Hudson’s Bay Company servant Peter Fidler probably shook his head in amazement.
On June 29, 1796, while stationed at Cumberland House, Fidler greeted four North West Company canoes that had left Great Slave Lake only six weeks earlier. Then, on Aug. 19, he welcomed another brigade, this one headed inland in a race against freeze-up, that had covered the distance from Lac la Pluie in northwestern Ontario (near Fort Frances) in just 17 days.
These travel feats were part of the NWC lore — how the Montreal-based fur trade company was the proverbial hare in the race against the HBC tortoise.
But such speeds were possible only because of the regularity with which the NWC moved goods and furs in and out of the western interior in the late 18th century. Indeed, the dependability of the company’s transportation system was nothing short of miraculous, especially given the short open-water season. In the constant search for efficiencies, no detail was too trivial if it gave the NWC the advantage over the rival HBC.
Nor’Wester Alexander Mackenzie reckoned that it was almost 3,000 miles from Montreal to Lake Athabasca (straddling present-day northwestern Saskatchewan and northeastern Alberta). These miles were not simply clicked over on the odometer, but were conquered by the superhuman energy of voyageurs over an endless series of lakes, rivers, and portages.
Voyageurs (engagés) were generally illiterate, French-Catholic men, recruited from the Montreal and Trois Rivières areas for a fixed term or engagement contract. They numbered around 500 in the early 1780s, but as the fur trade pushed into the far northwest in the next decade, their ranks swelled.
Those who worked between Montreal and the provisioning depot at Grand Portage at the western end of Lake Superior were known as mangeurs du lard or “porkeaters” because of their diet.
Those, on the other hand, who manned the brigades in the interior, spending their winters in the pays d’en haut, were hommes du nord (northmen) or hivernant.
A further distinction was given to those voyageurs who worked northwest of Methye Portage (Portage de la Loche). These Athabasca men were the toughest, most experienced, and most revered — qualities that set them above all others in a culture that valued manliness.
Voyageurs could be an unruly lot. The Scottish and English managers (bourgeois) and clerks often engaged in a battle of wills with their servants, who, once inland, tried to renegotiate their contracts or at least offered a different “reading” of their responsibilities, such as how many 90-pound packs (pièces) they could reasonably be expected to carry at portages.
But there was also a certain order to voyageur working lives.
They sang, for example, as they paddled, measuring mileage in pipes (the distance between smoking breaks).
They also mapped their world by marking or recognizing important geographical boundaries. As they entered a new region — the shield country along the Ottawa River, the height of land beyond Lake Superior, and Methye Portage — the voyageurs insisted on performing a mock baptism of anyone who was passing that threshold into the interior for the first time. Even masters did not escape this ritual, but were forced to participate and thereafter expected to be fair in their dealings with their men.
The NWC placed incredible expectations on the voyageurs who manned the 300-pound, 25-foot North canoe in the interior.
To maintain any speed, especially since the canoe carried about two tons of cargo, the crew paddled at a continuous rate of forty strokes per minute for up to 12 hours. These long working days were intended to take advantage of the equally long hours of daylight and the fact that the wind was often down during the early morning.
And the brigades, as Fidler witnessed at Cumberland House, covered great distances in remarkable time. But the pace and load, week after week, strained the health of the voyageurs; the caloric deficit alone resulted in small, undernourished bodies.
Portaging was an added burden. Two men carried the canoe upright on their shoulders, while the others were loaded down with two 90-pound packs — more than their own body weight. Because the stress often led to skeletal damage and odd bone spurs, some voyageurs must have lived with painful chronic injuries.
It is little wonder, then, why some voyageurs never returned to Montreal but chose to seek a living in the North-West and intermarry with the indigenous population.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: The North West Company had to carry freight by canoe over great distances into and out of the western interior.
Credit: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA ACC. R9266-2738
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.