Luxury liners of the fur trade for 60 years, the Mackenzie stern-wheelers are clip-clopping into an uncertain future
COMES A DAY around the end of June, depending on when the ice goes out of Great Slave Lake, a shallow - draft, stem - wheel steamboat wearing the nameboard Distributor III will churn past Big Island and enter the Mackenzie River, heading for the Arctic Circle and points north.
Forty-five miles down the river the old Distributor will make her first important call at Fort Providence, where she’ll be greeted by every man, woman and child, white, Indian or what-ha ve-you, in the community, for the coming of the first steamboat is the gala event of the year in the Territories. She’ll be welcomed joyously all the way down the river—at Fort Simpson, where the Liard comes tumbling in . . . Wrigley ... Norman Wells . . . across the Circle and on to Fort Good Hope . . . Arctic Red River and finally Aklavik in the Mackenzie delta. There she’ll turn about to head
back upriver to Fort Smith on Alberta’s northern boundary, head of navigation on the Slave River.
The summer long, until winter begins to close in near the end of October, the Distributor and her sister ship, the Mackenzie River, will clip-clop busily between the Alberta line and the Arctic Ocean. They’ll bring staples and luxuries and a touch of the outside world to scores of isolated communities in the Territories. But they represent an era that is passing in the north—an era of fur. For the paddle wheelers, the luxury liners of the fur trade, posterity is just around the bend.
Since 1883, when the first of the thrusters, the
Grahame, was put Continued on page 61
Continued from page 13
together at Fort Smith for the Mackenzie service, stern-wheelers have plied the Dominion’s great northern waterway system for approximately 16 weeks every year. The AthabaskaSlave-Mackenzie Rivers route, from the present end of steel at Waterways, Alta., on the Athabaska River, 300 miles north of Edmonton, to the Arctic coast is 1,700 miles long, with only one short portage. The break comes on the Slave River, between Fitzgerald and Fort Smith, precisely where Alberta meets the Territories. There, cargoes which once moved over a crude tote road are now transferred in trucks over a nine-mile gravel highway, and passengers ride in state in taxis.
The wood-burning Athabaska River plies the southern 400 miles between Waterways and Fitzgerald. The 1,300mile northern run from Fort Smith to the Arctic Ocean is served by the Distributor and the Mackenzie River, former log-burners converted to oil in their sunset years. They get their fuel from Norman Wells on the Mackenzie.
These Aren’t Showboats
In their day the Mackenzie sternwheelers were models of progress and enterprise; now they seem like relics of another age as they go thrashing about their duties. They have the ungainly antique look common to wooden paddle wheelers. Their broad, scowlike hulls draw only three feet of water. Above the main decks the superstructures rise like dirty grey two-layer cakes, capped in front by the wheelhouses and captain’s quarters. Aft, the vast wooden-bladed paddles, which extend almost the width of the ships, churn in two or three feet of water.
The interior fittings were designed for durability rather than magnificence. The Distributor, largest of the trio, accommodates 80 passengers. She has four cabins which are quite swank, several four-bunk staterooms and dormitory space. Travellers get white sheets, steward service and excellent meals.
The Distributor, queen of the fleet, is 27 years old. Like the other Hudson’s Bay Company ships that have plied the lower Mackenzie, she was built at Fort Smith, the head of navigation, and fitted with engines and boilers hauled at great difficulty over land and water from the railhead 400 miles away. Her sistership, the Mackenzie River, is even older, and the Athabaska River, which meets the trains at Waterways, is the veteran.
They navigate strangely assorted waters, these old girls, waters which run through sand-ridden deltas and long river shallows, which carry them through more than 100 miles of Great Slave, a lake larger than Erie and every whit as treacherous. The Arctic packets push three or four loaded barges, and this is a tricky business in stretches of rough or swift waters, when the barges often must be shepherded through one at a time.
When the weather is rough the sternwheelers lurk in river mouths, in whatever lees they can find, until it is safe to scoot through Great Slave.
Back before oil was tapped at Norman, or Gilbert LaBine discovered the makings of the atom bomb at Great Bear Lake, the sahibs of the fur trade rode these ships in solemn majesty, taking their ease under striped awnings aft, where they were lulled by the steady clunk of the wooden-bladed paddle wheel, thrusting them toward
the Arctic at a terrifying five to six knots. There was no great hurry: it took three days and two nights to make the 400-mile run from Waterways to Fitzgerald, and another two weeks to reach the Arctic coast.
The picture has been likened by romantics to Mark Twain’s Mississippi, which the writer has never ridden. Even so, no. The Athabaska, Slave and Mackenzie Rivers flow through no lush land, but through a stony-faced country which, rich though it is in fur, oil and minerals, has nothing of ease in its horizons. This was, and is, the hard-bitten north, not the free and easy southand the twain couldn’t meet in a month of Sundays.
Moreover it’s tougher going on the Mackenzie than Mississippi pilots ever dreamed of. The shallows are just as tricky and there are awe-inspiring stretches of open lake and coastal water to be run, often against a clock which says winter will be here any minute.
End of a Monopoly
From ’83, when the Grahame first churned north, until the mine rush which followed Gilbert LaBine’s discovery of radium at Great Bear Lake in the early 1930’s, the stern-wheelers had the far north to themselves.
The first signs of a new era were written in the skies of the late 1920’s, when the early air voyageurs of the far north set out to prove that the Territories were a natural for plane travel. First the renowned Punch Dickins flew as far as Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake. He was followed in short order by such “name” fliers as Wop May and Leigh Brintnell, who flew LaBine to the scene of his pitchblende strike on Great Bear Lake. Once the fliers had proved the feasibility of their claims, the boats were doomed as passenger carriers to all but the fur men who owned them.
The mineral rushes into Great Bear Lake, into Lake Athabaska and later into Yellowknife and the country northeast of Slave, were air-borne. As the mines developed, the need for water transport of heavy machinery and supplies became acute. The old girls could never have handled the job alone. Their owners might have expanded their service, increasing their fleets of tugs and barges, and they might have been able to lower freight rates. But they didn’t. Fundamentally they had no desire to help the outlanders who were invading the fur empire in search of minerals. They were like the prosperous shopkeeper who looks with bilious eye on the coming of a competitor. True, the newcomers were not after fur, but their coming would drive the furbearing animals farther into the wilderness, and would bring into the bush a touch of modernity, which the fur barons had always shunned.
The radium miners established their own shipping subsidiary, and so the stern-wheelers, which had already lost much of the new passenger traffic to the airplanes, lost their strangle hold on the freighting business too. Their freight competitors were gentlemen of highly modern outlook, thinking in terms of Diesel and steel, and not of voracious wooden steamboats which had devoured half the woodpiles in the north.
Their Days of Glory
Then came World War II and a glorious old age for the Old Ladies of the Big River. It brought, first, the Yanks to develop oil at Canol, deep down the Mackenzie, whence they slung a $434,000,000 pipe line through the mountains to tidewater. It brought the Alaska highway, and the builders of the air staging route to the Orient,
who dotted the country with outsize airdromes and landing strips. It brought, finally, the reopening and intensive development of the uranium mines at Great Bear under government ownership, which meant similar ownership of ships in the stern-wheelers’ competitor line. This competitor now had a bottomless bank roll for new ships, tugs, barges, whatever the job might require. The last hope for return to the good old days of the fur empire went out the porthole.
Throughout the war years the old girls churned silt valiantly. Actually the old Mackenzie River had been retired to pasture at the Fort Smith waterside years before. Now she was renovated, chinked up, converted from wood to oil and put back to work.
This was the last great day of the stern-wheelers. Yet perhaps it was their finest hour.
They ran the lake in storms they would not have dared in the old lei-
surely days. They carried loads no stevedore would have deemed them capable of bearing. With ice floes crunching against their sides they steamed across Great Slave Lake at the end of June, past Hay River and Big Island and into the Mackenzie, drawing every last fraction of an inch of water the shallows ahead would allow. They sneaked home from the season’s last voyage as Slave Lake closed in around them, barely making the delta in time for the run up to Smith. If this was to be farewell, it should be a glorious valedictory. It was.
What has followed is anticlimactic. The old girls are steaming on borrowed time. As this was written the Bay Company announced that the S. S. Athabaska River may be retired at the end of this season, but that the others wouldn’t. But come what may, the Old Ladies of the River are finished, not this year, maybe not the next, but some year soon.
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