I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw … No portage was ever too long for me, fifty songs I could sing. I have had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all my money on pleasure. Were I young again, I would spend my life the same way over.
There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life.
— Old voyageur, circa 1825
I think ‘voyageur’ is one of the most galvanic words in Canadian history. Imagine those guys! Fourteen-hour days squatting in birch bark shells, shoulders knotted, sweat popping off their brows, paddling a stroke a second, smashing through rapids, bogs and Great Lakes cloudbursts, sleeping under their canoes when the blackflies and mosquitoes allowed them to. And doing it from the top of the Lachine rapids to the nethermost snout of Lake Superior.
And back. Every year between spring break-up and the autumn freeze.
The voyageurs’ exploits defined this country for nearly two centuries, and then faded from the scene as the beaver that drew them west grew sparse.
In the end they left no more mark than a paddle swirl on the water. And even less of a record, being mostly illiterate.
Voyageur. In English, ‘voyager’: one who goes on a long and sometimes dangerous journey.
There is another voyager — called, in fact, Voyager 2.
It is a NASA spacecraft in the 36th year of a profoundly perilous journey. It has traveled through our entire solar system, beyond Mars, Saturn, even Pluto.
Voyager 2 doesn’t present anything close to the noble silhouette of a Voyageur canot du nord.
It looks like a collision of giant kitchen utensils, an ungainly mashup of antennae and probes attached to a dog’s breakfast of scientific instruments. But it can fly. Voyager 2 has been moving away from Earth for nearly four decades now and is doubtless dented and scarred by its (so far) 16-billion mile voyage.
But get this. In the belly of Voyager 2 there is a golden disc. It is a recording of earth sounds destined for the ears of … well who knows? Whoever or whatever is Out There. Any sentient being that can figure out how to access that disc will hear the sound of:
A gust of wind, the patter of rain, human footsteps, the chitter of a chimpanzee, a baby’s heartbeat, a mother’s kiss, and a burst of belly laughter.
Also, the music of Bach and Mozart. Plus Chuck Berry’s Johnny Be Good.
It was a galactic leap of faith. When Voyager 2 launched, the planet was knotted in a Cold War, famine and disease stalked huge swathes of Asia and Africa. A spectre called AIDS was just beginning to cast its shadow. The world, as it usually is, was a mess.
But out of the chaos, this: a cry to the universe that says: We’re good. We can do beautiful things. We matter.
Carl Sagan, who helped choose the sound bites on the golden disc, said “The launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”
Indeed it does. It’s a message any Canadian voyageur would understand in his bones.
Arthur Black is a regular columnist. He lives on Salt Spring Island.