Two Local Boats of Manitoba - A History Lesson
by Brian Hughes

Just about everywhere where water laps a shore, people have developed boats. The nature of water makes certain demands on the form of a hull, but boats have been invented and reinvented in astonishing variety. In each place they were built to suit the local conditions and available supplies and in accordance with the local idea of a boat.

The early history of the area around here is dominated by the push and pull between the Indians and the fur trade. In 1670 King Charles II granted the Hudson Bay Company sovereignty over all the lands that drained into Hudson’s Bay, when he hadn’t a clue about the vast area that was involved.

York Boat

For the 200 years before they opened up department stores, the HBC carried on a marginal business providing beaver pelts, which were the raw material for felt top hats. They established forts on the shores of the Bay and recruited men and boys from the Orkney Islands to man them. The Orkneys had the reputation of being the coldest and most miserable part of Britain, but when the Orkneymen arrived they were still shocked at the brutal cold of the Arctic winters.

The Indians had been here from the dawn of time. The land for a thousand miles east of here, and a thousand miles north, is composed of equal parts rock, water, and swamp. Until the float plane was invented the canoe was the only way to get around when the lakes weren’t frozen over. The birch bark canoe could be made to weather the largest lakes and still be light enough to be carried around rapids and between river systems. It was built with a green split wood and sapling frame, covered with the bark peeled from birch trees, sewn together with roots and sinews, and caulked with spruce gum. It could be anywhere from twelve to thirty feet long. It was propelled by single bladed paddles.

A birchbark canoe (click to enlarge)

Around 1800 the HBC discovered that the people that were providing them with pelts and furs were becoming less willing to paddle up to Hudson’s Bay. The Northwest Company, upstarts from Montreal, were sending brigades of canoes, through the Great Lakes, and up the rivers to short cut the supply chain. This meant paddling through the Great Lakes and a 3,000 mile round trip from Fort William at the head of the Great Lakes to Athabaska, all in the seven months that were ice free. The Northwesters managed to find men desperate enough for the job and they could still turn a profit.

The HBC responded by building a fleet of York boats. The York boat was a double ender, twenty-eight to forty-five feet long, carvel planked on steamed frames, built from timbers brought in as ship’s ballast. It was raked 45° stem and stern, plenty of flare at the shear, with round bilges, and a heavy straight keel. It was a direct descendant of the boats that were launched through the surf in the Orkneys, which in turn descended from the Viking longboat. They were so heavy that railways were built to manhandle them around the larger rapids. They were rowed by a crew of eight or ten, carried a square sail in open water, and when the upstream current was severe, they were lined from shore.

York Boats

There are people that still make birch bark canoes, but only a few and only to keep up the tradition. The tradition of York boats is kept alive in the isolated community of Norway House at the north end of Lake Winnipeg. They build them for the annual races at York Boat Days.

York Boat (click to enlarge)

There are plenty of canoes made all over the world; aluminum, fiberglass, Kevlar, and wood/epoxy. The preferred size here is sixteen to eighteen foot, which can stay dry in the chop of all but the largest of lakes and can still be carried by the two paddlers over a three mile portage, together with packs in one trip. The ability to portage, that is French for carry, without backtracking is a sign of an accomplished canoeist. The old paddlers regard the cedar strip and canvas canoes made up into the 1960’s by Peterborough and Chestnut as the height of the art.

Portaging a York Boat

The are no descendants of the York boat, except perhaps in spirit, the yawlboat, a fiberglass open commercial fishing boat used to set gill nets on the big lakes here. From eighteen to thirty feet long, they charge over the swells that build up in a hundred mile fetch of shallow water.

The Manitoba Museum has a fine York boat, a birch bark canoe, and a couple of skin kayaks on display. The Canadian History Channel produced a series called Quest for the Bay which documented a trip made from Red River to Hudson Bay in a York boat using 19th century equipment and supplies.