The Northern Packet

D. J. Benham February 1 1908

The Northern Packet

D. J. Benham February 1 1908

The Northern Packet

D. J. Benham

THE mails for the great inland wilderness of Northern Canada during the winter are distributed through four wonderful channels of communication maintained hitherto by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and known as the packet routes. These are the Mackenzie River, the English River, the York Factory•and the Moose Factory mails, and by them and their ramifications even the most remote posts are reached; and the news of the civilization carried at long enough regular intervals to those who hunger for it in their terrible isolation within the almost inaccessible wilds.

The simple official announcement to the effect that the mail for the far north will close in Edmonton on a stated date conveys to the uninitiated no conception of the dangers and difficulties which beset the gallant couriers by whom it will be conveyed in safety across the dreary, trackless wilds; and no conception of the wonderful organization of the Hudson’ s Bay Company which makes it possible to maintain communication between civilization and the lonely missionaries, trappers, police and prospectors around the posts in the great lone land, hundreds and hundreds of miles beyond the outmost fringe of the frontier. Yet so perfect is the organization of that grand old commercial institution, even though the system is simplicity itself, the time-table Under which the couriers operate has scarcely varied for centuries. Of course, accidents have happened and tragedies occurred, but these are unavoidable or are incidental to an undertaking so hazardous and so arduous as “mushing” through the

wilds in the middle of winter. Sickness may overtake the driver inured to other hardships, his gun may be accidentally discharged, his axe may glance when preparing wood for the camp fire or his dogs may die when the nearest post which affords relief or assistance is fifty or perhaps a hundred miles away beyond a trackless waste of snow and forest. The horror of such a situation can be realized without any stretch of the imagination. But these áre painful possibilities, even probabilities, which are faced every day in the year and laughed at by the lighthearted heroes who carry the packet to the exiles of choice in the Arctics.


The four packets previously referred to start from different points at different times, but until the Government assumed the duty of delivering the Fort McPherson mail in November, 1906, all were made up under the direct supervision of the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company at headquarters in Winnipeg. This has always been but a part of the wonderful business system of the company which has been the foundation of its commercial success throughout nearly three centuries and which has enabled the heads of departments to communicate their directions to the factors and traders at the outlying posts. All matters pertaining to the company’s affairs, the accounts of the various posts, the orders and invoices for goods and the correspondence have always been completed and despatched according to schedule to the several points from which the couriers leave.

The Mackenzie River packet is finally made up at Edmonton, that for English River at Prince Albert, for York Factory at Winnipeg, and for Moose Factory at Mattawa. The last three mentioned are seldom referred to and their existence is scarcely known even to the majority of Canadians although they serve a territory larger than the continent of Europe.

The destination of the English

River packet is the Hudson Bay Post at the northern end of Reindeer Lake, on the edge of the Barren lands and 500 miles from Prince Albert.

The Norway House and York Factory packet follows one of the most historic routes of the traffic of the Hudson’s Bay Company, its terminus having been for an age the only seaport of the fur trade of Rupert’s land. This packet is

closed and despatched from Winni102

peg on or about December io in each year; and if no untoward difficulties are encountered usually is delivered at its destination during the last week in January, though not infrequently better time is made. York Factory is 600 miles from Winnipeg by a direct route, but the couriers, of course, traverse a distance , much in excess of that mileage. They have six posts of call in the course of the journey.

The Moose Factory packet, which leaves Mattawa serves a vast territory, as it is met at Moose, 700 miles from the point of starting, by couriers from posts on both sides of that great inland sea, the Hudson’s Bay, and by them it is distributed far and wide. Indeed, each of the packets is met thus by couriers from other points in the several districts and bv them the distribution is completed.

But it is the Mackenzie River

packet that takes precedence. Hitherto it has started first and traveled furthest; and there has always been much to wonder over as to The experience gone through by a despatch box from Edmonton which was carried from post to post, first down the Athabasca, then the Slave, and then the whole length of the mighty Mackenzie, one set of carriers succeeding another, until it was finally deposited with the sturdy old Hudson's Bay official in charge of Fort McPherson, in latitude of 68 north, 50 miles within the Arctic circle, and a distance of 1,954 miles from the point of starting. There are fourteen post offices along the route, namely : Athabasca Landing, Fort McMurray (or Fort McKay), Fort Chipewayan, Smith Landing, Fort Smith, Fort Resolution, Hay River, Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, Fort Wrigley, Fort Norman, Fort Good Hope and Fort McPherson.

Ever since the earliest days of Fort Garr}^ this packet has been surrounded with almost a halo of interest. In those bygone days it was despatched from H. B. headquarters, and pioneers yet speak enthusiastically of the interest which centred in the toboggan sled in which it was carried behind the team of four “huskies” accompanied by two couriers dressed in the picturesque costumes characteristic of their calling. This consisted of a gay blue cloth capot, L’assomption belt, bead bedecked leggings and headdress and their sleepingbags. There was nothing out of the ordinary in outward appearances to distinguish them from scores of others which came to and departed from Fort Garry. It was the little packet stamped “H.B.C., Fort Simpson, Mackenzie River district,” that was the mark of distinction ; for it meant that the couriers du Bois who accompanied it must spend weary months on the trail to the frozen north before the last letter was finally delivered probably ayray within the Article circle.


A careful record of the various packets while in transit is kept and filed in the office of the commissioner in Winnipeg. Each of the company’s officers at the various posts touched en route both going and returning, is required to fill in a time sheet provided the exact hour of arrival and departure of the mails and to attest to the same with his signature. The following way bill of the packet for York Factory

gives a correct idea of the attention to detail required of its officers by the company, and of the Care devoted to the discharge of duty in delivering the precious packet, though it does not attach the merited mede of praise to the heroes of the great unblazed trails in the white lone wilds who seem to travel with an instinct almost as unfailing as that of their faithful dogs.

One of the first of these official charts of the H. B. Company is a matter of great historic interest. It is referred to by Sir George Back in his book on “The Great Fish River,” a

work that covers his travels with the Mackenzie River packet in 1833-4, when he was in command of an expedition sent to search for Capt. Sir John Ross, who, with his ship had been lost in the Arctic four years previously while looking for the Northwest passage. When away almost on the verge of the Circle, Back received a message through the medium of the packet informing him that the object of his search had escaped from his perilous sojourn in the frozen North in an almost providential manner, and had returned to England. In his re-

WAY BILL OF PACKET FROM WINNIPEG FOR NORWAY HOUSE AND YORK FACTORY. POST ARRIVED DEPARTED SIGNATURE Date Hour Date Hour 1905 Winnipeg ---Dec. 12 5 p.m. Dog Head Dec. 19 2 p.m. “ 20 7 a.m. Berens River.. lí 22 5 n “ 24 8 a Poplar River .. 25 8 “ 26 12 a Norway House a 29 3 “ 31 9 a 1906 Oxford House Jan. 5 10 a.m. Jan. 7 8 York Factory .. “ 16 4.30 p.m. York Factory .. Mch. 1 1 5 a.m, Oxford House Mch. 20 9 p.m. 22 1 “ Norway House a 26 7 a.m. 30 4 a Poplar River .. 31 7 p.m. April 1 6 a Berens River . April 2 3 a a 3 6 a Dog Head ____ a 6 9 a 1 10 a L. Fort Garry 9 6 a 10 8 Winnipeg ____ 10 1 a

ference to this Sir George Back says: “The extraordinary despatch with which this letter was transmitted is worthy of being recorded, and I have, therefore, in the appendix given a few particulars which will be interesting to the reader.”

(Appendix X, Sir George Back’s narrative.)

Hudson’s Bay House,

London, Oct. 22, 1833.

Angus Bethune, Esq., Chief Factor, Etc., Etc., St. Mary’s:

Sir,—I am directed by the governor and committee to acquaint vou that

the packet by which this is sent will be forwarded to your address in duplicate ; one copy to Montreal, to be transmitted from post to post by the Grand River, and the other by the American mail, to the care of the commanding officer at St. Mary’s. It contains letters for Capt. Back, apprising him of the arrival of Captain Ross in England, and it is of great importance that he should receive this information before his departure from his winter quarters.

I am therefore to request that the copy which first reaches you be sent

on to the next post by a couple of the most active men you can find without the delay of one day at St. Mary’s, and that it be forwarded in a like manner, accompanied by this letter, with the utmost expedition, from post to post, via Michipicoten. The Pic, Fort William, Lake la Pluie, via Riviere and Rosseau to Red River, thence to Fort Pelly, Carlton, Isle a la Crosse, Athabasca and Gieat Slave Lake, until it reaches its destination, where if due expedition be observed, it ought to arrive early in April.

The governor and committee further direct that the officers of the different posts do not, on any pretence

whatever, detain the packet, and desire that the date of the arrival and departure from each post, signed by the officer in charge, be endorsed on the back thereof, and also that the messengers from each post be instructed to proceed to the next without attending to any directions they may receive to the contrary from persons they may meet en route.

And when the second copy of this packet gets to hand at the Sault, let it be forwarded in a like manner.

' I am, sir, your most obedient, humble servant,

W. SMITH, Secretary.

(Letter Endorsed.)

Received at The Pic 7th of February, 1834, 8 p.m. Thomas M. Murray, C. trader, Hudson's Bay Company.

Left The Pic 8th of February, 6 a.m. Thomas Murray.

Received at Long Lake, 13th February, 1834, at 11 p.m Peter McKenzie, clerk Hudson's Bay Company.

Left Long Lake, 14th February, 5 a.m. Peter McKenzie.

Received at Lake Nipigon, 16th February, 10 p.m. John Swanson, clerk, Hudson's Bay Company.

Left Lake Nipigon, 17th February, at 5 a.m. John Swanson.

Received at Fort William, 21st February, 1834, at 11 a.m., and left Fort William 3 p.m. same date. Donald McIntosh, C.T.

Received at Boise Blanc, 25th February, 1834, at i p.m., and left Boise Blanc at 4 p.m. same date. John C. McIntosh, clerk, Hudson's Bay Company.

Received at Lac la Pluie on 2nd March, 1834, at 6 a.m., and will leave at 7 a.m. same date. William Sinclair, clerk.

Received at Carlton on the 2nd of this post at i o'clock noon, the same date. I. P. Prüden, C.T.

Received at Fort Chipewyan, 21st April, 1834, 4 p.m., and will start at 3 a.m. on the 22nd. L. Charles, C.F.

Received at Great Slave Lake, 29th April, 1834, 11 a.m., and will leave April, 1834, 7 a.m.,.and left on the

30th at 4 a.m. J. McDonald, clerk.

Thus is chronicled one of the most remarkable overland journeys ever accomplished, and well may Sir George Back regard it as worthy of being handed down to posterity through the medium of his book.


The meetings of the couriers at the packet posts are gay and festive reunions, a relaxation from their arduous duties, brightened always by the reception of news from the distant homes in the outside world. They are invariably marked by a feast, for to the white men in their winter isolation packet time is the one occasion of the year for making merry. The few luxuries they have are carefully hoarded for the “Packet Supper," and if they have not wine to drink or walnuts to crack there is no dearth of news to discuss, for some six months of the world's work comes under review. To look back but a few short years we are told how the battles of the Transvaal War were fought over again and again at* many a northern post, months after they had "actually taken place. He who enjoys the privileges of civilization may think with some degree. of sadness of the weary waiting and of the hope deferred which maketh the heart sick, of these men who heard of the investment of Ladysmith, of Kimberley and of Mafeking in January, and knew no more of the progress of the events of that cruel war until the following midsummer. Their loyalty was as strong as ours, their sympathies as warm and true to British institutions, for it was in the Far North that the germ of British Empire in Canada was sown, and their anxiety for the success of our arms and their regrets for those who fell were manifested by many a generous subscription to the Patriotic Fund, which the packet couriers brought out.


However, all this is but the outgrowth of the historic, heroic past and the onward march of civilization proclaims the dawn of a new era. Already the shriek of the locomotive is

heard where but a few short years ago the musher and the cart driver were the only means of transportation, and the railways are being pushed further and further into the wilds as the wrealth of those great regions in minerals, in petroleum, asphalt, fish and furs is revealed by the success of prospectors. Within a short time the rails of the C.N.R. will be laid as far as Athabasca Landing; while away east of Prince Albert another branch is piercing the forests with Fort Churchill, on the shores ôf Hudson’s. Bay, as its goal. This remarkable extension of railway facilities within recent years has, in a great measure,

solved the problem of communication. But for many years to come the packet service will be the only one known to the little communities around the remote H. B. posts, and many of thèse will never know any other. They must remain dependent on the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company—a service which has been always freely given, one which has been a mighty factor in the life and work of the missionaries especially, and one which effectually contradicts the prevailing idea that sentiment has no place in the business and commercial life of the twentieth century. The

organization has been perfected by the company and the expense has been cheerfully born by them also.

But the responsibility for the forwarding and distribution of the mails for the important Mackenzie River district has been gradually passing from the Hudson’s Bay ^Company to the Federal Government as is proper. The company having paved the way, its organization renders government action possible as well as necessary. For several years past the post office department has forwarded and distributed the mails as far north as Athabasca Lake and Fort Chipewyan, and throughout tributary territory into

which treaty extensions have been made by the Indian department. The service was extended gradually as conditions seemed to warrant it, and on November 29th, 1906, the first government packet was sent through to Fort McPherson. Since then another step forward has been taken and this year an effort is being made to organize the route thoroughly under the direction of the deputy postmastergeneral. Already one mail which left Edmonton on the morning of November 29th, the same date on which it has left for years, is well on its way

to Fort McPherson. With the ex-

ception of the first 100'miles, the entire trip will be made by dog train, relays being secured at the several offices at which the couriers are obliged to call. Terrible cold and privations must be faced on the journey, for at times the thermometer will drop to 60 below zero as they approach the Arctic Circle, and the lone travelers will be forced to face the fierce blizzards that sweep down from the North and “the wind from Thule that freezes the word upon the lips.” They cannot, of course, carry provisions necessary for such a trip, but must to some extent depend upon their success as hunters for their food. The husky dogs which compose the trains are fed on frozen fish and tallow, and to see those sagacious brutes lie down in the snow to receive their peculiar food is an impressive sight for a tenderfoot. Neither bread nor any other necessities of civilization which are luxuries on the trail will find a place on the frugal bill of fare of the voyageurs. Their drink will be a billy of tea made from snow water, melted over the camp fire, and their bed a blanket and sleeping bag beneath a little canvas tent. Occasionally they may enjoy the luxury of spruce boughs, but like their dogs, as a rule, their cheerless bivouac is the snow or the frozen ground, with their pipes as the only source of consolation or dissipation. However, the time for rest allowed themselves along the trail by those couriers is really remarkable in its brevity, considering how strenuous is their occupation.

This, year the government is instituting an innovation which might even be dignified with the term of free rural mail delivery in the Arctics, inasmuch as the couriers are requested to deliver letters to settlers and others living along their route. This has been done with a view to saving those people the unnecessary hardship of traveling long distances to the posts to secure their mail, and will be a boon to the scattered residents of the north which none but they can fully appreciate.

It is necessary to limit the mail matter for the packet to letters only, and

owing to circumstances which will be apparent the letters may be registered but not insured. Preference, however, is given in making up the packet to registered matter, and afterwards the letters are given precedence according to the date of posting.

Though now reorganized as a government enterprise the same organization which has delivered the mail in the past is still availed of. The government evidently appreciates the fact that the experience of the pioneers in northern travel and their devotion to duty goes far to relieve responsibility which they are now assuming. Only as development progresses and the hardships to which these pioneers were subjected become more apparent to the masses can a full appreciation be formed of the important part this grand old company played in transforming what was supposed to be icebound deserts into the most renowned wheat fields of the world. When in years to come the great northwestern regions are traversed by railways and the delivery of mails to what are now the most remote districts becomes an important arrangement of detail, it is to be hoped that the landmarks of the past will continue to bear evidence of the difficulties overcome by the employes of the pioneer company whose experiences will ever be valuable to the government and the inhabitants of the Far North so long as the present mode of transportation is a necessity.

This extension of the mail system is but a step on the threshold of development of the North, but a fingerpost of progress pointing to the future when the wonderful resources of the “great lone land,” which, until a few years ago was a sealed book to all save the servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, will have been exploited and the railways will have supplanted the picturesque dog trains and the gallant couriers who carried the packet post, giving a daily instead of a semi-annual service, and carrying to the markets of the world a wealth of furs and fish, and the products of the forest and the mine.