The native population of British Columbia, collectively known today as the First Nations battled many of the same challenges we face today as communities in this great wilderness. The mountains, rivers, snow and spring freshet all made travel and transportation a challenge, and in many communities, still do. It is not uncommon to hear of commuities cut off by rock slides, avalanches, ice jams or flood waters in the late winter, early spring months. We don’t often think about what life was like before roads and cars, and we especially can’t imagine life without horses, carts and farm animals. But life as a native before the arrival of white man was not as simplistic as many of us would believe.
This project from the Royal BC Museum called Spanning the Distance: Aboriginal Bridges of Northwestern British Columbia (link to first page here) considers the role and design of bridges in pre contact settlements and transportation between communities and destinations.
Extensive pre-contact transportation routes spanned great distances across the physical landscapes of northwestern BC. Physical evidence of some of these routes is still evident on the landscape, some through continued use. These transportation routes are most often described as ‘trails’, and even more specifically as ‘grease trails’. Evidence, both written and oral, indicates that these routes facilitated social interactions between indigenous peoples and their communities. Clearly, ‘pre-contact’ First Nations communities were not isolated pockets of human existence within a rugged and vast ‘wilderness’. A wide range of social interactions, including the trade of goods and ideas, connected communities, shaped the complex social landscape of the region, and resulted in a ‘known’ physical landscape.
Transportation routes were far-reaching, connecting communities across a vast landscape. Aboriginal peoples faced many challenges in maintaining their overland routes throughout the often rugged mountainous terrain of northwestern BC. Long-distance routes necessarily crossed the many rivers in the three main drainages of the Skeena River, Nass River and Stikine river cut through and ‘cut-up’ the land.
Local ingenuity and engineering was required to cross fast moving rivers and streams where the geography of the land precluded the use of rafts, canoes or fording on foot. Bridges were the answer to the problem and their construction could range from simple log bridges to complex suspension bridges. Larger, sophisticated works were required to cross the larger rivers with their deep canyons and dangerous waters. All these types of bridges served to lengthen important transportation routes; they required sophisticated technologies that would expand and re-shape how people knew and understood the physical landscape. This was a relationship to the physical landscape that also extended the social landscape of northwestern BC by connecting communities and by facilitating the transportation and exchange of goods and ideas.
Source: Living Landscapes
This paper is a fascinating read – and points us to how communities in this vast wilderness of a province communicated and travelled before the introduction of fossil fuel powered transport and machinery. At the risk of sounding naive, I truly had no idea that the First Nations groups constructed bridges.