By Brian Back

There are places where the winds of time blow harder and thousands of pairs of feet have tread for thousands of years. These time-swept places, like Lady Evelyn Liftover and Sharp Rock Portage, have always been busy intersections on the region's major prehistoric and historic thoroughfares. As the region's economic forces shifted, they witnessed the change from aboriginal moccasins to mining and logging boots to recreational Tevas of today.

The Crystal Portage is one of these weathered sites. It long served as the Wahnapitae First Nation's main thoroughfare over the height of land between the Wanapitei and Sturgeon watersheds, and was on the trade highway between lakes Timiskaming, Temagami and Huron.

Crystal Portage map

The portage received its name from the unusual shape of gold discovered there in 1892. The precious metal was crystal-like and was regarded then as the most unique gold formation ever seen in Ontario.

In the 1880s, the area became crowded with loggers and the Wahnapitae people drifted south to aboriginal communities around Lake Huron. The portage consisted of a 220-metre trail between Boland's and Matagamasi lakes. There was also a short portage between Boland's Lake and Wanapitei Lake. By 1892, loggers had dug a canal between the latter two lakes to float logs coming through from Matagamasi, on their way to mills on Georgian Bay and in Michigan.

The Crystal Mine operated from 1892 to 1898 and 1907 to 1908, consisting of four shafts and an adit. Although three or four prospecting outfits dabbled off and on around the property until the late 1960s, there was no other gold production. The mine was one of the earliest hard-rock operations in the Sudbury area and drove a mini-rush across the Matagamasi, Wolf, Maskinonge and Kukagami lakes region, but there was little profit to show for it.

When the Wanapitei Lake dam, at the outlet to the lower Wanapitei River, was rebuilt and enlarged in 1930 it raised the water level high enough to merge with Boland's Lake and Boucher Lake (today called Bushy Bay). It also flooded part of the mine. Canoes could now paddle within 70 metres of Matagamasi and a shorter portage was adopted.

As this was the primary route from local communities into Matagamasi, a narrow-gauge marine railway was constructed along the portage trail by the 1930s. It was used by loggers, prospectors, fire rangers, boaters, cottager owners on Matagamasi and guests from Wanapitei lodges. It sported its own little trestle across a ravine and had a single, flat-bed car for toting gear and small boats. But there was no engine that could. Portagers had to bend into the tough push up slopes at each landing. The descent required careful footwork on the ties while braking. Frequently, the car slipped away and hurtled down out of control, crashing into the log stops.

By 1960 there was road access to the south end of Matagamasi, fewer guests were travelling from Wanapitei lodges, loggers no longer came from the Wanapitei side, and fire ranging was declining. No one was doing repairs and the railway became inoperable. The car ended up at the bottom of Lake Matagamasi and the trestle rotted. Prospectors brought in a tractor in the 1960s for exploration and finished off most of what remained. Buck Olivier of nearby Lakeland Lodge on Wanapitei Lake has rescued the car, and it is now restored and on display at the lodge.

In 1985, Goulard and Roy lumber companies began construction of the Mackelcan (aka Wolf Lake) Road that crossed the Crystal Portage. Local anglers built a boat landing on the Matagamasi side next to the short portage trail. Though a few metres longer, it was wider, straighter and graveled, so canoeists started using it. But it was on private land.

Private land? In 1892, as was the practice in those days, mining claims could be converted to private property with ease. The entire area around the portage was privatized. But the portage, the original long trail, became an easement. After mine production petered out, the property saw little occupation for the next eight decades and no one was around to object when the canoe portage moved to the short trail.

At various times the properties reverted to the Crown for tax arrears. But the Ministry of Natural Resources (and its predecessor, Department of Lands and Forests) did not dissolve the land parcels, but resold them to prospectors. Around 1985 it sold most of the properties to developer William McGregor who intended to subdivide them into cottage lots, now that they were road accessible. By 1991, the subdivision had approval, the mine shafts were sealed, and the lots went on the market. Fortunately, the original Crystal Portage became a road right-of-way so it is no longer private land.


                                                                            LAKELAND LODGE

Guests from Lakeland Lodge on Wanapitei Lake using the marine railway, 1943.

                                                                                     BRIAN BACK

Closed 80-metre portage trail and Matagamasi landing.


McGregor did not object to the illegal landing or the short portage. Lots sold slowly in the 1990s, but took off after 2000. No one bought the lot containing the new portage as it was shallow, close to the main road and expensive to build on while conforming to environmental regulations. But the illegal landing continued to attract boaters who camped there, and partied. A neighbour, disturbed by the noise, bought the lot in 2005 and closed it. (However, given that the new portage existed when the land was owned by the Crown, there is a legal argument to be made that it is protected as a portage.)

After several millennia, the Crystal has not given up as a highway. Canoeists continue to keep it functioning. Today, they can take the original route, but the preferable way is an easy 100-metre detour along the road (see map).

POSTED: 10.30.06



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