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The LaVase Portages
The woods and bogs of the Ontario town of North Bay hide one of Canada's most significant travel links

lvp6.jpg (174451 bytes)

(click on the image for more pictures of the route)

Canada's fur trade routes are well known and documented. Anyone interested can follow them by paddle and portage, with one notable exception: the LaVase portage. The literature and public brochures give you a general outline, but they lack the detail to allow you to retrace it on your own. There are cairns at highway 17 and at the lakeshore, but don't rely on the posted map at Dugas Bay to guide you successfully across as it is not accurate enough. Let me fill in this gap...

LVP Overview.jpg (47716 bytes)

You should expect that a few things have changed since the days of the voyageurs. For one, sections of the portages are routed away from their original location, because some land has been taken over by industries (e.g. the quarry and the safety perimeter around a chemical factory). In other places, the water level has changed and drowned the original path. And, there is a section of the LaVase River that the voyageurs had to portage since they could not maneuver the large boats around the tight bends of the river - while you can paddle and enjoy the swifts and riffles. Last not least, urbanization has brought railways, roads and houses to the southern end of the route. But, the upper sections of the route are still in a natural state, and if you are willing to put up with the chore of portaging, you can retrace the steps of Canada's explorers on this crucial link of the Canadian fur trade routes.

There has been little use of the portages over the last decades, maybe because they are a bit of a chore, because urbanization encroached in the lower sections and, with people having cars to go further, paddlers went elsewhere for their weekend trips. As a result, today's LaVase portages need an experienced guide to take you across.

        What others have said:

A few people have crossed the continent in recent years by boat, and some have documented the difficulty of the LaVase portages.  In "Coke Stop in Emo", Alec Ross describes how he carries his boat through the city's streets, competing with the traffic. The McGuffins ("Where Rivers Run") were wise and made North Bay the seam between two sections of the trip: in 1983 they finished their trip on the shore of Trout Lake, and the following year, they continued from the shore of Lake Nipissing, thus avoiding LaVase altogether. This was a wise decision, when you consider how, Ilya Klvana describes the route in his journal, on September 16, 1999:

"What a rough day! I first had to fight an east wind for seven hours on Lake Nipissing. Then, getting over the height of land to Trout Lake (head of the Mattawa which empties into the Ottawa) was even harder. I could have done an easy five-kilometre portage through the  streets of North Bay, but I wanted to take the historic route: 11 km (took six hours) on the La Vase River and through swamps. I paid for it in sweat, blood and injuries to my kayak. The first four kilometres were easy, until I had to start dragging the poor kayak over rocks in almost dry rapids. After climbing over a railway I got onto a three-kilometre long swampy creek. Most of the time the vegetation was too thick to paddle so I had to wade waist deep (sometimes chest deep) through cold smelly muck. Fortunately beavers have created a few ponds which allowed for a few minutes of paddling. After the swamps, I did a one-kilometre portage under electrical wires to the highway and to Trout Lake. this tore up my legs since it was full of spiny blackberries and I was wearing shorts (stupid). When I got to Trout Lake I walked right into it to wash off the blood, sweat and mud"

If it was not for dedicated individuals and specifically the North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority, we might not have access to the portages any longer. Occasionally, sections of the trail were cleared and marked with flagging tape. A parking lot was created at the north end specifically for the portages. Where the trail goes over privately owned land, agreements with (most of) the landowners have been worked out and in any case, the Ontario Public Lands Act protects your right to move yourself and your gear across portages. furcover.jpg (5382 bytes)
And, if you are curious about the fur trade and its routes in general, an excellent book has been published recently: "Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America", by Barbara Huck. It not only details the routes and portages but also gives valuable insights into the trade. The illustrations are true and plenty, thus making it a pleasure to peruse. Click on the image on the left to display the publisher's webpage.

lvp3_small.jpg (4044 bytes)On a day in late fall of 2001, Paul Chivers took me across the portages. I recorded the exact trail with a GPS and overlaid the GPS track file onto the topo maps. Above is the overview map in scale 1:250,000, showing the route from Dugas Bay in Trout Lake heading south to Champlain Park on the shore of Lake Nippissing. More details are below. Allow for a good part of the day for the trip - we did it in about 6 hours, and we had high water levels that made paddling easy.  It will be difficult to follow the trail in the bush in some of the dense areas since any flagging seems to get removed by "whoever" and the track overgrows quickly. So, give yourself extra time...


LVP Upper.jpg (114217 bytes)Left: Upper Section: Dugas Bay to La Vase River (click on map for details)

LVP Middle.jpg (89098 bytes)


Right: Middle and lower section: LaVase River (click on map for details)

Geological and archeological information:
Even though the LaVase portage was the key link of the Montreal-based fur trade routes, much of the earlier traffic across the height of land used a different route - via Park Creek, a bit further to the north. It allowed an easier portage for the smaller canoes used by native travellers but was unsuited for the large and heavy Canot du Maitre. A website set up by the city of North Bay has excellent information on the archeological digs in the area and the underlying geology of the area. Click here!
Native Names for Historic Portages (I believe the information came from Craig Macdonald):

Kotchewanicamingue - Northern portage (place where you put on the load???)
Kawmashkotchwingue - Middle Portage (refers to open grassy plain???)
Joshkewanicamingue - Lower Portage (Zhishki - Mud La Vase - Mud). Joshkewanicamingue was also the name used to refer to what is now known as the La Vase River.
Skuteh Waubo Saugaigun (Skuteh - Fire, Waubo - Liquid, Saugaigun - At the place of the lake) was the original name for Brandy Lake, the lake on the south side of Highway 17.

When you do this route, a GPS will be of great help. You can download a tracklog and a waypoint file from this website and upload it from your computer into your GPS, then navigate with the help of that neat technology. The files are text files, in PCX5 format, which can be imported into utilities like GPS Utility, OziExplorer, and QuoVadis Touratech. 

Track File Waypoint File

Credits: My thanks to Paul Chivers for taking me through the routeand and sharing his knowledge. Also, I owe to Larry for loaning me his GPS so I could record the trip.

Note about the map images:

Copyright: Extract of the data sets
North Bay_31I at 1:100,000
North Bay_31L06 at 1:50,000
Powassan_31L03 at 1:50,000
    İHer Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada
    Reproduced with the permission of Natural Resources Canada

The maps were produced with QV Touratech using the topomaps from QuoVadis.

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