We're Much Weaker than We Think
How many beaver pelts can you carry?
Before the Gold Rush, there was the Beaver Rush.
If you wanted to flex on Instagram in 1700s France, you needed a fine beaver hat. Beavers had been heavily farmed in Europe, but early American settlers discovered the bucktoothed dammers were chopping down trees in droves to the Northwest.
French traders soon established alliances with indigenous populations throughout New France, and the North American Fur Trade was underway. During the 1700s and early 1800s, it would be one of the main economic forces in North America, helping America establish its financial independence from Great Britain in style.
Major ports were established along the Great Lakes for shipping the furs back to Europe and for receiving goods to trade with the locals. But trading companies had a problem: the vast majority of the lakes throughout New France where beavers could be found were not reachable by large trading ships. Some could be reached by canoe, but most had to be accessed over land.
How do you build a trade network through a land you can’t cover on horseback and can’t boat through? That’s where the Voyageurs came in.
The Voyageurs were an organization of fur traders and transporters who canoed, camped and hiked throughout New France, trading with the locals and bringing pelts back to the major trading posts.
They traveled in teams of six to twelve people, paddling 600-pound canoes carrying up to 6,000 pounds of furs and gear. When they reached the end of a lake, they would disembark and carry their canoe and gear across the land to the next lake, following the portage trails that still mark areas like the Boundary Waters today.
A standard Voyageur pack weighed 90 pounds, and the minimum amount of weight you were required to carry across a portage was two packs. Some would carry four or five depending on the distance, and there’s one particularly legendary story of an aspiring Voyageur carrying seven packs (630lbs) for half a mile as part of his job application.
My uncle shared some of these stories about the voyageurs as we sat around the campfire on South Lake, near the Height of Land Portage that has been used for centuries by indigenous people, voyageurs, and now Boundary Waters canoe campers.
When he reached the details on the loads they carried across these portages, my first thought was:
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
I felt proud about carrying a canoe with a light pack over a quarter-mile portage, but that couldn’t have weighed more than 80 pounds. These guys were carrying 180 to 600 pounds for double that distance? It almost seems impossible.
But it’s not the first story I’ve heard of freakishly strong humans from the past. Another that comes to mind is Mongol Archers. They could allegedly hit targets 600 meters away and used bows with draw weights of up to 140 pounds. Imagine picking a 140-pound weight off the ground with a couple fingers and holding it there while you aim at a target six football fields away. English archers were almost as badass, with bows with 100 - 185lb draw weights and hitting targets 400 yards away.
There are non-military examples too. Ancient hunter-gatherers' normal leg strength was on par with modern professional cross-country athletes, and early farming-era women had arms stronger than professional rowers. The Marathon Monks complete seven 100-day meditations where they travel 25 to 52 miles daily. Tutsi men might have been able to beat modern high-jump records simply as a puberty right.
Then there’s us. How many of us could survive a month of daily farm labor? Or walking and jogging ten miles a day, hunting for food and carrying it back to camp? Most of us can’t even step into the sun without covering ourselves in protective goop, let alone strap 180 pounds of weight on our backs and hike half a mile.
The more examples I stumble on, like the Voyageurs, Archers, Monks, and Farmers, the more I think athletes like David Goggins might be among the few physically fit humans alive today. Instead of seeing them as weirdos or “freakishly strong,” maybe we need to admit they’re just the healthy ones and the rest of us are much weaker humans than we normally assume.
I’m sure some would say, “what’s the point?” Most of us aren’t doing manual farm labor or firing arrows over great walls anymore. We don’t need to be incredibly strong.
But if you look at what determines your health and quality of life into old age, two of the best markers are your physical strength and VO2 max. Strength predicts how well you can endure bone and muscle degradation from old age and how well you can handle an unexpected fall. VO2 max predicts your heart's strength and how well it can stay ahead of age-related decline.
If we have low standards for good cardiovascular health and strength, we’ll never be physically thriving well into old age. Hunter-gatherers could likely walk or jog 10 to 25 miles a day without much bother. The voyageurs apparently worked into their 60s. When you think of a fit 60-year-old, do you imagine someone carrying 180lbs of gear for half a mile?
And before anyone jumps in with an “akshully those people weren’t healthy; they only lived into their 30s! We’re so much more healthy now!” No, that’s just bad statistics. Antibiotics, surgery, and other medicines can save us from an unnecessarily early death pulling down the average, but the healthy human lifespan doesn’t appear to have changed much throughout recorded history. Even the Old Testament puts a good life at 70 to 80 years and a “godly” life at 120. Considering the biological limit on human life seems to be around 120, the Old Testament ranges are honestly a little spooky.
Put another way, if previous generations were carrying 180lb packs half a mile for decades without modern medicine, what exactly is our excuse?
If we think someone like Goggins is a freak of nature, we won’t acknowledge that we are made of mostly the same genetic material as him, the voyageurs, and the monks. We don’t have to reach quite those levels, but aiming at 25-50% of them seems reasonable.
It’s sad to see someone waste their intellectual potential on TikToks, video games, and gossip. And it’s equally sad for us to waste our physical potential. Humans are capable of magnificent feats of strength and endurance if we prioritize developing them. We need to raise our standards much higher and not get seduced by the myth that very fit people are weirdos. They’re the healthy ones.
It isn’t about looking good on Instagram. It’s not about aesthetic desires around leanness. It’s about discovering what our body is capable of. Occasionally finish a run or drop a weight and whisper between gasps, “I’ve never done that before.”
And, if you’re feeling ambitious, to carry 630lbs of beaver pelts half a mile on your back.