The York Factory Express holds a special place in the annals of the North American fur trade. The 2,600-mile run from the Pacific Coast to Hudson Bay was one of the most challenging routes of the voyageur era, and the men chosen for the Express Brigades were among the best. With all respect to modern athletes and expedition paddlers, those guys were tougher and more resourceful than just about anyone alive today.
So when the casting call went out for The Brigade, a cross-continental made-for-TV drama offering a $1 million-dollar prize to the team that covers the route in 10 weeks or less, the first thing we checked is how long the voyageurs needed to cover the same distance. The answer is about 14 weeks.
Do you really think a reality show cast, chosen for their looks and camera-ready quirks as much as their expedition chops, will beat the fur traders by a full month?
Yeah, the million is safe.
According to The Brigade website, the 10-person cast will "retrace an epic 2,600-mile fur trade route," traversing two mountain ranges and five river systems from the near the Pacific to "the icy shores of Hudson Bay in Manitoba."
The historic route was used by the Hudson's Bay Company from about 1825 to 1860 and provided a crucial link between the Company's headquarters in York Factory and its trading posts on the Pacific coast. The Express left Fort Vancouver (present-day Vancouver, Washington) in late March, following the Columbia River upstream into British Columbia, then over the Rocky Mountains and down the Athabasca. They traveled 80 miles overland to the North Saskatchewan and on the York Factory via the Saskatchewan River, Lake Winnipeg and the Nelson and Hayes rivers. They usually arrived in mid-July and started the return trip a week later.
"The proposed route isn't possible in 10 weeks I don't believe," says one ruggedly good-looking canoe tripper, who we're not naming because he's likely to apply anyway. "It's a crap shoot but I think I'm going to go through the process."
A million dollars is a lot of money, even split 10 ways.
Some paddlers think they can hold the winning pace, which amounts to a little over 37 miles per day. That's not much for seasoned expedition paddlers and racers, but consider this route is both upstream and down, with many difficult portages, volatile prairie winds and variable water levels. On top of that, the Outdoor Channel says contestants will have to "fish and hunt for sustenance." Hunting will be a trick since most edible critters will be out of season, so let's hope the fishing is good. (The fur traders consumed pemmican, pea soup and biscuit at the rate of about 5,000 calories a day.)
"I could do the course in 10 weeks, but the unnatural barriers they put in place may prevent such a thing," says West Hansen, a champion marathon canoe racer who ran the Amazon from source to sea in 2012.
A publicist for the production company wasn't at liberty to discuss the exact route or the type of boats the team will use. The teaser video cobles together footage of tandem sit-on-top kayaks, slalom C-1 canoes, rec kayaks and whitewater creekboats, not to mention technical rock climbing that couldn't possibly be part of an historic canoe route. Still, the trailer is awesome and you should check it out.
We have so many questions. Will the team use the same boats throughout, or be given different craft suited to each leg, such as a 10-person war-canoe on the Columbia and tandem trippers on the Athabasca and North Saskatchewan? As long as we're parsing language, what are we to glean from the "up to" $1 million in prize money? Does that mean the team could still win a smaller pile of cash if they finish in more than 10 weeks?
Jim Baird thinks so. "My understanding is the group works together and has to make specific distances, and they're docked money if they fail to make them as they go," says Baird, a C&K contributor who won the Discovery Channel's survival show Alone with his brother Ted in 2017. "The group starts out with $1 million and gets to split what's left over at the end."
Baird sized up the route and declined an invitation to audition. Our doubtful correspondent, he of the ripped abs and smoldering eyes, doesn't think the producers have a clue just how hard it is. "The Columbia alone could take over a month. The North Saskatchewan won't have water that late in the summer, never mind gales hammering the north shore of Winnipeg," he says. "It's a mess! They have no idea."
Or maybe they do. Chaos and suffering do make great television.
We're certainly going to be glued to the tube. Any time a television network invites viewers along on an expedition of this magnitude, with a huge paddling component and rich historical backdrop, you can count us in. And just because we think the mission is a long shot doesn't mean you shouldn't go on the show and prove us wrong. It wouldn't be the first time a paddler took home a reality TV jackpot. Just ask Baird.