By Cassy Kist
Row, row, row your boat. Gently down the stream.
If you visited Fort Edmonton Park this past Dominion Day, you may have been lucky enough to witness the arrival of Joseph’s Folly on the North Saskatchewan River, rowed by our expert team. Joseph’s Folly is a York boat, rebuilt based on the historic boat design from the fur trade era. During this era, the construction of a York boat typically took 4-5 weeks, whereas our team required nearly ten years to complete Joseph’s Folly! It couldn’t have been done without the tender love and care of our volunteers and main boat builders, Doug, Dave, and (as you may have guessed) Joseph. The modern production time took much longer due to the limited number of workers, who spent as much time building the boat as they did explaining the process to guests. Also, a modification to the historic boat design, a 15% reduction in size, further complicated the process.
So, What is a York Boat?
The York boat was a vital transportation tool used by the Hudson’s Bay Company during the fur trade era. Around 1821, the Company replaced freight canoes with York boats, due to their ability to carry twice the amount of cargo (2-6 tons!) and to withstand harsh journeys. The York boat was named after the main headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company, the York Factory. However, the design has its origins in the Scottish islands, from which the company employed many skilled boatbuilders.
In fact, the boats, with their widely spaced frames and curved ends, carry on an ancient tradition of Viking nautical design. While the York boat did provide several advantages, including its compelling ancient origins, its size (40 feet and one-ton weight), made it difficult to portage (to carry over land when needed).
Such shortcomings of the York boat had to be overcome by the talented boat crew, usually, ten men (a bowman, a steersman, and 8 oarsmen) who came from a variety of backgrounds, including Métis, French Canadians, Orkneymen, Scots, and Cree.
The Launch of the York Boat
The launching of a York boat is a Fort Edmonton tradition that has taken place every year from 1973 to 2012, with the exception of 1996 when the old York boat, Methuselah, was starting to rot. A York boat hasn’t been launched for the last few years due to the production of Joseph’s Folly. On July 1st 2018, the boat was carefully placed into a cradle by our builders and our Telus volunteer team. To accomplish this feat, the boat was pushed along wooden logs, a method called portaging, to move the craft overland. A truck then carried it down to the North Saskatchewan River where it was launched by the team and manned by the boat builders and Park staff.
Having worked several years on the York boat, the builders were delighted to see it out on the river, stating that “it floated so light and high, handling the
mid-afternoon row well”.
Despite the amount of work and time it took to build, along with multiple setbacks, our boat builders stayed dedicated through their love of the craft.
The next time you go out for a paddle boat or a river valley run, think of all those before you who may have navigated this river in eras past.