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The Toronto Carrying Place

The Toronto Carrying Place

Rediscovering Toronto's Most Ancient Trail
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Chapter One
Trails and Portages

Anyone who says he likes to portage is a liar.
— John Parker, Outdoor Educator

Making Trail
For my first two years of teaching, I risked sudden death and broke several municipal bylaws every single morning in my rush to get to the closest transit station. My reckless dash took me across four lanes of rush-hour traffic, a patch of National Capital Commission grass, and two lanes of busy parkway before ending in illegal entry to the bus platform.

There was a safer, officially sanctioned route, involving traffic lights and bridges, which took three times as long to travel. I never used it. Like dozens of other morning commuters, I took the shortest, fastest, most direct route, which did not vary from day to day.

In my very first week crossing the NCC land (in which were the remnants of a settler’s apple orchard), I noticed that collectively my comrades and I were wearing down a path — a thin dirt track that was the most practical way from A to B. From then on, it was a point of honour to always use the path, to participate in this little bit of nation building. We kept it going through the fall and winter, pressing down the leaves and the snow, and of course, the more we used the trail, the deeper and more useful it became. I began to mention the path to friends as a metaphor for karma, like some canyon of habits and tendencies that is harder to escape with each journey through it. I liked it.

Trails are a mammal thing. Caribou tend to follow the same routes, not just in their annual migrations north and south, but even in their daily foraging, where they will typically stay on tracks laid down by past caribou. Snowshoe hares create a network of runways throughout their territory. According to Environment Canada, “major runways follow the same routes in summer and winter, and the snowshoe hares keep the trails well-maintained, quickly clipping off stems and leaves which begin to block the runways; they may need these routes to escape predators.”1 Wow, highway maintenance…. Even the squirrels in my backyard bound along well-established paths (invisible to human eyes except after a snowfall) linking nest-trees and good hunting grounds. The squirrels consistently choose the shortest, the most efficient, the safest route.

And so us.

Our various species of hominid ancestors doubtless made trails as they visited rivers and waterholes day after day, or skirted the Bad Places where the lions lurked. But, of course, there is nothing left of the paths of the earliest humans, beyond the occasional fossilized footprint. As seasonal hunting camps evolved into more permanent settlements, footpaths would naturally have led to the nearest sources of food, to neighbouring hamlets and to places of spiritual importance. Satellite images of landscapes in northeastern Syria show fascinating networks of trails that radiate out from communities into the surrounding fields and link ancient settlements. The trackways, known as “hollow ways” because of the way they have been worn into the earth, date from the Early Bronze Age (2600 BCE–2000 BCE).2 These same sorts of patterns probably recurred everywhere that communities settled down. With the growth of towns and then cities in Asia and the Middle East, many of these trails were formalized and paved, to become urban streets or rural roads.

The earliest European trails that we know of date from the Neolithic Age (5500 BCE–2500 BCE). Nearly 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) of ancient ridge routes have been identified in England alone. Typically, these footpaths keep to the high ground and run for enormous distances, though they may not necessarily have always been used for long journeys. England’s ridge routes have been in continual use since the old days and, amazingly, some are still there. You can still walk the Icknield Way through East Anglia, as did Neolithic drovers, Bronze Age warriors, Celtic merchants, Roman soldiers, and mediaeval farmers.

“Low roads” have also been found in river valleys, and, most impressive of all from an archaeologist’s viewpoint, we can still see timber roads that were created through wetlands.3 The “Sweet Track,” an elevated causeway through a peat marsh in Somerset, has been dated to the winter or spring of 3807 or 3806 BCE. (Apart from anything else, you have to marvel at that kind of scientific precision.) This makes the Sweet Track the oldest known made road in Europe.4 Ancient boardwalks made of tree trunks have also been found in other European wetlands. Interestingly, this same type of road was re-invented by European settlers in North America almost 6,000 years later as the infamous “corduroy road,” the bane of horses’ legs and wagons’ axles.

In the Americas too, paths, trails, and ceremonial ways have existed for thousands of years. Famously, the Incas of Peru had a system of paved roads to keep information flowing throughout their empire. The mound-building Adena and Hopewell cultures of the Ohio Valley seem to have built sacred paths between some of their centres, probably for reasons of religion rather than transportation.5 The villages of the Wendat near Georgian Bay were joined by a 425-kilometre (200-mile) system of “narrow paths” running through the forest.6 The Wendat also built timber causeways in Holland Marsh (like Europe’s Neolithic cultures). But while trails were not uncommon in North America, they were never the preferred means of transportation. [SUBHEAD]Portages In Europe, prehistoric paths crisscrossed landscapes that had already been cleared for centuries. Not so in Canada, where dense forests, rocky barrens, and vast plains meant that trails on land were absolutely a last resort, to be blazed only when streams were impassable or too distant. In fact, for most of Canadian history, the only practical way to get around the country has been by boat. Only the laying down of railroad tracks made travel on land as fast as on water, and it was not until the 1940s that highways became real alternatives to rivers or canals. In Canada, water has almost always been the best way to go. But rivers have rapids and falls, and sometimes flow in inconvenient directions. To keep moving in a canoe, or to shorten a trip by hours or days, sometimes you just have to haul the boat and its cargo out of the water, and carry the damn thing — a “portage,” which is, quite literally, a “carrying.” [insert image 01.02 Conesus Lake Trail] The word “portage” used in this sense is not old as words go. According to the Grand Robert de la langue française, it was first used in print in 1694 by a French official in Canada named P. Villeneuve who complained about “les portages dans l’eau jusqu’à la ceinture.”7 The word’s first appearance in English was in a 1698 translation of Father Hennepin’s travelogue (specifically the bit where he has to get around Niagara Falls), but it does not seem to have been used as a verb (as in “to portage around that God-awful waterfall”) until as late as 1864.8 While it has strictly Canadian roots, the word has travelled well. These days one can find references to portages in Africa or Asia, and I just re-read the passage in Lord of the Rings where Aragorn finds a “portage-way” around the rapids of Sarn Gebir on the great river Anduin. From Canada to Middle Earth — not bad, really … Portages can be as short as a few dozen metres or as long as — well, as long as the Toronto Carrying Place, which, at around forty-five kilometres (26 miles), must rank as one of the longest in North America. It’s so long that you have to wonder about the common sense of such a long shortcut. Carrying a canoe on your head for forty-five klicks doesn’t sound like such a good idea to me. In fact, there are reports that canoes were simply abandoned at the beginning of this portage and either left for the next group passing through (something like the communal bicycles strewn throughout modern cities) or hidden. Once they arrived at the other end of the portage, if there were no abandoned canoes available, the travellers would simply make new canoes. This seems such a waste of a valuable possession, and such a waste of time and labour, that I had difficulty believing it. But my teaching colleague, outdoorsman John Parker, who has made a portage or two himself, has no trouble with it at all. It would be madness to carry a canoe for forty-five kilometres. Easier to make a new one. And just as fast, perhaps. Fur trader Alexander Henry was with a party of sixteen Anishinabe warriors (not voluntarily, but that’s another story) at the foot of the Toronto Carrying Place on June 19, 1764. They had just arrived from Michilimackinac (near Sault Ste. Marie), and were en route to Niagara. Having left their canoes on the Holland River at the head of the portage, they simply made new canoes for everyone at the other end. Henry says that it took them just two days: [BLOCKSTART] Next morning, at ten o’clock, we reached the shore of Lake Ontario. Here we were employed two days in making canoes, out of the bark of the elm-tree, in which we were to transport ourselves to Niagara. For this purpose, the Indians first cut down a tree; then stripped off the bark, in one entire sheet, of about eighteen feet in length, the incision being lengthwise. The canoe was complete, as to its top, bottom and sides. Its ends were next closed, by sewing the bark together; and a few ribs and bars being introduced, the architecture was finished. In this manner, we made two canoes; of which one carried eight men, and the other, nine.9 [BLOCKEND] Additionally, we have accounts from1751 of Natives arriving from the Northwest along the portage and expecting the Mississauga in Toronto to sell them canoes, presumably because they had not brought their own. (The Mississauga refused.)10 French explorer La Salle, on the other hand, did carry all his canoes over the Carrying Place. It took him two weeks, and as far as we know he never did it again. Also, he may well have been mad … [insert image 01.03 Chaudière Falls] [SUBHEAD]Importance Writing in 1913, historian Kathleen Lizars says that “the Toronto portage was a highway of so many years in use that in appearance, as well as in geographical importance, it was worthy of a place upon the globe.”11 The globe in question was a bronze monster, five metres (15 feet) in diameter, made for Louis XIV in 1690, which is said to have clearly shown the Toronto Carrying Place.12 In fact, for a simple footpath, the Carrying Place shows up on a surprising number of maps from the 1600s and 1700s, which gives some idea of the importance of Canadian portages. In a country founded when canoes were the major means of getting around, portages have always been significant. They are even enshrined in law: Ontario’s Public Lands Act states that travellers have a right to use old or existing portages, even when the Crown land through which they run has been sold to private owners. Toronto is where it is partly because of its shallow harbour protected by the Islands but also because it is at the foot of the Carrying Place. Ottawa was well-known for millennia for its easy-but-unavoidable portage around the Chaudière Falls. North Bay, Lachine, and many other cities and towns in Canada owe their existence to ancient portages.13 Settlements grew up around carrying places because Europeans liked something a little more hospitable than bush or rock at the end of a trail. French voyageurs, for instance, often built stone ovens at the foot of a portage to bake bread for the trip, or created carpenters’ shops to repair canoes.14 Permanent settlements expanded from these small beginnings. But portages have an importance for Canadians beyond the mere geographical. While only 10 percent of us regularly play around with canoes or kayaks,15 it is safe to say that most of us have encountered a canoe at some point, in summer camp or at a friend’s cottage or on holiday by a lake. Canoeist and author James Raffan says that canoes have a massive presence in Canadian culture: “like the railway, the mountains or Hudson’s Bay, they’re part of who we are, an immutable fact of Canadian life.”16 Being Canadian, we all think that we know something about canoeing. Even those of us — like me — who are far from being outdoorsmen understand that paddling a canoe on a calm lake is Pleasant and Good, while carrying a canoe on your head through a blackfly-saturated forest is Unpleasant and Bad. And, from what I hear, however long and smooth the paddling, sooner or later the canoe always has to come out of the water and be manhandled. For Canadians, portages are as certain as death and taxes, and generally about as welcome. Author Bruce Hodgins says that “the portage represents the tribulations of life,” with bugs, hard work, sweat, and rotting logs standing in for our daily suffering.17 This is clear enough in some tales, like that of American adventurer and mineralogist Henry Schoolcraft. Battling his way into the Northwest in July 1820, Schoolcraft recounts endless portage after portage: a brutal narrative of oppressive labour. Here’s an example from two typical days: [BLOCKSTART] The first part of the portage is excessively rough, and the fatigue was rendered almost insupportable by the heat of the day, the thermometer standing at 82° at noon. With the assistance of the Indians, (sixteen of whom were brought up from the mouth of the river for that purpose,) we proceeded however, with all our baggage, five pauses, and encamped at twilight. XLV. Day.—(July 7th.)—A storm of rain commenced during the night, and continued until noon, when the sun appeared for half an hour, but the afternoon continued dark and cloudy, with showers. We commenced carrying at six o’clock, notwithstanding the rain, and with great exertions, went ten pauses and encamped on the banks of a small brook. The difficulties of the portage have been very much increased by the rain, which has filled the carrying path with mud and water. We are advancing into a dreary region.—Every thing around us wears a wild and sterile aspect, and the extreme ruggedness of the country—the succession of swampy grounds, and rocky precipices—the dark forest of hemlock and pines which overshadow the soil—and the distant roaring of the river, would render it a gloomy and dismal scene, without the toil of transporting baggage, and the saddening influence of one of the most dreary days.18 [BLOCKEND] (A “pause” or “pose” was the varying distance that canoes and freight could be carried in one stretch.) The unrelenting repetition drives home Schoolcraft’s point: this was a lot of work. And disaster was possible at any moment. But in the end, for him as for so many other explorers, it was worth it. Fame and fortune might lie just beyond the next set of rapids or at the end of the next footpath through the woods. The dangers and the ordeals were great but so were the possible rewards. [insert image 01.04 portage at Lake Nippissing 1821] [SUBHEAD]Portage as Metaphor In this sense, portages stand between where we are and where we want to go — they are the necessary evils that must be endured so that we may reach the Promised Land, the Gates of Paradise, Heaven. This dour Judeo-Christian-Islamic outlook certainly fits many of the travellers on the Toronto Carrying Place: the martyrdom-seeking Jesuits and the largely Scottish Presbyterian Nor’westers, for instance. It is Portage as Purgatory. But a portage need not be so grim. There is no indication that Native travellers ever saw a portage trail as more than an inconvenience. And for generations of European coureurs des bois and traders, any trip into the Northwest meant freedom, regardless of portages or storms or bugs. Trips were a welcome escape from the hypocrisy and oppressive social structures of colonial Canada. Adventure was guaranteed; liquor and sex almost certain; wealth not impossible. It is Portage as Highway to Hell–risky, but a lot of fun. Then there is Portage as Discovery. Toronto poet Gwendolyn MacEwen writes about us hauling our lives into our own personal Northwest, expecting things to be different there, but discovering that we cannot escape ourselves: [BLOCKSTART] The Portage We have travelled far with ourselves and our names have lengthened; we have carried ourselves on our back, like canoes in a strange portage, over trails, insinuating leaves and trees dethroned like kings, from water-route to water-route seeking the edge, the end, the coastlines of this land. On earlier journeys we were master ocean-goers going out, and evening always found us spooning the ocean from our boat, and gulls, undiplomatic couriers brought us cryptic messages from shore till finally we sealords vowed we’d sail no more. Now under a numb sky, somber cumuli weigh us down; the trees are combed for winter and bears’ tongues have melted all the honey; there is a loud suggestion of thunder; subtle drums under the candid hands of Indians are trying to tell us why we have come. But now we fear movement and now we dread stillness; we suspect it was the land that always moved, not our ships; we are in sympathy with the fallen trees; we cannot relate the causes of our grief. We can no more carry our boats our selves over these insinuating trails.19 [BLOCKEND]

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