Where History Flows

November 1, 1998 by Bill Fairbairn

Paddling down the Peace River in northern Alberta, Max Finkelstein is on the last stretch of an overland journey from the British Columbia coastal fishing village of Bella Coola to Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca. It’s July and Finkelstein is paddling on behalf of the Canadian Heritage Rivers System on a route taken by Alexander Mackenzie in 1793.

The CHRS marketing and publicity officer sees the trip as a voluntary pilgrimage of being Canadian and as a journey to boost publicity for Canadian rivers, in particular a heritage river system that so far includes 24 designated rivers and seven nominated rivers. Finkelstein’s starting point of Bella Coola is where Mackenzie first sighted the Pacific during his historic journey from the east.

The Mackenzie route from the St. Lawrence River to the Pacific has been compared with the Trans Canada Trail (Celebrating Canada, March/April 1997). Aboriginal guides and French Canadian voyageurs helped the North West Company explorer and fur trader search out a water route to the Pacific. He recorded his journey from the St. Lawrence to Fort Chipewyan, and documented the difficulties he encountered while finding a route through the Rocky Mountains. He retired in Britain in 1801 and published a book with one of the longest titles ever: Voyages From Montreal, on the River St. Lawrence, through the continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Ocean; in the years 1789 and 1793, with a preliminary account of the rise, progress and present state of the fur trade in that country.

The book made the Scottish-born fur trader a celebrity.

Mackenzie’s heritage route began at the old port of Quebec City on the St. Lawrence and crossed Canada on rivers, portages and an overland hike to Bella Coola. Finkelstein chose to hike back through the mountains from the Pacific and paddle up the Fraser River and down the Peace River to Fort Chipewyan as did Mackenzie. It was the second part of a voyage of great discovery. Last year Finkelstein put his canoe in the Ottawa and paddled 1,800 kilometres to retrace the Mackenzie route to Cumberland House, Sask. Among other important waterways, his route took in the Mattawa and French heritage rivers as well as the heritage Boundary Waters-Voyageur Waterway.

Established in 1984, the Canadian Heritage Rivers System is more than just flowing water, it’s a rare environmental federal, provincial and territorial agreement. “It is national rather than federal,” stresses national manager Don Gibson whose office is located in Hull, Que. “When the system was first put together, each government was offered the choice of participating. All are now taking part.”

As lead federal agency, Parks Canada provides the secretariat within the Department of Canadian Heritage, while a CHRS board of directors includes one representative from each province and territory. The number of rivers that have been designated under the CHRS increases every March when new designations become official.

Studies confirm that community support is the driving force behind this expanding river system. Michael W. Porter, who retired this year as CHRS board chairman, is proud of the emerging role of First Nations, local communities and industry. “Vision and leadership in every stage of the process flowed from the grassroots throughout the CHRS,” he states in the 1997-98 annual report. “We are planning and acting for healthy working rivers.”

Recognition and celebration is behind a move to have the Rideau River in Ontario declared a heritage waterway.

Cam McNeil, a Rideau Valley Conservation Authority voluntary adviser who chairs a nominating committee, says municipalities and associations support the river that flows through the nation’s capital. He includes the Friends of the Rideau, heritage, lake and boating groups, canal people generally and some boards of trade. “It is more for celebration than protection,” he stresses. “The river is already protected.”

McNeil says the CHRS was formed to protect northern rivers that had no protection. “And be very clear that heritage recognition does not imply restrictions on landowners.” His committee will place nomination papers for the river’s designation before a board meeting in Toronto next January. He says the river’s historic value and recreational uses are strong points in its favor. He has paddled the river and now seeks letters of support from the public. They can be sent to the authority’s address at Box 599, Manotick, ON, K4M 1A5.

Grand rivers such as the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa are also not yet designated “because of complex management regimes,” says Gibson. “Our first major river was the Fraser this year and we are looking at the Mackenzie,” Canada’s longest river. Nomination of rivers may be made only by participating governments, but private citizens or groups may suggest rivers to provincial or territorial board members.

Brian Grimsey, senior adviser to the CHRS board, says interprovincial and international interests are slowing down the designation of major rivers. Interest in having a river declared heritage must start at the local level and this has been lacking in the case of the larger rivers.

Once a river is named to the heritage list, plaques are placed by the water’s edge and the province or territory agrees to prepare a management plan for it within three years.

Lynn Noel has worked with the rivers system since 1988 and has paddled many of them. She recalls paddling the Margaree in Cape Breton when she was only 14 and the Yukon when she was 22. She received a CHRS National Leadership Award in River Conservation for her work as editor of a 1996 book. Voyages: Canada’s Heritage Rivers was voted best new conservation publication of the year by the Natural Resources Council of America. It was the first Canadian publication to receive the award. Voyages is divided into four sections: Raven (the North), Compass (the West), Pictograph (the Interior) and Salmon (the Atlantic). Some of its stories on rivers were written from Noel’s own experiences and she waxes poetic over rivers like the Bloodvein that runs in Ontario and Manitoba.

Run, river, run like blood in the bone

Deep in the heart of the land

Run, river, run like veins in the stone

Deep in the heart of the land

She says the CHRS fundamentally is people who care about their rivers. “Some love their rivers by writing music, some by cleaning them, some by fishing, by paddling or by working to protect them.” Rivers like the Restigouche in New Brunswick also inspire passion.

The Micmacs named the river Lustagooch. Some say the name meant good river. According to Indian legend the name derives from an incident involving the son of a Micmac chief. The son apparently disobeyed his father and led a band of warriors against Mohawk salmon poachers. The Micmac warriors were killed on the banks of the river and the Micmac chief–while mourning the loss of his son–named the waters “He who disobeys his father.”

Canada Day this year marked a new beginning for the river. Three hundred people gathered at Kedgwick village for a celebration of the Upper Restigouche’s 1998 designation within the heritage river system. The designation followed 10 years of planning a program to preserve the river’s watershed for future generations along the border between New Brunswick and Quebec. What pleased the people was that the management plan set aside a corridor of 150 metres on each side of the river’s high watermark to be left undisturbed by forestry operations or other development. The stretch under the heritage rivers system runs from Jardine Brook down to the famous salmon pool once fished by King Edward VIII at the mouth of its Patapedia River tributary. “They called it Gaspe salmon in Montreal,” wrote Hugh MacLennan in his Rivers of Canada book. “But not often did it come from anywhere but New Brunswick.” The Million Dollar Pool is protected 24 hours a day by the Restigouche Salmon Club, an angling club that has operated for more than a century.

Donald Sullivan, a fishing guide, is president of the management committee. He has lived most of his life beside the river and along with 15 other committee members is now volunteering his time to help preserve the river. “I guess for us, we felt we had to do something,” Sullivan was quoted in the local newspaper. “Last year, 10,000 people went down the Restigouche. There’s no way that’s not going to affect the river.” One of his main objectives is to regulate traffic and make sure the river and its banks are not polluted by those who use it.

From northern New Brunswick we move back to northern Alberta where Finkelstein, 45, recalls paddling up the historic Fraser in his 17 1/2-foot Prospector canoe. He says the journey had been brutal. “I will never do it again.”

Finkelstein maintains canoeing is not dangerous, but adds: “Know your limitations. Mistakes are costly. Things are bound to happen. I’d say canoeing is far safer than driving to work in Ottawa.”

He says the important thing is to recognize that Canada was built around rivers. He says routes and roots are the same thing. “Our relationship with rivers goes way back. Those wishing to help Canada’s wonderful river system should contact the Rivers and Lakes Society of Canada or the Canadian Rivers Management Society…. This whole trip has been filled with incredible landscapes and pristine waters making me believe that not that much has changed in 200 years.” He realizes it will soon be time to return to his work in Hull. “Fort Chip to Cumberland another day,” he resolves.

Designated Rivers

The first river to be formally designated for protection within the Canadian Heritage Rivers System was the French in Ontario in 1986.The latest is the Fraser this year.

The French:The river was named by Ojibwa Indians because it brought to their land French missionaries and explorers. It’s also part of the voyageur route to the West. Unspoiled rocky shorelines are typical of a river located in south-central Ontario, 60 kilometres south of Sudbury. It flows 110 kilometres, from Lake Nipissing to its bedrock delta on Georgian Bay, and offers canoeing and fishing.

Alsek: A 90-kilometre-long section of the river was designated in 1986. It lies within Kluane National Park Reserve in the Yukon, and flows through rapids, canyons, glaciers and floating icebergs. It is, therefore, extremely difficult for river trips. The area is home to golden eagle, mountain goat, Dall sheep and grizzly bear.

South Nahanni: One of the world’s great wild-water torrents and centrepiece of Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories, the South Nahanni provides numerous outstanding recreational opportunities in a beautiful wilderness area. It was designated in 1987 and one of its most spectacular features is Virginia Falls which is twice the height of Niagara. The river is on the must-do lists of adventurers around the world.

Clearwater: The designated 187-kilometre Saskatchewan stretch of the river is noted for its significance to the historic fur trade. The river runs between the Hudson Bay and Mackenzie watersheds and its natural heritage also includes four major eras in earth history. There is outstanding wilderness and pristine water. The Saskatchewan stretch was designated in 1987. The Alberta stretch will be designated early next year.

Bloodvein: A wild and rugged river that sparkles and foams for more than 300 kilometres from its headwaters in northwestern Ontario to its mouth on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. Its most notable historic features are undisturbed archeological sites and pictographs or native rock paintings of red ochre. The Manitoba stretch was designated in 1987, the Ontario section this year.

Mattawa: Rising in Trout Lake, Ont., and weaving towards the Ottawa River, the Mattawa was designated in 1988 for its natural and cultural heritage and recreational opportunity. It was once used by North West Company voyageurs who challenged Hudson’s Bay Company interior trade sovereignty.

Athabasca: Natural beauty and historical significance determined that the section of the Athabasca River in Jasper National Park in Alberta would be designated in 1989. Athabasca meant El Dorado to the Nor’Westers, and the river is no stranger to gold rushers. Summer river trips are popular today but advanced skills are needed by canoeists.

North Saskatchewan: The 49-kilometre section designated flows through Alberta’s Banff National Park downstream from its rise in the Columbia Icefields high in the Rockies. The names of peaks and passes along the river commemorate explorers such as David Thompson. Canoeing is popular among the eddies and wood lilies despite the cold location. Elk, grizzly bear, coyote, mountain goat and bighorn sheep can be spotted along upper reaches in the national park.

Kicking Horse: The nominated section in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park was designated in 1989 for its significance to geology and earth history. Where does the name come from? The Palliser journals describe how a pack horse fell into the river during an 1858 expedition. Trying to rescue it, Dr. James Hector’s horse kicked him in the chest.

Kazan: Located in the heart of the soon-to-be new territory of Nunavut, this river was designated in 1990. It flows through Caribou Inuit culture and forms the migration route of the 320,000 strong Kaminuriak caribou herd. Long twilight hours of summer are often filled with the distinctive clicking of caribou ankle bones. Kazan Falls is a mandatory portage before the river flows into Baker Lake.

Thelon: Muskox, moose and caribou can be spotted along this river’s spruce-lined banks. Designated in 1990, the river is noted for its tundra ecosystem, wildlife habitat, archeological record and wilderness recreation. Access by road ends at Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and by rail at Churchill. Trips on the upper river traditionally depended on air charter from Yellowknife. A Baker Lake air charter is now possible.

St. Croix: Flowing sometimes placidly other times tumultuously through the New Brunswick Appalachian Hills to the tidewaters of Passamaquoddy Bay, the St. Croix offers visitors historical and natural points of interest and appeals to canoeists from novice to expert. It was designated in 1991 and features native cultures and early European settlements such as St. Croix Island where, in 1604, explorers Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain landed.

The Yukon: Nomination and designation of this river’s Thirty Mile stretch between Lake Laberge and the mouth of the Teslin was based on the Klondike gold rush and paddle-wheel eras. The river helped 30,000 gold seekers in 7,000 boats travel that 30-mile stretch from Bennett, B.C., to goldfields near Dawson City. The Thirty Mile stretch, which was designated in 1991, is an easy day’s paddle for a fit person. Due to a depletion of stocks, salmon fishing is off the agenda except to natives.

Seal: Designated in 1992, the Seal River is located in roadless northern Manitoba. It flows through barren arctic tundra, huge boulder fields and complex rapids, but spills into a beautiful estuary to mix with the salt of Hudson Bay. Wildlife includes wolverine, golden and bald eagle, osprey, caribou, freshwater harbor seals, polar bears and even beluga whales in the estuary. Wilderness camping is possible.

The Soper: Iqaluit, N.W.T., is the departure point for ingoing trips and guides and outfitters are available. The river, which was designated in 1992, is navigable for approximately 50 kilometres inland. Fishing for arctic char is popular. It’s known for wildlife and for its natural heritage that includes the tallest trees on Baffin Island.

Arctic Red: A long navigable tributary of the Lower Mackenzie, the Arctic Red of the Northwest Territories allows travel upstream without portage between early June and late September. Fishing is excellent. The local Gwichya Gwich’in people call the river Tsigehnjik or River of Iron. It was designated in 1993.

Grand: From its source just south of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, Ontario’s Grand River winds 290 kilometres to Lake Erie. Glacial potholes, wetlands and wildlife abound and many find natural beauty in gorges and canyons of the Niagara Escarpment. The river, which was designated in 1994, also meanders past Ontario towns where 19th century mills, foundries and factories still stand.

Boundary-Voyageur: In 18th and 19th centuries the main travel route between Montreal and Lake Winnipeg was the Voyageur Waterway. The Boundary Waters segment served as a reliable fur trade route between Lake Superior and the prairies. This western Ontario waterway offers opportunities for wilderness canoe travel and camping. It was designated in 1996.

Hillsborough: This river is named after the Earl of Hillsborough. It was designated in 1997 for its natural, recreational and human heritage that touches on the colonial struggle for North America and the Charlottetown Conference on Confederation. Acadian dikes and historic shipyards are still evident along the river and there is outstanding waterfowl habitat.

Shelburne: Designated in 1997, the Nova Scotia river corridor provides outstanding canoeing opportunities. In the forest, there are remnants of the great pine trees that were harvested to feed shipbuilding and lumber industries in the 1800s.

Bonnet Plume: Located in the northern Yukon, the Bonnet Plume is a white-water wilderness. Access is by air from Whitehorse or through the community of Mayo. Designated in 1998, the river is named after Gwich’in Chief Andrew Flett Bonnet Plume, who worked for years as an interpreter for the Hudson’s Bay Co.

Upper Restigouche: Located in northern New Brunswick, the Upper Restigouche was designated in 1998. It flows to Baie des Chaleurs and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Canoeing, kayaking, sightseeing and cultural and historical interpretation can be enjoyed. Salmon angling camps are located today at four sites on the designated section.

Margaree: Visitors to Cape Breton marvel at this river’s glacial valleys, flaming autumnal sugar maples and tidal vistas on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Canoeists challenge the river soon after its rise in the Cape Breton Highlands down to the sea or they leisurely dip paddles in Lake Ainslie. Anglers fish for salmon. It was designated this year.

Fraser: This river has had a tremendous impact on development and life in British Columbia. Designated in 1998 and named after explorer Simon Fraser, the river is well known for its natural and human heritage. Fishing, boating, rafting are popular on the river that stretches from headwaters on the Pacific slope of the Continental Divide within Mount Robson Provincial Park to the Strait of Georgia near Vancouver. It is the longest river to be designated to the CHRS. As Stan Rogers wrote in Northwest Passage:

And through the night, behind the wheel, the mileage clicking west

I think upon Mackenzie,David Thompson and the rest

Who cracked the mountain ramparts, and did show a path for me

To race the roaring Fraser to the sea.

General information on the CHRS can be obtained by writing to: The Secretary, Canadian Heritage Rivers Board, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Ont., K1A 0M5. Information on particular rivers can be obtained by writing to the appropriate board member or contacting: Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association, Box 398, 446 Main St. West, Merrickville, ON, K0G 1N0.

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