The History of the Voyager Canoes

Discovering Voyagers on the Yukon River Quest 

Rich and Rob of Canoe Trail first witnessed their power, versatility and grace on the Yukon River Quest in 2016 when several teams were racing alongside them.

In fact the winning Voyager crew Aurora Collective, an all girl crew  of outdoor instructors who demonstrated just how quick they can travel #thisgirlcan.  Other voyager crews included the Ace of hearts (raising money for charity) and also the Worsely Crews (from UK plumbing and heating company Worsely Group, also raising money for charity).

Ester's Voyager Canoe on the Yukon River
Ester's Voyager Canoe on the Yukon River

The best Voyager teams set a brilliant stroke rate with high cadence which really makes the boat glide across the water. Every so often (depending on the crew and helm) they would call ‘Hut’ or ‘Switch’ and slide across the seat to change paddling sides. It was like a finely tuned machine watching them power down the river.

Voyager Canoe on the Yukon River
Voyager Canoe on the Yukon River

Canot du Maitre (Montreal Canoe)

On the trip from Montreal to Grand Portage, a large canoe was needed. First, to handle the dangerous waters of the Great Lakes and second the large cargo of trade goods and provisions going out and the fur pelts coming back.

This canoe was 30-40 feet long and was manned by 8-16 voyageurs. Empty, it could weigh more than 200 lbs, but could still be carried by a group over the portages as necessary.

They could carry

  • Sixty packages of merchandise and provisions weighing 90 to 100 lbs. each, placed on either side of the canoe to make a balanced load.
    * Eight men. Each man was allowed one bag of personal belongings weighing 40 lbs.
    * Total weight 8000 lbs or 4 tons.

Canot du Nord (North Canoe)

This canoe was used most often between the remote outposts and Grand Portage. It was about 18-22 feet in length and was manned by 2-6 voyageurs. This canoe was often light enough to be carried by two men.

Voyager canoes were also part of First Nation culture with different indigenous people using them again for transport and travel. They were also used for their celebrations called Potlatch when such feasts and worship was banned. It is known that the Algonquin First Nation began using birch bark canoes patterned after those designed by the Ojibwe around the time the fur trade began. As the fur trade expanded, so did the use of the birch bark canoe. Construction of canoes became a significant industry all along the trade. 

Voyagers vary in size with the largest recorded canoe measures 45.44 m (149 ft 1 in) which was built by students and teachers of Nokomis Regional High School, Newport, Maine, USA. 

Yukon River Land of the Midnight Sun, Yukon River Trips
Yukon River Land of the Midnight Sun, Yukon River Trips

Voyager Canoes in British Columbia

Whilst kayaking the Inside Passage from Vancouver Island to Glacier Bay Alaska Rich met Ed Carpenter at Bella Bella who was building a giant voyager from wood. His grand father had similar built such canoe. The team enjoyed visiting the Peterborough Canoe Museum this September (the largest collection of canoes, their culture and history in the world). This trip was featured in  a Paddler magazine with details of trip.

Voyagers in Bedford

We had a seed of an idea planted in our minds to bring Voyager Canoes to our home base in Bedford at Canoe Trail. The same principles could apply, easy access for less active and younger paddlers, racing for teams and corporate events and also disability groups.

We were aware that many people knew of dragon boat racing and whilst this paddlesport discipline is great it doesn’t seem to offer much pathway or progression to the wider paddling family with the exception of some dedicated racing clubs. By comparison if people tried Voyager Canoes to explore or race they could then progress to other canoe disciplines such as moving water, touring and canoe camping. 

Voyager Canoes on Bedford's River Great Ouse
Voyager Canoes on Bedford's River Great Ouse