John Macdonell was born in Scotland in 1768. His family migrated to New York in 1773 and then to Canada. He was 25 years old when he began this first trading venture, in 1793. His diary describes his impressions of voyageur life. In this section, he has been traveling on the “voyageur highway” with a brigade for about one week (part 1). Part 2 continues his experience on the Ottawa River.
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 Carillon 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.
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.