People & Culture

Christmas at the Devil’s Portage

Nearly 100 years ago, Royal Canadian Geographical Society founding president Charles Camsell wrote a Christmas story that has been shared through his family for generations. In honour of the Society’s 90th anniversary, his family shared it with Canadian Geographic to be published for the first time. 

  • Dec 23, 2019
  • 717 words
  • 3 minutes
Charles Camsell Christmas Expand Image

It was Christmas Day, 1897, and Arthur Pelly and I were on the road to the Klondyke overland by the Liard River route.

For two days in sub-zero weather we had plodded through the soft snow of the Grand Canyon of the Liard River, a deep rock-walled trench cut through the northern end of the Rocky Mountains, each of us alternatively breaking trail for our four-dog team or pushing and guiding the toboggan which carried our whole outfit.

We had entered the Canyon at Hell’s Gate on the evening of the 23rd and had had fairly heavy going because of deep snow throughout the 40 miles of its length. We had found the canyon frozen everywhere, even at the Rapid of The Drowned near where we had camped the night before. Now we were at its western end.

We had tried during the day to gain a passage through the constriction known as the Devil’s Gorge, which forms the western end of the canyon, but found this impossible because the force of the stream had kept open water from wall to wall of the gorge. The only alternative was the portage trail of four miles over a mountain spur a thousand feet high, a trail which had never been used in winter and only once in summer in the last 30 years. This was the notorious Devil’s Portage, which to all northern voyageurs carried a reputation of decidedly sinister character and was responsible for the abandonment of the Liard River as a trade route to the Yukon many years ago.

Hell’s Gate and Devil’s Portage! Evil-sounding names, indeed, and obviously suggestive of their character. Small wonder that the memory of them has dimmed little in 40 years.

And so on Christmas night Pelly and I were camped on the summit of Devil’s Portage, then as now a no-man’s-land and one of the most isolated and inaccessible points in all Canada.

It had not been easy to find and follow the old portage trail, covered with three feet of snow and much overgrown as it was, but here and there an ingrown blaze was visible.

It was the toughest going of the day up this eastern slope of the portage, but by doubling up when necessary we were on the summit before the light of the short winter day began to fade.

Finding a spot where there was both green and dry standing spruce, we set to with snowshoes to shovel out a place for the camp. This we then floored with spruce boughs and banked on three sides with snow and brush. On the fourth side we laid the fire of full-length trees with butts overlapping and pointing inward. The star-studded sky was to be our canopy.

Then the dogs were unhitched and the sled unpacked of its blankets, food and cooking utensils.

The next operation was supper. The first duty, however, of the northern traveller is the care of his dogs, and after these are fed he proceeds to the preparation of this own meal. Ours was the same as it had been for three months, namely bacon, beans and bread, washed down with tea. Tonight there was to be added to this simple fare a cooked but now frozen plum pudding, carried all the way from Edmonton for this occasion and put up for such purpose by a famous Toronto caterer for his day. This was to be the “piece de resistance.”

Pelly however had a surprise in store, and before the pudding was served, produced like a magician from his kit a small flask of brandy which he had carried since July without arousing suspicion from any source. A little of this in a tin cup with a toast to “absent friends” was the prelude to the most satisfying plum pudding ever eaten.

Later as we lay in our blankets within the small circle of light made by the camp fire, and nothing but the stars overhead and the infinite silence of the sub-Arctic night around, my thoughts and Pelly’s reverted to other Christmas nights — his to scenes many thousands of miles distant, mine nearer to hand, but both embracing friends who were thinking the same thoughts as ourselves.

So does Christmas eliminate distance!


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