A sign at Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota. The small print reads “The short, soft, barbed undercoat of beaver fur, ‘beaver wool,’ was ideal for making hats that were waterproof, durable, and could be pressed and steamed into any shape. The only problem was that beaver had been hunted virtually to extinction in Europe. Reports of large beaver populations in North America ultimately integrated the once remote Great Lakes region into a global capitalist market.” 
LISA BRAINARD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
A sign at Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota. The small print reads “The short, soft, barbed undercoat of beaver fur, ‘beaver wool,’ was ideal for making hats that were waterproof, durable, and could be pressed and steamed into any shape. The only problem was that beaver had been hunted virtually to extinction in Europe. Reports of large beaver populations in North America ultimately integrated the once remote Great Lakes region into a global capitalist market.” LISA BRAINARD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
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It was the mid to late 1800s that saw the Dakota Conflict in Minnesota, the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Wounded Knee Massacre and wagon trains. That era of Indian wars and westward progression of pioneers continues to keep my main focus in history and travels.

But last year I expanded the horizon a little. I peered back to the next earlier era in North American history – that of the fur trade and voyageurs. My curiosity was piqued when Historic Adventure Travel Tours, www.historicadventuretours.com, the motorcoach company operated by John Grabko of Spring Valley, offered a fur-trade-era-themed trip last July to Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada.

My decision to go had a few aspects. I’d always wanted to visit Thunder Bay – you know, see a city (on Lake Superior) and culture in a foreign country, even if close by. It had been a long time since my previous quick swoop through Canada around Niagara Falls.

There was no planning for me to do other than packing. Perhaps I’d look online at sites we’d be visiting to familiarize myself with things of special interest to me. Most importantly, I could just sit back, ride and not worry about finding locations or getting lost.

Later in the summer, a road trip was planned with a friend to northwest Nebraska to see the total solar eclipse. On past trips I’d always driven right by the Museum of the Fur Trade on Highway 20 at Chadron, Neb. Well, with a good introduction on the motorcoach trip, it now made absolute sense to visit.

I also wanted to see how I might handle walking a lot – since I’m now a slow poke – as well as fairly long days of exciting touring. There would be no midday naps for this night owl, haha. So, I did fine and slept well at night. However, I found I still thought of myself as a speedy hiker. My cane and I were walking near and far – um, it seemed a bit far to try to see everything. (I blame this on my mystical, gotta-get-around cane for its relentless, overactive enthusiasm . . . I mean, um, it’s surely not me, nope!)

Note to self: I must remember! I now walk maybe half a mile per hour if things are working well. (And I just bet converting miles to meters/kilometers is also partly to blame, ummm, yeah, sure…)

Fort William

In Thunder Bay, we stopped at the epitome of fur trade era reconstruction and interpretation, Fort William Historical Park (FWHP). I can’t say enough to recommend this site and all its activities. First, a young voyageur dressed in period clothing got on board the motorcoach – the “big canoe,” as he called it – and talked about things we’d see at Fort William. Then, ahem, we put our paddles aside and got out. He led us on a tour through the grounds.

Highlights included the Great Hall, a banquet hall with many tables and having a few bedrooms for the company leaders; the building where the canoes were constructed, repaired and stored; an apothecary with (sometimes nasty) medicinal remedies offered; a bakery; and the arrival of a voyageur canoe and its furs on the Kaministiquia River, and then the ensuing barter of goods for furs.

Here, I must say the “trader” from our group kept everyone laughing as she did a great job bantering and bartering and putting down that fur she wanted, to keep its value low compared to what she might trade for it.

There was also a game of lacrosse – with its Native American history – in an open area of lawn. Most of us turned down the offer to try it out, but tour guide and apparent ringer Susan Raye showed us all how it’s done. More info on Fort William can be found at http://fwhp.ca/.

Grand Portage

A visit to Grand Portage National Monument, just south of the U.S.-Canada border in Minnesota, showed more of the same at a smaller facility, this one connecting a portage from the falls of the Pigeon River border to Lake Superior. In earlier days I’d hoped to someday backpack the portage trail, around 8 miles one way, to camp at the long-gone Fort Charlotte site on the river. This time I was happy to waddle along to the lakeshore, see another Great Hall, check a lookout tower, see an Indian village and its garden, and I especially liked seeing a costumed interpreter felting the inner side of beaver fur to make a period hat. Its great popularity in Europe marked the start of the fur trade, after all. More information can be found at www.nps.gov/grpo/index.htm

Museum of the Fur Trade

One month later, a friend and I stopped at the Museum of the Fur Trade at Chadron, Neb., on our road trip. My first bit of advice here is allow yourself time to check it out thoroughly (one-half hour before closing, ummm, is not enough time!) It looks like I’ll need to make another visit in the future. The museum has a reputation for the fine quality and extent of its collection. Another area couple stopped on their summer trip and noted its extensive early gun collection. The museum had a lot of everything, despite its small look from the highway. More information for this stop can be found at www.furtrade.org

There you have it. Native Americans, Scottish, French, British, Americans and later the famed “mountain men” were all part of the fur trade at various times and various locations. Start digging into the history if you’re interested. You already know some excellent sites to visit.

Lisa Brainard still enjoys lifelong pursuits of the outdoors, history and travel following a serious accident and stroke in September 2012. She’s written this column weekly for about 15 years.