It was our last day on northern Manitoba’s Hayes River. Four women and two men in three canoes, we were fresh from a lunch break on shore. Nearing our final destination-York Factory on Hudson Bay, the oldest trading post in western Canada-we moved in a cadence achieved through two weeks of paddling with the same person in the same boat. We prattled about nothing in particular. That is, until we saw the big blond bear.
Two weeks earlier, our guide, Paul Gossen of Northern Soul Wilderness Adventures, had summarized why he thought the Hayes was worth paddling. “For someone with a bit of experience, the rapids are not crazy-difficult, and it’s beautiful and rarely visited,” he said.
Now, he was blurting, “Holy shit! There’s a polar bear.”
The yellow-furred giant stood on its hind legs, sniffing the air. Fortunately, it was not interested and bolted into the willows, leaving us in peace. We paddled northward with an even stronger sense of purpose than we’d had before the startling encounter. In two weeks, nothing about the Hayes had disappointed. Why should York Factory and Hudson Bay be any different?
The Hayes is a remote wilderness river where you’re as likely to see a polar bear as you are to see another human. The principal trade route for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the waterway changes personality many times: from a spirited river with technical pool-and-drop rapids to a great northern river distinguished by steep gravel banks and long, continual Class I-II rapids.
Our 14-day trip to York began in early August, when we set out across windy Oxford Lake under gray skies. That night we settled into our first campsite, sleeping on mossy loam between pines dripping with old-man’s beard lichen. Our scattered tents were within earshot of Knife Rapids, so-called for the sharply fractured gneiss randomly situated throughout the channel. Knife is one of the most formidable of the 10 rapids on the 12-mile stretch, historically known as the Trout River, that separates Oxford and Knee Lakes.
French trader and explorer Pierre Radisson named the Hayes River in 1684, after Sir James Hayes, secretary to Prince Rupert and one of the HBC’s charter members. Besides the Trout, other segments of the river have their own names, including Bourbon, Jack Tent, Factory, Steel, Rabbit, Hill, and Riviere du Roc.
When the brigades of York boats traveled this segment, going upstream, the last of the really big rapids was Trout Falls, or the Dramstone, as they called it. At this point, the boatmen often demanded to be treated with a tipple for their toils. When whiskey or brandy was in short supply, or when they’d rationed it poorly, they resorted to immense draughts of strong black tea, noted historian Isaac Cowie. “The first quaff of this beverage, seldom with sugar, worked marvels, and toil and fatigue seemed at once forgotten,” he wrote.
As the Yorkmen did, so did we. Red Rose tea, sweetened with honey and wild mint, fueled us for an afternoon spent sailing with huge blue plastic tarps on Knee Lake. The weather had changed dramatically since our chilly put-in. We were now swimming to cool off at every opportunity.