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The Early Immersion of Etienne Brûlé

Skilled woodsman, indefatigable pathfinder, sailor, multi-linguist and accused traitor - Etienne Brûlé lived a life of extraordinary exploits and larger-than-life adventures. As a wilderness scout, working on behalf of the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, Brûlé became the first European to see not only Lake Ontario, but also Huron, Superior, and Erie. (Jean Nicollet, another Champlain scout, was the first to sight Lake Michigan.)

The illiterate Brûlé left no written record of his journeys, but Champlain's journals and illustrations detail some of his discoveries and encounters. In 1608, Champlain sent the 16-year-old Brûlé in search of the elusive route to China. Seven years later, the talented scout guided Champlain through the Ottawa River-Lake Nipissing-French River shortcut to Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

Brûlé's trail-breaking travels to Lake Ontario paved the way for Champlain, who led a band of Huron across the Lake to fight an unsuccessful battle against the Iroquois on the southern shore.

First by duty, and then by choice, Brûlé lived among Champlain's Huron allies, learning their languages and customs. Unlike the imperialistic, moralistic Champlain, Brûlé cared little for law, religion or cultural allegiance. He ultimately rejected the colonial life, earning the grim disapproval of both Champlain and the powerful Jesuit missionaries of New France.

Brûlé's remarkable and unconventional life ended in bitter animosity. In 1629, Champlain blamed his former deputy for guiding the British to their capture of Quebec, and cast him as a traitor. In 1632, Brûlé died in a mysterious quarrel with his Huron friends.

La Salle Sails the Lake

Even in an era that seemed to produce more than its share of single-minded, superhuman explorers, the feats of Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, were astonishing. During his 44 years of life (1643-1687), the peripatetic French shipbuilder, fur trader and would-be global conqueror, sailed most of the Great Lakes, canoed the length of the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, built at least 4 forts, and survived countless setbacks and disasters before his death by mutiny in the lowlands of Louisiana.

La Salle was ambitious and impetuous, consumed with the desire to establish a North American trading empire by seizing control of the Great Lakes. Like Cartier and Champlain, he believed he could find the fabled route to the Orient. He began his quest quietly, selling his Quebec land grant to raise funds. In 1669, he joined an expedition overseen by mission priests from Quinte, in eastern Lake Ontario. With 9 canoes, a party of Europeans and a group of Seneca guides, the expedition made its way up the St. Lawrence River, through the Thousand Islands, and along the north shore of Lake Ontario. With the help of First Nations tribes along the way, the party reached Niagara at the head of Lake Ontario. Here, La Salle met Louis Joliet, returning from his groundbreaking exploration of Lake Superior.

In the early 1670's, La Salle intensified his quest to conquer the heart of the continent. On behalf of Frontenac, Governor of New France, he occupied the first fort on Lake Ontario, at the mouth of the Cataraqui River (near the present-day city of Kingston). As Frontenac's emissary in France, La Salle obtained royal support to strengthen Fort Frontenac, and push further to the south and west, expanding the fur trade in competition with the Montreal establishment.

Using the fortified Cataraqui palisade as his base, La Salle built the Frontenac, a small barque that became Lake Ontario's first sailing ship. La Salle and his partner, Italian officer Henry de Tonty, sailed the barque along the treacherous November waters of Lake Ontario's northern shore. At the native village of Taiaiagon, near present-day Toronto, ice in the harbour temporarily detained them, but by January of 1679, they had arrived at the head of the Lake.

La Salle's first sailing vessel, as functional as it proved to be, was merely a footnote to the grandeur of the ship he launched later that same year. The legendary Griffon was a fully-fitted 40 tonne schooner with elegant carvings both fore and aft. Under La Salle's expert and intuitive navigation, the Griffon sailed the uncharted waters of Erie, Huron and Michigan, striking awe into all that saw her. But in the early fall of 1679, when La Salle dispatched the fur-packed Griffon to Michilimackinac, en route to Niagara, the ship vanished, never to be seen again. The fate of the Griffon proved to be ominous for La Salle. For the rest of his life, in spite of his great accomplishments, he was never free of heartbreak and despair.

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