Written by Jason Epperson, Narrated by Abigail Trabue

On the northern shores of Minnesota lies a remote waterscape steeped in history, nature, and tradition. Named for the wild men who paddled its waterways in the Canadian fur trade, Voyageurs National Park is home to nesting bald eagles, moose, grey wolves, black bear, loons, owls, otter, and beaver. Most of its hidden waterways are untouched, pristine boreal forest, where on a cloudless pre-dawn morning under the northern lights, you can almost hear the songs of fur traders traveling in their massive canoes.

The Voyageurs, the legendary wild and hearty men who traversed the waterways of the great north for two hundred years.

Trade Beginnings

As the demand for fur from North America peaked in the second half of the 17th century, the French established trade with the native people, developing routes into the eastern great lakes region and beyond. The Hudson Bay company was founded in 1670, setting up trading posts along the shores of its namesake bay.

Nearly 100 years later, as the supply of fur in the east diminished, the North West Company was formed to explore the northwest territory and engage the Indigenous people in trade. No route was passable by ship. Instead, the North West Company hatched a plan to send out brigades of canoes to traverse New France’s waterways. They hired men, called Voyageurs, to paddle, 10 to a boat, along a 3000-mile route between Montreal and Lake Athabaska. It was known as the Voyageur’s Highway.

Most voyageurs were French Canadian, recruited before marriage from the villages and towns along the route. To make room for the cargo, many were of shorter stature, around five foot four or less, and wore distinctive white cotton shirts and red felt hats, with a red sash around their waist. They were strong and healthy, with a lively disposition. They were legendary heroes, celebrated in songs and stories. They reached almost a celebrity status, and the jobs were highly coveted. But the life was not as glamorous as the folk tales would lead people to believe.

The men paddled from before sunrise until after sunset along the Voyageur’s Highway, where 200 treacherous rapids awaited, as well as 50 lakes, on which the canoes were laid open to any passing storm.

The great “Montreal” canoe the Voyageurs paddled stretched 36 feet long. Weighing 600 pounds itself, the Montreal could carry 4 tons of crew and cargo. It was built with only yellow birch bark, an axe, a knife, an awl and some spruce roots and pitch.

The Montreal Canoe

The spring brigades of five canoes each left Montreal on May first. Each canoe had a bowman, who steered from the front and led the crew, a steersman who stood in the rear, taking the bowman’s commands, and the eight middlemen, all paddling in unison. The middlemen were the least experienced of the crew.

At 120 different points along the route, the canoe could not pass the waterway due to land obstructions, shallow water, or dangerous rapids. Voyageurs would have to portage their cargo, unloading the canoe and carrying 90-pound bundles of fur two at a time or more down a trail, as well as the waterlogged canoe. They wore a leather sling across their forehead and attached the first bundle to it, hanging low on their back. A second bundle or more were placed on top, and the voyageur walked hunched over for at least a half mile, before returning for more bundles.

Setting out before sunrise, they kept a pace of 55 strokes a minute. They would cover 100 miles in a 14-hour day, with a 10-minute rest every hour. Some days would include three miles of portages. At the ten-minute rest stops, the Voyageurs would each smoke a pipe. Distances would come to be measured in pipes. A three-pipe lake was equal to three hours’ travel.

They had no time to hunt, gather, or fish, yet needed 5000 calories a day. They carried their food with them and re-supplied along the route. They typically ate two meals a day from a very small menu of food that was high in calories and would not spoil. One of the staples was pemmican, a dried buffalo or caribou meat pounded into small pieces and mixed with fat.

The voyageurs were often looked upon as wild, mannerless men, often eating their food from their pockets or hats. Swarms of Black flies and mosquitos were kept at bay with long hair, and anointment made from bear grease and skunk urine. They were loud, jolly men. Music was a part of their everyday life. Songs passed the long days, and kept the rowers in unison. They were gamblers, fighters, and drinkers. The day of paddling ended between eight and ten PM. They would have their second meal, make repairs to equipment, prepare breakfast, then tell stories and sing until it was time to sleep.

Shelter was often an overturned canoe, a bed of moss, and a blanket of furs. They’d sustain a smokey fire to keep the flies and mosquitos at bay. Only if the weather was bad would they erect a simple tarp tent. They awoke around 3 AM to start their day all over again, paddling for three hours before eating their breakfast.

The route from Montreal to Lake Superior and back would take 12 to 16 weeks. Drowning was common, as well as broken limbs, twisted spines, hernias, and rheumatism. The smokey fire that kept the bugs away caused respiratory, sinus and eye problems. Most voyageurs would start working when they were twenty-two and continued until they were in their sixties. They never made enough money to consider an early retirement from the grueling lifestyle.

Some voyageurs stayed in the back country over the winter and transported fur to farther-away French outposts. They also helped negotiate trade in native villages. In the spring they would carry furs from these remote outposts back to the rendezvous posts.

At Rainy Lake, on the present boundary between Minnesota and Ontario, voyageurs on the eastward journey from the interior met crews on the westward journey from Montreal, exchanged cargoes, and turned around at the Grand Portage. The rendezvous was also a time for rest and revelry. The voyageurs ate hearty feasts and celebrated their travels.

The epic journey was repeated annually over a span of decades. Traversing the border lakes country in what is now Voyageurs National Park.

From the beginning of the fur trade in the 1680s until the late 1870s, the voyageurs were the blue-collar workers of the Montreal fur trade. At their height in the 1810s, they numbered as many as three thousand. By the mid 19th century, the Hudson Bay Company, now merged with the North West Company, ruled an inland empire that stretched from the Bay to the Pacific. England now ruled Canada and the Mounted Police began to extend formal government into the fur trade areas. As the end of the century approached, the voyageurs grew obsolete with the coming of railways and steamships. Fur animals became less plentiful and demand for furs dropped as products such as silk became fashionable.

Ohio Senator James Heaton Baker was on was once told by an unnamed retired voyageur:

“I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw. I have been twenty-four years a canoe man, and forty-one years in service; no portage was ever too long for me, fifty songs could I sing. I have saved the lives of ten voyageurs, have had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all of my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I would spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life!”

Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park is a place of interconnected waterways that flow west, and eventually north as part of the arctic watershed of Hudson Bay. It’s a place of transition, between land and aquatic ecosystems, between southern boreal and northern hardwood forests, and between wild and developed areas.

Here in the heart of the continent lies a unique landscape formed by ancient earthquakes, volcanos, and glaciers. Exploded rock half the age of the earth encrusts the shorelines.

Over this landscape drapes the night sky. On a cloudless night in northern Minnesota millions of stars glow brightly. On occasion, the greens, yellows, and reds of the Northern Lights flare overhead.

Voyageurs National Park was established in 1975 but is filled with evidence of over 10,000 years of human life and use. Signs of Native Americans, fur traders, and homesteaders are scattered throughout the park.

As park visitors travel the lakes today, it is easy to imagine the voyageurs of the past dipping their canoe paddles into the clear, dark waters to the rhythm of their songs, gliding past the rock and pines of this northern landscape.

The park shares its northern boundary with Canada and lies just west of the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness. The park visitor centers are accessible by car but in order to truly experience the park, one must leave their vehicle behind and access the park by boat.

The park service offers daily tours, and commercial operations rent boats for self-guided touring. Houseboat touring is a favorite activity, and docks for overnight stays on the inner islands can be rented from the park services. You can use a park service canoe to travel the inner waterways of some of the untouched island landscapes, and remote island campsites offer overnight tent stays. RV camping is available from nearby commercial campgrounds, who also offer boat rentals.

In the winter, you can drive a road that crosses the hard-frozen lake, and visit the islands on foot or by cross-country ski trail.

At the far northeast corner of the state, you can visit Grand Portage National Monument, the historic rendezvous point of the Voyageurs.

Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Voyageurs National Park – National Park Service Website

Grand Portage National Monument – National Park Service Website

The Voyageurs – a film from the National Film Board of Canada, that serves as the visitor’s center film at Voyageurs National Park.