Who used these ancient fireplaces?

Incurable cruisers. That describes Kenneth With, primarily, and his family, secondarily.

The channels and islands between Honey Harbour and Parry Island, and even further to Pointe au Baril, were constantly beckoning to be explored.

Those waters, however, have gaps that often must be crossed during high winds and formidable waves. Up to the limits of safety, Kenneth With was willing to risk the rolling and tossing, but the female members of his crew, of which there were several, were not. Taking overnight shelter just off the Inside Passage was one often used option, but that might mean camping ashore on privately owned but unoccupied islands.

Maybe it would be possible to buy a tiny “shelter” island, too small for a building and thus not intrusive to the prevailing wilderness along much of that shore.

The view from Kenneth With’s shelter island, painted by himself. (Grahan collection)

So that is what Kenneth With did, and over 60 years ago that three-quarter-acre island near Manitou Dock became not just a refuge from stormy waters but an extension of his family’s affection for Georgian Bay. Space among its pines became the site of a tent platform. The pines themselves were anchor trees for war-surplus jungle hammocks where the children slept. The lee shore gently sloped to the water, making an ideal protected landing spot for canoes, dinghies and rowboats.

When we went to remove the tangle of underbrush well above the high-water mark there, we discovered a bit of history.

A crescent of large rocks appeared on the underlying granite. Almost a yard (meter) across and as much as a foot high, this was no ordinary campfire pit. This fireplace was meant for serious, long-term burning. There was no evidence of recent use. In fact its rocks were covered in lichen where one would expect to find black burn marks. In other words, no flames had warmed its users or cooked their food in a long, long time.

Who had built it and for what purpose?

It’s hard to judge in these days of power boats, but away back when indigenous canoes and maybe later Europeans’ bateaux were the only watercraft along eastern Georgian Bay, maybe what is now the Manitou area was a convenient stopping place for travellers.

Also, the waters between there and the Western Islands were known to be where the prized lake trout came from deep water to spawn in the autumn. Perhaps this was the site of an indigenous encampment used every year to catch a winter’s supply of fish.

In later years this possibility gained weight when we found similar fireplaces in sheltered areas of two adjacent islands. No doubt there are, or were, others on islands we did not explore because they are now private property. Perhaps the islands of Manitou became a single encampment for harvesting the trout each autumn.

Since Kenneth With found his shelter island 60 years ago, it has been surounded by cottages, with more coming. Who knows what evidence of ancient occupants lies hidden in nooks and crannies where these have been, or will be, built.

7 thoughts on “Who used these ancient fireplaces?

  1. I had almost forgotten the shiver of excitement when we discovered that fireplace. I hadn’t realized that 2 more were discovered. I wonder if they were all used to smoke the lake trout they caught, to preserve them for winter use.

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    1. Marnie: I think you have the answer — smoking the fish.. Maybe we can find out if that’s how they did it. Thhe other two fireplaces I found on what was then called Gage Island, on that same channel.

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      1. Since writing the above comment, I have read that early natives of the B.C. west coast would dig clams, shell, smoke, dry and store them for winter food. Possibly the Wendat and Ojibwa people on Georgian Bay used a similar procedure with lake trout and other fish.

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  2. Wonderful! Imagine the possibilities! Must be Indigenous folks and what tales they could tell! Does the family still own this piece of land, o Ancient Mariner? No wonder you are drawn to this area….

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    1. Heather: Yes, it now belongs to Gregory, Kenneth With’s grandson. Unfortunately he only gets there once or twice a year. Also, it is where ashes of some family members now reside.

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