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Exploring Canada’s History by Canoe

We travelled the same routes the original Voyageurs paddled.

We travelled the same routes the original Voyageurs paddled hundreds of years ago….

Exploring Canada’s wilderness by canoe this past summer was absolutely amazing. For over 2 1/2 months (2000 kilometres) we paddled through western Canada enjoying life in the great outdoors. We followed in the path of the original Canadian Voyageurs (hence the name); paddling the routes they travelled hundreds of years ago on their fur trade expeditions. When one of our followers on social media asked us if we were going to stop to visit the historical sites that dotted our route we embraced the idea and decided to take the time and explore these sites.  After all, ours was a journey of exploration and discovery – learning more about the past and how the First Nations people lived would be interesting.

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We often reflected on the past when the real Voyageurs travelled this river. We wondered if we stopped or camped at the exact locations they might have centuries ago.

When the Europeans settled in this newly discovered country, they marvelled at how Canada’s Native population survived in this vast wilderness – they were impressed by tribes that banded together with men who were not only fierce warriors, but also great hunters and skilled fishermen.  European companies recognized the ability of the First Nations hunters and trappers to harvest the abundant wildlife, they formed alliances and the Canadian fur trade commerce was born.  The Hudson’s Bay Company was a leader in the lucrative fur trade industry – it erected trading forts along Hudson’s Bay and at many river crossings to facilitate the exchange of goods. We stopped at some of these forts on our 2015 Canadian Voyageurs expedition.

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Forts were used as bases to store supplies. Tall fences surrounded the forts to protect the valuable pelts.

One of the things I love the most about exploring historic sites is that real sense of history that you get – it’s like stepping back in time and getting a taste of what it was like to live hundreds of years ago.  Of course I had learned about the Native culture and Canada’s past in history class, but I took away so much more from being there, right in the exact location where history was created centuries ago. I was immersed in history, I was a part of it.  Standing inside the fort, surrounded by 10 foot fences took me back in time and for a brief moment I felt like I was living there and it was not 2015 but 1885.

Fort Carlton was one of our favourite stops. There is a boat launch making it accessible by river. Great for exploring paddlers like us!

Fort Carlton was one of our favourite stops. There is a boat launch making it accessible by river. Great for exploring paddlers like us!

While visiting Fort Carlton we really were able to see and feel what daily life was like at the fort. We sampled freshly made bannock with local Saskatoon berry jam and sipped on delicious Saskatoon berry tea. There were teepees (tipis – both spellings are accepted) with Native artifacts on display. There was a garden with vegetables that grew fresh today the same heirloom varieties from the past; the seeds having been harvested and passed down from generation to generation. Amongst the several buildings we toured were the living quarters, the trading post where one could get supplies, the cabin where the pelts were hung and stored until traded for export and the small chapel.

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The trading post traded supplies needed for everyday survival.

Most of the sites we visited offered free admission with placards detailing the history of that location without any staff present. Guests are free to roam around and examine the various exhibits and find out about history at a their own pace. Some of these sites had free camping on adjacent public lands. I found these sites to have a more natural feeling – I felt more connected to the past when it was presented it to me in its more authentic form.  I could read the signs and look at the old photos without any modern distractions – it was just us and the past getting acquainted.

There are entry fees at Fort Carlton (which is the best preserved example of life at a fur trading fort that we visited) and Fort George Buckingham in Elk Point (which is more of an interpretive museum). These forts are staffed with guides that offer visitors a great deal of information and the opportunity to ask questions. I really enjoyed being able to discover Canada’s remarkable history with both of these options being available to me – it made for two different learning experiences.

Learning about how people lived their lives hundreds of years ago is fascinating.  We can learn so much from the past - it makes us reflect on how we've changed, how we've progressed as a society.

Learning about how people lived their lives hundreds of years ago is fascinating. We can learn so much from the past – it makes us reflect on how we’ve changed, how we’ve progressed as a society.

Life was so different back then. The homes were simple and uncluttered – yet, warm and cozy. People were so much more self sufficient: they built they own homes, harvested their own food, made their own clothes and even made their own transportation. Some say life was harder back then, my take on that is people just faced different kinds of challenges. Today’s modern conveniences and technology save us from some of the harsh physical labor of many daily chores, making life “easier” but these gadgets are complicated, not always reliable and come at all kinds of costs, not just monetary. Building your own canoe is harder than buying one and growing your own food is harder than buying it – but then you need to earn money – convenience always comes at a price. There definitely is something to be said about being self sufficient – about being able to feed yourself, make and repair your own tools, clothing and shelter – there is a simpleness to this lifestyle that is very inviting to me.

As soon as you pass through the massive wooden gate to the enter the fort your senses take you back in time. One of the first things that struck me is the smell.  The sweet smell of dried grass, fire wood and old dust.

As soon as you pass through the massive wooden gate to the enter the fort your senses take you back in time. One of the first things that struck me is the smell. The sweet smell of dried grass, fire wood and old dust. I learned so much more from experiencing history first hand than I ever did from sitting in class with textbooks.

I had always admired Canada’s First Nations culture – I love their “one with the land” philosophy.  First Nations have a great respect for the land, they did not try to tame nature but instead learned from it and embrace it.  They hunted, trapped and fished for their own food – providing for their tribes great bounties.  They foraged for berries and herbs to supplement their diet and to make medicines.  They passed on their knowledge from one generation to the next.

After paddling a canoe out in Canada’s wilderness for over 2 1/2 months, I gained a new first hand appreciation for what the Fur Traders went through. We were equipped with the latest high tech gear which made our voyage that much easier. We had a 50 pound bullet proof canoe, highly detailed maps, electronic GPS navigation, to the minute weather forecasts, high performance wear, an extensive first aid kit  and all the latest camping gadgets including a stove that produced electricity for charging our modern devices by burning sticks. Their canoe alone weighed more than the total of just our gear….

On our trip we encountered extremely low water levels. We had to get out and walk the canoe when water levels were only inches deep.

On our trip we encountered extremely low water levels (the lowest the locals had ever seen it). We had to get out and walk the canoe when water levels were only inches deep.

We got a taste of what it was like to be a Voyageur on a fur trading expedition, but only a taste. Living in a tent, camping on the water’s edge and being exposed to the elements for months was tough sometimes – it really takes a toll on your energy level – and we were lucky, we had mostly awesome weather.

It didn’t take me long to get a sense of what the fur trader’s went through – the respect I had for the First Nations people became so much greater when I experienced a little bit of what their journey entailed.

Even with all our wilderness experience and high tech gear we encountered some pretty hard times.  The wind kept us stuck on shore for days (we even had a tornado warning one day), it snowed (sideways), we spent some pretty cold nights in the tent, we became dehydrated from exposure to the elements, we had medical emergencies, we were robbed and all our maps were stolen….  We had all kinds of trials.  So, whenever things became difficult or whenever I got tired, I always thought of our predecessors. I thought of what they must have gone through… with their huge hand made birch bark canoes with their thousands of pounds of payload (compared to our 500 lb haul) – they paddled hard every day from morning until night. They often paddled UP river – they portaged all their gear, furs and boats – sometimes over miles and miles of harsh terrain.  They carried only with them the necessities, if something failed they fixed it.

Modern, lightweight and high performance gear gave us an advantage over the First Nations. Experience, tradition, strength and knowledge made the original Voyageurs the true masters of Canada's wilderness.

Modern, lightweight and high performance gear gave us an advantage over the First Nations. Experience, tradition, strength and knowledge made the original Voyageurs the true masters of Canada’s wilderness.

When I set off on this voyage, I thought we had a huge advantage over our predecessors and that we would have much less difficulty than the First Nations Fur Traders had.  After setting off though, I soon realized that it was not technology that would get us through this arduous task.  Technology did help – it was good to know that tomorrow it would rain –  but knowing what to do and where to go to find shelter from the rain was more beneficial.  Out of all the fancy gadgets we brought with us – the best tool we had and the tool we most often used was knowledge. Knowing how to make shelters, knowing how to read the weather (because forecasts were not always accurate and signals were not always available), knowing how to read the river (because maps were not always either available (stolen) or detailed accurately), knowing how to keep warm and knowing how to adapt – that’s what matters.

Undertaking a lengthy expedition in Canada’ wilderness was a very rewarding experience.  Not only did we learn about the past and the struggles the First Nations people faced but we learned so much about ourselves. This experience enriched us greatly.  On this voyage, we became stronger – not only physically.  When we left Rocky Mountain House in late April, we had all kind of concerns – what if we capsized and lost all our gear, what if someone got hurt, what if we fail…. all those what if’s that stop so many people from even trying…. Conquering this fear of the unknown gave us strength.  With each kilometre paddled, we gained courage.  Day by day, we proved to ourselves that we could do it and day by day we gained confidence.

Exploring Canada by canoe and learning about its history was such a wonderful adventure – I learned so much more about the Canadian Voyageurs – both of them – the fur traders and us; learning about them, taught me so much about myself.

Life will always have challenges – I learned that facing them and tackling them head on  makes me become braver, stronger and more confident. The more confident I become, the more relaxed I am and the more I can enjoy life. I was so happy to be a part of this fantastic journey.

I certainly have a new found respect for the fur traders.  Their courage, determination, strength and perseverance is truly admirable. By immersing myself in their story and retracing their route, I was able to get a real taste of what is was like to be a First Nations Fur Trader.

We put together a little photo montage of some of the sites we visited – but do yourself a favour – go – get outside and experience Canada’s amazing history for yourself:

Please share your comments – either about this story or your own adventure of discovery….

 

 

A Video Clip from our Amazing Paddle Across Western Canada

We encourage everyone to live life to the fullest! Life is short – get out there and experience it.  Fulfill your dreams – it’s worth the effort – the rewards are unimaginable!

The Big Adventure

With only two weeks or so to go I find myself having a permanent smile on my face.  I wake up in the morning feeling excited and happy to face the day.  Less and less my thoughts are of the preprations and checklists and more and more I am beginning to daydream, picutring myself paddling down the river with  nothing but wilderness surrounding me.  My stomach has been invaded by a a swarm of butterflies, they’ve taken up permanent home inside me.  The anticipation is growing daily; after a year and half of planning soon the big day will be here.

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This trip is going to be fantastic.  Paddling over 5000 kilometres in 5 months with over 90 portages – that’s the adventure that we are about to embark on.  I am ready to face the challenge, I am looking forward to this amazing experience – this is going to be epic. We’ve gone over our gear and have made the last minute purchases and have even received some pretty nice gifts, a couple of Helinox cots given to us by our son. We have wanted those for a long time, they are pretty pricey at $360 each – they will make a world of difference both for ease of set up (no blowing up mattresses every day) and for comfort – though we are early risers, maybe we’ll start sleeping in!  We don’t have a set schedule, some days we will feel like paddling longer while other days bad weather will keep us on shore. Having the cots will make lounging that much better, it’ll be a good time to catch up on writing and editing. We know we’ll hit bad weather and when we do, we will relax at camp and take in our surroundings. This is a trip of a lifetime and we want to enjoy every minute of it.

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We are very happy that our good friend Wade has agreed to join us on this voyage.  We stopped in to see him while in Alberta and it didn’t take much conivincing to have him accompany us on this big adventure.  He will bring his big yellow lab Misty along – she and Pompom are old friends.  Years ago, Wade and Misty joined us down the Athasbasca for a two week trip – he in a canoe and we in kayaks. That’s one of my most memorable trips – now I am about to begin to make new memories.

I can’t wait to wake up on the beach in the fresh air and cook breakfast over the fire.  We have so much delicious food prepared – I really love cooking outside at the campsite.  We will be eating lots of fresh fish which will nicely compliment the homemade meals we have. On this trip, eating will be a treat day after day. We have coffee for breakfast and will be drinking lots of filtered water with the occasional ice tea. Our Katadyn water filter is exceptional. I have lots of ingredients to make bannock (including lots of dehydrated berries), we have a large supply of homemade jerky in four varities and we have fruit leathers to munch on when we want sweets.  Making bannock will be a first for me, I’ve always wanted to make some, but never have.  I’ve looked up a few pleasing recipes on the internet and am looking forward to experimenting in the camp kitchen.

While I cook the men will take down camp and prepare the canoes for the day, after we clean up the dishes, we’ll head for anotber day of exploring.  There will be many firsts on this trip.  I have always dreamed of having the opportunity to camp all summer long.  For me, going home is always the hard part.  Being out for five months is something I am really excited about. There will be so many new experiences, this summer is going to the best ever! I am very much looking forward to just being outside for a whole summer – I love being outside.  I love being on the water.

I expect we will see lots of wildlife from the stealth of our canoes.  The river attracts all kinds of birds and animals to it’s shores.  Early morning and in the evening will be the best times to get glimpses, take photographs and shoot video. In the morning, the water is usually calm.  As dawn breaks, the forest animals and birds come for a morning drink while some hunt for breakfast.

Once we get going I surely will have many interesting stories to share.  I’ll be able to include photos of the trip and will undoubledly have some wild experiences to write about.  It won’t be long now, only a ocuple of weeks and the big adventure will begin. From Rocky Mountain House Alberta to Lachine Quebec – crossing four provinces over the summer – experiencing Canada’s amazing wilderness from our canoes, I can’t think of a better way to spend the next five months.

Our latest addition to our off grid lifestyle - a lightweight Kevlar canoe by Swift.

Our latest addition to our off grid lifestyle – a lightweight Kevlar canoe by Swift.