25 IT ALL STARTED IN FORT MCMURRAY
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
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 teams 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
TO FORT CHIPEWYAN
Early wake-up calls soon became the daily
norm. After a tour of the historic site of Bitumount, a trappers 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, Albertas 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
TO FORT SMITH
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.
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 expeditions 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
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 Mackenzies voyages, returned south
for three weeks
7-14 TO YELLOWKNIFE
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
TO FORT PROVIDENCE
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
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
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.
1-7 TO FORT SIMPSON
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.
7-14 TO NORMAN WELLS
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
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
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
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.
JULY 14-24 TO INUVIK
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
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
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
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 projects 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.
24-27 TO KENDALL ISLAND, BEAUFORT SEA,
July 24 began with a short hike to the Hudsons 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
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
Channels 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.
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
islands 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
Mackenzies Whale Island two hundred years later.
27-AUGUST 10 RETURN TO THUNDER BAY
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
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 oclock lunch break,
after six hours of steady paddling wed 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
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
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 oclock, 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.