Why it is important to know the Indigenous Trails of Home, from the perspective of a 2nd generation Canadian.
Indigenous Trails and Portages,
Ancient Story Lines of the Land.
Author: Max Finkelstein
We all know about portage trails, at least those of us who were born and educated in Canada. The fur trade era is romanticised as Canada’s formative era, the making of our nation, for better or worse, as we know it today. The narrative goes something like this: “Before there were roads and railways, rivers were the highways of Canada. The fur trade routes spanned the continent. Ten-metre (well, they were 36 feet long when I was a kid) birch bark canoes were filled with trade goods in Montreal and headed up the Ottawa all the way to Grand Portage at the west end of Lake Superior. From there, smaller canoes radiated outwards to the west and north, bringing trade goods and returning filled with furs. These were transferred to the big 10-metre canoes and paddled back to Montreal. They were then shipped to Europe where the furs were turned into gentlemen’s hats and other fancy goods. Not only was this the mainstay of the Canadian economy (furs were the ‘oil’ of the time) for more than three centuries, but it was the fur trade routes that carved out the fledgling nation of Canada. The fur traders, always pushing farther north and west in search of new sources of furs, reached the Pacific coast 13 years before the famous Lewis and Clark “Corps of Discovery’ expedition sponsored by the United States Government to explore recently acquired lands purchased from France. These lands, (the Louisiana Purchase) encompassed the entire western portion of the watershed of the Mississippi which includes the southern part of what are now the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Was it not for the presence of fur trade posts, much of what is now western Canada could have become part of the United States.
In Canada, celebrations and recreations of historic journeys invariably commemorate famous explorers, the Voyageurs, missionaries, or the birth of Canada, but few pay any attention to those who made the routes, including the trails and portages, that these recent immigrants to what is now Canada, followed. The rivers and portages that the voyageurs and fur traders followed were in use long before Europeans arrived in North America. Rivers, portages, and trails linked people across a continent for trade, and travel as long as there have been people here, and that is a long time – at least 8,000 years. This trans-continental trade and communication network was in place long before the fur trade era. In fact, the fur trade routes merely followed already long-established routes. These were more than just routes of trade. They linked the peoples of North America. The Ottawa River has long been the highway to the west and north. What is now the city of Ottawa, where rivers join the Ottawa from the north and south, has long, according to William Commanda, been a ‘place of cultural convergence and political evolution’.
Today, when we look at a road map, we see a network of roads linking cities and towns. More of these lines than you would expect follow ancient pathways. If you were to look at a map of Ottawa, or eastern Ontario and western Quebec, from thousands of years ago, you would see a network of trails and water routes linking communities and cultures, much like today. These routes are ancient, not as old as the hills north of Ottawa, which are among the most ancient rocks in Canada, created over two billion years ago. But they likely date back to the retreat of the most recent ice age, about eight thousand years ago. Old indeed.
One can imagine the first peoples to tentatively make their way to the newly ice-free lands of what is now eastern Ontario and western Quebec. It would have been a sub-Arctic environment, of open tundra and taiga. The icy Champlain Sea, where belugas, walrus, and other arctic marine life flourished, would have appeared much like the Arctic Ocean of today. Likely these peoples spent their summers on the shores of the sea and followed the migrating herds. These migration routes possibly gave rise to the first long-distance trails.
It is important to us today to be aware of these ancient trails, and when we may be walking on routes followed by people for millennia. Trails are vital to understanding our land, our history, and our place in it. Today, roads and railways and bike paths and walking trails connect us to the land and to each other, as did the trails made by those who lived here before us. Knowing these ancient trails also connects us to our land, to the past, and to our home – creating a 4-dimensional mind-map. Just as roads, rails, and trails lead us today to a destination, knowing the ancient trials leads us to new destinations, to new understandings, new connections with our land, our past, and our future. I believe that it is the loss of relationship with our land that is at the root of many present-day societal and environmental problems. As a society, we have lost direction, because we have lost the trails. Our modern trails lead us home. The ancient trails will also lead us home. They are still there, hidden, covered by concrete and landfill, by subdivisions and cities, for the most part forgotten, lost.
The ancient trails have been buried, literally and in the telling of our history. For most of us, the history of Ottawa begins with the building of the Rideau Canal almost two centuries ago. But the story of Ottawa begins long before that. It is time to ‘unearth’ the ancient trails and have them speak once more. If we remember and commemorate the ancient trails, make them an integral part of our sense of place, we will recognize the people who created them and used them for millennia and find that, in many ways, we will meet ourselves. We create the spaces that reflect our values.
Here are a few ancient and not-so-ancient portages in the City of Ottawa and the local region:
- Around Rideau Falls connecting the Rideau River to the Ottawa River (1.6 km)
- Black Rapids-Lac Deschenes, connecting the Rideau River to the Ottawa River (6 km)
- Three portages on the Ottawa River, around Chaudiere Falls, Petite Chaudiere (Remic Rapids) and Deschenes Rapids, all on the Quebec side of the river
- Rideau – Ottawa via what is now Dows Lake and Sherwood Drive (Onigam)
Of course, there were portages around all the rapids on the Rideau River, several connecting the Rideau to waters flowing to the Saint Lawrence River (via the Gananoque River, Kemptville Creek, or the South Nation River), and portages around all the rapids on the Ottawa (many of which have been drowned by hydro-electric power dams today).