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Paddling through history

Few get to experience Manitoba's original superhighway

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/9/2015 (714 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

LA GRAND FOURCHE, Man. — On the lower reaches of the Hayes River, beige cliffs comprised of soft Hudson Bay Lowlands silt rise up 30 metres from the water to precariously perched stands of spruce.

The cliffs are constantly eroding, as evidenced by fresh mudslides and toppled trees along the water line. Every day, the Hayes River erases more of its history, arguably the most significant of any Manitoba waterway.

Bartley Kives at York Factory with his new YF-branded paddle. (Chris Debicki)

Bartley Kives at York Factory with his new YF-branded paddle. (Chris Debicki)

For centuries, the Cree used the highly navigable Hayes to travel between Lake Winnipeg and Hudson Bay, forgoing the more turbulent Nelson River to the northwest.

They showed the Hayes to European traders and explorers, who used it as their main route into the interior of the continent from 1670 to 1870.

The Hudson’s Bay Company established the first of three trading posts eventually known as York Factory near the mouth of the Hayes in 1684. In Manitoba’s only naval battle, a single French ship captured the post by force in 1697, sinking one British boat, capturing a second and chasing away a third. The British got York Factory back in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht.

The first group of Selkirk Settlers made their way up the Hayes in 1812 on their way to founding a colony in the Red River Valley. By the 1850s, the exchange of goods up and down the river fuelled York Factory’s growth into a complex of more than 50 buildings, surrounded by Cree and Métis settlements.

At the height of the fur trade, the Hayes was a busy highway in the middle of the boreal forest. Canoes and flat-bottomed York boats travelled up and down the river on their way to and from destinations such as Fort Garry on the Red River, Fort Edmonton on the North Saskatchewan and Fort Vancouver near the modern site of Portland, Ore.

Today, you can spend more than a week on the lower Hayes without encountering anyone. The river has less traffic now than it has for centuries, if not millennia. Evidence of human activity is hard to find, as the forest reclaims old portage trails around rapids in the upper reaches and erosion erases footsteps lower down.

One exception is the junction of the Hayes and the God’s River, presumed to be La Grande Fourche, the site of a meeting between explorer Pierre Radisson and a party of Cree in 1685. Above the high-water line sits a pair of rock piles too large to be the work of nature. Between them lies a path that snakes up to a grassy clearing below a canopy of old spruce.

At the edge of this old campsite, you can look out over the La Grand Fourche at the longest naturally flowing river in Manitoba, almost untouched by human development centuries after the Hayes was used to radically change the face of North America.

 Whitemud Falls, the site of the last set of major rapids on the Hayes River and the end of the rocky Canadian Shield scenery along the route. (Bartley Kives / Winnipeg Free Press)

The allure of the Hayes

Centuries after its peak as a trade and supply route, the Hayes River is hard to reach. The only way to drive up to it is by taking winter roads leading to either Oxford House or Shamattawa. In the summer, the only way in is by canoe, kayak or float plane.

The Hayes is part of a traditional paddling route that bypasses most of the high-volume Nelson River between Hudson Bay and Lake Winnipeg. This route encompasses both the fast-moving Hayes and the sluggish Echimamish River, which is technically a bifurcation; it flows between the upper Nelson and the upper Hayes, like a channel connecting two level bodies of water.

Indigenous paddlers and European York-boat crews found it easier to use this route, even though the Hayes descends dozens of rocky rapids that present obstacles on the way up and down.

Most of those rapids are Class I and II drops that present little challenge to modern paddlers in tough plastic whitewater boats. Some are boulder-strewn Class III runs that require quick skill to run, while a few are scary Class IV drops that roar like dragons.

The challenge of the rapids, the near-pristine nature of the waterway and the incredible history of the Hayes — one of Manitoba’s four officially designated Canadian Heritage Rivers — make this trip irresistible to canoeists and kayakers.

The traditional Hayes River jaunt involves paddling all the way from Sea River Falls Ferry on the Nelson River to Hudson Bay, a trip encompassing more than 600 kilometres and requiring about three weeks to complete.

In August, I paddled an abbreviated route: The 375-km stretch from Oxford House at Bunibonibee Cree Nation to York Factory near Hudson Bay.

Guidebook author Hap Wilson suggests completing this stretch in two weeks, but it wound up taking only eight days.

In part, this was due to the small nature of the party: just me and Chris Debicki, a project director with Oceans North Canada, a non-profit organization that promotes Arctic marine conservation, including beluga-whale gathering spots at Hudson Bay.

We also benefitted from the use of a spray deck and late-season low water, which made more of the large rapids runnable, as well as favourable winds on vast Knee Lake, where some paddlers wind up windbound for days.

We didn’t see any humans on the river after the first day of the trip. After dropping into Back Lake east of Oxford House, we overtook a solo paddler who had stopped amid a stand of wild rice to snack on Old Dutch potato chips. We then descended Knife Rapids and paddled into Knee Lake, where well-lubricated U.S. tourists staying at North Star Executive Outpost offered a colourful assessment of the makeshift sail Chris rigged to take advantage of the prevailing westerlies.

After the lodge, almost all traces of humanity disappeared. We counted a total of four pieces of garbage over the remaining 325 km of water: two empty jerry cans, a plastic buoy torn loose from its mooring and a small shred of garbage bag.

In contrast, we spotted dozens of bald eagles, about 10 sandhill cranes, six osprey, four river otters, two beavers and one immense bull moose more frightened of us than we were of it. Fresh wolf tracks crossed the beaches of Knee Lake, which teemed with northern pike and crayfish. And as we approached Hudson Bay, we scared off two harbour seals as well as a quartet of tundra swans we initially mistook at a distance for polar bears.

Over its length, the character of this river changes dramatically. Below Knee Lake, the Hayes becomes a braided tangle of channels and islands, punctuated by dense sets of bouldery rapids that offer as many as five different runnable options.

The rapids end at Whitemud Falls, a four-channel set of ledgy rapids. After that, the river drops off the rocky Canadian Shield for good and into the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

For the final 175 km, the Hayes carves a fast-moving course through the silt and gravel, racing as fast as nine kilometres an hour below the beige cliffs topped with increasingly sparse vegetation.

The Hayes doubles in width at its confluence with the Fox River, another traditional paddling route. It then triples in size at La Grand Fourche, where it meets the God’s.

With its huge beige cliffs, the river valley on the lower Hayes is unlike anything within the conventional schema of a Manitoban landscape.

About 10 km from Hudson Bay, the Hayes finally widens into an estuary affected by the tides. Paddlers must time their arrival at York Factory with high tide to avoid fighting incoming currents — or getting mired in mud flats, where people can’t move easily but polar bears can motor.

The wooden depot at York Factory, completed in 1831, replaced a stone structure that couldn't withstand the heaving of the permafrost below. The depot closed in 1957 and now houses thousands of York Factory artifacts. (Bartley Kives / Winnipeg Free Press)

The granddaddy of all trading posts

In 1957, the Hudson’s Bay Company closed down York Factory as a trading post. The Cree who lived around the site — many the descendents of the Home Guard employed by the HBC in the 19th century — were relocated to York Landing, near Split Lake.

The HBC handed the keys to York Factory to Parks Canada, which now administers it as a national historic site. Only dozens of tourists reach it every year, either by paddling down the Hayes or by taking a float plane or jet boat charter from Gillam.

Nonetheless, given York Factory’s immense historic significance — in 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the site "Canada’s most important ghost town" — Parks Canada deploys two Churchill-based staff to the remote outpost from late June until the end of August.

"Welcome to York Factory!" bellows a cheerful Claude Daudet as Chris and I paddle up on a Friday afternoon. He wasn’t expecting us, but happened to be down at the dock to ensure the fast-moving tides hadn’t dislodged a Parks Canada boat moored a short way offshore.

Daudet is outfitted for polar bear territory: He carries a shotgun on his back and rides around on an ATV. As he escorts us to a fenced-in campground, he says we are visitors Nos. 41 and 42 for the season — and only the 11th and 12th to arrive by canoe or kayak.

The next morning, Daudet and Parks Canada interpreter Rhonda Reid take us on a tour of the site. We start along the water at low tide, where a treasure trove of artifacts is strewn across the mud flats, thanks to the constant erosion of the estuary shore.

There are pieces of blue-and-white imitation China, fragments of purple ceramic jugs, segments of portable iron stoves and yellow ballast rocks, all shipped over from the U.K. centuries before. There are rusted rasps, corroded copper nails and pieces of small watercraft, some of them made or assembled at York Factory. It would take a team of archeologists weeks to collect and catalogue what we walked over in a matter of minutes.

We climb the cliffs at a derelict hunting lodge north of the historic site, the final resting place for the shattered remains of a replica York boat. In 2001, it was rowed and pulled from Winnipeg by the eight-member cast of the reality TV series Quest for the Bay.

We tour York Factory’s haunting cemetery, where only some of the graves have markers, and make our way to York Factory’s imposing depot, completed in 1831. Built like a ship to sway with the heaving permafrost, the wooden structure replaced an earlier stone building that couldn’t withstand the shifting soil.

Today, the depot is packed with an immense of array of artifacts, organized by function and neatly laid out on tables. A row of old naval grenades and rusted muskets betray York Factory’s age.

When Winnipeg wasn’t even a village, hundreds of people — European and indigenous — lived in and around this settlement, at times the largest community in what’s now Western Canada.

The sheer ambition involved in creating this place remains staggering to consider. So does the wildness of the Hayes River nearly 150 years after steamships and railways diminished its economic importance.

The vast emptiness of the north is even more pronounced when we climb into a float plane and fly over tundra and taiga on our way back to Gillam. At Marsh Point, where the waters of both the Nelson River and Hayes River rush into Hudson Bay, the late-evening sun glints off mud flats that extend kilometres into the sea at low tide.

There are more polar bears along this coast than humans as well as thousands of belugas. This is the Manitoba the earliest inhabitants encountered: a wondrous, exotic place at the end of a wild river.

How to reach York Factory National Historic Site at Hudson Bay

 

Leesa Dahl / Winnipeg Free Press

Route options

If you have six to eight weeks to spare, you can paddle all the way from Winnipeg to York Factory along the Fur Trade-era York boat route, which encompasses the lower Red River, the length of Lake Winnipeg, the upper Nelson River, the Echimamish River and the Hayes River. Most people don’t have the time.

Experienced paddlers can tackle the 600-kilometre stretch from the Nelson River to York Factory in about three weeks. This route has the advantage of vehicle access to the put-in at Sea River Falls Ferry, which crosses the Nelson at Provincial Road 373. From there, you descend a short stretch of the Nelson, paddle along the Echimamish and then down the Hayes.

If you have two weeks or less to spare, take a float plane into the east end of Oxford Lake and paddle 375 km of the Hayes to Hudson Bay. I made this trip in eight days in August, thanks to generally agreeable weather and a canoeing partner willing to paddle at an average pace of 48 km a day.

We also moved quickly thanks to the use of a spray deck, which allowed us to shoot all but three sets of rapids. Paddling an undecked boat, you’ll be forced to portage or line your canoe more often.

North winds on Oxford Lake, Knee Lake and Swampy Lake also have the potential to add days to the trip. Some paddlers fly in to Knee Lake to cut even more of the flatwater out of the equation.

 

Difficulty

Some whitewater experience is a prerequisite for paddling the Hayes. If you haven’t paddled a pool-and-drop river such as the Manigotagan or Bloodvein, it’s not a great idea to earn your moving-water wings on the more complicated and isolated Hayes.

Unlike pool-and-drop rivers, the Hayes is broad and sometimes braided. That means you’ll face decisions about which channel to take — sometimes without much warning.

Some of the sets of Class II and III rapids can’t be fully scouted from the top. In order to read and run the more difficult rapids, you must be able to eddy out and back ferry. A spray deck won’t magically confer these skills upon you, though it does allow you to plow through large waves in deeper, boulder-free water.

Hap Wilson’s excellent Wilderness Rivers of Manitoba is a great reference guide for the Hayes, but shouldn’t be taken as scripture. In late-season low water, it’s possible to descend some of the Class III and IV rapids Wilson warns against running, provided you have experience in big water and self-rescue skills.

You’ll need topographic maps for your entire route. Pick them up at Canada Map Sales (1007 Century St.). Treat your GPS as a backup locator only.

As you approach Hudson Bay, plan to arrive at York Factory at or shortly after high tide. Visit www.tides.gc.ca/eng and click on the links to obtain the tide charts for nearby Port Nelson.

Campsites

The Hayes River begins in the boreal forest north of Lake Winnipeg, drops through the rocky Canadian Shield and winds up carving through the sediments of the Hudson Bay Lowlands on its way to Hudson Bay.

Campsites along the upper portion of the route include rocky points and sandy beaches. Below Whitemud Falls — the last significant rapids along the route — you’ll spend the night on flat gravel alluvium along the river or amid stands of spruce above the steep, crumbly riverbank.

Generally, you won’t encounter established sites with fire pits and obvious tenting space, so bed down where you can. Topographic maps will help you identify potential sites on level ground.

At York Factory, a fenced-in compound provides protection from polar bears. The enclosed campground has picnic tables, heated toilets, firepits and a tenting platform.

A campsite on gravel alluvium along the lower Hayes. (Bartley Kives / Winnipeg Free Press)

Exploring York Factory

Give yourself a day to explore York Factory National Historic Site, the former headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company and one of the most amazing places in Manitoba.

In July and August, shotgun-toting Parks Canada staff should be on hand to give paddlers a tour of the 184-year-old wooden depot, which is packed with thousands of artifacts, as well as the former settlement’s cemetery and perhaps the estuary shore at low tide. As a courtesy, let Parks Canada’s Churchill office (204-675-8863) know approximately when you intend to arrive.

To make the trip without paddling the Hayes, Nelson River Adventures (nelsonriveradventures.com, 204-573-5942) offers jetboat tours from Gillam to York Factory and back within a single day for $600 a person. Lunch and a visit to Port Nelson, an abandoned wharf, are included.

Winnipeg’s Heartland Travel (heartlandtravel.ca, 204-989-9630) can also arrange custom tours to York Factory. Contact owner Don Finkbeiner months in advance of your intended visit.

Getting there and back

From Winnipeg, you can make the nine-hour drive to Sea River Falls Ferry if you’re making the longer trip. If you’re flying in to Oxford Lake, Gillam is 12 hours by car — with the final four along a tire-chewing gravel road. Bring a full-sized spare tire. You may also drive to Thompson and take Via Rail to Gillam.

Gillam Air Services (204.652.2109) can carry two people, their gear and one canoe on a float plane from Gillam to Back Lake near Oxford House for approximately $1,700. Fuel prices fluctuate, so don’t consider this engraved in stone. Be prepared for the possibility of weather-related flight delays.

Leaving York Factory requires a float plane or jet boat. The Gillam Air flight from the edge of Hudson Bay to Gillam also costs $1,700. Chartering Nelson River Adventures’ jetboat costs approximately $3,500, which becomes economical for groups of four or more.

If you intend to spend the night in Gillam at either end of your trip, Aurora Gardens (204-652-6554) has modern rooms for about $160 a night.

Personal safety

The Hayes is isolated and truly wild. During July and August, you’re only guaranteed to see people at Oxford House at Bunibonibee Cree Nation, North Star Executive Outpost on Knee Lake and York Factory.

On the river, paddlers are on their own. Canoeists must travel with throw bags and lines — and know how to use them — in the (likely) event you dump your boat in the rapids. The water is colder in northern Manitoba and the weather is unpredictable, especially near Hudson Bay. In mid-August, we experienced daytime highs of near 30 C and night-time lows just above freezing.

To deal with emergencies and contact your float-plane pilot, consider renting a satellite phone. At the very least, take along a GPS tracking device such as a Spot locator.

As well, Manitoba Conservation recommends Hayes River paddlers carry a shotgun because of the polar-bear threat. We chose to pack bear bangers instead, as only one day of the trip involves proximity to the Hudson Bay coast, where the big carnivores roam.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Saturday, September 5, 2015 at 7:19 PM CDT: Corrects spelling of Rhonda Reid, corrects reference to river otters.

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