Timothy J. Kent
Our family project of paddling the mainline fur trade canoe route across the United States and Canada from end to end was inspired by genealogy and history. For nearly a decade before the paddling project began, I had been deeply involved in researching, in great detail, about 725 of my French and French Canadian direct ancestors, who had come from over 120 communities in France . At the same time, I was also avidly studying the fur trade era, and especially its French period, which extended from the latter 1500s to 1760. (The following British and American administration of the trade extended from 1760 to about 1850, and to an even later date in many remote regions.)
From a wide variety of sources, I was able to glean many details about numerous ancestors who had worked in various capacities in the North American fur trade, from about 1618 to at least 1758. Some of them had been employed in the occupations of fur trade company manager, clerk, interpreter, and trader, as well as outfitter, investor, fur buyer, and trans-Atlantic shipping merchant. Others had worked as voyageurs (the French term for canoe paddlers), and as guides of entire brigades of canoes. Finally, some of them had been employed as laborers, and in such trades as birchbark canoe builder, cutler, gunsmith, and fort carpenter.
In addition, other ancestors had served as soldiers in New France , in the Carignan-Salières Regiment in the 1660s and the Troupes de la Marine during the 1680s and 1690s. Besides all of these individuals, a great many of my ancestors who had lived in the St. Lawrence Valley had been farmer-settlers, or they had worked at a wide variety of other trades, such as a tailor or a wooden shoe maker. One had become a fencing master and taught the fine art of handling a sword.
The knowledge that many of these forebears had been involved in various aspects of the fur trade, as well as in the early life of the St. Lawrence Valley, where the greatest portion of the trade had been based, really enlivened the history of the period for me. In the course of my research, I made numerous genealogical and historical study trips to various locales in the St. Lawrence and Saguenay Valleys of Quebec . Many exciting weeks were also spent in various archives in Toronto, Ottawa, Cornwall, St. Regis, Curran, and other places in Ontario. In the process, I located the original notary documents pertaining to each ancestor who had been associated with the fur trade, transcribed the scrawled handwriting of these documents, and translated them with my wife Doree's help. Having gathered an immense amount of data, I decided to eventually produce a book of detailed biographies of these various individuals.
Visiting all of the specific locales in Quebec and Ontario where the French ancestors had lived, worked, and died, often locating the specific pieces of property that they had owned, gave me a good sense of the geography and history of the areas of eastern Canada where they had tread, plowed, paddled, and raised their broods. However, in the course of devouring period journals, maps, and other documents of the fur trade era, I longed to experience first-hand the full extent of the interior regions where much of the trade had been carried out, far to the west of the St. Lawrence Valley. I loved poring over old journals, which described in minute detail canoe travel to and from the interior, as well as daily life at the forts, posts, and camps. I was eager to see and experience for myself the exact terrain of the mainline route that had been traveled by most of the fur trade and military personnel, settlers, and missionaries who had ventured westward from the St. Lawrence settlements. I longed to absorb the drama of the vast water route and to hike the portage paths that were many centuries old. I also dreamed of experiencing both the joys and the extreme challenges of the ancient canoe trail. Knowing that numerous generations of my French ancestors working in the fur trade had covered this exact route, over the course of 140 years beginning in about 1618, increased my yearning to travel the route in the original way. So, I began to develop the idea of our little “voyageur” family paddling the mainline canoe route across the U.S. and Canada from end to end, in a series of annual segments. This challenging family project, which we ultimately tackled over a series of fifteen consecutive summers, would involve my wife Doree, our sons Kevin and Ben, and our faithful dog Toby.
In carrying out this extensive project, I intended to gain insights into the physical, mental, and emotional lives of the men and women, both French and native, who had worked in the fur trade. By physically experiencing much of what they had done on a daily basis, and doing it in the very same landscapes in which they had operated, I hoped to at least partially comprehend what the lives of these people had been like. I was driven by curiosity and a passion for the kind of detailed information that was not to be found in books or ancient documents. It had to be lived to be learned.
Downriver 3/4 of a mile, we arrived at the Chute du Talon. As we approached the landing on the right shore, Doree kept a sharp eye out for any submerged boulders or logs in our path, as one of her duties as the avant . After unloading, we sought the vantage point of the little concrete dam that had been constructed at some point across the top of the falls, to maintain the level of Talon Lake . The long downhill run with several ledges, dropping a total of about forty feet in elevation, presented a boiling white froth along the entire left half of the channel; the right half had numerous gatherings of exposed boulders and ledges standing above the rampaging whiteness. A short distance below, the quieted water rested, as it flowed as smooth and black as lava through a picturesque gorge that was flanked with broken vertical cliffs topped with evergreen forest.
At about 4:30, beside the head of the portage trail, we loaded the boys with their backpacks, seat boards, and paddles, and sent them off to start the carry ahead of us, while we put on our own burdens. Loaded with our packs, Doree and I made the difficult trek of 330 paces with a great deal of effort. In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie had described this portage as the toughest one for its length on the entire mainline route. We could hardly believe that the boys had managed the path alone ahead of us, especially the challenging six-foot vertical ledge of rock that extended across the trail at one point. We tried to picture one boy boosting his brother up to the top of the ledge, and then the upper boy reaching down to help pull up the other brother. It was hard imagining them doing that, particularly while hauling their loads. When we finally reached the river below the falls at the end of the trail, after the final thirty yards of extremely steep decline, we saw that they had not arrived!
Backtracking, with our hearts and minds racing, we searched twice over the entire portage, and, with ever-growing panic, also examined every possible side route that they might have taken away from the portage path. We tried using our signal whistles (we each wore a neck lanyard that held a whistle, Swiss Army knife, and waterproof case of matches) and also bellowed their names repeatedly; but the roar of the falls completely covered our whistles and our shouts. We were getting frantic by this point, as we recalled the very recent bear-killing-two-boys incident that our shuttle driver had related.
After having spent about half an hour searching, as a last resort, we decided to check an unlikely grass-covered two-track service road that led southward for two miles, away from the dam, to a locked gate at Highway 17. After about a quarter-mile, to our immense relief, we found Kev's pack, abandoned in the middle of the trail. They had taken this route! (At the very beginning of the carry, only about ten steps from the canoe, the boys had turned right, onto the two-track lane that led south, away from the river.) Shortly after coming upon Kevin's pack, we found Ben's hat, and then his pack as well. Soon we met Kev, retracing his steps. They had walked 1 1/2 miles, almost the entire length of the service road, before reaching a split in the trail. Not knowing which route to take, Kevin had started back to look for us, soon followed by Ben. When we finally met Kevin, we had been separated from the boys for about 45 minutes. Shortly, Ben also arrived, and we had a tearful but very joyous family reunion. Together we walked forward to the split in the two-track lane, about a mile away, to pick up the remaining gear that they had left behind. Then it took a half-hour to return from there to the canoe, at the beginning of the portage path. With the retracing of their steps, the boys had already hiked a total of five miles, none of it on the correct route. What a wild and frightening experience this had been for Doree and me!
With the canoe on my shoulders, and Doree and the boys bringing the remaining gear, we once again made the portage around the falls. After this last trip over, I revealed to the family what Alexander Mackenzie had written: “Here many voyageurs have been crushed to death by the canoes or received irrecoverable injuries.” His comment reflected the fact that the largest birchbark cargo canoes, measuring 36 feet in length, had weighed up to six hundred pounds when empty. Wrestling them over this difficult portage had required a massive effort, and had sometimes resulted in damage to both the carriers and the craft. The number of people who carried a canoe was not standardized, but was based on such factors as the size and weight of the specific craft, the length of the portage and the degree of difficulty of its terrain, the wind and weather at the time, the number of people in the party, and their physical condition, which was related to illness, injuries, exhaustion, and food intake. In 1799, when John Robertson noted that six men were often used to carry the largest cargo canoes, he commented, “From the rugged unevenness of some of the paths across the carrying places, the whole weight of the canoe will often rest on one or two men who (if they are not able to support it) often are crushed dreadfully, & sometimes are killed by it.” We often reminded ourselves of the torments that many thousands of individuals, both native and French and both men and women, had endured on the very same portage trails that we also trod.
Even a light-to-moderate assist from a sail was very helpful during a long-distance trip, as the voyageurs knew so well. At minimum, a following wind kept the canoe gliding steadily forward while the paddles were brought forward for each new stroke. And the stronger the wind blew, the more it increased the forward speed of the craft while requiring less effort from the paddlers. During the entire French period of the fur trade, virtually every canoe was equipped with an official sailing rig. Contrary to the depictions of many modern historians, sails were not usually cobbled together by using a tarp or a blanket, a rope, and a couple of poles when the wind was from a helpful direction. The square sail that was carried on each craft, made of tightly-woven linen cloth, ranged in size from four by six feet for the smallest canoes up to nine by ten feet for the largest 36 foot craft. Fr. Charlevoix noted in 1721 just how helpful these wind-harnessing devices were: “All of these canoes, the smallest not excepted, carry sail, and with a favorable wind, make twenty leagues [61 English miles] a day. Without sails, you must have able canoe men to make twelve [36 miles] in still water.”
As we glided steadily along, about a quarter-mile out from the low shoreline covered with spruce, pines, and birches, we covered four miles in 1 1/3 hours, with just light paddling to supplement the sail power. Upon reaching Pointe de la Croix (Cross Point), we decided to pause for a lunch break. This was the location where the voyageurs had erected wooden crosses in honor of their colleagues who had drowned during Lake Nipissing crossings. Since this body of water lay in a generally east-west direction, and was very shallow for its size, prevailing westerly winds could easily arrive unannounced, roar down the fifty-mile length of the lake, and whip it very quickly into a maelstrom of raging waves. These dangerous seas would batter the eastern end of the lake, where the canoes were completely exposed during their passage of eleven miles from the La Vase River mouth to the minimal protection of the southern shore. Along this stretch of the mainline route, a disproportionate number of capsizes and drownings had occurred on a regular basis.
From Point de la Croix, six more miles of westward sailing and paddling brought us to the exit of Lake Nipissing and the beginning of the Rivière des Français ( French River ), marked by an array of islands of all sizes. Leaving the water at 3:30, having covered ten miles for the day, we camped on a small islet south of Brown Island . To celebrate our safe passage of 22 miles over the potentially dangerous lake, we feasted on a traditional voyageur meal of pea soup and galette, while loons floating on the bay nearby kept us company with their tremulous calls. Nestled in our sleeping bags by 7:30, we slept like logs for a full twelve hours.
Pushing off with high hopes, within thirty seconds Doree and I successfully navigated the obstacles in the white water, just as I had planned the route. With relief, I roared, “We made it!” However, just then we advanced into the area that I could not see when I had examined the rapids from the shore. Suddenly, the canoe was swept around a slight bend to the right and into a series of three or more sets of frothing drops, interspersed with massive wave troughs four to five feet deep. Making instant decisions, we managed to navigate the first ledge and the first of the deep troughs, but then the bow hit a submerged rock head-on. The powerful current instantly swept the stern sideways to the left and overturned the canoe, heaving us into the cold raging water.
Doree immediately grabbed Kevin and her paddle, and held tight to the bow; I did the same with Ben at the stern. In a moment, the roaring rapids twisted the canoe out of my hands, so I started trying to pull Ben toward the right shore. We were both facing downstream, with him on my left in deeper water. I had a secure grip on his life preserver behind his neck, but he was in so much roiling white water that his preserver had become nearly useless. To complicate matters, we were being quickly swept upstream by the back current, back into the turbulence below the drop of the three-foot ledge. I managed to grab a boulder on my right, and got both of us and my paddle up onto the rocky shore.
In the meantime, Kevin and I were able to maintain our hold on the canoe through the enormous troughs and standing waves, as the canoe angled across the channel to the left shore. There, the back current started sucking us back upstream, and it looked like we might soon be swept down even more of the rapids. So we decided to let go of the canoe. “Swim to shore, Kev!” I shouted. The two of us soon crawled out of the water and up onto the rocks of the shoreline. The powerful back current indeed carried the unmanned loaded canoe, wallowing on its side, back upstream near our shore. Then it drifted into the main current and was swept downriver again, through the standing waves below the last ledge drop, and over the final set of rapids a little further downstream. While floating around a slight bend to the right, it angled across the channel again, and finally lodged among many floating logs back on Tim's side of the river. (Doree)
Leaving Ben to make his way slowly forward on the shore with my paddle, I trotted along the boulder-strewn shoreline to catch the canoe before it floated away again. After I had turned it upright, the back current was constantly surging, trying to sweep the canoe and the logs surrounding it back upstream and into the turbulence below the rapids again. The only way I could buffer the canoe from being bashed against the rock ledge of the shore was to stand in the chest-deep water between the canoe and the ledge, holding the craft with one hand. With the other hand, I bailed it out for a half-hour with the thermos jug, since the bailer had been torn from its attachment string and lost in the capsize. After the canoe was emptied, I swam and walked it through the maze of floating logs to the place where Ben had slowly made his way along the shore.
In the meantime, Doree and Kevin had picked their way downstream a quarter-mile along the left shoreline, to the upper end of a former island that was situated to the right of an old abandoned set of steamboat locks. As Ben and I paddled across the river in the near-dark to join the rest of our family, we kept in contact with them by exchanging blasts on our whistles. In between whistle signals, Ben and I sang many verses of Vent Frais to keep up our spirits. What a happy family reunion that was, finding ourselves safely together again on solid ground, and with the canoe and all of the gear except the bailer intact!!
By now, it was almost completely dark, and we were getting chilled, since we had been soaking wet for about an hour (I had been in the river up to my chest for half of that time, while bailing). We quickly set up camp on the cobblestone shoreline of the island, amid the many sawn logs that had landed here in previous high-water times, escapees from logging operations. We found that one of the boys' sleeping bags was only moderately wet; so we put both Kevin and Ben in that bag for warmth, one at each end. We were all in bed by 9:30, but Doree and I kept the boys awake and talking for an hour, to listen in the dark for slurred speech and poor concentration, and to note any uncontrolled shivering, some of the obvious symptoms of hypothermia. Had we been up and moving around in a lighted situation, we would have also watched for lack of coordination and a bluish tinge to the lips, further signs of the dangerous and deadly cooling of the body core.
When we set off northward up the Tug Channel at 4:00, with Doree paddling, we immediately encountered a stiff head wind, and large waves sprinkled with some whitecaps. Eventually, our forward progress was reduced to slower than a walking pace, so I tried lining the canoe with the bow rope while wading near the right shore. But before long, I was in water up to my chest, and was struggling to clamber over the many submerged boulders. So we gave up on that method of travel, and Doree and I went back to slow, laborious paddling.
Soon the right shoreline close beside us became a sheer, high wall of rock, with the oncoming waves smacking noisily against its base. Two canoe lengths ahead of us, Ben spotted a mother mallard shepherding her five babies across the passage, trying to stay out of our path. Suddenly, a young bald eagle swooped into view and circled high over the ducklings. The mother duck quacked furiously, trying to discourage the raptor from attacking. Within moments, the eagle soared in low, and slashed its legs into the water as it passed over the intended prey; however, its talons came up empty. Then a second young eagle, with the same dark brown plumage from the top of its head to the bottom of its legs, swooped down. The two large birds called to each other a couple of times, and then both of them landed on the bare limbs of an old dead pine atop the nearby cliff, without making any further attempts at the fleeing duck family. These were apparently a pair of eaglets that had hatched in the same nest at the beginning of the summer. Within three or four months, they grow to adult size, develop all of their blackish-brown feathers, and learn to fly; and beginning at about four months, they leave the nest at intervals to catch their own prey. A minute or two after watching the attempted raid on the ducklings, as we were barely crawling forward beside the rock cliff shoreline, Doree silently pointed directly over our heads. There was a large eagle, perched on a limb of a thick pine, about ten feet above us. This one looked to be about three feet long from the tip of its hooked yellow beak down to the tip of its tail, and it had white feathers on its head and neck, as well as a white tail. With these traits of a mature bald eagle, it was clear that this bird was one of the parents of the two youngsters. It did not stir as we slowly slipped underneath its perch and then continued on our way. I wondered if it had been considering Toby as a possible meal.