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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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….