Chasing Fish: The History of Commercial Fishing on Great Slave Lake

My latest book, Chasing Fish, was released on November 12, 2022. It was an eight-year-long project and involved extensive archival research, interviews and online searching. In addition to a narrative spanning the years 1945-2022 (plus an overview of life on the lake before then) I collected close to 1000 photos and countless maps, charts and other graphic material.

The book is 148 pages long and broken into 7 chapters. It is a fascinating tale of the opening up of Great Slave Lake, a very remote and large body of water in Canada’s Northwest Territories, to commercial fishing. The impact of this industry between the 1940s and today reflects the dramatic changes that have taken place in the north in the past 75 years.

The book is available directly from me by email. The cost is $35 per book plus GST, shipping and handling.

franhurcomb@gmail.com

Below is a brief excerpt from Chapter 3, summarizing the arrival of McInnes Products Limited on the lake in 1945. The photos included are from the NWT Archives.

The Roots of Commercial Fishing on Great Slave Lake

When you turn your boat off the main lake and into Devil’s Channel there is always a feeling of relief. Great Slave Lake is huge and unsettled. Even the most benign marine forecast – winds south 7 knots, for example – can lead to a rough ride for most small boats. Devil’s Channel is a place of calm and safety, a narrow, five-kilometer-long channel between the shore and a large island called Gros Cap, located at the point where the North Arm meets the spectacular East Arm. It was in this sheltered location that commercial fishing made its debut north of sixty over 75 years ago.

The lean years of World War II had brought home the importance of food self-sufficiency to the Government of Canada. The demand for canned and cured fish increased sharply across North America as meat was rationed and shipped overseas to the military forces. This increased demand encouraged the expansion of fishing operations across the country. Large southern companies pressed the government to open both Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lakes to commercial fishing.

In response to the increasing pressure, the Department of Fisheries sent scientists to both lakes in 1944 to analyze the level of domestic fishing and do a biological survey of fish stocks in both lakes. Dr. D.S. Rawson, a limnologist from the University of Saskatchewan, was hired to lead the research team. The potential development of these remote, “virgin” northern lakes provided scientists with, in the words of Rawson, “a unique opportunity for a program of fisheries research and conservation.”

Rawson and his team travelled by barge around Great Slave in the summer of 1944. He counted 75 nets set around the lake and concluded that eight communities had significant summer fisheries. He estimated that in that summer, the community of Fort Resolution (population 675) harvested one million pounds (450,000 kg) of fish. Most of the harvest was whitefish and trout and was used mainly for dog food although some was for the table. Surplus fish were sold at the local trading posts fetching about a dollar for a stick of 10. During four days in early October,1945, 10,000 inconnu were caught at the mouth of the Buffalo River, near Fort Resolution.

After only one summer of exploration, Dr. Rawson concluded that Great Slave could indeed support a substantial commercial fishery. His tentative estimate was that at least 3 million pounds (1.4 million kg) could safely be taken every year in addition to the domestic catch. This quota, he suggested, should be liable to annual review. He also concluded that commercial fishing on Great Bear Lake was not feasible. Based on this preliminary research, the Department of Fisheries authorized limited commercial fishing on the lake in 1944 and opened the lake in 1945 for export from the Northwest Territories.

Only one company, McInnes Products Corporation, who had been operating on Lake Athabasca for many years, was ready to take up the challenge. Originally known as the McInnes Fish Company, it was established in Edmonton in 1916 and had re-emerged in 1934 as the McInnes Products Corporation. It was one of the largest fish producers in western Canada. On July 18, 1945, the RCMP issued one licence to McInnes Products Corporation for 42 fishermen. This license entitled the company “to fish in the public waters of Great Slave Lake, at Gros Cap, with 42,000 yards of gill net of at least 51/2-inch mesh, for a fee of $420.00.” This was a temporary arrangement and individual licenses were soon issued directly to the fishermen. The catch limit for the lake that year was 1.2 million pounds of whitefish and trout. In late July a number of barges from Lake Athabasca, equipped with freezing and filleting equipment, were floated down the Slave River and installed in Devil’s Channel, about 60 miles (100 km) from the mouth of the Slave River.

The first net was dropped by Len Cardinal from Fort Chipewyan. “We went down the Slave River to Great Slave Lake and crossed to Gros Cap. We set the first commercial net at 2:30 am on July 28, 1945. There were 24 little boats and ours was the first one out. We were at Matonabee Point. There was lots of fish.”

Because of low water levels on the Slave River, which was critical for transportation south, it was a short summer season, shutting down on September 16. Nonetheless, in less than two months, McInnes was able to process 1,205,000 pounds of trout and whitefish. The catch was processed and frozen at Gros Cap, barged across Great Slave, up the Slave River, portaged around the rapids at Fort Fitzgerald, and then barged further upstream on the Athabasca River to Waterways, a journey taking about 120 hours. In Waterways they were loaded onto refrigerated rail cars and shipped to Booth Fisheries in Chicago. McInnes had struck gold on Great Slave Lake.

McInnes ran a large operation. In 1946 they employed 175 people at Gros Cap and had a fleet of 25 fishing boats. The fisherman came from all over. Many had worked for McInnes on Lake Athabasca; some were Scandinavians and Icelanders from Lake Winnipeg; still others were Dene and Metis from around Great Slave Lake, Lake Athabasca and the lakes of northern Saskatchewan and Alberta. For many, the immense size of Great Slave Lake was a real shock. They often had to travel up to 8 hours just to get to their fishing grounds, a distance unheard of on smaller southern lakes.

In the plant, the fish were cleaned, scaled, washed, filleted, packed in five-pound containers, wrapped in cellophane and quick-frozen. Quick-freezing was a relatively new process developed by American inventor, Clarence Birdseye. Birdseye had spent several years in Labrador as a fur trader and was impressed by the quick-freezing techniques used by the Inuit. The processes in the plant were overseen almost entirely by women, mainly Japanese and local Dene.

A group of Japanese Canadians, who had been interned in Alberta during the war, worked mainly in the processing plant and added a real international flavour to the isolated camp. Ninety-three-year-old J.J. Morin started fishing for McInnes in 1946 and remembers them well. “The Japanese had been working for McInnes on Lake Athabasca. There were about 60 families at Gros Cap. They lived in tents going up the hill. They were very nice people and mostly worked filleting and wrapping the fish. We didn’t really get to socialize too much with them because we were too busy. We got up at 2 a.m. to go to the nets and didn’t get back until about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Then we ate and went to bed early.”

Ninety-year-old Lydia Nakamura Yatabe recalled her time at Gros Cap in a 2015 News/North article. She worked there in the summer of 1946 with other Japanese- Canadian women wrapping fish. The hours were long and the pay low, but she had fond memories of Great Slave Lake. “There was a group of boys from the University of Saskatchewan doing experimental work, and we got to know them quite well. They cooked fish for us and we had a good time singing and talking.”

Eight to ten engineers were required just to maintain all of the engines, generators and refrigerator units. They had a large shop and spare parts building behind the plant. Behind that were bunkhouses for plant staff. Farther up the hill was the main kitchen and the dining rooms where most of the crews were fed. Canvas tents dotted the shoreline of the channel, home to many families as well as single men. In 1948, the chief cook was an Englishman known only as Tommy. He was a good cook and famously baked a 98-pound bag of flour into bread every day. The camp store, located near the kitchen, supplied employees with most of the essentials they needed. Further inland, a large root cellar kept the vegetables fresh or at least edible. Along the shoreline was a small log cabin, the home of an ex-trapper called Shorty Bakstrom, also known as “The Mayor of Gros Cap.” He was the year-round caretaker and spent the winters alone, with only his dog team for company.

In 1947, Henry Villebrun’s family, like many others, travelled down the Slave River from Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca, to Great Slave Lake, where they crossed to the north shore and the Gros Cap plant. “It was a good place”, remembers Villebrun. “There were lots of tent frames and barges, and two big cook houses. My mother worked on a barge, inspecting whitefish for parasites. A lot of the Japanese worked there too. There were lots of Japanese families and my best friend was a Japanese boy called Dennis. One day he almost drowned. He fell between two barges. Two Japanese guys pulled him out by his hair. He was lucky.”

With the completion of the all-weather road from Alberta to Hay River in 1948, many more fishing companies moved north, peaking at 14 in 1949. In response to this increase in activity, the quota on the lake was raised to 9 million pounds. Instead of shipping its fish products south up the Slave River, McInnes was now able to truck them directly from Hay River. However, as the Hay River fishery expanded, McInnes began to feel pressure because of the extra shipping costs it incurred boating its products across the lake. The company could pay its fishermen only half as much per pound as those working for the companies based in Hay River.

Prices paid to fisherman at Gros Cap in 1948 were: small, dressed trout, 3 cents per pound; round whitefish, 2.5 cents per pound; dressed inconnu, 2 cents per pound; dressed pickerel, 3 cents per pound; and large trout (head off), 2 cents per pound. At the end of the season a bonus of .5 cents per pound was paid out. Labourers were paid $.65 per hour for a 48-hour work week, with time and half for overtime. Boats were rented to fisherman at rate of $125 to 150 per month depending on their size. Filleters were paid on a contract basis, 2 cents per pound of fillet. In 1946, J.J. Morin made $150 a month as crew on a boat. “At the end of the summer, I got a cheque for $450, and I felt rich.”

Sanitation problems began to plague the plant and in August 1951, an outbreak of typhoid fever hit the Gros Cap area. Eight active cases were reported, and the plant was temporarily closed. Inspectors declared that the sanitary conditions in the camp were deplorable. All the workers were vaccinated, and sanitary conditions were improved before the camp re-opened.

In 1954, McInnes decided to start shipping most of their fish fresh, not frozen, to Hay River on the Noralta, to be trucked south. Because they were now shipping fresh fish, more ice was needed and the icehouse at Gros Cap was too small, causing slowdowns. The next year, they purchased an ice-making machine, but this was still too small for the operation.

In the fall of 1955, McInnes’ Dease Lake tug was towing the Mackenzie River paddle wheeler from Gros Cap to Hay River at the end of the season. A severe storm hit, scattering the fishing fleet all over the lake. As a last resort, the Mackenzie River was finally cut loose and washed up on a beach between Buffalo River and Hay River. The shore crew on board were rescued the next day when the storm abated. The Mackenzie River was towed to Hay River and dismantled. Finally admitting that the company was unable to compete with the Hay River based outfits, McInnes ceased summer operations on Great Slave Lake after the 1960 season. The Gros Cap fish camp was abandoned. Remnants of the plant can still be found today, hidden in the willows of Devil’s Channel.

If you sit on the high rock promontory behind the camp location, it’s not hard to imagine a bustling camp smelling of fish and woodsmoke, the air thick with mosquitoes and the sounds of outboard motors and voices – young and old – talking in languages from around the lake and around the world.

 

NWT Archives/©Bart Hawkins fonds/N-1992-254:0102
NWT Archives / Eric Kettlewell photograph collection / N-2013-014:0560
NWT Archives / Eric Kettlewell photograph collection / N-2013-014:0578
NWT Archives/©Bart Hawkins fonds/N-1992-254:0094
NWT Archives / Eric Kettlewell photograph collection / N-2013-014:0572
NWT Archives / Eric Kettlewell photograph collection / N-2013-014:0548
Advertisement
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

My latest book, “Chasing Fish” will be on the shelves in early November 2022. More info to follow soon.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Winner of the Whistler Independent Book Award, Non- Fiction 2021

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Breaking Trail is a Finalist at the WIBA

WIBA 2021 Finalists Announced

Canadian Authors and Vivalogue Publishing have reviewed and evaluated the shortlisted titles for this year’s awards and are happy to announce the six finalists for the 2021 WIBAS.

The fiction finalists are:
Valerie Dunsmore for Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit
Pamela McGarry for The Unsuitable Bride
Don McLellan for Ouch: 20 Stories

The non-fiction finalists are:
Elke Babicki for Identity: From Holocaust to Home
Fran Hurcomb for Breaking Trail: Northern Stories from a Simpler Time
Beth Kaplan for Loose Woman: My odyssey from lost to found

The fiction finalists will be judged by Amber Cowie and Darcie Friesen Hossack. The non-fiction finalists will be judged by J.J. Lee and Eve Lazarus.

The winners will be announced during the Whistler Writers Festival, October 14–17, 2021.

The Whistler Independent Book Awards provide independently published authors with a unique opportunity to have their work recognized through a juried process.

Non-shortlisted titles are assessed and reviewed by Canadian Authors Association reviewers so that every participating author will receive valuable, professional feedback on their submission. These authors will receive their evaluations by July 31, 2021.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Old Town, by Fran Hurcomb

Northreads

I walked past this book for years before picking it up and reading it. When I finally did, I found a concise, beautifully illustrated history of Yellowknife, with just enough personal charm to make it a bit of a page-turner.  

Yellowknife photographer and writer, Fran Hurcomb, lived in Old Town for nearly 40 years before she published this book, first in a scrappy house just behind the brew pub, then in a skid shack in the Woodyard, then out in the woods at Watta Lake, then in a houseboat she built herself, then finally, in Willow Flats, where I’m going to presume she remained. 

IMG_4208I mention all that because where you live, in Old Town, is crucial, and here’s where I might lay bare my complicated feelings towards the residents of Old Town, or any other group defined by real estate, however cheap and scrappy. Moral righteousness (though attractive in…

View original post 492 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Breaking Trail: Northern Stories from a Simpler Time

Fran Hurcomb reflects on 45 years in the North in new book ‘Breaking Trail’

Northern News Services

In the 45 years Fran Hurcomb has resided in Yellowknife, a lot has changed. 

From her early days living on the trapline, to running sled dogs and building a houseboat, Hurcomb calls the North a place with “such potential for adventure.”

In her latest book, Breaking Trail: Northern Stories from a Simpler Time, Hurcomb gives readers a glimpse into some of her adventures from when she first backed her 1966 Valiant out of an Ottawa driveway and drove past the 60th parallel. 

Breaking Trail is a collection of 14 short stories recounting Fran Hurcomb’s early years in Yellowknife in the 1970s.
image courtesy of Fran Hurcomb.

Known for her photography, Hurcomb has published three pictorial histories and two children’s books. Breaking Trail, however, is unlike anything she’s done before. 

“It’s not a history, like my Old Town book or my dog derby book or those other ones. And it’s not pure fiction like my kids books,” she said. “This is sort of a mixture. It’s about a time and a place. The place being this area, and the time being mid-’70s.

“I just let my imagination go,” said Hurcomb. “Some stories are as true to fact as I can remember.”

Others were inspired by people and places encountered along the way.

In considering the book’s subtitle, Hurcomb said that Yellowknife in the ’70s seemed like a simpler time.

“No time is perfect, but it did seem to me, when I think back, that life was a bit more straightforward. You could just do things,” she said, describing building a cabin or going out into the bush without formal permission. “And nobody ever looked twice at us.”

Though, she said, “I also wonder if that’s something as you get older, you just begin to think life is getting complicated.”

Having authored a number of Northern-focused books, Hurcomb recalls being fascinated by the North from the time she was a child. 

“A story requires a bit of an adventure, whether it’s physical or mental,” she said. “In order to have any kind of story, something’s got to be happening. I just feel like a lot happens in the North.”

Breaking Trail tells the story of a new Northerner; of a dog musher; a cabin builder; of someone spending much of her time out in the bush. Hearing those stories from a female perspective is as unique as the accounts themselves, Hurcomb said. 

“It’s not that women weren’t having adventures, it’s just, we don’t seem to hear about them,” she said. “I hope that people will appreciate this as a different viewpoint because it is a woman’s point of view, and kind of in a man’s world in those days.”

As of last week, Breaking Trail became available at the Yellowknife Book Cellar and the Down to Earth Gallery. For out-of-towners looking to get their hands on a copy, Hurcomb suggests emailing her at franhurcomb@gmail.com and she will send a copy in the mail.

While a book launch doesn’t appear to be in the cards, she said if ever there is a warm day in the coming months, she would set up a table outside the Down to Earth Gallery, “put on some warm clothes, and sit around for a couple hours” to sign copies.  

Hurcomb said she feels “a good sense of accomplishment” with Breaking Trail.

“I hope people get an appreciation for just the wonderful wildness of the North.”

 

Here is one of the fourteen stories from Breaking Trail. Enjoy this glimpse into a northern past.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Longest Map

A presentation I made at Percha Kucha night at the PWNHC

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Old Town……the book

“In just 80 years, Yellowknife’s Old Town has undergone huge changes. What started as the centre of a 1930s gold-mining frontier town has become the relaxed, though often-controversial, historic neighbourhood of today’s modern capital city of the Northwest Territories. Despite the changes, Old Town has maintained a lot of its original character.

Author and photographer Fran Hurcomb moved to Old Town in 1975. In this book, she traces its evolution using more than 200 photos, most of them her own. Images of dog teams, shacks, Old Timers, float planes, houseboats and assorted characters illustrate a text covering everything from Old Town’s ongoing battles with City Hall, to how to build a houseboat, to the history of intriguing neighbourhoods such as the Woodyard and Jolliffe Island. This sometimes personal account looks at how Old Town itself has changed, as well as how this vibrant community has changed lives.”

“Old Town” will be available in November at the Book Cellar and Down To Earth Gallery in Yellowknife. If you are out of town, you can order the book by contacting me at  franhurcomb@gmail.com The cost is $26.95 plus $4.00 shipping and handling in Canada, plus $1.55 GST. Total cost is $32.50.

Here are a few of the over 200 photos ranging from the 1930s to 2012.

View of the Rock, 1946

Water delivery 1940s. Tom Doornbos.

Peace River Flats 1954. N-1979-052-4517 – Henry Busse

At the causeway, early 1960s. Mike Piro photo

Bootlegger’s shack, Woodyard, 1976

My shack in the Woodyard. 1977

Slugger and Porkchop, Woodyard 1980

Commercial fisherman, Johnny Nault. 1980

My team on Campbell Lake, 1980

First houseboat 1982

Fixing the DeHavilland Beaver on the ice. 1986

Sander’s cabin Jolliffe Island 1985

All dressed up in the Woodyard. 1987

Crossing rotten spring ice. 1988

Ice fishing from the houseboat. 1994

Snow King’s Festival. 1998

Sluggers old shack. 2006

View from the yacht club docks. 2008

Stan “The Man” Laroque. 2012

 
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Gone Fishing – Northern Style

http://vimeo.com/39677605

A little video shot in March with my GoPro. Shot on Great Slave Lake, about 15 km outside of Yellowknife.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Yellowknife’s Old Town: Not so Long Ago.

http://vimeo.com/37835331

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment