A day in the life of a voyageur
Mes amis! How about coming on a journey with me? Are you surefooted, strong-backed, and fun loving? Good voyageurs were all of these things. As a voyageur, you also had to be a skilled navigator and have a curious, risk-taking nature. We were brave but, at the same time, respectful of nature's power in the wild frontier. At the beginning of our trips on the Great Lakes we would throw little trinkets into the waters out of respect for the power of nature. Tobacco, beads, or brass buttons were offered to Old Lady Wind, known as La Vielle, as we asked for safe passage. Many canoes, their cargo, and their crew have been lost to sudden storms. We all hoped for a safe journey.
Like today's hockey and football players dressed in team uniforms, we voyageurs had our own way to dress. We wore our buckskin pants and blue tunics belted at the waist with the hand-woven wool ceinture fléchée, or sash. A red woollen toque is what we wore on our heads to maintain body heat in the cold weather and keep pesky bugs out of our hair in spring and summer. The ceinture fléchée worn at our waists had many uses. It was warm, it could act as a rope or a tumpline, and if treated with beeswax it could be a waterproof cup. Furthermore, each ceinture fléchée was designed and made by the voyageurs themselves. This was our trademark uniform. Additionally, we each had our own paddle covered in hand carved designs. These designs, like the designs in the ceinture fléchée,could give you an idea of which area in New France we came from.
I came to this colony, known as New France, having traveled by sea from the country of France in Europe. I make good money as a voyageur . I learned quickly about the First Nation tribes and their unique cultures and languages. There are many challenges that I shared in this wild rugged country with other voyageurs, the coureurs de bois, First Nation tribes, and the English, Scottish and French explorers. Co-operating, we created new trails in the wilderness that lead to all corners of this new land called Canada.
I am from Trois Riviéres, and work for a Montreal trading company. In the late 1700's, over 54 percent of the male population of Trois Rivieres was, or had been, a voyageur. My brigade of canoes is on its way to Fort Chipewyan, up by Lake Athabasca in Northern Saskatchewan. The beaver furs from the north region are very valuable because they are so thick and soft. We will be trading with the Chipewyan and Beaver native tribes. Some coureurs de bois will also be there to trade their bartered furs from the northern native settlements. We will be gone for many months before we return to Montreal.
Most of my fellow voyageurs are either young single men from France or were born in New France. Being a voyageur is an honourable job for me and the other men of my brigade. We are from families of craftsmen, military background, and farmers. The coureurs de bois, on the other hand, are mostly young jobless men who were either soldiers or hired men. One thing is for sure: we enjoy the adventure and love the money we can make off this new frontier. It is not an easy life, but it is the life for me.
I am twenty-four years old. The other voyageurs in my crew are about the same age. One of the paddlers, Michel, is thirty-seven. He has been a voyageur for most of his life. Because he is the most experienced, he is the one who explains things to the newest voyageurs. I learned most of my survival skills from Michel. He learned most of his skills from the natives. Michel often reminds everyone that very soon he will be leaving the rivers and trading to start a small farm with his wife Claudette and their six children. Our employers have sold him a small piece of land near Georgian Bay in return for his many years of dedication. Although he never says it, I can tell that he is finding it difficult to keep up with us on these hard journeys. When he does leave, we will miss his attitude about river life, his songs, and his famously grand stories. All voyageurs brag about how strong they are, but the hard work takes its toll on our bodies. We retire young from the rivers.
Our days are long. Most days, we work for 18 hours! That is a lot of paddling and portaging. Every hour, we are allowed ten minutes to rest. Even the strongest men's arms get very tired after the hard work of paddling. Sometimes while we are paddling, the crew will sing songs of our adventures, to help the day speed by faster.