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A History of the Little Hawk Portages
Saturday, 12 February 2011 01:41

By Laurent Robichaud

[Far in Temagami's northwest, upstream still from Matachewan, lie four little portages. They run north-south, from PIgeon Lake on the West Montreal River, to Ferris Lake, on the Grassy River. They seem so simple, yet the watershed they cross and the history they hold is immense. There are but few ways to travel by canoe from Temagami to James Bay. But the inhabitants and invaders, packateers and traders, the missionaries, settlers, prospectors, surveyors, and campers all found their way... over the Little Hawks. -ed.]

Sometimes we ask ourselves why we do what we do. My search for the Little Hawk Portages has been unusual to say the least. Over a year ago I received a call from Ed McPherson with the Friends of Temagami. He asked if I knew about the height-of-land portages from the West Montreal River to the Grassy River. Looking for these historically significant portages originated in my participation with another northeastern Ontario “Friends of” group. The Friends of the Grassy River is trying to prevent a hydro generation project at High Falls, near Timmins. It was because of our savehighfalls.com website that Ed found my name.

I started my search, as I would normally do, by looking at maps and finding the easiest route. One possibility went down a bush road near Big Four Lake, but that route didn’t seem to please Ed, so I quit the search. A month later, while driving, I got a flash. A friend of mine had given me photocopies of land surveys done in 1900 and earlier. He gave them to me thinking they would help us save High Falls. Well that was it! The search began again!

ferris mapWhen you start looking at the history of First Nations, fur traders, geologists and even youth camps, you ask yourself: “How did they travel across country, in so many directions, all across Ontario and beyond?” How much traffic the Little Hawk Portages had will be hard to determine. It was used at least up to 1926 by Camp Keewaydin expeditions to James Bay. Early Canadian Geographic Survey records go back to 1875. When I found out there are pictographs on Ferris Lake, on the Arctic watershed side of the portages, it added more reason to continue searching for this elusive connection. Only when one of our Friends of the Grassy River members found a 1900 map of the Districts of Algoma and Nipissing that I resumed my search. That map clearly shows the trails’ location, between Pigeon Lake on the West Montreal River and Ferris Lake on the Grassy River.


Part 2: Geologists and Surveyors, 1867-1900

The Little Hawks were also used during later part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Robert Bell, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, writes about them in his <span>Report on an Exploration in 1875 Between James’ Bay and Lakes Superior and Huron</span>:

From the northern extremity of Pigeon Lake, the route which I followed passed northward over four portages and three ponds, to the eastern extremity of Kaik-kaik-ose or Little Hawk Lake. The four portages are called the Little Hawks. The first is 897, and the last 510 paces long, while each of the two intervening ones measures about one mile and a-quarter.

Further on, Bell talks about how, after crossing Kaik-kaik-ose (now called Ferris) Lake, they paddled the Grassy River to connect with the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Mattagami:

Kaik-kaik-ose Lake discharges by a large brook. After flowing less than a mile, this joins another from the northeastward and forms the Grassy River, which, in its north westward course of about fourteen miles to Shatagami Lake, expands frequently to form long marshes and shallow lakes.

grassyriverShatagami Lake is now named Sinclair Lake, in honour of Duncan Sinclair’s east-west survey line of 1867. This was the turning point, to portage west for five and a half miles to Fort Mattagami.

Land surveyors also used the Little Hawks. The 1900 Report of Exploration Survey Party No. 3, under George R. Gray, relates their travels. His surveyors, Demorest and Silvester, make interesting comments about the portages:

A very imposing elevation on the North side of Little Hawk marks the divide between the Hudson’s Bay and St Lawrence waters; but the actual divide is level and at a very low elevation not more than ten or twelve feet above the water on either side.

The four portages from Hawk Lake to Opishgoka or Pigeon Lake known as the “Hawk Portages” have at one time been well cut out and much used, having formed part of the Hudson’s bay Company Route between Fort Matachawan and Mattagami but at present they are badly choked by successive windfalls.

In 1958, John Macfie found native pictographs on the southeast corner of Ferris Lake. Bell and Gray recorded native activity all along the route. Ojibwa and Métis lived throughout the area. Joe Jarbeau, Sandy Green, and Daddy Restoule lived with their families between Pigeon Lake and Sinclair Lake. When the first surveyors passed through, the elders said that they had lived there for over twenty-five years. Dating the pictographs could show some interesting historical information.


Part 3: Youth Camps Reach the Bay

Perhaps my most prized findings of recorded travels were from Keewaydin Way, by Brian Back. His book brought back memories of my younger years when I lived near the Groundhog River in Fauquier. Camp Keewaydin has a history on Lake Temagami's Devil Island dating back to 1904. Since then, they have logged some impressive expeditions, including their first trip to James Bay and back in 1911. The first time the all-boys camp used the Little Hawks was in 1926, on the Moose Factory-Grand Lake Victoria expedition.

That trip started on Lake Temagami and headed northwest, up the Trout Streams to Smoothwater Lake. They then followed the Montreal and West Montreal Rivers to Pigeon Lake, where they portaged the Little Hawks to Ferris Lake. To this day, Keewaydin calls the Little Hawks, "the Pigeon Portages,” because they started their crossing from the south end. Perhaps unknown to them, these were the famous Little Hawks. The boys then paddled down the Grassy, the Mattagami, and the Moose rivers to Moose Factory. They then paddled up the Abitibi River to Grand Lake Victoria, Lake Kipawa, Lake Temiskaming, and home to Temagami. Back called this Keewaydin's, "most extreme trip.” The guide, Pete Stanger, never returned to the camp.

High Falls on the Grassy RiverSince that time, Keewaydin and other youth canoe camps (Wanapitei, Ahmek, Wapomeo, and probably others) have paddled the Grassy. The river is a gentle run, with a few small rapids and the spectacular High Falls. If you're not up to a full Bay trip, you can loop back upstream on the Mattagami River to the Gogama or Shiningtree areas.

highfallsMuch history behind the traffic on the Little Hawks remains to be discovered. We will never hear all the stories related to this important early travel route, but one thing is for sure, I hope it will never be forgotten.

Thank you to Laurent Robichaud of Friends of the Grassy River for his pioneering work in the revival of the Little Hawk Portages, and for writing this series. For more information on the campaign to protect the Grassy from hydroelectric development, please see http://www.savehighfalls.com

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