Members of the Pathfinder voyageur canoe crew play in the waves during the 2008 David Thompson Brigade.

Members of the Pathfinder voyageur canoe crew play in the waves during the 2008 David Thompson Brigade.

Retracing 200-year-old paddle strokes

Two-hundred years after explorer, fur trader, and cartographer David Thompson reached the Pacific Ocean by the Columbia River, completing the final leg of the fur trade highway between Montreal and the Pacific, eight teams of voyageur canoeists, including one team based in Rossland, are poised to repeat the 45-day, 1,800-kilometre journey from Invermere to Astoria, Ore.

  • May. 25, 2011 11:00 a.m.

Two-hundred years after explorer, fur trader, and cartographer David Thompson reached the Pacific Ocean by the Columbia River, completing the final leg of the fur trade highway between Montreal and the Pacific, eight teams of voyageur canoeists, including one team based in Rossland, are poised to repeat the 45-day, 1,800-kilometre journey from Invermere to Astoria, Ore.

The 2011 David Thompson Columbia Brigade is the last in a series of four paddling adventures that began in 2007 to commemorate Thompson’s achievement. Thompson surveyed more than four million square kilometres of wilderness, mapped a sixth of North America, and his route was used for 50 years as the main artery across the Rocky Mountains by the twice annual Columbia Express, and later by the York Factory Express under the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Team Pathfinder, captained by Dave Grant of Rossland, includes four other Rosslanders — Jan Micklethwaite, Jill and Dave Watson, and Patricia Senecal — as well as Peter Oostlander from Trail, Doug Clark of Castlegar, and Mary Prothro of Nelson. These eight local paddlers will be joined by about 17 others from all over Canada who will get on board for different legs of the journey.

“A ton of people are picking up and dropping off across the Pacific Northwest,” Grant said as only 10 days separated him from the June 1 training. The canoes push off from Invermere on June 3 to arrive in Astoria by July 15, the same date as Thompson arrived in 1811.

Of the eight teams, another local group is a first nation’s team out of Cranbrook, three hail from the United States, and the other teams come from across Canada.

“We’re heading south, following Thompson’s original route to Canal Flats, then south on the Kootenay towards Fort Steele,” Grant said, explaining that Thompson took this route because he didn’t know that the Columbia, which flows north at Invermere, reversed south again.

“The natives didn’t tell him, they didn’t want guns passed along to tribes to the west. He’d been in the area since 1807 and it took him until 1811 to make it to the Pacific.”

The paddlers will follow the Kootenay to Libby, Mont., portage Thompson falls, and follow the Clarke Fork River to Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho. They’ll paddle up to Sandpoint and follow the river west to Ione, Washington, south of Salmo. After a portage at Kettle Falls, they’ll follow the Columbia to the Pacific.

All five Rosslanders are “in it for the long haul,” along with three Edmontonians, all of whom participated in the original 2007 Brigade that took 16 days to travel from Invermere to Trail on the North Columbia.

In 2007, “Jan [Micklethwaite] saw an article in the Trail-Rossland News and was fascinated,” Grant recalled. She organized an all-woman’s team from the Kootenay Robusters dragon boat team, while Grant organized a team from the Kootenay Mountaineering Club, of which he is president.

“That kinda hooked us,” Grant said. “We made some good friends on the Brigade [particularly some from Edmonton] who invited us to their canoe in 2008. We’re returning the favour this year. It’s a great group, you get to know each other really well after 60 days!”

The 2008 trip covered 3,300 kilometres in 63 days from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., to Fort William in Thunder Bay, Ont., following a similar route to that used to bring furs east and trading goods west.

“It was a good trip,” Grant recalled, “one of the best I’ve ever done.”

The 2009 Brigade only had a single canoe, an all-women team who travelled from Fort William to Montreal.

“Everyone was pretty burned out after 2008,” Grant said.

The 2011 Brigade could face some obstacles that even the current training regime of paddling two to three days per week may not solve.

“It’s shaping up to be an interesting year,” Grant said. “The Columbia’s huge right now, it’s quite overwhelming.” Organizers will have to see what happens with these “extreme water levels” closer to the time.

The canoes will be paddled by six people at a time for six hours per day, and a handful of “extremely qualified paddlers” will take turns in the stern. The canoes themselves are close replicas of those used by Thompson, and are smaller than the large canoes to transport furs from Lake Superior to Montreal.

Even the weight of their canoes — 270 pounds of kevlar — is similar to the cedar strip and birch bark covered canoes from the 19th century. “We hefted a birch bark canoe in Fort William,” Grant said, and they were surprised to find out how light the old boats were.

The dates will be the same as Thompson’s, but the canoes won’t have to stop to trade, build relationships, and route-find as Thompson did, and the land has changed considerably due to dams. “He would have been paddling on rivers that are now ponds and lakes,” Grant explained.

Along the way, the paddlers are being put up by communties.

“Some first nation communities are putting us up, we’ll do some camping in parks, and a number of the small comunities are getting together and putting up meals for us,” Grant said.

He hopes at some stops they’ll be able to take people out for a ride in the big canoes.

The “educational component” is important to Grant. “When we went across Canada in 2008, a lot of people didn’t use the rivers anymore. It’s a wonderful resource sitting on their doorstep.

“We’d like to reintroduce the idea of canoeing, the way it was done 200 years ago — large canoes, travelling long distances. It’s actually quite manageable; after a week or two you’re pretty well in shape,” he said.

The journey also ties the present to the past. “Thompson’s great map, which hung in the Great Hall of Fort William, was so accurate that 100 years later it remained the basis for many maps issued by the Canadian government and the railway companies,” Grant said.

Thompson’s journals also give us a glimpse into “the early fur trade and the ways of a world that has long since vanished.”

The team will miss Hans Korn of Montrose who took part in two previous brigades, but lost his battle with cancer earlier this year.

A documentary film which will be made of the trip. More details can be found at 2011brigade.org.

Team Pathfinder thanked the Columbia Basin Trust and Teck for their generous support of this initiative, and Bess Schurmann, Carol Potasnyk and Miriam Williams for offering ground support.