On the trail of the voyageurs

There are a lot of ways for people to spend their summer vacations. By now, most university students will be working somewhere—showing up every day to face the same sort of routine.
But there’s a group of seven young adults who are turning their summer into the adventure of a lifetime while reliving a part of Canadian history in the process.
When Alison Croft, Amanda Strong, Angela Wassegijig, Chris McLeod, Ginny Gonneau, Jeremy Brown, and Rubecka Davidson arrived in style at the government dock on Sand Bay here Friday afternoon in a 26-foot replica voyageur freighter canoe they have paddled and portaged all the way from Thunder Bay, they were re-enacting the journeys of their forefathers.
Six of the seven are Métis themselves or of Métis heritage while Wassegijig hails from Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island.
The seven intrepid adventurers, ranging in age from 20 to 27, are embarking on the Métis Canoe Expedition 2, in which they are retracing the route of the original voyageurs who first forged a path through the wilderness into central Canada 200 years ago.
The original Métis Expedition went all the way from Lachine, Que. to Batoche, Sask.—a journey by water and portage that spans more than 4,000 km.
This expedition is covering the second half of that trip from Thunder Bay to Batoche, a total distance of 2,300 km—which the group hopes to complete in 53 days.
It is their hope to complete the journey on July 22 in order to participate in the kick-off of the annual “Back to Batoche” celebrations.
Despite some weather setbacks early on, the group still was on schedule when they arrived precisely on time at 4 p.m. and looking every bit the part, dressed as they were in traditional voyageur garb (and with the men sporting 10 days of beard growth).
But it hasn’t been a cakewalk by any means.
“It was tough,” said Davidson of Sault Ste. Marie after they pulled their 300-pound canoe out of the water, anticipating the first hot shower they would have since leaving Thunder Bay on June 1.
“We got wind-bound twice and once we had a one-mile portage,” she added, though looking none the worse for wear for her ordeal despite being quite petite.
In fact, all seven looked sun- and wind-tanned with little evidence of bug bites, although they claimed otherwise.
The group is a mixture of experienced canoeists and novices. Some, like Brown, who hails from Dryden but currently calls Pembroke home, have canoed all their lives. For others like Strong, 20, it was the first time—and it shows.
“Sometimes I don’t even want to get up and move in the morning,” she remarked. “My arms get really sore and stiff after a while, too, but it’s getting better.
“I’m told it takes about two weeks to get in shape.”
Some of them already are getting in shape. Brown, who checked in at 220 pounds before the trek began, said he’s already noticed a difference in himself and his colleagues.
That difference perhaps was best demonstrated when the five women hoisted the two men in the air for a photograph at the Ukrainian Hall here, where a special dinner was held in their honour by the Sunset Country Métis and Métis Ventures Inc.
But even for Brown, the first 10 days were tough slogging.
“Over that period, we had at least 24 hours of portaging,” he recalled. “One day, we did six hours of portaging and three hours of paddling.”
The modern voyageurs’ day begins much as their predecessors’ did—at 5 a.m. They break camp and, fueled only by coffee, try to put in a couple of hours before stopping for breakfast.
They may rest up for several hours and then start again in mid-afternoon and paddle until dark. The reason for that, said Brown, is because the winds generally are lighter early in the morning and drop again late in the afternoon.
Since their trip is primarily west, they are anticipating headwinds most of the way, but on Friday, they had an east wind at their backs as they paddled the last few miles across Rainy Lake from Sand Point Island, where they had spent the previous night.
At the dock, they were warmly greeted by Tony Belcourt, president of the Métis Nation of Ontario, MNO chair Gary Lipinski, his brother, Glen, president of the Thunder Bay Métis Council (who is the ground support co-ordinator for the trip), Jean Teillet, the attorney who won a landmark decision before the Supreme Court affirming Métis harvest rights, and various family members and well-wishers.
After taking time to clean up, the young voyageurs arrived to a standing ovation at the Ukrainian Hall for a spaghetti dinner put on in their honour.
After the meal, a number of officials from the Métis community took the microphone and not only thanked the young travellers, but tried to put the adventure into historical perspective, as well.
“The voyage they are on is part of our living history,” remarked Gary Lipinski.
His sentiments were echoed by Belcourt, who also gave a brief history of the original voyageurs’ expedition.
“The [first] voyageurs started at Lachine, Que. and went to Thunder Bay,” he noted. “The first [youth] expedition was to retrace that part of the journey.
“This one is to trace the second part [to Batoche].
“These young people are helping us to focus on our own history and the role it played in opening up Canada,” Belcourt stressed.
Then, it was time for the young voyageurs themselves to step into the spotlight. The affable Brown, the group’s unofficial spokesman, garnered more than one chuckle from the audience with some of his recollections of the trip so far.
He recalled how, in the early going, they were held up by numerous, tedious portages and strong headwinds that forced them ashore to wait it out.
They were not without friends along the way, however. At Lac La Croix First Nation, dozens of people came down to the waterfront to greet them as news of their journey preceded them.
They were housed for the night in the band’s community centre and even managed to have some minor repairs done on their canoe while they were there.
As they proceeded through the border waters area, they were struck by the number of American campers, who far outnumbered their Canadian counterparts and who also wished them well.
But by the time they reached Fort Frances, they knew the worst of it was probably behind them because from here on in, there will be fewer portages.
“It made us realize the next 40 days will be a lot more fun,” Brown remarked.
“It’s so great after all that to come into a town like this with a great reception and it’s nice to eat at a table, too, instead of on the ground,” he quipped.
Brown acknowledged the schedule they’ve set for themselves is challenging, but he is confident they will make it on time.
“This is a pretty ambitious trip to cover 2,300 kilometres in less than two months,” he admitted.
But Brown also noted they actually are making better time than anticipated when the weather allows them. He said the goal is to cover 50 km per day and in order to maintain that pace, they need an average speed of about six km/h over eight hours.
He’s been keeping track of their pace with a GPS and discovered they actually are averaging about eight km/h, and at one point they reached a sustained top speed of 11 km/h.
Brown noted the hardships endured up until that point had served to bind the group together, rather than drive them apart, which he believed will strengthen their resolve as the journey progresses.
“We’ve really held together as a group,” he stressed.
And quite a diverse group it is, too.
Gonneau, who was born in Thunder Bay but currently lives in Barrie, Ont., is the only member of the group who also was on Canoe Expedition 1—from Lachine to Thunder Bay.
This time around, she is acting as liaison between the MNO’s head office in Ottawa and the group. To facilitate that, they are equipped with both a satellite phone and a cellphone, which they recharge with a special solar charger.
Meanwhile, McLeod, from Aurora, Ont., is a graduate of the Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism program at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. He intends to pursue that further with the goal of becoming a teacher.
When he’s not canoeing and camping, he moonlights as a professional musician with his own small business in the multimedia field.
Strong is the group’s unofficial biographer. Equipped with two digital cameras, a film camera, a Polaroid, and a video camera, she is hoping to make a documentary of their journey.
Croft currently lives in Mississauga, Ont. and is the biologist-in-residence. She is collecting water and zooplankton samples along the way as part of her Master’s thesis at York University.
In addition to her interests in ecology and her Métis heritage, she also is the proud owner of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Davidson is a graduate of Sault College in the Social Service Worker program. In September, she said she intends to pursue her B.A. in sociology and geography at Algoma University.
And Wassegijig, with a lifetime of canoeing experience behind her, is acting as the team’s guide.
After resting up here Saturday and picking up a few supplies, the group assembled at the boat ramp at the end of McIrvine Road early Sunday morning to continue their journey.
They intended to spend that evening at the Manitou Mounds before pressing on to Rainy River by Monday.
Glen Lipinski was there to see them off and is following them by road. He said when they reach Lake of the Woods, they will exchange their 26-foot canoe for a 34-foot version to provide more stability and security on the large bodies of water they have yet to face, such as Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnipeg, and Lake Winnepegosis.
Updates on the progress of Métis Canoe Expedition 2 are posted daily on the MNO’s website at www.metisnation.org