The Portage

"Vale of the Clearwater River from the Methye Portage" 1828 etching based on the George Back 1825 watercolor

"Vale of the Clearwater River from the Methye Portage"   
A 1828 etching by Edward Finden from the British Museum based on Sir George Back's 1825 watercolor.

Portage La Loche

The rivers

There is a place on the Portage,  a lookout, where travellers can view the valley of the Clearwater River.  
Peter Pond was there. Alexander Mackenzie also.  All the early fur trader-explorers had to come through here.    
This was the only river flowing west they had found. 
The Clearwater River flows west to the Athabasca River.The Athabasca flows north.
They are  part of the great Athabasca-Mackenzie River system that drains a large part of North America. 
On the other side of this lookout begins the Churchill River system that drains into the Hudson's Bay.  
The Portage La Loche trail crosses this height of land that divides the two river systems.  
For one short season every year these rivers were used to bring people,
mail and supplies to the villages and forts situated along their shores.
On the Hudson's Bay ships were waiting to bring back to England the furs being gathered from half a  continent.
These ships must return to England before the winter ice blocked their way.
This was commerce on a grand scale. Thousands of people depended on the fur trade in North America and in Europe.  
Trade goods had to be manufactured and  furs had to be processed.
Ships had to be built and provisioned for the long trip across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Portage  

For over a hundred years Portage La Loche was part of this world wide commerce. From 1778 fur traders of the North West Company then with the Hudson's Bay Company came through the Portage. It was the longest single portage at 19 kilometers and the most difficult. 

Every year brigades from the Red River Settlement, the Athabasca and the Mackenzie would come to the Portage. 
At times over 400 people were camped at the start of the trail with more camped at Rendezvous Lake and on the Clearwater River. 

"Then, especially in summer, Portage La Loche presented an aspect of a veritable Babel. 
It was, in effect,  the great route of transport of the Hudson's Bay Company to bring merchandise into the north and to bring out their furs. The boats arrived in many flotillas
at the two opposite extremeties of the portage, and they disembarked, with cases and bales of all kinds, a population so mixed its impossible to imagine:  whites from all the nations of Europe, metis of all kinds,  natives from all the tribes, met and elbowed each other, and did every other thing except edify themselves.................."   wrote Father Penard in 1895
The residents of Lac La Loche would live in tents near the Portage for this yearly event and many were hired to carry the bags, boxes and kegs to different places on the trail. 
They also provided fresh meat and fish to the brigades.               
After a few weeks or so the brigades were gone to return again next year and the residents 
of La Loche returned to their homes on the lake. 

Portage La Loche after 1883

The Hudson's Bay Company started using another route in 1883 for the bulk of their freight.
This was a disaster for the residents of Lac La Loche. The seasonal work at the Portage was an important source of income. 
Some had been employed to maintain and improve the trails while others kept animals for hire. 
Perhaps most of all the residents missed their friends and relatives who no longer came. 

The Portage became a minor route for decades then was abandoned. The villages of the 
Upper Churchill became isolated. There was very little interaction with the outside world.
This isolation remained until roads were built from the 1940's to the 1970's.

The HBC continued to purchase furs till they sold their stores in 1987.
They had been on Lac La Loche since 1810. A total of 177 years.

The trail used by the  Portage La Loche and Athabasca fur brigades is still there.  

At the entrance of the Portage a cairn has been erected declaring the Portage a National Historic Site. 
The area of the Portage is now part of the Clearwater River Provincial Park.

"The voyagers paddled 14 to 16 hours a day and carried heavy loads on every portage, averaging 82 kilograms (180 pounds). 
Drowning and injuries were common."....... The Canadian Museum of Civilization 

 "In 1798 the North West Company exported to London more than 175,000 pelts. Some 106,000 pelts were from beavers."... The Canadian Museum of Civilization 


Place names on the Portage

Portage La Loche or Methye Portage was also known as the Long Portage or the Great Portage.
It is 19 kilometers long, the longest of the portages.
Names were given to different locations on the trail by the fur brigades.
Below starting from the south end are some of the names in French and their translation.

These resting places were measured in paces wrote Sir John Richardson in 1848.
From the Tail of La Loche to Little Old Man the distance was 2557 paces. 
Another 3171 paces led to Fountain of Sand and so on.

The total number of paces from the Tail of La Loche to The Meadow is 24,593 or 1294 paces per kilometer. 
Most of these resting places on the Portage have not yet been identified. 
Under ideal conditions 19 kilometers is walked at an easy pace in about 4 hours.

    Photo: La Loche Portage trail photo from is from the book "Canoeing the Churchill".
    The original caption reads "Sid Robinson portages our 100-lb. food box through an aisle of aspens on the Methy Portage."

    References: The French names were taken from a map at: and from the following book.
    "Canoeing the Churchill" by Greg Marchildon & Sid Robinson published by the University of Regina in 2002  furnished the 
    number of paces from a June 28, 1848 journal entry by Sir John Richardson. (pages 94-95)

    Graph:  Made September 8, 2011 by RD Laloche.
    Note: Parts of this article have been used by the author on

    Lac La Loche Fur Trade Posts

    *interactive map * zoom in *click on symbols for information

    Map from Atlas of Canada of the Portage La Loche trail.
    Parts of this ancient trail are visible at Google Maps.

    Portage La Loche in Alexander Mackenzie

     "The Portage la Loche is of a level surface, in some parts abounding with stones, but in general it is an entire sand, and covered with the cypress, the pine, the spruce fir, and other trees natural to its soil. Within three miles of the North-West termination, there is a small round lake, whose diameter does not exceed a mile, and which affords a trifling respite to the labour of carrying. Within a mile of the termination of the Portage is a very steep precipice, whose ascent and descent appears to be equally impracticable in any way, as it consists of a succession of eight hills, some of which are almost perpendicular; nevertheless, the Canadians contrive to surmount all these difficulties, even with their canoes and lading.

    This precipice, which rises upwards of a thousand feet above the plain beneath it, commands a most extensive, romantic, and ravishing prospect. From thence the eye looks down on the course of the little river, by some called the Swan river, and by others, the Clear-Water and Pelican river, beautifully meandering for upwards of thirty miles. The valley, which is at once refreshed and adorned by it, is about three miles in breadth, and is confined by two lofty ridges of equal height, displaying a most beautiful intermixture of wood and lawn, and stretching on till the blue mist obscures the prospect. Some parts of the inclining heights are covered with stately forests, relieved by promontories of the finest verdure, where the elk and buffalo find pasture. These are contrasted by spots where fire has destroyed the woods, and left a dreary void behind it. Nor, when I beheld this wonderful display of uncultivated nature, was the moving scenery of human occupation wanting to complete the picture. From this elevated situation, I beheld my people, diminished, as it were, to half their size, employed in pitching their tents in a charming meadow, and among the canoes, which, being turned upon their sides, presented their reddened bottoms in contrast with the surrounding verdure. At the same time, the process of gumming them produced numerous small spires of smoke, which, as they rose, enlivened the scene, and at length blended with the larger columns that ascended from the fires where the suppers were preparing. It was in the month of September when I enjoyed a scene, of which I do not presume to give an adequate description; and as it was the rutting season of the elk, the whistling of that animal was heard in all the variety which the echoes could afford it." 

    Alexander Mackenzie in "Voyages from Montreal". In this1801 book he describes one of his trips over the Portage.

    Walking Distance Calculator

    10.627 min.10 min.12.5 min.
    21.2414 min.20 min.25 min.
    31.8621 min.30 min.37.5 min.
    42.4828 min.40 min.50 min.
    53.1135 min.50 min.62.5 min.
    63.7342 min.60 min.75 min.
    74.3549 min.70 min.87.5 min.
    84.9756 min.80 min.100 min.
    95.5963 min.90 min.112.5 min.
    106.2170 min.100 min.125 min.
    116.8377 min.110 min.137.5 min.
    127.4584 min.120 min.150 min.
    138.0791 min.130 min.162.5 min.
    148.6998 min.140 min.175 min.
    159.32105 min.150 min.187.5 min.
    169.94112 min.160 min.200 min.
    1710.56119 min.170 min.212.5 min.
    1811.18126 min.180 min.225 min.
    1911.80133 min.190 min.237.5 min.
    2012.42140 min.200 min.250 min.


    Blog entry: 

    Old photos: 1908+

    Photos: 104 photos of the Portage taken in 2009.

    Photos: 191 photos of the Portage and the Clearwater River taken in 1997.

    Video: Travel on the Portage and the Clearwater River in 2009 on this 5 minute youtube video.

    Video: Canoe trips in Saskatchewan.

    Newspaper Article: A brutal portage of great beauty.

    Map: Map of the Lac La Loche fur trade posts. 

    Canoe routes: Warner Rapids to Fort Mcmurray
    La Loche to Ile a la Crosse