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Yukon River Quest: the Longest Canoe Race in the World

Photo: Yvonne Harris
Yukon River Quest: the Longest Canoe Race in the World

In the last stretch of the Yukon River Quest, a 742-kilometre paddling race from Whitehorse to Dawson City, many competitors fall asleep between strokes while others hallucinate. Exhausted competitors have recounted such visions as a dangerous waterfall in their path, a canoe with musicians dressed in tuxedos and even a boat full of laughing chipmunks.

The Yukon River Quest is a gruelling event that has drawn paddlers from around the world since 1999—elite marathon pad- dlers, former Olympians and physically honed triathletes as well as novices seeking the adventure of their lives.

There are categories for kayaks and crew boats, but the tandem marathon canoes have always been the first finishers, with the record being just over 52 hours, includ- ing the eight hours of mandatory rest.

An unprecedented 36 boats entered in 2002. One of the most inspirational teams consisted of two 18-year-old Whitehorse ath- letes, Erin Neufeld and Stephen Horton. Embodying the spirit of the race, they entered with the goals of finishing in a respectable time of 70 hours and remaining friends through the ordeal.

Similar to the elite paddlers, Erin and Stephen used a lightweight 49-pound Jensen-design Kevlar canoe and graphite bent-shaft paddles.They kept the boat light by carefully calculating even how much water to carry between stops.

Competitive teams rarely go on shore and many serious racers include “potty training” along with their daily workouts.“During the race, we use a potty and avoid the time that would be lost if we had to go on shore,” Bob Vincent, the top finisher in 2002 explained. “When I coach marathon canoeists, I put a potty under the canoe seat and replace the canoe seat with a toilet seat.”

Erin and Stephen decided against the potty, but did prepare by paddling two to six hours each day as soon as the ice broke and doing one 20-hour non-stop paddle. 

Erin spent much of her youth paddling Yukon rivers with her father. She quickly learned to keep up a pace of 60 strokes per minute, approaching the 85-stroke-per-minute rate of top marathoners. Stephen is a member of Yukon’s cross-country ski team.

At noon on Thursday, June 27, Erin and Stephen joined the field of 80 competitors waiting at the start to begin the short sprint from Main Street to their boats on the Yukon riverbank. Ahead was Lake Laberge, the only lake in the course. This 48-kilometre stretch of open water is infamous for its sudden winds and metre-high waves. This year the lake remained calm and by 10 p.m. Erin and Stephen entered the fast current of the “Thirty Mile” section of the Yukon River. 

They relaxed and ate their favourite snack—papaya and melon. Food is difficult to digest during a race so the choice is criti- cal. Racers take dextrose, energy gels, drinks and bars—one elite marathoner eats tapioca.

They paddled through the dusky night of subarctic summer, taking turns for a few minutes sleep until the sun beamed down on the river once again.

After 25 hours of paddling, the sleepy pair pulled into the first checkpoint at the small central-Yukon town of Carmacks under a hot noonday sun.They ate lasagna and slept most of the mandatory two hours. 

Several hours later and near the end of day two, Erin and Stephen paddled into the second sanctioned stop at Minto for a mandatory six-hour break. They were again met by their families who had warm food and tents ready. All Erin and Stephen had to do was eat and crawl into their sleeping bags.

Now more than halfway through the race, they were in ninth place. The last 325 kilometres has no road access and includes a section of the river where a maze of channels confuses tired paddlers. In 2001, a kayaker took a back channel, became disori- ented and began paddling upstream. He pulled onto an island and was finally rescued after a 14-hour search. 

When Erin and Stephen entered this section, the sun dipped briefly below the horizon, marking the second night of the race. This is where Erin’s experience on the Yukon River paid off as she was able to find the correct route despite the fading light.

In the second half of the race they decided to keep paddling until they absolutely had to rest. When Stephen took his break, Erin tried to keep canoeing while he slept, but she soon dozed off too. They drifted for 45 minutes until they woke with a start and picked up the pace, feeling rejuvenated and laughing over their narcolepsy.

As they paddled the final stretch into Dawson City, the rising sun flooded the river valley. First-time racers often quit at the checkpoints or arrive in Dawson City looking like refugees from a war zone. Erin and Stephen arrived in Dawson smiling and healthy after 69 hours on the river. In the last leg they had paddled almost non-stop for 26 hours.

They made their goal of 70 hours and finished ninth out of 21 canoe teams. If they had pushed a bit harder they could have won some of the $15,000 prize money. But Erin and Stephen paced themselves, took the time to enjoy each other’s company and made this a memorable adventure under the midnight sun.

Yvonne Harris writes children’s fiction and lives in Whitehorse, Yukon. She has raced in all four River Quest races, placing fifth overall in 2000. The 2003 Yukon River Quest is planned for Wednesday, June 25.

This article on the Yukon River Quest was published in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots.This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here.

Post-Graduate Paddling

Photo: Eric Finstad
Post-Graduate Paddling

With paddle in hand and journal close by, I began my 1800-kilometre lakewater canoe journey. In the high waters of late June, my partner Eric and I set off from my hometown of South River, Ontario, travelling first into Lake Nipissing. Here we followed the ancient paths of First Nations peo- ples, fur traders and settlers to the northern shore of Lake Superior.

I never imagined when I began my graduate degree in environmental studies that just months later I would be conducting research in a canoe. My aim was to experience living in a Canadian wilderness and to investigate people’s relationships to this land. What better way to do this than to travel along Canada’s largest lake by canoe?

Although the canoe may not be the fastest or the driest way to travel, it was the perfect vehicle for my research. The open canoe denotes an intimate relationship with land and water. Its manoeu- vrability and silence facilitate an encompassing sensual experience—an opportunity to listen as well as hear.

Each section of lake and shoreline that I encountered along this 60-day journey unfolded into several conversations between bodies and landscapes, water and paddles, wind, waves and canoe. All of these I recorded faithfully in a daily journal which became a narrative of my journey through the land and among the people.

Along this journey I saw that the images of forests, lakes and rivers used to represent a “Canadian Identity” are ideas steeped in a certain culture, language and history. Efforts to protect wilderness areas come from particular relationships with land and water, understandings of place that may not necessarily be shared by all Canadians.

Boundaries delineating protected wilderness areas appeared as arbitrary designations put into place with little concern for the his- tory of the land and its people. First Nations people claiming inti- mate spiritual and historical connections to the land within park borders were notably absent from parks we visited, while traditional aspects of their culture were readily used and adapted to provide entertainment for park visitors.

While claiming to protect wilderness, parks assign a cultural significance to specific lands. Park borders, however, are not immune to transgressions as flora and fauna and environmental pollutants penetrate these areas through media such as water, air and precipitation. 

As I paddled over long distances through unpredictable waters, I found that the journey itself challenged accepted understandings of wilderness. Our mode of travel surprised many people who saw the canoe as perhaps out of place in modern times and their questions were always the same:What will you eat? Where will you sleep? What if it rains?

People who had paddled some of the places we were travelling told us how to experience Lake Superior, the kind of gear we need- ed, the places we should camp. While we gladly accepted this advice knowing that it came from concerned and experienced pad- dlers, I was conscious of an accepted mentality, a paddling culture promoting appropriate ways to experience the land. Speed and dis- tance seemed very important in this culture and were often discussed within an atmosphere of competition or within a conversa- tion of survival in a hostile or indifferent wilderness.

“[The Lake] defies anticipation,” remarked one woman who was paddling the North Shore of Lake Superior. She leafed through a book of her sketches of the rocky shoreline and spoke about her frustration with Superior’s unpredictable weather. Intended destinations were often not reached, schedules could not be adhered to. She sighed as she admitted to being at the mercy of the weather. 

“Weather is everything,” she said. “It can make you hate or love the same place.”

The source of this woman’s frustration—an admission of nature’s power and independence from human control—echoed in many other conversations along the journey. Nowhere is the presence of a nature that is separate from human desires and control more clearly realized than in the bow of a canoe.

In a canoe on Lake Superior change was a constant. Each day of this incredible journey was completely different from the one before. Quiet, comtemplative moments became gale force winds; calm, smooth waters transformed into whitecaps and four-metre swells; slow river current ran into raging rapids and spectacular falls; complex river deltas led into the wide, unprotected expanse of open waters.

In this interactive art gallery where power and beauty are experienced by every sense, I could not have chosen a better vehicle for my research. From the unique perspective of a canoe, I was exposed to a constantly changing, unknowable nature and to many different people living within this land. I became aware of the limitations and inaccuracies of dominant definitions of wilderness. The movement of the canoe and the intense physical effort required to guide it through the natural environment afforded me an intimacy with the land that would otherwise have been unknown. I became conscious of my own culture and history as heavily influencing my ideas of wilderness. I began to question my own understanding of protection and the exclusive, controlling potential of current practices of wilderness preservation.

This journey revealed the limitations of my own and others’ attempts to represent a Canadian “wilderness.” The canoe allowed us to live the unpredictability and power of a changeable, fluid land through our bodies, our minds and our spirits.

Pauline Craig is in the Master of Environmental Studies program at York University. Her research project, entitled “Nature, Identity and the Canadian Landscape,” will continue next summer as she paddles from Lake Superior to the Mackenzie River. 

This article on canoeing was published in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots.This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here.

Exorcising a River Demon

Photo: flickr.com/amerune
Exorcising a River Demon

Vanessa wanted to go back to the Moisie River… But this time the trip would be different. There would be no camp kids with their battered wooden paddles, no river-weary canoes and definitely no gear wrapped in garbage bags.

While Vanessa remembered all of the Moisie’s rare beauty from 10 years before, the river had also marked her with the darkest of fears. A river-centre hole had claimed her canoe and as she was tossed beyond rescue by the river’s whims, a thousand hands had pulled her down. But in its own time, the water had released her and she crawled away, dripping and in shock, cursing and beaten, swearing that this was her last river. These few moments became the stuff of a decade of sweaty dreams, but the magic of travelling rivers was just too strong to keep her away. 

The Moisie begins softly, like all rivers. A tiny dam is the height of land and the Labrador border, and from there it’s 400 kilometres of gathering excitement, southward through Quebec to the St. Lawrence River. We had given ourselves 18 days for the descent, though it’s been done in 11 and more rightly should be done in 23.

The river tripled quickly in width and flow, changing from a channel that seemed to have most of the water missing to continuous busy rapids. Speckled trout rolled in the mid-river rock eddies as we hurried past, wave splash flashing white in the drizzling gloom of this perpetually rainy river. We camped above the river’s gorge with long views upstream and down, water tumbling over ledges below us, where monster crystal eddies whispered the siren song of huge and foolish fish.

In camp we would often hear Vanessa talking about the old days because every campsite triggered a thousand memories of the ones that came before. At 17, she had paddled out of the Mackenzie Mountains and then hiked back along the Canol Road to the mountain put-in where she had started months before, an endless summer of adventure and deprivation. She paddled north out of Yellowknife to reach Wilberforce Falls on the Hood River, and that had devoured another summer. By the time she was 21, she’d tracked her canoe up the George River and over the height of land into Labrador to descend the frothing Notakwanon into the fiords of the Atlantic. She had camped in so many places, places so beautiful that it made you ache. And she was only 31.

Inconceivably, she had already been down the Moisie twice, both times with camp kids stretched to their limit, hyperventilating with excitement and hounded by fear.With male trip leaders as role models, and a girl-boy ratio heavily biased toward the male, she fought to be seen as an equal. She carried more and carried longer, making the torturing wooden beast that was their wanigan her own personal challenge. The teenager became a woman with tempered steel behind her brown eyes, a character seemingly hammered and forged by water.

For this third trip down the Moisie she combined a group of solo playboaters whose very lives revolved around fast rivers. Each paddler was paired with their Significant Other, so there would be lots of women to do the swearing and the distaste- ful heavy work.Vanessa told her partner of the Moisie long before he had ever held a paddle. She told him of the darkness of her long minutes there, of the terrifying glimpse of her own mortality. And then she led him into her passion for wild rivers until they played in moving water with every spare moment of their lives. They tumbled together into the garden of river obsession and he became an inseparable part of her critical armour.

It was on the Moisie that we all began to reflect on how we had changed as people who travel rivers. Vanessa’s mind was now always sifting and sorting the chaos of water, planning her own self-rescue. We paddled the canoes loaded, we searched for the bold centre lines of the playboater and we lived in our moving water world with great comfort and respect.

Playing our way down the Moisie, we watched our world change from the sparse spruce monoculture of the caribou wintering grounds into deciduous forest ready to riot in the frosts of September. Water poured into the deepening canyon in white free-fall at every bend, draining the river’s high plateau in threads and curtains and monster churning draperies.

Sixty-five kilometres from the St. Lawrence, we drifted out of the natural world. Hydro towers stalked over the hills, and the tracks of the QNS&L railroad joined us on the left bank. As we rafted up and drifted toward the “Railway Sets,” the adrenaline-soaked climax of a very challenging river, Vanessa may well have been the only one thinking about what lay ahead.

The first of the Railway Sets had a recirculating hole spanning half the river backed with a wide field of surging boils. A line of standing waves showed vertical faces capped with white below the hole. Vanessa had logged thousands of miles and run hundreds of rapids since she last saw this place. She had even paddled the black and whispering rivers of winter, too impatient for spring. So serene and so certain, so ready for this water that had tried to break her, she didn’t even recognize it. To her, the Railway Sets equalled just another “point and shoot” piece of water.

Vanessa and her partner paddled down to a right-side eddy and sat there for a moment processing the river. Scouting the rapid from the canoe, they spoke briefly of their plans, arms extended, pointing. Vanessa twisted around to touch paddle tips—the final piece of the ritual.

They carved out in an arc, driving hard to hit the precise piece of water to start their line. Their angle turned downriver then, and Vanessa faced the hole that leapt and churned with pure madness. She did a cross-forward stoke that lasted only a heartbeat and they rode their preordained track through a metre-wide window. A grey wall of mixed air and water stretched above her, near enough to touch, and her ears filled with the primal scream of gravity pushing unimaginable weight down the giddy slope. They rode up a wave that rolled the boat under them to 90 degrees. In crazy contortions they wave-blocked for dryness and reached for balance as the wave took them over its peak. Then a well-timed paddle- stroke pulled them beyond the heaving nightmare of the boil-line to safety.

We camped there, our last night on the river, to sleep on arching polished rock like the backs of granite whales. Vanessa sat, staring at the water, drinking tea from a battered mug that had seen almost as many rivers as she had. And then she remembered.

“This is the set. This is where I almost drowned.” She spoke with surprise and wonder, as if she’d discovered her terrible demon with a stake already driven through its heart, and that now she was free to travel without its fearsome company.

Our journey down the Moisie had taken 18 days. But Vanessa’s had taken a decade.

Brian Shields is a sun-mangled river rat, boat outfitter and creator of mean doggerel for friends’ birthdays. 

This article on whitewater canoeing was published in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots.This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here.

Classic Solo: a Dance of Freedom

Photo: Reid McLachlan
Classic Solo: a Dance of Freedom

Most of what I know about canoeing, I learned from my dad. He is the inspiration behind my passion for solo paddling. As a filmmaker, Dad was always looking for an excuse to make another film involving canoes. In the late ‘70s, he explored the possibility of making a short film on what he called “canoe ballet.” Canoe ballet is a flashy style of solo paddling popularized in the ‘50s by camp instructors like Omer Stringer. In canoe ballet, the canoe is heeled over so the gunwale almost touches the water and the paddler fluidly connects various manoeuvres together with as little splashing as possible.

I was to be the principal paddler in his new film. To prepare for the shoot I had to learn, practice and perfect many different strokes. Perhaps the hardest of these was the dreaded one-hand pry—a showy way to turn 360 degrees on a dime by inserting, with one hand, a pry stroke at the bow. To practice, I would pick up steam, skim the paddle blade along the surface of the water toward the bow and wedge it into place alongside the hull. If I cut the blade in too late I would miss the turn and ram the dock, rattling my teeth in the process. Too early and I’d catapult myself right out of the boat!

After about a year of training, I was ready. Dad shot the pilot with the working title The Magic Paddle, but before the film was brought to final production Dad retired from filmmaking. It seemed a shame after all my training that nobody would see the film. Dad encouraged me to teach a course so I might pass on the skills I’d perfected. Over tea one day in 1987, we came up with the term “classic solo” to describe the style of canoeing that became the basis for my courses. 

Classic solo canoeing is a great way to develop basic canoeing skills because it allows you to see an immediate cause and effect of your actions more clearly than in tandem paddling.You end up with a versatile package of flatwater solo skills that allows you to paddle a canoe comfortably, efficiently, with grace and confidence in all conditions. Whether I go for a week-long wilderness adventure, a canoe ballet spin at sunset, or an afternoon exploring a breezy lake, I utilize much of the classic solo stroke repertoire.This versatility is a rare thing for our times when most sporting activity is compartmental- ized and specialized to the extreme.The real plus of going solo, however, is that it allows you to journey at your own pace and it gives you the freedom to follow your whims and your dreams.

When I was 10, my very first solo adventure was inspired by a desire to explore the shoreline near our dock. My dad encouraged me by giving me an 11-foot birch bark canoe. I was thrilled with the idea of my first solo voyage, but I worried about the possibility of not being able to return safely. Dad tied a 100-foot length of yellow floating rope from the dock to the stern of my little canoe. I had a great time that summer revelling in my 100 feet of freedom, happy in the knowledge that I was secure. Even if a gusty wind tried to take me away, I would feel the reassuring tug of the line when I reached the end. Before long, however, the mysteries of the distant shores beckoned and I wanted to explore beyond the safety of my tether. With my Dad’s permission I untied the line and set off with my newfound skills. This childhood memory of freedom is my touchstone and the feeling that I believe classic solo canoeing can instil in everyone.

Becky Mason is a canoeist, visual artist and filmmaker. She keeps busy with teaching, work- shops, demonstrations and slide shows as well as championing environmental issues. Her award winning video, Classic Solo Canoeing, was released in 2000. 

This article on canoeing was published in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots.This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here.

Of Fishing and Marriage: An Engaging Paddle

Photo: James Smedley
Of Fishing and Marriage: An Engaging Paddle

In honour of our recent engagement, Francine and I decide to celebrate with a canoe trip down the Shikwampkwa River. I tell Francine that I chose this gorgeous Northern Ontario flow because it reflects her purity and beauty. She accepts this explanation but I suspect she knows I chose it more for the deep swirling pools of walleye than for the swift riffles and easy rapids squeezed between its pine-studded rock and gravel shores.We’ve been on several river excursions together and Francine is well aware that my paddling trips are actually thinly veiled fishing trips. But with this being our first trip since becoming formally engaged, compatibility issues are now in sharp focus.

You see we come at angling from different angles. I revel in every aspect: finding fish, selecting the right lure, bait, and presentation. I like photographing fish, admiring fish and I enjoy releasing them unharmed. Francine’s relationship with fishing is a bit more practical. She sees it as a means of procuring flesh for the table. I know from previous experience that any fish unfortunate enough to bite her lure is destined for great things, like floating around in a pan of hot oil.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time we slide our canoe into the Shikwampkwa. We’re prepared for foul weather but the overcast day and the onset of driving rain begin to grate on our spirits as we wend our way down gentle rapids and swifts. Time glides by as swiftly as the current but as the day wears on our perpetual dampness is punctuated by pangs of hunger.

Luckily, we’re within sight of the island where we’ll camp, but the alluring prospect of shelter and food is suddenly diminished by the need to angle.Ahead lies all the warmth and nourishment I need in the form of a deep walleye pool. Here a short riffle eddies out into the slack water sequestered behind a spit of rock. To paddle past such a spot would be like ordering a cold beer and not drinking it. I lower the anchor and we pull our fishing gear from wet packs.

The walleye are holding near bottom where the current and slack water meet. I cast and let my lure sink before deftly bouncing a small jighead and white soft-plas- tic grub along bottom. I have the walleye dialed in and a precise presentation means hooking a fish every few casts. I catch and release the fat green-and-gold river dwellers in quick succession and, with the fish giving such an enthusiastic endorsement of my angling skill, the hours slip by like minutes.

I glance at Francine. Her rod is resting across the gunwales of the canoe—a sure sign of waning interest. Although she is catching her share, rain soaking through her jacket has dampened her angling zeal.

“I’m tired of fishing, let’s just keep a few for supper and head in,” she says.

Rain trickling down my back only lubricates the angling machine within and I’m shocked at the suggestion of quitting. Anything less than four or five hours is a bit of a letdown, especially when the fish are biting. Francine points out that, without fish, our evening meal will consist of a well-travelled package of freeze-dried chili. I tell her I’ll keep a few fish closer to dinner, “they’ll be fresher that way.” Francine knows this is simply an excuse to fish all evening.

“I think you like fishing more than sex,” she sighs. Luckily I am anticipating this statement. It’s the inevitable accusation from the partners of passionate anglers. I laugh and quickly reply, “Of course not my dear, don’t be ridiculous.” Thankfully, fishing from a canoe, I don’t have to look her straight in the eye.

While contemplating the pros and cons of the two activities, I’m jolted from my musings by a double-header. We both have a fish on. Although Francine obviously has the bigger of the two, she is too worried I’m going to let mine go to enjoy the battle waged by her walleye. She twists around to face me.

“Keep it!” she commands as I’m pulling the jig from a 16-inch walleye. As I lower it to the water she makes one last desperate plea as she reels. “Wait, we’ll stuff it with rice and bake it by the fire.” But even in the face of this last fervent appeal, I loosen my grip and the walleye swims away. Francine’s wrath falls squarely on her fish, although she looks directly at me as she snaps the walleye’s neck. “We’re heading in,” she states.

Vivid hallucinations of lines forming on my fiancée, dividing her into shank, ribs and loin convince me of the need to eat. We pull anchor and make for shore. I get to work reconstituting the chili while Francine prepares the walleye. Although I’m quite willing to share my chili, I’m not sure how Francine feels about sharing her fish. But when we sit down to our respective feasts, Francine slides a large fillet onto my plate and garnishes it with a kiss.

Freelance writer/photographer James Smedley lives in Northern Ontario. He has earned nine national writing awards, his most recent from the Outdoor Writers of Canada National Communication Awards for 2002. 

This article on canoeing and fishing was published in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots.This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here.

A Canoe in the Family

Photo: Manfred Wolf
A Canoe in the Family

My dad was fresh off the boat from Germany, arriving in a Canada that was famous back in his birth country for hunting, fishing, logging and most importantly, canoeing. He yearned to seek out the wilderness and carve a little niche for himself and his family in “wild, rugged” Canada. Manfred Wolf intended to carry on his proud Teutonic heritage by blindly throwing himself into nature’s unforgiving clenches with little experience but plenty of determination, efficiency, and an eternally stoic poker face. 

Every journey begins with a single crucial step. Dad’s first step took him through the doors of a Canadian Tire in search of a canoe. Browsing the aisles wearing his rainbow-striped polyester pants with flared bottoms and white stitching, Manfred spot- ted it hanging seemingly in midair, suspended by fishing line above a Coleman stove display. It was love at first sight.

The sheet-aluminum hull was painted to look like birch bark and accented with black foam lining held in place by aluminum ribs. A burly outrigger of exterior black foam flotation ran from bow to stern just below the gunwales; the foam seats were removable. It measured a stout 10 feet long and a generous 39 inches at the beam. The clincher was the profile of a proud Indian chief painted in black at the side of the bow. He looks forever unflinchingly ahead with the word ‘Sportspal’ emblazoned behind the flowing feathers of his headdress. 

To a 29-year-old father looking for adventure, the Sportspal embodied his romantic ideal of the great Canadian outdoors. After a couple of thoughtful strokes of his muttonchop sideburns, the decision was made. On July 14, 1970, exactly one week before I was born, Sportspal became a member of our family. My sister Christina was the first born but Sportspal was Manfred’s first son. I straggled in as the third child of the clan and spent years trying to measure up to my older brother.

RELIABLE, STABLE, AND LOYAL

My brother Sportspal was an important part of our family’s camping trips in Northern Ontario throughout the ‘70s. Faded airbrushed pictures show me on a day trip with Sportspal in Georgian Bay when I was six weeks old. The Pal may have been slow, but he was stable enough to transport the whole family and was as reliable as coffee in the morning. He didn’t argue, was always ready to play, and taught me to love the lakes and rivers he floated over whenever called upon.

At the cottage, I spent my formative early teen summers with my older brother. Sportspal and I gunwale-bobbed on hot August afternoons and fished for lunker largemouth bass in the calm pink of dusk. I often fell asleep in the cavern of his plush hull as crystal clear water lapped against his faux birch bark and the afternoon sun beat down on my face.

As the years passed, Sportspal established himself as the loyal son, heir to the estate, staying home to watch over the cottage and our parents while I could never quite settle. I ran off here and there to explore and experience the world, while he lounged contentedly in his little piece of freshwater and Canadian Shield granite. I was disciplined for missing curfew or slacking off on my studies—a natural rite of passage for any young person…unless your name happened to be Sportspal. He was always perfect; he was born an adult.

Inevitably, time wore on and we went our separate ways. University, canoe tripping, travelling, and a move out West took me away from Sportspal for several years. Despite my absence, reminders of him were everywhere. On one canoe trip down the Rideau Canal I counted 14 other Sportspals sitting under the decks of cottages along the waterway. Often, I would see Sportspals cruising comfortably on the tops of Winnebagos and loosely tied to wood-paneled station wagons travelling across the country. I missed my family.

On my first visit to the cottage in quite some time, I spot him in his usual spot under the deck. Like me, he’s a little worse for wear. Some of the birch bark on his hull has peeled off, revealing specks of shiny alloy beneath. A couple of the aluminum ribs are missing, allowing the foam lining to bulge out.The Indian chief on the bow has faded slightly from years in the sunshine, though his gaze remains steady.

I’ve spent the better part of a decade travelling the world trying to fulfil my wanderlust and quell youthful angst while he’s remained content in his cottage paradise. During the summer, Sportspal takes my father—in his sixties now—for a paddle every morning. After 32 years, the diminutive canoe still spends more time with my dad than I do. Sportspal is as reliable and stable as ever.

Frank Wolf is an adventurer, freelance writer and retail sales slave based in North Vancouver, B.C. In 1995 he canoed 8,000 km from the Bay of Fundy to Vancouver with his partner to become the first to paddle across Canada in a single season. 

This article on canoeing was published in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots.This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here.

Editorial: My Friend Keeps His Paddle in a Sock

Photo: Gaertringen @ Pixabay
Editorial: My Friend Keeps His Paddle in a Sock

Hiding behind my truck’s lowered tailgate and pretending to be tying my shoes, I watched in utter amazement as Rich slowly reached into the Thule box above his ’84 Volvo wagon and lifted out a 58-inch, multi-coloured wool stocking. He undid the red ribbon tied neatly in a bow around the woolly sheath and reached inside to draw his cherry ottertail sword. Sir Lancelot ran his finger- tips down the blade, gingerly like he was touching the face of a lover before engaging her in a romantic kiss. He held it above his head looking up his arm and along the shaft. Sun glistened off the tip. What the hell was this guy doing with his paddle?

While he folded his specially knit paddle cozy I thought about my paddle’s trip to the river. Tossed in the back of my pickup like a carpenter’s hammer, it rattled and shook off the last of its varnish. It lay next to the spare gas can covered in 67 kilometres of late-summer logging-road dust. Once they were on the water our paddles would be equal, but Rich clearly held his Excalibur in a higher place.

Paddles are hung above mantels in cottages, rested against desks in university dorm rooms and displayed in homes in prominent places once reserved for straight-faced portraits of ancestors. Miniature canoe paddles are crafted into coat racks and I’m sure paddles are the most popular canvas for aspiring wood carvers and painters of snowy chickadee scenes. Putting together the new Paddle Buyer’s Guide for the Summer 2003 of Canoeroots, I wondered how the paddle became a symbol worthy of a spot on the livingroom wall or a knitted carrying case.

NOT JUST TOOLS TO GET DOWN THE RIVER

I called Jeremy Ward at the Canadian Canoe Museum and asked him whether the voyageurs lovingly cherished their paddles. Jeremy said nobody’s entirely sure, but he suspects that the men who opened the country didn’t knit themselves paddle socks. In official documents and journals, references to paddles are conspicuously missing. When a new voyageur signed on with the Northwest Company he was issued blankets, tumpline, sometimes clothing and often an advance on his wages.The equipment inventories contain no mention of paddles. It seems that François, Amable, Joseph and the boys had to supply their own paddles and in those days that meant making their own. Likely, paddles were chopped from a nearby tree, another chore in the daily 15-hour grind of moving furs. Jeremy and I agreed that tracing the origin of paddle nostalgia was worthy of a larger study, a doctoral thesis perhaps.

Canoe paddles are not only tools to propel us across lakes and down rivers. Hanging on walls they float us on memories—summer camp, grandmother’s cottage or a campsite shared with a close friend.

In university a friend of mine designed a simple tattoo with two paddles crossed, like the bats on a little league baseball cap, and under the crossed paddles were three words. I don’t know if he ever got the tattoo, but the words are burned into the hearts of every canoeist who hangs her paddle on the wall or carries his paddle in a sheath:

Swords of Freedom. 

This article on canoe paddles was published in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots.This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here.

Pure Patagonia: Argentina’s Seldom-Paddled Coast

Photo: Dave Quinn
Pure Patagonia: Argentina's Seldom-Paddled Coast

There are magical places in this world where nature’s balance continues to unfold in stubborn defiance of the efforts of humans to tame the Earth. These places, like the sacred hidden Buddhist val- leys near Mount Kailas in Tibet, can only be discovered and entered with the right attitude: an open mind and a reverence for wildlife in its natural condition. One such place is Peninsula Valdes—a provincial reserve on the Atlantic Coast of Argentina. This is the essence of coastal Patagonia.

Valdes is a T-shaped peninsula 140 kilometres deep, remarkably similar in geography to North America’s Cape Cod. A narrow strip of land, the four-kilometre-wide Isthmus of Ameghino, funnels travellers into the arid interior of the Peninsula and is the only link to the Argentine mainland. Gulfo Nuevo faces south toward Antarctic waters, while the smaller Gulfo San José opens its mouth in the direction of Brazil. The cold Antarctic currents meet the warmer Brazilian flow from the north. And thanks to government protection by the Argentine province of Chubut, paddlers are blessed with intact Patagonian land and marine-scapes in all their intriguing harshness. Paddling in Valdes’ waters, however, is not for the timid—the area boasts a 35-foot tidal range and notorious Patagonian gales, as well as marine wildlife populations with a density and diversity that stagger the imagination.

THE PATAGONIAN EXPERIENCE

I first visited mysterious Patagonia nearly ten years ago. Running away from a university degree of questionable value, I traded in my life savings for a camera, a backpack, and a plane ticket to Santiago, Chile. At that time, both Chile and Argentina were expensive for folks with thin wallets, and my experience in these countries was limited to a “get in, get out quick” sojourn to south- ern Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. After a month in these countries, I beat a hasty retreat, my dineros severely depleted. But my curiosity about the land called Patagonia was even more intense than before.

A seed of burgeoning wonder was planted in my psyche by this land of soaring Andean condors and needle-like granite spires, all on a backdrop of endless blue-white icecap. Popularized by the logo of a certain outdoor clothing company, this jagged skyline is, however, but a tiny fraction of Patagonia. Patagonia proper is a vaguely defined geographical entity that encompasses all lands from roughly 40° south to the southern tip of Cape Horn, from the height of the Andean Cordillera to both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

Last fall, my partner Kelly Comishin and I had the opportunity to return to Patagonia to search for its true essence. Just married in September, we were on a working honeymoon, guiding sea kayak and hiking expeditions for Canmore, Alberta-based Whitney & Smith Legendary Expeditions. We were to discover a vastly different face of this rugged and intriguing area. 

In the early 1990s, Steve Smith and Jane Whitney, then guides for another adventure travel company, came to Peninsula Valdes to look for new areas to explore. Armed with a road map, two single collapsible Klepper kayaks and ample food, the couple spent six weeks circumnavigating the Peninsula.

“I’m not sure what we were thinking,” claimed Steve with a trademark grin. “The outer coast is as wild as it gets—huge tide rips, reefs, and the coast is mostly cliff. What beaches there are are literally covered with sea lions and elephant seals—most nights we literally had to elbow our way through the wall of elephant seals on the beach and pitch our tents on a tiny platform.”

After six weeks of wind, cliffs, and 4,000-kilo elephant seals actually coming into their tent, Jane and Steve made it back to Puerto Madryn, the nearest city, and hunted down a nautical chart of the Peninsula. The incredulous proprietor of the marine supply store thought, as most would, that this was a backward way of doing things and, after hearing what the couple had done, respectfully handed them the chart, free of charge.

“In a way, we’re lucky we got the chart after the trip,” Steve said while looking at the jumble of reef, cliff, and tide rip symbols crowding the outer coast on the chart, “or we probably wouldn’t have even done it!”

After several years of working closely with the assistant director of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism for the province of Chubut, the couple were granted permission to run a limited number of kayak trips on the Peninsula—with a few strict limitations. Steve and Jane, both trained wildlife biologists, would lead expeditions with a small number of “field assistants” whose job it would be to do wildlife counts and note any different or interesting behaviours or occur- rences. An official report, in Spanish, would be produced every year to provide a baseline count of wildlife populations in the Gulf. Officials would check in on the group every few days, watching the group from a boat offshore or hiking in to meet them at some of the more accessible beaches to ensure that no wildlife populations were being disturbed and that no-trace tourism was, in fact, the practice.

The assistant director loved what he saw. And so, ten years later, here we were. Steve and I were the project’s official biologists, and eight field assistants from all over Canada and the States were there for the Patagonian experience and to help with the counts.

INTO THE SCRIPT OF A WILDLIFE SPECIAL

A fter a brief whirl through the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, we flew two hours South to Trelew—a town known for its Welsh history. This was our first introduction to the many similarities between Argentina and Canada. Both are immense, mostly empty countries—entire Argentine provinces have less than one person per square kilometre. In both countries one also finds folks who are intensely proud of their country, but who are from somewhere else. A visit to any Argentine supermercado will reveal the mostly European back- ground of the people who immigrated to the country to settle its empty quarters. Fresh pastas and other Italian delights, Welsh cakes, French baguettes, and entire aisles of incredible wine fill the groceries.

From Trelew we drove a hired vehicle through Puerto Madryn out to our put-in near the tip of Punto Buenos Aires—the eastern claw of the crab pincher shape of Gulfo San José. From our camp that night, we watched in awe as a steady 20-knot wind blew against the outgoing tide, whipping up towering standing waves in the mouth of the channel.

We spread all our gear out on the pebble beach and proceeded to stuff 10 days of food into our boats—an ominous first-day task that all sea kayak guides dread, but that always ends up being easier than it first appears. What little agua dulce (fresh water) there is on Peninsula Valdes’ xeriscape is extremely alkaline, which means that we had to carry enough water for 12 people for ten days—over 200 litres in total.

Finally, 20 litres of water wedged between legs in every cockpit, we launched our laden boats and paddled east into a stiff Gulfo San José headwind.

Author George Gaylord Simpson states in his classic Attending Marvels—a Patagonian Journal that if you want to see all of Patagonia, simply “sit still, and it will all blow past you.”

There is only one rule that shapes the winds that brush Patagonian shores—they can come at any force from any direction at any time, and most likely from the direction you intend to travel. Thus, a pleasant onshore breeze can, in the space of 15 minutes, turn into a full offshore storm-force blast. Thus, we hugged the shore of every deep bay and cranny in the desert coastline, not daring to risk any crossings in the face of such unpredictable winds.

The deeper into the Gulf we paddled, the farther into the script of a National Geographic wildlife special we seemed to get. Giant storm petrels and black-browed albatross cruised above our boats without so much as a shiver of their great two-metre wingspans, and out in the Gulf, giant spouts of white revealed the breaching of the southern right whales that come here every spring to have their young.

On the breeze, which we both cursed for the extra work it entailed and thanked for its cooling effect on this 30-plus-degree day, we scented unmistakable barnyard odor that surrounds any large congregation of marine wildlife. This is something that is rarely mentioned in wildlife films—the ol factory unpleasantness that goes along with having hundreds of large mammals in a concentrated area. As we neared a boulder-covered beach ahead of us, the boulders began to move, and we heard the unmistakable cacophony of a southern sea lion colony. We later returned on foot and counted over 600 animals on less than 500 metres of beach. What happened when we paddled by this colony was unforgettable.

Sea lions are divided into small groups—harems of sleek brown females defended by an immense black bull. The daily routine seems to be filled with males bellowing—at their females, at other males, and apparently just for the fun of it. As we paddled near, many of the animals that had been sleeping woke with a start, even though we were a hundred metres off shore. Suddenly the air was filled with the sounds of hundreds of sea lions bellowing and charging down the beach toward us. Gravel sprayed in all directions as belligerent males attempted to maintain order, followed by a roar like a raging river as hundreds of curious animals plowed headlong into the sea, racing to check out the strange shapes just offshore.

Concern for our immediate safety mixed with a sinking feeling that our presence had disturbed these animals to the point of panic—an absolute no-no in the world of ecotourism. These misgivings quickly evaporated, however, as it became apparent that these animals weren’t disturbed—they wanted to play! Soon we had hundreds of sea lions nibbling our rudders, playing with our paddles and spy-hopping all around us to get a better view. A fun game developed as Kelly and her partner began to sprint with all their might. Although a sprint in a double Klepper is not much to be awed by, the following gang of hundreds of dog-like heads put a weeklong grin on us all. We regretfully pulled away and continued along the coast toward our next camp. Slowly, the following crowd thinned, but even three nautical miles along the coast we had an audience of nearly 100 sea lions laughing to themselves as we hauled our heavy boats above the high tide line and made camp.

ONE OF THE WORLD’S LAST TIME MACHINES

On a rare windless paddling day later in the trip, we held our breaths as a curious 17-foot infant southern right whale broke our 50-metre rule to investigate our small fleet. Mom followed—a 17-metre, 60-tonne chaperone. The whales circled us, swam under us, and nudged our boats with a gen- tle dexterity that belied their size. Before their curiosity got the better of us, we reluctantly paddled away toward our next camp, ending a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

The name of these whales and their history highlights the importance of preserving areas such as this. The name “right” stems from the fact that they are huge, slow, and float when they are killed, making them the “right” whale to kill for whalers. American whalers alone took an estimated 200,000 southern right whales in the 18th century, and it was not until 1946 that the International Whaling Commission began to limit the catch of the rapidly vanishing cetaceans. Now, reserves like Peninsula Valdes provide a safe haven for these beautiful creatures to breed and raise their young. Calves are born between May and August, and the cow-calf pairs remain in these protected waters, safe from predatory orcas, until late December. Over 1,500 of the world’s remaining estimated 5,000 southern right whales use the waters of Peninsula Valdes, making the Peninsula a critical piece of habitat if this still-endangered species is ever to recover from the commercial slaughter.

One clear night, Kelly and I opted to sleep on the soft gravel beach, under the Southern Cross and the rest of the unfamiliar constellations shining in the cloudless sky. For protection from the ubiquitous winds, we wisely pulled one of our boats broadside and slept head-to-head in its lee. At first light I awoke to a low, blubbery snore. Having heard all sorts of ominous tales of what a newly married fellow could expect from his wife the second the marriage papers were signed, I assumed the worst. But raising my head from my warm sleeping bag and peering over the kayak deck, I discovered that the cacophony came not from my lovely wife, but from the relaxed proboscis of an immense bull elephant seal sleeping not three feet away. It is difficult to imagine a four-metre-long, 3500-kilogram mound of snoring, gassy flab “sneaking up” on anything, especially on a gravel beach, but there he was. His Blubberness had somehow covered the 50 feet between the sea and our kayaks without waking a soul.

Thankful for the kayak between us, I quietly roused Kelly, and we lay wide-eyed in our sleeping bags, zippers open, ready to beat a hasty retreat at a moment’s notice. Finally, my bladder called an end to this incredible encounter, and I slowly eased out of my sleeping bag. The bull reared up bellowing a warning, his elephantine nose drooping over a gaping pink mouth. Fortunately, he decided that the beach was all of a sudden too crowded for his liking, and he half rolled, half oozed his huge bulk back down to the water and swam away.

“I’m really glad he didn’t mistake us for female elephant seals,” breathed Kelly when we finally had calmed down enough to speak. 

Peninsula Valdes is one of the world’s last time machines—an area whose original splendour seems to persist despite all the changes the last few centuries have etched on the face of the Earth. In crossing the threshold of the Isthmus of Ameghino and entering the Peninsula, one does more than step away from mainland South America— one steps back in time. Here, in the waters and on the arid campo of Peninsula Valdes, wildlife views us as bipedal curiosities—to them we are something really worth investigat- ing. In a world of forests that have yielded to tree farms, grasslands swallowed by modern agriculture, and landscapes from desert to arctic peppered with the scars of resource extraction, Patagonia seems to endure in more or less its natural state. In this harsh yet rich and diverse land, we felt an awestruck humility, and were rewarded with a glimpse of the true Patagonia.

Dave Quinn is an expedition guide, wildlife biologist and outdoor educator. He lives in Kimberley, B.C., with his lovely wife, Kelly, and their loyal hound, Lucy. 

This article on Argentina was published in the Early Summer 2003 issue of Adventure Kayak magazine.This article first appeared in the Early Summer 2003 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Adventure Kayak’s print and digital editions here.

DIY Kayak Cockpit Makeover

Photo: Adventure Kayak staff
An overhead shot of a pile of foam pieces and other tools to outfit the cockpit of a sea kayak.

Learning to properly outfit your kayak cockpit before you decide to spend hours in it can provide you much-needed comfort once you set out. I decided in my last year of university that it would be an adventure to paddle home. When my new boat finally arrived, just days before I was to leave, packing three and half months’

worth of gear inside seemed more important than installing custom outfitting. Twenty-four hundred kilometres that summer and dozens of trips since and my Current Designs Expedition still didn’t have outfitting. Like many paddlers I hadn’t invested a few evenings or one rainy afternoon to improve both comfort and performance.

Kayak companies are making huge advances with ergonomically designed cockpits, adjustable seats and thigh braces, but it is impossible to match every paddler’s shape and size. You can achieve a custom fit in a few hours at home with some chunks of foam, a can of contact cement and a couple of hand tools.

The key to outfitting a kayak is simple: put your body in the most natural position and support it there so you can comfortably paddle for hours and move the boat without sliding around inside it. It is easiest to break kayak outfitting into five areas; seat, thighs, hips, lower back and feet.

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Seat

Your seat is the anchor point that connects you to the kayak. It is the first place to begin your outfitting makeover because how you outfit your seat determines how you fit into the rest of the boat.

If you are paddling a deep boat and it feels like the cock- pit rim is up to your chest and your thigh braces are float- ing far above your knees, you could raise your seating position by gluing a layer of foam to the seat. Raising your seat will raise your centre of gravity slightly but what you lose in stability you will gain in a greater sense of control. It’s like raising the seat in your car and finally being able to see over the dash.

Even a thin layer of foam adds welcome cushion, warmth and grip to a fibreglass or plastic seat. You can cleverly channel your seat pad to sit above, rather than in, any water that pools below your butt.

When you are seated in your kayak properly with your feet on your pegs, your legs should be comfortably bent with your thighs resting flat against the bottom of the cock- pit rim or the thigh braces. If your legs don’t reach the thigh braces, you’ll either need to raise your seat so your legs don’t have to bend up as much to reach the thigh braces, pad the thigh braces down to meet your thighs, or raise the angle of the seat to bring your legs up to the thigh braces.

Make sure the seat comfortably supports your butt and the backs of your legs. Sometimes the front edge of a short kayak seat or even a long seat at the wrong angle will apply pressure to your hamstrings. Even minimal constant pressure can reduce circulation and pinch nerves causing anything from cold feet to tingling, numbness, pain and, in the case of airline “economy class syndrome,” even death. The solution is a seat of the correct length and angle to pro- vide support with no pressure points. A short seat can be extended using blocks of foam glued to the front of the seat and the floor.

Thighs

You have already planned out your thigh braces when deciding how much foam to add to your seat. Proper-fitting thigh braces provide points of contact so that you feel like a part of your kayak rather than just sitting in it. Being in contact with the boat adds more control for tilting manoeuvres.

Thighbraces can be as simple as a flat piece of foam glued to the underside of the cockpit or elaborately shaped works of art that wrap around and hook the inner thigh to keep it in place. Strive for as much contact as possible which might mean some getting in and out and more carving and shaping to find the correct angle that meets your leg.

Hips

Hip pads are the simplest performance improvement you can make to your kayak. Kayak seats are often made quite wide to accommodate all sizes of paddlers. Hip pads fill the gap between your hips and the edge of the seat so that you feel the kayak beside you. Tilting is now easier, and holding an edge is more comfortable. Like thigh braces, hip pads can be simply a thin layer of foam glued to the seat pillar to prevent you from sliding side-to-side or they can wrap overtop of your thighs to help hold you into the boat once you’ve mastered the roll.

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Lower Back

Few paddlers are disciplined enough to sit erect in their seats for hours on end to maintain the natural position of the spine. So kayak companies have come to the rescue with backrests. Kayakers don’t need backrests like park benches, however. They need back support. When you lean back even slightly onto a backrest, your pelvis rolls forward as the spine bends outward, stretching the ligaments in your back. It’s the stretching of the ligaments that leads to fatigue, pain and even muscle spasm after a long day on the water. The best sitting position for the lower back emulates its curvature when standing, using stomach muscles to hold that upright position. This upright position is the best position for maximizing torso rotation and making powerful, effective strokes.

Backrests typically bolt to the back of the kayak seat and don’t provide the adjustable lumbar support of a custom-installed back- band. A backband works independently of the seat and can be adjusted up or down to fit your lumbar position and then tightened to hold you upright taking the pressure off your stomach muscles.

Feet

Our poor feet get stuffed up inside the kayak and forgotten about. Big paddlers must ensure that their feet fit in the cockpit with every seasonal combination of paddling footwear. Smaller paddlers have a different problem: sometimes they can only reach foot pedals with their toes. To solve this problem, glue a piece of foam to the pedal and/or pad the bottom of the kayak with a layer of foam to raise the heels until the balls of the feet contact the pedals. Anyone can benefit from a thin layer of foam under the heels for bare- foot comfort, and/or a layer of rubber under the heels to prevent sandy footwear from rubbing holes in the boat.

Cover photo of the Adventure Kayak Magazine summer edition.This article first appeared in the Early Summer 2003 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Adventure Kayak’s print and digital editions here.

Urban Adventures: Saint John, NB

Photo: Doug Scott
Urban Adventures: Saint John, NB

Saint John, New Brunswick, is Canada’s oldest incorporated city. With a designation like that, you can be sure there’s history around every corner or, for the kayaker, around every point. 

This is particularly true of Partridge Island. This rocky outcrop of approximately 25 acres is located in Saint John Harbour just over a kilometre offshore of the city’s his- toric uptown at Fort Dufferin. Now a National and Provincial Historic Site, Partridge Island was once a major immigration processing centre. It has been attached to the mainland by a breakwater since 1963 but today is off-limits to the public. But you can get a good view of this important piece of Canadian and North American history from a kayak.

Partridge Island’s story begins, according to local aboriginal folklore, when the god Glooscap broke the dam built by the Great Beaver on the St. John River. The ensuing flood deposited part of the dam right in the harbour, just west of the present-day river mouth, creating the island Qual-m’kay-gam-ik. When Samuel de Champlain entered the harbour in 1604, he renamed the island after its population of partridges.

Guarding the entrance to the busy seaport of Saint John, Partridge Island has caused many shipwrecks since Champlain’s day. The lighthouse, installed in 1791, was the first in New Brunswick and only the third in Canada. But it took the installation of a foghorn in 1859 to make shipping much safer in this frequently foggy harbour. This was the world’s first steam-operated foghorn, a tech- nology invented by Saint John resident Robert Foulis and subsequently used worldwide. Today, Partridge Island is owned by the federal government and still operated as a working light station. The blinking light stands on the island’s highest point and is clearly visible from every direction.

You can see this light from McLaren’s Beach. On the Saint John mainland west of Partridge Island, McLaren’s Beach is probably the most popular put-in spot for local paddlers and the best place to begin your trip. It’s only 15 minutes by car from the city centre and is relatively sheltered from the winds and waves of the Bay of Fundy.

From here, the island is a picturesque paddle of about four kilometres eastward. With harbour seals for company, you pass small, rocky beaches alternating with 40-foot cliffs. Perched on the cliffs are houses with Bay of Fundy views that most people can only dream about.

BOAT TRAFFIC AND COLD WATERS ON THE BAY OF FUNDY

Before you set off, make sure you check the weather and be prepared for open-ocean conditions. The Bay of Fundy’s waters are notoriously cold—about four to six degrees Celcius all year long. And away from the shelter of McLaren’s Beach, you’re exposed to the winds that prevail from the southwest, blowing up from the mouth of the Bay from spring through fall. 

Approaching the island from the west, you’ll stay clear of the major shipping lanes, but you should still watch out for boat traffic. Also be prepared to encounter fog, which can roll in very quickly, often with the rising tide.

The tides of the Bay of Fundy are the largest in the world, with a range of up to 40 feet in some places. In Saint John the tide can vary 25 feet and rises amazingly fast, so if you leave your kayak on a beach make sure it is above the high-water mark.

This trip can be completed anytime, but at low tide you’ll encounter more rocks. About halfway between McLaren’s Beach and the island you pass Shag Rocks, completely covered at high tide but exposed to the breaking swell at lower levels. You can avoid the rocks by paddling closer to shore. 

As you approach Partridge Island, imagine yourself as a hopeful immigrant seeing North America for the first time. The island served as a quarantine station between 1832 and 1942. Fifteen thousand immigrants came ashore here in the year 1847 alone. Most of them were starving Irish escaping the Potato Famine. In that infamous year, 2,000 immigrants died of typhus. Six hundred were buried in unmarked graves in the three small, fenced graveyards on the island’s southern edge. It is sad to think of these people whose hopes of a better life in the New World ended so soon.

Visible high above the wild shrubs is a 40-foot Celtic cross erected in 1927 in memory of the unfortunate immigrants and the doctor, Patrick Collins, who also died of typhus while trying to cure them. In all, including some of the residents and soldiers who came to the island later, 1,200 people have been buried on this unimposing scrap of land.

Directly west and about 20 meters from the Celtic cross is a tall lookout. This is one of several military emplacements that attest to the island’s long military history. Partridge Island was first fortified during the war of 1812 and was continuously manned from then until the Fenian raids in 1866. It was manned again to protect the harbour during both the First and Second World Wars, although no shots were ever fired.

MAKING HISTORY ACCESSIBLE ONCE AGAIN

Now the island has been closed to the public for several years. The wooden buildings have all been either demolished or burnt by vandals who have sneaked across the breakwater. There is also concern that the residual ash from the coal that was used as fuel while the island was populat- ed may be an environmental and health hazard. Saint John is embarking on a waterfront development project and part of that is an attempt to open Partridge Island to the public. It would be wonderful if this important part of our history becomes accessible once again.

Once you’ve explored the shoreline of Partridge Island and soaked up enough history, head back toward your put-in at McLaren’s Beach. It’s not recommended that you paddle east beyond Partridge Island across the harbour mouth or down the east side of the breakwater toward the city. The tides and currents at the mouth of the St. John River cause rough conditions in these areas.

If you want to keep paddling, continue west past McLaren’s Beach for two kilometres, around Sheldon Point and past an old fishing weir to Saint’s Rest Beach. Less than two kilometres offshore from Saint’s Rest is Manawagonish Island, a nature preserve with cliffs and inlets for the kayaker to investigate. At the west end of Saint’s Rest is the Irving Nature Park. This area is a popular destination for beachcombers, kite flyers and hikers—a great place to stop for lunch, stretch your legs, and talk to the locals about your historical discoveries.

Doug Scott is a full-time instructor at the New Brunswick Community College and a part-time wooden kayak builder and paddling enthusiast. 

This article on Saint John was published in the Early Summer 2003 issue of Adventure Kayak magazine.This article first appeared in the Early Summer 2003 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Adventure Kayak’s print and digital editions here.