19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon
“It is wonderful how well watered this country is…. Generally, you may go any direction in a canoe, by making frequent but not very long portages.” ~Henry David Thoreau
The “Nor’west Angle” is a little village at the northwest corner of the Lake of the Woods, and at the mouth of a nameless river, or narrow arm of the lake. The banks on one side are high and wooded, on the other high also, but completely bare of shrubs or trees, while between them the river wanders hither and thither through marshy ground, looking somewhat as one fancies the fens [marshes] at home must do.
The company’s house is a long, low white building, with narrow windows and doors, neat fences and grass plots in front, and a fair kitchen garden, showing signs of care and attention. The houses near are all one-storied loghouses, plastered with mud inside and out. There are also several birchbark wigwams, full of smoke and swarthy children, the owners squatting at their low doors, or, with their dirty blankets wrapped more tightly round them, leaning on the fence to stare at the newcomers.
The “Angle” was quite lively that afternoon. All our own teams were there, “Stick-in-the-Mud” having arrived first after all, with his load in a better condition than the others. Such a genuine smile of satisfaction beamed on his good-natured face that I could not forbear congratulating him on his triumph over difficulties. Several other teams had brought supplies for the contractor; and 50 or 60 navvies [“navigators”: road or rail construction crew] going out in search of work on the contract were camped about everywhere: some in tents, some under wagons, while some sat up all night round the fires, smoking and recounting their experience of the road. Many of the men were lame and stiff after their 100-mile tramp. Numbers of Indians had come in to trade, and the ceaseless “tom-tom” from the wigwam on the opposite bank told how they were gambling away their earnings. They kept up this dissipation until daylight, when they went away in canoes.
The wayhouse being full when we arrived, the Hudson Bay Company officer kindly vacated his quarters for us, and paid us every attention in his power, even robbing his tiny garden of half its early lettuce for our benefit. We had a comfortable night’s sleep, much enjoyed after our toils and troubles, and on a misty summer morning we packed ourselves and our luggage into a large rowboat. The big steamer, Lady of the Lake, being, as usual, stuck on a rock, about 40 miles out, we were towed behind a barge by a shaky-looking little tug. Glad were we to have room to move about a little, and after the crowded and cramping wagon the boat seemed a paradise.
Floating almost due north over the smooth waters of the bay, we were soon on the Lake of the Woods. The scenery is lovely; island follows island. Some are, it seems, only a pile of moss-covered stone, every crevice filled with ferns, blueberries, and wild juniper bushes; others are great masses of rock, their perpendicular sides covered with curling black caribou moss and crowned with great pines; others, again, have shelving sandy shores, covered with tangled vines and bright-hued wildflowers.
As we passed along, each long stretch of the lake appeared more beautiful than the last. Then the sun went down, turning to gold and crimson the fleecy clouds mirrored in the lake, glinting on the distant white pines, throwing into bold relief their darker brothers and the jagged walls of moss-covered rock in varied tints—black, red, green, and white. The shadows slowly deepened, the long grey clouds hung like a curtain in the sky, where the stars began to gleam softly. The varied foliage turned to a deep, rich blue, shading into green like a peacock’s tail. Silence was around us, broken only by the weird cry of the loon diving in the distant bay, and the ceaseless, monotonous puff-puff of the little tug as she pursued her way over the peaceful waters.
About 3 or 4 o’clock—how little note we took of time!—we reached the rock on which the big steamer was still fast, stopping to give her another anchor and cable, and wishing her good luck and a speedy release.
We had been amusing ourselves during the afternoon by watching the cook on the barge dive up and down through the narrow doorway of a sort of box to a small rusty sheet-iron cookstove, with an equally rusty stovepipe. First seizing an axe, the cook chopped up some wood from a pile in the corner, and filled the stove; then he dragged down a bag of flour into his den; then up again he started, as suddenly as a Jack-in-the-box, for a round tin, then for some flat pans.
Next we heard him shouting from below, “Is that fire burning good, boys? Cram her full. Pile in more wood. Don’t heed the smoke!” and he suddenly appeared with the pans full of buns, which were quickly baked.
Then, leaning over the railing of the barge, he cried, “If you would have your tea now, ladies, while the buns are hot, and would pass along your teakettle, I have some tea ready for you.”
Accepting his invitation with thanks, we soon had a tin can of buns in our boat. Never did the lightest tea-buns, served in the daintiest of snowy napkins, taste more delicious! The number we demolished proved our appreciation of his baking.
About sundown we altered our course. After passing a pretty green hill, from which a group of squaws, children, and dogs watched us, we turned to the west and entered Clearwater Bay. The night was getting dark, damp, and chilly, the children were sleepy, and we were tired and silent. The men on the tug had become quiet and drowsy. It seemed nothing stirred but the flying sparks from the funnel of the tug, which dropped all around us. Not even a cry from a loon broke through the stillness.
Suddenly “Here we are!” rang out from a dozen voices, followed by a heavy splash and a cry of “man overboard!” While we peered out into the darkness, dreading we knew not what, a laugh came from the barge. It was only the short stovepipe, which someone had knocked overboard in the darkness. In our relief at finding that the accident was nothing worse, we quite forgot the future misery of our poor friend the bun-maker, whose cooking would have to be carried on under excessive smoke.
A moment later the light of a campfire appeared; and leaving the tug, the barge was poled up to it. One of the engineers belonging to Mr C—’s staff came to meet us. He had been ordered into town, and had waited at Clearwater two days for the tug or steamer to take him to the “Angle,” intending, if they did not arrive before morning, to cross next day in a canoe.
We were soon comfortably settled in Mr K—’s tent, while he directed a party of Indians, who seemed to spring up in every direction, to put up another. Some of the men on the barge had tents too; others made great fires, piled with broken branches until the blaze shot up to the treetops. The swift, silent movements of the Indians stepping hither and thither, now in the glare of the fire, then lost in the surrounding darkness; the chatter of the men; the barking of the dogs; and the sharp crackle of the blazing logs helped to compose a strange and lively scene. Gradually all grew quiet, and settled down for the night. The Indians, rolling themselves in their blankets, lay down with their feet to the fire; and we felt that this was indeed a fitting ending to our day on the Lake of the Woods.
I think one always wakes earlier when camping out than when sleeping in a house. Our first night under canvas in the “Nor’west” was no exception to the rule. We were up and out before 5 o’clock. Yet, early as it was, we found our campground almost deserted. The Indians, who were nearly all “packers,” employed by the contractors to carry stuff over the portages, had shouldered their packs and gone. Only a few of the men still lingered. One poor fellow had caught several fish, and on being asked what he would take for them, replied that he would gladly exchange a couple for a piece of fat and the loan of a frying pan in which to cook his own meal. This offer was at once accepted, and before long we had some nicely-cleaned fish added to our repast.
The fire being stirred up, and the kettle set on, I heard groans of despair over the condition of the larder. The tin box, which contained all that was left of our supplies, became more difficult to pack the more empty it grew, and, being unloaded the night before by hands ignorant of the necessity of keeping it right side up, the salt was spilled into the tea, and the preserves were smeared over all the spoons. There was no bread left; and, at last, we had to content ourselves with a rather light meal of fish and salted tea, consoled by the reflection that we were near the end of our journey.
The campground did not look at all romantic in the morning. Furniture was scattered everywhere, boxes of all sizes and descriptions were strewn about amid dead fires and charred branches, and a general air of untidiness and discomfort pervaded everything. Mr K— left us soon after breakfast, and we set out to walk over our first portage.
A portage [overland around a water route] is the shore of a cataract, rapid, or chute, along which the Indians carry their canoes and luggage. The Winnipeg River, in its course of 160 miles from the Lake of the Woods to Lake Winnipeg, makes a descent of 360 feet, occasioning falls, rapids, chutes, and cataracts, which make its navigation difficult. The portaging, or carrying power of the Indians, says Major Butler, is remarkable, one man often carrying 200-weight for several miles. The skill with which they avoid whirlpools, land below the fall, and relaunch their canoes beyond the power of the current, is unerring, and indispensable to travelers.
We were led us up a narrow pathway, all hills and hollows, then over a smooth rock with the trail scarcely visible. A narrow gully succeeded, still wet from the spring rain. Then we passed through a belt of low-growing trees leading to a bare rock, its crevices filled with moss white as the rock itself. On reaching the highest point, we stopped to rest and look back. Clearwater Bay lay far below us, glistening in the sunlight, and beyond, over the point that forms the bay, the lake and its numberless islands extended for miles.
As we descended, we met the packers returning for another load, coming at a light, easy run, one after the other, in Indian file, their straps hanging loosely over one arm. Mr C—’s own man, a handsome, lithe, graceful Indian of the Brant tribe [Mohawk], stepped out of the line to shake hands with us and bid us welcome to the contract, with a natural politeness and grace that would have adorned the drawing rooms of civilization.
This Indian, rejoicing in the name of Youal Carrière, was tall and slight, lithe as a tiger, and quick as lightning, never at a loss, naturally intelligent, and adept in almost everything he attempted. Having had a fair commercial education when in Brantford among his own people, he was as good a clerk in an office as guide in the bush or cook in camp. He was a keen politician, and ready to discuss almost any question, yet always respectful and attentive. Though never officious [overbearing], he managed to make himself indispensable. He was fonder of life in the bush than in town, yet as ready to amuse himself when there as any of his friends; rather inclined to brag of his doings and sayings, and able to tell the best story in camp, whoever might be his comrades.
We soon found ourselves on the shore of a small lake, which obtained its name oddly enough. The first party of surveyors who crossed it upset two bags of rice in its waters, and thenceforward it was known as Rice Lake. On reaching the opposite shore, we found a man waiting to cross. He had come down the night before, but all the boats were on the other side.
The second portage was much shorter and more level than the first, and consisted of a pretty woodland track of less than half a mile to Lake Deception, so called from the many times and many ways in which the first surveying party were misled when running the line along its shores.
One night, after a hard day’s work, they had settled down round their campfires, and, while dozing over their pipes, were roused by a shrill halloo [hello] from down the trail. Not having had a mail for weeks, and expecting one hourly, they all turned out to meet the carrier, shouting loudly to guide him to the camp; but they were answered only by the shrill scream of the screech owl, whose hooting had led them on their bootless chase. Lake Deception is beautiful, with deep shady bays, high rocky shores, and fair green islands. At the head of one of the bays Mr C— had built his house.
As we neared the wharf, where stood a small shanty called by the men “The Fort,” with a piece of red cotton doing duty as a flag flying from its roof, a canoe came out to meet us; and a warm welcome from the doctor, an old friend, followed. The Fort contained three rooms, each having a narrow window, and the largest provided with a mud chimney and open fireplace. The furniture comprised a couple of bunkbeds, a few shelves, one table, several stools and benches, washstands built into the corners, and a comfortable sofa, seeming out of place in what, to our eyes, looked anything but a comfortable abode. Yet we were told it was one of the most luxurious shanties on the line.
Our luggage could not be brought over until late in the afternoon, so there was nothing to be done but to exercise our patience and wait, enduring the discomfort of feeling as well as looking as if we had traveled for a week, with all the dust of the Dawson Road, as well as all the mud of the muskegs, on our persons.
“May your portages be short and the breezes gentle on your back.” ~Anonymous
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Wekusko Falls, Northern Manitoba
*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 9. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.