1900 Johnny Berens, Riverboat Pilot

During the years when steam driven stern-wheelers and side-wheelers plied the Mackenzie River the name of one river pilot, Johnny Berens, took on legendary proportions.

Johnny Berens’ father, Samuel Berens, was one of Sir George Simpson’s famous ‘Berens River Men’ and it’s likely that the Berens family name came from this Manitoba river. In the early 1860s Samuel Berens moved to Fort Simpson (map) from the Red River Settlement and became well known as a York Boat steersmen and pilot on the Mackenzie River. His son Johnny, born in Fort Simpson in 1871, started working at the age of 15 for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Simpson as an apprentice carpenter.

In 1886 Johnny was sent to Fort Smith to work on the construction of the SS Wrigley, the first sternwheeler on the Mackenzie and Slave rivers. Upon completion of the SS Wrigley the still very young Johnny Berens was hired as an apprentice cook. In 1900 Johnny abandoned cooking to become a riverboat pilot.

Riverboat pilots commanded a lot of respect in those early days. In order to safely guide a boat the pilot had to know every bend, ever sand bar and every rapid on the river and how each of these changed with seasonal fluctuations in water level. People used to say that a good river pilot was born and not made, the ability being passed from generation to generation.

With time Johnny’s skill as a river pilot made him a northern legend. In 1921 Johnny Berens became pilot on the north’s most famous paddle wheeler, the SS Distributor. For 26 years he piloted the Distributor back and forth between Fort Smith and Aklavik.

In 1947 Johnny Berens retired, he was 76 years old and had worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company for more than 60 years!