Several years ago when we were visiting the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Visitors Center we bought prints of three or four of Frances Anne Beechey Hopkins’ wonderful voyageur paintings. A framed copy of “Shooting the Rapids” that Mrs. Hopkins painted in 1879 hangs over my customary seat in our TV room, while other framed pints decorate the walls up at our Wisconsin fishing cabin.
While I love the drama on display in “Shooting the Rapids,” when I look at it I always hope that Mrs. Hopkins was taking artistic license and that she and her husband—both of whom are depicted sitting amidships in the huge canot de maître, the master or Montreal canoe, as it balances on the edge of the churning rapids in the instant before it shoots downstream—were actually not placed in such danger.
Because while birch bark freight canoes were the backbone of the fur trade transportation system in North America from the 17th through the 19th Century, something they definitely were not was robust. Any one of the rocks in the rapids Mrs. Hopkins depicted in her painting could have caused a catastrophic structural failure that would have led to injury and even death for the canoe’s crew and passengers.
I’ve written before about the amazing design of birch bark canoes. They proved the perfect vessels to haul trade goods to the interior of North America and then to haul the furs obtained in trade back east to be shipped to Europe. Over a period of many, many years, its Chippewa inventors refined it until the birch bark canoe was a reasonably sturdy, light-weight craft well suited for navigating waters as varied as the open water of the Great Lakes and small, swift rivers in the interior of the continent.
But while it was capable of traveling long distances in the hands of experienced canoemen, the birch bark canoe was also fragile and required almost constant maintenance. That wasn’t a problem as long as voyages were limited to regions where paper birch trees grew. But when the trade empire of first the French and later the British was extended to the lower lakes region below the line where paper birches thrive, logistical problems occurred and even more repair materials had to be carried along in the canoe itself.
At the end of each day after fur trade brigades had paddled many miles, their canoes were hauled out of the water to dry out and await minor repairs. The skin of each canoe was made up of sheets of birch bark stretched over a cedar frame, and secured with watap (tough, pliable strips split from the roots of spruce trees). The bark sheets themselves, which had been carefully stripped off large-diameter birch trees (bigger trees meant larger sheets, which meant fewer sheets, which meant fewer seams to leak), were tightly sewn together with watap as well.
When the entire canoe frame was covered with birch sheets, a mixture of spruce sap, or gum, was melted with finely ground charcoal over a low fire. The hot mixture was then painted on the seams to waterproof them.
During use, these seams worked themselves open, and so they had to be checked and re-sealed each day. On a 35-foot Montreal Canoe, the kind favored by the fur trade companies for the Great Lakes routes (and illustrated in Mrs. Hopkins’ painting), it took a lot of spruce gum to keep the water outside the canoe.
In addition to that, during a day’s paddling, a Montreal Canoe could absorb several hundred pounds of water, making it less maneuverable and, since it was sitting lower in the water, more prone to running aground. On sand bars this wasn’t much of a problem, but in a swift river or on a rocky shore, it could prove fatal.
That’s why, despite dramatic stories (and Mrs. Hopkins’ painting) to the contrary, fur traders seldom shot river rapids in their fragile canoes—one mistake in judgment could doom an entire crew and destroy tons of valuable furs or trade goods. Besides that, few voyageurs could swim (odd, given their vocations), so any accident that dumped them into especially deep or swift water was often fatal.
Instead of shooting them, rapids were most often bypassed by portaging. Using that technique, each canoe was completely unloaded and then carried across the portage. Then all the goods or furs were also carried across, reloaded and the voyage continued. But depending on the rapids, sometimes canoes were only partially unloaded, and then moved across by cordelling, with the crew using ropes to pull the canoe up the rapids or floating it down the swift water in a controlled descent. A couple of the crew were usually kept aboard to fend the craft off any rocks, while others on shore did the same thing using long poles.
Even working as carefully as possible, damage to fragile canoe hulls was almost inevitable. In the North Country, where birch and spruce trees were common, repair materials could readily be obtained on the spot. But down here, well south of the birch line and out west, emergency repair materials had to be carried along. The amount of those materials was therefore limited, so a catastrophic accident meant the crew was in serious trouble.
Fur trader Peter Pond found himself in exactly that situation back in the late 1700s. Pond, who left an extremely entertaining account of his trading exploits (published in Five Fur Traders edited by Charles M. Gates, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, 1965), reported that he and a couple helpers paddled far up the Missouri River on a trading expedition with the Sioux. The area was, from the viewpoint of someone from the Northeast like Pond, desolate with the only trees visible being a few gaunt cottonwoods. After pulling their birch bark canoe up onto the bank to spend the night, the crew was awakened by a huge storm, as storms out on the prairie tend to be.
As Pond later recounted in his own inimitable style (he never met a word he couldn’t misspell—it makes the most sense to read it aloud), “the wind toock the Canew up in the Air Leat hir fall on the frosen flat & broke Hir in Peceis. I was then in a Sad Sittuation.” Pond and his men were forced to walk across the prairies to the nearest trading post, a trip of several arduous days on foot.
Even in areas where birch trees were plentiful, shooting a rapids could be extremely chancy, even for the most experienced canoemen. Louis Jolliet, the explorer and cartographer who traveled with Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., from Michilimackinac all the way south to the mouth of the Arkansas River on the Mississippi, and back again, found that out when his canoe wrecked near Montreal in 1675.
Frances Hopkins illustrated the life of voyageurs at the end of the canoe era. By the time she was traveling the north country with her husband, who was an executive with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the changeover to Mackinaw Boats (similar to the York Boats used in the far west) and bateaus was nearly complete, which is what makes her paintings so valuable for students of the fur trade.
Shooting the rapids sounds like fun, and with modern canoes it is. We did it once in one of Ralph Frese’s fiberglass replica North Canoes, 25-feet long and similar to one in another of Mrs. Hopkins’ paintings. But the fur traders of old didn’t have the luxury of seeking a thrill. Their canoes were literally their lives and their livelihood, and couldn’t be squandered on anything so chancy as the exhilarating thrill of shooting a rapids. And as Peter Pond discovered, even that couldn’t save a trader from the occasional disaster. The trick was to learn from mistakes. And weight down your canoe at night.