Mapping Outdoor Adventues – Craig Macdonald
Article by Andy Zeltkalns
For many, an outdoor adventure may include a hike, snowshoe, paddle or camping trip. Modern, store-bought gear is checked and packed before heading out for the day, or perhaps longer, to explore the wilderness.
Outings into the wild are a form of recreation for many people, helping them escape from busy lives and, hopefully, rekindle a connection with nature. While flirting with the wilderness in this manner, people always have the knowledge they will eventually return to the comfort of their homes with easy access to food, shelter and warmth. However, what we often forget is, prior to the 20th century, travel and survival in the outdoors for Indigenous Peoples was the standard way of life.
Dwight resident, Craig Macdonald, has spent a good part of his lifetime studying and learning about the Indigenous cultures that inhabited Muskoka and other parts of Canada. Not only has Macdonald gathered extensive knowledge about Indigenous Peoples’ wilderness travel and survival practices but he has applied the knowledge to experience it firsthand.
Through extended wilderness excursions using equipment and apparel similar to what the Indigenous Peoples used, Macdonald has journeyed on many of their summer and winter travel networks throughout Canada. Using canoes, snowshoes, skis, sleds and toboggans, he has spent weeks at a time covering thousands of kilometres. Much of the equipment Macdonald has used he designed and made to replicate the original items Indigenous Peoples depended on during their time in the wilderness.
“I have snowshoed across Algonquin Park three times on three separate routes and have led snowshoe trips as far north as Richmond Gulf in the sub-Arctic” explains Macdonald. He describes his winter excursions as “hard core” covering as much as 200 to 300 kilometres per trip.
Macdonald’s university background was in fisheries. His post graduate degree was completed at the University of California while supported by the U.S. Navy and the California Department of Fish and Game. Having started canoeing in 1953, Macdonald was able to use his experiences during his university years to work as a canoe guide in northern Ontario during the summers.
“I would cover up to 1000 miles during a canoe season,” describes Macdonald. It was during this time his interest and knowledge in Indigenous culture and travel methods began to grow.
Working with Order of Canada recipient and outdoor educator Kirk Wipper, who he originally guided for, Macdonald helped establish the beginnings of the Canadian Canoe Museum now located in Peterborough, Ontario. The museum houses more than 600 canoes, kayaks and paddled watercraft that are representative of traditional water travel by Indigenous Peoples from across Canada.
Macdonald had a 47-year career with the Ontario Government. During his tenure, he spent 24 of those years working as a recreation specialist in Algonquin Park. Anyone who has enjoyed a canoe route, hiking trail, ski trail or bike trail in Algonquin Park has likely been in a part of the park Macdonald has worked on.
Over the years he has inventoried the shorelines of many Algonquin lakes, gathered information on lesser-known routes and portages and helped upgrade or establish new campsites and travel routes throughout the park. Usually working with a crew, Macdonald mapped, measured, cut, and signposted these routes that many of us have enjoyed.
Prior to Algonquin Park, Macdonald did similar work for 13 years at the Leslie Frost Centre in Haliburton. In 1989, he upgraded and groomed the cross-country ski trails at the Bracebridge Management Resource Centre.
Once his interest in Indigenous traditions and travel was kindled, Macdonald spent much of his spare time researching and collecting knowledge about Indigenous Peoples and their relationship to the environment in which they live. A significant focus has been on the routes and wilderness travel techniques Indigenous Peoples used. Macdonald described how, over the years, he has interviewed hundreds of Indigenous elders throughout Canada to learn how they lived, travelled and interacted with the environment.
“Locally, I spoke to Anne Amberson, daughter of Tom Salmon, when doing research about eastern Muskoka and its Indigenous People,” explains Macdonald.
Macdonald even had the opportunity to interview a 109-year-old elder who had experienced the entire Industrial Revolution. Macdonald states the importance of recording the wealth of knowledge he has encountered, since much of the information collected is an oral history passed down through generations. As Indigenous elders die, the wisdom is being lost.
As a result of his hard work and dedicated research, Macdonald can be described as an ethno-geographer. According to Bill Steer, founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre and part time teacher at Nipissing University, Macdonald is also a Cree-Ojibwa place-name linguist and a cartographer as well.
Through his painstaking research, Macdonald published a unique map of the Temagami area in 1988. Called “Historical Map of Temagami” and representing 26 years of work, Macdonald’s unique work shows all the traditional snowshoe and canoe routes, as well as the Anishinawbeg names for 660 lakes, rivers, creeks and other geographical features.
Steer describes how “Macdonald’s creation presents a unique and invaluable contribution to our understanding of the Indigenous world that existed in Canada prior to contact with the colonialists.” The map even has the original waterlines of the lakes before dams were put in for logging.
As Macdonald explains, “before the advent of roads and railways, waterways provided the principal routes for travel and communication in the wilderness. Waterways were chosen for both summer and winter travel as it was much easier to travel along waterways than to traverse the rugged, rocky and densely forested terrain.”
While discussing his research and experience with elders, Macdonald describes some of the Indigenous language he learned which refers specifically to wilderness travel. The word “nastawgan” commonly spoken by northeastern Ontario elders refers to the established waterway travel routes that have been used for thousands of years. “Onigum” are the land portages between waterbodies required during the summer. “Bon-ka-nah” are the snowshoe trails over land and swamps which bypass open water and areas of unsafe ice often found at lake narrows and along rivers. Sometimes “bon-ka-nah” provide a shortcut to a route only to be used during winter. Others bypass steep hills and side hills on “onigum” that are difficult for sled and toboggan travel.
Macdonald’s research of Indigenous history has extended into Muskoka and the surrounding area and he was able to contribute to the formation of a map now found in the Dorset Museum. The map depicts Indigenous names in Eastern Muskoka along with the original travel routes.
Aside from speaking to elders, Macdonald has also gathered a unique oral history from trappers and old-timers who spent many years in the bush. An example Macdonald gave was of the Big East River that flows through Muskoka whose real name is “Kishka-downga Zeebi.” Translated the name means “Sand Bluff River,” aptly named due to the bluffs throughout the waterway. Muskoka historian, Patrick Boyer, has also tapped into Macdonald’s wealth of Indigenous knowledge to help him write about Muskoka’s history. Boyer’s book, Putting Muskoka on the Map, is one example where Macdonald contributed valuable information.
Another one of Macdonald’s pastimes is designing wilderness equipment based on Indigenous Peoples’ traditions. These items include tents, snowshoes, clothing, winter stoves and toboggans, just to name a few. Macdonald’s basement is filled with his own equipment along with many other traditional items he has collected over the years. Macdonald has one of the largest private collections of Indigenous built snowshoes, ranging from special snowshoes designed for walking on spring snow to huge, narrow shoes meant for travel on open areas of deep powder snow in the far north.
If creating maps and designing equipment was not enough, Macdonald has spent 20 years working on a book about sleds and toboggans used throughout North America by Indigenous Peoples. One of these interesting sleds, generally called “Chee-maun O-daw-ban,” is the canoe-sled. It is a type of amphibious sled used during spring break up or freeze-up for traversing waterways when the ice was thin. Filled with over 300 illustrations, Macdonald is looking forward to publishing the book in the near future.
Based on his lifetime of outdoor activities, Macdonald continues to enjoy staying physically active and in his spare time helps maintain a series of community trails and portages. Craig Macdonald’s lifelong investment in his own learning and understanding the life of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, before colonization, has created the opportunity for so many to understand the rich history of Indigenous Peoples.
Next time you are on a trail or waterway in the wilderness, let your mind wander and recount the abundant Indigenous history embedded in the area. The route you are following has probably been travelled by Indigenous People for hundreds of years.