Two Canoes to Ile-a-la-Crosse

Canoe on a lake in the Okanagan

This is the Okanagan’s Lac Vaseux (Muddy Lake) with canoe.

This is the sixth article in this series: two canoe journeys on the Upper Churchill River, on their way to Ile-a-la-Crosse and beyond. Both groups of canoes are on their way to the Columbia District west of the Rocky Mountains, but as they approach the mountains they will take different paths. But this is not yet. They are both describing the same rapids and lakes, though in different words, and both parties arrive at the Ile-a-la-Crosse post.

The Upper Churchill is a beautiful river, but it has many rapids and portages along its route. We will begin with John Work’s journal of 1823. His traveling companion on this journey was Peter Skene Ogden, and both men were headed to Spokane House, a few days travel from the Columbia River. John Lee Lewes had set off from York Factory with this party, though Work indicated Lewes was traveling only as far as Cumberland House. Though he had been one of two men in charge of the HBC’s Columbia District (working out of Spokane House), John Lee Lewes was transferring to the east side of the Rocky Mountains. He would return to the west, but not until the mid-1840’s.

John Work, Journal July 19 to October 25, 1823, A/B/40/W89.1A, BCA:

   August 1823, Sunday 10. Light clouds. Mild weather. Wind Southerly. We embarked early and got well on, we encamped when it was getting dark at the grand rapid Portage which is the first Portage after the Frog Portage. The distance which we came today is not less than 66 miles according to [Donald Jr.] Mackenzie. We sailed a small piece in the evening but as much would have been made out with the paddles. The shores during this days work had the same appearance as those we passed yesterday.

Another of the bags of Pemican which the men got at Cumberland [House] on being examined was found moldy and unfit for use, so that the greater part of it had to be cast away. So much of the Pemican being damaged will make the people very short of provisions as there is little prospect of any supply being got before we reach Isle a la cross.

Monday 11. Light clouds. Fine weather. Wind Southerly. Got the canoes and baggage across the Portage early and embarked before sunrising and did not encamp till it was nearly dark. We made about 55 miles. It was a little below the [blank in mss] where we stopped for the night. We had a sail wind a short time in the evening. We saw two bands of Chipewyan Indians, but they had no provisions to give us Mr. [Peter Skene] Ogden says that there is never any thing got from these Indians in this river. The cause is that formerly the Canadians going past would take what provisions they had from them and give them scarcely any thing for it hence they take care to keep any thing they may have concealed in the woods.

Tuesday 12. Thunder and very weighty rain forenoon. Light clouds fine weather afternoon. Wind Southerly. Embarked shortly after day light, and encamped at sunsetting about halfway across the Bear Island Lake [Black Bear Lake]. We had a good many rapids and portages. We came [blank] Miles which is a good days work.

August 1823. Wedy. 13. Foggy in the morning. Light clouds fine weather afterwards. Wind South West. Embarked at daylight, and came to about two miles below the Serpent Rapid at the upper end of Lac de Serpent [Serpent Lake]. At noon we came up with Mr. McDougald [Chief Trader James McDougall] and the New Caledonia brigade of canoes. Mr. McDougald kept Company with us in one of his canoes till night. Mr. Ogden being apprehensive that the men would be short of provisions before they reached Isle a la cross, he got half a bag of Pemican from Mr. McDougald.

Thursday 14. Light clouds. Fine weather. Wind Northerly in the afternoon, and pretty cold in the evening. We Embarked a little after daylight and encamped above the Rapid at the head of Knee Lake. We had no Portages today, but we were kept back a good deal by the Wind blowing strong a head some times. Mr. McDougald did not keep up with us.

Friday 15. Thick fog in the morning with disagreeable cold weather. Wind Southerly. Some rain in the afternoon. Embarked early but had soon to stop for a short time till the fog cleared up, the guide not being able to find his way through the Lake. At night we encamped at the lower end of Shagoina [or “Shaggunnu,” in Archibald McDonald’s journal] Lake. We had a sail wind a short time in the afternoon. We saw great numbers of Pelicans and ducks of different kinds. Some parts along the shores, were beautiful meadows extending to the woods edge, covered with a luxuriant crop of grass. The wood along the shore was general poplar and often of a small size.

Saturday 16. Light clouds. Fine weather. Blowing pretty fresh from the N.W. Embarked early this morning and soon entered the Isle a la cross Lake where we were again obliged to have recourse to the paddles and arrived at Isle a la cross Fort in the afternoon.

This has been quite a long journey and some of the place names are difficult to identify. The book, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America, might help us identify a few of these lakes. This is what the book says of the Upper Churchill River to Ile-a-la-Crosse. It is not a little river: the Churchill’s “Cree name — Missinippi, “or “Very Big Water” — aptly describes the entire 1,600-kilometer river.” It actually flowed all the way to Hudson Bay.

Draining nearly 300,000 square kilometers of northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, it crosses a forested landscape of glacially sculpted bedrock in a long series of quiet lakes connected by rapids or falls. In many places, outcroppings of rock rise from the water’s edge, providing a canvas for one of the largest collections of pictographs in Canada. Entering the river at Trade Lake, the fur brigades turned west and following the sometimes convoluted course, paddled and portaged upstream past the site of Stanley House, established in 1798 by the HBC (now Stanley Mission..), and the Rapid River, which drains beautiful Lac La Ronge, now a provincial park.

At Otter Rapids, the river tears over a bed of large rocks nearly a kilometer long…. During the fur trade crosses were a common sight here and upstream near Pin Portage.

Continuing through Black Bear, Pinehouse and Primeau Lakes (the last named for Louis Primeau, who ascended the Churchill River from Hudson Bay in 1766), the brigades left the shield country just before Lac Ile-a-la-Cross. The first post here was established by Thomas Frobisher in 1776 on a peninsula where the Cree sometimes played lacrosse….

Hence, I suppose, the name of the post. Archibald McDonald’s journal, Peace River, gives us a better sense of the number of portages and lakes that lay along this route. However, I think this post is long enough, and so that journal will follow next weekend, in the seventh article in the Two Canoes series. It is written, and the link is here:

To go back to the beginning of this story, click here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.