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French Place Names: Demicharge & Cassette Rapids on the Slave River

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Many of the Europeans who first came through Western Canada were French fur traders with the North West Company. According to historian Merrily Aubrey, the place names of several locations in northern Alberta relate to the activities of these Voyageurs.

(Merrily Aubrey) Different fur trading practices led to different trends in naming. At first, the English-based Hudson's Bay Company preferred to have their suppliers come to them. That meant that they established their posts or their factories, on major bodies of water, with more or less direct water routes to London. The French Voyageurs, under the auspices of the North West Company out of Montréal, preferred to travel to the suppliers, and this accounts for some French names being older than those of the English.

There are two sets of rapids on the Slave River, north of Fort Chipewyan, that echoed the life of these French adventurers in the late 1700s.

(Merrily Aubrey) The Demicharge Rapids, or Demi Charge, are located 70 km north of Fort Chip. Demicharge, in Canadian French, literally means "half load." It refers to that part of a canoe's contents unloaded at a descharges a shallow spot or a dangerous area, where a boat or canoe had to be partly unloaded before they could go on. These rapids were bad enough that the boats had to be lightened to enable travel over the rapids without fear of damage, or need of haul-out and portage. On a scale of one- to- six, a Canoe Alberta map of 1978 notes the Demicharge Rapids as a three. What does this mean? The description of this level is: narrow, clear passages; waves, numerous, high and irregular; inspection is advisable. There are also dangerous logjams and sweepers, so it was a difficult passage along there.

Once past these rapids, the fur traders still faced an even more challenging set just downriver, on the Slave.

(Merrily Aubrey) Some 50 km north of the Demicharge Rapids, right near the Northwest Territories border, is the Cassette Rapids. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, a cassette was a small case or chest, not a recording tape. In the fur trade, it specifically referred to a light, waterproof box used to carry personal belongings. The Canoe Alberta map rates this as beyond six, with an X, which means impassable. It may refer to an incident when, because the rapids were so violent, a cassette fell out of the boat while trying to navigate the waters. Or maybe it was a warning to all that travelled the Slave River at this point: you'd better get out and portage, and ensure that all your possessions are in a cassette, or else they will get wet.

On the Heritage Trail,

I'm Cheryl Croucher.


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