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Paris: Historic portage along the Ottawa River deserves recognition, not neglect

October 26, 2018
Roland Paris, Ottawa Citizen

Along the Quebec shore of the Ottawa River, partly concealed by tangled brush and strewn with garbage, lies a remarkable and neglected piece of Canadian history: a 5,000-year-old portage that served as a highway and campsite for Indigenous Peoples and European explorers until the mid-19th century.

The path skirts the Little Chaudière Rapids between Brébeuf Park and (the unfortunately named) Squaw Bay. It is one of the few remaining original portages of the historic Ottawa River canoe route – and apparently the most intact. Others have been built over, dug up, overgrown, and submerged beneath the elevated waters of the now-dammed river.

Don’t be surprised if you have not noticed the trail: It isn’t marked. But the old track is clearly visible if you know where to look. It winds through the foliage between the Voyageurs Pathway bicycle trail and the river. Exposed rocks and natural footholds have been polished smooth by long use.

Indigenous people used the portage and camped here. Edwin Sowter, the first archeologist of the Ottawa Valley, wrote in 1901 that the western shore of Squaw Bay, where the trail begins, was “strewn more or less throughout its entire length with fragments of worked flint,” indicating a very old encampment.

Étienne Brûlé was the first European to travel this route in 1608, followed by Samuel de Champlain five years later. When explorers realized that they could get to Lake Huron by travelling up the Ottawa, turning left on the Mattawa River and descending the French River from what is now Lake Nipissing, the Ottawa River became the principal artery for accessing the interior of the continent.

Virtually all the major explorers of Canada’s early history would have walked the Little Chaudière portage: Brébeuf, Radisson, des Groseilliers, de LaSalle, d’Iberville, La Verendrye, Henry, Thompson, Mackenzie and Fraser. Their names are etched in the whole country’s history, not just that of our region.

Some of their names were also etched on a metal plaque that once stood beside the portage. The trail was designated a national historic site in 1954, but for reasons that no one seems to remember, it was delisted in 1973. Now the plaque is gone and only its concrete frame remains, partly overgrown and covered by graffiti.

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