- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

THUNDER BAY, Ontario — We could dive on Lake Ontario shipwrecks, kayak unspoiled islands, sail the lake’s cold waters or hike its rugged shores, but instead, we turn back the clock.

We decide to meet the voyageurs, the Scottish company partners, the native and Metis (mixed-blood) trappers and enjoy the year 1815 at the world’s largest reconstructed fur-trading post. A perfect time to visit is July 11 to 13, when the fort re-creates the Great Rendezvous, an annual general meeting of North West Co.

A short drive from town takes us to a palisaded fort in majestic woods along the smooth-flowing Kaministiquia River. Forests climb the far banks, and the massive mesa of 1,000-foot Mount McKay looms in the distance.

Welcome to Old Fort William Historical Park, one of the largest living-history sites in North America, with 42 historic buildings on a 25-acre site. It is a duplicate of its namesake, operated by the old NorWesters from 1803 to 1821 and the site of the legendary Great Rendezvous. Many events are planned in July to celebrate the Great Rendezvous’ 200th anniversary, which will bring together fur-trade re-enactors from across Canada and the United States.

This fur-trade complex has been rebuilt meticulously, at a cost of $50 million by the Ontario government, nine miles upstream from the original site. Since opening, it has attracted 2.5 million visitors, about 100,000 annually. Its staff numbers about 150; about 130 are seasonal.

As we traipse through the quiet forest, guide Stephanie Brunelle tells us, “We try to re-create a living, breathing Fort William as it was operated by the NorWesters. The fort was named after William McGillivray, the company’s chief director.”

As the key transshipment point on Lake Superior, the fort allowed for transporting trade goods from coast to coast in one season. Voyageur canoe brigades could not penetrate the western interior, pick up furs at isolated posts and return to Montreal before the winter freeze.

Voyageurs paddling from the west were called “winterers”; those from the east bringing trade goods were “pork eaters.” All voyageurs were employees of the company. With this network, North West Co. surpassed Hudson’s Bay Co. for domination of the North American fur trade.

“The Americas were explored for fashion,” Ms. Brunelle says. “Everyone who was someone in Europe in the 1800s wore beaver hats. The expression ‘mad hatter’ comes from the hatter who worked with mercury to turn beaver pelts into hats.”

Gary Tritzel of the San Francisco Bay Area stops us as we walk to the fort and tells our guide: “Our family is here to learn about our ancestors, the Cameron family. They did a lot of fur trading around the 1800s.” Ms. Brunelle fills him in on his relative, Duncan Cameron, a partner and shareholder in the North West Co. in 1815.

Then we encounter Ojibwa working among wigwams in their encampment, skinning, tanning, stretching hides and stitching birch-bark baskets called “mukuks.” It was the aboriginal birch bark canoes and snowshoes that enabled the Europeans to blaze their way into the West. Other women, colorful in aboriginal dress, are cooking over a fire. Nearby the men are constructing another wigwam.

We duck into a dark, 30-foot wigwam filled with the fresh scent of pines. Our guide asks, “What’s the difference between a tepee and a wigwam?” We’re stumped.

“A tepee,” she says, “is made out of animal hides and is transportable to follow the herds of buffalo. Here the tribes had no horses, so they built wigwams — permanent structures.”

The Ojibwa used two spruce trees and birch bark to build them. All poles are spruce and are tied or laced with spruce roots that were peeled, split and soaked. Spruce bows cover the floor to act as mattresses and keep mosquitoes away.

In winter, Ojibwa stuffed moss in wigwam walls for insulation and dug a big, deep fire pit with a cook rack above it. In summer, the family of seven to 10 cooked outside the wigwam. The structure usually lasted eight to 10 years.

This wigwam sleeps 30 schoolchildren, who re-enact the old ways of life during their stay. They eat wild rice and “bannock,” fish and meat and wear native dress.

We walk to the river, lined by the fort’s palisades, where re-enactors wildly play fiddles and dance merrily. Voyageur songs float on the air as this colorful era of Canada’s past comes to life.

Marty Mascarin, the fort’s communications officer, who knows every facet of fort life, meets us and says, “In the 1800s in an interior fur-trading post, you might have a few buildings, here are 40 buildings, many for storage, but you had summer residences, a working farm, an active artisan area, an apothecary, a bakery, a Great Hall, a canoe-building shed and more.

“Once a schooner was built here. The NorWesters built a huge, remarkable establishment here. About 1,000 participated in the first Great Rendezvous in 1803 … . Canoe brigades came in from the west bringing all the furs traded with the aboriginals. Others came from Montreal with supplies and trade goods. This was a handy midway point.

“Originally, it was nearby Grand Portage in Minnesota, but with the establishment of the American border in late 1700s, there was the threat of custom duties, so the NorWesters came back here into the British-held territory.”

During the Great Rendezvous, the area outside the palisades was filled with voyageurs in bright shirts and colorful sashes, the Scottish company partners resplendent in top hats, long coats and cravats, the native and Metis trappers who were drinking, gambling, dancing, singing and partying. When it ended, many voyageurs returned to their isolated life in the wilderness for 11 months.

Mr. Mascarin says the 200th anniversary will unfold July 11 through 13 and many activities will be re-enacted with visitor participation in trading, bargaining and fort festivities. As he says, “Hands-on fun, hands-on adventure.”

Then a tall gentleman in a top hat introduces himself as a superintendent of trades. He’s also the constable or jailer. He says, “I might give a drunk a night or two in jail, a thief, two weeks or longer.”

A 24-foot North canoe paddles up. It’s capable of carrying about a ton of cargo and four men. A cannon roars, saluting the arrival of a canoe brigade. The smell of gunpowder fills the air, and smoke billows as the dancing continues.

We adjourn to a chink log house to enjoy rich barley soup cooked over an open fire, fresh bread and an appetizing desert. Mr. Mascarin tells us the fort has a fine fur-trade library filled with diaries and documents “that allows us to make enlightened assumptions about certain individuals and circumstances.”

Then it’s on to the Main Square filled with company gentlemen. Soon they adjourn to the Council House, where the partners squabble over company business. One complaint concerns obtaining the best quality of tobacco to trade — Brazilian twist. The aboriginals aren’t accepting the lower-quality Virginia plug tobacco.

Outside, the constable arrests a blacksmith who has been trading with the hated Hudson’s Bay Co. A fight breaks out, and he’s dragged off to jail.

We enter a building resonating with quiet elegance, the Great Hall with its imposing portraits, fine china, elegant dining tables and crystal. Here banquets once fed 100 and continue to be served with fine libations and sumptuous food, followed by bagpipe, fiddle and fife music as well as period dancing. A huge wall map reveals the explorations of Simon Fraser, Sir Alexander MacKenzie and David Thompson. All played key roles in the exploration and development of Canada.

The aroma of baking bread draws us to the bakery, part of a regale, a treat of bread, butter, cheese and rum offered voyageurs upon their arrival at the fort. The baker, who apprenticed for seven years, produced 300 loaves a day. Nearby, an armorer repairs trade guns, a cooper fires a keg, and a carpenter finishes a table leg on a lathe.

We admire the farm, with its rows of vegetables, and hear about the Ojibwa Kesshigun, a two-day celebration in August commemorating the contributions of native peoples to the fur trade.

A vignette illustrates the trade’s underside. In the interior, it was common to take on a native wife, a “country marriage.” Their offspring, known as Metis, developed their own language and culture.

The women gained prestige and guaranteed provisions in difficult times. The men valued their wives’ companionship, labor and knowledge of the country. Some enjoyed lasting, loving relationships.

Other wives were abandoned and left destitute and dependent on the company. “The company looked down on it if the women were left high and dry,” Mr. Mascarin says, “so they provided for the wife, children and grandchildren. This kept relations cordial with the natives.”

At the apothecary, we meet the jovial Dr. John McLoughlin amid his jars of medicine and herbs and cases containing saws, pliers and other medical and dental tools. The doctor served a four-year apprenticeship and cared for minor ailments and pulled teeth.

Dr. McLoughlin points out his “electrifying machine” that “eliminates all bodily ailments.” A doctor and partner, he later journeyed to the Oregon Territory to open a general store. He is known as the “Father of Oregon.”

We check the company lists and find a Pierre Bonga, a Sandwich Islander (Hawaiian), who was a tall, powerful voyageur known as an able bodyguard and respected for his ability to carry heavy loads.

The log-walled Indian shop offers “trade silver,” a common adornment worn by Indian women and trappers and a mainstay of the fur trade. Many took the form of crosses (nonreligious), medallions or animal figurines. Other items desired by the natives were guns, kettles, axes, knives, needles, scissors, blankets, woolens, cottons, shoes, stockings, clothing, beads, ribbons, laces, liquor and tobacco. It was customary for the natives to receive goods on credit and pay off the debt in the spring.

All is barter. Usually 10 or 12 beaver pelts bought a musket. We learn that a top hat took one beaver and cost 3 or 4 pounds sterling in Europe, more than a voyageur made in a year. “Greasy beavers” offered the softest fur. We’re surrounded by pelts as Mr. Mascarin points out arctic white fox, red fox, marten, mink, muskrat, beaver and squirrel. All fur was used, for example, in women’s fur muffs or for trim on coats.

By 1811, 200,000 pounds of fur came through the fort. Many feared that the area would be trapped out of beaver, but about 1850, the silk top hat came into vogue, and the fur trade faded.

The fort produced various watercraft, from rowboats called bateaux to 20-ton schooners in the Naval Shed area. Thirty-four-foot birch-bark canoes hang above us and line the walls as men plane and drill. One re-enactor says, “The canoe has been around for 3,000 years. We use cedar for workability. It can be split off logs easily and is easy to harvest.”

Native labor was divided; the men obtained bark and wood and made the frames, gunwales and ribs while the women gathered gum and spruce roots. Most native canoes were small and built in summer.

About 40 helpers historically built 30 to 50 canoes each summer. Today the tally is one, but it takes 298 hours of labor.

It was one of the busiest areas, as about 180 canoes annually were heading west, and 60 34-footers that carried 4 tons each were heading east for Montreal.

Voyageurs paddled 12 hours to 16 hours a day and carried 180 pounds over portages. To avoid pesky black flies, voyageurs often arose at 2 or 3 in the morning.

Among materials used were rolls of birch bark, spruce gum, animal fat, pitch, sealant, charcoal, pine resin and spruce roots. Indian women often worked here for bartering credits.

The sun is setting as we learn that upon the merger of North West Co. and Hudson’s Bay Co. in 1821, Fort William declined in importance. By 1835, buildings began to fall into disrepair, and the last building was torn down in 1902.

Time was different. Today you can drive to Montreal in 21 hours. Then it took six weeks to paddle there. Even today, time flies. We will take the canoe ride on another visit.

Crossing the border from Minnesota to Canada is quick and easy.

Old Fort William-themed weekends, voyageur feasts, concerts, canoe rides, heritage reproduction items, historic foods and the voyageur camping experience and re-enactor package await visitors.

From July 11 through 13, the fort re-creates the Great Rendezvous. Canada Day is July 1, the Ojibwa Keeshigun Native Festival is Aug. 16 and 17. Scottish Days are celebrated Aug. 8 through 10.

The Fall Corn Roast is Sept. 6. Haunted Fort Night lasts from Oct. 23 to 26, and the year winds up with the New Year’s Eve Family Frolic Dec. 31.

Call 807/473-2344 or 807/577-8461 or fax 807/473-2327; e-mail, info@oldfortwilliam.on.ca; or on the Internet, www.oldfortwilliam.on.ca.

Excellent places to stay are the Airlane Travelodge Hotel, 800/465-5003 or e-mail inquire@travelodge-airlane.com, and the Prince Arthur Hotel and Suites near the marina, 800/267-2675 or 807/345-5411.

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