It's a mystery why a young woman joined her husband on journeys by birchbark canoe along Canada’s fur trade highway, some 150 years ago. The wives of most Hudson Bay Company officials stayed home in England. Frances Anne Hopkins, on the other hand, joined her husband Edward Hopkins on long-distance voyageur brigades, traveling with the young, infamous ne'er-do-wells who logged long hours paddling 36-foot canoes and serving as the engines of Canada’s first industry. In doing so, Frances Anne left an "unparalleled artistic record of the realities of 19th century voyageur life"—iconic visual reminders of a colorful lifestyle, just before the fur trade barons swapped canoes for greater economies of scale in the form of steamships and trains.
Frances Anne joined at least three multi-week wilderness canoe trips on the voyageur route from Montreal to Fort William, the fur trade post at the western terminus of Lake Superior. For close to a century, this 1,200-mile network of waterways, including the Ottawa, Mattawa and French rivers, and Great Lakes Huron and Superior, bustled with trade canoes and echoed with the often-bawdy chansons of the French Canadian voyageurs.
Frances Anne sketched vignettes of the voyageur life: A progression of big canoes tracing a rockbound shore in dense fog; wonderfully detailed campsite scenes at dawn and dusk; a canoe passing a small waterfall, with one of the paddlers resting his paddle and reaching over the gunwale to pluck a waterlily; and a dynamic rendition of a fur trade canoe descending Montreal's powerful Lachine Rapids. Interestingly, the artist included herself in several of her works—a lone woman wearing a lacy parasol and long dress. She returned to her native England in 1869 and completed a series of oil paintings. Her canvases—signed only with her initials—were displayed at the prestigious Royal Academy of London. Today, many are held in the collection of the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.
>> Learn more about Frances Anne Hopkins and view some of her paintings here.
Last summer, Toronto-based fine art photographer Naomi Harris embarked on a project to recreate Frances Anne Hopkins's journeys with a 70-day canoe trip of her own. Harris says Frances Anne stands out in Canada's early history as a compelling enigma. "Little is known about Franny Anne as she didn't keep a journal, which would have been the norm during that time," notes Harris. "[But] I have a feeling she was probably more outdoorsy than she was given credit for. Records show she brought a canoe back with her to England so chances are she knew how to paddle. I picture her at dinner parties, dressed to the nines and holding everyone captive with her stories of going down the rapids. There's not a lot of women who could fit in with a crew of voyageurs, guys who were probably a little fresh with their comments.
"I think that she was probably what I like to refer to as a 'broad,'" adds Harris. "She could stand up for herself. That's the impression I like to have of her."
Harris, who lived in the US for 24 years, says she's been drawn to her native Canada for art projects in recent years. She'd only dabbled on a few weekend canoe trips before 2018, so she hired a guide and planned to employ vehicle shuttles when necessary to avoid hazardous sections of open water. Harris commissioned a 17-foot wood-canvas prospector canoe from Quebec's Headwaters Canoes—"it was beautiful, more authentic than Kevlar but it still wasn't birchbark," she says — and dressed in a cotton smock with a wide-brimmed hat, in the style of Frances Anne’s self-portraits. Harris admits the period costume garnered her some curious stares, but she says it was generally quite functional in a sweltering summer weather.
"I wanted to travel as Frances Anne. I was photographing myself," Harris explains. "I was a lot cooler because of [the dress] and the hat was fantastic in the hot sun. I was a little surprised it worked so well. On the days we portaged I wore a pair of shorts underneath and tucked the dress in. There was only one day I didn't wear it when I knew we would be doing a ton of difficult portages on the Mattawa and it would have been dangerous to be wear it. People didn't think it was that odd to be dressed in period costume; they actually assumed I was Mennonite or Amish!"
Harris's expedition stretched from mid-June until the end of August, an impressive feat for a novice paddler. "I can't put my finger on one specific highlight," says Harris, who hopes to continue canoeing having recently moved back to Canada. "It was the whole experience." Ultimately, Harris plans to create a multimedia exhibit revolving around her medium-format film images and digital photography with supporting props to encompass all the senses. For Harris, the experience was as much about exploring Frances Anne's journeys as it was an investigation of women in art.
"One hundred and fifty years ago, a woman was out there doing these trips. That was unheard of at that time," says Harris. "She also had to lie about her identity to be exhibited in the Royal Academy. Flash forward and how much has changed between then and now? I'm hoping that through my experience as Frances Anne and exploring what it was like to be a female artist during her time I can shed light on what it means to be a female artist today and hopefully break some of the boundaries we still face even in modern times."
>> See more photos from Naomi Harris' journey on Instagram
More at CanoeKayak.com
— Destinations: Get Beta for paddling Ontario's French River, at the heart of the Voyageur Highway
— Travelling in the wake of the voyageurs with Canadian canoe adventurers Jennifer Goselin and Pierre Pepin
— En route with Mike Ranta, Canada's "last voyageur"
— Photojournalist David Jackson reflects on the art of a solo journey