In 1811, a British cartographer became the first to pioneer a long-coveted fur trade route from the Canadian Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest. Traveling by birchbark canoe, David Thompson descended the Kootenay River from present-day British Columbia, crossed the northern fringes of Montana and Idaho and then portaged into the Columbia River along the Washington-Oregon border to the Pacific Ocean. This accomplishment was but one of Thompson’s wide-ranging but often overlooked laurels, which included over 55,000 miles of exploration in the North American west and creating groundbreaking maps of over 1.5 million square miles of terrain that shaped the fur trade and influenced the route of explorers Lewis and Clark. In fact, some of Thompson’s incredibly accurate maps were used into the 20th century.
In 2008, a group of Canadian “big canoe” enthusiasts and history buffs along with the David Thompson Bicentennial Partnership (www.davidthompson200.org/eng/) organized a trip from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, to Thunder Bay, Ontario—a 2,000-mile fur trade route that Thompson plied 200 years before. Eighteen teams of seven to 14 paddlers, including four Americans, participated, paddling 26-foot voyageur-style canoes. Now, in preparation for the 2011 sequel—a 45-day, 1,100-mile run down the Kootenay and Columbia rivers to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Thompson’s route to the Pacific Northwest—Voyageur Brigade Society (www.voyageurbrigade.org) organizer and 2008 paddler Don Galloway is hoping to rally a stronger U.S. contingent for a trip that will largely take place on American soil.
“In 2008 the history was an excuse to go on an adventure and what we came away with was totally unexpected,” says Galloway. “I guess you could say we have about 250 Canadians that are now bit by the voyageur bug and we would like to spread the disease.”
As much as Thompson (1770-1857) was a key player in Canadian history, he also played a critical role in establishing fur trade routes in Oregon, Washington and parts of the Rocky Mountain states. After retiring from the fur-trading Northwest Company, he paddled and mapped the international border in the present-day Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Galloway says the commemorative journeys by voyageur canoe are as much about celebrating Thompson’s legacy as they are enjoying social time on historical waterways in efficient, easy to paddle “big boats.”
“There’s no other feeling like it when you get a group of six skilled paddlers in a voyageur canoe,” he says. “It’s a real team sport and you can cover some serious distances in a day. You don’t get that paddling a tandem canoe.”
– Conor Mihell
Watch a four-part series on this project below: