On Bold Shores

“Gradually, slumber settled over the voyageur camp on Summer Island. In fact, the travelers lay unknowingly at a curious confluence of time and space. The voyageurs slept peacefully ashore while on nearby shoals it’s believed La Salle’s ship Le Griffon, the first ship to sail above Niagara Falls, lay under water where it went down in a storm in 1679.”

from Hard Rivers: The Untold Saga of La Salle: Expedition II

It is a brisk June afternoon in 2013, and the chill air tiptoes past me like ghosts from 1679. Clouds above Fairport, Michigan float as a mirror image in the cold, still water along Lake Michigan’s shore. Standing at just the right spot, an observer can see Poverty Island, a tiny rise of land in the distance. It lies like an impossible bull’s-eye beyond two other islands, one of which is three miles away.

With me are men who, as 18- and 19-year-old boys in 1976, paddled these same waters in a 3,300-mile reenactment of the Sieur de La Salle’s voyage of discovery from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico. Out among the islands, naval archaeologists believe they have found a bowsprit from the wreck of La Salle’s ship Le Griffon, which went down on its 1679 maiden voyage. The divers meet in a small house with officials of France’s Ministry of Marine.  Also with them are Reid Lewis, the French teacher who led La Salle II’s young voyageurs, and Richard Gross, one of the teenagers of that Bicentennial trip, who now acts as history adviser for the archaeologists.

Gross has invited his former comrades and me to the Upper Peninsula to introduce the French to their cultural American ancestors, the voyageurs of New France. But the aging paddlers dwell less on this moment. Instead they remember a bitterly cold morning in early November 1976 roughly 18 miles southwest of this spot. Then and there these men lived their finest hour as voyageurs, rescuing themselves and each other near Death’s Door, where angry seas and incredibly cold waters nearly killed a few of them.

Two-thirds of their lifetimes later, morning has passed into late afternoon. Now in their mid-fifties, the men don their voyageur costumes, tossing floppy hats over increasingly hairless domes and tightening sashes around waists grown larger in circumference. The men laugh at themselves down the road from their destination. Screened by a dock, they slide their well-preserved canoes into the lake. Then they paddle away, bursting into an old French folk song. Their stroke rate rapidly mimics the rhythm of the song. The French officials gathered at the water’s edge are enchanted.

     Later I meet the crew in a glade in the state park up the road. Some of the men have brought their sons. They come over from Saginaw and from Wisconsin, but they also come from Minnesota, from Texas, Nevada, and Washington state.

    I join a few others clambering over rough, fist-size, white rocks on the west side of the peninsula. We watch the sun fall toward Big Bay de Noc and extinguish itself somewhere far west of Escanaba. As the shadows grow to darkness, attention turns back to the glade. The men refer to Terry’s bear story, which I still have not heard. They laugh about how John used poison ivy for toilet paper on the trail and Sam acted like a magnet for medical disasters. Expedition tales mingle with the latest word on families and plans for the future.

    Adventure never ends for these men, still young at heart and restless for new quests. I had paddled with them. I had struggled to sing the French folks songs with them. And I would share a voyageur tent with three of them. But they share a special fraternity.

    They are Argonauts who brought home the Golden Fleece. They are Odysseus returned to Ithaca after years of wandering, vying with the Olympian gods. Tested by harrowing cold, sharp ice and deep snow, they remain warm to their fellow man. Baptized in freezing water here and their own blood on an Indiana highway, they find life comfortable in their own skins.

They savor the moment.

They drink each other’s health.

They anticipate the next great adventure.

I envy them.

Reid Lewis, reprising his role as the Sieur de La Salle, brandishes a sword on the shore of Lake Michigan in June 2013. He is surrounded by fellow 20th century voyageurs and their children and by French officials. The author is standing at far left.  

Reid Lewis, reprising his role as the Sieur de La Salle, brandishes a sword on the shore of Lake Michigan in June 2013. He is surrounded by fellow 20th century voyageurs and their children and by French officials. The author is standing at far left.