The Historic Hayes River

York Boat sailing

This York Boat may have been sailing on the Hayes River. York Boat Sailing, image HBCA-N14645 used with the permission of the Hudson’s Bay Archives

Once they left York Factory, built where the Hayes River flowed into Hudson Bay, the York Factory Express men followed up the “York Factory River” towards home. (The York Factory River was the section of the Hayes River between Steel River and York Factory). This blog-post is a study of all the barriers and rapids that impeded the historic Hayes River that the York Factory Express men travelled. These barriers are still here: the Hayes River is protected against harm. You can paddle the river and know it was the same as it was in 1826, when the York Factory Express men came up it. In a sense, you can paddle through history here.

In 1826, Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson described his departure from York Factory, at the mouth of the Hayes River: “We Embarked from York Factory at 3pm and commenced our journey across the Continent of North America. Our brigade consisted of about sixty persons in all for the several Departments viz. Saskatchewan, Columbia, and New Caledonia… Our Crews were in high spirits and commenced there [sic] laborious journey with as much apparent indifference as if a few days was to bring it to a conclusion.”

That was the beginning of the long journey west from Hudson Bay by the Hayes River, for one man at least. I am a writer, and I need to research this, and other things, that I have never seen. In particular, I have to research every piece of the rivers they journeyed down. I have to map the rivers, so that I know exactly where they are at all times, and I do not mix up their stories. I  need to know if their recollections are in agreement with each other — did the names get transferred, or did they all call the places by the same name every year? I need to know the locations of all the places they speak of — and this is especially hard to do on the lower Hayes River, where there are so many different portages.

And so to do this, I put these men’s journals side by side, and compare them. I make lists and notes, and I map the rivers so that I know where the portages are. This is backstory, perhaps, but this is what writers do. They know far more than they include in their story, but the backstory makes their story real, even though they have not included every little detail in the final work.

So let us begin my exploration of the York Factory Express journals from York Factory up the Hayes River to Oxford House, to see if all their journals more or less agree. If they do, then I can feel confident that I have things in the right order and that my story is as accurate as I can make it.

York Factory was built at the mouth of the Hayes River, more or less, and it was the Hayes River that would lead these express men west to Norway House — well, much of the way to Norway House. In 1826, Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson wrote of the start of his journey up the Hayes: “On embarking at 3pm we had a favourable breeze which assisted us in our ascent of Hayes River, but on its dying away, our Crews were obliged to commence tracking, which was a very laborious duty, the path in many places being along the face[s] of steep cliffs of adhesive clay.” There were a few familiar landmarks up this river, as you see from these later journals — Thomas Lowe [1847]: “Warm day, and a fine breeze up the River. Only got as far as 18 miles Island, where we encamped.” Thomas Lowe [1848]: “Mr Rowand and I started with the last boat this afternoon about 2 o’clock from York Factory, and had a fine wind for a short distance but it soon died away, and as the men had made too free with their regale before leaving we made poor progress, and encamped at 6 Mile Island.” Probably both islands are named for their distance from York Factory.

Pennygataway River Thomas Lowe [1848]: “Passed the Pennygataway about 12 o’clock, and made good progress afterwards, tracking.”

Shamattawa River. Aemilus Simpson [1826]: “We embarked at 2.50 am and continue our ascent of Hayes River, which we complete at 5pm when we arrived at the confluence of the Shamattawa, making the estimated distance from York Factory 56 miles. As we continue our ascent the current gains additional force, which add very much to the labour of Tracking.” The Shamattawa River is now called God’s River, and of course it flows into the Hayes River.

Steel River. Between the Shamattawa River and the Fox, the Hayes River took on the name of Steel River. Beyond the place where the Fox River flowed into the Hayes at the “Forks,” the Hayes River is called Hills or Hill River. Thomas Lowe [1847]: “Fine fair weather, and a favorable breeze up the River. Got as far as the Forks, where Fox River falls into Steel River.”

Dancing Point Thomas Lowe [1848]: “Got to the Hill River this morning at 7 o’clock, and camped a short distance beyond Dancing Point.” I don’t know Dancing Point is, and I don’t need to know, but it does seem to be a short distance past the Fox River, and some distance before the Rock Portage, on the Hill River (which was the Hayes River, really).

From the Rock [see below] to Knee Lake the distance was 80 km or 50 miles. The river bed rises sharply and is full of rocks and Islands. Brassy Hill stood high on this section of the river, and was the highest point of land between Hudson Bay and Lake Winnipeg. Hence this section of the Hayes River was called Hill River. The rapids and portages in this section of the river were:

Rocky or Rock portage, the Rock [fort]. Aemilius Simpson [1826]: “We do not travel therefore at a rate exceeding two Miles per hour, and 4.45 pm arrived at the Rocky Portage, which I estimate is 34 miles above the Mouth of the Hill River. Making this portage occupied us until 6pm when we proceeded for 2 miles & got to Borwick’s Falls…” All of these points were on the part of the Hayes River that the HBC men called Hill River. Thomas Lowe [1848]: Reached the Rock at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and got the pieces across and the boat hauled up in a very short time, as the water is in a good state this year. Made the Portage, Likewise Borwick’s Falls, and encamped a short distance beyond.” John Charles [1849]: “On the 22nd we made the Rock portage and passed the night a little way above, called Rock Fort.” And here’s a detail, from Aemilius Simpson [1826]: “On getting above the Rock Portage we discontinued Tracking, and proceed by Poling, an operation at which our Canadian Voyageurs are very expert.”

Petite charge de Penette and grand charge de Penette both come before the White Mud and so one (or both) might have been Borwicks Falls. John Charles was the only person to call them my that name, in 1849: “This morning we came to a strong rapid called Petit Charge de Penette where the boats were discharged of half their cargoes and hauled up by the main line. We made two other Portages before night, namely the grand charge de Penette and the White Mud.” Yes, I think the Grand and Petite charge de Penette were Borwicks Falls. This is supported by James Douglas’ description: “Proceeded with the tracking line until 11 o’clock when we reached the Rocky carrying place which occupied two full hours. Borwicks Falls 2 hours more; the White Mud Portage 2 hours more, a little above which we encamped for the night.” John Charles, son of Chief Factor John Charles, had grown up on the Hayes River and so used the old names.

White Mud Portage. Aemilius Simpson [1826]: “At 3am we continued our ascent of the Hill River, which now presents a constant chain of rapids, obliging us to make frequent discharges and Portages, viz. the White Mud Portage, Rocky Point Discharge, 1st & 2nd Brass Portages, & minor Rapids, & at 7pm we arrived at the lower Burnt Wood Portage where we Encampt for the night, having after a day of great labour & fatigue, come a distance of only 13 miles.”

Rocky Point Discharge, or Point of Rocks Rapid Edward Ermatinger [1827]: “Started at 1/2 past 3 am, cleared Rock Portage by 1/2 past 6 o’clock. At 11 came to the White Mud Portage which we cleared by 1/4 past 12. Thence proceeded on and hauled up the Point of Rocks Rapid by 3pm. Made another short hauling place and entered the still water about 6 o’clock.” Thomas Lowe [1847]: “In the morning the boats were brought up, and in the course of the day we made a portage at the Point of Rocks. Thunder storm in the afternoon, which made us put ashore for about an hour. In the evening made Brassy Portage, and encamped at the lower end.” Thomas Lowe [1848]: “Made a portage at the White Mud early in the morning, and overtook the two Cumberland boats at the Point of Rocks, where (having got the pieces across) we breakfast with Mr. Deschambeault. Had fine fair wind in the Still Water, & passed the Hill about 2pm. Got to Brassy at 5pm and encamped a short distance above it.”

So they called this part of the Hayes River the Still Water, and passed Brassey Hill too, before they got to the Brassey portage. John Charles also adds a few new names to this part of the river, but one of them will be the Point of Rocks Rapid, see above. John Charles [1849]: “In coming up a strong rapid a little below “Brassy Portage,” one of the boats struck on a rock & let in water which damaged a bag of sundry articles… At Portage Cadotte we found Mr. Spencer who was left there by Mr. Harriott to examine the bales in the Columbia boat and see them dried.” Portage Cadotte might have been on the other side of the Brassey Portage, but it is neither Brassey nor the Lower Burnt Wood, as you can see by this continuation of his journal: “Got over two portages today viz the Rock and Burnt Wood.” However, it is hard to know where he is, as he hardly mentions any portages between Brassey and Logans Lake/Trout Falls. He does, however, give the old names to a few portages, for example: Gulle, and Muscaag. But their location on the Hayes River is unknown, to me, at least.

1st Brass or Brassey Portage and rapids called lower Flats. Edward Ermatinger [1827]: “Started at 2am and arrived at Brassy’s Portage at 5. Hauled up it with half cargoes and left it at 7 — then hauled and poled up the Lower Flats and reached the Lower Burntwood portage at 10 — which we cleared and took breakfast by 1/2 past 12 o’clock.”

Lower Burnt Wood Portage or Lower Burning Wood James Douglas [1835]: “Leaving our encampment we carried part of our cargo at the point of Rocks; remained 5 hours at Brassey where the whole cargo was carried. encamped at the Lower Burntwood where the whole Cargo was also carried.” Thomas Lowe [1848]: “Made portages in course of the day at the Lower Burning Wood, Morgan’s Rocks, Rocky Launcher, and Upper Burning Wood. At the last two places had to haul the boat across. Encamped a short distance below the Smooth Rock Portage.”

South Handling Place or South Side Hauling/Handling Place, through some bad rapids, according to Thomas Lowe. Aemilus Simpson [1826]: “We pursued our Journey, opposed by a constant succession of strong rapids requiring the utmost exertions, alternately at the Poles, hauling line, & oars, & making frequent Portages, viz south Handing [plain], Morgans Rocks, Portage Des Isle, Upper Burnt Wood, Smooth Stone Portages, above which we Encampt for the night, having come a distance of 5 miles from our morning’s Encampment.”

Morgans Rocks James Douglas [1835]: “Passed South side of landing place and Morgan’s Rocks without discharging a package. At the little Rocky Launcher & Little Burntwood carried Boat and cargo at a smooth rocky, Mossy and 2nd carrying place, and encamped in Birds’ Lake.” He did, however, mention Bird’s Lake twice in his journal. And, no matter what they called this section of the Hayes River, it was still the historic Hayes River.

Upper Burnt Wood or Little Burntwood Thomas Lowe [1847]: “In the afternoon got the pieces across the portages at Morgan’s Rocks and the Lower Burning Wood, and encamped not far from the Rocky Launcher.”

Rocky Launcher Thomas Lowe [1847]: “The Boats and cargoes were taken across the Rocky Launcher first thing in the morning, and before breakfast we had likewise made a Portage at the Upper Burning Wood.” Swampy Portage apparently follows the Rocky Launcher, although none of these men mention it. It might be an old name that has been changed since historians first recorded it.

Smooth Stone Portage or Smooth Rocky Portage, Smooth Rock Portage: Thomas Lowe [1847]: “In the afternoon got the pieces across the Smooth Rocks and Mossy Portages, and then proceeded to the Flats above; but as there was very little water, we did not succeed in getting through, and were obliged to camp in the middle of them.”

Mossy Portage Thomas Lowe [1848]: “Made portages at the Smooth Rocks & Mossy before breakfast. At the first of these places met three boats from Oxford on their way to York, and at the latter overtook the Saskatchewan Brigade of 8 boats, which left the Factory two days before us. In the afternoon got across the 2nd & Upper Carrying Places, and in the evening above the Devil’s Handing Place, where we encamped, only having to take out about half the loads at that place.”

Upper Flats Thomas Lowe [1847]: “Dragged the boats through the remainder of the Flats, and got the pieces across the 2nd carrying place in Hills River before breakfast. Made portages in course of the day at the Upper carrying place, Devil’s Handling [Landing?] place & Greenwaters’ Island, at the two former places however only half the pieces were taken out. Encamped at the head of Greenwater Island which is the last Portage in Hill River, making 15 between this and the Rock.”

So these places are mentioned as being on this part of the Hayes River: 2nd Portage or 2nd Carrying Place in Hills River; the Upper Rapids, or Upper Portage at the top of Hill River, or Upper Carrying Place; and the Devil’s Handling Place.

Groundwater Creek, or Greenwaters Island, was the last portage in the Hill River, though not the last on the historic Hayes River. Aemilius Simpson [1826]: “Two of our Boats having fallen in the rear, we Encampt at 8pm above the Rapids of Ground Water Creek.”

Strong rapids all the way to Bird’s Lake Thomas Lowe [1847]: “Got through the remainder of Hill River today, and came through Bird’s Lake and part of Logan’s Lake. Encamped on an Island in the latter, where there was a camp of Indians, abreast of the old Fort.”

Logan’s Lake. So there was an old Fort in Logan’s Lake. These lakes might well be what used to be called Swampy Lake, as it is never given that name after 1827. Aemilus Simpson [1826]: “We now Entered Swampy Lake & being favoured with a sailing wind, we landed on the Sail Island, a short distance from the Dramstone, & furnishing ourselves with Masts we made sail up this Lake, an agreeable change in our mode of travelling. On completing the ascent of Swampy Lake which is about 10 miles NE & SW we Entered Jack Tent River at 5pm.”

From Swampy Lake [Logan’s] the Hayes River is called Jack Tent River or Lower Jack River, all the way to Knee Lake. The following four portages are in the part of the river between Swampy Lake and Knee Lake: 1. Lower Carrying Place (According to Thomas Lowe there was a Lower Carrying Place and a 2nd carrying place). 2. Long Portage. 3. 2nd portage in Little Jack River. According to Thomas Lowe this was the 2nd portage, Hill River. 4. Upper Portage, just before Knee Lake and at the end of Little Jack River, sometimes called 3rd portage Hill River or 2nd ditto, or Upper Carrying Place.

Knee Lake. According to Aemilius Simpson [1826]: “At 9.20 we arrived at the Magnetic Island, mentioned by [Sir John] Franklin. I estimate it to be 27 miles from the lower Entrance of the Lake… On a close approach to this Small Islet, which was hardly above the surface of the Lake, I found the compass became greatly agitated, veering about with great rapidity, until at last it became stationary, the South Point being fixed in the direction of the Island, and altho’ I applied a Key, it had not the effect of withdrawing it from that Direction…”

Trout River, West  of Knee Lake, is a very rapid stream. Trout Falls was generally considered the most dangerous impediment on the Hayes River.

Trout Falls Aemilius Simpson [1826]: “We commenced our ascent of the Trout River [West of Knee Lake], which having done for 1 1/2 miles, we arrived at the Trout Falls, one of the most dangerous rapids or falls on the line of Communication. We Encampt at the Head of these falls, two of our Boats having fallen again in the rear. These falls with the surrounding scenery afforded as fine subject for the Pencil of poor Hood, but the heightening of the Landscape, by the Silver tints of the Moon’s rays shooting above a projecting point of wood on the opposite shore & playing upon the agitated surface of these fierce falls, made me regret that they were not similarly presented to him, as they were to me this evening, which added much of [to] their natural grandeur.” Robert Hood was an artist and member of Sir John Franklin’s Land Party of 1820-21. He did not survive the journey.

Trout River above Trout Falls was a constant chain of rapids and falls. Edward Ermatinger [1827]: “Rejoined Mr. Leith at the Trout Fall. Encamped at 10 pm at the last strong rapid in Trout River, having made on it 1 portage and 3 lightening places.”

Decharge de Bouleau Thomas Lowe [1848]: “Hauled the boat up the [Trout] Falls in the morning, and went only as far as the Decharge de Bouleau, where we breakfasted and encamped, as it kept blowing and raining all day. [I thought this might be the Lower Knife Handling Place, but as he immediately mentions that place, it is not].

Lower and Upper Knife Portage or Upper Knife Handling Place: Thomas Lowe [1847]: “Got to Trout Falls after breakfast, and made a portage of the boats and cargoes at that place. Made portages likewise at the Lower and Upper Knife Handling Places, and encamped at the head of the latter. On account of the low state of the water, had also to take the pieces out at a rapid a short distance above the Trout Falls.”

Oxford House, on Holey Lake, now Oxford Lake on the Hayes River. Thomas Lowe [1847]: “Reached Oxford House before noon, and only stopped there to take a supply of Pemican and Flour for the boats’ crews, as there was a fine breeze blowing.”

Many of the places mentioned in John Charles’ 1849 journal remain unidentified by me, but this is history, and you can’t know everything. But putting all these journals together has helped me to place the many portages and rapids along the Hayes River, which makes writing my story easier. As a writer I have learned that I will only use small pieces of the information I have collected. Much will be omitted, as backstory. But it makes me a more confident writer, to know that I have confirmed, as far as is possible, all that I am writing about.

If you want a book that is publishable, then you will never write everything you know. Yet, by knowing as much as you can learn, and by confirming as much as you can confirm, you will make your story better. That is the value of research. You won’t include everything, but what you will write will have an air of authority because you have researched and confirmed what you are writing about. Your story will be more accurate, and you will write with less confusion, and more confidence.

You can order “The York Factory Express” through your local bookstore, or via Amazon. For American booksellers, the distributor for Ronsdale Press in the United States is Independent Publishers Group. Thank you!

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