The canoe’s role in the making of Canada is as deep as any river or lake that runs through this vast country.
Adventurous fur traders and explorers like David Thompson and Alexander Mackenzie travelled westward by canoe toward the Pacific Ocean along challenging waterways, meeting and trading with indigenous peoples. The result was they opened up what was once known as Rupert’s Land, which the Hudson’s Bay Company claimed.
So it was only fitting that Canada’s 1967 centennial celebrations included a history-making 5,250-km voyageur canoe race that ran from Rocky Mountain House all the way to Montreal.
Now 50 years later there will be another race — this time with paddlers travelling 1,600 km along rivers in Western Canada — to mark Canada’s next big confederation birthday, it’s 150th in 2017.
Vic Maxwell, 80, one of the original paddlers in 1967, is now involved with a Rocky Mountain House committee organizing the Rupertsland Express — Heritage Canoe Race. Before the big race, there will be a less competitive 120-km, five-day trip down the North Saskatchewan River from the Kootenay Plains to Rocky.
As in 1967, the Rupertsland Express — Heritage Canoe Race will start on the banks of the North Saskatchewan by Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site.
Maxwell, who still canoes, said the 2017 race will end in The Pas, Man., and invitations are just going out now to canoe clubs across the country.
“If they’re tough enough, send in their entries. They’ll have to be tough,” Maxwell said.
He ought to know. He was captain of the Alberta team in 1967 at the age of 31.
The journey to the 1967 race began with “trial” races in 1966. There were 100 paddlers, 10 teams in total, from eight provinces and the two territories. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island did not compete.
The first trial began in British Columbia at Fort St. James. The canoers raced down the Stuart and Nechako rivers to Prince George, and then down the Fraser River to Vancouver. Then they paddled their big canoes across the Strait of Georgia to Galiano Island, on to Sidney and and around Vancouver Island, ending at Victoria Harbour in front of the provincial legislature buildings.
The second trial run began in Montreal at Expo Island. They paddled along the St. Lawrence and Richelieu rivers, across Lake Champlain, down the Champlain and Hudson rivers, pulling the canoes out at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in 1966. That run was intended to also promote the upcoming Expo 67 in Montreal.
The next year the teams then went on to race in the gruelling Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant, which began at Rocky on May 24, 1967, and ended 104 days later in Montreal on Sept. 4.
The large canoes — also known as north canoes — each held six men who raced at 60 strokes a minute, switching from one side to the other without pausing. Some days were shorter than others, said Maxwell, but often they paddled for as long as 15 hours a day.
Manitoba won the race, British Columbia was second, and Alberta was third. All participants received cash prizes.
Maxwell said the 1967 paddlers had backgrounds as farmers, miners, lumberjacks and many were trappers. He’s not sure it’s possible to find 100 up-to-the-task paddlers now but he’s hoping. “It’s a very hard sport … when the gun goes in the morning there are no stops for anything.”
Marathon canoeing still goes on in a few communities in Canada and the United States.
Never a week goes by now when someone doesn’t mention the 1967 race to him, Maxwell said.
The original Alberta team included Maxwell, and Archie Griffith, from Rocky; Dave Ellery, Drayton Valley; George and Albert Abel, Robert Poluck, from Calgary; Dave MacLure, Ken Hardy, Sid Webb from Edmonton; and Adam Borys, Medicine Hat.
Since the centennial race, there have been reunions in 1992 and 1999 in Rocky, said Maxwell, who was also chief voyageur during the Northwest Territories centennial in 1970 in a race down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean.
After the centennial race, the Alberta paddlers built a canoe pavilion at the Rocky Historic park and their north canoe they used to race to Montreal was put on permanent display.
They also buried two time capsules in the pavilion — one to be opened in 2017 and the other after another 25 years, said Maxwell.
He said he suggested another reunion around the time of the capsule opening, and now Clearwater County, the Town of Rocky, the Confluence Heritage Society “and what’s left of my compatriots from 1967” agreed to hold Voyageurs Rendezvous 2017 just before the race to The Pas, he said.
Maxwell was raised on a farm, and he was a a surveyer and helped build oil roads in the 1950s in Northern Alberta when he was young man.
It was there he came across an aboriginal man in 1958 who was driving a dog team in the very remote area. Maxwell, who had always had an interest in historical items, asked the man if he had any such items to sell.
The man returned by dogsled a few days later with a large item wrapped in flour sacks. “In it was the bow of an old birch bark canoe … in red you could see the ‘HBC’ marked across it.”
The man told Maxwell it had come from his grandfather’s grandfather. It was from a time when traders had come for fur and birch bark for canoes.
When Maxwell was 23, he “retired” from the frontier business and bought land in Rocky and built the first motel there. He called it the Voyageur Motel and it’s still there.
The Rocky Mountain North Canoe Brigade begins June 24, 2017, at the Kootnenay Plains and arrives on June 28 at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site.
The Voyageurs Rendezvous 2017 reunion with a variety of events takes place from June 28 to July 1 at the historic site.
Lap 1 of the Rupertsland Express race — which will offer “serious prize money for all teams” — runs from the historic site to Hwy 11A and back on June 30.
Then on July 1, Canada’s 150th birthday, the race departs, headed to the finish line in The Pas, Man., expected to arrive on July 21.
For more information, contact Maxwell by email at email@example.com