Racing Down the Big River

 June 24, 2019
Posted by smiklosovic

2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the Sir Alexander Mackenzie Bicentennial Canoe Race. For National Canoe Day, which is celebrated on June 26, we are looking back at one of the premier events in the NWT in the summer of 1989.

In May 1989, a full-page spread in the Native Press invited readers to Fort Providence to “witness the start of the World’s Longest Canoe Race.” Competing teams would paddle 1,775.8 kilometres along the big river, variously known as the Dehcho (Dehcho), Deho (Sahtú), Grande Rivière (Métis), Nagwichoonjik (Gwich’in), and Kuukpak (Inuvialuit). The event, which was called the Sir Alexander Mackenzie Canoe Race, coincided with the 200th anniversary of Mackenzie’s 1789 expedition from K’aı́tël Koę (Fort Chipewyan) along the big river to the Arctic Ocean.

This was the second time an event of this kind had been organized in the NWT. In 1970, ten teams raced the same route to celebrate the territory’s centennial year. In that contest, the Fort McPherson team came out on top with Aklavik and Inuvik in second and third place, respectively.

Fort Providence was a flurry of activity in the weeks leading up to the start of the 1989 race. One of the rooms in the school was converted into a training space for the local team, which alternated weight lifting with runs around town in anticipation of paddling 12 hours a day for three weeks. Meanwhile, in a nearby Quonset hut, John Farcy Jr. supervised a crew of 13 men constructing the 26-foot canoes that would be used during the race, one for each of the participating teams.

John and others testing out one of the canoes that they built in 1989 for the Mackenzie Canoe Race. Source: NWT Arts.

Coordinator Lois Philipp, who readers may know as the long-time principal of the Deh Gáh School, was occupied connecting with communities along the river. “[The race] links up activities and events all along the Mackenzie River,” Philipp told reporters in 1989. These included feasts, dances, and northern craft demonstrations. (A schedule for the race was included in the Native Press, so residents along the route would know when to expect the racers in their community.) Elsewhere in the territory, “team members [were] busy selling truck raffle tickets and sweatshirts and brushing up on their canoe skills.”

Having sent invitations to communities across the NWT and beyond—Fort Nelson, Fort Chipewyan, and Coppermine (now Kugluktuk) were all on the invite list—organizers anticipated 26 teams with eight paddlers a piece. Racers were lured to Fort Providence with the promise of $140,000 in prize money for the top ten teams with the winning team taking home $24,000.

In the end, the number of entrants was more modest; fourteen teams registered and eleven started. In addition to community teams from Fort Good Hope, Aklavik, Fort Resolution, Norman Wells, Fort Rae (now Behchokǫ̀), Inuvik, Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, and Yellowknife, there was a mixed team from Fort Smith/Hay River and a team from the Department of National Defense (DND).

Dressed in period costume, students from Lakehead University’s School of Outdoor Recreation travelled down the Big River with the racers. Source: NWT Archives, GNWT-PWS, G-1995-001-3269.

The NWT racers were joined by students from St. John’s, an Anglican boys school in Alberta, and from Lakehead University’s School of Outdoor Recreation. The latter, which were dressed in period costume and paddling fibreglass canoes painted to look like birch bark, were re-tracing almost the entirety of Mackenzie’s “voyage of disappointment” from Fort McMurray to the Beaufort Sea, a distance of 3,400km. This was the first of five historical re-enactments of Mackenzie’s explorations planned for 1989-1993 as part of the Canada Sea-to-Sea Project.

It is worth noting that amid the to do being made about the bicentennial of Mackenzie’s voyage, the Dene Cultural Institute published a 48-page booklet entitled, Dehcho: “Mom, we’ve been discovered!” The booklet offered readers other narratives about the longer history of the big river, which has been the home of the Dene since time immemorial.

On July 3, Joachim Bonnetrouge, then chief of the Fort Providence Dene Band, “led the teams in prayer, asking for spiritual guidance and the participants’ safety,” before they organized themselves at the start line, the Fort Providence ferry crossing. With the crack of the gun, the racers were off.

The Aklavik team, which included the current MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, Robert C. McLeod, took the lead quickly and remained there for the rest of the day, arriving to the first check point at Red Knife 34 minutes ahead of second-place Inuvik. Fort Good Hope and Fort Providence were third and fourth, respectively. The Hay River/Fort Smith team was forced to camp at a site three miles shy of Red Knife.

After a short night’s sleep—the Native Press estimated the paddlers averaged five or six hours a night for the duration of the event—racing began again at 7.30am, though not everyone hit the water at the same time; the Norman Wells team launched eight minutes behind the lead canoes. Already, the racers were showing the effects of the competition; blisters were forming and muscles were aching and cramping. Jonas Antoine, a member of the Fort Simpson team, had this to say, “It’s rough, you know. From the word go in the morning, it’s hard, quick, physical work until the time you stop the race at the end of the day. It’s something you have to be prepared for mentally and physically.”

A number of the teams were not sufficiently prepared for the three-week contest. Even those, like the Fort Providence team, that had trained for months were surprised by the physical demands placed on their bodies. MP Michael McLeod, who was a member of the Fort Providence team, recalls, “I remember waking up after a 13-hour paddle and I couldn’t move my arms. We just took it one day a time.”

Members of the Fort Providence team. From left to right, Clifford Vandell, Al Larocque, Michael McLeod, Colin Duff, Rocky Elleze, Roger Sanderson, Gilbert Bouvier Jr. and Bruce Sanderson.  Source: CBC North, photo by Pearl Leishman.

When the racers arrived to Jean Marie River at the end of day two, they were greeted with a much welcome community feast. They would have similar experiences in the many other communities they visited as they made their way down the river. The following night in Fort Simpson, there was a drum dance, as well as a feast. The racers were able to gift their hosts in Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kųę with fresh meat because one of the officials had shot a caribou on the river that day. While some of the racers danced the night away to Shi Dene of Fort Providence and Marie Lafferty and David Gon of Fort Simpson, others stopped in at the hospital in search of some relief from the pain.

Most of the teams had eight members, six of whom paddled; the other two team members served as the support crew, driving their motorboat and swapping out the paddlers as needed. The exception was the Fort Smith/Hay River team, which, with only six paddlers and no support boat, had no choice but to carry all of their equipment in the canoe with them. It is perhaps no surprise that they spent the entire race at the back of the pack, though, as captain Paul McAdams explained to reporters, not every team was in it to win: “For most of us, this is our first time paddling the Mackenzie River. We could have taken our holiday elsewhere, but since this only happens about once in a lifetime, we decided to enter in the race and see what the Mackenzie River has to offer.” The Fort Smith/Hay River team was also the only boat with accordion accompaniment.

There are few recorded details about the race between Fort Simpson and Norman Wells. The oil town, however, spelled trouble for a number of teams. Some lost paddles and life jackets, while others lost personal belongings. Still others lost paddlers. A team member each from the Fort Resolution and Fort Providence teams made their way home from the Sahtú. According to police reports, one of the teams also spent the night in the drunk tank. Forseeing some of these problems, two of the teams—Fort Good Hope and Aklavik—chose to leave the community early and camp downstream at Sans Sault Rapids.

The miles after Norman Wells were a low point of the race for many, but the Fort Good Hope team was energized by the drums calling them from Rádelı̨hko—some paddlers claimed to be able to hear the drummers from five miles upstream—and they pulled ahead of the Aklavik team, which had been leading the race to that point. One of the Fort Good Hope racers reported, “When we took off paddling from Sans Sault Rapids we knew we were going home. As a team we felt rejuvenated and full of high spirits. Once we felt this way, there was no way we could be beaten.”

Paddling down the Deho near Rádelı̨hko (Fort Good Hope). Source: NWT Archives, GWNT-PWS, G-1995-001-3502.

None of the teams paddled the entire length of the big river. Bad weather and rough water prompted the organizers to arrange for tows at different times. The towing was controversial. Hank Rogers, a member of the Inuvik team, had this to say on the matter: “As far as towing is concerned, I think some teams here now that are racing are kind of mad that we’re getting towed this way all the time instead of racing because now here they’re calling it the tow race instead of the canoe race.”

Little paddling was done between Fort Good Hope and Tsiigehtchic because of wind, rain, and choppy water. With such adverse conditions, you can imagine the delight of the racers when they pulled into Rosa and Gabe Andre’s camp south of Tsiigehtchic just as Rosa was pulling fresh bread from the oven. They enjoyed the warm bread with hot tea around a blazing fire.

The plan from Tsiigehtchic was to travel to Aklavik and then on to Inuvik. Not everyone stuck to the plan. Three members of the Yellowknife team jumped ship at Tsiigehtchic. Those that remained decided to head straight for Inuvik, along with the teams from Fort Smith/Hay River and DND.

With only two days left in the race, the remaining eight boats were nearing Aklavik. As the local team, once again in the lead, came ashore, “guns were fired into the air and the fire engine horn went crazy.” The Native Press estimated there were 500 people gathered on the river banks. That evening the community feted the racers with a feast and an old-time dance. Originally, the race was to include a jaunt to McPherson, but given that that community’s team had dropped out before the start of the race, the racers were given a rest day in Aklavik ahead of the final push.

The Mackenzie Canoe Race ended on 21 July. The teams were supposed to paddle 80 miles between Aklavik and Inuvik that day, but driving rain and strong winds prompted another change of plans. The canoes would be towed to within 20 miles of Inuvik. From there, the teams would finish the final leg of the journey under their own power. As happens in the delta, five of the boats got lost in the channels, so the start of the last segment was delayed.

Though there was little doubt who would prove victorious—the Aklavik team had lead for almost the entire race—in the end, there was a spirited contest for second place between Fort Providence, Fort Good Hope, and Inuvik. Four hundred spectators, which included the teams from Yellowknife and DND, watched as the Good Hope racers edged the Inuvik and Providence teams. Fort Resolution placedfifth. The Fort Smith/Hay River team, having travelled directly from Tsiigehtchic, arrived just in time to finish the race, their paddle strokes enlivened by the accordion accompaniment.

Ethel Blondin, member of parliament for the Western Arctic, was on hand for the awards ceremony later that day. She acknowledged the physical and mental demands placed on the racers—“At the start of a race day, a paddler feels like he could paddle for a hundred miles and the next minute he feels like jumping out of the canoe and getting out”—before congratulating the teams on their success.

The race’s youngest participant—19-year-old Gilbert Bouvier from Fort Providence—reported that over the course of the race he “learned a lot about the river and the people who live along it.” For Frank Edwards, who had also been a member of the Aklavik team in 1970, this event was extra special because one of his teammates was his son, Frank Edwards, Jr.: “Racing with my son was great. The feeling is hard to describe. I felt proud when we were going into Inuvik with my son paddling hard in front of me. Things like this don’t happen every day. Nineteen years ago I done it, and 19 years later I’m paddling with my son. I’d just like to thank the race organizers for making a dream come true.”

Gilbert Bouvier, 19, of Fort Providence was the youngest participant in the 1989 Mackenzie Canoe Race. Source: Native Press.

Not all of the paddlers were so magnanimous at race’s end. The team from Rae, which placed sixth, found themselves stranded in Inuvik because they had assumed their prize winnings would cover their airfare home. (When organizers discovered there were only eleven teams, they decided to alter the awards structure, so only the top five teams would receive prize money, though not everyone was aware of the change.) News/North reported that organizer Lois Philipp temporarily paid for their flights with her personal credit card.

There was talk in the weeks that followed the end of the race about making it an annual event, in spite of the fact that the organizing committee was $28,000 in debt. For Dehcho MLA Sam Gargan, who was one of the driving forces behind the race, the event was “a good way to get the communities along the Deh Cho together. Everybody in the race made new friends and met old ones.” While this appears not to have happened, the Mackenzie Canoe Race lives long in the memories of northerners of a certain age, including Liberal MP Michael McLeod, who has called the race “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Were you on one of the teams that competed in the 1989 Mackenzie Canoe Race? Do you remember the race stopping in your community in July of that year? We would love to hear your story. Contact Jess Dunkin by email ([email protected]) or phone (867.669.8376).