Author Jack Nisbet

Talk looks at David Thompson’s adventures on the Columbia

Talk by author Jack Nisbet will look at David Thompson's travels on the Upper Columbia River 200 years ago.

Almost exactly 200 years ago, David Thompson passed by Revelstoke on his first of three trips along the Upper Columbia River. He was on his way from Kettle Falls in north-eastern Washington state to Boat Encampment, which is now submerged by the Kinbasket Reservoir. He passed upstream in September, 1811, headed back downstream in October and then made the trip back upstream with 5 tonnes of fur in the spring of 1812.

This Friday, the Revelstoke Museum & Archives will debut a new exhibit, David Thompson on the Columbia River – 200 years. The exhibit will offer a brief account of Thompson as an explorer and fur trade and the significance of his work as a map maker in this region. The exhibit was developed by Michael Morris, Kathryn Whiteside, Cathy English and Jeff Nicolson and will be on display all fall.

Also in town for the 200th anniversary is author Jack Nisbet, who has written two books about Thompson: Sources of the River and The Mapmaker’s Eye. He will be giving a free talk about Thompson at the community centre on Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. and will also be at the farmers’ market on Sept. 10 to sign copies of his book and answer questions about Thompson.

The Times Review spoke to Nisbet on the phone last week to find out a little bit about his talk. Here’s what he had to say.

1. Can you tell us a bit about David Thompson’s experience on the Upper Columbia River?

“Revelstoke and that area between Kettle Falls and Boat Encampment is the last bit he explored after years of running as a fur trader in the Columbia drainage. He was also a surveyor trying to map the whole river. When he did that last stretch of the river 200 years ago exactly he completed this landmark survey.”

2. What is David Thompson’s significance to this region?

“Because he was a careful guy who paid attention, we put a lot of weight on his words. He is the first person to write about that stretch of the Columbia. He has mentions of a lot of landscape features, birds, trees, forest cover. He describes the rapids really clearly. He has interaction with tribal people that are somewhat hazy. He is trading with beaver fur.

“I guess what I’m going to talk about is he ends up making three trips on this stretch – one 200 years ago exactly in September 1811, coming upstream. Then he goes back downstream in October and spends the winter and then in spring 1812 he comes back up from Kettle Falls to Boat Encampment and goes back over Athabasca Pass. The combination of all three of them, there’s quite a lot of detail. It’s the first writing about that region.”

3. The landscape has changed much in recent years, especially since they dammed the river. What would it have been like when David Thompson explored the area?

“It’s completely fascinating. He’d been in the business for 27 years by then and he spent all of it on the water so he really knew rivers. He’d been on pretty much all the rivers in Canada from Hudson Bay west. There were some difficulties but he had real expert paddlers and he knew how to handle them so that becomes one of the most interesting things.

“It’s a slog to go upstream from Kettle Falls to Boat Encampment and he makes it twice – once with 5 tonnes of furs and all he’s worried about is the right way to line up the rapids.

“Dalles des Morts [Death Rapids], which became so famous, right at Revelstoke, for killing people – he just sees it as a problem to be solved. That’s how he deals with things.

“He uses local knowledge, he’s always talking to local tribal people that he meets. Even though he meets very few of them and doesn’t name them, he’s trading with them, he’s asking them things and he has little brief things about what they would say. It’s like these little tiny clues about what it was like.

“What I’m going to do this week is show what period art work I can find. The route that Thompson established becomes the standard route for the fur trade for the next century and the first painters come in the 1840s so I’m going to show some of their paintings. Thompson also made a beautiful map of that area from his three trips so I’ll show a lot of crops from his map.”

4. You’ve written two books about David Thompson. What is it about him that interests you so much?

“I’m a natural history guy. I got into this because of birds and animals and human landscape stuff – that’s what I’m interested in. We’re fortunate to have a guy who paid attention, who had a curious mind and who was completely unpredictable. He leaves a ton out that we wish he would have put in but everything he puts in is valuable if we’re trying to think about where we live. What was the river like before him and, more to the point, what is it going to be like 200 years down the road? That’s what I’m really interested in at this point.

“His experience and the tribal experience make it very clear it’s going to be there in 200 years, it’s just what is it going to look like?”

5. Can you tell our readers something about David Thompson they might not know about?

“He has a sense of humour. He’s under a lot of pressure when he comes up 200 years ago because he’s had a very long year and all of this stuff has happened but that does not keep him on commenting on how fat this cormorant is that he shoots or spending the night looking at a comet that just happened to be there.

“There’s a pretty famous comet that just happened to be in the northern hemisphere at this time and he just nails it. If you’re an astronomer and you look at his description it, it sounds like the trained observers in Europe looking at it.

“He’s really operating at a very high level and he still has a sense of humour about his guise and his situation and what he’s doing. He’s a complex man. I’ve spent a long time trying to figure him out and I never have. I don’t think anyone ever has.

“There’s never been a complete biography written of him and there won’t be until all his miscellaneous journals and maps are looked at pretty closely. That’s what I do and I constantly see new things in them.

“Of the three trip journals, only one of them has been transcribed so it’s not available to read except in his handwriting. I’m finding all this new stuff because I’ve never looked at it closely for some reason. I’ve been saying that for years. You go back and you always see new things.

“I’m really looking forward to coming to Revelstoke because local knowledge solves all these little puzzles and wherever I travel I get help from local knowledge.”

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