Descending the Hayes River

York Boat being rowed
This image of a York Boat being rowed is used with the permission of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, and is image N9246. The image is of a York Boat being rowed on Split Lake, and the photograph was taken by R.A. Talbot.

The York Factory Express left Fort Vancouver, 100 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River, in late March, and by mid-June were at Norway House, on Playgreen Lake. Their destination was York Factory, on Hudson Bay, and descending the Hayes River to York Factory, down the east side of the Canadian Shield, was likely the most exciting part of the entire journey, and the part that the Canadien crews enjoyed the most. However, almost no gentlemen mentions how the York Boats made this exciting descent to sea-level, at Hudson Bay. For example, James Douglas says this of his 1835 journey down the Hayes River:

Fri. 19. Left Norway House at one o’clock; in 6 hours reached Black Water river; in two hours more passed Black Water and Hairy Lake. Encamped at the Etchimanies. [Echimamish River]

Saty. 20. Left encampment at half past 2 — 8 1/2 hours Painted Stone [Portage]; 4 hours to White Falls [Robinson’s Falls]; 2 hours Hill Portage; encamped.

Wed. 25. Reached the Factory (York).

So, there we have it. It took him three days to descend the east side of the Canadian Shield to York Factory from the portage at the top of the hill. On his return journey it would take his men from July 16 to August 2 to make their way from York Factory to Norway House. So how did they do it? How did they get down the east side of the Canadian Shield so quickly?

In his book, A Narrative of Two Voyages to Hudson’s Bay, with Traditions of the North American Indians (London: Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1847), Dr. John Birkbeck Nevins tells us how the HBC voyageurs brought him downriver to York Factory, from Knee Lake. The boats they are travelling in are, of course, York Boats. These are the same boats that the York Factory Express men travelled in, from Edmonton House to York Factory. So, here we go with Dr. Nevins’s story:

The journey down the river was very different from the ascent; for now the rapids which had given us so much trouble, were, if anything, in our favour. A rapid or fall, which had taken us half an hour or more to ascend, was passed in a few minutes; and, in each day’s work, we saw several places where we had previously remained for the night. The comparative ease of the different directions may be best estimated by the fact that we came down in little more than two days, a distance which it had required eleven days to ascend.

There is something very exciting in shooting a long rapid or a fall. In general the current carries the boat down; and the men have nothing to do but to lie by their oars, ready to strike out at the slightest notice from the steersman. It is absolutely necessary that he [the steersman] should know every stone and rock in the river’s bed, for almost every thing depends upon him. The current sometimes changes its course two or three times in a single rapid; and, frequently, there is a large stone or rock at the bottom, which would certainly stave in the boat, should it strike upon it. He therefore stands by his long sweep, and with one or two rapid strokes turns the boat’s head, so as to avoid anything of this sort. As soon as it reaches the bottom he gives the signal to the men, who instantly pull at their oars, to carry her out of the force of the current into smooth water, and to prevent her being overwhelmed in the eddy at the foot of the rapid.

The bowsman stands in the bow of the boat, with his long iron-shod pole, ready to push her head from any rock which may be above the water, and which the steersman alone might not be able entirely to avoid. He is also looking out sharply to see if there are any hidden rocks, of which he judges by the whirling of the water above them.

There is even more excitement and danger in “shooting a fall,” than in “running a rapid.” When the guides or steersmen grow old, they are often afraid of taking the loaded boat down a fall; and several times during the journey, our guide, after bringing us safely down, used to ascend by the bank of the river to the top of the fall, to bring down another boat, the guide of which durst not attempt it. It does appear rather formidable at first, for it is just as if you were coming down a river which is crossed by a wear [weir]; and when you reach it, you allow the current to carry the boat over it into the water below. The fall is not, perhaps, quite so perpendicular; but the risk is often increased by the current rushing round a piece of rock, against which you are in danger of striking. As soon as the boat has safely descended and is out of danger, all the crew lay down their oars and give three cheers. This they do as each boat passes the fall unhurt; which is an expression of pleasure and congratulation not considered necessary in simply coming down a rapid.

Notwithstanding all their care the boat does occasionally strike a stone and make a hole through its bottom. We had passed two or three rapids in safety one morning, when, just as we reached the bottom of another, we felt a slight blow and saw the water rising through the side. We immediately pulled to the bank and threw out all the goods as quickly as possible. As soon as it was emptied, the boat was hauled out of the water and turned bottom upward, when we found that a plank had been split, and that there was a hole nearly a foot long. Every boat is provided with a saw, a hammer, a chisel, a few nails, and some oakum [old rope]. In a few minutes the damaged plank was removed; a piece of wood was found, which, by a little chopping, was made to fill its place; it was nailed in; the seams were stuffed with oakum, which was driven tightly in by the edge of the chisel; the outside was rubbed with a little grease; and before we had finished our breakfast, which we began to prepare as soon as we landed, the boat was in the water again and ready for starting.

Nevins went on this exploration in 1842 or 1843, and so I think the Canadians he is talking about, below, are the Métis men who had replaced their Canadien fathers by this time. But I might be wrong, and in fact when I think about it there were probably Canadians still working in the brigades to Athabasca from the Red River Colony. Nevins does make it clear that he is travelling down the Hayes River with the men of the Athabasca brigades, who are bringing down the furs from the Mackenzie River and Athabasca River Districts. As we know, Alexis Bonamie dit L’Esperance was in charge of these expresses, and his story, as far as I have written it, is here:

Most of the voyageurs, as the men are termed who come with the boats, are Canadians, who are admirably adapted to this kind of life. Their spirits are excellent, and scarcely ever cast down. If the work is very hard or some rapid is unusually difficult to pass, or anything goes wrong, they grumble most heartily; but as soon as they are free from trouble they forget all about it, and never anticipate difficulties. If anything has to be done quickly — such as mending a boat, or making an oar, a pole, or a spoon — they set about it and get it finished, whilst another person would be considering how it should be done. This is an invaluable talent in a country, and under circumstances where rapidity of action is important. It is true that their work does not last long; but it is better that a man should be able to mend a boat in half an hour, in such a way that it will carry him the remainder of his journey, at the end of which he can get it throughly repaired, than that he should occupy so much time in doing it completely, that the river may be frozen up, or the ship have sailed for which the goods were intended.

So here we have it, the story of a wet, fast, and exciting journey down the Hayes River, from Knee Lake to York Factory. This is something the HBC men never wrote about, or at least not in the York Factory Express journals I have collected. I often find that the best information on their lives comes from visitors to the territory, who describe things for their London audience that the HBC men themselves think it too unimportant to mention in their journals.

So enjoy this post, and make sure you enjoy it while you are comfortably at home and not camping out in the cold wilderness in winter-time. This is being written just before Christmas 2019, and so I wish you a Merry, warm, and fun-filled Christmas season, hoping that you are not bothered by broken boards and frightening waterfalls and terrible food and cold wet nights and the hard work of bringing these boats downriver to York Factory. 

And if you wish to order my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through your local bookstore, or via Amazon. It is also now available in the United States: the American distributor for Ronsdale Press is Independent Publishers Group. Thank you!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Descending the Hayes River

  1. Wil Vader

    Thank you for writing these stories and for making them available. I enjoy them very much. Merry Christmas to you. Wil Vader.