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Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Longest Portage and Grave of Ephraim Bergstrand

Have you ever tried to hitch hike on the TransCanada Highway with a canoe?

That’s how this story ends. . .

It begins in the late summer of 1972, when Camp Stephens canoe trip counsellors Rick Prior, Brad Abbott and Bob McColm headed out to scout a new canoe route for the Voyageur program.  

Rick Prior just after being given the ceremonial dunking at the end of one of his trips as the canoe trip leader.
Forty-four years later, some of the details of the trip are a bit vague, but some were so unusual that they are unforgettable.

None of us can remember whether we were assigned the trip route or we planned it ourselves; we were just grateful to have the opportunity to explore new territory. 

It was a great way to finish off the summer. The journey started in Winnipeg and the drop-off point was approximately 70 kilometres up the Confederation Lake Road north east of Ear Falls. The road provided access to the Uchi mine and not much else, as forestry operations had not progressed this far north in the early 70s.  

The route was an ambitious seven-day trip with some lake travel at the beginning, small creek systems in the middle and a return run to Ear Falls down the Wenasaga River system. The mapped route was 220 km with 36 portages.

As we passed through Ear Falls we stopped at the Lands and Forest Ranger Station hoping that the forestry staff could offer a bit more information about the intended route, but no additional insight was gained.  Our route was planned on a 1:250,000 topographic map (1 inch equals 4 miles) and an Alex Wilson Red Lake Area Vacation Map at the same scale.  The route appeared feasible based on the portages that were indicated on the Alex Wilson map.  Copies of the route were left at the camp; this was the only record of where we were going and where we were to be picked up seven days later. 

The Day 1 route took us north up Confederation Lake, through Washagomis Lake and into Swain Lake where we stopped briefly at Swain Post.  It was a modest cabin that served as a trading post and provisions depot for trappers and prospectors who worked the area. Our memories are faint and we recall very little about any conversation we may have had with the operator.  

We crossed the portage into Shabumeni Lake and camped at the first suitable site, a bit short of our intended stopping point. The next day we needed to make up the 8 km shortfall. We went up Shabumeni Lake and the Shabumeni River and a short portage put us on Birch Lake. After paddling eastward on Birch Lake we passed through Sutterly Lake and late in the afternoon after paddling about 43 km, we started up a narrow winding creek headed toward our Night 2 destination of Bertha Lake, only 4 km further on.

Progressing up the creek we began to encounter numerous spruce deadfalls that were suspended from shore to shore.  It was nearly impossible to pass under them and the banks were clogged with brush and branches; there was no obvious portage around this jackpot.  

We chopped through many trees and squeezed under others, only to go around another bend to find more. As we inched along we failed to notice the sun was beginning to set as the days at the end of August are much shorter.  It was clear we would not make it to Bertha Lake before nightfall and it was too late to back out of “shits” creek to Sutterly Lake so Night 2 was spent camped in a black spruce, tamarack swamp.  

We set up the tent on the moss hummocks which felt like a water bed when we finally settled in for the night. Exhausted we had a bit of trail lunch for dinner but went to bed mighty thirsty as we had no drinkable water in the swamp.

The next morning we had to make a decision; backtrack or press on, not knowing if the narrow creek would eventually become passible, and not knowing if the other creeks further along the planned route would be equally problematic. If our progress was further impeded we would not complete the route in time to be picked up as scheduled, and we had no means to communicate that we would be delayed.  

We examined the maps closely; there were a lot of single line creeks on the map between us and the Wenesaga River and no way of knowing how much difficulty we might have if we pushed on.  We did know we would be at least one day, maybe too days late coming out.  

Reluctantly, we decided to backtrack as we did not want to cause worry and uncertainty if we did not arrive at the pickup point on schedule.  After backing out of the creek and retreating to Sutterly Lake we discovered a trapper’s log cabin and stopped to cook breakfast at the cabin site.  The cabin looked like it belonged to Jeremiah Johnson with trapping gear hanging on spikes and when we peered in the windows you could see blankets hanging from the rafters and cook wear piled on a small table.  

We did not try to enter the cabin as we did not want to trespass, but we did leave the site wondering who the trapper was, and what it would be like to be in this remote location in the dead of winter.
   Bob and Brad - TL for dinner before night in the swamp   
Rick and Bob at Trapper’s cabin
We examined our maps and plotted a new route that would take us back to Swain Lake through a series of small lakes and portages just north of Grace Lake. Early one morning we were headed west passing through one of the unnamed lakes. 

We were paddling close to shore when Rick in the stern called for paddling to stop as he had seen something just inside the shoreline reflect the sun.  We turned around, paddled back but could not see anything. After being certain we had gone back far enough we turned around again and paddled very slowly hugging the shore. 

We spotted the reflection a second time, pulled over to shore, landed and walking in a short distance to discover a grave site.  There was a wooden cross about five feet tall, and in the centre of the cross was a piece of tin with an inscription.  The inscription was created by a series of carefully placed tiny nail holes.  

We took a picture of the cross and recall copying down the inscription in our trip note book, but the notes are now long lost and the photograph is blurred.  The name on the cross was however unforgettable because of its uniqueness; it was the grave of Ephraim Bergstrand.  

Ephraim Bergstrand grave
Often when you are off in the wilderness, you allow yourself to think that you are the first person to ever set foot in that location…and then you find an old rusty bean can…but rarely a grave.  

After passing Swain Post, and the trapper’s cabin and now discovering a grave, it caused us to wonder who these people were and what brought them to this remote area many years before.  

Who was Ephraim Bergstrand? How did he die and why was he buried on the shore of this small unnamed lake?  Perhaps the old mining relics we passed later in the day were a clue?

We resumed our journey, now at a leisurely pace.  We would have no trouble getting to our pickup location on schedule as we had no creeks to contend with, just lake travel. We were now likely to be at our pick up point a day early as opposed to one or two days late. We crossed one portage (not sure which one) that was a narrow foot path bordered by lush green moss as far as you could see. 

   Brad and Rick on the “mossy” portage

The “green” was so noticeable that it caught the attention of three 19 year old guys, when we paused for a short break…so it must have been exceptional. 

 On Day 5 we traveled south down Woman Lake to Woman River and then back to Confederation Lake. Apart for meeting the operator at Swain Post, we did not see any other person on the entire trip.

None of us recall much about the other portages or our campsites on the trip, but our last night made up for the night in the swamp. We were camped on a rocky point with a flat smooth slab of bedrock.  

Although we set up the Marsan tent we decided we would sleep under the stars as it was shaping up to be a clear, cool, bug-free night.  Drinking tea around the campfire, Rick threw out a wild suggestion.  

Rather than spending the next day as a layover day waiting for our pickup, maybe we should try to hitch hike back to Camp Stephens!  Truth be known, we did have a concern that we would face ridicule for not completing our planned route but perhaps returning to camp by hitch hiking would become the focus of the story.  

We decided to go for it and then settled in for the night, on the rock, under the stars.  We were rewarded by a spectacular show of shooting stars followed by northern lights.  The light show was great…the sleep on the rock not so much!
Brad prior to our night under the stars and northern lights

We got an early start the next morning and made it back to the Uchi mine gate on the Confederation Lake Road…and started “hitch hiking”; three guys, a couple of Woods No.1 Special packs and a Langford canoe.  

After a short wait, an equipment salesman in a car stopped and asked what we were up to.  He said he would gladly offer us a ride but the canoe was a problem.  Along came an ore truck headed to the Ear Falls rail siding. The driver was willing to take the canoe in the back of the truck; one of us rode with him and the other two went with the salesman. 

We unloaded at the railway siding just outside of Ear Falls where we met a railway foreman who offered to drive us to the Ear Falls dam.  At the time there was a single traffic lane over the dam controlled by a traffic light.  This provided a captive audience of stopped traffic that allowed us to attempt to negotiate (a.k.a. beg) a ride.  After a couple of hours a young guy and his dog in a VW microbus from Nova Scotia offered to take us down the Red Lake Road.  We loaded up, climbed in the van and he welcomed us with three cold beers…best beer we ever had.

Our Nova Scotia friend dropped us off in Vermillion Bay at the junction of the Red Lake Road and the TransCanada highway. So there we were…hitch hiking on the TransCanada highway; three smoky, sweaty, grubby guys, packs, paddles and a bright red Langford canoe, that was impossible to hide in the ditch.  We were there for several hours and endured numerous sarcastic remarks from passersby. It looked like we might get stuck there and would have to call the camp to advise them of our whereabouts. 

Eventually, just before sunset, a fellow offered us a ride to Kenora in his pickup truck; two of us in the back holding the canoe and one lucky guy in the warm cab.  Well after dark we were dropped off at Fisherman’s Dock and then we night paddled through Devil’s Gap and down the lake to Camp Stephens arriving about 2:00 am.  We met our objective which was to arrive at camp before the driver set out in the morning to pick us up at the Uchi mine. 

We proudly laid claim to the record for the “longest portage” (approx. 230 km). It was now in the CS record book…and best of all, we faced no ridicule for not completing our planned route.

A week later Rick and Bob were headed to Lakehead University for first year field camp in the Forestry program. About a month later they were introduced to aerial photography and the forestry maps that were in use at the time across the province.  The aerial photography was at a scale of four inches equals one mile; 16 times more resolution than the maps we used on our trip. Had we known at the time, the route could have been planned using these photographs and all uncertainty about the route would have been eliminated.

Today, there are other tools that make wilderness trip planning more predictable and safer. Examination of Google Earth imagery now reveals that the route was doable and had we pushed through the difficult stretch of creek to Bertha Lake, we probably would have been ok for the rest of the planned route, although still probably a day late.  

The imagery also shows that we had other route options in the area (Seagrave Lake to Deaddog Lake to Marsh Lake) that likely would have been a preferred route, but these lakes were just off the edge of our Alex Wilson map. It also shows that a large forest fire started east of Grace Lake and burned eastward over the area north of Bertha Lake and the clogged creek that forced us to turn back.
Today we have GPS technology, satellite phones and SPOT beacons which provide communication capability and the means to deal with safety predicaments or delays with pick up arrangements.  

There are a number of remote tourism outpost camps on the lakes in the area which also provide a way to deal with emergency situations.  Trip leaders of today, should certainly make use of these modern tools, but keep them tucked away in the bottom of the leader’s pack and only used for emergencies.  It is still possible to preserve the adventurous spirit of a trip in the “boonies” by navigating using the old topo maps.

So who was Ephraim Bergstrand?  We had no way of finding out back in 1972, but  today a few hours on the internet reveal that he was a prospector back in the 1930s. His name appears in a couple of 1936 provincial mining reports and one document reports that he recovered “a few ounces of gold by hand crushing and panning” on his mining claims in the vicinity of “Bergstrand Lake”.  

This lake name does not appear on any of today’s maps, but a 1936 Ontario Geological Survey map (P.3118) map was discovered that shows Bergstrand Lake; it was one of the small unnamed lakes we travelled through, and likely the site of his grave. Another intranet site that provides detailed mapping of the position of the sun at any location, year, date and time confirms that the sun’s rays would have hit the south shores of the two un-named lakes early in the morning in late August 1972.

Forestry operations have not yet reached this area, but they are now not too far to the south. So the mossy portage, the trapper’s cabin and Bergstrand’s grave have not been affected by development.  Forest companies are very diligent at protecting known values when planning and carrying out timber harvesting operations. 

So, the closing chapter to this story will be a commitment to inform the forestry company of our discovery 44 years ago, and ask that they make their best efforts to locate the Bergstrand grave, likely on the shore of Bergstrand Lake, and leave it undisturbed when they operate in the area sometime in the future.  R.I.P. Mr. Bergstrand.

Rick Prior and Bob McColm on a canoe trip in Quetico Park in 2006.  We were not quite as lean and mean as in 1972, but could still smoke past any other paddlers that we met during the trip!

A footnote to the story: Rick Prior and Bob McColm have remained good friends over the years and continued canoe tripping. Rick’s home is Thunder Bay, and Bob moved from Dryden to Peterborough in 2009. Brad Abbott’s home is now Toronto and we tracked him down with some internet sleuthing. Memories of the 1972 trip have faded, as have the photographs, but the memorable aspects of this trip and our time at Camp Stephens will never be forgotten.

Rick Prior
Brad Abbott
Bob McColm
June 2016

If you would like more information about the route or the reference documents that lead to Ephraim Bergstrand, feel free to contact Bob McColm (

1 comment:

  1. awesome story that adds to growing list of great stories on trail.. ty Bruce