The new jet set

High-speed boat ferries modern-day adventurers to York Factory in remote Manitoba wilderness


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GILLAM — Before Clint Sawchuk started his jet boat service to York Factory, you had to earn your visit to one of Canada’s foremost historic sites.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/09/2016 (2211 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

GILLAM — Before Clint Sawchuk started his jet boat service to York Factory, you had to earn your visit to one of Canada’s foremost historic sites.

The only visitors were hardcore canoeists paddling the Hayes River, and people in float planes. The total was maybe 25 to 30 people per year.

Last year, the number of visitors jumped to 79. This year, the number will surpass 260.

BILL REDEKOP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Clint Sawchuk talks with a passenger on Gillam Island on the Nelson River, near where it empties into Hudson Bay.

“Clint’s boat here has opened the floodgates,” said Parks Canada’s Claude Daudet, with tongue only partly planted in cheek. Daudet is one of two Parks Canada officials who are more used to living like monks all summer while staffing the remote heritage site.

Sawchuk, owner of Nelson River Adventures, has opened up the historic site to the casual tourist.

It’s a first, and he has trouble believing he’s the one doing it, having grown up on a landlocked farm in Manitoba’s Parkland region.

“(I’m) a farmer from Inglis who grew up with the 12-foot boat and 3.5-horsepower motor his grandfather gave him,” he said. He used to putt-putt around pothole lakes outside Riding Mountain National Park.

York Factory is a fur trade fort opened by the Hudson’s Bay Co. in 1684 and operated until 1957. York Factory was HBC’s base for most of Canada, making it one of the country’s most important historic sites. A three-storey depot built in 1831, along with the library and the cemetery, still stand.

Sawchuk, 33, has been an electrician for Manitoba Hydro in Gillam, northeast of Thompson, for the last 11 years. His entrepreneurship grew out of his love of rivers, and the York Factory site itself. He travelled there by plane with his wife about 10 years ago. That set the wheels in motion for returning and sharing the experience with others.

“Everyone travels to Churchill. Why can’t they stop at York Factory?” Sawchuk said.

He began operating in 2011 with a jet boat that carried six passengers. He made six trips that summer.

By 2015, he was up to 15 trips, in a 12-passenger boat. This year, he’ll make 40 trips.

The technology of the jet boat is key. It gets propulsion by drawing water into a jet pump and shooting it out the back. It’s a big boat that can travel in shallow water, unlike boats with engine propellers. The boat’s draft is a mere 20 centimetres.

The Nelson is a massive river, close to a kilometre wide, that empties Lake Winnipeg into Hudson Bay. It can be surprisingly shallow. There are many reefs, sandbars and tidal flats, Sawchuk said.

Tides that rise and fall twice daily can easily strand the boat on the tidal flats. Tides reach more than four metres. Sawchuk times his departures two hours before high tide and returns two hours after high tide.

The boat’s hull is reinforced to navigate rapids. Sawchuk navigates a long rapid to get to York Factory. It’s also a twin engine, so if one engine fails, he still has the other.

“I like rivers. I don’t like lakes. Anyone can go on a lake,” he said.

His jet boat is fast. He travels at 80 km/h downstream, and 68 km/h upstream on return. It takes about three hours to travel from the foot of Manitoba Hydro’s Limestone Generating Station to York Factory. Speed is needed to cover the round trip of about 350 kilometres in one day.

Wildlife sightings can be expected. “We saw large seals, beluga whales, a black bear and three polar bears,” said Alvin Suderman of Winnipeg, who took the trip in 2015.

The round trip to York Factory costs $600 per person and a group of at least six is required: the minimum charge per trip is $3,500.

That may seem pricey but Sawchuk’s boat cost $300,000, and he goes through 1,200 litres of fuel per trip. He operates 12-hour days. He has had numerous difficulties of a start-up entrepreneur, including needing various licences and the high cost of insurance.

“No one had done tours out here before so there was no one to ask,” he said.

It’s a short season, too. The ice builds up 20 metres high on the Nelson River shoreline in winter, and doesn’t melt until the third week in June. So Sawchuk operates from the second week of July until the second week in September.

He can’t go every day. Sometimes, the high tide is 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. That’s no good. He charts his travel days a year in advance using a tidal app on his smartphone.

He burns vacation days to travel, and Manitoba Hydro allows him great flexibility. The Town of Gillam is virtually owned by Hydro, and Sawchuk’s company attracts business into the area.

He finds it gratifying to give people the opportunity to see a river and historic site that many thought they would never live to see.

“It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people,” he said.

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