The Atlantic watershed sign on the ridge near the old Tombill Mine. Looking west on June 5, 2014. The wooden animal cutouts have been replaced by painted images because people kept stealing them.

2  ̶  The Height-of-Land Portage

Tombill mine was located on a ridge. To the east, below the ridge, the waters of Magnet Lake and Magnet Creek began a journey that would take them to James Bay in the Arctic watershed.

To the west lay a stretch of swamp and another rise of ground on which the Jellicoe mine was being established. Between the two mines, a small unnamed stream flowed north and then east and then south and emptied into Magnet Creek. Like the Tombill mine, the Jellicoe mine was located on the height of land.

Maps show a height of land as one long gracefully curved line. The line, also called a divide, separates one watershed from another. In fact, heights-of-land are shaped rather like the toes in a duck’s webbed foot. A true divide is not practical to represent on a map.

A true representation of the divide in question would show the following: Jellicoe mine, height of land; unnamed stream, James Bay watershed; Tombill mine, height of land; Kenwall siding, James Bay watershed; Bankfield mine and Magnet Lake and Magnet Creek and Bankfield station, all James Bay watershed. It sounds, and looks, complicated.

Maps are being updated all the time. On the height of land portage, different maps show a cluster of small water bodies between Wildgoose Lake and the unnamed stream. Some maps suggest these lakes drain west into Wildgoose Lake via another unnamed stream. This would place them in the Wildgoose Lake/Lake Nipigon/Lake Superior/Atlantic Ocean watershed. However, as one travels the bush road that supposedly bridges this unnamed stream, there is no obvious water course or culvert.

Before 1915, there was only one way to reach the divide in question. One paddled north of Lake Superior to Long Lake post. One followed a series of water courses and portages west to Little Long Lake (Kenogamisis Lake) and then west up an unnamed creek (now named Magnet Creek) to an unnamed lake (now called Magnet Lake).

Or one started at Lake Nipigon and paddled east up the mamaominikon river (Sturgeon or Namewaminikan River) to a big unnamed lake (now named Wildgoose Lake), and portaged over the height of land to what came to be called Magnet Lake. Between Wildgoose Lake and Magnet Lake, one would cross the height of land.

In the early summer of 1883, one canoe party chose the Sturgeon River route. E.B. Borron had received another commission from the Ontario Government to conduct a journey of exploration. Edward Barnes Borron would ascend Nipigon River to Lake Nipigon, and then proceed to Long Lake Post and thence to Albany Factory and Moose Factory on James Bay. Borron departed Red Rock trading post with four companions in “a large four fathom canoe” (a 24-foot canoe). On the Nipigon River, he acquired a First Nations guide. A very wise move.

In the early summer of 1883, one canoe party chose the Sturgeon River route. E.B. Borron had received another commission from the Ontario Government to conduct a journey of exploration. Edward Barnes Borron would ascend Nipigon River to Lake Nipigon, and then proceed to Long Lake Post and thence to Albany Factory and Moose Factory on James Bay. Borron departed Red Rock trading post with four companions in “a large four fathom canoe” (a 24-foot canoe). On the Nipigon River, he acquired a First Nations guide. A very wise move.

A 1990 Canadian stamp gives the more familiar names of a 4-fathom birch bark canoe. The North canoe (24-feet long) was shorter than the voyageur canoe (36-foot long) used in ferrying passengers and cargo from Montreal to Fort William.

The party arrived at Nipigon House, the Hudson’s Bay Co. post on the west shore of Lake Nipigon. Borron concluded that his large canoe would be a handicap further inland. He could not exchange his vessel for two “half-length canoes”. However, he did pick up a second guide. On the afternoon of June 16th, 1883, he left Nipigon House. His party camped on an island before crossing the broad expanse of the lake to the mouth of the Sturgeon.

A painting by William Armstrong, dated 1901, shows a scene from Nipigon House. The daughter of the post manager bends over a “half-length” or 12-foot birch bark canoe. Photo Library & Archives Canada.

 The journey upriver required numerous portages. Borron noted in his journal the rapids, falls, fish species, rock formations, minerals, and timber he encountered. All the while the party had to contend with rainy days, frigid mornings, and black flies.

On the morning of June 24th, the party rose at 4:00 and embarked around 5:00 a.m. After an hour’s paddle, they arrived at the height-of-land portage. This was the party’s fifteenth portage since leaving Nipigon House.

In his report to the Government, Borron described the portage as “the longest and worst” in his numerous explorations of Northern Ontario. This “portage” actually required more than one portage.

They had arrived at the northeast shore of Wildgoose Lake. Luckily, they had two guides to identify the portage. They were running short of food, and could have fumbled around for hours, or perhaps a lifetime, before finding the trail. Today, the author’s best guess is that the trail started at an unadvertised campsite just metres from locally-named Wildgoose Beach Road.

Annotated Google Earth map showing the area of the height-of-land portage. The straight line is 4 miles (6.3 km) long.

In those days, portage trails were primitive. First Nations porters did not cut trails. They simply picked a direction to follow and chose a path of least resistance. Porters did not use flagging tape, although they did blaze trees with an axe on occasion. Over the centuries, passage over such a trail left a deep indentation in the ground  ̶  if they were lucky. If they met a windfall obstacle, they walked around it.

Landing on the shore of Wildgoose Lake, the party headed eastward, climbing a ridge of gravel and sand and arriving at a small lake, Porthos Lake. The cartographic portrayal of the cluster of lakes and ponds can be confusing. One cannot find one definitive map of this cluster, and Google Earth is ambiguous. The party negotiated a sixteenth portage in a swamp and embarked on another small lake. “This crossed,” Borron recorded, “we landed and found ourselves still in a swamp. Here commenced our seventeenth portage, one of the longest and worst, not only on this route but any other I have yet passed over. It is about three miles in length, and for the most part over muskegs so wet and soft that the men with loads on their backs frequently sunk down almost to their knees.”

Borron described an encounter with another small pond which the party was obliged to cross in the canoe. No modern map shows this pond. This position coincides with a marshy patch on the Kenwell siding road which has been corduroyed with planks. After the spring melt, this ground could have been navigable by canoe. Borron commented that this “pond” was considered part of the seventeenth portage.

At this point the party camped for the night, “my men being very much tired”, having made three “stages” or trips since Wildgoose Lake.

Borron’s journal made no mention of an unnamed stream during the portage. This stream crosses Highway 11 via a culvert, and it is so narrow that one can actually step over it. Moreover, the course of this stream is so convoluted and overgrown that one could easily mistake it for just another bog hole.

The next day, June 26th, the party rose at four o’clock, breakfasted on “a hurried cup of tea and a bit of biscuit”, and carried on. “The black flies and mosquitoes . . .  harassed us almost beyond endurance. About 9 a.m. everything had been got over, and we embarked on a small lake. We had not gone, however, more than half a

mile when we came to another, the eighteenth portage. This was only, however, seventy-five yards in length. It terminated in a stream fifteen to twenty yards wide, the water of which flowed towards the east.”

It is difficult to square Borron’s route description with the geography of modern maps. The “small lake” must be present-day Magnet Lake. It must be the northernmost bay of Magnet Lake. In striking for the mouth of the creek, Borron may have been distracted from seeing a long view up the lake. Perhaps fog or mist obscured his vision, or perhaps he was too preoccupied swatting flies. The eighteenth portage must be around the initial rapids on Magnet Creek, “the water of which flowed towards the east”.

Section of the previous Google Earth map, showing the set of rapids at the beginning of Magnet Creek.

Arriving at Barton Bay on Kenogamisis Lake, one of the party noticed a strong variation of the compass needle, better than 90 degrees. The variations persisted all around the bay. Borron deduced that a large body of magnetic iron ore lay under the lake and its shore.

Section of a 1917 map of the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway route between Longuelac (sic) and Jellicoe. The stretch between Little Long Lake (Kenogamisis Lake) and Wild Goose Lake shows three stations: Langmuir, Bankfield, and Keemle. Magnet Creek is labeled but not Magnet Lake, which is shown in ghostly outline. Cartographers did not have the benefit of aerial photography in 1917, yet the contours of all water bodies are remarkably accurate. Note the mining claims on the west arm (Barton Bay) of Little Long Lake. The red symbols indicate iron formations. Borron’s report of his exploration in 1883 resulted in an “iron rush”, and gave an appropriate name to the creek. The gold rush had to wait until 1932 with Tom Johnson’s discoveries in that same area. Note that two trails lead from the railway to the claims: one from Bankfield, and another from the locality of the future Kenwell. The catalogue of toponyms is interesting: Portage Lake, not Porthos Lake; Cross Lake, not Scroll Lake; Wild Goose Creek, not Scroll Creek. Map courtesy of Ontario Bureau of Mines.

Finally, on June 29th, after completing the 23rd portage, the party arrived at Long Lake Post.

After the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway began service in 1915, the height-of-land portage fell into disuse. A railway ticket saved a traveller a great deal of time, money, sweat, pain, and in black fly season, scratching.

The obverse of the watershed sign looking east.

Continued in Chapter 3 . . .

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