Johnny Berens, Riverboat Pilot

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

In the early 1860s, a Hudson’s Bay Company Métis employee named Samuel Berens moved to Fort Simpson from the Red River Settlement and became a York Boat steersman and pilot on the Mackenzie River. His son Johnny, born in Fort Simpson in 1871, started working for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Simpson as an apprentice carpenter when he was 15.

In 1886 Johnny was sent to Fort Smith to help construct the SS Wrigley, the first sternwheeler on the Mackenzie and Slave Rivers. The completion of the SS Wrigley allowed the still very young Johnny Berens to sign on as an apprentice cook. In 1900 Johnny abandoned cooking to become a riverboat pilot.

Riverboat pilots commanded a lot of respect as they maneuvered their boats along the Mackenzie River system. To safely guide a boat, the pilot had to know every bend, sand bar, and rapid on the river and how these changed with seasonal fluctuations in water level. People used to say that a good river pilot was born and not made; the ability passed from generation to generation.

Johnny’s skill as a river pilot made him a northern legend. In 1921 he became the 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!