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Two years planning for five days’ travel for a three-hour visit

In 1610 Henry Hudson entered Hudson Bay in search of a northwest passage to the Orient. The voyage did not go well. The crew mutinied and put Hudson, his son and seven crew members adrift. They were never seen again.
David Coombs
David Coombs

In 1610 Henry Hudson entered Hudson Bay in search of a northwest passage to the Orient. The voyage did not go well. The crew mutinied and put Hudson, his son and seven crew members adrift. They were never seen again.

In January 2020, my wife Sarah and I began to put in place a detailed plan to visit York Factory

via the Nelson River, Hudson Bay and the Hayes River. Fortified with countless experiences harvested from visiting 99 countries and crisscrossing Canada in order to reach the western, eastern, southern and northernmost points, we were ready for York Factory. We knew how to travel.

We first contacted Parks Canada in Churchill who is responsible for York. A lengthy discussion led me to contact Clint Sawchuk in Gillam. He is the owner of Nelson River Adventures. After a very informative and pleasant conversation, I told Sarah not to worry. “He seems like a great guy. We can rule out any thoughts of a mutiny. The trip is on.”

Wrong. COVID struck the following month and by March we cancelled the proposed summer expedition. 

We reconnected with Clint in January 2021 and discussed dates, tidal levels on the Hayes, air schedules as we planned to fly from Ottawa to Winnipeg and on to Gillam, accommodation in Gillam, clothing and the duration of the voyage. The last item revealed it would be a 12-hour day including a short drive to the boat launch, four to five hours on the water to get to York and the same to return, leaving about three hours at the site. We reviewed COVID issues and agreed to touch base in June when we felt we had to make our air reservations.

Dutifully I called June 1. Clint was cautious but upbeat. Sarah and I are in our early 70s and had received two shots. We live in the bush seven kilometres from Barry’s Bay which is about two hours northwest of Ottawa. We are fit. We settled on Aug. 25 as the date for the voyage, taking into consideration tide times at York, optimum opportunities for fauna encounters and the blasted air schedules. We booked West Jet from Ottawa to Winnipeg Aug. 23, returning Aug. 27. I called Calm Air and had a delightful chat with the gal who booked us on the Winnipeg — Thompson— Gillam flight Aug. 24 returning Aug. 26, leaving the 25th as the big day. There was little room for a schedule change.

Next I contacted Aurora Gardens Motel and Suites to ensure accommodation. The owner, Leanne Zelensky, was very nice and we talked about Gilliam and our trip. The room sounded great although the motel had no restaurant. It was also one to two kilometres from the airport. Leanne kindly offered to send someone to pick us up.

Thinking of our stomachs, I hit the internet to scout the eateries in Gillam. I located them vis-a-vis the motel, checked their offerings and prices and then read all the comments. I presented the list of five to Sarah who said, “Well done.” We had no worries.

In the first week of August Sarah began to pack. She is an expert. First she waterproofed our shoes in case of heavy rain, gathered rain jackets, hats, bug gear, a medical kit, two sets of binoculars, a camera, spare batteries, sunscreen, masks, COVID documents, extra clothes and a corkscrew. She did not pack a gun as Clint assured us he had a rifle in case polar bears became too inquisitive.

I drew up a detailed itinerary with timelines and a lengthy to-do list arranged under transportation, eating, accommodation and documents. We were ready on Aug. 7.

Wrong again. I noticed I had no telephone numbers for the restaurants and I wanted to check business hours. I called Leanne on August 8. She had never heard of one of the places and said three others were closed. She did say the one open likely served breakfast from 6:30 or 7 a.m. and closed by 7 p.m. Our 12-hour voyage loomed before me, an early morning pickup and returning about 7:30 p.m. spelled trouble. Clint was to provide only lunch. As I was trying to process this bad news, Leanne then mentioned that our ride from the airport  to the motel August 24 was in jeopardy as she was likely to be away. I was entertaining a vision of us wheeling a suitcase perhaps several kilometres in the pouring rain when she said if she was back in town and we could not get a meal on Aug. 25 we would dine at her house! Food solved, transportation iffy. I thanked her profusely and called Clint. He laughed, assured me that although he was away on Aug. 24 he would have someone 

pick us up at the airport. He then mentioned that he would use his satellite phone on the boat to place takeout orders from the one establishment in town that, although not a sit-down diner, did provide this service. I loved the idea of ordering an extra large pizza while cruising the Nelson River. He said, “David, you will not go hungry.”

On Aug. 9, 14 days prior to departure, we notified family and friends as to our final itinerary with appropriate telephone numbers and email addresses. We had studied maps, and read Peter Neuman’s book on The Bay which provided historical background for York Factory. The only chore left was to count down the final days.

The telephone rang Aug.12, 11 days prior to launch. It was Clint. We cancelled the trip. The drought had forced Manitoba Hydro to alter the amount and juggle the timing of the outflow from the dams making it impossible to guarantee when Clint could safely cruise the Nelson. We discussed hiring a helicopter in Gillam but the wildfires made availability unpredictable.

There are reasons why it is said that York Factory is Canada’s most isolated historical site. We understood the tenuous nature of the trip. It will not be our last effort to explore. Unlike Hudson, we were not set adrift, merely set back. Via the telephone we encountered two wonderful folks in Gillam so, Leanne and Clint, this article is for you.

David Coombs has a PhD in Canadian history. After his retirement as a stockbroker in 2004, he began to write. His articles have appeared in The Country Connection, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the Ontario Professional Surveyor journal. He is also the author of "Madcap Adventures in the Madawaska Valley" and “The Beckoning Land,” which is an historical novel set in his home town of Barry’s Bay during the depression and Second World War. Copies of the books are available for purchase at Enter his name and the title of the book to find it.