A NATION OF RUNNERS © David Watts 26/04/2010

From the fur trade to Terry Fox, Canadians have been A Nation of Runners. Both ran because they had long distances to cover in limited time.

The coureurs du bois were runners with furs in the French régime. At first they ran individually. In a competitive trade, they became voyageurs of the Northwest and Hudson Bay companies.

These had a long run twice a year, once each way, before winter closed the lakes and rivers that were their highway. Most of the run was on water, paddling in sequence, singing to keep stroke.

Between watersheds, from the headwaters of one stream over the height of land to the next, they ran—literally—carrying canoes and packs suspended by thongs from their foreheads.

Their days often ran from 4 a.m. till midnight, leaving scant time for sleep. They ran in relay. Large bateaux du maître left Montreal in spring with goods to be exchanged for furs out west.

These boats paddled upstream on the Ottawa River, crossed to Lakes Nipigon and Saint Claire, to Georgian Bay, then across Lakes Huron and Superior to Grand Portage and later, Port Arthur.

This was the turnaround point where they discharged their wares and took on furs that smaller canoes had brought down from farther north and west. The larger boats returned the way they’d come, in time to transfer the furs to sailing ships for Europe before Saint Lawrence freeze up.

The smaller birch bark canoes travelled north from the Great Lakes to Lake of the Woods, then westward to the Red River in today’s Manitoba. They followed the Red north to Lake Winnipeg, then took the Saskatchewan and its tributaries upstram to the Rockies and the boreal forest.

They, too, had to make the run against time, before freeze up closed the northern streams, and make it back to Lake Superior to meet and transfer to the big canoes for winter and next spring.

The rival, and eventually ascendant, Hudson’s Bay Company had a parallel process with a shorter route from York Factory at the mouth of the Churchill River on Hudson Bay. Here wooden York boats rowed upstream. When these protaged, they were pushed on rollers to the next water.

Eventually the streams became too narrow and shallow for the York boats, and these, too, exchanged their cargoes with smaller birch bark canoes from the tributary waterways.

Hudson Bay was also the base for an overland route soutwestward, via the Columbia River to its mouth at Fort Vancouver, Washington, near to today’s city of Portland, Oregon.

Here the furs were loaded on Pacific sailing ships for the passage to China and Japan.

The men who ran these routes had to be in top physical shape, wiry and compact: not too tall so they could fit into a canoe, and with the stamina to run 2000 miles a season.

The transcontinental route of the voyageurs held together what is now Canada in the wake of US pressure to break the back of remaining British interests and expel them from North America.

This cross-country route, with a maximum of one kilometer portages between waterways, became the basis of the route of the railways, though Canadian Pacific deviated from the Yellowhead Pass of the fur traders to take the more southerly Kicking Hourse and Rogers passes to the Fraser.

The CPR was completed in 1885. Eighty years later the Trans-Canada Highway was built parallel to it, and a century after the Railway, this became the route of a different kind of runner.

Terry Fox was also running against time: his own. The 22 year old had lost one leg to cancer, learned to run with a prosthesis, and set out cross country to raise funds for cancer research.

He started in Newfoundland in relative obscurity and continued into the Maritimes and Québec. By the time he reached Ontario, crowds were coming to see and support him with donations.

When the returning cancer forced him to abandon his trek in Northwestern Ontario, other Canadians took up the campaign. Fox died in Vancouver with his family the following year.

Bur the Marathon of Hope he launched took on a life of its own. It continued to raise funds each year. It paved the way for other cross country initiatives such as Rick Hansen’s by wheelchair.

Thirty years after Fox set out, his run continues, not only as a fundraiser but as a motivator and focus that connects us spiritually, as the voyagers did physically two centuries ago.

The Canadian Pacific Railway contributed to this by donating the right of way of stretches of former branch lines it had abandoned. This became the basis of the Trans Canada Trail from sea to sea to sea, with the addition of a north-south route to our third coast in the Arctic.

Now Canadians of all ages can run or walk the route that brought our country together, and ski, dogsled or skidoo to the Northwest Passage. Such treks have become latter day pilgimages in a land spanned by folksongs like “Something to Sing About” and “My country is my cathedral.”

From the fur trade to Terry Fox, from waterways to railways, a highway, and now the Trans-Canada Trail, Canadians have been, and are once again becoming, a Nation of Runners.