Hugh P. MacMillan’s 1970 Canoe Brigade: The Intractable Retracing of a Fur Trade Route

Story by Mark Stiles

Not all was well in our 26-ft North canoe after leaving the Grand Portage on our way west through the Ontario-Minnesota boundary waters, known as the Voyageur Highway. One paddler, a hitchhiker Hugh MacMillan had picked up on the drive to Thunder Bay, developed a bad back after the first few miles and took a break to fish. This annoyed our petulant bowman, John Gadsby. No sooner had the fishing line dropped over the side, it became tangled in weeds. This annoyed Gadsby even more.

Morse, E.W. (1968). Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada/Then and Now. Queen’s Printer, p. 79.

We waded our heavily laden canoe up a 4-mile stretch of the Pigeon River. The cold, powerful current numbed our legs, and the slippery rocks made the going treacherous. We were averaging less than a 1/2 mile an hour when Kitpou – self described medicine man of uncertain authenticity and one of several colourful characters Hugh had recruited for the brigade – lodged his leg between a sharp rock and the full weight of the North canoe. It took the combined effort of everyone to get Kitpou calmed down. It was difficult to determine the extent of his injury, but it was obvious that he wouldn’t be able to carry much across the many portages that lay ahead. First day out, two men down.

“The cold, powerful current numbed our legs, and the slippery rocks made the going treacherous…”

Tempers reached the boiling point beneath the weight of Hugh’s 250-lb North canoe, patched profusely with fiberglass, as we neared the end of the long portage into Fowl Lake. It was then we heard a strange commotion, like some creature unhinged. I could feel the adrenalin racing as we set the canoe down quickly. We looked ahead in disbelief. There was Kitpou, stark naked, save for his elk-horned headdress and a bandage on his right leg. With arms outstretched, head thrown back, he intoned in a high-pitched howl that sounded out-of-this-world, wild-eyed, and in a state of complete abandonment, his stocky body gleaming with sweat. As we watched this spectacle unfold, we could see that Kitpou – who normally never touched alcohol – had siphoned a mug from Hugh’s 5-gallon keg of high wines for “medicinal purposes” while waiting for us to traverse the portage. Slowly, like an apparition, he hobbled out onto a cedar log on the water’s edge, paused for a moment – now with a silly grin on his face – then plunged into the lake, broke into a powerful front crawl and disappeared around the next point. This was a performance he would repeat several times in the days ahead with equal dramatic effect.

Lake Superior in fog

As canoe trips go, none compares with Hugh P. MacMillan’s 1970 Nor’Wester canoe brigade for its ragtag cast of characters and misadventure. Our intent was to retrace the fur trade route from Lake Superior to Winnipeg in five, 26-ft North canoes (Canot du Nord) as part of Manitoba’s centennial celebrations, and to film the expedition along the way. We were 35 motley paddlers, ranging in age from 13 to 68. Hugh, 46, our unflappable brigade captain and trip ‘organizer’, was a descendant of James MacMillan, a trader and explorer with the North West Company in the early 1800s. Hugh was amid a storied career with the official title of ‘liaison officer’, but acted as a ‘roving archivist’, for the Archives of Ontario. He was so steeped in fur trade history that his wife, Muriel, often remarked that he should have been born 200 years earlier.

“The centre of attention throughout most of the journey was the charismatic Shaman Chief Kitpou”

The centre of attention throughout most of the journey was the charismatic Shaman Chief Kitpou, a television personality and acquaintance of Hugh’s. Kitpou brought along his son, David, and a young Salish boy, plus two enormous steamer trunks stuffed with breechclouts, head dresses, peace pipes, rattles, drums and wolf skins. Added to that was Kitpou’s 20-ft-tall canvas teepee. Two women, Elsie Burnham and Sandy Whittal, accompanied our brigade, but wisely kept a distance in their 17-ft canoe. Rounding out the brigade were Hugh’s eldest sons, Malcolm and Ian, a camp counsellor, Brian Law, with a clutch of teenage boys from Camp Kandalore, three crusty Americans from Illinois, two cameramen, a journalist from the Toronto Telegram, and hitchhikers picked up between Toronto and Thunder Bay to replace paddlers who had bailed before the trip began. The brigade even had a mascot, a Manx cat we named Cabbit, who one of our young crew found wandering in MacMillan’s back yard.

Illinois Canoes

Wynn Jones, a university friend, and I arrived at Hugh and Muriel MacMillan’s residence in the Willowdale neighborhood of north Toronto on July 10, a hot, sultry afternoon – two days before our scheduled departure – to help with packing. Hugh wasn’t there – he was late leaving Port Hope where he had been visiting Angus Mowat, Farley’s father. So Wynn and I headed to a small basement room where we launched into sorting more than 1,500 sachets of chicken noodle soup, 100 packages of macaroni, over 100 lbs of oatmeal, and 250 cans of meatballs. I discovered 40 boxes of barley balls, which according to the directions, required three hours of soaking before cooking, perhaps not the best choice with a tight schedule and 400 miles of hard paddling and portaging ahead.

A contemplative Hugh MacMillan, 1970

Hugh eventually arrived in fine fettle, despite having learned that the professional film crew had backed down at the last minute and we’d lost the $20,000 needed to cover the cost of filming our adventure. Fortunately, he was able to call upon Glenn Fallis and Greg Cowan of the Voyageur Canoe Company in Millbrook. They agreed to undertake the filming with equipment they begged and borrowed, including a 16 mm Bolex camera on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum.

“I had been forewarned of the near-lethal potency of MacMillan’s high wines…”

Late that evening, tired and sweaty from packing, Wynn went upstairs to use the shower and quickly returned laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked. Without a word, he led me to the source of his amusement. There, in MacMillan’s bathtub, floating in steaming, murky water, was a 5-gallon hickory keg “for Hugh’s high wines… sealing the cracks.” I had been forewarned of the near-lethal potency of MacMillan’s high wines and would soon learn that the stories were true. The next day in ritualistic fashion Hugh filled the keg with whatever alcohol brigade members had brought along, the heels of several liquor bottles, four bottles of cheap rum, twice that of Alcool (an overproof alcohol product), several bottles of strawberry brandy, multiple bottles of sacramental wine for good measure, a few dollops of unpasteurized honey and enough tincture of capsicum to choke an ox.

Mail sack transfer at Thunder Bay

The drive to Thunder Bay in Hugh’s van was slow going, as his journal attests: “The van seems to work well enough with the new motor but we are pulling a very heavy load with the large tandem trailer, three 26-ft canoes, two 16-ft canoes, over 20 packs on the deck and 7 men inside with all their gear. One can’t go over 50 miles an hour or the trailer starts to fishtail and you have to hit the brakes and then accelerate to straighten it out.” Not mentioned was Hugh’s proclivity for making phone calls along the way – “telephonitis” was the label his sons put on it – which meant stopping at almost every public telephone booth along the highway. And then there was the matter of his overdue federal tax return, which he worked on in the back of the van next to a large cardboard box brimming with receipts. That went well until his son, Malcolm, opened a rear window without telling his dad.

We reached City Hall in Thunder Bay on July 14, where Kitpou was waiting, having driven there from British Columbia, but we were so late the mayor and the press were long gone. We were ready for a ceremony, everyone decked out in bright toques, colourful ceinture flêchées and some in buckskins. Hugh’s journal reads: “A representative of the post office showed up with our official mail sack [containing copies of letters sent by canoe to the Red River Settlement more than a 100 years ago], which we are to transport by canoe through to Red River and Winnipeg. Got the canoes in the water ready for the sprint race when a dense fog set in, which necessitated canceling the race as it was impossible to see the canoes more than 10 feet from shore.” We camped at Grand Portage, Minnesota that night and the next day arranged to have the five North canoes, the smaller canoes and our gear transported by truck to Partridge Falls, above the 8.5-mile portage the Ojibwe called Gitchi Onigaming or “Great Carrying Place”, otherwise known as Grand Portage. Our brigade members walked the historic trail with only their personal packs. We got off easy compared to the voyageurs and coureurs de bois who would often sprint across this portage, their neck muscles straining under a tumpline holding two or three 90-lb bales of fur. We camped about a mile beyond the end of the portage. Hugh’s journal reads: “Very poor campsite—thousands of mosquitos and black flies on hand. We got very little, if any, sleep tonight because of this incessant horde of bugs.”

On July 16 we made our way up Fowl Lake, across the three portages into Mountain Lake where we found a good campsite, but not before 9:00 p.m., everyone exhausted and dehydrated, the salt rations nowhere to be found. Hugh’s journal reads: “I can see it is going to be a constant problem getting camped at any reasonable hour…, combined with the difficulty in finding large enough campsites for this many men. John Gadsby is not too happy about us making a late camp. …Kitpou’s leg is giving him plenty of trouble and doesn’t help his mental attitude.”

A full moon rose over Mackenzie’s Rock where we had seen ravens soaring effortlessly in the updraft earlier in the day. A breeze from the west kept most of the mosquitos away, rewarding us with five hours of blessed sleep.

“…Kitpou’s leg is giving him plenty of trouble and doesn’t help his mental attitude.”

Two days out and we were already well behind our schedule, which Hugh had set based on the 1967 Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant from Rocky Mountain House to Montreal, a distance of about 3,283 miles completed in 104 days for an average of over 30 miles per day. But the military had supported that pageant with food drops and logistics, and each North canoe was manned by six burly paddlers who could easily maintain a stroke a second for most of the day. Their canoes were almost empty; we had all manner of gear – a waterlogged mail sack, a large tin lunch box, Hugh’s heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder, a Nor’wester flag, a mast and sail, a barrel of high wines, canned meatballs and a scattering of camping and cooking gear. Kitpou had brought a 65-lb steamer trunk and a teepee, sodden and heavy from sitting on the bottom of Hugh’s leaky canoe. To make matters worse, the camera crew with several of our strongest paddlers – Glenn, Greg, Wynn and Vitalis Snukins – had set off ahead with a small outboard motor mounted on the gunnels of one of their canoes, in order to get footage of our historic route. The two women paddlers were already well ahead.

Barnes & Kitpou at the height of land

The next day, we rose at 6:00 a.m. and were on the water by 8:30 a.m. after a big breakfast. But the going was slow getting to North Fowl Lake, Moose Lake and across the three short portages beyond into Mountain Lake, where we camped as the sun set behind the verdant hills. Gadsby refused to put up his tent in protest to our lateness; Kitpou’s injured leg was causing him severe pain; his son’s feet were besieged with nasty blisters, the result of improper footwear; Hugh’s left knee was acting up; and the first aid kit was missing.

We were up early again on July 18 as dark clouds settled in. By late morning we had made our way to Watape Lake and had begun searching for the “Petit Détroit”, through which Watape Lake flows into Rove Lake, when Kitpou lost it. Without warning, he slammed his paddle across the bow gunnels, rose near naked from his seat, cursed Hugh, threatened to quit the brigade, launched himself overboard, swam to the nearest point and disappeared into the woods. Hugh’s imperturbable reaction: “Jeesh, what was that all about?” We sent Kitpou’s son and a couple of voyageurs off to find him. About an hour later Kitpou appeared alone on the shore with a sheepish grin, as if nothing untoward had happened. We got him back in the canoe and sent a search party to search for the search party. It took forever to get everyone going again, but after a hasty, late lunch in the pouring rain and a shot of high wines we were finally on our way to Rove Lake.

John Gadsby pointing the way

By mid-afternoon we reached the 2-mile portage from Rove Lake into Rose Lake, rated the worst portage of our journey next to the Grand Portage. The first 3/4 mile of sporadic trail twisted its way through a mosquito-infested swamp. Large cedar and spruce trees formed a tangled maze across our path, and the heavy rain made the exposed tree roots treacherous underfoot. Mud oozed up to our armpits in the deepest bog holes, forcing us to abandon our heavy loads until we could successfully extricate ourselves. That Morris Perkins, the captain of the Illinois canoe, carried little more than his paddle and camera, leaving his vassals to carry his heavy gear, did little for morale. Some, like me, traversed that miserable portage six times. As the light began to fade, we had all the gear and one canoe across. We used that canoe to ferry everyone to a nearby campsite. The last of our voyageurs arrived at 9:00 p.m.

“Gadsby was not amused…”

Two American fishermen, already camped at the site, were more than a little taken aback by our bedraggled gang, some in breechclouts, others in mud-splattered period costume. At first, they were apprehensive about sharing their campsite, but Hugh’s fast talking and a dram of high wines changed their minds. They set up a large fire and cooked a huge pot of spaghetti, which kept everyone going until we had our camp set up. An increasingly irascible Gadsby refused to pitch his tent and bunked in with the Americans. Here we learned that the film crew had taken an alternative route via Clearwater Lake and would likely meet us the next day.

Kitpou, MacMillan, Gadsby at height of land ceremony

We reached the height of land late the following day in a downpour, but no film crew, much to Kitpou’s dismay. Hugh’s journal reads: “We looked for a campsite, which took until 10:30 p.m. Plenty of trouble getting a fire going but we finally got something to eat by 11:30 p.m. and stretched out tarps over the canoes on rocks. A liberal tot of high wines managed to take some of the chill from the evening and we finally got to bed by 1:00 a.m.” Gadsby was not amused.

Kitpou, MacMillan and author, height of land ceremony

We had dried everything out by noon the next day. Our campsite was bedlam with all manner of clothing and gear strewn over rocks and tree branches. Hugh’s journal reads: “…we put everyone through the height-of-land ceremony where they promised never to let anyone past this point without a similar ceremony, not to kiss a voyageur’s wife without her permission, and then each one got his tot of high wines. Kitpou was a great big help and very impressive in handling this part of the ceremony in his full regalia. I presented each man with a Beaver token as a symbol of his having crossed over the height of land. The crews have a right to feel pleased as this has been a tough session thus far and one that few men or boys will ever get the opportunity of participating in.”

You may see parts of the film which was made by Greg Cowan and Glenn Fallis (Voyageur Canoe Co, Millbrook ON) from footage taken during the 1970 MacMillan Canoe Brigade

By the time we reached Saganaga Lake a few days later, injuries, exhaustion and meagre rations had begun to take their toll. Hugh’s journal summed it up: “One of the Kandalore boys has forgotten to take some pills with him that he needs for an allergy and got a bad case of sunstroke. I had to carry him across the portage. Kitpou’s leg is badly swollen and likely infected. We haven’t been able to find the medical kit so far but have been treating his leg with sulfa and feeding him pain pills.” And still no sign of the film crew.

Kitpou sunrise ceremony, Magnetic Lake

On July 20, we camped at a good site on Magnetic Lake. The next morning, we were up at 5:00 a.m. to find Kitpou performing a sunrise ceremony from a rocky point overlooking the water. His powerful voice and beating of a drum were haunting in the pale morning light as mist rose from the cool water below.

“The rangers scolded us for having our brigade in such disarray…”

We reached the ranger station at Cache Bay on Saganaga Lake on July 22 where Hugh chartered a Cessna to look for our filmmakers, leaving me in charge at the tender age of 21. I was hung over from a night of revelry, which involved a bottle of Cutty Sark, gratefully purchased by Jack Barnes and shared with me and two pretty girls who worked at the small store at the ranger station. We pushed on along the Ontario-Minnesota border through Cypress and Knife Lake to the ranger station on Basswood Lake, but not before one more of Kitpou’s over-the-gunnels-and-into-the-woods disappearing acts. For much of the day he was about as cooperative as Pinky the Cat and threatened to have MacMillan jailed. Staff at the Department of Lands and Forests at Basswood wisely decided to fly Kitpou out to a hospital in Atikokan the next day. We learned that the film crew had passed by three days earlier on their way to Crane Lake, Minnesota, where the locals had planned a party for us. The rangers scolded us for having our brigade in such disarray, spread over half of Quetico.

Portage into Gunflint Lake

Our diminished group soldiered on without a major incident, but with growing concern that our food supplies were running low. We made good time, shooting several sets of rapids that we had been told were unrunnable. We were portaging around Wheelbarrow Falls on the Basswood River when we met Glenn, Greg and Wynn from the film crew coming the other way. Clearly in take-charge mode, they had come to fetch us with two motors, one they affixed to their 17-ft canoe and the other they secured onto the stern of Hugh’s North canoe. Before setting off, they made a large fire, gathered all the sugar, chocolate and oatmeal we could scrounge in a galvanized pail, mixed in some water and boiled it up. Using our hands, we happily scooped the warm, brown mush into our mouths as we journeyed through the night. Someone found the salt tablets, which were hidden in the bottom of Hugh’s tape recorder case and each of us was issued a ration. That, combined with the chocolate and oatmeal, gave us terrible indigestion as we motored, half-paddled, burped and dozed through the night across Crooked Lake. The Aurora Borealis had transformed the sky into a magnificent light show, without a doubt the most magical night of our journey.

Hugh and John Gadsby, Boundary Waters campsite

Hugh flew into the south end of Lac la Croix to meet us on July 25. He was running a temperature of 103° F and had lost almost 20 pounds. He had arranged extra motor power, so we quickly traversed beautiful Lac la Croix, arriving at the 4-mile Dawson Portage by nightfall. With the help of several large cabin cruisers and pick-up trucks provided by Bill Zup, Dwight Haberman and the citizens of Crane Lake, we crossed the Dawson Portage and made our way to Sand Point on the Rainy River system. Everyone was eventually transported across the border to Crane Lake where hundreds had turned out for a voyageur festival, which involved canoe races and a fish fry with over a hundred pounds of fresh, filleted pickerel. It was a wonderful celebration and a welcome rest – a chance for us to lick our wounds.

“The Aurora Borealis had transformed the sky into a magnificent light show…”

The following day, after spending a fruitless hour searching for Cabbit, who had decided she liked the fish treats at Crane Lake better than our tinned stew and barley balls, we drove to Sioux Narrows in search of Kitpou, but he was nowhere in sight. We settled in for the night at the provincial campground where some of the crew enticed several female campers to sample our replenished high wines. One of the girls swore the grog made her ears tingle even before it reached her lips.

Driving to campsite Grand Beach, Manitoba

On Monday July 27, we rose at 8:00 a.m., wolfed down peanut butter and jam sandwiches and were loading our gear into our cars and van when we were startled by the sound of a siren and the flashing lights of a police cruiser. What had we done now? The Ontario Provincial Police vehicle stopped abruptly in a cloud of dust and there sitting in the front passenger seat was Kitpou – beaming smile, elk-horned headdress, wolf skin over his shoulder and a peace pipe in his mouth with an unlit stogie sticking up from the bowl. Other than a large bandage on his injured leg, he was in fine form, rather pleased with himself for having cajoled the OPP to drive him all the way from Fort Frances, a distance of 175 miles.

Filming Grand Beach

Our brigade now reunited, save for Cabbit, we drove to Kenora where we were fêted by the mayor and a delegation from the Lake-of-the-Woods Historical Society. Hugh’s journal reads: “We drank the usual toasts of high wines as it would have been done in the days of the Beaver Club. The town had a very good dinner after which we went back to the waterfront and spent an hour putting on sprint races and tug-of-war events for the large crowd of tourists gathered to watch us perform.” Malcolm MacMillan and Steve McCann rounded up a van load of girls—some local, others from as far away as Montreal, New York and California—and brought them out to our campsite in the park. A raucous party ensued until well into the morning. Hugh asked me what smelled so good and I explained that it was marijuana. His response: “Oh… how about that now?” Gadsby had pitched his tent on arrival and turned in early, disgusted with our unsavoury lot.

“The mounted police [RCMP] …threatened to arrest John Hedger and Ken Cowan who are both going around wearing breechclouts.

On July 28, we paddled the mercury-polluted Winnipeg River to Minaki Lodge where we entertained guests with sprint races and precision paddling. Hugh, whose appetite had begun to improve, noted the “barbeque [steak] dinner laid on for us which is a great improvement over cooking stews over campfires.” The next day we drove to Grand Beach on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, barely avoiding disaster when the trailer hitch on Hugh’s van gave way, sending the trailer with its heavy load of canoes careening off the highway. We set up camp in the park at Grand Beach. The following morning was spent filming—Kitpou in full regalia, now completely in his element. But the bright, sunny day of filming was not without incident. Hugh’s journal reads: “The mounted police [RCMP] …threatened to arrest John Hedger and Ken Cowan who are both going around wearing breechclouts. …This evening I had a meeting with the mounties…. It was finally decided to drop any charges, providing the boys didn’t go into the Grand Dome restaurant and hotel dressed in this manner.”

On to Lower Fort Garry on August 1 where Hudson Bay Company officials, including Deputy Governor Richardson, joined us, everyone in period costume. Some dignitaries had arrived in a York boat; there was a crew from Manitoba in a North canoe; and a group from Ontario Lands and Forests showed up with a beautiful 30-ft birch bark canoe built by Charlie Laberge (who later became Supervisor of Voyageur Life at Old Fort William). With everyone decked out in voyageur garb and several of our deeply-tanned paddlers with headbands, breechclouts and moccasins, it was a striking sight. Hugh was as excited as a school boy.

“…we had lived a part of this country’s fur trade history…”

The Manitoba Centennial Corporation arranged lunch, and we joined in canoe races with thousands of spectators lining the high banks of the Red River around the fort. Hugh described the next event as follows: “We were …escorted to a large platform where a group of Salteaux Indians were on hand with some $20,000 worth of furs lent by the Hudson’s Bay Co. so that we could conduct a trading ceremony between the Nor’Wester canoe brigade and the locals. This was a most colourful event with furs changing hands for trade axes, guns, blankets, beads, etc. …We carried our canoes into the fort and then set up our keg of high wines to treat some of the staff. …This has been the highlight of the Centennial celebrations here in Manitoba.” In mock officialdom, we handed over the mail sack we had carried all the way from Thunder Bay. Fortunately, we had hung it up in the sun to dry the day before so that the soggy heap looked half presentable.

Kitpou in full regalia

On Sunday, August 2, the Manitoba Centennial Corporation arranged a church service, conducted in Latin and French, as was the tradition at the height of the fur trade. Unfortunately, a rock concert in a park across from the Manitoba Legislature proved a stronger draw for many of our voyageurs. Hugh and a few others returned to Lower Fort Gary that evening to meet Ed Schreyer and the Premiers of several other provinces. The camaraderie we had experienced along the Voyageur Trail was beginning to wane, overpowered by the inevitable distractions of ‘civilization’. Hugh MacMillan’s 1970 Nor’Wester Brigade was drawing to a close.

Kitpou at Grand Beach Lake Winnipeg

Some of us wanted nothing more than to push off again and head further into the back country to the rhythm of our paddles. We had gained a first-hand look at iconic Canadian shield country most of us hadn’t seen before, and we had lived a part of this country’s fur trade history. Despite the many mishaps, discomforts and occasional outbursts, one could not ask for a more memorable canoe trip, one that broke all boundaries and crossed into the realm of the imagination—the stuff of dreams. The world could use more dreamers like Hugh P. MacMillan. Muriel had been right: Hugh should have been born a couple of hundred years earlier, but those who paddled with him in the great Canots du Nord were grateful he wasn’t.

Addendum 1: Hugh P. MacMillan is the author of Adventures of a Paper Sleuth, Prenumbra Press, 2004 – an account of his colourful life’s work tracking down priceless documents related to the history of the fur trade and the province of Ontario. The book contains a brief account of Hugh’s 1970 Canoe Brigade in chapter 2.

1 thought on “Hugh P. MacMillan’s 1970 Canoe Brigade: The Intractable Retracing of a Fur Trade Route”

  1. The advantage of e-Nastagwan is you can add Videos and more photos.
    I can also see the possibility of asking the author questions.

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