Evolution of Equipment, Alberta 1800s

8:42 a.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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This topic has been raised before, but only in bits and pieces. A few visits to our local historic park have inspired me to put it all together. I wasn't sure where to put it on Trailspace, so if a moderator would like to move it to 'off-topic' or somewhere else more suitable, please feel free to do so. 

Fort Edmonton Park includes a reconstruction of the original fur-trading fort from 1848, and streets with stores, farmsteads and houses from each of the eras of 1884, 1905 and 1920. There are also interpreters at strategic locations who can explain in detail what life was like in each era.


The Factor's house, five people plus servants



Fort exterior


Trading Room

A visit there begins at the fort, which includes a fur-trading post where you can try to guess which furs are which, or get information on what goods would be traded and for what price. The Fort lived on trade with the natives – Cree and Blackfoot – and there is a reproduction of a Cree encampment outside the fort gates.


Cree Camp

In terms of equipment and lifestyle, this is to me one of the more interesting sites. The men who hauled the furs out by boat to Hudson's Bay lived, on the average, to about 25 years old. They were required to row a York boat all day, dragging it through rapids or across portages when necessary, and to haul two 90 lb bales of fur on every portage. A leading cause of death was strangulated herniation from the heavy work.


York Boat

Crewing a York boat was an arduous task, and those who chose that life faced "unending toil broken only by the terror of storms," according to explorer Sir John Franklin. The Hudson's Bay Company bosses could expect a much longer lifespan, doubling that of the workers to 50 years or more.

The gear they used was primitive by our standards – fur bales were simply bundles slung from tump lines and a 'pack' might consist only of a bag or basket with a shoulder strap. Native pack boards, made of skins stretched over willow frames, helped with heavier loads, but were considered too cumbersome for use in the boats. Snowshoes used by the fur traders were wood with rawhide lacing, copied from the designs of tribes like the Iroquois and Cree. Wool coats were made from trade blankets, and the traders had furs to sleep under and bison robes for winter.

A lot of the equipment was the same as what the natives had, simply because of the available materials, but sometimes with upgrades that used more 'modern' technology. The use of metal for nails, cloth for clothing, and steel knives and copper cooking pots made a huge difference in the lives of both the natives and the traders. Nonetheless, equipment was heavy, bulky and wore out quickly. Even the York boats, 14 metres long and famous for their toughness, only lasted a couple of seasons.

Married mens' quarters, one family per room

It is interesting to me that Cree women went out of their way to attract a man from the Fort. By comparison with life in a wet teepee on a frozen prairie, even a tiny room in the Fort was a major improvement! Any romantic notions about the life of the noble savage fall by the wayside when compared to the benefits of a steady, year round food supply and a fireplace for winter.

In the words of Hobbes, life outside the forts on the prairies was, “...poor, nasty, brutish and short.”, while inside, the food ration included 8 lbs of meat per person per day! The men who worked the fur brigades, knowing the risks of their lifestyle, would often cut deals with a buddy. To prevent their families from being tossed out, in case of their death each would promise to take care of the other's wife and children.

By 1848, more modern equipment was available, and we start to see more gear designed and imported from factories abroad. The bison was fast disappearing and the natives and Métis were being squeezed onto reservations. The bison coat was still the gold standard for warmth in winter. It was still in use by the Mounties and others who might expect to be outside for long periods of time, but because of it's weight and bulk, it was losing popularity with more casual users.


Winnipeg Police during historic reenactment

Temporary shelter on the trail meant canvas tents, again heavy and bulky, and subject to leaks if anything touched the sides. However, anyone going any distance was usually in a boat, a wagon or on horseback, so weight was less important.

The biggest changes in equipment at Fort Edmonton took place around 1885, when Canadian manufacturers began producing outdoor gear meant for use by the British Army. This led to innovations like waterproofed canvas, sleeping bags rather than bedrolls, lighter packsacks, and camp stoves. There is also a Gatling gun on display, one of the most important innovations in military artillery, but it was the British infantry who needed the kind of gear that modern backpackers look for.

The Klondike Gold Rush began in 1896, and for the next few years, the area was flush with “Stampeders”. They were headed to the Yukon by a route that involved both overland travel through dense bush and by water up major rivers, so any equipment had to be light and portable. The use of what we now consider 'hiking gear' started to come into its own. The Primus stove, for example, was invented in 1891, and meant that travelers were no longer reliant on building a wood fire. In 1898, noted geologist Joseph Tyrrell wrote to Canadian manufacturer James Woods to “testify to the excellence of the Eiderdown sleeping bag obtained from you,” which he declared was “the most comfortable bed that I have ever had in the field.”.


Tent by the railway tracks

When the railway reached Edmonton in 1905, it triggered a local land boom. Thousands of settlers arrived in town, but it was impossible to build houses for them all in the time available. In consequence, a tent city sprang up in the city's river valley and many people were forced to spend a winter or two huddled in canvas tents, insulated with nothing more than hay bales stacked up along the outside walls. Unlike the natives or fur traders of earlier days, they could keep their tents heated with a cast iron or sheet metal wood stove, so while accommodations were primitive, they were at least more survivable. The average life span was still only 40 to 50 years, but that included a disproportionate number of women who died in childbirth, and accidental deaths in rural areas far from medical help.

From then on, Fort Edmonton Park moves into the 1920s, and of course the invention of the automobile changed everything. Unlike older cities, the entire city was laid out with the car in mind and assumes that every family will have access to one, so it occupies a lot of land and has wide, straight streets.

There have been a lot of other innovations in hiking gear since that time, such as the early Trapper Nelson pack board, which combined traditional native designs with modern elements. There were down jackets invented by Eddie Bauer, internal frame packs for better stability, and the aluminum frame and cramponed Sherpa snowshoes, but the overriding principle seems to be that equipment has steadily become lighter, stronger and better designed. As just one example, the 30 lb bison coat has been replaced by the warmer, and much lighter, down parka, and the old six foot long wooden snowshoes have been replaced by the comfortable (and indestructible!) epoxy resin ones designed by Everest climber Bill Forrest. By comparison, the older gear was heavy, bulky and often make-do – cobbled together from whatever was available at the time, rather than designed by experts for a specific job.

I've often been amused by the European tourists who come to the Rockies with a romantic view of what life in the old days was all about. The Stoney Nakoda band makes a lot of money taking them out to teepees in the foothills, feeding them bison steaks and telling them the legends of their people, then putting them to bed under buffalo robes while they drive back to their cozy bungalows for the night. Like North Americans raised on Zane Grey, many Europeans have a mythology that primitive life on the prairies was somehow an heroic adventure, and a purer and more spiritual life than we can find nowadays. Unfortunately the facts, as harsh as they are, present a much different view.

As a contributor to Trailspace, I enjoy being a part of a community that promotes the development of new equipment, and part of an historic process that goes back for many centuries. Equipment we review follows the same processes, and is continually becoming lighter, stronger and more effective. A bear skin becomes a down quilt which becomes a down sleeping bag which becomes a down suit for a mountain ascent, and even the simple walking stick turns into a more energy-efficient pair of hiking poles. The result is that the equipment we use for hiking and backpacking gets steadily better, and the growth is exponential.

New equipment is also more and more specific to a particular task, and while most equipment is reasonably flexible, we also see gear meant for climbing but not hiking, car-camping but not an ultralight summit push. Is that a good thing? I don't know, but most of the improvements developed for use in one area also have some applications in others. I look forward to the newest developments, and to the improved performance and comfort that results. And that's what Trailspace is all about.

9:55 a.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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This seems as good a place as any...trip to A PLACE and trip through history! Fun read!

11:07 a.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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Great read, thank you!

11:30 a.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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Great reporting. I have enjoyed experiences like visiting Ft Steele, BC, paddling the Boundary Waters and hiking the Chilkoot Trail. The Fur Trade Era really opened up a lot of North America. It is almost impossible to follow the old fur trade routes and not start wearing a toque and talking with a French accent. My grandfather used to recite border poetry from the country around Ontario/New York. "The snow she four feet wide, Huh?"

The simple technology that you dscribed so well has many advantages. As a buckskinner and historical re-enactor, I find the old equipment to be very durable, comfortable and reliable. It can be fixed in the field. The one big drawback is weight. People used to go heavy on long adventures in the field. A canoe, dogsled or tobaggan, or horses and mules can still make this old equipment feasible in modern times.

I wish some modern backpackers could experience the thrill of a canvas tent with a wood stove at 9,000 feet in the Rockies during elk season. In the fall with lots of snow and below zero temperatures at night. Fresh baked bread in a Dutch oven and the luxury of a thick bed.

Good examples of modern adaptions to old ways are aluminum reflector ovens and lean-tos with a fire in front.

We used to cook buffalo for Thanksgiving for decades. My grandest adventures of my life have all been with either mules or canoes. There are many lessons to be learned from the old ones.

11:57 a.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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thanks for posting this. I enjoyed  reading it.

12:50 p.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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ppine said:

It is almost impossible to follow the old fur trade routes and not start wearing a toque and talking with a French accent. 

The fur traders at Fort Edmonton were not Québecois voyageurs, but Scotsmen from the Orkneys. They were hired for their knowledge of the boats, and because the bosses in London figured that anybody who could live as far north as Scotland should do fine in a Canadian winter.

One interesting note: The York boats were a direct descendant of the old Viking long boats, and a lot of the Orkneymen had the same heritage. 

I wish some modern backpackers could experience the thrill of a canvas tent with a wood stove at 9,000 feet in the Rockies during elk season.

Not going to happen, obviously. As you note, the weight of that old equipment isn't suited to backpacking but rather to mule, canoe, dogsled or horseback trips. And I'd hate to be the poor mule that was loaded up with a potbelly or sheet metal stove! The newer equipment is lighter and much more portable. 


1:16 p.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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Thanks for posting Peter.It was very enjoyable. Love to learn more if you have any...

2:21 p.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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What do you want to know, Denis?

There are lots of stories from the Fort. For example, when John Rowand, the Fort Edmonton Factor, died en route to the annual gathering at Hudson's Bay, no one wanted to carry his 350 lb body downriver then back to the fort, so they buried him and picked up the bones the next year. Rowand's will stated that he was to be buried in Montreal, so the traders packed the bones in a keg of rum and shipped them on down the line. Curiously, when they opened the cask in Montreal, the bones were there but the rum had disappeared. 

3:22 p.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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Thanks for setting me straight about Ft. Edmonton. We Americans know precious little of the York boats and the Scots. Can you remember the name of the excellent documentary on this subject? It was aired on Canadian TV in the last few years. I now remember it but somewhat vaguely.

4:14 p.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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I find it all Quit interesting.WE have our history, but we dont get to here other countries history.Then to tie it all together with the evolution of gear was brilliant.

5:47 p.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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Nice story, Peter. I just finished reading James Tyrrell's account of their trip. York boats are similar to the bateaux that Howard Chappelle documented and what we in the PNW call McKenzie River Boats. They were essentially large dories. It is true that nearly all the traders and clerks were Scots...Robert Campbell, Samuel Black, Peter Ogden, Alexander McKenzie. However, most of the men who paddled the canoes, and later rowed York boats, were from a variety of backgrounds...Metis, Cree, French-Canadian, and a few Scots. Neither the traders nor clerk were generally paddlers, though from researching Campbell, he was quite skilled. The voyageurs lived a hard life, but one book I read was a memoir of a voyageur who later became a farmer and lived to a ripe old age. He never regretted his time as a voyageur. I have a collection of old journals and it is interesting to note the changes. Leggings and loin clothes to pants, etc. The voyageurs hated the York boats as they were heavy and required less crew. They were only used on rivers where any portages could be done by roller, tram or wagon. Canot du norde were still used extensively in the west for both trade and exploration. Although much less durable than the York boats, it is amazing what the canot du norde could do in skilled hands. On the Finlay, we had plastic boats, dry suits and spray covers. Black's crew took 10 days to do what we did in 17 days. They had longer days and more wading, but traveled up the Finlay in the spring and back down in the fall. Interestingly, the moose hide boats of the NW were based on York boats.

Fort St. James is a similar place which documents the fur trade era. The museum at Hudson Hope had a beautiful canot du norde built for a BBC documentary. Unfortunately it succumbed to vandals, a great tragedy. One of my must do trips is to paddle the Hayes to York Factory.

I have been fortunate to travel some of the old routes, including retracing part of Black's route on the Finlay, Campbell's route on the Dease and Pelly, and McKenzie's route across the Arctic/Pacific divide. I also participated in one of the David Thompson Brigades.

Much of the old gear is quite interesting. From one account, I started using natural sponges in my boats as they are more absorbent. Now Western Canoeing is selling them.

6:09 p.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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Great Trip-Report Peter...you can actually still see the Viking influence in the boat! I can easily see how such a boat must have been a real pleasure in shallow rivers and coast-line...but I would seriously be losing my mind in a boat like that on the North Sea...caravels were destroyed in those waters!

7:57 p.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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Erich said:

...most of the men who paddled the canoes, and later rowed York boats, were from a variety of backgrounds...Metis, Cree, French-Canadian, and a few Scots. Neither the traders nor clerk were generally paddlers, though from researching Campbell, he was quite skilled.

You are referring to the voyageurs, and the eastern Canadian mythology that the entire fur trade was carried on by small tough men in small tough canoes. It's a distinction that the interpreters at Fort Edmonton are careful to make. Fort Edmonton was built once safe, commercial routes on the major rivers were established from British Columbia to provide access to Hudson's Bay.

The voyageurs certainly got the fur trade rolling but, once it became big business, it also became too important to be entrusted to the locals and more efficient ways of getting the furs became necessary. To give you some idea of the money involved, a single beaver-felt top hat sold in London in 1848 for £50, the equivalent of around $100,000 today!

The capacity and durability of the canoes was inadequate for the large volumes carried by the Company from the Rocky Mountain Houses to York Factory and Norway House out on the Bay. Each York boat could carry up to 6 tonnes/13,000 lbs, and supported by the relative ease of traffic on the major arteries they quickly eliminated the canoes as the vehicle of choice. All the fur coming out of the Rocky Mountain forts to its eventual destination in Montreal was carried by York boats.

The men who paddled the canoes for the Northwest Company and for the Hudson's Bay Company in its early days and on the routes in eastern and central Canada were often French Canadian and Métis, and the crews of the York boats certainly included some. In fact, the children of the Scotsmen at Fort Edmonton were alway Métis and they would often go to work on the boats when they were old enough. After all, it was the best-paying job around.

You will also see that I said, "The fur traders at Fort Edmonton were not Québecois voyageurs, but Scotsmen...". Scotsmen, especially tradesmen, clerks and management, were actively recruited by the Company, and many of the men on the boats came from Scotland as well. You will note that neither the man steering the boat nor the lookout in the bow did any of the physical labour - they were considered 'management' and they were excluded from the work - and Scotsmen were thought of as more responsible than the natives.

Another reason for the use of York boats was the distances involved - there simply wasn't time to stop the whole fur brigade to patch one canoe in the event the birchbark got punctured. A York boat was a lot more resistant to dings and dents, and the overall downtime was less. 

Wikipedia: "York boats were preferable to the canoes, used by Nor'west Company Voyageurs as cargo carriers, because of their larger size, greater capacity, and improved stability in rough water. The boat's heavy wood construction also gave it a significant advantage when travelling waterways where the bottom or sides of the hull were likely to impact rocks or ice. Canoes of the period were commonly constructed with soft hulls of tree bark or animal hide and were extremely vulnerable to tears and punctures. The solid, all-wood hull of the York Boat could simply bounce off or grind past obstacles that could easily inflict fatal damage to soft-hulled vessel."

  The voyageurs hated the York boats as they were heavy and required less crew. They were only used on rivers where any portages could be done by roller, tram or wagon.

I'm not surprised they didn't like them - like hauling freight in a semi vs a pickup truck, there was no comparison in terms of cost. It would make financial sense for local trappers to deliver furs to the Forts by canoe, but not to move them on from there. Where the major rivers required portages, the York boats could be dragged on rollers, so no major obstacle presented themselves. 

I have been fortunate to travel some of the old routes, including retracing part of Black's route on the Finlay, Campbell's route on the Dease and Pelly, and McKenzie's route across the Arctic/Pacific divide. I also participated in one of the David Thompson Brigades.

These sound like fascinating trips. You must write up a Trip Report or two!


8:46 p.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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ppine said:

Can you remember the name of the excellent documentary on this subject? It was aired on Canadian TV in the last few years. 

 Probably the Canadian TV documentary Quest for the Bay in 2002.

9:37 p.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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Another Rowand story. Just gossip, but you never know...

The man was apparently a real slave driver, good for the manager of a backwoods fort but not a great way of making friends.

One day, he went hunting all by himself, and three days later when he hadn't returned, no one knew where to look. A Cree woman, Lisette Humphraville, had noticed which way he'd gone and she got on her horse and set off to find him. Sure enough, a few hours later she found him lying in the bush. He'd been thrown from his horse and had broken his leg.

Apparently, her side of the conversation was something like this:

"Looks like I have two options here. One is that I could ride on and leave you here. Too bad.

The other is that I could get you on my horse and we could head back to the fort. 

I'd like to do the right thing, but it seems to me that there has to be something in it for me.

Tell you what, if I take you back you have to agree to marry me!"

I can just imagine Rowand lying there, thinking,

"That woman cuts quite a deal - she's as hard-nosed as me! Now THERE'S someone whose hands I could safely leave the fort in when I'm away!".

Sure enough, when they got back, he married her. She also brought a valuable herd of horses to the marriage, which added to her husband’s prestige among the native people.

11:31 p.m. on September 18, 2013 (EDT)
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Peter said, "The voyageurs certainly got the fur trade rolling but, once it became big business, it also became too important to be entrusted to the locals and more efficient ways of getting the furs became necessary."

 Sorry, Peter, I did not mean to imply that the fur trade did not evolve into more profitable means. The HBC and the NW Co were all about profits. As I said, the York boats required smaller crews, were not as fragile and could carry more. But the canoemen from the east, also came west as skilled boatmen who could read a rapid. The York boats were the practical replacement for the Montreals which traveled the more established routes. In the NW, according to my research in archives, as well as the journals, many of which are copies printed in the HBC Beaver, the canot du norde continued to be the choice for smaller rivers of the area west of the Rockies. The reason is that many of these rivers from small posts in the NW, were not practical in York boats. There, at least until the mid 19th century, furs reached Rocky Mountain House from the west, by the most expeditious method available.

To understand this completely, one should look at the geography and character of the rivers. East of the Rockies, are extensive drainages, lakes and generally pool drop rivers with little comparative gradient. This is the Canadian Shield. West of the Rockies, gradients are often steep and both the Rockies and the Coast Ranges make river travel difficult.

Both the HBC and the NWCo would employ whatever boat was practical. On the larger lakes, scow schooners worked, the FN would use their version of the York boats, the moose hide boats, to get furs to the nearest post. River scows were employed at least from the 1870's, as were dugouts. For an interesting trip in the latter, read Warburton Pike's book, "Through the Sub-Arctic Forest" However, in some areas of the west, the canot du norde or smaller craft were the most practical means. On the Liard, above and including the Rapids of the Drowned, canoes were the preferred method of travel until at least the early 20th century.

And for people like Samuel Black, whose journal of his 1824 expedition west of the Rockies is in my library, the canoemen he used were nearly all French-Canadian or Metis. On that expedition, his chief canoeman was named Le Guarde.

I have heard before that birch canoes need constant repair. I have also heard similar comments about wood/canvas. I can assure the modern paddler that while either are not as durable as modern materials, they are more easily repairable and much stronger than one might think.

Do I use modern materials on my trips today? Certainly. I have Royalex canoes, though I have tripped in w/c, in Class 4 whitewater. And my son is a guide at Keewaydin, a canoe tripping camp in Ontario, home of the largest fleet of w/c canoes in the world and where Archie "Grey Owl" Belaney learned his craft. I use blue barrels for food, Duluth or Woods packs for soft gear, a wooden wannigan for hard gear and leather tumps for canoe, wannigan and barrels.

While Wiki is generally a fairly reliable source of info, I don't trust it explicitly., though they are generally right about the York boats. As a journalist, a source has to be vetted, to be trusted. And hands on knowledge boats or location lends a lot. Much of their information is based on more modern material. Unfortunately, regarding some exploration, I have found the old journals much more accurate. Black's Rocky Mountain Journal is far more accurate in its descriptions of rapids, portages and methods than anything that has come after. That was the source we used in 2011 when I descended the Finlay, the third documented descent from the headwaters.

As most members are not paddlers, I have been reluctant to post trip reports on what are essentially paddling reports on routes that involve often obscure explorers and locations. Most Americans think Lewis and Clark were the first to cross the continent and have little knowledge of A. McKenzie. Even fewer would not know of the all Canadian route to the Klondike, up the Rat and down the Porcupine, or that Joseph Burr Tyrrell discovered great dinosaur beds in Alberta after paddling the Kazan and before he developed the Golden Delicious Apple.

9:03 a.m. on September 19, 2013 (EDT)
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Then we are not in disagreement, Ehrich. You are referring to an earlier era on the Saskatchewan River systems, and to different routes. Obviously the York boats were too large and heavy for use on smaller, faster rivers, but that was not their purpose. Wikipedia was referenced as a backup, but the primary source for the information was the knowledgeable and experienced gentleman named Joseph who has been building York boats at Fort Edmonton for the last couple of decades. 

The Forts were established to act as collectors for their local areas, and to consolidate shipments into annual fur brigades were able to carry freight out to York Factory and Norway House and return with trade goods. Remember that one typical fur brigade of eight York boats could be carrying as much as 100,000 lbs of furs!

You are obviously well-familiar with the dates when the early explorers first started to move across the west - Fort Edmonton was in its heyday in the mid-1800s, well after the early exploration was complete. 

Logically, its development spanned the gap between the voyageurs concept of canoeing out with a load of trade goods and swapping them for furs on the way back, to having an established townsite with warehouses and civilian (ie: non-Company) support that would later grow into a modern town. 

Far be it from me to disrespect the men who made those early, long journeys by canoe. David Thompson is notable, as is Alexander MacKenzie (who reached the Pacific in 1793), and Samuel Hearne, but it was the hundreds of individual fur traders who got into every nook and cranny on the maps, making contact with the various tribes and exploring constantly further, who prepared the way for the big commercial operations. In fact, the biggest obstacle to Hearne's explorations in the high arctic in the 1770s was the lack of a viable canoe route!

I'm hoping not to derail the thread here, but I'm curious about your reference to Tyrrell as the developer of the Golden Delicious apple. He is renowned as a geologist, cartographer, and mining consultant, and discovered the world-famous dinosaur fossil beds at Drumheller. A quick search credits the creation of the Golden Delicious apple to a farm in West Virginia owned by the Mullins family in about 1900, but Tyrrell did establish extensive apple orchards in Scarborough, Ontario, after his retirement in the 1950s.

10:41 a.m. on September 19, 2013 (EDT)
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This discussion by Peter and Erich is the most impressive I have ever read on an outdoors forum . You are both to be congratulated.

I am preparing my w/c Old Town from 1951 for a trip next week. Today's task to add some new art work on the boat that is appropriate for the trip. I will be painting over the rock art from the desert trip last February and adding some native salmon motifs to hopefully improve our chances of catching some large king salmon. There is something about heading with Duluth packs, an axe, handmade paddles, etc. that is very refreshing. That is why they call it re-creation.

12:00 p.m. on September 19, 2013 (EDT)
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Peter, I have read the same reference to the Golden Delicious being developed in West Virginia. I have also read several other references to the Golden Delicious being hybridized by Tyrrell. Obviously, the references disagree with the source of that apple. This is one of my problems with internet sources that I referenced before. Even first hand written accounts are sometimes in conflict. I'm not disagreeing with Joseph or your assessment of the fur trade in the mid 19th century. In many areas, more practical means of transport than the birch canoe had taken over. In many areas of the west, the birch canoe did continue to hold sway at least until the late 19th century, as early photographs show. And it should be pointed out that the fur trade had changed radically by the last quarter of the 19th century. Many of the posts that had formerly supplied trappers, now supplied prospectors and farmers. As a boatman(sailor, paddler, rower) for 50 years, I am sometimes appalled by the inaccuracies in both older writings and modern ones, the latter often done in the name of historical research. Without getting into too much depth, some older writings had a certain amount of embellishment, sometimes for dramatic effect, other times for their bosses. Some modern, supposedly historical writings are based on research without a thorough knowledge of the subject.

As an example, I am reading a recently written book on the Barrington family who piloted steamboats on various Yukon and BC rivers. The author described Edward Barrington putting steel plates on his propellor to help cut a new channel. Most certainly, the author knew that Barrington's steamer used a paddle wheel, rather than a screw propellor, hence the need for armoring. Regardless, the reference is in print for others to find. Another example came up when doing research for the Finlay trip. Although Black's Rocky Mountain Journal was in hand, I came upon an article written in about 1912 by an LM Bower who describes a trip down the river in 1907. The article was more a description of the minerals in the area, rather than a river guide. Never the less, he describes wrecking one canoe and  building a new "Peterborough". Peterborough was a company, so he could have been referring to type or even the material(wood/canvas). A knowledge of canoe building shows that it wouldn't be possible to build a new w/c canoe, given the methods involved. A form is needed, materials, the dry canvas must be stretched and filled and allowed to dry. But someone with no knowledge of that might easily read this old article and conclude that Bower had, indeed, built a new Peterborough.

So my point is that armchair historians have their place, but a practical knowledge, first hand experience, is necessary also. Following Black and his crew nearly 200 years later, making the same portages, paddling the same rapids, showed me just how durable a voyageur boat was. And, as I referenced earlier, every type of boat was employed when practical. The most common in the late 19th century in the smaller rivers of the west, were scows. Pine bark canoes were much more fragile than birch, and since birch trees of the right size did not grow out here, the bark had to be brought from the east. Scows, could be easily and cheaply made. With narrow beam, a flat bottom, they could be paddled, rowed or poled. And they are in use today, though often with a pointed bow.

To conclude, a number of multiple vetted sources are important when writing, as well as a modicum of first hand experience. And, following Howard Zinn's work, we must also be acutely aware of the personality and prejudices of the author.

3:57 p.m. on September 19, 2013 (EDT)
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Tyrrell is indeed credited with being interested in grafting and creating hybrids, so his role might have been more in the improvement t of the Golden Delicious rather than its creation. There is an interesting note about the original being sold to the same company that developed the Red Delicious, so I would have thought they would have done a lot of that work. Just curiousity, though.

While I agree with your assessment of 'credible internet sources', I am inclined to trust the knowledge and experience of the boat builder at Fort Edmonton. A very well-educated man, Joseph is well-founded in the history, design and use of the boats he builds, as well as the Fort he works at as a volunteer every year. As you say, there is no substitute for hands-on experience and neither you nor I can boast of having taken a York boat on a long river journey. Joseph has. Here's a photo of him and an assistant on the river back in 2010...


and of a new York boat he's been working on.


The fur trade did indeed change at the end of the 1800s, when silk hats gradually became more fashionable than beaver ones. That shut down Canada's fur trade to a large extent, reducing it to finding furs for coats and trimmings, and trappers shifted from hunting beaver to furs like lynx and fox. 

One big advantage of the brigades was that by travelling as a group, a large number of men could be mustered for the really big jobs, like dragging the boats over difficult portages. In consequence, the brigades were able to travel long distances quite quickly while fighting timelines that were often tight. As explained above, that advantage would be lost had they been forced to use canoes. 

What is impressive to me is the history of a boat design that, as you substantiate, runs from its origins with the ancient Vikings, through use as an oceangoing dory for fishing as the Orkney yole, a freight transport for use on Canadian rivers, and on to the moose hide versions and the other variations that use the same basic design. The example you gave was the use of bateaux on the Columbia River. There, too, the boats quickly replaced the birch bark canoes previously in use, which had proven too dangerous on the faster rivers of the Pacific Northwest.

Perhaps the best general-purpose heavy freight vessel in use at the time, the York boat worked well under any conditions where there was sufficient draft, and many where the clearances were a bit more touchy.

Given the distances traveled and the wide variety of conditions encountered en route, transferring from canoe to scow to barge as conditions change would have been a horrendous task. The journey from Edmonton to Hudson's Bay included fast and slow rivers, shallow ones with rapids, major bodies of water like Lake Winnipeg, and every other type of water in between. The trip would have been a nightmare had it been necessary to shift the load from one type of boat to another, but the York boat was flexible enough to handle them all. It could be rowed, sailed, towed or portaged, and was stable and strong in rough weather. 

Another interesting point is that the York boats were only replaced as river freighters when the steamboat came into its own. The span of their use in Canada lasted from 1749 to the beginning of the 19th century, quite a time for one design. 

I think the truck analogy is a good one. The York boat was the semi of its time and canoes were the pickup trucks. Two different purposes and each with its own advantages.

But perhaps we are letting this thread drift too much. It was originally abut the evolution of equipment as evidenced by it use at Fort Edmonton. While the York Boats were certainly part of that heritage, I think the general idea was that more modern equipment resulted in a better lifestyle, and that we at Trailspace are part of that ongoing process.

And I'm not really sure how the Golden Delicious apple came into the discussion. :-)

6:45 p.m. on September 19, 2013 (EDT)
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Hi Peter, regarding the Golden Delicious development, I think we are both fascinated by a man like Joseph Tyrrell, who had interests in many areas.

You had said,"One big advantage of the brigades was that by travelling as a group, a large number of men could be mustered for the really big jobs, like dragging the boats over difficult portages." I agree that the brigades made the difficult portages easier. However, many of the old routes in the west that I have paddled, would have been impossible for York boats. I don't doubt Joseph's expertise and certainly York boats were the workhorse on the bigger rivers, including the McKenzie and the Peace. But on rivers like the Finlay, the Fraser, and others, birch canoes and scows continued to hold sway as they were easier or even just possible to portage. To be clear, the canoes all had to come from the east. But having been on some of these portages myself, I can tell you which ones would be suitable for York boats and which for canoes. Unfortunately, there were precious few on the smaller rivers west of the Rockies. One that comes to mind is around Hoole Canyon on the Pelly, which still has evidence of the cord wood slides. Remember as well, Peter, and I'm sure your friend Joseph would confirm this, the York boats were not carried on portages. They were too heavy. Trams, rollers and wagons were used, implying a much more developed portage. By contrast, a North Canoe could be carried by two men. To be sure the York boat spelled by the end of the Montreal Brigades, and access was closer at York Factory than Montreal. The bateaux I refer to were not the Columbia River bateaux, but rather the bateaux of an earlier era that Chappelle talks about. He refers to them as bateau, essentially French for boat. The differences between the Viking boats and the bateaux or bateau are interesting. Norse boats were clinker built and round bottomed, with little deadrise stem to stern. There is the scottish/viking influence of the York boat, but the type was also known in French Canada in the early 18th century. And the hull form goes back at least to medieval times as indicated by the craft found in the bed of the River Rother in England. Basically a flat bottomed carvel planked craft with a flat bottom. (The York boats were clinker built) Plans for one of these "colonial bateau" as Chappelle refers to them, survive from Burgoyne's campaign on Lake Champlain.

As far as shifting loads, while this was not common in many places, as you say, because of the loads needing to be switched, it never-the-less occurred more frequently than you may have been told. You probably have a copy of James Tyrrell's book and he references watching just such an unloading and reloading of boats. To be clear, the concept that a York boat would not be unloaded on a portage is not a fact. A metis crew, it was said, could load a boat in five minutes. And in many places, such as across heights of land, boats were often changed. I agree that the York boat was a wonderful craft for its purpose, but it was not the only one in use. As I have said, west of the Rockies, York boats were not suitable for many routes. After the merging of the NW Co and the HBC, York Boats and York Factory were the main route at until the last quarter of the 19th century. But the rivers of the Canadian Shield are much different than those west of the Rockies. Red River and Fort Garry were two of the main destinations of the York Brigades. And furs got to market by any boat or means available, including by rail. York Factory, for all its history, was pretty much done by the mid 19th century.

It is a great conversation and I'm glad that you enjoy learning about the fur trade era that opened up the west of Rupert's Land.

7:56 p.m. on September 19, 2013 (EDT)
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In French, 'les bateaux' would be the plural of 'un bateau'. 

At the outset, I said that much of the work that killed the York boat men included having to portage 2 x 90 lb bales of fur at every portage - I wasn't saying in the last post that the boats weren't unloaded at all.

What I was referring to when I talked about switching from boat to boat was the logistics of having to stockpile scows at one location such as a lake entrance, canoes at another where a river was the route, and other boats suitable for use at every other location where the river conditions changed. The flexibility, capacity and durability of the York boats meant that wasn't necessary. 

I would also remind you that I described the Forts as collecting points for furs that would be brought in from the surrounding territory and which would then travel downstream to the Bay. Those furs would come in by whatever means was available; by trappers on foot or horseback, by canoe or on dogsled. How they arrived was less important than how they traveled on from there. As I also pointed out, the York boats were too big for narrow, fast-running rivers, so canoes other methods would be used there. 

For example, the route through Athabasca Pass includes travel on the Whirlpool River which is decidedly a secondary route when compared to the Athabasca itself, and while those furs came down the river by canoe (and trade goods went upstream and down the other side by whatever means was available), they were still transported to the forts for shipment to Hudson's Bay. Furs coming from Rocky Mountain House would travel down the North Saskatchewan to Fort Edmonton, but would then be collected with others coming out of the Saskatchewan Territory and sent on to the Factories on the Bay by York boat. 

As has been said, each type of transport had its place, but I mentioned the mythology of 'tough little men in tough little boats'. There is a romantic ideal in eastern Canada that the entire fur trade was carried out by voyageurs in birchbark canoes paddling lustily down the rivers. In fact, it was big business, and once it got going, the real workhorses were the men in the forts and the big river freighters. 

8:12 p.m. on September 19, 2013 (EDT)
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Well said, Peter. Being in Alberta, did you participate in any of the David Thompson Brigades? I wish more Americans knew about him. I have actually been in a York boat and found it a beast. I just got a brief chance to try it when I was doing a section of the David Thompson several years ago. We were paddling a fiberglass canot du nord, so it wasn't a valid comparison

10:52 p.m. on September 19, 2013 (EDT)
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And yes, the romantic ideal of the voyageurs was probably a creation of writers and painters. It was a tough life. Reading Black's journal was particularly interesting. Below Cascadero Falls, which Bower named, Black was on his way up the Finlay in June, 1824. There was a rock garden when we went down, swift current but many rocks were submerged. Black wrote that his chief canoeman named Leguarde, "broke down and wept at the sight of the torrent". 

On our descent, just above the falls, we had to ferry from RL to RR about 50 meters above the falls to a small eddy barely big enough to hold a canoe, let alone three. The mist from the falls was hitting us, we were so close. At this point, Black wrote, "we broke our boat a little". I have always liked that part.

On the McGregor River in 1793, McKenzie's boat was wrecked, but repairable. They were wet, tired and the river ahead looked hard. A mutiny of sorts happened, and I wonder at his strength to keep his crew going. Then on the Fraser, they back tracked and built another boat using parts of the old, before embarking on foot. 300 +plus miles later, a Scotsman, ten years before Lewis and Clark's jounrey, wrote on a rock, in vermillion and bear grease, "A. Mckenzie, from Canada by land, July ...1793".

8:37 a.m. on September 21, 2013 (EDT)
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Well, Ehrich. It certainly looks like we've discovered your true passion! You have a wealth of information on canoeing in Canada. 

For those who aren't aware of it, the David Thompson Brigades were canoe trips commemorating the 200th anniversary of the explorations of one of Canada's greatest explorers. From 1784 to 1837, David Thompson crisscrossed western Canada, mapping the trade routes and setting up fur trading posts. While I didn't participate in those trips, I have hiked many of the passes and trails he used. 

As you are aware, though, Ehrich, most Trailspace members aren't canoeists, and we have strayed quite far from the original subject. Perhaps we could let others step in with their comments if they choose. 

10:24 a.m. on September 21, 2013 (EDT)
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As you are aware, though, Ehrich, most Trailspace members aren't canoeists, and we have strayed quite far from the original subject.


They aren't canoeists, but many should be. You can travel further, carry more gear and get away from people easier. Canoeing spoils many backpackers.

11:37 a.m. on September 21, 2013 (EDT)
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I would hazard taking it a step further in saying that most people on this site are hikers who stick to well groomed, well marked and over used trails in heavily populated National Parks. This is not a value judgement, just an observation as I see nothing wrong with hiking trails in parks. Some, however, have extended their experiences beyond the trails to the backcountry and wild areas left to us.

My wife and I, at least once a year, will load up our canoe and paddle out often along some nameless river, set up camp and hike from here. We often stay for a few weeks or a month and never see another person. Along the way we collect plants, pick berries, fish and bird watch.

I understand that most people in southern Canada and the lower 48 seldom have the luxury of time or space to camp and hike like we do, and that is why the trail system is essential in allowing people access to nature.

Most of my gear, too, is relatively old, dare I say "Old School". My favorite item of clothing for cool to cold weather hiking is a very thick, oiled wool sweater by Norsewear in New Zealand. I purchased this in Whitehorse some thirty years ago, I first used it on a six month winter camping journey along the Mackenzie River, and worn it every day in the winter. It has outlasted and out performed all of my PolarTec jackets.

So, there is till a place in my kit at least for some of this older gear.

12:08 p.m. on September 21, 2013 (EDT)
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Peter, I would hope that this thread and others, might inspire other TS members to explore by canoe. North's comment also come to mind. I backpacked with my parents from about the age of seven. I later starting climbing. But with my parents, we often made sojourns into southern BC, as far north as Prince George. I wanted to see some of those places on the maps, those places like Fort Ware, which at the time had no road access. Hiking was a possibility but the time to traverse such vast expanses without a resupply just was not practical. I had no money for a horse or an airplane, so I realized that the utility craft of the past, was the perfect vehicle to help me access the alpine areas, the glaciers, the valleys. That's how I got started with paddling. Along the way, I started reading the history. First the journals of McKenzie in college when I should have been doing other work. On my recent trip, we paddled over 200 miles in a bit over two weeks. Accessing the high country would not have been so easy, were it not for the river below us.

So, yes, I have a passion for canoeing, as well as hiking. But much like David Thompson or Lewis and Clark, it is the journey that is important, and, like them, I'll use whatever means is available to get deep into the bush.

9:29 a.m. on September 22, 2013 (EDT)
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Don't get me wrong, gentlemen. I have nothing against canoeing. I grew up playing on the Ottawa and Rideau River systems, and spent a number of summers as a kid paddling around with friends, doing trips of a few of weeks in length.

The downside was that we were limited to areas that could be accessed by the rivers, while many of the places I wanted to go were up in the granite of the Canadian Shield. When I got to Alberta, I continued hiking throughout the province (not just in the National Parks, although the scenery is far more striking, IMHO) and got into some pretty nice areas. For example, paddling up the Smoky or Sulphur River at Grande Cache is virtually impossible, but hiking or riding from there up into the Willmore Wilderness is relatively easy. 

I can't agree with the contention that one way of accessing the backcountry is in some way superior to another, if the purpose is simply recreational or exploratory. Whether by canoe, horseback or on foot, each method has advantages and disadvantages, and each gets you into different terrain. With the exception of the major routes (like the Athabasca, Fraser, Bow or Saskatchewan Rivers) you won't get up into many of the more interesting valleys in the Canadian Rockies by canoe, and you certainly won't be able to paddle up any mountains!

But, again, we're WAY off topic - the thread was effectively hijacked when we started comparing the relative merits of canoes and York boats.  Maybe one of you would like to start another thread under 'paddling'. 

12:15 p.m. on September 22, 2013 (EDT)
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Peter, nice quote from "Leviathan".

What I find interesting is that, while my gear may be twenty years old or more, many people up here still swear by their heavy canvas tents and think a Woods 5 star sleeping bag  is the pinnacle of technology. They tend not to trust this "new" gear even though it's been around for decades. But then, few people in the north would ever consider backpacking as an enjoyable endeavor. A few years ago I did a ski trip to Franklin Bay and the Smoking Hills. In spite of the age of my gear I still tend to travel light and was able to carry everything in my pack with room to spare. When I got home, people looked at me like I had just sprouted a third arm. They just couldn't wrap their heads around why anyone would want to travel on foot when a snowmobile is so much faster.

7:12 p.m. on September 22, 2013 (EDT)
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North1 said:

But then, few people in the north would ever consider backpacking as an enjoyable endeavor.

No kidding! If you have to get from point 'A' to point 'B' carrying everything you might need, just so you can get to a summer camp upriver or to your next jobsite, the whole thing changes. Backpacking isn't 'recreational' but is just another chore. 

Modern hiking gear is all about 'lighter and more effective', but it is also more specialized. A backpacking tent sucks to live in for more than a few days, but it works well for the purpose it was built for. If weight isn't a factor, you're better off to swap for living space. Not much point in worrying about a few extra ounces if you're hauling gear on a quad or snowmobile.

The other tradeoff is the cost. Compare the cost of a Gore-Tex jacket with the price of a military-surplus poncho, or that old canvas tent with a silnylon one of similar size. 

12:13 a.m. on September 24, 2013 (EDT)
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Peter, the canoe for me is just a means to access the back country. A horse would work, or dogs in winter, but they require more care. And I have little experience with horse packing and none with driving dogs. A canoe is not ideal, but it does allow me the opportunity to access areas in the north that would take me weeks to access by foot. The only unfortunate part, is that many paddlers don't hike as well. On the Finlay, none of my companions were enticed by the peaks, the alpine. They were paddlers and surprisingly not comfortable on slopes, and didn't have any desire to climb the mountains, many of which were nameless. My ideal trip, involves paddling a river a hundred miles or so, then hiking and finally climbing a mountain. In the Yukon, this is possible.

Regarding gear, it is  more specialized, but I think sometimes less durable. I have dome tents to be sure, but on the Big Salmon we used my 5 X 7 Baker.

9:18 a.m. on September 24, 2013 (EDT)
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on the Big Salmon we used my 5 X 7 Baker

Weight is less of a concern in a canoe. For a backpacker, a 20 or 30 lb tent would be prohibitive. 

For someone wanting to explore every detail of a landscape, one would ultimately have to get in on a river, move up into the valleys by horseback, then go the rest of the way by foot. 

In practical terms, explorers like Thompson were goal oriented - the whole purpose was to find a route connecting A to B, and whatever else happened to be in the area could wait. The idea of climbing a mountain 'because it's there' seems to be a latter day concept. 

12:52 p.m. on September 24, 2013 (EDT)
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"In practical terms, explorers like Thompson were goal oriented - the whole purpose was to find a route connecting A to B, and whatever else happened to be in the area could wait. The idea of climbing a mountain 'because it's there' seems to be a latter day concept" True to a certain extent. But the job extended to mapping and for that, they had to know and record what was beyond the next mountain, the next ridge. In the case of Swannell, Dawson, McConnell, Fleet Robertson and even Black, a mountain ridge could afford a view to the next valley. Mapping was an important part of the job, especially for Thompson, a great cartographer.

I'm not sure how I could get a horse in my canoe. I guess I'll have to go in by foot. My Baker weighs 10 pounds, light enough, but still to heavy to carry on foot. My technique for accessing the high country on the canoe trips, is to establish a base and take a tarp or bivy sack and a light pack, much like it sounds  North and his wife do. As well, that's what some do to access the Cirque of the Unclimbables. That way, you get to paddle a great river, and climb in a spectacular area of peaks. And the cost is much less prohibitive than using a helicopter to get in.

As far as choice of boats, I was just reading Thompson journals and on the west side of Athabasca Pass, he passed several months waiting for break up. They needed a canoe and found no suitable birch trees. They did find large cedars and ended up fashioning a 25 foot cedar clinker built canoe.

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