Canots du Nord
While the shoreline waters of
the Great Lakes could easily accommodate
the sturdy, 12-metre canots du
maitre that carried North West
Company trade goods to the north
from Montreal, the rapids and
portages of inland rivers such
as the Missinaibi demanded smaller,
lighter craft. On the shore of
Lake Superior, at the mouth of
the Michipicoten River, furs,
supplies and trade goods were
transferred between the 4-tonne
"Montreal canoes" and
the canots du nord.
The "northern canoes,"
which measured just over 7 metres
in length, were light enough for
2 men to lift across portages,
but sturdy enough to carry 2.2
tonnes in weight. Their construction
frames, bent with heat into half-circles
Birch bark covering, sewn
into place with "watape"
(spruce root fibre)
Caulking of pine or spruce gum
Thwarts formed from
rods of beechwood
wooden boards for seats.
While the canots du maitre required
a crew of 14, the canots du nord
were designed for a crew of 8.
Middlemen were equipped with red
cedar paddles with narrow blades;
the steersman used a longer paddle
with a wider blade, but the bowsman
had the largest paddle of all,
ready for use in dangerous waters.
At the height of the fur trade
rivalry in the early 1800's, brigades
from both the North West Company
and the Hudson's Bay Company used
the lightweight canots du nord
to cover the Michipicoten-Missinaibi-Moose
Factory trade route.
smooth, compared to the swifter waters of
more easterly rivers." That's how one
18th century fur trading official is said
to have described the historic Michipicoten-Missinaibi-Moose
Factory trade route.
Modern-day Missinaibi canoe trippers who have
run close to 100 sets of rapids and laboured
their way over dozens of portages en route
to Moosonee may beg to differ, but for countless
generations of aboriginals, and hundreds of
17th, 18th, and 19th century fur traders,
the long, turbul ent and often treacherous
waterway, with its portage link to the Michipicoten
River was - relatively speaking - the most
easily-navigated connection between Lake Superior
and James Bay.
When maverick fur traders such as Radisson
and Groseilliers ventured inland from James
Bay, in 1660, and Hudson's Bay Company cartographer
Philip Turnor surveyed the Missinaibi area
in 1781, they were simply re-discovering a
long-established aboriginal trade route. For
at least 2,000 years, Cree and Ojibwa peoples
had inhabited the Missinaibi valley, using
the river and its link to Lake Superior to
trade moose hides and raw copper for the corn
and tobacco of agricultural tribes far to
In the late 1700's, when competition from
the Montreal-based North West Company forced
the Hudson's Bay Company to establish inland
trading posts along the Missinaibi, the river
became an even busier commercial highway.
The rivalry ended in 1821, when the two companies
merged, but the Missinaibi continued to be
a vital thoroughfare until the arrival of
the railways in the 1860's.
The trip begins as bales of beaver pelts are
loaded into lightweight canots du nord at
the Hudson's Bay Company's Michipicoten
River Post, located on the delta of the
Michipicoten River on the north-east shore
of Lake Superior. The post, founded decades
earlier by French fur traders, and once under
the control of the North West Company, is
a thriving port, anchored by an elegant house
surrounded by substantial barns and out-buildings.
The 8-man bridgade heads up the
Michipicoten River, crossing the Pigeon
Portage and paddling through Manitowick
Lake to Dog Lake.
Dog Lake and the winding, narrow stretch
of water known as Crooked Lake, the
crew portages across the height of land that
divides the watersheds of the Great Lakes
and Hudson Bay. (To the south-east,
all rivers drain to Lake Superior; to the
north-east, the water drops towards James
Bay.) River veterans are unimpressed: the
route is not a dramatic pinnacle of rock,
but simply a low and swampy woodland trail.
After 1 more portage, the upper end
of the Missinaibi waterway shimmers into view.
If winds are high, the trip through Missinaibi
Lake, over 50 kilometres long and up to
16 kilometres deep, can be dangerous. As the
canoe rounds Fairy Point, paddles fall
silent as the mythical figures of Mishipizhiw
and the Thunderbird loom into view on the
At the northeast
end of the Lake, the crew reaches Missinaibi
Lake House, part of the Hudson's Bay Company's
Lake Superior supply chain.
The brigade begins its descent of the
Missinaibi, first passing through the swampy
stretch of Peterbell marsh, then following
a swift, serpentine path through churning
waters and narrow gorges. Portages are frequent,
sometimes over well-worn trails, sometimes
over treacherous, jagged rocks.
For almost a century, the fur
trading post of Moose Factory
served the Hudson's Bay Company
well. Established by Radisson
and Groseilliers in 1672, near
the shore of James Bay, the post
acted as a collection depot for
the pelts delivered by inland
First Nations trappers, and exemplified
the company's long-standing "stay
by the bay" policy.
But by the 1770's, the inland
penetration of the rival North
West Company, and the resulting
loss of revenues, forced the HBC
to move upriver. The Bay built
Wapiscogamy House, on Brunswick
Lake, Missinaibi Lake House in
1777, and another extensive Brunswick
Lake location in 1789. Seven years
later, in 1796, the North West
Company countered with a trading
post of its own on Brunswick Lake,
brazenly blocking its rival's
view of the Lake. The North West
Company also built short-lived
posts at Wapicsogamy Creek and
Moose Fort, but all had been abandoned
by the time the two fur trading
empires merged in 1821.
The Hudson's Bay Company maintained
its inland Missinaibi supply chain
well into the early 1900's, expanding
New Brunswick House and operating
it until 1879, and re-opening
Missinaibi Lake House for 44 years,
from 1873 to 1917.
The crew moves
on to Split Rock Falls, where the river
plunges into a wide bay. Following the Brunswick
Portage, the brigade crosses into the
quiet waters of Brunswick Lake, heading
for the newly-constructed HBC post, New
Brunswick House, near the north end of
replenished, the traders paddle back to the
Missinaibi, just in time to run and lift their
way through the long series of rapids leading
to Thunderhouse Falls. With a quick
glance at the solitary pillar of the Conjuring
House Rock rising up from the tumbling
water, the crew decides to pole their way
down Coal Creek, skirting the dangerous,
dramatic drop-off of the rocky Canadian Shield
into the clay-covered James Bay Lowlands.
Free of the Falls, the crew
struggles through the next 80 kilometres of
the trip, running, lining and portaging the
river's relentless current. Just upstream
from the Pivabaika River, the men glance
longingly at the remnants of Wapiscogamy
House, a former fur trading post that
has been closed for almost 20 years.
· Finally, the river slows and broadens,
joined by the Mattagami, and then the
Abitibi. The river's name has changed,
from the Missinaibi to the Moose River.
Paddling steadily and monotonously, the brigade
reaches their Moose Factory destination.
At Moose Factory, the bales
of beaver pelts that travelled 550 kilometres
from Lake Superior are loaded into sea-going
schooners, to be shipped through Hudson Strait
en route to England.