The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  SUMMER 2004











In this issue

Front Page



Labrador Tragedy

Summer Packet


From the Editor


Back page





Chasing the Voyageur on the

'Old' Methye Portage

Story, photos and maps by Andy Breckenridge

Part  1  2   3


Spectacular Bald Eagle Gorge on the Clearwater River.  

“Ghosts of those days (of the voyageur) stalk the portages, and phantom brigades move down the waterways, and it is said that singing can be heard on quiet nights.  I wonder when the final impact of the era is weighed on the scales of time if the voyageur himself will be remembered longer than anything else.  He left a heritage of the spirit that will fire the imaginations of (paddlers) for centuries to come.”

Sigurd Olson, The Lonely Land

Every paddler who feels the tug of the voyageur’s spirit on the bow of their canoe will eventually be drawn to the height of land between Lake Athabasca and the Churchill River. Perhaps here, echoes of the voyageur ring the loudest; but be forewarned, the sounds you may hear on quiet nights are probably not singing, but the chorus of a thousand curses made under back breaking loads on the Methye Portage. The Methye portage is a grueling 19 kilometers, and voyageurs would be responsible for carrying six to eight pieces (90-lb bundles of goods or fur) across the trail. The pieces were carried two at a time, and the ordeal typically lasted four days. This portage links Lac la Loche on the edge of the Churchill watershed with the western flowing Clearwater River. In reality the portage is two carries that are broken by Rendezvous Lake, a small body of water named in later years when Hudson Bay Company crews from York Factory would meet and exchange goods and furs with crews from Athabasca and the greater northwest. Although Rendezvous Lake offers a brief respite, the long carries overshadow the short paddle, and the Methye is commonly referred to as a single portage.

Peter Pond was the first person of European descent to enter the Athabasca basin via the Methye. Pond was an independent trader, one among many who poured into the Saskatchewan and Churchill River basins following the end of the Seven Years War between France and England. The war resulted in the decline and collapse of the French trading posts in the Canadian interior and left the country open to enterprising individuals like Peter Pond. He allied himself with a few traders already in the area, most notably Thomas and Joseph Frobisher. In 1777 Thomas Frobisher ascended the Churchill River to Ile-à-la-Crosse were he first encountered the Athabascan-speaking Dené whose range stretched northwest far into the Mackenzie basin. East of this region along the Churchill River were Algonquin-speaking Cree. The history of the Cree and Dené who inhabited the region is complex, but the height of land may have served as a natural divide between these two peoples. Today the most western Cree band along the Churchill is at Pinehouse, but both Cree and Dené names persist for many of the region’s lakes and rivers.

Pond’s guides were probably Dené.  In 1778 they led him from Ile-à-la-Crosse via the Methye Portage to the lower Athabasca River where he over-wintered. His trading enterprise was so successful, that he had more furs than he could carry and he had to cache his cargo along the Athabasca to be picked up upon his return.  He left the fur trade in 1788, a year before Mackenzie’s voyage to the arctic.  His efforts were essential elements that led to the consolidation of several traders and financial backers into the Northwest Company. Unfortunately Pond’s journals have not survived, and his legacy rests on his maps. Pond was not a skilled surveyor, but the shortcomings in the geographic precision of his maps are surpassed by the remarkable accuracy of the general relationships between waterways in the Canadian interior. Pond’s maps were the first conceptions of the interior that were based primarily on experience rather than artistic fancy. 

Others followed in Pond’s wake; the trail became a conduit to the northwest through which everyone passed. The list is remarkable: Mackenzie, Fraser, Thompson, Franklin, Back and Tyrrell. For this reason, the trail is a beacon for modern paddlers; there are few trails in North America seeped in so much history. Nevertheless, the Methye was not always the funnel to the northwest through which everyone passed: there were other trails. 






 Summer 2004         Outfit 117 

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