Saturday, July 18, 2009

On dead log drivers and the meaning of place

I had heard rumours of a place in the forest where rocks bear the names of dead men, and mentioned it to an old hunter. He told me his father's brother was one of those dead, and that as a boy he had been taken there. The next day we found that place.

It is along the south shore of the Madawaska River in Eastern Ontario, near a set of steep, cascading rapids called the Slate Falls. The dead are men who worked as log drivers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, steering large booms of white pine cut from the highlands near today's Algonquin Park down river to the mills below Ottawa, hundreds of miles away. At Slate Falls the Madawaska's flow is compressed and accelerated before dropping into a wide and still bend that is almost a small lake. The logs rafts would regularly get stuck as they entered the compression, and dozens of men over the years were sucked into the cauldron as they tried to force the logs through. Their comrades would chisel their names into nearby rocks, a tradition I am told was practiced at several such spots along the rivers of eastern Ontario.

Although there is a Slate Falls Road, it will not take you to the falls; you must go by trail or come down the river by canoe. The hunter led me to the falls one November afternoon, and over the roar of the water we scoured the outcrops he remembered from his childhood. The names were not there.  The only trace of the log drivers was a rusted two-foot spike of the type used to build log rafts a century ago. The hunter told me each spring the river washes up such things, and handed it to me. 

The rusted spike worked like a divining rod, for as we hiked away from the falls back through the woods the name Pell soon appeared on a sunlit rock. We began brushing away the fallen leaves and found more rocks with more names and the years they died. The earliest death was recorded in 1884; the most recent in 1926.  The names were French and English, some carved in wavy script, others in Roman font. As I stepped back to photograph the site, it struck me that the log drivers had deliberately selected a spot that was shaped like a chapel for memorializing their comrades. The outcrops bearing the names were aligned roughly parallel and facing one another, and to read them you descend into a slight depression that is overhung and shaded by conifers. Light enters the chapel from an opening at the south end. The portage cuts across the entry to the site, and on some rocks I found red and green paint scraped from low-carried canoes. As the names face downstream at this spot, I suspect many canoeists have passed by unaware.

We did not find the hunter's uncle's name. Before leaving I made a short, silent prayer and I suspect my friend did, too, as we returned the piles of leaves we had earlier brushed aside.

Geographers are often engaged in research that concerns untangling the meaning of place, how particular landforms or landscapes can take on significance to people, and how people reshape the land and in doing so give it new meaning. I have had the good fortune of visiting many locations where human modification of the land has improved upon the original beauty of nature (unfortunately people too often accomplish the opposite). But offhand I can think of none better than the log drivers memorial.


Anonymous said...

The names of the log drivers are at the base of the portage on the right hand side of the river. There are two listed as 1881 and a skull between them

Anonymous said...

are the gps coordinates

Anonymous said...

There are a surprising number of names at this site if you look carefully. They are not just near the river but also along the trail - you must look carefully! I've seen these names for 30 years and always wondered about their significance. I was by the site last weekend and decided to "Google" this topic and now I know! Thanks!

PS - Canoeists should NOT drag their canoes here.