For thousands of years before Europeans came to North America, the Indigenous people of Mi’kma’ki travelled in canoes from Tewapskik (the Annapolis River) across to the Atlantic Ocean via a chain of lakes leading to Oqomkikiaq (the Mersey River) and down to the estuary. This well-used route included Kejimkujik Lake, a site of special significance for the Mi’kmaq to this day.
When the French came to Acadie in the 17th century, they established the community of Port Royal at the head of Port Royal harbour (now the Annapolis Basin). In the spring of 1686, an official visitor arrived at Port Royal from Québec. Jacques de Meulles, Intendant of New France, had come on a tour of inspection of Acadie. He had already been delayed by several months, first by his ship running aground near Miscou, forcing him to proceed on foot across the isthmus known as Chignectou (Chignecto), and then by the onset of winter that prevented him from leaving Beaubassin. As soon as spring came, he borrowed a vessel and sailed to Port Royal. After spending a few days there, he was anxious to proceed to the south shore to continue his inspection, but his borrowed vessel had returned to Beaubassin. Unable to sail around the coast, he learned of the traditional Mi’kmaw route to Port Rossignol (now Liverpool). He was warned that it was difficult and dangerous but having no other means of reaching the ocean, he determined to take it.
Eager to accomplish his mission, de Meulles bought three canoes, hired two Mi’kmaw guides, and set off along this traditional Indigenous route with five French companions. De Meulles’s account of the experience tells of twenty-four portages, one of them a league and a half long (approximately 5 kilometres). They carried their heavy loads of food and baggage through dense forests and up and down hills, and came upon “very dangerous rapids, full of great boulders and rocks, and of extraordinary length.” They took time after each portage to determine the safest course, then set off again with de Meulles in the first canoe because he had the two best canoeists. He was understandably nervous. He described an occasion when their canoe got stuck on a rock, and the paddler in the bow had to jump onto a nearby rock to set them free. The paddler leapt back just in time to avoid being left behind, as the canoe was again swept up in the swift current that “carried us downstream like a bolt shot from a cross-bow.”
De Meulles was impressed not only with the perils of the journey, with its long portages, its rapids, rough water and cataracts, but also with the fine scenery. “To speak the truth,” he wrote, “there are some very beautiful lakes along the way. It is the water flowing from these lakes which makes the horrible cascades and all the big rapids.” The worst of the danger seemed to be past when they travelled down “a perfectly beautiful river, where there is some very picturesque and fertile land and some very fine oak forests.”
After five days, they came to the river estuary, where they headed towards the Île du Port Rossignol, now known as Coffin Island. They encountered a strong wind and a heavy sea and one of the canoes was nearly swamped. They were unable to head for the shore because of the high waves, so they had to continue to the island, where they waited out the storm for two days in a sheltered inlet.
From there, they paddled along the shore to LaHève (LaHave), where de Meulles hired a longboat for the rest of his journey. He had received a message that his vessel had been refloated, so he arranged to meet his crew at Canceau (Canso). Here, he rejoined the ship and set sail for Québec, visiting several more harbours along the way. From his report of his journey, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin, the King’s Hydrographer in Québec, made a series of maps of the harbours he had visited, and a huge one depicting his entire voyage, including the adventure on the river with an image of a portage. But on his return to Québec, de Meulles was charged with previous mismanagement of the fur trade and sent back to France.