Legendary fur and trade couriers a role model for your next canoe expedition
Paddling with Don Erickson
Who wouldn’t want to traverse challenging portages and watercourses with the aplomb, ease and fun-filled spirit of the French Canadian voyageur? Toting two 90-pound packs over rugged portages along with paddling about 55 strokes a minute for fourteen or more hours took up most of the day. On a good day, eighty miles might be covered over water or twenty miles by land.
Pressing upstream through rapids, the steersman might cry out, “Demi charge!” The stroke cadence goes into double-time and the vermillion-tipped paddle blades whip up frothy white water, propelling the 36-foot Montreal canoe to quieter water.
Undoubtedly, there are lessons to be drawn from these incredibly powerful canoeists that can make it easier for us to cover greater distances as we pursue our water heritage. Chronicles of paddlers like Pierre Radisson, Lewis and Clark, Alexander Mackenzie, Henry Schoolcraft and the novel “Broken Blade” by William Durbin give us some valuable tips.
Protecting your means of transportation – including canoe and paddles – in a remote wilderness setting is still a survival practice.
Canoe: Rather than a birch bark canoe, your watercraft is apt to be of more durable construction such as wood and canvas, cedar strip, polyethylene, Kevlar, ABS or aluminum. Nonetheless, note the care that voyageurs took to protect their means of transportation by avoiding bottoming and dragging the canoe onto shore. These precautions might necessitate wading to board if a suitable pier or stopping platform is not available. The aluminum canoe owner, who appreciates the beautiful patina resulting from launching on gravel beaches can pay less heed to this lesson. Voyageur canoes were often equipped with a roll of birch bark and pine pitch to make repairs while tripping. Today’s canoe tripper will want to have a roll of duct tape and a suitable repair kit.
Paddles: An idiom tracing back as far as 1918 by President Harry S. Truman cautions about, “being up s___ creek without a paddle,” suggests how voyageurs avoided touching ground with their paddle blade. The vermillion paint would wear off, permitting water to soak into the wood and adding weight to the paddle. A voyageur re-enactor tells how the handle was used at times to push off into deeper water rather than the blade. A good rule is the blade only touches water and air.
The voyageurs give us some clues to help us chalk up the most distance in a day.
Meal Planning: Rather than taking time for breakfast, the voyageur often was on the water before sunrise when the waters were calm and temperatures cooler. About 8 a.m., the brigade or group of canoes would stop for one of the two daily meals. Supper would come when they reached their encampment for the evening. Think how much further you can go by getting by on two meals a day.
Rest periods: The brigade commanders called for frequent, but short, rest periods referred to as “pipes” that were long enough to smoke a pipe. Often the time required between points was measured in the number of pipes.
Their clay pipe bowl was not much larger than a thimble, which leads me to speculate that it was intended to limit the break-time before stiffness and cramps set in. A historian challenged my small pipe bowl theory by asserting the high price for tobacco was the actual reason. Regardless, on your extended paddling days, you might do well to take sufficient short breaks.
Competitive and distance canoeists might benefit from the paddling savvy of those who paddled for a livelihood.
Paddle selection: Native Americans were said to joke about the Voyageur paddle, since the blade was smaller than the blades on their paddles. The speed of a canoe is largely determined by the frequency and power of the strokes. Selection of a large blade on a long trek can be counterproductive, if the paddler could be more efficient by increasing strokes per minute with a smaller blade.
At the annual historical encampment in Allen Park in Chippewa Falls, an exhibitor who fashions replica voyageur paddles described the paddle strokes of middlemen (or milieu). He said they were rapid short strokes that started with a strong downward force. The short stroke makes sense since on my two experiences in a Montreal canoe, I found a longer stroke led to clashing with the paddle of another. Furthermore, maximum propulsion during a stroke results when the paddle blade face is most perpendicular to the water surface. Voyagers didn’t have the benefit of efficient bent shaft paddles that extend the vertical blade position. The short stroke would make it easier to paddle hour after hour.
Since there’s no YouTube footage of voyageurs paddling, it’s difficult to confirm that they used a strong downward force as the paddle blade entered the water. Nonetheless, would the downward force of eight paddle blades tend to lift the canoe enough to reduce the wetted surface and extend glide? You might want to debate this fluid dynamics law of motion with your paddling partner on the next outing.
A member of the Sons of the Voyageurs singing group told me that at times Voyageurs would not dip the full blade into the water. This would enable a faster cadence. Reducing the amount of paddle blade used enables the canoeist to benefit similarly to the bicyclist who shifts to a lower gear on a hill or headwind. At least one seasoned canoeist will debate this notion and advise to always immerse the full blade
Avoiding hand blisters: Hour after hour of stroking a paddle can result in painful blisters and swollen hands. Pierre LaPage, the thirteen-year-old hero in Durbin’s novel endures severe pain from swollen and bleeding hands on his first 2,400-mile canoe trip from Lachine, Quebec, to Grand Portage in present day Ontario. A sympathetic bowman, La Londe noticed, “It’s the right one, eh? The hand closest to the water always takes a beating. The water softens the skin.” Charonneau, the steersman, offered a plan and said, “We’ll keep you on the prost side tomorrow. The sore one should dry out then.”
With the soreness persisting, the bowman wrapped the handle of Pierre’s paddle with doeskin. Our lesson is keep your hands dry and wear a good pair of paddling gloves.
Portaging: Use of a tumpline (forehead strap) proved helpful for Voyageurs, who carry heavy packs long distances. “The Long Carry” at Grand Portage is eight miles. A tumpline places weight on the spine rather than the hips and is still advocated by some wilderness travelers such as Cliff Jacobsen. It’s old technology that might be considered for your next trip. Tumpline proponents caution only adults without back or neck problems should use it.
On long portages requiring multiple carries, you can use a Voyager practice. Let’s say it’s a mile portage where you first carry all gear half way. Then walk burden-free back to the start of the portage for the second carry. Instead of walking a mile twice with a load, you will carry a load for a 1/2-mile, but, of course, four times.
Clothing: The 18th- and 19th-century canoe traveler didn’t have all the choices of Permaloft and GorTex that we enjoy. One account tells how the crew of a canoe removed their shirts in a downpour and kept them dry until the rain stopped. This technique might be useful on a warm day if you forgot to bring raingear.
I have an authentic linen voyageur shirt that I find quite functional. The bloused long sleeves and loose fitting shirt gives sun and insect protection in addition to permitting air circulation. Voyageurs took advantage of the long length by wearing breechcloths as an alternate to trousers.
Gear: Voyageurs had the advantage of widespread sources for potable drinking water and plentiful fish and game for sustenance. Often, helpful indigenous people would be nearby and willing to help the woods and waters visitors survive.
Those who journey into the wilderness today have numerous aids such as GoreTex, Permaloft, Velcro, zippers, freeze dried foods, GPS, accurate maps, sunscreen, mosquito netting and insect repellent. Consider the advances realized by the last two items. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft writes about his 1831 expedition to the Wisconsin interior when they encircled the main campfire with five campfires in order to ward off hoards of mosquitoes. It was probably a better situation than using the common insect repellent consisting of bear grease and skunk urine.
There’s safety in numbers. Voyageurs often travelled in several brigades. Rounding up a like-minded group for a given time period can be a chore, but it can add to the joy and safety of the outing. Also it’s best to follow the
Voyager practical example of laying over in your encampment until hazardous weather conditions abate. Likewise, it might be best to bide your time and wait for favorable weather before making that long crossing in open water.
Challenges, setbacks and hardships are generally par for the course when it comes to long distance wilderness treks. The common thread of expedition leaders is they have a strong focus on achieving their destination or objective.
Voyageurs were able to endure hardships of long treks by engaging in periods of fun and frolic. They were known for their boat songs, good-natured teasing of their companions and impromptu contests and games. We might emulate these paddlers of the past by singing voyageur songs and engage in periods of carefree, gleeful and hilarious conversation. If you can’t carry a tune better than me, find a way to keep the batteries charged and listen to a Voyager song on a device by a group such as the Sons of the Voyagers. Your distance might not increase, but it will be a heck of a lot more fun.