From the 1780s through the early 1820s, a fierce rivalry played out across the wilderness of western Canada. The Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company competed to exploit the rich fur resources of the region. The Athabasca and Peace River districts became sites of especially strong competition, as the fur trade established itself as the most important economic activity in present-day Alberta. The two companies would end their destructive rivalry and merge in 1821, but the fur trade would remain central to the region’s economy, displaced only with the advance of agricultural settlement in the late nineteenth century.
Success in the fur trade depended on many factors—strong financial planning and organization, knowledge of the environment, and perhaps most crucially, establishing a strong relationship with the region’s First Nations peoples. On a more fundamental level, however, the operations of the fur trade depended on the muscle power of human labour. The work routine of a typical fur trade labourer (or voyageur) who transported goods was extraordinary. Between paddling the canoe and carrying goods over land, voyageurs could expect to
work between fifteen and eighteen hours a day, with a typical work day starting at two or three o’clock in the morning.
Each voyageur was responsible for transporting up to six packs of trade goods weighing 36 to 41 kg (80 to 90 lb.), in addition to his personal equipment and belongings. The most difficult part of the journey was the portage, where voyageurs would have to transport their canoes and goods across land between two bodies of water, often across great distances; the Methye Portage, for example, that connects the north end of Methye Lake (now Lac La Loche) to the Clearwater River near the present-day border of Saskatchewan and Alberta, is 19 km (12 mi.) long. Since voyageurs were each responsible for six packs of trade goods, crossing Methye Portage required men to walk the distance several times carrying at least 68 kg (150 lb.). Not surprisingly, the strength and physical prowess of voyageurs were central to their culture and identity. Voyageurs boasted freely of their physical accomplishments and endurance, and engaged in physical competitions and tests of strength to prove themselves against their peers.