Meet The Voyageurs
By MICHAEL PEAKE
The history of Canadian wilderness canoeing has a cast of thousands. To many, Bill Mason rightfully stands as the embodiment of everything about canoeing. But before Bill was on the scene there was a group of gentlemen paddlers who were dubbed by the press "The Voyageurs" after the early fur traders. They began their canoeing exploits without much fanfare but by the time they were done they had influenced, directly or indirectly, a whole generation of paddlers. One of their most famous members was Sigurd Olson, the American writer and conservationist. Much of the group's ethic is summed up in this quote from Sig:
"I know now as men accept the timeclock of the wilderness, their lives become entirely different. It is one of the great compensations of primitive experience, and when one finally reaches the point where days are governed by daylight and dark, rather than by schedules, where one eats if hungry and sleeps when tired, and becomes completely immersed in the ancient rhythms, then one begins to live." Sig Olson - Reflections of the North Country, 1976.
The Voyageurs at the end of their 1953 Quetico trip in one of their characteristic bare chest photos. L-R Elliott Rodger, Tony Lovink, Blair Fraser, Eric Morse, Omond Solandt, Sig Olson. They are pictured here on Basswood Lake at the end of the trip where they were awaiting a motorboat ride to the cabin of a mutual friend. Click on the photo for a larger-size image.
This group of eight men were:
Sigurd Olson, Eric Morse, Omond Solandt, Elliot Rodger, Tony Lovink, Blair Fraser, Denis Coolican. Tyler Thompson
Their eleven major trips
1954 Grand Portage to Fort Frances
1955 Churchill River, Sask.
1956 Nelson/Hayes (Norway House to Cross Lake), Man.
1957 Southend to Stony Rapids - Fond du Lac River, Sask.
1958 Ile-a-la-Crosse to Waterways - Methye Portage, Sask
1959 Camsell & Great Bear Rivers, NWT
1961 Pukatawagan to Thompson, Man
1964 Hayes River, Man
So who were these guys?
They were someone to whom every modern wilderness canoeist owes a debt of gratitude. To modern canoeists they are our elders, lynch pins linking generations. They were the link between the present and the past
Sig's writings expressed the grace, elegance and style of the group. One key ingredient in their development was the startling fact that their generation grew up knowing wilderness as an enemy. Something that stood in the way of a better life and had to be tamed or destroyed.
The beginning of The Voyageurs was at a 1951 dinner party in Ottawa, as Eric Morse recounted in his memoirs, Freshwater Saga.
"After dinner, in a spirit of gentle banter, some of the Canadians were asking the diplomats how they could possibly learn much of the true Canada on the cocktail circuit. They should experience what it was like to paddle the Canadian lakes and rivers, trudge over portages, feel the spray of rapids, camp among pines and face the insects. In the end the diplomats said, 'Okay, show us.'"
Eric Morse, Omond Solandt and Blair Fraser took three diplomats on a 10-day trip organized by Morse. Of the three taken on the Gatineau and Lievre rivers, one, Tony Lovink, dean of the diplomatic corps and Netherlands ambassador, remained a lifetime friend and canoeing companion of the group.
The following year, 1952, the group headed west and paddled the beautiful wilderness of Quetico Provincial Park. The trip included, Morse, Lovink, Solandt and Rodger.
1953 found the same group back in Quetico but led by a man who knew the area well - since it was literally his own back yard. Thus, Sigurd Olson, joined the group and by virtue of his experience became its leader or bourgeois - a fur trade term for the company man who was head of the expedition. Unlike the fur trade Bourgeois, Olson did much work, doing most of the cooking and guiding. Blair Fraser, noted Maclean's journalist, was also along that year.
They took a big leap the next year as they followed the fur trade route from Grand portage to Fort Frances, probably one of the very few - if not only - party to do it in its entirety since the days of the fur trade. Coming across a Minnesota Historical Society sign while doing the nine-mile portage had a tremendous impact on the group. They realized the stood on the very ground, shoulders likewise loaded, as the voyageurs so long ago. This was their first true Voyageur route. It would become a common theme in their later travels.
They made a further jump in 1955 when six paddlers; Solandt, Morse, Olson, Rodger, Lovink and newcomer Denis Coolican paddled the fur trade route of the Churchill and Sturgeon-Weir rivers ending up at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River, the first inland post of the HBC founded in 1774 by Samuel Hearne. This group was different from most "gentlemen's adventures" in that they took no guides. They learned about running rapids from Indians they met on the way. That trip was immortalized by Sig Olson in his book, The Lonely Land.
Eric described some of his crew in Freshwater Saga.
"Omond, one of Canada's top scientists and chairman of the Defense Research Board, was strong and husky - he had played football for the University of Toronto. The other two were powerfully built. For Tony Lovink, the six-foot-four Netherlands Ambassador, the canoe trip was a holiday and a welcome change from his life of protocol. His many eastern postings had included the ambassadorship to China and he had a world view to contribute. Even his extreme sensitivity to blackfly bites did not dampen his ardour for the Canadian wilderness and he has since chosen Canada for his retirement. Denis, president of the Canadian Banknote Company, was the youngest of the party, being only 40. He had a sailor's feel for the weather and water and was a great raconteur in English or French, or a hilarious mixture of the two,"
The 1959 trip was a chilly one. They paddled the Camsell River into Great Bear Lake in a cold summer season. They were picked up by a large boat belonging to the Eldorado Mine on great Bear and treated to hot showers and piles of food before being dropped off at the Great Bear River, the lake's exit to the Mackenzie River. They whooshed down this fast flowing river and down the mighty Mackenzie to Norman Wells. In the planning of the trip Sig Olson wrote to Omond on January 29, about the cost concerns of the proposed journey:
"As to the mutterings of mutiny from some of the Voyageurs as to overall expense on the Camsell-Great Bear Expedition, that does not disturb me. Voyageurs' worth their salt are bound to mutter. It merely indicates that their blood pressures are beginning to rise and that adrenaline is pouring into their systems at the very mention of adventure... Should the mutiny flare into open rebellion with executions in order, just remember that I would give my life for my Voyageurs as well as my honour."
There would be only two more full Voyageur trips, one in 1961 on the lower Churchill and Thompson rivers and in 1964 on a voyage to Hudson Bay on the Hayes River. But their legacy lives on. Eric Morse continued to paddle in the Northwest Territories and made a series of landmark canoe trips when he was in his 60s.
This story which appeared in Che-Mun Outfit 69 in 1993 was
given to us by the now deceased Omond Solandt. It was the foreword to a book on Sig Olson's writings that
was never published. He gave it to Che-Mun so it would see the light of day. It gives a great insight into what travelling with the group was like.