Since the 1980s, there has been a 36-foot long, 16 passenger (plus two staff), fiberglass Voyageur canoe at the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center in Wellesley Island State Park. No one really knows where the canoe came from or exactly what year it arrived, but there are a few stories told about its origins. Some say there used to be five Voyageur canoes located in parks along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario and some say the canoe was made by NYS Parks’ employees. Ultimately, the mystery of its origin is part of its mystique. What they will say is that every summer for about the last 30 years park visitors and Nature Center staff have headed out on daily trips in our canoe to learn about the history of the Voyageurs and to explore the ecology of Eel Bay, the Narrows, and Escanaba Bay.
Voyageur canoe trips leave the Nature Center docks at 9 am and return at 11 am, but there is plenty for staff to do before anyone ever steps foot into the boat. If it has rained, staff must bail the canoe and dry the wooden seats for passengers.
They also move the boat into place on the docks so it is ready for the day. When that day’s voyageurs come down to the dock house they are fitted with personal floatation devices (PFD’s) and paddles while being taught about the fundamentals of paddling before heading out to the canoe. Loading the canoe with passengers can be quite tricky, as people who are likely to be stronger paddlers must be strategically positioned in the boat and the canoe must be balanced on the water to safely leave the docks. Once the canoe is balanced and its passengers comfortable, staff jump in at the bow (front) and stern (back) and slowly steer the boat out into Eel Bay.
The staff member sitting at the bow of the boat begins the interpretation as the large boat gets underway. They talk about how the canoe weighs 1,000 pounds empty and how it is made of fiberglass. As the passengers paddle, they discuss the importance of Eel Bay as a large, shallow water bay on the St. Lawrence. Then conversation shifts to the Voyageurs who were part of the French fur trading companies that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries. The interpreter weaves a tale about the adventures Voyageurs had as they transported furs, predominately beaver, from Montreal to trading posts along the shores of Lake Superior. As the boat rounds the sharp turn into the Narrows passengers learn what a day in the life of a Voyageur was like, from what they ate to how they were paid. The staff member sitting in the stern who has been quietly working to steer the boat will ease it to a stop as the canoe coasts into Escanaba Bay. Passengers will spend a little time admiring the plentiful water lilies that dot the bay before reversing course and heading back towards the Nature Center. On the return trip to our docks, some time is dedicated to floating along in silence, taking in the sights and sounds of the majestic St. Lawrence River.
The canoe had begun to show its age in recent years but last winter Pat Snyder of River Restorations, a local boat restoration company, beautifully restored it to top condition. A few sections of the gunnels were replaced, the gunnels and seats sanded down and refinished, the seats reinforced to help prevent deflection when people are stepping into the boat, and the fiberglass shell was repainted. The canoe once again looks majestic and is ready to go out on the water!
Each July and August, look for the return of our sleek Voyageur canoe to the Nature Center’s dock. For just $4 (anyone over 13) or $2 (under 13) you can join staff from the Nature Center on a memorable journey on smooth waters, travelling the shorelines of Wellesley Island.
For information on upcoming trips, please visit our Facebook page (Minna Anthony Common Nature Center- Friends). To have enough paddle power to steer the boat, we must have at least 8 people over the age of 18 on board. To reserve a spot on a trip, please call the Nature Center at 315-482-2479.
Post by Molly Farrell, July 2018
Learn more about Voyaguers:
Durbin, William; The Broken Paddle; Delacorte Press, NY, 1997.
Ernst, Kathleen; The Trouble and Fort La Point; Pleasant Company Publications, Middleton, WI, 2000.