by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
The military-scientific expedition, commissioned by U.S. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun and led by Major Stephen H. Long, began its canoe trek down the Winnipeg River on August 20, 1823, taking the fur trading route that had previously been extensively used by the voyageurs of the North West Company (Nor’Westers).
After the Nor’Westers merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1821, the water route to Montréal had all but been abandoned, as the HBC transported its furs by York boat to Hudson Bay and from there by ship to Great Britain. But localized travel along segments of such interior water routes was still important to Métis and aboriginal people, who brought furs and traded at strategically located HBC posts, such as Fort Alexander on the Winnipeg River.
William H. Keating, the American scientist and expedition’s historian, said the Winnipeg River was a “most majestic and impressive stream” with a width that varied “as it runs through a primitive formation in which it has excavated basins of irregular dimensions connected by narrow channels, through which the whole volume of waters, which is very considerable, proceeds with inconceivable rapidity.”
Canadian explorer Henry Youle Hind in his book, Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857, wrote: “Some of the falls and rapids (of the Winnipeg River) present the wildest and most picturesque scenery, displaying every variety of tumultuous cascades, and foaming rapids with treacherous eddies, whitened by foam, and huge swelling waves rising massive and green over hidden rocks.”
Today, it is virtually impossible to fully imagine the shear wildness of the river described by early explorers, as so many of its falls have been harnessed to provide hydro-electric power. Six hydro-electric dams have been built along the course of the Winnipeg River in Manitoba since the early 1900s: the Pointe du Bois Generating Station at Pointe du Bois, Slave Falls just a few kilometres downstream, Seven Sisters Falls Generating Station at Seven Sisters, MacArthur Falls Generating Station, the Great Falls Generating Station, and the Pine Falls Generating Station at Powerview.
Actually, the Winnipeg River’s rapid flow was first used for power by a lumber mill at Fort Alexander (near present-day Pine Falls) in 1870. Pine Falls merged with Powerview in 2005 to become the community of Powerview-Pine Falls.
The turbulent falls along the river made it necessary for the Americans in 1823 to undertake numerous portages. Keating claimed there were 72 portages along the water route between Lake Winnepeek (Winnipeg) and Lake Superior.
The prowess of the French-Canadian voyageurs and Métis paddlers, who challenged the rapids and travelled over the portages, was a source of wonder for Keating. “It requires skillful men to manage the canoes,” he commented. “Much art is particularly displayed by the bowsmen and sternsmen to steer them; the middlemen have only to paddle fast or slow (the fast pace was 40 to 50 paddle strokes a minute), forward or backward, as they are ordered.”
In French-Canadian, the bowsmen were called “avant,” the steersmen were “gouvernail,” while the middlemen were “milieu.”
At the Red River Settlement, the U.S. expedition had hired an Ojibway (Keating used the U.S. name Chippewa) interpreter, a pilot (guide, whose name was Baptiste Desmarais) and nine canoe men, of whom five were French-Canadians (voyageurs) and four Métis (Keating referred to them as Bois Brulés). A total of 23 men made up the expedition, who were divided into three birch bark canoes known as canot du nord.
It was the American soldiers in the expedition who became the “middlemen” paddlers in the canoes.
According to Keating, “Our soldiers, who at first were unacquainted with this kind of navigation, soon became expert paddlers, and answered well in that capacity; but it requires the long experience of the voyageurs to render them as cautious and handy in the management of these canoes as their frailty requires. In this respect we found the Bois Brulés far superior to the Canadians.”
The historian of the 1823 expedition particularly praised Desmarais, the Métis guide hired at the Red River Settlement, who “conducted our brigade with dexterity and success.”
Keating explained that a guide was responsible for directing the journey, and deciding where and when to camp each evening.
During the heyday of the Nor’Westers, voyageurs typically rose between two o’clock and four o’clock in the morning, paddled until they stopped to eat breakfast around 7 a.m., and then paddled until eight o’clock in the evening with only a brief break for lunch.
“The inland navigation from Montréal, by which the North-West business is carried on, is perhaps the most extensive of any in the known world,” wrote Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, fur-traders from Montréal, in 1784, “but is only practical for canoes, on account of the great number of carrying places (portages) ...”
They said that 500 men made the journey from the east to the interior: “... one half of which are occupied in the transport of goods from Montréal to the Grand Prairie (similar to the HBC at Pembina, when it was determined that Grand Portage, along the shore of Lake Superior, was on American soil by Canadian explorer and mapmaker David Thompson, the Nor’Westers in 1805 abandoned and destroyed their post — they didn’t what it to be used by the Americans — and moved operations to Fort William), in canoes of about four tons burthen, navigated by 8 to 10 men, and the other half are employed to take such goods forward to every post in the interior country to the extent of 1,000 to 2,000 miles (1,600 to 3,200 kilometres) and upwards, from Lake Superior, in canoes of about one and one-half burthen, made expressly for the inland service (canot du nord), and navigated by 4 to 5 men only, according to the places of their destination.”
“No men are ... more capable of enduring hardship, or more good humoured under privations,” wrote American author Washington Irving, who is famous for writing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. “Never are they so happy as when on long and rough expeditions, toiling up rivers or coasting lakes ...
“They are dexterous boatmen, vigorous and adroit with the oar and paddle, and will row from morning into night without a murmur.”
Washington, like other writers of his day, tended to romanticize voyageurs, which included commenting on them breaking into song while paddling.
Keating also noted that the 1823 expedition’s paddlers sang when traversing rapids. He said the songs were “more remarkable for the wildness and originality of their notes than for the skill and method with which they were sung.”
Actually, the singing had other purposes than entertaining Keating, as the voyageurs broke into song to relieve boredom and fatigue, as well as distract themselves from the hardships they encountered.
Henry Martin Robinson, an American who came to the Red River Settlement in 1870 to be editor of the New Nation newspaper under the direction of Louis Riel — Riel eventually fired him for being an American annexationist — romanticized the voyageur in his book, The Great Fur Land.
“Those who have not seen it can have but a faint idea of the picturesque effects these passing canoe-brigades,” wrote Robinson. “Sweeping suddenly round some promontory in the wilderness, they burst unexpectedly upon the view, like some weird phantom or mirage. At the same moment the wild yet simple chansons of the voyageurs strike upon the ear ... Sung with the force of a hundred voices; which, rising and falling in soft cadences in the distance, as if borne lightly upon the breeze, then more steadily as they approach swells out in the rich tones of many mellow voices, and bursts at last into a long, enthusiastic chorus.”
Keating said the voyageurs commuted distances by pipes, “which are intervals between the times when they cease to paddle in order to smoke their pipe.”
The American said he could not figure out the length of a pipe, “having found it to vary according to the hurry of the voyageurs, the peculiar disposition of the guide, the nature of the weather, &c., &c.”
A 2001 McGill University website article about voyageurs explained: “A stop was made for a few minutes each hour to allow the men to have a pipe. This event was so important that distances came to be measured in pipes: three pipes might equal 15 to 20 miles of travel. A 32- kilometre lake would be measured as four pipes or four hours of travel, depending on wind and waves.”
Keating observed that when a portage exceeded a half mile, it was generally divided into pauses, or distances travelled without stopping, which varied in length according to the difficulty of the portage. Keating estimated that a pause averaged about a third of a mile.
In her book, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers And Traders in the North American Fur Trade (2006), Carolyn Podruchny wrote that pause came for the French-Canadian term for “laying down” their packs. On a portage a pause was not only a resting place, but also used as a temporary depot. All packs were brought to the first depot before proceeding to the second to increase security during a portage.
“The same places were generally used as pauses by all who passed,” according to Podruchny, “and it came to be common to measure the length of a portage by the number of pauses along the trail.”
She described a pause as being between 600 and 800 metres.
Keating said an obstruction of 100 metres took 20 minutes to portage and was done with great haste. Once the end of the portage was reached, according to the American, their baggage was tossed “unceremoniously” into the canoes, similar to how packs of furs were handled.
“The whole care and attention of a voyageur seems to centre in his canoe, which he handles with an astonishing degree of dexterity and caution.”
The men gave careful attention to their canoes as the vessels were their livelihood and only means of transportation through inhospitable lands. On-the-spot repairs of the birch bark canoes were frequent — spruce resin was used to patch areas that leaked and the process was called gumming — and the cause of many delays during a journey. A badly-tended canoe could severely leak or break-up when in the water, endangering the lives of the crew.
Explorer and fur trader Simon Fraser mentioned an occasion when a canoe was damaged during a difficult portage, causing an unwanted delay. Fraser also wrote of numerous delays caused by canoes hitting stumps or other obstructions in the water and having become so extensively repaired that they became extremely heavy and had to be taken out of the water by four men.
Keating viewed the Winnipeg River and the surrounding wilderness as a pleasant change from the bleakness of the waterways they had earlier traversed.
“The character which we admire in the scenery of the Winnepeek (Winnipeg River),” wrote Keating, “are the immense volume of waters, the extreme rapidity of the current, the great variety of form which the cascades and falls present, and the incomparable wildness of the rocky scenery which produces these falls, and which contrasts by its gloom, its immoveable and unchangeable features, with the dazzling effect of the silvery sheet of water, passing from a smooth and unruffled expanse, to a broken and foaming cataract.”
He said the cataracts and falls of the Winnipeg River surpassed all others that the expedition had observed since leaving Philadelphia in the spring. He claimed that for spectacle, the river’s cascades exceeded Niagara Falls. Despite possessing a far greater volume of water and height than the falls of the Winnipeg River, Keating said Niagara Falls “is uniform and monotonous in comparison.”
The expedition was particularly impressed by a cascade they observed on the evening of their first camp after entering the river, which Keating said “may be called the lower falls of the Winnepeek River.”
Keating said the natives called the cascade “the fall of the moving water.” He wrote that the noise of the falls exceeded that of all others they had encountered and was even more thunderous than Niagara Falls.
The water passed over numerous rocks, dropping about 10 metres and then was “suddenly received into a basin enclosed by high rocks, where it was forced to sojourn for a while, by the size of the aperture through which it issues; here the waters present the characters of a troubled ocean, whose waves rise high and beat against the adjoining shores, and against the few rock islands which are seen in the midst of the basin.
“The artist could not behold, without rapture, a scene so worthy of being painted ...” The expedition’s landscape artist, Samuel Seymour, “employed all that remained of daylight in sketching its principal beauties.”
At the portage on the Winnipeg River to avoid a waterfall, Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820) made a stop at a place called Lac du Bonnet. He wrote in his journal: “This portage is near half a league in length, and derives its name from the custom the Indians have of crowning stones, laid in a circle on the highest rock of the portage, with wreaths of herbage and branches.”
On August 21, the American expedition reached Lac du Bonnet — the lake, not Mackenzie’s location or today’s community — where they camped at its “upper end.” The lake was considered a welcome break from the many rapids they had paddled through or portaged around due to its “smooth surface, free from any current.”
After paddling across the lake, they again encountered rapids, where the current was so swift and the obstructions so great that the voyageurs resorted to using poles instead of paddles to move upstream, while the soldiers walked alongside on the riverbank.
The party observed the water was filled with plenty of fish. Eagles and hawks soared overhead watching for the “easy prey, which they derive from the numbers of fish, that are wounded or killed by being hurled against the rocks by the irresistible force of the current.”
They also saw Ojibway lodges “of bark, and bleached by long exposure to the air,” which housed fishermen joining the birds of prey in claiming the fish bounty of the region. In addition to fish, Keating wrote that wild rice was a staple of the local diet, as beaver had become scarce, as had deer, and buffalo did not roam beyond the prairie.
Another observation by Keating was swarms of what are now known in Manitoba as fishflies, but in other regions as mayflies. Keating didn’t call them by either common name, but referred to them as a “new species of Ephemera, Baëtes alba.”
Fishflies are actually species of the order Ephemeroptera, from the Greek ephemeros (“short-lived) and pteron (“wing”). An adult fishfly’s sole purpose in life is to mate — they have no mouthparts to feed. Once they have mated, the males die and the females share their fate after depositing fertilized eggs on the water surface. Fishflies usually die after only being in their mature stage for a day or two, six at most, depending upon the species.
As still occurs annually along the shores of Lake Winnipeg and its tributaries, Keating in 1823 witnessed masses of dead fishflies littering the shoreline of the Winnipeg River. Today, the swarms can be so extensive that some communities, such as Gimli, are strewn with millions upon millions of dead fishflies that become a rotting — and rather unpleasant smelling — mess.
Former Gimli Mayor Ted Arnason once said that he welcomed the vast piles of dead and smelly fishflies, as when they cluster in such numbers, it indicates Lake Winnipeg is in extremely good health and plenty of fish swimming in its waters are being fed.
The dangers of the Winnipeg River for paddlers was demonstrated when a storm broke out, raising great waves. “Our paddlers strained every nerve,” commented Keating, “and it was evident that all were convinced that nothing short of the utmost exertion on their part could urge the light canoe onwards against the force of the stream.” They barely made a small landfall, where they unloaded their canoes and carried their goods and vessels over a portage to avoid the crushing water.
Next came a succession of lakes — the river widened — separated by rapids. “A difference of level of several feet separated these lakes ... in one case where the portage did not exceed fifteen yards in length there was a fall of six feet.”
The next great falls they faced was called the “Slave Falls,” from an Ojibway legend, which are downstream a few kilometres from present-day Pointe du Bois.
According to the legend related to Keating, an Ojibway slave escaped from his master (the account by Hind about his 1857 expedition, said the slave was a woman) and was paddling with all haste down the river by canoe while being pursued. Approaching the falls, the man’s canoe was too close and it became caught and carried down by the torrent and the man and canoe were never seen again (Hind said the woman intentionally paddled her canoe over the falls).
The dangers of the river were shown by the many wooden crosses on the banks as “the brief momentos erected by survivors, to the memory of the shipwrecked voyageurs; they form, as it were, beacons which point out the dangers of the stream.”
By tradition, when voyageurs came to the crosses where the river claimed a life, they took off their caps, made the sign of the cross and then said a prayer.
(Next week: part 4)