By the early 19th century, the Hudson's Bay Company had established posts on Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories to trade with the Dene for furs and food. Large cargoes required large vessels and river transportation began to evolve.
The York Boat
The design of York Boats resembled Orkney Island fishing boats, in turn based on Viking long boats. Sturdier than even the largest canoes, they could easily carry three to four tons of cargo and a crew of eight to 12 men. Long oars and a canvas sail provided power. York Boats were well suited to northern conditions – including bad weather and ice.
The Mooseskin Boat
Up to 15 metres in length and shaped like a York Boat, mooseskin boats were put together in spring in the Mackenzie Mountains. Family groups created them from a spruce tree frame and as many as 12 untanned moosehides sewn together for the covering. They could be built in a week or two with three tools, an axe, a knife and a three sided canvas needle.
After spring break-up, Slavey, Mountain Dene and Gwich’in families loaded their home made hide boats with dry meat, people and dogs, and set off on a wild ride downstream for trading posts on the Mackenzie and Peel rivers. There, the meat was traded, the boats were dismantled and the hides sold or used for other purposes.
Whalers, fur traders, churches and the RCMP all travelled in wooden schooners in the early 20th century. Typically powered by both sail and diesel, and built to endure rough seas and being 'frozen-in', these little schooners were true workhorses.
One example is Our Lady of Lourdes on permanent display in Tuktoyaktuk. She was a familiar sight all along the Arctic Coast. Piloted by brothers and priests, she brought supplies to Oblate Missions between 1930 and 1957.
The Stern Wheelers
The introduction of steam power in the 1880s dramatically changed travel on the Mackenzie. Steamers could carry large loads and they could accommodate paying passengers. The Hudson's Bay Company commissioned three shallow draught sternwheelers. They were all built in Fort Smith.
The first one was the S.S. Wrigley (1886). The materials for this ship came on three scows from the south. One scow, carrying the boiler, broke up in the rapids at Fort Smith, the source of the local name, Boiler Rapid.
In 1902, The Mackenzie River became the first sternwheeler to operate on the lower Mackenzie. Almost twice the size of the Wrigley, the hull was reinforced with steel to repel ice and driftwood. It could it carry a full 12 months of goods and supplies for Northern posts, and accommodated 22 passengers.
The Distributor was by far the largest of the three. It provided regular service from Fort Smith down the Mackenzie River until 1946.
In the 1920s, barges were introduced to the Mackenzie River. Pushed downriver by sternwheelers or by tugs, they could carry enormous amounts of cargo. In 1942, The Distributor pushed five barges, with a record load of 1,500 tons in one trip, to Camp Canol near Norman Wells. Barges are still used to ship everything from fuel to cars and groceries from Hay River to communities on the Alaska and Nunavut coasts.