What was it like to paddle on a canoe brigade? Did voyageurs ever write about it? Did voyageurs keep journals?
(Renner, 12; Carsyn, 13; Blake, 11)
In 1793, John Macdonell left Lachine to begin serving as a North West Company clerk—and he kept a journal! This post focuses on the time when his brigade left Montreal to their arrival at the rendezvous at Grand Portage (the first half of his journal). He wrote much more, but these shortened comments give you a sense of the voyageurs’ work and his experience.
As a clerk, Macdonell didn’t have to paddle or portage on the voyage. When his brigade arrives—after about 5 months of rigorous travel—he will supervise a wintering post and be in charge of its trading.
May 10 ~ Signed my engagement papers with the North West Company for five years to winter in the Indian Country as a clerk. The terms are £100 at the expiration, and found in necessaries. [That’s £20 per year. As “necessaries,” clerks were allotted special provisions like tea, sugar and liquor, extra clothing, extra blankets and traveling equipment, and a tent. He will get paid the cash upon return.]
May 25 ~ Embarked at Lachine on board a birch bark canoe, the first that I remember to have been in. …The brigade of canoes in the Grand River [Ottawa] is generally 4. Canoes when fully loaded carry about 3 Tuns. [His steersman and foreman and the canoe’s 8-10 paddlers come from the parish of Berthier. His guide is swapped at the last minute, and goes with a different trader.]
May 27 ~ At 9 a.m. Crossed over to St. Ann’s where we found the Priest saying mass for one Lalonde who had been drowned 110 leagues [A league is the distance a man can walk in one hour, perhaps three miles.] above this place, at Roche Capitaine [a series of rapids in the Ottawa River below the forks at Mattawa].Tho drowned near 12 months ago, his remains were only brought down by his brothers this spring on their return from the upper country in a coffin made for the purpose in order to give him Christian Sepulture, according to the Catholic Rites. [At St. Ann’s, the crews normally collected a voluntary donation to have prayers said for the prosperity of the voyage and a safe return to those engaged in it, to their family and friends. This traditional stop at the chapel of St. Ann’s was unusual because of the burial of one of their mates. The brigade will head to the Indian village on the Lake of Two Mountains for one night.]
May 28 ~ The guide and I went across to the Indian Village for a supply of bark, gum and wattap to mend our canoes in case of need. …We slept that night at the foot of Petites Ecors, Carrilon Rapids, opposite Pointe Fortune. At Petites Ecors, the river was confined between steep banks. [Gum was made by boiling the pitch from pine trees; it was pressed along the seams and, when it hardened, made them watertight. Wattap—either spruce or hemlock root—was used to sew pieces of bark together. Carillon, Point Fortune and Chute a Blondeau are modern towns that still bear the names used several centuries ago for landmarks on the river.]
May 29 ~ Slept at the chute a Blondeau.
May 30 ~ Walked up the Long sault [rapids] which the men call 3 leagues long. In it they made three portages and we slept two nights at the head of the third, where I saw the first cross or grave mark. I am told it is that of a young Christian Indian who was drowned in attempting to run the rapid in his canoe. [In 1660 at the Long Sault, Adam Dollard and his followers died resisting an attack by Iroquois.]
~ We spent two nights at this place to await the arrival of our associate brigade, guided by Denis who broke one of his Canoes and is gone back to the village of the Lake of the two mountains either to get another or materials to repair the broken one. The guide’s orders being to wait for the associate Brigade, we are likely to lose much time on the road.
June 1 ~ We left our encampment at the head of the long sault [rapids] at 3 p.m. A league farther we came opposite a very beautiful mountain on the north shore of the Ottawa; The guides who shoot the Canoes down the long sault and Carrilon Rapids have their huts erected. The fare to a guide is five Dollars. From the long sault we have 20 leagues of still water to navigate. After ascending 14 leagues of smooth water we came to La parents settlement [near present-day city of Ottawa] at the barrier where our guide attempted in vain to hire a man in lieu of one who had turned back from the long sault on account of a rupture with which he was afflicted [hernias were not uncommon]. The water of this river is of a browner cast than that of the St. Lawrence and much warmer at this time of year.
June 3 ~ Left our campment before sun-rise. The land on the south shore began to be rocky and steep from the edge of the water. At the mouth of the Rideau River, the waterfall is 14 to 16 feet high into the Ottawa River. The Rideau may be about 25 yards wide. About 50 paces from this is a second channel separated by an Island that extends to the brink of the fall. Both these channels are of an equal size and in the form of crescents. When the water is high in the Rideau, it is dangerous for canoes to pass near the mouths. A mile farther on we came to a large fall called le grand des Chaudieres. The water being high we turned to our right into a long narrow cave surrounded with steep rocks called La Cave which we ascended upwards of 300 yards to its North Western extremity and there unloaded our canoes; the shore being too steep to haul up the canoes they were brought round light to the ordinary portage at low water and from there carried to the head of the falls.
~ Mr. McLeod and I went to fish, and take a view of the Rapids [while the voyageurs toiled] , but to our great surprise caught nothing. This fall is the most curious and picturesque in all the grand river. On the north shore the fall is about 10 feet high but on the south side it comes down a steep Rush or Race-way between an Island and the shore. The rock has several curious crevices in it through which the water pours with a wild appearance. There are 10 Portages following each other of this name in the space of about 5 miles and some décharges between them. At the uppermost or portages des Chiens, [actually Portage des Chênes or portage of the Oaks], we slept. The mosquitoes intolerable.
~ Eight miles farther we came to point aux Iroquois or Pointe a la bataille, where a warriors skirmished with the Traders in former times to way-lay them. Came to Lac des Chats [for the large number of raccoons here]. Just below this portage is a pretty farm, formerly a place of trade. We took but half the cargo on board for a league [they are making a décharge of 3 miles] during which we voyaged among a number of small Islands divided from one another by various rapidious channels and used 600-yard lines to haul up the canoes. After gumming the canoe [before embarking on a lake, after passing a portage or rapids], we entered Lac des Chats amongst a cluster of Islands separated by channels of different sizes and strong currents frequent. There is great plenty of pine growing here on each side of us on the ridges. Passed the night at the Fort Ducharge.
June 6 ~ Made the portage. In these channels the water is sometimes swift and narrow. It would be difficult to find the route at all without an experienced guide for the intricacy of the turns and windings. The Ottawa River is known to rise and fall to great extremes. Lost half of this day to rain.
~ Next morning we steered our course to a portage called la Montagne where we carried goods and canoe up a steep hill. Made D’Argy [portage] and reached the Grand Calumet. This portage, the longest in the Ottawa, is half a league across. Upwards of 300 yards from where we unloaded is a pretty steep ascent. The portage took more than 24 hours—before we cleared it, with gumming and mending our canoe. The shore on both sides began to get high and rocky, 100 feet perpendicular, and formed a right angle to the water.
~ I saw tripe de Roche [rockweed, a kind of moss]. The men tell me this is the last resource to subsist upon in the in hospitable regions of the dreary North. It has been known to keep men alive for months, boiled in water, after having the sand well washed off of it. Opposite this marais [swamp] is a fine sand bank 30-40 feet high and near a mile in length which bounds prettily around this point of the Grand Marais in the form of a crescent. It is shaded by fine groves of Norway pine whose stalks grow up to 50 feet frequently without branches.
June 9 ~ Left our encampment at the head of the Grand Marais where a branch of the Ottawa River issues to the south, near Lac des Chats, making an island of the Grand Calumet portage. This small channel is only passable with small canoes. A league beyond, we saw Fort Colonges, a sorry hut near the foot of the mountains. We entered the lakes, like knots on a cord—2 or 3 times the breadth of the river. At one end is a brulé, a burnt area, and another sand bank opposite a grand marais.
~ The Allumets are the next rapids—2 décharges [voyageurs wade, hauling the canoe upriver by ropes; depending on the depth, the canoe may be unloaded] and a portage. The portage is 15-20 paces over a pretty steep ascent—the water at [the nearest] end is 10-15 feet lower. After emptying our canoes of their cargoes, they were hauled round the point. A mile further, we came to Lac des Allumets, shallow and abounding in shoals and rocky lands, surrounded by very fine groves of pine.
June 11 ~ The Roche Capitaine is the next portage we come to, a rough turbulent rapid. A league above it I saw the grave of poor Lalondes, the body that had been buried at St. Ann’s mentioned before.
[On waters with no current to fight, voyageurs can paddle about 4 miles per hour, up to a stroke per second, with 10-minute breaks to smoke their pipes every hour. But portaging, they can barely make a half-mile per hour. At a portage, they each make 3 trips, carrying 2 or even 3 packs of 90 pounds and additional loose pieces that don’t fit in a pack.
Oh, and they dog-trot. Their “rest” is that they don’t carry loads on their return trips. On some very short and very steep portages, they might use a “bucket brigade” system. No wonder they despised portaging. The décharges were probably not as hated as much.]
June 15 ~ Left the Grand River [Ottawa] at Mattawa in which we made 18 portages and as many décharges. Entered the little river which is so narrow that a good gun would carry shot from side to side. Mattawa means ‘a fork’ in the Algonquin or Nipissing tongue. A league upriver, we made the portage du Plain Champs, a considerable one where we spent the night. Here the brigade was separated so only 2 canoes traveled together, owing to the portages being frequent and only affording room for 2 canoes to unload at a time.
June 16 ~ We are going into a deep glen of still water 3 leagues long, very straight and from 300-400 paces wide, between 2 rocky mountains.
June 18 ~ We passed a cave called Porte de l’enfer [Hell’s Gate]; it is a cave that appears to be about 8 feet high. They say it receives light from the top and is spacious within. A mile farther we found the Paresseu Portage, a pretty long one; the rapid that occasions it has a perpendicular fall of 10 feet. It is the fifth portage on the Mattawa so far. At some portages a tree would bridge the river across. In 8 or 9 miles we come to the Anse aux Perches, where the setting poles are thrown away—a ceremony which our men performed with a loud huzza. They reserve two setting poles per canoe and will travel the rest of the way with paddles.
~ The next impediment in navigating was the portage of Talon, a fall of nearly 40 feet in 2 cascades. The portage is long and difficult and we encamped and spent the night. About 3 leagues beyond we left the Mattawa and made 2 portages called Les Musiques. One of them is horrid, noting but ups and downs among broken and rugged rocks. We proceeded a quarter of a mile in a ditch not much wider than the canoe through the center of a cedar swamp. Then we embarked on a small lake which brought us to the Portage la Tortue. The Lac du Tortue is the source of the Little River [Mattawa]. The men compute the Mattawa to be 30 leagues. Lac du Tortue is much clearer water than the Little River.
~ Leaving Lac la Tortue, we have three portages running, called the Vases [meaning ‘muddy portages]. Here is the height-of-land [a continental divide]. We came to a small rivulet, so small that a man can in many places jump over it, which brought us to Lake Nipissing. The brook after the second portage of the Vases is about as big, sufficiently deep to float a loaded canoe. After the third Vase portage we entered Lake Nipissing, where we camped 4 nights without even shifting the place of our tent.
June 24 ~ Left the Prairie des Vases and crossed a large bay of Lake Nipissing. I have been informed it is so shallow that they spear fish in winter under the ice not exceeding 3-4 fathoms. The water is grayish and muddy. In the center of the lake is Point aux Croix on which 11 crosses are erected, men who were swallowed up with canoe and cargo some years ago. Beyond this point we met an Indian and two little girls in a small birch bark canoe to whom we gave some biscuit in exchange for fish.
~ [Finally they will travel downstream!] At the Chaudiere des Français, we carry from Lake Nipissing to a deep stillwater cove of the French River, which issues out to Lake Huron by a variety of channels and are too rapidious to be navigable, if they are to be judged by the one nearest which is steeper than a mill race and not wider in places. After proceeding about 2 miles down the cove from Lake Nipissing, the current of the main body of the French River took us broadside and carried us down merrily, being the first current able to make an impression on the canoe that we have drifted with.
June 26 ~ Came down the following rapids: Les Pins, Rapide Croche, La Fausille, Le Parisien, Le Petit Parisien. The day is a beautiful clear day with sunshine. Fourteen leagues from here is L’Enfant Perdu. The story is that an Indian child was bathing in sight of his parents and was suddenly pulled under water. His friends repeatedly dived for him, but to no purpose. Later they heard moaning under the ground and began to dig with sticks and paddles, but gave up when the cries were under high rocky ground. It is said the boy’s cries were heard for 6 days.
~ A league below is the Grand Recolet Portage. Here one of the North West Company’s canoes manned by the Majeau brothers was upset and lost half the cargo about 15 days ago. They had made portage and loaded the canoe below the portage but neglected to put a man on shore with a line to stem the strong eddy which carries back to the falls. In consequence it was drawn down by the eddy under the falls and was instantly filled and sunk. The few survivors and the goods that floated were picked up below the rapid by other canoes of the brigade. Seven crosses are erected here, as well as seven others of former casualties.
~ Two leagues below is Derreaud’s Rapid, named for a voyageur who broke his canoe in it. There are various figures of animals etc. made on the face of the steep rocks in many places along the banks. Some leagues below Derreaud’s is the figure of a man standing over an animal that lays under him with a sun on one side and a moon on the other. Farther on are at least 16 figures of different animals standing promiscuously together on the face of a steep rock. Amongst them are fish, flesh and tortoise, all painted with red paint. Two leagues below is the figure of an ox, which gives name to a fine view of the river, Lac du Boeuf. The figures are made by scratching the rockweed [moss] off.
~ Passing through a narrow race of a rapids named the Dalles, we saw an island. There the Iroquois about 50 years ago tried to cut off a strong brigade of trading canoes. They abandoned their ambush and the canoes pursued their route. It was among the last attempts of the Iroquois. It is strange that the Iroquois should have come so far out of their own territory to wage war.
June 27 ~ We came 25 leagues yesterday and today, the full length of the French River. We entered Lake Huron with a very strong head wind which compelled us to put ashore as soon as we found a suitable place to unload and haul up the canoes. The French enters Huron by a great number of branches separated by high rocky islands. The lake appears like an ocean. There are a few rocky shoals where natives find waterfowl eggs, baskets full which they brought to our tents for sale. They tried ways to make us give them rum but we were staunch in our refusal. Then they, much dissatisfied, vowed to conjure and cause the wind to blow with increased violence from the same quarter for 8 days. From Lachine to Lake Huron there are 36 portages and as many décharges.
~ We lightened the guide’s canoe by 45 pieces [three-fourths of the cargo] and distributed them among the other canoes. We shipped all my effects and those of Archibald McLeod and Lemoine, and took a man out of each of the other canoes, which made us a crew of 14 paddles and set out. We set out on our journey leaving the rest of the brigade to wait the arrival of Dannis our associate guide whom we have not seen since the Long Sault. We are now a single canoe making the best of our way to Grand Portage. After proceeding 4 leagues, we put on shore for the evening. [They are now going as fast as possible to the rendezvous, leaving the cargo to be brought by others.]
June 29 ~ Met a number of canoes coming from Michilimackinac and passed point Tessalon. We continue coasting the north shore of Lake Huron.
July 2 ~ We left the hospitable roof of Monsieur Nolin who escorted us to the western end of the portage where we pitched our tent and finished the Madeira that remained in our care with him. Lemoine remains here to shift for himself—stopped at Point aux Pins where two leagues above the sault we found Mr. Nelson building a vessel for the Northwest Company to navigate Lake Superior, to be called the Otter. She is to be launched shortly. Left the Point aux Pins at 4 p.m. with a fair wind which soon brought us opposite to the Gros Cap after which we entered the great Lake Superior, the mother and mistress of the other lakes. The water is so green and transparent that I am confidently told the bottom can be seen in 30 fathoms water.
July 4 ~ We were prevented from stirring by stormy weather—a cold raw day.
July 5 ~ Passed the Bay of Michipicoton where the Northwest Company has a trading post. The bay shores run parallel that the head wind we had upon one side was aft-wind on the other side of it for the space of 10 leagues. We made, by the men’s compute, 24 leagues this day.
~ We passed Tête a la Loutre where a column of rock stands upon a lofty round mountain. About 15 leagues further we found the entrance of the Pic River and a trading post of Mr. Coté, about half a mile from our encampment. This was the coldest night ever I felt at this time of year. In the vicinity were 11 crosses, erected for men who perished last winter. We kept our arms in good order every since we parted from canoes being told that Indians are apt to attack a single canoe. The crews seldom have any arms of their own. We met a canoe of Forsyth Richardson & Co. that had wintered in Nipigon alongside a Hudson’s Bay Co. trader who did not make a single pack [bale of furs]. Their chief had frozen to death seeking subsistence for himself and fellow sufferers. This canoe was loaded with the same trade goods they took into the interior last autumn.
~ We passed the Nipigon River and saw two round mountains in the form of sugar loaves. We passed Bay Noir, so deep the eye cannot see the bottom. We passed close to Thunder Mountain, one of the highest; one half rises about 45 degrees from the water’s edge and is topped off by the other half a perfect perpendicular. It resembles an extensive citadel wall. There is another curious round mountain upon an island. We paddled against a strong hard wind till we reached Point au Pêre where we passed the night. Tradition says it had its name from a Pêre Jesuite who was murdered here. Mr. McLeod and I shaved and shifted being the last night we shall sleep out, wind and weather permitting, this side of Grand Portage.
~ Leaving Point au Pêre, we paddled 2 pipes and put to shore to give the men time to clean themselves while we breakfasted—this done a short pipe brought us to Pointe au Chapeaux around which we got a sight of the long-wished-for Grand Portage. The beach was covered with spectators to see us arrive, our canoe went well and the crew sung paddling songs in a vociferous manner.
Macdonell, age 25, spent the rest of July at Grand Portage transacting the company’s business as a clerk. On August 5, he became a Northman, leaving with trade goods for his wintering post, and arrived there October 8 northwest of Lake Winnipeg on the Qu’appelle River—an additional 52 portages. In 1797 he became a wintering partner, and for the next 15 years was stationed in Athabasca, Isle a la Crosse and Lesser Slave Lake.
John Macdonell’s journal of the entire voyage is included in “Five Fur Traders of the Northwest” (Minnesota Historical Society, 1965). This diary and another which continues his recollections through 1795 are owned by McGill University of Montreal, Quebec, Canada.