Voyageur’s Life


Ask a voyageur a question. Here’s a blog to answer your questions, like what was life like during the 1800s in French Canada? Like who could or couldn’t be a voyageur? How big the canoes were? What trade goods they carried? What different furs were worth? What they used for medicine? I’ll answer these and more in the “A Voyageur’s Life” blog. Click on the button below to ask your question or go to the “Contact” section of this site — I’ll find the answers.

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The Witched Canoe #2

Posted by on Jan 12, 2018 in Featured | 0 comments

The Witched Canoe #2

  In print, the tale of the Flying Canoe, La Chasse Galerie dates back to 1891 but it was an old tale then and told across Canada. It’s told about French-Canadian lumbermen as well. Logging as a career probably came after that of canoe paddling/fur trading. There’s lots of variation. One ends with the voyageurs being condemned to fly the canoe through hell and appear in the sky every New Year’s Eve. Another is that the devil is the steersman who tries to get the others to break the rules and is thrown out of the canoe by the voyageurs in order to save themselves. The Flying Canoe stays alive in popular culture. David Perrett, an artist in Winnipeg recently created an amazing sculpture from a diseased elm tree — the flying canoe held by a giant hand. The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver Opening Ceremony featured a canoe containing a fiddler was lowered from the ceiling—reminding viewers of the legend. A feature film Chasse Galerie:La Legende was released Feb. 2016. The tale inspired one of the oldest rides at Montreal’s La Ronde amusement park. Called La Pitoune, it’s a log flume ride, but overhead is a representation of the flying canoe, with the devil perched behind the terrified men. The high bench at the back of the log-cars is therefore referred to as “the devil-seat.” The ride La Pitoune closed May 2017, having been operating since 1967. This story is so much fun that I’ve rewritten it as a Readers’ Theater script: Characters from “Waters Like the Sky” exaggerate as they tell it to each other. I’ll post the script on my website under “Resources” and then and...

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For a wild ride, try a Flying Canoe

Posted by on Jan 11, 2018 in Featured | 0 comments

For a wild ride, try a Flying Canoe

Get cozy on a cold night. Here is a popular French-Canadian story — the tale of the Flying Canoe. (also known as La Chasse Galerie, The Bewitched Canoe and The Wild Hunt.) It’s New Year’s Eve at a far-flung trading post. The voyageurs are lonely, nervous about their sweethearts back home who are probably being romanced by men closer at hand. How can these desolate men keep their true loves loyal when they are so far away? And the men have to be present to work the next morning. One of the engagés finally suggests calling on la chasse-galerie, a magic flying canoe, for a one-night journey. The men agree. The engagé who knows the secret invokes a devil* who extracts a deal to fly this canoe. For this privilege of returning to their village and returning by dawn, the voyageurs vow not to swear, drink or touch a cross or crucifix — or they forfeit their souls. Of course they agree. They start paddling and — amazingly — their canoe rises so they can see rivers far below. Then the wind takes over and gives them a thrilling ride, rocketing them over treetops, dipping down over frozen waterfalls, nearly crashing into many obstacles because their avant and gouvernail don’t quite know how to steer using the wind. Or maybe it’s the devil — they don’t know. But they see the village lights and the bewitched canoe touches down near their home. No one there thinks twice about the voyageurs’ unusual arrival from an impossibly distant place. They all have a wonderful time dancing and singing and celebrating. Until the wee hours when — Cinderella-ish — the voyageurs realize it’s past time to get back if they are going to make it to work the next day. Some have broken the promise not to drink. How will the devil take this breach? Because they have been partying, steering on the return route is haphazard, and the canoe careens around, barely missing church steeples and tall trees, snowdrifts and open waters. And because of their chaotic steering, others swear and touch their own “forbidden” crosses, praying in fear of death. Somehow they manage to get home, plowing into a snowdrift (or a pine tree) just short of their own post as the sun peeks out, in the nick of time. Luckily, the devil does not take his due, though they had broken every promise of the deal. They vow not to use that magic again. If you look at the moon and see a flying canoe, perhaps the engagés got lonesome again and took a chance on the chasse-galerie, the flying canoe. Voyageurs had plenty of scary life experiences — running rapids, starvation, surviving terrible weather, dealing with occasionally hostile First Americans whom they may have liquored up, the unpredictability of wild animals like bears and wolves, moose and bison. They liked to tell stories of their exploits, and might have made them even more harrowing. Or maybe not — those adventures could all be real. *Typical devils encourage bad behavior such as swearing and drinking, but this devil does not take anyone’s soul. Maybe getting back before dawn was the real key. What do you...

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What are high wines anyway?

Posted by on Dec 16, 2017 in Voyageur | 0 comments

What are high wines anyway?

What are high wines anyway? Are they different from other wines? Why did voyageurs trade them, especially if they caused so many problems? (Kathy, adult; Mary, adult; Sullivan, 9) High wines is a fancy title for cheap, and probably high-proof, alcohol. High wines were one of the few consumable goods. At fur posts, French-Canadian traders cut the strength of high wines with water before sharing with their Ojibwe customers. That made them even more profitable, and also lessened its negative effects. Watering the high wines might have improved them — cheap liquor could have a bad taste.* Besides calling them high wines, the journals of fur traders also refer to alcohol as spirits, rum and liquor. Those words are synonyms, but other times those words might mean different grades, or kinds, of alcohol. The highest grades of liquor — like port wine or brandy — would be for the personal use of the chief trader or bourgeois. The word “firewater” might have been used by Native peoples. The relationship of alcohol and trading is complex. In the earliest years of the fur trade, the ethics of liquor was debated — it was decided not to deny the tribes a product that provided a kind of medicine and a consolation. Alcohol grew in significance over time. It may have parallels with tobacco, which was an important part of Ojibwe life (for example, in peace pipe councils or as an offering to the spirits). If someone was ill, alcohol might be offered with food to obtain spiritual aid in healing a person. By the 1780s, alcohol was given during the initial fall trading ceremony and offered again when a hunter’s credits were paid back. Extra pelts might be traded for liquor—or for other trade goods. The fur traders gave high wines at special council gatherings, as gifts, as a reward for a successful hunt, as a way to mark a wedding or to console families over a death. When the Ojibwe brought the voyageurs any kind of food, liquor might be traded in return. (The men at a fur post depended on the Ojibwe for food — they didn’t have the skills, the rights or the time to hunt, fish, process wild rice or make maple sugar. Native Americans across the continent had a long tradition of sharing food with strangers.) With fierce competition between North West, XY and Hudson’s Bay companies, liquor was used more often to cement trade loyalties. Gradually usage increased and by the early 1800s, alcohol use was more frequent. In fur post traders’ journals, they often wrote about trading high wines, while other goods like blankets or pots were hardly mentioned. Native Americans certainly must have watched the example set by the French-Canadians voyageurs in drinking behavior. Unfortunately the voyageurs often misused alcohol and many succumbed to alcoholism. And so did the Ojibwe. * One trader soaked a twist of tobacco in a keg of high wines, which gave it a different color and flavor, especially if by that time the liquor was mostly water. If you look at the top photo, at least 34 barrels of high wines were included in that year’s cargo. Book 2 of “The Chronicles of An Unlikely Voyageur” includes some of the impact of high wines to the Native populations...

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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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#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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