The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site of Canada
"Shooting the Rapids" from F. A. Hopkins,
© National Archives of Canada / C-2774
The North West Company mainly hired French Canadians to transport trading goods and furs. They were called "voyageurs". Usually illiterate, jovial and hardy, they were in search of adventure. They were known for their typical dress: red or blue tuque, arrow-head sash, moccasins, hood...
The voyageurs paddled for 14 to 16 hours a day while singing to keep up the rhythm. Several of their songs are now part of folklore: C'est "l'aviron, À la claire fontaine, En roulant ma boule...
"Repairing a Canoe at Night" from F. A. Hopkins
© National Archives of Canada / C-2772
The voyageurs slept under their canoes, enduring mosquitoes, cold, sun and rain. They also had to be strong enough to carry 2, 40-kg bales on their backs during a portage.
Since the route to Lake Athabasca was too long (more than 4 500 km), the bourgeois from the North West Company divided it into 2 sections. Every spring, after the thaw, brigades of canoes loaded with trading goods left Lachine for Grand Portage (or Fort William, from 1803 on), on the west bank of Lake Superior. At the same time, canoes loaded with pelts left the Northwest heading for the same destination. In the middle of summer, the two teams met, traded their cargoes and returned to their point of departure.
The voyageurs who spent the winter in the Northwest were called "winterers". They were hired for a period of at least one year but usually for three to five years. In their journey to Grand Portage, they used smaller eight-metre birchbark canoes. They mostly ate pemmican, dried bison meat accompanied by berries. Those who made the trip from Lachine to Grand Portage were nicknamed "porkeaters" by the winterers. They only travelled for a few months, from May to September or October, before returning home to their families.