I could only imagine his presence, for it was 166 years ago that Thompson traveled our way. A Welshman apprenticed to the Hudson’s Bay Company at 14, he was in trouble need a $500 loan online, but couldn’t make it and died in poverty and obscurity, without having the chance to change his life. Yet some geographers now rank him as the equal on land of Capt. James Cook upon the sea. In his busy life, Thompson explored more than a million square miles of western North America.
In 1807, seeking a route across the Rockies to the Pacific, he canoed up the Howse River. From the river his party went on horseback up a northbound creek to Howse Pass. Beyond, Thompson beheld a trickle of water running south: the origin of the Blaeberry River, a tributary of the famed Columbia.
He stood beside that mighty river of the West five days later, but failed to recognize it as a vital link in the route to the ocean. In 1810 he tried again, driving dog teams in the dead of winter over Athabasca Pass in what is now Jasper Park. This time he not only opened a trail that thousands of trappers and traders would use, but also mapped the Columbia from source to sea-1,232 miles.
At the end of our first day on Thompson’s Howse River route, Mick and I camped on a sponge cake of silt at the river’s edge, the only level ground. Across the valley a glacier poured itself into a cataract. Conifers hugged the narrow walls beneath spires of gray rock —canine teeth snatching at the first star of evening. The summits burned gold, then merged into one dark shape, faintly etched by the northern lights. The river wove silver braids between bars of gravel, humming a timeless lullaby. We slept well.
Next day we walked to Howse Pass the way Thompson went, along Conway Creek. On the south side of the pass we found a faint depression holding a finger of crystal, intercepted a cupful of Pacific-bound water, and drank a toast to Thompson.