Tracking: Using the Lines, and Using the Poles

The Flintlock gun

The Metis man, and his flintlock gun

“Rowing.” “Tracking.” “Portage.” “Tracking Lines.” “Lining the Boats.” “Tracking the Boats.” “Use the Poles.” 

I use these words and phrases all the time, both in my tweets, and in my York Factory Express book. They are explained in the book, but I wonder how many people who read my tweets do not know what the words mean. I don’t know how plainly I can explain all this, but I will attempt to do so here, using some of the journals that I have uncovered.

I have a wonderful description of the rowing that was peculiar to the Metis who later worked for the HBC, and perhaps of the Canadiens who came before them. This was written in the 1840’s when many of the men who worked the York Boats were Metis:

Halfcastes and young Orkney lads, just from the native land, composed the crews of our boats. I was much amused to see the particular mode adopted by the former in rowing. When going at an easy stroke they sit still as every one else would, but when they wish to pull a more vigorous stroke they rise on their feet, stretching back the oar with one hand generally, and as it touches the water with a splash the other hand is applied and the oar is bent under the force of their bodies as they descend to their seats to rise again for another stroke. Before taking the oar out of the water they give it a peculiar hoist and lift the water with it, making it boil and foam. This they term bouillon and look upon it as the plus ultra of rowing… They look upon the home method of rowing adopted by the Orkney men as childish, and I well remember how often they would say to a blacksmith who pulled an oar in my boat “Boy, you no pull hard!” The blacksmith had served some years on board a whale ship and of course know how to pull; but his tawny boat mates looked upon his long, easy, regular strokes as childish because he made no bouillon.

These are the types of stories that I love: a good description of the actual people who rowed the boats across the continent to York Factory and return. It does not matter that the clerk who writes the stories is prejudiced and demeans his characters: it tells us more, perhaps, about these men, than less. It is difficult to find these descriptions, and the man who wrote this was not in the York Factory Express, but heading to the Athabasca — nevertheless, his story is that of all the Canadien, Metis, Orkney, Iroquois, and Cree men who worked the York Boats over the years. Yes, Iroquois. Generally the bowsman and/or steersman was Iroquois: in the 1900’s, the Cree from Norway House manned the boats. 

Now, here is a really good description of how the men who worked the York Boats “tracked” the York Boats upriver past an obstruction in the river. As it happens, it is also a wonderful description of how the men used the poles:

The sun being yet up the guide [Alexis L’Esperance] determined on getting over a portion of the work forthwith, but as this rapid is several miles in extent and the water too turbulent to allow of the boats passing up under full cargo, half of the goods of each boat were landed and covered up and a person left to guard them while the several crews prepared to mount their respective boats with the other half of the cargoes to the carrying ground. 

The mode of procedure was now changed. The oars, being of no service here, were placed fore and after within board, and a tracking line fastened to the bow — the other end of which was furnished with leather straps to which the men attached themselves to drag the craft upstream, after the manner of canal boat handling. In ordinary circumstances it is customary to employ only half the crews at a time in tracking while the other half remain in the boats ready to take their turn on the line at the end of what, in voyageur parlance, is termed a “pipe,” — generally an hour and a half. On the present occasion, however, the strength of the rapid required all the force available to surmount it; therefore, with the exception of the steersman and bowsman, who remain on board, the whole of the crews were sent on shore to track. Those who remained in the boats divested themselves of their trousers and shoes ready to jump overboard to fend the boat off from stones, or in case of the line breaking to prevent it from being turned down with the water.

All being ready the work commenced, the guide of course taking the lead with his boat, the others following at equal distances. Such was the strength of the current, the trackers were often obliged to bend themselves till their hands touched the ground, giving them the appearance of walking on their hands and feet, as in fact they were, for the former served them at times as much as the latter. The water foamed and boiled as it shot past the boats in its course and it required the utmost skill of the bowsman and steersman to keep the craft from sheering out and so coming broadside on to the rapids. The bowsman with a long iron-shod pole watched every movement, changing his pole from side to side as occasion required, while the steersman plied his long sweep-oar in concert, and every now and then cried out at the top of his voice to those on shore to “Haul! Haul! Haul!”, when in fact they were hauling to their utmost and straining on the line which was brought to an alarming state of tension as the boat creaked and quivered between the contending force of the water and the trackers.

I learned, quite by accident, that the poles they used were always set at an angle outward from the boat — never straight up and down or they would raise the bow — and when in use, they always rubbed against the gunwales of the boat. That was the proper way to use the poles!

And the portage! Let us talk about how all these various men carried their loads across the portage. The band, that wrapped around the loads and went over his forehead, was called a tumpline:

After the hungry crews had demolished half a dozen capacious kettles of robbibo [pemmican stew], the work of transportation commenced. Each piece weighs eighty-four pounds, and two such pieces are carried at a time by each of the men who are provided with a portage strap of leather [tump line]. The porter attaches both ends of his strap [around] one piece which he slings on his back, placing the loop of this strap over his forehead. Then, with his hands, which are entirely free, he takes up the second piece and, lifting it over his head, drops it on the first. Thus loaded, off he sets at a shuffling trot to the other end of the portage where he deposits his load and returns for another. I have elsewhere spoken of the loads these halfcastes will carry. They take a delight in showing off their prowess and contend, one with another, in carrying heavy loads. Some will not only carry but actually load themselves with five or six such pieces, to do which requires no small amount of physical force. The Scotch and Orkney men, although they ultimately become good porters, find this sort of duty irksome and harassing and are generally glad to avail themselves of the friendly support of a tree to rest their loads against, while two or three “brules,” as the halfbreeds are scornfully termed by the Canadians, will come sweeping past in a headlong race, jeering them with “Hello, Boy! Come along!” It not infrequently happens that one will trip his foot in some branch or stump and fall prostrate with the full weight of his load, one hundred and sixty-eight pounds, on his body, hurting him severely.

 Aha! The problems of showing off your ability to carry more than the next man! But friendly competition — whether it be rowing faster, or wrestling, or carrying heavy loads — was always a part of the Canadien and Metis culture from the early days of the HBC. [Source of above: E/B/P34, BCA]

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.

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