Portage*

19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Canoe and Tugboat Travel
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon

“Autumn burned brightly, a running flame through the mountains, a torch flung to the trees.” ~Faith Baldwin

August 27 dawned sultry and oppressive, but having decided to leave Inver for a long-promised visit to Ostersund on that day, and feeling that if I did not get the parting with the children over at once I should never succeed in going away at all, I determined to carry out my intention, though by doing so I was obliged to forego the pleasure of visiting Kalmar, which I much regretted.

Mr K— and Mr F— came for me about 2 o’clock, and sending the man on with my traveling bag, I prepared to enjoy the first long walk I had taken since I left Ontario. From the top of the east rock I took my last look at the spot where I had spent nearly sixteen months, on which I shall always look back with kind memories. Clinging to the rough railing, and walking quickly over the floating logs, we were soon across the boom in Lake Deception, and over the first short portage to Lake Beau-Beau—or “Champagne Charlie” Lake—a beautiful sheet of water, with several pretty islands, along whose southern shore runs the Canada Pacific Railway.

Catching sight of a boat, which probably belonged to a gang of men who were at work with pulleys, removing great fragments of rock from a cutting near, Mr F— took possession of it; and we rowed across, ignoring the fatigue of the poor navvies [“navigators”: road or rail construction crew], who, after a hard day’s work, would have to walk round the lake to recover their property.

On the opposite shore part of the trail lay through a long, narrow valley, where it became such a mere path that two could not walk abreast. Then it passed over such lofty hills, and into such sudden dips of valley land, that one could not help speculating as to the immense cost of filling up and leveling to bring the line to the proper grade.

We skirted the shores of Lake Lulu, whose blue waters glistened in the afternoon sun, as we caught a momentary glimpse through the trees of the tiny hill, where a clear fresh spring tempted us to sit on the gnarled trunk of a fallen tree and refresh ourselves. How small we felt by involuntary comparison with the gigantic rock towering above our heads, or even with the huge fragments thrown out and scattered at its base! I wonder if future ages will look on these blocks of stone as we do on Stonehenge, and conjecture with what powerful weapons we ancients could have moved them, or what convulsion of nature had dislodged them from their bed, and thrown them headlong into the lovely dell.

I should like to linger over the delightful three weeks I spent at Ostersund, and describe in detail the tranquil pleasures of every day. How we sat working with the children, through long, quiet mornings, on the small space cleared in front of the house, or wandered through the woods in search of mosses and ferns. How we went for long paddles on Lake Lulu, either in the bright afternoon, when we took the children with us over to the island garden, returning with supplies of ripe red tomatoes, or in the clear, silent evenings, when we pushed out the canoe in any direction—for all were charming—watching the glowing sunset die beyond the hills, and the Indian campfires wake to life along the shores.

One of the strangest thunderstorms I ever saw raged while I was at Ostersund. The whole day had been warm; and as night fell, the air became sultry, and the sky assumed a leaden hue. Directly west of us, the only bit of horizon we could see was across the line of railway. On either side of this, high wooded rocks, some few hundred feet from the line, dropped to a much lower level than that on which the house stood. Beyond the brow of this declivity the sky had the appearance of a huge fire, whose bright-red flames shot up into great clouds of rolling, whirling smoke, their inky hue gradually expanding until the whole sky became covered. Still the flames raged on in a weird stillness broken only by the sound of rushing wind, the crackling and swaying of branches, or a low, distant moan that warned us the storm was on its way.

For more than half an hour we watched the horizon, scarcely believing that its strange hue was not the reflection of a fire in the woods, till, with a report as of a 1,000 cannon crashing on all sides, and the fierce blast of a tornado, the storm was on us. It spent itself, however, in that one blast; the red light gradually paled and died, stars peeped through the riven clouds, and the muttering thunder rolled away to the south.

A culvert was being built close to the house, and we took the greatest interest in the proceedings of all concerned—from the oxen, with their tinkling bells, laboring up the steep with the heavy timbers in tow, to the sad-faced contractor and his jovial, good-looking partner.

As I stood one morning watching the latter go up with a springing step to the top, to superintend the placing of a beam, I saw the chain below snap. At the same instant the huge beam swung round, striking the contractor, who, with a groan, fell headlong to the bottom of the ravine—a distance of 20 feet.

Instantly half a dozen men sprang down and pulled him up, while another ran for Mr K—, who telegraphed for the doctor. Most fortunately, a cross stick against which the poor man struck had broken his fall, and except for a few bruises and the shock he was unhurt, and back at work again in a few days.

I lingered on at Ostersund until I heard that my heavy luggage had arrived at Kuwatin, via Clearwater Bay and the Lake of the Woods, having had a narrow escape on its way over the portage. The horse ran away, and dragged the cart over a number of nitroglycerine cans. The driver fled in terror, but returned sometime afterward, and was astonished to find an atom of either horse, cart, or luggage remaining.

The driver was not wanting in bravery either, for a few days before, the left wheel of his cart had come in contact with a stump and turned over, the whole weight of the horse’s body falling on the man. Knowing that the load in the cart was too heavy for the horse to rise unassisted, and that if he struggled, he would be pounded to death, he had the presence of mind to seize the brute by the ear and hold his head to the ground until assistance came—an hour and a half afterward—when the poor fellow was too exhausted and numbed to get up.

As it was necessary that I should repack my luggage before sending it to Winnipeg, I was obliged to tear myself away from Ostersund, hoping to see my friends again before I left the contract altogether. This hope, however, was not fulfilled, and it was a last farewell I took of them as they stood on the rustic wharf, while Mr K— pushed off the birchbark canoe on which I was lounging.

Paddling along the east shore, rather close in, as the lake was rough, we soon reached the portage to Middle Lake. Lifting the canoe well out of the water, and turning it over, Mr K— raised it above his head. Then, slipping the paddles on his shoulders, and across the bars of the canoe, he carried it with ease up the steep bank and down the hill to the other lake. In this way Indians will carry, or, as they call it, “portage,” their canoes for long distances.

Middle Lake is long, narrow, and swampy-looking, less pretty than any we crossed on our way out. Leaving the canoe at the next portage well drawn in under the trees, and the paddles carefully hidden in the underbrush, lest any stray traveler should take advantage of it, we walked the remaining two miles to Darlington Bay.

The heavy rains of the week before had wet parts of the track, but by jumping from one log to another, and utilizing stones scattered from the cuttings, we managed to cross. One of the most beautiful spots is the place where the line crosses War Eagle Rock Lake. Until on the brow of the rocky, perpendicular shore, one does not suspect the existence of a lake. When nearly there, I laughed as Mr K— asked how wide a lake I thought there was between us and the trail leading through some trees apparently close by.

A moment later I paused in astonishment. At our feet, full 60 feet below, lying between two walls of rock, which looked as though an earthquake had rent it apart to leave space for the sparkling water, was the lake of the romantic name. Below the boom, which is 80 feet across, the breach widened, leaving space for a tiny rocky island with only sufficient foliage on it to make it picturesque—a natural fortress to guard the opening into the broad, beautiful sheet of water that lay beyond.

A blacksmith’s forge hidden in the trees, with the brawny smith singing over his work, was the only object of interest we passed before reaching Darlington, the contractor’s headquarters, where Mr K— was to leave me.

The bay is an arm of the waters of the Winnipeg River, about three miles from its outlet—a low, swampy-looking place. There is a cluster of shanties for the men, and another serving as offices, with a remnant of civilization in one narrow window, in the shape of a doctor’s sign, which hangs crooked, however, as if ashamed of its bad company. Further on are two pretentious loghouses, where the contractor and his chief engineer lived.

I remained two days with Mrs W—, the contractor’s wife, whose kind hospitality will never be forgotten by me, and went on to Kuwatin on Saturday evening. Mr F—’s house there is built on the top of the high, rocky land, which commands a view of the Lake of the Woods and the Winnipeg River. It is close to the portage path over which Lord and Lady Dufferin and their party crossed when on their trip through Manitoba the previous summer, camping at night on the shores of the river.

After spending Sunday morning in packing baggage to be sent by the Dawson route, we went for a paddle up to the rapids. When the canoe had taken us as far as possible, we got out and clambered over the rocks into the foam.

The mouth of the Winnipeg is divided into two channels by a large island; the lower, on which we were, is a succession of rapids each more beautiful than the last. Skirting the shore through a pretty, wooded path, we reached a bare hill above the highest rapid. At our feet the water ran smooth and clear round a bend on the river below. A little further it dashed against great rocks, sending the spray whirling in clouds over their head where jagged edges fretted it as it passed, or forming clear, deep, dark pools between their smooth and solid sides. Then it swirled round a tiny island, beyond which a long ridge of piled-up rocks stretched its bare sides almost across the stream, as though to stay its impetuous course.

The varied expanse of water, framed in overhanging trees, and rocks which rose black against the glowing sky, while the setting sun tinted every jet of spray with crimson and gold, formed a picture I would have liked to carry away with me in more than memory. Over many of the deep pools there were long poles with baited lines, and there, too, the Indians catch large fish with both spear and net.

Half a mile above the rapids, we reached the partially bored tunnel through the island which divides the river, the rocks blasted out being used to fill up the embankment at the crossing. A few days before, this spot had been the scene of a narrow escape from drowning. Two gentlemen, who attempted to cross in a birchbark canoe too near the rapids, were caught by the eddy round the point. The canoe was capsized, and went to pieces over the first rapid, while the rowers, with great difficulty, swam to the farther shore, striking it only a few feet above the rapid—barely enough to save their lives.

Returning from the tunnel, we went into a low-roofed shanty, lately occupied by a family of nine. Its accommodation consisted of bunks built into the wall for beds, with some dirty hay in them, a smoky mud chimney, a hole dug in the middle of the mud floor to let off the water that dripped through the roof, and the door hanging loose on its dried skin hinges. There was no window, and but for the many gaps between the logs of the walls, the inmates must have had little air.

On Sunday, September 29, soon after 7 o’clock in the morning, loaded with wraps, satchels, and baskets, our traveling party was on the way down a muddy hill to the little tug awaiting it. Our old friend, Captain W—, greeted us enthusiastically and busied himself in improvising seats for us with our bags and bale of blankets.

The little tug had been built by the captain’s own hands, and he naturally thought a great deal of it; but in our eyes it seemed the shakiest-looking craft we had ever been afloat in. Blackened with smoke, exposure, and hard usage, it was yet thoroughly seaworthy, and though it rolled about until well underway, was not uncomfortable. The stern was roofed, but the rain drove in at the open sides, until we stretched some waterproofs across from one upright to another. The engine fires underneath, where the energetic one-eyed stoker was not sparing of fuel, made it warm. Before long I found my way round the tiny wheelhouse to the bow, and settling myself as comfortably as I could on a sawhorse, enjoyed my trip over the lake in spite of the drizzling rain.

As we passed the Hudson Bay Company post at that portage, the man at the wheel pointed out the channel he would take when carrying supplies for the work on the next portion of the Canada Pacific Railway, which would “likely be worked next year.” His confident tone about monopolizing lake traffic raised vague speculation as to the mine of wealth this little creaky boat must be to the four men who built and worked it, their expenditure being literally confined to their own provisions, the oil burnt in their lanterns, and the cost of cutting the wood for fires.

A long canoe, paddled by two grinning young squaws, shot out from the company’s post, and for a time kept alongside us. About 9 o’clock we entered the Narrows, a passage only wide enough to allow the tug to pass, and were quickly in the Lake of the Woods. I tried before to recall the impression made by the beauties of this exquisite lake, when crossing it for the first time. Its islands and shores were then clad in all the young verdure of the spring; now they wore all the glory of the autumn, in hues of crimson, yellow, red, and gold—dark pines blending with and forming backgrounds to the loveliest scenes that painter ever traced or pen described.

As I sat on the old sawhorse, vainly endeavoring to grasp all the beauty around, the man at the wheel told me the legends of each point and island, gathered from the Ojibbeways during his life among them. If any unwary traveler ran his canoe on yonder great dark island, closely wooded to the shore, braving the wrath of the Mutaha Manito (Bad Spirit), who claimed it as his own, storms would be sent over the lake by the offended deity, wrecks and misery alone appeasing him. A Paleface once, scorning the warning of the Redskin, had landed there, and even dared to build a fire on its shores; but before the sun again set, he found an unknown grave in the great lake. Never in the memory of the Indians had such a terrific storm raged as after the perpetration of the impious act.

Farther on we saw, in a broad expanse of water, a long, narrow, lonely island, its trees low and stunted, its underbrush so matted that it would seem impenetrable, where the Kichee Manito (Great Spirit), grieving that the likeness of the Mutaha Manito, the Kennebeck (serpent), should trouble his children when on the chase, or in their homes in the good land he had given them—and yet too merciful to destroy—sent his messengers in the silent night to gather all the serpents together. He gave them this island to live in, bidding his children leave them unmolested. And the poor Indian, in his gratitude, has never disobeyed the behest.

Another beautiful island is the resting place of the Great Spirit when he pays his rare visits to earth, and the Indian leaves on its shores his choicest fish of the first catch of the season, and the firstfruits of the chase as his oblation. Another green hilly island is the grave of the braves, where they are laid until the spirits come to lead them to the happy hunting ground.

“Autumn is the hush before winter.” ~French Proverb

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit

*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 14. Quotes, photos, links, emendations added.

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About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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