Voyageurs, avant!’ yells Veronique from the front of the canoe. Her back is to us. Her paddle is down, about to have it out with Lake Superior.
Usually the call for attention causes silence in the boat – she is our avant (French for ‘forward’ and the technical term for our lead bow-person) and we do what she says – but today we are quiet already. We are in the middle of crossing between two islands and have paddled hard for an hour. The shore behind us has become smaller but the one ahead, Pie Island, does not appear to have gotten any closer.
Following her lead, we put paddles back in the water and try to ignore the waves hitting the boat side-on. The wind, meanwhile, pushes against us from the front. It feels dramatic, not only because of the gusts in our faces and freshwater spray in our eyes, but also due to the fact that we are held in place, an hours’ paddle from land in either direction.
Many of our crew of 13 have canoeing and kayaking experience, but few would have braved an exposed crossing like this before. As far as we can tell, we are the only boat here. There’s no fear though, our guides have studied the maps and have checked the weather forecast by the minute. However, from the effort it takes us, there is a new respect for the people that could have crossed this gap without hesitation 200 years ago – the voyageurs of Canada’s beaver fur trade.
The 13 of us had arrived at Lake Superior the evening before, with the aim of recreating a part of the voyageurs’ route. The voyageurs were master canoemen, usually French Canadians, who travelled using a special type of freight canoe through the rivers, waterfalls, and Great Lakes of what is now known as Ontario. At the height of the fur trade in the 1800s, there were an estimated 3,000 voyageurs to-ing and fro-ing goods from Montreal to the interior over a waterway of 5,000 kilometres.
Before any island crossings, we needed to become acquainted with Lake Superior. ‘Knowing and navigating the lake was of huge importance to the fur trade and the opening up of the northwest,’ explains Rodney Brown, folk musician and our in-boat historian on the fur trade in this part of Canada. Brown has spent two decades researching and retracing the steps of the region’s traders all over the lake’s shore. ‘This route became the backbone, a highway of movement in the region,’ he says.
When first seeing the lake, I was struck by its endless horizon. At 82,000 square kilometres, Superior is the largest lake in the world by surface area and is thought to hold ten per cent of the planet’s available freshwater. The second surprise is that it has waves. While the lake has no currents, it’s at the mercy of winds which can summon dangerous squalls of 40-foot waves, big enough to compete with any Atlantic storm.
On that first evening, it rolled with small but unrelenting wavelets that sprung up through the boards of a jetty on the bank and curled over the pebble beach with white caps. ‘We can’t start out in this,’ said Jake O’Flaherty, navigator and lead guide of our week-long expedition. ‘It would be better to pitch here for the night and set off first thing.’ Caution is his tenet for Lake Superior trips, and for good reason. ‘The place is full of wrecks and we’re not going to become one of them,’ he says. While the lake is known to be unpredictable, ‘mornings are almost always calmer’.
Sure enough, the next morning the lake was still enough to reflect the opposite stand of black spruce trees down to the details of individual trunks and branches. The voyageurs’ boat would have been piled with furs or trade goods with stocks of salted pork. Instead, we filled our canoe with dewy tents and industrial supplies of trail mix and jujubes (a North American gummy sweet). Next, we assembled our modern motley crew of teachers, lawyers, travellers and four guides Jake, Brittany, Veronique and Jack according to the old system of gouvernail (or ‘steerer’) at the back of the boat, the avant (or ‘boss’) at the front, and the milieux (or ‘middlemen’) sat between.
Eventually pushing off an hour after sunrise, it turned out we still were not hardcore enough. ‘The voyageurs would have already been up and on the water before dawn,’ says Brown. ‘They would have gone ashore for breakfast but after that they would have paddled for about 14 hours, taking a five-minute break for pipe smoking every hour. But that was it.’
It turns out competitive brawn was part of the job for the voyageurs. They would canoe from Montreal to the northwest corner of Lake Superior in four to six weeks, covering 50 to 70 miles per day. ‘Short, square, stocky men were the ideal kind of milieux,’ explains Rodney, ‘to cope with lifting all the cargo.’ Incidentally, hernias were a common cause of death.
In any other trade, the voyageurs would have been the hardiest group of workers, but this was a landscape of one-upmanship. Another group of men thought the Montreal canoemen, or ‘pork eaters’ had no right to complain – the hivernants, or winterers. ‘The hivernants were a higher class of voyageur who overwintered in the interior, transporting goods and building trade forts,’ explains Brown. ‘The two groups would meet at a “great gathering” or rendezvous at the trading post called Fort William, where the hivernants would make it very clear they thought the summer men were a waste of space.’
Travelling in August, we were blessed with prime voyageur weather, when the water can take on Mediterranean colours and clarity. Snakes warm themselves on beach rocks and the occasional bald eagle circles above, scanning for fish. To know hivernant weather, however, is to imagine the lake locked with ice, trees buckling under the weight of snow. Lake Superior’s north shore is often subject to Canada’s infamous -50ºC conditions.
THE SCOTTISH INFLUENCE
We followed the land around the peninsula known as the Sleeping Giant. Its name comes from the shape of its flat-topped mesa formations, arranged in such a way that it resembles a human figure – 15 miles long, laid down on its back – from certain angles. According to one legend of Ontario’s Ojibwe First Nations, the giant was turned to stone when he revealed the whereabouts of a rich silver deposit to white prospectors.
It was here that we found ourselves on the crossing to Pie Island, launching from what would be the giant’s feet and braving the open water. The water turns from turquoise to an unnerving black with its depth (Superior is also the deepest of the Great Lakes, with more volume than all the others combined), but putting eerie thoughts to the side, we make it to the shore in two hours, finding more energy as the uninhabited island comes closer into view. Tents are pitched along a semi-circular shore, behind us dense forests hang over a 400-metre plateau. As dusk turns the island blue, it’s easy to imagine the voyageurs dotted on a shore like this, their pipes making small lights on the beach.
A day later and we’re grounded with bad weather near Sturgeon Bay. Under shelter, the party swap canoeing stories over maple whiskey and Brittany comes back from the woods with handfuls of wild raspberries. Jake pulls out the map to look over the final destination – Fort William on the Kaministiquia river. Within the area is a lake called Loch Lomond.
It’s no coincidence that Scottish names are predominant. ‘When people talk about British fur traders in this area, they mean Scottish,’ says Brown. Scottish highlanders had enormous impact on the expansion of Canada’s northwest. After the highland clearances and Jacobite uprisings of the 18th century, a succession of Scots came to North America to make their fortune. Highlander Simon McTavish was one of them. He swapped the valleys of Stratherrick for the thick forests of the Canadian shield to set up the North West Company.
‘They built a big trading outpost near the Pigeon river, which gave them access to the interior,’ says Brown, pointing at a part of the map which is now modern-day Minnesota. One objective was fur, the NWC wanted to rival the trading giant, the Hudson Bay Company, which held a powerful monopoly over the north. The second was to discover a river passage to the Pacific Ocean in the hope of linking trade between Asia, North America and Europe. The Fraser and Mackenzie rivers were named after the famous Scots who, encouraged by the North West Company, explored their lengths.
However, in the early 1800s the Americans begin to enforce their new northern border, which meant the NWC had to move its trading post to a river further north – the Kaministiquia. ‘It built a new fort there,’ describes Brown, ‘and named it after William McGillivray, nephew of McTavish and by that point, the chief partner of the company. Nepotism was traditional in a company that was run like a Highland estate.’
Our final day of canoeing takes us to Fort William, and the transition from lake to river is astounding. ‘This is really the guts of Thunder Bay,’ says Jack, as we paddle past grain elevators, factories, and power generators. What would once have been the marshy banks of the delta have been straightened into a lattice of railroads. I count 70 boxcars on one train before it turns away out of sight and I’m warned that Canadian cargo trains can go on for three or four kilometres.
The keel of a freight ship comes into view, its deep hold being filled with grain from a silo on land. A handful of its crew come to watch us go by from its deck but its so high above us we can barely make out their facial expressions. ‘I’ll bet they’re pretty intimidated by us,’ says Jack, dryly. For a short moment the two vessels float side by side, the old and new way of transporting Canada’s resources.
The site of the original Fort William is hidden under a railway yard somewhere in these banks. However, we continue up the Kaministiquia. Nine miles upriver the Ontario government built a full-size working recreation of the historical site, and they are expecting us.
The river becomes more suburban, banked by riverside cottages. Then, up ahead, there’s cannon fire, followed by the offensive blare of... bagpipes? In full – and very surreal – rendezvous spirit, actors in voyageur and nor’wester costume pull us off the water and into the Fort. Complete with a reconstruction of the raised Great Hall and a working farm, it’s an impressive sight. On first entry, a striking feature is the 1,000m-long wall running around its perimeter. As with the original, the wooden wall was not created for any military use, but purely as a sign of power.
Its dominance could not last forever though. ‘The collapse of the beaver populations, rising tensions and crippled finances meant that the British government forced the NWC to merge with its nemesis, the Hudson Bay Company,’ explains Brown. ‘The HBC moved trade to its bigger depot in York Factory so Fort William fell out of use.’
With or without the NWC, global trade had arrived in Canada. Even as interest in fur declined, Fort William’s geographical position on the northwest corner of the Great Lake system meant that it would remain the gateway to the interior’s raw materials for another century and into the present day
We pack the boat gear into the bus. However, standing on the bank of the Kaministiquia – having arrived on it via the largest lake in the world – the mind can’t help wandering northwards and upriver to the similarly enormous country beyond.
This was published in the March 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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