Me: Lobsticks?? Um, what are “lobsticks”?
A: Tall spruce or pine trees with lower branches sheared, trees that were “lopped off.”
Me: Okay, I get the word. But why did they do that?
A: A lobstick helped a fictional voyageur brigade find the right channel to a lake. So, lobsticks could help unsure voyageurs pinpoint where they were.
Recently I read about lobsticks again — twice! I get it now.
Carolyn Podruchny defined “lobsticks” as the tallest trees, stripped of lower branches, with only a small tuft left at the top. They became landmarks because the trees chosen were on high ground, often on a point of land. Surrounding trees might also be cut down, to increase its visibility. They’re related to may poles.
Lobsticks, Podruchny wrote, honored gentlemen traveling for the first time along a route. Into the denuded trunk, voyageurs carved the name of the bourgeois or passenger being honored. The party atmosphere continued with cheering, firing muskets — and a tot of high wines for the paddlers.
- In 1790, Peter Pangman created a lobstick for himself in sight of Rocky Mountains along the Saskatchewan River, marking the farthest extent of traders’ discoveries. It became known as Pangman’s Tree.
- Francis Simpson is one of the first white women to live in the interior, as the wife of Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1830, she wrote about her lobstick:
“… mine was honored with a red feather, and streamers of purple ribband tied to a poll, and fastened to the top of the Tree, … Bernard (the Guide) then presented me with a Gun, the contents of which I discharged against the Tree, and Mr. Miles engraved my name, and the date, on the trunk.”
Since voyageurs usually stopped at the same campsites, lobsticks would be seen by many.
According to the novel “Pipe, Paddle and Song” (the novel I ready a few years ago), the Native Americans didn’t approve of stripping the branches of a tree. They used much more subtle methods to mark trails.
Though I don’t recall lobsticks from my first canoe trip back in the ’60s. But after 200 years, probably none are still standing. And I bet we won’t see any new ones in the BWACW.
The second recent lobstick is a newsletter for the Voyageurs Lutheran Ministry. That name wasn’t as familiar to me but the location is — on Lake Vermilion Camp Road out of Cook, Minnesota.
I know that place!
It’s “Camp Vermilion,” the Bible camp I attended many summers! Then it was a traditional week-long Bible camp — a wonderful experience. Among its tall pines, I don’t recall any that were lobsticked — but maybe a big wind or critters did that naturally.
People in my current life — Warren and Jackie Bradbury and Sonja Romslo Strutz — also attended that camp. Warren even knows of a lobsticked tree, made about 40 years ago to honor Sigurd Olson. Sonja located her “Lob Stick” newsletter for me.
[Side note: VLM is paired with Camp Hiawatha, a Lutheran Bible camp north of Grand Rapids, Minnesota — where my family meets for our annual family reunion. My youngest sister was married there! My dad (Ben) and uncle (Sam) donated countless hours to Camp Hiawatha, after we moved from Bigfork.]
I checked out VLM ‘s Lob Stick newsletter. Trees aren’t the only lobsticks — they include people who “guide the way.” Beyond a traditional Bible camp, they’ve widened their offerings. At VLM, kids of various ages can be guided to:
- learn paddling skills and navigating.
- try their skills at a Rendezvous (especially for developmentally challenged).
- enjoy a customized canoe excursion with a certified guide, meals and equipment (adults too!).
- create a bent canoe paddle from design to completion at a weekend workshop.
Something for everyone. Maybe it’s time to revisit VLM and check out their lobstick.
- Vie for a slot in a canoe brigade at “Time Travel: Be a Voyageur for an Hour” — Thursday, May 23, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 4310 County Road 137, St. Cloud, Minnesota, 56310. Social at 11:30 a.m., lunch at noon, my presentation at 12:30 p.m. For more info or to register, call 320-251-8356.
- Organize a family book club: Order copies of “Waters Like the Sky” or “Treacherous Waters” for your grandkids.
- Ask a question—I’ll research and write about it in a future post.
- Honor your special people (even if you don’t create a lobstick).
- My attempt at a canoe emoji — ͼ!¡¡¡¡¡¡¡!ͻ (surely you can do better).
“A Toast to the Fur Trade: A Picture Essay on its Material Culture” by Robert Wheeler
“The Conquest of the Great Northwest” by Agnes Laut
“Making the Voyageur” by Carolyn Podruchny. University of Press (Lincoln, 2006)
“Pipe, Paddle and Song” by Elizabeth Yates