Friday, November 2, 2012

The journey from Lachine to Fort William [Thunder Bay]

It is not likely we will get all the way to Norway House in this single posting, and so this post will probably be divided into two postings.
If you are researching these river roads or want to learn more, the best sources (and the ones I will be using) are these two books:
Exploring the Fur Trader Routes of North America; Discover the Highways that Opened a Continent, by Barbara Huck et al, and
The Fur Trade Routes of Canada: Then and Now, by Eric W. Morse.
Both books are available in your local library and the first will still be in bookstores, I expect.

We will begin with a quote from my own book, The Pathfinder, which speaks of young Anderson's arrival in Montreal, in 1831.
"In the summer of 1831, Alexander Anderson disembarked in Montreal and clambered into a lumbering, two wheeled, horse drawn cart -- called a caleche -- for the nine mile trek west to Lachine. The post stood at the head of the Lachine rapids, which blocked marine traffic on the St. Lawrence River west of Montreal. As headquarters of the North West Company, Lachine House had once been the busiest place on the continent, its stone warehouse bulging with rich furs from the interior. But the HBC's headquarters was now at York Factory, on Hudson Bay, and Anderson soon realized that his dreams of adventure in Indian country would never occur at this quiet post......

"In Spring 1832, the governor and council of the Hudson's Bay Company assigned Anderson to the Columbia district, where Chief Factor John McLoughlin would put him to good use. In April, two flotillas of canoes paddled away from Lachine. The express boats travelled light and fast with papers and accounts for the annual meeting of the Company at Norway House. Behind them came the slower canoes of the brigade, heavily laden with the outgoing provisions and passengers for the interior. One of these brigade canoes carried Anderson away from Lachine House.

"From Lachine House, the canoe route followed the traditional river road used for hundreds of years by the coureurs de bois (early French fur traders), and more recently by the voyageurs of the NWC. David Thompson had travelled this route many times, as had Simon Fraser and Alexander Mackenzie. Now 18-year-old Anderson followed the same route his predecessors had travelled, westward into the territory they had opened to the fur trade."

In this part of the world -- that is, between Montreal and Fort William [Thunder Bay, Ontario] they used 40-foot Montreal canoes made of white or silver birch, with seams tightly sewn with spruce fibres called wapete, and waterproofed with many applications of spruce gum.
These were tough, strong, canoes, ideally suited for the rough river passages, and they carried four tons of freight and passengers.
About the first of May, when the Ottawa River was finally free of the ice that had drained out of the interior lakes, these big canoes started off from a position on the river bank, just upstream from the old Stone Shed -- a large warehouse built in 1803 by Alexander Gordon, a merchant who had served as a clerk for the HBC.
Interestingly enough, though Gordon had worked for the HBC, while at Lachine he was in what was mostly North West Company country!
But even after the HBC absorbed the NWC, Lachine continued to be part of the fur trade -- primarily because Governor George Simpson chose to make his home there.

From the beach at Lachine, the voyageurs travelled west, sixteen miles, to Ste. Anne's, where they stopped at a church, that was part of a convent, for their traditional blessing for their long journey west.
At this point they were still travelling the St. Lawrence River, but at the Lake of Two Mountains they headed for the mouth of the Ottawa River.
They generally timed their voyage to be able to make their first camp near the upper end of the Lake of Two Mountains, where they received their regale -- a keg of rum.
Then the voyageurs drank and partied and fought and sang far into the night while the gentlemen tried to get a little big of sleep.

On a brigade such as this, the voyageurs did all the work -- this was their journey.
They woke up the next morning a little hung-over, and paddled up the Ottawa until they reached twelve miles of rapids, in three sets -- called the Long Sault.
Generally they tracked their boats through the rapids of the Long Sault, along the north side of the river, though on quieter stretches of the river they could paddle their canoes half-loaded.
On this stretch of the river were three carrying places, which varied with the height of the water.
Today's Ottawa River, with its twelve dams and reservoirs, does not in any way resemble the rough, fast-flowing river that the voyageurs paddled up two hundred years ago.

By travelling up the Ottawa River and crossing the height of land by various streams the voyageurs cut some five hundred kilometers of travel of the route they would have travelled had they continued to follow the St. Lawrence River west.

At the place where Ottawa now stands they came up to the Chaudiere Falls, named so because it resembled a cauldron of boiling water.
Portaging was the only way around these boiling falls, and in springtime the portage began downstream from the falls.
From The Pathfinder: "... as the gentlemen kept an eye on the freight at the head and foot of the trail, the voyageurs carried 90-pound bundles, two at a time, at a dogtrot over the rough trail, so close to the riverbank they were sprayed with the windblown water. Finally they brought the canoes over the portage on their shoulders, and the gentlemen followed them over the trail."

Next came the Little Chaudiere Falls, and Barbara Huck et al says this about this place:
"Those tracing the route today will have no trouble finding this historic trail, for the city of Hull has created a park -- Parc des Portageurs -- complete with biking and hiking trails, to commemorate it.
"One section of the original trail, which lies just below Brebeuf Park, is particularly interesting.
"Here, a set of low stone steps -- built by the voyageurs according to canoe historian Eric Morse -- can clearly be seen mounting a bank from a submerged stone shelf at the water's edge."

From the head of the portage, the voyageurs paddled across the bay to begin tracking and poling up the Deschenes Rapids.
My other source says the Deschenes Rapids was passed by portage, on the north shore.
At Chats Falls, or the Sault des Chats Sauvage, the river spread out and flowed through a line of beautiful waterfalls a mile wide.
The voyageurs portaged past these falls on the second island from the north.
Chats Falls was named, not for the cats, but for the raccoons that were common here at one time.
They were called les chats sauvage.
They travelled this part of the river, and others, at the slow speed of four miles an hour!
When portaging, of course, their speed was reduced to half a mile an hour.
This was a long, slow journey when you compare it to modern-day travelling.

Above Chats Falls there was still fast water through the top end of Lac des Chats, called the Chenaux.
There were four sets of rapids here -- the Decharge du Derige, the Mountain Portage, the Decharge du Sable, and Portage du Fort; they probably passed on the Quebec side of the river, using poles.
At Portage du Fort, where the river cascaded down through many channels among big trees, the voyageurs landed and carried their loads along the portage path on the right hand side.

After they rejoined the river once again, they reached Calumet Island which was surrounded by rapids.
The island's name comes from the dense white limestone, soft enough to be whittled into pipes or calumets.
This was the longest portage of the Grand Portage, a little over a mile long.
they began their portage at a little cove, and followed an easy trail that ascended the hill through a forest of cedar trees, though the trail took the voyageurs past two steep ravines before rejoining the river.
Beyond was Lac Coulonge, and when Anderson travelled this river, Fort Coulonge stood on this lake.
In one of his later manuscripts he mentioned this fort, and so we know he was there.

Next came the Allumette Island and the rapids that surrounded it, and the channel taken by the voyageurs was the narrower channel on the main Ontario shore.
Travelling up these rapids was like pushing through a tunnel.
At the upper end of the peaceful Lac des Alumettes beyond, the voyageurs came up to the granite of the Precambrian shield which rose straight from the river.
The old name of the lake was Riviere Creuse [Deep River]; today the town of Deep River stands here.
From The Pathfinder: "When at last the cliffs opened up again, the voyageurs set up camp on a sandy point of land on the west shore. Across the river from their camp loomed a black-stained cliff, a special place for the Natives, who tied tobacco to the arrows they shot at the cliff face as an offering.
"It was a special place for the voyageurs, too. New voyageurs were baptized in the river off the sandy point, and gentlemen who crossed this height of land for the first time also took part in the ceremony. Almost certainly, Alexander Anderson received a splash of water in his face from a branch dipped in the river, along with a playful request that he never kiss a voyageur's wife without her permission. When the mock baptism was finished, the voyageurs celebrated by firing their guns in the air. The fur trade was a mixture of cultures, and while the mock baptism mimicked the religious practices of the Roman Catholic voyageurs, the firing of guns into the air was a Native tradition."

This is what Carolyn Podruchny has to say about this ceremony, from her book: Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade:

"At several points of geographical significance along the transport routes in the pays d'en haut, novices who had never before passed that point were obliged to participate in a ceremony of mock baptism. the ceremony of baptism, representing the purification from original sin, is usually performed on infants and involves putting water on the individual's head through immersion or sprinkling. In the case of voyageurs in the fur trade, it represented primarily the initiation of neophytes into the occupation. As the first of Catholic sacraments it was recognized as the door to church membership and to spiritual life, but ironically the ritual baptism marked voyageurs' departure and increasing separation from the settled Christian world. At the same time, the ceremony marked voyageurs' entrance or initiation into the occupation, and it represented the continuing practice of Catholicism, albeit in modified form, in the interior..

"The point of baptism along the Grand, or Ottawa, river was the first place on the route out of Montreal where the bedrock or Precambrian shield could be seen. It was located about two hundred miles northwest of the modern city of Ottawa, where the Deep River, or the Riviere Creuse, entered the Ottawa River, at the upper end of Lac des Allumettes. Here canoe brigades passed through a narrow, deep, and swift part of the river, where towering cliffs of granite provided a significant visual marker for the entrance into a new land. Immediately after this difficult passage, brigades stopped at a sand point, where canoes could be easily grounded and the crew could pause for a rest. Known as "point au bapteme," it was the oldest and most well established site of ritual baptism along fur trade routes. As early as 1686, the Chevalier de Troyes mentioned the practice as an established custom: "Our French have the custom of baptizing at this place those who have not passed before." The "Pointe aux Baptemes" is today marked on maps."

To continue the journey: their next portage upriver was at Des Joachims, where the Ottawa River did a big S-turn and there were two miles of thundering rapids.
They portaged there, making use of two bays and a little lake which cut down the carrying distance.

Beyond that point they abandoned the Ottawa River, and entered the Mattawa River which led them west.
The forty mile long Mattawa was rough and rocky and narrow, and it had a small rapid at its mouth where it flowed into the Ottawa, called the Mattawa Rapid.
It was generally run, not portaged.
Next came the Plain Camp Rapid (Flat Field) and eleven other portages or rapids.
At Rapide des Perches near Pimisi Lake, the voyageurs threw away their poles and took up their paddles.
This was the end of their upriver push.

Eric Morse, author of Fur Trade routes of Canada, says that the Mattawa River route might have gone through Robichaud Lake rather than following the Mattawa River above Talon Lake.
You who live in this part of the world might have a better notion of where it goes.

The voyageurs had to make their way over a height of land and into Lake Nipissing over a series of granite ridges and bogs.
First there was a 1500 yard long winding portage over a low height of land, after which they put their canoes into a beaver-dammed stream and followed it down, through a succession of ponds and over two portages, into Lake Nipissing.
The entire distance of this portage and shallow stream paddling was about seven miles.

Lake Nipissing was a shallow lake and so dangerous choppy in high winds, and the followed a course along its south shore among many protecting islands.
At the portage called Chaudiere des Francois they reached a flat rock in still water where the French River began.
The seventy mile long French River gave the voyageurs a rushing downriver day voyage to Lake Huron, and they entered the lake by the most protected westernmost channel, making a short portage around a curved rapid at the river mouth.
At this point they were in massive Lake Huron, where they had a choice of routes.
If it was windy, they stayed inside the sheltered line of islands that graced the top of Lake Huron, and travelled 200 miles west to Sault Ste. Marie.
If it wasn't windy, they might have paddled or sailed west across the lake, outside the curving line of islands.
The inside route sounds most interesting, and was probably the route they usually travelled.
Just west of the mouth of the French River they passed a point they called "Grondine," or "groaning," for the sound of the waves that moaned as they swelled over the rocks.
West of that they passed through a narrow channel, just wide enough for a canoe, where the rocks rang like a bell when struck by the waves in the lake.
This place, often mentioned in fur trade journals, was called "La Cloche."

At this point, the brigade was 430 miles from Lachine House.
From The Pathfinder: "On the Great Lakes, the voyageurs often travelled early in the morning and made camp when the dangerous afternoon winds blew. They followed Lake Huron's north shore to Sault Ste. Marie, where they paddled through a narrow canal built many years earlier by the men of the NWC. Their next major stop would be at Fort William, on the north shore of Lake Superior, a few hundred miles to the west."

On Lake Superior, the canoes kept close to shore -- for a good reason.
In June there are frequent heavy fogs on the lake, in July and August there is less fog but the heavy, sudden squalls make the lake unsafe for small, heavily loaded canoes.
To beat the wind, the voyageurs often travelled at night and rested during the day -- they would certainly be on the water by three every morning.
If the wind was blowing in a favorable direction, they might raise a sail and travel at 8 to 10 knots.
But they were often pinned down by high winds for several days at a time; in a normal month for one day out of every two!
And the lake is four hundred miles long.

But they were almost at Fort William, and so I will refer to the Fort William Journals to let you know what happened:
Journal of Fort William Establishment, Outfit 1831 -- Donald McIntosh, C.T., B.231/a/11, HBCA
May 1832 -- Tuesday 15th -- It continues still raining and blowing from north east from which quarter it has blown with little variation for this month past.
Thursday 17th -- We had several showers of rain in the afternoon. Wind southwest.
Saturday 19th -- Thermometer below the freezing point this morning. Weather cloudy and very cold for the season.
Monday 21st -- Blowing a furious gale from north west attended with heavy showers of rain in course of day.
Thursday 24th -- Hard frost last night. We had several showers of rain and hail in course of the day. Blowing a heavy gale from the eastward.
Friday 25th -- I cannot conceive what detains the Express canoe from Canada so long. It rained all the afternoon, wind north east.
Saturday 26th -- Two men arrived here from Lake Nipigon in a small canoe. They say that they walked across the lake on the ice, from which circumstance I am inclined to think that it is owing to the backward spring the express canoe is so late.
Tuesday 29th -- The men were variously employed. The express canoe from Montreal arrived about 6 o'clock P.M. Mr. C.T. Robert Cowie is the Gentleman in charge of the Packet. Blowing very fresh from the north.

Aha! Remember that Alexander Anderson is not travelling in the Express canoes, but in the slower brigade canoes.

Journal of Transactions and Occurrences at Fort William from 1st June 1832 to 1st June 1833, B.231/a/12, HBCA:
June 1832. Saturday 2nd -- It rained throughout the night and all the morning attended with a heavy gale from North East.
Sunday 3rd -- A light canoe arrived from Red River. We are much disappointed to find that the Governor was not on board of her. The backward spring prevented his coming hither. The ice in Lake Winipic [Winnipeg] he found too weak to walk on, and too strong to get through with a boat or canoe.
Tuesday 5th -- Weather clear.
Wednesday 6th -- Fine weather. The Montreal brigade arrived on board of which were Messrs. Lane, Anderson, and Perreyere, an Eclesiastic. Also Mr. C. T. Christie's family. Fine warm weather for the season.
Thursday 7th -- The Montreal Brigade went off this afternoon in five north canoes which they exchanged for the Montreal canoe. One canoe remained today waiting for the Dispatches.

You see that they have already departed Fort William and left their Montreal canoes behind them.
From The Pathfinder: "At this post, the brigade men clambered into five North canoes. Smaller and lighter than the vessels they had been travelling in to this point, these were the only canoes that could be use on the small rivers and difficult portages north of Lake Superior. Their next destination was Lake Winnipeg, hundreds of miles to the northwest, and their immediate route led them through Dog Lake and along many marshy rivers and lakes to wild and beautiful Rainy Lake...."
I will leave that part of the journey to the next post.


  1. Oh, wow! Thanks for this post. What timing! I've been searching for details of the routes and portages coming out of Montreal (Lachine) for days for my novel in progress (working title: Mist O'er the Voyageur). This is invaluable. Also - thanks for mentioning The Pathfinder. I'll look it up. God bless~

  2. There are other good books I might have mentioned. David Lavender's "Winner Take All" is really good. For more direct info on voyageurs themselves read Carolyn Podruchny's "Making the Voyageur World." The first book has been around for a while & might be in your library, the other is relatively new. Depending where your voyageur is and what the time period is, read the novel "Voyageurs" by Margaret Elphinstone -- its good if he is around in about 1812.

  3. Thank you for the tips. I'm familiar with Podruchny's book, but haven't read it. I have Elphinstone's "Voyageurs" -- read it about 6 or 7 years ago and am revisiting it. Looks like I could pick up a copy of Winner Take All pretty cheaply too. I'll definitely check it out. God bless~

  4. As usual, my google search
    to learn more about how my ancesters lived their fur trade lives has led me once more to one of your wonderful article - thanks! This was very informative in helping me imagine how my ancestor Olivier Larocque got from Montreal, where he enlisted in the NWC in1811, to Fort William.