York Factory Express, Lake Winnipeg to Cumberland House

Portaging and packing around a difficult rapid

On the way to Cumberland House. This image na-1406-48 is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives and shows the men portaging around a difficult rapid, carrying packs and hauling the York Boats with the use of rollers.

Aemilius Simpson gives the best description of this first stretch of the Saskatchewan River from Lake Winnipeg to Cumberland House, in August 1826. Many little stories appear in these various journals, and Aemilius Simpson describes the Natives he met at the head of the Grand Rapids:

A great number of Indians were encamped here, actively engaged in the Sturgeon fishery, from whom we obtained a very seasonable supply of that article, which forms a very palatable food. We besides obtained an abundant supply of Wild fruits, the strawberry, Poyer,  &c which forms a very agreeable repast. A few nights previous to our arrival here a fatal event took place. Two Indians while sitting in their Fort, were killed by a flash of lightening [sic]; their relatives craved rum to console them under their heavy Dispensation.

Notice the Native “Fort.” “Poyer” is, of course, Poire, the French word for Service Berry or Saskatoon berry [Amelanchier alnifolia], which grows all across the prairies and even in the British Columbia interior, to my surprise. Simpson mentions this fruit many times in his passage, and of course all the HBC men were familiar with the berry. After all, it was a primary ingredient in their pemmican, the fatty country food which everyone consumed on this cross-country journey. As a matter of fact, much of the pemmican used in the territory was made or stored at Cumberland House, ready to be picked up on the return journey. To learn more about pemmican, see here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/pemmican/ 

For more information about the Grand Rapids, the largest barrier on the Saskatchewan River, see here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/grand-rapids/

It took the men a long time to make this portage; it was a major barrier in their journey to Cumberland House, on the Saskatchewan River. In 1826, it took most of a day to cross the portage around the Grand Rapids, and they started upriver at 3:30. In 1827 it wasted a full day, and the same happened in 1835. In 1847, Thomas Lowe took more than a day, and two years later John Charles’s crew took a day and a half. They were still fighting the rocky edge of the Canadian Shield at this place, and the country was not friendly.

In 1848, Thomas Lowe took two days to cross the portage around the Grand Rapids and to bring the boats across, on their way upriver to Cumberland House. “We were able to make a start from the Portage in the evening,” he wrote. “Encamped about a mile above.” His journal continues:

9 [August] Wednesday. Cloudy and some showers. The Saskatchewan is at present unusually high, and the current strong. An unfortunate accident happened this morning in hauling one of the boats round a strong point below the Rocher Rouge [Red Rock Rapid]. The Boat sheered round, and the men having been hauled into the water, one of them (a young Canadian named Xavier Silveste) was drowned. He came up from Canada this season, and was going to the Columbia. His body was not found, as the current swept him into the middle of the River. Breakfasted at the head of the Rocher Rouge, and got up to the entrance of Cross Lake afterwards, but as there was a strong head wind blowing we were windbound there.

At Cross Lake, the men were still a good distance from Cumberland House. Accidents do happen in these journals, and people die. However, in spite of the fact that Thomas Lowe appears to be unconcerned about this drowning, it was almost certainly not so. Young Xavier Silveste’s death would have been mourned, and the Canadiens and Metis men, who mostly worked the HBC York Boats in these years, would have had a ceremony of some sort at the spot where he was swept away. Their celebration of his life would have been a complicated mix of French and Native traditions, and we can only guess what it might have been. There would have been a prayer said at the riverside. Some men might have fired their guns into the air, or thrown tobacco on the water. One man would carve and plant a wooden cross and every year after the men would doff their caps to it. The gentleman (Thomas Lowe) would hand out rum. And on their way upriver to Cumberland House, the men might, perhaps, create and sing a “complainte,” a traditional voyageur song that commemorated a sad death — a eulogy to the young man who would never make it to his post on the West side of the Rocky Mountains.

Lowe’s journal continues:

Thursday. Started at daylight this morning and got through Cross Lake with a fine side wind. The boats got up the Grand Decharge without taking out any of the pieces, and we breakfasted at the entrance of Cedar Lake. Pulled the rest of the day against a strong head wind, and encamped about two miles past Rabbit Point.

The Saskatchewan River east of Cumberland House was a difficult river, although with many historic landmarks. I have been unable to identify the Grand Decharge. I thought it might be the same narrows that Aemilius Simpson mentioned in his earlier journal, when he described a “narrow outlet or Channel from Cedar Lake [once Lac Bourbon], which being very rapid occupied us until 3.30 pm in ascending altho’ only a distance of 6 1/2 miles.” I don’t think the location fits, however. East of Cumberland House, this part of the Saskatchewan River is underwater, and these landmarks have disappeared. It is not until we get to The Pas, Manitoba, a few miles east of Cumberland House, that we will be journeying up the same river that exists today, with some variations.

Friday. Started early from our encampment with a fine side wind, and soon got through Cedar Lake. Breakfasted at the entrance of Muddy Lake [Lac Vaseaux], but had to pull through most of it as the wind was too close. Sailing and pulling the rest of the day, and encamped about 15 miles up the River, ahead of most of the Brigade.

Saturday. Pulling the whole day against a strong current. Fine warm weather. In the evening met L’Esperance with 7 boats, on his way to York Factory with the Returns of McKenzie’s River. Encamped near the Island below the Pas.

Alexis L’Esperance is a famous man on this river, and I have written of him here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/alexis-lesperance/ 

Sunday. Warm pleasant weather, but a head wind. Arrived at the Pas at 2pm, and as some of the Boats did not arrive until the evening had to remain there for the night.

The incoming York Factory Express is now approaching Cumberland House, but we are not there yet. It sometimes amazes me how long this journey took — but this is a big country! By the way, “the Pas” is correct. That is what the HBC men called the place. Today the modern town is The Pas.

Monday. Started from the Pas at daylight, wind ahead. Pulled the whole day, and as the water is falling, made good progress. Fine weather.

Tuesday. Beautiful weather. After breakfast entered a small channel which leads (through a lake) to Cumberland [House], but as there was not water enough, after working hard and hauling the boats through the mud the whole day, we had to return to the main River by the same road as we came, and encamped at our breakfasting place, at the entrance of the channel, long after dark.

And so they have finally reached Cumberland House, on Cumberland Lake. The first part of the Saskatchewan River was rocky, but the river banks soon turned to mud, bulrushes, and tangles of willow. There was no place to camp here, and often the men slept in their boats and cooked their dinner on a raft. But it was a temporary unpleasantness, and at the Pas they found a little higher ground for a while. They would eventually offload their supplies for Cumberland House and continue their journey up the Saskatchewan. The mud would turn into sand and gravel, which presented different problems — but less dirty ones.

If you wish to order my book, “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ Thank you!

To return to the beginning of this series, go to: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/first-leg/

The next section of this series is now posted, and you will find it here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/fourteenth-leg/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.