About this Report
Survivorman Les Stroud and Evan Solomon canoe down Missinaibi River
What Lies Beneath: excerpt from Outpost Magazine
Outpost Magazine Searching for lost history in the murky waters of the Missinaibi
Story by Evan Solomon
Photography by Laura Bombier
The Company believed the fire was set deliberately. An attack meant to send them an ominous message: leave the area, trade elsewhere, or die. The actual accounts of what happened, however, remain sketchy. Two Company men, John Leask and John Smith, claim that on the night of May 11, they fled the post fearing for their lives. Soon after, they say, the buildings were burned to the ground. That no one was ever charged with the crime did not make much difference to the head office in London, England. Everyone in the Company knew who was behind it: the Canadians.
What happened that summer on Missinaibi Lake, 525 kilometres south of James Bay in the remote boreal forest of Northern Ontario, was the beginning of a corporate battle unlike any other in history. A bloody, dangerous struggle that would last 45 years, span thousands of kilometres and, by its end, shape an empire, destroy cultures and transform a vast wilderness into what we now call Canada. Some people refer to this simply as the "fur trade", but that name misses the drama entirely. The competition between the Hudson Bay Company and its upstart rivals from Montreal, the North West Company, was quite simply a hostile take-over like never seen before, or since. It had it all. Blood. Bribery. Betrayal. And now, 229 years after that infamous fire, we have come back to the Missinaibi in search of evidence of this epic battle.
Our expedition, as an idea, is slightly insane. After all, we are not looking for evidence of this struggle on land. That has been done many times before. Archaeological digs abound all across the country. Forts have been excavated. Old canoes, tools and guns have all been found. We want to explore the more hidden aspect of this great story: the artifacts lost under water. The rivers across Canada were the highways and byways of the fur trade and hold secrets from our past. What went overboard during all those thousands of canoe trips, through whitewater rapids and terrible storms? What debris did they throw out from the forts that sank to the bottom? In important fur-trade routes like the French River, all sorts of artifacts have been found beneath the surface and put on display in museums. But many other river beds, like the Missinaibi's, have remained, essentially, untouched. Our mission is to spend seven days paddling and scuba diving a crucial section of the Missinaibi River, including the fort where Leask and Smith fled for their lives back in the summer of 1780.
The Adventurers It takes a special group of people to want to join a trip that entails whitewater scuba diving and a brutal amount of lifting. But then, the fur traders themselves were special men, true wilderness survivors who took on much more ambitious challenges-challenges that would crush most of us today. People like Alexander Mackenzie, the Wayne Gretzky of his day, a gifted explorer who paddled and marched across the continent mapping our vast rivers while surviving the toughest conditions. And like Wayne Gretzky, he famously switched teams, ditching the Hudson Bay Company where he started his career for the North West Company, where he tried to destroy his old masters. I have to find my own version of this kind of toughness, and there are not too many. But I know the perfect person: Survivorman Les Stroud.
As a fellow contributing editor to Outpost magazine, Les is as tough as the Canadian Shield. Like a Jack pine cone that takes a fire to open, Les flourishes under extreme circumstances. It's as if he needs the danger to fully come alive. "The story of the voyageurs coming down the rapids in their birchbark canoes is one I've thought about my whole life," Les says, instantly engaged. "I mean think about it. Every time one of their laden canoes goes down, so goes their musket balls, guns, knives, pottery, coins - all sorts of very cool objects. To finally have a chance to look for lost artifacts, to dive for them? For sure."
It's like the new math: Unusual adventure+Les=Yes.
We need to be very strategic about the rest of the team. You can't simply dive into cold-water rapids and go hunting for history. It's not just illegal, it's unethical. The Missinaibi River was the most critical transportation route in northwestern Ontario, connecting the Hudson Bay Fort on James Bay to Lake Superior, and it was designated part of the Canadian Heritage River system in 2004. Much of it now lies in a provincial park, so you have to respect the rules. Working closely with the Ministry of Natural Resources and a genial, certified history buff from Ontario Parks named Dave Sproule, we pick a route that we hope will take us through some of the best sites to dive.
Photo by Dave Sproule "This river was the lifeblood of the Hudson Bay Company in this part of Ontario," Dave tells me as we pore over a map of our route. "And it was one of the first sites where the battle with the North West Company began." Dave's job title is almost as long the river we are about to paddle: Ontario Parks natural heritage education and marketing specialist for parks north-east zone. What the title doesn't communicate is the depth of Dave's passion for the North and this period of history. He chews through information like a beaver going wild in an alder stand.
"After Missinaibi House burned in 1780, it was abandoned by the Hudson Bay Company," Dave continues. "But HBC knew they had to take on the 'pedlars' from Montreal who were coming up and building forts north of Lake Superior or they would lose their trade entirely. That's what they called the Nor'westers: 'Master Pedlars' or 'Canadians'. Not meant as a compliment. In any case, both companies went on to build inland forts all over the region, sometimes right beside each other in an effort to force the Aboriginals to trade with their company." He starts getting more excited as he tells the story. "It was a constant harassment. Missinaibi House was eventually reopened again in 1817, then closed, then again reopened in 1873, until finally it closed down permanently in 1917, when the railroad ended the river trade entirely."
I marvel at how Dave spouts this dizzy array of dates off the top of his head. Even he is aware of his savant-like quality and stops himself to apologize for it. "You have to be careful how much detail you tell people," Dave says sheepishly. "I love all this knowledge, but it can bore some other people to death." Fair warning. Still, with Dave alongside, I know we had the history part pretty much covered.
Photo by Dave Sproule Next comes our dive team. Master instructor Paul Davies and dive instructor Steven Rodgers both have more credentials than can fit on the back of a scuba tank. They have done multiple dives on what many call the "Canadian Titanic," the wreck of the Empress of Ireland. On the eve of the First World War, this huge passenger liner collided with another ship and sank in the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence River, near Rimouski. More than 1,000 lives were lost, making it the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history. It is to divers what K2 is to climbers: highly technical, difficult and dangerous. People who do this kind of dive respond well to a challenge. "This will not be like diving a wreck," I tell Paul when we meet. I want to make sure he knows what he's getting into. "Even the Empress."
Paul shrugs happily. It is virtually impossible to unnerve him. He exudes calm, like the still waters of a twilight ocean. With his shaved head and lumbering presence, he's acquired the nickname Buddha. It fits. He teaches yoga and meditation and the licence plate on his truck is imprinted with the traditional Hindu greeting, "Namaste," meaning, "I bow to the Divinity within you." I try to think of Paul getting cut off by another driver on the highway and instead of flipping him off, Paul just gives him a little bow.
"It's all good," he says, like a mantra.
I push a bit more. "It will mean lugging scuba gear, a generator, a compressor and loads of underwater camera gear down a fast river in canoes and over some big portages."
"We'll be diving in unknown waters, below rapids, in search of lost artifacts that we do not even know exist. Needle in a haystack."
"I get it."
I have one more caveat. "Listen Paul," I say. "I'm not an expert diver. I'm a journalist. I've got my basic PADI open water diver licence, and have only done about 50 dives. And never ones like this."
He looks at me placidly. "Don't worry. Steven and I will lead the dives. We've already got things in place. We're in."
Photo by Dave Sproule Next comes the academic. We need someone who understands how to identify artifacts and who is willing to do it under extreme conditions. Discovering Kimberly Monk is like uncovering a gold doubloon. A 35-year-old Canadian marine archaeologist working in Bristol, England, she has extensive experience diving for shipwrecks and excavating underwater sites. And best of all, she has a long-standing interest in early fur- trade history. Though she is more used to diving in Caribbean waters than in the Canadian North, she promptly flies across the ocean and signs on.
"I don't know much about canoeing," she admits gamely. "But if you keep the boat upright, I'll be fine on the diving."
The rest of the team comes together quickly. Our photographer, Laura Bombier, is A-list and has shot for Outpost before, followed by the two cameramen, Andrew Sheppard, who works regularly with Les, and Bob Hilscher from the CBC. (We are shooting a documentary of the trip for The National.) We also hire the Missinaibi Headwaters Outfitters, run by the young, river-savvy guide Matt Howell. Like all good outdoor people, Matt talks in actions more than words, and quietly takes charge of the logistics. He hires his key assistant, an ex-military man, James Black, and a cook, Jody Grant... and the Adventure begins.
...to read the complete Missinaibi Adventure by Evan Solomon, check Outpost Magazine on newstands now.