More on the York Factory River

York Boat sailing
York Boat Sailing, image HBCA-N14645 used with the permission of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

As we already know, Dr. John Birkbeck Nevins went up the York Factory River (the lower Hayes) with a gentleman who was heading to his Saskatchewan River post. Here is more information on that most interesting journey up the hill to Oxford House and back. In the later summer, when the freshets were over, the York Factory River became shallow:

We passed the first shallow pretty well, as the bottom of the boat did not stick, though it touched the ground. But the second was more troublesome. The season had been unusually dry, the water was uncommonly low, and the boat was rather deep with thirteen men in it. At length it stuck fast, and the oars were of no avail to get it off again Nothing remained but to lighten it, which did not require a thought on the part of the Canadians, who were old “voyageurs” and accustomed to it. They at once jumped into the river, and exhorted the Orkney men to follow their example, in such a mixture of Canadian, French, and English oaths and encouragement, as experience had taught them was most useful, or as the necessity of the moment supplied. The Scotchmen, however, did not understand this sort of extempore footbath, and hesitated; but there was no alternative, so at length over the side they all went, some jumping, some still hanging on, and others lowering themselves very carefully, so as to wet their clothes as little as possible, for taking them off would have been ridiculous, and even turning up the trowsers was a superfluous precaution.

And now when the boat was thus lightened, and every man put his shoulder under it and pushed it along, it was soon over the shallow, and in deep water again, and all scrambled into it as they best could. This plan was repeated several times during the day with success, and at length the men thought little of it, but jumped into the water as soon as they felt the bottom touch the ground..

A new experience for the Scots and Orkney men, but it seems they adapted. There were a few occasions where the boat stuck so badly in the shallows that they had to return downriver and attempt another route but the other side of the island-barrier. That night they made some robbaboo:

The men had made themselves a mess, called “rubbaboo,” [see the blogpost which comes just before this one] and were sitting round the fire enjoying themselves. This consists of flour, water, and pimmikin [pemmican]. When they have flour, which was given to them before leaving York, they heat a large kettle full of water, and when it boils they put in lumps of pimmikin, and stir it up till the grease is melted; they then stir in a quantity of flour, and the whole forms a dish a good deal like oatmeal porridge in appearance, though I cannot say that it resembles it much in taste.

Then they started to track the boat upriver — it was the only way to get anywhere:

We had soon passed the part of the river in which the oars were of any use, and the only way in which we could proceed was by tracking the boat. The men have a broad strap, which is slipped over their shoulders, and the loose ends are fastened to a long rope which is tied to the bow of the boat. This is a very slow and fatiguing method of travelling, for owing to the soft clayey character of the banks, the men sink up to their knees nearly every step. In this journey they generally have to track for four days…

“After travelling for two or three days,” Nevins said, “we came to a place where the river changes its name. Two rivers meet, called Hill and Fox rivers, and together they form that up which we had come,” the York Factory River.:

Hill river is the deepest; but Fox river is the broadest, and appears to be the direct continuation, or rather source of the one which we now left. Hill river joins it nearly at a right angle, and then takes a course very winding in its details, though straight upon the whole; resembling the progress of a snake…

Their route took them up Hill River, which climbed up the east side of the Canadian Shield. Of course, like all newby gentlemen to the fur trade, Nevins went on an exploration and almost got lost. Here he describes the first portage on the river, called The Rock:

The one to which we came is called the Rock Portage, from the large rock in the middle of the stream, the greater part of which is out of the water. The river flows over one part of it in a stream a few inches deep, whilst on the opposite side, it pours over it almost perpendicularly in a fall a yard and a half or two yards high. As it would be impossible to row the boat up it, it was brought close to the edge of the dry portion of the rock. The goods were all taken out and carried to the other side, and then came the most difficult part, which was carrying the boat itself. We all jumped into the water, and some taking hold of the sides, some of the seats, and some putting their shoulders under the boat, we gradually lifted it out of the water, and dragged it over the rock until we got it to the other side, at the top of the fall. Here the water was deep and we launched it again; and pursued our course.

They continued their way up the river, portaging around many rapids and in some places poling their boats up the river:

Some of the rapids are not so high as to make it necessary to carry the goods overland, and track the boat, but they may be passed by means of poleing. Each man in the boat is provided with a long pole, which they strike upon the bottom of the river, and thrusting against them force the boats upwards. This is very hard work in a strong rapid, and the poles are often lost, by sticking fast in a hole between two rocks or stones in the bed of the river, from which they cannot be withdrawn. It is an awkward accident if a good hand loses his pole; for, the stream is frequently so strong, that the intermission of a single stroke will allow the boat to be carried down to the bottom again.

They reached Oxford Lake where the met the boats that Nevins was to travel downriver in. I have already described the descent of the river, I believe, in this post:

But in a camp along the Hayes, the men made him a lobstick:

When we encamped one night, in returning, he cut me a lobstick, or lopstick. this is a complimentary ceremony, which is performed for most strangers, the first time of their travelling up the country. A large tree is selected, and them who cuts it takes his hatchet and climbs up, to within a few yards of the top, and cuts off all the branches which surround it, for about four or five yards, so that the tree is entirely bare for this space. He then comes down, and chops off the bark in front of the lower part of the trunk, making a flat, smooth surface, about a foot broad, in which space the stranger carves his own name and that of the year. When this is done, he fires his gun over the tree; the guide of the party fires his; and the whole crew gives three cheers. Whenever that crew passes that tree it gives three cheers in honour of the stranger…

Two gentlemen were travelling a short time since, and lobsticks were cut for them; but they professed tee-total principles, and could not think of encouraging intemperance, by giving rum…The next time they passed the place, they looked out or their monuments, but they had disappeared. They inquired, with some indignation, what had become of their lobsticks, “They were not yours; you never paid for them,” was the reply: they had been cut down.

And so they would come into York Factory, on Hudson Bay. I found another story which describes what York Factory looked like to the men who were coming downriver to it. I never thought of this:

It is long since I saw York Factory, but still I remember it pretty clearly. Emerging from the somber woods of the world in which I had ever lived, and after the long and drearily crawling boat voyage of many days through the gloomy wilds of rock, swamp, and dark waters we had just gone over from Norway House, the, to me, new thing [the new storehouse], with its tinned roofs shining in brightest ray, burst in the distance on my unaccustomed gaze like a city of burnished silver — beautifully…. The background and framing was illimitable swamp; and towards the furtherest east, water — the calm, dead, summer sea, sky-bound. It was a striking sight…

Peace River: A Canoe Voyage from Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific by the lat Sir George Simpson in 1828, edited with notes by Malcom McLeod [Ottawa: J. Durie & son, 1872].

The person who wrote the above saw York Factory when he was a boy, in the autumn of 1830. He was Malcolm McLeod, son of John McLeod, Sr. Malcolm had been brought up in Kamloops and Norway House, and had never seen anything like York Factory. That is also true of all the Metis men who rowed and hauled these boats up and down the Hayes River, in the York Factory Express. No wonder these men, who were born in the interior forts and never saw anything larger than the major posts on their journey, found York Factory so magical!

So, anyway, if you wish to order or pre-order “The York Factory Express,” you can do so through my publisher, using this link: Thank you very much, and take care of yourself!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.