A Day in the Life of a Voyageur

As a loyal watcher of “The Crown”, I can just imagine Queen Lilibet’s reaction to a group of Canadian Boy Scouts using the walls of a fort as kindling in their celebratory bonfire to mark the occasion of her coronation! I like to think she and her dear Philip would have shared a smile at the news of a group of enthusiastic young men pillaging a pile of old stored wood that had once stood on the site of today’s provincial capital buildings to mark the occasion in an unforgettable manner.

Is the story true? Hard to say. Does it contain some truth? Likely. These are the kinds of stories that spark the imagination of young people and (with proper encouragement) sends them off to find out “the rest of the story.”

We love visiting museums and historic parks at home and during our travels. Some of our favorite spots are living history museums like Fort Edmonton Park, where they offer special homeschool days throughout the year. These events are great opportunities for EJ to connect with other homeschool kids while learning about the theme of the day.

Learning about York Boats and the North Saskatchewan River

On a recent homeschool day, Life of a Voyageur, EJ learned about the early settlement of western Canada and, more specifically, our province. It was snowy and brisk outside but that didn’t stop our enthusiastic guide leader. Charles (dressed in his authentic Hudson’s Bay coat), led the group around the old Hudson’s Bay fort and explained what life would have been like for the French fur traders who helped settle the area. He was terrific with the kids, trudging through the snow and sharing stories of York Boats and frozen rivers. Much more fun than mama reading from signs and guide books.

Outside the great hall

Next was a walk to the fort itself where the kids were introduced to the great hall where enlisted single men would have lived while posted at the fort. It now serves as a lunchroom and gathering area for visitors, somewhere to warm up on a January day like today.

Charles had the fireplace warming up the great hall for us when we arrived. There would be some cooking happening on it later in the day. While we were inside, Charles regaled the group with stories about the fort, including the one about the infamous Coronation Celebration Bonfire.

Is your rabbit pelt worth a beaver?

The kids loved hearing the “inside scoop” and begged Charles to tell more stories as he began to round them up to move onto the fur trading room and trading post area. Here the children (and parents) learned about the grading of various pelts and how a beaver pelt was held as the standard due to its popularity and value in trade with England and France for making beaver skin hats (think Abraham Lincoln, black, stovepipe, you get the idea.)

There are many items to trade for on the shelves.
After the pelts were valued, the trappers and traders moved on to the trading area of the fort. Here they could find things like flour, nails, blankets, beads, tools, dishes, many of the things they couldn’t make on their own that made life much easier for them. The kids couldn’t believe that this was what a grocery store looked like “back in the day.” Where were the dairy coolers? We learned explained that from time to time there would have been items like butter and eggs for sale when a local farm wife would have some to spare in exchange for a bolt of new fabric, but it would not be easy to come by year-round as it is today.

Teaching the kids how to “bake” bannock over an open fire
We headed back to the great hall for lunch and to “bake” our bannock. The children were eager to take turns rolling out the biscuit dough and wrapping it around the long wooden sticks they would use to cook them over the coals of the open fire. We did have a few casualties, fortunately, dough and not children, but they all had a terrific time.

That is one heavy pack
After lunch, the children learned just how difficult it was to carry a stack of pelts on their backs (even after eating a good lunch) and had the opportunity to tour the Big House of the Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, John Rowand. The first building west of Winnipeg to have glass windows, this three-story home was much larger than anything in the area and served to impress guests from England. The boys loved it when Charles shared a story of Rowand’s bones traveling to England and back before being buried in Montreal.

We ended the day outdoors to blow off some steam while learning games that were popular in the time period (a lot of them involved running!)

Both boys and girls were eager to discover more about the fort and, thankfully, Charles was a willing enabler. Although the clock showed 4:00, he happily stayed late with those who wanted to stick around a while and found yet another activity to keep them curious and learning. Removing a small metal container containing tinder and charcloth from his pocket, he explained how this was the only thing between a trapper and a cold night since things like matches and lighters hadn’t been invented yet. The children were amazed and so excited when they could take turns trying to get a small fire started.

Working on the fire

It was finally time for the little group to break up and head home (or in our case to dinner and the hotel) but not before the kids made sure they would be seeing each other at a future homeschool day. Although they don’t interact on a daily basis, they do seem to make connections, one of the great benefits of attending these events.

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