The Canadian Wilderness

Using existing survey maps, By’s team began the difficult task of gathering more detailed measurements for the future canal route. In 1826, Scottish civil engineer and newly appointed Clerk of Works John MacTaggart set out with a seven-man team of assistants and labourers to battle the hostile landscape. Skilled French-Canadian axe men were needed to hack and slash through thick forests and dense swamps that were impassable on horseback. Men travelling on foot were left bruised and bleeding. Not surprisingly, the difficulty of traversing the landscape made accurate measurements next to impossible, and surveyors often became hopelessly lost. Weather conditions were equally brutal. Summer brought with it hordes of insects, including malaria-carrying mosquitoes, while winter temperatures as low as -40ºC were especially hard on those unfamiliar with the harsh Canadian climate – including MacTaggart himself.

Points of Interest

Painting showing the thick forest at Hog's Back, a point along the Rideau CanalEnlarge

[Source: Hogsback, Rideau Canal. James Pattison Cockburn fonds, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1989-256-9, C-012515]

Surveying Swamps and Forests

John MacTaggart used the term “rummaging” to describe the art of exploring whatever lies in the state of nature, and rummaging through the Canadian landscape would have posed formidable challenges to early surveyors. Swamps and forests were two such challenges: in many cases, swamps had to be remeasured in the winter when they finally froze and were passable, while forests were so dense that measurable sight lines had to be carved out only a few feet at a time by MacTaggart’s French-Canadian axe men. Surveyors were often reduced to crawling on hands and knees just to keep moving ahead. The painting above shows the thick forest at Hog’s Back, a point along the Rideau Canal, that was surely a challenge to survey.

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Painting of a southeast view of Cataraqui Lake in KingstonEnlarge

[Source: A South-East View of Cataraqui (Kingston). James Peachey, James Peachey collection [graphic material], Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1989-221-5, C-001511]

The First Survey of the Rideau Route

Lt. Gershom French led the first full survey of the potential Rideau Canal route while scouting out land for future settlement. On September 29, 1783, French’s team set sail from the Ottawa River in birchbark canoes. The team was made up of seven men from the Provincial Corps of the British Army, two French-Canadian labourers, and a First Nations guide. The expedition would have been lost without the knowledge of their guide, who was most familiar with the interior landscape and the canoe routes. Their survey ended at the Cataraqui Lake in Kingston, depicted in this painting.  

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Painting of a winter scene with men warming themselves at a fireEnlarge

[Source: Winter Scene with Men Warming Themselves at a Fire. Caroline Bucknall Bucknall Estcourt, Caroline Bucknall Estcourt Album, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1993-454-15, C-115839]

Surveying in Winter

For those unfortunate souls tasked with surveying the canal route in the dead of winter, the most effective technique for keeping warm throughout the night proved to be “spooning” one another around the campfire. As John MacTaggart writes:

“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.”

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