“Do you know what’s in this box?” Coyote leans forward and smiles ruefully. “It’s the reason Canada became Canada.”
He carefully opens the antique box and I peer inside. It’s a top hat – a beaver hat, to be precise – and Coyote’s right; the demand for fashionable hats made from beaver skins fuelled the exploration and settlement of Canada, as Hudson’s Bay Company employees set sail from England and began the business of crossing this vast country in search of the unlucky beaver. I’ve never seen one of the actual hats before and it seems to bring the past just that little bit closer.
It’s been like that all day here at Fort Edmonton Park, Canada’s largest living history museum. The park really is huge, some 158 acres, and you can easy imagine yourself back in the past as the excellent in-character guides help create the illusion. I walked from the car park into a perfect facsimile of the 1920s, complete with its own fairground midway, gleaming steam train and even a hotel with a theatre and restaurant. I stopped to admire the Motordome with its dozen or so working vintage vehicles. You can flag them down on 1920s street and ride in a real Flying Cloud or Dodge Bros. car. From there I left the neat sidewalks and walked along 1900s Street, snapping photos of the bell-clanging streetcar which ran along the route conjuring up the start of Edmonton’s economic boom.
The road changed into a dirt track as I strolled back through time to the 1880s, past covered wagons and a North-West Mounted Police outpost. I chatted with a costumed Métis guide who sat by a fire, stirring a pot of beans for his lunch. He told me that the silk hat had killed fashion's demand for beaver, and the fur trade was now over. Despite this, he said that I could still get some cash for skins – a dollar for a buck skin – which is where the slang ‘buck’ comes from. I rounded the corner into 1846, walking past teepees towards the fort palisades, which is where I met Coyote, a First Nations interpreter played by one of the museum guides.
I’ve long been fascinated with tales of Canada’s fur trading past, it’s an unimaginably hard life. To travel so far and for so long, across such forested, inhospitable terrain, having to portage your already heavy canoe packed with even heavier furs, maybe for miles at a time and surviving on little more than pemmican— balls of dried meat, fat and berries. Coyote took me on a tour of the fort, explaining the complex system of how furs are assessed for trading. The chief trader decided on a standard ‘made beaver’ against which all others are judged— here it was five hands long, with darker, softer under hair. A fox, for instance was worth half a beaver, a bear worth three. Hudson’s Bay Company blankets were prized amongst the Cree and Blackfoot who brought in furs to trade. The blankets were different sizes according to points embroidered on them, each long line equal to two beavers. Lost in the recent past, I spent a happy hour exploring the fort, learning more about Coyote’s life, before hopping on the steam train that lay beyond its wooden walls, back to the future.