THIS fine territory comes next and now claims our attention. As here described, it is practically the same as the original Athabasca, except that its position extends a little further south and a little less northerly. The area is about one hundred and ten thousand square miles ; a truly imperial measure.
Up to the present, on account of its inaccessibility, the territory of Athabasca has not attracted many permanent settlers, though there are some beginnings already made about Lesser Slave Lake and in other sections of the south. The Peace and Athabasca Rivers flow through it diagonally, thus affording excellent facilities for transportation. These are both noble rivers, the Peace being one thousand miles long and navigable throughout the whole territory of Athabasca, with the exception of one break at Vermilion Falls.
The general features of the country are those of a gently undulating plain, of many extensive prairie-like openings among the otherwise generally wooded expanses. This prairie-like character of the country is more characteristic of the southwestern half. In places groups of earthy hills without any appearance of rock seem to spring out of the general level of the country, and are sometimes dignified with the title of mountains. These, however, are entirely forested and lend added interest to the country. In all sections small tributary streams flow into the larger rivers, giving the country abundant drainage, while numerous small lakes with marshy margins and surrounded with extensive meadows dot the surface in almost all parts of the country. The timber, mostly spruce and poplar, is of excellent growth and of great prospective value. This may be taken as an indication of both climate and soil; but of this there is abundant testimony concerning the excellence of both. From a geological standpoint the country is regarded as of recent formation. Mr. R. G. McConnell, in his official report to the Government, says : ” The greater part of this district may be described as a gently undulated plain, diversified with numerous shallow lakes, muskegs and marshes. Small prairie patches, manifestly due to prairie fires, occur north-west of Lesser Slave Lake, and at several points along the Loon and Waterfound Rivers, about Fort Vermilion, and other places.” If further testimony as to character is necessary it is at hand. The bison, or buffalo, driven from the plains of the Saskatchewan, found congenial shelter in this region, and though well-nigh extinct, it is claimed they found subsistence here quite as easy as they formerly did in the State of South Dakota. Even horses are said to be able to live throughout the winterwithout shelteras far north as Peace River. The Indians raise potatoes to perfection on the tops of the highest mountains in the country, and recent experiments and actual tests have shown that all kinds of grain and vegetables can be grown without any trouble and in abundance. The land is fit for cultivation about the 20th of April. Mr. Warburton Pike says : “I had been told of the beauties of Vermilion as a farming country, and had expected that all the good things of the world grew there freely, so that I was prepared for the sight of wheat and barley fields, which had this year produced a more abundant harvest than usual ; potatoes and other vegetables were growing beautifully, cattle and horses were feeding on the rich grasses of the prairie, and it seemed that there was little to be gained by leaving so fertile a spot.”
As agriculture must in the end be the chief industry of this great country, it is pleasing to note how eminently adapted it is for the prosecution of this noble calling, both as regards soil and climate.
Apart from agriculture and timber, however, this great region has undoubtedly considerable riches of a mineral character. Gold is found in the sands of the Peace River. The remarkable tar sands, lignite beds and gas deposits of Athabasca give promise of wondrous richness when fully developed. It is also claimed that coal, petroleum and gypsum exist in large quantities.
The tar sands of the Athabasca are unique in many ways, and may be briefly described in detail. The official report of the Geological Survey says: ” They consist of an almost homogeneous mass of tar-cemented sands, varying in texture from a coarse silt to a grit, and varying in thickness wherever exposed from one hundred and forty to two hundred and twenty feet. . . . The tar sands occur along the Athabasca, from Boulder Rapids to a point about nine miles below the mouth of Clearwater River, a distance of about ninety miles. They occur for long distances east and west of the Athabasca, and the areas occupied by them are very extensive.” These tar sands, in the native state, are said to be superior as a paving material to any asphalt in any preparation made.
The hot and mineral springs are also worthy of note. It would seem that the mineral wealth alone of this region would be sufficient to warrant the prediction that it would contribute largely to the wealth sand commercial activity of the country in the future. The future of this great province of Athabasca is already assured, and the number of its inhabitants when settled will undoubtedly be counted by the millions. Its beautiful valleys will become still more beautiful when adorned by the presence of human habitation, and when fair cities touch the margin of its lakes and streams.