Epic Journeys by Canoe and Foot– Paddling Across A Continent

One week ago, the Canadian Canoe Museum posted a #canoefact on social media;

We received an outstanding response from our followers, and a lot of questions and comments about this fact! We thought it would be a great opportunity to elaborate in the form of a blog post– to share some history and resources with anyone interested in learning more information on past, present and future brigades of this magnitude.

Of course there is not one “specific” route to follow– there are many options when planning a route across Canada’s waterways. The route chosen will affect the frequency and length of portages, therefore much research and planning would be important to a successful journey. Here is a link to Joy Charbonneau’s artwork Hydrological Map of Canada, which is a stunning visual representation of Canada’s waterways.

The portage that Dale is referring to in this #canoefact post is known as the Methye Portage in northwestern Saskatchewan. Navigation by canoe relies not only upon knowledge of river systems but also upon the connecting portages that link these systems and the many different watersheds across this landscape. This approximately 20km path was one of the most important portages of the fur trade routes across Canada, connecting the Mackenzie River basin to rivers that run northeast to the Hudson Bay, which in turn can be connected to the Great Lakes system.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methye_Portage#/media/File:Franklin_map_fur_route_3751971809_c0c67ca7d3_o_huge_map_(2).jpg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methye_Portage#/media/File:Franklin_map_fur_route_3751971809_c0c67ca7d3_o_huge_map_(2).jpg

Early fur trade explorers were profoundly dependent upon the knowledge, expertise and diplomatic abilities of First Nations guides, whose canoeing culture had established and used these ancient routes, and often recruited local guides along the way. The first documented crossing of Canada by canoe and foot was completed by Alexander Mackenzie, who set out on the 10th of July, 1789, seeking a trade route to the Pacific via a previously unexplored river. Mackenzie called the river, now known as the Mackenzie River, the “River of Disappointment” as it unexpectedly led him to the Arctic Ocean! Four years later Mackenzie was successful in completing his journey to the Pacific; however he was disappointed as the treacherous route was not fit to be used as a trade route. Below is a map of Mackenzie’s routes travelled, both to the Arctic (red), as well as the route to the Pacific (yellow).

For additional information on Mackenzie’s voyages, we recommend reading his book “Voyages from Montreal on the River St. Lawrence Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in the Years 1789 and 1793” by Alexander Mackenzie. Mackenzie’s route is now commemorated as the Alexander Mackenzie Voyageur Route and is a popular adventure for contemporary canoeing explorers.

 

A great reference to learn more about these cross continental canoe routes is a book called “Fur Trade Routes of Canada/ Then and Now” by Eric W. Morse. The first half of the book describes the lifestyle and techniques of the voyageurs with the second half tracing the original fur trade routes and descriptions of how they exist  in the modern era. 

For additional reading you could check out the titles “Wilderness Journey- Reliving the Adventures of Canada’s Voyageurs” by Ian and Sally Wilson who canoed from Lake Superior to Northern Saskatchewan in a birch bark canoe they built themselves! Or “Canoeing a Continent- On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie” by Max Finkelstein who retraced Mackenzie’s steps some two hundred years after his initial voyage.

There are many modern accounts of people whom have completed, or are planning to complete trips across the continent by canoe and foot. Below we have listed a few examples but there are many, many more journeys that have been completed! Please feel free to share your own stories by commenting on this post.

  • Gary and Joanie MacGuffin completed a two-year journey across Canada by canoe, which is known as the world’s longest honeymoon! They also wrote a book about their experience, for more information visit their website at www.themcguffins.ca
  • Jay Morisson of Ottawa completed his boyhood dream of a cross-Canada canoe journey, which took him 150 days (2006-07). Through his journey he raised money as well as awareness for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
  • The Canadian Voyageur Brigade Society is currently calling for proposals to complete a series of cross-country canoe brigades for the summer of 2017. For more information click here.

Any paddler knows that the successful completion of a canoe trip takes a lot of skill, planning and endurance. These epic journeys across the continent would take a significant amount of training, mapping, planning and time. The Canadian Canoe Museum offers great courses for both children and adults looking to improve on their canoeing skills which can be found on our website www.canoemuseum.ca. Although we do not have a map available to complete a cross-continent journey, our Tumblehome Gift Shop does carry many great paddling maps for trips around Ontario, which can be found here.

Happy Paddling!