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History of Saskatchewan Waterways

Introduction | Presenting New Opportunities | Economic, Political, and Social Effects | Different Strokes for Different Folks | Types of Watercraft | Saskatchewan Waterways | Life on the River | Conclusion | Saskatchewan River History


Contrary to common present expectations, land-locked Saskatchewan with its North and South Saskatchewan Rivers was once the super-highway of canoe transportation during the time of the fur trade. That's right! The fur trade! It was furs which brought exploration and commerce to Saskatchewan; furs and not farming. During the time of the fur trade (~1650's to 1850) water transportation was the primary form of travel and communication, and it was the canoe which provided the interface for blending the "old" and the "new" world; the established colonial settlement with the unknown wilderness. How did this happen and what role did Saskatchewan waterways have in western Canadian development?

Any history is filled with strokes of genius, remarkable achievements, feats of courage, persistence and heroism; but as expected history is also full of surprise, risk, buffoonery and blunder. Canoeing history of Saskatchewan has not been short-changed in any of these respects.

Obviously, the lay of the land - or in more scientific terms, the geographical features of this central region of the continent - played a crucial role in how exploration and transportation of goods took place. Although numerous native groups had hunted, trapped and travelled the continental waterways for thousands of years, it was the coming of foreigners initially by means of canoes which began a process which eventually altered life for everyone in the region.

The geography of the prairie provinces, more commonly known as the "Northwest Territory" during the days of fur trade, has three principle water basins:

  1. the Red River, draining the south and eastern portion;
  2. the Athabasca Basin which drains the most northerly and western area; and
  3. the Saskatchewan Rivers which drains water east of the Rockies all the way to Lake Winnipeg and finally to Hudson's Bay.
Small wonder then that the long and easily navigable Saskatchewan Rivers which run through the middle of this vast region would become the super- highway of the fur trade.

Before we become lost in this continental ocean, let's take a look at the watercraft which played such a central role in development of the West.

Origins of the Canoe

It is commonly accepted that the canoe as we know it is an adaptation of earlier Native models. As you may have guessed, there is no single origin or model of the canoe! The canoe with its various shapes and forms and sizes was a common watercraft of numerous aboriginal groups on the North American continent and its design characteristics depended in part on the area of intended use. Some canoes had a high bow and stern, others had bows and decks partially or completely covered as in a kayak. East coast canoes or those used on the Great Lakes were large and sturdily crafted canoes; others used in the interior and on the prairie were small and essentially single person or even single crossing crafts.

The early model canoes were made of readily available local materials: a light wooden frame or skeleton (often cedar) with a birch bark exterior or skin. The canoe was designed to travel the diverse waterways of the continent- from large lakes to fast and/or shallow, marshy rivers including the possibility of frequent portages. By necessity, therefore, the canoes had to be light-weight, yet rugged enough to withstand the often dangerous sections of interior waterways.

From the early birch-bark models - which some described like travelling on a dried leaf - to the more sophisticated and high-tech Kevlar, Royalex or still lighter graphite models, the experience of canoeing for the most part is still largely the same; and yet at the same time so very different.

As might be expected, there was reluctance on the part of the early North American settlers - both English and French - to accept the lifestyle and living methods of the aboriginal dwellers. After all, many of the Europeans immigrants shared the notion that part of their mission in this new country was to convert the pagan people; and could the way of "primitive savages" be superior to their own methods and culture?! Over time, and after repeated failure and frustration with their own methods, some of the settlers were willing to consider some of the aboriginal ways; including their methods of water travel. Granted, this light and fragile craft did not strike them as safe or particularly welcoming craft to the wary Europeans. However, after years of observation and demonstrated use by some of their own people, gradually some suspicion and misgiving gave way.

The Canoe: Presenting New Opportunities

Two French colonists, Pierre Radisson and Medard Chouart, Sieur Des Groseilliers (full names), abandoning the security and familiarity of their own community were among the first white men (aside from missionaries) to live among the Native people. Over a period of time they too learned the native languages and skills necessary for wilderness survival. They came to realise, that survival in the wilderness required acute perception and flexibility to harmonise intended actions with the rhythms of nature.

Through use of their newly acquired survival skills Radisson and Groseilliers were able to pursue their own interests of exploration and fur trade. Using Indians as their guides Radisson and Groseilliers pushed back the frontier and established trading relations with other Indian groups. From their life among the Huron and Algonquin Indian of the Ottawa River valley they travelled as far as the upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and later the northerly flowing waterways to Hudson's Bay.

As a result of their travels, Radisson and Groseilliers gained a whole new understanding of the continent and it's seemingly unlimited potential. No longer was the unknown a forbidden barrier but rather an opportunity to be explored and developed for their own profit.

Aside from the extensive skills, travels and profits from fur trading , the most notable accomplishment of Radisson and Groseilliers may, in fact, be the confident, out-going and indomitable spirit which permeated their wilderness lifestyle. The challenge of wilderness life seemed to inspire a whole new outlook which provided motivation for the innumerable difficulties that confronted the settlers and even more so the wilderness travellers. Having learned the flexibility and the survival skills of the Natives, no longer did they feel compelled to apply familiar, Old World solutions in this strange, inhospitable environment. Rather than being overwhelmed by the severe conditions on this continent, they accepted life as it was in this unfamiliar country and the challenge of over-coming the adverse conditions seemed to inspire new bravado.

To the astonishment of French colonial elite increasing numbers of young men offered their services as paddlers for these restless river men. Among the colonists these free-wheeling explorers came to be known as "coureur de bois": "a brand of men who were familiar with, spoke the Indian languages and could handle and live upon the country." As knowledge of their achievements and successes spread among the habitants, so did the charm and mystique of their seemingly carefree wilderness existence.

Pushing Back the Frontier

Following Radisson and Groseilliers success, other French explorers took on the challenge of wilderness exploration: explorers like Louis Joliet (1669), La Salle (1690), and Du Hut (1684) pushed ever further inland to the far western reaches of the Great Lakes. The appeal of possible fur profits and of probing the unknown regions of the continent proved too appealing to restrain them.

By 1717, French explorer, Pierre Gualtier de Varennes de LaVerandrye, enticed by Indian reports of a large body of water to the west, reached Lake Winnipeg. By so doing he had moved from the St Lawrence water basin to the Hudson Bay water basin via an inland water route establishing a string of posts both for security as well as trading purposes. It was this route which for the next century-and-a-half would become the main link between Montreal and "the Northwest Territory" (as the region West of the Great Lakes was known during the days of the fur trade). The East-West link established by the explorers and traders tied the central part of the continent to its eastern St Lawrence base, eventually becoming the country of Canada.

Although LaVerandrye reached the Lake Winnipeg water basin, it was his sons who, in 1748, came upon the Saskatchewan River and established Fort Bourbon and Fort Pascoyac, near present day The Pas.

The Canoe: Economic, Political, and Social Effects

It is scarcely possible to examine the early history of this country - and particularly the history of the fur trade - without recognising the significant role that the canoe played in its exploration and development. The heading title for this section appears to attribute the canoe with having caused great sweeping changes, when in reality the canoe only provided the means by which contact between foreigners and Natives was accelerated. Nonetheless, the canoe did bring changes which affected virtually everything on the continent but particularly the life of the aboriginal people.

It should be remembered that the aboriginal inhabitants of this continent had used the canoe for travel and trade long before foreign settlers arrived. During the early part of the fur trade from Hudson's Bay - from about the 1650's and for the next 120 years - the British traders relied on Native traders bringing their furs to the posts at the Bay; i.e.. relying on Native traders and paddlers who were familiar with the interior waterways and with inland navigation techniques. For the British Company men this method simplified trade immensely.

Although the French explorers were able to divert some of the furs bound for the Bay from their forts near the mouth of the Saskatchewan River, other independent traders (French but also British and American, - since after 1763 the British controlled the colony of New France) recognised the potential for profits in this vast unharvested region of the north-west and quickly moved in to stake their claim.

While furs were the economic motivation for this intrusion, the waterways became the economic and political battlefield for control. Forts were established and goods brought in by canoes to entice trade.

The intrusion of fur traders into the former domain of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) forced the Company men to change their "wait-at-the-Bay" approach. They too, needed to move inland, establish trading posts and renew trading relations with their former Native fur suppliers. While this simplified trade for the Native groups, it also intensified the competition and brought a flurry of activity into the interior which eventually brought trading posts along almost every waterway in the Northwest.

As the number of traders increased and competition for furs intensified, it became increasingly difficult to compete with other independent traders as well as their main rival at the Bay. By the 1770's alliances were formed between groups of traders in order to pool their resources and co-operate in bringing the supplies the long distance from Montreal to the ever more distant forts along the Northwest river system. Canoe brigades - from 5 to 20 canoes - were organised to travel together the vast distances, both for security as well as increasing the capacity for goods, supplies and provisions en route.

Gateway to the Interior

The Northwest Territories and particularly the "Saskatchewan" portion, with its array of inter-linked rivers and lakes, combined with its cold climate and plentiful woodlands became the focus of economic activity and trade. It did not take long for traders to recognise that good furs from the northern woodlands of Saskatchewan were of equal quality and value as those from the more northerly Athabasca region.

The Saskatchewan River with its ease of access and navigation from Lake Winnipeg became the primary gateway to the rich fur-bearing regions beyond. In addition, the Saskatchewan River provided access to other important navigable rivers in northern Saskatchewan; i.e., the Churchill River system as well as the Clearwater River which provided access to the Lake Athabasca basin.

Within the span of a little more than a decade numerous forts had been established on the principle trade routes and traders were travelling on virtually all of Saskatchewan's rivers.

The Role of the Indians

As one might well imagine, the arrival of foreign traders seeking furs brought about a gradual shift in economic focus and with it a changing way of life. Furs could now be traded for manufactured commodities: items such as pots and pans, guns and ammunition, or luxury goods like tobacco, rum, brandy and beads.

As exploration and trading entered their territory, some Indian people found service as advisors and guides for the strangers. Foreign explorers and traders seemed to have an insatiable desire to know about water routes, possible areas of wild game and furs, and some distant body of salt water with tides. Natives with their knowledge of the land and its waterways became invaluable guides for the ever inquisitive foreigners. Not only did Natives have a knowledge of the local language but they also had the necessary canoeing and survival skills so essential for wilderness exploration.

In most historical literature, traders and explorers are honoured as independent and individual heroes whereas in reality much of their success was due to the co-operation and assistance of Native people - especially the often overlooked role of Native women. While close relations with indigenous people were discouraged and forbidden by European society and explicitly so by HBC policy, it was fairly common practice for men to take "temporary wives" from among the Native people with whom they interacted daily.

"It was customary for all Gentlemen who come to this country to remain any length of time to have a fair Partner with whom they can pass away their time . . .more agreeable then to live a lonely, solitary life as they must do single."

In fact, men as young as age 14, like David Thompson, who were being groomed for service in the interior were often placed among Indian settlements for several years in order to learn their language and ways of life. Small wonder then that European rules and values seemed to have ever diminishing relevance for the men in the Northwest. David Thompson wrote that he considered the Indian to be fully equal to those of this class in Europe. Alexander Mackenzie noted that he thought Cree women were most comely and beguiling of all people on the continent, which he was convinced European people would recognise as well:

"Their figure is generally well proportioned and the regularity of their features would be acknowledged by more civilised people of European . Their complexion has less of that dark tinge which is common to their savages who have less cleanly habits."

Despite taboos against inter-racial relationships with the aboriginal people, pressures of long days and social isolation had a predictable effect on the all-male crews of the traders and explorers. Around company posts English, Scottish and Irish men with Indian wives, mostly Crees fathered a new people, the 'Metis'. Along inland water routes French-Cree, Ojibway and Saulteaux Metis dominated. Most of the children from these relationships were brought up in the fur trade.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Looking back at history we can see how the British and French traders took different approaches to opening up the west and supplying their inland forts. While the HBC had been reaping easy profits with the trade of furs at the Bay, the French had been exploring and setting up a series of forts on inland waterways in order to expand their fur trading area. Although it was a long-stretched supply route, the pay-off and potential reward were sufficient to compete with the British at the Bay and this motivated other traders to try to cash in on the fur trade profits.

Although British explorers like Henry Kelsey (1690) and Samuel Hearne (1769) had travelled inland to reconnoitre the country, there was now new urgency to establish inland posts to compete with the independent traders like Peter Pond and Alexander Mackenzie and others. In 1774 Samuel Hearne, in consultation with local Native people established the Hudson's Bay first inland post at Cumberland House. This was a fortuitous choice since from this location canoes could branch off to link up with the Churchill River system.

Rather than discouraging the independent and Montreal traders, the British attempt to recoup their fur trade losses only increased the resolve of the competition, forcing the French traders further inland and up-stream. As a result, a whole series of competing forts were built along the inland rivers hoping to lure Native traders to trade their furs with them; each trader trying to ensure their domain - until, that is, the numbers of furs began to deplete due to over-hunting.

Boats vs. Canoes

As the realisation of what the French had accomplished with their extended system of forts - all the way into the heart of their fur trading area in the Northwest Territories - the HBC men looked with envy at the dedication and skills of the Voyageurs. In order to compete they too would now have to set up forts in the interior: bringing trading goods to inland forts for trade with the Indians. But this required a reliable means of inland water transportation to bring the goods and personnel inland and return with the furs to the ocean ports for export.

The British boats proved a difficult and cumbersome craft for the varied waterways of the interior. They enviously watched the agility and success of the Voyageurs with their canoes so an attempt was made to get local Cree Indians around the posts to build canoes for them but with little success. There were several reasons for this: there was little co-operation, because the Native people realised that if the British had means to travel inland, then their role as middlemen near the British posts would become redundant; moreover, the supply of suitable raw materials for canoe building were not readily available among the scrub brush and barren lands around the Bay. As well, the less seasoned and trained Orkneymen did not adapt well to this more fragile craft and they refused to risk their lives on the rapids as the Voyageurs did.

Since the canoe was seen as too fragile a craft for the northern rivers, the British resolutely stuck to their heavier boats on the main routes, even though trader Henry Anthony conceded:

"Their Birch-rind canoes will carry as much as an Indian ship's long boat and draws little water; and is so light that two men can carry one several miles with ease; they are made of the same light material as the small ones; only a thin board runs along the bottom; and they can sail them before the wind, but not else."
Finally canoe use on trunk lines was abandoned by HBC man, George Simpson in favour of their modified boat with a flatter bottom which would be less likely to hang up in the marshes and slow water sections. These boats also did not require the highly skilled dexterity that the more fragile canoe required.

"Voyageur", "Coureur de bois" or Orkneymen?

Before beginning an explanation of "Coureur de bois" and "Voyageurs" it might be helpful to clarify the labels. Although the terms "Voyageur" and "Coureur de bois" are used synonymously by some people, in actuality the terms refer to two different periods in history. Up until 1763 the French explorers and their paddlers were known as "Coureur de bois". These generally were independently financed explorers and traders. "Voyageurs", on the other hand, refers to "hired paddlers" for the fur trade which occurred mostly after 1763.

Voyageurs: Paddlers for the Montreal-based Traders

In order to endure the long journeys and survive some of the dangerous conditions of the waterways, the canoes had to be handled by skilful and experienced rivermen: Indian paddlers & guides as well as brave and hardy "Voyageurs" Life in the wilderness seemed to evoke a spirit of challenge, adventure and independence which became the mark of the Canadian Voyageur - an indomitable spirit. Without question these had to be people who were willing to leave the security of their familiar environment and subject themselves to the uncertainty, risk and adverse conditions of life in the wilderness. Not only did Voyageurs need to accept the unpleasantness of life but, needless to say, they also had to be in superb physical condition to endure the rigorous demands and long gruelling hours that were part of their life:
  • paddle up to 18 hours per day,
  • sleep on the ground virtually unprotected from the elements and the bugs,
  • be able to portage with two or three 90 pound packs, often over steep hills or through marshy bogs.
Squalls, toil, hazard and hardship, these were part of the Voyageur's daily life.

In spite of the gruelling expectations, many men opted for the challenge of life with the brigades in the wilderness. Without their zeal, dedication and perseverance the Montreal based traders could not have competed with the British traders at the Hudson's Bay. The super-human achievements and success of the Voyageurs won the praise and admiration even of the seasoned trading veterans like Daniel Harmon; who noted in his report:

"The Canadian Voyageurs posses lively and fickle dispositions, and they are rarely subject to depression of spirits, of long continuance, even when in circumstances the most adverse. Although what they consider good eating and drinking constitutes their chief good, yet, when necessity compels them to it, they submit to great privation and hardship, not only without complaining, but even with cheerfulness and gaiety. They are very talkative, and extremely thoughtless, and make many resolutions, which are almost as soon broken as formed. They never think of providing for future wants. . . They are not brave; but when they apprehend little danger, they will often, as they say, 'play the man'. They are very deceitful, are exceedingly smooth and polite, and are even gross flatterers to the face of a person, whom they will basely slander, behind his back. . . A secret they cannot keep. They rarely feel gratitude, though they are often generous. They are obedient, but not faithful servants. By flattering their vanity, of which they have not a little, they may be persuaded to undertake the most difficult enterprises".

Orkneymen - The imported help of the HBC

While the French adopted Indian ways and hired Native guides and paddlers, the HBC hired the hardy Orkneymen of Britain. The Orkneymen were tough and reliable people used to a hard life at sea; however, in comparison to the Voyageurs, their praise was more subdued. According to Murdoch Mackenzie, Orkneymen:
"are healthy, hardy, well-shaped, subject to few Diseases, and capable of an abstemious and laborious life, at the same time; but for want of profitable Employment, slow at work and many of them maligned to Idleness. In sagacity and natural understanding, they are inferior to few of the Commons in Britain; sparing of Words, reserved in their Sentiments, . . .apt to aggravate or magnify their Losses, and studious to conceal or diminish their Gains...Honest in their dealings with one another, but not so scrupulous with respect to the Master of the Grounds . . .[yet] clannish Adherence and Subjugation to their Masters. . . .[regarding Violence or Resentments...(the corrupting influence of the Northwest): "Many of these men bring home with them all the vices without any of the virtues of the savages, indolence, dissipation, irreligion and at the same time a broken constitution." [about religion - most of them set aside their religion when they enter the Northwest."

Comparison of Orkneymen and Voyageurs

The reluctance of the English to adopt the canoe in addition to their reliance on hired men from Orkney, prompted numerous comparisons between these differing approaches to trade.

The hired men of the English, the Orkneymen, were described as: "cautious and careful" and somewhat trustworthy, whereas the Voyageurs were seen as volatile and "indifferent about themselves as with their master's property." They seemed to "delight in the dangers of running rapids and cataracts in their frail canoes, caring little about their lives or cargoes and with little thought of gain." The Hudson's Bay men marvelled at the skill, agility and daring of the Voyageurs but also noted that the Voyageurs seemed corrupt, and debase as savages.

Types of Watercraft Used in the Fur Trade

During the era of exploration and the fur trade - from 1650's to the late nineteenth century, essentially three types of watercraft were used:
  • the Lake Canoe (Canot de Maitre),
  • the Northern Canoe (Canot du Nord) and
  • the York Boat or versions of it.
The French and independent traders used the canoe for their inland travel, while by in large, the British at the Bay continued to use their larger and heavier, traditional boats.

Canot de Maitre

For the more easterly stretch from Montreal to the west end of Lake Superior the larger "Canot de Maitre" or Lake Canoe was the most suitable, since a good portion of the journey was on larger bodies of water. For safety as well as for carrying capacity the canoe was built as large as a keelless bark-craft would tolerate. Although there was no single pattern, in general its specifications were:
  • 36'+ Length
  • 6' Beam
  • 3 ton Payload, plus personal baggage
  • 6 to 12 Crew, but usually 8 to 10 men.

Canot du Nord

For the interior portion of the journey after the Great Lakes, a smaller and lighter version of canoe was more appropriate: the "Canot du Nord" or Northern Canoe. Because of its lightness, a Canot du Nord could be carried easily by two men for several miles. Its usual specifications were:
  • 25' Length
  • 4-4.5' Beam
  • 1.5 ton Payload, i.e.. about one-half of the Canot de Maitre
  • 4 to 8 Crew, usually 5 or 6 men.
Cargo carrying capacity was of critical importance on such a long journey. Because of this, personal baggage of the Voyageurs was limited to 40 lbs each (much like airlines today). Quite understandably, crew size would vary "depending on the conditions to be encountered or lack of personnel at posts, or if certain of the crew were to "winter" inland.

Canoes: Made Where? By Whom, Of What?

Initially, and for most of the duration of the fur trade, canoes were made for the traders by the Algonquin people of the Ottawa River valley and southern Ontario region from whom the canoe was originally adapted. They had the knowledge, skills and access to the raw materials necessary for building a reliable watercraft.

In spite of the generally superb construction of these canoes, on average the birch-bark canoe would last about two years. Adverse conditions, big loads and heavy use took their toll and some canoes were damaged or lost en route and needed to be replaced in the interior. Using available materials, some canoes were built using poplar frames and stretched with buffalo hide; but these were too heavy and required constant wetting in order to keep them buoyant.

Records show that an excellent forest for canoe building was found near Fort George on the North Saskatchewan River and for a number of years Indians and traders built canoes there. Nonetheless, for the most part, traders continued to get their canoes in the east.

York Boats

On account of the reluctance by the HBC to use canoes, a decision was made to modify their boats. As a result a flatter bottom boat became their craft of choice on the main trade routes to travel the shallower waterways to York Factory, hence the York Boat. The usual specifications were:
  • 24 to 28'Length
  • 4' Width
  • 18" deep
  • 5 to 8 ton carrying capacity
  • 6-9 usual crew size
According to historian Arthur Morton, the HBC had equipment in which their character was expressed: larger & heavier and safer than a canoe but also slower and much more difficult to portage.


Saskatchewan Waterways

The Trade Routes which opened up the Northwest

The Saskatchewan Rivers

The Saskatchewan Rivers form the main drainage of a large area east of the Rockies into the Lake Winnipeg. Familiarity with the topography of the region also helps to understand the trader's preference for the Saskatchewan Rivers. Situated in the rolling grasslands of the interior the River was fairly easy to navigate and the river banks were not impassable. The length of the rivers, ease of navigability as well as access to other principal navigation routes - the Churchill River and Lake Athabasca region - made the Saskatchewan River all the more appealing for the canoe travelling explorers and voyageurs.

The location of the Saskatchewan River basically formed the southern limit of the Woodlands and the Precambrian Shield country - the prime fur bearing regions. Other more southerly rivers like the Assiniboine & Qu'appelle Rivers were explored and harvested for furs but did not have the reach nor the connections to other waterways like the Saskatchewan Rivers. As well, they were prone to seasonal fluctuations in water level and shifting sand bars. Other possible routes such as the Seal River or the easterly portion of the Churchill were much more hazardous to navigate. From the early explorers like Kelsey and La Verandrye's sons to the height of the fur trade, Mackenzie, Pond, Fidler, Thompson, Simpson, and countless others, the Saskatchewan River was the primary entry point to the interior.

The Sturgeon-Weir River

The Sturgeon-Weir River and finally the Frog Portage are the vital link between the Saskatchewan and the Churchill Rivers. However, the Sturgeon-Weir has a fairly steep grade and therefore is "an almost continual rapid" - so much so that it was known as "Riviere Maligne" by the Voyageurs. The dozen portages listed by Mackenzie - the Pente, Bouleau, de l'Isle, d'Epinettes, three "galets", to name the principle ones, are still in used by modern voyageurs.

The Sturgeon-Weir River became the route of preference allowing paddlers to use the less difficult Saskatchewan & Nelson Rivers rather than the hazardous Burntwood, Lower Churchill or Seal River to get to the Bay. Tipping the balance in favour of the southern route was the reputation of hospitable replenishing posts like the one at Norway House

The Churchill River

The Churchill River has been described as one of the best canoe rivers on the whole route. The rivers and lakes which comprise this waterway lie primarily in the Precambrian rock country and lie like a string of pearls across Saskatchewan - from Churchill Lake in the north-west to Sandy Bay in the east. The beauty of this country and its clear waters make it one of the more attractive and well used canoe routes in the province to this day. As well, the Churchill River system provides access to the Athabasca country and the Peace River via Methye Portage.

Lake Athabasca region

The Lake Athabasca water basin is accessible via Lac la Loche and the gruelling 12km Methye portage. Historically known as Chipewyan country and highly renowned for its prime furs, this region was jealously guarded by the first explorers and traders like Peter Pond - and later by other Northwest Company traders - as their own fur domain, beyond the jurisdiction of the HBC Royal Charter. Pond established Fort Chipewyan on the shores of Lake Athabasca and from this location other expeditions were launched to the north-flowing Mackenzie River and to Peace River country in the West.

Life on the River

Even though there was a certain charm and romance to this unfettered wilderness existence, life for the paddlers was anything but easy. The following is a description of Voyageurs' life as recorded by Eric Morse:
"The voyageur's daily routine was a killing one: for the six- to-eight weeks he was on the road, he was roused as early as two or three am., and (provided that no rapids were just ahead) he set off without breakfast. Before eight o'clock a breakfast stop was made. A midday lunch was "served" - though often lunch was no more than an opportunity to hack off a piece of pemmican to chew on the way. However, fairly regularly, a stop was made for a few minutes each hour to allow the men to have a pipe. This event was so important that distances came to be measured in "pipes"; "trois pipes" might be 15 to 20 miles, depending on wind and current.

Between eight and ten in the evening, depending on the light, camp was made. Supper, which might have been pre-cooked the night before, was warmed up and served. The men then dropped down on turf, moss, or beach, with their heads under the overturned canoe (whose high end lent itself to this purpose). A tarpaulin would be stretched from the canoe to give shelter from rain and dew. There was no provision ordinarily made for protection against insects, except the voyageurs' own grease and dirt, assisted sometimes by a smudge, lit up-wind."

Brigades of 5 to 20 canoes were organised, travelling together for increased security as well as greater carrying capacity on the long treks across the country. The duty of the Voyageurs was to bring supplies for the trappers and traders in the Northwest and to return with the furs from inland trade. Main supply forts such as Grand Portage at the west end of Lake Superior, Bas-de-la-Riviere at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, Cumberland House on Pine Island on the Saskatchewan River or Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca were spaced so as to permit the voyageurs to replenish supplies and return to base before freeze-up. These shorter distances between the "provision depots" allowed them to manage with less space used for provisions.

Songs of the Voyageurs

Voyageurs' life has been portrayed as harsh, gruelling and monotonous and there is little doubt that such a long journey would be all of that; however, to break the strain and the tedium songs were sung by the Voyageurs - often songs of simple melody, passed down from father or grandfather, sung lustily to motivate or to pace themselves: "En Roulant ma Boule", "C'est l'Aviron", "A la Claire Fontaine", "Youpe Youpe sur la Riviere", etc. The sight of canoe after canoe of Voyageurs coming round the bend in a river must have been enchanting but even more enchanting must have been the growing swells of song that wafted ahead of the travellers even before they rounded the bend.

Provisions: Food Supply for the Voyageurs

Anyone who canoes knows the importance of a good supply of food. Adequate and non-perishable food is especially important when making a journey across half a continent and with little time to hunt or gather supplies en route. For the Montreal based Voyageurs a good part of their journey was through inhospitable country where hunting or fishing or access to local provisions was difficult. Time limitations - waterways being ice-free from mid-May to October: 4 or 5 months at best - increased the necessity of carrying a good stock of easily prepared food. The Native people and the explorers had learned to live off of the land, but for the Voyageurs, there was not time nor space to carry fresh food supplies.

The limited carrying capacity of the canoe, not to mention the strain of difficult portages, or the possibility of loss should some canoes be lost in rapids, added to the challenge of carrying sufficient supplies. Always it was a trade-off between cargo (trading goods or furs) or items of comfort and necessity - such as food or clothing or shelter.

The amount of provisions required varied, of course, with the number of paddlers and passengers, and the distance to be covered before fresh supplies could be restocked. Invariably, with a crew of 5 to 8 men per canoe and some brigades of up to 10 canoes there would be a need for a large food supply. ( During Frobishers journey in the northern tundra it was noted that hard-working men required up to 8 lbs of meat per day. And on an expedition of 20 people that amounted to a deer carcass per day. )

The types of food available depended in part on the region that the paddlers were going through: maize and cured pork meat in the east; wild rice and deer in the area west of Lake Superior, and buffalo and grain based pottage in the Northwest.

When food supplies became a problem for the traders, again it was the Native people (Assiniboine & Grassland Cree) who provided a solution: "pemmican". Various Indian groups became the providers of pemmican for the traders. Recipes of course differed among the Native suppliers and also from season to season; however, for the most part the meat is pounded into a powder, inter-larded with fat and occasionally supplemented with berries or fresh vegetables from the gardens near some forts and placed in raw-hide bags called "parfleches". The dried meat and fat would keep the food from spoiling - a precurser to modern de-hydrated and freeze-dried foods - and was of sufficient concentration to provide a high- energy food source. Voyageurs would need only 1.5 lbs per day.

On any canoe trip, but particularly those where portaging is required, weight is a critical factor. So in order to reduce the amount of food that the brigades needed to carry, certain posts were designated as supply posts, where Voyageurs could replenish food supplies en route and/or exchange their load for the furs which they carried on their return voyage. Major supply posts such as the one near the Red River, Cumberland House or Fort Chipewyan in the north were spaced so as to limit the amount of food supplies that the Voyageurs needed to carry

Saskatchewan: The storehouse of food supplies

Even during the time of the fur trade, Saskatchewan was known as a storehouse of plentiful food supplies: wild game like deer, buffalo or caribou could be supplemented with wild berries and around certain forts access to fresh garden produce when in season. After a long, gruelling voyage and the monotony of the same food everyday for weeks on end, the thought of fresh food and a break in the daily routine was a motivating and enticing thought. After restocking supplies at Cumberland House, paddlers looked forward to several days on the hunt at Monee, (west of Prince Albert). Not only was this a break from the daily routine of paddling but also the men got the excitement and thrill of hunting buffalo and the enticing thought of fresh food.

Voyageurs diet

For the Voyageurs the morning meal would be some type of flour-based pottage occasionally mixed with other supplements; the mid-day meal consisted of a piece of dried pemmican and supper, prepared after night camp was set up (usually between 8 - 10pm) was pemmican, mixed with flour and water creating a pottage which the Voyageurs called "rubbaboo".

Their diet was also supplemented with ducks, geese and other fowls. For festive occasions there were more exotic delicacies such as moose nose, beaver tail, roast goose, prairie chicken, partridge or various types of sea food like roast seal, salmon or trout.

Small wonder that after weeks on the water, day after day with the same rations, that the voyageurs were ready to hunt or whoop-it-up when they arrived at a fort. The anticipation of these certain fort stops were so cherished that paddlers would refuse to co-operate if a brigade leader tried to get them to go an alternate route - and this would mean that they'd miss a stop at certain favourite supply posts.

For the modern palate reports of standard food fare sounds bleak and unimaginative. Pemmican, although a convenient travel ration, was not particularly appreciated by all Voyageurs either since it eventually became stale or mouldy when damp and was frequently "garnished with long human hairs and short hair of oxen". Nonetheless, it remained the Voyageurs primary food source.

In Rudy Wiebe's historical novel, Discovery of Strangers, a Native guide comments wryly on the excessive and absurd travelling styles of the white man:

"Each canoe has a crew of 6: a bowman, sternman and paddlers. Eating is their greatest and only diversion, together with drinking. They expect to devour 8 lbs of meat per day. When you add our translators and ourselves - 4 officers plus servants - we presently require almost a full ton of meat a week: i.e.. a minimum of 20 large dressed deer.!!"


The demise of the canoe as the principle form of transportation in the Northwest happened almost as quickly as its arrival. Overland transportation like ox cart, horse and train began to replace water transportation as the primary mode of travel, although in isolated regions the canoe remained prominent until well into the 20 century. The decline in the European demand for furs also contributed to a changing pattern of trade and travel as did the diminishing supply of furs.

It is remarkable indeed, that most of the waterways which the explorers and traders used remain in much the same state they were centuries ago. Evidence of their lives still remains: forts, portages, debris of spills, etc. Along many portages Saskatoon bushes flourish, planted by unknowing Voyageurs relieving themselves beside the trail.

These waterways, largely unchanged over the centuries, can still be travelled today. Increased historical awareness can only enhance one's own experience on these waterways and sharpen one's observation and perception. Enjoy your travels on Saskatchewan waterways.

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