By Canoe To Empire


On portages the load that had to be moved, divided up among the crew, usually totaled more than four hundred pounds per man not counting the canoe. Every man of the crew was expected to carry at least two “pieces” of goods, each weighing ninety pounds, but so great was the emulation among them that some individuals often carried three pieces or even four. They did not walk with these loads: they ran with them at a dogtrot bent half-double with the pieces secured on their backs by a leather band, called a tumpline, which was passed around their foreheads. More than one traveler conveyed by voyageurs in the canoes has testified that without any load at all he could barely run as fast as these men did with two hundred pounds on their backs. Finally, because they moved at the height of the insect season, the voyageurs were encased over the carrying places in humming, stinging envelopes of mosquitoes and black flies.

In addition to the portaging there was the tracking of canoes against heavy currents and the running of rapids. The rapids were always risky, and crosses marked the graves of drowned voyageurs on the banks—many of them, all the way from the Long Sault on the Ottawa to the mouth of the Winnipeg River. Tracking could be a nightmare. The men had to get out and haul by ropes attached to bow and stern (two ropes were essential to prevent the canoe from yawing in against the shore) and this meant slithering over wet rocks slimy with vegetable growth, stumbling over the usual litter of fallen trees and sometimes wading breast-high in the stream. As I know from personal experience, the silt along the banks of the Assiniboine, Saskatchewan, and Mackenzie rivers is deep and soft, and after rain it has the consistency of porridge and sometimes the texture of axle grease. Along the Fraser when the men had to do a great deal of tracking under appalling difficulties, they wore out a pair of moccasins a day and had to make themselves new ones. While tracking canoes, the men were plagued by insects even more than when they portaged, because there were usually more of them along the water’s edge. So paddling in a free river or in an open lake came as a marvelous release, and when the men swung into the stroke they swung into song. That was when time was made up. The mileage from Montreal to Georgian Bay was little more than the mileage from the mouth of the French River through the Sault to the head of Lake Superior, and here the figures of John Macdonell tell their own story. It took his brigade thirty-one days to reach Lake Huron from Sainte Anne. But though they lost a day through a storm on the lake, they reached Grand Portage from the French River in just under ten days! Look at the map, remember that most of the time they were traveling against the wind, and try to believe that this was merely a routine voyage!

At Grand Portage or Fort William the Montreal men ended their runs. The company’s agent met the wintering partners from the northwest, and the trade goods were forwarded over the height of land by a special body of men to the company’s fort on Rainy Lake, the eastern terminus of les vrais hommes du nord who had come down across the plains from the Athabaska country. At Grand Portage or Fort William the Montreal crews had a brief time for carousing and eating; then they reloaded their canoes with the furs and set out on the return trail to Montreal with the pay loads. If they did not get back before winter, they were frozen in and had to survive as best they could. A failure to return in time also meant a disastrous financial loss to the company.

From Rainy Lake the “true northmen” took over, and these were the elite of the service. They paddled through Lake of the Woods and by a series of smaller lakes and interconnecting streams (the Winnipeg River was exhaustingly cursed by rapids) into Lake Winnipeg itself. In earlier times canoe parties used to paddle from there up the Red River into Minnesota toward the sources of the Mississippi, but after the American Revolution the goal was the northwestern edge of the North American map, Lake Athabaska and the Peace River country. The Saskatchewan and Athabaskan brigades paddled north up Lake Winnipeg to the mouth of the Saskatchewan River and then—after some very severe portages—they worked up against the current of the North Branch to Cumberland Lake and thence to Frog Portage, which made a bridge to the Churchill River. This powerful stream, against which they also had to paddle, led them to the Methy Portage (or Portage LaLoche), a very tough one with a steeply rising height of land at the end of it. The Methy took them to the Clearwater, a tributary of the Athabaska, and then they coasted down that great river of the northwest into Lake Athabaska and reached their chief northwestern base at Fort Chipewyan. In the later years of the North West Company the brigades went even beyond this. They paddled up to Fort Vermilion on the Peace, and later still the fur traders established themselves in forts on the Fraser and the Columbia.