Down to the Northern Sea
By Arthur R.M. Lower
(This is a few years after his first summer in the Nipigon Region)
When the people of Ontario think of the sea, their minds as a rule turn to the great ports, to New York, London, Montreal. But the Province has a sea of its own, just over the height of land across the northern region of bush and lake. The Sea of the North, la Mer du Nord, as the French called it in the old days, is only three hours' flight from Ontario's capital. But in the minds of most Ontario people it is less real and more distant than the Pacific.
In the summers I spent in the northern Ontario bush long ago, many a time did my thoughts turn to that far northern sea. How often, as I saw the brown waters tumbling away northward, did I long to put my canoe in to them and paddle down to their destination far below. My memory as I write is filled with the sight of that rapids which breaks out of Allenwater, a hundred miles eastward of Sioux Lookout, or of the river stretching away northward from Fort Metagami. No one at the Fort could have avoided knowing the destination of that river, for the old birch freighting canoes were still in the canoe sheds and old "Colonel" Millar, the postkeeper, who had come out through Hudson's Straits in 1870, still full of the stories of how goods in the old days were freighted up from salt water, three hundred miles below.
Perhaps only those who have faced the bush with a paddle in their hands can know the urge of the river: it will draw a man up, or it will draw him down, but draw him it will, as it drew the fur traders - inland to the centre of the continent and right through out on its other side. In all of us who used to be together in the bush in those old days, the draw of the northern rivers leading to the northern sea was discernible, but virtually none of us ever imagined it could have its way.
To this day those who have seen the northern sea, even by railway, are few and fewer still are those who have gone down to it and come again by canoes. The trip down the river is long and arduous, the trip back hard indeed. It was rarely made when men used canoes: it must still be infrequent in these days of planes and outboards. Hudson's Bay, Canada's great inland sea, pressing in towards Lake Superior, cuts into the country's middle, giving it that "wasp waist" appearance so evident on the map. Yet the waist itself, though comparatively narrow from the lakes across to salt water, has remained one of the stubborn bits of Canadian geography, and even today is almost entirely wilderness. With its lakes and its rivers, its rocks and especially its muskegs, it is a difficult country. It has always proved an effective barrier between white men of the south and white men of the sea of the north. In those days, those men were French and English. Today they are ordinary Canadians and the northern fur traders, but the gap between them remains.
Little did I ever dream in those old "bush" days of mine that the chance might come to me to make that crossing and descend the northern watershed to the sea. Old Pere Albanel had blazed the trail two centuries and a half before when he had gone from Saguenay and Lake St. John and down by the Rupert River to head off the English. He was two years too late for that but his countryman, the Chevalier de Troyes, fifteen years later, did it effectually enough, when he went up the Ottawa, through Lakes Temiscaming and Abitibi and down the Abitibi River, to burn the English posts. However strongly I had felt the attraction of that northern sea when in the bush along the height of land, I had never dreamed that the chance actually would come my way to follow in the footsteps of the great men of old and myself make the crossing.
That, however, is just what did happen. The chance did come my way. One day I opened a letter and had my breath taken away by reading that I had been selected to take a small Canadian government party down to James Bay and proceed up its western coast to Cape Henrietta Maria. The object was collect data on the possibilities for commercial fishing. An oversize freight canoe was provided, funds, fishnets and two men. Supplies, route, procedure, were entirely at my discretion. It was an opportunity fit for a king: in charge of an expedition to the relatively far north! On my own! And not yet twenty-five!
After the necessary departmental consultations in Ottawa, I went to Cochrane, Ontario, the natural point of departure. There were plenty of people there ready to talk about routes but few who really knew anything about them. The northern line of the Canadian National was just then under construction: it made the journey much easier than it had been previously, for it cut across the rivers flowing north and saved the long trip over the height of land. Of northward flowing rivers there is no end: the Nottaway and the Harricanaw in Quebec; in central Ontario, all those that unite to form the Moose: the Abitibi, the Frederickhouse, the Metagami, the Groundhog, the Missinabi, the Kapuskasing and many others; further west, the Pagatchewan, the Nagogami, the Kabinokogami, all tributaries of the Albany. The route from the railway down to Moose Factory was about two hundred miles long and, by report, full of portages and rough water. By the Albany and its tributaries, the distance was nearly four hundred miles, but this brought me out a hundred miles further up the west coast of the Bay and the information I got about it was much the same as Radisson and Groseilliers must have received when wandering about in the country at the head of Lake Superior in the 1650's, they, first of white men, learned of a route to "The Sea of the North": "put your canoe in Albany waters and you can float right down to the sea." I had thus good precedent, and decided for the Albany via its tributary, the Nagogami, which flows into the Kenogami and thence into the Albany. This turned out to be far the best route, and surprisingly easy, for there were only fifteen or twenty miles of bad water, and that just below the railway line. These passed, there was nothing but smooth paddling all the way down. On this great river system, a good-sized vessel could be brought up from the sea to within a few miles of the "line": some day this fact will get the attention it deserves.
At the Nagogami crossing, there was a group of Indians encamped: most of them were Ojibways who did not know the northern water, but there was one Cree among them who did. He was a native of the Bay and his very presence carried with it a whiff of salt air. He was well off his beat, so far inland, but his being there showed we were now in a zone of tribal contact, with inlanders to the south and coast Indians to the North. I hired the Cree to take us down through the first few dangerous rapids. He proved supremely competent. I still can see the white water tearing at the rocks in the worst of the rapids, one forming a great arc of a circle where the river turned. The Cree stood in the bow, and as a rock approached, a barely perceptible movement of his paddle would draw the bow off from it and into safety. Deceptive long smooths, oily in their stillness, with vicious, curling, destructive waves at their end, foretelling hidden rocks, would go by harmlessly, the invisible skill of the man's wrists fending us off from disaster. At top speed, through foam and broken water, we tore down, but my guide brought the great canoe through as easily as a boy runs his sleigh down a hill. Thanks to him, we were through the rapids and had made camp, all in a few hours from "the line", with nothing but smooth water between us and our destination.
A day brought us to Mamawemattawa, "the great confluence"; here several brimming rivers join together into the Kenogami, "the long river", a big stream in its own right. A day or two down it, and then, that which will always remain an experience for me, no matter how often it is repeated, wider waters appear ahead, as if through some gigantic window, and suddenly the river pops into a greater than itself: a junction has been effected. In this case it was the Albany itself which appeared in the show-window; and now with a few strokes, we were out on it, out on the broad waters of this great and beautiful river, this river which is yet more remote to most Canadian (who of all people fail in appreciative knowledge of Canada) than Rhine or Nile. The Albany may be over-shadowed by the mighty Nelson on the north and the still mightier St. Lawrence on the south, but there I was on it , on the waters which Radisson and Groseilliers would have given so much to dip their paddles in. From their day to mine, the people who had descended this river to the sea were in all probability fewer in number than those who travel from Toronto to Montreal in the course of a single week.
Mile after mile we travelled on, making good speed with the current behind us. The great river was unimpeded by rapids and so broad and straight that sometimes a horizon appeared ahead. I knew what lay at the end of our road but I could not imagine it.
For several days we had this vast northern country to ourselves, and did not encounter a living soul, or the sign of one. Then we met people again: a big party of Indians taking in the annual supplies to Fort Good Hope. They were not using canoes but were tracking up a York boat which is like an overgrown river punt, but pointed at both ends. The banks of the Albany are wide and smooth, and it is therefore easy to walk along, a dozen or fifteen men on the tracking line, towing the boat. The supply brigade and the York boat spoke of another world, far out of the orbit of the railway, a world that had already been going on like this long generations before, when Frenchmen and Nor'Wester were paddling up through the lakes to the pays d'en haut.
On the tenth day, rounding a bend, I noticed that the shores were wet and muddy: there was a space between the water and the bank where nothing grew. This could mean only one thing. Typical Ontarian that I was, I had never seen the sea. I had always assumed that some day I would see it when I made the conventional Ontario pilgrimage to England, but at that moment I did not know a tide mark when I saw it. Yet in my unorthodox approach to the sea, sneaking up on it from the rear in this way, I was in good tradition. Thompson and Fraser had gone down the Columbia and the Fraser in that way, and the greatest of them all, Mackenzie, had come upon the Arctic and the Pacific, too, "by land, from Canada." But they were all outlanders, to whom the sea had no doubt long been familiar. There had been few native born Canadians in that long line: Louis Joliet, first to descend the Mississippi, the great La Verendrye and others of lesser note. I did not compare myself to these giants, for that would have been nonsense, but I felt that I was treading in their footsteps.
Another hour's paddling brought into view some distant objects that looked like houses. One learns to distrust such impression in the bush. But a little more paddling, and they were houses. Our canoe drew abreast of the first of the. A man came down to meet us. He spoke in a slightly foreign accent and proved to be the deputy post-manager of Revillon Freres, who in those years were in strong competition through-out the north with the Hudson's Bay Company. Almost his first words were "Have you any news?" This sounded strange, until it dawned on me that he had been cut off from the outside world for months: there were no radios in those days. After a chat , we paddled on to the Hudson's Bay post which gives its name to the little settlement, Fort Albany....
When we reached the Hudson's Bay post, I was greeted by the factor in words which were only a variant of those of the first man: "How's everything down in Canada?" was what the factor said. So, I was no longer in Canada? Not in the opinion of the dwellers at the mouth of the Albany, apparently: they lived in a separate world, whose traditions did not lead south through the bush but out across the ocean, to the ports whence for nine generations had come their supplies and their men.
I walked up a little rise past the post. The river was wide and impressive. The high ground fell away in flats. The moment was come: the moment dreamed about around inland campfires. I had emerged on "the other side." For out there beyond the flats, beyond the stretch of the river, I saw a thin grey line where sky and water met: I was looking out over the horizon, out over "The Sea of the North."