Articles

Ottawa’s BEAUTIFUL BACKYARD

The twisting, tumbling Gatineau River that sweeps past the nation’s capital bears its yellow pulpwood through a fabled frontier land where millionaire sportsmen and half-breed trappers rub shoulders in log-cabin hamlets with hermits, witches and revered faith healers

REGINALD HARDY December 15 1951
Articles

Ottawa’s BEAUTIFUL BACKYARD

The twisting, tumbling Gatineau River that sweeps past the nation’s capital bears its yellow pulpwood through a fabled frontier land where millionaire sportsmen and half-breed trappers rub shoulders in log-cabin hamlets with hermits, witches and revered faith healers

REGINALD HARDY December 15 1951

Ottawa’s BEAUTIFUL BACKYARD

The twisting, tumbling Gatineau River that sweeps past the nation’s capital bears its yellow pulpwood through a fabled frontier land where millionaire sportsmen and half-breed trappers rub shoulders in log-cabin hamlets with hermits, witches and revered faith healers

REGINALD HARDY

ON A CLEAR DAY from the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill you can trace the twisting course of the Gatineau River from the spot where it spews its jostling yellow tide of pulpwood into the Ottawa, to a point many miles to the northward where it suddenly vanishes in a little cleft of the piled, slumbering masses of the hills.

High-spirited as a mustang, unpredictable as a summer storm, this restless hurrying river, once a main water route of the Algonquins, is today the royal highroad to one of Canada’s last remaining unspoiled wilderness frontiers.

It is a country of startling contrasts, this Gatineau. At its gate stands the nation’s capital, crowned by the Gothic of the Peace Tower. Just eighty miles to the north at the end of steel lies the lusty little frontier town of Maniwaki, populated by two-fisted loggers, reservation Indians, half-breed trappers and fur traders and a river of tourists driving everything from fishtail Cadillacs to croaking jalopies.

In the rolling trough of the hills between these fixed points can be found an incredible potpourri of old-time settlers in pioneer log cabins, big-game

hunters who range all the way from Franchot Tono, the movie star, to Niles Trammell, president of the National Broadcasting Company; roving bands of Tête-de-boule Indians (so named because of their ball-shaped heads); seers, hermits, faith-healers, hillbillies, civil servants on holiday, witches and werewolves.

In the summer the ancient portage trails are clogged with new station wagons and the ancient hills are lit with the blinking glow of auto-court neon signs. Because of the Gatineau country, life begins in April for most Ottawans he they deputy ministers at fifteen thousand dollars per annum or grade three clerks with nonassessable incomes. All make tracks for the Gatineau.

The Americans follow when the frost is out of the roads. Many of them have been coming for generations. In some cases extensive hunting reserves have been held by their families on lease from Quebec for half a century. Indeed, it was only twenty years ago that Ottawa woke up to the fact that an incalculable treasure lay at its back door. The federal government established Gatineau National Park a few miles north of Hull

—twenty-four thousand acres of lake and forest.

When people speak about the Gatineau Valley they are usually thinking of the eighty miles between Ottawa and Maniwaki—the narrow, sometimes gorge-like valley along the river itself, and the rolling mountain country which stretches back for a score of miles to either side. But actually the river has its head waters almost two hundred and fifty miles north of the capital and its watershed covers an area of some ninety-six hundred square miles.

It is a country beloved of artists. In summer its shadowy blues and sombre greens, its cool amethysts and warm sepias lend the landscape a yelvet lushness. In the autumn its hills blaze with glowing crimsons and yellows.

The area between Ottawa and Maniwaki is studded with lakes such as Blue Sea, where several governor-generals have summered and Thirty-OneMile Lake, so clear and cold that Ottawa once considered drawing its water supply from it. There are thousands of these lakes, scores of them annamed.

North of Maniwaki lies the big-game country with its famous Mont-Laurier-Senneterre game reserve and its thousands of square miles of untouched timberland. The Canadian International Paper Company limits alone cover more than seven thousand square miles.

There is enchantment in these hills. The brooding silence of the eternal bush is forever crowding in upon the little villages named after the saints and huddling as close as possible to their big grey stone churches. The old Algonquin place names have a musical sound—Kazabazua (underground streams), Maniwaki (Land of Mary), Pittonga (where one hears the noise of rapids), Petawagama (two rivers running side by side).

The native inhabitants come of Scottish and Irish pioneer stock. Their ancestors cleared the little farms which creep shyly down to the riverfront or snuggle away in unexpected notches of the hills. The Canadien farmers and loggers are direct descendants of the voyageurs and coureurs ae bois who trapped and hunted up and down the valley decades ago. The dwindling bands of Algonquins once reigned supreme as lords and masters of this entire forest domain.

“We Folks Have Just Always Been”

Most of the Scottish and Irish families in the area trace their beginnings in Canada at' least to the middle of the last century. Many of the destitute Irish who fled their country during the potato famines eventually found their way to Bytown and thence up the Gatineau. During the eighteenthirties, following completion of the Rideau Canal, over two thousand Irish, huddled together in the squalid little settlement of Corktown, suddenly found themselves without means of livelihood. Many of them spread throughout the Ottawa Valley and up the Gatineau.

The Canadiens for the most part had settled far to the north where for generations they trapped and hunted. There was considerable friction between the two groups when the Irish attempted to take over the work of logging, until then an exclusively Canadien field. Eventually these local animosities disappeared.

As often as not you will find the Gatineau Valley farmer still occupying the same little plasterchinked log dwelling which his grandfather or great-grandfather hewed from the giant pine logs cleared from the farm site. But where good crops have brought prosperity, new and larger frame dwellings have been erected.

Always, however, the original cabins are left standing, for the people of the valley are born tradition is ts. Thus there is scarcely a modernized farm which does not have its little cluster of original buildings. The doors and windows of these abandoned little cabins may be open to the elements, their sway-backed roofs of cedar slabs caved-in, but their walls of giant squared timbers, laboriously shaped by axe and adz, are as straight and sound as ever.

By and large, life among the farm population along the river is a satisfying and rewarding one. But deep in the backlands there are little pocket« in the hills where sometimes entire communities drag out a mean, poverty-stricken and amazingly primitive existence. Lack of proper roads, schools, churches and other civilizing influences, coupled with a congenital indifference on the part of the people themselves, have reduced some of these settlements to a point verging on actual destitution. Continued intermarriage over the years has seriously weakened some family strains.

The unfortunate plight of one settlement of more than a dozen families all bearing the same name, whose ancestors ventured into a remote corner of Pontiac County nobody knows how many generations ago, was brought to light only last summer when it was reported that the children in one household had been stricken by some strange malignant malady which had already taken the life of one child. A belated investigation by local authorities disclosed the child had died of malnutrition. Two other children were brought to hospital, victims of a form of anaemia resulting from a meagre deficient diet. The members of this particular settlement had lived in their little

backwoods valley as long us any of their number could remember, fighting a losing battle with the poor, cut-over pineland which they had chosen. Where they had originally come from none of their number could say. “Figure we folks have just always been in this valley,” one grizzled octogenarian told an investigator.

Many hill folk are suspicious of strangers and abysmally ignorant of what is going on “outside.” Some have never ventured more than a few miles from the log shacks where they were bom, have never seen a book or magazine, heard a phonograph or a radio.

Over the years they have lost all record of their beginnings. Many with English names now speak only French, and vice versa. One old fellow I met bears the French surname of Fréchette, answers to the Christian name of “Mac,” and speaks only English, and that with a quaint Celtic brogue.

The law and the church seldom penetrate here. Many hold their land merely by squatters’ right and refuse to pay taxes. During World War I scores of unwilling conscripts faded back into these isolated comers, living on the bush. No sensible person ever attempted to rout them out.

In many of these

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Ottawa's Beautiful Backyard

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backwoods settlements marriage is often merely a matter of tacit agreement. Sometimes a parish priest, if he hears of it, will do his best to see that the situation is eventually “regularized.” But this may be a matter of months or even years. The fait accompli of a child born out of wedlock causes scarcely the lift of an eyebrow.

Among these people the customs and superstitions of their forefathers die hard. The Canadien backwoodsmen and half-breed squatters still rock their children to sleep with tales of the loup-garou, the werewolf of the northwoods, and threaten them, if disobedi ent or quarrelsome, with a visit from the Windigo, the old witch of the woods who assumes human form and seeks the blood of her victims when the moon is full. And among the shanty-Irish the old men still spin blood-curdling tales of will o-the-wisps and corpse candles, of bog ghosts and banshees.

Born almost with rifle in hand it is not surprising that some of these wilderness people attempt to settle difierences by the most direct means within reach. For many years near Gracefield, a riverside village fifty miles north of Ottawa, two brothers used to set aside part of the Sabbath for the attempted settlement of an old boundary dispute. After returning from church each Sunday they would oil up their guns and blaze away at each other across the fields. Legend is that eventually they both gave up, and died comfortably in their beds. Just last spring, back in Pontiac County, a discarded suitor took a couple of pot shots at the former object of his affections and the man of her choice —on their wedding day ! He, too, came wide of his mark.

Hermits and faith healers bob up in almost every village. It is commonplace to come across some old shack in the woods occupied by a long-haired, taciturn squatter who somehow manages to live on what he can beg or borrow and who just wants to be left to himself.

Because there has always been a shortage of doctors in the bush every old crone has her particular panacea of herbs and charms guaranteed to cure everything from croup to summer complaint. The faith healers, who practice their trade by the laying on of hands, the use of “holy” oil and prayers and incantations of their own devising sometimes attract quite a following. One of them is Willie McCaffrey, of Farrelton, thirty miles north of the capital, who is in his eightieth year and whose backyard is filled every Sunday with the cars of people who have come from all over the district to seek his assistance. McCaflrey, whose mother was one of the best-known midwives in the dis trict, and who himself once practiced as a butcher and amateur cattle doctor, has been hauled into court on a number of occasions by the Quebec Medical Association. But many people have a good deal of faith in the efficacy of his treatments and he appears to have the tacit blessing of the parish priest who has appeared in court on his behalf and testified as to his good intentions.

Few people know the hill folk better than the country doctors who serve them. Typical of these is Dr. Harold Geggie, of Wakefield, who after forty years’ service is soon to see his greatest dream come true: the establishment of a small hospital in Wakefield, a tiny village which straggles along the railway tracks at the edge' of the river

about twenty-five miles from the capital. It will be staffed by two of his three physician sons. Every week, winter and summer, Dr. Geggie makes a fifty-mile trip through his district. His son, Hans, makes a similar round of calls in an opposite direction.

The people of the valley set great store by their doctors who often as not become part of the local legend. For instance, there was old Dr. Jim Pritchard, of Alcove, a few miles north of Wakefield, a man of Falstaffian proportions. Old-timers will still point proudly to their front gates and declare

with a reminiscent chuckle: “Old Doc Pritchard couldn’t ever get through that gate. He had to come around by the cattle-gate.”

In this setting the summer vacationers and sportsmen provide a lively contrast. The heart of the big-game country centres about the town of Maniwaki. From this point the hunters strike into the primeval bush. It is estimated that about four hundred moose alone are taken out of the great Mont-Laurier-Senneterre game reserve every fall.

During the height of the tourist

season the streets of Maniwaki are jammed with American and Canadian cars. Contrasting strangely with the birch-bark canoes of the trappers and guides are the colorful assortment of amphibian aircraft which drop down for anchorage on the little lake just outside the town.

Here you will find such widely divergent characters as Doug Pickering, veteran bush pilot and operations manager for Laurentian Air Services; Edward Link, builder of the Link trainer, who has probably just flown in in his own plane from his home in

Binghamton, N.Y.; his sister, Marilyn, one of the few women in the district who boast a pilot’s license; Willie Commando, Algonquin guide par excellence; and Don McFaul, provincial game warden whose territory consists of a thousand square miles of virgin bush.

The most picturesque feature of Maniwaki are the Algonquin Indians from the nearby one-hundred-and-fiftysquare - mile reservation established almost a century ago. Many of the men make all the way from ten dollars to twenty dollars a day guiding, while the squaws come into town every day or so to hawk their beaded moccasins, grass baskets and other oddments from every street corner.

Stomping to the Fiddlers

Occasionally roving bands of Têtede-boule Indians, believed to be the lineal descendants of Iroquois war parties which once swept down the Ottawa and decimated the peaceful Algonquin tribes, visit Maniwaki from their trapping and hunting grounds far to the north. They also offer their wares to the tourists, but are studiously cold-shouldered by the Algonquins. The old fires of hate and resentment still smolder.

I When the last of the tourists have departed the valley settles down to its regular winter routine. Then it can be seen at its best. Now it is that the young men from the farms and the villages leave for the bush. There is a round of parties and dances to see them on their way. The old folks join ¡ in the fine old Canadien songs, A La j Claire Fontaine, En Roulant ma Boule, Sur le Pont d’Avignon. The young men try to outdo each other with exhibitions of jigging, and far into the morning the squeaking of fiddles and the stomping of feet drift off into the ; darkness as everyone joins in the excitej ment of the square dance.

Then it becomes in fact the country of William Henry Drummond — the country of the Habitant and Leetle Bateese, of Johnnie Courteau and the j Curé of Calumette. And if a good Scot or Irishman happens to show up the fiddler will oblige personally with a good Scotch reel or an Irish jig.

The commercial life of the valley has always centred about its logging industry which really began around 1800 when Philemon Wright, later to become known as King of the Gatineau, began working timber limits in the Maniwaki i area. Last year five million pulpwood logs and a million logs of pine were floated down the Gatineau.

What? They Got Sheets?

Old-time loggers grunt disparagingly j about the modern river driver. In the old days a dollar a day was good pay along the river and the old-time camp caboose was a shack with an open fire in the centre of a pile of sand shored up with logs. The men slept in doubleand triple-decker muzzle-loading bunks, ate salt pork and beans and whatever fish and game they could pick up, and went into camp for the winter and stayed there until the spring débâcle.

Today the men get an average of seven dollars a day, the company gives them real iron beds, mattresses, sheets and pillowcases. They get all the fresh meat they can eat, all the pies and cakes and bacon and sausages they can handle. Still the life of a logger is no job for a weakling. It takes men with broad shoulders and bulging biceps, clear eyes and the agility of a cat.

If you want to see the Gatineau logger at his roughest and toughest then you must pay a visit to Maniwaki

during the Christmas and New Year’s season. When about a thousand bushwhacker lumbermen hit town, their jeans bulging with folding money, local authorities send out a rush call for additional provincial police officers. Seldom, however, does the presence of these reinforcements dampen the spirits of the celebrating shantymen.

They will start a fight at the drop of a hat, whether the argument concerns the good name of their intended, their prowess as bushmen or some fancied insult or challenge implicit in another logger’s sneering glance. They are loudest and rowdiest when they’ve been freely indulging in whisky blanc which is virtually pure alcohol, or when they’ve been drinking cheap red wine well fortified with alcool.

Conductor George Barker, of Ottawa, who has worked the freights and passenger trains on the one-track line of the CPR which makes no fewer than thirty-eight scheduled stops between Ottawa and Maniwaki and does the eighty-mile trip in about three and a half hours, has been handling boisterous rivermen for the past forty years. Many a time he has had to stop the train while the crew took time off to subdue a particularly rambunctious gang of loggers.

“Things used to get broken up,” he will tell you. “Why, only three or four years ago things got so bad for a while we had to put on our own railway police. After a while, when the boys found out that all the tough scrappers didn’t come from along the river, they quieted down.”

They Talk About Lannigan

But the Gatineau bullyboy can be as docile as a lamb when he chooses, and when he’s feeling at peace with the world he usually wants to sing. For some years now he has been forsaking the old chansons in favor of mountain music and western cowboy songs. Thus on the train it is not unusual to come across a little group of rivermen gathered about a dreamy-eyed guitarplayer, drooling honeyed words of Rocking Alone. What gives added piquancy to the performance is that although many of the singers don’t speak English they have learned the English words of the songs. To listen to them getting around the words of On Top of Old Smoky, or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, their rendition heavily accented with rich patois, is an experience not quickly to be forgotten.

Unlike the Ottawa, the Gatineau River boasts no outstanding legendary figure of the stature of the famous Joe Mofero, from Montreal, who was the bully of the Ottawa. But they still talk about the prowess of men like the Lannigan brothers of Bouchette who were remarkable for their feats of strength twenty or thirty years ago.

Jack Lannigan, who died only a few years back, was famous for having wrestled a black bear and strangled it to death with his bare hands. Another time Lannigan disarmed a dangerous Indian named Wabi who had served time for killing a man with an axe and who had run amuck in a lumber camp. With a load of liquor under his belt Wabi strode about the bunkhouse brandishing his axe and warning the men that it was again thirsting for blood.

Lannigan, who liked his sleep, finally jumped from his bunk, wrenched the weapon from the Indian’s hand, broke the hickory handle over his knees and then advised the suddenly sobered Indian to get back to bed. This mild and fatherly suggestion Wabi very sensibly accepted and another legend was born among the rolling hills of the Gatineau.