Landmarks on the Upper Hayes

A York Boat under sail

This powerful image of a York Boat under sail is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives, and its number is na-1847-5. The HBC men sailed these boats anytime the wind was blowing in right direction, both going downriver, and coming upriver.

This is a continuation of a blog post that I published on September 22nd, and it tells the stories of the portages and other landmarks above Swampy Lake, that were described by John Franklin (not yet Sir John Franklin) as he came up the Hayes River in September 1819. To read the first post, go here:

So we ended the last post with Franklin and his men having reached Swampy Lake and, passing through the lake, camped at the Lower Portage in the Jack River — in later years called the Jack Tent River.

Jack River is only eight miles long; but being full of bad rapids, it detained us considerably. At seen in the morning of the 24th, we crossed the Long Portage, where the woods, having caught fire in the summer were still smoking…We afterwards crossed the Second, or Swampy Portage, and in the evening encamped on the Upper portage, where we were overtaken by an Indian bringing an answer from Governor Williams to a letter I had written to him on the 15th…

Apparently Franklin had complained to Governor Williams about the HBC gentlemen on the river who refused to take a part of Franklin’s load into their own boats, saying they had not received orders to that effect. Thomas Swayne was one of these gentlemen, but Franklin was generous enough to say: “It is but justice to say, that in these trying situations we received much assistance from Mr. Thomas Swayne, who with great kindness waited for us with the boat under his charge, at such places as he apprehended would be most difficult to pass.” Franklin does sound as if he felt he was entitled to their help, and perhaps he was. Still, he strikes me as being more than a little arrogant.

The Aurora Borealis appeared this evening in form of a bright arch, extending across the zenith in a N.W. and S.E. direction. The extent of our voyage to-day was two miles.

All of these York Factory Express men experienced the Aurora Borealis, but few spoke of it. One who did was Aemilius Simpson, who said: “The Heavens presented one of the finest displays of the Aurora Borealis I ever beheld, the whole heaven was a brilliant blaze caused by this phenomenon. Assuming in quick succession the greatest variety of forms, shewing the various tints of the Rainbow with many others, possessing a richness and beauty quite indescribable, the great point from which they appeared to diverge was in our Zenith, from there shooting out its brilliant rays to the several points of the horizon, & then again contracting themselves to the same point, and so strong was the play of these singular lights that I almost imagine I hear a noise caused by its coruscations.” [B223/a/3, HBCA]

About noon on the 25th we entered Knee Lake, which has a very irregular form, and near its middle takes a sudden turn, from when it derives its name. It is thickly studded with islands, and its shores are low and well-wooded…About half a mile from the bend or knee of the lake, there is a small rocky islet, composed of magnetic iron ore, which affects the magnetic needle at a considerable distance. Having received previous information respecting this circumstance, we watch our compasses carefully, and perceived that they were affected at the distance of three hundred yards..

Aemilius Simpson also wrote of this rock, and now I know exactly where it is!

Knee Lake towards its upper end becomes narrower, and its rocky shores are broken into conical and rounded eminences, destitute of soil, and of course devoid of trees. We slept at the western extremity of the lake, having come during the day nineteen miles and a half on a S.W. course.

We began the ascent of Trout River early in the morning of the 27th, and in the course of the day passed three portages and several rapids. At the first of these portages the river falls between two rocks about sixteen feet, and it is necessary to launch the boat over a precipitous rocky bank. This cascade is named the Trout Fall, and the beauty of the scenery afforded a subject for Mr. [Robert] Hood’s pencil. The rocks which form the bed of this river are slaty, and present sharp fragments, by which the feet of the boatmen are much lacerated. The Second Portage, in particular, obtains the expressive name of Knife Portage. The length of our voyage to-day was three miles.

I have several things to say here. The drawing of Trout Falls that is in this book makes it look very small. But Franklin says it fell sixteen feet, and I know that this was one of the most difficult portages on the river. But I was really caught by the description of the slaty rocks in this region, particularly those at the Knife Portage. Were you aware that there were no boots in the fur trade, and that all of these men wore layers of leather moccasins. No wonder their feet were lacerated!

On the 28th we passed through the remainder of Trout River; and, at noon, arrived at Oxford House, on Holey Lake. This was formerly a post of some consequence to the Hudson’s Bay Company, but at present it exhibits unequivocal signs of decay…Holey Lake, viewed from an eminence behind Oxford House, exhibits a pleasing prospect, and its numerous islands, varying much in shape and elevation, contribute to break that uniformity of scenery which proves so palling to a traveller in this country. Trout of a great size, frequently exceeding forty pounds weight, abound in this lake.

The next landmark, the Wipanapanis River, is “a narrow grassy river, which runs parallel to the lake for a considerable distance, and forms its south bank into a narrow peninsula.”

In the morning we arrived at the Swampy Portage, where two of the boats were broken against the rocks. The length of the day’s voyage was nineteen miles and a half.

In consequence of the accident yesterday evening, we were detained a considerable time this morning, until the boats were repaired, when we set out, and after ascending a strong rapid, arrived at the Portage by John Moore’s Island. Here the river rushes with irresistible force through the channels formed by two rocky islands; and we learnt, that last year a poor man, in hauling a boat up one of these channels, was, by the breaking of the line, precipitated into the stream and hurried down the cascade with such rapidity, that all efforts to save him were ineffectual. His body was afterwards found and interred near the spot.

The Weepinapannis [Wipanapanis] is composed of several branches which separate and unite, again and again, intersecting the country in a great variety of directions. We pursued the principal channel, and having passed the Crooked Spout, with several inferior rapids, and crossed a small piece of water, named Windy Lake, we entered a smooth deep stream about three hundred yards wide, which has got the absurd appellation of the Rabbit Ground.

The Rabbit Ground is mentioned in nearly every journal I have collected, and so this name did not change over the years. I am not sure, however, that I realized it was a strip of fast water, not a piece of land. Franklin says that “the marshy banks of this river are skirted by low barren rocks, behind which there are some groups of stunted trees. As we advance, the country becoming flatter, gradually opened to our view, and we at length arrived at a shallow, reedy lake, the direct course through which leads to the Hill Portage. This route has, however, of late years been disused, and we therefore turned towards the north, and crossing a small arm of the lake, arrived at Hill Gates by sunset; having come this day eleven miles.” The York Factory Express also travelled by the Hills Gates portage, described below:

Hills Gates is the name imposed on a romantic defile whose rocky walls rising perpendicularly to the height of sixty or eighty feet, hem in the stream for three quarters of a mile, in many places so narrowly, that there is a want of room to ply the oars. In passing through this chasm we were naturally led to contemplate the mighty but, probably, slow and gradual effects of the water in wearing down such vast masses of rock; but in the midst of our speculations, the attention was excited anew to a grand and picturesque rapid, which, surrounded by the most wild and majestic scenery, terminated the defile. The brown fishing-eagle had built its next on one of the projecting cliffs. In the course of the day we surmounted this and another dangerous portage, called the Upper and Lower Hill Gates Portages, crossed a small sheet of water, termed the White-Fall Lake, and entering the river of the same name, arrived at the White Fall about an hour after sunset, hav[ing] come fourteen miles on a S.W. course.

Some of the men who kept the York Factory Express journals called Hills Gate portage “Hell’s Gate,” and the name seems appropriate. In general John Franklin gives very good descriptions of the portages that the York Factory Express men travelled around and over. The Whitefalls Portage [Robinson Falls] was another spectacular series of rapids and falls where the river wound through a curving canyon. The York Factory express men avoided this by making a long overland portage — so, too, did Franklin.

The whole of the 2nd of October was spent in carrying the cargoes over a portage of thirteen hundred yards in length, and in launching the empty boats over three several [sic] ridges of rock which obstruct the channel and produce as many cascades. I shall long remember the rude and characteristic wilderness of the scenery which surrounded these falls; rocks piled on rocks hung in rude and shapeless masses over the agitated torrents which swept their bases, whilst the bright and variegated tints of the mosses and lichens, that covered the face of the cliffs, contrasting with the dark green of the pines, which crowned their summits, added both beauty and grandeur to the general effect of the scene.

It almost sounds as if the men brought the boat up the river rather than taking it over the portage. It was very dangerous: Franklin slipped on moss and fell into the river and was saved by a few of the HBC gentlemen who were also here. The next day, “After leaving our encampment at the White Fall, we passed through several small lakes connected with each other by narrow, deep, grassy streams, and at noon arrived at the Painted Stone.”

The Painted Stone is a low rock, ten or twelve yards across, remarkable for the marshy streams which arise on each side of it, taking different courses. On the one side, the water-course which we had navigated from York Factory commences. This spot may therefore be considered as one of the smaller sources of Hayes’ River. On the other side of the stone the Echemamis [Echimamish River] arises, and taking a westerly direction falls into Nelson River. It is said that there was formerly a stone placed near the centre of this portage on which figures were annually traced, and offerings deposited, by the Indians; but the stone has been removed many years, and the spot has ceased to be held in veneration.

This is a different spin on what I thought of about the Painted Stone, but he may be right. When he passed through, the beaver were still here. Within a few years they would be trapped out, and any of the dams on this river that made it navigable would be built and maintained by the HBC men.

If you wish to purchase my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: Thank you!

Also, the last post in this series is here: Enjoy!

Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.