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Voyageur portage loads - still almost unbelievable...

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I knew the voyageurs carried a bit of weight, but I'm reading Adney and Chapelle's "The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America" and this description really drove it home.

"The term pacton was applied to the packs made up ready for portage; they were ordinarily made up of two or more packages, so the weight carried was at the very least 180 pounds. No self-respecting voyageur would carry less, as it would be disgraceful to be so weak. The pacton was carried by means of a collier, or tump-line similar to that used to portage canoes. .....The pacton was lifted and placed so that it rested in the small of the carrier's back with its weight borne by the hips. The ends of the collier were tied to the pacton so as to hold it in place, with the broad central band around the the carrier's forehead. On top of the pacton was placed a loose package, cassette, or perhaps a keg. The total load amounted to 270 pounds on average if the trail was good; the maximum on record is 630 pounds. With his body leaning forward to support the load, the carrier sprang forward in a quick trot, using short, quick paces, and moved at about 5 miles an hour over a good trail. A carrier was expected to make more than one trip over the portage, as a rule."

But don't try this at home...

"The traditional picture of the fur-trade voyageur as a happy, carefree adventurer was hardly a true one, at least in the 19th century. With poor food hastily prepared, back-breaking loads, and continual exposure, his lot was a very hard one at best. The monstrous packs usually brought physical injury and the working life of a packer was very short."
 
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The Indian packers that hauled freight over the Chilkoot Trail were the same. They carried enormous loads and had contests climbing over 3,000 feet to get from the salt water to the BC boundary.

The Inca had no pack animals except llamas and were very proud of their ability to carry loads. I ran into modern Peruvians that feel the same way.
 
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5 mph seems pretty high as an average that includes the uphills but it falls in line with my first rule when carrying a heavy weight. MOVE FASTER! I can only push it on the flats and downhills anymore, on any uphills I downshift to my "granny gear" before I need it so I don't burn out.
 
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6B31D910-21E2-42D3-B0E0-806F3DDA16B6.jpegThis load was almost 105 lbs( Iweighed it when I got home). It was more than I wanted to carry but a last minute decision changed our trip from a non portage trip to a one portage trip.

It was last July, I was pushin 63 and hadn’t done a portage in three years. The portage was flat with good footing and probably less than a quarter mile, but I think it shows the potential to carry heavy weights. I would think most of us don’t do enough tripping to ever get in maximum physical conditioning.

“Heavy” is a relative term. Like gamma I used to lift heavy weights at work carrying quarters of beef that averaged 180 lbs. so a 70 lb load doesn’t sound too bad. I will say that I hope to never have to carry a hundred pound load again.
 
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Backpacking speeds are more like 3 mph on the flats, 2 mph hilly terrain and 1 mph for steep ascents. Those are averages over a day.

Canoes portages can be really heavy but relatively short. There are plenty of exceptions. How about hauling a Montreal Canoe 9 miles over Grand Portage?
 
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Backpacking speeds are more like 3 mph on the flats, 2 mph hilly terrain and 1 mph for steep ascents. Those are averages over a day.

Canoes portages can be really heavy but relatively short. There are plenty of exceptions. How about hauling a Montreal Canoe 9 miles over Grand Portage?
Maybe. Western trails have these neat things called switchbacks. Maybe developed to keep your horse from hating you?
Eastern trail builders seem to have folkowed the shortest line between bottom and top irregardless of topography!
Voyageur ports had even less sympathy for users In Wabakimi we found a grave on the uphill end of a section we had to rope canoes down to Rockcliffe Lake
 
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Western trails can gain 10,00 feet. Some are in snow and ice in the summer. There is nothing easy about them.
 
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Western trails can gain 10,00 feet. Some are in snow and ice in the summer. There is nothing easy about them.
Yes they can. But they dont seem to do it in 10 miles
People from the West poopoo the East till they find trails that go up 1000 feet in a mile
Switchbacks are uncommon
Thats all
Has anyone portaged to Avalanche Lake : the last part over ladders
Its got an appeal though its mostly long and flat 5.5 miles 1000 feet gain
Ive done it on foot and skis: not with a canoe!
 
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I don't know where people get these ideas such as the trails in the West are not steep. Take a look at a photo of the Grand Canyon, Hells's Canyon, the Snake River Canyon, the eastern Sierra Nevada, the North Cascades, or the Northern Rockies.

The Appalachians go up and down, the western mountains go straight up. Have you tried carrying a pack at 12,000 feet?

One man's syncline is another man's anticline. I grew up in the East backpacking in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia. It was too crowded for me, so I left 50 years ago. I studied geomorphology under Dr. Helmut Landsberg at the University of Maryland.
 
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I was born into a family that made a living from alpine farming. We produced meat, cheese and other dairy products. The alp/pastures that my family managed had several sections with huts at different heights. No roads, no machines. Everything had to be carried up and down on our back (and the back of the mule).
My grandfather, my father, my uncles were known to carry heavy loads. The rule for men was: you have to carry at least half your body weight as a load. For hours.

In my case, that meant at least 80 pounds.

Most of the time we walked about an hour, then took a short break to eat, drink and have a smoke, walk another hour, take another short break, etc. (I heard the voyageurs had roughly the same rhythm.)
Uphill it went very slowly, downhill the weight drove the legs forward.

My grandfather could keep up with us until he was in his early 60s. He was a very tough man.

Our family gave up this lifestyle in the early 1980s.

Today I'm happy if I'm capable to carry a 40-pound pack for hours.......🥵

What I am describing above is nothing compared to what is being said about the voyageurs.

Well, these voyageurs, hard to believe what they endured. But I think they were capable of tremendous accomplishments.

1640636352763.png
Greetings from Switzerland
André
 
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I read a lot of old-timey literature, and sometimes forget who said what, but I remember someone mentioning a contest between two groups of Indian packers, with the winner being a guy who tumplined 850 620 lbs of flour the required 50 or 100 yards... that was in one load. (Whelen or Miller probably, Rutstrum or Rowlands less likely.)

edit: corrected weight from 850 to 620 lbs.
 
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Glenn MacGrady

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Sorry, but I find these claims about voyageur portage loads very unbelievable.

First, I would like to know what original and reliable sources Adney and Chapelle had, centuries later, to support this claim: "The total load amounted to 270 pounds on average if the trail was good; the maximum on record is 630 pounds."

Second, in 2016 four Belgian professors studied and scientifically measured a group of Nepalese porters, world famous for their load carrying abilities, and some European control subjects for six months. HERE is the study. The key points for us are easier to read in THIS NPR article, which summarizes:

On average, the men carried nearly 90 percent of their body weight. A quarter of them carried more than 125 percent of their own weight, according to the new study, which appeared in the Journal of Experimental Biology. The heaviest load, Heglund says, totaled 175 percent — or nearly twice as much as the porter's weight. The porters in the study weighed between about 100 and 140 pounds.

Nepalese porters are small men. So were the voyageurs. According the the Hudson Bay Company History Foundation: "Voyageurs had to be short, approximately 5'4" (1.63 meters), as the space in the canoe was needed for cargo."

If we take the heaviest Nepalese porter from the Belgian study at 140 pounds, the average weight he carried was 90% of that or 126 pounds—less than half of the 270 pound average claimed by Adney & Chapelle for voyageurs. The heaviest total load measured in the Nepalese study was 175% of body weight, or 245 pounds for a 140 pound porter—astronomically below the 630 pound voyageur record claimed by Adney & Chapelle, and even below the 270 average claimed by them.

In this case, I trust modern science over ambiguously sourced, and likely romanticized and hyped, history.
 
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Glenn, I know your comment wasn't directed specifically at me, but I was going to go look it up anyway, and here's the quote I'm talking about... it's from Townsend Whelen's book "On Your Own in the Wilderness", and i think the copyright is around 1960, toward the end of his life. Anyway, here's a picture. Does seem rather a lot, but it's not a long carry, so maybe it happened. And I misquoted... it was "only" 620lbs of flour.

20211231_213345[1].jpg

And while it's not "packing", I knew a man whose grandfather was a log hauler in LA in the 20s/30s... back then, you got paid more if you loaded your own truck. So he did... the logs were shorter than today's full-length ones, otherwise they couldn't have been man-handled. But this man would shot-put the logs up into the rack on his truck, several feet high, and my friend said his dad had seen his grandfather do it. I don't know how much they weighed, but this is not the era of 8" pulpwood logs... his wife used to have to tie and untie his shoes, because he was so "thick" that he couldn't bend over to reach them. I can see a guy built like that carrying 620lbs of flour. Another even older friend, born in LA in 1925, told me his lumberjack/farmer uncles would easily down 6000 calories of food per day, and were still little skinny guys who weighed 120-140lbs and were about 5'-6" to 5'-8" tall. Roman soldiers routinely carried loads in excess of 100lbs on extended marches in sandals... German infantry soldiers in WW1, in that first attempt to outflank the French during the Schlieffen Plan's early execution (Aug/Sep 1914) routinely marched in excess of 40 miles a day. Russian soldiers manhandled artillery pieces across eastern Europe during WW2, used like horses. I can't vouch for the portage feats mentioned above, but I know we live in a different era, and labor no longer shapes our bodies the way it used to.
 
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Sorry, but I find these claims about voyageur portage loads very unbelievable.

First, I would like to know what original and reliable sources Adney and Chapelle had, centuries later, to support this claim: "The total load amounted to 270 pounds on average if the trail was good; the maximum on record is 630 pounds."

Second, in 2016 four Belgian professors studied and scientifically measured a group of Nepalese porters, world famous for their load carrying abilities, and some European control subjects for six months. HERE is the study. The key points for us are easier to read in THIS NPR article, which summarizes:



Nepalese porters are small men. So were the voyageurs. According the the Hudson Bay Company History Foundation: "Voyageurs had to be short, approximately 5'4" (1.63 meters), as the space in the canoe was needed for cargo."

If we take the heaviest Nepalese porter from the Belgian study at 140 pounds, the average weight he carried was 90% of that or 126 pounds—less than half of the 270 pound average claimed by Adney & Chapelle for voyageurs. The heaviest total load measured in the Nepalese study was 175% of body weight, or 245 pounds for a 140 pound porter—astronomically below the 630 pound voyageur record claimed by Adney & Chapelle, and even below the 270 average claimed by them.

In this case, I trust modern science over ambiguously sourced, and likely romanticized and hyped, history.


Keep in mind, the porters are carrying loads starting from Lukla at 9300', finishing at Everest Base Camp at 17,600.

Even though they are obvious acclimatized it's still a lot harder than hiking around at 500 - 1,500 feet in eastern Canada.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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Glenn, I know your comment wasn't directed specifically at me
Seeker, I hadn't seen your post when researching, writing and posting mine. The guy you're citing for the 620 pounds for 100 yards says nothing other than "so far as I know". That's not a historical or scientific source; it's just multiple unsourced hearsay or rank rumor. I give his bald claim almost zero weight.

I realize it's a different form of carrying, but in the giant farmers walk in the Worlds Strongest Man competitions, no one can carry 660 pounds for 100 meters even when resting every 10 meters.


Keep in mind, the porters are carrying loads starting from Lukla at 9300', finishing at Everest Base Camp at 17,600.

Even though they are obvious acclimatized it's still a lot harder than hiking around at 500 - 1,500 feet in eastern Canada.

Good point and I noticed it. My thought is that altitude may affect endurance—how long they can carry without resting—but not necessarily how much absolute weight they can actually carry for some reasonable distance. Whatever, I simply don't believe that the average 5'4" 17th and 18th century paddler could portage an average of 270 pounds for long distances, much less lift, load and carry 630 pounds for any meaningful distance.
 
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Long distance? Probably not but typical portage trail on rivers frequented by the Voyageurs are mostly in the sub-500' range. Doubt they carried the same size loads on the Methye Portage (12mi).

Back to the Nepalese porters, on quite a bit of the route from Lukla to Base Camp there is 2 - 3000 feet of elevation change on each day of the trip, makes it even more impressive

These are the official rules in Nepal for high-altitude porters (above base camp) but nobody pays attention to rules over there!

1641010369674.png

Oxygen levels at base camp are half what they are at sea level, a third at the summit! The voyageurs at least had plenty of O's suck on.
 
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  • Sorry, but I find these claims about voyageur portage loads very unbelievable.

    First, I would like to know what original and reliable sources Adney and Chapelle had, centuries later, to support this claim: "The total load amounted to 270 pounds on average if the trail was good; the maximum on record is 630 pounds."

    Second, in 2016 four Belgian professors studied and scientifically measured a group of Nepalese porters, world famous for their load carrying abilities, and some European control subjects for six months. HERE is the study. The key points for us are easier to read in THIS NPR article, which summarizes:



    Nepalese porters are small men. So were the voyageurs. According the the Hudson Bay Company History Foundation: "Voyageurs had to be short, approximately 5'4" (1.63 meters), as the space in the canoe was needed for cargo."

    If we take the heaviest Nepalese porter from the Belgian study at 140 pounds, the average weight he carried was 90% of that or 126 pounds—less than half of the 270 pound average claimed by Adney & Chapelle for voyageurs. The heaviest total load measured in the Nepalese study was 175% of body weight, or 245 pounds for a 140 pound porter—astronomically below the 630 pound voyageur record claimed by Adney & Chapelle, and even below the 270 average claimed by them.

    In this case, I trust modern science over ambiguously sourced, and likely romanticized and hyped, history.

  • Voyageurs were employed through the 1870's. Adney was born in 1868 and began his research around 1889 and started publishing in 1890. Certainly close enough to interact with folks directly involved in the trade or others who knew them.
 
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lowangle Al" his load was almost 105 lbs( Iweighed it when I got home). It was more than I wanted to carry but a last minute decision changed our trip from a non portage trip to a one portage trip"
Been there, done that... During one hiking trip we had a youth fall ill from dehydration, turned out that he was dumping his water when we weren't looking because "it looked funny". We had a nurse on the trip that immediately started him on pedialyte plus 3 other adults who could carry him if necessary. I took his pack and slung it on top of my own and started marching to the next site with one of the older youth to act as my helper or runner if needed (our radios only had a 5km range on flat ground). I carried that load for close to 5km- my pack was around 50lbs already- as trip leader some of the crap I carried was to CYA and mandated by the organization's rules, just the binder with all the permission forms, route plans,maps, risk assessments, and even maps to the local police, fire, and medical locations.It was was probably more than 5lbs on it's own, then there were the necessities like what we commonly referred to as the "trauma kit", any meds the kids needed, and survival or emergency gear, as well as the tools and parts that were carried "just in case", my personal gear was only 14lbs of that weight.
It definitely sucked big time especially climbing hills, but was (barely) doable with both my and his pack, it was probably 50lbs too with all the junk his parents made him add -chocolate bars, cheap multitool with everything but the kitchen sink, double the clothing recommendation, books (2 of the three were hardcovers), and on and on. The kid actually recovered from his dehydration faster than I did carrying his load, I slept a solid 12 hours, only waking to eat or drink, and for bathroom trips.
biggest lesson I learned was to NEVER trust parents when it came to packing...
 
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