Friday, 9 March 2012

Father Petitot arrives at Portage La Loche

The entrance to Portage La Loche is across the lake behind the island.

“Clear Lake and Buffalo Lake that we then crossed were beautiful and scenic. The second is around 43 kilometers. The first is even bigger but the dimensions are not yet known. A sinuous and flat river joins them to Lac La Loche which is 13 kilometers long. We arrived at this last lake on July 18, but we were not able to cross to the ‘Grand Portage La Loche’ until the 20th. because of the wind.

That is where the Lesperance Brigade was bringing us with its cargo of English merchandise to later return filled with furs from the north to York Factory on the Hudson’s Bay. Such is the commercial operation that ends every year at the ‘Grand Portage’.
I had just travelled 482 leagues since Fort Garry, 1,222 since Montreal, 2,924 since Marseille, and it had taken 42 days by York boat to arrive at this separation of waters that the Metis called ‘la hauteur des terres’.
I’ve already described Portage La Loche. The lake of the same name occupies the high ground. This line measures 19 kilometers 308 metres, that is almost 5 leagues, up to the Clearwater River in a valley 600 feet deep. However on the other side of the river the height of land continues for a great distance that has not been determined.
The soil of Portage La Loche is poor and sandy. Coniferous trees grow especially red pine. The south side is not very high. on the north side it is 1,200 feet above the level of the Glacial Sea.
On the south end of Portage La Loche were gathered 150 Chipewyan. Happy to see us they crowded around us to shake our hand.
--Ah! Fathers, said a Scot Metis catholic, guide to a brigade that had arrived before us, these are good Indians, that love priests and religion. And when you see the Slaves and the Dogribs on the other side you will find even more hand shaking.
A Scottish guide, Baptiste Bruce, helped by an Irish Metis, Ignace MacKay, and a French Beaver Metis, called Paulet, together built us a large tent with poles and oars from the York boats and other material lying around.
While there were no more than 400 people gathered at the time on the south side of the ‘Grand Portage’ they gave us a little understanding of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel. There were people from French Canada, Scotland, Orkney, England, Norway, Wood Cree, ‘Savanais’, Chippewa, Chipewyan, Beaver and Metis of all kinds; while Grouard and myself represented the French. We would have needed a ‘Pic de la Mirandole’ or a ‘Mezzofanti’ to make ourselves understood in this group. Most of us could only speak our maternal language yet it was adequate.
The Chipewyan tent village was just a little ways from our tent. I wanted to visit it hoping to see some interesting ethnic curiosities. There were none. The tents were made of smoked hides, conical like those of the Lapps; on the earthen floor, a few pine branches were placed around a small fire; in a corner, a pile of old clothes: and, here and there, a few uncured European utensils. Around the lodge were skinny dogs. There were no curious weapons, no native implements, not the least indication of savagery. These were a civilized people, of an indigenous, bohemian and always nomadic civilization. Yet everything was decent and chaste.
The women were wearing coarse red or blue dresses buttoned right up to the collar. On their head they wore bonnets like the ones I saw at Frog Portage. I hope that the French missionaries didn’t furnish them with these artistic head coverings."
(pages 269-272) ....En route pour la mer Glaciale by Emile Petitot (a translation) more about Father Emile Petitot more at 'The History of La Loche'

A portion of Sir John Franklin's 1819-20 map
Methye Lake is Lac La Loche with the Portage to the Clearwater River at the north end.