The Voyageurs’ Rendezvous teams prepare to depart from Saskatoon earlier in the race. (Photo contributed by Greg Cowan)

Historic canoe race from Rocky Mountain House to Manitoba nears end

Voyageurs’ Rendezvous event marks Canada’s 150th anniversary

The finish line of the 2017 Voyageurs’ Rendezvous canoe race that started July 1 in Rocky Mountain House is almost within sight.

As he rode in the lead safety boat crossing a choppy Tobin Lake, between Nipawin and Cumberland House in Saskatchewan, Vic Maxwell said Wednesday the lead was changing by the minute.

Maxwell, 81, otherwise known as the chief voyageur, is from Rocky, and was one of the original paddlers 50 years ago in the 1967 centennial canoe race that went 5,283 kilometres from Rocky to Expo 67 in Montreal.

The Voyageurs’ Rendezvous is underway on a shorter but no less daunting route along the North Saskatchewan River, some 1,600 kilometres from Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site to The Pas, Man. The historic site marks the base location that explorer David Thompson used to head out and explore further west.

Rocky’s Confluence Heritage Society received a $624,000 grant for the event from the federal Canada 150 Fund to help celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.

The paddlers are on schedule, with the final leg and end of the race in The Pas expected on Saturday. A final sprint race will take place Sunday. At the end of it all, one of the six teams involved in the race will win $28,000. There is varying prize money for all the participants, with sixth place offering $14,000, Maxwell said.

The teams have been racing their 25-ft north canoes, as they are called, an average of about 80 km each day, travelling between 13 and 15 km/h, Maxwell said. There are six paddlers at a time in each boat, with 12 on a team.

The race is exciting as they are seeing 80 to 90 kilometres pass by, and the lead canoes still just one second apart, he said.

There were a few cases of dehydration because of hot weather, but minor issues, and the host communities along the way, both small and big, have been giving big welcomes, Maxwell said. “Spirits are really good.”

The teams participating are all from Indigenous communities such as Wollaston Lake, Sturgeon Landing and Pelican Narrows in Saskatchewan. They are scheming every night, figuring out where they can change out paddlers each day. In one 93-km leg, they changed out halfway through, Maxwell said.

The Cumberland House team was leading on Wednesday and Maxwell said they weren’t changing any paddlers on the 57 km leg. “We think they’re saving their long-distance paddlers for tomorrow’s run of about 90 miles (145 km).”

At the end of Wednesday, the teams would be stopping at Thunder Rapids Lodge, and Thursday the leg is to Cumberland House, the final stop in Saskatchewan.

The teams take off on the last stretch of about 145 km to The Pas on Saturday. There are no roads in the wilderness there, so there is no way to change paddlers. Whoever is in the boats for those days, must go all the way, Maxwell said.

“They’ve got to be as tough as the old boys were in 1967.”

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