Journey to Voyageurs speaks to paddlers of yore

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 20, 2010 - 9:18 AM

A language immersion program brought a group together to travel in the footsteps of French-Canadian fur traders.

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Rainy weather didn’t dampen spirits of a French immersion camping and canoeing expedition on Kabetogama Lake in Voyageurs National Park. Samantha Peterson of Bloomington and Tom Davies of Saratoga, Calif., dug into the wind.

Photo: Jackie Crosby, Star Tribune

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The swarthy voyageurs of the late 17th and early 18th century were a hearty bunch who muscled 4-ton loads of fur pelts across windy waters and rocky portages. They worked 14-hour days, paddling birchbark canoes 3,000 miles across the Great Lakes and other waterways before arriving at their trading posts.

We set out to be modern-day voyageurs.

As part of an adult learning program through Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji, four adult students and two teachers spent a week exploring the Minnesota northwoods canoeing, camping, singing and talking -- all in French.

Though we traveled in aluminum canoes and ferried our supplies in waterproof packs and giant plastic tubs, expedition leader François Fouquerel and assistant Ashley (Mireille) Horan tied our language lessons and experiences to the French-Canadian trappers and traders who worked this land centuries ago.

We ate roubabou, a stew enjoyed by the voyageurs and their Ojibwe Indian partners. We sang chansons about the wanderings of the migratory traders. And at night, we listened to the same ancient yodel of the loons (les huards) as we fell asleep.

• • •

Voyageur means "traveler," and we knew it would be an adventure. I joined a diverse crew of French learners: an attorney from California, an Air Force language analyst from Bloomington and a former 4-H county extension educator from Hawaii.

"En avant!" shouted Mireille, and we pointed our three canoes into Kabetogama Lake in Voyageurs National Park.

The forest ahead was screened in mist, and the blanket of clouds turned the water a deep gray. We had high hopes for better weather but weren't so lucky.

By the time we landed at our campsite two hours later, driving rain and falling temperatures had taken their toll. Gortex was of no use.

Marianne Whiting, 55, an experienced camper and former Minnesotan who now lives in Kailua, Hawaii, changed out of her soaked clothes -- twice.

François propped up the cooler to break the wind on his propane cooking flame, and he miraculously delivered a thick brown roubabou of wild rice, split peas, celery and carrots. He assured us that this food of the mighty voyageurs would give us strength and sustain us for whatever followed. We ate it standing up, backs against the wind.

Yet even in a downpour that one of our French songs playfully described as a party only frogs would enjoy, the stunning beauty of Voyageurs National Park pulled us in.

Established in 1975, the park is a transitional zone between the boreal forests to the north and deciduous forests to the south. The mix of aspen, birch, pines, spruce and balsam are a haven for wildlife.

On a hike one day, we saw plenty of evidence (caca) that wolves had walked our same trail. We never tired of seeing the many bald eagles overhead, and one morning we spotted a pair of white pelicans on the water.

• • •

While learning grammar and vocabulary is vital, the philosophy of Concordia Language Village is to get people talking -- no matter how elementary their skills.

François, 45, dean of the French programs, grew up in Normandy and has worked at Concordia Language Villages for two decades. Mireille, 28, has been speaking French since she was 9 and has been on staff at Concordia for a decade. The two had as much passion for the outdoors as they did for helping the four of us learn French.

For our "Les Voyageurs" adventure, we spent three nights at Voyageurs National Park and three others camping and canoeing at Turtle River Lake, part of the 800-acre campus of the Concordia Language Villages.

Meals were a gourmand's delight. Bread was fresh-baked and different each day. Baguettes, whole grains, and loafs rife with cranberries, walnuts and wild rice.

François prepared restaurant-quality meals over a roaring fire. Poached salmon fettuccini with cream sauce, duck stew with vegetables, plenty of lentils and wild rice (rice sauvage). Like the voyageurs, we ate a lot of fish. We just didn't catch them ourselves.

The voyageurs of yore would get rousted out of bed at dawn, according to an 1978 Appleton's Journal account. Within five minutes, "the prows of the boat brigades swung into the lake, and the day's voyage began."

Our day began more slowly, with François and Mireille singing and clapping a lively chanson.

Tom Davies, a 67-year-old lawyer from Saratoga, Calif., was usually up before the rest of us. He had been studying French for 10 years, and his two children and wife also speak the language.

Marianne, a well-organized traveler who considers herself an intermediate-beginner in French, was zipping out of the tent early as well. I started slowly, my beginner's brain still aching from trying to communicate with my paddlemates.

Bringing up the rear often was Samantha Peterson, 25, a Korean linguist for the Air Force. She studied French at Concordia Language Villages in her youth and had a strong command of the language.

Though we craved sunny skies and gentle breezes, the weather presented opportunities for new words. We learned the difference between the normal kind of wave (la vague) and the large choppy ones that sometimes have whitecaps. These are les moutons, which also means "the sheep."

On our last day in the park, we paddled to a rocky outcrop to shield us from the unyielding wind. François led us in a toast once used by the traders at the end of their long days.

The voyageurs, passing around a long-stemmed Native American tobacco peace pipe, would offer five salutations.

In that spirit, we lifted our water bottles:

À la mère de tous les saints. (To the mother of all saints.)

Au roi. (To the king.)

À la traite des fourrures dans toutes ses branches. (To the fur trade in all its branches.)

Au voyageurs leurs femmes et leurs enfants. (To the voyageurs, their wives and their children.)

Aux membres absents. (To those absent.)

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

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    Concordia Language Villages began in 1961 with a two-week class in German, at a time when the immersion method for teaching language to children was experimental.

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