More than three centuries after they camped out in Norfolk County, French explorers Francois Dollier de Casson and Rene Galinee are enjoying a moment in the spotlight.
This year marks the 350th anniversary of the visit by Dollier, a Catholic priest, and Galinee, a deacon, to what later became Port Dover. Local Catholics celebrate the pair for conducting the first mass documented in this part of Ontario.
Dollier and Galinee are also celebrated as the first explorers to document a round-trip to Montreal along a route that includes the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron and east from Sault Ste. Marie through Georgian Bay, the French River, Lake Nippissing and the Ottawa River.
In 1669, Galinee, Dollier and a support team of seven over-wintered on the banks of Black Creek. The location off Donjon Boulevard in Port Dover is marked by one of the oldest federal heritage monuments in Canada. The party built a cabin there and kept detailed records of their stay from October through to March 1670.
“The best part of this story is that it happened here,” John Ayre, of Simcoe, said in a presentation at St. Cecilia’s Church in Port Dover.
“This is our story. They proved the inter-connectedness of the lakes. Until then no one knew that. Their journals and maps showed how the lakes were inter-connected and how travelling them could be done.”
The Knights of Columbus, Dollier and Galinee Council 8149, in Port Dover is taking steps to keep the 350th anniversary in the public eye.
Ayre’s presentation was his second this year. In May, he spoke to a full house at the Harbour Museum in Port Dover. Nearly 100 took in his presentation at St. Cecilia’s. Ayre is scheduled to make an encore presentation at the Harbour Museum on Oct. 27.
The Port Dover Knights are putting together a 20-page booklet on the exploits of Dollier and Galinee.
On Sept. 6, Most Rev. Joseph Dabrowski, auxiliary bishop of the London diocese, which includes Norfolk, will conduct a mass at the wintering site. The Port Dover Knights have also reserved a booth at next month’s Lynn River Music and Arts Festival in Simcoe.
“We’re trying to raise awareness of this wintering site and the history of this area,” said Knights representative John Gots, of Port Dover. “We will continue to bring this story to the people. We hope the youth will get engaged. They are our future and they will keep this history going.
“If this were down in the United States, I’m sure they would have a glass dome over the site by now.”
In his presentation, Ayre likens the odyssey of Dollier and Galinee to a lunar space mission — but riskier. Through a combination of skill, luck and frontier toughness, they made it back to Montreal in the spring of 1670. The party had been given up for dead, so their return was greeted as miraculous by the city’s 600 inhabitants.
Dollier and Galinee’s stay in Port Dover was rather pleasant, with comfortable lodgings in a protected, bountiful location.
“They said the bear meat tasted better than the sweetest hogs of France,” Ayre said. “They said the wine they made from wild grapes was better than the finest Bordeaux back home. They survived rather well.”
In addition to bear, they also hunted deer and beaver, ate plenty of fish, and had ample supplies of wild apples, plums, walnuts and chestnuts.
Dollier and Galinee did experience many challenges along the way. Ayre cited biting flies, near starvation, difficult portages, long days of rowing and the losses of a canoe and of sacramental items deemed essential to the conversion of natives.
“`I leave it to you to imagine whether we suffered in the midst of this abundance in the earthly paradise of Canada,” said Ayre, quoting from Galinee’s journal of 1670. “’I call it so because there is assuredly no more beautiful region.’”
“And I happen to agree,” Ayre noted.