Summer, 2017, Altitude
Canada’s northern fur traders abandoned their dog sleds in favour of airplanes as soon as it became obvious that they could easily make more money flying over the wilderness than “mushing” through it.
According to the Winnipeg Free Press, the watershed year was the winter of 1933-34 when the major fur trading companies had to scrap “traditions and trading customs built up through the centuries” when an enterprising aviator disrupted their commerce. In a March 16, 1935, article the newspaper described the Hudson’s Bay Company and Revillon Frères as the leading victims of new technology that included both airplane and radio.
“With one light airplane,” the newspaper said, “C.M. Smith, a young but far-seeing fur trader in the land north of here, last winter gathered in practically [all of] the pick of the season’s fur catches, did a remarkable business in trading with the far-flung line of trappers, and undersold his older and more staid rivals.” Smith had based his flying trading post concept at La Ronge, Saskatchewan.
The Hudson’s Bay Company and Revillon Frères, the two leading fur-buying firms at the time, responded quickly and the following winter, 1934-35, both companies chartered their own airplanes “in order to combat the ‘curb service’ offered by the newcomer.”
The Free Press article described the aerial service from La Ronge as a one-stop concept: “With the [winter] flying day from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., it means hard and fast work for the pilot and ‘factor’ of the ‘flying trading post.’ Loaded up with canned goods, rifle ammunition, trapping equipment and other trading goods, they ‘push off’ in the morning in their ski-equipped machine, then head north to the Athabasca Lake country, several hundred miles away. Along the lake shore are the lonely trapper’s cabins, for the lake to them is their only means of travel, summer and winter. Settling down on the snow-covered ice near the shore, the pilot taxis in toward the cabin. Outside, if it is not too cold, or inside the trapper’s home, the trading takes place. Furs are bartered for foodstuffs, ammunition, and the like. Usually there is little cash business…. [The trapper] can buy cheaper from the flying trader.”
In the spring of 1935 the Toronto Star Weekly also published a feature on how the airplane and radio transformed the fur trade. “Canada’s northern wildernesses have gone modern,” said Star Weekly, writer W.A. De Graves in a feature published on March, 23: “Where a few years ago, trappers plodded across the great snow deserts, ant-like specks in a waste of white, behind their team of panting, steaming huskies, taking a month to get into their trap lines, or spending all fall poling and tracking freight-laden canoes up foaming rapids and rivers… today they soar over the wilderness in heated cabin aeroplanes, using only a few hours’ comfortable flying time.”
The Weekly continued: “And where they formerly waited until spring and summer to bring out their season’s catch of fur, today they listen in on radio broadcasts for fur prices from Edmonton and Winnipeg, and when the prices are right, they load up their sleds with baled fur, mush to the nearest wireless station, radio for an aeroplane…. Today they know what price they will get for their fur before it reaches the market, but in the old days they were compelled to bring it in when the rivers opened, taking their chances on what price it would bring when they reached the
De Graves made the point that trappers were motivated by economic efficiency. After describing how much fur could be loaded into an airplane and how incredibly quickly it could be shipped “to the fashionable salons of Paris and London, to adorn the gleaming shoulders of beautiful women,” he then observed “that’s why the northmen swear by the aeroplane today, for although the wild men of the woods lead solitary lives…they can smell a dollar as far away as anyone, and realize that this saving in time and trouble is important.”
De Graves said that the changes were good for the northern trappers: “They’ve gone modern all right, but they’re making it pay, and what with radios in the cabins bringing them Guy Lombardo and Paul Whiteman programs, and all the other things the big broadcasts offer… they’re living the life of Reilly.”
Airplanes also made it possible for freshwater fish to get to market faster. The Free Press reported that in addition to transporting furs, the air freight companies at La Ronge were also kept busy shipping fish. “With a ready market in New York and other American centres, fresh-caught fish are being freighted out of La Ronge to Prince Albert for transfer to through freight trains bound southeast. Some fish are even flown direct to Winnipeg for transfer to trains there and fast shipment by express. Fish have been dumped out of sacks flown here and they were still flapping
Illustrating what life as a bush pilot was like in the early days of flying is a photo of Western Canada Airways Limited Fokker Standard Universal, G-CAGE, being unloaded of supplies near Hudson, Ontario. The nearby tent is the company’s first makeshift head office and crew accommodation, c. 1926.
This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2017 edition of Altitude magazine.