INTERVIEWER: I wouldn’t have known that you were a marine operator if I hadn’t watched tugs and barges being built in your back yard right across from my front window. And you know it seems very romantic to me that after what is a short portage of about a hundred miles by truck, those craft would be put into the river right there at Fort Nelson and could almost be floated to the sea. Now would you tell us how all of this could happen?
WOODS STREEPER: Yes, I would be glad to. In 1948, I moved to Fort Nelson along with Mr. Bumstead. In the sawmill where we spent the winter of 1946 and 1947 and in the spring of ‘47, we had a scow built there by Mr. Bumstead. We loaded it with lumber and headed from Fort Nelson to Fort Simpson and to Aklavik from Fort Nelson. And we just — that’s all we had on for freight was the lumber which we peddled along the way at different points. Some at Nahanni, some at Simpson, some at Fort Nelson, and some at Good Hope, but the bulk of it we took on to Aklavik. The lumber was left in the care of a gentleman down there whose name slips my mind at present. But anyhow, on returning, the lumber business didn’t seem to be so prosperous at the time for awhile. So, I decided to go looking for a job.
The first job I found was eight miles away at the army camp in Fort Nelson. They, some of the boys there, were Sittler, Ron Kirk and Hi Nelson who probably most of you know, started the Cassiar mines, the asbestos mines. Well, they were building a small boat to go prospecting for minerals. Previous to that my brother and I decided to build a small boat just for the fun of it. So, we built about a thirty-five foot boat with an inboard motor and we made a trip to the Nahanni River. My wife and another lady and her husband accompanied us.
On returning home, we decided that we had too much boat just to play with, so I contacted different government authorities and got a license. And, I thought it was a D.O.T. license, but it wasn’t although I got by all right with it. In the spring, the next spring, we built a barge, loaded some lumber, which Mr. Bumstead supplied, and I got five tons of freight for Mr. Labine to go to Aklavik and made a successful trip. We made enough money on that trip to pay our expenses and a few dollars over. On our return, we worked the rest of the year for the army, and finished off the year. And, the next spring we were going to leave earlier and we could not get leave unless we got back on time so we had to leave the army.
And this year we had around forty-five tons of freight that we took to Aklavik and the points in between, which seemed to be successful. And as I said, we had left the army so my wife moved to Dawson Creek and we made another trip that Fall into the Nahanni for a survey outfit, or a geologist outfit rather, and from then on I guess I carried on and made my living ever since with the boats. In ‘54 we formed a company in the name of Streeper Brothers Marine Transport under which we operated.
INTERVIEWER: Was that the first company that was running to Aklavik?
WOODS STREEPER: No, the first company out of Nelson that ran to Aklavik was called the B. C. Mackenzie and that was pin-pointed or headed by a man by the name of Bill Strom, but there was another local business man out there at that time that had an interest in that and he operated two years and just what happened to that company, I don’t know but it ceased operation.
INTERVIEWER: And then I think you had some adventures. Now, I think I remember that Mrs. Streeper was one of the first two white women ever to reach Virginia Falls.
WOODS STREEPER: Yes, that is true, by boat my wife and Pat Capland, by name, went along on the first, or rather not on the first trip to Nahanni, but the second trip – the first two white women to ever reach Virginia Falls all the way in by boat. There’d been some white women reached there before, but they had flown most of the way in.
INTERVIEWER: Well it seems to me very interesting that a man who makes his head-quarters here in Dawson Creek, kept on with the boating for so many years. I think you referred to yourself once as a river-rat, and I believe you’ve been called a marine operator for some years. What gave you this interest in boating? Did you come from that kind of industry or what?
WOODS STREEPER: No, not exactly. I did the first large boating experience I had on the Peace River along with a private operator by the name of Harry Weaver up and down the river, handling freight and that and it was quite interesting and he’d made a living of it at the time. So, we did too, we didn’t make any fortune for quite a number of years and as far as that goes, we haven’t yet, but we’ve managed to live and I have made enough after selling the company to Keen Industries to retire quite comfortably.
INTERVIEWER: I understand that Mr. Keen is naming one of his new barges after you.
WOODS STREEPER: Yes, Mr. Keen bought my outfit in 1966. I helped my son George get started with an outfit and, which he eventually did very well with and he has sold it to Mr. Keen also now and incidentally is the manger. And, they were discussing the name for the new boat that Keen Industries is building for operation on the Mackenzie and possibly on the Liard and Nelson and they were discussing the name. George said why not name it after the old man, he started the company because the company that I started is still operating under Keen Industries.
INTERVIEWER: Well, then I think it’s safe to say that the Streeper Marine Industry was the first one to really make a continuing success of linking Dawson Creek with what I like to call its port at Aklavik.
WOODS STREEPER: Well, yes we were and we have made the yearly run and sometimes twice, we went twice as far as Aklavik owing to the fact that at that time there was no road to Fort Providence and we could be in Aklavik from two to three weeks earlier than boats that had to cross the Great Slave Lake. But, in about 1966, ‘67 — no, earlier than that — the road got into Fort Providence and from then on N.T.C.L. could make it just as quick to Aklavik as we could because they loaded their freight at Fort Providence. A lot of people figure now that we can still make an earlier trip to Aklavik because we could go by Fort Nelson to Fort Providence and then to Aklavik. But that is not so because the Mackenzie ice does not go out as early as the ice up here and the boats from Fort Providence can get down just as early as the boats from Fort Nelson.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I would say from the little quirk of humor that I think I detect in your conversation that you weren’t in the business only for the money that was in it. I think that you must have got some fun and some adventure from it. Could you tell us any of the funny things that happened or the dramatic things that happened?
WOODS STREEPER: Well, there was one that struck my mind. My wife and one of my younger boys were along and he come up and, “Dad,” he said, “that fella down there is washing his socks in the water.” And, I says, “Well, son don’t be foolish, nobody’s that . . . ” Well, I looked out, and just looked down and I was in pilot house and pretty soon he say, “Dad, he’s washing his socks again.” And I looked down and sure enough, he was washing his socks in the water barrel. Well, I just didn’t know what to think!
INTERVIEWER: Well, with all that water in the river, why did you have to have a water barrel?
WOODS STREEPER: Well, he had to stoop over and get it and the water in the water barrel had settled and was quite clean and the water in the river was quite murky and muddy and his socks couldn’t get very clean, but anyhow, I let a roar out of me and he stopped and of course we dumped the water out. Then, I put him to work washing the deck and he would mop up the water from one part of the deck and wring it out on the other part of the deck. Now that is about as comical a thing or stupid a thing as I’ve ever heard on the river. I’ve had lots of fun with different men that I hired, most of them’s been good really, but I’ve had some of them that I had to tell them that I’ll just have to get my wife up here to teach you how to tie a knot!
INTERVIEWER: Mrs. Streeper then, was you might say a partner in the firm from the beginning, right?
WOODS STREEPER: Well, in a way yes she was.
INTERVIEWER: An active partner anyway?
WOODS STREEPER: Well, an active partner in a way. She had certain rights in the firm and later on became a full-fledged member and when I sold the outfit out it belonged to myself and my wife, and I bought my brother out a couple of years before I sold out.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any dramatic incidents, any near wrecks or anything like that?
WOODS STREEPER: Yes, we had some near wrecks. At one time there was a school house it was, or material actually for a school house to go to the mouth of the Nahanni River and it was sent in by way of Fort Simpson or by Fort Providence and that way on N.T.C.L.’s boat. I tried to come up the river with it and the water was just plain too low. I couldn’t get through the rapids on the Liard but, when I turned around to go back, I hit a rock and knocked a hole or several big holes rather, in the bottom of the barge. But, I managed to get to the bar before the barge sunk. There was nothing lost but the boys had to get in and work in the water where they had about a foot or a little over of breathing space and patch that hole, before we could pump it out. And, I had a priest from Fort Nelson along, or from Fort Simpson rather, was along on the trip and he was very nice, very good, and of course the boys used language that wasn’t too good. And, I was talking to him one time on the back of the boat where he put in most of his time while he was going and he said it might do just as much good to pray a little bit as to swear quite so much!
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any other experiences on the Mackenzie River or on the Liard or the Upper Nelson?
WOODS STREEPER: No, not in particular more or less just run of the mill experiences. We hit, got stuck on bars and spent the night on bars and more going down than coming up because when you’re going down and you get too close to a bar there’s nothing you can do about it but do something about getting off. When you’re coming up the river and you get too close to a bar all you do is shut off your motors and back off. But, it was quite uneventful, except we did have trouble one time.
We had a bunch of horses and we knocked a hole in the barge again. We made it to a sand bar before it sank, unloaded the horses, and then we had to drive them a long ways and make a trip to Nelson and get another propeller because we had worn this one propeller right out. And, incidentally we were ten days coming from Nelson Forks to Fort Nelson on that trip. But there wasn’t anything comical about it, it was a lot of hard work. We had to unload the horses every day, every morning and find them and load them, and unload them at night because we had no feed along. The owners of the horses had sent food for a day and we were ten days at it so we had to unload and load them horses, which didn’t make us any quicker on the trip either. But, as far as, well I don’t know whether it was good luck or good management, but we didn’t have too much other trouble.
INTERVIEWER: The way I’ve heard it in the summer, travellers are deterred from going up on the river boats because well, I’ve heard it said that if you run out of water you could always run on the backs of the mosquitoes. Have you got anything to say about mosquitoes?
WOODS STREEPER: Well, the mosquitoes were thick, especially the two thickest places I ever run into was in the Liard Rapids and the mouth of the Nahanni where they were really, really thick. Although in Aklavik when they were quite thick, the natives there all wore parkas winter and summer. At least summer, in the mosquito season and they would pull the parka over their heads and that left just their faces sticking out and then they would, their parka sleeves were loose and they would put their hands in one sleeve and the other sleeve and sit there. And, then the mosquitoes would get on their faces and they would just raise their arms and brush them off and as for as their hands and the backs of their necks, there was just no mosquitoes on them.
INTERVIEWER: Well, they weren’t doing much else then, just fighting mosquitoes, that would be a full-time job.
WOODS STREEPER: They were doing a lot easier job of fighting mosquitoes just off their faces, then we were off our hands and the backs of our necks and every place else, with their parkas on.
INTERVIEWER: Well what about the repellents?
WOODS STREEPER: Well, we used repellent a lot all right enough and they did, but not too much because you know, they were born and raised that way and maybe they just were happy sitting there with their parkas on, and incidentally in Aklavik when the Mothers went up town the baby was shoved up the back of the parkas and then she would tie a sash around her waist to hold the baby from falling out. And you couldn’t see anything of the baby. I don’t know how he enjoyed it in there. And, then when they got back to the boat, why Father or sister or somebody else just held their hands so as the baby wouldn’t drop, and the mother untied the sash, and the baby fell down and was caught quite nicely.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell us any other of the quaint ways that they have in the Arctic?
WOODS STREEPER: Well, no not really quaint ways, only there was another incident at Aklavik that was quite amusing. There was some tourists down there; they called them tourists and they were asking about this and that and talking in such a way in the broken English that a lot of people use on natives. And, after they got through asking him all these questions, which he answered in monosyllables, they asked if they could go ashore and in perfect English, he said, “Oh yes, you’re very privileged to go aboard my boat.”
INTERVIEWER: I think, though, that some of the questions that were asked up there were no funnier than the ones that were asked by the young newspaper woman down here.
WOODS STREEPER: No, I would imagine not, because Eskimo people and the Indians were educated quite a lot after the churches got in. They were a pretty well-educated group of people.
INTERVIEWER: Well, did they know how it happens that an iron boat could float, could they understand that or did they take it for granted?
WOODS STREEPER: Oh yes, they could understand things like that because probably well the first big boats they saw were ships coming in the north, coming in as far as Tuk Tuk and of course they were not all made of iron but some of them were made of iron, so they knew that an iron boat could float.
INTERVIEWER: I was quite amused by the story that you told us about the newspaper woman here in Dawson Creek that came in and wondered if you were just building a swimming pool out there for your own amusement when the barges were being built.
WOODS STREEPER: Yes, and she was wondering too why it’s made of iron, how it would float, well of course practically everybody knows that an iron boat will float right enough. But, it is common practice all right for a smaller outfit to build wooden barges. Incidentally, I was the first man to build a sealed barge for the Nelson River.
INTERVIEWER: I thought I had heard that, yes. What are your comments on the present controversy about bringing oil down the Mackenzie?
WOODS STREEPER: Well, I don’t know. It could be done I imagine, all right enough, providing that there was some freight going both ways. I don’t think any company could make, could compete with ocean traffic up the Mackenzie unless it was more or less on a back-haul basis, because of their depth, especially after the ice goes out in the north and then when they get to the north shore, the water has gone down somewhat, and they cannot load too heavy all through there. They are dredging though, and have dredged the Mackenzie River in several places. There is still some of that river there that is just to shallow to load heavy enough to make it pay.
INTERVIEWER: Well, then what are they going to use for ballast with these huge tankers going north again?
WOODS STREEPER: The tankers going north on the Mackenzie River need no ballast because they’re built, have a flat bottom and the largest ones are only two hundred and fifty feet long and around fifty-six feet wide and they have flat bottoms, and on the river there’s no ballast necessary.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I was thinking of the ocean tankers that they’re talking about – the huge boats, bigger than the Manhattan; how are they going to operate?
WOODS STREEPER: Well, that is a little bit out of our line, I can’t tell you anything about that as far as experience is concerned only just common sense that, when the Manhattan and some of the other boats go into the north, they are taking a certain amount of freight and refined oil, such as diesel fuel, and gasoline for exploration purposes up there again.
INTERVIEWER: That’s rather like taking coals to Newcastle, to take oil in in order to take it out again.
WOODS STREEPER: No, I wouldn’t say that because crude oil is one thing and diesel fuel is another thing that has been refined and as yet there are no refineries in that part of the north.
INTERVIEWER: Well, what’s to prevent their coming?
WOODS STREEPER: Nothing, as far as I can see.
INTERVIEWER: You don’t look forward to you or your sons going into competition with the big tankers?
WOODS STREEPER: Oh, absolutely not. Not even N.T.C.L. is going into competition with the tankers going around, because although the N.T.C.L. can handle an awful lot of freight it doesn’t compare with deep-sea traffic at all.
INTERVIEWER: Well, do you think that pipe lines from the north of this highway that they’re talking about would put the barges and boats off the river because of the short season?
WOODS STREEPER: Oh, absolutely not, because the pipeline going into that country brings oil out, but it takes nothing back in the way of food and supplies of all kinds. That is, refined oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel which is used up there to a great extent.
INTERVIEWER: Well, have you seen anything in the newspapers or heard anything on the media about the point that you have just brought up, that the pipeline goes only one way? I haven’t. It seems to me everybody seems to be thinking about getting the oil out, but no alternative has been suggested for getting supplies back in again.
WOODS STREEPER: Well, as far as getting supplies back, it’s gone far enough now and relatively enough stuff has gone in, but they can still keep on taking what they need in by boat. Incidentally, what goes down the Mackenzie is not the biggest part of the freight that goes into the north slopes, or into the northern islands of Canada. There are boats that go in there that take more freight and also oil into that country for exploration then there is goes down the Mackenzie.
INTERVIEWER: Via the Hudson Bay?
WOODS STREEPER: Some of it, but the North-west Passage is the route they usually take. There is also one tug outfit that made the trip – seventeen thousand miles round trip with the tugs, from Texas. Well, I don’t know, but I imagine they went through the Panama Canal to the north slopes on the northern side of Alaska.
INTERVIEWER: So, that lot of talk we’re hearing about railways, roads, and pipelines coming from the north via the Mackenzie River and oh, Grimshaw and Dawson Creek and that sort of thing is not very practical then, am I right?
WOODS STREEPER: Well, no, I don’t think some of their ideas are too practical, owing to the permafrost. Now the settlement or town or whatever you want to call it of Inuvik, is all built except for one building, to my knowledge, on pilings where they thawed out the ground with steam, and then drove the piling in without disturbing the moss and growth on the ground. In a matter of a day or two after they had drove the piling, it was frozen solid again and their aim in doing that was to keep the permafrost in the ground rather than to uncover the top of the soil or the top of the ground which in one summer will thaw down several feet. You can drive a road even as far south as Norman Wells and in fact, there is some permafrost as far south as it’s warmer. But, at the town of Norman wells you can build a road in one day, maybe to log or to take an oil rig in and you can use it today and tomorrow and the next day, you can’t get over it. You’ll have to build another one.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I should imagine that a man like yourself, who has an enterprising steak and who studies these things if you were say, twenty-five years younger, might be interested in building one of those railroads in which there are simply poles and then cables strung along like our old cable ferries and the cars could travel on the cables suspended. I would think that possibly you’d be one of those enterprising people whom might entertain an idea like that.
WOODS STREEPER: Well, it would be nice to be, to join that, if a person has the capital all right. But, when it comes to moving certain things, you have to have the proper equipment. Then you can’t have makeshift equipment. Now, like my little enterprise of moving freight on the Nelson, Liard, and Mackenzie River, the barges of which practically the small barge was the N.T.C.L. and incidentally the one that Caps Transport uses now, could load my barge – tugboat and all, on one barge and go down the river and still have room for another two hundred and fifty or two hundred tons. So, as far as capacity and that, to move freight to any great extent down the Liard and Nelson Rivers cannot compete in my opinion at all with the route from Hay River. Because one boat, one of their tug boats, after they get across River, will handle as high as twelve barges loaded down the river and none of them would have less than four hundred ton on. I wouldn’t like to make the trip, because I don’t think you’d get around the second bend with an outfit like that.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I can see that you’re looking forward to seeing these big enterprises taking over after you, but as far as I’m concerned, you and your brother are the ones that pioneered the barging business – made it successful on the Arctic and I think that you deserve recognition here in Dawson Creek as a man of foresight and enterprise and ambition. Thank you Mr. Streeper for your comments.
WOODS STREEPER: But, really as far as us being the pioneers, I would not lay claim to that at any rate. But, we did made a success to a part of our enterprise at any rate, and thank you.
INTERVIEWER: Well that goes down in history as an accomplishment. Thank you and thank Mrs. Streeper very, very much.
WOODS STREEPER: You’re welcome.