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Historic York boat trek an exciting ride. (Education).

When Ken Albert Jr. thinks about the Quest for the Bay, his mind floods with images: the beaver dams along the Echimamish River; the destroyer, a boulder that punched a huge hole in the York boat he was rowing; the spectacular northern lights laid against a silken black sky.

But it was the sight of his girlfriend and two kids waiting for him as his crew pulled into Norway House that really got to him.

Albert was one of the eight-member crew of a York boat this summer that was taking a journey for a special to be shown by History Television. Everything about the trip, from the clothes they wore to the food they ate to the tools they used, hearkened to the fur trade era. The trip from the Forks (the junction of the Assiniboine and Red rivers in Winnipeg) to York Factory on Hudson Bay took from July 1 to Aug. 30.

The leg from the Forks to Norway House, the halfway point, had been a pretty easygoing -- they'd even put up the sail on Lake Winnipeg and just let the wind take them a good way across.

"We traveled such nice country. I didn't know there were such nice beaches on Lake Winnipeg. It was like the Caribbean or something," said 25-year-old Albert, a member of Norway House Cree Nation. Albert is a veteran rower who regularly crews during the York boat races held in Norway House each summer, a tradition dating to the community's links with the fur trade.

In fact, the boat used by the Quest for the Bay crew--40 feet long by eight-feet wide and 2,000 pounds--had been built by people at Norway House.

But after Norway House, things started to get really tough--and they would stay tough until the last 215 kilometres of the journey.

Backbreaking portages around rapids, the relentlessly repetitive diet of pemmican and bannock seasoned with sandflies and no-see-ums, and regular bashing against rocks necessitating repair and downtime, took their toll on crew morale.

It was during the grueling portage after they exited Robinson Lake on the Hayes River system that spirits sank their lowest, Albert said. Not only did the crew have to shoulder the weight of the boat, but also 24 90-pound bales (alfalfa, to simulate fur bales), plus all the rest of the gear and food. The bugs were sanity destroying. Albert describes the physical effort as being "like slavery." It took an entire week to go one mile.

"It was crossing my mind," Albert said about quitting. "I was really thinking about my house and home. But I'm glad I just pulled through."

Albert's skill at catching jacks and pickerel along the journey added some Variety to the monotonous diet. He also sewed up a tent out of the canvas they had. Everyone bunked inside, as "it was the only way to get some sleep" away from the onslaught of insects. And his familiarity with his own "neighborhood" (the lakes and rivers around Norway House) was a big asset.

There would be many more rapids to portage around as they continued, and countless holes in the boat to be patched up. The one inflicted by the destroyer was three by eight feet and resulted in six broken ribs (the boat's, not people's) and the keel snapped in half.

Albert says he hadn't figured on all the time they'd be spending fixing damage to the boat. And it was after the destroyer nailed them, he adds, with more rapids ahead, that he really questioned the safety of continuing.

"But we made some ribs out of spruce trees," he said. "Amazingly, they held through."

And despite the hardships, Albert said there were moments of indescribable beauty, and others totally adrenaline-drenched, like the times they shot the various rapids.

"I row in the front. And there're the rapids! There's no turning back. You're committed. Water's coming over, splashing. [The person steering would] be screaming 'HARD!' Then you'd see the rock and he's screaming to 'go around!' Then there's a sigh of relief, but more coming, more screaming. It was fun."

When he's not rowing York boats, Albert works as a lineman for Manitoba Hydro, and said he's grateful to his employer for the leave given to him to take part in the Quest; and for family time afterward. He also thanks the people of Norway House for the receptions they hosted, complete with a great supper and fiddle playing. "Some of the racing boats came out to meet us, and there were about 500 people on shore," he recalls.

As with the rest of the Quest crew members, Albert took home a $10,000 pay cheque. "Sometimes I couldn't believe I was getting paid," he remembers thinking during the last leg of the trip--and yes, he would do it all again.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Ascher, Avery
Publication:Wind Speaker
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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