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Ottawa and Georgian Bay Canoe Route

Historical context | Trois Rivières | Up the Ottawa |
Georgian Bay | Fort Sainte Marie

Thumbnail map

Menard's canoe voyages


The Ottawa River is the old highway of New France. Indians fought for it before white men came. Jacques Cartier, the first bold navigator of the St. Lawrence River, wintering in his ships at Hochelaga (near the site of Québec) [author's correction: the printed version identifies Hochelaga as Montréal -- editor], in 1534, found an Iroquois people on Montréal Island. Champlain, however, found the St. Lawrence valley occupied by an Algonquin people, called Outawaks, and some Hurons. These people used the Ottawa River as a way of access to salt water fishing to and from their faraway villages in the Upper Great Lakes. In Champlain's day it seemed like the direct highway to the Great West. Since Champlain's day, millions of people have been clad in the fur and sheltered in houses from the lumber which has been transported on its waters. Nothing could any of these explorers foresee of what would be done to their plans for civilization by a small pass through the Allegheny ridges on the western border of the Mohawk Hunting Grounds where Little Falls, N.Y. now is.

Champlain found Huron and Algonquin guides ready to take him in their canoes, if he would fend off their old enemies, the Iroquois. On a second trip up the Ottawa River. in the year 1615, Champlain reached an Indian village by the Ottawa-Georgian Bay route near Orillia, Ontario. With him came Stephen Brulé, some other French laymen and some missionaries (Récollets, i.e., Franciscans). Peaceful relations were established with the Hurons and adjoining tribes and enmity with the Iroquois. In 1625 Fr. Jean de Brébeuf, the "Giant of God," a Jesuit, and other members of his order, began missionary work among the Hurons. After three years Fr. Brébeuf was called back to Québec and France, while the English Admiral Kirk held the city of Québec.

Admiral Kirk, however, had won his victory weeks after France and England had made peace. Nevertheless he remained until he was officially notified to leave years later. When Admiral Kirk sailed away and the French were restored to their possessions, missions began to flourish among the Hurons to such an extent that in 1639 Cardinal Richelieu provided funds for building among the Hurons, near Midland, Fort Ste. Marie, which was finished in 1642, and of which the ruins are visible today (1933). In the Huron villages outside the rustic churches, which the Indians had erected for the missionaries, large brass kettles hung in trees, and, when properly handled, proclaimed Sundays and feast days with a sound to imitate country church bells in the homeland in France.

The dissolute white trader had not yet come to break down respect for white men and there was no contrary Dutch influence such as prevailed later among the Iroquois.

These early Huron missionaries, feeling the magic power for transmuting common human clay into life everlasting, looked out beyond the Hurons to the Algonquin tribes who some times came to sojourn with them for the winter and began to consider ways and means of reaching them. Meanwhile Fr. René Menard was learning Algonquin in Trois-Rivières and soon his voyage up the Ottawa was to begin.

The map of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes shows the Ottawa River coming from the west and joining the St. Lawrence northwest of the city of Montréal. A straight line from the junction of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers, drawn westward, would follow fairly closely the Ottawa River to the Mattawa River and to Lake Talon and crossing the height of land would pass a little south of Lake Nipissing and would join the French River near its mouth. Going from the French River, this line would pass between Manitoulin Island and the north shore of Lake Huron to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, with a slight twist to the north; then with a little dip to the south in Lake Superior, the line would skirt the southern shore of that lake and run at a blunt angle across Keweenaw Peninsula toward Chequamegon Bay.

The first white man to make this voyage who returned to Québec from Lake Superior in 1634 and reported to Champlain was Jean Nicolet. Again look at the map and notice where the French River comes out of the south side of Lake Nipissing and drains into Georgian Bay at Lake Huron. At the mouth of the French River turn to the left or south, almost at right angles to the east and west line, and draw a line to the southeastern tip of Georgian Bay to Midland, Ontario, which line, if extended another 80 miles south, would run near the city of Toronto, and if carried across Lake Ontario would pass close to the mouth of the Niagara River.

[The following note is handwritten in the author's personal copy -- editor.]

For Jean Nicolet see the Jes. Rels XXIII p. 278-279. Father Vimont's [sp.?] account 1634. Nicolet arrived in Canada 1618, then spent two years with the Nipissings - Algonquins during which time (circa 1620) he accompanied 400 Algonquins who went to make peace with the Iroquois. Louise Pheleps Kellogg, Early Narratives of the Northwest, Reynolds Library.

Around the site of Midland was the old land of the Hurons and these lines, except those south of Midland, are along the principal canoe routes in the life of René Menard. It Is a pleasant easy-chair adventure to take these and the Cayuga canoe trips on a map. (See frontispiece.) A better idea also will be had of the devotion of René Menard, when it is appreciated that the immense distances indicated in this outline had to be covered by canoe in summer, by snowshoes in winter, and that the rate of canoe travel was seldom more than 30 miles a day. Storms, long portages and very rainy weather, brought the average much lower.

In the later months of 1640 Fr. René Menard had his residence at Trois-Rivières and, as usual in remote settlements, where the "news are few," the need of companionship made everybody in the village acquainted. Father Menard, who was kind, and quick to understand men, would hold a place of esteem throughout the village. A few passing travelers were given not grudging hospitality but were almost compelled to stay in order that the villagers might listen to new voices and learn of new events. What about the ships from France, what about the Iroquois, what was the price of furs, and would the colony have food for another winter, or what Indian tribes were at war, or had the moose and caribou hunt been successful? were topics of vital interest to this fur-trade village. But Fr. Menard would inquire about the Huron missions.

How soon would he be permitted to stop marking time and be on his way? Mankind communicates with words but God communicates with influence, and this Living Influence, relayed down through the ages, was a dynamic power which was urging Fr. Menard out beyond the comforts of routine life to the thrill of adventure and sacrifice. Then the happy day came, the day to which all his preparation had looked forward. He was to go up the Ottawa River to the Huron country and at this time there came into his mind that, if need be, he might meet death with faith and unafraid. He knew his spirit would not fail and he prayed that his body, not too strong, would not defeat him.

Enthusiasm must be reinforced with good sense. Since Fr. Menard lacked the usual travel directions of modern times, he doubtless turned to a letter of advice, which had been written by Fr. Brébeuf, telling how to travel agreeably with the Indians. This letter is found in the Relations of 1637. The directions are in keeping with good canoeing practice today, and tend to show that a great Saint had good sense. "The fathers," wrote Fr. Brébeuf, "whom God shall call to the holy mission of the Hurons ought to exercise careful foresight" -- "you must be careful never to make them wait for embarking,"

Where safety from getting lost depended on the flotilla of canoes keeping together, it would be foolhardy to lag behind. "You must provide yourself with a tinder box or with a burning mirror, or both, to furnish them (the Indian paddlers) with fire by day and to light their pipes in the evening when they have entered camp -- don't show disgust at the food they offer, which is corn ground between stones -- tuck up your gowns so that they will not get wet, and so you will not carry water and sand into the canoe,"

A 60-lb. canoe takes on 30 lbs. more weight when this advice is not heeded. Sand grinds and loosens the ribs of a birch-bark canoe. "Do not talk too much and do not annoy the Indians by trying to learn the language while they are paddling."

It is to be remembered that the older Indians must always be alert to notice and remember the way and that younger ones must learn it. And also that game must be observed along the banks of the rivers and lakes, if the traveling party was to have fresh meat on the trip. "Show love and cheerfulness despite annoyances, provide yourself with half a gross of awls, two or three dozen little knives called jambettes, a hundred fishhooks, with which to buy food from the Indians, whom you may meet on the way, so as to feast your savages.

"Be careful not to annoy anyone in your canoe with your hat. It would be better to take a nightcap." The good sense of this advice can be appreciated when it is known that the steersman in the canoe kneels at the stern. If in descending rapids he sees a hat instead of a rock the results can be imagined. "Carry something on the portages; put your professional pride away; do not begin to paddle and then stop." Intermittent paddling turns a canoe off its course and is an exasperation to the steersman.

Quotations are from the abridged edition Jesuit Relations. E. Kenton pp. 118-120, with permission A & C Boni, N.Y. The quotations are attributed to Brébeuf by Kenton. They are from Jes. Rel. XII p. 121, Lejeune's Relation, but Lejeune is quoting Brébeuf .

Some time in June, 1641, the multitude of little necessities for the Ottawa canoe trip were ready. Hidden in the innermost part of the packs would be some wine for the offering of Mass, not to be touched even in starvation. Winter clothing of fur, summer clothing of European cloth, a brass pocket host box, (see sample in the Municipal Museum, Rochester, N. Y.) all would be done up in bundles with the hard things inside the robes and blankets, so that a man could carry the bundles on his shoulders with comfort or at the top of his hips on his back, using a headstrap or tump line. It seems certain that the religious finger rings and crucifixes frequently found on the Cayuga and Seneca sites of 30 years later were not used in the early Huron missions.

Canoe in rapidsFr. Paul Ragueneau had come down from Huronia in August 1640, and was now ready with his Indians and his six four-man canoes and, as one writer, H. C. Campbell, indicates, one other member of the Jesuit order. Prayers are said in the chapel, packs are carried down and placed in the canoes by the Indians, who look with practiced eyes to see that the load made for ballast and speed. Friends gather to say good-bye and the canoes move off in a long line, up the St. Lawrence River, and who knows if ever they will return? In fact, they almost did not return, and the fate which overtook Fr. Jogues two years later almost overtook them. When approaching the mouth of the Ottawa, news reached them that the Mohawks were attacking the Hurons and Algonquins. The party delayed, turned back, brought reinforcements, and then proceeded, taking the precaution each night to camp in a concealed place.

Hard work began in surmounting the rapids on the rise in the riverbed at La Prairie, at the west end of Montréal Island. After getting the six canoes and all the heavy baggage around this rapids, a turn to the right brought them into the Lac des deux Montagnes and the mouth of the Ottawa River, which for 100 miles is almost clear paddling.

Note in author's personal copy: "Chief Jacobs of Caughnawaga at Lachine said we usually travel on the river back of Montréal island." [See also p. 46 -- editor].

Imagine Fr. Menard and Fr. Ragueneau and the other Jesuit smiling at each other as they wore their nightcaps in daytime, obeying thereby the directions of the great Brébeuf. Imagine Fr. Ragueneau, who had taken this journey several times, giving Fr. Menard friendly and sympathetic encouragement. Imagine Fr. Menard, who had been cooped up for a year in monastic residences, finding a new freedom and breathing forth "Gloria Deo!" with the part of his lungs which had not been opened up for use until this heavy exercise. A flock of young wild ducks, surprised when the canoes came around a bend, beat the water with their wings and took to the air and disappeared around the next bend, not being able to rise above the forest. When the canoes rounded the bend, the ducks flew on again, and at the next bend also and over and over again, so that the party had a living escort for miles. Seven blue herons' nests were in one tall pine tree. White-tailed deer, roused from their drinking in the river, leaped back into the bushes and trotted away waving their white tails like farewell handkerchiefs. Something which looked like the roots of an upturned tree began to lift up at the end of a long vista, and then appeared the branching horns and the whole body of a lordly moose which had been rooting up a meal of water lilies from the muddy shallows. Some animals looked on the flotilla of canoes, too unfamiliar with men to be afraid. Three or four overnight camps on the lower Ottawa River would bring the party to the hard work in surmounting falls and rapids in the glacier-worn, granite-rock country, a broad belt of which extends from the shores of Massachusetts across the mountains and across the St. Lawrence River at the Thousand Islands, reaching the north shores of Lake Superior and the far western lakes.

These granite rocks are the oldest in the world and men who live and labor in that country are gripped with a fascination which comes from daily contact with the unspoiled primitive things which, long before organic life appeared on this earth, evolved from the hands of God as the first thoughts of creation and as the foundation of the stage of the drama of humanity. Thousands of miles of this country were to be the land of Fr. Menard.

About 45 leagues, or 110 miles, from the site of Montréal, the Chaudière Falls and five miles of rapids above them, gave everybody in the party a chance to stretch his legs, to carry and to wade. Fortunate were the white men who were using tump lines or headstraps to carry their baggage, because their hands were free to drive off the mosquitoes. Fr. Brébeuf, who took this voyage several years before, said that four trips were required on each portage to get the baggage across.

These canoes were evidently bringing in supplies to last through the coming year and were heavily laden, so that in this five miles each man would cross the portage, going upstream four times, and going back, three times, which, if the whole stretch was made by carrying, would mean 45 miles of walking for each man. This would require two days. Quite possibly, the party camped somewhere west of the present site of the city of Ottawa, doubtless on some little bay known to these Indians and hidden secretly from marauding Iroquois. Just before carrying and wading seemed endless and hopeless, the last piece of the baggage and the last canoe were set down by the islanded Lake Deschênes. Back in the country on the right and to the north appeared the Laurentides Mountains. Thirty miles' paddle over the beautiful lake was a joyous relief which no traveler knows who has not walked, heavily laden with camp baggage. The Indians had certain fixed spots for camping, because on the way down they had hidden or cached corn in the forest for use on the way back home.

Several portages along the north shore, on the right hand side, brought the party past the Chats Falls and past the places where the river rushes for miles around dangerous rocky islands. Then came 20 miles of clear paddling. At the rapids at the head of Lac des Chats, the Indians indicated that the bones of many valiant canoemen lay in the fierce waters upstream (P. Newton). When they had brought a state of anxiety into the minds of the newcomers, in regard to the course upriver, they laughed and turned up a little river on the left, near groups of islands.

Two or three days of travel with short carries between little lakes brought them through Muskrat Lake and other little lakes back to the Allumette part of the Ottawa River. Near this part of the river, the Petewawa River enters the Ottawa. It offers an alternate route by way of Cedar Lake and across the northern lakes of the Algonquin Park and down the South River to Lake Nipissing. There are other routes, further south, from the Ottawa to Georgian Bay by way of the Muskoka River waters, but none of these is to be considered where more than two trips must be made on the portages.

Forty-five leagues from the St. Lawrence River and days and days of hard work! Yet René Menard and the party of companions had put only one-third of the journey behind them. Yet who would turn back? For René Menard, it was "a new way to live" (Chamberlin). Calloused knees and shoulders, and muscles getting harder with use, made the work easier. His skin browned in the sun, no longer burned. The mosquitoes which had at first bitten him furiously, had inoculated him against the poison of their stings, and as the season advanced toward fall, the mosquitoes began to disappear. Heart, lungs and muscles ached and tingled with new life. The breath of the great north woods made sleep come easily wherever he lay down. Even the "stench of tired out Indians" (Brébeuf, 1635) did not seem so bad, but a heavy rain which washed the Indians clean was a pleasant olfactory relief.

The next 95 miles is diversified by eight portages, some of them two miles long. At the end of this stretch the Ottawa River ceases to be the main line, coming from the west, and becomes the river from the north.

Leaving the Ottawa River, the next fifty miles was continued westward up the Mattawa River, with much poling and wading in swift water, and with nearly a dozen portages.

Pleasant campsites on sandy beaches of the shores of little lakes, with abundance of spring water gave the tired voyagers a chance to rest where at night they looked out from under their turned-up canoes on shore, over the lake where the moon made a golden pathway reaching out to the far-away West. Fr. Menard noticed that the Indians showed respect for objects along the way and that they had held in worshipful fear the great Oiseau rock.

Since Lake Nipissing which reaches far off beyond the skyline to the northwest, can change from the calm of a millpond to white-toothed fury in the time that it takes to make tea over a pinewood fire, it is judged that to avoid this danger the old canoe route approached the south shore of Lake Nipissing near the head of the French River, by passing through Lake Nosbonsing.

Lake Nipissing, long, broad and shallow, and at the crossroads of all the winds, has always changed so quickly from calm to storm that it seemed to the Indians that it was roused by evil spirits.

The Nipisiriens, or Nipissing Indians, who lived on its shores, were therefore accounted as sorcerers. In this lake there is an absence of all the nut bearing trees of the south. The stubby jack pine flourishes and huckleberries grow on many of its rocky islands. In its shallow bays are water fields of wild rice, the only grain of the northern Indians. Half a day's paddle cautiously skirting the southern shore, brought the flotilla of canoes, bearing Fr. Menard, to another Chaudière Falls at the head of the French River. The height of land had been passed, the heavy upstream work was left behind, and the Falls dropped down in the direction in which the canoes were going. Seventy miles more of rapids, falls, portage -- just far enough apart to give relief to the monotony of kneeling in canoes -- made an easy and a pleasant journey. Tall pine trees leaned and swayed over the river. The steersman, who guided Fr. Menard's canoe, picked his way down the jumping, splashing waters at a racing speed, avoiding submerged boulders, around which the water boiled, with amazing skill and with a grunt of self-approving satisfaction. A black bear cub drinking at the river's edge, made such a funny performance in his haste to escape that everyone who saw him laughed.

After several overnight camps on the river, and one last portage around a cascade, the canoes while going through a maze of white quartz and pink granite islands, began to rise and fall with the long, low swells of the great Lake Huron, "Mer Douce", or freshwater sea, as it is called in the old records. On this route from the St. Lawrence River in former years, Fr. Brébeuf had counted thirty portages and fifty wading places. Bearing to the left and to a little east of south, from the mouth of the French River, through a spiderweb of channels and interrupting islands the travel-worn flotilla of canoes from Trois-Rivières proceeded.

Note in author's personal copy: Freshwater sea: Champlain, works, VIII, Champlain Society, Toronto; Lejeune's relation, 1635, Jes. Rel. VIII 135.

Channels beyond number impressed the newcomers with respect for the Indians' memory of the way. Occasionally, broad channels between the islands gave views of the open lake reaching far away up to the sky. Then came more islands, thousands and tens of thousands of them. While resting on one of the islands, an Indian jumped up quickly and said "Massasauga!" Seizing a strong stick with which he cautiously struck heavy blows on the ground, thereby leading Fr. Menard to think that the Indian was performing another heathenish rite, the Indian brought to Fr. Menard a dead rattlesnake -- a kind of snake unknown in Europe and first brought to the attention of science by the descriptions of the Jesuits.

As the flotilla of canoes came around a headland, the high lookout hill of Fort Ste. Marie came into view on the left surmounted by giant pine trees. Out beyond the base of the bill and contrasted with the somber green of the hilltop, the blue water of the bay, breaking white against the shore, danced and sparkled with the joyous freshness of unlimited youth. The tired paddlers looked up and began to race toward the goal of their long, lonely journey. Spread out for a mile across the inner end of the bay, between high ridges on either side was low, level land, divided by the outlet of the little river Wye. From a few rods inland on this level ground smoke arose indicating the location of the Fort and the presence of human beings. One by one the canoes entered the river, brushing against outstretched alder bushes and passing reeds and water lilies with a scratchy hiss. The excitement of coming back to friendly fellow human beings after long separation surged through the hearts of these travel-worn voyagers. To run, or even to try to jump the last half mile, would have relieved pent-up emotions. The leading canoe stopped, the flotilla became jammed together in the narrow river. What now are they waiting for! But see! One at a time the canoes are going to the left, up a little ditch or moat, and through a water gate, into the half-built fort. Squaws, babies, dogs, the whole community has turned out to greet them. Some men in long black robes speak quietly to the Indian paddlers and seem unmoved until Fr. Ragueneau and Fr. Menard rise and step out of the canoes. Then they took them in brotherly embrace, like loved ones returned from the land of death and their eyes are moist.

One hundred miles of Georgian Bay from the French River to the approach of the Wye River at Midland, and 590 miles of canoe travel from the site of Montréal, brought Fr. Menard near to the villages of the Hurons. A brass kettle used for a bell rang out vespers, and memories stirred the mind of Fr. Menard. Here was the far-away place which had called him when, in student days, he had looked down on the river harbor at Rouen. Here was the place where letters, which had roused him to wish to come here, had been written. The date of arrival was August 14, 1641.

Canoe trips are from canoe route information published by the National Development Bureau, Ottawa, Canada.

The record of that time states that Fr. Paul Ragueneau and Fr. Menard arrived here on the day before the Assumption, in good health. In the evening, prayers were said in Latin, in Algonquin and in Huron. (Jes. Rels. XXVII-123) Thirty-one Frenchmen were connected with the residence of Ste. Marie I, but "seldom did they see each other all gathered together for one whole month." Among these was Fr. Menard's friend and shipmate, "Dominique Scot, sartor." Others connected with this residence who were to share with Fr. Menard in revealing Central New York to white men were Fathers Le Mercier, Chaumonot, Paul Ragueneau and Simon Le Moyne. Fr. Jogues also was there, unaware of the superlative suffering in store for him at the hands of the Mohawks, which his next return to the lower St. Lawrence River would bring.

Jones' Huronia-Archives of Ontario, p. 326. See idem Index, references under the name "Menard". Jes-Rels index under the names Menard, Brébeuf, Le Mercier, Ragueneau.

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Contents © 1934, Alexander M. Stewart; new material © 1997 John S. Allen

Last revised 21 August 1999