Grand Portage

July 14, 2018

We had a lot of fun at Grand Portage. Plus it was my birthday!

There’s a lot of mid-to-late 18th century North American history to be learned here. The living history people we encountered at the park made our visit interesting and entertaining. The signs and exhibits in the visitor center and the reconstructed site made it a real learning experience. I took the photo below from the second floor of the visitor center. If real estate is all about “Location, location, location!” then this place has it, at least when the weather’s nice!

In the 1730s, Cree and Ojibwe Indians showed French explorers how to get from Grand Portage to interior waterways. Using that knowledge a traveler could paddle and portage his way to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, Hudson’s Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. It might take a few days though.

Grand Portage was the key location in the fur trade which extended from Montreal to the wilderness where Native Americans and French trappers caught beaver and other fur-bearing animals for their pelts. The pelts were brought to small trading posts scattered along the waterways, where they were exchanged for trade goods such as blankets, cloth, silver, jewelry, guns, and tools. The pelts from those posts were taken by canoe to Fort Charlotte on the east bank of the Pigeon River.

From Fort Charlotte, voyageurs carried two 90-pound bundles of pelts to Grand Portage, an 8-1/2 mile hike. Dubbed the “wilderness highway,” the trail is rocky, marshy, and has 600 foot hills. Still, voyageurs could make a 17-mile round trip in 6 hours! It takes me almost that long to get out of bed!

At Grand Portage, the pelts were exchanged for trade goods that could be taken back to the scattered trading posts. Montreal canoemen, in the largest canoes, transported the pelts to Montreal and returned with trade goods to Grand Portage. Because of weather, they could only make one round trip per year.

To put things in perspective, the size of the canoes can be related to today’s vehicles: canoes transporting goods between the backcountry and the outposts were like today’s passenger cars; those between these outposts and Fort Charlotte were like delivery trucks; and those between Grand Portage and Montreal were like semis.

Birch bark canoes were used on the first leg of the trip, from the wilderness to the remote outposts.

From there the North Canoe carried cargo between the remote outposts and Fort Charlotte. This canoe was about 18-22 feet in length, could carry about 1-1/2 tons of cargo, was manned by 2-6 voyageurs, and when empty could be carried by two men.

The trip between Montreal and Grand Portage was made in a Montreal Canoe. This canoe was 30-40 feet long, could carry up to 4 tons of cargo, and was manned by 8-16 voyageurs. Empty, it could weigh more than 200 lbs., but still be carried by a group of men over portages.

I think this canoe is a North Canoe.

At Grand Portage, a stockade wall of sharpened logs surrounded the site, which consisted of about 16 separate buildings.

Grand Portage had a company store, a blacksmith’s shop, a cooper’s shop, and storehouses for trade goods. The site’s gatehouse was not intended to prevent attack but to prevent theft and fire. Voyageurs had to set up their camps outside the stockade.

At the dock, trade goods from Montreal were unloaded, sorted, stored, and repacked for transport to the backcountry.

There was the gentleman who taught us, sort of, how explorers back then navigated using only the sun and stars. If I can get lost using a GPS – and I can – then I can’t imagine where I’d end up if I had to use the stars and the sun. Maybe Jupiter.

The largest building was the Great Hall where people ate and conducted business. “Men of wealth” from Montreal and Scotland met with “men of action,” partners who spent the winter on the frontier and negotiated trades for pelts.

Lesser men gathered in a larger, plainer room much like a mess hall. On the day we visited we were entertained by a fiddler. She was extremely good and took the time to demonstrate how easy it was to change a tune from say, bluegrass to Scottish. She was extremely friendly, knowledgeable and talented! We could have listened to her play for hours.

Any visit to Grand Portage is incomplete without at least stepping onto the trail to Fort Charlotte. It was hot, humid, and buggy so we kept the number of steps to a minimum. Just long enough and far enough to get this shot.

And no visit to a National Park site is complete without our granddaughter Chloe earning another Junior Ranger badge. Here she is being sworn in next to a voyageur. She may not be carrying 180 pounds of stuff, but all that bling on her badge sash has to weigh a few pounds at least.

For my birthday dinner we ate at the Harbor House Grille in Grand Marais. It’s a small restaurant in a not-too-large converted house on the main street through town. The menu doesn’t have a large selection of dishes but what we ordered was delicious. It’s too bad we aren’t wine drinkers because they had quite a selection. We were seated on the front porch and we all managed to stuff ourselves.

Another successful day on the road.


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