A Woman on the Mississaga - Part 2

22 November 2020

At the time this article was written, the canoe route from the CPR mainline down to Basswood Lake was just starting to become one of the most prestigious adventures of the day in North America. The trip stayed popular for many decades following this particular journey and literally thousands of adventurers made their way through the series of lakes and portages to get to the final stretch down the Mississauga.

As the route became more formalized and the portage locations and pathways became signed and marked, the journey was less reliant on guides to help people find their way. Many are aware that the Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson famously made the trek in 1912 unguided with an associate Mr. W.S. Whitehead. This trip preceded Thomson's fame as a painter and in fact at the time he was more interested in drawing sketches and taking photos of the natural surroundings as a commercial ad artist. Some say that his trip along the Mississauga was the turning point in his life when the scenery and majesty of the wilderness inspired him to express himself with his iconic use of paint to capture the essence of wilderness landscapes. His two month trip along the Mississauga route ended unceremoniously with the capsizing of their canoe while trying to navigate Squaw Chute where most of his photographic records were destroyed. Thomson and Whitehead then abandoned the route and hitched a ride across land to Bruce Mines from that point – he was just a kilometre short of passing my Grandfather’ John McEachern's cabin downstream on the north side of the river and it makes me wonder what may have happened had they not tipped their boat and finished the trip down toward the Basswood Lake portage.

Tom Thomson and W.S. Whitehead camping on the Mississauga – 1912

Photo of Tom Thomson and W.S. Whitehead camping on the Mississauga – 1912

Thomson wrote in his diary that they had stayed a few days at Biscotasing on the CPR mainline to pull together supplies at the Hudson Bay store. Their supplies, which were likely similar for most adventurers taking the route, consisted of “flour, sugar, pork, beans, rice, prunes, baking powder and other commodities which are not affected by the dampness and are most easily carried. They also procured some desiccated potatoes, onions and milk which are light to carry and which go a long way. These articles together with tent, blankets and clothes made packs of about two hundred pounds each.”

As mentioned, the route stayed very popular for many years and was actively promoted by the Canadian Pacific Railway to stimulate passenger traffic on the mainline. A 1930 travel brochure produced by the CPR included an advertisement which was very compelling in voicing the opportunities along the route:

“THE MISSISSAUGA RIVER - This name is magic to sporting writers and artists for its impressive grandeur, its highly prized speckled trout as well as its lake trout, bass, muskie and pike.

The astounding variety of beauty in these waters ranges from the calm lake on whose pine-clad shores, deer and moose frequently startle the eyes of the voyageur, to the magnificent spray-sheeted falls of Aubrey Gorge which are higher than Niagara. You will revel in the swift glide down Forty Mile Rapid. Squaw Chute is passed and then comes the Mississauga Tunnel where the river in foaming fury churns its way through a narrow cut walled with solid rock. Slate Falls portage is next and the trip is best terminated by crossing a half mile portage on the right, 50 yards below.

This portage leads to Big Basswood Lake where a conveyance may be obtained to transfer outfit to Thessalon. The trip is usually begun from Biscotasing, 88 miles west of Sudbury on the mainline of the Canadian Pacific. It can be comfortably done in 14 days; although considerably more time could be spent exploring the outlying lakes.

Outfits, guides and canoes are procurable from Pratt and Shannacy, Biscotasing, or J. A. Town,Thessalon (Jim Town was my Great Grandfather J.B.Dobie's Son-in-Law having married his daughter Nell - Jim Town took over the Dobie general store in Thessalon in 1921) . Much fuller information may be obtained from the Board of Trade, Thessalon, Ont. and by application for a special bulletin to t he General Tourist Agent, Canadian Pacific Railway, Montreal, P.Q.

BASSWOOD LAKE - Basswood Lake, a few miles north of Thessalon, is one of the finest lakes in the district. It is set between rocky hills, swathed in a rich blanket of green pine patterned with translucent white birch. Its waters are particularly deep, clear and cool, and there are trout and bass galore for the most ardent fisherman. On the lake is a newly established camp, well-equipped with cottages, boats and tennis courts.”

The adventure would see the start of its demise with extensive logging and floating of log booms down the mighty Mississauga over the years. Then in the late 1940’s the preparations began for damming the River at three locations to harness hydro power closing this great chapter of history forever. Our family camped with my Father up on the northern tip of Tunnel Lake in the mid 1960’s where the reservoir just reverts back to the original river channel. On the island where we pitched our tent had settled large logs with augered holes and immense chains threaded through which had made up the booms – one can only imagine the size of the logs and the envronmental havoc created by corralling them down the river channel.

We trust that you will enjoy the second installment of “A Woman on the Mississauga” and hope that the other information which we have provided will add some context to this story and our local history.


Swain Family 13
Swain Family 9

"Our family camped with my Father up where Tunnel Lake reverts back to the Mississauga River in the mid-1960's"


After that luncheon in the hot sun (never take a meal in the hot sun) we started on our way across the portage to a small lake. Shemahgan had said it was about one half mile across, so we took fairly heavy packs. However, that mark was soon passed, then the three-quarter mile mark, and finally we came to the end, reaching a pretty little lake of very clear water. Glad we were to get there, as we had had a hot walk. It is wonderful though how soon one forgets the difficulties of the trip in the beauties which are ever before the tourist and the wonderment of what is coming next. That was about the only hot day we had, and it was hot only on land.

A ten minutes paddle brought us across the lake to a short portage of three minutes walk. We had now arrived at Long Lake, or Goshabowigamon, as the Indians call it. But only one of our party had ever been over this part of the route. Twenty-two years ago Joe had come up the lakes with Hudson Bay supplies. At our place on Long Lake we asked him where the portage was. Thinking a moment, he answered, "there is a point of land on which are some tall pine trees with some shorter' ones under them ; the portage is around that point." And sure enough, there it was. Not once did he lead us astray, which to us, unaccustomed to wood craft, was very wonderful.

Goshabowigamon is seven and a half miles long with two narrows, making us think of a pillow made to represent a person, with a string tied around it to form the neck and another the waist.

About a mile from the lower narrows we turned to our right into a small bay, on the left of which we discovered the portage, 'but one quarter of a mile long. This led us to a tiny little lake, though ever so pretty, especially at that time of day; it was about five o'clock. The yellowish sunlight haze cast over everything was such an entirely different effect from what we had seen on the large lakes. We felt like throwing all the packs over to the other side, it seemed so almost useless to have to pack them all. I fear, though, had we employed this scheme, we would have been short of our entire outfit.

Another quarter of a mile portage and oh such a glorious sight as was brought to our view. It is impossible to describe my feelings and true impressions of Wiyawiagamon (Round Lake). It silenced me in its grandeur rather than making me exclaim, except once in a while when I could not repress a word of admiration. A large round lake, with islands and bays, nestled down in a bowl of high green banked mountains, the blue haze of departing day, spread over it as a mantle, and just enough wind to ruffle the water a tiny bit. What could be more beautiful? It gave one the feeling of being utterly away from every one, and yet not a truly lonesome feeling. It made one feel as if she were as near the top of the world as one could be, and yet protected from tempests by the surrounding walls of green.

Never shall I forget that paddle across the lake. Just before reaching the farther side our sense of utter possession was taken away from us by the discovery of another camping party— three geological surveyors, who had been out since the first of May. After a short call, from our canoe, we proceeded on our way, as it was growing dark, and we were anxious to make a certain camp for Sunday.

Going through a small stream of swift water we, in the leading canoe, had a pretty surprise in waiting for us at the end. Not twenty feet from us stood a deer on the shore. He looked at us two or three seconds, I think as much surprised as we were, then dashed off into the woods and whistled quite a number of times. As we looked back at the shore he appeared again and looked at us. This made five deer that we had seen during the afternoon.

Another half mile downstream and we arrived at the grand Lake Minnesinaqua, which means "many points looking like islands." About a mile down from where the Mississaga River flows into the lake, on the south side of the lake, we found a beautiful camp ground with a long stretch of sandy beach for bathing, and a large rock on which we all thoroughly enjoyed a gorgeous moonlight evening.

1905 Post Card of Lake Minnesinaqua from the Mississauga Canoe trip

1905 Post Card of Lake Minnesinaqua from the Mississauga Canoe trip

It was on this lake two centuries ago that the Ojibway and Mohawk Indians had a great battle, the former completely wiping out the latter. Fishing in this lake is excellent, pike and maskinonge being found in great abundance. Minnesinaqua is ten miles long and a wonderfully grand lake, with its high mountains and cliffs on every side, and points jutting into the water from every direction, forming most attractive little harbors.

Four miles from the head of the lake we entered on Aug. 21st into the narrows, on one side of which there is a high cliff, but which is fairly easily climbed. From here one may get a magnificent view of the entire lake and surrounding country.

Many, many times on the trip one is forced to feel the insignificance of oneself amidst all the grandeur. It makes one look, as he paddles along in a canoe by one of these cliffs, like a very small and insignificant unit indeed as we explore this new and beautiful world.

Making only a short Sunday afternoon paddle, we struck another portage of one half mile, at the end of which we again made camp, when we had our first rain storm. The tents were hurriedly pitched, in order to get things under cover. With an umbrella held over it, we 'had a very jolly time preparing dinner and "dining out" or rather in, as we were all invited to the Doctor's tent for dinner, this being the only time on the entire trip when we were unable to eat out of doors.

Monday, the 22nd. We are now on the Mississaga River and started the day with rapids, the first three of which we all ran. The latter was a bit difficult, there being little water down the rushes and this very frequently has to be portaged. The fourth was shot by one of the guides only, and he had some difficulty, having to pull into a rock near the end, where he emptied his canoe of water before continuing his way.

The party were all very glad of the portage, as they found such quantities of tremendous blue berries. No matter how heavy the pack one may be carrying, the temptation to stop and pick berries is too strong to be resisted.

At 10.30, just at the foot of this rapid, we passed the junction of the Wennebegon and Mississaga Rivers, the former flowing into the latter at the right of the rapid.

We very shortly came to Aubrey Falls portage, in a bay at the left of the head of the Falls. It is one mile long, very hilly and stony, but one is able to take a good rest half way over, leaving the packs on the trail and branching off to the right, where one gets a superb view of the Falls, 165 feet high. From the roar of the water as one approaches it some idea of its grandeur is obtained, but when the Fall is really in sight there is very little said at first until the realization of its beauty begins to sink into our minds. It is a broken ragged fall, with quiet little pools and narrow streams falling between crevices of the rocks. The great volume pours over the centre rocks to end in a pool of seething water at the bottom. One should really see it to know its beauties, as new features are forever bringing themselves to the fore. The resistless power of time and water are among the strong impressions received.

Aubrey Falls – Mississauga River

Aubrey Falls – Mississauga River

Two more rapids and much swift water were on our highway for the afternoon. As to scenery, it was very grand, the river running at times between high cliffs, then through rather an open country, where we could see the mountains in the distance, and finally into a white birch district, there being no evergreens on either shore.

Our camp "Wigwas" (white birch) was ever so pretty, but being at the 'head of a portage, we had some difficulty in finding dry wood. It is not really advisable to camp on a portage, as, being done so often, the dry wood in that vicinity has been pretty much burned. Of course, camping at a portage is a saving of time in packing and repacking.

Tuesday, the 23rd, was a day full of adventures, as from 8.30 until 12.00 we ran twenty-nine rapids, the water over the rocks averaging about ten inches. It was the most exciting morning we had had and all were hoping for more.

At luncheon time, there was a display of clothes on the stony beach in front of us, some of the hold-alls with their contents having gotten a bit wet going through the rapids. One heart was made sad by the wetting of a nice white shirt waist, which was being saved with great care for a grand and clean entry into Desbarats, where we intended to spend a week at the end of the trip. All hopes of this entry had to be abandoned and the camp outfit, in all its weatherworness, made its appearance in Desbarats.

As we all settled ourselves again in the canoes our cry was "more rapids", and we got them. We were almost satiated with them during the afternoon, but not quite, having to run twenty-eight "horse races", as the Indians call swift water, and three rapids. The last one, being a drop of eight feet in a very short distance, made it quite thrilling. All the canoes but Joe's shot in safety. "Caution," as we often called him, was shy about taking two ladies down, as canoes had been swamped in the waves at the bottom. After much coaxing and promises to keep perfectly still, we ran through in safety, taking in but a tiny bit of water. We all had great confidence in our guides by now, or we would not have attempted it.

Camping time was with us once more, but Joe was anxious to push on two miles further, where he said we would find a potato patch. Tired though we were that sounded most attractive and on we pushed, arriving at Squaw Chute after a short portage. Two log cabins were in evidence and pansies and nasturtiums, and a bit to the left was the potato and cabbage patch : And a real mining prospector and his cat ! We soon had the old man, Mr. Ripley by name, digging potatoes for us, and no one was shy that night about showing how fond they were of "new boiled potatoes." Hard tack and sugar were also brought forth, much to our delight, as our supply of sugar was fast growing small, indeed "ladies only" had had sugar for two meals.

Woman Portage9

Our tents were pitched just by the foot of the Chute and during the evening we had a most glorious fire on the rocks, using logs, fifteen feet or more in length. These logs had been jammed up on to the rocks during spring freshets. Mr. Ripley spent the evening with us, telling many yarns, one being the cause for the name of the Fall. Many years ago a young Indian girl was carried over the Falls and drowned. She is now buried in front of the old man's cabin, as is also a young Indian boy, who was drowned at the head of the Fall. The graves are covered with heavy strips of birch bark weighted down with stones. Around the graves had been made a fancy picket fence, but this has now fallen to pieces. Only traces of it may be seen now.

On Wednesday, the 24th, we had our last rapid on the trip during the morning, which is considered a mean and dangerous little one, because half way down it there is a sharp turn where there is a strong current or eddy with scattered rocks, then continuing down over numerous rocks. In all, it is a drop of about twelve feet, and excitement is high while running it. (This would have been War Eagle Rapids south of Axe Lake which was where my Grandfather John McEachern homesteaded on the north side of the river and his brother David on the south side of the River at about this time – they started excavating a mine shaft adjacent to the rapids in about 1910 and extracted some significant amount of ore by hand – David’s finely crafted house is still standing about 400 metres up from the shores of Tunnel Lake). The bark-canoe, drawing more water than the Old-Towns, caused the men in it to step into the water occasionally, to ease it when following in our course. They would occasionally have to get out and lift it over the stones. This immensely amused the guides, especially Joe, who saw the funny side of all things and had a regular school girl giggle, hard to stop when once started.

John McEachern

John McEachern (top) with J.B. Dobie (below) at War Eagle Mine adjacent to Mississauga River rapids of the same name - 1915

Our noon-day meal was at Tunnel Portage, which is a long one of three miles. By walking for two miles a team is secured for carrying the packs and canoes, three being carried over very easily in one load. While a guide has gone over for this (in our case the General did it, for which we had cause later to be very glad), an opportunity is given to visit the Falls and inspect an old mining camp, with the mill, etc. Then the walk across the portage is started. Members of the party may, of course, ride if they prefer it, but the road is really better for walking than driving.

Half way across a break is made to the left, taking a path down, down, down to a view of the tunnel or gorge, where the river races, plunges, and races on again, between great solid walls of rock, not more than twenty-five feet apart. Two miles over the portage we came to a spring belonging to the farmer who owns the team. The spring was the springing of a surprise upon us in the shape of a bag of flour, two blueberry pies and a coffee pot full of milk put there by the thoughtful General. Right here let me give a piece of advice ; and that is, if ever any one drinks from the side of a coffee pot let him first make sure that the spout is turned up, as while one member was drinking it was suddenly discovered that the milk was going to waist through a blue flannel pocket.

We camped but a short way below the tunnel, although we had hoped to reach Slate Falls two miles beyond. Seeing a storm preparing to break over our heads, we thought it better to take the bull by the horns and make camp as soon as possible. We were in an open field, with nothing but burnt stumps around us. A farmer lived nearby and he soon came to investigate his neighbors and see if he could be of any service. Great was our joy when he brought us a large pail of milk and one of cream, really, truly cream.

Supper over, we saw that everything was secure for the night, the tents having guy ropes put on them and everything in camp put under shelter. The precious cream and milk was covered and put into the river well weighted down with stones.

One member of the party proved that he had still some "tender-foot" in him. He thought he had found a beautiful spot for his tent in rather a protected little holow, and was snug when he and the two other men turned in. About two o'clock his mind was changed, for everything in the tent was floating in seven or eight inches of water ; the storm having finally arrived in all its fury, and the water pouring down from the field into this same "snug little harbor." "Quit wetting me, that's a mean trick" were the words in his mouth with which one of the party awakened, but he soon realized the trouble, and there was a great scramble for the guides' tent, where Joe was busily engaged holding on to his tent pole. We women were not so badly off, as Joe had placed our tent on higher ground, so that as the wind abated we were all right and only wet on one side of the tent, where the rain first came in under the flap. Again everybody was good-natured and laughing, and all were looking forward to drying time in the morning. Some of our cameras floated around in that tent, spoiling some exposed films, and that was a saddening incident, because we had views that we thought a great deal of. Slate Falls was our next point of interest, and there we arrived at noon on Thursday, the 25th.

The scenery on the river had greatly changed before reaching this grand feature. There were a few farms scattered along the banks; the high mountains had disappeared in the distance and instead of deer and bear we saw just every day cows and sheep. At Slate Falls we had another glorious bit, however.

Our first portage, from a quarter to half a mile long, was very stony, and shoes with a firm sole are most acceptable, unless our feet have become thoroughly hardened. I noticed that the guides changed from their moccasins to boots. Slate Falls has been well named, and the portage should have the same prefix— the whole thing is slated.

To see the Falls one has to leave the regular trail and bear off to the left, going toward the river, where the tourist is well paid in seeing the water rush over the rocks into a large pool below, and away to the left he gets a glimpse of noble Waquekobing Lake (Big Basswood Lake). Here at our feet in the falls the logs are jammed into crevices of the rock by the awful power which has brought them thus far downstream, there to be left to be worn out and fall to pieces by the constant wear of the water, or hung up high and dry, until one wonders how they could have gotten so far above the river.

A short paddle (200 yards) brought us to Red Rock Falls, lower and much more broken than Slate Falls, but just as grand in a different way. At the foot of these we had to bid farewell to the Mississaga River, one of the grandest and most interesting rivers I ever expect or can hope to see, for the infinite variety of its scenery, and the swiftness of the water, which is as ever changing as its scenery.

Luncheon over, we took our packs for the last time and started over the portage to Lake Waquekobing (original name of Basswood Lake), one short mile away. Here we took possession of a cabin, which has been built for a club-house, as the fishing and hunting in this section is most excellent.

There was a stiff wind blowing, causing a big sea on the lake and blowing down trees in the forest, three of which we saw fall. The lake was too rough for us to attempt crossing with our laden canoes so the men stayed overnight in the cabin, but we girls, as usual, sojourned in our tent.

The Canadian Camp Clubhouse on the north east shore of Big Basswood Lake at a later date – 1930’s

The Canadian Camp Clubhouse on the north east shore of Big Basswood Lake at a later date – 1930’s

How civilized we did feel as we sat eating our dinner at a table in that camp with benches on which to sit, instead of our usual fashion of squatting on the ground, and using a rubber blanket as a table cloth. The next morning we were up for a four o'clock breakfast, as we had to get across the lake, take a long drive, and catch the eight o'clock train for Desbarats at Dayton Station. The paddle across the lake was weird and most attractive, as we started in the moonlight, though by the time we had landed on the other side, two miles away, the sun was just ready to show itself above the hills. The air, just a bit crisp from the cold night, was delightful, and made us all anxious to keep on paddling. But there must be an end to all good things, and that was what happened to our canoe trip.

At Day Mills, on the southeastern side of Lake Waquekobing, was hired a team to carry the canoes and packs to the station at Dayton, five miles away, the girls driving over in a buckboard, and the men walking. (Day Mills was then the location of the J.B. Dobie’s Basswood Lake family retreat, Komta Cottage, on what is now Portage Street off Highway 17 just east of the Harris Creek crossing). As the train pulled into the station and we boarded it with all our stuff, and had to say good-bye to our guides, I for one was made to realize one great gift which has been given us by the Maker and Builder of man - that of memory. Many will be the pleasant moments and hours spent in going over in our grateful minds a trip which is filled with happy memories, with rich and deeply graven impressions ; and at a high estimate we place the value of the friendships made during those eleven days spent in God's own country, where the hand of man has not yet done its destructive and beauty-marring work.

The End!

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