Thursday, August 22, 2013

Primal Wilderness Rambling From Ottawa River

“There is another (river) at the mouth of which is a marvellous fall... the Algonquins take pleasure in passing under it and not wetting themselves except for the spray which is thrown off... the Iroquois also go there sometimes and surprise them while making the passage.” ~ Samuel de Champlain, 1613

One day in May four hundred years ago, he began rowing up the mighty river with a group of men into history. He was not the first European to ascend the river that First Nations people called Kichi Sibi, but his trip would be the first documented journey. Samuel de Champlain had already been exploring the New World for years by 1613, mapping in Quebec, the Maritimes, and New England. He founded Quebec City in 1608, then pushed into the Great Lakes, describing them in his extensive journals.

He’s still considered the Father of New France today. His name and legacy seem to be everywhere in the places he travelled through. However, the man himself is something of a mystery. While his writings capture much of the world he saw, we don’t actually have an image of him produced during his lifetime, aside from one drawing where he may be an unidentified member of a crowd. His precise gravesite is unknown. We can only piece together fragments of his personality from his writings, but the man himself eludes us.

We know he treated First Nations people with more regard and respect than many others who came in his wake. He formed alliances and working relationships with tribes like the Huron and Algonquin, becoming friends with their leaders. His reference to them as les sauvages didn't carry the negative connotations later attached to the English word savages. Champlain wisely understood he needed to work with native people for him and his colleagues to carry on in the new world. He stressed this with those under his command. We also know he had an innate curiosity, determination, and fortitude that drove him on.

In 1613, he led a small party up what is now the Ottawa River, in search of the Northern Sea, otherwise known as Hudson’s Bay. He was exploring but also establishing diplomatic ties with the Huron and scouting out fur trading routes. It was a mighty river with strong currents, sometimes requiring the group to portage around difficult areas. They met local tribes and passed into the region now called Ottawa and Gatineau. It’s not clear where they camped, but the landscape made an impression on them. A river from the North and a river from the South converged into the main waterway. Today, they are the Gatineau and Rideau rivers. Champlain saw the shimmering curtain of Rideau Falls and wrote about it in his journals, noting that the natives often passed behind the cascade. Upriver, he saw the high cliffs on the South side and heard the roar of what would be called Chaudiere Falls on the main branch.

Champlain noted that the Algonquin people called Chaudiere Falls the Asiticou, which means boiler. He wrote that the rushing noise could be heard two leagues away. His party had to portage around it before continuing on. He journaled about the rise of the Gatineau Hills to the North. There were more rapids and waterfalls to come, more portages and wonders to be written down. They traveled as far as Alumette and Morrison Islands, where a war chief by the name of Tessouat held river toll rights. Disagreements ensued, and Champlain was turned back. Still, he had established critical diplomatic trading relationships, descended the river with valuable goods accompanied by new allies he had made along the way, mapped sections of the river and collected geographic data.

It was the first documented trip, but it wouldn’t be the last. This nineteen day journey of six hundred kilometres was a prelude to the future. Champlain would return, plus other explorers and fur traders would push inland on his wake, establishing a network of rivers and portages infiltrating deep into the continent. This was a vast portion of the highway grid of the time.

Today, Chaudiere Falls is greatly diminished behind a hydro dam, its power tamed and restrained. The high cliffs downriver greatly differ from what Champlain experienced. Once topped by forests, they’re now topped by the Parliament Buildings at the highest point overlooking the Ottawa River. At another high bluff, Nepean Point overlooks the expanse. It’s a beautiful spot to take in the view.

Looking West on that hill stands an impressive statue of Champlain, holding an astrolabe and gazing to the future. I've sat at the base of that monument many times while enjoying the breeze coming off the river far below. I've wondered what Champlain would have thought, standing there four hundred years ago, and what he’d think of all that happened next. A mixture of pride and sadness, I imagine. His name lives on, his legacy preserved by the strength of his writing for four centuries. It’s a fitting legacy, I think, for such a man.

William Kendall is a writer, photographer and rock climber from the Ottawa Valley. When he's not working on his world domination scheme (no golfers allowed), he can be found writing the forthcoming Heaven & Hell, plus his personal blog Speak Of The Devil.