More on the Ottawa River

birchbark canoe

Image of a birchbark canoe on a Canadian River, from Glenbow Archive, image na-843-14, used with their permission

In this post we continue our journey up the Grand, or Ottawa River, following in the footsteps of the voyageurs and gentlemen of the North West Company, and, after 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company. In our last blogpost we reached Fort William, on the Ottawa River. Now we are on the way to another important landmark — Point aux Baptemes, or Pointe au Bapteme.

We left off the last blogpost at Fort William, on the Ottawa River. North of Fort William, on the Ottawa River, is Fort Dumoine: I have also already written about this old post in the last blogpost, above.

The section of the Ottawa river, called the Deep River, comes next. But first, Pointe aux Bapteme. This is what Barbara Huck et al says of Pointe aux Bapteme, in Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America

Where the Ottawa River narrows as it meets the encroaching [Canadian] Shield, a long sandy point juts far out into the waterway. For brigades heading upstream, this was an obvious campsite that took on a special significance. Here, the veteran voyageurs “baptized” any novices in the crew, and these greenhorns were required to stand drinks — a regal — all round. For paddlers today, the point, which emerges from the pines on the Ontario shore and extends halfway across the river, is virtually unchanged and easily recognized. For landlubbers, however, it is out of bounds, for it sits on property that belongs to Atomic Energy of Canada. 

Here is what I said about this place in my first book, The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s journeys in the West:

To the north [of Fort Coulonge] were more rapids, and the granite cliffs of the Canadian Shield closed in and towered over both men and boats. [Hmmm! I may have lost track of the order of these river landmarks in The Pathfinder.] When at last the cliffs opened up again, the voyageurs set up camp on a sandy point of land on the west shore. Across the river from their camp loomed a black-stained cliff, a special place for the First Nations, who tied tobacco to the arrows they shot at the cliff face as an offering.

This was a special place for the voyageurs, too. New voyageurs were baptized in the river off the sandy point, and gentlemen who crossed this height of land for the first time also took part in the ceremony. Almost certainly, Alexander Anderson received a splash of water in his face from a branch dipped in the river, along with a playful request that he never kill a voyageur’s wife without her permission. When the mock baptism was finished, the voyageurs celebrated by firing their guns in the air. The fur trade was a mixture of cultures, and while the mock baptism mimicked the religious practices of the Roman Catholic voyageurs, the firing of guns in the air was a Native tradition.   

And from Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, we have a description of the Deep River section of the upper Ottawa River:

Upstream of Pointe au Bapteme, the voyageurs encountered the Precambrian or Canadian Shield, an enormous swath of ancient rock and trees and water that extends from Labrador, in the east, to Yukon in the west. For many, this landscape is synonymous with Canada: for the fur traders, this was the pays d’en haut.

Traversing this primeval landscape, the Ottawa River was forced into existing cleavages in the rock. Near the town of Deep River, it flows along a giant fault in the bedrock, a cleft very likely caused in the same cataclysmic period that formed the Laurentian Uplands on the eastern shore. Even today, there are minor tremors along this fault line.

During the fur trade era, the stretch between Deep River and Mattawa was strewn with obstacles, the worst of them at Des Joachims (pronounced in the valley as “Da Swisha”), where a double portage was needed to circumvent the rapids at the bend of the river.

Today, these are gone beneath the hydro dam. The dam’s head-pond — Lake Holden — has also drowned the rapids upstream [north of Fort Joachim]: Roche Capitane, Deux Rivières, the Trou [hole], and l’Eveiller…

So there are a few rapids north of our next stopping place, Fort Joachim, as you can see. According to Voorhis’s Historic Forts and Trading Posts, this is Fort Joachim’s story: 

247. Fort Joachim. A small Hudson’s Bay Co. outpost on the Ottawa River at Les Joachim’s Rapids, about 20 miles below Mattawa on the north bank. This was probably a relief station on the canoe route between  between Montreal and Fort William, providing rest on the journey after the 36 miles paddle up the “Deep River,” as that portion of the Ottawa was called, from Alumettes. It was originally an old French trading post to which the North West Company succeeded, and after 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Co.

The next stop on the Ottawa River is Mattawa House, and this is what Voorhis has to say of that place in his Historic Forts and Trading Posts

344. Mattawa House. North West Co. post at junction of Mattawa and Ottawa Rivers. It was first built by the North West Co. about 1784, probably on the site of an old French fort. It was an important station on the canoe route from Montreal to Fort William [Thunder Bay], the route here leaving the Ottawa River. Another route proceeded north by Lake Timiscamingue to Fort Abitibi and James Bay. The North West Co. followed the Mattawa route to the west (the old French route) until about 1800 when the lake route via Yonge Street was adopted, although the Mattawa route was in constant use for a century. Mattawa House was maintained by the North West Co. as an outpost of Fort Timiscamingue and after the union of 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Co. continued to operate the post. After the opening of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Mattawa became the headquarters of posts in that region for a decade. Gradually declining in importance, it was finally closed about 1915.

It is at this point that the Brigades left the Ottawa River and took to the Mattawa: a steep, water-fall filled river that led them up to the height of land at modern-day Lake Nipissing. In his book, Winners Take All: The Trans-Canada Canoe Trail, David Lavender tells us that (and we are going to backtrack a little here) 

they passed Lake Allumettes, near whose upper end pine-topped cliffs rose five hundred feet above water that to the travellers was unfathomably deep. 

This will be the Deep River. Lavender continues:

They portaged around the wild Des Joachims rapids and, where the Ottawa begins to bend northward, entered the east-flowing Mattawa. During the next forty rugged, rocky miles they made eleven portages before reaching Trout Lake. From there they lugged their gear and canoes over the granite ridges that separate Ottawa drainage from that flowing into Lake Huron. A short paddle brought them to Lake Nipissing, nearly forty miles long but shallow…

Barbara Huck’s book, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, has this to say about the Mattawa and the various portages across the height of land:

Connecting Lake Nipissing to the Ottawa Valley, the eastward flowing Mattawa River follows an ancient fault line in the Precambrian bedrock. Though strewn with rapids and falls, for more than 6,000 years it was the main highway from the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence. Appropriately, Mattawa means “meeting the waters.”

The cataclysmic fracturing of the Earth’s crust that produced the valley, with its soaring walls and visible thrust lines, occurred about 600 million years ago. Even now there are tremors along the fault line, which may explain the ancient stories of spirits in the cliffs…

The modern Mattawa is tame by comparison, a 6.5-kilometer swath of spectacular scenery that echoes ancient native traditions and the stories of the fur trade. For early North Americans, this was more than a highway; it was also the path to a very important mine. Below Paresseux (or “Lazy”) Falls — named for a pair of voyageurs who, while awaiting the arrival of a new canoe, took an unauthorized vacation at the foot of the picturesque five-pronged falls, they had discovered a place of power. Three metres above the river, a cave in the canyon wall yields blood-red ochre. This mineral oxide of iron was used right across the continent for dozens of ritual purposes; ochre adorned soaring cliff walls in rock paintings and tiny artifacts in burial places. The Mattawa River mine, with its wet, red walls and womblike contours, was a particularly important ochre quarry…

The Canadian Heritage portion of the river includes Paresseux Falla and Talon Chutes, two of the most attractive sites on the river. It also includes Talon Portage, only 273 paces long by the fur traders’ estimate, but according to Alexander Mackenzie (who had seen most of them), for its length, the most difficult, most dangerous portage on the continent. 

Most of the rest of the sections of white water are considered tame by experienced paddlers, although the rapids at La Cave and La Prairie (Petit Paresseux) are rated difficult in high water, and high winds can render some of the larger lakes dangerous. 

For voyageurs heading west to the rendezvous on Lake Superior, one of the highlights of the trip was Anse de Perches, just above Talon Chutes. This was the last section of white water that required the use of setting poles (or perches) for poling up the rapids. At its upper end, the heavy poles could be thrown away; from here to Lake Superior’s western shore, all obstacles could either be run in the canoes or circumvented by portaging.

The Mattawa River begins in Trout Lake. For west bound Montreal brigades, this marked the end of the upstream portion of their journey. Once over a small height of land — La Vase Portage — they reached Lake Nipissing and, eventually, the French River, which flowed west to Georgian Bay and Lake Huron.

And here is what the authors of Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America has to say of La Vase Portage:

From Trout Lake, at the head of the Mattawa River, a small divide separates the watershed of the upper Ottawa River from Lake Nipissing and the Upper Great Lakes. This series of granite ridges and intervening bogs was one of the canoe brigades’ least favourite stretches. La Vase has been translated as “Mud Portage,” but some have suggested that “Slime” or “Sludge” might be closer to the truth. The traverse to Lake Nipissing is a total of 11 kilometres, of which eight could be paddled, thanks to the dam-building efforts of industrious beavers. When the beavers were removed from the area by the very people who depended on their efforts, the voyageurs were forced to assume maintenance of the water control structures…

[The La Vase portage] began with a 1.5 kilometre portage over a height of land south of Dugas Bay at Trout Lake’s southwestern corner. The trail led to a beaver pond at the end of a small creek running from the La Vase River. From there — except for two short carrying places — the route was by water through a succession of creeks and ponds, though the North West Company’s huge canots du maitre were sometimes brushed by branches as they squeezed through. Lake Nipissing, like Lake Winnipeg far to the west, is shallow and dangerously choppy in a high wind. The brigades traversed it on the south shore, where a chain of small islands offered some protection. 

And so, at the top of the hill, and west of the divide, we come to Lake Nipissing and Nipissing House, as described by Ernest Voorhis in his Historic Forts and Trading Posts:

394. Nipissing House. Hudson’s Bay Co post on East Bay, at the east end of Lake Nipissing, Ontario, at the end of the portage from Trout Lake via Vase River on the route from Mattawa to Georgian Bay. A short portage extended from the southwest bay of Trout Lake to La Vase River and hence to East Bay. This was the historic route of the fur traders from the Ottawa River to Lake Superior. There had been a small post here under the French regime and an Indian village. On Danville’s map of 1755, Lake Nipissing is called “Nipisirinis, or Lac des Sorciers.” A North West Company post was located at mouth of Vase River, called Fort La Ronde. Before 1850 the Hudson’s Bay Company post was moved to one of the islands in Lake Nipissing. After the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the post was moved to North Bay, about 5 miles to the north.

And here, from Voorhis’s Historic Forts, is Fort La Ronde, mentioned above:

297. Fort La Ronde. North West Co. fort at mouth of La Vase River, Lake Nipissing, south-east bay, at the terminus of the portage. Originally at the mouth of the Vase River and afterwards moved to an island in the lake. The Hudson’s Bay Co. post was called Nipissing House.

Now, there were a couple of other posts in this immediate neighbourhood: one named Temagami Post, and the other Sturgeon River House. Were they on the historic old fur trade route to the French River? I don’t think so: one of them, at least, stood on nearby Temagami Lake. Nevertheless, here is the information on these two posts, from Voorhis’s  Historic Forts and Trading Posts:

557. Temagami Post. Called also Temagamingue “Deep Waters.” The Hudson’s Bay Co. established a small post in 1820 on shore of a small cove at south end of Temagami Island, near the centre of the lake, ruins of which post are still visible [in 1930]. In 1875 the post was moved to Bear Island, its present location, on account of opposition fur trading by Alexander Dukes….


551. Sturgeon River House. North West Co. post near the mouth of Sturgeon River (Lake Nipissing) about four miles below the village of Sturgeon Falls, Ontario. It was operated by the Hudson’s Bay Co afer the coalition of 1821 and finally abandoned about 1890. This post carried on an active trade with the Indians of Lake Temiscamingue District until the C.P. Railway was opened.

Finally, the authors of Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America have this to say of the section of the route from Nipissing Lake to the French River:

From the south west arm of the lake [Nipissing Lake] at Dokis, the canoes were portaged over the Chaudière des Francois and into the French River.

In his book, Canoe Routes of the Voyageurs: the Geography and Logistics of the Canadian Fur Trade, Eric Morse quickly describes the section of the route over the Nipissing highlands and on to the French River:  

Another eighteen historic portages lie along the Mattawa and French Rivers and over the intervening divide. Only three of these, the Plein Champ just above Mattawa, and two of the three La Vase portages have gone. All the rest, including the celebrated Paresseux, Talon, (“which for its length” wrote [Alexander] Mackenzie, “is the worst on the communication”), main La Vase, Chaudière des Francois, Parisien, and Recollet are probably just as they were when [Etienne] Brulé first saw them in 1610; most of these historic names, in fact, are still to be found on modern topographical maps.

Who was Etienne Brulé, you may ask? Born in 1592, in France, he was a “French-born Canadian explorer who emigrated in 1608 and was the first recorded European in what is now the province of Ontario,” according to and Amy Tikkanen, who I believe has written about him. “Brulé is believed to have lived for a year among the Algonquin Indians in order to learn their language. Subsequently, he pioneered the role of interpreter between the French and various tribes, including the Hurons. With the explorer Samuel de Champlain he explored Lake Ontario (1615), and probably reached Lake Superior (1622). The details of his death remain uncertain, but according to several accounts, he was killed and eaten by the Hurons, his adoptive tribe, whose lore thereafter attributed a prolonged “curse” to his murder.” 

So we are on the French River, and I will begin the next blogpost with whatever descriptions I have of that beautiful historic river. When I finally write this post, it will appear here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved.

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8 thoughts on “More on the Ottawa River

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Thank you. Wine is not the solution to this, however. According to the instructions wine in small amounts is okay with the chemo — but my body can handle no wine at all because of the sugars it contains. So, wineless it is!

  1. Dave Martin

    You navigate difficult waters with stoic grace Nancy. Wishing you a swift and complete recovery.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Thank you, Dave. I have a wonderful female doctor who feels this is the solution — and I agree. It will be nice to have it finished with for a while at least, but of course I will be immune compromised, although more able to travel than I am right now. So if you or your historical group have events that I might fit into, start arranging something for the summer. I am actually planning a visit to the Okanagan Valley (Summerland), the Okanogan River (which I want to see), and the Kettle Falls area, as you suggested to me previously.