Rick and Carol Blacklaws with Carol's book. An image of Carol as a young archaelogical assistant

Rick and Carol Blacklaws with Carol's book. An image of Carol as a young archaelogical assistant

Journey of discovery

White Rock author Carol Blacklaws retraces the footsteps of Alexander Mackenzie – and her own youth

It’s a lingering irony that a well-used ancient First Nations trade route is remembered today – if it is remembered at all – by the name of a Scotland-born explorer.

Mention the Nuxalk-Carrier Grease Trail to most people and you’re likely to get a blank look, even from those who pride themselves on knowing something about Canadian history.

But mention the journey of Alexander Mackenzie, who used the 450-km route from the Blackwater River (a tributary of the Fraser near Quesnel) to Bella Coola on the Pacific Coast, and you may get a flicker of recognition.

That journey – concluded on July 20, 1793 – was the significant final step in the first documented crossing of the North American continent “by a white man”, predating the expedition of U.S. explorers Lewis and Clark by 11 years.

In a further irony – as White Rock author Carol Blacklaws points out – Mackenzie’s American counterparts have a heritage trail and no less than 11 interpretive centres in their name, while Mackenzie’s route languishes in obscurity increasingly encroached on by external development.

“It’s  not even recognized as a park corridor in Canada,” she said. “We tend not to celebrate our own accomplishments.”

But the Grease Trail (named for the grease of the eulachon fish – an important trading item among First Nations people many years before white explorers arrived) begins to get its due in Blacklaws’ moving memoir, In The Footsteps of Alexander Mackenzie (Image West, Vancouver), which includes copious historical notes by her husband, Rick, an archaeology teacher at Langara College.

Blacklaws, a former, Social Studies, English and Spanish teacher and educational curriculum developer, launched the book Oct. 8 at South Surrey Recreation and Arts Centre’s Turnbull Gallery.

The title of her book may seem to reinforce the irony of the trail’s identification, but it is actually very truthful.

As a 25-year-old SFU grad employed as an archaelogical field assistant by the B.C. Government in 1979, Blacklaws literally and figuratively followed in Alexander Mackenzie’s footsteps while surveying the trail.

Like him, she was an outsider. Like him, she learned not only a route but also discovered much to admire about the Native Lhoosk’uz Dene people, whose origins in the area go back some 4,000 years.

It is in no way a denigration of the accomplishment of Mackenzie, second-in-command Alexander McKay and their six French-Canadian voyageurs and two native guides, to note that perhaps their wisest decision was to heed the advice of Dakelh First Nations people not to continue down the Fraser, but to follow a westward overland route to the coast.

And that journey, documented in detail in his journals, is the story of daily – and with no little credit to Mackenzie – peaceful encounters with hospitable coastal First Nations peoples who had long used a vast trail system to link their communities and were already well-acquainted with non-natives and their trade goods.

As Blacklaws and her supervisor on the project – soon to become her partner in life – retraced Mackenzie’s trip, identifying hundreds of archaelogical sites, they marvelled at an environment and a way of life still, at that time, little changed from his day.

“We followed his journal,” Rick said. “His trail could be located from his descriptions of the landscape.”

“What blew me away was that you’d read the book and see the same fish camps – 4,000 years of continuous occupation,” Blacklaws said.

While Rick’s notes in the book fill in the historical facts (he is a much published author himself), his sensitive photographs of the people and Blacklaws’ personal narrative of her days working on the project supply a very human perspective.

“The story is about the trail and the archaeology and the history, but it’s most especially about the people who live along the trail,” said Blacklaws, who dedicated the book in part to the women of the Cariboo “who were tough enough to live the life, yet soft enough to open their hearts.”

“I wanted to tell it as a memoir, through the eyes of an archaeological assistant,” she said, adding that writing that way allowed her to offer first-hand observations and memories, without presuming to speak for First Nations peoples.

But the book has an added dimension – it’s also succeeds as a coming-of-age tale of a young and still uncertain woman who found her feet travelling by wagon and even driving horses overland in a country that writer Paul St. Pierre has described as “good for men and dogs, but hard on women and horses.”

In the process, she discovered that the man she was working with was the man she also wanted to spend the rest of her life with – and you don’t get a much more romantic historical tome than that.

“I like my story,” Blacklaws admits, adding that writing it allowed her to relive the experiences of her younger self.

But she’s also pleased to have been able to turn her experiences along the Grease Trail into a book she hopes will inspire young Canadians to discover their own capabilities by exploring the land.

“I also wrote it to be proud of Canada’s heritage,” Blacklaws said. “This is a story people need to hear because it’s so Canadian.”

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

B.C. researchers are asking for the public’s help in monitoring the bat population. (Cathy Koot photo)
Semiahmoo Peninsula residents asked to monitor bat activity

Researchers keeping eye on spread of white-nose syndrome

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press)
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of Feb. 28

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

The Alzheimer Society of BC is hosting a number of webinars next month to help people prepare for financial and healthcare needs. (Contributed photo)
Alzheimer Society invites White Rock residents to series of educational webinars

Planning Ahead: Do it Now! webinar to be held March 10

South Surrey’s Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann – the Bergmann Piano Duo – will present another colorful Surrey Civic Theatres Digital Stage concert., premiering online March 11. Contributed photo
South Surrey pianists Bergmann Duo blend musical colours

Rhapsody In Blue meets The Red Violin in online concert

St. John Ambulance is looking for financial support in its bid to install 1,000 publicly accessible AED devices throughout British Columbia. The stands which hold the defibrillator also contain naloxone and first aid kits. Cost to equip and install each stand is around $8,000. (stock photo)
St. John Ambulance aims to install 1,000 publicly accessible AEDs across B.C.

First of two defibrillators planned for Crescent Beach already in place

An animated Gordie Hogg introduces his 'Community Connections' videos. (YouTube screenshot)
Community Connections: Gordie Hogg speaks with Lorne Ginther

Former mayor, MP began posting conversations on YouTube in June

B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Tuesday December 11, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s compromise on in-person worship at three churches called ‘absolutely unacceptable’

Would allow outdoor services of 25 or less by Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack churches

Baldy Mountain Resort was shut down on Saturday after a fatal workplace accident. (Baldy Mountain picture)
Alina Durham, mother of Shaelene Bell, lights candles on behalf of Bell’s two sons during a vigil on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO and PHOTOS: Candlelight vigil for missing Chilliwack woman sends message of hope

Small group of family, friends gathered to shine light for 23-year-old mother Shaelene Bell

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Jasmine and Gwen Donaldson are part of the CAT team working to reduce stigma for marginalized groups in Campbell River. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Jasmine’s story: Stigma can be the hardest hurdle for those overcoming addiction

Recovering B.C. addict says welcome, connection and community key for rebuilding after drug habit

A Vancouver restaurant owner was found guilty of violating B.C.’s Human Rights Code by discriminating against customers on the basis of their race. (Pixabay)
Vancouver restaurant owner ordered to pay $4,000 to customers after racist remark

Referring to patrons as ‘you Arabs’ constitutes discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, ruling deems

Approximate location of the vehicle incident. (Google Maps)
Vehicle incident blocking Coquihalla traffic in both directions

Both directions of traffic stopped due to vehicle incident

Judith Uwamahoro is Black, approximately 4’7″ tall, 80 pounds and has short black hair and brown eyes. (Surrey RCMP handout)
UPDATED: Lower Mainland 9-year-old located after police make public plea

Judith Uwamahoro went missing Friday at around 4 p.m. in Surrey

Most Read