By Craig Macdonald
is a word still in common usage amongst the older, native-speaking Indians
of Northeastern Ontario. Nastawgan are the ways or the routes for
travel through the land of the Temagami district in Northeastern Ontario,
just south of the height-of-land.
the advent of roads and railways, waterways provided the principal routes
for travel and communication over much of the shield country of
Northeastern Ontario, including the Temagami and Lady Evelyn watersheds.
It was much easier to travel on the waterways than to traverse the rugged,
rocky and densely forested terrain. Waterways were used not only in the
summer for canoe travel but also in the winter for travel by snowshoe and
toboggan. In many instances, the winter routes of travel varied little
from those used in the summer.
trail network based on waterways provided a wealth of natural campsite
locations as well as access to fisheries which furnished a major portion
of the summer diet for early residents. Unlike land-based trails, full
exposure to biting insects was limited to campsites and portages. Onigum
or canoe portage trails were maintained to by-pass unnavigable portions of
the route: rapids, falls, heights-of-land between waterways and floatwood
jams known to fur-trade canoemen as "embarrasses."
or special winter trails over land were equally important. In winter, the
chief obstacles to snowshoe travel were and still are open water and
unsafe ice, found where moving water resists the formation of ice.
Sometimes the Algonquin Indians simply extended the trail at the ends of
portages in order to reach calmer water with sufficiently thick ice for
safe travel. Rivers with strong current extending continuously over long
distances posed a greater challenge, especially where there was no space
for travel along the shorelines. In such cases they made longer bon-ka-nah.
Bon-ka-nah were also constructed specifically as shortcuts to
reduce the length of winter travel routes.
(See O-daw-ban for more on winter travel.)
(See O-daw-ban for more on winter travel.)
onigum (portages) and bon-ka-nah (winter trails) were
part of the nastawgan, there were advantages to using waterways for
both winter and summer travel in preference to the land trails. Probably
the most important advantage was the ease of transport for equipment and
supplies. Before the arrival of Europeans, the native population did not
have horses or cattle to serve as beasts of burden. Without the use of the
wheel, summer land transport was limited to dog travois, dog packs and to
what a person could drag or carry. On lengthy land routes this imposed
severe weight restrictions.
Photo: Brian Back
An onigum or canoe portage identified by the author between Bob and Obabika Lakes. Note how the cedars are malformed, curving out from the trail, from years of passing portagers.
on the other hand, permitted extraordinary loads of equipment and supplies
to be transported even on the most difficult routes. For every mile of
travel only a fraction was covered by portage. Because of the relatively
small portion of the total distance requiring portaging, several trips
could be made over each portage without significantly slowing progress. As
long as the cargo could be subdivided into units which could be carried,
large loads were transported with relative ease. Another advantage was the
limited maintenance required to keep the routes passable. On the water
portions, maintenance was restricted to cutting out fallen trees which
obstructed travel on narrow creeks. The portages or onigum
themselves received maintenance similar to that of any land trail, but
being short they were relatively easy. Most work consisted of breaking
down obstructing branches and sometimes marking the route by blazing trees
with an axe. Fallen trees blocking portages were rarely removed,
especially if cutting was involved. Either a few branches were knocked off
so one should step over the tree, or the trail was simply re-routed around
passing over wet areas received greater attention. Logs were laid on the
ground to improve footing. In some instances, metigo-mikana was
used to replace simple logs for traversing wet areas. Unlike the corduroy
of the pioneers, metigo-mikana was laid longitudinally in the
direction of travel so that a minimum of cutting was required for
construction. The walkway was often three poles wide, connected by cross
stringers which provided lateral stability. Cedar was the preferred
building material. Joints were often notched and secured by spruce root.
the winter, use of frozen waterways meant limited trail maintenance and
relative ease of transport. Travel on frozen lakes proved much easier than
on trails over rugged terrain. Not only did the lakes provide a level
surface for pulling toboggans and sleighs, but the wind-packed snow
frequently encountered on lakes was more easily traveled than the deep,
soft, mid-winter snows common to sheltered land trails. A man in good
physical condition could pull over frozen lakes a load of 90 pounds on a
toboggan all day without tiring. On the uneven terrain of many land-based
trails, this would prove an exhausting if not impossible task. Onigum
constituted such a small portion of the total distance that the deep
unpacked snow of these portage trails could be profitably broken by
snowshoe in advance of bringing across the load without too much loss of
time. If the load still proved unmanageable, it was broken up and dragged
across in portions.
on weather conditions, as much as three months of the year was poor for
travel along water routes. Freeze-up and break-up have always been a most
difficult time for wilderness travel in the Canadian North. For a period
during freeze-up, the open season for canoe navigation could be extended
by making arduous land detours around shallow lakes which had already
now most experienced wilderness travelers consider spring breakup to be
the most unsafe time to travel, because of the unpredictable strength of
the ice. Sometimes, however, the period between travel on ice and travel
on open water can be as little as two days. Traditionally, travel on
weakening ice-plates was accomplished by the ingenious employment of the
canoe-sleigh. A canoe was secured in an upright position on top of the
sleigh and the travelers walked along the surface of the ice holding on to
the ends of the canoe. Often two or three dogs were harnessed to assist
with the pulling of the load. If the ice gave way, the travelers quickly
jumped into the ends of the canoe, preferably before getting wet and thus
very cold. The sleigh would then be untied from the bottom of the canoe
and placed inside. The cycle would be completed by running the canoe up on
solid ice and reloading. As this type of travel was slow and dangerous, it
was usually undertaken only in times of extreme necessity.
a water system for winter transport required good knowledge of traveling
on ice. Lakes with large water inflows in proportion to their total
surface area were the most hazardous. These lakes are prone to water-level
fluctuations which stress and weaken the ice plate along the shoreline and
encourage the development of surface slush and air holes. Furthermore, the
the route was to be followed frequently, the designated snowshoe path was
often marked at regular intervals with evergreen boughs. This was done in
anticipation of the packed trail becoming obscured by drifting or new
fallen snow. Even if covered with new snow, a packed trail provided a
firmer base for sledding and snowshoeing. Since the packed trail was
elevated above the surface of the ice there was less chance of
encountering slush that would freeze onto the snowshoes and the running
surfaces of the sleighs.
Separation in walkway members exaggerated to show construction details)
was a problem. Slush is often created by heavy snowfalls depressing the
surface of the ice so that water seeps up through cracks in the ice to
flood the lower layers of snow. When insulated from the cold by additional
layers of snow above, the slush sometimes persists for weeks before it
eventually freezes. By packing down a trail on snowshoes, the upper layers
of compressed snow lose their insulating value, thus permitting the
underlying slush to freeze. During windy weather, the trail was often
packed down to a double width so that the track did not fill with drifting
snow before the slush had a chance to freeze. If such an effort
For the bon-ka-nah or land trail portions, extensive use encouraged an increase in the amount of trail maintenance undertaken. This included trail marking by blazing trees, and greater efforts to remove windfalls and overhanging limbs.
Since side-sloping trails were very difficult to negotiate with toboggans
and sleighs, the surface of the trail was often leveled with a snow shovel
at the worst locations. Leveling was especially needed where the trail
traversed the sides of hills. Shovels were also used to fill in the
hollows along the trail if heavy freighting was to be undertaken.
of ground water was another problem. Since water coming from below the
ground is several degrees above 0șC, it resists freezing even in very
cold air temperatures. Rivulets of ground water cannot easily be detected
when they flow under the surface of the snow. However, when a winter trail
was packed down, the flow of water often melted away the entire layer of
snow within a few hours. To repair the trail at these locations, it was
common to cut evergreen boughs and place them over a series of sticks laid
in the washout, thus creating an insulating mattress of vegetation. Snow
was then shoveled over the boughs and packed down with snowshoes to freeze
and create a snow bridge. The warm water could then pass under the trail
through the sticks and boughs without melting away the surface of the
trail or the snow bridge.
Occasionally, it was necessary to construct simple bridges or ramps. The bridges were used for spanning open creeks or sharp gullies while the ramps were made to facilitate scaling of abrupt rock ledges along the trail that could not be bypassed. Most ramps would take the form of a ladder with two outer, spanning poles connected by a series of cross rungs. The larger structures were rarely "brushed" with boughs. Instead the sleighs and toboggans were hauled up over the bare wood rungs. This permitted snow to pass through the structure, thus preventing a buildup which would allow the sleighs and toboggans to slip off the side of the span. These trail improvements were always undertaken only to the extent warranted by normal use. Travelers put in the minimum of work needed to keep the routes passable throughout the winter.
Some exceptions to this generalization did develop in the Temagami
district. After contact with Europeans some routes were significantly
upgraded for winter freighting by employees of the Hudson's Bay Company.
until the 1940s, over 75 well-maintained bon-ka-nah existed in the
Lake Temagami area. Macominising (Bear Island), Wa-wee-ay-gaming (Round
Lake), Shkim-ska-jeeshing (Florence Lake), Abondiackong (Roasting Stick)
[campsite on Sturgeon River near Josephine Creek], Non-wakaming (Diamond
Lake) were major intersections in this system of winter trails. Depending
on the nature of the local topography and waterways, the bon-ka-nah
ranged from a few hundred meters to many kilometers in length. Often the
shorter bon-ka-nah formed links between a chain of ponds used only
for winter travel. For example, the winter route from Maymeen-koba
(Willow-Island Lake) to Ka-bah-zip-kitay-begaw (Katherine Lake) followed a
series of small ponds and connecting bon-ka-nah lying between the
two branches of the Manja-may-gos Zeebi (Lady Evelyn River).
Typical pioneer corduroy
for wheeled traffic.
took detailed knowledge of the terrain to determine the best location for
many of the longer bon-ka-nah. Much evidence survives of the
skillful use of swamps and geological faults in order to keep the trails
direct and to minimize climbing. An outstanding example of using
geological faults for easy passage through hilly terrain can be found
today in a long fault which runs from Scarecrow Lake adjacent to lshpatina
Ridge, the highest elevation in Ontario, cross country through Florence,
Diamond, Jackpine, Net Lakes and the Ottertail River to Lake Temiskaming.
No less than 14 bon-ka-nah are located along this great fault.
onigum and bon-ka-nah of the Temagami district total over
1,300 in number. But inter-related network of summer and winter trails
represents only a small portion of a larger system of nastawgan
that until a few generations ago covered most of the Precambrian Shield
country of eastern Canada. They defined the way of the wilderness
traveler. Fortunately, the nastawgan of the Temagami district have
remained in a largely unaltered condition. These ancient wilderness routes
represent an important remnant of Canada's cultural heritage.
*Author's note: The material for this article has been derived as part of a detailed on-going study covering Northwestern Quebec and Northeastern Ontario. Sources include archival map collections, survey records, and especially personal field inspections. Particularly useful were interviews with many of the elders of the Teme-augama Anishinabay on Bear Island and elders of adjacent Indian bands, some of whom are now deceased. This invaluable resource has provided deep insight largely unobtainable from the written record.
Excerpted from Nastawgan: The Canadian North by Canoe & Snowshoe (Edited by Bruce W. Hodgins and Margaret Hobbs) and published by Betelgeuse Books. Reprinted with the permission of Craig Macdonald and the publisher.
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