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Black powder rifles roared and a large crowd of spectators saluted with a hearty cheer as four canoes, replicas of the 26 and 36-foot canoes used by early fur traders left Fort McMurray, Alberta on a 10-week 3500 km voyage to the Arctic Ocean. The expedition included 13 male and 12 female students, together with their co-leaders from Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Dr. Jim Smithers and graduate student Derek Apple. A small support crew accompanied the canoe brigade, occupying two Zodiac inflatable boats powered by Johnson Outboard motors.

For the next seven weeks, Brian Patton, writer, would prepare and telephone south Progress Reports for the formation of the Founding Partners, sponsors, media and families of the crew. The “voyageurs” had perfect weather that afternoon and received a ‘bon voyage’ and a City flag from Mayor Chuck Knight and officials of Syncrude Canada Limited who had sponsored the team’s arrival and activities in and around the City. The two ground support vehicles left for Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, for a future rendezvous with the paddlers.

Four days earlier, the City of Fort McMurray, Syncrude Canada limited, the local canoe club, the two School Boards and the Heritage Society had staged an exciting welcome when the team arrived at the Snye on the Clearwater River. Sir Alexander Mackenzie, acted by student Phillip Boswell, and the expedition members had stepped ashore as over 140 residents in 70 recreation canoes had watched from offshore, together with spectators and reporters on shore.

However, the paddlers’ thoughts were no longer on the welcomes they had received in Fort McMurray or Fort Edmonton Park in Edmonton earlier, but on the arduous adventure now ahead. The crew in the “Fort“ canoe, on loan from Old Fort William in Thunder Bay, Ontario, set a demanding pace of 50 or more strokes a minute. Six hours and 28 miles downstream on the Athabasca, the canoes landed and the wearied paddlers pitched theft tents quickly, ate cold meals and fell asleep.



Early wake-up calls soon became the daily norm. After a tour of the historic site of Bitumount, a trapper’s cabin and an abandoned airstrip, the canoes battled brisk winds to cover 145 miles in three days.

The crossing of Lake Athabasca turned out to be an exciting all-out effort to match the swells and waves There were periods of light rain and tough winds from the northeast, but all four boats were able to gather beneath the granite bluffs of Fort Chipewyan. where they were greeted by a Canadian Parks Service interpreter and a small group of Native children

Fort Chipewyan, Alberta’s oldest continuously settled community, celebrated its 200th Anniversary in 1988. With a population of under 1,000 persons, it has no summer road access. Although the community was initially unprepared for the arrival of the expedition, performances in the school were undertaken by the team and the community prepared a potluck supper with 100 residents turning out to provide entertainment, dancing, fiddling and feasting into the mornings wee hours.



Despite the celebrations the evening before, the expedition was in the water by 6:30 am, exactly 200 years and two days after Mackenzie and his party left Fort Chipewyan to seek the Northwest Passage in 1789.

Poplar trees were beginning to leaf, waterfowl were abundant and the current slowed with the flat terrain as the canoes passed the confluence of the Quatre Fourches and the Peace River, the river that Mackenzie would have to return to three yearn later on his second voyage to the Pacific Ocean in 1792-93.

After a night camping in Wood Buffalo National Park, with tents pitched carefully among the buffalo droppings, the canoes reached the Slave River, past trappers’ cabins and a cow moose swimming across the river near Fort Fitzgerald. After a feast of moose meat and chili provided by James Darkes who had guided the expedition’s 1988 reconnaissance trip in the area a flatbed truck arrived to take the canoes into Fort Smith, and for many of the team, their first visit to the Northwest Territories.

Fort Smith, population 2,500, serves as headquarters for Wood Buffalo National Park, the largest national park in the world. The crew rested on Sunday, June 4, with laundry and ice cream cones coming ahead of showers. They then donned costumes for the official arrival of the expedition into Conibear Park. Mayor Dennis Bevington and the NWT Governments Don Ellis and 650 residents welcomed the team. Interpretive programs followed for the next two days, as well as tours of the Thebacha Campus of the Arctic College, the town itself and the Parks interpretive centre,

At this point, Halle Flygare, one of the originators of the re-creation of Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s voyages, returned south for three weeks



After the warm hospitality of Fort Smith, the canoeists departed northward on the Slave River, while the two ground support trucks left by road for Yellowknife, Campsites along the river became few and far between, often reached by wallowing through soggy and boggy mud bars The paddlers toiled long hours daily. traveling up to 60 miles in a day. For the first time favourable winds were encountered, and as Mackenzie had done, the crews set their sails. Enjoying the luxury of sailing the canoes drifted unknowingly past the narrow well-camouflaged Jean River. A stiff 90-minute upstream paddle was required to get back to the turn-off leading to the uncertain challenge of Great Slave Lake.

Great Slave Lake, about 50 miles wide and 285 miles long, is the fifth largest lake in North America and 10th in the world. Frozen eight months of the year, wind conditions can clog the lake with pack ice into mid ­June. Despite the fears of the canoe brigade. however, the crossing of the lake became one of the highlights of the expedition. On June 11, with record high temperatures of 340C, the lake appeared to be a desert-circled ocean.

For the next three days, similar conditions prevailed: hot days. favouring winds few insects and the canoes running well, with ice visible only in the channels, bays and depressions. On June 14, the brigade pushed for the final 20 miles to Yellowknife, encountering loose flows of ice which were easily pushed aside. The crossing had become unexpectedly straight-forward and the paddlers were reunited with the rest of the party at Yellowknife.

Yellowknife, population 12,000 and the capital of the Territories, provided an official welcome at Mosher Island with the expedition being met by a flotilla of local canoes and kayaks, Deputy Mayor Rob Findlayson and Yellowknife Band Chief Jonas Sangris. Stew and bannock were served to the hungry crew and to the residents and visitors who gathered to join In the festivities. At the encampment, community activities, displays and performances for school children and residents kept the brigade busy for the next two days, while the community prepared for the longest day of the year, summer solstice on June 21 and the Midnight Madness celebrations.



The crew, now 660 miles north on their journey after a month, was anxious to leave Yellowknife, refreshed and ready for the challenge of ‘Dehcho’ or the Big River (the Mackenzie River).

“A few minutes after midnight this morning, the bagpipes squealed, the black powder guns roared, and the four canoes of the Sir Alexander Mackenzie Bicentennial Expedition bade farewell to the capital of the Northwest Territories. Led by Mayor Pat McMahon, 60 Yellowknife residents turned out for the late night departure. But being the longest day of the year, the sun had dipped beneath the horizon less than an hour earlier and it was still bright enough for photographs.”

The team was joined by Norm Murray of Banff, who together with Roger Murray, film-maker from Quebec, piloted the support vessels. The first day, after the long night, meant an 11-hour paddle and 43 miles to a rocky island where the student “voyageurs” crashed without bothering to put up their tents.

Soon clouds of mosquitoes appeared to remind the paddlers of the rigours ahead. The team encountered stiff winds and dangerous swells around the north shore of the lake as they pushed west

The winds continued, day after day, leading to team grumpiness and sour moods. Each day became a challenge, with breaks needed for rests or to wait out the winds. Dismal landing areas were readily accepted; mud, sink-holes, mosquitoes and flies were everywhere.

Daily distances varied from 15 to 70 miles, until on June 28, with little fuss and no major landmarks to signify the occasion, the expedition paddled into the North Channel of the Mackenzie River, the last leg. The smooth water and foggy evening made a welcome change and hearts and minds relaxed somewhat. Navigation markers began to appear, and the paddlers could feel the pull of the strong current.

On June 29, Treaty Day in Port Providence, the team arrived in this most southerly of the Mackenzie River settlements. Word of the arrival spread quickly and sparked a rush to the mile-long waterfront, with honking trucks and shouting children following the canoes as they made their way to the campground at the far end of the village.

Fort Providence, population 700, had been chosen by the Territorial Government as the Official Start of its Alexander Mackenzie Bicentennial Canoe Race. For the next three days, the Mackenzie Expedition voyageurs met with the organizers of the Mackenzie Race and with the native teams who were arriving from throughout the Territories.



Canada Day, July 1, at Fort Providence will not be forgotten by the expedition members. Into costume at 8 am, the crew toured the Canadian Coast Guard Vessel “Dummit”. one of the largest boats on the Mackenzie River. Then, sitting on top of the town fire truck, the crew and other residents were whisked about the community in a frantic parade. At a special afternoon ceremony, a plaque on the Big Rock was unveiled by retiring NWT Commissioner John Parker, MLA Sam Gargan and Sir Alex himself, again played by Phillip Boswell.

John Amatt, President of the One Step Beyond Adventure Group, one of the driving forces behind “Canada Sea-to-Sea”, joined the expedition, along with the return of HalIe Flygare. On July 3 the team left Fort Providence ahead of the racers, crossing impressive Mills Lake, a major widening of the Mackenzie. The racers soon caught up, as their gear was carried separately in motor boats, allowing for faster paddling.

Jean Marie River, a traditional native community of 70 persons. was reached on July 4. Incredibly, the tiny village feasted the expedition and canoe racers with enough T-bone steaks, moose meat and barbecued fish for 300 people. Our team gave an impromptu performance, joined by a Mackenzie voyageur descendant who provided squeeze box music and tall tales.

Arriving at Fort Simpson on July 5, the crew hauled its gear to camp in time to join Treaty Day celebrations with a feast and drum dance into the bright morning hours. Fort Simpson, 1,100 persons, is on an island at the mouth of the Liard River where in 1804 a NW Company fort had been constructed. The town is the oldest continuously occupied settlement on the Mackenzie. Here the two ground support trucks which had traveled by road were stored as they could go no further. Costumes now had to be packed with personal gear, and food stocks were replenished with the next food stop slated for Inuvik, a long stretch downriver. Brian Patton left the expedition to arrange for publicity in the south for the final weeks of the expedition.



Departing at 7 am, the expedition paddled over 12 hours in a cloudless hot, sunny day arriving at Camsell Bend 79 miles downstream, the longest daily distance thus far, Camsell Bend is the historic point where the Mackenzie River is turned north by the eastern escarpment of the Mackenzie Mountains.

On July 8 a heavy chop and brisk wind forced the NWT canoe racers to be towed the last 30 miles to Wrigley, while the Mackenzie Expedition paddled all day, traveling a remarkable 74 miles. Wrigley, about 140 persons, is an attractive community on a high plateau overlooking the river. The next day was spent re-organizing loads, giving performances, and taking on gas for the support boats. To get an early start, the expedition left late at “night”, covering 40 miles that evening.

The two days to Fort Norman provided a seven knot current, one lone Japanese kayaker, a tug towing a barge (the third seen on the trip), and another Coast Guard vessel which provided a generous round of cold drinks for the voyageurs. On July 10 the team managed 103 miles. the longest distance covered in any one day, a grueling pace in the record breaking heat wave.

Near Fort Norman the Expedition passed the Smoking Hills, a coal deposit on the river bank which has been smoldering since before Mackenzie’s time.

“As we watched, several points along the bank burst into flame. The ground is incredibly hot, and Norms rubber boots were burned by the heat when he walked along the bank A sumptuous smell covered the area, and nearby there were orange-red rocks imprinted with fossil leaves.”

Fort Norman, a settlement of about 300, is on a site first occupied by a NW Company fort in 1810. Camping overnight, a fierce wind storm with gusts to 80 km blew into camp, blowing down many tents. This was followed by heavy rain and lightning with the canoes of the St. Johns Boys School of Alberta arriving in the middle of the storm.

On July 13 Norman Wells was reached, with the burning flames above the oil field towers serving as a homing beacon on the final 10 mile paddle. Imperial oil provided a hearty supper and free gas for the boats. The well-fed crew had great difficulty providing a performance that evening!

Norman Wells is a company town of about 420 people. The oil seepages first reported by the early explorers led to a small refinery which operated in the 1920s. Today, the area produces 10 million barrels of oil annually for northern consumption.



While departing Norman Wells in the evening, a sudden violent thunderstorm forced the canoes to shore and flooded the support boats quicker than they could be bailed by hand. By July 16 the canoes had navigated the Sans Sault Rapids. been soaked by a second severe thunderstorm, and had run the Ramparts, a seven-mile long canyon with sheer 200-foot cliffs.

With no events scheduled, a brief coffee stop was made at Fort Good Hope. population of about 700 persons. The community dates back to 1805 when the first NW Company trading post in the lower Mackenzie Valley was established.

Later that same day the expedition crossed the Arctic Circle!

July 17 brought a new challenge — the separation of the canoes. Violent winds blew two of the canoes to one bank and two of the canoes to the opposite bank. With the river two miles wide at this point, the support boats separated and the teams camped across the river from each other.

Reunited, the next two days to Arctic Red River found stiff head winds and rain. The settlement of 120 people, located where the Dempster Highway crosses the Mackenzie, provided a happy welcome. After an evening performance, the brigade continued on northward, viewing for the first time the Richardson Mountains, the boundary between the Territories and the Yukon. Arriving at Point Separation at 11 pm, the team had now reached the Mackenzie Delta where the river breaks into numerous channels. 

On July 20 the expedition pulled into Inuvik in the rain at 1:30 pm. The bedraggled crew threw tents up on the wet grassy slopes of the muddy river bank and dispersed into town for showers, coffee and news from home. Within an hour visitors began to flock to the campsite and Alice Barton of the lnuvik Visitors Association loaned her pick-up truck to haul supplies and arranged for complimentary dinner tickets for the evening festivities, and, for the next day, a pancake breakfast and lunch at the Dene Tent and a community dance at the Native Friendship Centre.

John Amatt and Norm Murray made a reluctant departure for the south, while joining in the support boats were Bill McLeod, a Scottish journalist, and Greg Stevens, the project’s Managing Director who would join the brigade for its final push to the Arctic Ocean. When the racing teams arrived, they and the expedition were met on Friday evening by Mayor John Hill and Arctic West MP Ethel Blondin, proudly wearing a Mackenzie Bicentennial Expedition Goretex jacket.

lnuvik is the most modern community on the river. Established by the Federal Government in 1954 as an alternate site to nearby Aklavik, it has grown to 3,400 people, the largest community north of the Arctic Circle. The Dempster Highway terminates here and the town is flooded with visitors, as the brigade soon learned when it discovered a shortage of postcards.



July 24 began with a short hike to the Hudson’s Bay Store where a plentiful supply of food donated by Northern Stores Ltd. awaited. The food and supplies as well as the staff at the various Northern Stores along the way had been a major morale booster and a welcome addition to offset the long days. Members of the team soon became experts in trading various foods and sundries and in preparing mixtures of dried fruits, candies, nuts and cheese. At 5 pm the brigade slogged through the mud and pushed off on the final part of the journey north.

The first evening covered 23 miles until cam was made at 10:30 pm in bright sunlight. The delta now showed ample life judging from the tracks of grizzly, wolf and fox found in the mud along the banks or around the tents in the mornings! Flocks of birds were numerous, and die shorelines teemed with arctic terns diving down on the paddlers if the canoes came too close to their nesting areas.

On July 25 the crew covered 55 miles and passed abandoned or mothballed structures, including a DEW Line station and Reindeer Depot, the site of a failed experiment at herding European reindeer in the Mackenzie Delta.

Up at 5 am on July 26 in thick pea soup fog and even thicker mosquitoes, the brigade found that gloves, netting and heavy clothing seldom kept one bite-free. The insects followed the canoes and boats, riding in their airstreams like birds seating behind a ferry boat, attacking the paddlers and boat crews incessantly. The cold became a trial for support crews who piled on clothing while marveling at the bare hands and heads of some of the paddlers.

The day grew long with waves increasing in size and the canoes facing bitter winds and light rain. At 2pm Garry Island, renamed since Mackenzie had termed it Whale Island in 1789, could be seen in the distance. With heavy, dangerous, rolling waves to face, the brigade turned back for shelter on the Channel’s west shore.

Frequent checks over the next four hours showed little improvement. Happily from out of the fog and drizzle, an Inuit family pushed ashore in its motor boat. Instead of Garry Island they suggested that the team cross to Kendall Island where a number of families were camped while hunting for beluga whales On Kendall Island, on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, the team could review its options. The exhausted crew clambered into sleeping bags and rested until 4 am.

Early morning on July 27 the paddlers toiled grimly into rolling three-foot waves which came close to the canoe gunwales, often breaking into whitecaps and making headway difficult. Suddenly the fog lifted as the canoes moved ahead and through the mirages of reflected islands and shorelines, the team could see Kendall island ahead.

Landing at 9:30 am, the crew met the island’s temporary residents who shared their coffee and gas and who entertained the team with Inuit knife tossing games and stories about their hunting and fishing experiences. The expedition members then climbed the hill behind the families’ tents and looked across at Garry Island.

“The weather was still threatening. The wind was blowing strongly and there was heavy cloud and rain to the west and south. We had reached the Arctic Ocean and there was little time left to linger. We decided that this must be the end of our journey. We took photographs of the crew on the hilltop and displayed the University and community flags that we had brought with us.”

Mackenzie had received guidance and support of the natives he had encountered along his journey. Similarly, the 1989 Mackenzie Bicentennial Expedition had received the hospitality and kindness of the Inuit and Native families on Kendall Island. If Mackenzie was disappointed in not reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1789, so too were some of the Bicentennial Expedition members who had not reached Mackenzie’s Whale Island two hundred years later.



The expedition left Kendall Island at 11:30 am. The crossing of the open water was a two-hour struggle as the boats began to stretch out from each other. The Spirit West jackets with their Goretex fabric and Coolmax lining were proving their worth as the paddlers battled the waves ahead of a stiff tail wind. As the overcast sky began to clear, the previous nights campsite was passed by in favour of continued effort to move further south into the channel. Camp was established finally and the talk turned to plans for departure from Inuvik, packing the canoes and boats, retrieving the trucks, and the long drive from Edmonton to Thunder Bay.

The team awoke early as usual on July 28, but surprisingly the crew was to find the most demanding part of its journey was ahead of them.

“The wind had shifted to the south, and we were bucking a strong headwind and a heavy chop on the river. For every three strokes forward, we would lose an equivalent distance of two. At our two o’clock lunch break, after six hours of steady paddling we’d only traveled eight miles. We continued the struggle through the afternoon, and by supper we had gone another five miles.”

By 9:30 pm the team, now well exhausted, pitched camp at a mothballed oil and gas supply staging area, with a pathetic 17 miles of hard canoeing behind it and a discouraging 55 miles remaining to battle upstream back to Inuvik. After the happy peak of emotion at Kendall Island, sudden gloom seemed to settle over the expedition.

Grim prospects met the team on Saturday morning July 28. The wind was howling at 40 kph directly against the canoes Strong gusts made for difficulties on shore when rest breaks were taken. While some crew members held the canoes from the rocks, others sought a few moments of refuge on shore.

Wind-bound finally, the team took shelter on the east bank of the channel where some members cooked hot tea and soup and others rested or explored the thick spongy tundra.

Finally as the skies remained clear and the gusts died down, the boats took to the river once more, with 50 miles to go. With the exception of brief rests, the team struggled south against the current and wind for a straight 19 hours through the sunlit “night”, and on into the afternoon, arriving at Inuvik at 2 pm on July 30.

Appropriately, perhaps. the “Canada Sea-to-Sea” Mackenzie Bicentennial Expedition had ended with one of the most exhausting marathon stretches of the summer. The crew reflected on the fact that Mackenzie and his voyageurs had continued south, up river to Fort Chipewyan in 1789, whereas the 1989 expedition could look forward to flying south to Edmonton in a matter of hours with the support of Canadian Airlines international.

The next three days were spent loading flatbed bucks with the canoes, boats and equipment for the return journey south.

Canadian Airlines and its Inuvik Agent Malcolm Eyes provided a most welcome return flight. Back in the City of Edmonton at Fort Edmonton Park, the successful voyageurs were welcomed by the Honourable Doug Main, Alberta Minister of Culture and Multiculturalism, Edmonton Mayor Terry Cavanagh, representatives of sponsors and some family members. President Bob Rosehart of Lakehead University, John Woodworth. Secretary of The Alexander Mackenzie Trail Association of British Columbia, “Moe” Ktytor, Manager of the Canada Employment Centre on Lakehead Campus, representing the Ministers of Employment and Immigration Canada and Youth, John Amatt, President of One Step Beyond Adventure Group, John Gordon of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Charitable Foundation and Peter Lema of Canadian Airlines International were among those in attendance.

Then, after a few hard days of cramped road traveling in the vans, the team drove into Thunder Bay, Ontario for a colourful welcome at Old Fort William. Arriving

By canoe at the dock of the Old Fort on August 10, the voyageurs were met by the Gentlemen of the Fort and by the Honourable Lyn McLeod, Ontario Minister of Energy and Natural Resources and other Federal, Provincial and City officials. In summarizing the summer experience Expedition Leader Jim Smithers concluded:

“Our experiences were much the same as those that Mackenzie had 200 years ago. We were wind-bound and icebound on Great Slave Lake, we dodged violent thunderstorms on the Mackenzie River and we got lost in the fog on the coast of the Beaufort Sea. Many mornings we were up at four o’clock, and sometimes we paddled 20 hours or more at a stretch.”

When Alexander Mackenzie ended his first voyage at the Arctic Ocean instead of the Pacific, he called the river ‘Disappointment.” Four years later, after further study and preparation he achieved his goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean near present day Bella Coola, more than a decade ahead of the American expedition of Lewis and Clark.



































































































































































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