Now, Voyageur (Halloween 2012, Part 1)

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, October 30, 2012 |

My son has known he wanted to be a voyageur for Halloween since July when he met a "real" voyageur at Fort Michilimackinac and saw a musket-firing demonstration that must have made a major impression. I have been telling him and his sister stories about the French voyageurs and coureur de bois who first came to Detroit and explored and traded throughout the Great Lakes region in the seventeenth century for years, and I think the idea of exploring his hometown back when it was wilderness really appealed to his imagination. Sure, I had a few ideas for costumes that would probably have been more popular online (a la Lil' Robocop and Kid Rocketeer), but this holiday isn't about me and my stupid pageviews. It's about my kids becoming whatever they want for one night and helping then get there as best I can. Nearly everything about this costume is handmade.

My son loves his accessories, and I think that's part of why he wanted to be a voyageur: those guys got to carry around a lot of cool stuff. The first things we made were the knife with its buckskin sheath and the tomahawk, figuring that the voyageur would have traded for such essentials during one of his long journeys. The costume making turned out to be a real family affair: my wife knit him the beautiful red hat (and awesome beard) and she sewed the tunic and pants. My daughter made the moccasins from real buckskin and she also made him the pouches (and she wove the little beaded bracelet on her little loom---she says it's "a gift for his wife that he bought from an Indian." I made him the buckskin vest, the paddle, the pipe, and the musket. He really fell in love with the Natty Bumppo character from Last of the Mohicans over the summer (the book and 1936 film version, not the sexy Daniel Day Lewis version), and he desperately wanted a long rifle like Hawkeye. So I made him a flintlock-style musket out of a piece of 1/2-inch steel conduit and some old pieces of walnut I had lying around. For the flintlock mechanism and trigger I just dug around in the back of our neighborhood hardware store and found some pieces that I thought would work.

For the canot du Nord, I made the structure out of really thin plywood and then covered it with birchbark found on the ground in a northern Michigan forest this summer. I put some old rabbit skins inside to look like he had a load of furs to bring back to the rendezvous. The canoe doesn't have a bottom, so he can "wear it" using the leather straps attached to it.

He was kind of mad at me for forgetting the paddle when we went out for this photo adventure along the Detroit river (he likes to walk along in the canoe while pretending to paddle). Along the way we experienced what the voyageurs called a dégradé (poor weather conditions that forced canoes onto shore), so there was little to do but warm up in a point blanket and smoke a pipe.

I told him that the only time real voyagers ever got to stop paddling was for a pipe-smoking break every few hours. It was a hard life, but voyageurs were adventurous free spirits who loved to sing. I hummed some voyageur songs for him and spoke in a horribly stereotypical French accent while he practiced a few words in French in the wind and rain. Allons! C'est miserable!

Finally, the little voyageur made it to the rendezvous at his old fort where he could kick back next to the fire in his cabin and read the two-month-old papers from Quebec that told about what happened in France last winter (actually, those are new printings of a 1777 gazette a friend who works at Colonial Williamsburg just sent me).

It will be some time before the poor little fellow learns that beaver hats are no longer all that fashionable back in Paris.