They were basically Indian craft because the Nor’westers had for a long time lived among and, frequently, with the Indians. The Cree were great canoe makers. The North Canoe was twenty-five feet in length and four to four-and-a-half feet in beam. Fully loaded with a cargo of twenty-five ninety pound ‘pieces’ plus crew, plus food, plus forty pounds personal gear per man, (a total over two and a half to three tons) it still drew no more than eighteen inches of water. Such a craft weighed no more than three hundred pounds when empty.
The crew consisted of two key men, the “avant” who sat at the front with a paddle seven to nine feet long. He scanned the water ahead to fend the craft off rocks and shoals that the steersmen could not see. The “gouvernail” with a similar paddle stood at the stern to steer. In between, sitting or more often kneeling with armpits almost at water’s level, were the “milieux”, the French Canadian and Metis or Indian paddlers. Their paddles were only about four feet long, narrow, but stocky. Each voyageur owned his own paddle, often given to him by his father, canoe man before him, gaily painted perhaps by his woman.
These voyageurs were gay blades, addicted to bright sashes and long knitted toques made by wives or sweethearts. The paddlemen were much given to alcohol and riotous living when ashore. Much given also to competition, and bragging of exploits that gave them undisputed right to say with pride, “Je suis un homme du Nord.” (I am a man of the North).
While working incredibly long hours on a minimum of food, these men could, and did, sing. French Canadian songs with a marked rhythm dispelled monotony and quarrelsomeness and set the timing for the strokes. They paddled at about forty to forty-five strokes per minute, increasing this to seventy in the races they loved or when speeding an “express canoe” with an important message or person aboard. The record of two thousand miles in a month and four days from Rainy Lake to Fort Chipewyan, by six men, was the highest honor a voyageur ever attained.
North canoes being light, could be portaged by only two men, the craft riding right side up upon their shoulders. Portaging canoe and cargo by carrying one hundred and eighty or more pounds at a time beyond a dangerous or impossible place was the last thing a voyageur wanted to do. He would much rather “pole” or “track”. He might “pole upstream” if the water were too fast to paddle against and the bottom smooth, firm, and not too far down for him to thrust his metal-shod pole or “perche” and push. It required great skill in timing and balance, all the while standing in an unstable craft.
“Lining” or “tracking” was done where there was a pathway above or below waterline on which the men could walk near the water or on it. A towline sixty to a hundred feet long was attached to the bow. This “cordelle” was made of smaller lines all braided. Men put on the one-shoulder harnesses attached to the line, then grasping with one hand, began to pull, like a one sided tug-of-war. One or more men held a short line which was fastened on the stern to keep the canoe from swinging broadside to the current or heading inshore. Careful watch had to be kept so as to pay out a little line or take it in to avoid a rock or root that might scrape the thin shell — much like playing a fish.
The upturned ends of the canoe not only kept waves from being shipped inboard while travelling but raised the gunwales of the craft off the ground when beached upside down at night for inspection and caulking. The men simply lay down, stuck their heads under the thwarts and perhaps laid a tarpaulin down from the craft to the moss, sand, or rock on which they lay for protection from rain or dew. It is said that men who smoked strong tobacco or greased themselves liberally, had protection from insects, but lighting a smoky fire up-wind was mentioned. All in all it was a craft ideally suited to all its uses. Its life span was not more than one year.