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Taking the portage route to a Canadian Fulbright fellowship

  • Ancient transportation route
    Ancient transportation route  Mallory Moran will study traditional canoe portages during her year in New Brunswick as a Canadian Fulbright Fellow.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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Mallory Moran says “por-TAJ,” as she’s going to the only bilingual province in Canada, a place where the French pronunciation is preferred.

Other places, more Anglophonic, say “PORTidge” for both the noun and the verb. And there are even locations where an English verb is j-stroked into a noun and it’s known as a plain old “carry.” No matter how you say it, to portage means to get out of the canoe and carry the canoe and everything that’s in it overland to a different waterway.

Some portage routes are still being used after thousands of years and Moran believes that she will find keys to understanding aspects of First Nations history and culture along the many portage routes crossing New Brunswick.

Moran, a graduate student at William & Mary, will be spending a year in New Brunswick under the auspices of a Canada-U.S. Fulbright study/research fellowship. She will be collaborating with researchers at the University of New Brunswick at Fredericton, while working to complete her Ph.D. dissertation in the Department of Anthropology at William & Mary.

Neil Norman is the department’s director of graduate studies, a former Fulbright Fellow himself. He did his research in sub-Saharan Africa and says that the Canadian Fulbrights are quite competitive, due to the sheer number of applicants of U.S. citizens wanting to work under a Fulbright in Canada.

“There’s three rounds,” Norman explained. “Mallory applied through William & Mary. Then, there is a committee of past Fulbrighters that evaluate all the applicants from the College. The committee ranks the candidates and sends that list to the U.S. State Department.”

The State Department has a panel of social scientists that vet each application, he said. Finally, Moran’s application, like all others, goes to the American embassy closest to where the work will be performed.

“It’s really tough to go through all those rounds and end up being the most competitive applicant,” Norman said.

Moran’s research work will be divided among researching in archives, contact with the local indigenous population and conducting archaeology at the portage sites. She expects to find areas of archaeological significance concentrated at the pull-out and put-in points— the beginning and end of the portage—and at any campsites.

“Some of the portage routes in New Brunswick are quite long, ten miles or more. When you’re making a trip of that duration, things tend to get lost,” she said. “And you might have to camp along the way.”

Canoe travel is an ancient mode of transportation that people still practice. Moran might find artifacts ranging from a nice L.L. Bean pocketknife dropped by a vacationing Montreal dentist to relics of the fur trade. Her earliest finds would be related to transportation of what she referred to as “lithic material.”

 “I mean the raw material you would use to make stone tools, a chunk of rock that you would take out of a quarry,” she explained. “The archaeologists I’ll be working with have found some evidence at portage sites of expedient knapping — you know, testing out the material before they load it into the boats.”

Moran explained that the earliest estimates place human habitation in the area at about 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. But these early people didn’t make birch bark canoes and couldn’t take full advantage of portages.

“Immediately following the retreat of the glaciers, people were moving into the region. The landscape looked pretty different so I wouldn't expect the portage routes to go back quite that far,” Moran explained. The birch bark canoe became possible after the development of the mixed deciduous forest, a few thousand years ago, she added.

“The birch bark canoe, this lightweight, versatile watercraft, allowed people to have an incredible amount of mobility,” Moran said. Heavy, cumbersome dugouts weren’t practical to hump over the land from one river to the next. Skin boats were constructed and used on an as-needed basis, but only when there was no bark canoe at hand.

“The birch bark canoe is a really impressive feat of engineering,” Moran said. “They had great control over how they made the boat for different kinds of conditions they might encounter.”

One such style was what has come to be known as a woods canoe: “Very small,” Moran said. “Maybe six feet, for when they were going into the backwoods.”

At the other end of the birch bark spectrum were canoes too large for a practical portage, as they were built for ocean-going whaling and fishing expedition.

But most canoes were designed to accommodate rapid overland transport from one waterway to another — a portage. Moran explained that these passages developed by First Nations peoples were naturally adopted by European hunters and trappers and, of course, by modern-day recreational canoeists. Bark was replaced by canvas, aluminum and a spectrum of modern hull materials, but the essence of the portage remained the same.

“In the 1800s, there was a surge in interest in these portage routes,” Moran said. “My theory is that it had to do with the arrival of the railroad.”

She noted that her railroad theory, yet unconfirmed, is based on the likely desire of the inhabitants to preserve what they perceived was a vanishing way of life. The bark canoe, having vanquished the dugout and skin boats several millennia ago, was now itself in danger from the new steam-powered technology.

“People started to pay attention. Then they began documenting these routes in New Brunswick,” she said. “We have their notes on all these records; they're all stored in the archives.”

She said she will begin her fellowship in the archives and will expand her research into working with members of the native peoples of the area. Members of the Wolastoqiyik tribe, also known as the Maliseet, maintain a cultural connection with the portages. Moran says the Maliseet are active canoeists — and among them are a number of builders and designers of old-school birch bark canoes.

Moran says she is interested in the oral tradition surrounding the canoe culture. The First Nations people have a set of names for individual portages, for instance, but that nomenclature has generally not been adopted by recreational canoeists.

 “Nowadays people in the canoeing community will refer to a portage by the names of the two rivers that it connects. So you’ll have the Oromocto-Magaguadavic Portage,” Moran explained. “But the native community has its own names for those portages.”

Those age-old traditional names of portages — and any stories those names might hold — are not widely known outside of the native community, and they’re on Moran’s list of things to ask.

“The translation of those names will capture something about how the people think about space and about the landscape,” she said. “It’s important for us to understand as anthropologists, but also to understand what these routes were used for and their significance in the community.”