I’m in the middle of our country (Aikens Lake, in eastern Manitoba to be exact) landing a boat on a rocky shore channeling my inner Courier de Bois—if I was any more Canadian I’d be the recipient of multiple Heritage grants. From the moment my boat touches the rocky shore, I’m in motion: leaping over the gunnels, scrambling up the granite slope, hustling down a barely-there wilderness trail, zigzagging around windfall and basically booking it toward the body of water that lies at the other end of this historic fur trade portage.
Portaging—a verb we all know but scant few of us have done.
My journey began three days ago in Winnipeg, on the shores of the Assiniboine River, with a stick shaking in my hand. Cameron White, a canoe guide, is encouraging me to poke a disk in the middle of a small, but serious, metal contraption.
The violent snap of the device makes me jump. “That,” says White, “is the sound of the cash register.”
Beaver was once considered the most valuable fur in the world (thanks to European high society’s obsession with hats made from the pelts) and traps such as these were the tools of the trade so valuable that our country pretty much has those goofy looking hats for its existence. Watercraft, like the hefty eight-person canoe I’m about to climb into, were the delivery vans of this precious cargo.
Ever since my grade-four teacher, Mrs. Hartley, entertained our class with dramatically told tales of the fur trade—and brought in beef jerky, lard and blueberries so we could mix up (and gag on) a modern day version of pemmican—I’ve dreamed of following the watery pathways of the voyageurs, travelling as they did in a canoe. Well, not travelling exactly as they did because their lives were hard and I don’t do hard. Days of soft adventure and a soft bed at the end of those days are more to my liking.
And so, much as I enjoyed the romantic notion of canoeing, the actual practice of it is pretty foreign to me. Until today.
On dry land, White leads our group of 10 through paddling practice, then whips out a Hudson’s Bay Company commemorative tea towel. He uses the towel, illustrated with a map of Canada covered in little HBC forts, to make two points: the fur trading network was vast and Canadians have a special, romantic connection with our fur-trading past. “I’ve yet to see a 7-Eleven commemorative tea towel,” he says.
Lesson finished, we carry two heavy canoes to the water’s edge and launch. The surprisingly swift current makes up for our pathetic attempts at coordinated paddling and we’re soon zipping down what White calls “the pemmican highway.” We travel seven kilometers in total, admiring a mostly urban landscape.
Our journey ends at The Forks, where the Assiniboine River flows into the Red River and where, for over 6000 years, people have met to fish, hunt and trade, which these days translates into a handful of interesting boutiques and restaurants surrounded by dozens of tourist traps. But I’ve arrived here not by bus, taxi or bike—I’ve arrived here by a canoe, so I feel pretty good about myself.
That warm glow only marginally ebbs on the floatplane trip to Aikens Lake the following morning, the bustle of the Forks fading hard. Georges Beaudry, a sometimes-staff member of the Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge, stands at the end of the dock un-ironically playing a jaunty tune on his penny whistle. His muskrat hat, beaded leather satchel and brightly woven sash (again not a trace of irony here) hint at his Métis ancestry.
Before you can say “Allez pêrcher!” I’ve dropped my duffel bag in a luxurious two-bedroom log cabin, climbed into a boat and am fishing.
Over the next three days, I lose track of the number of walleye and Northern pike I catch and release. The culinary highlight of each day is the shore lunch, featuring just-caught fish and staged amid stands of black spruce and jack pine at different lakeside locations. Evenings are spent enjoying hearty meals in the dining hall and hanging out in Big Molly’s Bar.
Late one afternoon, I climb out of the fancy motorized fishing boats that are de rigueur at the lodge and into a canoe for my first-ever solitary paddle. I follow the water’s edge, marveling at the tranquility, watching for moose and using the strokes learned days earlier. Paddle, paddle, paddle, sweep… veer off course, curse, correct, try again. Paddle, paddle, paddle, sweep. I am neither graceful nor efficient but the freedom—me, paddling, on my own, in a canoe, in the Canadian wilderness–is absolutely intoxicating.
My final evening, Beaudry invites a small group of guests to the lakeshore for a ceremony based on the traditional Homme du Nord ceremony used to initiate new voyageurs. Beaudry dips a cedar bough into the lake and makes a few wet swipes across each of our faces. We repeat an oath promising to initiate other newcomers in this way, and to never, ever kiss another voyageur’s wife without her consent.
The deal is sealed with glasses of Caribou, a Quebecois fortified wine and a proud proclaimation: “Je suis un homme du Nord.” I am a man of the North.
Okay, not really. But it sure is fun pretending.
Canada’s fur trade history is writ large in the HBC Gallery at the Manitoba Museum. manitobamuseum.ca
The St. Boniface Museum tells the Francophone and Métis history of Manitoba, including the life of Louis Riel who is buried in the St. Boniface Cathedral cemetery. msbm.mb.ca
Party like it’s 1815 at Fort Gibraltar, a replica North West Company fur trade post. Each February, the fort hosts Festival du Voyageur festivities
Explore Winnipeg by water with Northern Soul Wilderness Adventures
In Winnipeg, sleep where the action was at The Inn at the Forks
For wilder times, experience Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge