Travellers can follow in the footsteps of the fur traders at this remote Manitoba National Historic Site, a treasure trove of stories.
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It glows white on the horizon—a massive, lone building perched where the mighty Hayes and Nelson rivers end their journeys into the mouth of Hudson Bay. This is The Depot at York Factory National Historic Site, MB, one of the most remote and special places you’ll ever visit.
It’s a destination like no other. Don’t expect a gift shop or exhibits under glass. Here, you’ll walk the hallowed halls of the oldest and largest wooden building in Canada standing on permafrost. Inside, table after table is loaded with artifacts lined up in neat rows, waiting for your inspection.
There are handmade nails and shards of blue and white pottery, cannon balls and sewing needles made from bone, tiny glass medicine bottles and even a lone harmonica. Take a deep breath and you can almost smell the beaver, martin and lynx pelts that once were stacked three storeys high, waiting to take the voyage across Hudson Bay and the Atlantic Ocean to an auction house in London.
The Depot was built in 1831, but York Factory’s history started much earlier in 1684. It began as a trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the corporate powerhouse that blasted through North America with a burgeoning fur industry. The community once boasted more than 50 buildings, including a library, church, school, hospital and bakehouse. The curious name of “factory” comes from the manager of the community, who was known as the “chief factor.”
With only The Depot and a graveyard left as reminders, it’s hard to imagine that in the mid 1800s, this was a bustling centre of trade with thousands of people going about their business. It was home to doctors and teachers, clergy and coopers, photographers, librarians, a blacksmith and a baker. If history had taken a different path, there’s a good chance that Winnipeg’s Portage and Main would have been at York Factory. From 1812 to the late 1850s, The Depot was the main entry point for European immigration to Western Canada.
York Factory sits on the shoreline of Hudson Bay, some 1,200 km (746 mi) northeast of Winnipeg. A trip here is both about the journey and the destination. If you have a couple of weeks and strong shoulders, Northern Soul and Wilderness Spirit will take you on a 15-day, 400-km (249-mi) paddling trip (starting at Oxford Lake) down the Hayes River and into York Factory.
Nelson River Adventures offers a 10-hour round trip to the Bay departing from Gillam on a speedy jet boat. Along the Nelson, you’ll see moose, polar bears, black bears, seals, eagles and perhaps even a loping wolf.
A quicker option is to charter a floatplane from Gillam Air and pop into York Factory for the day. The old gravel airstrip that sat on a peninsula in the middle of the Hayes River has succumbed to the elements, so landing on wheels is no longer an option.
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