Last week, we looked at the early days of tourism in the Algoma region. With all of the trips and sights being advertised, did tourists’ experiences meet the advertisements from the Canadian Pacific Railway? What was it actually like to take one of these train and canoe expeditions?
Read Lochalsh Local History: Tourism 100 Years Ago (Part 1) if you missed it last week!
While I (Elorah) researched the topic, I happened to find a piece from Rod and Gun magazine (which was published by the Canada Forestry Association) called “By Canoe and Portage in the Northern Wilderness: From Lake Wabatongashene to Fort Albany and Return.”
Outdoors writer Henry “Harry” Anton Auer from Cleveland, Ohio, reports on a canoe trip that he and his three friends from Harvard University–– Oliver Wolcott, Charles Fry, and Harry C. Bing–– embarked on in the summer of 1912. The article is split between the July and August 1913 issues. The full texts are available to the public to read and download below:
To summarize what happened:
In contrast to CPR advertising the ease of finding outfitters, gear, and guides along one’s northern route, Auer and friends had logistical difficulties months ahead of time while planning their trip.
They could not find accurate maps of the waterways that they intended to travel, which were popular enough trade routes but not a tourist attraction. Auer thought that the maps available at the time were “startlingly incorrect in detail as to distance and direction and dangerous…by reason of the falls and rapids impossible of navigation, and which were not even noted by the geographers” (1913, p.114).
I’ve enhanced the route drawn for the article with a coloured track so it is easier to see the drawing. Auer estimates the distance from Loch Alsh to Fort Albany as being 950 miles one way (1913, p. 227).
Auer discusses the difficulties of finding experienced guides who were willing to lead their trip such as theirs— which, it is important to note, was almost the entire length of northern Ontario from the Lake Superior region to James Bay, not a weekend outing! Auer writes that “without proper guides your plans come to naught and your expedition results in failure if not disaster” (1913, p.114). He notes with frustration that there were not many Cree or Ojibway guides who would go outside of their home territory— and mentions that he knows of other canoeists who could not execute a trip due to a lack of willing guides. It seems that canoeists had little concept that a responsible guide would not be very comfortable bringing tourists of various abilities into unknown territory for weeks on end. Auer ended up rehiring Cree guides he’d used in the past even though “there was not much enthusiasm over the prospect [of the trip] and many protests were made that the country was unknown” (1913, p. 115). These guides are listed as being Jimmie Fletcher, Albert Fletcher, Cephas Sheshegun, and Jimmie Chum, described as “full blood Cree Indians, formerly living on Hudson’s Bay, but now dwelling in the country 150 miles north of Lake Superior” (1913, p. 115).
Auer’s attitude towards guides here, expecting them to know every waterway and to be grateful to be hired for a potentially dangerous (not to mention lengthy) trip, seems standard for the time. Historian Patricia Jasen, who focuses on early tourism in Ontario, points out that around the turn of the century, many Indigenous communities were facing major upheaval as mines, logging, agriculture, and fur trade changed the environment and animal populations for the worst. Some people were no longer able to sustain themselves on the land or by trading, or were forcibly relocated by the government, so they took on work such as agriculture and guiding. Often men would go guiding for the season while women maintained the farm and household. In popular tourist regions such as the Sault, fishing and canoeing guides made a good income compared to what could be made in the few other jobs available for Indigenous people; rates were typically between $2 to $3 per day in the early 1900s. Guidebooks and outdoors magazines would list the names of well-known guides so tourists could find those who were deemed trustworthy (1993, p. 20-21).
In most cases, guides were responsible for all dimensions of the trip:
Guides performed the work of paddling, carrying over portages, putting up tents, making beds and cooking, and were most ofter accommodated in tents somewhat apart from those of the tourists. Particular praise was reserved for those guides who had perfected the role of the servant; in this regard having worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company was considered an asset. (Jasen, 1993, p. 21)
Many tourist guidebooks and outdoors writers of the era described Indigenous people as “wild” or “primitive” with a child-like personality and intelligence level, yet tourists also realized that they had to depend on their guides in order to survive their trip. Tourists were warned that they had to keep their guides in line under their authority in case the guides started making unhelpful suggestions or complaining about the weather; avoid giving out alcohol; and understand that other wealthier tourists may have set a negative precedent by paying the guide more than they were worth (by whose standard is not explained), or that tourists with less consciousness of social class had let the guides freely socialize with them and the guide would expect this level of friendship (Jasen, 1993, p. 21-22).
Unlike some tourists who had these types of complaints, it seems that Auer felt that he had a good relationship with his guides after taking a number of trips together, even though they were bringing up reasonable warnings for the Loch Alsh to Fort Albany trip: “The Indians in question have become bound to [me] by ties of friendship impossible from a mere hire and salary basis” (1913, p. 115).
As an experienced outdoorsman, Auer already had knowledge of the equipment available at the time. For example, he discusses what features to consider for a waterproofed but lightweight tent and a durable pack, and the importance of knowing how much food to pack between the Hudson’s Bay Company posts. He admits that he learned these things through trial and error and that a novice adventurer “will make many mistakes that will cause him annoyance and positive discomfort after he plunges into the north” (1913, p. 115). Auer explains that he got his information and gear orders by writing letters to Hudson’s Bay Company post managers (1913, p. 116). As we saw last week, the HBC employees acted as the travel agents and outfitters of their time.
Taking the Trip
Finally, with everything in place, Auer and friends and guides began their journey on June 27, 1912, at the Loch Alsh railway siding (as it was spelled then— comparing everything in my collection of documents, it seems that it became “Lochalsh” around the 1920s). They had two 20’ Peterborough wooden canoes (the same popular manufacturer that Camp Lochalsh used for boats until the company closed in 1961) and what Auer records as “fifteen hundred pounds of provisions in water proof duffle bags, to say nothing of tents, cooking utensils, and personal equipment of blankets, clothing, etc., in pack sacks” (1913, p. 116).
They made their way down to Lake Wabatongashene (as they spelled it) and photographed themselves there. Auer writes this about the lake:
No sooner had we left the protection of the mountain girt shore of Wabatongashene than we began to get a favoring wind, so the tarpaulins were gotten out and made into sails, and under the power of an increasing south west breeze we raced through the white caps toward the north end of the lake. The course in threading the many arms and inlands was exceedingly bewildering and impossible to discern without the aid of our guides who were familiar with the direction, but our Indians easily made out our course and stopping one hour for dinner en route we made the northern end of the lake, thirty miles from our starting point by one thirty in the afternoon, and began our three mile portage to Oba Lake. (1913, p. 117).
The wildlife that Auer makes note of in the most detail is not fish, but the bugs! The men used a combination of smoke smudges, chemical repellents, hats with netting, gloves, and coats to try to avoid the swarms. Auer writes that “there is just one way to live and retain one’s sanity” and it is to make a sleeping net out of cheesecloth (1913, p. 119).
From Oba Lake, they went on to Lake Kabinakagami and the Kabinakagami River, which is described as a very rough and dangerous waterway.
In regards to the treatment of their guides, it seems that Auer and friends did not expect the men to do everything for them like servants, like some of the tourists mentioned previously, but certainly depended on them for efficient travels:
The portages on [Kabinakagami] river are varying lengths from two miles to 200 yards and the going was slow by reason of our necessarily numerous bags of provisions and in the heat of the July sun we were dripping wet from the effort of taking across our one hundred and thirty pound sacks. I say one hundred and thirty pounds, but that is not the measure of the guides’ loads. I helped to load up Sheshegun for a portage and having assisted him to a load of two hundred and fifty pounds he said ‘I take more till the strap he break.’ (1913, p. 121)
Auer finishes with a reflection on the excitement and rejuvenation one can find camping out in the bush.
The first part of the article ends here with a “To Be Continued,” enticing readers to anticipate the next part of this wilderness adventure from their armchairs.
In the second part of the article, Auer and friends paddled on to the Nagagami River, the Kenogami River, and the Albany River. Auer notes that at this geographic point, the guides were not familiar with the land, but handled things well (1913, p. 225).
On the Albany River, they sailed their canoes again, which turned out to be a perilous activity in bad weather. The guides turned the canoes into “catamarans” with tree trunk outriggers so that the wind would stop flipping them over, and winds were so violent that one of the improvised sail masts snapped (1913, p. 227). Auer doesn’t explain why they absolutely had to continue onward in these conditions–– maybe they were running low on provisions?
At Fort Albany, which had been established over two hundred years before, they met Cree people and described dwellings and daily activities. At this time, there was also an HBC post, a rival fur trading post, an Anglican church, and a school run by missionary nuns. A number of Indigenous groups and families from northern regions gathered in the summer to trade and socialize. The canoeists gained much historical and geographical information from the HBC manager, Mr. Gillies, who also played host to them (1913, p. 228-231).
Considering information from other HBC post employees regarding how slow it would be to return to Loch Alsh via the same route, Auer’s party decided to sail their canoes eastward down the ocean coast of Hudson’s Bay over to Moose Factory, and take the Moose River home. They brought casks of fresh water with them, camped on shore where they could, and ate ducks that the guides killed. They also had tea, salt pork, and beans. At Moose Factory, they were entertained by the HBC manager, Mr. Mowat, who told them the history of post tracing back to the seventeenth century (1913, p. 230-233).
They then returned south via the Moose and Missanabie Rivers and reached Dog Lake. They met the CPR train at the water tower station in Missanabie instead of at Loch Alsh (1913, p. 235).
Overall, Auer seemed to greatly enjoy the trip and thought it had changed him in a positive way:
…the hard work and exertion had developed strong tissue, the clean fresh of the silent places and the clean, strong life of the Wilderness had oxygenated the blood; the close contact with Great Mother Nature in her light and deeper musing had with her larger view driven out all pettiness which modern life and convention are apt to engender. (1913, p. 236).
The trip took more than two months! An excursion this extreme would not be feasible for most tourists, nor would it be comfortable. The canoeists brought along food and ate wild game, but Auer also mentions how dire it could be to run short on supplies between HBC posts or smash a wooden canoe apart. As experienced canoeists, even they found certain areas, such as the rapids on Kabinakagami River, frightening and dangerous. The logistics of this tourism could be life or death— which in turn, I think, goes back to the struggle to find guides who wanted to work with such risks.
When I compare Auer’s article to how canoe trips were marketed by CPR brochures, I think that the advertising certainly glossed over many of the challenges and dangers. It makes sense that from the late 1800s to 1950s, CPR was primarily marketing much shorter routes like Missanabie to Lake Superior, or Missanabie to Oba Lake, and providing little information about the Lake Superior to James Bay calibre of trips.
If you want to read more of Auer’s writing, his book The North Country (published in 1906) is digitally archived in the public domain and is available to read for free. The book is about his steamship and canoe travels in the “the North Country” of Superior–– the Agawa, Montreal River, and Wawa areas. Personally speaking, I’ll occupy myself with this book in the next few weeks!
Thank you again for reading! I enjoy looking through whatever history I can find and sharing it with everyone, and I appreciate your comments. Next week I plan to go back to the Winter at Wabatongushi theme.
Auer, H.A. (1913). By canoe and portage in the northern wilderness: From Lake Wabatongashene to Fort Albany and return. Rod and Gun 15(2), p. 113-121.
–––––– .(1913). By canoe and portage in the northern wilderness: From Lake Wabatongashene to Fort Albany and return [part 2]. Rod and Gun 15(3), p. 225-236.
Jasen, P. (1993). Native people and the tourist industry in nineteenth-century Ontario. Journal of Canadian Studies, 28(4), p. 5-27.