Ottawa River

birchbark canoe

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

The rapids-filled Ottawa River led the North West Company voyageurs, and the later HBC Lachine Brigades, northward from the Lake of the Two Mountains to the mouth of the Mattawa River. So, let’s see how this journey went.

I ended my last post with a quote from my first book, The Pathfinder, when young Alexander Caulfield Anderson travelled in the outgoing Lachine Brigades across the Lac des Deux-Montagnes, or Lake of the Two Mountains. As you know, not all new HBC employees entered Rupertsland with the incoming Saskatchewan Brigades from York Factory: some came in from Lachine, travelling up the Ottawa River to the French River and Thunder Bay. Eventually, they would meet those same Brigades at Norway House.

But, at this moment, we are still on the St. Lawrence River, at the southern entrance of the Lac des Deux-Montagnes and only a day or so travel from Lachine. The Roman Catholic church of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue was the last settlement visited by the canoe brigades before travelling up the Ottawa River. It stood at the western tip of the Island of Montreal, on a location frequented by both the Algonquin and Iroquois peoples. It was also situated between two important lakes: Lac des Deux-Montagnes, and Lac Saint Louis. I mostly covered the church at Sainte-Anne in my last blogpost,

Somewhere on Lac des Deux-Montagnes stood three old posts. I suspect that these first posts were on Montreal Island, where the mission of St.-Anne-de-Bellevue stood. The first of these posts is likely from the days when the French fur traders left the continent in 1763. From Ernest Voorhis’s “Historic Forts and Trading Posts”:

271 – Lac des Deux Montagnes. An old French fort at Lake of the Two Mountains is named in Bouganville’s list 1757. The Sulpicans obtained the seigniory of Montreal Island in 1663 and established a mission at the fort, 12 leagues from Montreal. About 200 Indians, Nipissings, Algonquins, and Iroquois, traded at the post. The commerce was for the benefit of the priests and there was no French commander nor garrison at the fort in 1757. The site is now Oka, on the north side of the lake. The fort was probably built about 1660.

The Hudson’s Bay Company established a post on the Lake of Two Mountains in the spring of 1819, and the North West Co. also operated a post until the date of coalition, 1821.

The book, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, by Barbara Huck et al, tells us that “Upstream, the Lake of Two Mountains loomed, with luck and good weather, they would camp at its upper end. If surviving this first day was celebrated — as it often was — with “a wee dram,” the next morning was more of a trial than it might have been. Ahead lay the Carillon Rapids, the beginning of the Long Sault, 1.5 kilometres of rapids in three sets that marked the place where the river tumbled off the Precambrian Shield into the St. Lawrence Lowlands.” 

Just before they got to the Long Sault Rapids, the voyageurs passed the old locations of two historic forts. From Voorhis’s “Historic Forts and Trading Posts:”

87 – Fort Carillon — French fort on north bank of Ottawa or Grand River at the foot of Long Sault Rapids, opposite Fort De Long Sault on south bank, about 6 Leagues (15 miles) from Lake of Two Mountains. It was established for trade with passing Indians, Nipissings, Algonquins, and Iroquois. Was in command of M. d’Aillebout de Guisy and is included in Bougainville List 1756.

317 – Fort Longue Sault. French fort on the Ottawa River, six miles from Lake of Two Mountains… Bougainville says of this fort: “It is situated on the south bank of Grand or Ottawa River, as Carillon is on the north bank, at foot of rapids, about six leagues from Lake of Two Mountains. These two little posts have been established for trading with passing Indians, Nipissings, Algonquins, and Iroquois.” The Marquis de Vaudreuil was commandant of Longue Sault in 1757. Situated at present Point Fortune.

So, on to the Ottawa River and the Long Sault. Eric W. Morse’s book, Canoe Routes of the Voyageurs: the Geography and Logistics of the Canadian Fur Trade [Minnesota, Feb. 1962] tells us that “The principal obstacles along the Voyageurs’ Highway, then as now, can be classified as rapids or waterfalls, watersheds, and very big lakes.” He continues:

One does not argue with waterfalls: there is only one way past them, upstream or down — the portage path.

Rapids, however, vary — in drop, in volume, and from season to season — so there was no single technique to employ. Attacking a rapid downstream, the voyageurs would (in ascending order of necessity) paddle the canoe “demi-chargé,” line or pole the canoe, make a “dechargé, or portage. Coming downstream they would, depending on its degree of danger or difficulty, run the rapid, make a “dechargé,” or portage. 

Interestingly, I have discovered a fun description of the HBC men who “jumped” down falls, and it is written by a visitor to the fur trade, John Birkbeck Nevins. Of course, these men were travelling in York Boats, which likely makes a difference! Nevertheless, here is what Dr. Nevins had to say in his Narrative of Two Voyages to Hudson’s Bay:

As soon as the boat has safely descended, and is out of danger, all the crew lay down their oars, and give three cheers. This they do as each boat passes the fall unhurt, which is an expression of pleasure and congratulation, not considered necessary in simply coming down a rapid.

To continue with the story of the Ottawa River: In his recent book, Listening to the Fur Trade, Daniel Laxer says, “The landscape shaped the journey, and the rituals, stories, and songs of the voyageurs were laden with the lore and wisdom of those who had come before.” Barbara Huck et al’s Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, explains that the “Ottawa River — with its dozen dams and reservoirs — is a docile, domesticated descendant of the wild waterway the fur traders knew. Then, particularly between the Mattawa and Montreal, the river was a punishing and often deadly series of cataracts. But for fur traders en route to the Great Lakes, it was also nearly 500 kilometres shorter than the alternative route down the St. Lawrence and through Lakes Ontario and Erie.”

Daniel Laxer tells us that there was a curious cave on the side of a hill on the north side of the Ottawa River, about which the voyageurs told fabulous stories. Interesting: I have not heard of this and would like to know more!

According to David Lavender, who wrote Winner Take All: The Trans-Canada Canoe Trail [McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1977], the Long Sault was “a set of three closely spaced rapids that whitened the river for twelve miles. Where the nature of the shore allowed, the travelers moved forward on foot, dragging the canoes, laden with equipment, gifts and sample of trade goods, behind them with cords of braided rawhide. ” Braided rawhide — that’s interesting! “Where footing on land was impossible, they took hold of opposite gunwales of the canoes and waded ahead. In swift water, it was a stumbling agony.”

Barbara Huck’s Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America tells us that ahead of their first campsite lay the Carillon Rapids. “This was both a physical and a psychological ordeal, for everyone knew it was here in 1660 that Adam Dollard des Ormeaux and his small party of French, Algonquin, and Wendat were ambushed by Iroquois warriors as they were about to portage. Moreover, at the foot of every rapid small crosses would be seen, testament to the paddlers who did not survive.” And now we can speak of a tradition that happened everywhere, not only on the Ottawa River: Daniel Laxer tells us that at least one man in each canoe said a short prayer whenever they entered a new river or passed a crude gravesite erected along the river.

So, the voyageurs dragged their canoes up the Long Sault. Then came a stretch of calm water, according to Barbara Huck’s Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America. Somewhere on that calm water, these two forts once stood, according to Voorhis’s “Historic Forts and Trading Posts”: 

427 – Petite Nation Fort. Stockaded French fort on bank of Ottawa River, about 35 miles above the Longue Sault at Greenville, at or near the mouth of Petite Nation River. Alexander Henry Sr. in 1761 passed this fort and found it deserted. 

145 – Fort Du Lièvre. Hudson’s Bay Co. post at mouth Du Lièvre River, 15 miles below Hull, shown on Arrowsmith map 1857, and became the basis for town of Buckingham. There was an old French fort or trading post on this site which was deserted in 1761 when Alexander Henry Sr. passed up the Ottawa. Possibly this fort was operated by the North West Co and after the coalition 1821, by the Hudson’s Bay Co. 

Now we come to the Chaudière Falls. As Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America has already mentioned, there was a stretch of calm water, “but the difficulties had hardly begun. North 100 kilometres, where Hull and Ottawa sit today, was the first major challenge — the torrent of Chaudière Falls. The author continues:

For the fur traders, the most significant feature in the area was Chaudière Falls. Chaudière, a “boiler” or kettle, was a name favoured by the French to describe turbulent waterfalls, and a number of imposing cataracts along the fur trade routes bore the same name, but few deserved it as did the cataracts between Ottawa and Hull. 

Now greatly diminished by the headpond of the Carillon dam 100 kilometres downstream, the main channel of Chaudière Falls once resembled a cauldron; over time the pounding water had hollowed out a great basin in the limestone bed of the river…

Portaging was the only way around the torrent, but the season determined where the canoes were portaged. In the spring paddling anywhere near the foot of the falls was impossible. So the portage began downstream, where a long, narrow gorge in the limestone created a pool of quiet water on the north shore. Here the brigades heading inland could unload their canoes and, with great effort, drag them to the top of the cliff. There they followed a path that was so close to the edge that depending on the wind, the voyageurs were often drenched with spray.

There was no rest for the voyageurs in this section of the Ottawa River. Next came the Little Chaudière Falls. We are continuing with the story as told in Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America

Heading upstream in the spring [from Chaudière Falls], one portage was barely over when another, the trail around the Little Chaudière Falls, beckoned. Those tracing the route today will have no trouble finding this historic trail, for the city of Hull has created a park — Parc des Portageurs — complete with biking and hiking trails to commemorate it. One section of the original trail, which lies just below Brébeuf Park [apparently just north of Parc des Portageurs], is particularly interesting. Here, a set of low stone steps — built by the voyageurs according to canoe historian Eric Morse — can clearly be seen mounting a bank from a submerged stone shelf at the water’s edge.

From the head of this portage, the voyageurs paddled across a small bay to begin tracking and poling up the Deschenes Rapids, the final obstacle in this triathlon of fast waters.

Now we come up to the Deschenes Rapids, another fierce Ottawa River rapid. The book, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, tells us that the proper name for this rapid, and its accompanying lake, is “Lac des Chenes (or today, Deschenes) — “Lake of the Oaks,” named for the great trees that once graced its shores.”  

This book, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, confirms that upstream from Chaudière Falls, the Ottawa River was a giant staircase of wild rapids and torrential falls. The Chaudière Falls was followed by the the Little Chaudière Falls, after which the Deschenes Rapids forced voyageurs ashore. Upriver, a line of lovely falls was portaged at Chats Falls, and the Cheneaux, a stretch of fast water that split and flowed around and through the islands at the upper end of Lake Chats, was poled or lined near the Quebec shore. As you can see, we have a long way to go before we leave the Ottawa River behind us! Obviously, I am going to have to write about the remainder of this scenic part of the Ottawa River in another post, which, when published, will appear here:

If you want to begin at the beginning, the first post in this journey west is this one:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved.

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