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Following in the wake of David Thompson

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Photo courtesy David Thompson Columbia Brigade Photo courtesy David Thompson Columbia Brigade

The David Thompson Columbia Brigade arrives in the area in early June

The slap of the river against the side of the canoe. The whoo-whoo of mourning doves. The electronic hum of a merganser skimming the water. Elk bugling. And the silence of a huge wilderness spreading for hundreds of miles in all directions. This is what David Thompson would have experienced as he made his way along the Clark Fork River as part of his staggering effort to map and survey almost one-and-a-half million square miles of the great Northwest. In 1811, arriving at the Pacific, he became the first person to survey and map the Columbia River from its source near Invermere, British Columbia to where it pours its waters into the ocean near Astoria, Oregon.

A group based out of Canada each year looks to recreate that experience, as part of the David Thompson Columbia Brigade. Over 150 paddlers, along with about 50 support people, will launch their vessels into the Kootenai on June 2; over the next 13 days, they will travel the Kootenai, Clark Fork, Pend Oreille and Columbia Rivers, recreating portions of Thompson’s historic journeys. On June 8 they will arrive in Libby, Mont., where they will spend the evening at the Asa Woods School, before making their way over the next five days to Thompson Falls, Noxon, Clark Fork and Dover. The Brigade is happy to meet with members of the public to present, demonstrate and educate residents about Thompson’s journey through their communities.

It was in 1809 when David Thompson traveled with a North West Company party along an Indian road he called the “Great Road of the Flatheads,” eventually arriving at Lake Pend Oreille. There they established the Kullyspel House on what is now called the Sam Owen Peninsula. That fall he also explored the Pend Oreille River (he called it the Saleesh River) all the way to Box Canyon in Metaline Falls, Wash. 

It was in 2008 when a group of paddlers decided to follow in the wake of David Thompson from Rocky Mountain House to Old Fort William (now Thunder Bay). The 300 members of that brigade were so enthralled with the experience, they established the Voyageur Brigade Society as a way to “commemorate the fur trade” and “celebrate the achievements and activities of fur traders, surveyors, merchants, First Nations people and women of the fur trade era (1602-1850).”

Thompson traveled in a 10-person voyageur canoe. A voyageur, by the way, is the French word for a traveler, and is often used to refer to the fur traders of the 17th and 18th centuries. A brigade is a group of five canoes.

Thompson’s re-creators will travel the waterways in voyageur canoes as well; 20 of them will be part of the journey.

Born in London in 1770, David Thompson showed an aptitude for mathematics, which led to studies to prepare him to serve in the Royal Navy. At the age of 14, however, he was eligible to serve as an apprentice when the Hudson Bay Company requested one; in 1784 he set off for the New World, and a new life.

A broken leg would leave him with a permanent limp and too long staring into the sun, as he learned to take measurements to determine latitude and longitude, is likely what left him partially blind. Nonetheless, he would become what some would call the greatest geographer ever to live.

 That broken leg, which led to his learning the tools of map-making, he counted as a lucky blessing. “While wintering at Manchester House I fell, breaking my leg, which by the mercy of God turned out to be the best thing ever happened to me.....when Philip Turnor.. .. taught me the science of surveying: how to determine longitude and latitude exactly for each post of trade... Now I could make of this uncharted land a known quality and to this end I kept for sixty years records of all observations of each journey made.”

This June, take the opportunity to experience a taste of what life was like for David Thompson. The David Thompson Columbia Brigade will arrive on June 8 in Libby, staying at the Asa Woods School. On June 9 and 10 look for them in Thompson Falls at Ainsworth Field. They will arrive June 11 in Noxon, to stay at Pilgrim Park before heading to Clark Fork on June 12, where they will camp at Veterans’ Memorial Field. From Clark Fork they will journey to Dover City Beach (arriving June 13).


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Author info

Landon Otis

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Homepage, Headlines, Noxon, Kootenai River, Clark Fork, Clark Fork River, Thompson Falls, David Thompson, fur trappers, canoes, voyageurs, David Thompson Columbia Brigade, Pend Oreille River, Columbia River, Libby, Dover, Voyageur Brigade Society

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