What You Didn't Learn in School

Trip Start May 15, 2006
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Trip End Sep 04, 2006


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Flag of United States  , Minnesota
Sunday, October 1, 2006

Grand Portage

During the last part of the eighteenth century, most people in the world knew little about the United States of America. But almost everyone heard about Gitchi Onigaming, La Grande Portage, or The Grand Portage. For hundreds of years this eight and a half mile cut through the Laurentian Shield allowed the trader to reach the four corners of the world: North to the Arctic Ocean, West to the Pacific, South to the Gulf of Mexico, and East to the Gulf of St Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. Whereas the the land rises up to one thousand feet from Lake Superior in under a mile, all the way from Duluth to Thunder Bay and beyond, at Grand Portage the climb is merely seven hundred feet spread over four and a half miles. The rest of the 8.5 mile portage is relative level to the Pigeon River, which becomes the original I-94 out West. The last ten miles of the Pigeon River to Lake Superior is unnavigable: four waterfalls and numerous Pidgeon River Looing West
rapids and cascadesThe native Ojibwe knew it as Gitchi Onigaming and used it as access to the Boundary Waters, Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods and beyond. They, in turn showed the passage to the French fur traders in the early eighteenth century. The French set up a network of trading facilities throughout Southern Canada and the Red River Valley in the Lakota Nation. As you can see in the photo to the right, the River flows along the base of the hills to the left. About fifty miles further on is the height of land, the continental dividing spot for rivers running East and Northwest.

Why all of this interest about the interior of the North American Continent? For almost two hundred and fifty years the European fashion moguls dictated that new self respecting gentleman left his home without wearing a castor, a genuine beaver felt hat. Throughout all the major capitals of Northern Europe this was the norm. Averaging about 1/2 years wages for a working man, only the affluent could afford the genuine article. The life expectancy of the beaver in Europe was as long as mosquito in our trailer. Unlike the pesky mosquito, the beaver population in Europe was practically disseminated.

The sixteen hundreds brought the exploitation of the beaver to the New World. Samuel Champlain, think Lake Champlain, saw the opportunity of trading European wares with the local natives: the Huron and Iroquois. He also recognized the efficiency of traveling by native birch bark canoe over the rapids and into the interior of the continent, just like the natives. The natives loved trading with the French, because the French accepted them and assimilated their cultures. They did not laugh at their superstitions and beliefs. They married into the tribes, becoming family. They entered into treaties with the natives: the French king would come to their aid against their enemies and vice versa. This final point eventually led to the French and Indian War in North America, aka the Seven Years War in Europe.

Word of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow travels quickly among the greedy of this world. In 1670, the English under the direction of Prince Rupert decided to enter the lucrative fur trade by going through the back door, Hudson Bay. Thus the Hudson Bay Company was found. They turned a tidy profit for the English, but never reached the potential of the French traders. The English arrogantly used row boats and found out quickly that they could not transverse the rapids along the rivers leading into the interior of North America. The French controlled the St Lawrence River and its tributaries going to the various tribes to trade. The English were stuck on the shores of Hudson Bay and built their posts waiting for the native to come to them with their furs.. The names of Churchill, York Factory, Albany, etc. still stand today. As an aside, a factory is a place of trade and the factor is the merchant who runs the factory.

For about one hundred years this remained the status quo. Then two events changed the way of doing business: the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Loyalists fled to British Canada and saw money to be made in the fur trade. The Frobisher brothers and Simon McTavish joined forces and founded the Northwest Company, which became one of the richest companies in the world at that time. They erected a distribution center on the shore of Lake Superior at the Grand Portage Bay. The post consisted of sixteen buildings. The National Park Service has restored three of the buildings: the great hall, the kitchen, and the lookout tower. The picture to the right shows the great hall and the lookout tower. The kitchen is behind the great hall
Every year on the second weekend in August the monument holds its rendezvous, which is open to the public. More than three hundred reenactors to relive the golden days of the fur trade. Blacksmiths, tinsmiths, shoemakers, French drill team, cartographer , and many others demonstrate their talents. The kitchen, pictured at the left, becomes a bee hive of activity, where over twenty men and women busily prepare a seven course dinner for the three hundred reenactors. Included on the menu are venison, bear, smoked turkey, salad, vegetables of all kinds, desserts, and fresh roasted coffee. If you are unable to attend the rendezvous festivities, the monument itself is open daily from late May through early October from 9:00 to 5:00. The volunteers and rangers who staff the monument dress in eighteenth century clothing and give tours of the great hall, the kitchen, the historical gardens (the heirloom kitchen garden and the three sisters garden), the warehouse, (containing the 38 foot birch bark Montreal canoe, a 26 foot Northern canoe, and a 90+ year old ricing canoe), a voyageur's encampment, and a replica of an Ojibwe village.
In conjunction with the rendezvous, the Grand Portage Band holds its annual Pow Wow, with over 250 dancers, 21 drumming groups, many vendors, and activities for all ages. Thousands of people come for both the USA and Canada to join in the festivities.
There are plenty of accommodations available to the visitors. If one is RVing, the Lodge has a campground right on the lake shore with full hook ups at a reasonable price. If on e wants to dry camp or tent camp, the pow wow grounds are open. The lodge has many rooms available and there is a small motel at Rydens Truck stop before the Canadian border crossing, about seven miles away.
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