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Science And Navigation

The art of navigation

As the first people to travel North America's waterways, Natives passed their knowledge of the land and its transportation networks on to the Europeans. The voyageurs adapted traditional knowledge to build the light and efficient birch bark canoe. Distances were calculated according to time and "pipées" or pipe breaks taken during a day, so a day's journey might be described as a "six-pipe" day.

Native and European knowledge

Champlain's astrolabe

Champlain's astrolabe

Many European explorers practised the science of navigation. They used tools such as the compass, astrolabe, cross staff and sextant to explore North America's waterways. But above all, the Europeans needed to resort to Natives' immense knowledge of these lands.

Two maps: one by the Native Ochagach, the other by the European Phillippe Buache

Two maps: one by the Native Ochagach, the other by the European Phillippe Buache

Native peoples didn't use drawn maps in the European sense but instead held maps of the country in their heads. They would convey these mental maps as needed in drawings made with materials at hand, for example charcoal and birch bark. These maps were useful to the voyageurs, teaching them about the continent's landmarks and navigable rivers. Information from Aboriginal peoples, combined with observations of Europeans who had journeyed to the West, helped explorers draw the first official maps of North America.

Canoeing methods

The brigade guide decided which techniques the crew should use to manoeuvre the canoe. If downstream rapids looked relatively passable, the bouts (the devants and the gouvernail) descended them aboard the canoe, which was first emptied of its cargo. This technique is known as a décharge. Emptying only a portion of the cargo is called a demi-charge. In dangerous spots, the voyageurs towed the canoe from the shore using a rope. In shallow rapids, they would let the canoe drift through the deepest section. In deep and turbulent rapids, they attempted to keep the canoe away from rocks and trees. They used poles to manoeuvre upstream in minor rapids.

Loading the canoes

Loading a Montreal canoe (canot de maître)

Loading a Montreal canoe (canot de maître)

Cargo such as trading goods and canoeing aids were placed throughout the canoe. A series of poles three or four inches in diameter were laid lengthwise along the bottom, helping to distribute the weight of the crew and merchandise evenly. Apart from the cargo of trade goods or furs, other equipment included a sheet of canvas (for protection against rain), a sail, an axe, rope, a kettle, a sponge for bailing water, as well as canoe repair kit which included bark, roots and gum.

Precious items such as gunpowder, ammunition and rum were stored in watertight casks. Dry goods were packed in casks or bundles. Furs and blankets were compressed for shipment, for protection and to save space. Keeping the weight of each piece to about 90lbs (40kg) was important for portaging, when the brigades had to unload and reload the canoe. It was also important for balancing a fully loaded canoe.

Canoe repair

The voyageurs repaired their canoes as time and circumstance required, often after setting up camp for the night. They used wattape, made from the roots of spruce or similar trees, to sew larger repairs, and then covered the seams with pitch to make them watertight. They made pitch from a mixture of spruce gum, animal fat and charcoal. The bark, wattape and pitch made up the repair kit, which was called an "agret".

Favourable weather

Canoe under sail

Canoe under sail

Certain weather conditions worked in the voyageurs' favour. When a wind called La Vieille rose on large bodies of water, they could raise a sail and save travelling time while reducing paddling effort. With the wind behind them, canoes could reach speeds of 8 to 10 knots. When the wind was too strong, the men would do a dégradé, meaning they would go ashore to rest and wait. They often undertook trips across the Great Lakes at night, when the wind died down. To forecast weather, the voyageurs studied the sun, wind direction and cloud types.

Did you know?

In the days of the fur trade, the compass consisted of a small wood box covered with a glass plate. Under the glass was a magnetized needle that sat on a pivot. To get an accurate reading, the device needed to remain still, not always an easy task aboard a canoe.

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