Traces of the Fur Trade

Today, my stretch of the North Saskatchewan River forms the centrepiece of Edmonton’s famous River Valley Trail System, a series of multi-use parks developed and maintained for residents and visitors, alike. Paddlers, recreational fishermen, jet-skiers, dragon boat racers and a holiday steamboat make good use of the river in warmer weather. This is a dramatic shift from the waterway’s former use as a transportation and communications corridor during the fur trade.

North Saskatchewan River w/ Paddlers
North Saskatchewan River w/ Paddlers, April 2015

The North Saskatchewan River begins in the Columbia Icefield astride the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, joins with the South Saskatchewan River 800 miles later at Saskatchewan River Forks to form the Saskatchewan River and, finally, empties into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. From Lake Winnipeg, it’s possible to paddle in a northeasterly direction to Hudson’s Bay or southeasterly to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. With tributaries reaching out all across the prairie provinces, this river system was the hub of the fur trade.

Trappers would head upstream for the winter to lands rich with beaver and other fur-bearing animals, then travel with their pelts back downstream, in the spring, for trade at the forts and factories; the furs would then be shipped to Europe. Indigenous peoples, European explorers and adventurers and fur-trade brigades traveled the North Saskatchewan River in birch bark canoes, then, york boats until the railways made water transportation impractical. Although the days of the voyageur and the Hudson’s Bay Company fort are gone, hints of their former presence remain.

Birch bark canoe 1959

Fort Edmonton Park, on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River is home to an 1846 Hudson’s Bay fort with a neighbouring Cree encampment. Re-enactments of the arrival of the fur-laden york boats (pictured at top) are regularly scheduled during the season and come complete with ceremony and revelry. Paddlers, following the routes of the historic brigades and early explorers, are becoming a more regular occurrence, as well. And, the beaver, star of the show, is still around – visible while swimming or, sometimes, slapping his tail in the river but, more often, we see the fallen trees and pointed stumps he’s left behind beside the river valley trails.

Signs of Beaver, Muskrat

A few weeks ago, at a picnic in McKinnon Ravine Park along the river, we caught sight of a family feeding a smallish brown animal. I immediately assumed it was a beaver and thought to myself how tame it seemed to be. Well, it wasn’t a beaver. It was a groundhog but, still…