Dave & Thompson: Lake Legacies of a Great Geographer

October 16, 2017

With over 2,000 lakes within 50 miles of town, the Ely area boasts the world’s greatest concentration of aquatic pockets for freshwater fun…and stories! Enjoy their history, mystery & intrigue in this new blog by Wintergreen co-founder Paul Schurke. And enjoy your own Northwoods adventures with our Wintergreen “Made in the Boundary Waters” clothing and our Wintergreen Lodge dogsledding fun.


Our region’s wealth of lake names reflect the waves of people who lived here over time: native Americans, Voyageurs, pioneers, prospectors, loggers, trappers and traders. And two adjoining lakes bear the name of the most accomplished adventurer you’ve probably never heard of:  “David” & “Thompson.”  Located northwest of Lac La Croix, these lakes memorialize the “greatest land geographer who ever lived.”  They’re also among our favorites camping haunts and so we dug deeper into the life of this amazing Canadian.

Starting in the late 1700s, he spent 36 years trekking, canoeing & dogsledding nearly 60,000 miles across the northwestern quarter of our continent. At the time, this was a huge “here be dragons” blank spot on maps. Natives called Thompson the “Stargazer” because he charted every place he went through the eyepiece of a sextant. He fleshed out all the waterways and landforms from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean, from the plains states to Hudson Bay & the Barren Lands.  And he compiled it all in his 6’x10’ “Great Map” with such accuracy the Canadian government relied upon it for 100 years. A full-size replica can be viewed in Toronto’s Canadian Archives. His precious original, hand drawn on vellum, is protected in a sealed vault.


Time and again he passed through our canoe country. In fact, during the fur trade era he trekked west so many times from his Grand Marais base that our Boundary Waters was like his commuter route – it hardly warrants reference in his extensive diaries. But his 200-year old maps detail the same lakes we love today & with the same names: Saganaga, Lake of White Wood (Basswood), Crooked, Lac La Croix, Vermilion, Rainy…

He didn’t apply his name to the lakes we’ve come to enjoy – that was done by someone who admires him as much as we do. But he surely traveled David and Thompson lakes because their positioning is roughly sketched in on his “Great Map” and they would have offered a short cut between fur posts on Lac La Croix and Sand Point Lake for savvy travelers. 


During his era of nation building, maps were a very profitable commodity and he retired to Montreal a wealthy man. But in his old age, bad debts & poor health took their toll. He slipped into blindness, obscurity and poverty. In fact, he finally pawned his famous sextant for food.

Despite the woes, he was never bitter and proudly proclaimed that he had accomplished “all that one man could hope to perform.” His half-native Metis wife Charlotte felt the same: “I’m proud to be the wife of such a fine man who knew the ways of my people.” He married her at age 13, had 13 kids and enjoyed the longest marriage recorded in Canadian at the time – 58 years. He died in 1857 at age 87 and, as his wife noted, content and “still chuckling about his adventures.”

Nice rebound David Thompson!  And thanks for lending your name to such lovely lakes.

Paul Schurke - Polar Explorer


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