As unpredictable as the rusty loops it has worn in the black prairie loam, this is the sleek, squalid, gentle, violent stream that inherited the wide Manitoba plain

HUGH MACLENNAN August 13 1960


As unpredictable as the rusty loops it has worn in the black prairie loam, this is the sleek, squalid, gentle, violent stream that inherited the wide Manitoba plain

HUGH MACLENNAN August 13 1960



As unpredictable as the rusty loops it has worn in the black prairie loam, this is the sleek, squalid, gentle, violent stream that inherited the wide Manitoba plain


Before I became acquainted with the Red River, I shared the general eastern notion that it was the dullest river in Canada. I could not have been more wrong. The Red is the most surprising river we have in the whole land.

To look casually at the Red in Winnipeg nobody would ever think so. Brown and lazy, it twines through the city with the motion of a convolvulus and finally wanders out again into the vast sameness of the Manitoba plain. Not even after it has received the Assiniboine does its appearance seem to alter, for though the Assiniboine virtually doubles its volume, the difference in the river's size passes almost unnoticed in the huge, flat prairie through which it Hows. In Winnipeg the Assiniboine looks like its identical twin, and before the two streams meet in the city's heart, strangers frequently mistake one for the other. It is only from the air that their distinctiveness appears. Seen from above, the Red looks like a brown worm wiggling north through the prairie. But the Assiniboine. seen from above, has a sweep to its course: it swings out of sight across the western horizon with a gesture of promise, if not of majesty.

As North American rivers go. the Red is not long. From its source in Minnesota to its terminus in Lake Winnipeg its length is only 545 miles, some hundred more than the Assiniboine’s and about fourteen hundred less than that of the combined Saskatchewans. The parent stream issues from Traverse Lake under the name of Bois de Sioux, and when this little brook unites with the Otter Tail at the small town of Breckenridge, the Red River proper begins. In the United States they call it the Red River of the North to distinguish it from the much longer Red River that joins the Mississippi in Louisiana.

Once the Red finds its true direction, it goes directly north according to the map, but does so with a continuous wiggling movement. Sleek and muddy, its silt making it opaque at a depth of four inches, its current so sluggish that a strong contrary wind can bring it to a halt, its banks ominously low, the Red for nearly all its course seems utterly undramatic in normal seasons. It forms

part of the boundary between Minnesota and South Dakota and all of the boundary between Minnesota and North Dakota. It wiggles through Fargo, through Grand Forks, through a number of tank towns hard to tell apart. These main-street towns have changed hardly at all since Sinclair Lewis wrote about Gopher Prairie, but they do have the Red. which Gopher Prairie did

not. The Red wiggles on, picking up a succession of small prairie streams,

most of them dried out in summer, most of them in rainy springs cataracting

into the main channel in sluices of liquid mud. Just below the little town of

Pembina, the Red crawls across the international border into Canada. Barely a quarter of its length is in Manitoba, but these last miles are by far the most interesting ones.

I find myself able to describe the Red in general terms only in a series of

paradoxes. The first is the contrast between its color and that of the prairie through which it flows: the prairie is not red at all, but charcoal black.

The reason for the Red's color is the depth of its trench, which is shallow compared with the Saskatchewan’s — a most important point in the river’s history — but quite deep enough to lie well below the black topsoil where the Manitoba wheat grows. It is carved right into a subsoil clay that bakes hard in drought and turns into a gumbo in rain.

The second paradox is more difficult to make clear, for it is the most surprising of all.

It is that the Red River, more than any other stream I have seen outside England, reminds me of the Thames. It would be impossible to find anywhere outside mountainous regions any section of the globe more unlike the south of

England than the Manitoba plain. In the southern shires the villages nestle in the lea of copse-crowned hills, the farms arc like private gardens, the trunks of the oaks anti beaches are moss-green from the perpetual moisture, the interplay of light is symphonic. There are none of these subtleties in the Red River Valley, which is not a valley as most people understand the term but a colossal plain, table-flat. In the spring the plain is a black ocean, in August a golden one and in winter a white one. and its sole companion is the vast sky that changes constantly above it. Vet in this stark setting the Red again and again creates little aquatic scenes of bowery loveliness. Rich trees follow its banks, and more than once, as 1 stood on prairie level and looked at a reach of the stream, I thought of the Thames at Goring, and once, where an apron of lush green stretched out into the water, I even remembered Runnymede.


Then there is the delta. It contains more than a hundred square miles of marsh grass and water, its expanse utterly flat and viitually uninhabited. As you near the forks where the three main channels ooze through the sedge into Lake Winnipeg. this empty region alive with swirling birds is as awe-inspiring as the delta of the mighty Slave in the Northwest I erritories. In late autumn and early winter the northern lights rise over it, and the weird glow of the aurora filters through the man-high marsh grass in such a way that the whole region is translated out of this world, is translated into shifting patterns of unearthly light.

Yet in this delta, miles from any settlement, on a fine spring afternoon I found myself in channels so small, still, intimate and fragrant that I could not help thinking of what is probably the most civilized stream on earth, the tiny Chcrwell, winding through shrubs and birdsongs past Addison's walk on its way to meet the Thames at Oxford.

There are more contrasts of a general nature, and not all of them are charming. This same river I have called both gentle and awe-inspiring can also, in its higher reaches, look as squalid as a dried-out irrigation ditch in certain seasons and vicissitudes of climate. During the great drought of 1934 there was a period of six months when the Red above Winnipeg virtually disappeared; in all that time not even a bucketful of water went through Fargo, though Fargo is almost 150 miles from the source. Sixteen years later the Red ceased to be a river once more, but this time it turned itself into a lake that inundated much of southern Manitoba.

Now. to combine all these contrasts into the single one that is the principal cause of all the others — the Red behaves in this contradictory way because, geologically speaking, it is not a river at all. It is a surviving remnant of what once was the largest fresh-water lake in existence, at least in recent geological history.

Lake Agassiz — so the geologists call it after the Swiss scientist who studied the movements of icecaps — was the product of the last of the glaciers that shaped the present form of the central Canadian plain. It is with the origins of Lake Agassiz that everyone must begin who wishes to understand the nature of the central prairie, of the prairie lakes and of the Red River itself. The time to begin is 600,000 years ago (a recent date in geological history); it was probably then that the first Ice Age began. Since that time there have been four major advances and retreats of the polar icecap in America, and the eflects of all of them are plainly visible in Manitoba today.

I he prairie was not always as it is now. Once it was a rolling land like the country between Ottawa and Lake Ontario, with hills and depressions and little streams. But as quadrillions of tons of ice formed on it, the weight slowly crushed the land; when the ice moved, it shaved off every hill and filled in every depression until the prairie as we know it was formed. The ice in its progress south finally pressed against the height of land that extends just south of Traverse Lake, and there it stopped. This small elevation, today crossed almost unnoticed by thousands of tourists in their cars, is one of the most important land-heights in North America, for it is the north-south continental divide. It is the reason why


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When the Red floods there’s nothing anybody can do about it — it’s no longer a river, but a lake

the Missouri curves southeast and the Red flows north. But — and this is another curious contradiction in the Red’s history—there was a time ages ago when the Red did flow south. While the glacier still existed in the north, south was the only way the water could go. so it dribbled over the continental shelf and eventually found its way into the Mississippi.

Now picture the scene in central Canada as it was during the thousands of years when the climate warmed and the ice melted. As the glacier withdrew and the ice became water, the water was captured in a vast basin bounded in the south by what is now the north-south divide, and in the north by the glacier. This water basin was Lake Agassiz, and for several eons the Red — as has been explained— drained some of it off in a southerly direction.

In the period of its greatest extent, Lake Agassiz was more than seven hundred miles long. At its northern end it was about seven hundred feet deep. It covered northwest Minnesota, parts of the Dakotas and much of the central Canadian plain, and for a time its chief drainage was easterly into Lake Superior. As the glacier continued to retreat, the remains of millions of dead organisms sank to the bottom to enrich what became the dry land that settlers first put under the plow in the last century.

Not until 10,000 years ago—only yesterday in the time-span of a geologist— did the main body of Lake Agassiz finally draw off. Behind it remain substantial bodies of water called Lakes Winnipeg, Winnipegosis, Manitoba, the Upper and

Lower Red Lakes, Lake of the Woods and the Nelson and Red Rivers. Today the Red, joined by its lazy tributaries, worms through the heart of the bed of old Lake Agassiz.

That is why, when certain weather conditions conspire, the Red reverts to the behavior of the lake that fathered it. In simpler language, when the Red River floods there is nothing the people of Manitoba can do about it. You can fight an ordinary river by means of dikes and levees, but nobody can stem the overflow of a river that turns itself into a lake on a continental plain where the greatest elevation seldom exceeds six feet.

In the spring of 1852, David Anderson, Bishop of Rupert’s Land, was able to reflect with good reason that civilization, religion and tradition were taking root in the vast frontier diocese under his care. In his school near old Fort Garry one pupil had just completed the reading of Aristotle’s Ethics in the original Greek. Several others had worked through Herodotus into Thucydides, four lads were studying the gospels in Italian, most of the school knew them in French, and the whole school had recited a psalm in Hebrew and the Lord's Prayer in eight languages, “including the two leading dialects of our country." For hundreds of miles around this little island of culture the wilderness extended, but within the colony itself the farms were prosperous, families were earning a living and the desperate hardships of the early days were becoming memories.

But into this scene of peace, like a tocsin, came the news the settlers dread-

cd to hear more than anything else, for they knew what it could mean to them. At Pembina, about seventy miles to the south, the Red was beginning to flood. Communications were slow and inadequate. and at first nobody knew how serious the situation was. The Red moves slowly, heavily, but with a deadly sureness. By May 2 the situation at Fort Garry was alarming and people began leaving their homes. The first bridges went, and a controlled anguish of panic was framed, as it were, in a scene of absolute peace. On May 8. Bishop Ander-

son noted that "the aurora borealis was brilliant at night, like a semi-circular arch of tailed comets.” The next day he "awoke to the sweet singing of birds, and soon I heard the news that the waters were stationary at Pembina." The rumor was optimistic.

But May 10 was another beautiful morning of singing birds, though the water was flooding into the granaries and stores, and the people were working frantically to save the food on which they depended for their lives during the summer. The day passed into a bright Mani-

toba evening, but now the churchyard ("the seedplot of God") was entirely covered, and everywhere houses were awash or floating away. Three days later a tempest arose, and the resurrected Lake Agassiz roared like a sea in the wind. A few days later Bishop Anderson's congregation rowed or paddled to a spot of dry land on the edge of the waters and he preached them a sermon on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; at evensong the same day he preached on Noah's dove, and the choir sang Spofforth's Te Deum.

The water gained, deepened and spread. On May 17 a boat was rowed through the churchyard gate and across the plain until it blundered into the main channel of the river, now foaming at ten knots, and was nearly lost. Wreckage floating everywhere moved the Bishop to quote from the storm scene in the first book of Virgil's Aeneid. Now men. women and children were drowning, cattle were floating feet up. stoves and plows lashed for safety to rafts had been carried off and lost forever. But when dry ground was finally reached, "violets and buttercups, raspberry and strawberry blossoms were grateful to the eye." and beyond the water's brink Bishop Anderson saw men who had saved plows and oxen working frantically to turn the sod. Mosquitos, thriving in the dampness, were as thick as midges.

Four days later the flood reached its height and became stationary, and the bishop, hoisting a sail in his "birch-rind" canoe, went for a long voyage across the prairie in beautiful weather. The farmland was now transformed into a lake several hundred miles long and about twelve miles wide, with maples in full leaf protruding from it and birds singing gaily in their branches, the gables of houses projecting from the water and families floating around in boats and on rafts. At 3 o'clock the next morning "the sunrise was like a sunrise at sea." with the addition of the birdsongs and the fresh green of the trees. Another Sabbath came, and the day before it the bishop had seen a flag hoisted to signify that the flood was abating, so this time his text was from Isaiah: "When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him." A few days later, land began to appear above the waters. Quickly the water drained off. leaving a sea of slime that the sun soon baked hard. Three weeks after the height of the flood, the first boats of the Long Portage Brigade passed Fort Garry on their way west via the Saskatchewan to meet the brigades descending from the Mackenzie. With them they brought newspapers that told of a flood in Yorkshire in which nearly a hundred lives had been lost, and the bishop reflected thankfully that the Lord had dealt with the Red River settlers graciously, that now "the melody of former times may be renewed,” and that in future, when he took his seat in the hall where the daily worship was held, there would be "behind me the same engraving as before, that from the original of Andrea Sacchi, of Noah rearing his altar of thanksgiving, when saved from the waters of the flood."

This 108-year-old description of a Red River flood can serve well enough as a record of all of them. The flood described by Bishop Anderson was worse than the last one in 1950, but the behavior of the Red in all its floods is pretty much the same. The Red has flooded seriously a dozen times from 1770 to 1950, and not once has it been successfully combated. On each occasion, moreover, the causes of flood have been the same.

The first cause is the sluggish pace of the current: the drop in the Red from Fargo to Lake Winnipeg is so slight that the river’s trench cannot possibly carry off much more than an ordinary quantity of water in a given time. The second cause is a series of heavy autumn rains followed by a quick frost that freezes the moisture into the prairie, preserving it for future action in the spring. T he next is heavy winter snow. If the latter acts of God are followed by a late spring, a sudden prolonged thaw and heavy

spring rains, the Red (in the words of Ralph Allen when he described the Hood of 1950) "can't possibly miss." It turns itself once again into a miniature Lake Agassiz, and all the technology of modern man has been unable to avert the inevitable consequences.

In the Hood of 1950. some hundred thousand Canadians and twenty thousand Americans were driven from their homes, fifteen thousand houses, farm buildings and business blocks were inundated. and the loss of life might have been serious had not the Canadian Army taken over.

On that occasion, as Winnipeg people vividly recall, the army was prepared to declare martial law and remove 320.000 civilians according to the plan that would have been used in southern England in 1940 if the Germans had crossed the Channel. This plan may well have to be put into effect next year or five years hence, for Winnipeg is almost as defenseless against the Red as it has alw'ays been. As early as 1879. Sir Sandford Fleming urged that the CPR crossing of the Red be made twenty-odd miles downstream from Winnipeg where the banks are higher and Hooding is less serious. As late as I960, engineers are still preparing plans for a Hoodway to divert the overflow' around greater Winnipeg. The cost would be prodigious, but so is the cost of a first-class Hood. The 1950 affair was far from the worst on record — on that occasion the Assiniboine held off until the Red had done its worst — but it cost $104.000.000 in property losses alone.

People in the east think of the three prairie provinces as similar and lump them together under the general term, the West. Yet their histories are quite different. The Red River Valley, in terms of settlement, is much older than Saskatchewan and Alberta. Though all three provinces have a common background of fur-trading, though the family La Vérendrye explored them all (Fort Rouge was established at the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine by the elder La Vcrendrye in 1738). it is a fact of some significance that the homesteaders of the two western prairie provinces had railways behind them, and that the nineteenth century was two thirds over before serious farming began in Saskatchewan. But the Red River settlement dates from an earlier stage in the human story, to traditions older than those known by most people who settled the more westerly plains.

In 1811 Lord Selkirk's first party of settlers reached York Factory on Hudson Bay. The next summer, though they did not know it. while they were paddling from York Factory to the Forks. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was moving across a land equally Hat from Smolensk to Moscow. Indeed, Napoleon was a prime reason why the desperate Celts ol Selkirk’s settlement were where they were. The Emperor's Berlin Decrees had ruined the fur market, the stock of the Hudson's Bay Company had dropped from £250 a share to less than £60. and this had enabled Selkirk and a few friends to buy control of the company.

Unlike the Gentlemen Adventurers before him. Selkirk had no interest in the fur trade. He was trying to help a ruined people. The Highland economy, shaky for years, had collapsed after the rebellion of 1745. and thousands of Highlanders had left their glens. Selkirk, who knew little of conditions in Canada but did have a map of the country, decided to offer them means of escape. He chartered a few small ships, and his trusting people w'ent out under the leadership of a stubborn man called Miles Maedonell.

No body of comparable size has played a role of greater importance in Canadian history.

Nor did any others endure more appalling suffering. Not even Napoleon could imagine, before he experienced it. what a prairie winter can do to a shelterless people. The Selkirk settlers arrived at the Forks without plows, and pathetically they tried to scratch the surface of that gigantic plain with hoes and spades. Their sole line of communication ran back 750 miles to a tiny fort visited once a year by ships from the Old Country.

Soon they were starving. For nine awful years they wandered up and down the Red in search of buffalo. Indians attacked them. Fur traders of the North West Company declared war on them, killed a number of them and burned out their settlement. A decade after their arrival, small numbers of French Canadians appeared and established St. Boniface. Then, in 1826. the Red struck them with the w'orst Hood in its recorded history. In that year it washed away nearly all their houses.

Still they persevered: it was all they

could do. Summer was "a time of peace with hunger." winter a white hell. But the settlement burgeoned. When the people "could eat their bread without weight and their potatoes without measure." schools and churches rose among them, books were imported from England, and some of their teachers were men trained in Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge. In 1855. only three years after the Hood described by Bishop Anderson, an American journalist visited the Red River Valley and wrote:

“There is a spot on this continent

which travelers do not visit. Deserts, almost trackless, divide it from the habitations of men. To reach it, or once there to escape it, is an exploit of which one may almost boast. It is not even marked on the maps nor mentioned in the gazetteers.”

Yet this visitor had found dancing and good dining, several excellent wine cellars, a library, copies of the Illustrated London News, the latest novels of Dickens and Thackeray. “Intellectual conversation,” he wrote, "might be had there as well as in Washington.”

The settlement continued isolated until after Confederation, its lines of communication now running south toward St. Paul. But one April day, there came floating down to Fort Garry a wooden scow carrying eight men. They were “Canadians from Ontario”; they had bought the scow in the States and come down the Red to homestead. Though neither they nor the original settlers knew it at the time, those eight men were the advance guard of the homesteading avalanche that was to cause the two Riel rebellions, accelerate the building of the transcontinental railways and by the century’s end make the bed of Lake Agassiz one of the richest wheat areas in the world.

Today the Red River Valley is no longer the West; it is the geographical heart of Canada. It may also be the ethnic and social heart as well. Here, facing each other across the river, are the communities of Winnipeg and St. Boniface, the one palpably English-Canadian, the other palpably French. But all around them, and threaded through them, are the lines of a mosaic of peoples whose origins are in all the nations of the Old World. In the little town of Selkirk just below the lower and larger Fort Garry you can see this mosaic plain. The most prominent building is an oniondomed Ukrainian church, but within a stone’s throw of it is a street called Britannia Avenue, and the Anglican house of worship is called Christ Church. In lower Fort Garry itself the style of stonecutting is pure Old Country, and the Fort as authentically British Colonial as York Redoubt at the entrance of Halifax Harbor.

This continuance of tradition in the Red River Valley, it seems to me, has been and still is of priceless value. It is one of the factors that have saved Canada from becoming an amorphous melting pot with no sense of its past. For years, when John Dafoe was its editor, the Winnipeg Free Press was the most respected newspaper in Canada. It seems to me a fact that the French-speaking people of Manitoba are less provincial in their attitude than those of the senior province. Did not Manitoba give to French Canada its finest prose writer in the person of Gabrielle Roy, who discovered Balzac as a little girl and became the only writer not a citizen of France to receive the Prix Fémina?

Yet the Red River, though its settlements are now old by western standards and only hours by air from Montreal, can still appear in at least one region so pristine that when there you feel yourself the only man alive in the world. Last spring I drove in a rented car to the delta, turned off at Petersfield into the sole track that leads inward and came to the road's end in the Netley Marshes. It was the beginning of one of the finest days of my life, for there, at the end of the road, I found a camp owned by a Canadian of Polish ancestry called Ed Chesley. When I told him I wanted to see the delta, there appeared in his face the look of friendship one sees some-

times when a stranger shows interest in the thing a man loves. Quietly he asked his son Larry to prepare a boat. While the fuel was being poured in. we talked. I soon discovered that Chesley was a widely read and widely traveled man, and that what he wished to do more than anything else was write the story of the Red River delta.

He told me of the Brokenhead Indian reserve just to the east of the delta, a little about the birdsvand of small depressions he had discovered in the ground where some Selkirk settlers had hidden their children, covering them over with sods when the Indians rose against them.

Then his son called from the boat, I joined him, and we set out into the greatest duck-breeding area in America.

The Red River delta, flat as the plain to the south of it, flat as the lake to the north of it, is a labyrinth of channels through reeds and swamps where a greenhorn would lose himself in twenty minutes. But young Larry Chesley knows it as a man knows his own property. He took me into channel after channel while ducks of every species skittered away on the water or broke cover and took to the air. Marsh hawks beat slowly back and forth over that sea of reeds. Herons

stood on one leg in shallow places; bush after bush was spangled with scarlet from the wings of roosting red-winged blackbirds; huge white pelicans, some of them weighing fifty pounds, floated on the water or rose with slow, heavy flappings of wings. We found the course of the Red, sailed down it a spell, and turned into one of the many little channels—the one that reminded me of the Cherwell. Then we went through a beaver dam and came out to another expanse where a gamewarden's tower stood in the wilderness and seemed high as a skyscraper. We climbed it. The whole air was full of birdsongs, it vibrated with them, and as we returned to the boat a flight of mallard broke cover and flew away.

"In the fall,” said Larry, “duck hunters come here from everywhere, and we take them into the marshes. They jump-shoot from boats, or they shoot from blinds, or they use decoys.” A little later he added: “Father and I go south just after the birds. Last year in Mexico, when I went shooting, some of the ducks I bagged may have been ducks I'd missed here a month before.”

We reached the final forks of the Red where it divides into three channels, passed down the eastern branch and entered Lake Winnipeg. We coasted along toward the mouth of the central stream, which is almost invisible when you are out on the lake. The flat lake spread north over the horizon, the delta south into the prairie. The afternoon enclosed us as it enclosed thousands of ducks and Canada geese together with the blackbirds and larks calling and shrilling in the higher light. Larry Chesley stopped the motor. With the sinking sun streaming over the delta into our eyes, we floated absolutely alone on that sea-like remnant of old Lake Agassiz. ★