York Factory; Rail Travel Tours; Northern Manitoba; Gillam Island; seals; Fort Nelson;
I ended Part One of my account with our arrival at York Factory. Now I realize that I must back track a bit. The afternoon of the day we arrived at Gillam we stopped at Thompson for a couple of hours. There we hiked on the award-winning two-kilometre Spirit Way hiking and biking route through a wooded area of the city. The highlight of the trail is a 10-storey high reproduction of wildlife painter Robert Bateman’s painting Wolf Sketch on the side of an apartment building.
Then early that evening, we were fortunate to have Karen Blackbourn talk to us. She is the new superintendent of both Wapusk National Park near Churchill and of the Northern Manitoba Historical Sites. Part of her job will be to help determine the future of York Factory. Some of the questions to which she said answers are needed are the following: Do they try to improve tourist access? Do they maintain all buildings on site or just the main depot? Do they provide replica buildings? What should be done about soil erosion?
We arrived at York Factory in late morning and had a guided tour conducted by one of the two Parks Canada employees stationed there for the summer. Until Nelson River Adventures began operations in 2011 to transport people by jet boat between Gillam and York Factory, the only ways to travel here were by canoe or float plane. This meant not more than 25 to 30 visitors per year. In 2016, more than 260 people visited. A black bear had been sighted the morning of the day we visited. Although we did not see the bear, our guide was armed with a shot gun and we were unable to go anywhere on the site without having him along. He even waited with his gun outside the outhouse when it was in use. He explained that he did not wish to harm the bears. Only in an emergency would he actually shoot at one; otherwise he would merely fire into the air to make enough noise to scare away any which were sighted.
Due to the tide from Hudson Bay, boat trips between Limestone and York Factory must be timed to depart two hours before high tide and to begin the return trip two hours after high tide. As a result, we were only able to spend about three hours at the Factory. Had we stayed longer, we would have been forced to spend the night there. One of the Parks Canada people told us that many visitors find three hours more than enough time to see everything; however, as avid history buffs, many of the people in our group would have loved to spend more time there.
This is despite the fact that there is relatively little left to see at York Factory except for the main depot building, ruins of the powder magazine and library, and the cemetery. In its hay day in the mid 19th century, however, there were more than 50 buildings on the site. The last residents of York Factory left in 1957, bringing 273 years of fur trading to an end. In 1968 the HBC transferred ownership of the site to the Government of Canada, and York Factory became one of Canada’s National Historic Sites.
On our return trip to Gillam, we travelled slowly past the ruins of Port Nelson. Before the First World War, the Canadian Government decided that a major harbour was required on Hudson Bay for shipping grain. In 1912 the mouth of the Nelson River was chosen over Churchill to become the terminus of the Hudson Bay Railway. Work on the harbour began immediately and continued until 1918 when it halted, leaving behind a small man-made island connected to the mainland by a 17-span truss bridge. One hundred years later, the bridge, the island and the wreck of 180-foot dredge remain. In 1927 Churchill was chosen as the northern port, and the Hudson Bay Railway to Churchill was completed in 1929.
We made a stop at Gillam Island on our trip back to Gillam. Both town and island are named after fur traders Captain Zachary Gillam and his son Benjamin who arrived at Hudson Bay aboard the ship Nonsuch in 1668. The river around Gillam Island was teeming with seals when we arrived. On the island we also saw a monument to a Welsh naval captain named Thomas Button. In 1612, he commanded an expedition whose dual purpose was to find out what had happened to Henry Hudson and to discover the Northwest Passage. He was not successful in either project; however he did reach Hudson Bay where he spent the winter at the mouth of the Nelson River, which he named for one of his crew members.
We arrived back in Gillam in time for a group dinner. While we enjoyed sharing some of our day‘s adventures, socializing after dinner was limited. Not only had we just completed a very long day, but we needed to be up next morning in time to catch our 5 a.m. train for the return trip to Winnipeg.
After boarding the train, we were able to retire to our compartments for a few more hours of sleep before breakfast. The first four days of our trip ran right on schedule, however we arrived back in Winnipeg on day five about three hours late. There were two reasons for our slow speed. First, some construction on the tracks; second, the temperature rose considerably over the course of the day. As a result, a heat order was issued requiring the train to go up to 30 km per hour slower than normal.
We were rather amused to see a transfer of engineers take place some 25 km. from our destination of Winnipeg. The engineer who had begun his shift at The Pas had worked his allotted 12 hour shift; therefore he got off the train at a level crossing and some one arrived with a car to pick him up. At the same time, his replacement arrived by taxi to take over.
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