In 1802, the North West Company fur traders built a post on the banks of the Yellow River. As winter set in, traders from the rival XY Company arrived and built their own stockade. It’s the only place in North America where trading posts were next door. The later arrivals were led by a bourgeois who was only sixteen-years-old, hired on as a leader simply because he could read and write.
It at first glance baffling why two companies would set up camp next to each other, competing as they were for the fur trade from Ojibwe. When you consider that one of them was a teenager, how far he was from home, and how deep the wilderness must have seemed, it’s pretty easy to see why he made the decision.
Our group of paddlers arrived at the site of these fur posts mid-afternoon today. We drove from our meeting in Somerset, where 61 canoes and kayaks were loaded on trailers, gear was loaded in the back of a U-Haul, and people were loaded into rusty vans made during the Carter presidency. Some passengers got out and walked up the big hill from the parking lot so the old vehicles could make the climb.
The fur posts are now the site of a sprawling historical park, operated by the Burnett County Historical Society. We set up our tents amidst red and white pines on the banks of the river. We were fed pizza baked at 600 degrees in clay ovens. We were serenaded by a fur trade reenactor playing a variety of wood flutes and telling stories of the men who first extracted resources and lived often short, but exciting, lives.
The biggest killer of the voyageur was not drowning – though trading companies preferred men who couldn’t swim so they wouldn’t run rapids and if they did and swamped, would cling to the packs of furs to ride them down – but hernias, from carrying 180 pound packs across each portage. If they got a hernia, they were left with rum, tobacco, a bit of food, and left to make their peace on the side of the trail.
We also tried not to think about the weather. It has been gray and cool and mostly dry today, but the word being used for the rain on the way tonight and tomorrow is “torrential.” Even though it was hours off, it was good motivation to get our tents set up promptly. We’ll see how things look in the morning, and proceed with respect for the river and the elements.
As always, we’ll get through the challenges with our neighbors, just like those lonely fur traders did here 200 years ago.
Tomorrow, we start our paddle at Riverside Landing, heading for Lower Tamarack Landing. Weather permitting.