howse Pass, allowing him to establish Kootenai House along the Columbia River.
  • 1810 - American John Jacob Astor announces plans to lay claim to the mouth of the Columbia River by sailing around Cape Horn. This would give his Pacific Fur Company the advantage of establishing posts close to the port.
  • 1810 - Pikani warriors intimidate fur traders trying to cross Howse Pass or any pass to the south.
  • 1810 - Thompson and his men, guided by Thomas the Iroquois, set out to cross Athabasca Pass, thereby reinforcing British territorial interests.
  • 1811, January 10 - David Thompson and crew reach Athabasca Pass after an arduous journey. He would later describe reaching the pass this way: "It was to me a most exhilarating sight, but to my uneducated men, a dreadful sight... My men were the most hardy that could be picked out of a hundred brave hardy men, but the sense of desolation before us was dreadful, and I knew it."
  • 1811, July - Thompson reaches the Pacific Ocean and the mouth of the Columbia River to find the American Pacific Fur Company had preceded him by weeks and were building Fort Astoria.
  • 1811-1850s - Athabasca Pass becomes part of the main fur trade route between Canada and the Pacific coast.
  • 1824 - George Simpson, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company crosses Athabasca Pass and names the pond at the top the "Committee's Punch Bowl." Here he initiates the tradition of toasting the honour of the Hudson's Bay Company - a tradition still performed today.
  • 1826 - Use of Athabasca Pass by fur trade begins to wane.
  • 1826 - Botanist Thomas Drummond crosses Athabasca Pass while completing a thorough study of the flora and fauna of the area and adding greatly to the knowledge of the region.
  • 1827 - Scottish botanist David Douglas mistakenly records Mount Brown and Mount Hooker to be over 5,000 metres high after crossing Athabasca Pass. This incorrectly labels them as the highest peaks in the Canadian Rockies. For years, explorers would search for these fabled peaks.
  • 1846 - Father Pierre-Jean De Smet crosses the pass while performing his missionary duties. British soldiers James Warre and Mervin Vavasour return through the pass after a trip to spy on Americans. After Paul Kane, a well-known painter, crosses Athabasca Pass with a fur brigade, he brings the first printed illustrations of the Rocky Mountains to the rest of the world.
  • 1892 - Dr. A.P. Coleman, a geology professor, ascends Athabasca Pass and discovers the fabled peaks Brown and Hooker are far from the heights recorded by Douglas, thus solving the mystery that plagued explorers for almost seventy years.

Tid-Bit

Wild and majestic beyond description; the track is in many places nearly impassable and it appears extraordinary how any human being should have stumbled on a pass through such a formidable barrier as we are now scaling , wrote George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson s Bay Company upon his first trip through Athabasca Pass.

Getting there:

It's been almost 200 years since David Thompson's arduous first journey across Athabasca Pass. Trail conditions have improved; however reaching the pass still requires a demanding multi-day backpack trip.

Driving to the trailhead: From the traffic lights at the west exit of the community of Jasper, drive 7.5 km south on Highway 93 (the Icefields Parkway) to the intersection with Highway 93A. Follow Highway 93A for 14.5 km to the Moab Lake turnoff. The trailhead is at the end of this 7 km long gravel road.

Backpacking to the pass: For overnight stays in the backcountry you'll need a permit from the Jasper Naitonal Park Trail Office. The 49 km hike to Athabasca Pass takes about three days one-way. Please consult the Trail Office, located in the Jasper Information Centre, for detailed route information and trail conditions.

Don't Want to Hike? Drive 19 km south of Jasper on Highway 93A to the "Meeting of the Waters." Fur brigades toiled past this point on their way to Athabasca Pass. Today there is a picnic area at the Meeting of the Waters along with a display on the fur trade.