Have you ever done something automatically, not realizing it had amazing significance?
Whenever my family headed from Bigfork to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, we took Minnesota Highway 38. Up through my early teens, I could recite all the lakes — in order — on that winding scenic road.
About halfway, we’d come upon signs that read “Continental Divide” with an arrow pointing to a tiny wayside rest on the east.
We never stopped, but both parents frequently explained its significance: “If you dropped a bucket of water here, right here, it could either drain north on the Bigfork River to Hudson’s Bay or south on the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Rain falling here, right here, will end up on opposite ends of the continent. Some can even flow east to Lake Superior.”
End of lesson on THE continental Divide. My sisters and I returned to playing the alphabet game — we were coming to a few Js and Ks or the only Q — or waiting for the rare Burma Shave signs.
I didn’t realize there’d be other divides.
Called the ‘height of land’ in old journals
A clerk for the North West Fur Company, John Macdonell crossed a height-of-land on the Ottawa River around June 18, 1796, and wrote this: “Eight or nine leagues above the paresseu (lazy portage) is l’anse au Perches where the setting poles are thrown away to the reserve of two per canoe which the Bowman and Steers-man keep. The ceremony of throwing away the poles our men performed with a loud huzza.”
A footnote points out that the actual divide was above Lac la Tortue. And Macdonell didn’t mention that the men’s cheering may have been because they were about to receive a libation.
I read elsewhere that at the Ottawa River height-of-land, before voyageurs ceremoniously tossed out those 10-foot-long steering poles, they removed a metal ferrule, a “foot” which strengthened the pole’s base. They’d no longer paddle upriver, but now would go with the current. Downstream could not possibly be as hard, right? (Wrong. They next whizzed down the French River, 75 hair-raising miles downstream which they accomplished in a single day.)
Why the height-of-land matters
In Canada, the Laurentian Divide historically marked the southern boundary of the fur trading monopoly area of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Further south was fair game for the North West Company and later, the American Fur Company.
Ojibwe had long used their knowledge of the divides to make portage paths, like the Grand Portage. From the late 1600s on, the voyageurs, my French-Canadian ancestors among them, used those paths — like the Big Fork feeding into the northern border lakes and the St. Louis River (south of Duluth) to get into the interior — to trade for furs.
The Laurentian Divide
I’ve since learned that every continent has at least one divide. Across North America, Wikipedia listed six: Great, Arctic, St. Lawrence, Eastern, Great Basin — and the Laurentian Divide, the one I crossed hundreds of times in my youth.
The Laurentian Divide is part of a vast rocky platform that extends from the Rocky Mountains east through Minnesota to central Quebec. Formed 10,000 years ago from erosion caused by the Laurentian Ice Sheet, it was the first part of the continent to be elevated above sea level. How cool is that?
Wikipedia says “The divide traverses very flat terrain, especially in North Dakota, causing many travelers to believe the sign marking the divide is a joke.”
But when you reach this sign, south of Sheyenne, North Dakota, you know you’ve been climbing.
In Minnesota, the watershed that’s marked on maps wanders up and loops around the northern half of the state, crossing US Highway 2 twice before ending up north of Duluth.
Mom and Dad were right about water moving a third direction — the St. Lawrence Divide intersects the Laurentian Divide about 6 miles south of Marcell, Minnesota. That water flows to Lake Superior.
At mile marker 20.9
This summer I stopped at the much-improved wayside rest south of Marcell. Now it’s a key stop on MN Highway 38 (which is designated “The Edge of the Wilderness Road”). At mile marker 20.9, a sign lists the elevation at 1524 feet. The wayside, managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, includes a loop trail of 0.6 miles, restrooms and a picnic area.
(Alas, I didn’t take time to watch a bucket of water flow on opposite sides — it’s a drought year.)
Suddenly, I realize that when my voyageur characters struggle with portages and decharges on the Ottawa River, they’re nearing a continental divide. They’re essentially paddling up a mountain. However, even in Book 3, Andre is too young to celebrate with the high wines — I’ll have to think more about that.
- How did the height-of-land affect a voyageur brigade? Find out in “Waters Like the Sky” or “Treacherous Waters.” Or get the ebook.
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“Five Fur Trader of the Northwest, Being … the Diaries of John Macdonnell … ” Edited by Charles M. Gates. Minnesota Historical Society (St. Paul, 1965)
Wikipedia Continental Divide
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