The Last Portage*

19th-Century Trip to Manitoba
Portage Travel
Guest Writer Mary FitzGibbon

“You can’t live on amusement. It is the froth on water—an inch deep and then the mud.” ~George MacDonald

Next morning the sun rose bright and clear, but as there was still a good deal of wind, which was likely to increase as the day advanced, we started early; not, however, before Mr F— had sent the strange Indians to shoot some ducks we had heard on the lake. They returned with one old and five young birds, for which they were paid a nickel each and the remnants of our breakfast. We all set to work at once to pluck and clean the birds.

Carrière, at my instigation, tried every inducement in his power, offering the Indians three times its value in money, to purchase the little basket of wild rice they had in their canoe, but without success. “It belonged to another Indian, and they had not leave to sell it,” they said, in answer to all his persuasions.

We embarked on the Falcon Lake side of the point; the water was still so rough that the canoes had to be held off the rocks to prevent their bumping. Mr F— and Frank struck directly across the lake and hugged the western shore, but Mr M— and Carrière, trusting to my being a good sailor, kept in the middle of the lake in a direct course to the portage.

The waves were just high enough to give the canoe a cradle-like motion. Settling myself comfortably, and being covered with a warm rug, I slept soundly until we reached the portage—an hour’s paddle—so that I knew little of the beauties of the lake. Looking back at it, as we sat on the shore waiting for the other canoe, I found its shores hilly and devoid of bays or foliage.

When the others came in, they expressed astonishment that I could sleep when the water was so rough; they could not see us at all times and feared we were lost. The reappearance of the canoe, apparently without me, had puzzled them not a little.

Before we were ready to cross the portage, our Indian visitors overtook us and carried some of our baggage. When asked to take a canoe, they looked at it, lifted it, shook their heads, laughed, and told Carrière it was ‘too heavy, they were not beasts.’ Mr F— offered them $1 to carry it to the next lake—less than half a mile. “No.” They lifted it again carefully, taking everything out of it. “No, they wouldn’t do it for $5.”

Then Mr M— and Frank, putting their folded coats on their shoulders to rest the edge on, lifted the canoe, one end on Mr M—’s left shoulder, and the other on Frank’s right, and went off at an easy run, the Indians watching them open mouthed. http://www.novacadie.ca/images/stories/gallery/canoe_portage.jpgThen they again tried the weight of the other, anxious to get the money, but too lazy to earn it. At last Mr F— had a “happy thought.” Showing the Indians the whisky keg, and holding the open bunghole to their noses, he made them understand that if they carried the canoe over, they should have some of “the cratur” when they returned. This worked like a charm. In two minutes the canoe was hoisted on their shoulders, and they were off at double the pace of the others.

Before they returned, Mr F— emptied out most of the whisky and replaced it with water, shaking the keg well to give it a flavor. It is against the law to give Indians spirits, but he knew that this mild draught could not hurt them. They were apparently quite satisfied, and left us, promising to bring us some potatoes to the end of the next portage. But either they detected the fraud, and did as Indians generally do when cheated—said nothing at the time, but would rather starve than give one a chance to cheat them again—or they were unable to procure the potatoes; at all events, we saw no more of them.

The next lake at which we arrived was picturesque. I asked Carrière its name, but he laughed and replied, “It has no name, Miss F—. It is only one of those ‘magnificent water stretches’ we hear MacKenzie talking so much about.”

(During the debate preceding the building of the Fort Francis Locks [dam], when justifying their immense cost, the Honourable Alexander MacKenzie, then leader of the Government, and Minister of Public Works, spoke frequently of the “magnificent water stretches between them [Ottawa] and Winnipeg.”)

We were determined not to allow it to be nameless any longer, and unanimously decided to call it Otley Lake, after the brown-eyed baby. It is a small lake, and soon crossed. A short portage follows, and on the shores of the next and yet smaller lake we stopped for luncheon. The portage was muddy; we had tucked up our skirts as high as we could to keep them out of harm’s way, and were standing idly about, watching the maid wash, and Frank cook, the ducks, when we heard distant shouting. Before we could decide the source, Mr F—, who had gone out in the canoe to reconnoiter [observe], reappeared, but not alone. Mr K— was with him, in a new and spotless suit of Oxford grey, irreproachable collar and cuffs, light-blue necktie, and new hat, looking clean, fresh, and civilized.

What a contrast! Mrs F— gave her dress a shake, and straightened her hat, while I, in my anxiety to let down the loops in my skirts, made sad havoc among the strings. The maid exclaimed, in a tone of personal injury, “Law! and we’re such figures!”

I reproached him [Mr K—] for making us feel our position so keenly. The scene would have made a good caricature: our travel-tossed party, with draggled skirts, and hats shapeless from much drenching rain; the men coatless, collarless, cuffless, with trousers rolled up and hair guiltless of parting; remnants of provisions, dishes, rugs, shawls, and coats littered over the ground—all in sharp contrast with the perfect type and finished product of civilization landing from the canoe. The very grace with which Mr K— lifted his hat as he greeted us made us feel that contrast more!

However, we soon forgave him, we were so glad to see him; especially as he brought the mailbag. While the men read their letters, I consoled myself for having none with a can of Californian pears, which were among the many things Mr K— brought. I didn’t eat them all; but I confess to a fair share. The ducks, too, fried in pork fat, were not bad; and we much enjoyed our picnic, though, not having provided for visitors, one did without a fork and another without a spoon, to make them go round.

Before we left the scene of our meeting, we dubbed the water Picnic Lake. It was only a hundred yards or so across to Hawk Lake, which looked wild and stormy. But Mr K— had crossed it in safety a few hours before, so there was little danger with good men and canoes. It was impossible to remain where we were without provision, and there was every prospect of the wind increasing instead of diminishing; so there was nothing for it but to venture.

Our canoe, as usual, took the lead, and shooting beyond an island well into the open, was soon joined by the others. Strict orders were given by our commander-in-chief, Mr F—, to keep together: Mr K— and his two men in one canoe to the left toward the middle of the lake, about half a canoe’s length ahead, and three away from ours; Mr F—’s being about the same distance on the right, and nearest the shore.

Thus, Mr K—’s canoe broke the first dash of the wave, and ours made it still less strong against Mr F—’s. But before long the delight of dancing over the waves made Mr M— and Carrière work to such purpose that we regained the lead, Mr M— shouting, “Here comes another, Carrière! Head her up!” as a great wall of whitewater rushing down on us threatened our tiny boat; then, with a splash, the whitecaps struck it, dashing the spray over us as we rose above it and were ready for another onslaught.

As the wave passed behind, we could hear it strike the next canoe, and then the wash of the water as it went under. It was great fun, and I could have wished it to last longer if it were not for Mrs F—, who, with white face and compressed lips, clasped her baby closer in her arms as each wave came. Though of too true metal to make a fuss or give expression to her terror, one could see what she suffered every moment, until, getting to leeward of a large island, the lake became calm and the tension of her nerves relaxed. It took from an hour and a half to two hours to cross Hawk Lake, but to me it seemed only a few minutes.

Turning into a bay to the east, we landed on our last portage before reaching Ingolf. It was a long, wet track, with a narrow ravine in the middle, over which a rude road of loose logs had been made, while down the hills trickled tiny streams and a brawling, moss-bordered brook. There were two trails. While the Indians and rowers took the lower and shorter, we pursued the upper. We were too tired to notice the beauty of the country, and were glad to reach the canoes on Long Pine Lake. We passed parties of men returning from their work, some of whom took charge of our luggage; and all crowding into one canoe, we were soon at Ingolf, the most western station on Contract 15.

Long Pine Lake looked still and pond-like; the weeds and slimy tendrils in the water were too visible, the bank on which we landed was too muddy, and the scattered débris of recent building did not add to its attraction. Though the engineers had recently moved into the house, and one wing of it was still in the workmen’s hands, everything was as comfortable and well arranged as good taste could make it. Bachelors’ quarters they were—the only house on the contract uninhabited by woman—but the ingenuity and industry with which they had been fitted up more than compensated for her absence.

The walls of the sitting, smoking, and general lounging room were hung with trophies of the chase—Indian work, pictures, and photographs of lovely faces from the artist world; while books, papers, and easy chairs tempted one to linger. The dining room and kitchen were still unfinished. So, when we had shaken ourselves straight, and resumed our despised collars and neckties, Mr K— took us over in the canoe to the contractor’s shanty to dinner. The pretty woman who waited on us could not complain of the fare not being appreciated. We did full justice to it, lingering until long after dark, telling our adventures and sharpening our wits against each other. The doctor also joined our party. But a 6 o’clock breakfast and early departure being decided on, we had to break up at a reasonable hour.

In the morning we found we must keep to the canoe route, instead of going by wagon to Cross Lake as we had intended. Rain had fallen all night, but it was then bright and clear. Long Pine Lake looked better in the sunlight, and the portage to Hawk Lake, to which we had to return to reach Cross Lake, unnoticed the night before, was fully enjoyed now. The ground was carpeted ankle-deep with moss of endless variety, and ferns sparkling with raindrops.

Hawk Lake was calm, only a light ripple glittering in the sun where before had been whitecaps. Crossing the northwest end, we struck a short portage to a tiny lake, across which a few minutes’ paddle carried us. It was now comparatively easy work for the men, all the heavy camping baggage having been left at Ingolf, and the remainder, except our satchels, sent on by packers going through to Cross Lake. As Mr K— and his men accompanied us, no double trip was necessary.

Our last portage showed many signs of active life: several boats, nitroglycerin cans, large racks on which whitefish nets were drying, a shanty with a rugged garden round it, besides the well-worn paths that tell of frequent traffic. The men went briskly uphill with our canoe, and were soon out of sight; but thinking that the lower path was likely to be the coolest and most sheltered, we followed that. It was so pretty and dry for the first half-mile that we congratulated ourselves on our choice, and pitied the poor men toiling up the rocks in the heat.

But our self-satisfaction was short-lived. A few yards farther the path began to descend, getting wetter and more swampy at every step. Mr K—, who carried his paddles, threw them across the mud as bridges, and by taking advantage of all the fallen trees and stumps, we got on pretty well for a time. But the task became more and more difficult every minute.

Once, while scrambling along a half-submerged log, I grasped some tall weeds to save myself from falling; they turned out to be stinging nettles, and I do not feel called on to recommend them as a means of support.

Presently Mr F—, who was in front, called out, “Hallo! here’s a jolly puddle!” and plunged in up to his knees. It was too wide to bridge, the paddles were too narrow to afford us foothold; and before we guessed his intention, Mr F— deposited the satchels he carried on the other side, came back and took his wife on his back, saying I was to wait till he returned. The extra weight made him sink deeper in the swamp; and as Mrs F—’s dress floated on the slimy surface, Mr K— followed, and raising it tenderly on the blade of the paddle, the procession moved on; while I, the sole spectator, stood, like a stork, on a stump barely wide enough to support one foot at a time, awaiting my turn.

When we arrived at the lake, a few minutes afterward, we found the maid, who had gone on with Mr M— and the baby, while we were loitering at the last landing, busy removing the mud that encased her clothes. She had found no friendly back on which to rise above the swamp, and had accordingly fared badly.

While waiting for the canoes, we spread our shawls on the grassy shore under some trees and sat down. Presently someone regretted the absence of the provision bag, and the maid regretted that she had not asked how to make the buns we had for breakfast. (She amused us much by her anxiety to collect receipts.) To soothe these mourners, Mr M—, with some little trouble, produced from one of his pockets a can of salmon.

“Hungry! Oh, yes, we were hungry enough to eat anything.” But when the tin was opened, we found that canned salmon, without bread or vinegar, went a long way. Even our hunger could not tempt us to take more than one taste, after which we unanimously resolved not to spoil our appetites for dinner.

Cross Lake is long, narrow, and uninteresting, and the surrounding country flat, though rocky. When we crossed, it was quite calm; but Carrière said that it was one of the roughest of the lakes in a storm, the west wind having a clear sweep over it. After paddling for about an hour and a half, when we reached the spot where the railway line crossed a narrow part of the lake, and the embankment was partly filled in, we turned to our left into a narrow, winding creek, like Falcon River, and in five minutes were at Denmark’s Ranch.

Then we climbed up a muddy bank, and along a still muddier dump, or railroad embankment, to the shanty, a large loghut with several additions, one of a single room 10 feet square. The cook, his wife—a delicate-looking woman—and two children lived here. They welcomed us kindly, and with many apologies for the want of space. Their room was neat and clean, and the inmates seemed contented with everything except the mud, which was so deep all round the shanty that it was impossible to go out with any comfort, and the absence of exercise was much felt.

The ranch was always full of people coming and going, so there was no lack of society or news. The room we dined in was large, about 20×16 feet. The table was covered with brown oilcloth, and had benches along it at one end. The other was filled with temporary bunks like the berths in a steamer, one above the other. The menu contained, among other things, a wild goose, roasted and stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs and raisins, more like an imitation plum pudding than anything else, flat pies filled with dried apples, and the inevitable plates of fresh, sliced cheese, which is the chief peculiarity of Ontario farmhouse tables.

While we were having dinner, a heavy shower fell, in consequence of which we could form no idea of the state of the road. No vehicle could traverse it, and we must walk the remaining 6 miles to the end of the track. Mr M— went immediately to detain the train until we could reach it, and after saying good-bye to Mr K—, who returned to Ingolf, we followed, Mr D— coming with us to “carry the baby,” he said. And so he did, the whole distance; and his own bairns [little ones], miles away, had many a hug that day by proxy, I fancy.

Poor Carrière, too, though lame, rather than let the baggage be left behind and Mr K— inconvenienced, also came. For the first mile it was muddy, but, thinking it better than our expectations, we slipped and plodded along contentedly, stopping every now and then to scrape our boots; but this made our progress slow, and we had no time to waste.

Soon the path, or what had once been one, terminated, and we had to jump the drain to the embankment, and climb that. In 5 minutes our feet weighed pounds, and we understood the navvies [“navigators”: road or rail construction crew] saying that they “took up land wherever they worked.” Galoshes were useless, and we soon discarded them; and, but for fear of hurting my feet with hidden stones or sticks, I would have discarded my shoes too.

Still on we plodded, sinking to our ankles at almost every step; it was warm work. At the end of the second mile, near a group of shanties, the road was a little drier, and a pile of ties gave us a resting place for a few minutes. After this the road got worse and worse, and trying to walk on the greasy, slippery railway ties scattered about was even more difficult than plodding through the mud.

The maid, who entered a protest against the country at every opportunity, was sliding and slipping over these ties in front. Glancing down the embankment, three or four feet in depth, she uttered a heartfelt “Thank God! A path at last!” and, giving one jump, she sank nearly to her knees in the marsh.

The doleful expression of her face, and the hopeless disappointment with which she scrambled up the muddy bank back to the slippery ties, was too much for my gravity. I am afraid my laughter offended the poor girl, and it was scarcely fair, either, as she had borne all the disagreeables far better than people generally do.

“One who is ashamed of shabby clothing or modest meals is not worth conversing with.” ~Confucius

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Whitewater

*Adapted from Mary FitzGibbon [1851-1915], A Trip to Manitoba (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880). Chapter 17. 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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