|1 Chapleau Region Canoe Routes (2016) Ian Macdona|
By Ian Macdonald and Mike McMullen
The community of Chapleau, Ontario is located on the drainage divide between the Hudson Bay and Lake Superior watersheds commonly referred to as the height of land. Before the coming of the railway and the founding of the village of Chapleau in the 1880s, the Ojibwe Nation carried out traditional activities of hunting, fishing and trapping in the region. The largest group of Ojibwe was an inland group of the Michipicoten Ojibwe Band who took furs back to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) post at Michipicoten for trading. Ojibwe hunting and trapping territory was primarily to the south and west of the height of land and Cree territory was to the north.
Early maps of the Chapleau region identify an extensive network of paths and portages connecting lakes and rivers with the primary river systems flowing from the height of land to Lakes Superior and Huron and north to James Bay. Topographic information reveals an average drop of over 800 feet from Chapleau to both Lakes Superior and Huron. This is a relatively steep descent and it is probably more than coincidence that the Michipicoten, Montreal and Mississagi Rivers each presently accommodate four major hydroelectric power stations over the length of each river. These giant hydro projects along with extensive road and highway construction have significantly diminished evidence of the original canoe routes in the region that have been displaced or become overgrown over time.
This article does not attempt to identify every route or speculate on how heavily they may have been used, but offers a description of the most probable paths. We’ve limited our descriptions to routes and conditions of which we have direct personal knowledge or are officially documented (Photo 1).
HBC, created by royal charter in 1670, was granted all territory in the Hudson Bay watershed in which to develop the fur trade. The height of land is significant in Chapleau history as it generally defined the southern boundary of HBC territory. Additionally, it established the northern boundaries of the Robinson-Superior treaties of 1850 with the Ojibwe Nation and the southern boundary of the James Bay Treaty of 1906 with the Cree Nation. The height of land became even more significant when it was established as the route for the new Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) through Northern Ontario. The Kebsquasheshing River at Chapleau is 1403 feet above sea level and eventually descends north to salt water at Moose Factory through a complex 300 mile network of rivers and lakes.
To the North
The main canoe routes from Chapleau to the north are the Kebsquasheshing and Nemegosenda River systems which drop 360 feet over approximately 75 miles to where they converge at the Kapuskasing River just north of the Canadian National Railway line at Elsas on Kapuskasing Lake. The challenge associated with this canoe route is reflected in the number of rapids and portages required to navigate the system. The Kebsquasheshing River system, for instance, requires 30 portages around a combination of rapids and waterfalls demanding a good measure of experience and skill to complete the journey safely. Present day voyageurs exercising due caution typically make this trip in six days.
The Kapuskasing River from this point continues north over equally challenging terrain before joining the Mattagami River 32 miles north of Kapuskasing, Ontario before finally converging with the Moose River and eventually James Bay. It is undoubtedly the most difficult and challenging tributary of the Moose River system. Cree hunting parties from Moose Factory travelled south on this system in the 19th century and, due to the length and difficulty of the journey, wintered over and eventually settled permanently in the Chapleau region.
The Kebsquasheshing and Nemegosenda rivers never became major routes for HBC. The primary route for the fur trade was the more easily navigable Missinaibi River system that runs through the centre of the Chapleau Game Preserve approximately 60 miles west of Chapleau connecting Lake Superior with James Bay.
Records indicate that HBC had two trading posts in the Foleyet region. One was on Lake Pishkanogami (Ivanhoe Lake) and another at the southern end of the Groundhog River. (Flying Post) Near this latter location there had been a North West Company post dating back to the earliest days of the fur trade in the late 18th century. The Kinogama and Ivanhoe River systems both flow north from the height of land near the former communities of Kormak and Nemegos and provide access to Ivanhoe Lake. This is a 65 mile journey requiring 16 portages over a variety of rapids and waterfalls.
To the West and South
HBC post reports record that most of the fur trade with the HBC from the Chapleau area before construction of the CPR was with the HBC post at Michipicoten. We believe that the Micipicoten Ojibwe inland group supplied most of this trade.
There are two main routes to Lake Superor from Chapleau: west by Lake Windemere, and southwest by the Montreal River system. A third route south to Lake Huron is by the Mississagi river system. For the former, canoe travel to Michipicoten from the Chapleau area was approximately a 95 mile journey west on the Nebskwashi River portaging from Nagasin Lake over the height of land into Windemere lake and from there portaging to the Shikwamka River west to the Michipicoten River and Lake Superior. The Michipicoten River descends 400 feet in the last 15 miles before Lake Superior in which four hydro-electric power plants are presently located (Photo 2).
2 High Falls, Michipicoten River (1916) Wawa Historical Photo Album
The Montreal River system in the Algoma Region southwest of Chapleau extends from the height of land to Lake Superior approximately 60 miles south of present day Wawa. This route extends from Lake Nagasin and the Nebskwashi River over the height of land to Top Lake (Summit Lake) near the former lumber mills at Island Lake through a network of marshes, rivers and lakes to Lake Superior. The Montreal River system descends approximately 800 feet over 75 miles from Top Lake to Lake Superior. Similar to the Michipicoten route, there are also four major hydro-electric generating stations on this river. The best known and most unique of these is the MacKay Generating Station which is integrated with the trestle structure where the Algoma Central Railway crosses the Montreal River (Photo 3)
3 Mackay Generating Station and Trestle, Montreal River (ca.1965) Algoma Central Railway
One of several canoe routes to the south is the Mississagi River system that descends from the height of land north of Wenebegon Lake near Sultan, Ontario through a maze of rivers, lakes, and waterfalls toBlind River on Lake Huron. The Mississagi River parallels Highway 129 for part of the way and has become quite familiar to most Chapleau residents. Some of the earliest tourist activity in the Chapleau region developed near the old CPR siding at Winnebago, which was 43 miles east of Chapleau where the rail line crosses the Wakami River.
4 Aubrey Falls Generating Station, Mississagi River (ca.1975) The Globe and Mail
In 1905, an American party, led by Dr. Howard A. Kelly of Baltimore, Maryland, began their canoeing adventure at this location paddling down the Wakami River, portaging into Kebskwasheshi Lake and from there into the Wenebegon River to the present location of Aubrey Falls where it merges with the Mississagi River. Dr. Kelly retained a detailed diary and photographs of this trip that will be the subject of the next article in this series. The Mississagi River system like the Michipicoten and Montreal River systems presently accommodates four hydroelectric generating stations that have significantly impacted the original waterway that Dr. Kelly’s group would have experienced (Photo 4).