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Published: July 24th 2018
Rainy Lake Visitor Center, Voyageurs National Park, International Falls, Minnesota
Ranger-led programs are some of the most important things to participate in when you go to a National Park. They operate on a schedule and, sometimes their schedule doesn’t dovetail with yours, but whenever possible, take advantage of their programs. Even in this day and age, Rangers maintain an infectious level of enthusiasm which helps animate their message. Plus they simply know so much, because they have the opportunity to read and study a particular park full time - something us casual visitors can only hope for on a four or five day visit.
In some places, it can become your only way to see the park, as at Voyageurs. If you don’t have a boat of your own, and maybe aren’t interested in renting one at inflated rates, using the Park Service boats becomes your only option. Aside from touring the visitor centers at this park, all of our explorations have been on Ranger led programs. We took the Grand Tour Cruise, on a fairly large boat with 50 other people on Sunday, Today we are taking the Kettle Falls Tour out of Ketogama - this one is
supposed to be good enough that we changed our schedule to accommodate it. Monday we were supposed to take a canoe ride with a ranger out of Ash River to explore the park’s wildlife, but, because of high winds, we got a nice hike through the forest instead.
Yesterday was something entirely different - the North Woods Canoe Trip. This program, restricted to just a dozen or so people, took place at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center, and like the hike, was free of charge to the first dozen people that signed up.
As we filtered in to the VC and announced our arrivals, we were given laminated cards describing who we are. We each had a French, male, name with a short biography of who we were and why we wanted to become a Voyageur. The program was constructed as if we were taking a Voyageurs recruiting and training class, and it was a terrific experience.
Shortly after ten, Adam, a park ranger we had met on a previous tour, emerged from a back room fully attired as a Voyageur, from the deerskin moccasins, to the toque , that colorful hat they wore that also doubled
as a bowl for their gruel. Greeting us in enthusiastic French, he went on to explain all the elements of his costume, including his flechee (basically a weightlifters belt to hold the gut in and prevent hernias - the second most frequent cause of death - from lifting 90 pound packs), to guetres (worn on the legs to prevent leeches from crawling further up into more sensitive areas).
He repeatedly stressed the demanding nature of the work and that a normal day would consist of 16 hours or more of rowing. And he talked about the food that we would eat while on our trips - a rather disgusting batch of dried meat with maybe some fresh wild rice if we were extremely lucky.
After maybe twenty minutes inside, he took us outside to begin our training in how to row the canoe. Outside, we were given a couple articles of clothing to put on, so we would look more the part. We also engaged in an exercise that showed why they set up the rendezvous at Grand Portage. Then, donning life jackets (the only real ‘unnatural’ part of the experience, Adam, with his assistant Pierre, helped us
load up the canoe and gave us a paddle. (I was worried that my size was going to present a problem, but other than an aside from Adam that Voyageurs weren’t usually as big as myself, they handled my bulk quite well and without any undue embarrassment!)
And then, they untied the canoe and we were off. Paddling was definitely an experience and, although we were told to emulate the person in front of us, there was much clacking of oars as each of us rowed to a different drummer. Adam and Pierre used that as a teaching experience, though, and taught us the reason the Voyageurs were such accomplished singers: the songs established the paddling cadence. They also helped pass the monotony of sixteen hour days doing nothing but paddling. We practiced by singing the French camp song, Alouette. Unfortunately our singing only improved the rowing a small amount.
Eventually we did manage to get the paddles all moving in the same direction, at the same time, and the canoe did speed along. After navigating across the bay, Adam and Pierre steered us into a bog of cattails and asked us if we had brought our ‘peeps’.
At first, none of us knew what they were talking about. But after they brought out some clay versions of smoking pipes, we understood. They also passed around a sample of dried, unprocessed tobacco which is what the Voyageurs would smoke on their valued pipe breaks. (One presumes, there, partially hidden in the cattails, that is also where they took care of certain bodily functions.)
On the return trip, they had one final lesson for us - the Voyageurs Salute. It took a couple of takes to master it, but you start with your paddle on the gunwhale of the canoe and you tap the canoe three times, counting to three in French. Then, saying ‘catorce’ (four?), you thrust the paddle vertically into the air above you. We practiced a couple of times and then got to actually salute a speeding motorboat passing by that risked swamping our boat. In this case, I think the rangers were signaling something a little different by thrusting the paddle vertically into the air.
We actually managed to make it back to the dock, and unloaded the boat in exactly the reverse order we loaded it, so I was last. We then put away our equipment and ambled back up to the visitors center. There we were presented with our ‘contracts’ which we were to X and which committed us to a full year of service to the Hudson Bay Company, paddling a north country canoe for sixteen hour days for a shilling or two. The rangers reminded us that there is no evidence that any Voyageur could read or write, so the contracts could easily have said just about anything.
It was a fun, and informative, couple of hours. Once again, the Rangers deserve credit for putting together an outstanding experience for park visitors. When at Voyageurs, sign up for the North Country Canoe program!
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