Travelling with Thompson
One of Canada’s most important historical figures, explorer, geographer and map-maker David Thompson, is well-known for exploring and mapping most of the Canadian West, making a trail through the Rocky Mountains, finding the source of the mighty Colombia River, and building trading posts in British Colombia and the northern United States. And now,
with a compelling new book from Townshippers Barbara Verity and Gilles Peloquin, readers can learn about David Thompson’s exploration of the Eastern Townships, an almost completely unknown subject until now.
The journey of this Hatley couple that led to the creation of Even the Owl is not heard – David Thompson’s 1834 Journals in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, is a remarkable story in itself, bringing up notions of fate and destiny.
“We were on vacation having lunch at Charlie’s Café, which was also a general store, on Vancouver Island, and picked up a copy of On the Road with David Thompson, a kind of guide to retrace the steps of the explorer,” commented Mr. Peloquin in an interview with the Stanstead Journal. The idea of taking a ‘Thompson trek’ was appealing to the adventurous couple and they began retracing Thompson’s steps in the West .
Although Mr. Peloquin, who had recently retired after owning and operating the Pilsen Restaurant in North Hatley for eighteen years, had never heard of David Thompson before picking up that book, it was a different story for Ms. Verity, a journalist and outdoor enthusiast who is probably as comfortable trekking through the woods or paddling a canoe as Thompson was. “I had seen a feature about him on the CBC; his life sounded fascinating. He was very famous in Alberta, British Colombia, Oregon, Washington and Montana as an explorer, map-maker and fur trader,” explained Ms. Verity about the explorer whose “Map of the Northwest Territory of the Province of Canada” was the most accurate reference of that area for almost one hundred years.
As their interest in the Canadian hero grew, so did their thirst for more information about him. “We picked up a biography about him and in it was one line about him exploring the Eastern Townships,” commented Barbara. “He was called the most literate of explorers. We knew that he always kept journals. It was a ‘Eureka! moment’ for us,” added Gilles. And so the couple began their literary journey, tracking down the 1834 journals of David Thompson. “It all just kept evolving. It was like a gift and we had to treat it carefully,” Barbara admitted.
“Twenty-six thousand words later, we had transcribed the explorer’s entire account of his time in the Townships – journeying by scow, canoe, and on foot with his assistants up the St. Francis and Salmon Rivers, over to Mount Megantic, and on to Lake Megantic…” wrote Barbara and Gilles in the book’s prologue.
With their love of the great outdoors and of local history, their newfound admiration and fascination with David Thompson and a camera, the couple set out to retrace some of the explorer’s steps in the Eastern Townships, canoeing, hiking and even cycling in some areas. “As much as we could, we tried to visit an area on the same day or at least the same month that Thompson was there,” said Gilles. “Yes, it started to seem almost personal. The more we worked on this project, the more we felt like we knew him,” added Barbara.
The couple first created exhibitions and power point presentations with the transcribed journals, additional research information and photographs which were held in locations throughout the Townships. Then, encouraged by local historians Monique Nadeau-saumier and Peter Southam and writers Hugh Macmillan and David Malaher, they decided to produce a book.
The result of all this, launched last month with a canoe trip on the Massawippi River, is a book that I get lost in every time I pick it up. Preceded by short chapters focusing on David Thompson himself, the beginning of Thompson’s Eastern Townships adventure and Thompson’s assistants, Thompson’s transcribed journals are accompanied by photographs, old line drawings and drawings by local artist Denis Palmer, as well as sidebars of additional, related historical facts and informative footnotes. The book has
received great reviews from writers and historians alike, praised especially for its contribution to the historical geography of the region.
“To draw the landscapes, I went hunting for natural areas along Thompson’s route,” explained Denis Palmer whose drawings of the land and of Thompson and his men add both a lightness and mood to the text. “Working on the book was fun. My wife and I discovered more places exploring, canoeing, bush-wacking down to the Salmon River to look for rapids to draw. To draw the people, I tried to find old photos and descriptions of what people wore in those times.”
After the years of research and shared wilderness experiences that went into the making of Even the Owl is not Heard, Barbara and Gilles feel like they got to know David Thompson. “He has become my personal hero. He had so many character traits different than most explorers: he married a native woman and stayed with her all his life and he refused to take advantage of the natives by giving them alcohol,” commented Mr. Peloquin. “He also never lost a man on any of his trips. He was an interesting mix, a scientific observer but he had a poetic side, writing in his journals: ‘All is morose silence – even the owl is not heard’,” said Ms. Verity.
Besides adding an important chapter to the history of the Eastern Townships and shedding light on the difficult, later years of a great Canadian explorer, Barbara Verity and Gilles Peloquin’s research caught the attention of a ranger from the Mount Megantic national park. “They are considering putting up a plaque on Mount Megantic to commemorate David Thompson exploring in that area,” said the authors happily.
Asked what the whole experience has meant to them, Barbara answered first: “It all comes together in this: a love of the Eastern Townships, a love of history and this gift of being the first to transcribe and reprint Thompson’s journals. It’s been very satisfying and exciting to contribute to Townships history.” “The one word that comes to mind is satisfaction. I wasn’t quite my own boss in this project,” said Gilles, looking over at his partner, “but it was fun working together with Barbara and sharing this experience.”
Even the Owl is not Heard is on sale at the Colby-curtis Boutique, Café Main Street in Ayer’s Cliff, Brome Lake Books, bookstores in Lennoxville and at the Musée de la Société d’histoire de Sherbrooke.
Barbara Verity and Gilles Peloquin, seen here on the shore of the St. Francis River in Lennoxville, have just launched a book about explorer David Thompson’s work in the Eastern Townships.