Exploring Canada’s wilderness by canoe this past summer was absolutely amazing. For over 2 1/2 months (2000 kilometres) we paddled through western Canada enjoying life in the great outdoors. We followed in the path of the original Canadian Voyageurs (hence the name); paddling the routes they travelled hundreds of years ago on their fur trade expeditions. When one of our followers on social media asked us if we were going to stop to visit the historical sites that dotted our route we embraced the idea and decided to take the time and explore these sites. After all, ours was a journey of exploration and discovery – learning more about the past and how the First Nations people lived would be interesting.
When the Europeans settled in this newly discovered country, they marvelled at how Canada’s Native population survived in this vast wilderness – they were impressed by tribes that banded together with men who were not only fierce warriors, but also great hunters and skilled fishermen. European companies recognized the ability of the First Nations hunters and trappers to harvest the abundant wildlife, they formed alliances and the Canadian fur trade commerce was born. The Hudson’s Bay Company was a leader in the lucrative fur trade industry – it erected trading forts along Hudson’s Bay and at many river crossings to facilitate the exchange of goods. We stopped at some of these forts on our 2015 Canadian Voyageurs expedition.
One of the things I love the most about exploring historic sites is that real sense of history that you get – it’s like stepping back in time and getting a taste of what it was like to live hundreds of years ago. Of course I had learned about the Native culture and Canada’s past in history class, but I took away so much more from being there, right in the exact location where history was created centuries ago. I was immersed in history, I was a part of it. Standing inside the fort, surrounded by 10 foot fences took me back in time and for a brief moment I felt like I was living there and it was not 2015 but 1885.
While visiting Fort Carlton we really were able to see and feel what daily life was like at the fort. We sampled freshly made bannock with local Saskatoon berry jam and sipped on delicious Saskatoon berry tea. There were teepees (tipis – both spellings are accepted) with Native artifacts on display. There was a garden with vegetables that grew fresh today the same heirloom varieties from the past; the seeds having been harvested and passed down from generation to generation. Amongst the several buildings we toured were the living quarters, the trading post where one could get supplies, the cabin where the pelts were hung and stored until traded for export and the small chapel.
Most of the sites we visited offered free admission with placards detailing the history of that location without any staff present. Guests are free to roam around and examine the various exhibits and find out about history at a their own pace. Some of these sites had free camping on adjacent public lands. I found these sites to have a more natural feeling – I felt more connected to the past when it was presented it to me in its more authentic form. I could read the signs and look at the old photos without any modern distractions – it was just us and the past getting acquainted.
There are entry fees at Fort Carlton (which is the best preserved example of life at a fur trading fort that we visited) and Fort George Buckingham in Elk Point (which is more of an interpretive museum). These forts are staffed with guides that offer visitors a great deal of information and the opportunity to ask questions. I really enjoyed being able to discover Canada’s remarkable history with both of these options being available to me – it made for two different learning experiences.
Life was so different back then. The homes were simple and uncluttered – yet, warm and cozy. People were so much more self sufficient: they built they own homes, harvested their own food, made their own clothes and even made their own transportation. Some say life was harder back then, my take on that is people just faced different kinds of challenges. Today’s modern conveniences and technology save us from some of the harsh physical labor of many daily chores, making life “easier” but these gadgets are complicated, not always reliable and come at all kinds of costs, not just monetary. Building your own canoe is harder than buying one and growing your own food is harder than buying it – but then you need to earn money – convenience always comes at a price. There definitely is something to be said about being self sufficient – about being able to feed yourself, make and repair your own tools, clothing and shelter – there is a simpleness to this lifestyle that is very inviting to me.
I had always admired Canada’s First Nations culture – I love their “one with the land” philosophy. First Nations have a great respect for the land, they did not try to tame nature but instead learned from it and embrace it. They hunted, trapped and fished for their own food – providing for their tribes great bounties. They foraged for berries and herbs to supplement their diet and to make medicines. They passed on their knowledge from one generation to the next.
After paddling a canoe out in Canada’s wilderness for over 2 1/2 months, I gained a new first hand appreciation for what the Fur Traders went through. We were equipped with the latest high tech gear which made our voyage that much easier. We had a 50 pound bullet proof canoe, highly detailed maps, electronic GPS navigation, to the minute weather forecasts, high performance wear, an extensive first aid kit and all the latest camping gadgets including a stove that produced electricity for charging our modern devices by burning sticks. Their canoe alone weighed more than the total of just our gear….
We got a taste of what it was like to be a Voyageur on a fur trading expedition, but only a taste. Living in a tent, camping on the water’s edge and being exposed to the elements for months was tough sometimes – it really takes a toll on your energy level – and we were lucky, we had mostly awesome weather.
It didn’t take me long to get a sense of what the fur trader’s went through – the respect I had for the First Nations people became so much greater when I experienced a little bit of what their journey entailed.
Even with all our wilderness experience and high tech gear we encountered some pretty hard times. The wind kept us stuck on shore for days (we even had a tornado warning one day), it snowed (sideways), we spent some pretty cold nights in the tent, we became dehydrated from exposure to the elements, we had medical emergencies, we were robbed and all our maps were stolen…. We had all kinds of trials. So, whenever things became difficult or whenever I got tired, I always thought of our predecessors. I thought of what they must have gone through… with their huge hand made birch bark canoes with their thousands of pounds of payload (compared to our 500 lb haul) – they paddled hard every day from morning until night. They often paddled UP river – they portaged all their gear, furs and boats – sometimes over miles and miles of harsh terrain. They carried only with them the necessities, if something failed they fixed it.
When I set off on this voyage, I thought we had a huge advantage over our predecessors and that we would have much less difficulty than the First Nations Fur Traders had. After setting off though, I soon realized that it was not technology that would get us through this arduous task. Technology did help – it was good to know that tomorrow it would rain – but knowing what to do and where to go to find shelter from the rain was more beneficial. Out of all the fancy gadgets we brought with us – the best tool we had and the tool we most often used was knowledge. Knowing how to make shelters, knowing how to read the weather (because forecasts were not always accurate and signals were not always available), knowing how to read the river (because maps were not always either available (stolen) or detailed accurately), knowing how to keep warm and knowing how to adapt – that’s what matters.
Undertaking a lengthy expedition in Canada’ wilderness was a very rewarding experience. Not only did we learn about the past and the struggles the First Nations people faced but we learned so much about ourselves. This experience enriched us greatly. On this voyage, we became stronger – not only physically. When we left Rocky Mountain House in late April, we had all kind of concerns – what if we capsized and lost all our gear, what if someone got hurt, what if we fail…. all those what if’s that stop so many people from even trying…. Conquering this fear of the unknown gave us strength. With each kilometre paddled, we gained courage. Day by day, we proved to ourselves that we could do it and day by day we gained confidence.
Exploring Canada by canoe and learning about its history was such a wonderful adventure – I learned so much more about the Canadian Voyageurs – both of them – the fur traders and us; learning about them, taught me so much about myself.
Life will always have challenges – I learned that facing them and tackling them head on makes me become braver, stronger and more confident. The more confident I become, the more relaxed I am and the more I can enjoy life. I was so happy to be a part of this fantastic journey.
I certainly have a new found respect for the fur traders. Their courage, determination, strength and perseverance is truly admirable. By immersing myself in their story and retracing their route, I was able to get a real taste of what is was like to be a First Nations Fur Trader.
We put together a little photo montage of some of the sites we visited – but do yourself a favour – go – get outside and experience Canada’s amazing history for yourself:
Please share your comments – either about this story or your own adventure of discovery….
We encourage everyone to live life to the fullest! Life is short – get out there and experience it. Fulfill your dreams – it’s worth the effort – the rewards are unimaginable!
Over 10 weeks ago, Gerry, my husband, Pompom and I left Rocky Mountain House Alberta to cross Canada by canoe. This has been one of the most amazing experiences of our lives. Being immersed in wilderness, testing our courage and learning more about ourselves has made for a remarkable journey.
We have visited countless historical sites and have documented them all – taking photos and shooting film for our documentary which we will put together at the end of our time out there. We have learned so much more of Canada’s rich history and let me tell you this, we have gained great respect for our predecessors – the real Voyageurs. They had such courage and perseverance – they faced adversity and hardship on a daily basis – yet they carried on. This is not an expedition for the weak minded or for people who give up easily. Something we learned first hand. On a trip like this anything can happen and lots did.
You might be wondering how I am updating my blog if I am supposed to be in the middle of the wilderness…. Well, it’s kind of a long story – here’s what happened.
I need to backtrack a bit and give you a bit of our history. Gerry and I live off grid in Northern Ontario – we decided to take this trip about 2 years ago when we flew over Canada. We researched whether of not it was feasible to take on such a long journey. Was this something we could do? And most importantly how do we pull this off? After 1 1/2 years of saving, shopping for gear, planning routes, buying maps, preparing dehydrated food and looking at other’s journeys who came before us we felt more than prepared to undertake this phenomenal expedition. We tried to plan for every situation that could arise. Having spent most of our lives exploring wilderness areas, we felt confident that we could handle anything that was thrown at us. And for the most part – we did.
We left Rocky Mountain House on May 4th – the weather was still very cold. We found snow banks still 3 feet high in some areas on shore. We faced freezing weather and snow blowing sideways – our solution was to build shelters with tarps – build fire pits with stones and hunker down to weather the storms. We made ourselves very comfortable. When headwinds were too strong, we headed for shore and made camp – we cooked great meals (brought lots of great dehydrated food that we prepared ourselves) and we kept warm – we saved our strength for days when paddling actually made us move forward. We did a lot of filming and I wrote in my journal. We were never bored, impatient or down – we always had fun. Although it was difficult to set up and take down camp on a daily basis and it takes a lot out of you – we never felt like it was a chore – it was always just another enjoyable thing that needed to get done. Another part of the journey to experience and learn from.
As mentioned we saved for over 1 1/2 years for this journey, Gerry and I financed this trip ourselves – we don’t have any sponsors that helped monetarily. We had tried to budget for the unforeseen, to buy fresh food at towns on the way, for medical emergencies and even had room in the budget for several night at hotels when we needed a break from the river and enjoy the modern conveniences of life. Some things we had not foreseen though…
We had not even left yet when the first medical emergency happened. I was eating jujubes at my son’s (whom we stayed with for a month prior to departure as he is already out west – we drove up from Northern Ontario in April). When I was chewing on the ju-jube – I felt something crunchy – my filling had come out of my tooth. An emergency visit to a small town dentist (not my own – who would have charged me half the price probably) cost me – $475. No worries though I felt it was better to happen a week prior to departure than a week after – so we took it in stride. Life is full of unexpected little surprises.
It was smooth sailing or canoeing as it be, after that – for awhile.
Our next “bad luck” was pretty bad. At one of the forts – Victoria Settlement – we were robbed. Yes robbed. The fort was only open 4 days a week – (Thurs to Sun) due to budget cutbacks from the Alberta govt. We arrived there on a Sunday afternoon with just enough time to tour and document the site. The fort is accessible by river – with a canoe launch and campsite at the bottom of the dirt road that leads up to the fort – about a 1/2 km away. The fort itself is about 16 ams from the nearest town, Smoky Lake and so come Monday morning we found ourselves alone with not a soul in site. Or so we thought. Since this was such a nice flat site with a picnic table (a luxury item and welcome change from cooking and eating on the ground) we had decided to spend an extra day at this site to catch up on some writing, do some laundry and rest a bit. We rarely took a day off – in fact we took 3 total in our 10 weeks out on the water.
That afternoon Pompom, our navigator and low tech alarm, kept growling at something in the bushes. Pompom is an excellent watch dog, even if he is a Pomeranian. He is very protective of us, our belongings and our campsite. If someone barges in unannounced he greets them with a bombardment of barking. We would listen and look at the area he was growling at, listening for cracking branches, looking for rustling in the bushes – we heard nothing and saw nothing. Thinking there might have been a bear or coyote or something else lurking, we readied our gun and stayed vigilant. That evening everything seemed back to normal. Pompom was no longer concerned, nor were we. That night when we turned in, I took out my journal as I did on many nights and wrote in it for awhile. I usually put the journal back in the dry bag, I was so tired and there were many mosquitoes so that night I just left it in the tent with us, deciding to just pack it up the next morning. At some point during the night, Pompom woke us with a little growl – just one little growl. We listened and asked Pompom what was up. Pompom was already back asleep, so we did the same.
The following morning when I went to put my journal away, the dry bag was not where I had left it. It was gone. We looked for it and could not find it. We always had the practice of putting all our gear either in our tent – the most delicate things especially – like the camera gear and electronics bag. The rest of the packsacks and dry bags were tucked away safely out of the elements and away from the critters in either of the front or back vestibules of our 4 person 4 season tent – (it’s a 10 x 10 tent – nice and roomy with lots of storage for all our gear). Where my bag had been, the flap of the vestibule had been lifted and we saw fresh footprints in the sand – with threads that looked nothing like our sandals which we’d been wearing. We following the few prints but they led into the grass and we lost them almost immediately. We walked up the road to the fort to see if anyone was around – we saw no one nor any signs of anyone being there.
In that dry bag was $475 cash, all our maps, our trip pod, my toiletries, trail mix, toilet paper, the watch that my late mother had given me that was engraved “To Celine, Love Always – Mom). In all we lost over $1200 of gear and money that night – to replace all this stuff was going to be difficult – we had not planned – AT ALL – on losing so much stuff. I was furious and devastated. How would we replace our much needed maps. Although we had a gps – with our route on it, and electronic copies of maps on our computer – we needed paper maps – we could not rely on technology especially if we had any issues with charging – which in rainy weather we did. We charged our equipment with a solar panel, motorcycle battery, an inverter and batteries. At the fort,we had no cell service – calling the Police was not option. I had little faith that contacting them would help us get our things back though – to be honest. I left a note – tacked to the table and explained that we really needed those maps – I left my email as contact and explained that authorities had not been called in and no questions would be asked – all we wanted and needed were our maps…
For the next two days, we were pretty down. We spent our days paddling hard – using our frustrations to propel us forward – using our anger as fuel. We had limited cell service and I posted the bad news to Social Media. The support was overwhelming. People were as appalled as we where. Our Twitter feed lit up with people wanting to help. Some people even offered money to help us – $20 here – $50 there – all from people we had never met in real life. Many from the United States even. Even Sealline offered to send us a new dry bag as it was the brand of all our dry bags. It was very heartwarming to see people rally behind us. The love we felt squashed the anger and we decided that we would continue, we would find a way. Now the budget was starting to hurt. Especially because we also had to deal with gear failure. Many of the things we had just purchased, gear that was “built for a lifetime of adventure” was failing after only 6 weeks on the water. Replacing the stolen items and failing gear was no easy task when canoeing on the North Saskatchewan River – there aren’t too many stores on the river banks – in fact there are none.
The universe was on our side though. The next place we camped at had outhouses stocked with toilet paper! Woohoo! I can’t tell you how much that toilet paper meant to me! We were only about a day’s paddle to the next bridge where one of us would walk to the next town for supplies. When we got to the bridge we saw a local woman cleaning garbage, we asked her where the nearest town was and explained who we were, what we were doing and what had happened. Immediately she offered help. Her name was Annette, of Brazeau Country – the closest town where they had a store was Two Hills – some 7 kms away. She offered us a ride to town and much to our delight a hot shower and breakfast! I was a bit shy about accepting help from a stranger and even a little uncomfortable about accepting her hospitality – this was all new to me. But let me tell you this, Annette quickly made all those feelings disappear. She was gracious and generous and explained she was a river person and she knew how good a hot shower felt after being on the water for as long as we had. It was the thought of the hot shower than quelled my inhibitions and after wolfing down her french toast and hot tea, I felt like I had known her all my life. She admitted to us that she hated driving and hated going to town – so she offered Gerry use of her vehicle. I stayed with her for two reasons, even though she said I could go also, she’d watch Pompom. The first reason is I thought it would make her less nervous if I stayed behind (as collateral – haha0 and secondly I did not want Pompom to feel abandoned. We chatted about nature, pollution, the eduction system, how the world was going crazy and the corruption that existed in society. This was a conversation that repeated itself with many people, from all walks of life all along our journey. People are fed up with the status quo. People were really happy and proud of us for doing what we were doing. People were envious of us for having the courage and the determination to try and inspire people to get outside, connect with nature and LIVE their dreams. The way we see it – we are all stewards of the land – if you don’t like things the way they are – do what you can to change it – BE the change you want to see in the world….
This is a turning into a pretty long post, so I will wrap it up for today. This was just the beginning of our trials – only the first person who took us in their home. In the next blog posts I will share with you more of our amazing journey. Some say that this documentary is taking a mind of it’s own – it’s turning into a suspense/drama blockbuster!
I do need to add this now though – this was only the beginning of our trials and not the reason I sit in front of my computer today at our son’s house – we were evacuated a few days ago because it was unsafe to stay on the river – forest fires surrounded us. After spending almost two weeks in the thick smoke, 5 of those days waiting to be picked up, we made it out safe and sound. That was an adventure (hahaha) in itself – a future post will describe what we went through and show you how bad it got. We are regrouping, building funds and planning our next step. This is Chapter Two – Chapter Three is about to begin….
Gerry, Pompom and I – we adapt – we live – we learn – we go with the flow….
We have already started to load some short clips to our Youtube channel; feel free to have a peek! Subscribe to the channel to receive notifications when we upload more! Click on the link below – it’ll take you there in a new tab:
Thank you for following our adventure! Remember – life is about living. Stop dreaming and start doing! Have a safe and wonderful summer!