Rapid Descent: Canoeing Canada's Hayes River

© Anthony Dalton 2000. All Rights Reserved.

My ears are tuned to the sounds of the river: the dull roar of white water cascading over rocks. Our three canoes huddle together in an eddy, out of the main stream. It's raining lightly. Mark stands in the stern of our canoe, supporting himself by moving his paddle lazily in the slowly moving pool.

"We could do it," he says.

Rob, standing in an adjacent canoe looks doubtful. "I think we'll take the left channel," he says, resuming his position.

"What do you think, Tony?" The expression on Mark's face tells it all. He wants to run this rapid and, as I'm his partner in the bow, I get to vote too. It's hard to ignore the wistful boyish grin.

"Okay, Mark," I'm sure there's a note of resignation in my voice, "if you want to try it - let's go."

I know this will be a rough ride - a wet ride. I tighten the chinstrap on my crash helmet and dip my blade in the water. "Alright. Let's do it."

This is the fifth day of a two-week wilderness canoe journey on Canada's historic Hayes River. Once the main thoroughfare for canoes and York boats carrying bales of furs from the interior to York Factory, on Hudson Bay, for the Hudson's Bay Company, the Hayes River today is rarely travelled. Back in the 19th century, each summer this river echoed with the shouts of tripmen racing down rapids; hand-lining up the rapids. The shouts on this day will come from me, and from Mark.

We dig our paddles deep, urging the long red canoe upstream about fifty metres, so we can set the line we want to follow for our planned route over the rapids. At Mark's command we ferry left and turn through 180 degrees. We are now one with the current, yet we must go faster.

From shore a canoe racing over rapids gives the impression of immense speed. On board, moving marginally faster than the current, our descent begins as if we are in slow motion. The lip of the drop, where snarling water washes smooth boulders clean, is shrouded in mist. I disappear into the miasma, leaving Mark no choice but to follow. The current changes our pattern of travel: it's no longer in slow motion. At full speed the canoe leaps over the rocks, nose first into a standing wave of icy history. Instinctively I shout, "Oh, ---!" The expletive out before my lips are sealed by an avalanche of river pouring over my head, into face, flooding the canoe. We break through, skidding right then left, searching for calmer water. Without floatation bags fore and aft, we'd be sinking by now. Loaded to the gunwales with our equipment and a full cargo of river, we ferry right, across the current, to the safety of an eddy and a convenient rock. Mark is jubilant, so am I. We're also soaked right through.

The Hayes River stretches 610 kilometres across the Province of Manitoba. It is one of the few untouched major rivers in Canada. There are no hydroelectric dams, only two settlements along its route. A few years ago I journeyed along the first part of the river, from Norway House to Oxford House, with twelve strong Cree tripmen in a traditional-style York boat. We dragged it over beaver dams, manhandled it a couple of kilometers through a burned out forest, sailed across lakes, some peaceful - some windy, and raced her down rocky defiles. That experience convinced me to see the rest of the river.

Rob Currie and Mark Loewen, both biologists, are licensed canoe/river guides. They are partners with their mentor, Bruno Rosenberg, in Wilderness Spirit Adventures, based in Winnipeg. In company with three others: two more biologists, Val and Herbert, and Barbara - another writer, we will run the 380 kilometres from Oxford House to York Factory, come rain or shine, fair winds or foul.

We've already had our share of rain and high winds. Crossing Knee Lake we fought an unpleasant chop of over half a metre, for a few hours, while being blinded by rain. Fortunately, when the rain stops, the huge Manitoban skies welcome us and saturate our tired muscles with life-giving heat from a benevolent summer sun.

There are 45 sets of rapids from start to finish on the Hayes. Most of these are on the second half, where we are. The longest section, where we are now, is a non-stop watery stairway past Brassey Hill. Rapid follows rapid in quick succession. Their names evoke the strong ties this river has with the Cree nation - unpronounceable name such as: Neesootakuskaywin and Apetowikossan. I can't help but wonder how heavy freight canoes and York boats were manouevred back up this determined river.

Overhead we are entertained by bald eagles performing aerial ballets, and ospreys screaming out of the sky to snatch unwary fish from the middle channel. On the banks Rob's sharp eyes picked out a small black bear on day one or two. Taking a break from torrential rain on a narrow strip of beach we find fresh wolf tracks. Later, once we are beyond reach of the rapids, Rob will find us another bear, a cub this time, running away from the approaching canoes in panic.

Descending the rapids we camp each night on smooth rocks with the roar of tomorrow's adrenaline rush in our ears. Each night I attempt to supplement our larder with fresh Northern pike. Voracious eaters, prepared to take anything remotely edible, they are not hard to catch. Most nights, for those who enjoy it, we have pike, occasionally a choice of pike or walleye.

When the rapids are too rough even for Mark's enthusiasm, we carefully lower our fragile craft down the safest route by the use of hand-lines. We follow, scrambling over rocks to keep the canoes from getting away from us. Inevitably one does and the two guides race in pursuit in another canoe.

After Whitemud Falls, known as 'the rock' to the tripmen of old, the river takes a break from its mad rush down off the Canadian Shield. This is the last of the rapids, although there will be a few swifts ahead. From here we could let the current do all the work. It's fast enough, about 9 or 10 kph, to carry us long distances each day. We have a deadline to meet however. A chartered plane is due to pick us up at York Factory in one week. That fact doesn't stop us from being lazy occasionally. Holding the three canoes together we lay back and float for a few hours under a scorching sun, only bothering to paddle when a bend in the river threatens to put us ashore. The steep clay banks trap the sun and attempt to control the river's current. The river, imperturbable, carves its own passage as it follows its destiny.

At the confluence of the Hayes River and Fox River we camp on hard earth opposite Wachichakapasew, the Crane's Breast Cliff - a sheer climb of about thirty metres. Once again wolf tracks cross the site.

Just before noon on our eleventh day on the Hayes, we join God's River. Now, with two busy flows combined, the Hayes widens. Islands appear in mid-stream. The main banks drift far apart. With our paddles flashing in the sunlight we are joined by the Pennycutaway River and know that York Factory is only a day away - the end of our journey though history.

York Factory, once a small settlement with many wooden houses, is now administered by Parks Canada. The main building is a museum of Hudson's Bay Company activities on the Hayes and on Hudson Bay which can be clearly seen from upstairs windows. Close by a cemetery containing 161 identifiable graves, the latest of which - the final resting place of Albert Arthur Saunders - has a marker engraved in the Cree language.

Our final night on the river is spent on the north shore of Four Mile Island. We strip off and take a swim in the cold clear water, cleansing our bodies of two weeks of hard effort and revelling in our successful expedition. Tonight the heavens stage a spectacular display of thunder and lightning to celebrate our arrival.

An hour after leaving the island we tie up to the jetty at York Factory. One by one we climb the rickety wooden staircase up the cliff. At the top, on a field of green grass with the stark white façade of York Factory in the background, we shake blistered hands and congratulate each other on our achievement.

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