Marathon or relay? A race or a shared paddle?
Could long boat races from Atikokan to Rainy River celebrate the region’s fur trade history in a joint tourism venture?
Rainy River Councillor Gord Armstrong has hopes of coordinating a race using Voyageur canoes via Perch and Calm lakes, and the Seine and Rainy River systems, and met here with reps from the Atikokan Council, Township and AEDC last Thursday to float the idea.
Armstrong, who was inspired by the cross-Canada David Thompson Brigade which passed through the area in 2008, was joined by fellow Councillor Ashley Stamler, and RR economic development officer Geoff Gillon.
He’s suggesting six teams with 8-10 paddlers each from the region could take on the challenge. Next summer, the event could reverse the route (Rainy River to Atikokan). Potentially the event could grow to include International Falls, Kenora and Dryden, and eventually become a Great Northern Longboat Race.
“Our goal right now is: how can we make it once, and if we can, we can grow it and overcome the challenges,” said Armstrong.
There would be many hurdles to clear, and key would be identifying the basic structure: Should it even be a marathon-style race (with either an ongoing race or racing portions), relay style participation event, or a mixture?
The general consensus from Atikokan participants was that there is potential, and that the idea ties in well with many regional efforts to brand a tourism route, such as the Atikokan-based Path of the Voyageur initiative. The history of long boats (Voyageur canoes) traces back to the fur trade where the vessels were used by the Métis fur traders who paddled through this region, and would certainly be a way to capitalize on that.
While Voyageur Canoe racing attracts international competitors to Métis communities in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, it would be new here, and as such would involve significant costs. Attracting pro racers would require sizeable cash prizes, and the cost to purchase the canoe is likely $7,000 to $10,000 apiece. While possibly government grants could be sought by the communities for their purchase, the event itself would need sustainable funding sources in the long term.
Also, the trek from town to Rainy River – which Armstrong is hoping to tie in with the community’s Railroad Days in mid-July – would take at least a week or two and is likely a bigger time commitment than most competitors could make.
Town community services manager Nicole Halasz, who has run canoe races here for the past six years, noted that marathon events, especially over a long duration in remote locations, aren’t as likely to engage spectators.
She suggested that as a participant styled event, where people could paddle segments of the journey and receive, say, passports for their participation, might attract more interest, and be more financially feasible because it would also eliminate the need for prizes.
“Are you planning a race or an event – because there’s quite a difference,” said AEDC director Garry McKinnon. “People will pay to go 20 miles into the wilderness, if they feel it would be safe, and they are with a whole contingent, and could paddle to Perch Lake or wherever… The reality is that racers won’t spend a lot of money in the community because they are focused on the race, although there is some spin-off. However, once [spectators also] feel engaged, they’ll show up at Rainy River to see the arrival.”
He took it a step further, suggesting the idea could begin as a money-making tourism venture for youth in each community. Through federal student Summer Company grants young entrepreneurs could purchase a canoe and set up a business offering short canoe rides or daily excursions along the Atikokan River. With each community in possession of one or more canoes, each could build on that to complete the entire trek as a summer event.
“It is our history, and a lot of people will never get to experience it otherwise,” noted Voyageur Canoe Pageant paddler Don Meany, who traversed across Canada in 1967 as part of the Ontario team commemorating the country’s centennial.
Partnering with Métis communities is crucial because “these are the descendants of the Voyageurs,” said Councillor and Path of the Voyageur member Marlene Davidson. Meany noted that retired Voyageurs (although few lived long enough to retire) were given fertile land along the Rainy River in reward for their years of service.
Davidson added that a Métis partnership would also open additional funding potential for projects.
Engaging youth (given that now both Atikokan and Rainy River have high school outdoor education programs) could also be crucial.
While the possibility of a lower cost option of renting smaller Outers canoes was discussed with the race idea in mind, it was generally felt that it was the Voyageur canoe aspect that was the drawing card.
“You have to carve out your niche – have something that people think is really neat. You have to have that niche factor or else you’re no different from southern Manitoba or anywhere else [that hosts canoe races],” said McKinnon.
Along the way, stops could include fiddlers and First Nations PowWows or other celebrations of the Native and fur trade history. The journey could still conclude with a short, ‘dash for cash’ race,’ noted McKinnon.
With the Atikokan input, Armstrong said he will now investigate the various suggestions, and return for a follow-up meeting in a few months. “We have to determine our long-term goal… because that directs our short-term goal.”