The Grand Portage

Available in June 2016

In the 1600’s the increasing demand for furs and the declining population of fur bearers in the Eastern United States forced a shift in trapping activity.  Two French fur traders, Pierre Radisson and Sieur de Groselliers from Quebec explored northern Minnesota in 1655 and returned to Montreal with reports of an abundance of fur bearers in the region. 

Over the next 100 years, the fur trade in the North Central US grew and by 1784 the Grand Portage Depot was the largest fur trading post in the region.  Located on the western shore of Lake Superior at the northeast corner of what is now Minnesota, the Grand Portage Depot was the central gathering point for Voyageurs from the west to deliver their furs for shipment to Montreal via Lake Superior. 

The Voyageurs were the men employed to transport the furs from the wilderness to the buyers.  Hired by the fur companies, these rugged individuals spent 16-18 hours a day paddling canoes loaded with furs, averaging 50-60 paddle strokes per minute.  Roughly once an hour they took a 5-minute break which was considered enough time to finish a ‘pipe’ of tobacco.  This pipe break was actually used as a measure of distance as the hour between pipe breaks allowed them to cover 5 or 6 miles of paddling so a trip of 20 miles might be referred to as a '4 pipe' journey. 

When it came time to make a portage cross country to the next body of water, the Voyageur was expected to carry two bundles of furs at a time (each weighing 90 pounds) across the portage.  This was frequently through wet bogs or across rough rock strewn ground in a thick forest infested with black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies.  I doubt there was a lot of malingering on these portages. 

The trails and pathways that connected the trading post on Lake Superior extended far to the west and required months of travel through the wilderness in the most adverse of conditions imaginable.  This ancient ‘interstate’ system included traveling by canoe whenever possible and portages between the bodies of water to continue the trip.  These trails were so important to this commerce that after years of dispute with Great Britain a portion of the northern boundary of Minnesota was established along one of the key trails, the Grand Portage.

The last leg of the journey down to Lake Superior follows the Pigeon River which is now part of the US/Canadian International border.  The lower, winding 20 miles of the river includes some spectacular water falls as high as 120 feet, making canoe travel impossible without numerous portages around them.  Deciding a single long portage was preferably to numerous short ones, early travelers settled on an 8.5-mile portage starting at Fort Charlotte, bypassing these falls, which became known as the “Grand Portage”, hence the name Grand Portage 'Depot' on the shore of Lake Superior.

From the 1700’s until the early 1800’s, the depot at Grand Portage was a key gathering point for the fur trade.  No doubt after a journey of several months, the Voyageurs were happy to rejoin civilization, however briefly before returning to the wilderness.  This was their opportunity to enjoy ‘real’ food, spirits, a bit of relaxation and acquire personal items from the traders. 

This was the genesis for the Trestle Pine Knives “Grand Portage”.   A knife was absolutely critical to survival as well as performing every day chores.  Whether it involved cutting off a piece of tobacco for their pipe or repairing their canoes.  The Voyageurs were known to like a bit of color in the form of a sash and bright red cap.  Combined with a need for practicality in their personal kit, it seemed likely, could we turn the clock back a couple hundred years, that the Trestle Pine ‘Grand Portage’ would be greatly appreciated.  Simple yet practical, blade steel of a quality they couldn’t imagine, brass bolsters giving a rich appearance and a mosaic pin to add a little flash.  Finish it off with old growth wood handles from trees that were growing in the very forests they traveled through.  I can visualize a Voyageur enjoying a pipe during a portage at the base of one the very trees the handles are made from.