Roughing It Royally

September 1, 1999 by James M. Whalen

Royal tours Of Canada are normally associated with official receptions, visits to public institutions, speeches, state balls, formal luncheons and fancy banquets. Besides such formalities, the itinerary usually offers the royal visitor an opportunity to participate in field sports and other diversions for pleasure and recreation. The early royal tours of our country–those of 1860, 1901 and 1919–were no exception as the inclusion of hunting, fishing and fast-paced rafting allowed royal visitors a chance to escape from their hectic public duties.

In 1860, when the youthful Albert Edward, Prince of Wales–later Edward VII–toured what, was then known as British North America, he engaged in a number of recreational pursuits. While in Montreal to open the Victoria Bridge, for example, the prince watched whites and aboriginals play lacrosse. Afterwards, he went by train to a point above the Long Sault rapids near Cornwall, Ont., and then took a boat through the swirling water on the upper St. Lawrence River. Later, he attended a regatta of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto, and went sailing on Lake Huron near Collingwood, Ont. Finally, at Niagara Falls, the prince, along with a crowd of anxious spectators, watched as Charles Blondin, the daring tightrope walker, performed various daring feats on a wire suspended high above the Niagara gorge.

Although the prince enjoyed such amusements, he was more actively involved during the earlier part of his tour when he went on a two-day fishing trip on the Saguenay–a tidal river lined by rugged cliffs up to 1,500 feet high–located on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. Unfortunately, events did not turn out quite as expected because the first day, Aug. 15, was too cold and wet for fishing, although the prince went up the Saguenay anyway to look at the scenery. The next day, with clearer weather, the prince and his entourage again went up the Saguenay to where it meets the Ste-Marguerite, a river where they expected to catch plenty of salmon.

Despite fishing for several hours near the junction of the two rivers, the royal party had nothing to show for it but a few trout. Nevertheless, it was an exciting moment for the royal party when they were guided through the churning rapids of the fast flowing Ste-Marguerite in birchbark canoes.

A unique experience awaited the prince and his party two weeks later in Ottawa where the itinerary reflected the lumbering industry for which the Ottawa Valley was then famous. The day after he laid the cornerstone for the new Parliament Buildings, on Sept. 1, 1860, the prince was given the opportunity to “run” a timber slide on the Ottawa River. The quarter-mile slide–built to circumvent the Chaudière Falls–formed a waterway down which a raft or “crib” of timber could go safely. The slide’s incline was interrupted at intervals by straight runs, then it dropped to the next incline and so on to the bottom of the timber chute.

London Times correspondent Nicholas Augustus Woods described this “most exhilarating adventure” as follows: “The rush of the water, the succession of shoots stretching out far down beneath you like the sloping steps of stairs, the delight of flying over these with the easy skim of a bird–the rough long straights in which the raft seems to dive and founder … and there comes another incline of water of which you whirl madly down as if you were in a swing.”

As the prince descended the waterway, a large crowd lining the river bank cheered excitedly and waved handkerchiefs. The prince regretted that the ride was not longer, Woods later reported to readers back in London. Once at the foot of the chute, the prince went by canoe a short distance down the river to watch canoe races.

After the prince’s splashy descent in 1860, it became the custom for distinguished visitors to Ottawa to be invited to “run” the timber slide at the Chaudière Falls. As author Sandra Gwyn put it: “Although this jaunt sounded only slightly less hazardous than going over Niagara in a barrel, it was in fact conducted in the most sedate circumstances, with the visitors stowed regally aboard a massive and virtually untippable log crib.”

Small wonder, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York–afterwards King George V and Queen Mary–repeated the royal descent down the timber slide in 1901 during the Canadian portion of their tour of the British Empire. Their Royal Highnesses then watched a unique lumberjacks’ exhibition of log rolling and tree felling. Later, they sat down to a woodman’s lunch of pork and beans in a cook’s shanty at nearby Rockcliffe Park.

Two weeks later, in early October, the duke took time off to pursue one of his favourite activities: Duck shooting. Canadian Senator John Nesbitt Kirchhoffer invited the royal party to go shooting on the prairie marshes of Manitoba near Poplar Point where the mallards and canvasbacks were plentiful.

From Vancouver going east, the duke accompanied the duchess as far as Banff, Alta. As the royal train snaked through the Fraser River Canyon, the royal couple perched for a short distance on the cowcatcher of the lead locomotive that slowed for their safety. The cowcatcher afforded them a spectacular view of the mountain peaks. Upon their arrival in Banff, the duchess remained at a retreat while the duke and 11 sportinq gentlemen went on to Poplar Point for the shooting expedition.

Greeted at the train station by Senator Kirchhoffer, the royal party rode in horse-drawn carriages approximately 12 miles towards the Delta Marsh that extends along the south shore of Lake Manitoba. Then, they canoed roughly five miles to Kirchhoffer’s cabin at the east end of the lake near Clandeboye Channel.

The shooting party prepared for an early start on Monday, Oct. 7. It left the senator’s cabin and set out in canoes paddled by experienced guides. The duke’s personal guide, John Atkinson, not only knew the immediate area, but had what every sportsman admired: A knowledge of “duck life and marsh lore.” The weather for the shooting expedition was ideal and at first light the hunters put out their decoys and the shooting commenced almost immediately. “For five hours the sound of guns could be heard from every part of the marshes,” wrote Joseph Pope in his account of the royal tour.

After a lunch break, the party went out again. When it quit for the day, Prince Alexander of Tech, the duke’s brother-in-law, and his guide were missing. With darkness.closing in, the prince’s guide, although used to the marshes, had temporarily lost his way. A search party was called off when the pair returned safely.

On Tuesday morning, the royal visitors went out to the marshes for the last time and came in around noon. The Winnipeg Free Press newspaper reported that the two-day outing was very successful as the party bagged approximately 600 ducks. The duke shot 82, the largest number overall. His accomplishment demonstrated why he was considered one of the best marksmen in England. “Since his arrival in Canada he had no enjoyment to equal his outing at Lake Manitoba,” the newspaper noted.

Afterwards, the duke and his entourage returned to Poplar Point and met the duchess who had just arrived from Banff. Reunited, the royal couple went eastward by train toward Winnipeg. After they left Poplar Point, someone noticed that the ducks selected for the royal table were not on board the duke’s train.

The North West Mounted Police launched an investigation and in the end suspected that a cook hired by the Governor General for the occasion had taken the prized game birds and some left over liquor from their police waggon. Meanwhile, more ducks were hastily selected and shipped directly to the duke’s vessel, HMS Ophir, which was anchored at Halifax.

The itinerary of the 1919 royal tour of Edward, Prince of Wales, who became Edward VIII before abdicating in 1936, included a full round of official engagements. He was especially popular with war veterans because he had been at the front during WW I and was attached to Canadian headquarters overseas during the latter stages of the war. Consequently, while in Canada, he tried to visit as many military hospitals as possible. Historian, C.W. Jeffreys, aptly described the overenthusiastic affection the veterans had for the youthful prince. On Warriors Day, at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto “over 20,000 returned soldiers greeted him, and so great was the enthusiasm that he was nearly pulled off his horse by the crowds that pressed around him to grasp his hand, and he was literally carried to the grandstand by veterans who cheered themselves hoarse in their tumultuous welcome.”

Besides the veterans, Canadians everywhere admired him and after only a few weeks here, his hand became swollen from shaking hands with thousands of well-wishers. A change of pace was partially provided by a number of sporting and recreational activities, including one that nearly ended in disaster.

In addition to a few rounds of golf and some horseback riding, the prince went duck hunting at Qu’Appelle, Sask. One of the tour’s sporting highlights, however, was a three-day fishing and camping trip to the Nipigon River in Northwestern Ontario. It was a pleasant contrast for the prince to go from the highly populated areas to the wilderness of the Nipigon, a river known for its natural beauty as well as its speckled trout. The river’s reputation for fishing grew even more after Dr. J.W. Cook caught a world record 14 1/2 pound speckled trout there in 1916.

William McKirdy of Nipigon, who was experienced in the tourist outfitting business, made the local arrangements. He believed September was the best month for trout fishing. In a letter to Lieutenant-Colonel Henderson, the governor general’s secretary, McKirdy wrote in June 1919: “There are few tourists, no flies, and the fish are beginning to assume their most gorgeous hues.”

The royal fishing party, which consisted of 10 members and four servants, was accompanied by McKirdy’s son Jack and more than 40 aboriginal guides from the Ojibwa tribe. The Ojibwa guides were described as “cunning in camp life and the secrets of stream and wood.”

Just before the fishing trip began, two Ojibwa chiefs who were selected for the expedition went to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., roughly 400 miles from Nipigon, to attend a meeting of the League of Canadian Indians and to meet the prince. The return of the two chiefs to Nipigon in time for the outing was assured when the elder McKirdy arranged with the governor general’s secretary for them to ride on the royal train with one stipulation: They must travel in the baggage car. Despite this lack of respect for aboriginal peoples, Jack McKirdy told a local newspaper that aboriginal guides “are the most reliable, courteous and thoughtful of all tourist guides. The Indian takes a personal interest in seeing that his client has success in fishing.”

On Sept. 5, 1919, the royal train arrived at Orient Bay on the southeast side of Lake Nipigon. From there, the party took a motor launch to Virgin Falls at the headwaters of the Nipigon River. Then, the aboriginal guides transported the prince and his entourage by canoe, shooting the rapids and portaging around the falls as they fished their way down the river. At Robinson’s Pool, they camped for two nights under canvas high on a river bank surrounded by trees. There they enjoyed flapjacks with maple syrup and other food cooked on an open fire.

On Sunday, Sept. 7, the peacefulness of the camp site was suddenly disturbed by a fierce thunder and lightning storm during which the prince had a narrow escape. A strong gust of wind uprooted a large tree and sent it crashing to the ground just missing his tent. Shaken but undaunted, the royal party moved on to the Narrows where they spent the night.

For the most part though, the weather was ideal for fishing. This, combined with the skill of the aboriginal guides, made the trip a great success. For example, the prince caught one speckled trout weighing nearly three pounds. Jack McKirdy landed one weighing well over six. In March 1952, McKirdy recalled how he wanted this fish mounted for the prince but His Royal Highness refused the offer. According to McKirdy, the prince said he might be inclined to tell friends in England that he caught it himself.

Early Monday, the royal fishing party gathered at Cameron Falls, which was their final stop on the Nipigon River. Later that day, the prince walked a mile through bush to where, the royal train was waiting and went on to Port Arthur and Fort William, now joined as Thunder Bay. From there, the royal tour continued westward across Canada.

For His Royal Highness, the tour was very agreeable. He found Canada much to his liking. In fact, he was so taken with ranching life that shortly after visiting the well known Bar U in High River, Alta., he purchased a nearby ranch at Pepisko in the foothills of the Rockies. Later, he told a Winnipeg audience: “The atmosphere of Western Canada appeals to me intensely. The free, vigorous, hopeful spirit of Westerners not only inspires me but makes me feel happy and at home.”

Most of the sporting activities associated with the early royal tours of Canada are steeped in British tradition. In the late 19th century, recreational hunting and fishing became increasingly popular in North America.

But, whether it was “running” a timber slide on the Ottawa River, shooting ducks near the shores of Lake Manitoba or riding slowly on a cowcatcher through the Rockies, royal visitors to Canada have had ample opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors when not pressed by more formal responsibilities. Undoubtedly, the participation of royalty in field sports in Canada contributed to the growing popularity of hunting and angling here, especially among the sporting elite.

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