Travelling by York boat - York Factory to Red River

A York Boat journey

Elizabeth Johnston first arrived in North America at York Factory on Hudson's Bay in 1848, and travelled by York boat to Fort Garry on the Red River.  Her future son-in-law, Charles Hay, likely made a similar journey in the early 1860s, after abandoning his employment with the Hudson's Bay Company

I suspect Elizabeth's journey to Fort Garry was similar to the following description of such a journey, written in January 1858 by then-Lieutenant (Royal Artillery) Thomas Blakiston's first Appendix to

Exploration - British North America
Further Papers Relative to the Exploration by the Expedition under Captain Palliser of that Portion of British North America which lies between the Northern Branch of the River Saskatchewan and the Frontier of the United States; and between the Red River and the Rocky Mountains, and thence to the Pacific Ocean.

presented to both (British) Houses of Parliament in 1860.

Appendix I.


Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan River, January 3, 1858.

As the subject of a communication between Red River Settlement and some civilized portion of the British dominions is beginning to attract some amount of public attention, and as two indifferent routes are at present in use, one of which, namely, that from Canada, via Lake Superior, Rainy Lake, and the Lake of the Woods, you have this last season traversed, and will no doubt have made a report on the same, while during the same season 1 have passed the other, namely, from England, via York Factory on Hudson's Bay, and Lake Winnipeg, I have the honour to lay before you my observations on the same for the information of Her Majesty's Government.

Description of Boat used in River Navigation.

In the first place, the mode of transporting passengers and goods between York Factory, Hudson's Bay, and Red River, which is at present and has been for many years in use, is by means of large wooden boats built in the country, and well adapted for this kind of navigation. Each boat is of the following construction:—Length of keel 30 feet, overall 42 feet, which gives considerable shear equally to both stem and stern-post; breadth of beam 9 feet, sharp at both ends, depth inside 3 feet, and when loaded with 70 "pieces" (about 56 cwt), besides the crew, oars, sail, mast, &c. draws two feet of water; it i3 steered by means of a long sweep passing through a ring made fast to the stern-post, except under sail, when a rudder is shipped.


Each boat is manned by one steersman, one bowsman, and six or seven middlemen, who, mostly halfbreeds of French-Canadian or British descent, labour in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company for very moderate wages; their food, however, which consists of "pemmiean" and flour, being supplied by the Company, as much as they have need of; in fact, were it not that they have plenty of good working food, they certainly could not continue this laborious work.

Up-passage.—Description of the Route.

The spring floods having subsided, the upward journey is performed as follows:- Leaving York Factory, which is situated on the left bank of Hayes River, five miles above its mouth, it is possible with a fair wind to sail about six miles to the head of the tide, at which place poles and the tracking line are obliged to be used for the purpose of passing some shoal places; from this sailing or "tracking" (hauling the boat in the manner of a canal barge by a line with four men walking on shore), with occasional poling over shoal places, is continued for a couple of days, after which the continual bends of the river and the strength of the current prevent the use of the sail, the rnast, a rough pole, is therefore thrown overboard, and tracking with occasional poling is continued until the Rock Portage is reached, 124 miles above York Factory.

Work of Men.

Tracking is hard work for the voyagers, they take it turn about, an hour and a half at a time, in fact this river work, to say nothing of the " carrying" at the portages where many are injured, is very laborious and trying, particularly considering the fact of their being almost continually in wet clothes, from the necessity of frequently jumping into the water for the purpose of lifting the boat over stones, and their having to "track" over all sorts of ground under the high alluvial banks, often where scarcely foothold can be obtained.

Time occupied.—Nature of the Country.

This 124 miles of river, in my case, travelling with a brigade of six boats, lightly loaded, namely, with 5O pieces, was accomplished in six days. The river runs in a deep channel through alluvial soil, where not a piece of rock is seen, save the boulders in the bed of the river ; from this first impediment westward to Lake Winnipeg the geological formation is primitive, the rock, which is nearly always at the surface, being granite and schist, and the whole country being but little elevated above the water.

Description of the Route.

Portage after portage, with occasional intervening lakes, succeed one another in rapid succession, over some of which the boats have to be carried, but at others hauled up the rapids by ropes, and the cargoes carried over land; suffice to say, that in the next 40 miles 20 portages are made, taking five days. After this two lakes of considerable size, Knee and Holey Lakes, are passed with four portages between them, soon after which the River Wepinapanis narrows so much that the oars sometimes touch granite rock on each side, which rises vertically to a considerable height. Before emerging from this narrow gorge, which continues for some miles, some very bad rapids have to be surmounted, and again before arriving at White-water Lake a portage for cargoes and boats of two-thirds of a mile has to be made, in order to avoid the White Falls. The end of a narrow lake is within a few yards of the source of the Echiamamis, a small stream whose waters flow to the westward; when sufficient water is only kept for the passage of boats by two dams six miles apart, these were formerly the work of beavers, but are now kept up by the passing boats. At the passage of a boat a portion is pulled away, the boats run through, and it is again shut securely. This stream, which on account of dams has little or no current, is for the most part through marsh, and so narrow that the willows nearly meet over head, and the boat sometimes touches the bank on each side. At a distance of 358 miles from Hudson's Bay Sea River is entered, when, by making the last of the 35 portages, and pulling against stream, Norway House, a post of the Hudson's Bay Company is reached, from which to Lake Winnipeg is but 20 miles without rapids.

Up-passage, Distance, and Time.

Thus, from York Factory to Norway House, a distance of 400 miles, is accomplished only after laborious work for three weeks. The time for the passage across Lake Winnipeg to Red River, 300 milts, depending entirely on the wind, may be taken on an average at seven days; making the entire distance from York Factory, Hudson's Bay, to Red River Settlement, 700 miles, in four weeks on the upward passage.

Down Passage.

The passage down stream from Norway House to York Factory being accomplished in nine days, making about half a dozen portages, at three of which the boat is carried over, one being the twothirds of a mile portage, all the other rapids being "run," not, however, without considerable risk, makes the passage from Red River to York Factory sixteen days.

Entire Passage.

Thus to go to and from Red River to Hudson's Bay without stoppages is about seven weeks.

Another Route.

The outlet of the waters which are collected in Lake Winnipeg from the Saskatchewan, Swan River, Red River, &c. is from the north end of the lake by Nelson River, which flows into Hudson's Bay at the mouth of Hayes River; but the falls and rapids are said to be so very heavy on this river, besides its being the longer route, that it is now never used.

Impossibility of Improvement for Steamers.

It has been proposed to improve the former route in order to allow of the passage of steamers, this however from the foregoing description will be seen to be impossible: for, if by cutting through solid granite and swamp, and the construction of locks, the portages could be avoided and the smaller rivers widened, yet in the lower rivers the want of water could only be overcome by dredging, which operation would be entirely destroyed by the spring floods; and I think that it would be the opinion of any observing person passing through this route, that it would be impossible so to improve it as to allow of the navigation of anything larger than the boats (previously described) at present in use; and certain it is, that the future produce of the vast western plains could never be transported in this manner.

Hudson's Bay.

But were a route practicable there exists a consideration, which is above all others; namely, that from the outlet of Hudson's Bay being so far north, and the amount of ice in the bay itself, vessels cannot remain more than six weeks out of the whole year at York Factory, with a chance of afterwards being able to make their way out again to the Atlantic.