Water Ways

From flimsy skin boats, to graceful canoes, to powerful steamboats, vessels of one kind or another have carried people over the waterways of Canada's West.

Produced by Nelle Oosterom and Andrew Workman

March 9, 2015

Over the centuries, many different kinds of boats have been used for transportation in Canada's west.

On the prairies, one of the earliest forms of watercraft was known as a bull boat. A bull boat was a round vessel made of buffalo hide stretched over bent wooden poles. It was mostly used for crossing rivers but not for long distance travel.

Further north in the boreal forest, people used dugout canoes. They made them with stone axes and a chisel fashioned from beaver teeth.

The Dene and northern Cree also used birch bark canoes. These were made by bending long sheets of steamed paper birch over a wood frame and then lashing them all together. The holes were glued shut with tree sap, or in northern Alberta, with raw bitumen from the oil sands.

Birch bark canoes were adopted by European fur traders who designed larger canoes that could carry big loads the largest birch bark canoe in the West could carry up to a ton, and voyageurs who paddled them worked up to 18 hours a day.

By 1821 York boats were beginning to replace birch bark canoes in the fur trade. These flat bottom boats could carry up to three tons each. Brute strength was used to pull heavy oars that were up to 6 meters long. On portages, the York boatman also had to drag the boats across the forest floor using logs as rollers.

Eventually, York boats gave way to steam-driven vessels. Stern wheelers first appeared in British Columbia and the Yukon in the 1850s. It soon became possible to travel from Winnipeg to Edmonton in a mere ten days, but only under ideal conditions.

The era of steam on boreal rivers was relatively short-lived. The coming of the railway all but ended traveling by water in Western Canada.

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