From the late 1600s to about 1820 the chain of waterways of which Minnesota's border lakes form a segment was the thoroughfare of a vast fur trading empire. As its longest, this water route stretched from Montreal to Lake Athabasca, and over it a treasure in furs from the North American wilderness reached the markets of Europe and Asia. A mainstay of this commerce were the rollicking, indomitable men who paddled the trader's canoes and packed his goods on their backs over portages. Mainly French-Canadians, they were called "voyageurs" — the French term meaning travelers.
Over these waters early each summer they paddled fur-laden canoes eastward to inland depots like Rainy Lake, Grand Portage, or Michilimackinac; each July they returned, carrying trade goods and supplies to the isolated wintering posts. They were a fiercely proud breed , who could paddle eighteen hours a day or carry a load of 450 pounds and yet retain a lusty joy in their work. Decked out in gay sashes and ostrich plumes, they strutted, quarreled, consorted with the Indians, and lightened their toil with French folk songs, gay and rhythmic or hauntingly sad. Today their route, scarcely touched by the modern world, remains open to all who seek adventure.