Canoeing, sailing, portaging, cycling and walking. That’s how a team of six young people decided to raise awareness of the cultural and ecological importance of fresh-water resources to Canadians.
About six years ago, Lewis was at the Canadian Marathon Canoe Championships in Edmonton. (Lewis has been doing marathon canoeing her whole life.) It was there she met Ross Phillips and Stephanie Robertson – the spearheads of the trip.
Lewis didn’t keep in touch with Phillips or Robertson following the championships, but she found out through a friend the two were planning to do the expedition and were looking for another team member.
Last April, Lewis was wrapping things up at school in Prince George, B.C. She’s taking her bachelor of science in natural resource management with a major in forest ecology at the University of Northern British Columbia.
Lewis joined the five other crewmembers – Phillips, Robertson, Whitney Vanderleest, Nathalie Brunet and Shane Ringham – on the highway just outside Hope, B.C. on April 23. The others had begun the journey in Vancouver about a week earlier.
“We paddled to Chilliwack (and) biked over to Lake Okanogan,” says Lewis.
That took a little less than a week and was just the beginning of Cross Canada Canoe Odyssey’s journey.
Three canoes, two people in each, the team paddled Lake Okanogan to Vernon, B.C. and then cycled to Revelstoke, B.C.
“Then we paddled up Lake Revelstoke, which was amazing,” says Lewis.
“We had the bike carts, and then we also had a smaller set of portage wheels. You can just collapse them and put them under your seat in the canoe.”
The portage wheels allowed the crew to pull their canoes rather than carry them over their heads when walking. Twenty-two of the team’s 30 days in British Columbia were spent portaging.
While in British Columbia, the team hiked through Howse Pass, a pass through the Rocky Mountains on the border between British Columbia and Alberta.
“We started out walking with the portage wheels, pushing and pulling,” says Lewis.
Lewis says as they gained elevation, they had to switch to snowshoes. As the team bushwhacked through a trail that wasn’t very well marked, members had to carry the canoes while still trudging over snow.
“The wheels we dragged along with us,” says Lewis, laughing.
So the team hauled three food barrels, big dry bags, their canoes, paddles and the portage wheels through the pass.
“Definitely one of the high points of the trip,” says Lewis about Howse Pass.
Then she pauses to think.
“I don’t know if I can explain.”
She says the trip involved a number of highs and lows.
One day, the team was camping by a river that went through a canyon-like area, and they would have to portage around it.
“The next morning we woke up at 3:30 to beat the heat before the snow got too soft to snowshoe on,” she says.
They left their campsite at about 5 a.m., pulling the canoes along the trail. The trail eventually got so thick they couldn’t find it. The team spent about seven hours trying to move the canoes. In that time, they covered about three kilometers.
Only a couple of days later, the team got to the height of the land and had a beautiful view. They were able to toboggan the canoes down the path on the snow.
Welcome to Alberta
The team paddled from the aqua blue of the Howse River into the deep blue of the North Saskatchewan River.
On the North Saskatchewan River, the team averaged a speed of 15 kilometres an hour.
“We put in long days in the canoe,” says Lewis.
They would eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in their canoes. They would also nap in them.
The team had planned to take Meadow Portage across Lake Manitoba. But because of strong headwinds, they ended up taking the road instead – 70 kilometres of highway in the heat.
“Everyone who went by us would stop and ask us what we were doing,” says Lewis in awe.
People would stop to ask the team if it needed anything.
Lewis describes a woman who stopped on the highway to speak with them and then began to stop everyone else who drove past.
She illustrates the woman blocking a secondary road to ask neighbours to donate to the team. She laughs as she tells the story, thinking about the woman who was so supportive.
The south of end of Lake Manitoba brought the team to Winnipeg’s cottage country. That summer, the region had experienced severe flooding.
“We actually came to a lot of houses that were completely washed in,” says Lewis.
She describes the fronts of cabins washed off with water running in. Despite people’s efforts to protect their cabins with sandbags, Lewis said the buildings were still under water.
“It was really devastating to see that they’d tried so hard, tried to save their homes.”
The Cross Canada Canoe Odyssey team arrived in Ontario through Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park, about 130 kilometres east of Winnipeg.
“The border is just in the woods,” says Lewis.
Crewmembers celebrated their late-June arrival with a swim.
“We took a chain of lakes, really small lakes and portages through to Quetico (Ont.),” she says.
The team got to Lake Superior when they hit the town of Grand Marais, Minn.
Lewis says Lake Superior was scary at times just because of how immense it is. She also describes it as beautiful, with many coves, beaches and cliffs.
“It only took us two weeks to do Lake Superior,” she says.
While the crew was on the Mattawa River, they met Brunet’s grandfather’s cousin, whom Brunet had never met.
“He called to us from the shore,” recounts Lewis.
So the team paddled in to meet him.
“Such a nice man,” continues Lewis, enthusiastically. “He builds birch bark canoes, and he showed us them.”
He eventually had to leave because his neighbours were having a fish fry, but Lewis says a couple of minutes later he returned in his truck and insisted the team go to the fish fry.
“They fed six really hungry people. They had piles of fish, so much food. Just really, really kind folks,” she says.
In Mattawa, the team met the Ottawa River, which took about three days to paddle. From there, it was on to the St. Lawrence River.
La Belle Province
“We took the Lachine Canal,” she says. “It was really neat to be paddling right in the city (of Montreal).”
Lewis says the St. Lawrence was difficult to paddle, which she wasn’t expecting.
“There are eddies that are boiling up in strange places,” she says. “It doesn’t seem like there’s any cause for them.”
An eddy is water that flows opposite from the normal flow of the river, creating an obstacle.
“When you get down so far, then you start being affected by the tides,” says Lewis.
She says this leaves six hours to paddle.
“There were a couple of days we could sail, (though) not as much as we’d hoped,” says Lewis.
The day the team paddled Lake Témiscouata, it was great for sailing, says Lewis.
Crewmembers would stop and cut down some trees. They attached the canoes to make a trimaran.
“We had a big tarp that we put up, and then the people in the stern make a few steering corrections, and then you’re good to go,” says Lewis.
On Lake Témiscouata, the winds were right, so the members decided to throw the tarp up. The people in the bow held it, and those in the stern steered.
She describes it as exhilarating.
The last stretch
“Then we were on the Mawaska River for just a day into New Brunswick,” says Lewis.
In Edmundston, N.B., the team met the Saint John River
“That was one of my favourite parts,” Lewis says, describing the rolling hills and fall colours.
While canoeing toward their final destination on the Saint John River, crewmembers were greeted by many people from Canoe/Kayak New Brunswick.
“A few times people said, ‘I’ve got soup and coffee waiting for you five kilometers down,’” says Lewis.
The team landed at Market Slip in Saint John, beside a cruise ship. More people from Canoe/Kayak New Brunswick greeted the team.
Joy. That’s the word Lewis used to express how it felt to arrive in Saint John.
Not over yet
Although the team had arrived, completed its expedition, the adventure wasn’t finished.
Because three of the crewmembers from out west had bought the canoes, they had to be shipped to Saskatoon. This meant the team had to build a cargo box with which to ship them.
“One couple just offered us their apartment to stay as long as we needed,” says Lewis.
Lewis says things came down to the wire. The team had booked tickets for the noon ferry from Saint John to Digby, N.S. on Oct. 9.
“We had to get the canoes and the big box out to the shipping company,” she says.
The team needed someone to help tow the trailer, so Lewis called her father’s friend who dropped everything to help. He took the crewmembers to a diner for breakfast. There, he began chatting with the locals, asking if someone had a vehicle.
Lewis says it didn’t take long before someone in the diner volunteered a truck.
While some crewmembers waited at the ferry with the gear, others were dealing with the canoes and recently built cargo box.
The night before, Lewis’ father’s friend had sent a number of emails looking for help for the team.
“They all showed up at the very end,” says Lewis. “It was amazing. It was overwhelming how many people just showed up to help.”
As the team was loading its gear, people the crewmembers had never met came to say goodbye.
Cross Canada Canoe Odyssey had completed its 172-day journey from British Columbia to New Brunswick.