Rendezvous campers

Rendezvous camping enthusiasts Ed and Gabby discuss the best way to make venison stew over a fire.

JIM SWANSON, for THE NEWS

There are many different ways to camp.

There is car camping, canoe camping, wilderness camping, tent camping and RV camping. One of the most unique types of camping is historical camping — also known as rendezvousing, reenactments, or living history. Living history camping events are based on a specific time period and or an event from the past. The most common types of reenactments in Wisconsin represent the fur trade and or voyager era. Other popular reenactment eras include, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the War of 1812.

Living history camping usually begins with an strong interest in a certain time period or event. I, for example, participate in fur trade era rendezvous. My interest in the voyageurs began with my many trips to the Boundary Waters where we were often paddling the same routes as the voyageurs had. I began to read about the exploits of the voyagers and it got me thinking more about them. Later, I learned about rendezvous and eventually found a club that held a rendezvous and huzzah! I was hooked.

After visiting a rendezvous or two, it was now decision time. I had to decide what type of voyageur I wanted to portray. Did I want to be typical company engage, a trader, a guide, a native trapper, a missionary, an unlicensed trader, or a clerk? The possibilities were endless.

I decided to try out the unlicensed trader, or Coureur des Bois. I thought it was interesting how they actually explored most of North America by canoe but often did not get credit because they were illiterate. The monks and traders got the credit for the explorations because they could read and write.

The decision to be a Coureur des Bois was the easy part. Now came the hard part: research. I had to figure out what they wore, what kind of tent they camped in, what foods they ate and more.

Nylon tents were transformed into canvass tents. Synthetic filled sleeping bags became wool blankets. Boots were abandoned in favor of moccasins. Gore-Tex clothing was replaced with oilskin frocks and wool shirts. Campfires replaced camp stoves for cooking and also served as entertainment centers at the end of each camp day.

I also had a bunch of new skills to learn. Pitching a canvass tent is much different than pitching a nylon tent. My first rendezvous tent was a Baker style tent. While it didn’t represent the voyageur era, it was cheap, available, and it gave me time to figure out exactly what style of tent I wanted.

The Baker was tricky to pitch. The second time I took it out, we arrived near dark and pitched the tent as daylight faded. The next morning, I got up and went to register my camp. When I came back some friends were re-pitching the tent for me as it had collapsed when a slight breeze floated though the camp site.

The steepest learning curve was cooking food over a wood fire. Cooking with wood requires a fire made of burning wood, so a living history camper must be able to light a fire under any circumstance. The fire must also be lit without the use of matches, lighters, and “boy scout“ water, as none of these things were available in this time period.

The easiest and most common way to light a fire without a match is with flint and steel. So, I acquired a striker, several pieces of flint, char, and tinder. I only had to destroy two pieces of flint before I successfully made a fire. After the fire was lit, I could then start the cooking process. Learning to manage the heat of a fire so it wasn’t too hot or too cold was a long and arduous process, and the wood usually won.

A pan of bacon once became a fire in itself and the bacon ended up 100 percent carbon. Other meals took two or three times longer to cook because the wood was flame resistant. Eventually, the cooking skills increased and the quality of the food became tasty. Now, five-course gourmet meals — including a quadruple chocolate cake — can be cooked up over the fire.

Camping in the past is a great family activity. My daughters had a great time attending rendezvous as they grew up. There are many activities designed specifically for kids, and there was lots of time for them to just run around and play with friends. Both daughters agree that one of their favorite activities was the candy cannon, a mortar-like device that would shoot candy up into the air and then gathered by the kids when hit the ground.

Many rendezvous have competitions for both adults and kids. Common competitions include flint and steel fire making, cooking, tomahawk and knife throwing, archery, canoe races and muzzle loader shooting. Other activities include high tea gatherings, shopping, seminars, dances, and formal and informal story telling sessions, which usually happen around the campfire. These are usually known as Big Story or B.S. sessions.

People who camp in the past are very dedicated to their sport. They take the time to learn the history and skills needed to successfully recreate the past. They also are willing to share their knowledge with most anyone. Many rendezvous are open to the public and the participants dress in costume while they answer questions and teach people what they themselves have learned.

There are many rendezvous opportunities right here in Wisconsin. For an adventure into the past, all one must do is go and visit one. You just may get hooked.

Jim Swanson is a Menomonie resident. He can be reached at james4j@wwt.net.

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