Grand Rapids

Portaging and packing

This image na-1406-48 is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives and shows the men portaging a difficult portage with both packs and York Boats.

In 1842, Alexander Caulfield Anderson led the York Factory Express to Hudson Bay. As always, the express men descended the Saskatchewan River to Lake Winnipeg, and two or three months later returned by the same route. Anderson described this part of the journey, and in doing so, made mention of the greatest barrier along the entire route — the Grand Rapids:

Hence to Edmonton on the Saskatchewan there are no impediments to the navigation of any moment, save the Cole’s Rapids, near the confluence of the north and south branches, some twelve miles in length, which are navigable with care and skill, and the Grand Rapid near the mouth, where the river bursts through the ridge of limestone which forms the north-western boundary of Lake Winnipeg.

The ridge of limestone was the edge of the Canadian Shield, and it proved to be a formidable barrier to transportation from the earliest years of the fur trade. The Saskatchewan River flowed from the west into a curving limestone gorge. The river fell 71 feet in five miles, most of which descent was concentrated in the middle three miles where it pushed through the deepest and narrowest part of the gorge, tumbling almost sixty feet in one long, foaming section of river. Many a York boat was broken here, and some men lost their lives. But once the express men had passed this barrier, their Saskatchewan River journey was complete and they could row across the sometimes-dangerous open waters of Lake Winnipeg’s north basin.

So let’s find some of the stories of the Grand Rapids, in the journals of the York Factory Express and earlier.

In its early years, it was sometimes called the Grand Falls, according to Saskatchewan Journals and Correspondence, 1795-1802, HBRS volume XXVI. In 1797, the first of the HBC York boats reached Grand Rapids and “where we took out all the furs, and shot down the rapid without injuring the boats or canoes. Indeed the boats seems to exceed even my utmost expectations on the falls as they did not ship any water, although the waves ran very high.” I believe this was close to the first test of the Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] York Boats on the Saskatchewan River, and they would be used for many years after.

In her book, The Saskatchewan, Margery Wilkes Campbell has a good story about the Grand Rapids, in the days when the HBC was still competing with the North West Company. The HBC men unwittingly got even with the Nor’Westers when they hauled their York boats over the long portage at the river’s mouth. “It was as good a practical joke as many the Nor’westers thought up, and all because of the logs the English cut and laid down along the carrying path as rollers for the boats.”

Those logs were fine for rolling a heavy York boat, much easier than struggling to carry it over two miles of rough terrain, through a too-narrow path in the woods. With stout lines the crew trudged along, hauling their craft much as they tracked on the river. It was very fine. But when the Canadians came to carry their packs and canoes over the familiar portage they stumbled and fell and cursed, especially toward dusk when the path lay in the shadow of the trees. The incident did nothing to improve relations between the Nor’westers and the English.

I write the story of the York Factory Express, but York Boats were used on the Saskatchewan River by the Saskatchewan brigades, for years before the York Factory Express existed. What is the difference between the Saskatchewan brigades and the Columbia District’s York Factory Express? It is this: The brigades carried out the furs of the district to York Factory, and carried in the trade goods. The York Factory Express from Fort Vancouver carried out papers and passengers and traveled much more quickly than a brigade would have done.  But when the men of the express reached Edmonton House, they joined the Saskatchewan brigades and helped the Saskatchewan men on their journey downriver.

So from the York Factory Express journals, here are a few descriptions of the descent of Grand Rapids, at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River.

In 1827, Edward Ermatinger reported that they traveled down the Saskatchewan River “to the Grand Rapids. Boats run down full cargoes. One breaks upon the rocks. Cargo wet. Find J[ohn] Spencer encamped at the lower end, with 2 boats. He had been detained here 9 days, the ice in Lake Winnipeg not permitting him to proceed.” In his 1828 express journals, Ermatinger noted that:

[June] 5th. A strong head wind impedes our progress all this day and we only reach the Grand Rapid late afternoon. Water being very low find it necessary to take out half cargoes. People begin to carry [loads over the portage]. Rain.

6th. Rain all last night and continues till afternoon. Men run down 7 Boats and return with them light for the remaining cargoes — then run down the other eight boats and afterwards employed carrying the remainder of the cargoes across the Portage.

7th. Fine weather but cold. The 7 boats being found to be few to embark the half cargoes of 15 boats from this end of the portage to the end of the Rapid, people fetch up another and afterwards the rest of the pieces are all got down safe. Sturgeon plentiful among the freemen here…

So, when the water was high they ran down the Rapids in one day, but in the low water of 1828, Ermatinger took three days to make his way over the portage that ran past Grand Rapids. How did the other express parties find the Grand Rapids? In 1847, Thomas Lowe had no fun at all!

Saturday 12th [June]. Rained all morning, and could not start until after breakfast. In running the Grand Rapid, Laplante’s boat struck on the rocks, and blocked up the channel, when the Columbia boat, which was close behind, ran foul of it and cut it down to the keel. The crew immediately jumped into the Columbia boat, and left [theirs] in the middle of the Rapid. Before [another] boat could be unloaded and sent to haul it off, the cargo was completely soaked. Another one was likewise slightly broken, and we were obliged to encamp at the lower end of the Portage, having only come about a mile since starting this morning. Last night’s rain rose the water a good deal.

13th. Ran the remainder of the Grand Rapid today, the boats having taken out 30 pieces each, as the water was too low to run with full cargoes, and one half of them had therefore to make a second trip. Encamped at the bottom of the Rapids to mend the boats and dry the packs.

In 1848, Thomas Lowe’s brigade boats “run the Grand Rapid with full cargoes, and only one boat was broken.” He said the water was in a good state that year, which probably meant it was high. In 1849, John Charles also had little difficulty descending the Grand Rapids, but…

By 10 am all the boats were safely taken down to the end of Grand Rapid, here we found an Indian with his canoe, which with two men Mr. [John] Rowand despatches to Lake Winnipeg to see if the passage was clear. The canoe returned after an hours absence with the unfortunate news that the Lake appeared “like winter.” Fearing that we might be detained here some time 4 nets were set in the River, which before night provided us with 12 sturgeon and upwards of 30 jackfish.

From Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson’s journal, we have a good description of the Grand Rapids as he came upriver from Norway House in 1826 — unlike the others, he is traveling from east to west.

Having come about 20 miles from our Encampment we entered the Saskatchewan River, at 7.30 am, and continued our ascent of it for about 2 miles, we arrived at the foot of the Grand Rapids. After Breakfast I walked to the Head of the Rapids, which from the Entrance of the River I estimate to be 6 miles, forming a great bend between South & North & bounded by steep Cliffs of Gravel and Limestone, with the elevation of about 80 feet…

Wed. 2nd. Our crews from daylight were employed transporting the Boats &c across the Portage, which is a most laborious operation, having to drag them up a steep Bank of 20 feet & then to Launch them across the Portage, a distance of 1800 yards & whose extreme height was determined by my Mountain Barometer to by 67 feet. At 3.30 this difficult service being completed we Embarked  & continued our ascent of the Saskatchewan, by Tracking and poling against a very strong Current… [Source: Journal from York to Fort Vancouver, 1826, by Lieut. Aemilius Simpson, B.223/a/3, HBCA]

Here is the last word on Grand Rapids, taken from High McLennan’s Rivers of Canada [Toronto: MacMillan Company, 1974]:

After the twin branches leave the Rockies the most dramatic moment in their course occurs at Grand Rapids, just before the stream discharges into Lake Winnipeg. Here the river, five hundred feet wide between twenty-five-foot walls, flowing at a velocity of ten miles an hour, drops seventy-five feet over a distance of three miles.

In 1964 a dam was completed on the Grand Rapids section which produced the ninth largest man-made body of water in the world. In June of that year, to celebrate the completion of the dam, the engineers made an experimental shut-off which stopped the rapids entirely. The pools at the river mouth were filled with pickerel, northern pike, bass. goldeyes, and sturgeons and on that single day one commercial fisherman made a haul worth $1,400. The next day the gates were opened and the Saskatchewan flowed, under control, into Lake Winnipeg again.

“Under control.” The Grand Rapids were gone, and the historic river to the west of the rapids buried, probably forever.

If you want to know more about the Cole’s Rapids Anderson mentioned in A.C. Anderson’s quote, see here: and here:

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

4 thoughts on “Grand Rapids

  1. Tom Holloway

    Thanks for this. I was very interested to see the term “Columbia boat” in Lowe’s 1847 report. He clearly means to distinguish it from the York boats then in common use east of the Rockies, but what was the difference? It it also clear that no boats made on the west side were ever carried east over the mountains from the Columbia District. That means that someone must have built at least a few of the smaller and lighter Columbia boats, east of the Rockies!

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I think it was the boat that carried out whatever Columbia supplies there were, and the Columbia gentlemen. But I think it was a York Boat. In 1826, James Birnie traveled out with the Athabasca boats, though he was a Columbia man and the Athabasca boats also didn’t come over the portage from Fort Assiniboine. I think it was just an Edmonton House York Boat, assigned to the Columbia men, as Birnie’s boat was assigned to the Lesser Slave Lake men (and him). At least that is what I have always presumed it meant.

  2. Tom Holloway

    Of course, this makes sense. The brigades east of the mountains were made up of men and paper cassettes from various districts, and the (York) boat with the Columbia District men, and what they brought with them, would logically have been called the Columbia boat. I was distracted by my ongoing efforts to track down construction details of the boats used in the western river systems, smaller and lighter than the York boats used on the east side. Thanks for clarifying this.