Life in the fur trade is just a little out there

By Courtney Sidders

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To truly understand what life was like at the height of the Canadian fur trade, look no further than a visit to Fort George and Buckingham House Provincial Historic Site. It’s located 13 kilometers southeast of the charming Town of Elk Point, Alberta.

The competing trading posts operated side by side from 1792 to 1800 and were owned by two of the most famous fur-trading companies: the North West Company (Fort George), and the Hudson’s Bay Company (Buckingham House). With access to and stunning views of the North Saskatchewan River, it is easy to see why these two posts were embroiled in conflict throughout their operation. While the physical structures of the posts are no longer standing, archaeological remains and fascinating stories from the past can be explored from May 15 to the Labour Day weekend in September.

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As we started our adventure, I was instantly impressed with the beautiful views of lush Alberta forests on either side of the road as we headed down the well-maintained lane to the Interpretive Visitor Centre. Upon arrival, we were greeted by three trained Historical Interpreters, Stacey, Christina and Wyatt, who gave us a brief background on the history of Fort George and Buckingham House before we started our day’s journey into the lives of the people who called this place home during 1792- 1800.

Wyatt, an enthusiastic Historical Interpreter celebrating his fourth summer working at the site, took us back through history and explained what life was like at the trading posts. This was through an interactive tour of the Centre, complete with informative signs, video and photography, and real and replicated artifacts. Hides of beaver, rabbit, small vermin, and Hudson Bay Company woolen blankets were offered to feel and examine, and we crawled inside a life-sized teepee where the comforting smell of smoke filled the traditional Cree structure.

As we explored the artifacts, Wyatt piqued our interest as he shared the stories of the well-known figures of the local fur trade — Angus Shaw, William Tomison, and Peter Fidler. Through hilarious and heartwarming stories, we learned more about how the two fur trade companies interacted. Constantly in conflict during their operations at the site, it was surprising to hear that the companies still cooperated as neighbours, with stories of helping each other through fires or the threat of an outside attack. Sometimes the past is told in a way that neglects the humanity of historical actors; these men and women were just like us, they had fears, hopes and dreams, and needed the support of their communities—despite their competitive business interests. The interpretation at Fort George and Buckingham House brings the humanity of these people to light.

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As luck would have it, we arrived on a Wednesday, when the Centre offers a program called Bushcraft Skills Wednesdays. During this program, visitors learn a new wilderness skill each week that would have been a staple in 1792. Our eager Interpreters were more than accommodating, letting us try our hand at both fire-starting and mapmaking. To say these skills require immense patience, determination, and a bit of luck is an understatement. Neither of us ever mastered the art of fire-starting, much to the dismay of my freshly manicured nails. Our mapmaking abilities require a bit more finesse— let’s just say neither one of us will be the next Peter Fidler.

We were left in amazement and appreciation for the people who called these Forts home. We even got to take home our very own keepsake that kept me entertained on our way back to Edmonton, a sextant navigation tool we made while learning about mapmaking.

Once we finished embarrassing ourselves, and the fur trader spirits, because of our poor bushcraft skills, we took a relaxing walk to see the remnants of the Forts where they stood back in 1792. We were astounded to learn that the staff were about to remove the canvas of a teepee that had been shredded by a bear. This was a great reminder of the realities of life in the fur trade era.

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We ended our tour with a walk down to a cliff overlooking the North Saskatchewan River, a favourite spot for visitors to snap that perfect Instagramable photo. As I stood looking out at the vast valley with the comforting yellow canola fields, bright green foliage, and rolling thunderclouds in the distance, I couldn’t help but feel connected to this place. What Fort George and Buckingham House does so well is provide an experience for all five of your senses. It is truly a unique Alberta experience, one that will leave you in a state of wonder as to how these people were able to accomplish so much with so little.

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It’s Alberta. It’s crazy fun and super interesting, and all you have to do is get Out There! Plan your trip back in time to the days of the fur trade this summer, visit https://fortgeorgebuckinghamhouse.ca/. Be sure to share your experience on Facebook @fgbh.ab.

Fort George and Buckingham House Events & Programs:

Peter Fidler’s 250 Birthday

August 17, 2019, noon to 4pm

On August 17th, come to Fort George and Buckingham House to celebrate the birthday of a 250-year-old mapmaker: Peter Fidler. Enjoy Saskatoon pies, discover how to make maps Peter Fidler’s way, and try activities for the whole family at the historic site of the Fort where Peter Fidler lived and worked. Regular admission rates apply, additional charges may apply for food and drinks.

Archaeology Mondays

11am-3pm, every Monday through to August 26, 2019.

More information at: https://www.facebook.com/events/368707627122834/

Bushcraft Skills Wednesdays

11am-3pm, every Wednesday through to September 4, 2019.

More information at: https://www.facebook.com/events/892780517762270/

Explore More Nearby:

Attractions:

  • Peter Fidler Statue, Highway 41, Elk Point, AB
  • Iron Horse Trail, 5015 -49 Ave, St Paul, AB, visit website for staging areas.
  • Mural Park, 5201-50 Avenue, Elk Point, AB
  • RCMP Centennial Monument, 4802-50 Ave, Elk Point, AB

Accommodations:

  • Whitney Lakes Provincial Park has 2 campgrounds 20 kilometres away.
  • The Fat Ewe Farm B & B, 57527 Highway 41, Elk Point, AB
  • The Town of Elk Point Campground is 15 kilometres away.
  • The Town of Elk Point has motels 13 kilometres away.

Restaurants:

  • Wally’s Pub & Restaurant, 5305 48 St, Elk Point, AB
  • Taste Buds Restaurant, 4818 50 St, Elk Point, AB
  • Magic Pizza, 4904 50 St, Elk Point, AB
  • Rollie’s Burger Bar, 4909 48 St, Elk Point, AB

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