By Bert ter Hart, in conversation with K. Jane Watt
We are joining Bert on his journey across Canada from Gabriola Island, BC, to Big Shippegan Lighthouse, New Brunswick. His exploration across Canada — in the footsteps and the paddle strokes of Indigenous people, European mapmakers, and ordinary travellers — is his personal quest to understand Canada’s past and to shape our understanding of it today.
Beyond the everyday challenges he will face in this journey, he is constrained by time: he must travel to, and cross, the Rocky Mountains at Howse Pass as early as possible in the spring to beat winter to New Brunswick. We caught up with him in his final weeks before he started his journey and will be updating readers on his progress.
What is it like to travel alone? What do you need to be thinking about?
Travelling alone presents very special physical challenges beyond the sheer scope of the trek. Almost all of what you must carry when travelling with two or more people must now be carried by one. That means that the workload is almost doubled when portaging and perhaps most importantly, there is no way to split up loads to mitigate against loss. There’s virtually no way around these two problems other than being well prepared and exceptionally careful.
I’ve been more than a bit fanatical about paring down weight and eliminating anything other than what’s absolutely essential. To make sure that I’ve got gear that’s up to the task, I’ve been using, abusing, and trialing everything that I’ll be taking along with me for the past several months. That includes paddles, boots and shoes, stoves, tents, tarps, sailing rigs, fire-starters, maps, compasses, carts, and clothing. Even the sextant got a make-over.
These preparations made me realize that Canada’s early map-makers and their Indigenous guides and partners had done the exact same thing. They travelled only with what worked and what was necessary. They, of course, had generation upon generation of specialized skills and knowledge to drawn upon. For me, it’s a brand-new experience — and a fascinating insight into their lives. If you will, think for just a moment of those things that we surround ourselves with that are neither necessary nor reliable. I’ll wager that, for most of us, the list is long.
What can we learn from your trek?
Ever since we walked out of Africa, humans have used maps to describe what it is that surrounds them. Absent a map, there exists only a void; conjecture at best. As necessary as maps are, it is all too easy to accept that it is the map that creates the place and not the reverse. I think this is glaringly obvious when one is confronted with the names of places.
Didn’t Mount Baker exist before Captain Vancouver decided to put it on a map? For the Brits back home, Mount Baker sprung into existence only when Vancouver’s maps were published. But for Indigenous peoples, it was a daily presence for millennia.*
Howse Pass had also been used for millennia by Indigenous peoples. It was one of a very few routes separating the interior of what is now BC from the seasonal migratory herds of millions of buffalo. This was the route that David Thompson was first informed of and guided over by his First Nation guides while he sought the headwaters of what we know as the Columbia River. This pass was a strategic thoroughfare, and it was jealously guarded as such by generations of Indigenous peoples on both sides of the Rockies. Thompson was, in fact, blocked from using it on a subsequent trip over the Rockies by Piikani (Piegan) warriors.
Although David Thompson was the first European over the Pass, it was named after the Hudson’s Bay Company trader Joseph Howse. I think that its current name does not reflect the importance this piece of Canadian geography has played in the lives of the untold generations who not just knew of it before it was on any map, but routinely used it as a vital part of their lives and seasonal comings and goings.
The roles that Indigenous guides played in the mapping of Canada are desperately underappreciated. The work of every European map-maker we know of cannot have been done without their help. To our detriment, we know little of their contributions. Even their names are lost to history.
And at the very root lies the role that Indigenous women played in these expeditions. At the height of the Age of Enlightenment, when most of the “empty spaces” on world maps were being filled in, it was impossible to travel great distances in nascent Canada without relying on the work of Indigenous women. None of Thompson’s, Fidler’s, MacKenzie’s, Turnor’s, or Hearne’s accomplishments as we know them would have been possible without these women.
What specific actions are you hoping for?
I would like to see Howse Pass renamed to reflect its Indigenous heritage and specifically to honour the Indigenous women who both literally and figuratively put Canada on the map. Charlotte Small, David Thompson’s Métis wife of some 60 years, was just such a woman. Sacagawea, Lewis and Clarke’s female Lemhi Shoshone guide, interpreter, political emissary, and partner, has been honoured by the US government with geographic namesakes in North Dakota and Oregon.
What can our readers do to support you?
While travelling, I will be collecting names to petition the BC Provincial Government to rename Howse Pass. The choice of name is not mine to make. I would ask that the First Nations whose land encompasses Howse Pass provide an appropriate name. People wishing to support my journey can sign the petition!
I’ll also be asking Canadians I meet along the way to sign my canoe. Ultimately, I would like to have the petition the canoe, and any message that I am able to carry be presented in Ottawa and Victoria by Indigenous stakeholders. Please know that I do not wish to be the message but the messenger. This is something I can do as a Canadian to right what I perceive as very long-standing wrong.
* In Lummi, it’s known as Qwú’mə Kwəlshéːn; in Nooksack, as Kw’eq Smaenit or Kwelshán.
Bert ter Hart was born and raised on the Canadian Prairies. He was a platoon commander in the Canadian Special Service Forces, rising to the rank of captain. In graduate school, he studied to become a physical oceanographer. He became an entrepreneur, developing software and IT automations for health care professionals. After his seven-month-long, non-stop, unsponsored, solo circumnavigation of the world via the five Capes in 2020, Bert was awarded the Ocean Sailing Club Barton Cup, the highest award one can receive in recognition of accomplishments at sea.
Follow Bert’s daily progress through the pings of his Iridium GO!, a real-time GPS track of his progress posted here: