GUYSBOROUGH – The idea seems unimaginable today, even without a global pandemic: heading out to tackle a 5,000-plus kilometre canoe race with a crew that had three weekends of practice and no professional paddlers. But, in 1967, three men from Guysborough set off to join Team Nova Scotia in the national Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant under those circumstances. More than 50 years later, it’s clear they’d do it all again.
The voyage began in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, on May 24 and concluded in Montreal, Quebec on Sept. 4, 1967: 104 days of competition against the water, wind, heat and teams representing seven other provinces and the two existing territories.
The Guysborough contingent of the Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant’s Team Nova Scotia – Gerry Jamieson, Shawn Hadley and Richard Gerrior – came together at Chedabucto Lifestyle Centre (CLC) in Guysborough on Sept. 21 to be inducted into the centre’s Wall of Fame and share some memories of their incredible journey.
The Wall of Fame at the CLC is meant to honour the rich sporting history of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG). It’s a fitting place to honour the three Guysborough paddlers who took on a huge challenge and gained a lifetime of memories.
The induction ceremony began with a dinner, followed by a brief overview of the Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant given by MODG’s Director of Recreation Angie Tavares. Then it was the canoeists’ turn to take the microphone.
Event emcee Paul Long, an MODG councillor and well-known local sportsman, invited Hadley, Gerrior and Jamieson to the stage to conduct a kitchen-table style interview, teasing out the high points of their pageant adventure.
Before the race began, the three paddlers got a taste of the obstacles they might face during one of three trials for Team Nova Scotia held on the Medway River. It was the spring of the year and they set off in canoes to run the rapids. The canoe upset and for a time Gerrior was missing, lost in the cold, fast water.
“Richard did almost drown ... eventually somebody spotted him,” said Jamieson.
The close call didn’t dampen their enthusiasm and they were soon headed to Alberta for the start of the race. None of the paddlers on the Nova Scotia team had extensive experience in a canoe before the pageant and the men from Guysborough agreed that the first weeks in the boat were the hardest, but they were always glad to be part of the adventure.
In the beginning, some of the paddlers were not in the best shape. As Jamieson recalled, “We had to lift a couple of guys out of the canoe because they were just dead tired … It was tough for the first three weeks.”
While difficult, the team was thankful to have a place in the race. The Province of Nova Scotia did not give the team any financial support, which had been the case for most other teams’ governments, and they struggled to finance the $5,000 entry fee and buy equipment. In the end, Team Nova Scotia got some support from businesses, communities and their $8-a-day per diems to put towards expenses, although they never managed to pay the full entrance fee and were forgiven their debt of approximately $3,000.
On the first day, there was a big send-off, with thousands of spectators in Rocky Mountain House. Once in the water, Gerrior said the first thing they did was hit a sand bar. Jamieson added that on that same day, after six hours, the crew believed that the flag for the finish line would be found around the next bend, and then the next bend, and the next. Hours later they finally spotted that signal of welcome relief.
Looking back on the journey, Long asked the trio what the food was like, expecting perhaps that it might be a little like army rations. Many of the approximately 60 people gathered for the induction ceremony were surprised when Hadley said, “The food was excellent, actually. We didn’t have to cook very much because every town had a celebration set up because it was Expo ‘67. Every community we went to was set up with a barbecue and a dance. I tell people all the time, I went to 97 dances in 104 days.”
Jamieson made an amendment to that memory, noting that one place out west gave them a feed of fresh moose meat, “And the next day diarrhea was pretty prevalent … a newspaper even called it, ‘The Yellow Trail.’”
Speaking to how the paddlers were received as they traversed the provinces, “By and large everybody was very friendly and they treated us kind of like celebrities,” Gerrior said, adding that a lot of the towns organized a sprint race, of about two miles, for cash prizes, and this was another way teams supported themselves.
“We decided we better save ourselves a little bit for the race, so we started not finishing last in the race anymore and getting a little bit of money,” said Gerrior.
Recalling some of the challenges, Hadley said he remembered coming back to camp from a dance at 3 a.m. and by 4 a.m. they were on the water heading out onto Lake Superior. An hour later, they could no longer see land in any direction.
They finished that day’s race at dinner time and decided to go on to the leg of the next race, an additional 35 miles.
“We did 85 miles that day on Lake Superior and I remember coming in that night and, of course I regret, they were having a T-bone steak barbecue … I crawled into camp and laid down, and had Rich walk up and down my spine trying to straighten me out … we paddled from 4 [a.m.] to 9 [p.m.] o’clock. That was a tough day,” said Hadley.
When asked if he could pinpoint the most rewarding day of the race, Hadley said, “They were all rewarding … We all wanted to be there, or we wouldn’t have been there. I pretty near lost two years of teacher’s college because of it. I was going to go regardless. And, luckily, I had a history professor at teacher’s college on my side … a few didn’t want to let me go early; I had to get out in May; school didn’t finish until June … [but] we did get out.”
But not without a hitch. When in Nipaw, Hadley had to hitchhike to the University of Saskatoon, taking a week out from paddling, to write exams for teacher’s college.
For the most part, the teams got along well, but Jamieson said, “However, within our own team, it wasn’t quite the same way. We had a few little differences of opinion.”
At one point, a substitute from Alberta joined the Nova Scotia team to replace an injured paddler and he didn’t get along well with Hadley.
Jamieson said, “I can’t remember exactly what brought it on, but all of a sudden there were verbal messages going back and forth. It escalated a little bit and then, I think, Shawn threw the paddle like a spear. After that it kind of quieted down.”
Hadley explained, “It was a case of cabin fever, except we were in a canoe.”
Jamieson summed up the experience: “It was a lot of fun, met a lot of great people and we saw a lot of stuff … it was an amazing trip.”
Gerrior said the race taught them perseverance and that nothing is impossible.
After the group discussion concluded, Gerrior, Jamieson and Hadley – as well as all those assembled for the induction event – gathered in the CLC hallway for the unveiling of the picture of the paddling trio on the wall of fame.
Archival footage of the race can be found by searching the ‘Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant’ on the CBC.ca website.