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The Town of Athabasca—or Athabasca Landing, as it was formerly known—was a major shipping and receiving centre in northern Alberta. In the summer, goods were brought to Athabasca and stored there until winter. In the north, because the land was covered in swamps, lakes, and rivers, very little freighting could be done during the summer: the terrain made transportation a difficult and time-consuming process. However, in winter, the lakes and rivers froze, thereby allowing freighters to cross over the terrain in sleighs pulled by horses or oxen. As a precautionary measure, freighters would travel with a partner.

Many of Amber Valley’s Black residents sought employment transporting freight for the Hudson’s Bay Company or the Revillon Brothers’ Company, situated in nearby Athabasca. There were various freighting trails connecting major outposts in northern Alberta, including Wabasca, Fort McMurray, Lac La Biche, and Fort Chipewyan. Typically, a freighter would arrive at a store in Athabasca, inform the store clerk of the sleigh’s cargo capacity, and agree to ship the cargo. There was a written agreement stating that the freighter was financially responsible for any cargo lost or stolen during the trip. A variety of goods were carried on the freight trail, including flour and other groceries, rifles, boilers, and hay. On several trails, there were rest areas available at a cost to the freighters of roughly $1 per night. Complete with log cabins and stables, rest areas were often shared by as many as 40 freighting teams at one time. Freighters would play cards for entertainment; however, most would either sleep or nurse their frostbitten limbs.

Thomas Mapp of Amber Valley worked as freighter for many years. He was paid about $300 for freighting 4,000 pounds (1,814 kilograms) of cargo by sleigh to Wabasca, a trip of approximately 186 miles (300 kilometres) that lasted upwards of nine days. During particularly nasty weather, the trip could be extended by another 10 days because of deep snow. Since cold weather drastically reduced the amount of distance covered in one day, weather was the greatest challenge facing freighters. Where there were no rest areas nearby, freighters had no choice but to set up camp in the snow. Warm clothes and shoes were essential, and freighters walked constantly to keep warm. Amber Valley freighter Boadie Bowen, for example, would brush away the snow and chop spruce branches to use as bedding. Afterwards, he would place his blankets on the spruce mats and cover his blankets with more spruce branches in order to maximize insulation.


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