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In Their Own Voices

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In his memoirs, John Niddrie describes the method and the labour that was required for voyageurs to complete a portage. Niddrie himself was noted for his willingness to help out during portages and carried some of the heavier loads himself:

Reaching a portage, the men had to become beasts of burden, upon whose backs the whole cargo was transported, if upon the river, beyond the danger zone, or if following a chain of lakes, to the next water course. The short season, the changeable weather, the great distance to be covered, all of these kept the personnel going at top speed.

The ordinary load per each trip across these portages is two pieces or two hundred pounds. A portage strap is affixed to the load. This strap has a broad forehead band, and is pulled over the head into position. If the load be properly balanced with a good heavy top pack, away goes the man on the run, mostly, with both hands swinging at his side. It is almost incredible the weights that some of these regular freighters can thus carry. I have seen a slim, slight young fellow with three hundred and seventy-five pounds to a load, but the portage was not lengthy, and he was moving carefully.

Speaking from experience, he gives some advice on the proper dress for travel:

It was a dull gray February morning with low-hanging clouds when my Indian boy Willie, about thirteen years of age, and I packed up our sleigh containing food and blankets, hitched up our dogs, and took the trail northward, God's Lake being our objective point. I ran ahead on snowshoes, faithful Willie driving the dogs. Through the woods, across the back lake, and on to the long portage between us and Knee Lake we hurried, for ever and anon there came on the frost-laden air the one word of command, "Marse!" in Willie's clear treble voice. And "Marse!" it was to me as I dodged, now in, now out, beneath the snow-laden pine tree branches.

By and by the stars one by one flickered and died out, and the dim gray daylight came stealing over us. The clouds rose and the keen north wind intensified and cut like a knife as we hurried along. We crossed the height-of-land and were now on the descending slope to Knee Lake, which we reached all in good times. The morning air was bitterly cold as we took up the long open stretch. I had, however, long ago learned that to travel with any degree of comfort in the rigours of the northern winter, one must clothe himself judiciously, that is, have a sufficient quantity of good warm clothing on, and yet not too much to retard active movement. The Main thing is to keep the blood circulating vigorously.


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