Homathko River

The Homathko River

November 5, 1861
            Yay K um, the Cla-oosh chief, after rescuing us from the marauding Indians, took us up a river to his camp, for we were very weak and exhausted, and he fed us on mountain sheep, beaver and bear meat and was very kind to us. We made him many presents of beads and trinkets and I told our Indians to ask him if he knew of any trail through the mountains in Bute Inlet. “Yes”, he told them, “but it was covered with snow and ice and very dangerous to travel over. No Indians would ever venture there on account of the grizzly bears that at this time of year were very ferocious.” We offered him many presents if he would only come with us to show us the entrance to the pass through the mountains, as we were most anxious to survey the country, and at last he consented to go with us.
Nov. 10
At the head of Bute Inlet we camped up the Homathko River on the site of an immense slide that had come down from a very high peak. It left in its course a snow embankment of great height carrying immense boulders and trees with it into the inlet. The tops of high pine trees growing near the side of the slide were just visible above the top of the avalanche.
Nov. 11
           The Indian chief took us up the Homathko River, and pointed to a peak a long distance off where the river comes through a canyon in the mountains. Close by was an immense glacier. We made a deep hole in the snow and buried some of our provisions and covered them with logs and dirt and snow on top so as to ensure a supply in case of accident on a return trip. We now began our up-river journey.
Nov. 13
After a time the river became full of dangerous rapids. We tied a long rope to the canoe, two men pushing it up the rapids with poles, the rest of us on shore hauling on the rope.
At last we came to a large "embarrass"[i] about twenty feet high and half a mile long, stretching across the river. It was formed of drifted logs piled on top of each other by the winter floods. The water surged between the logs with great velocity. We had a dangerous task to perform, as we had to lift the canoe over into the water on the other side. The logs were very slippery and covered with snow. Any mis-step would have precipitated us into the raging torrent.
            We dug a deep hole in the snow and pitched the tent inside. The wind blew continually with great violence down the river towards the inlet. The noise of the avalanches falling down day and night was deafening.          
Nov. 15
It snowed hard and wolf and bear tracks were constantly seen on both sides of the river. A little further on we saw a dead Grizzly bear that was being devoured by several large vultures perched on the carcass.
Nov. 16
Salmon were frozen in the ice on the riversides, and we took them up in our hands. They were alive although coated with ice. We saw 2 black bears standing on their hind legs and watching us from the riverbank and no doubt wondering where we were bound.
Nov. 17
The Cla-oosh Chief at last advised us to turn back. He said he would go no further with us and that if we went on we should be lost. We consulted together and decided it would show great want of courage if we did not go on although our clothes and boots are fast wearing out. YayKwum waded across the river and disappeared in the bush.
Nov. 18
We sighted a grand peak at least 7,000 feet high in the distance glittering in the sunlight, covered with a mantle of eternal snow. [ii]
Nov. 19
Clear and cold again. We saw a fine glacier completely filling up a valley several miles in length. From the mountain tops, and breaking off at the edge of the river, was a perpendicular slide a hundred feet thick of the most beautiful blue colour, crested over with white snow. The wild animals made a frightful noise at night, coming close down the bank. They were nearly starved, their only food being the frozen spawned salmon on the sand bars. Blood marks on the snow show where the fish have been dragged and eaten.
Homathko Canyon
Nov. 20
The river was now full of rapids, with thirteen feet of rise in a hundred feet and intensely cold. The towrope broke sending the canoe shooting down the rapids like an arrow. We had great difficulty in recovering it and the men in the boat were almost lost. We found it quite impossible to proceed any further with the canoe. We saw now too late that we should have followed the Indian chief’s advice and turned back with him. We could now see a great canyon in the distance where the river came through the Cascade Mountains [Coast Range] but how we are going to get there we could not tell.
November 21.
Buried the canoe in the snow and determined to continue to walk along the riverbank. Tied together, carrying sounding poles in our hands, we waded the river several times as it was so crooked. Ice formed on our clothes the minute we left the water it is so bitterly cold. We packed a blanket and some food, too weak to carry the tent. The river boulders coated with ice gave the appearance of huge glass balls. Our beards and moustaches are frozen together so that we can scarcely open our mouths. For some time now I have been unable to wash as the water freezes instantly on my face and hair.
The surrounding mountains were covered with dazzling sheets of snow. Cote’ cheered us up with the hope that we might come across footprints. He thought our only hope to escape death lay with falling in with some Indians. Shortly after while rounding a point of rock, I saw what seemed to be a moccasin track in the snow. We kept close together in a single file, a musket in front and one in the rear. Suddenly we saw a tall powerful Indian and his squaw standing on the river edge looking cautiously about having evidently heard us.
            Directly they saw us, the squaw ran behind the man who was nearly naked. His body was painted jet black with large vermillion-coloured rings around his eyes. He had a bow and arrow in his hand which he presented at us. He danced up and down in a sloping position with his knees bent uttering frightful sounds. We stood still. Cote’ told us to lay our heads on our shoulders and close our eyes to show him we wanted to sleep: then open and shut our mouths so that he might see we were hungry and wished to make friends with him.
            We advanced towards him a few steps at a time and halted when we were near him. Not fearing anything, I went slowly up to him. He immediately seized me in his arms and I was helpless in his powerful embrace.
            Cote’ ran up saying: “Don’t fear sir, he shan’t kill you.”
            The Indian then slackened his hold, lifted up my arms looked into my mouth and examined my ears to see if I was made like him. I think he must never have seen a white man. Eventually he made up his mind we were friendly and wanted somewhere to sleep. He pointed toward the canyon and made a sketch in the snow with his arrow, waving his arms for us to go up the river. We now felt this must mean there were other Indians not far off.
            Some distance further, on rising ground, we saw several Indians coming up out of different holes in the ground which startled us very much. We stood still and repeated the same motions we had gone through before. The men from the holes too had bows and arrows and danced a defiant war dance. Then one of their number, who was apparently their chief, came with a slow and dignified step a few paces toward us. The others covered him with their bows and arrows. He then walked backwards with his face toward us and hung something of a red colour on a bush and stood still. We moved cautiously toward them. They examined us carefully from head to foot, and then made signs for us to go down the holes they came out of. We were so terrified that they would kill us after they had us down in the holes that for some time we refused to go. However, knowing we were entirely in their power we went down leaving the others on guard with their muskets.
            We followed the chief on our hands and knees into his underground den. It was a place about ten feet square and about eight feet deep. When we got inside we saw a very old woman and her daughter. They had a small fire burning. We had only been down a few minutes and warming our hands at the flames when we heard a report of a musket. We climbed back out fearful the Indians were killing those left outside. We were greatly relieved that the musket had gone off in the hands of one of the Indians. Fortunately the muzzle was pointed upward and no one was hurt. Not one of those half naked Indians was to be seen, as they were so terribly frightened at the sudden report they had all disappeared underground.
            We again went down into the hole where the chief and his squaw lived. She was very old and shriveled and almost blind, with a face the colour of mahogany. We took with us a small piece of bread that we had made at our last campfire and offered it to them. They refused to eat it until we tasted some first. The old lady seemed pleased. She took down a wooden dish and held it to the fire to see if it was clean but her eyes were so dim with age that she was not satisfied with it. She began spitting in it and wiping it out with her hair. She then opened one of their wooden Indian boxes and emptied the contents into the dish. The smell from the contents was indescribably over-powering; it might have been the entrails of some wild animal.
            Cote’ cautioned me that we must eat all of it as it was, in her opinion, the choicest food she had to offer and was a token of her kindly feeling toward us. We all said we could not eat it but Cote’ insisted that we must or they would do us some harm while we slept. She handed us the dish and I feigned eating the contents. Fortunately she was so old and blind that she could not see us when we gave the contents of the dish to the Indian dogs lying behind us. We nodded to her and smiled and she thought that we had eaten it.
            The chief then came back down and we made signs we wanted to sleep. We took turns keeping guard while the others slept. No harm came to us in the night. [iii]

[i] Embarrass - to place in doubt, perplexity or difficulties.
[ii] Possibly Mount Waddington, 13,186 ft. Major Palmer, who worked laying out the proposed town of Waddington, estimated the height of the peak to be over 11,000 feet.
[iii] The language problem in the exchange with the people from the underground houses is historically interesting. Homfray was in Homalco, or upper coastal, Salish speaker territory. His Salish speaking native guides could communicate with Yay K um. However, he states that the people who sheltered them in the canyon were those later led by Chilcotin war chief Klatsassan to commit the massacre of Waddington’s road crew. According to E. S. Hewlett’s “The Chilcotin Uprising: A study of Indian/White Relations in Nineteenth Century British Columbia”, the interior Chilcotin would come to fish Coho salmon at the end of August in the canyon if their food supplies were short. They’d occasionally get trapped by weather and spend the winter there. An archeological dig in the canyon pit-house designates them Homalco dwellings.

Excerpted from High Slack: Waddington’s Gold Road and the Bute Inlet Massacre of 1864. The Homfray diary section is taken from"A Winter's Journey of 1861" by Robert Homfray recording his survey trip for Alfred Waddington’s road proposal, B.C. Provincial Archives
Photos: 1) Two Homalco men and canoe twelve miles from the mouth of the Homathko River c. 1870s. 2) Homathko Canyon, 1870, Charles G. Horetzy.