By Canoe To Empire


This poem, written in soft music by a cultivated visitor to Canada, using the word “oars” instead of “paddles,” depreciates its subject. The Homer of the Iliad might have risen to the experience of the voyageurs, but not the sweet poet of Ireland.

After paddling and portaging the Ottawa as far as Mattawa, the canoes turned south toward Lake Nipissing. crossed it, and descended the French River into Georgian Bay. Then they paddled west along the North Channel above Manitoulin Island, working in the dead or choppy waters of the lake and often losing several days if the winds were contrary. The name they gave the wind was La Vieille (the old woman); if she was behind them they could raise sail. But if she was heavy against them—and the prevailing winds in the region are contrary to westbound canoes—they often had to put up on the shore because the high, steep waves of the inland lakes would break the backs of their canoes. When they went to Michilimackinac they were expected to reach their destination within a period of from thirty-five to forty days, and the same time was expected when they were bound for Grand Portage and Fort William. This voyage was accomplished with canoes fully loaded with trade goods, and there were thirty-six portages between Lachine and the Lakehead, some of them longer than a “league.” In the voyageurs’ language, a “league” was roughly two miles. If express canoes without cargo were used, as they sometimes were on special occasions, the time was much faster. A letter survives dated in Montreal on May 6, 1817, which was received at Rainy Lake beyond Fort William on June 3.

What these voyages involved in hardship, labor, and moral stamina can no more be revealed by the historian’s method of stating the facts than the truth of a battle can be conveyed by the communiqué issued by the high command after the fighting is over and the dead have been counted. From Julius Caesar to the public relations officers of the Pentagon, the truth of life and death has always been hidden behind facts and statistics. That is the trouble with history. It is probably an unavoidable trouble, but it certainly explains why so few people learn much from it. “Our men moved their camp, marched twenty miles, and at night they placed their camp in a suitable place”—how many of us welcomed lines like these when we were studying the Gallic Wars in school? They occurred so often we did not have to pause to work out the grammar. But they told us nothing of the realities.

On every step of that twenty-mile march, probably through hostile country, the legionaries had to carry their weapons and food, their armor and personal necessities, a total weight close to a hundred pounds per man. When the “suitable place” was reached, it was usually on a hill with a forest nearby. While one detachment marked out the lines of the camp, another dug a trench about it, and still another went into the woods to cut trees. After the trunks had been trimmed, sawed up, and sharpened at one end, they were dragged to the suitable place and staked into the ground just behind the lip of the trench. Only after all this work was done could the soldier wrap himself in his cloak and fall asleep on the ground.

A similar recovery of reality is essential if any modern man is to understand the truth about life on the Canadian rivers in the voyaging days.

On May 25, 1793, a young Scot called John Macdonell set out from Lachine on his first voyage with a brigade of the North West Company. He has left a diary of that voyage written in the usual terse language of the communiqué, and he has also recorded, with the distances distinctly stated, the nature of each of the thirty-six portages between Montreal and Grand Portage—here the carrying place was nine miles long—as well as the character of the streams and lakes. With the help of the imagination, the record is a fascinating one, the more so because this was a routine voyage.

On this stage of the journey into the west, the larger canoes carried loads varying from three tons to four and were manned by crews of eight or ten men. The middle men, using short paddles, sat two abreast while the bowman and steersman were placed higher and were equipped with paddles much longer. The Montreal canoe was thirty-five to forty feet long made entirely of the bark of yellow birch placed over ribs of thin white cedar with thwarts numbering between four and nine, and boards four inches wide secured just below the gunwales as seats for the paddlemen. The bark was secured by melted pine gum, and after a heavy rapid or a day’s paddling the seams had to be re-gummed to prevent leaking. The canoe used by Alexander Mackenzie, and specially designed for his exploration of the Rockies, was so light that it could be carried by two men. But the weight of a large canoe out of Montreal was much greater than this, and required at least four men to portage it. The whole operation of portaging brings up an interesting calculation in the mathematics of labor, sweat, and tired muscles.