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Big wheel ties family to big river

Myles Dolphin
Northern News Services
Published Monday, May 6, 2013

About 13 kilometres east of the mouth of the Hay River, near a little-known place called Falls Point, lies a half-buried piece of Mackenzie River history.

NNSL photo/graphic

Doug Camsell stands next to a paddle steamer wheel that most likely came from the Mackenzie River paddlewheeler, a vessel once captained by his great-uncle Julian Mills. - photo courtesy of Kyle Camsell

The object is a remarkably well-preserved wheel from a paddle steamer. The wheel almost certainly came from the Mackenzie River paddlewheeler, built in Fort Smith and launched in 1908.

The wheel, likely made out of cast iron and oak, shows signs of rust and decay, but the wood is still relatively intact.

It barely sticks out of the ground during the winter season, but protrudes out of the shallow water during the summertime, making it significantly more visible.

Doug Camsell and his son Kyle, both from Hay River, share a special bond with the wheel.

Doug's great uncle, Capt. Julian Mills, piloted a number of vessels down the Mackenzie River in the 19th and 20th centuries, and also participated in the building of the paddle steamer from which this particular wheel probably came.

Doug said he has visited the wheel's location for as long as he can remember.

"It's been there my whole life and I remember first hearing about it when I was 10 years old," he said. "I remember it was a great spot to go duck hunting in the fall."

Mills operated the 38-metre-long boat for the Hudson's Bay Company on Great Slave Lake in the 1920s.

Camsell thinks the wheel would have washed up on shore one day after the boat was decommissioned and mothballed by the company in 1924.

The boat was one of dozens that travelled up and down the Athabasca, Slave, Mackenzie, Peace and Liard rivers between 1882 and 1924, carrying much-needed goods and passengers to small communities where road access wasn't yet available.

Kyle Camsell learned about the wheel's history and its connection to his family only a week ago, when his father took him out by snowmobile to see it.

"I think it's an interesting part of Northern history," the younger Camsell said.

"A part of my ancestry helped build that. It's not something you can find out on the Internet," he added, referring to the benefits of oral history.

The Camsells said there are no plans to try to take the wheel out of the ground anytime soon.

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