Every year during the second weekend of August, Grand Portage and the Grand Portage National Monument hosts Rendezvous Days and a Powwow. During the event, 1000s of people and 100s of reenactors show up at Grand Portage to experience what life was like for fur traders, who used canoes. The event celebrates the cultural heritage of the Anishinaabe and the history of fur trading in the area. The Rendezvous Days celebration harkens back to a different time, when beaver pelt was one of the most important trade items in the world. All across North America, the canoe held a central role in the trading of beaver pelts. It was easier to travel through the Boreal forest by water than by foot and to take advantage of that the natives designed and built canoes. When the Europeans began to invade North America, they early arrivals used the canoe to penetrate further and eventual carry out sophisticate trade operations.
The main trader in the Grand Portage area was the North West Company, a beaver pelt trading juggernaut. In August of every year, the fur traders, known as voyageurs, would carry their trade goods from inland trading posts to Grand Portage to exchange for more trade goods and to get a paycheck. The arrival of the voyageurs meant a celebration. It also meant the arrival of many of the important Scottish business owners and partners to the area. The celebration was alive with bagpipers, wealthy owners and unpaid interns, knows as pork eaters. One of the North West Company’s partners was Alexander Mackenzie, a Scottish explorer, who completely the first east to west crossing of North American by a European. He completed the journey 10 years before the Lewis and Clark expedition.
I’ve written before about Experiential Values in Canoeing and Kayaking, and how in A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold argues cultural values make and feed a healthy culture. In the book, he writes about split-rail values, which are the understanding of the history of a sport and the participation in the history of it to make your own experience deeper. I feel like the Rendezvous Days is one event that can help deepen your connection to canoeing. It’s worth visiting at least once in your life to see how it might have looked during the fur trade. To hike the historic Grand Portage, a 8-mile portage that has been used for 1000s of years, adds to your understanding of how canoeing was done for 1000s of years. After you experience these things, each dip of a paddle ties you to that history and enriches the experience of canoeing.
I try to make it to Grand Portage each year, but I missed last year. This year, I was able to make it and I took a few pictures. Here’s a gallery of images. Click to make the thumbnail larger.