Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Fur Trade -- Forever in an Amber Glow


Before the residency at Dan's Cabin, we'd visited the resting places of Omett & Nanabijou, then were hurtling off the north shore towards Thunder Bay and our last border crossing together. Let's pick things up there. Then we can dig into Minnesota and complete our circumnavigation of the Superior Basin...


No activity centered on Superior is as celebrated as the fur trade.

From a 120mm transparency -- August 2012

In part that's due to its antiquity. Furs were exported to Europe from New France in economically significant numbers as early as the 1630's.

Then there're the legendary companies involved -- The Hudson's Bay Company, The North West Company and later the American Fur Company, which secured a monopoly on the American trade. That monopolistic advantage set John Jacob Astor off on the path that made him one of the wealthiest men in the world, and that allowed Astor to become a lasting avatar for what it means to be a successful American businessman. Noblesse oblige, indeed.

There's also the sheer longevity of the enterprise. The fur trade ran some 250 years, give or take. No resource extraction around Superior has lasted even near so long or made so many fortunes. And that primarily due to the fecundity of the humble beaver, whose fascinating and most provocative impact on world economic history can best be explored by delving into the thoroughly researched Fashionable Felted Fur: a World History of the Beaver Hat, by Kelly Feinstein-Johnson.

Trust me, what you likely don't know about beaver hats is a whole bunch.

Major nations battled over the fur trade. At white folk's behest, Native tribes warred to displace each other from ancestral homes, only to facilitate the removal of what once was theirs. Due to the world's insatiable appetite for fur, the cultural character of the entire region changed, not once but many times in succession.

But I think the reason the fur trade lives on in our memories even today is due to primarily to the Voyageurs.


Their robust approach to life and work bequeathed an incredibly rich narrative fueled by a litany of story and song, which were celebrated during legendary Rendezvous'. This narrative recounted deeds of authentically heroic nature and made the Voyageurs emblematic of both what we truly were and  -- of more importance -- what we still prefer to see in ourselves.

Even when most all of us reside in cities a universe removed from the ancestral trials of life led in the wild.

No matter our daily struggles, few among us today must do anything like paddle 30 miles into a rising sea to reach safe harbor, make camp in freezing rain, then wake up the next day and carry not one but two 90# packs on our backs while traversing a rough-hewn portage. And do it all again the next day and the day after that for an entire season.

Thiers was, as they say, a time when men were men. I thought of that some, when as many as four times daily I hauled my sorry self with my piddling 100# of gear up & down the short but steep hill to make the quarter mile to and fro between Dan's Cabin & the car...

I'll not try to distill the history of the fur trade here, as it seems a hopeless task and the resources available to those of you who're interested are rich. Rather, let's do the tourist gig for a bit, as the finest 'Living History Museums' on Superior are both dedicated to the legacy of the fur trade and the legend of the Voyageurs.

So here're a few brief sentences on each, accompanied by select images...


From a 120mm transparency -- August 2012

Fort William Historical Park is in Thunder Bay Ontario, its present site a few miles up the Kaministiquia River from where the original fort once stood. You can't miss it, as signage from both directions but especially when driving up from the States is positively ubiquitous.

It's a large place, wonderfully done. When the presence of tourists is slight, it's easy to succumb to the notion that you've been transported to another time. Especially when sitting in the shade beneath a tree in the sun-drenched open square, enjoying a positively splendid late summer morning and you're unexpectedly greeted by such delights as this:


I freely admit that having just come down the north shore from Pukaskwa and considering everything we've seen and done over the past year, to hear this song in this place at that golden moment misted my vision. For a moment at least, I could almost believe...

Then later that morning a lovely young Ojibwa woman graciously introduced me to the joys of wild rice popped in bear fat. Can't beat that with a stick, eh?

I've worked Fort William a few times over the past 20 years or so and the Canoe Shed is my favorite place. Not merely because it's there that fine craftspeople still build canoes by hand just as craftsmen did 200 years ago, though that'd be reason enough. In addition, the light in this building is some of the most exquisite light I've ever had the pleasure to work:

Taken from vintage 35mm transparencies

Fort William Historical Park is a visual and educational delight, the people who work there as warm and welcoming as any you'll meet at similar sites anywhere. It's well worth the visit whether traversing the big lake by boat or car. Give it a whole day and see if you too can step back in time...

From a 120mm transparency -- August 2012

From a 120mm transparency -- August 2012

Across the border back in the States and just 30 miles over water from the original Fort William is Grand Portage National Monument. A much smaller facility, it nevertheless rivals it's larger cousin in excellence of presentation.



The Grand Portage around the falls of the Pigeon River were in use by Native Peoples for millennia before white folk discovered it's utility as a passage from Superior into the great Northwest. There may have been a trading post at the site as early as 1718, but with the formation of the North West Company in 1799, the Grand Portage came to lasting economic importance.

And today that crucial role in a Nation's development is recognised through the site's designation as a National Monument of the United States.

Should you find yourself in nearby Grand Marais MN and need an escape from the distinctly mixed blessings of a once sleepy harbor town since transformed into a contemporary tourist trap, be sure to take the short drive north and pay a visit. It'll be well worth your time.





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