The Life of a Voyageur

A duck calmly scooted across the glassy lake, mist rising off the water in the clear morning light. Squirrels frantically climbed up the trees, chasing one another to the sky. Birds gently glided on the cool air of dawn, majestically taking in the landscape before them, seeing further than the sight of the keenest animal. A brisk wind was beginning to pick up, shattering the placidity of the mirror-like water. In the distance, a dark, towering cloud approached the serene home of the innocent animals. The skies brought forth a cataclysmic storm, strikes of lightning obliterating land and igniting fires, thunder resonating for miles and miles. The storm brought a fresh beginning.

The Voyageurs Came

Swiftly paddling the lakes and rivers, the voyageurs arrived. Carried in the hollowed trunks of a birch tree, the voyageurs explored the expansive Canadian wilderness with nothing more than what they could carry. The physical expectations of voyageurs were grueling. They were required to paddle at a rate of 50 strokes per minute. They plowed through beaver dams, looking for their makers’ expensive fur, and portaged through the muddy forest. On some of these portages, men would hoist 2 90-pound bags of food and fur for miles until they found another river or lake. Voyageurs expended approximately 5000 calories a day. To support such an exhausting lifestyle, voyageurs would receive resupplies along the fur trading route. The food they ate ranged from corn and wild rice to strips of dried buffalo meat (pemmican).

There were 2 sets of voyageurs – one group that made the journey from Grand Portage, a fort by Lake Superior in modern-day Minnesota, all the way to Lake Athabasca, located in northern Saskatchewan. They had to navigate over 2,000 miles of rugged wilderness between their starting destination and their ending destination. These men were known as the “men of the north.” They used a 25 foot long canoe known as the North Canoe, which held 5-6 men. Another group of voyageurs made the shorter trip from Montreal to Grand Portage. These men used the Montreal canoe, a 36 foot long canoe that held up to 10 men. The voyageurs would spend the winter in either Montreal, or in Fort Chipewyan, located near Lake Athabasca.

Both factions of voyageurs shared the true spirit of the wild: They would break out into song while on a treacherously long, 14 hour day of paddling, to raise spirits and morale. The life of a voyageur was rough – all voyageurs were at risk of drowning, broken limbs, twisted spines, and a morbid number of swarming mosquitos. Furthermore, the voyageurs woke well before the crack of dawn, as early as 3 in the morning, and breakfast was taken on the road, after 12 miles, or 4 pipes, of traveling. In fact, the pipe was used as a measure of distance as voyageurs would stop roughly every hour to smoke.

The beaver and its fur drove exploration of the Northern US and Canada. Only once trains and motorboats were widely used did the true spirit of the voyageur die out. These rugged, adventure-seeking men were motivated to break new ground in the North Woods. The voyageurs crafted a sense of adventure that has not yet left the American people, and the legend of their trailblazing spirit forever remains on the lakes and streams of the North Woods.


Shooting the Rapids:

One thought on “The Life of a Voyageur

  1. This is great. The voyageurs rarely get time in US History classes. Since I took French most of my life, I am prone to these kinds of stories and appreciated having it to read!

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