Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall, Ontario, 1869
Canoes were the primary means of transportation during the fur trade. The geography of Canada, laced as it is by rivers and lakes, made this inevitable. The waterways that span the country were efficient highways that made travel across its vast distances practical.
The ideal craft for North America's waters, the canoe was perfected by the First Nations. The Algonquin of the eastern woodlands are most closely associated with the style of birchbark canoe familiar to us today. Made of birch bark and other readily available materials, it was lightweight. Weighing less 136 kilograms (300 lb) - twice that when wet - it could carry many times its own weight in freight. Maneuverable, it was easily portaged, and could be coaxed through the most treacherous white water. The great disadvantage of the canoe was its fragility. The slightest error in judgment while running a rapid might throw it against a rock and rip a gash in its bottom. The canoe was soon adopted as the primary means of transportation for anyone traveling great distances into the wilderness.
Chief Trader Archibald McDonald Descending the Fraser, 1828 by Adam Sherriff Scott, ca. 1942
Two types of canoe were routinely used by HBC. The canot du maître (sometimes known as a Montreal canoe) was the larger of the two. Some 12 metres long, with a crew of 10 to 12 paddlers, could be portaged by 4 men and carried a payload of about three tons. It was used on route from the St. Lawrence River to the Lakehead. The smaller canot du nord was 7 metres long, light enough that two men could carry it, and it required a crew of only 6 to 8 men. It was used in the west because of the rugged rivers and many portages along the way, but due to its smaller size could only carry about a ton and a half of freight. The canot du nord was in use from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, in what is now Oregon, to the Athabaska country. A third type of canoe, the express canoe or canot léger, was about 5 metres long. These were used to carry important people, reports, and news to and from different posts in the Northwest. George Simpson travelled the breadth of the continent by express canoe, setting travel records as he went.
The Company's canoes were manned by professional paddlers known as voyageurs, almost exclusively French-Canadians, a fact made evident from the terminology. Employed on contract for their paddling expertise, these engagés, or hired men, lived a very tough life, paddling as many as 14 hours a day. As a matter of interest, Simpson's express canoes were paddled by crack teams of Iroquois (Mohawks) from the Montreal area.
Crew members had distinct roles dictated by where they sat in the canoe. The avant (bowman or foreman) sat in the front (or bow) of the canoe and acted as the navigator and guide. The gouvernail or steersman, sat or stood at the stern (rear) and steered the craft as directed by the bowman. The milieu, or middleman, sat in the middle and paddled. These milieux were the least experienced crew and, after learning the ropes, could aspire to become bowmen or steersmen. Because of the skill and experience required, the bowmen and steersmen were paid twice the rate of middlemen. A conductor, or pilot, which all were obliged to obey, was appointed to every 4 or 6 canoes.
Canadian Voyageurs Walking a Canoe Up a Rapid
The usual speed on lakes was about 40 strokes a minute, which propelled the craft at about 5 miles per hour. At this rate, up to 100 miles, or over 200 km, could be covered in a day. The speed of the express canoes was almost twice this. But such speeds were not usually possible on the swift rivers of the northwest, which were more frequently interrupted by rapids necessitating portage.
A portage (literally "carrying") was a stop where both the canoe and its load had to be carried overland. When a canoe was beached, it was unloaded and the bowman and the steersman hoisted it on their shoulders, followed by the crew. The voyageurs carried the freight with a tumpline, a leather strap that went across the forehead, then back and around the load. At a portage, each voyageur was assigned to carry a minimum of two 90 pound bundles. Sometimes it was not necessary to portage around an obstruction, but merely to lighten the canoe by removing some gear. This was a décharge. To pass a décharge, it was necessary to tow the canoe though the rapids by means of a rope or cable.