1837 | Lake Huron

Sparkling Waters

Anna Jameson voyages in a Canadian canoe.

Now to take things in order, and that you may accompany us in our canoe voyage, I must describe in the first place our arrangements. You shall confess ere long that the Roman emperor, who proclaimed a reward for the discovery of a new pleasure, ought to have made a voyage down Lake Huron in a birch-bark canoe.

There were two canoes, each five-and-twenty feet in length and four feet in width, tapering to the two extremities, and light, elegant, and buoyant as the sea mew when it skims the summer waves. My blankets and night gear being rolled up in a bundle, served for a seat, and I had a pillow at my back; and thus I reclined in the bottom of the canoe, as in a litter, very much at my ease; my companions were almost equally comfortable. I had near me my cloak, umbrella, and parasol, notebooks and sketchbooks, and a little compact basket always by my side, containing eau de cologne, and all those necessary luxuries which might be wanted in a moment, for I was well resolved that I would occasion no trouble but what was inevitable. The voyageurs were disposed on low wooden seats, suspended to the ribs of the canoe, except our Indian steersman, Martin, who, in a cotton shirt, arms bared to the shoulder, loose trousers, a scarlet sash around his waist, richly embroidered with beads, and his long black hair waving, took his place in the stern, with a paddle twice as long as the others.

We started off in swift and gallant style, looking grand and official, with the British flag floating at our stern. Major Anderson and his people, and the schooner’s crew, gave us three cheers. The Indians uttered their wild cries and discharged their rifles all along the shore. As we left the bay, I counted seventy-two canoes before us, already on their homeward voyage—some to the upper waters of the lake—some to the northern shores; as we passed them, they saluted us by discharging their rifles. The day was without a cloud, and it was altogether a most animated and beautiful scene.

Later we bought some black bass from an Indian who was spearing fish, and apropos, I never yet have mentioned what is one of the greatest pleasures in the navigation of these magnificent upper lakes—the purity, the coldness, the transparency of the water. I have been told that if in the deeper parts of the lake a white handkerchief be sunk with the lead, it is distinctly visible at a depth of thirty fathoms—we did not try the experiment, not being in deep water; but here, among shoals and islands, I could almost always see the rocky bottom, with glittering pebbles, and the fish gliding beneath us with their waving fins and staring eyes—and if I took a glass of water, it came up sparkling as from the well at Harrowgate, and the flavor was delicious. You can hardly imagine how much this added to the charm and animation of the voyage.

About sunset we came to the hut of a fur trader, whose name, I think, was Lemorondière; it was on the shore of a beautiful channel running between the mainland and a large island. On a neighboring point, Wai-sow-win-de-bay (the Yellowhead) and his people were building their wigwams for the night. The appearance was most picturesque, particularly when the campfires were lit and the night came on. I cannot forget the figure of a squaw, as she stood, dark and tall, against the red flames, bending over a great black kettle, her blanket trailing behind her, her hair streaming on the night breeze—most like to one of the witches in Macbeth.

We supped here on excellent trout and whitefish, but the sand flies and mosquitoes were horridly tormenting; the former, which are so diminutive as to be scarcely visible, were by far the worst. We were off next morning by daylight, the Yellowhead’s people cracking their rifles by way of salute.

The voyageurs measure the distance by pipes. At the end of a certain time there is a pause, and they light their pipes and smoke for about five minutes, then the paddles go off merrily again, at the rate of about fifty strokes in a minute, and we absolutely seem to fly over the water. “Trois pipes” are about twelve miles. We breakfasted this morning on a little island of exceeding beauty, rising precipitately from the water. In front we had the open lake, lying blue and bright and serene under the morning sky, and the eastern extremity of the Manitoolin Island; and islands all around as far as we could see. The feeling of remoteness, of the profound solitude, added to the sentiment of beauty; it was nature in her first freshness and innocence, as she came from the hand of her Maker, and before she had been sighed upon by humanity—defiled at once, and sanctified by the contact.

We landed at sunset on a flat ledge of rock, free from bushes, which we avoided as much as possible, from fear of mosquitoes and rattlesnakes, and while the men pitched the marquees and cooked supper, I walked and mused.

I wish I could give you the least idea of the beauty of this evening; but while I try to put in words what was before me, the sense of its ineffable loveliness overpowers me now even as it did then. The sun had set in that cloudless splendor, and that peculiar blending of rose and amber light that belongs only to these climes and Italy; the lake lay weltering under the western sky like a bath of molten gold; the rocky islands which studded its surface were of a dense purple, except where their edges seemed fringed with fire. They assumed, to the visionary eye, strange forms; some were like great horned beetles, and some like turtles, and some like crocodiles, and some like sleeping whales, and winged fishes. The foliage upon them resembled dorsal fins, and sometimes tufts of feathers; then, as the purple shadows came darkening from the east, the young crescent moon showed herself, flinging a paly splendor over the water. I remember standing on the shore, “my spirits as in a dream were all bound up,” and overcome by such an intense feeling of the beautiful, such a deep adoration for the power that had created it, I must have suffocated if——

But why tell you this?

Contributor

Anna Jameson

From Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada. “A little ill-built town on lowland, at the bottom of a frozen bay,” wrote Jameson, a Dublin-born art historian, Shakespeare scholar, biographer, and memoirist, upon arriving in Toronto in 1836 from London. “I did not expect much; but for this I was not prepared.” She embarked on a journey through the southwestern part of the province the next summer, then published this account—written in the form of a journal to an absent friend—after arriving back in England in 1838.