A Letter to My Son: The Hayes River

By Bear Paulsen

Dear Dashwa,

My dad, your grandfather, was drawn to the boundless Canadian wilderness.  On my first trip to Canada at age four, my family camped on a ribbon of warm sand in Quetico Provincial Park. From then on we journeyed from our Minnesota home to Northwest Ontario’s Crown Lands on yearly family trips. Like your grandpa, I feel at home in the wilds of Canada and have paddled somewhere in the north nearly every year of my adult life. 

Sitting in Mommy’s seat – Knee Lake

In my twenties I explored Northwest Ontario, just as your grandfather did. Dick, my dad, travelled up the new Red Lake Road in 1955, shortly after the dust from that new gravel road settled. In those days few people explored the Ontario bush. In order to have the same feeling of remoteness as my dad, I’ve ventured further north, canoeing in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, as well as all three Territories. 

Your grandfather was not a writer. I cherish the three pages he wrote to his family before passing away from cancer as I turned twenty-two. Here are the words that most speak to me.

“I leave you God’s world which I always felt closer to by traipsing around, especially where there were very few people.”

Canoeing in Canada forms an important connection to my dad, and when I’m deep in the bush I feel closer to him. 

I hope the experiences shared in this letter begin to form a significant part of your life, as did my childhood trips. Camping as a child embedded the need for wild places in my soul. As an adult, in a world that continues to grow more connected, I find it refreshing to disconnect. Long wilderness trips rejuvenate me and make me more creative. However, if you don’t choose to canoe or travel in Canada, that’s fine. Choosing your own path makes life a fascinating experiment. What’s important to me is offering you the opportunity to feel as comfortable in the wilderness as I do.

Your mother, Claire, and I decided your first Canadian canoe trip would be on Manitoba’s historic Hayes River when you were nine months old. You weren’t a greenhorn – as a newborn you spent eighteen days in the BWCA during a chilly and wet October. Then as a three-month-old, you winter camped for nine days, again in the BWCA. Those trips we primarily base camped, and we looked forward to travelling on this one.

Hayes River Map

I’d wanted to paddle the Hayes for two decades. I’m a steady consumer of fur trade history, and the river’s importance to the Hudson Bay Company, along with finishing the trip at York Factory, made it compelling. The river’s geography suited our purposes well too, spending the first half of the trip primarily on lakes would allow us to settle into a rhythm before we reached the significant whitewater later in the trip. Your mom and I have paddled the north together in the past, but bringing you added a very different dimension. 

Our first memorable experience happened at the border. We entered the customs building to register the shotgun we carried for polar bears. After completing the paperwork, I inquired about a stamp for your new passport, which rarely happens when entering Canada by vehicle. The border agent stamped your passport, and enthusiastically suggested that the three of us pose in front of Canada’s maple leaf flag for a picture. That experience set the tone for the trip. 

The border agent stamped your passport, and enthusiastically suggested that the three of us pose in front of Canada’s maple leaf flag for a picture

We stopped in Winnipeg to pick up a gift for York Factory from friends. The year before, at seven-and-a-half months pregnant, your mom and I paddled Manitoba’s Bloodvein River and leapfrogged a couple from Winnipeg a few times. Caleigh and Ryan had YF branded on their paddles, denoting they’d visited York Factory. As I planned this trip I contacted them with questions, and they asked if we could deliver an important item to York Factory on their behalf.

The following morning we arrived in Norway House and met Brock, a friend of Caleigh and Ryan’s, who delivered us to Sea River Falls on the Nelson River. From there he would shuttle our minivan to Thompson, where we would find it at the end of the trip after a jet boat ride from York Factory to Gillam and a train trip from Gillam to Thompson.

Camp on the upper Hayes

We waved thanks to Brock as we set off down the sea-green Nelson. When you awoke from your nap we stopped for lunch near High Rock, and there my pre-trip concerns began melting away. You happily sat in the shade picking dry moss. The crunchy moss bespoke drought and a lack of insects. A fierce bug population had been one of my two significant pre-trip concerns. The other was whitewater, which low water would make milder too. 

Over the next few days a rhythm developed. After breakfast and packing we paddled for an hour. Actually, I paddled, and Claire did so when you allowed. She primarily served as your entertainment, providing toys like sunscreen tubes, sunglasses, and glasses cases. Eventually you began rubbing your eyes, then Claire and I sang either Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” or Jerry Vandiver’s “Leave No Trace,” your bedtime songs. Each of your REM cycles lasted forty-five minutes. Your mom timed your naps, careful we did not disturb you during the light sleep, hopeful you’d sleep longer. While you napped Claire and I paddled together, propelling the canoe as tandem should be, with two paddlers. 

After napping and then nursing you played for a while. When you got fussy, you were passed to the other parent for new play horizons. In the stern, you pulled on the bungee cords securing my camera and sponge, fascinated by their springy nature. Both the stern thwart and bow gunwales provided solid points to grab for standing practice. As we paddled, you grunted and harrumphed your success at remaining upright, your hips gyrating like a tiny Elvis impersonator. 

By the trip’s midpoint we’d found your three favorite toys along portages. First, a pair of sunglasses: you wanted to play with ours, but the play often involved nearly throwing them overboard, so the found sunglasses were perfect for you to dangle over the gunwales. Next, a beaver jawbone: bleached white by endless sun. I’d never considered teething on a bone, but you chomped away at it. Last, a fleece glasses case: a soft club to strike anything in reach.  

Lunchtime standing practice

In the early afternoon we would stop for lunch. Sometimes those spots had plenty of shade and nice views. Other times your frustration and tears at the lack of compelling play options dictated more expedient, though less desirable, locales. The most memorable lunch was on the third day. Your Mom presented me with two small foil bags of green and black olives marinated in spices to celebrate Father’s Day. They were a perfect surprise, since everyone knows olives are one of the four food groups. I’m certain we’re related since you devoured as many olives as I did. 

Father’s Day is a strange concept for me. I celebrated it with my dad, but he passed nearly thirty years ago. Lately, I’ve observed it with your grandpa Dwight, Claire’s father. But, at forty-nine, I never expected anyone to celebrate my fatherhood. I thought I’d passed the age for having a child. Your mother, in her wisdom, wanted a child and gently encouraged me to reconsider despite my age-related reservations. Your bright blue eyes, ready smile, and ebullient belly laugh never fail to melt my heart. Those are all the reassurance I need to know I made the right choice. 

Claire and I sang either Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” or Jerry Vandiver’s “Leave No Trace,” your bedtime songs

After lunch you would supervise your mom while she did your laundry. On the advice of another adventurous mother, Leanne Robinson, Claire brought fifteen lightweight blankets to be used as diapers. They were folded into a diaper shape, attached with a snappy, and enclosed with a waterproof diaper cover. You needed five diapers and several wipes over a day. Claire put your dirty laundry with some powdered, biodegradable soap and water into the Scrubba – a dry bag with a washboard of bumps on one interior side, a vinyl window on the other, and a purge valve. She kneaded the Scrubba, emptied it into the woods, and repeated the process a few times. Then the diapers, diaper covers, and wipes dripped from branches until we set off, when they covered our packs. 

As we ascended the upper Echmamish and our paddles churned through muck, we understood the HBC’s need to construct dams, especially during low water. We passed a few remnants, cribs of rocks that once supported vertical logs, rotted away by water and time. Those dams evoked York Boats rowed by Orkney men travelling to York Factory loaded with odorous pelts. Now that the beaver population has recovered, we paddled and pulled over a succession of rodent-constructed speed bumps. Later in the day we crossed Painted Stone Portage and moved from the Nelson’s watershed into the Hayes.

Conservative parents walking a rapid

At Robinson portage, the longest on the Hayes, I excitedly inspected HBC trolley wheels sinking into the riverbank. The rusted metal showed little structural deterioration. Along the trail we found three more sets of wheels and a few lengths of track. The effort involved in transporting the heavy iron hundreds of miles through the bush to this remote spot is stunning. These pieces of pitted metal bespoke the importance of the Hayes to generations of HBC men. I imagined being the proverbial fly on the wall as Sir John Franklin, David Thompson, Lord Selkirk, and an endless procession of other historic figures walked the path we now trod. We carried Real Berard’s beautifully hand illustrated map and read Sir John Franklin’s description of Robinson Falls as he travelled up the Hayes enroute to gaining his epithet, The Man Who Ate His Boots, as an arctic explorer. It’s hard to conceive of a remote river that hosted a longer and more fascinating succession of important figures than the Hayes. 

The next afternoon, as we exited Opiminegoka Lake, we met two fishermen staying at an outpost cabin on nearby Max Lake. They inquired where we’d started, where we were headed, and how long we’d be out. They couldn’t believe we had an infant with us, nor that we could carry enough food for three weeks. They feared we’d starve and offered us all the food they had with them, which amounted to a couple bags of gorp. We politely declined, but after numerous entreaties finally accepted their gifts. It felt ironic to receive food donated by two guys who didn’t know they were on the Hayes River, let alone that it ran all the way to Hudson Bay. 

They asked how fishing was. We replied we weren’t fishing, further baffling them. They cautiously inquired if we ate fish and our affirmative answer normalized us for them. I didn’t explain that your grandfather was a passionate fisherman. Those trips to Ontario were fishing trips, but that gene did not rub off on me – only the desire to be far from people did. Fishing bores me, and fishermen, your Grandfather included, always want to stay where the fish are biting, stifling exploration and travel. Your grandmother, Sheila, loved to travel, as do I. Once, in a moment of frustration, I accused her of simply collecting new places for her lifetime travel list. Now I find myself guilty of the same tally, except instead of European cities, my collection contains the lakes and rivers of Canada and other wilderness areas. The fishermen asked whether we’d eat walleye if they caught them. Our positive reply sent them motoring off in search of our dinner. A few hours later we were setting up camp and heard the whine of an outboard. They presented us with four walleye fillets which we cooked into a chowder.

Beaver jawbone

At lunch the next day we took our first swim of the trip in Windy Lake. The cool water felt wonderful. We’d been working hard to take advantage of six days of beautiful weather. Before you were born we could’ve comfortably maintained this pace with time for leisure. But now we struggled to move at our normal speed while caring for you. Later that afternoon we did a short carry around Wipanipanis Falls. Claire set you down on a flat spot amid the tangled, exposed roots of a large spruce. You smiled as you gnawed on a spruce cone while we crossed the portage. Your happy demeanor made you an easy baby to travel with. 

Early on the summer solstice we headed directly toward the rising sun for a rendezvous with junk food. The combination of a recently installed Tim Hortons and the Northern Store at Oxford House supplied us with chocolate caramel ice cream bars, doughnuts, two greasy breakfast sandwiches, and as a nod to healthy eating, strawberries. You ate the strawberries like apples, painting your face in bright red streaks of fruity goo. 

The combination of a recently installed Tim Hortons and the Northern Store at Oxford House supplied us with chocolate caramel ice cream bars, doughnuts, two greasy breakfast sandwiches, and as a nod to healthy eating, strawberries

After lunch a couple days later, strong south winds buffeted us as we entered the large northern bay of Knee Lake. We clung tightly to shore, and splashed in the foot-and-a-half whitecaps. You settled in for a nap as threatening clouds advanced. A few raindrops fell, then escalated into a heavy downpour, our first rain after a week and a half of travelling.  

You woke amid wind and rain and expressed displeasure at your cave-like accommodations under the spray skirt in the bow. And to top it off, unbeknownst to Claire, her map case caused rainwater to pool and drip onto your legs. We paddled another ten minutes before reaching a protected area where I could manage the boat alone, and by then you howled. Claire slid off her seat onto the floor and tightened the spray skirt cockpit around her neck, which allowed you to stay warm and nurse, protected from the rain. After you were satiated Claire changed you into dry clothes and passed you to me. I placed you under the spray skirt that Dan Cooke of Cooke Custom Sewing had modified for us. He’d sewn a normal CCS spray skirt and added a Lexan arch and triangular vinyl windows; the additions raised the rear of the skirt and created a space where you could sit or stand and we could make faces at one another while you played. 

Buried in the sand on Knee Lake

The next morning we set off under blue skies on a glassy lake. You took a long nap and when you woke we’d almost completed the northern bay. An opportune beach caused an early midday stop. After lunch we stripped and waded in. The large lake’s cold water bit our flesh, and you notified us that it was below any reasonable bathing temperature. We traded off holding you while the other dove in and quickly exited. Then I sat you on the water’s edge and buried your legs in the sand, and you gleefully threw handfuls of sand.

From there we delighted in an endless succession of class one and two rapids. You were calm in rapids, the sounds of roiling water probably soothed you. Up to this point in the trip my concern remained about the steady rapids from Knee to well below Swampy Lake, even in the low water conditions. I worried the rapids would last unbroken for long stretches, lining would prove difficult with you, and mostly that you would be unsafe. Instead I found myself as before you were born, joyous in the whitewater, dancing around the rocks and waves communicating seamlessly with my beautiful lifetime bow paddler.

That night we camped on a portage next to a large rapid. After dinner you and your mom went to bed while I finished sealing the packs.  You were both asleep when I climbed into the tent and began journaling about the day’s events. Over the rapid’s roar I thought I heard a noise, but wasn’t sure. A few minutes later a shadow passed by the tent. Or was it a peripheral hallucination? I wasn’t sure. I paid close attention, but noticed nothing else. After breakfast the next morning as I packed loose items in preparation for a portage, I noticed a hole in one of the Nalgenes and examined it. There were four holes, placed exactly where a bear’s incisors would puncture the bottle! The noise and the shadow were not hallucinations! As with the lack of bugs and the low water levels, we were fortunate the bear did no other damage.

Crunchy moss near High Rock on the 1st day

We camped on the north end of Swampy Lake that evening. The rains the previous days had excited the mosquito population and we set up our bug shelter for the first time. After dinner we settled in for bed, singing your bedtime songs. In the months prior Claire encouraged you to put yourself back to sleep when you woke at night. First she’d ceased attending to you when you cried before midnight, then waiting until 1 a.m., 2 a.m and 3 a.m. – this helped you go back to sleep on your own. Simultaneously, she’d shortened the Milk Bar’s operating minutes from unlimited, to ten minutes, nine, eight, and so on. Though, at times the Bar’s proprietress fell asleep and failed to enforce the revised schedule. Our current problem was now, instead of the Bar sleeping in a separate room, you, the voluble customer, slept tantalizingly close to the Bar. Steadily all sleep training was forgotten, and the customer saw no reason to go back to sleep on his own, instead demanding his favorite sleep aid, an open Bar. On this night especially the Bar was forced to be open far more than it was closed, exhausting the proprietress.  

The Milk Bar’s proprietress and customer both slept in, resulting in a delayed breakfast. In the late morning we set off down a stretch of moving water heaven. Through a light mist we ran endless class ones and a few twos while you slept. I love communicating with Claire about our course through rocks and waves. “See the triangular rock that’s partly out of the water? Let’s go left. What about the breaking wave to the right?” And so on. The longer we’ve been together the more we understand each other’s shorthand, making rapids a lovely physical and verbal dance. All day we enjoyed countless rapids. I felt a final sense of relief. The whitewater, the large lakes, the bugs, all my pre-trip concerns had evaporated like morning dew. 

Sometime after we left Swampy we lost track of our exact location. Claire, a GIS specialist, made 50,000-series maps on waterproof paper she navigated with. I’ve always used the smaller scale 250,000 series and carried those. Your grandfather would cut out the relevant portion for the trip from a 250,000 series and seal it with packing tape. He sized the cutouts to fit into our tackle boxes. When he passed away, I found dozens of 250,000-series maps, each missing the area he’d visited. He was a true child of the Depression. More enjoyable to look through were the cutouts, a bread crumb trail of the places he’d camped in Ontario over forty years. I enjoy the challenge of using the less detailed 250,000 series. Even more, I like surprises, since not all rapids and falls are marked. There is a feeling of the unknown, of exploration, as long as I proceed carefully. Now that my worries about your safety had been allayed, losing our place on the map added to the adventure. 

Grandpa Dick at McDougall Lake, 1960

Gazing at maps in camp the following morning we opted for our only layover. Regardless of our exact location we had extra time. We ate a leisurely breakfast, played with you, read, napped, and luxuriated in our stationariness. Though your grandfather is a large part of the reason that we’re out here, your grandmother is the reason I’m writing. As I mentioned, my mom, Sheila, loved to travel and see new things, and she kept journals while she was abroad. Your grandmother used words creatively, sometimes combining words to unique effect and inventing new ones. She delighted in coining names. There would be no “Milk Bar” without my mother. 

The following morning we descended a couple rapids before arriving at a more significant drop. After scouting, we decided to inventively line it and set you down on shore with a stick to play with. I waded into the strong current holding the canoe, and turned it ninety degrees around a rock so it was parallel to the flow. I checked that Claire was ready, and let the canoe slide into the current while Claire snapped the lining rope over my crouched body. She scrambled down the slippery shore rocks following the fast moving canoe. She reached the water’s edge and payed out the rope. The canoe passed through a large wave at the bottom of the pitch. We’d expected the current to hold the boat away from the wave, but the effect of the tether was to turn and ferry it closer to the wave which would fill or flip the canoe. For a split second we both gravely watched the canoe slip toward the wave. Claire reacted instantly, running in the water along the uneven shore away from the wave, holding the end of the line. In moments she stood in ankle deep water pulling the canoe away from the wave. Once the canoe was on shore she collapsed, breathing fast, adrenaline coursing through her. You were calmly playing with your stick when I scooped you up and brought you to her. Though Claire had done everything we’d planned and reacted perfectly to what we hadn’t anticipated, she emphasized she had no interest in repeating her performance. Ever since we started dating, your mother has continued to impress me with her wits. 

You fell asleep as we paddled downriver. Our relief at how fast you settled into your late nap was abbreviated when we arrived at a small falls, necessitating a short carry, certain the commotion would wake you. Claire held the canoe in the current, while I unsnapped the spray skirt and unloaded the gear. Soon everything was on the downstream side of the rock, except you and the daypack you reclined against. Claire and I looked at one another and had the same idea. I picked up the bow and Claire the stern. The canoe resembled the litter of a king, while you, our ruler, snoozed. We reloaded, even spinning the canoe around so the opposite side of the spray skirt could be snapped and the Lexan stay put into place. We paddled a small rapid at the base of falls, then silently celebrated, eyes locked, smiling broadly at each other, as you slept soundly.

For a split second we both gravely watched the canoe slip toward the wave

After a short distance we reached the area we estimated to be the base of Brassey Hill. We stopped and quietly unloaded again while we sunk to our ankles in clay goo. We hung the wet laundry, half a dozen blankets, a few wipes and diaper covers, in the surrounding spruce. You woke as we tied the lining ropes to trees. With the kid carrier, water, and lunch, we set off for the summit of Brassey. As we climbed I chuckled, imagining the reaction of other paddlers, should they pass while we were hiking, on seeing our equipment strewn around the poor hillside landing with the added effect of the forest festooned with your laundry. 

Brassey towers above the river by 300 feet, the highest point between Molson Lake and Hudson Bay. Real Berard on his Middle Track and Hayes map reported, “it is said that 36 lakes can be seen” from the summit. That provided the motivation to enjoy lunch on the peak. We climbed, circumventing many deadfalls on the steep incline. Soon the terrain began to alternate between gentler slopes and steep ravines. As we approached the summit, the vegetation grew denser. I hoped we’d emerge to a relatively open summit. My doubts grew as our pace slowed in the thick brush and mosquitoes harassed us. Soon there was nowhere to gain elevation. Claire paused, resulting in you crying, since you never like to stop while moving. I walked a few hundred feet east believing I saw an opening, but found none. I did the same to the north and found more thick brush. You cried more insistently as a growing cloud of mosquitoes enveloped us. We’d seen nothing more than a couple blue slivers, and no lakes. Then I found a few old sawed-off stumps and a rusted barrel stove. Laying nearby were some fuel drums and crumpled sheet metal. Looking around more I saw three survey markers, two ground mounted and another on a tripod. 

Layover day. Dashwa with a face full of bug bites

As we descended we caught a glimpse of the Hayes, our best view on the hike. Given the lack of visible stumps, the crown wasn’t clear when Berard was compiling the map. I suspect during his research Berard found a reference to thirty-six lakes in an HBC-related journal. We hurriedly got on the water, relieved to escape our mosquito retinues. We stopped for lunch at the confluence with the High Hill River. Our lunchtime view of Brassey was better than any sight we’d had on the hike.

Later, just as you awoke hungry from your afternoon nap, at the head of a long, gentle rapid, we saw splashing in a distant backwater – a moose! I tried to shush you but failed. You wanted only one thing, so I passed you forward as we slid into the current. Claire placed you on her lap and pinned you with her chest so you could nurse but not move, quieting you but leaving me to paddle the rapid alone. As we closed the distance a calf materialized next to the cow. The river traced the arc of the letter C. Initially we moved further away from the pair, but near the bottom we swung back, very near them, so close I could hear the cow growling over the rapid. You contentedly sucked, while Claire took pictures from her crouched position of the nervous brown cow and wobbly red calf. 

Paddling the next morning, we saw behind us the sky had turned a deep shade of purple. The wind increased and pressed us forward, its power growing. Thunder boomed, we paddled fast, then faster still, desperate to find a place to weather the storm. The rain drenched us, falling in sheets. We hadn’t put the skirt on since we’d expected to portage, leaving you exposed to the weather. You did not appreciate being pelted by the rain, and when the hail started you howled. Within minutes we arrived at Whitemud Falls and scoured the two islands for campsite. Lightening cracked and we threw everything out of the boat in a mad rush. I ran off in search of a tent spot while Claire comforted you. I found a space across the island, and we set up the tent while you sobbed nearby. 

I made multiple trips to the head of the island to gather the remaining equipment, strewn about by our chaotic unloading. When I’d finished you were sleeping peacefully, dry and fed. On occasions throughout the afternoon, I thought I heard your cries in the steady rumble of the falls. While I don’t enjoy listening to you cry, it doesn’t bother me most of the time. Crying is natural, like laughing. However, this time I had allowed you to be frightened, and felt guilty since I could’ve prevented your fear. Irrationally, I worried you’d be afraid of storms.


The next morning, on Canada Day, we dropped off the Canadian Shield and into the Hudson Bay lowlands, ancient rocks replaced by hundred-foot-tall banks of slippery clay, rapids replaced by steady current. In a few places landslides had deposited groups of jumbled spruce unceremoniously into the river. We saw endless molting geese in the lowlands, fleeing in terror along the banks, trying to escape the fast approaching canoe monster. Adults and goslings speed-waddled downstream in a mass of flightless birds, a chaotic feathered version of steeplechase over tree trunks and shoreline cobble. A few times I focused on the movements of a single bird, but couldn’t for long – the individual’s movements drowned amid the tumultuous flock of panicked geese.

Later we entered a slower section and, cruising around a bend, came upon a moose in the river. Claire took pictures and I alternately gazed at the moose and made faces to entertain you. Then we ran aground on the only rock in the river. Solidly, ridiculously aground. We carefully shifted and wiggled, trying to free ourselves without alerting the moose. That failed as you became dissatisfied with the state of affairs and wailed to alert us and the moose of your opinion. The moose departed and we remained leaning steeply to starboard. More aggressive shifting brought more crying, but finally freed us. 

The next morning, amid a steady rain, we met the Fox River. Soon after, we stopped early and portaged across a mud flat to a campsite. During your nap bright rays of sunshine gleamed through the dripping forest. Your mom and I decided it was time for target practice. Other than a middle school experience with a .22, Claire had no training with firearms. I set up a stump as a target, and familiarized her with the 12-gauge. She chambered a round of birdshot and from eighty feet away knocked over the stump. I congratulated her and reset the stump for her next shot with a slug. Since she’d experienced the recoil, I expected her to flinch and miss. The echo exploded down the valley, but this time the stump stood unmoved. Claire expressed disappointment at the perceived miss. I wasn’t certain, having seen a bit of wood fly. We examined the stump. She’d hit it dead center. It’s disconcerting how competent your mom can be.  

She chambered a round of birdshot and from eighty feet away knocked over the stump

On our last full day we sped along the widened Hayes. As the evening progressed we watched for campsites on the high ground to no avail. When sun met the horizon, long past your bedtime, we decided that the “high” ground on the shoreline mud flats would suffice. Often the final night’s campsite leaves something to be desired. This one left a lot. We perched the tent on an island of gravel, surrounded by a moat of gooey mud. We gave thanks that you weren’t yet walking. 

We rose early on July 4th, aiming to arrive at York Factory near high tide. You settled into a long nap while we paddled through the morning chill. During your snooze I saw motion at the edge of the woods. A wolf materialized, then strolled along the shoreline. The wolf moved away as our bow ground into the shoreline mud but continued to maintain about one hundred feet between us. After a few minutes we no longer merited the wolf’s full attention. It barked, ran, and snapped at bulldogs chomping at its hindquarters. After fifteen minutes of mutual observation we headed downstream to keep our rendezvous with the tide, and to our surprise the wolf followed us along the shore! After a mile, a shallows forced us to the opposite shore, we rounded a bend and bid the wolf adieu. Could there have been a den nearby?

Nap time on a rainy day

A couple hours after high tide, the stark white cupola of York Factory appeared. The Depot gleamed on a background of purple and gray. We unloaded and climbed the stairs. A man on a riding mower with a shotgun in a scabbard gregariously introduced himself as Paul from Parks Canada. You were reserved, since Paul was the first person in three weeks that interacted with you. His assistant, Ross, arrived on a four wheeler towing a trailer, and graciously shuttled our gear to a fenced camping enclosure where a polar bear visit would not pose a threat.

After dinner we joined Paul and Ross for dessert. While eating through their cookie inventory Paul inquired, “Could I borrow your boy?” By this point your good nature had returned and you sat on Paul’s lap while he Facetimed with his wife. We could hear her exclamation from across the room, “Where did you get a baby at York Factory?” Paul nonchalantly replied that some canoeists paddled in with him. Her reply of, “That woman is a saint,” made us both smile. 

The next morning we strolled through the Depot examining rusted fur trade era artifacts arranged on plywood tables. Ross explained the HBC had built the Depot with an inner courtyard to allow light from both the outside and courtyard walls since no lighting or heat was allowed due to fears of fire. Other buildings in the complex were permitted both comforts, but the furs and trade goods represented too high of value to risk a conflagration. We climbed into the cupola and gazed at the expansive mudflats exposed by low tide. Among the thousands of signatures covering the wooden walls, the pencil autographs of two men, Sir John Rae and Sir George Simpson, caused my imagination to soar far higher than the cupola. They were historical contemporaries but such different men, each remarkable in his own way. 

Bear incisor punctures

Afterwards we headed to the staff housing with your first paddle to have it branded. Ironically, the gift for York Factory that we picked up in Winnipeg from Caleigh and Ryan was a YF brand. Caleigh and Ryan had arrived at York Factory a few years prior and were told the brand was missing. On returning home they expressed their disappointment to a friend who was a metal worker. When we’d contacted them for information they’d asked if we would deliver the new brand they’d made to York Factory. We’d presented the new YF brand to Paul and Ross the previous evening, playfully inquiring whether the old one was still missing. Your paddle has a YF on both faces of the blade, one with the old brand and another with the new one. 

Your paddle represents a bit of history, both the history of the longest operating company in North America as well as a part of our family’s history. My dad used to tell me bedtime stories, some of those about his Canadian trips. Stories and shared experiences bind a family together. This trip and others will create lasting family memories. Sharing time in the wilderness with those I love is my favorite way to spend my life. Regardless of what your passions are, I hope you will look back on these trips with fondness. 

Love, Dad

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