"It is, I was told, a tradition thing at NT to do things like the pioneer/voyagers of long ago."
On the face of it, that sounds good. I would be interested in hearing more about just exactly what that means, though. I am shocked by the bad aspects you cite -- I am very sorry to hear that you had such a negative experience.
One of my fondest memories is the summer (late '1960's?) I spent leading canoe trips in the Temagami area of Ontario for a camp. I had the same 13-14 year old boys all summer. We started with shorter trips and worked up to a 2-week trip by the end. The boys were good to travel with from the beginning. By the middle of the summer, they were a true joy to travel with.
Very traditional North Woods traveling -- canvas-and-wood canoes, wanigan boxes, wood fires, fire irons, iron frying pans, canvas dining fly, 2-person canvas wall tents, duffel bags (not packs), tump lines, etc. All loads, including the canoes, were carried on tump lines (that took some getting used to). Most suppers, between bread, dessert, and main dish I cooked 2 of the 3 in reflector ovens.
Portages ranged from well used to the occasional one where I went over first with my axe, limbing it enough for the boys to portage the canoes. Some were smooth, some pretty rough. For this age group, we did portages as "one-and-a-half's".
Unlike your experience, we had no sickness or injury that I can recall. The boys enjoyed it enough that many of them came back to the camp year after year; the older boys often graduated to such things as one and two month trips canoeing down to James Bay (being a returning camper was prerequisite for these longer tougher trips).
As to too much exertion -- I set up longer trips than the other counselors (a bit less than twice as long). I decided I must be doing OK on exertion when one night around the campfire, part way through the summer, the boys asked me "why the kids in the other sections did not get bored -- they never seemed to do very much".
In short, my experience is the exact opposite of yours. I am all in favor of tripping light -- that's what I would do myself at this point. But that summer of traditional tripping was an experience not to be missed -- and as far as I could tell the boys felt the same way. (FWIW: the camp is still in business, run by the same family, and still very traditional.)
Not sure what the difference was. Could be the boys 40 years later?
Could it also be the leadership? What was your own training for this? Did you have training and/or experience with traditional north woods ways of canoeing before taking the trip out? (As a spot check, what stroke were those in the stern paddling? Please don't tell me it was a J-stroke.)
Or were you just depending on your 18-year old guide? (I gather that you were.) What was his level of skill and training?
I had an equivalent with me -- he was good, but still had things to learn. Example: one night we pulled into our campsite late, after a long rainy day. He, unbeknownst to me, put the kids to bed without supper, telling them that since we could not start a fire, there would be no supper! (I thought they were just staying in their tents out of the rain.) I built the fire and cooked supper. When I discovered the situation, I made him go around and tell each one (waking them if need be) that there was hot supper. Coming to supper was optional, but the had to know that hot supper was available. I don't recall numbers any more, but most/all of them showed up for supper.