Following the Voyageurs in Manitoba

Manitoba is a Province in central Canada that has some excellent do-it-yourself tours, each of which has a different theme.

One of the most interesting of these self-directed tours, is a paddling trip called In the Paddle Strokes of the Voyageurs.  French fur traders ventured into the Canadian hinterland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. They usually strayed far from the small settlements in their pursuit of furs, and usually travelled the waterways by canoe.  Often they would trade with the First Nation (American Indian) villagers.  Sometimes their trade was carried out with the permission of government authorities, and at other times it was completely illegal.  Whatever the case, these traders were very hardy people who lived under sometimes extreme conditions in their pursuit of valuable furs.

The Voyageurs were the men who paddled the canoes and boats that transported goods and furs across the continent and laboured at the fur trade companies’ posts. Voyageurs were accustomed to long hours and hard work. They worked at least 14 hours a day, were supposed to paddle 50 strokes a minute, and were expected to carry 90-pound bundles of furs; theirs was a tough life. There were several ranks of voyageurs. The avant or bowman was the man at the bow or front of the canoe and he was the guide. At the back was the steersman or gouvernail, who steered the craft. In the middle were the middlemen or milieu, who paddled. To keep everyone paddling together, the voyageurs sang as they travelled.

In the Paddle Strokes of the Voyageurs, celebrates the contribution they made to Canadian life.

This is a half-day paddling excursion along the Red River on the outskirts of Winnipeg, Capital of Manitoba.  It begins on the Seine River where paddlers follow its curves and riverbank forests to its confluence with the Red River. Pass the site of Fort Gibraltar, a reconstruction of a North-West Company fur trading fort and the main site of Winnipeg’s wintertime Festival du Voyageur.  Smaller rivers like the Seine were habitat for the beaver, the animal that became crucial to the trade because of the quality of beaver pelts. Whatever damage trapping did to beaver populations seems to have been reversed as beaver dams often block the Seine today.

As you glide along the main channels, smaller rivers and streams flowing into the major rivers are noticeable. These areas along side rivers and streams are called riparian zones. These small areas are important because they provide critical habitat and maintain biodiversity for the bordering areas.

Plants and trees growing in the riparian zone help to stabilize the soil and reduce erosion. This vegetation is also important during times of flood, as it soaks up the water and slows the speed of the water flooding its banks.

The Red River is 877 km in length from its headwaters of Lake Traverse on the Minnesota-South Dakota border to Lake Winnipeg. The elevation of the Red River falls 233 feet from the headwaters to its mouth. A late spring thaw combined with heavy snowfall can cause the Red River to spill its banks onto the flat lands of the Red River Valley. The Red River gets its name from the clay that lies on its river bottom, giving the water a reddish colour. Its major tributary is the Assiniboine, which joins the Red River at The Forks, the finishing place for In the Paddle Strokes of the Voyageurs. The Forks is an expanse of riverside property in the heart of downtown Winnipeg. A meeting place for thousands of years, it is the city’s most popular gathering place, attracting nearly four million visitors each year.   The trip is 8.6 kilometres in length, and can easily be completed in half a day. Once you reach the forks, you can hand you canoe back (assuming that you rented it), and perhaps head to the donut shop that is located near finishing point for a hit of sugar.

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