The wild 25-mile-long Kabetogama Peninsula, the heart of Voyageurs National Park, is robust canoe country. Nestled in the watery embrace of Rainy Lake and Kabetogama Lake, with their myriad bays and backwaters, and dotted with small lakes, ponds, and swamps that bear such intriguing names as War Club, Beast, Quill, and Little Shoepack, it holds some of the last remnants of the great forested wilderness that once spread across most of this part of the North American continent. Beaver Pond
Here, and southward in the mainland section of the park, bald eagles still pose regally on snag-limbed pines. Great blue herons stalk aristocratically along swamp shores, and mallard ducks cautiously guide flotillas of precious puffballs through the water. Ospreys hover over beaches, peering for fish. Over and under the driftwood that edges the lakes and coves, where stands of wild rice flex gently in the breeze, shiny mink scamper and sniffs out their suppers. Otters swim lazily through the dark amber water, diving from time to time after crayfish or perch, then hoisting themselves onto rocks for leisurely lunches.
To the Native Americans, these wetlands were treasure troves of fish, furs, and fowl. They gathered ruby-red wild cranberries that glowed in the noonday sun of muskeg bogs. In autumn they harvested the heavy-headed wild rice, beating the grains into their bark canoes with flailing sticks. Their spirit and presence are still strong in the land.
But it is the spirit of quite another group of canoeists that is commemorated in this park. The voyageurs were tough, muscular French Canadians who paddled the length of Rainy Lake every summer during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, straining to move tons of furs and trade goods 3,000 miles along intricate waterways before winter set in. Canoe life was even more rigorous in those years than it is today, and the strength and stamina of these canoeists was legendary. They seldom stood more than 5½ feet tall or weighed over 150 pounds, such uniformity of size made it easier both to paddle in unison and to carry canoes upside down when portaging, yet they could shoulder two or more packs of 90 pounds each, using tumplines, or portage straps, across their foreheads, and could paddle or carry their large canoes for hours at a stretch.
Every year in early May, two groups of voyageurs started paddling toward each other, one from Montreal, the other from Fort Chipewyan in northwestern Canada. Their object was a mid-July rendezvous at trading posts in what is now Minnesota. The men leaving from Montreal stored boxes and barrels of food, firearms, ammunition, tobacco, cloth, blankets, rum, and brandy in “work canoes” that were up to 40 feet long and carried about 5 tons. Other paddlers, 3,000 miles to the west and north, lashed bales of animal pelts into smaller “north canoes.” These were roughly 26 feet long and carried 2 or 3 tons apiece.
Work canoes carried crews of 12 men; north canoes, 6 to 8. Each team was led by an experienced bowman; in boiling rapids and storm-tossed waters, lives depended on his sharp vision and quick commands. Equally important was the swift response of the stern-man, whose paddle was the rudder that steered the craft. The paddlers sat amidships, their red-painted blades flashing in the sun as, like well-oiled machines, they kept up a steady rhythm of 40 strokes a minute for 10, 12, even 14 hours. More often than not, as they paddled they sang. The old French folk songs helped them work in unison; the camaraderie of singing lightened their labors, eased their monotony, and fed the courage that was needed to face the dangers and discomforts that waited along the way.
Singing and smoking were the two main pleasures in the lives of these hardworking men; indeed, the distance across large lakes was figured not by miles, but by the number of pipes. On ordinary daytime travels, a stop was called every hour, and then the men would loosen their bright waist sashes, take the red wool stocking caps from their perspiring heads, and pull clay pipes from deerskin pouches. Soon the air was heavy with strong tobacco.
But there were times when black-boweled thunderclouds bore down, or strong headwinds blew. Big rainy Lake could be lashed into mighty waves, though they were as nothing compared to the heavy waters that the work canoes faced in Lake Superior. In such times of emergency, the paddle tempo increased to 60 or more strokes a minute. (The most common “emergency,” however, was a challenge by another brigade; such races might last a day and night, so proud were the voyageurs of their strength and endurance.)
On hot, humid evenings, when lakes lay as flat and gray as slate and hills faded away in folds of blue denim, the voyageurs might keep paddling rather than sleep in the stifling woods where mosquitoes whined unmercifully. The setting sun, a flattened orange ball, would throw a brassy bar across the water; as canoes passed, it would be smudged by mother-of-pearl ripples. Then darkness would fall, and the bowmen, navigating by night sight and memory, would depend on silhouetted trees and peninsulas to stay on course. Distinctive trees, called “lob pines,” helped them find their way. These were huge white pines, 150 to 200 feet high, that were clearly visible against the skyline. To make them even more distinctive, a man was often sent aloft with an ax to lop off branches, leaving pronounced topknots. (Although forest fires and loggers have all but eliminated these big signposts, a few old lob pines still stand.)
Portaging, when the canoes and all that gear they held had to be carried overland, was the hardest part of any voyageur’s life. In all, the voyageurs’ route included 120 portages; the toughest of all was Grand Portage, a nine-mile trek over tendon-straining hills and shoe-sucking swamps between the large rendezvous post on the shore of Lake Superior and the Pigeon River, which led westward toward Rainy Lake. While carrying, the men made two or three rest stops, or poses, per mile. The voyageurs tucked the bows of their canoes snugly into tree crotched, slid out from beneath, dumped their packs on the ground, straightened their aching backs, and lit up their precious pipes.
The birch-bark craft required constant attention and mending, they were often damaged on rocks and stumps, but they were sturdy and roomy. It seems incredible that soft and graceful, chalk-white birch trees could have supplied the thin, tough bark for these shell-like craft. Actually, a trio of trees went into the canoes. The wood of the white cedar, a tree of damp, lowland areas, was easily carved into canoe ribs, paddles, and other essential parts. Black spruce yielded root fibers, for sewing together bark sections, and pitch, for sealing the seams.
At suppertime, the cook would serve one of two menus: pea stew or corn stew. Into this mush, laced with bacon grease, was thrown anything resembling meat. Canoeists from Montreal carried salt pork. Those from the remote Canadian outposts had to catch fish, gulls, deer, or beavers. If a canoe paddle stood straight up in the stew, it was perfect. Every meal was washed down with strong brown tea, but after an extra-grueling day’s work, a ration of rum or brandy would also be handed out. On these occasions, the men were certain to break into song, their voices echoing through the woods and ringing for miles across the water.
After supper, the voyageurs simply rolled up in heavy wool blankets to lie on the ground. Often as they drifted off to sleep, the what! of a beaver’s tail hitting the still water might startle them for a moment, or the eerie wail of a loon would echo over the campsite. Shafts of green polar light sometimes flared up beyond the shoreline, silhouetting wind-flagged pines, while peach-colored veils tinged the lake with pink. But northern lights and loon calls could not stir those weary paddlers. At the first light of dawn they jerked awake and set off, stopping after a few hours to wolf down some stew.
Loons were the voyageurs’ constant companions on Rainy Lake. On mist-shrouded mornings, the regal black and white birds floated as still as decoys, only their low chuckles and the occasional blink of a morocco0red eye giving proof of life. But if a pair were caring for young, as they generally are during the summer in these northern waters, and if the canoeists came a little too close, the adults would swim quickly away, hoping to distract the intruders, while the loonlets skulked off to hide near shore. If by chance, a chick were captured by canoeists, the frantic parents would perform a formidable threat display, racing around the canoe, rearing up and beating the water with their large wings, and filling the air with their high-pitched walls.
Loons never go ashore except to nest. They can hardly walk on land, but they are graceful and quick both upon and beneath the water. Expert fishermen, they dive effortlessly, leaving barely a ripple, and they often eat their catches, fish, crustaceans, frogs, or aquatic insects, before they surface. At dusk, they regularly join together in rowdy chases, yodeling as they fly in giant circles. Before the first ice skims out from shore, the loons patter ponderously across the cold lakes, their wings slapping the water until they finally gain the air. Then they circle for height and head south.