Weekly Thoughts: People have brought character and culture to Peace River – Part 102

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Before delving into the century-old canoe adventure of Jon P. Tamelen and his modern-day companions, it might be worth pausing – to reflect – on an excerpt from the 1895 poem by E. Pauline Johnson, The Song My Paddle Sings:

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August laughs in the sky

Laughing while paddling, canoeing and me,

Drift, drift,

where the hills rise

On either side of the current swift.

Be strong, O paddle!

Be brave, canoe!

The reckless waves

you have to dive into.

Reel, reel.

On your trembling keel,

But never a fear that my profession will feel.

With the poem in mind, remember that Jon and the crew of explorer Mackenzie finally arrived at Rocky Mountain House, not always sharing the tranquility that Pauline Johnson experienced. Nevertheless, in time to meet government funded paddlers and participate in some of the government sponsored Centenary Canoe Competition festivities. All this, before the official start of the race to Montreal, 5,200 kilometres, new experiences and possible monetary rewards.

Jon lamented the discrepancies between funded travelers and his crew, not the least of which was the need for the crew of Explorer Mackenzie to raise funds – to fund not only the canoe, but all other expenses associated with the company. Plus, they traveled a greater distance than those who left Rocky Mountain House — from Hudson’s Hope for Jon, Tarzan, and Lobo, and from Fort Saint John for Crew Ridge.

Additionally, those that were funded had the advantage of being able to routinely rest parts of their crews, while others did the work – a big energy advantage. There were other issues, which decreased the overall workload of those being funded, which “disgusted” Jon, who had no malice towards the sponsored paddlers, only at the unfair situation.

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On May 25, after the pre-trip festivities, the crew returned to St. Albert in their refitted support bus, from where travelers portaged to Edmonton and the North Saskatchewan River to continue the adventure by following its own route to Montreal and Expo ’67.

The wildlife was nothing new to the travelers, but 10 miles downriver from Fort Saskatchewan, a mother great horned owl caught their eye, as did a member of her young herd. The latter joined Lobo as the Mackenzie Explorer mascot. Named by the voyageurs “Charlie the Centennial Owl”, for whom they built a nest on the high stern of the canoe. It turned out to be “few problems and lots of fun for all”. That is to say, until he disappeared on June 8, there was no longer any question of riding on Lobo’s back and “encouraging” the paddlers. His disappearance prompted a poem by Jon – Ode to Charlie.

Charlie’s unannounced flight of his paddler friends departed from a still operating Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, established in 1774 – Cumberland House, Saskatchewan. The post, in 1967, was only accessible by seaplane or boat. “Not a white man in sight, only the timid Cree people,” wrote Jon the same day the voyageurs saw their first maple trees, a significant sign of their progress eastward.

Breaking camp and leaving this small community, Jon writes: “The young boys were waving. They had that distant look in their eyes. They were also embarking, in their thoughts, on a journey across the country, plunging their paddles into uncharted waters and embarking on a grand adventure. I felt very good about our trip, I was a young boy myself and very happy to dive my paddle into uncharted waters!”

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Uncharted waters continued. It was a hockey sock full of experiences for the crew to prove their courage – their determination – their determination – to make it to Montreal, August 31 – 5,200 miles – 110 days in canoes, along the waterways paddled by Mackenzie and Thompson. If nothing else, there would forever be a common bond with their predecessors – mosquitoes and no-see-ums in the extreme.

A motorboat escort, the cheers of a noisy crowd – horns, whistles and all manner of noisemakers greeted the arrival of explorer Mackenzie and its elated but modern-weary travelers at a Montreal marina. “I went down to earth and stabilized her like I had done a thousand times before. There were tears in my eyes. I could see Bobby’s [Poitras] mother and sisters and brothers in the crowd, arms outstretched. There were reporters, news cameras and smiling faces – all blurry. WE HAVE ARRIVED.

“You, and all of your crew, deserve our heartfelt congratulations on completing a centennial project of this magnitude. This is without a doubt the most spectacular individual centenary project I have heard of this year and, as you know, it many extraordinary feats, indeed, have been accomplished. But a canoe trip of 5,200 miles tops them all. – Lester B. Pearson. Prime Minister of Canada

Canada’s marine heritage was on display at Expo 67, not only by the widely traveled and advertised canoeists, but also by the replica Nova Scotia gaff fishing/racing schooner – Bluenose ll, anchored at the City of Le Havre, in Montreal. As the name suggests, this was not the original Bluenose, but rather a replica.

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Bluenose ll was launched in 1963 – “built by many of the same people, who had worked on the original ship in the same shipyard”. His building was funded by the Oland Brewery and later donated to the Nova Scotia government in 1971, later to become the province’s Goodwill Ambassador.

The original, designed by William Roué, was launched in 1921 by the Smith & Rhuland Co. of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, commissioned by Angus Walters. His goal, to fish off the Grand Banks and win races against American and Canadian schooners in the International Fishermen’s Cup in the 1930s – never beaten by a challenger in 17 years of competition. According to Bluenose – Birth of a Legacy, “Nova Scotia’s shipbuilding pride and reputation sailed with Bluenose – Queen of the North Atlantic. She was sold and died on a reef off Haiti in 1946.

“The majestic image of the Bluenose has graced the Canadian dime since 1937, and three postage stamps, as well as the Nova Scotia license plate.”

Also at the world’s fair there was the construction on site of another fishing schooner, Atlantica. It was built in the tradition of yesteryear “as a reminder of Canada’s maritime heritage”.

You’re right – another tangent has been presented – could call it a watered down or watered down version – hope you didn’t mind. Now we are on other canoe trips.

With Jon van Tamelen and the crew of the Explorer Mackenzie, we made the journey from northern Alberta to Montreal, Quebec in 110 days. We, through Jon’s writings, have followed the paddle strokes and endured the mosquitoes and non-voices experienced by those before us as we traveled along Canada’s waterways to celebrate Canada’s centennial at the World’s Fair. – Expo ’67. After leaving them in good company, then taking a historic tangent on larger, faster, wind-assisted craft, it’s time to get back to the slower, more laborious canoe.

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We now focus on another group of people recreating Mackenzie’s voyage to the Pacific – this time a bicentennial excursion. While van Tamelen and his fellow travelers paddled west to east in 110 days, the Lakehead University travelers made the more strenuous east to west trip (11,835 km – 7,337.7 miles) in four phases over four years.

As one can imagine, contemplating such an endeavor, one usually does not jump into a canoe and paddle without thoughtful preparation. It is particularly important to do this, as we saw with Jon van Tamelen and the men he paddled with in 1967. We will see that this is also true of the next travelers we will get to know – the students of the Lakehead University.

For students at the University of Thunder Bay, Ontario, it all started with an idea proposed by Dr. Jim Smithers, a professor at the School of Outdoor Recreation. In 1988, he offered for the first time “a Canada-wide exhibition of canoes celebrating the 200e anniversary of the first recorded crossing of North America by Sir Alexander Mackenzie”.

More Smithers and Lakeland University student adventures in upcoming Ponderings.

Sources: Peace River Remembers, Jack Coulter, Frank Richardson; Turning the Pages of Time – History of Nampa and surrounding districts; Records from the Mackenzie Peace River Museum, Archives and Center; Peace River Record-Gazette; Peace River Standard; Coots, Codgers and Curmudgeons – Hal C. Sisson and Dwayne W. Rowe; Edmonton Journal; Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21; Canadian history; Northern Gazette; Peace River file; Northern Review; The Canadian Encyclopedia

Beth Wilkins is a researcher at the Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre.

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