The Fort Union Rendezvous, June 13 – 16th. I think I first heard of the event a few weeks ago. As the dates got closer and I made pretty quick progress down the first few hundred miles of the river, a plan soon emerged where I’d be able to paddle up to the Fort and enjoy all the Rendezvous had to offer. Now the question was, what did it have to offer?
I poked around on the event web site a week before, and got a sense it was some type of reenactment, where people dress in clothing from the period when the Fort was a bustling fur and goods trading post on the shores of the busy Missouri River. Fine, good enough, sounded like a good place to stop and relax for a bit, get some decent food and clean water, meet a few characters. I somehow made contact with a member of the MO River Paddlers group, Jeff Brown, who was going to be in attendance at the event. We played message tag leading up the event. It was Jeff who was yelling my name and calling me to shore through the willow swamp after a paddled exhaustedly up to the Fort.
I woke up Saturday morning in Jeff’s historically authentic mid-1800s tent, chocked full of authentic gear a fur trader would have. We were camped among a few dozen other very authentic tents, teepees, canoe lean-tos and other imaginative structures. The camping village was set up a few feet from the walls of the reconstructed Fort Union, a National Historic Site and very impressive place to visit in itself.
Waking up groggy and sore after an epic paddle day, Jeff laid out the clothes I had to choose from to wear that day. I couldn’t be more excited about getting into the spirit of the Rendezvous and fully participating in the fun. Once I was fully decked out, I even had to sort of pack up and hide my modern camping gear inside his tent. Wow, this was a seriously authentic event. Jeff, himself dressed as a sharp looking fur trader, told me there was to be a few runs that morning to go along with the Rendezvous, where lots of people from the general public show up to run courses of varying lengths from a half marathon all the way down to a 1 mile fun run. Each course started in North Dakota, crossed into Montana, then back into North Dakota, crossing over state lines and time zones. Most importantly, Jeff told me there was a fur trader division in the 1 mile fun run. In years past, he won that division and took home some serious hardware. I was in! Footwear could be a problem. Jeff has a pair of too-big moccasins, that while authentic, had worn holes through the bottom and would have been a chore to cover even 1 mile in. I cheated a bit and threw on my go-to running sandals I’ve worn every day on my trip.
The musketeers fired their 1800s rifles and the race began. It was me, Jeff, and about 50 little kids along with a few adults with kids who were too young to navigate the course themselves. Jeff insisted we carry knives strapped to our belts and well as normal sized canoe paddles during the run. I didn’t know whether to walk it, or to go ahead and do it serious. So I took off at a pretty good pace. I’ve learned long ago racing against kids that they go out way too fast then fade quickly. This race was no exception. About a half mile in, I started passing a bunch of overconfident tots as they started to walk. One chubby little boy started walking, I passed him, he started running again, passed me, then started walking again, and I re-passed him. This repeated several times before I finally left him in the dust. Crossing the finish line, I held up my paddle in victory formation as a photographer took photos. I really hope I made the front of some small town newspaper. Don’t worry, I didn’t beat all the kids in the race, but I probably finished in the top 10. Jeff and I claimed our medals proudly:
After the awards ceremony, I spent some time exploring the Fort, including a pretty cool museum. As a St. Louis kid born and raised, it was pretty cool to see Pierre Chouteau have a pretty strong part in building and running this fort as an extension of the American Fur Trading Company. At 2pm, a speaker was portraying William Clark’s slave, York, who accompanied the 1804 – 1806 expedition. Hassan Davis gave a masterful presentation as York, not only his experience during the expedition, but what happened with his life after it ended. What struck me, and I assume most in the audience, was how he was treated as an equal to other members of the expedition during the journey, but how badly he was treated by William Clark after, never receiving offical recognition or compensation that other members received. He was not freed after the expedition, Clark forced him to move away from his wife in Louisville to St. Louis to serve Clark in governance of the new Louisiana territory. It was an emotional experience for all of us listening to Davis as York and it’s not something I’ll ever forget.
Later in the afternoon, I listened to two guys give a fantastic guitar and banjo performance of songs from the 1800s, also very entertaining. Also among the rows of tents, there were vendors selling trinkets, clothing, knives, guns, furniture and other items that would be found at this trading post in its heyday in the mid-1800s. I wandered around looking at all the stuff and talking to all kinds of interesting folks. Finally, Jeff told me there was a communal stew dinner. A bell soon rang and everyone lined up with their metal bowl to scoop out a serving of stew from a massive pot over a fire. Grab a piece of fresh homemade bread and sit around many others enjoying the meal late in the day. I looked around and the only signs that I was still in modern times vs. the 1800s was the occasional car passing on the road and the freight trains roaring by in the distance. But it wasn’t hard to imagine this being 150 years ago, and I am pretty sure that’s why these people make the huge effort to come to these events and stick so closely to the authentic gear and experience.
The evening was filled with a gathering in the Fort, attendance prizes were raffled off, there was a fiddle player with some dancing, and I adjourned myself to the campsite of the Boatmen, three gentlemen who had paddled 3 days on the river to get there. They had authentic 1800s canoes, paddles, gear and an entire campsite they had packed in their boats. Quite a contrast to my modern, compact travelling campsite. They also introduced me to Shrub, basically 151 rum with brown sugar and lime juice that was a popular drink on sailing vessels of the 1800s. A couple of those drinks and I turned in for the night, listening as I dozed to the sounds of the fiddle, clapping and fun into the night.
The Rendezvous was an incredible experience. I learned they have these all over the country, and I think even down near St. Louis at Fort Chartres or Kaskaskia. I’d love to attend another one, maybe put on the authentic attire and maybe even whip a few kids in a foot race again. Huge thank you to Jeff Brown, who’s been attending this Rendezvous for 20+ years and has been graciously hosting paddlers at this event when dates coincide. You were a fantastic host and provided me and incredible introduction to the Rendezvous experience!