From the Atlantic to the Pacific by Canoe
Along the Fur Trade River Routes of the Hudson Bay Company & North West Company
By Herman Perry
After a two-year delay due to the Corona Virus, by early 2022 the canoe trip was back on track for the 5th and final leg of this “North American Paddling Odyssey”. My three paddling buddies for leg 5 included Paul Snow, my brother-in-law from St. John’s, Gerry Coleman, an old friend from Saskatoon and Rick Canavan, an old classmate of Paul’s from Oklahoma. With everything ready we were now prepared to depart for the remote Northwest. This paddling odyssey had already taken me across northern Canada from Rigolet on the Labrador Sea to the foot of the Rockies and leg 5 would just be a continuation of that.
Paul and I drove first from Newfoundland to Saskatoon where we picked up Gerry and my brother Larry, who would shuttle the truck. We picked up Rick who flew in to Whitehorse and then we airfreighted our food for the second half of the trip from there to Old Crow. We had earlier decided to spend several days in the historic Klondike at Dawson City. Larry and Paul actually met and chatted with Tony Beets from the TV Series “Gold Rush”. He mines gold just outside of Dawson City. We then drove on to Fort McPherson in the NWT and put in the canoes at the boat launch just outside of town the next morning. We then paddled across the delta to the Rat River while Larry drove my truck to Anchorage for our later pickup and he then flew home to Saskatoon. Unfortunately, Rick Canavan “tapped out” with an injury after a week of paddling and lining the Rat. We tried on short notice with the Sat phone to find another partner for Paul who was devastated by this turn of events but it wasn’t to be. Without a partner he could not continue so a chopper was flown in and used to airlift Paul & Rick as well as the canoe and gear out to Inuvik / Fort McPherson. For the next 65 days / 2500 km of paddling, it was just Gerry and I as we paddled, portaged, tracked and lined the Rat River and others up and over the Rockies at MacDougal Pass / Summit Lake then down the Bell, Porcupine and Yukon Rivers to Emmonak, Alaska.
Planning, preparation and en-route activities
At seventy-two, I still enjoy those extended expedition canoe trips in the North. My interest in the old fur trade activities has already helped inspire me to paddle some of those waterways used extensively by the voyageurs and the various indigenous tribes in the 18th, 19th, and 20th. centuries. You may wonder what inspired me to take on this challenge. It so happened that I had whet my appetite for expedition canoeing as a teenager in Labrador in 1970 when a friend of mine, Cecil Reid agreed to join me on a three-week / 300-mile canoe trip from Wabush, Labrador to Sept Isle, Quebec via the Aushuanipi, Capacho and Moisie Rivers I was hooked. While I had worked and paddled in unusual places such as the Kopi River in eastern Indonesia which was rife with crocodiles and rumored to have cannibals in the area, I looked forward to paddling adventures back in Canada with people and wildlife I was familiar with and at the same time see and experience more of the north country. Combined with an interest in maps and the old Hudson Bay Company fur trade, my map research resulted in canoe trips along many of the fur trade routes across the country. My canoe trips en route to James Bay and Hudson Bay have enabled me to appreciate the legendary Hudson Bay Company Fur Trade activities during that era by visiting some of the locations of those old trading posts. Presentations at PNL events and articles in the Ebb and Flow Magazine have shared with members my view of the historical, cultural and physical geography of those trade routes.
We had worked out much of the planning and scheduling such as maps, routes, food and gear content earlier. Again, we encountered numerous wildlife such as moose, caribou, bears, wolves, porcupines, eagles, herons, swans and others, including a stare-down with a large black bear on the Methey Portage in Saskatchewan and with a grizzly bear on the Mckenzie River on earlier legs. One day we saw a caribou grazing not far from the river so we stopped the canoe as I tried to creep closer. As I approached the caribou, I saw movement close by. This was a wolf that was already stalking the caribou and when it saw me, they both dashed off into the woods. I did however get a picture of the wolf. We often had to deal with inclement weather and fought nasty waves on some of the lakes, rivers and rapids en route.
The Rat River was high and muddy, and we had to sometimes make walkways of sticks across the mud flats to get to and from the canoe and the campsites. High water in the Rat dictated hundreds of ferry crossings and wading through cold, waist high water while ice still remained in places along the Rat in mid-July. There were numerous beaver dams that had to be pulled up over or portaged around. As the Rat narrowed, we found that much of the creek channel was overgrown with willows and trees up to 5 inches in diameter. This dictated time and effort chopping to get the canoe through this dense undergrowth. At the same time mosquito hordes were biting us mercilessly. At some locations the spring runoff had left the river channel blocked with debris up to 6 feet deep. We spent time clearing each mess only to get around the next bend in the creek and face the same thing again. Countering that extreme were the strikingly beautiful views of the rugged Richardson Mountains in this area. We discovered from the guest book in the cabin at East Bear Creek that the last canoe group paddling through here was many years earlier which explains why the rivers and creeks were overgrown from lack of usage.
We have been constantly amazed by the generosity and friendliness of the many people met en route. We were often given smoked whitefish, fresh inconnu and smoked moose meat by villagers along the various waterways in earlier legs of the Canoe Odyssey. The folks from Porcupine Enterprises in Old Crow, Yukon were very helpful in picking up and storing the food and gear airfreighted in from Whitehorse. Friends, Dona and Bernie in Whitehorse picked up and held the excess gear airfreighted to them. The owners of the Bed & Breakfast in Fort Yukon Alaska, Virginia and Clarence Alexander were concerned about our clothing being too light as the temperature would be dropping below zero before we reached Emmonak and so they gave us some lined pants and thick shirts. While having a drink at the Galena Tavern, we met a friendly fellow by the name of Duane. When we told him that we had been paddling for 52 days already and had about another 20 to go he said just a minute and immediately went to his house across the street and returned with two large bowls of stew for us. We ate it all and it was delicious. In Mountain Village we met Doug Lee who gave us a drive into town for shopping and helped us find waterproof gloves as the weather was getting colder. He then explained how and where to follow a 25-mile-long slough parallel with but separate from the Yukon River and with unlocked cabins that would provide us with shelter during the coming storm. One evening Dean Painter and his wife who were heading down river by boat quickly turned their boat into the shoreline where we had set up camp. They stopped and urged us to move to another location because there was a lot of grizzlys seen in this area and they felt we were in danger. It had been a long day paddling into headwinds so we thanked them and told them we would be vigilant and keep our weapons handy but we would be staying put. When we met them three days later in Grayling, they were happy to see us and gave us some smoked moose sausage. While camped beside the Fish and Wildlife Federal building in Galena the officers, when they became aware of Gerry’s leaky air mattress, provided him with one of their own. Just above the village of Russian Mission we stopped for lunch at a small cluster of cabins and were invited in for coffee by John Dementiev. We had a great chat with John about the Russian history of the area over coffee and lunch. He tried to convince us to spend the night but it was early in the day and we were trying to get back on schedule so we kept going. We pulled in and stopped at the Research Station for Alaska Fish and Game just upriver from Pilot Station. We had been fighting cold headwinds and drizzle all morning so this sheltered spot was a very welcome reprieve. Ryan Merrill, the Site Manager invited us into their camp for coffee and stew, introduced us to the rest of the friendly folks and gave us a tour of their unique facilities. He explained how the gear worked with counting the salmon. Now well rested and warmed up with our bellies full, we departed their camp. It had been a couple of months since I had last spoken on the phone to the Emmonak hotel staff about accommodations. It was now Saturday and I knew from previous phone calls to the Emmonak Hotel that the office was closed on the weekend. As we approached the town of Emmonak, a speedboat was departing the dock area so I decided to wave them down and ask a few questions about the town – where best to offload the canoe, etc. As we talked, I noticed that the lady on board was using a cell phone so when she finished, I asked if she could try to contact the Hotel Manager and see if she could have the office opened for us to check in. She agreed to try and contact the hotel representative, Teresa Mark on their way upriver. Shortly after we arrived at the dock, we met Michael Jimmy who agreed to show us where the hotel was so we walked over to the place and the Hotel Manager arrived there just as we did. She checked us in and we had a relaxing two days before we departed for Anchorage with our gear and canoe. Thanks to all you friendly and helpful folks above who welcomed us into your space and helped make our canoe trip such a success.
|Leg #||Year Paddled||Paddling Location||Paddling Distance||Days Paddled|
|1||2015||Menihek Landing to Rigolet on the Labrador Sea||982 km||21|
|2||2017||Menihek Landing to Chisasibi, Quebec on James Bay||1208 km||36|
|3||2018||La Loche, Saskatchewan to York Factory, Hudson Bay||1921 km||54|
|4||2019||La Loche, Saskatchewan to Tsiigehtchec / Fort McPherson, NWT||2752 km||53|
|5||2022||Fort McPherson, NWT to Emmonak, Alaska||2755 km||72|
|GRAND TOTAL||9618 KM||236|
By completion of this paddling odyssey, we had visited the locations of 68 former fur trading posts from Labrador to Alaska. Data was provided from the” Posts of the Canadian Fur Trade” The map was prepared by the National Atlas of Canada. Most trading posts on the lower Yukon River were Russian.
|Leg #||Number of Trading Posts||Years the Posts were in operation|
|1||13||1750 – 1844|
|2||4||1805 – 1810|
|3||18||1668 – 1836|
|4||22||1778 – 1891|
|5||15||1835 – 1898|
|GRAND TOTAL||68 FUR TRADING POSTS|
It should be noted that most of those old Post facilities have long since decayed and disappeared from view, but in a few villages some of the old fur trade posts were still standing unused or reworked into small museums, display centers, sheds and café’s, a testament to the creativity of the people living there.
On July 1st, 2022 my fellow paddlers and I had started the 2600 km canoe trip from Fort McPherson, NWT. Gerry Coleman and I finished the canoe trip on September 10th at Emmonak, Alaska just 12 km from where the Yukon River flows into the Bering Sea. The route involved paddling across the Mackenzie River delta, via the Peel and the Husky Channel then up the Rat River to Ogilvie and Summit Lakes and through the Rockies at McDougald Pass. We then portaged, lined and paddled down the Little Bell, the Bell, the Porcupine and Yukon Rivers. Early in the trip we rose most mornings at 4:30 AM and were paddling by 5:30 AM. Then we would start to look for a campsite around 5:30 PM. As the days got shorter in late August and September, we had to rise a little later because daylight came later. We met one other canoeist on the trip by the name of Gary who was paddling the Porcupine River. He had started his canoe trip at Eagle Plains in the Yukon and was on his way to Old Crow. Gerry and I provided SPOT and Inreach updates to friends & family as we paddled so they knew where we were. After paddling 12-hour days for much of the trip we arrived back home about 15 pounds lighter but we thoroughly enjoyed the canoe trip and were really no worse for wear. Someone asked me what was learned from this canoe trip. I have to say that all of the people we met along the way were inherently good, friendly and wanted to be helpful. This of course was especially exemplified in the north.