We set out early this morning, as always, our canoes loaded with trade goods: beads and blankets, flour and salt, guns, ammunition and alcohol. We paddle a hard, steady rhythm, and our song echoes across the water:
À la claire fontaine,
M'en allant promener...
I am young and strong, and do not fear the eight-week journey from Montreal to Fort William. I was born to this life of the Voyageur, like my father and grandfather before me. This year, for the first time, I will winter in the north country, tracking the beaver and returning next spring with a bounty of furs. Then I will be baptized a true homme du nord, a man of the north.
I wear the same clothing as my companions: the cotton shirt and breeches, leather leggings, soft moccasins, and scarlet woollen sash, the emblem of my trade.
And yet, I am not like the others. They tell me that I think too much, that I speak of unnecessary things.
Sing--sing loudly, they say. Sing and do not think.
But I cannot stop thinking, as I sing and paddle down the Ottawa. The others revel in joie de vivre. They take each day as it comes, looking forward to the fleshly pleasures that await at the Fort: the games and alcohol and native women. And I cannot deny that these things seem good to me. What do we toil for, if we cannot enjoy what we earn?
Is this all we have, these few short years beneath the stars, to journey through the trackless north and return to shelter before the bitter winter sets in again? Is it enough to watch the seasons of the land change with the seasons of our lives: paddling and singing and sleeping and hunting, drowning thought with fleeting pleasure?
This is why they say I think too much.
After an hour’s hard rowing, we stop for a pipée. This pipe break will be short, and the guide tells us that there is a long portage ahead. Then we must unload the canoes and carry the goods on our backs across land to avoid the dangerous rapids.
Our guide walks apart from the other men. He is a tall, silent Iroquois. I follow him, putting aside my pipe, and watch while he uses his short knife to carve two lines into a tree.
He makes a sign over his heart, and I look at what he has carved. Is it a cross? Is he, then, one of the natives who follows the Christian faith?
“You have made a cross,” I say to him in French, for I know he speaks the language.
He looks at me and makes a motion with his head. His lined face is inscrutable, unreadable.
“Why?” I ask, not expecting an answer.
But after a time, he says–-as if I should have known–-
“The journey today is hard.”
And I know that is all he will tell me of it, all the explanation I will ever have.
I have heard tales of the “Black Robes,” the Jesuits who came from France when this a wilder, crueler land. They lived among the Iroquois and the Hurons–-often died among them, too, most gruesomely. They have disappeared now, as has their cause. Their native converts did not keep the Christian faith. They have their own beliefs in the spirits of nature.
We Voyageurs, too, have our superstitions. We throw coins into lakes to ensure safe crossing; we perform rites and rituals to bring good fortune. But we do not follow the rules of any religion. We have our own rules.
It is late when we stop for the night and unload the canoes. We make camp, and eat the fish and cornmeal that the cook prepares.
When the camp is silent, I lie under the shelter of the canoe and think of the guide. I wonder how many generations have passed down this knowledge, father to son, for a hundred years or more: a cross carved into a tree, a symbol of a power that guides and protects.
And I think of this, too: If a memory of faith can survive in this wild land, perhaps we are not servants of chance and fortune, after all. Perhaps, while we sing our songs of love and work and loss, there is a Spirit who hears and guides our paths beneath the circling stars.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: À la claire fontaine (At the Clear Fountain) was the favorite of the songs sung by the French-Canadian Voyageurs.
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