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June 14 2002

North Bay’s La Vase Portages: Then and Now

On July 20, 2002 a large plaque will be unveiled and speeches will be made recognizing the recent designation of sections of the Mattawa River and the La Vase Portages as extensions to the Mattawa Heritage River. The Mattawa River west of the Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park to Trout Lake is already designated. The new designations will include the section of the Mattawa River east of Samuel de Champlain Park to Mattawa, and at the other end of the river, the Trout Lake area and the La Vase Portages route. These waterways will be part of the larger Alexander Mackenzie Voyageur Route, which for years helped open up the interior of North America. The Mattawa route was used by native people for centuries, and later by explorers, fur traders, settlers and priests who traversed our area.

Dignitaries to Attend

Federal Heritage Minister Sheila Copps and Provincial Minister of Natural Resources Jerry Ouellette, members of the Canadian Heritage River Committee, aboriginal representatives, the North Bay Mattawa Conservation Authority (NBMCA), etc. will be there. The ceremony will take place at the La Vase parking lot in their conservation area on highway 17, about 3 km east of North Bay. Everyone welcome. The designation will protect the heritage, archaeological and recreational aspects of the area.

Last week I wrote about the Georgian Bay Ship Canal, which was proposed for construction from Trout lake to Lake Nipissing in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today I want to look at early travel through the same area, and in particular the La Vase portages.

Height of Land

When the thick cover of snow and ice receded during the last glacial age 11,000 years ago, the raising of the earth’s crust created the spillways that now contain our rivers and the land formations we live on today. As late as 3,500 years ago the section between Trout lake and Lake Nipissing was covered with much more water than today, with many islands spotting the area. A ridge of high land ran in a general north-south direction through this area, separating the huge Georgian Bay Watershed from the Ottawa Watershed. The high land caused the Mattawa River to flow east and Lake Nipissing and the French River to flow west. The highlands created problems for people traversing the area by canoe because there was no river completely across it.

Native people used the route over the high land for centuries as a part of their exchange system, and passed over the high land on various trails using lakes, creeks and the La Vase River where possible. The most popular native route was through a series of lakes (Camelot, Maclean, Upper Twin, Lower Twin and Passmore) below the west end of Trout Lake, on to Park’s Creek and into Lake Nipissing. The lightweight native birch bark canoes handled the shallow water on this route and were easily carried over the portages. When the fur traders came their large canoes needed the deep water of the La Vase route (see map).

Map of the La Vase Portages from the NBMCA publication "Managing the La Vase Portages —Mattawa River as a Canadian Heritage River" (2000).

The La Vase Corridor

The La Vase route was much longer than the Park’s Creek route and had three major portages that are well recorded in journals from the early days. The lower portage on the river was made to bypass a sharp curve on the La Vase that the big canoes could not navigate. Wagon ruts in the portage areas indicate that some canoes may have been transported on carts pulled by canoeists. There were many wet spots, and the men often went through mud and swamp at certain times of the year. The French word for mud is "vase," and thus the La Vase name. The portages were eventually abandoned and became overgrown, as canoe transportation declined and the city began to encroach on the area.

Interest in the La Vase was slow to come to its current level of enthusiasm. The Chamber of Commerce tried on a couple of occasions to generate interest. An interest in the archeology of the area was sparked some 40 years ago by accident when some workers found some artifacts while digging to install some swings. A major initiative reported in the La Vase Archeological Project (1996) by the City of North Bay provided an extensive historical view of the area, with particular reference to the La Vase corridor, along with the pin-pointing of key archeological sites including the Lalonde Trading Post on the island at the mouth of the La Vase at Champlain Park. The development of North Bay’s Heritage North program increased the interest in heritage initiatives.

In 1997 the NBMCA received a grant to carry out a La Vase Watershed Management Study, under the direction of their planner Paula Scott, to deal with water use, flood control, history, tourism and other issues in the watershed. One of the recommendations was that the 11 km La Vase corridor be designated as a supplementary addition to the existing Mattawa Heritage designation. Recommendations were also made for land purchases, lease agreements, etc., to assist in the development and management of the area.

A La Vase Restore the Link Committee, composed of many stakeholders and coordinated by the NBMCA on behalf of the provincial government, carried through the necessary steps to get the La Vase portage into public hands. A Management Plan, necessary for approval of the designation, was written in 2000. With the support of numerous groups the submission to the Canadian Heritage River Board was approved in the fall of 2001. A large property on Highway 17 at the current La Vase parking lot was purchased and is now the La Vase Portage Conservation Area. The Elk Lodge Family Park across the road from the conservation area is now under NBMCA jurisdiction. The July 20th celebration will kick off the next phase, the implementation phase where the goals and objectives outlined in the management strategy will be activated.


A committee will be formed in the near future, with key stakeholders to oversee this implementation. A major goal, and an early requirement, is to have the portage cleared with appropriate signage so people can travel the 11 km route—including the 4 km river route—with ease. From a heritage perspective, the outstanding work of the NBMCA, the municipalities, the native people, volunteer groups, etc., is to be commended. The stage is set to move ahead with this significant project, and hopefully there will not be too many rapids, portages, or muddy waters along the way.

For further information on the La Vase, check the City of North Bay website at www.city.north-bay.on.ca/lavase/index.htm. If interested in travelling the corridor, check out the Erhard site (www.interlog.com/~erhard/LaVase.htm) where he describes his experience and provides an exact trail developed by using a GPS with a overlay onto a topographical map. Paul Chivers, a member of the Restore the Link Committee, traveled with Mr. Erhard and provided photographs.

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