Say you’re a Mi’kmaq chief living in northern New Brunswick in the mid-1700s and you need to get to Boston to sign a Peace and Friendship Treaty with the British.
You could paddle your birch-bark canoe along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, around Nova Scotia, across the Bay of Fundy and down the coast to Massachusetts. Or you could save yourself a couple of weeks and use the inland highway system.
Back then, the interior of this region was a labyrinth of travel routes: rivers, lakes and ocean linked by portages. More than 100 portages connected the various drainages, including the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to the Bay of Fundy.
All disappeared as horses and cars replaced canoes, and logging cut the forest clean. Now, a dedicated group of volunteers and historians are uncovering the ancient portage trails, re-establishing these historic travel routes as they go.
“This foot-and-paddle highway system allowed the First Nations people to travel all over the province,” says Tim Humes, co-leader of Canoe Kayak New Brunswick’s heritage committee.“ When we learned that this incredible network was lost, we decided we wanted to do something about it.”
Tim Humes/Canoe & Kayak New Brunswick
They turned to Robert Doyle for help. An amateur historian and passionate canoe-head, Doyle started researching the portage trails around 1995 using the journals of early European explorers. Eventually, Doyle set out to ground-truth his research.
“You can only see so much on [topographical] maps or aerial photographs,” Doyle says. “You’ve got to get into the bush and walk that exact route, from waypoint to waypoint, just to see if it makes sense on the ground.”
He had GPS’d many of the trails by the time the canoe club started the project in 2008. With Doyle’s help, the club settled on six trails that seemed the most interesting from a historic and recreational standpoint and then set out to re-establish them.
Over the last 10 years, volunteers have spent weeks in the forest flagging routes, clearing brush, building bridges and cleaning up deadfall. Grants helped with equipment and supplies. They finished clearing the first portage trail in 2016. The rest are in place but need more work and signage.
Canoe & Kayak New Brunswick
Humes spearheaded much of the effort and did plenty of the work. All that time in the forest left him in awe at how the First Nations found the routes in the first place.
“How did they know if they got out at this bend in the river and hiked that way they would get to a completely different river system that would take them where they wanted to go?” he wonders. “There were no maps. It was all passed on orally. The knowledge they would
have had to build up over generations is amazing. How long did it take to ‘see’ the map of all the trails?”
More than opening up the possibility to travel routes used for thousands of years and for historical important missions, like the Boston peace treaty signing, Humes thinks the project has a greater importance.
“It sounds corny, but the longer I spent out there the more I felt like we were building a bridge between two different times and two different cultures,” he says. “The portage trails are a pathway to allow people to talk, to value each other and to learn.That’s pretty amazing.”
The six Ancient Portage Trails open up all kinds of new canoe routes and loops for day-trips to summer-long epics. The longest of all is The Circuit, an 800-kilometre loop around the interior of the province using three of the rediscovered portages to make it passable. A couple of groups have paddled sections of it, but no one has traversed the entire circuit.
Before packing the wannigan to give it a go, know that many of the rivers are small tributaries. They are best paddled in May or June. canoekayaknb.com/ancient-portage-trails