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Christmas in the Bush
by John MacTaggart

The following is directly taken from “Three Years in Canada,” by John Mactaggart, 1829, Vol.1, pp. 48-53.

When I first arrived at the Rideau, the Governor of Canada, Lord Dalhousie, and Colonel By, were there, and had fixed the entrance of the Rideau canal to be in Rafting Bay ; a beautiful bay about two miles farther up the Ottawa river than where Mr. Samuel Clowes, Civil Engineer to the Provincial Government of Upper Canada, had proposed, as being the only practical place where the Rideau river could be carried into the Ottawa by a canal. Accordingly, my first duty seemed to be that of proving if the said engineer was right or not; Rafting Bay being by far the most elegant entrance for the canal, and nearer the head of the Ottawa navigation.

Having procured three faithful men to assist me to explore, as many axe-men, and two to carry provisions, we sallied out into the woods in the beginning of November 1826. The axe-men continually cutting down a line through the underwood, we were enabled to take, what is called in surveying, a flying level, which is a rough guess to a foot, more or less, of the rise or fall of the country above any fixed data. Having continued at this fagging employment for three days, my assistants keeping in the neighbourhood, returning nightly and giving information respecting swamps, gullies, streams, mountains, &c. I at last came upon the famous Rideau, at a distance of between four and five miles from the above beautiful bay.

Taking a level of this extent in England would not have occupied more than a day; but in a dark dense wood the subject is quite altered, and a surveyor has to change his home system altogether : for instance, if we get upon a hill or other eminence in Britain, we may see the natural lead of the land; but in Canada, owing to the wilderness, you have to grope for this like blind men. On coming out on the river, I found it to be forty-five feet above the level of the Ottawa, and that if a cut were to be made from thence to the valley which descended into the bay, a rocky ridge would have to be broken through, nearly two miles long, and about sixty feet deep to the bottom level of the canal. To attempt such a work would have been madness: the thing is by no means impracticable, but it would devour an enormous sum of money. Finding this, we left behind our various scientific instruments, and ascended the river.

Having penetrated about three miles, we came upon foaming rapids, where the river was narrow in width and the banks high. Here was the famous Hog's Back, and here we proposed to raise the river by a dam, so that the water might be brought on a level with the head of Entrance Valley above alluded to, which was eighty feet above the Ottawa. But the question arose again, if the river could be raised here to the required level, was it possible for us to retain that level through the wilderness,—a distance, as we supposed, of seven miles? To ascertain this, now became the object of research, and we set to work accordingly ; but meeting with various gullies, and huge swamps, to get through which (they being full of water) became almost impossible, we waded, and were often obliged to crawl on our hands and knees under the brushwood, and this in water.

Finding, therefore, we could make no good job of surveying them, until the swamps froze, we wended our weary way to the Ottawa as we best could, and there awaited the coming of the frost, which did not happen sufficiently for our purpose until the 20th of December, and then it was accompanied by a foot-depth of snow. No matter ; we started again, cut holes through the thickets of these dismal swamps, directed a person to go about half a mile before, and wind a horn, keeping to one place, until those behind came up; so that by the compass and the sound, there being no sun, we might better grope out our course. For in the woods you have not only to keep to a course, but you have also to discover what that course is; not as on sea, where the course is known, before the ship starts, that one port bears from another; but in the wilderness the relative position of places is not known,—a cause which improves the instinct of the Indian, making it so superior to that of a European. We had this matter to study deeply; and we had likewise to seek for that track where we could best preserve our level, in the shortest possible distance. This compelled us frequently to diverge from the direct course; a ridge of rocks or a deep swamp, the one much above, the other beneath, the required level, had necessarily to be shunned as much as possible.

I mention these things out of no vain boast, but as curiosities in science, and must own that the subject perplexed me not a little. Placed in thick and dark snow-covered woods, where, unless the axe-men cut holes, a prospect of five yards could not be obtained ; doubtful what kind of land lay on either side, or directly before ; calculating at the same time, the nature of canal-making in such places, the depths to dig, or the banks to raise, so that the level might be kept from one sheet of water to another, the former eighty feet above the latter; while the weather was extremely cold, and the screws of the theodolite would scarcely move: these things all considered, were teasing enough to overcome, and required a little patience.

When night drew on, two of the axe-men were sent off to rig the wigwam shanty by the side of a swamp. This was done for two reasons, or say three : first, because water could be had in the swamps to drink and cook with, if the ice were broken to get at it; secondly, the boughs of the hemlock grow more bushy in such places, and are so far more easily obtained to cover the shanty ; and thirdly, there are generally dry cedar-trees found there, which make excellent firewood, and the bark of dry cedar is the best thing in the world for lighting a fire with. When the party got to the place, there was a very comfortable house set out, a blazing fire with a maple back log, ranging along for a length of twenty or thirty feet.

There, on the bushy hemlock would we lie down; roast-pork before the fire on wooden prongs, each man roasting for himself; while plenty of tea was thrown into a large kettle of boiling water, the tin mug was turned out, the only tea-cup, which being filled, went round until all had drunk ; then it was filled again, and so on ; while each with his bush-knife cut toasted pork on a shive of bread, ever using the thumb-piece to protect the thumb from being burned : a tot or two round of weak grog finished the feast, when some would fall asleep,—others to sleep and snore ; and after having lain an hour or so on one side, some one would cry Spoon!—the order to turn to the other—which was often an agreeable order, if a spike of tree-root or such substance stuck up beneath the ribs.

Reclining thus, like a parcel of spoons, our feet to the fire, we have found the hair of our heads often frozen to the place where we lay. For many days together did we lie in these wild places, before we could satisfy ourselves with a solution of the problem already represented. In Dow's great swamp, one of the most dismal places in the wilderness, did five Irishmen, two Englishmen, two Americans, one French Canadian, and one Scotchman, hold their merry Christmas of 1826,—or rather forgot to hold it at all.

The End

Source: “Three Years in Canada,” by John Mactaggart, 1829, Vol.1, pp. 48-53.

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