Chapter 1


“Closing the heavy door of Father Goiffon’s house behind him, André squared his shoulders, prepared to set off toward his home. The familiar quiver of nervousness sent a chill down his back as he peered through the gathering dusk at the path ahead.

Good! I’m glad it’s late.

That meant that his usual tormentors–Michel, Pierre, Claude, and the others–would be in their homes, perhaps eating their suppers. They would not be outdoors, to greet him with jeers and taunts.

He cringed as he thought of their sneers.“Bon-à-rien”–their name for him meant ”good for nothing.” It was their way of reminding him that, while they were helping their parents with the many chores of wresting a living from their small farms, André was still in school.

But it’s not my fault! André wanted to tell them. My father won’t let me quit school, as you have done. I have asked and asked him to let me stop these lessons, but he won’t. And what good will they ever do me? When will I ever use mathematics, or Latin, or fancy words?

Thinking of his troubles, he strode heedlessly, his feet crunching through the icy crust that the evening coolness had formed over the melted slush from the day’s warmth.

I’ll ask again tonight, he decided. I’ll tell him he needs me. I could–

Splat!

A slushy wet snowball whizzed, just inches from André’s head, and struck the tree by the path. He had been so deep in thought he had forgotten to watch for trouble, and here it was. At the woodpile in Michel’s yard, two of his former schoolmates stood laughing: Michel and Claude. André’s heart plummeted. Claude was bold, and together with Michel, there was no telling what they might do.

I won’t run. I won’t let them make me run. André clenched his teeth and walked straight ahead, not looking around. If only he could get past their yard before something worse happened.

“Oh, look, it’s Bon-à-rien! How prettily you walk, Bon-à-rien! Did you learn some new dance steps today? Tra-la-la!” And Michel trilled a silly tune, whirling about with a hand on his hip and the other held over his head.

André made a mask of his face and lengthened his stride. How had they learned about that?

“Are you thirsty, Bon-à-rien, after all that hard work copying verses? Such a nice script you write. Oh, poor Bon-à-rien! Here, have some ice water!”

Splat!

This time the mushy snowball splashed against his neck. Driblets of ice and water ran down his back, while the dirty snow slid down his coat, leaving a muddy smear. André ground his teeth at the jeering laughs when it found its mark. He would not brush it off.

They had come out of the yard, now, and were waiting at the path just ahead.

”Here, have some more,” and Claude squashed a handful of muddy slush against André’s face.

Michel yanked off his cap. “You mustn’t cover up that fiery hair!” he cried, and tossed it into the ice-rimmed puddle.

André turned, his arm drawn back to hit–but Michel grabbed it, winding his foot around André’s leg and pushing. André fell headlong into the dirt and slush of the path. In a trice Claude was on his back, pummeling him and holding his face into the dirt and muck. André opened his mouth to yell, and had it filled with wet snow.

The two boys rolled together in the icy mud, flailing and clawing at one another, while Michel stood ready, with his hands full of snow. André dug his fingernails into Claude’s neck, and he felt Claude’s fist smash against his cheek. He pounded Claude’s face with his other fist while Claude grabbed his hair and banged his head into the puddle.

At that moment the door of the cottage opened, sending out an oblong of yellow light, and a man’s voice shouted, “Michel! What are you about? Get in here with that wood!”

Without a word, Michel turned and went back to the woodpile. Claude got to his feet and slouched off toward his own home.

Shaking, André stumbled to his feet. With fumbling hands he brushed off what snow and mud he could, and continued on his way home, not stopping to try to find his cap. His breath came in big sobs.

That does it, he thought. After this, Papa will have to let me quit these special lessons with the priest. Why do I need them, anyway? I could already stone houseread and write. That’s more than my Papa Joseph or Mama Berthe ever learned to do. I write long sentences, very neatly. I read Father Goiffon’s books hardly missing a word. And I can multiply and divide big numbers. What for? I should be done with this special schooling. There is no need for the lessons.

And he was ashamed to keep on at lessons when his parents could use his help. Like the other boys.

But–he had to admit: some lessons were exciting. The history, now–his blood raced at the tales of brave explorers such as Champlain who went into unknown dangers and intrepid captains like LeMoine who captured a British fleet with his one small ship. Arithmetic was fun, too, like solving puzzles.

And fencing–ah, that was truly a delight. He thought of Father Goiffon, with his priest’s black cassock tucked up, shouting “En garde!” and thrusting with the sword-like wooden stick he called a foil or an épée. André would do his best to parry the thrust of the priest’s épée, dancing backward and then slipping forward. All the while Father Goiffon would be calling instructions: “The wrist, the wrist! Watch for the opening, now thrust!”

André knew he was gaining more skill every day. Once or twice he had managed to get under his teacher’s guard, thrusting his épée into the priest’s broad belly. And, today he had almost managed to knock his opponent’s foil from the good Father Goiffon’s hand!

André’s eyes glowed at the thought.

Yes, he did enjoy some of the lessons. But, all the same, it was wrong. He should not be whiling away time at such things when his parents worked. Lately it had seemed that Papa’s shoulder bothered him more. Many evenings Mama had rubbed it with the oil that had such a pleasant smell.

If I were at home, I could do some of the chopping and lifting that caused Papa pain. Even last winter it had been better. Then, if Joseph was not hurting on cold or rainy days when outdoor work was impossible, he had entertained them with magic tricks.

“You see this rope?” he would say. “Just a plain rope. See, I pull it straight out. No knots. Now I do my magic on it–abracadabra. And look! Oh, my, what has happened?”

Papa would shake his head, looking helplessly puzzled as he held out to André two pieces of rope–surely it was the same rope, but how had it become cut?

“Now what?” he would say. “Do you suppose I did something wrong? Let me try again.” And he would solemnly perform another magical act, and the rope would be whole again.

Other times he would make things disappear. Moments later they would find them again, in impossible places. For years, no matter how closely André watched, he could not see how it was done. Neither could Mama. She would cluck in exasperation when her darning egg–which she was sure was in her knitting basket–would suddenly be found in her pocket. Joseph would laugh at her amazed look when playing cards were pulled out of her apron, or a potato came out of her ear.

In the cold months of winter, André had finally learned how to do some of the tricks that were so mysterious when Joseph did them. Now he could pluck a spoon out of the air, or extract a ball of yarn from Berthe’s hair.

He had once showed the tricks to the others at school. The boys had all been friends, once–but not now.

Well, they would not sneer at him any more. He would quit the lessons, even the ones he enjoyed. He would stagger into the cottage under an immense load of wood, he would carry Berthe’s wash water. The minute he got into the cottage he would tell his parents what he had decided.

His eyes snapping and jaw firm, he passed the gate and started down the short path to the doorway. Supper would be waiting. Papa would be smoking his pipe by the fire, Mama knitting, and the table laid for the meal. He opened the door.

Something was wrong.

His parents were in their usual places, it was true. But he was not smoking; she was not knitting. They sat still, stiff, as if something had frightened them. Their faces showed shock and worry.

 

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What’s that you said??

Posted by on Nov 26, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

What’s that you said??

The writings that have survived from fur traders are full of inventive spellings — like Lac Ouinipique or Ouisconstan. Can you guess where they are? There weren’t many literate people in the fur trade. Most voyageurs signed their contracts with an X. The clerks’ spellings were iffy, because the language hadn’t crystallized into a single spelling for a word.* Add to that, they heard unique Ojibwe and Cree words and tried to imagine ways to spell them so others could read and understand. Peter Pond (about 1740-1807) was an American-born fur trader, a founding member of the North West Company (rivals of the Hudson’s Bay Company) an explorer and a cartographer. He was a member of the prestigious Beaver Club, the bourgeois of the fur trade. His narrative is in “Five Fur Traders of the Northwest” (Minnesota Historical Society, 1965). But it takes ingenuity and persistence to understand what he is writing about. So today’s post is pronunciation practice, taken from Peter Pond’s writing—the use of capital letters is his. (HINT: Say the words aloud. They’re all English words or places.) Places: (Check the map below for some answers — and appreciate the mapping skills of the 18th century.) Masseppay (or Massasippey) Miseeurea (or Miseiarey) Ontarey Erey Michlamacneck La shean (Lachine is the Canadian village from which all the canoes left.) Amareca Cannaday Ouisconstan villeg cuntray People: voigeer InGashaes Ochipway Mishenerae preast inHabetans aquantans parans (or pairans) fammaley And other words: (interesting use of capitals in the last two) rigmintal coate exseadingly mutanise cumplyed Saremoney canues burch seader Artickels Entelagent aSosheat aStableshad Two more from other sources: Paquégamant or Paquayaman Lac Ouinipique or Lac Winnipick * Mark Twain once said, “It’s a poor man who can only spell a word one way.”   Pix: PPond’s map, book 5 Fur Traders, map with...

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My first Girl Scout canoe trip

Posted by on Nov 22, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

My first Girl Scout canoe trip

During my first Girl Scout canoe trip back in 1963, flipping our canoes and making the fewest number of passes across a portage (with only one girl carrying the canoe) was a source of great pride. We squashed loaves of white bread—that was before freeze-dried food—and made our Koolaid with untreated lake water. We paddled rain or shine, discovered the dangers of the rocky shore on a windy day, built fires with wet wood, dug latrines. At that time there weren’t regulations on campsite use, so our base camp boasted 12 tents! One Sunday I was assigned to organize a Protestant service. We sang a few familiar hymns and voyageur songs. Then I offered a short reflection on living up to the Girl Scout promise. (How stuffy of me — I am embarrassed to look at those notes now.) I recall searching anxiously for portages where ALL the islands and land looked like Hamm’s Beer scenes, sneaking cookies, singing at campfires, deciding what “city” food we wanted the most upon our return (root beer and French fries were the top two). When voyageurs were “baptized into the brotherhood,” they had to promise not to kiss another voyageur’s wife without her permission, and then they all had a dram (or more) of high wines. I don’t recall any such vows on our initiation, but we might have had green Koolaid instead of red. I’d love to hear what others remember. What a gift this Girl Scout trip was! It fueled my great appreciation for canoe camping, the Boundary Waters, old maps, the fur trade, Hudson’s Bay blankets and so much more....

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Proof of my official voyageur status

Posted by on Nov 20, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

Proof of my official voyageur status

I’m an official voyageur and I can prove it. Here’s my certificate, awarded in the summer of 1963 while on my first Girl Scout canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park. I recall the trip fondly (tho’ I’ve forgotten the actual ceremony). The certificate is in pretty good shape. How did I manage to keep it? Our 12-day expedition drew 20 mostly-rookie paddlers (plus proficient adults). We came from troops in northern Minnesota, with a few from Cannon Falls, Minnesota, and others from Minot, North Dakota. The first shock was to get our feet wet while loading the canoes. My paddle partner, Merrie, had to learn to steer. (Or maybe she already knew.) Here’s my list of our route: Starting from Moose Lake out of Ely, we camped at Bayley Bay, Meadow Lake, two nights at Julie’s Island and four at a base camp at Lake Agnes. Then we reversed the order to return home and spent our last night at New Found Lake to get to the landing point earlier in the day. I remember visiting Louisa Falls, watching moose and bear at a distance, and one day to the north end of Lake Agnes — if Boy Scouts could get that far, we could too. (Apparently we took a side trip to see the Painted Rocks — but I don’t recall it.) Amazing what memories arise from a box of papers. Even more amazing that my ancestors, real voyageurs, had canoed those same places centuries earlier....

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Another taste of tourtière

Posted by on Oct 31, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

Another taste of tourtière

Because my family event required 14 servings, I needed a second tourtière. After reading recipes, I chose one with other ingredients and a different thickening. This one called for onions, spiced with allspice. And potatoes, which really pumped up the filling! The meat filling was simmered for 2 hours. S we could do a taste test, I marked it with a tree (but we devoured it too quickly). This recipe came from the Je Me Souviens—La Cuisine De La Grandmère cookbook (published by the American-French Genealogical Society in Woonsocket, Rhode Island). A member of our local French-Canadian society kindly purchased it and sent it my way. The Je Me Souviens cookbook also included recipes for blood sausage, which—guess what?—happens to be a favorite food of Pretty Mouse, another of the book’s characters. (As interesting as blood sausage might be to read about, I don’t plan on testing that recipe. Reading about it will have to...

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What is André’s favorite food?

Posted by on Oct 29, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

What is André’s favorite food?

Tourtière is a French-Canadian meat pie made with ground pork and fragrant spices and often served at holiday times. This is important because tourtière is André‘s favorite food (André being the main character of “Waters Like the Sky.”) Each family has individualized the recipe, varying the spices, including other ingredients, like potatoes and onions, and using different methods (like simmering the meat from 15 minutes to 2 hours). I found this out when I casually asked about THE recipe. My French-Canadian cousin Joelle sent the cookbook from St. Genevieve’s Parish in Centerville, Minnesota. Her family’s special version was clipped to the pages with traditional foods. I could almost taste it. For a recent family occasion, I made her recipe. I’ve always wondered what held the crumbles of ground pork together—Joelle used bread crumbs, a delicious choice. And her spicing—cinnamon and cloves—was perfect. I marked the crust “N” (for “no onion”) which my brother and nephew particularly appreciated. Yum!...

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#8 voyageur statue: Pine City

Posted by on Oct 21, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

#8 voyageur statue: Pine City

The statue in Pine City, Minnesota, shows Ojibwe heritage, with straight hair and no beard, deep-set eyes, strong jaw and lack of beard. He’s wearing a knitted cap with a tassel, a simple voyageur shirt, sashed, and his trousers are tied with double cords at the knee (like my costume when I present programs). A voyageur’s tuque and sash complete his apparel. His moccasins have an amazing woodland flower pattern carved in, like they were beaded moccasins. His hair is almost to his shoulders and is blunt-cut. His narrow-bladed paddle that reaches past his shoulders suggests he was a steersmen, the avant or gouvernail, and a position of great responsibility. His mood is introspective — as if measuring the cost of the fur trade against his tribe and band — what will the world bring to them and how will they survive? He looks out at the river and community beyond, having led traders there. Maybe he’s wondering how now to best help his tribe. He stands on a base with the North West Company logo and motto “Perseverance.” This statue is another giant, at 35 feet, created in 1992 by Dennis Roghair, a local chainsaw sculptor, who carved it from a California redwood about 7 feet in diameter. It’s in a community park overlooking the Snake River. To get the full experience, stop by the North West Company Fur Post, re-created at the site of the original 1804 trading post and now a Minnesota State Historical site, just a few miles west. Hope you’ve enjoyed this parade of Minnesota’s roadside voyageurs. There’s another group in Mattawa, Ottawa Canada, but they’ll have to wait for another time....

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#7 voyageur statue: Big Louis in Barnum

Posted by on Oct 20, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

#7 voyageur statue: Big Louis in Barnum

Big Louis, the name of the statue in Barnum, is one of the biggest (seems about 40 feet tall) and most elaborate, like his possible brother Big Vic of Ranier. Made of fiberglass, he is also colorful, with a curly black beard and hair and a red-banded tuque hat. He’s dressed in white-striped and long-fringed full-length buckskins, winter wear, belted, not sashed. The long fringes  cover his feet. Big Louis is armed — a pistol tucked in his belt, a musket out front and his power horn in back! His face shows the joie de vivre characteristic of voyageurs — alert to a rival trader moving in to his territory and ready for the challenge. But there’s no paddle. He’s here for good. Big Louis stands sentinel over the Interstate 35 exit #220, checking out the lake on its east side. Next to him is a convenience store, gift shop and café, which are appropriate — voyageurs ran the very first shops in town. Up next: Pine City...

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#6 voyageur statue: Cloquet

Posted by on Oct 19, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

#6 voyageur statue: Cloquet

Cloquet’s voyageur statue is 25 feet tall, made of fiberglass. He holds the short paddle of a middleman in his canoe. His apparel looks ready for winter — a long double-fringed buckskin tunic, tight leggings and a fur hat. His beard is trimmed and his hair as well. However, he looks gruff, like he misses the good old voyageur companions during the long winter nights. This guy faces inland, with his back to a very calm portion of the St. Louis River. My sister Kris, who led many Girl Scout canoe expeditions, and I are sitting on this guy’s really big feet. The official bronze sign says it was a bicentennial project dedicated July 5, 1976, by Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, Rep. James Oberstar, Floyd D. Jaros, mayor, and Henry C. Larson, chairman. You can find him on Dunlap Island Park, with an old military fort nearby. Drivers will need to figure out which road twists under the bridge. Tomorrow: Big Louis in Barnum...

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#5: Two Harbors’ second voyageur

Posted by on Oct 18, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

#5: Two Harbors’ second voyageur

Two Harbor’s second voyageur is maybe 15 feet tall, which is shorter than his competitor Pierre (and historically accurate in that these guys had to be shorter than 5’6” to fit into the canoe). He has long hair and beard (better to keep out the dreaded mosquitoes and black flies) and is dressed in fringed — and laced — buckskins, a high fur hat and even laced boots. He holds the short wide paddle of the middleman. His eyes study the lake, watchful for the erratic weather that is a bane for voyageurs — fog, high waves, fast-building storms. He also looks hungry — like a winterer wondering how he is going to make it through the ravages of the season. Maybe he only has one year left of his contract. Sculptor John Gage created this statue from a tree trunk; the monument was dedicated to the Minnesota DNR in appreciation by the City of Two Harbors. This voyageur overlooks the harbor and Lake Superior, not far from the lighthouse. Next: Cloquet...

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#4 voyageur statue: Pierre of Two Harbors

Posted by on Oct 17, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

#4 voyageur statue: Pierre of Two Harbors

Two Harbors is the proud home of two monuments. Pierre sports a laced tunic and tall boots, useful the dreaded muddy Savanna Portage. Locals told us he is known as Pierre the (Pants-less) Voyageur, due to his garb. But it’s correct and appropriate for the summer — being in and out of water would make fringed leather or wool trousers a misery. His short beard suggests that he was spiffed up for the rendezvous at Grand Portage. He holds his vermilion-painted gouvernail’s paddle ready to jam it between rocks to steer. His other arm is bent, fist at the waist (akimbo?) — as if to say, “Try me, river. I know you, and I can beat you.” At his feet is the front half of a birch bark canoe (for folks to pose in). Pierre has the right build — wide shoulders, short legs. And he is lit at night (note the trio of lights over his head), which again is appropriate — voyageurs enjoyed their allotted dram of high wine. Though a 25-foot concrete statue, he seems lively, totally in character with the real thing. The sign, which once told more, is no longer legible. He’s next to a sign announcing an award-winning “hidden food gem” café. Pierre stands on the east side of MN Highway 61, just before you get into town. Tomorrow: Two Harbors’ second voyageur...

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