The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  SUMMER 2004











In this issue

Front Page



Labrador Tragedy

Summer Packet


From the Editor


Back page





Part  1  2  3

Methye Portage

                  Crossing the 'Old' Methye Portage to the Clearwater River.

There probably was never an “Old Methye Portage” – but I like the name.  The Methye Portage is named after Methye Lake, also known as Lac la Loche.  A methy is a burbot (eelpout), and loche (Fr) or loach is an Old World fish that can look similar to a burbot. Because the “Old Methye Portage” does not begin or end anywhere near Methye Lake, the name is suspect. My wife heard the name from a pilot who said he flew in some geographers around 25 years ago who “had a grant to do some work on the Old Methye Portage”. This is the only name I’ve heard for the portages we took over the height of land, and the name seems good enough for now. 

Before we began the trip, I did not even know there was a trail - we had planned to bushwhack across the divide. While the discovery of these trails was a great relief, they were not a complete surprise. Anyone who carefully inspects a map of the Clearwater-Churchill region should recognize that the classic voyageur route over the divide is circuitous: a traveler heading northwest up the Churchill River makes a major detour to the south on Ile-à-la-Crosse before heading back to the northwest. An alternate route could utilize the string of lakes north of Churchill Lake that extend far closer to the Clearwater River than Lac la Loche, and if one looks more closely, there are two long lakes that bridge this gap. There is less than 4-km of land separating the Clearwater River from Wasekamio Lake: why would the classic voyageur route follow the 19-km Methye portage when a 4-km crossing was available farther upstream? Did they not know about the route?

Pond knew about the route; the route is depicted on a detailed map he intended for the Empress of Russia, currently held in the Public Record Office in London.  Pond mapped large areas that he did not explore, but the features are more or less accurate, so much of his map must be based on native accounts. On his map, Pond shows “L. Clair” separated from the Clearwater by two small lakes, I believe these are the two small lakes between Wasekamio and the Clearwater. Under this interpretation, “L. Clair” encompasses Wasekamio, Turnor, Frobisher, and Churchill Lakes. This is no great misrepresentation of the practical geography. Wasekamio and Turnor are essentially one lake, as are Churchill and Frobisher, and only a short segment of river separates Turnor and Frobisher lakes.   

Pond also maps the ultimate value of this route. A traveler coming up the Churchill could circumvent the circuitous route on Ile-à-la-Crosse by entering the Mudjatik, and after a short ways, turn to the northwest and enter “L. Clair” via a smaller lake (Flatstone). I have not explored the route, but imagine one still exists.  The reasons these routes are maintained is because the area is actively trapped, hunted, and fished by people from the nearby communities of Turnor Lake and Patuanak. 

This alternative to the Methye had at least one other draw, our trip would follow a relict spillway for glacial Lake Agassiz.  Lake Agassiz was an enormous lake that persisted for around 6,000 years, but finally drained 8,400 years ago.  The expanse of the lake varied in time, but it stretched from the Red River valley in the south, almost to Lake Superior in the east, and northwest to the Clearwater River.  The great ice sheet in Hudson Bay blocked the Churchill and Nelson watersheds, so water backflooded until an outlet was reached. When the ice front was farther south, Agassiz drained via the Minnesota River.  When the front receded to the north, water drained east into Superior, or northwest down the Clearwater River.

Around 11,300 years ago, the ice sheet had receded just north enough to let waters from Lake Agassiz overflow into the Clearwater River Valley.  This new outlet was around 50-m lower than the previous outlet, so Agassiz’s water levels dropped over one to three years and roared down the Clearwater River Valley.  Because Lake Agassiz was so huge, and the drop in water level so great, the amount of water released by this flood is beyond comparison to any floods on the modern planet. Around 21,000 km3 of water spilled down the Clearwater River, enough to raise global sea level by six centimeters.  At peak flow rates, the discharge down the spillway was around nine times the discharge of the Amazon River, and post-flood baseline discharge was around 42,000 m3/s.  This water carved out the Clearwater Valley.  Steep cliffs of limestone and dolomite rise 600 feet above the valley floor, and between them meanders the Clearwater River, a veritable trickle compared to the waters that carved the river’s valley. 

Those floodwaters began their descent at around the “Old Methye Portage”  From near the modern divide to Contact Rapids the river drops over 320 ft, yielding a gradient of over 9 ft/mi (~1.7 m/km).  This is why the “Old Methye Portage” was never a viable alternative to the Methye. Ascending the Clearwater River above Contact Rapids (the first rapids upstream from the Methye Portage) would test the stubbornness and patience of even the most resolute voyageur. In stark contrast, travelling down the Clearwater over the old Agassiz spillway offers a pleasant trip for the modern paddler.

Our journey over the divide and down the Clearwater was a trip of many moods, we have never paddled a route that offered so much diversity over such a short length.  The first few days were on large lakes, which offer the open horizons that I greatly enjoy.  The divide trails are in decent shape, but they course predominantly through sphagnum and spruce muskeg, so there were several muddy and wet sections - but there were also pleasant stints through dry, mature polar uplands or jack pine and caribou moss. We did not find a trail out of the last small lake to the Clearwater River.  A large burn, perhaps twenty years old, has swept across the land between this lake and the river.  Young jack pine offer enough clearance that a bushwhack would not be terribly difficult, but the beaver-dammed creek draining the lake offered enough water to float our canoe and we opted to paddle the final leg to the Clearwater.





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