By Jack Danylchuk -- Long ago, the Slave was the gateway to the North, and local boatmen knew its every bend. Now there’s an ambitious plan to re-open this corridor.
Peering into the mist as it swiftly dropped a damp, white, cold hand on the vast and intricate delta of the Peace and Athabasca Rivers, Reg McKay summoned memories from a lifetime of navigation on this historic route to the North.
“It’s always like this on the delta in summer at sunrise; nothing to do but wait,” McKay said. The fog swallowed the river, shore and all 70 metres of the NT Marjory and her 600-series barge. They were in a hurry, but the first mate, Alfred Landry, eased back on the power. The rumble from the twin diesels dropped to a purr as the tug turned toward the marshy bank, an impenetrable tangle of Arctic willows and reeds.
And there, in the watery wilds at the southern approach to Wood Buffalo National Park, they idled – the boat, the barge, McKay and Landry, the deckhands and the engineers and the cook. These rivermen knew the score: When you’re trying to re-open a centuries-old river highway – a pioneer path gone silent, sailed in recent decades only by ghosts – you play by the rules of the water. The one thing you can’t do is rush.
The NT Marjory had cast off from the dock in Fort Chipewyan just before dawn, pacing the billowing fog toward the entrance of Rocher River, the only way through this watery maze for a vessel of her size. She was a week into a voyage that recalled the earliest days of Northern navigation, when the oilsands capital of Fort McMurray was a portal to the Arctic. She was heading for a point on the charts where the Peace swings north and changes its name to the Slave. From there, the northbound waters keep rolling: the Slave to Great Slave Lake, the lake to the Mackenzie, the Mackenzie to the Beaufort Sea.
For more than 200 years this liquid ribbon had been the key marine-route to the frontier: a lifeline from “civilization” to fur-trade posts and mines and backwoods villages. But with the advent of the railroad and highway to the port of Hay River on Great Slave Lake, the gateway rivers – the Athabasca, Peace and Slave – were bypassed. Here, after generations, commercial river traffic all but died.
McKay and Landry’s voyage was a bid to revive it. Employed by the Arctic’s oldest and largest marine transportation company, they were trying to turn back the clock – albeit in a diesel-powered tug instead of a steam-driven paddlewheeler. The sailing of the Marjory and her barge were a play by Northern Transportation Company Ltd. for a piece of the oilsands boom. NTCL hoped to reopen the Peace, Athabasca and Slave, but to reverse the historic flow of freight, shipping upriver.
The dream was to give the oilsands a whole new supply route. Instead of manufacturing equipment in the over-burdened shops of Alberta and freighting it up the notorious lone highway to Fort McMurray, Big Oil could get what it needed from Asia, have it floated in thousand-tonne modules to Tuktoyaktuk at the mouth of the Mackenzie, and then see it barged against the current – ascending the Slave, and thence the Peace and Athabasca – to McMurray.
This voyage was testing the feasibility of sailing that final stretch – through the shifting Peace River Delta and the portage around the Slave River Rapids. A lot was riding on its success.
Technically the voyage and portage were possible, experts told NTCL. Yet skeptics within the company immediately dismissed the venture as costly and impossible; a grandiose scheme that would surely sink. This trip could prove them wrong, but it would have to come off without a hitch.
The project was the subject of talk up and down the river; there was plenty of speculation about whether the tug and barge would be stranded by low water on the Athabasca River. Complicating the undertaking was the fact that navigation charts were long ago made irrelevant by the rivers’ tireless shifting. Among the doubters, clearly, had been the Marjory’s usual captain; he had quit the vessel rather than risk it – and his reputation – on this path-breaking trip.
It fell to Doug Camsell, NTCL’s manager of marine projects, to find men who would make the voyage. That’s where McKay came in. When NTCL left the Athabasca, small freight contractors had continued service on the river. At Fort Chipewyan, historic centre for the Northern fur trade, Camsell found one of those contractors in McKay – a living link to the earliest days of commercial navigation on the rivers of the Mackenzie basin.
McKay’s father had worked as a deckhand on the Grahame, a Hudson’s Bay Co. sternwheeler built in Fort Chipewyan with milled lumber, its furnace and boilers hauled north from Edmonton. Launched in 1882, the Grahame picked up freight and passengers below the rapids on the Athabasca, churning between Fort McMurray, Fort Chip and Fort Smith.
McKay’s first river voyage was on the S.S. Athabasca with his mother, in the final year of the Second World War, to visit family in Fort Smith. It was slow going, he recalled, even running with the brisk current that sweeps the Slave River along the eastern boundary of the park. “It took two days just to reach Fort Fitzgerald and even longer to get home,” McKay said. “There was a forest fire burning on both banks of the Slave, and the captain wouldn’t risk the boat. So we tied up for two days to wait it out.”
When McKay grew up, he himself became a riverman. The close confines of the Slave and Athabasca were his home, his office. He knew the treacherous ways of the Athabasca’s sandbars, and just where the Canadian Shield sends its granite fingers out into the Slave, reaching for the hulls of the careless or unwary.
“Sailing downstream is always more dangerous than bucking the current,” he offered, then explained: “The current shapes the sandbars so that water shallows gradually. Before you know it, if you’re not careful and don’t watch all the time, you can run the barge so far up the sandbar that it’s almost high and dry. Going upstream, you hit the blunt edge of the bar. It’s embarrassing, but you’re not stranded – like a beached whale.” It was practical experience, gained from running his own boats and piloting for others. The voyage of the Marjory was far and away his biggest payday, $500 a day for the knowledge he’d accrued over his lifetime.
To accompany McKay, Camsell assembled a crew from the company roster: Franklin Lea, the captain, from Lake Winnipeg; Landry, first mate, from Hay River; Rick Bliss, chief engineer, from Kamloops; second engineer Mike Heron, from East Sooke on Vancouver Island; deckhands Faris Najafi, Harold Cornect and Wilson Thorne, from Vancouver, Yarmouth and St. John’s; and Cathie Peters, the Marjory’s indefatigable cook, from Vancouver.
The routine of running the Marjory kept the crew working at a steady but poised pace, scraping, painting, polishing and steering the tug and barge. If the voyage had the feel of a pleasure cruise, the wellspring of contentment was the constant supply of food from the galley. Peters – the stereotype of the buxom and generous cook – produced an endless flow of sausages, pancakes, bacon, eggs, coffee, steaks, chops, roasts, cakes, pies and salads, which the crew consumed throughout the day.
Yet the Marjory was not without tension. It could be traced to the onboard presence of Camsell, the senior manager. He was under pressure from the head office in Hay River to predict the arrival time in Fort Fitzgerald, where they’d be met by the portage crew. The tug had already been weather-bound for two days on the first leg of the voyage when a brisk westerly had dropped water levels by a foot. It could happen again, and time was money. There were whisperings about who was in charge: Was Camsell stepping on Lea’s turf? None of that seemed to weigh on Lea. With McKay’s guidance he steered with a steady hand, shifting his gaze between the river, the old and heavily corrected charts, and a computer screen displaying the Marjory’s course.
At Fort Fitzgerald, the Slave River makes a precipitous drop, falling 70 metres over 25 kilometres of thundering rapids to calm water at Bell Rock. An old portage trail follows the west bank of the river, and passes by an ancient burial ground and cemetery, the final resting place for many voyageurs and travellers, its white grave-markers almost lost amid a lush forest of poplar and spruce.
The portage crew was at Fitzgerald when the Marjory docked. Caterpillar tractors pulled the tug and barge from the water and up the gentle slope to level ground, where air-jacks raised the 170-tonne vessels a few inches at a time until they were high enough to ease trailers beneath them.
The 22-kilometre journey to Bell Rock was swift. Pulled by a tractor, the barge and then the tug filled the entire width of Highway 5 for the trip that started just after sunrise and was complete before Fort Smith roused itself for another summer day. When the Marjory returned to the water below the rapids, the voyage was deemed a success. It was clear to McKay, and to NTCL, that these rivers could still be run.
Fort Smith , and the old boat-pilots along the Peace and Athabasca and Slave, are still waiting for great things to flow from the Marjory’s voyage. Earlier this year NTCL formed a joint venture with heavy-lift specialist Mammoet Canada to form Arctic Module Inland Transportation. The outfit is exploring the economics of this river route. If it gets the thumbs-up, the southern leg of the North’s old marine highway could open to a new generation of rivermen.