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Extracts from an Account of a Journey from York Factory to Norway House in 1845 by R. M. Ballantyne

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1969, Volume 14, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The canoe in which I and two Indians were to travel from York Factory to Norway House, a distance of nearly three hundred miles, measured between five and six yards long, by two feet and a half broad in the middle, tapering from thence to nothing at each end. It was made of birch bark, and could with great ease be carried by one man. In this we were to embark, with ten day’s provision for three men, three blankets, three small bundles, a little travelling-case belonging to myself; besides three paddles wherewith to propel us forward, a tiny kettle for cooking, an iron one for boiling water. Our craft being too small to permit my taking the usual allowance of what are called luxuries, I determined to take pot-luck with my men, so that our existence for the next eight or ten days was to depend upon the nutritive properties contained in a few pounds of pemmican, a little biscuit, [1] one pound of butter, and a very small quantity of tea and sugar. With all this, in addition to ourselves, we calculated upon being pretty deeply laden.

R. M. Ballantyne’s own sketch of his first portage.

My men were of the tribe called Swampy Crees - and truly, to judge merely from appearance, they would have been the very last I should have picked to travel with; for one was old, apparently upwards of fifty, and the other, though young, was a cripple. Nevertheless, they were good, hard-working men, as I afterwards experienced. I did not take a tent with me, our craft requiring to be as light, as possible, but I rolled up a mosquito-net in my blanket, that being a light affair of gauze, capable of compression into a very small compass. Such were our equipments; and on the 23rd of June we started for the interior ...

About sixteen miles from York Factory we ran against a stone and tore a small hole in the bottom of our canoe. This obliged us to put ashore immediately, when I had an opportunity of watching the swiftness and dexterity of the Indians in repairing the damage. A small hole, about three inches long and an inch wide, had been torn in the bottom of the canoe, through which water squirted with considerable rapidity. Into this hole they fitted a piece of bark, sewed it with wattape (the fibrous root of the pine-tree), made a small fire, melted gum, and plastered the place so as to be effectually water-tight, all in about the space of an hour ...

About nine o’clock we put ashore for the night, having travelled nearly twenty miles. The weather was pleasantly cool, so that we were free from mosquitoes. The spot we chose for our encampment was on the edge of a high bank, being the only place within three miles where we could carry up our provisions; and even here the ascent was bad enough. But after we were up, the top proved a good spot, covered with soft moss, and well sheltered by trees and bushes. A brook of fresh water rippled at the foot of the bank, and a few decayed trees afforded us excellent firewood. Here, then, in the bosom of the wilderness, with the silvery moon for our lamp, and serenaded by a solitary owl, we made our first bivouac.

Supper was neatly laid out on an oil cloth, spread before a blazing fire. A huge chunk of pemmican graced the centre of our rustic table, flanked by a small pile of ship’s biscuit on one side, and lump of salt butter on the other; while a large iron kettle filled with hot water, slightly flavoured with tea leaves, brought up the rear. Two tin pots and a tumbler performed outpost duty, and were soon smoking full of warm tea.

We made an excellent supper, after which the Indians proceeded to solace themselves with a whiff, while I lay on my blanket enjoying the warmth of the fire, and admiring the apparently extreme felicity of the men, as they sat, with half-closed eyes, watching the smoke curling in snowy wreaths from their pipes, and varying their employment now and then with a pull of the tin pots, which seemed to afford them extreme satisfaction. In this manner we lay till the moon waned; and the owl having finished his overture, we rolled ourselves in our blankets, and watched the twinkling stars till sleep closed our eyelids.

Next morning, between two and three o’clock we began to stretch our limbs, and after a few ill-humored grunts prepared to start. The morning was foggy when we embarked and once more we began to ascend the stream. Everything was obscure and indistinct till about six o’clock, when the powerful rays of the rising sun dispelled the mist, and Nature was herself again. A good deal of ice lined the shores; but what astonished me most was the advanced state of vegetation apparent as we proceeded inland. When we left York Factory, not a leaf had been visible; but here, though only thirty miles inland, the trees, and more particularly the bushes, were well covered with beautiful light green foliage, which appeared to me quite delightful after the patches of snow and leafless willows on the shores of Hudson Bay.

At eight o’clock we put ashore for breakfast - which was just a repetition of the supper of the preceding night, with the exception, that we discussed [digested?] it a little more hurriedly - and then proceeded on our way. Shortly afterwards we met a small canoe, about the size of our own, which contained a postmaster and two Indians on their way to York Factory with a few packs of otters ...

In the afternoon we arrived at the forks of Hayes and Steel rivers, and ascended the latter, till the increasing darkness and our quickening appetites reminded us that it was time to put ashore. We made a hearty supper, having eaten nothing since breakfast; dinner, while travelling in a light canoe, [2] being considered quite superfluous.

Our persevering foes, the mosquitoes, now thought it high time to make their supper also, and attacked us in myriads whenever we dared to venture near the woods; so we were fain to sleep as best we could on the open beach, without any fire - being much too warm for that. But even there they found us out, and most effectually prevented us from sleeping.

On the morning of the 25th, we arose very little refreshed from our nap and continued our journey. The weather was still warm, but a little more bearable, owing to a light, graceful breeze that came down the river. After breakfast - which we took at the usual hour, and in the usual way - while proceeding slowly up current, we descried, on rounding a point, a brigade of boats close to the bank, on the opposite side of the river; so we embarked our man, who was tracking us up with a line (the current being too rapid for the continued use of the paddle), and crossed over to see who they were. On landing we found it was the Norway House brigade, in charge of George Kippling, a Red River settler. He shook hands with us, and then commenced an animated discourse with my two men in the Indian language, which being perfectly unintelligible to me, I amused myself by watching the operations of the men, who were in the act of cooking breakfast.

Nothing can be more picturesque than a band of voyageurs breakfasting on the banks of a pretty river. The spot they had chosen was a little above Burnt-wood Creek, on a projecting grassy point, pretty clear of underwood. Each boat’s crew - of which there were three - had a fire to itself, and over these fires were placed gipsy-like tripods, from which huge tin kettles depended; and above them hovered three volunteer cooks, who were employed in stirring their contents with persevering industry. The curling wreaths of smoke formed a black cloud among the numerous fleecy ones in the blue sky, while all around, in every imaginable attitude, sat, stood, and reclined the sunburnt, savage-looking half-breeds, chatting, laughing, and smoking in perfect happiness. They were all dressed alike in light cloth capotes with hoods, corduroy trousers, striped shirts open in front, with cotton kerchiefs tied sailor-fashion loosely round their swarthy necks. A scarlet worsted belt strapped each man’s coat tightly to his body, and Indian moccasins defended their feet. Their headresses were as various as fanciful - some wore caps of coarse cloth; others coloured handkerchiefs, twisted turban-fashion round their heads; and one or two, who might be looked upon as voyageur fops, sported tall black hats, covered so plenteously with bullion tassels and feathers as to be scarcely recognizable.

Lopstick, Separation Creek - 54° 47’, 100° 56’ (circa 1925)
Source: Archives of Manitoba, J. A. Campbell Fonds

Indian tracking past lopstick, Hayes River (circa 1910
Source: Archives of Manitoba, A. V. Thomas Fonds

The breakfast consisted solely of pemmican and flour boiled into a sort of thick soup dignified by the name of robbiboo. [3] As might be expected, it is not a very delicate dish, but is, nevertheless, exceedingly nutritious; and those who have lived long in the country, particularly the Canadians, are very fond of it. I think, however, that another of their dishes, composed of the same materials, but fried instead of boiled, is much superior to it. They call it richeau; [4] it is uncommonly rich and very little will suffice for an ordinary man ...

At sunset we put ashore for the night on a point covered with a great number of lopsticks. [5] These are tall pine-trees denuded of their lower branches, a small tuft being left at the top. They are generally made to serve as landmarks; and sometimes the voyageurs make them in honour of gentlemen who happen to be travelling for the first time along the route - and those trees are chosen which, from their being on elevated ground, are conspicuous objects. The traveller for whom they are made is always expected to acknowledge this sense of honour conferred upon him by presenting the boat’s crew with a pint of grog, either on the spot or at the first establishment they meet with. He is then considered as having paid for his footing, and may ever afterwards pass scot-free ...

About three o’clock in the morning, which was very warm, we re-embarked and at noon arrived at Sea Portage (why so called I know not, as it is hundreds of miles inland), which is the last on the route. This portage is very short, and it is made to surmount a pretty large waterfall. Almost immediately afterwards we entered Playgreen Lake, and put ashore on a small island, to alter our attire before arriving at Norway House.

Here, with the woods for our closet, and the clear lake for our basin as well as looking-glass, we proceeded to scrub our sunburnt faces; and in half an hour, having made ourselves respectable as circumstances would permit, we paddled swiftly over the lake. It is pretty long, and it was not until evening that I caught the first glimpse of the bright spire of the Wesleyan Church at Rossville ...

We now had been travelling twelve days, and had passed over upwards of thirty portages during the voyage. We ought to have performed this voyage in a much shorter time, as canoes proceed faster than boats, which seldom take longer to complete this voyage than we did; but this arose from our detention during high winds in several lakes.

Editor’s Notes

R. M. Ballantyne

When Robert Michael Ballantyne was sixteen years of age a sharp decline in the family fortunes made it necessary for him to strike out on his own and earn a living. He immediately turned to a relative in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company and through him secured a clerkship in Rupert’s Land at a wage of £20 a year. On 6 June 1841, he sailed from Gravesend on board the Prince Rupert bound for York Factory.

During most of his career in Rupert’s Land, Ballantyne was stationed at York Factory, Norway House, and Upper Fort Garry. He travelled extensively between these major posts and visited many of the smaller posts in Northern Manitoba. He also served for a short time at Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay River and at Seven Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It was during his service in Northern Manitoba and at Red River that he filled his diaries with observation about the country and its people, the fur trade and his companions, and it was from these notes that his first book Hudson Bay emerged in 1850. The foregoing extracts are from this book.

In subsequent years, Ballantyne wrote scores of books, Hudson Bay being followed by Ungava, The Young Fur Traders, The World of Ice, A Tale of Eskimo Life, and others about travel and adventure in many parts of the world. On his return to Scotland in 1847 he did not turn immediately to writing, for up to this time there had been no manifestation of a literary facility in his make-up. However, under encouragement from friends in the publishing business, he continued to write in a free and easy style, seldom revising his original narratives except to correct factual errors, in which pursuit he was diligent. In the course of time, he became one of the most popular boys’ story tellers in the world, ranking as a peer with Stevenson and Henty.

Ballantyne died at Rome in 1894 and was buried in the English cemetery. There a white marble stone bears the inscription: “In Loving Memory of Robert Michael Ballantyne, The Boys’ Story-Writer.” No landmark in Manitoba bears Ballantyne’s name, but it was here that he began his career as a fur trader and, unwittingly, as a writer as well. Perhaps some geographic feature will bear his name some day.

(Historical Aside) - It was Ballantyne who described Dr. John Rae, the HBC’s great trader-turned-explorer, as “one of the best snow-shoe walkers in the service, also an excellent rifle shot, who could stand an immense amount of fatigue.” (Twice during his career Rae walked a thousand miles in the course of a couple of months, and he had the reputation of being able to walk a hundred miles in two days - all along the Arctic coast.)

1. Biscuit Ship biscuit: hardtack - called also ship bread - a hard biscuit made of flour and water without salt.

2. Light Canoe - A half-canoe or Indian canoe, sometimes called a light canoe; paddled by two, three or four men, according to its size.

3. Robbiboo - A stew or watery soup made from pemmican boiled in a pot - pemmican stew. The name is probably derived from bungay or Red River dialect, says Hamilton.

4. Richeau Richeau: Rauchau - a fried pemmican dish made by adding flour and a little water.

5. Lopstick - Lopstick has been corrupted by some writers into lobstick, but the root is lop from the Middle English loppe; which, as a verb, means to cut off the branches or twigs of a tree; and, as a noun, the material cut away from a tree. Lop is currently used in the lumbering industry to signify the parts of a tree discarded in the cutting and trimming operations.

Page revised: 23 March 2016

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