Transportation in the North

Author: Jennifer Jozic Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3


Does transportation in the North make you think of dog sleds?

If so, maybe you should try this Tundra Buggy on for size:

The Tundra Buggy,
Cape Churchill, 1988

Churchill, Manitoba is the polar bear gazing capital of the world. The Tundra Buggy was specifically built to take tourists out to watch polar bears in their natural environment. While polar bears were always there, tourists only started coming to Churchill when they could watch the bears from the comfort and safety of a “tank”. The Tundra Buggy is a custom built monster from the ground up. It has LARGE tires for ground clearance. Because the tundra is covered with large boulders from the glacial age, ground clearance is an absolute necessity. The Tundra Buggies carry 20 to 40 people depending on the size of the buggy.

How do you get to Churchill? Well, there are three ways: by boat during the summer, by train or by air. There are about 80 km of road in and around the town of Churchill, all of which dead-end in the tundra. Near the beginning of November the lake freezes and Tundra Buggies are relocated to Cape Churchill where nine-day polar bear watching tours are conducted. Once the tourists arrive, they are there for nine days barring any emergencies. The majority of bears usually seen in the “normal” tours are males. The males like to wrestle and mock fight. Cape Churchill is closer to the female denning area and therefore females with cubs are more likely to be seen.

This exhibit focuses on the special challenges created by rough landscapes and extreme weather conditions in northern areas. The modern Northern lifestyle is defined by the ability to transport people and material goods. In broad terms one could say that bulk natural resources go out and groceries, luxuries and building materials come in. But as we have seen, northern tourism requires leading edge transportation options. So does the provision of essential services.

An average of 9000 forest fires are started each year in Canada destroying about 25 000 km of trees each. Monitoring and fighting fires in remote areas is a huge undertaking. How do northerners fight fires?

Again, it boils down to transportation logistics. Forest fires require world-class equipment like heavy-duty helicopters and planes referred to as “air tankers”. A house fire, on the other hand, requires attention from a fire ‘truck’. This unique vehicle, identifiable by its colour, can cope with extreme and unreliable conditions in an emergency.


Fire hall and vehicles, Devon Island, NWT, 1969

Helicopters are used extensively on fire detection patrols. In many ways helicopters are ideal detection aircraft because visibility is excellent from them, they are able to land and take off in tight spots, and they can hover over a fire while the observer notes and reports the details. Canada’s fire detection aircraft are designed or modified to meet both the demands of bushflying and of wildfire detection. Helicopters frequently fly loaded detection patrols during high-hazard days.

Transportation also defines a northern community by its absence. Living in a remote, “fly-in” community is serious business because long periods with no access can affect all aspects of everyday life. Imagine, for example, if your grocery list had to anticipate your needs for the next four months. Or imagine if a family member became sick and the nearest doctor was an hour-long plane-ride away.

We will discuss the period before the development of railways and motorized vehicles when long distance travel in northern communities involved boats, snowshoes, and dog sleds. These methods of transportation are still being used today. The continuing development of resources in the north, however, has made it necessary to find additional and more modern ways of getting around as well.

Designers have worked hard to create vehicles that can move travelers, supplies and heavy machinery across vast areas of inhospitable terrain. By working with the natural landscape and extreme weather conditions instead of fighting against them, they have come up with some innovative and very creative designs. These new machines now move people and equipment across great expanses of northern territory each and every day.

Transportation in the Past: Dog Sleds, Snowshoes, Canoes and Kayaks

The ultimate image of humans in Northern Canada involves dog sleds. Dog sleds were a practical solution for dangerous winter overland travel because they moved fast and could support heavy loads. In the unfortunate case of the sled owner getting lost or trapped in between settlements due to increment weather, the dogs themselves could be eaten and the person would not starve. In the summer time the dogs were often left on an island to fend for themselves, feeding off of rodents and whatever else they could find.

Dog sleds, after canoes, were the second most common form of transportation during the Northwest fur trade. Outfitting a sled with a team of dogs was far less expensive than horses. Although the dogs could not always pull sleds when the deep snow was too soft to support their weight, they could run over deep snow that horses would find difficult or impossible to travel through. They could carry various goods, furs, meat and messages to forts under the harshest winter conditions. Dog sleds would frequently travel in the dark, with only the moonlight or the light of false dawn to guide them.

There are two types of traditional dog sleds. ‘Sledges’ are open-air sleds and have been used routinely since the eighteenth century. ‘Carioles’ are closed sleds made by stretching animal skins over lengths of wood and fastening the contraption with a line. During the years of the fur-trade, dog sleds usually traveled in 'trains' of several sleds with each dog team following the track of the one in front of it. The men traveling with the train would wear snowshoes and run along with the dogs. Snowshoes enabled people to walk and run across the snow when it was not packed down. Today, most people use modern racing sleds with high runners and race dog sleds for sport.


Hudson’s Bay Company men with Dog and sled, late 1880s to Early 1890s


Hare Dog Team with Toboggan on Trail


Husky Dog, 1932


Dogs in Snow, 1970


Snowshoes, 1973

Canoes were developed over the course of thousands of years by the native peoples of North America. Typical canoes were created from frames made of wooden ribs covered with lightweight bark from birch trees, or sometimes elm or cedar trees, but in the western sub-arctic region spruce bark was used instead. The joints of the canoes were bound together with root of the white pine and made waterproof by applying hot pine or spruce resin to the body. These boats were ideal for traveling across streams, rivers and lakes, and have remained virtually unchanged in design for thousands of years.

Another type of canoe is the C-boat, or Canadian. The C-boat is manufactured from many different materials, ranging from wood to kevlar. This type of canoe is usually around seventeen feet long, with weight varying depending on the material used to build it. The C-boat is meant for two people, each canoeist using a paddle with a single blade.

The kayak has a closed deck, is generally meant for use by one person and is propelled by a single paddle with a blade at either end.


Canoe, 1921


On the Mackenzie River, 1959


Inuk man in kayak, 1970s

This map makes it clear how the locations of the forts that made up the fur trade depended on easy access to water routes. Wherever possible, loads of furs were floated through the river system all the way across the continent and out to Europe, using either Hudson’s Bay or the St. Lawrence River. When a land crossing was necessary, people would carry their boats and cargo over their heads using a technique called portaging. As the pictures indicate, portaging is a technique that is not limited to canoes.

The technology and transportation routes of the fur-trading routes changed drastically in the twentieth century.


Map of Fur Trading Posts 1987-1821


Hudson’s Bay Company freight canoes, 1880s


Hareskin Indians with canoe, 1928


Portaging a Schooner, 1928


A fur delivery by truck, 1961

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