Friday, March 9, 2018

The Lansdowne Letters: The Voyageurs

“Oh yes, Louise and Roy came with Duncan and me.”
This throwaway sentence in a letter my father wrote
referred to one of the most spectacular days in my life.

It was Victoria Day in Canada:  Monday, May 22, 1961,
and we did not have to go to school.
Our parents were tired and sore after paddling up the lake
to Joe Alex’s for a family picnic the day before,
and Dad made an irresistible bargain with Roy and me.

If we cleaned the house up spick and span,
he would lend us a canoe,
and we could have it all afternoon to practice paddling.

This was a most positive development,
and Dad made the bargain with us because,
the day before at Joe Alex's,
we had made progress in the art of compromise.

Only a few days previously our father had vowed 
we would never set foot in a canoe again,
because of his frustration with our constant circling
and squabbling when paddling a canoe.

I can blow a better bubble than you!
Roy and I (Louise)
On the front steps of Grammie's Home
Smith's Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada
Summer, 1955
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Late in the morning, with our part of the bargain completed,
Dad borrowed the Department of Transport canoe and we began paddling.
Our circles lengthened into oblongs and our oblongs into straight lines.

In our minds we became voyageurs paddling to the Bay,
our canoe loaded with piles of lustrous furs to trade.
Little did we know that we were about to have
an adventure that I would never forget!

Trading Furs at a Hudson's Bay Post in the 1800s.

Suddenly our father and Duncan McRae raced to the lake shore waving frantically.
The ice had gone out several miles down the lake
toward the base of the peninsula on which Lansdowne House sat.
Nakina had radioed that a mail plane was going to land there
to drop off mail and supplies,
and they needed the DOT canoe to meet the mail plane.

My Father Donald MacBeath with His Friend Duncan McRae
In front of the Roman Catholic Church
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
October 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Our father shared his account of our adventures
in his letter of Tuesday, May 30, 1961:

Hi There Again Tonight:
Can you stand any more bragging about the job in Sioux Lookout?
I hope you can, for here I go again.

Mr. Waller advised me not to buy a house in Sioux Lookout,
for he said that they have their eyes on me,
and I can count on being in Sioux Lookout only a few years.
He said that if I do as good a job in Sioux Lookout as I did in Lansdowne House, 
I can count on moving up the ladder quite rapidly.
He predicted that I will be in Ottawa before too many years have elapsed.

Well enough about Sioux Lookout.
The object of these letters is to interest my readers, not nauseate them.

Oh yes, I believe that I was going to tell you further about the break-up.
I mentioned that the first plane in
had to land about three or so miles down the lake from the settlement,
and that I went in one of the canoes that went to meet the plane.

It was quite the trip.  Three canoes went.
Duncan and I went in one,
the Father and the Brother went in another one,
and two Indians and Brian Booth went in the third one.

My Father with His Friend Brian Booth
Roman Catholic Mission
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
Fall 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

We had to travel down the opposite side of the peninsula
from that that the plane landed,
because the shore along the south side of the peninsula was choked with ice.

When we got down about three miles,
we came to a narrow part of the peninsula
and portaged our canoes across a distance of about 700 feet.

Lansdowne House Today
We paddled down the lake, portaged across the peninsula, and paddled up the lake.
Imagery:  DigitalGlobe, Landstat/Copernicus
Map Data:  Google 2017

I don’t know how the Indians do it,
for they certainly don’t look too robust,
but they certainly made Duncan and me look sick
when it came to portaging the canoes.

Duncan and I tried to take our canoe, a large eighteen-foot freighter,
across by lifting it up on our shoulders and carrying it,
but we nearly killed ourselves getting it up in position;
and then when we only made about 100 feet
when we just had to set it down to rest.

While we were resting, this middle-aged Indian,
and a most poor looking example of manhood,
came along, took one look of pity and contempt at Duncan and me,
picked up the canoe himself, and carried it across without stopping once to rest.
I can tell you that we felt slightly ashamed of ourselves.

On a Portage

We had to wait about an hour for the plane to arrive,
and the Father was lamenting that we made a mistake
not taking a couple of decks of cards along,
so we could play a couple of rubbers of Bridge.

Poor Father, he looks forward so much to playing Bridge.
He was supposed to come over tonight for Bridge with the Brother,
but I guess he won’t be playing much Bridge for a while,
as he had a rather nasty accident today.

This morning he accidentally stuck his hand in a planer and lost part of a finger.
He is going to be in considerable pain for a few days or weeks.

Father Ouimet, Don MacBeath, and Brother Bernier
October 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

While we were waiting for the plane, another canoe
driven by two Indians came up the lake on the side that we couldn’t navigate.
The ice shifted enough while we were going up the other side
to allow them to get through.

It was a good job that they came along,
for when the plane came along it was loaded.
Three canoes would never have held all the mail and freight.
Oh yes, Louise and Roy came with Duncan and me.

On our way back to the bay, we had quite a time fighting
our way through the ice which was in the process of shifting in to shore again.
About a mile from the Bay (we went down the south side
instead of portaging back to the north side), we got stuck.

We had to get over some rocks that were quite near to the surface,
and with the freight and Louise and Roy, it was drawing too much water.
We had to back up and go to the shore
and make Louise and Roy walk the rest of the way home.
Even without them, it was touch and go getting over the rocks and through the ice.
We made such slow progress that they were waiting for us
on the dock when we arrived at the Bay.

The Tip of the Peninsula
Lansdowne House and the Father's Island, 1935
Looking Southeast

Credit:  Canada.  Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development
Library and Archives of Canada / PA-094992

Our ice went out with rather dramatic suddenness on Tuesday afternoon.
It was Monday when we met the plane.

On Tuesday at 3:45 p.m. the lake was quite choked with ice.
At 4:00 p.m. the oddest looking black cloud appeared,
and we had a short, violent, vicious rain and wind storm
of about twenty minutes duration.

When the storm was over, the lake was almost clear of ice.
There was only a little bit to be seen along the south shore of the lake.
It was really something to watch the ice being driven against the rocks
and shattering on the rocks like great sheets of glass.

Well, that’s it for tonight.
I will finish this letter tomorrow night and get it into the mail.

Bye for now,

Northern Ontario Lake


The mail and supply run was one of my most favorite days ever.
Heading down the lake in the DOT canoe,
accompanied by the Father and the Brother in one canoe,
and two Indians and Brian Booth in the Bay canoe, thrilled me.  

I was living Canadian history,
canoeing with a French Canadian priest, a Hudson's Bay man,
and Ojibwa Indians.
I was a dauntless voyageur for real! 

Father Ouimet's canoe led the procession, 
followed by our canoe, and the Hudson's Bay canoe close behind.
3½ horsepower outboard motors powered the canoes,
with the men paddling wherever rocks made it tricky to use the motors. 

I sat close to the bow searching the sparkling water
for rocks lurking beneath the surface.
After a mile or so, with the sun beating on my back
and the lazy chirping of birds, I began to drowse.
Even living history can be soporific.

Occasionally loud booming startled me
and broke the droning of the outboard motors or the rhythmic paddling.
With each boom, a new crack opened or closed in the ice farther off shore,
and I realized how easily those jaws of ice could crush our fragile canoes.

Soon the peaceful canoe trip was over, and the men began
the tedious portage across a narrow part of the peninsula.
Roy was loaded with the paddles and gear,
while I was presented with the small outboard motor.
Dad and Duncan managed to shoulder the freighter canoe
and started up the tricky path.

The bush crowded in about us,
the birds quieted down,
and the hum of flies replaced their chirping.

In the middle of the trek toward the high point of the portage,
we came across a patch of slippery snow.  
Dad and Duncan slipped, and the canoe went down
as they floundered in the cold, wet, snow.
Fortunately, an Indian came to their rescue
and carried the canoe to the other side of the peninsula.

I sat down by Father Ouimet and began the long wait for the plane to arrive.
Each second oozed out ever so slowly.
The warm sun made me drowsy again,
and I stayed awake only by batting at pesky flies.

A particularly constant drone caught my ear,
and I hoped its owner was not thirsty.
The irritating drone increased in volume,
and I sat up in a snap, eyes searching.

That was no fly or mosquito.
It was a plane, the mail plane!

Far across the shimmering blue lake,
winging over the spruce-hemmed horizon,
I spotted a tiny silver plane.
It quickly grew larger and larger
as it ate up the distance between us.
Then it banked and glided to the surface of the lake,
a spray of water trailing from each pontoon.

A Pontoon Plane Landing

The men piled into the canoes and rushed out to meet the plane.
Everyone hurried because the breeze was shifting
and that meant the ice near Lansdowne House might shift as well.
The pilot was anxious to take-off in case
ice was driven into the area where he had landed.

It took a good forty-five minutes to off-load the mail and supplies.
As soon as one canoe was loaded, 
it motored for Lansdowne House at the tip of the peninsula, 
plowing through the water immersed almost to its gunwale.

Our canoe was the last to leave,
and the moment we were clear of the plane,
the pilot started the engine and taxied to take off.
Soon the plane disappeared over the horizon,
and we were alone in the silence of the wild.

As we traveled up the south side of the peninsula,
we could see that the ice was moving toward the shore.
We had to beat the ice.

It was tough going as our heavily-loaded canoe
wallowed through the water and the ice closed in.
Dad and Duncan fended off floating pans
and hacked at narrow passages with their paddles,
their faces glistening with sweat despite the chill of the nearby ice.

As we were forced closer to the shore, 
rocks in the shallowing water became an increasing danger.
The ice ground against the shore behind us 
as the wind drove it up on the land.
Roy and I could feel the rising tension in the adults.

Dad groused, "If only we could get rid of a couple hundred pounds,"
and Roy and I found ourselves unceremoniously dumped on the shore.

"Follow the shore up to the top of the peninsula.
You'll be fine," Dad yelled,
and off we took, hurrying through the bush.

It was quite a novel experience for us
to push through the scratchy thickets,
but it wasn't scary.
All we had to do was keep the lake on our right
and the bush on our left.

Soon we reached the first Ojibway houses
and followed a well-trodden path to the school,
past the nursing station, by the DOT complex,
and on to the Hudson's Bay dock.

We watched Dad and Duncan race for the shelter of the dock
as the ice closed up the water behind them.

Three hungry and weary voyageurs-for-a-day arrived home,
looking for a hot meal and a comfortable bed.
There were few times in my life
when food tasted better and bed feel softer.
It was the best of days.

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Beautiful Cove, Long Island,
Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia

© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved




  1. I can feel the haste, see the ice, and know you had to hurry at all times. What excitement for you all as children and growing up, wonderful lessons in life, none any better. Teller of tales, none better, You get the "Purple Rosette"!!! ( In any equestrian event down here, that is the highest award!!!)

    1. Thank you, Jean! Your comment meant so much to me. I was in the process of answering it Friday night, and the internet at our hotel went down. The hotel couldn't get it back until late Saturday, but I was too wiped out to go on line after climbing Diamond Head during the day. Then yesterday was Terry's birthday and the Honolulu Festival ~ forget the internet. So here I am back in the Apple Store on Waikiki where I can get online. It was a wonderfully exciting period for me and for Roy. My younger siblings remember little to nothing, but they had adventures in other places when they were older. I certainly enjoyed seeing the photos of your daughter's wedding! Sending you and Hugh big hugs!

  2. "Follow the shore, you'll be fine". What a story! I feel as if I had been with you on that memorable day.

    1. Thanks, Kay! I'm glad to know that you felt like you had been there. I'm having difficulty getting time online while in Hawaii. I've resorted to going to the Apple Store, because often the internet in our hotel lobby is not good or it goes down. I hope all is well with you, Richard, and Chris! I'll be by as quickly as I can. Sending you a big hug!

  3. What an amazing adventure so well told. You have such a remarkable memory spured on by your father's meticulous details in his letters. He had a lot of faith in you and Roy to put you out and have you walk the rest of the way home. To you this life was your normal but looking back you can see how extraordinary it was. I can see why in your adult life you are so adventurous.

    1. Hi, Peggy! I could never have forgotten a day like this one! We moved a lot when I was growing up, and I think that helped me remember a lot of things. In addition to my parents letters, I also have something I wrote in grade six in which contains memories of my time in Lansdowne House. I'm grateful for all the adventures I had growing up. I know I had an unusual childhood. But wherever kids grow up, they manage to put their imaginations to work and have adventures. Have a great evening, my friend!

  4. For you, that was a grand adventure. Funny the one Indian carried your father's canoe. If you're not used to doing something, it's a strain on the muscles.

    1. Hi, Alex. You are so right about being unused to doing something and how it can strain your muscles. I was watching this Hawaiian father teaching his young daughter to surf yesterday. I've seen them several times. She's learning how to surf in a very natural way, and she's benefiting from her father's wealth of knowledge. He catches the board in the wave and lies on it; then she stands up and shifts through different positions until the wave peters out. She'll be highly skilled down the road. I would love to try surfing, but I'm afraid I might hurt myself, especially since my muscles aren't used to the movements, plus I'm six decades older. Oh to turn back time ~ LOL All the best to you, my friend!

  5. Wow, he sure trusted you two to find your way back. Or maybe he just wanted the extra weight gone lol It is funny how even some who look frail can do things that others can't who may be twice their size. All how one conditions their body I guess. I'd be toast after five mins of paddling or trying to lift a canoe through the woods. Sure quite the adventure indeed.

    1. Hey, Pat, where you're at! It was the best of adventures for an eleven-year-old kid who loved Canadian history. Dad did trust us, and he was truly worried about the canoe getting crushed in the moving ice. We were probably safer on land.

      My body definitely needs some conditioning, although I was happy to make it up and down Diamond Head on Saturday. It's not that bad of a hike. It's the two sets of steep stairs followed by spiraling stairs that make it hard. I climb it every year just to know I still can ~ LOL Have a good one, my friend!

  6. Probably one of the most plain Catholic church buildings I've seen, the Vatican usually has all that gold to shell out but even the rural areas get neglected I suppose.

  7. Greetings Louise. Thank you for sharing this memory, I enjoyed reading. You certainly had your adventures, and I'm glad you made it home alright without too many cuts from the brambles! Life was so much harder back then, as expressed in your well-written pieces. Glad you have your family memories. Blessings to you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

    PS, I have a girlfriend now, but she doesn't want me to post anything about her! Which is a shame, but perhaps with some grooming she'll come around? Take good care.

  8. I never thought about the ice shifting and trying to paddle around it like that. I imagine it makes for some tense moments.

  9. You've lived a life full of adventures!


  10. WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.................

    what an adventure you went through during the canoe ride dear Louise!

    each minute you made me feel as i was there with you .
    the thrill ,the suspense ,the tension and the fun everything touched my soul deeply !

    i bet you found never tastier food like that after that adventure :)

  11. I so love reading all your stories Louise!!! I so enjoy the pictures too! I don't think I could lift a canoe! LOL! Ouch on the finger!! I can't even imagine everything that you and your family experienced! Big Hugs!

  12. What a wonderful adventure Louise!!! :) I know that feeling of being a weary voyageur at times, and I think even a piece of bread with butter and some chicken soup is the best meal I've ever tasted after those types of days lol! Your poor dad and his friend, shamed by the Indian man carrying the canoe lol...that made me smile. :)

  13. What a fun and exciting time, Louise! "I was a dauntless voyageur for real" LOL Yes, you were. And I laughed out loud at the part of your dad and Duncan being shamed by the middle-aged Indian carrying the canoe by himself - and so effortlessly. Oh my gosh, that is funny!

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Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them very much.