Monday, 22 August 2016

View from the Water, 1823

View from the Water, 1823

From L.M. “Buzz” Lein’s archival collection (Nipigon Historical Museum)

From his research at Fort William Public Library:

Excerpt from: Dr. John Jeremiah Bigsby’s (1792 – 1881) “The Shoe and Canoe,  Vol II” published in London 1850

Reprinted Paladin Press, N.Y. 1969  L.C. #69-19549

 pages 223-228 (minus illustrations)

page 186:… “Having had our boat carted by oxen across the British Portage (Sault Ste. Marie) we commenced on the 19th of June, 1823, our coasting voyage, so easily made now along the north shores of Lake Superior as far as the Grand Portage a distance of 445 miles.”

Page 223:


From Cape Verd westward to Fort William (ninety to ninety-five miles by canoe) the north shore of Lake Superior is divided into three very large bays – Nipigon, Black, and Thunder Bays.  They require separate notice.

The first of these, Nipigon proper, extends to Gravel Point , on the great peninsula of the Mammelles, a distance of forty-six miles, outside of the islands soon to be mentioned.

Nipigon Bay may be roughly stated as thirty-six miles across from east to west, four to six miles deep at its east end, and sixteen on its west end.  Its wide mouth (or outer face) is closed up with a dense belt of large and small islands, which, taken together, are denominated “The Pays Plat,” a translation from Chippewa language , and refers only to the shallow black or red floor of the lake hereabouts. (According to the colour of the amygdaloid or porphyries subjacent. The lake, too, is remarkably transparent here: for miles from land we see its bottom.) [ Now that is something that I can attest to still being the case as I was puttering around in an out-board in that area in 1966.- B.B 2016]

It is true that there is one large island, very level in parts, and covered with shingle and loose rocks; but, generally speaking, it is an elevated region. I cannot describe this splendid bay and archipelago with any minuteness.  Mine was only a reconnaissance.  The surveyor and naturalist will follow.

The islands are numerous.  I made the circuit of the whole by going outside in June, and inside- page 224 – in the ruder month of September. St. Ignatius, the most westerly island save one, is much the largest.  There are three or four others, extending from it to Cape Verd, girded with some that are smaller.

St. Ignatius

The Island of St. Ignatius, according to Captain Bayfield’s map, is twenty-six miles long by twelve broad.  It is oblong in shape.  Its centre is table land, sometimes 1300 feet high, and dipping on all sides in rough declivities and precipices, whose features change with the component rock.  If this be porphyry (common here), we have long pilasters, beginning at the crest of some sterile height, and ending below on a slope of ruins, thinly wooded.  This we see on the south side of the island, in Fluor Island, at the west end of St. Ignatius, and in Stag’s –Home, Detroit. ( Fluor Island is in hummocks, and rises to the height of 1000 feet.) The high black cliffs of the latter are very impressive and gloomy.  If the cliffs be of red sandstone (often as hard as jasper, and fissured horizontally), they are only in patches at the very summits of lofty flanks buried in woods.

The islands east of St. Ignatius are often very high;  their sandstone precipices are occasionally formed nearer the level of the lake, and then they are worn by watercourses into singular shapes, - page 225- such as pillars, arches, recesses (for statues!) and window-like apertures, which not a little resemble a street of ruined chapels and chantries shrouded by mosses, vines and forest trees.  We have this fissured state of the rock both in the inner and outer routes.

Wherever the sandstone or red porphyry is found all the beaches and bare places are red; but as much of the Pays Plat is of black trap and amygdaloid, the colour there is rusty black.

On one of the islets at the west end of the Pays Plat we have a beautiful display of true basaltic columns.  A sketch was given me by Captain Bayfield.

The island called La Grange is in a fine open basin not far from Nipigon River, with a few others about it having flat tops.  It is a naked mass of trap rock, springing high and perpendicular out of a slope of coppice.  It is exactly like one of the long barns of Lower Canada, and thence its name.  We passed it on a lovely evening towards sunset.  Not far from this island I took as a memorial, perhaps unwisely, from off a jutting point, the skull of a bear placed on a pole.  It was as white as snow, and must have been there many years as a land-mark.

The trappose and amygdaloidal districts are here thickly wooded, but the trees – mountain ash (very common), - page 226- spruce, pitch pine, birch, etc. – are hide-bound and small, sheathed in the trailing moss called goat’s- beard.

Nipigon Bay and the River

The region around Nipigon Bay is full of enchanting scenery.  As we journey up this great water we have the ever-changing pictures presented by the belt of islands on our left; while on our right we have the Nipigon mainland, an assemblage of bold mountains from 900 to 1200 feet high, tabular, rounded, or in hummocks, or sugar-loaf, and only separated by very narrow clefts or gorges.

My sketches give a poor idea of all this, as I could only draw where I had opportunity, not in the finest situations.

The bay is a beautiful lake of itself, so transparent that we can, for miles together, see its red pavement, and the living and dead things there inhabiting.  It is sprinkled with a few isles of conical or tabular rocks, each with its girdle of verdure, in which are little coves, inviting to repose, with bright red beaches, reminding one of the Aegean Sea, or the Friendly Isles.

The Nipigon, Alempigon, or Redstone River, enters the bay at its west end.  It is from 80 to 100 yards broad at its mouth, and discharges a muddy grey water.  Its  length is ninety miles, and on it are seven cascades and three rapids.  It comes from –page 227 – Lake Nipigon (or St. Anne), which is sixty miles round, and in a barren country. [ Note – these are odd mileages, so he must be quoting someone – because the Nipigon River isn’t that long! – B.B. ]

Footnote; From Mr. Mackenzie of Fort Nipigon, who told me a singular story of the momentary resurrection of an Indian about to be buried without his arrows and medicine bag etc., some years before Beckford’s Italian legend of a similar kind was in English print.  It shows that human nature repeats itself all over the world, with modifications.


The Mammelles Hills are 21 and a half miles from Gravel Point, a well-known resting-place. There are several, but the two most conspicuous are cones of soft and beautiful outlines, at least 800 feet high, and close together at the south-west corner of the great promontory between Black and Nipigon Bays, being the southern extremity of a long ridge coming from the north.

The Mammelles district consists of this head-land and the multitudinous islands which are in front of it.  It bears a strong resemblance to the Nipigon country.  Space forbids our entering into a detailed description of it.

We slept, on the 23rd of June (1823), on the edge of a beautiful basin, two miles and a half south-east of the Mammelles Hills, and next morning plunged into a charming labyrinth of porphyritic, amygdaloidal, and sandstone islands, sheltered even from a hurricane.  From time to time we saw the free lake at the bottom of a long vista of pine-clad islands; and we were glad, for the sake of change, - page 228 – to come suddenly (nine miles from camp) into open water, opposite Thunder Mountain, seven miles from us, at Point Porphyry.


This magnificent headland is a principal feature in Lake Superior, and forms the north-west end of Black Bay. This Bay I am informed by Captain Bayfield, is forty-six miles deep, and extremely woody. It receives a large river.  The mouth of the bay is partially guarded by a great assemblage of woody, and for the most part low islands.

The high hills at the bottom of Black Bay are visible from its mouth, of course much depressed below the horizon.  Several islands occupy the centre of the bay.

It is not always that a boat can cross from the Mammelles to Thunder Mountain; but on the 24th of June the lake was as smooth as glass. We greatly enjoyed the gradual unfolding, as we approached, of the various parts of the great basaltic cape.
Footnote: Count Andriani, an Italian nobleman, about the year 1800 fitted out a light canoe at Montreal, through the agency of Messrs. Forsyth and Richardson, and circumnavigated Lake Superior.  He occupied himself in astronomical observations and the admeasurement of heights, mingling also freely with the Indians

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