The Voyageur’s Story – part I

Crane Lake Voyageur
Jacques, the French Voyageur

The following was reprinted from an old brochure for the Crane Lake Commercial Club. The piece was written in the early 70’s by Wilma Gilman.

Those of us, who paddle the waters of the Boundary Canoe Area, may now and then feel like explorers into a virgin wilderness; but many hundreds of years ago, these waters knew the paddler shout and laugh of the Indian, and until three hundred years ago they were the only travelers.

¬†The first map of this area was drawn (on birch bark) in the early 1700’s by an Indian, named Achagah, and this map was used by Dieur de la Verendrye in 1731 as he pushed west from Grand Portage on Lake Superior, searching for the ever elusive Northwest Passage to the far Pacific Ocean. This was long before Lewis and Clark made their great exploration, before there was a United States of America.

¬†Verendrye, Radisson, Groseilliers, Duluth, de Noyons… they opened the country to the French fur traders (“voyageurs”), who spread through out this area, from Grand Portage on Lake Superior, north, south and west, wherever water would take them, and wherever furs were to be found. A written record of his exploration was left by La-Verendrye, which helped open this country for fur trading posts owned by the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company.

During our Revolutionary war, fur trading was at its peak. Quite remarkable was the fact that there was very little trouble between Indians and the traders, due in great part because they did not seek to despoil, loot or rob; the traders were simply interested in exchanging products and supplies from our world for the valuable pelts of the wilderness. Hundreds of tons of goods were moved westward each summer, and a matching quantity of furs moved eastward to Montreal, and thence to Europe, where they filled the demand for warm clothing and beaver hats.

At the height of the trading boom, the voyageurs numbered in the thousands, and their feats of paddling and carrying on are almost beyond belief. The trips began in the spring, with crews leaving Montreal in 36 to 40 foot birch bark canoes with tons of goods, paddling through the Great Lakes to Grand Portage; while other crews left Athabaska and Winnipeg with pelts collected during the winter, paddling eastward to Grand Portage, where goods and pelts were exchanged. The “Montreal” canoes were 40 feet long and used to cross the Great Lakes, the “north” canoes were 20 feet long, carried six paddlers, a bow look-out and stern rudder man, and plied the inland waterways.

The voyageur was a man of physical strength and endurance, paddling a canoe for 18 hours a day on a quart of lyed-corn or wild rice with melted fat, or a handful of pemmican; trotting over a mile on a portage with 200 pounds, then hurtling back for another load. They had a certain dignity, courtesy and Gallic charm; but some were also filthy, obscene, ignorant and superstitious. Their regular day began at 3 o’clock in the morning, and ended after dark. There were cowards among the brave ones, and sad ones with the gay. On the open stretches of boundary lakes they hit a paddle-cadence of about 40 strokes a minute, and four to six miles could be logged in an hour, and a hundred miles could be covered in a day.

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