I had thought that while writing the first draft of my history of Voyageurs National Park, I would regularly post some related snippet on this blog. Writing a multi-chapter manuscript and writing a couple-paragraph blog post seemed like a reasonable goal. Ha!
I have turned in the draft manuscript, recovered from the long nights and writing marathon, and am optimistically waiting for glowing reviews from the National Park Service (another ha! there). What better time to return to this blog? And what better topic to address than writing?
I love research, but research can only take you so far. Writing is where the researcher (historian in my case) finally has a chance to make sense of the documents and other sources of information and turn them into knowledge. Take for example my chapter on interpretation. I had collected all of the past master plans and interpretive planning documents for the park. I had collected examples of interpretive programs that the park had offered over the years. I had interviewed people about the park’s interpretation. I had experienced recent interpretation first-hand.
All of these sources came together in the chapter. I focused upon the key themes I found in reviewing this wealth of information, and then I looked for changes over time (like any good historian would) to figure out how the park wanted to present itself over the past 40 years. Not surprisingly, the number one key theme was the idea of the voyageur.
Until the early 2000s, the park described its namesake voyageur in iconic terms. The “hardy and energetic” French Canadian led a “rich and happy life” amongst the Indians. He wore breeches and leggings, plus a red woolen cap and always had a pipe in his mouth. He was a “unique breed of man” who acted as a “human engine” in the indispensable role of transporting goods to and from the interior of the North American continent.
These idyllic descriptions from early planning documents slowly gave way to references based upon the economic and political roles of voyageurs. The romanticized voyageur became the transportation key to opening up trade routes and drawing people of European descent away from the coastal areas.
At this point in my analysis, I could have easily said, “Done!” I have described park interpretation. But I knew there was a more complicated history than what these sources told upon first read. Oral history interviews and overwhelming evidence from lawsuits and other examples of strife between the park and its detractors (and sometimes even its supporters) demonstrated that the park grappled with a serious image problem. That romantic voyageur of old did not help the park in its efforts to win the support and trust of many people, especially the local population.
Local residents had hunted and fished the lands now enclosed by the national park. They had snowmobiled and cross-country skied it. They had worked for Boise Cascade and cut timber inside what are now park boundaries. They had had cabins along the shores of the park’s many lakes. These people knew the unrelenting demands of the natural environment upon even the most seasoned traveler. The voyageur in some ways was one of them, not an iconic vision but a real human pushing the canoe through open water and making the best of whatever situation presented itself.
On the other hand, the romanticized voyageur worked well with the environmentalists. They liked the idea of the hardy canoeist paddling through uncharted waters, gazing upon untrammeled nature. Such an image worked well with people who wanted to remove snowmobiles from the park and designate the Kabetogama Peninsula as official wilderness.
The voyageur as interpreted over time was not the reason park managers had a difficult time with local residents. The iconic voyageur, though, gave a clue as to the park’s emphases and thus aggravated an already charged situation. The positive changes in the past ten years with local relations also cannot be directly tied to the changing description of the voyageur, but the shifted interpretation is an indicator of possibility.
My take on the voyageur as interpreted by the park needed both research and writing to articulate the subtleties of this image. I will wait and see if the Park Service is comfortable with such an assessment.