French voyageur paddles into Spring Valley

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE Adele Stacken and Susie Mettler are spruce trees that Arn Kind, as a French voyageur, has volunteered as the source of bark for lashing the pieces of his birchbark canoe together.

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE Arn Kind presents his program on French voyageurs at the Spring Valley Community Center last Wednesday evening as part of the Spring Valley Public Library's annual summer reading program.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Dry toast, worm poop and fine furs – oui, monsieur, they are related.

“How many of you know about Marco Polo?  Not the game you play in the swimming pool, but the guy who was the very first man to cross the Arabian Desert to China?” asked French voyageur Jacques, portrayed by history collector Arn Kind, standing in the Spring Valley Community Center before an audience of more than 80 Spring Valley Public Library program attendees last Wednesday evening who may or may not have had an idea what Marco Polo had to do with the French fur trade in North America, but who were more than game to hear the upcoming explanation. 

Jacques had arrived by the cheerful notes of his harmonica, then noticed the crowd watching him seemed perplexed by his French accent, eventually expressing his displeasure that everyone in the room spoke English, “that ugly language,” but forgiving them for their shortcomings because of their enthusiasm for his visit. 

“I am a traveler, but I travel by canoe – I travel on the rivers, lakes and streams and I am a strong and handsome voyageur. I am tres beau. I am also the most humble voyageur in all Canada,” he claimed.

The audience gave a hearty yet doubtful giggle before the voyageur went on, “The very first business to ever take place in Minnesota was the fur trade. There was no need for currency or money. We barter. We do not pay money for things – we trade.  But it happened by accident that the very first people to come to North America came here…when they did find North America, they were disappointed.” 

That’s when he asked the crowd how many knew that Marco Polo is a historical figure, not just a pool game. Polo was the very first man to cross the Arabian Desert to China, and he brought back things that you can only get in the Far East and China. 

“People saw those things, and they were amazed,” he explained. “He brought back spices.  Spices?  Why would people get very excited about spices?  You are spoiled today.  You cannot help but be spoiled because you live in the 21st century. 

“What if you lived a long time ago in Minnesota?  The only foods you’d experience are those that grow here and the meat from animals that live here.  What if all you got every morning for breakfast was a piece of toast?  You would get very, very bored with toast.  But if your mother put butter on it one morning, you’d think, ‘This is amazing.’  And after a few more mornings eating toast with butter on it, your mother puts a little sugar on it.  Sugar is a spice.  And after a few more mornings eating toast with butter and sugar, your mother puts cinnamon on it.  Your taste buds are so excited that they’re doing a happy dance and you nearly wet yourself.  You understand why people in Minnesota who do not have refrigeration would be excited to have oranges?” 

He then called up a small-in-stature volunteer and told her to hold her hand out: “I have a gift.  I give you a worm.  You don’t get to keep the worm, but you get to keep what comes out of the end of the worm – its poop.  That’s silk.  Most of you say that your pajamas are the most comfortable clothing, but the most comfortable clothing you have is your birthday suit, but you’d be in trouble for going to school in your birthday suit, so the next most comfortable thing is silk because when you wear silk, it feels like you’re naked.  But silk is expensive.”

He outlined how the European race to travel to China and the Far East came about and how explorer after explorer attempted to find a passage to China that didn’t require months of travel.  However, maps of the world showed just how small the explorers’ understanding was of the planet, and they kept bumping into North America as they tried to get to China faster. 

That’s how the search for the Northwest Passage began, and how Henry Hudson became “so obsessed with finding the Northwest Passage that he and his crew were out too long, and his crew saw that the weather was going to turn the water to ice.  They mutinied and put Mr. Hudson in a lifeboat, said au revoir, and to this day, nobody knows what happened to Hudson, but we do know that a body of water was named for him, the Hudson Bay. 

“The French came the closest to finding the Northwest Passage – Jacques Cartier was happy to find that the St. Lawrence Seaway was a wide and deep river going west, but it got shallower and narrower until he reached Ontario and tasted the water.  He was disappointed to find that it was fresh water, not salty seawater.  He was disappointed when he got to Niagara Falls and couldn’t go any further, but the French, when we cannot find the Northwest Passage, we are not disappointed.  We say, “Who cares?’”

Voyageur Jacques then showed a spiffy top hat made from beaver fur and told the English-speakers that the beaver pelt is the most valuable. 

“We are not interested in the coarse outer fur.  We’re interested in the fur underneath.  We’re not interested in the pelt or the skin at all,” he said. “We take the soft fur underneath and sell it to hat-makers who make it into felt, and then they make the felt into many styles of hats.” 

He briefly relayed how hat-makers formed beaver hats using mercuric nitrate, which caused neurological diseases that led them to be known as “mad hatters,” right up until 1941, when the armed forces needed the mercury for detonating bombs in World War II and use of mercuric nitrate in hat production ceased. 

But more important was the observation that Native Americans, also called “Indians” because of the explorers’ thinking they’d reached India, valued gift-giving as a part of their culture. 

“I trade with them to try to get as many things, as many beaver pelts so that they can be made into clothes,” he explained. “But the Indians, they don’t like you.  You come with a piece of paper that says, ‘The land belongs to me,’ and they think you’re crazy because the land belongs to God, and now you think the land belongs to you.  They have no written language, so this scratching means nothing.  You English, they don’t like you, but they like the French.  We come to trade with them, we trade for the skins of their four-legged brothers.  So they like us because we do things for them.”  

Fur trading posts were all across North America, and always near lakes and rivers, humming from spring to fall with activity as the traders went up and downriver in 40-foot birch-bark canoes made by the Native Americans, sewn together with spruce bark lashing. Jacques borrowed tall Susie Mettler and smaller Adele Stacken to demonstrate which tree had the more desirable bark. 

He cited that the keel-less canoes were paddled by 14 men no taller than 5 feet 5 inches so as to leave more room for 60 to 70 90-pound packs of trading items and furs that they carried from shore to shore, and that an average day in the life of a voyageur was one of work and a little bit of song to keep the paddling in time. 

A young volunteer chosen to be his apprentice ended up being dressed in the loose shirt that allowed voyageurs to paddle around North America – taking 20,000 strokes every hour — without chafing, the sash that prevented intestinal hernias when lifting the canoe or the packs while portaging – because intestinal hernias, not drowning, were the most common cause of voyageurs’ deaths, and the nifty red tocque hat to keep a man warm in chillier weather. 

“If you do not survive the first year, if you die along the way, most voyageurs don’t know how to drown, but they learn quickly if they hit a rock in the water…it comes to visit you,” he said. “A hernia was the most common cause because when portaging, every voyageur had to carry six pieces, or packs, and they’d use a portage collar to strap the pieces across their forehead, and they’d carry two at a time.  That meant that you’d get an intestinal hernia, and no longer do you poop out because you poop in.  So the sash kept your guts in.”

As he introduced two more young volunteers to a young lady chosen to represent the Native American tribe’s chief he stated, “Gift-giving was very important.  The first thing you would do was give gifts – wool blankets, kettles and mirrors.” 

Additionally, there was giving of a beaver hat in a style no longer fashionable in Europe.  “But does he know this?” asked Jacques. “No, the chief lives in North America…I’ll loan a musket and enough powder to fire it for the next 10 months, let the chief borrow it now in exchange for all these beaver pelts, everything that they’ve caught and skinned.  Now who do you think is getting the best deal out of this?  The chief is thinking, ‘He gives me all these wonderful things that I cannot get, and what does he want in return?  Just the skins of my four-legged brothers.’  Both sides think they’re taking advantage of the other.”

Voyageur Jacques conveyed that the era of fur trading lasted from the 1600s to approximately 1850, when beaver was replaced by silk as the item of luxury, and that the Native Americans had become dependent on the white man for items that helped them survive or flourish. 

At the end of the upriver trip with history collector Kind as Jacques, a crew of 14 young paddlers was assembled from the audience and lined up. 

“Raise your hand if you know how to swim.  We’re pretending you don’t know how to swim because when we get to the rapids, if you don’t know how to swim, you’ll want to portage, but if you do know how to swim and the canoe tips over, you’re going to swim away while watching me and the canoe go down.  You’ll say, ‘I’m OK,’ but I’ll be watching my goods and canoe sinking to the bottom of the rapids,” he explained. 

Next up was a paddling lesson, set to the music of a French song and navigated through the rocks by a traveler assigned to call out “Rock, starboard,” or “Rock, port!” so that the person at the back of the canoe whose paddle served as a rudder could steer through safely.  “Everybody in the crew say to your navigator, ‘Thank you, Monsieur, for killing us!’” he joked. 

And finally, he gave a quick lesson on how to avoid a duel between full-time and part-time voyageurs who disagreed on some very basic tenets of the fur trade and what class one should be in as they camped at a trading post.  “It’s been a long time since there were voyageurs,” he said. “Anyone here today know one?  No?”

That’s when the long-haired Jacques suddenly introduced himself as Kind by dropping his French accent.  “I speak English like you, and guess what?” he asked. He reached up, grabbed his tocque, and declared as his hair came away with it, “It keeps the mosquitos away, but I haven’t had any hair since I was 25!”   

Kind’s appearance was one of numerous Spring Valley Public Library summer reading program presentations, and library director Jenny Simon requested that attendees submit answers to a survey that was distributed to guide library staff in choosing presenters, particularly those appearing courtesy of the Minnesota Library Legacy Act funding mechanism.