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Historical trekkers follow fur trade route

Orr kept a meticulous journal of their trek, writing each night with a quill pen just like the voyageurs in the mid-1700s. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)1 / 2
Tom Jessen and Steven Orr shared their 18th century-style canoe adventures at Tuesday's Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning program. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)2 / 2

Steven Orr and Tom Jessen donned period correct 18th-century clothing Tuesday and regaled a Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning audience with their epic, historical trek.

Two years ago, the men embarked on a 340-mile canoe trip, traversing 42 portages and some 37 lakes. They followed old fur trader routes which wind along the Minnesota-Canadian border. They completed the journey using authentic clothing, hand-carved canoe paddles, food and equipment from the 1740s.

More than two centuries ago, rugged French Canadians traveled long distances through Canada and northern Minnesota to transport pelts to market.

Leaving from Crane Lake, Orr and Jessen recreated such a journey in 2014. They paddled to Rainy Lake, then east into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and ended at Grand Portage.

In July, Orr and Jessen attempted to retrace their journey in the reverse direction—from east to west—beginning at Grand Marais. This year's trip was cut short by severe storms and downed trees that blocked access to portages.

"I have nothing else to tell you about that second trip because we didn't make it," Orr said.

Orr and Jessen are "historical trekkers." Before departing on their travels, they studied primary documentation from fur traders, explorers and diarists of the era.

"I tried to get every single journal ever written about the Rainy River route," said Orr. He found 37 journals.

"Our dress is each a persona," Jessen explained. "We each chose a character to suit our personality." Jessen's ancestors were, in fact, French voyageurs, who settled in Montreal in 1642 so he wears similar attire.

Orr is dressed like a Scottish gentleman.

Their clothing is made of linen with no preservatives. They wore cowhide mocassins. After three weeks on the trail, their shirts, wool socks and shoes tore and rotted from constant moisture.

Their tent comprised two square pieces of cloth and a stick frame that was assembled nightly.

"There's no bug screen," Jessen said. "Most nights you could hear the power line above our heads, which were the mosquitoes."

They packed 340 pounds of gear for the journey, plus their 70-80 pound canoe. The only exceptions they made to being period correct were their Kevlar canoe (painted to look like birch bark), First Aid kit, water purifier and life jackets.

Meals were simple hardtack, wild rice and oatmeal.

"We ate a ton of oatmeal," Orrs said. "You burned roughly, just paddling moderately, 500 to 800 calories an hour. When portaging, you burn 600 to 800 calories."

Orr lost 10 pounds, Jessen 15.

The 2016 trek took 24 days.

They saw moose, wolf and bear tracks around their tent but never personally encountered the wildlife.

Orr is a former CEO and chairman of a healthcare company. He resides on Lake Belle Taine. Jessen is a retired UPS driver. He lives in Bemidji.

No more trips are planned at this time.

Orr, 70, said "The days I can pick up a 60-pound pack are getting smaller."

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