Racing down the Big River

2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the Sir Alexander Mackenzie Bicentennial Canoe Race. For National Paddling Week (June 8-16) we are looking back at one of the premier events in the NWT in the summer of 1989. This Newspost was originally published June 24, 2019 and updated June 2021.

Page 14 of the May 16, 1989 Native Press.

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 Akłarvik/Aklavik and Inuuvik/Inuvik in second and third place, respectively.


Zhatıé Kų́ę́/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, K’aı́tël Koę /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 Zhatıé Kų́ę́/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 Rádeyı̨lı̨kóé/Fort Good Hope, Akłarvik/Aklavik, Denı́nu Kų́ę́/Fort Resolution, Tłegǫ́hłı̨/Norman Wells, Fort Rae (now Behchokǫ̀), Inuuvik/Inuvik, Zhatıé Kų́ę́/Fort Providence, Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę/Fort Simpson, and Sǫ̀mba K’è/Yellowknife, there was a mixed team from Tthebacha/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 Yamozha Kue Society (also known as 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 Zhatıé Kų́ę́/Fort Providence ferry crossing. With the crack of the gun, the racers were off.


The Akłarvik/Aklavik team 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 Inuuvik/Inuvik. Rádeyı̨lı̨kóé/Fort Good Hope and Zhatıé Kų́ę́/Fort Providence were third and fourth, respectively. The Hay River-Tthebacha/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 7:30 am, though not everyone hit the water at the same time; the Tłegǫ́hłı̨/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 Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę/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 Zhatıé Kų́ę́/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 Zhatıé Kų́ę́/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 at Tthets’éhk’édélı̨/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 Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kųę/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 Zhatıé Kų́ę́/Fort Providence and Marie Lafferty and David Gon of Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kųę/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 Tthebacha/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 Tthebacha/Fort Smith-Hay River team was also the only boat with accordion accompaniment.


There are few recorded details about the race between Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kųę/Fort Simpson and Tłegǫ́hłı̨/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 Denı́nu Kų́ę́/Fort Resolution and Zhatıé Kų́ę́/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. Foreseeing some of these problems, two of the teams— Rádeyı̨lı̨kóé/Fort Good Hope and Akłarvik/Aklavik—chose to leave the community early and camp downstream at Sans Sault Rapids.


The miles after Tłegǫ́hłı̨/Norman Wells were a low point of the race for many, but the Rádeyı̨lı̨kóé/Fort Good Hope team was energized by the drums calling them from Rádeyı̨lı̨kóé—some paddlers claimed to be able to hear the drummers from five miles upstream—and they pulled ahead of the Akłarvik/Aklavik team, which had been leading the race to that point. One of the Rádeyı̨lı̨kóé/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 Rádeyı̨lı̨kóé (Rádeyı̨lı̨kóé/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.”