Boat brings fur trading days back to life

The arrival of the voyageurs is always the culmination of Brigade Days at the Fort Langley National Historic Site.

Every August, the event replicates the arrival of furs from the Interior, carried downriver by Hudson’s Bay Company employees.

There’s just one problem with the annual arrival – the canoes.

“The voyageurs wouldn’t have used canoes,” said Nancy Hildebrand, a Fort site spokesperson. “They would have used York boats.”

The York boat doesn’t have the iconic status of the birchbark canoe, but it was actually more popular among HBC traders for its hardy, all-wood construction and ability to carry large amounts of cargo.

For the first time in some years, a York boat will be among the flotilla arriving during Brigade Days, thanks to the efforts of a group of volunteer rowers.

“It’s a long lost form of transportation,” said Paul Sleightholme, a director with the Bedford Rowing Society. “It was really the workhorse, it was moving the most cargo.”

The group of rowing enthusiasts partnered with the Fort site to put together their boat in time for this year’s festivities.

“I’d always been interested in what the Hudson’s Bay Company used to move goods out west here,” Sleightholme said.

York boats aren’t built much anymore in B.C., though they are still used in races in northern Manitoba. 

“It’s been quite an interesting process,” said Sleightholme.

That was partly because though the Bedford Rowing Society has been taking to the water around the Fort for more than a decade, it doesn’t contain anyone who had done much boat building.

The group does have people with architectural and construction backgrounds, and they did their reasearch before they started, said Sleightholme.

Among other sources, they looked at the last York boat in use locally, a red-painted boat that was constructed by the Friends of the Fort in the 1980s and operated for more than a decade. After it grew too old to be used on the water, it was brought into the Fort as a static display, and can still be seen there.

The society’s volunteers were fortunate to have some spruce wood donated, one of the original materials used in York boat construction.

In the last few days before the weekend, they’re putting the finishing touches on the craft, and they plan to test it out for the first time on Saturday, just two days before the arrival of the brigades.

“We’re pretty certain it’ll be okay, but we’ll know on Saturday,” said Sleightholme.

Just getting the boat into and out of the water will be the biggest challenge – it weighs about 2,000 pounds, he said.

Members of the Bedford Rowing Society expect to be manning the oars while wearing period costumes on Monday, Aug. 4 as the canoes arrive at the shoreline near Fort Langley. They’re hoping to have time to add a mast and to have the HBC flag flying for their official appearance.

The Fort is excited about adding the group’s York boat to the event. It’s part of an extension of the mandate to tell the story of Fort Langley and the fur trade – which was driven by the presence of the river. The Fort still owns a little slice of the shoreline on the far side of the railway tracks.

“We wanted to do more river experience programming,” said Hildebrand.

The arrival of the Fort’s latest York boat will help that project, she said.

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