Paddling Through Time

Recreation of historic canoe route one of dozens of projects to receive ECF grants for Canada’s 150th birthday

As Edmontonians dig out their Canadian flags and fire up barbecues on July 1, a flotilla of boats will be making its way down the North Saskatchewan to commemorate Canada’s sesquicentennial in Edmonton’s lush river valley.

Paddling in the wake of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, explorers and settlers, the Fort Edmonton Canoe Brigade will re-enact and celebrate the history of travel along the North Saskatchewan, connecting Edmontonians to the region’s historical roots.

“It’s a part of our history that we just don’t interact with often enough,” says Chris Thrall, outreach manager for the River Valley Alliance. “Celebrating our rivers is a big part of Canada 150 for us. It was the travel network that connected European settlements with Indigenous populations across the country in our early stages as a country.”

Held over the Canada Day long weekend, the five-day paddle will begin near the Genesee Bridge southwest of Edmonton, and follow the river north to Devon, Edmonton, and Fort Saskatchewan, before wrapping up in Victoria Settlement, south of Smoky Lake. The brigade will include at least 10 replica Voyageur canoes – a specific style of canoe used during the fur trade – each carrying a crew of 10-12 paddlers. The Fort Edmonton Canoe Brigade is one of about 30 initiatives receiving special grants from Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) for Canada’s 150th anniversary.

According to event organizer Mark Lund, chair of the 2017 Canadian Voyageur Brigade Society, the grant will allow brigade participants, along with the public, to enjoy special events and activities over the course of the five-day journey. This will include community-hosted meals in Devon and Fort Saskatchewan, interactive paddling demonstrations, and even an old-time supper featuring live entertainment and traditional Voyageur dancing.

Lund is no stranger to traversing Canada’s wilderness by river. Over the past 40 years, he has organized large-scale paddling events across the country, participated in historical brigades and re-enactments, and written a guidebook for Alberta paddlers. Now, he’s using his vast experience and passion for paddling to help others celebrate Canada’s history, and understand the nation’s roots.

“Some of the crews and paddlers thought we should go big for 2017. We thought about paddling into Ottawa, but ultimately, I’m really looking forward to the trip down the North Saskatchewan,” says Lund. “It’s a very social experience —we’re expecting over a hundred paddlers in the Voyageur canoes and close to 2,000 spectators over the five days.”

Lund hope s to see many Edmontonians join in the festivities, from experienced paddlers committing to the full five days to those joining for an afternoon at Fort Edmonton Park.

“For two sections of the journey we’re inviting smaller paddle craft, including canoes, kayaks, and even stand-up paddleboards, to join us. It’s a great opportunity to connect with the 150th celebrations, and teach people about the history of Voyageurs and Indigenous groups,” he says.

The brigade has set aside funds to support the participation of an Indigenous crew in one of the Voyageur canoes. Though the spots haven’t yet been reserved, Lund is optimistic that the right group will come along in time for the event.

“What we hope to create is a connection with our history and with our river network,” says Thrall. “With at least 10 Voyageur canoes expected, and dozens of day paddlers joining us, it’s going to be an amazing moment. There’s not going to be a Canada Day like this anywhere else.”