Monday, January 9, 2012


As a school kid, I heard about the Voyageurs. Growing up in Kansas, they were not part of our local history – we were just south of their range -- but I had heard of them. Our local history was dominated by conquest of the west. These conquest stories were embellished, even as they happened, by the press, by popular novels and by the wild west shows that played throughout the country at the time. History does get distorted. One of the especially romanticized parts of western history was the Pony Express. A recent trip found our family passing through Marysville, Kansas. We stopped for lunch and drove by the preserved Pony Express Home Station #1 but it was closed for the winter. We’ll go that way again sometime in the summer and stop in. The Pony Express operated for only 18 months and was not that important historically, aside from the symbolism of a communications link between the Eastern US with the Pacific. Despite its short time in business and its limited importance in the country’s history, it’s a large, permanent part of western lore. It’d be interesting to see how many people have heard of the Pony Express and to compare that number to how many people who have heard of the Voyageurs. The Voyageurs story deserves better play. They did some pretty remarkable things over their 200 years in business. No, not all good things, but a lot of remarkable things. They paddled and portaged 18 hours a day in birch bark canoes, covering in one season the distance from Montreal to the Grand Portage of western Lake Superior or, for the hivernants, from the northern Rockies to the Grand Portage. They carried tons of freight in canoes and on their backs. They lived on flour and pemmican, along with their songs and pipes. Although they did bring problems to the native populations, the Voyageurs were not out to conquer them militarily. Native people showed the Voyageurs the pathways through what’s now Canada and much of what’s now the northern US. That’s significant history, even if not as easily romanticized as the Pony Express. Living in Voyageurs country, I wanted to learn more about them. The Voyageurs, written by Grace Lee Knute, provides a thoroughly researched, easy to read, un-romanticized account of the life of the Voyageurs. Originally published in 1935, it was re-issued in paperback in 1985 by Minnesota Historical Society Press. It’s easily available and not expensive. I recommend it for anyone wanting to learn about this part of history. Knowing more about the history of a place makes me feel closer to my place and may do the same for you. SIDEBAR OK, truth time. It wasn’t just my desire to expand my horizons and feel closer to my place that got me interested in the Voyageurs. It was the encouragement of a university colleague. His point, and his scholarly expertise, is that the narrative of a place helps define how we think of the place and how we treat the place. For him, it’s unfortunate that more people know of Paul Bunyan, a tale of exploitation, than know of the Voyageurs. My colleague has a camp. Camps/cabins are a big part of life up here in the North. The camp culture can be one of exploitation more than one of living with the land. This particular colleague, who is a burly outdoorsman, is thought a bit odd when he prefers to use and listen to the sounds of a bow saw rather than a chain saw. He prefers the aesthetic of moving goods to the camp by canoe and hand-pulled wagon rather than motorboat and 4-wheeler. When he’s asked ‘wouldn’t it be a lot easier to do with a machine?’ the message is partly that the machines would be the more manly way to do it. That’s where the story of the Voyageurs comes in. They each carried at least two, 90 lb packages on each portage (the record was 6!). They covered the continent in birch bark canoes. They slept under their overturned canoes. That’s pretty manly. My colleague's thinking is that the Voyageurs stories may help us promote the idea that a nature aesthetic can be manly. Instead of celebrating the Paul Bunyan legacy with lumberjack competitions, let's celebrate the Voyageurs with competitions that reflect the work of portaging. The contrast of the two narratives isn't that clear-cut. Paul Bunyan (and the loggers he’s modeled after) worked with hand saws and horse-drawn wheels. The Voyageurs supported the exploitation of the fur bearing animals for the vanity of Europeans. Yet, the image of French Canadians plying the rivers and lakes in canoes and portaging them across barriers lends itself more to a nature aesthetic while Paul Bunyan stories lend themselves to conquering nature. SIDEBAR TO THE SIDEBAR I always had the impression that the Paul Bunyan mythology was a set of stories told around the fireplaces in the lumbering camps. I recently read that while some heroic stories were told that way, the modern version was essentially made up as part of an advertizing campaign for a timber company. But isn’t that the way it works? How many kids think Disney when they think Alice in Wonderland? (Before you ask, 'do kids even still think of Alice in Wonderland, recent Disney commercials show that they do.) Regardless of their origin, the Paul Bunyan stories are part of the folklore of the north. Unfortunately the pine barrens left behind, places such as the Kingston Plains, where 100+ year old stumps look out over areas that never grew back to forests, isn’t part of that folklore.

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