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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#3 voyageur statue: Ely

Posted by on Oct 16, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

#3 voyageur statue: Ely

Pierre is the voyageur in Ely, a chainsaw sculpture. The wood is tinted so this fringed voyageur’s shirt is multi-toned and carved to look as if it were quill- or bead-embroidered. His moccasins look as if they were decorated with leather beads. His pants are light tan with leggings and decorated bands — definitely the best-dressed of the Minnesota lot. A bag of possibles hangs from his narrow sash — another small bag is just below his throat. His black beard is nicely trimmed. Looking this spiffy, maybe he’s just traded for new winter duds. Both hands are on on his short paddle of a middleman. But he looks a little sad; maybe this year’s cache of wild rice and dried fish won’t last the winter. At about 7 feet tall, this statue is the closest to life-size of all the monuments. It’s found outside Canoe Capital Realty, on Sheridan Street in Ely — they commissioned the award-winning chainsaw artist Justin Howland of Grizz Works Wood Sculpture in Maple, Wisconsin, to create it. Kerry Davis, CCR partner and real estate broker, kindly took this photo and sent it to me. Up next: Two Harbors...

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#2: Crane Lake and René Bourassa’s Fur Post

Posted by on Oct 15, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

#2: Crane Lake and René Bourassa’s Fur Post

Crane Lake, Minnesota, boasts of a historic site — René Bourassa’s Post built in 1736. So the fiberglass statue must be René, dressed in a nicely fringed long buckskin shirt with a red sash. (Yes!) Hanging from the sash is a red and green bag of “possibles,” almost as if it were decorated with porcupine quills. His leggins are fringed over moccasins and tied at the thigh. With his long red tuque hat, a good haircut and well-trimmed beard, he looks very tidy — spruced up for someone, perhaps? One foot is raised, as if on a rock of a rough portage path. He’s leaning back while looking off over the lake and holding onto his short middleman’s paddle, which also is painted with a dramatic pattern. Maybe he’s sizing up the rapids or the waves, and thinking about the route his avant will choose. (The map shows nasty portages over Class 2-5 rapids — like High Falls, the Chute and the Gorge — for a total of 3 ½ miles. Ouch! So René is about to have hard work traveling inland.) At the site, a sign says “This memorial was erected by the Crane Lake Commercial Club to commemorate the French Canadian Voyageurs who explored and opened this country starting in the late 1600s. Thousands of these dauntless men rowed their birch bark canoes through these waterways in the quest of furs and the Northwest Passage. One of their forts was at the mouth of the Vermillion River in Crane Lake. The gay garb of these courageous happy men is typified by our memorial as he stands here proudly surveying the lands and waterways he once roamed. Home of the Voyageurs” The Vermillion River feeds Crane Lake, east of Rainy Lake, at the southern entrance to Voyageurs National Park and is at the southern entrance to Voyageurs National Park. It’s on the west edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This photo was taken by my friend Jackie Bradbury, who enjoys cabin life there half the year. Tomorrow: Ely...

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#1 voyageur statue: Big Vic in Ranier

Posted by on Oct 14, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

#1 voyageur statue: Big Vic in Ranier

In the town of Ranier, Minnesota, Big Vic holds sway. Big Vic is a 25-foot fiberglass statue and he looks ready to take on the world. He has the typical voyageur build — wide shoulders. His beard is brown, his tuque is red and his buckskins are fringed — the garb of a winterer. A pistol is tucked into his belt (not sash) and his right hand is on a musket, so it seems he’s traded in his paddle. Big Vic is a feisty voyageur with his own history: Vic Davis owns island property on Rainy Lake. In 1980, government officials wanted the property for Voyageur National Park. Davis had the statue built and erected on his island. It was seized by the U.S. Park Service, but returned to him after he won a lawsuit against them, a big victory. Davis donated Big Vic to the community of Ranier. (A plaque dedicated this statue to the memory of Ed Woods Sr.) Ranier is on Rainy Lake (Lac La Pluie), east of International Falls. It’s part of the voyageur highway of border lakes where Rainy River feeds into Rainy Lake heading toward Lake Superior. The photo is courtesy of Sheryl Peterson, author of “The Best Part of a Sauna” and numerous other books for kids. BTW, Big Vic may have a brother, Big Louis in Barnum — there were lots of families in the fur trade. Next: Crane Lake’s René Bourassa...

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Larger than life — Minnesota statues of voyageurs

Posted by on Oct 12, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

Guess what I finally found — the voyageur statue in Ely, Minnesota, plus the owner and the artist. (I’ve been trying to find it for a couple of years.) The Midwest’s massive monuments to their uniqueness are pure fun. My community has a large largemouth bass, other towns are graced with a humongous prairie chicken, a mammoth ball of twine, Paul Bunyan, Saint Urho — and larger-than-life statues of voyageurs. When I learned that some existed, I began researching: Where have the voyageurs been memorialized? And what aspects of their lives do the statues show? Minnesota’s 8 statues of canoemen are found along its northern and eastern borders. A few weeks ago we drove past several, which inspired me to recheck my info. Though I wrote about this two years back, now I want to reprise the entire series of gigantic voyageur monuments that dot the Minnesota landscape. I’ll highlight them all, with pictures and handy locator maps. At the end, so you can compare, all of the pix in one place. Starting tomorrow with Big Vic in...

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Ray Mears on brand-new birch bark canoes

Posted by on Oct 7, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

Ray Mears on brand-new birch bark canoes

 is about the Hudson’s Bay Company’s role in Canada. Mears is an authority on the subject of bushcraft and survival.* He speaks with the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, which commissioned authentic birch bark canoes. Mears paddles a small one and camps at historic sites on the French River in Ontario. After having studied old sketches of voyageurs’ campsites, he demonstrates a clever way of lashing sticks for a cooking tripod and twisting twigs for pothooks. About 10 voyageurs paddle the 37-foot Montreal canoe, with Jeremy Ward, the Canoe Museum’s curator, as steersman. When they turn it over to portage, water pours out! (This is about 14 or 15 minutes into the video.) With a cargo of wool blankets that quickly absorbed moisture, canoemen would constantly be on the alert for water leaking in through the slats. I loved seeing these beautiful canoes go through their paces — they handle differently without keels. I also liked watching them voyageurs decharge, when a waterway is too shallow for the canoe to be paddled. Instead the voyageurs haul it with ropes — what a hard job! These folks have life vests and pull a fairly empty canoe, barely getting their feet wet. In real life, they slogged through icy water hauling a loaded canoe. Given what hard work portaging was/is, no wonder they did anything to avoid it. The natives traded for goods that made their lives easier — iron tools like pots and traps and guns, and fabrics like point blankets. They were aware that quality varied and learned to burn the nap off a blanket to check how tight the weave was. The whole program is chock-full of historic information, from beaver hats to Hudson’s Bay Company history, the making of sashes to trade goods, Radisson and Groseilliers to modern day artists. By the way, the Hudson’s Bay Company is the oldest company still operating in North America. It was incorporated by royal charter in 1670 (without permission of the First Nations people who lived in the lands given HBC). The watershed they controlled made HBC the world’s largest landowner, with 15% of the North American acreage....

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1946 film: How Indians Build Canoes

Posted by on Oct 5, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

1946 film: How Indians Build Canoes

“How Indians Build Canoes” is a color movie from 1946 that shows an Algonquin man and his wife and son building a birch bark canoe using native methods. At the very beginning, a young man wields a long stick—which becomes his ladder to scale a tall birch tree! What was interesting to me—the stitching of the pieces of birch bark, a task traditionally done by women, takes the longest of all the tasks in canoe-building. They demonstrate punching each hole with a bone awl and sewing it with basswood strips. Later his wife collects of spruce gum “lumps” in a bag, for sealing the canoe’s seams. She drops the whole bag into boiling water and the clear gum rises while the dirt and leaves that cling to the gum stay in the bag. She spoons out the gum, drops it into cold water and then pulls it like taffy. It gets a second boiling, but this time she adds a bit of animal tallow, making sure it’s not too much (the gum would soften and melt in the warm weather) or too little (the seals would harden and crack in cold weather). This video, made by the Canadian Geographic Society, begins and ends with voyageur singing, which I love....

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1973 film on Bill Hafeman, birch bark canoe-builder

Posted by on Oct 3, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

1973 film on Bill Hafeman, birch bark canoe-builder

Meant to watch Dan Boessel’s video a second time, it was so interesting. But I accidentally clicked on “Birch Canoe Builder.” This 7-minute film was made in 1973 about Bill Hafeman, who began his canoe- and boat-building venture in the 1920s. He demonstrated the process of birch bark canoe building and, with his wife Violet, like bending ribs of cedar. According to Boessel, Hafeman learned the hard way not to use elm bark, and to place the white side of the birch bark inside, where the roughness and moss wouldn’t slow the canoe’s movement in the water. The white side is waterproof while the yellow side absorbs moisture—when the canoe soaks up water, that tightens things up. And the bark curves naturally that way. He built two 37-foot Montreal canoes, one which is in Minnesota History Center Museum in St. Paul and one for Grand Portage. He built 25-foot North canoes. (In the 1600s-1800s, Montreal canoes were used to freight goods from Montreal across the Great Lakes to Grand Portage, while North canoes ferried those goods on the smaller rivers and lakes in the north country.) Once I helped lead a Girl Scout canoe trip along the Bigfork River. One day we pulled up at Hafeman Boat Works, to talk to Bill Hafeman about the birch bark canoe he was building. I recall being in awe that he constructed it using only natural materials and Ojibwe methods. In a booklet, Hafeman recounted the story of needing to flip a Montreal canoe that needed “pitching.” A group of Girl Scouts observing him offered to lift it. He was amazed that the girls lifted the 300-pound canoe nearly to the ceiling. Was that us???    ...

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Birch bark canoe-builder in the 1920s—Hafeman Boat Works

Posted by on Oct 1, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

Birch bark canoe-builder in the 1920s—Hafeman Boat Works

In researching Book 2 of “The Chronicles of an Unlikely Voyageur,” I learned a classmate, Bob Davis, was the great-nephew of Bill Hafeman, founder of Hafeman Boat Works in Bigfork, MN. Hafeman began building canoes in the 1920s. Bob’s wife Diane alerted me to a great YouTube piece about the current business. In recent years, the business was taken over by Ray Boessel, Jr., married to Hafeman’s granddaughter Christy. Their son Dan posted this video (16:03). Ray said gathering the materials takes most of the 80 hours he needs to complete a canoe. Once they are in hand, the actual constructing takes about 24 hours. Hafeman, he said, discovered that asphalt worked better than spruce gum to seal the seams—it didn’t need to be replaced each season because it was too soft and melting (too much tallow) or too hard and cracking (too much charcoal). Now Boessel uses polyurethane, the only non-natural element in the entire canoe. They also show 3 different paddles—the beaver tail and the otter tail and a variable speed paddle. In a 37-foot Montreal canoe, the avant’s steering paddle could be as long as 8 feet. The avant set the pace—everyone’s paddle stroke precisely matched his. As a youth, my classmate Bob was tasked with providing Hafeman with spruce root, called wattap, which was used to sew large birch bark pieces together and also to sew the canoe to the gunwales and frame.  Bob also told me about a booklet, “Builder of Birch Bark Canoes,” published in 1970 about his great-uncle....

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Tepees, lodges, bullboats and pemmican

Posted by on Sep 4, 2017 in Featured | 0 comments

Tepees, lodges, bullboats and pemmican

We visited North Dakota’s Heritage Center and State Museum in Bismarck a few weeks back. I was admiring a Dakota lodge when a guide came by to offer more information. We then talked about tepee construction. What a gold mine he was!   He said me the lodge I was examining was used about 2,500 years ago—an archaeological dig excavated its wood supports along the James River, so it was the predecessor of the earth-covered slant village homes of the Mandan Indians. Then he pointed out a nearby tepee: it would have needed 15-18 buffalo hides and a whole week to construct, with many people working to scrape, tan, cut and sew. The tanning of one hide required five days. Tepees were made in the shape of a cottonwood leaf! When a tepee’s skins needed to be replaced, the old hide was re-purposed for moccasins, and even toilet paper!   Close to us was a circle-shaped bullboat. I’ve always wondered how they were steered to cross the Missouri River. My guide told me bullboats were temporary, and not meant to last more than a couple of uses! They might simply be left on the other shore—the frame was not very strong and the leather covering it would leak. (But it’s a lot of work, I think.) They preferred dugouts—burned-out logs, actually—and other craft for more permanent needs. To steer, a person sitting in front would move the oar/paddle in a figure eight.   The conversation switched to pemmican, which my guide, though male, also had significant experience with. Making pemmican was gender-linked, a woman’s task. His wise auntie showed him what was done, so he would understand in later years. She demonstrated how a whole muscle was kept intact, and cut with slits to form a long rope, instead of making many small pieces which was easier to dry over racks. Once dried, the meat was pulverized. Nowadays, he said, his aunt uses a blender instead of pounding the meat with stone tools. And adds to it dried chokecherries or buffalo berries, the yellow marrow fat from long bones and...

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Read “The Voyageurettes” for a giggle

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

Read “The Voyageurettes” for a giggle

Interested in a goofy read? “The Voyageurettes” is a giggle, especially if you’ve canoe-camped. The book fits delightfully in the tongue-in-cheek category—all the female characters are named Marie (the guys were mostly Jean Baptiste) and they are smart. To appeal to a “broad-er” audience, they offered Yvonne beauty products like Epidermis So Smooth, the B.B. Legume line of outdoor clothing, L’Ambway cleaning items and Putterware instead of grass baskets and iron kettles. Instead of carrying heavy packs of trade goods over a portage, they instituted a system of free samples and catalog ordering, which was much lighter. Each chapter tells of their amazing exploits, from catching a muskie to inventing bent-shaft paddles. And each chapter begins with a French quote and its English translation. Here’s a few:“Une vérité décorée n’est pas la même chose qu’un mensonge.” (Truth-decorating is not the same as lying.) Les voyageurs n’avaient jamais vu de petite loups. (Voyageurs never see small wolves.) Un peu de compétition ajouote du piquant dans la vie. (A little competition adds to the joy of life.) I especially enjoyed Chapter 40, the Voyageurette Nature Guide. It helps people distinguish between 2-legged and 4-legged animals and swimming creatures in the wilds. Fuzzy animals come in many sizes—but the small ones don’t have enough meat to be eaten. You can tell timber wolves from dogs by their lack of collars and red bandannas. If you see an animal swimming far away, it is safe to call it a beaver since others won’t be able to tell the difference between it and a muskrat. Beavers, however, do not make good house pets, as they are hard on furniture and hog the bath tub. If a bird in the water doesn’t move when the canoe gets close, it’s actually a skinny tree stump. When you see a turtle with a thick neck and ugly rough shell with spikes, walk away fast—it is a snapping turtle. But don’t run—people will think you aren’t brave. A rat wearing a turtle shell is probably an armadillo and you have probably paddled too far south, in the vicinity of alligators, crocodiles and water moccasins. And the constellation that many canoeists call the Northern Cross, they refer to as the Giant Mosquito.   At the end is a a mini-bio with the real Maries behind each character. Written in 1999 by Susan Engebretson and Rebecca Barry, the book won’t probably be included in my final biblio. But they certainly had a blast telling the tales—and made for fun reading. Il ne peut pas y avour beaucoup de femmes canoêistes dans le Grand Nord. There cannot be too many lady canoeists in the North Country....

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