[Note: This is the story of a young teacher as he traveled to his school, located at York Factory, MB, from his home in Alonsa, MB. That which follows is part of his monograph “Hudson’s Bay Outpost: A Teacher’s Sojourn at York Factory 1949-1950” and includes only the account of his trip. Used with permission.]
Alone in the Wilderness
Sitting on my bulging suitcase there beside the railway track, I held my head in my hands, elbows on my knees. I was tired and hungry and gradually sinking into despair. There I was, left behind in an all-encompassing wilderness at a point where the Canadian Sield ends and the Hudson’s Bay Lowlands begin. I looked at my watch. It was now noon on Wednesday, August 17, 1949, four hours since I had watched the train slowly gather speed then disappear around a bend. I had the eerie feeling of being utterly alone.
Shortly after daybreak, I arrived at Mile 367 on the Canadian National Railways line to the Hudson’s Bay port of Churchill. The passenger train had stopped beside two timbers along the track and deposited me there with my luggage and supplies, which consisted of one suitcase and two cardboard boxes.
The conductor had told me the path through the bush would take me to a spot on the Nelson River called Bird Landing for the canoes from York Factory. The timbers served the purpose of a platform so that supplies would not have to be dropped off into the mud or tall vegetation while being unloaded from the train to be transported to the canoe or vice versa. Nowhere along the railway track was there the slightest sign, audible or visual, of human presence other than the whistle and smoke of the departed train.
After having spent several minutes taking in the environment and considering my situation, I had walked the half-mile along a path through the bush to the banks of the mighty Nelson River. It was a majestic sight. At that point, the banks were nearly seventy meters high and the river one and a half kilometers wide. There was no sign of anyone in the area. I then walked back to the railway where my luggage had been unloaded. I walked back and forth to the river and to the railway about four times. There was no sign of anyone being around.
How did I get myself into such a desperate predicicament? Since there was nothing I could do to find immediate relief, I now took the time to consider my situation more seriously.
Then twenty-three years old, I have lived with my Ukrainian immigrant parents, an older sister, two older brothers, three younger brothers, and a younger sister in Alonsa, Manitoba, a village on the west side of Lake Manitoba, where my parents operated a general store. Educated in local schools to grade ten, I took grade eleven in Brandon and grade twelve in St. Paul’s College, Winnipeg. After a pleasant year teaching on permit in a rural school close to home, I decided to make teaching my career. I took teacher training in 1947-48 in Winnipeg. Teaching in my hometown of Alonsa after graduation, however, turned out to be a real challenge; and, toward the end of the school year in 1949, I began to seek a position with a lesser workload.
Early in June of 1949, after making preliminary inquiries about teaching in a remote area of Manitoba, I was offered a position at York Factory for the following school year from Bernard Grafton, Special Schools Superintendent for the Department of Education in Winnipeg. I was told I would have approximately twenty-five to thirty-five students. York Factory, a former Hudson’s Bay Company port at the mouth of the Hayes River on Hudson’s Bay, was about as remote an area as could be found in Manitoba.
On June 21, 1949, I signed a contract to teach the multi-grade class at York Factory. One half of the population was aboriginal and the half was white. As I found out after, the “whites” were, in fact, non-treaty natives.
School was to start on August 24, 1949. A school and teacherage were to be available near the Hudson’s Bay store. My salary was $1,400 for the school year of two hundred days or seven dollars per day. Transportation was to be paid, and Department of Indian Affairs was to provide for my room and board.
There was no road or rail connection, then as now, into York Factory. I would have to take the train on the line to Churchill most of the way. Then I had a choice. I could disembark from the train at Ilford, then the largest supply centre between The Pas and Churchill, and fly from there to York Factory, or I could disembark at Mile 367 and take the canoe trip from Bird Landing. Being young, energetic, and adventrous, I chose the canoe trip.
As I sat, completely cut off from any communication with the outside world, I began to think that that choice may have been the most foolhardy and dangerous I had ever made. It might mean spending several long and miserable days waiting in hunger and cold without any kind of shelter until the canoe finally arrived if it ever did. Maybe I would have to flag down the next train south and head back home.
Two days earlier on Monday, August 13, 1949, I had left Alonsa at seven a.m. to catch the Churchill train leaving McCreary, twenty-five miles west of Alonsa. It was now eight a.m.
The train ride had been rather monotonous after two days; but, even after fifty-five years, the hours I spent at Mile 367 remain firmly imprinted on my mind.
Canoeing to York Factory
I could not just give up to despair. I had to do something.
Anger replaced despair. I suddenly stood up, tore the cap from my head and threw it to the ground. I would walk toward Churchill about 170 kilometers to the north. Maybe there would be a shanty beside the track somewhere. I picked up my cap, knocked the dust off against my knee, and firmly planted it on my head.
Looking to the southwest, I saw nothing but a straight line of railway tracks. To the northeast was a bend in the tracks to the left. When I walked to the turn, I was able to see railroaders working. By this time, it was after one p.m.
I met Mr. McGee, the railroad foreman. The first question he asked was if I had eaten. I said, “not for a few days.” I left Monday morning and this was Wednesday afternoon. When I left Alonsa, I did have a lunch and a few chocolate bars with me. By this time, I had consumed them. When Mr. McGee took me to the bunkhouse and introduced Mrs. McGee, the three of us had a nice lunch. After lunch, he took the jigger and picked up my baggage, and he asked me to stay with him and Mrs. McGee in the bunkhouse until the canoe arrived.
After lunch, I changed clothes and worked on the railroad with Mr. McGee and the four natives. Mr. McGee said it might take several days before the canoe arrived because of difficulties on the Nelson navigating around the point of land from the Hayes River to the Nelson River. Wind and tide conditions can make it very difficult.
Each evening, Mr. McGee and I would take the jigger and check the landing to see if the canoe had arrived. Friday evening, Mr. Beardy and Mr. Saunders arrived in a twenty-four-foot freighter canoe. They said they were prepared to leave Saturday morning at seven a.m. for York Factory.
Mr. McGee brought me to the landing at seven a.m. Saturday. Beardy and Saunders expected to reach York Factory Sunday night. Our departure was very smooth. I began to feel that the worst of my journey was over, and that I could enjoy the great wilderness. Little did I realize the hazards and the agony that would temper that enjoyment.
About three hours after we started our journey, we faced a set of rapids that slowed us down considerably. The canoe had to be guided through them with two ropes held by men on shore. One person stayed in the canoe to pole the canoe between rocks and through rapid waterfalls. The process took about one and a half hours with no damage to the freighter canoe.
In the afternoon, it got windy and rained intermittently. By four p.m., the canoeists pulled to shore near Flambor Landing, about eight miles from Port Nelson at the mouth of the Nelson River. The canoe was unloaded and the tent set up. Beardy and Saunders made a bonfire and ate some lunch. I ate the lunch Mrs. McGee had made for me.
Rain continued into the night. Mr. Beardy and Mr. Saunders went into the tent at dark. Neither spoke English and I did not speak Cree. I sat by the bonfire until it went out. I then crawled into the tent and sat in a corner. My parka, though damp, felt comfortable enough, and I got some sleep.
Early in the morning, my companions moved outside, and I followed. The tent was taken down, the canoe loaded, and we continued to Port Nelson. It was not long before we saw the seventeen-span railway bridge, built before World War I, extending into the Nelson River. The weather was windy and raining. Arriving at Port Nelson, Beardy and Saunders set up the tent. It was too rough to cross the Nelson River at the bridge. The crossing was about five miles at Port Nelson.
Around two p.m., a family that lived in Port Nelson arrived with three fish. Mr. Beardy boiled two fish in a pot and I roasted or ponasked my fish in the coals. The fresh fish tasted very good. In the afternoon, we relaxed and I curled up near the fire, watching Mr. Beardy take off his coat. He then peeled back his fleece underwear and squeezed some fleas that were tormenting him. All this time, he thought I was asleep, although I was peeking through the parka hood. Late afternoon they made no effort to take the tent down.
I decided to walk around the old deserted site of Port Nelson. I viewed the numerous buildings. It was interesting to walk through the old jail and read some of the documents scattered on the floors of the different rooms. A ball and chain were also on the floor. In one of the buildings was an old yard locomotive. It was about one-sixth of the size of a regular locomotive. Near the building housing the locomotive was a fairly new five-ton winch. It was part of the equipment used to dismantle the bridge in 1948. I moved the winch into a building, with plans to return to Port Nelson in the winter.
As I finished touring, darkness fell upon us. We all moved into the tent for the night. At daybreak, Saunders and Beardy decided to break camp. The tent was loaded into the canoe, and we started for the far side of the Nelson River. We follwed the edge of the bridge, which was built about a mile into the Nelson. At the end of the bridge was a breakwater that extended further into the river. The weather was windy and Mr. Spence thought it would be safer to stay near the breakwater. At this time, the tide was going out. About two miles from shore, the motor on our freighter canoe stopped. The wind, current, and tide moved us toward the bay. Our canoe was covered with canvas to prevent our taking in water. We managed to stay clear of some reefs until Mr. Beardy started the motor again. We made it to the far shore with about a mile of low mud flats. The canoe was pulled up onto higher ground at high tide level.
We were now on the York Factory side of the Nelson River. It was too windy, the tide was out, and our motor was running poorly. The trip around the point of land to the Hayes River was not to be challenged. Mr. Saunders decided to stay with the canoe, mail, and my freight, two cardboard boxes of books, one suitcase, an accordion, and a new 300 Savage rifle.
Beardy put on hip-waders and decided to walk to York across bush and floating muskeg. It was about nine a.m. Monday morning. I removed my heavy boots, put on running shoes, removed my parka and decided to follow Mr. Beardy.
We crossed some muskeg, low brush, and even waded through water up to our chests. Mr. Beardy waved me back because I was too close and our combined weight made us sink too much. Several times we came across polar bear dens. We zigzagged around open water and crossed many deep areas. Around twelve o’clock, we saw the tower of York Factory. We managed to walk all day on empty stomachs. Water was in good supply and we did not need water bottles. We arrived at the boardwalk near the Hudson’s Bay residence at 5:15 p.m.
Shortly after our arrival at York Factory, the Hudson Bay manager and Beardy arranged for two canoes and four men to go around the point of land and return with Saunders. The major difficulties in canoeing around the point of land are wind and tide. When the tide is out, one must canoe one or two miles from shore because of numerous large boulders that are at the surface or just below the surface. It is important to have favourable wind conditions.
The men with the canoes managed the trip quite well and returned with Saunders, the canoes, and the freight. They arrived back at York Factory at 4:30 a.m. My luggage, clothing, accordion, mouth organ, and 300 Savage were all wet. Everything was unloaded and placed in the store. Before I was able to bring the luggage to the house, some of the children tested my mouth organ in the store. They were interested in seeing their teacher.
When we walked out of the swamp, the Hudson Bay clerk, Henry Rempel, was the first to greet us. He expected a female teacher as they were told that Billy Chrustie was to be the teacher. When he saw me, he was quite disappointed. Art and Hank had already painted the teacher’s roomm, which was situated between the manager’s master bedroom and Henry’s bedroom. The manager and Henry welcomed me and showed me my bedroom. I was asked to remove my clothes in the porch because of possible introduction of fleas. After a change of clothes, a wash, and fine supper, I felt much better.