Canoe travel on the Ottawa River
Sir George Simpson's account of 1847 with his crew of voyageurs. Mentions Rideau Falls, Lac Deschênes, Bytown, Hull, Aylmer and Pinhey’s Point.

Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1826 to 1860, developed the art of long distance canoe travel to a high point. As well as five transcontinental trips to the Pacific coast, generally by canoe, he made annual inspection trips by canoe, often covering more than 4000 miles. The Ottawa River was always the starting point. He used a canot du nord, always well maintained and brightly painted, and had his own specially selected crew of voyageurs. Here is an account of a typical day’s travel in his own words, published in 1847:

Let me here offer a description of a day’s march, as a general specimen of the whole journey. To begin with the most important part of our proceedings, the business of encamping for our brief night, we selected, about sunset, some dry and tolerably clear spot; and immediately on landing, the sound of the axe would be ringing though the woods, as the men were felling whole trees for our fires, and preparing if necessary, a space for our tents. In less than ten minutes our three lodges would be pitched, each with a blaze in front, while through the crackling flames were to be seen the pots and kettles for our supper. Our beds were next laid, consisting of an oil-cloth spread on the bare earth, with three blankets and a pillow, and when occasion demanded, with cloaks and great coats at discretion; and whether the wind howled or the rain poured, our pavilions of canvas formed a safe barrier against the weather.

While the landsmen were doing duty as stokers, cooks, architects and chambermaids, the voyageurs, after unloading the canoes, had drawn them on the beach with their bottoms upwards to inspect and if needful, to renovate the stitching and the gumming; and as the little vessels were made to incline on one side to windward, each with a roaring fire to leeward, the crews, every man in his own single blanket, managed to set wind and rain and cold at defiance, almost as effectually as ourselves.

Weather permitting, our slumbers would be broken about one in the morning by the cry of “Lève, lève, lève!” In five minutes, woe to the inmates that were slow in dressing; the tents were tumbling about our ears; and, within half an hour, the camp would be raised, the canoes laden, and the paddles keeping time to some merry old song. About eight o’clock, a convenient place would be selected for breakfast, about three quarters of an hour being allotted for unpacking and repacking the equipage, laying and removing the cloth, boiling and frying, eating and drinking; and while the preliminaries were arranging, the hardier among us would wash and shave, each person carrying soap and towel, and finding a mirror in the same sandy or rocky basin that held the water. About two in the afternoon we usually put ashore for dinner; and, as this meal needed no fire, it was not allowed to occupy more than twenty minutes or half an hour.

Such was the routine of our journey, the day, generally speaking being divided into six hours of rest and eighteen of labour. This almost incredible toil the voyageurs bore without a murmur, and generally with such a hilarity of spirit as few other men could sustain for a single forenoon. In smooth water, the paddle is plied with twice the rapidity of the oar, taxing both arms and lungs to the utmost extent; amid shallows, the canoe is literally dragged by the men, wading to their knees or their loins, while each poor fellow, laughingly shakes the heaviest of the wet from his legs over the gunwale; in rapids, the towing-line has to be hauled along over rocks and stumps, through swamps and thickets. Again, on the portages, where the tracks are of all imaginable kinds and degrees of badness, the canoes and their cargoes are never carried across in fewer than two or three trips. Of the baggage, each man has to carry at least two pieces, estimated a t a hundred and eighty pounds, which he suspends in slings of leather placed across the forehead, so that he has his hands free to clear the way among the branches of the standing trees and over prostrate trunks.

The canoes can seldom approach near enough to the bank to enable the passengers to step ashore from the gunwale and, no sooner is a halt made, than the men are in the water to ferry us on their backs to dry ground...

About one canoe trip from Lachine to Sault Sainte Marie, which took only thirteen days, Simpson wrote:

By one in the afternoon, while attempting to pass close under the falls of the Rideau, we were swept in to the middle of the river by the violence of the current, our gunwales being covered by the foam that floated on the water. Through a wide and smooth reach of the stream we came in an hour to the Chaudière rapids, forming the lowest of a series of impediments which extends upwards to the lake of the same name [now Lac Deschênes]. Between the Rideau and the Chaudière there is a remarkable contrast. The former is a mere fall of water from one level to another, but the latter presents a desperate struggle of the majestic Ottawa, leaping with a roar of thunder, from ledge to ledge and from rock to rock, till at last, wearied, as it were, with its buffetings, it sinks exhausted into the placid pool below.

At the outlet of the canal, which is situated between the Rideau and the Chaudière, stands Bytown, named after my late much valued friend, Colonel By of the Engineers; while on the opposite bank the ground above the Chaudière is occupied by the once flourishing village of Hull, the creation of an enterprising backwoodsman of New England, named Wright.

Up to Chaudière Lake the canoes were sent perfectly light by water, while the baggage and passengers were conveyed on wheels to the prettily situated village of Aylmer. Being here rejoined by our little squadron, we encamped up the lake on the grounds of my friend General Lloyd [at Horaceville, now known as Pinhey’s Point], from whose hospitable mansion our teatable was provided with the luxuries of milk and cream.

Here the bull frogs serenaded us all night, to our infinite annoyance. Soon after sunrise, we made a portage around Les Chutes des Chats into the rapids which terminate the lake of the same name...

This article by Mo Laidlaw first appeared in Telltale, Nepean Sailing Club newsletter, Jan-Feb 1994, p10-11. Information from “Ottawa Waterway” by Robert Legget, University of Toronto Press.