“…we encamped for four nights without even shifting the place of our tent.”
-John Macdonnell describing how he recovered from the rigors of passing through the La Vase Portages in 1793.
Mouth of the La Vase River, Lake Nipissing – August 2, 2013
You’re never far from civilization on the La Vase Portages. I could hear cars racing in the distance, trains, and backhoes working a rock quarry. I crossed highways and railroad tracks. I walked under power lines, slid though a culvert, and paddled past a golf course. But for moments, I felt lost in some wild crack between now and three-hundred years ago, like Champlain or MacKenzie or Thompson might wander toward me at any moment, dazed and confused, to ask what those odd machines are on the road and why they make so much noise.
The La Vase portages are the connection between the Ottawa and Huron watersheds. Everything going east or west came through them, traders, goods, furs, missionaries, explorers. Then the railroads came and the highways and turned the La Vase into nothing more than a few trails and lakes, some beaver dams, a swamp and a muddy river.
But it’s still there, hidden under railway bridges, slipping over highways, weaving through civilization like a seven mile museum with only will for an entrance fee.
And when you’ve paid, when you’ve hauled and dragged your way across, when you’re soaked in mud and sweat, when you slip past that last bend of river and stare out at Lake Nipissing stretched to the horizon, you understand, for just a moment, what it must have felt like.
This route would be lost without the help of the Friends of the La Vase Portages who have marked and maintained the route, saving it from being found only in the pages of old history books.
When railroads and highways replaced the La Vase portages as the main route of transportation, trees fell across paths, plants grew up on the trails, weeds choked the water, and the route became nothing more than swamps, lakes, a few beaver dams, and a muddy river.
But people decided it was worth saving, worth reading old journals and figuring out where the paths might be, worth going off into the swamps and woods to find them, worth putting in tremendous amounts of work to open the route again.
The Friends of La Vase Portages made my trip through history possible. Thank you guys so much.