Norway House to Hudson Bay via York Factory Express

Norway House

This image of Norway House is used with the permission of Glenbow Archives, na-1041-5. The early Norway House was at Warren’s Landing, on the Playgreen Lake side of Mossy Point (the long point that separated Playgreen Lake from Lake Winnipeg). This, the later post, was located on the fisheries at Jack River, on the north side of Playgreen Lake. 

The river route from Norway House to York Factory was packed with historical landmarks and points of interest, but most fur traders did not bother to keep records of their downriver journey to Hudson Bay. They had been delayed at the Council Meeting for some days and the Saskatchewan boats and men had gone on ahead. There was little reason to keep a record of the relatively relaxed downriver journey they made with contemporaries, especially as they had no responsibilities other than ensuring that they themselves, had a quick and easy journey.

If the annual meeting had been held at Red River, as it sometimes was, the gentlemen and clerks must first make their way up the treacherous Lake Winnipeg to Norway House, traveling in birch bark canoes instead of heavy York Boats. From Norway House, their voyageurs paddled them across shallow Playgreen Lake, following its intricate channels to Carpenter Lake and the mouth of Nelson River.

The Nelson was a boisterous waterway that carried the combined waters of the Assiniboine, Saskatchewan, Red, and Winnipeg Rivers in a tumbling downriver slide down the steep slope of the Canadian Shield, to Hudson Bay.  Alexander Caulfield Anderson took out the York Factory Express in 1842. His journal did not survive, which is why I am so interested in these York Factory Express journals, written by other fur traders. But his memory was good, however, and many years later he wrote of the Nelson River:

The descent for a certain distance from Lake Winnipeg towards the sea, by a series of lakes terminating in Split Lake, is necessarily very gradual; thence consequently to its mouth the Nelson rushes with great impetuosity. [Source: Notes on North-Western America, [Montreal: Mitchell & Wilson, 1876], p. 11]

The Nelson River was far too dangerous for canoe travel, and after a 40 kilometer paddle the voyageurs took their canoes into a tiny stream so blocked by beaver dams that it was little more than a series of still ponds. This was the Echimamish River. From the point where the Echimamish flowed into the Hayes near Painted Stone Portage, the men were some three hundred miles from Hudson Bay.

In its tumble down the edge of the Canadian Shield the Hayes River changed its name many times over. Near the top of the hill it was named Trout River; then Jack Tent, Hill River, Fox, and finally Steel. There were many obstacles along these various sections of river, and the falls at the top of the hill was the worst. A quick paddle through Robinson Lake led the traders to Robinson Falls. These cascades tumbled over five rockbound steps that forced the full fury of the Hayes between massive granite walls.

The gentlemen who left the Annual meeting had an easier journey downriver than their voyageurs did, as they traveled in light canoes rather than heavy York Boats. From the chaos of Robinson’s Falls their canoes entered calm water for a short distance, before tumbling into the scenic narrows they called Hill’s Gates (sometimes Hell’s Gates) — a ten mile gorge with high granite walls. From the upper Hills Gate portage they crossed a second hauling place before entering the rapid filled section of the river. The most dangerous portage in this section of the river was the Lower Hill’s Gates, but once the men carried their canoes over this portage, calmer waters prevailed.

Below Hill’s Gate, Windy Lake led them through three or four sets of rapids, including Rapide de Croche [Crooked Rapid], John More’s Island, and the Lower Waipinapanis. This steep section of the river was only the beginning of the Hayes’ rapid-filled descent to the bay. But the men could rest and socialize at Oxford House, which stood on the shores of Holey Lake — named for the depth of its waters. Beyond Oxford House they paddled into the rapid-filled Trout River and portaged over the Upper and Lower Knife Handling Place and the dangerous Trout Falls. At the east end of Knee Lake (which, like the Saskatchewan River’s “Elbow,” bent like the part of the body it was named for), they entered the Jack Tent River’s water-filled staircase that tumbled downwards toward the sea, its river bed littered with rocks and islands.

Four more portages in the Jack Tent River brought the men to Swampy Lake, perhaps the same lake known by later fur traders as Logan’s Lake. Passing through the lake they paddled into another stretch of rapid-filled river before reaching the Rocky Portage. At long abandoned Rock post, at the base of Rocky portage, the fur traders were 124 miles from York Factory.

The section of the river below the Rock was blocked by rapids and falls, but 37 portages over 45 sets of rapids brought them into the relative safety of the lower river. Eventually the Hayes delivered the men safely into York Factory, the HBC headquarters on the shores of Hudson Bay.

Here is Thomas Lowe’s journal of his downriver journey to York Factory in 1847. He was traveling in birchbark canoes, and his journey is very swift. You will notice that he overtakes, and passes, the York Boats in which the Saskatchewan men are traveling.

Friday 25th. At day light the morning Mr. [John] Rowand and I embarked in a light canoe with 10 men for YF. Rain in the morning. Got as far as the Painted Stone or Height of Land, where we encamped.

Saturday 26th. Much rain in the morning. Got the canoe and luggage carried across Robertson’s [Robinson’s] Portage before breakfast. Overtook the Saskatchewan Brigade in the forenoon at Upper Hell’s Gates, and Mr. O’Brien left the boats to embark with us in the canoe. Encamped near the end of Oxford Lake.

Sunday 27th June 1847. Fine day. Reached Oxford House at breakfast time, and remained there about an hour. The River is very low, and we had a great many Portages to make. Encamped a short distance beyond Knee Lake.

Monday 28th. Fine weather. Met a great many boats today on their way from York Factory to Red River with Goods. Encamped near the Rock, and found the musquitoes [sic] very troublesome.

Tues. 29th. Very warm. Passed the junction of the Fox River with Hill River before sundown which is then called Steel River. As the Fox River is rather high, we will have fine water down to York. Put ashore to supper and paddled all night, as there are now no more Rapids.

Wednesday 30th. Fine warm day. Arrived at York Factory at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I find that the Columbia Letters I forwarded from Norway House have not yet come to hand here.

If you have just stumbled on this series and want to know what it is about, click here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/second-book/

If you want to go back to the beginning of this series of posts, click here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/first-leg/

When the next leg of this long journey is posted, it will appear here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/tenth-leg/

By the way, this thread will proceed very slowly — as this is the subject of my next book. Consider this thread a teaser, and keep an eye on it please! I am sometimes putting in the best of the journals, but sometimes I am not. In addition to this, there are many stories in here that are part of the York Factory Express, but which I am not addressing here (or at least not yet). One of those stories is the “Many boats on their way from York Factory to Red River with Goods,” (see Thomas Lowe’s journal). This is another express, and one that might even travel a greater distance than the York Factory Express. When this story is written, I will post it here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Norway House to Hudson Bay via York Factory Express

  1. Tom Holloway

    Great info! I’ve been researching Columbia boats, the lighter and smaller cousin of York boats, designed to be portaged around the many falls and rapids of the rivers west of the Rockies. Columbia boats could be carried by a crew of 10 men, or a few more when necessary. I am surprised to read of so many Rapids and portages on the rivers of the east. Dennis Johnson’s book on York boats says a relatively small one would literally weigh a ton–about 2,100 lbs. empty. That made them too heavy to carry over portages, but they could be dragged on rollers when necessary. Imagine the labor required to drag a boat weighing a ton around all the portages Lowe lists, not to mention carrying the cargo–4-6 tons for each boat–in the standard load of two 90-lb. “pieces” per man per trip. If your research reveals more about portaging York boats, I’ll be interested to see it.

  2. Paul Sproat

    Hi there,
    Hoping to make contact with you re Gilbert Sproat. Will elaborate after we make contact. Paul