Modern day paddlers retrace voyageurs' route on cross-country trek

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Rocky Mountain House Canoe

JOANNE ELVES

Celebrating the days of the voyageurs, canoe enthusiasts will retrace the paddle strokes of David Thompson of 1867 and the Centennial Voyageurs who also did it in 1967, Canada's Centennial year.

This time around, it'll be a much more cushy crossing than the old days of rationed food and heavy wool clothing.

Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site is hosting paddling schools, canoe races and the epic 23-day race on 1,600 kilometres of waterways to The Pas, Man. Everyone is invited to bring their paddles and their sesquicentennial spirit for events starting June 24.

Video by Mary Williams

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“The voyageurs in the days of David Thompson paddled and pulled their canoes or Long Boats fourteen hours a day – everyday for three months upstream from Montreal to Rocky Mountain House on rations of pemmican and berries. The next summer they would do the trip backwards – boats heavy with pelts,” says Parks Canada local historian, Reid Grenier. “They were living the dream of the early trader and explorer.”

Rapids near Rocky Mountain House

Photo by the Vic Maxwell Collection

The 10 teams representing 10 provinces in the 1967 event had it slightly easier. Their boats were not made of fragile, light-weight birch bark and bent boughs but of glass fibre and formed frames. They had support crews and only a light load. But the teams of six paddlers raced against the clock like the men of 1867, dipping the paddles - a stroke per second, switching sides every 10strokes. The men in the middle had to slide across the bench and keep the rhythm. That 5,250 kilometres race over 104 days still stands as the longest canoe race in history.

The 2017 version of the Voyageur Rendezvous Canoe Race invites teams to take on the challenge to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial in the most authentic way. Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site will host three canoe events for both casual and serious paddlers.

There will be events for the non-paddlers, too. Enjoy sightseeing tours, barbecues, breakfasts and the Voyageurs Ball before watching the teams launch onto the mighty and wide North Saskatchewan River for 1,600 km to The Pas.

Rocky Mountain House is rich with history. Plan your cultural adventure.

Canoe Rocky Mountain House

The three races include:

The Rocky Mountain North Canoe Brigade June 24 – 28, 2017. Teams in large voyageur-style canoes launch at the Kootenay Plains near the Saskatchewan River Crossing in Banff National Park before racing 120 kilometres through rapids, around waterfalls, dams and split channels to finish at Rocky Mountain House.

The pre-race day sprints and pancake breakfast happens on June 30. Come for the breakfast and listen to representatives from the teams of yesterday as they give today's teams hints for the route. The teams will “warm-up” with sprint races along the North Saskatchewan River starting at 11a.m.

The 2017 Voyageurs Rendezvous Canoe Race July 1 – 23, 2017. The Opening Ceremonies will send the teams off on an incredible 23-day odyssey overnighting at over 20 towns and hamlets through Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Daily distances range from 35 to 120 kilometres. Unlike the days of David Thompson and the teams in 1967, these teams have travel crews, excellent nutrition, lightweight gear and the ability to rotate through 12 paddlers. There is a huge pile of cash waiting for the winning teams in The Pas so the teams need to stay fit and focused.

“Even with all the modern equipment, it will still be a tough journey for the paddlers,” says Grenier. “Like the other voyageurs, they can’t do anything about the weather or the river. And these paddlers have modern hazards like dams to portage.”

After the teams leave on their journey and assuming you are not in a canoe – take time to see what else is going on at the historic site. Hike or bike the trails, visit the work stations, play the virtual reality game, learn about life at the forts and totally immerse yourself by staying overnight in a teepee, Metis trappers tent or trapline cabin. Take your lunch and seek out the bison, relax in the Parks Canada red chairs and watch as the bison roam like they did in 1867.

Bison in Rocky Mountain House

If you go

More information about the 2017 Voyageurs Rendezvous events and tickets for the gala can be found on the website.

Get more information at the Parks Canada official page www.pc.gc.ca/rockymountainhouse  

Check out Rocky Mountain House's brand new Facebook page.

Rocky Mountain House Historic Site is located six kilometres west of Rocky Mountain House on Highway 11A. The town of Rocky Mountain House is straight west of Red Deer and roughly two hours from either Calgary or Edmonton.

Hours of Operation 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily until Labour Day.

During the year-long celebration of Canada150, entry into Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site is free.

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