Every autumn the Opeongo bubbles up like a single-malt mist

·8 min read

Barry’s Bay – Hunters, hunting and hunting stories have long been a staple among the better storytellers of Western Renfrew County. Few, for instance, would not know of the tragic demise of the Opeongo River Valley’s quintessential great white hunter, Captain John Dennison.

A professional hunter by trade, Captain Dennison perhaps was the first emigrant of Scottish extraction who could lay serious local claim to being the best of the best when it came to bagging a mighty 12-point buck or laying low, as only a true frontiersman can, a ferocious, blood-thirsty wolf.

Sadly, the Captain would end his days of supplying wild game to local timber shanties with one very wild story that made the newspapers all over North America. Or as The Oskaloosa Independent in Kansas reported his demise rather matter-of-factly on July 9th, 1881: “Captain John Dennison, formally of Ottawa, was killed by a bear on the 6th at Great Opeongo Lake.” Its inky columns then launched rapaciously into the gory details.

Seems the 82-year-old Dennison had taken his grandson about eight miles up Lake Opeongo to check on his bear traps, but it was there the Captain met one ferocious black bear. Luckily, his grandson escaped unscathed before Dennison and the bear killed each other in one mighty brawl that broke both of his arms, one leg and mauled his face almost beyond recognition. The bear, however, looked even worse by the time the good Captain had breathed his last.

Dennison had been born in Penrith, England on Christmas Eve, 1799 and had served in India with the British Army under the Viscount of Combermere. In 1832, he then emigrated to Canada where he served as a captain in the colonial militia during the rebellion of 1837. He lived for over 20 years in Ottawa, managing a distillery, a trade he had learned from his wife’s Scottish family, but in 1855 after his wife’s death, he headed up the Madawaska River and settled in a place called Dennison’s Bridge, known today as Combermere. Restless as all get out, he moved again in 1870 further up the Madawaska to Lake Opeongo, if only to be closer to his prey.

His obituary said he was a man of good education, “well read in both literary and scientific subjects and was possessed of extraordinary conversational powers.” It also said that at 80 years of age, “he was able to endure as much fatigue and was almost as active as a man of forty.”

And though Dennison may have been the first, he was not the last great white hunter to have been attracted to the Opeongo and particularly that stretch of rugged wilderness that comes down from Lake Opeongo via the mighty Opeongo River to course through Booth and Victoria Lakes to nearly touch Aylen Lake before it joins the Madawaska River near the village of Madawaska.

Yet, if Dennison represents the archetypal, rugged and ever-resourceful frontiersman of the Upper Madawaska, few can match Edson J. Chamberlin for posh, carriage-trade hunting style. He was born in Lancaster, New Hampshire in 1852 and attended a Methodist Seminary but was soon bitten by the railway bug. By the 1890s, his day job was general manager of the new Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway, built by J.R. Booth between 1892 and 1896. Indeed, it was Chamberlin who chose the village of Madawaska over Barry’s Bay as the OA & PS’s operational midpoint between its western terminus at Depot Harbour on Georgian Bay and its most easterly train station in Ottawa. At one time, Booth’s OA & PS carried nearly half of all western Canadian grain, along with Booth’s own colossal square timbers from present-day Algonquin Park.

But Mr. Chamberlain is remembered not so much today for his railroad career – though he did become president of the Grand Trunk Railroad when its current president drowned with the sinking of the RMS Titantic – nor for the fact that Edson, Alberta is named after Mr. Chamberlin. Rather, his real claim to fame, at least in these parts, is that he organized probably the poshest hunting party ever to venture into the Opeongo River Valley.

It happened late in October, 1894 when the OA & PS Railway service had just reached the village of Madawaska before stopping construction for the winter. On October 26th, The Ottawa Daily Citizenreported that a very distinguished party of American hunters had stopped in Ottawa en route to a place 25 miles west of Barry’s Bay, where they were to hunt. The party was led by Colonel Edwin C. Smith, the president of the Central Vermont Railway who was also the son of the late Vermont Governor J. Gregory Smith. Edwin would later become Vermont governor himself, but among the gaggle of dignitaries, high mucky-mucks, wives and girlfriends in his hunter’s entourage, there was also F. E. Chamberlin, the president’s secretary and the brother of Edson who had greased the wheels of the OA & PS to get the Colonel’s entourage to Madawaska for the beginning of the annual deer hunt.

“The party arrived in Ottawa on a special train Wednesday evening,” reported The Citizen. And what a train! It included a special combination observation engine and Wagner car as well as Colonel Smith’s own private rail car, “The Grand Isle.” After a hearty reception, the hunters left Ottawa the following morning for Madawaska using their steam engine fitted with a special observation platform from whence the eager travellers could view the passing countryside, reportedly thick with wild game.

About a week later, The Citizenreported that Smith’s special train had returned to Ottawa and the hunting party reported “excellent weather and were successful in bagging…nine deer…of which one buck weighed fully three hundred pounds.” The group also caught “large strings of fish and shot more partridge than they knew what to do with, the ladies assisting in the fishing and the shooting of partridge.”

Ultimately, the group gave their considered opinion to The Citizen reporter: “They think the Opeongo district the best game country in the world.”

And so, the legend of the Opeongo began and quickly grew far and wide as more Americans heard of the Vermonters’ extraordinary hunting success, if not Chamberlin’s own good graces in practically coaxing the deer to stand at the ready for instantaneous martyrdom by a well-sighted and steady Winchester ’73.

The Colonel and future Governor of Vermont was so happy with his 1894 expedition that he immediately purchased 10,000 acres near Victoria Lake that to this day remains largely intact, though it was eventually sold to Garfield Weston, the Canadian grocery tycoon, as his own private wilderness preserve.

Chamberlin, himself, established his own Opeongo Lodge on Lake Clear near Eganville but the draw of the Colonel’s 10,000 acre hunting preserve at Victoria Lake was too much. Newspaper accounts of Edson’s further hunting-in-style expeditions abound, including some that meandered inside Algonquin Park, which was perfectly legal back in the 19thcentury. And, of course, when it was available, Mr. Chamberlin commandeered his boss’s private OA & PS railway car, “Opeongo,” as it was christened by J.R. Booth. Indeed, it was Chamberlin who was often dropped off from the “Opeongo” by Booth in Madawaska, if only to escort Booth’s son, Jackson. For many years, the avid outdoorsman and general manager would use the woods around Victoria Lake to school the young lad in the fine art of killing anything that moved.

Of course, if Governor Smith’s own ‘Opeongo Lodge’ at the eastern end of Victoria Lake was to become the high water mark for hunting-in-style for American, Canadian and British business elites and the like, the average, upper middle-class hunter was not to be left out. Captain John Dennison’s son, another quick-witted frontiersman named Henry J. Dennison, soon set up shop with the coming of the OA & PS in a place called Opeongo Forks. It was half-way between Barry’s Bay and Madawaska, and where the OA & PS Railway crossed the Opeongo River near Aylen Lake. It was there by the 1920s, that Henry J. Dennison established his own famous ‘Opeongo Inn,’ a veritable Mecca for the serious frontiersman who didn’t want to be bothered with those carriage-trade luxuries or other fancy hunting apparatus often found at the posh ‘Opeongo Lodge’ on Victoria Lake.

And so, the eternal Opeongo tug-of-war of man against beast, man against nature, and man-as-frontiersman versus man-about-town began to play out between the Dennison and Chamberlin camps. It’s the stuff of great stories, great men, great women, and great spirits of the kind the Captain used to make in Ottawa and, in a phrase, that still bubbles up every November like a fine, single-malt mist to become the stuff of Opeongo legends. And somewhere in all of that, there’s even a rough-and-ready campfire recipe for Dennison’s venison.

Barry Conway, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader