Dead Fish Paddle

“THIS WAS A BAD IDEAAAAA!” I could hear faintly from Greg and Barry’s canoe above the wind as we leaned into the waves crashing at the bows of our vessels.

The idea in question: what would it be like to paddle the Red River, from the Mennonite Landing near Ste. Agathe to The Forks in Winnipeg? Google Maps rough measurement told us it was nearly 60km of bending and folding river. Downstream the whole way, how hard could it be?

At least that was the thought back in winter.

In the weeks leading up to June 8, heavy rains raised the Red’s water level two metres, both a help in terms of speed, and an increased risk of unpredictable currents.

On Saturday the 8th, six intrepid adventurers set their bows downstream to the sound of birds singing brightly into the blue morning sky. The water had begun to recede, a relief for me, and the friendly currents combined with beautiful weather filled us with optimism.

Even halfway in, as we floated through the giant control gates of the floodway at the south side of the city, the opinion was unanimous, this had been a good idea.

As the afternoon wore on, however, the winds grew out of the northwest. The Red turned and folded on itself within city limits, giving us stretches of paddling directly into the wind, followed by respite and even sections of tailwind that let us move quickly with the current.

As we rounded a bend near the dragon boat race course (where the previous week I’d seen one boat capsize in the waves), we finally saw them: whitecaps. Caught on the windy side of the river, we had no choice but to take the waves head-on. Our three canoes struggled across the breadth of the river to try to get to the sheltered side, as we realized just how large the river was, and how quickly a big wave could send us swimming.

Arriving on the other side, we re-grouped in the shelter of the shore and prepared to take on whatever lay around the next bend. Rounding the corner we spotted the golden boy atop the Legislative Building, then the bridge of Queen Elizabeth Way, and realized we were closer to The Forks than we’d realized (we’d guessed 60km, turns out it was only 58km). We listened to our shouts of relief echoing beneath the bridge, and a couple minutes later arrived at the harbour.

As we enjoyed a burger and beer on patio overlooking the river, we agreed, yes, this was a good idea.

Thanks to Greg, Gord, Frank, Chris, Barry, for joining in on this adventure, Justin for lending us a canoe, Clarence for the canoe and trailer, Dad for the shuttle, Anna for sorting food for us, and the rest of our families for supporting us on the day.

And thanks to six friendly folks who cheered us in when we stopped for lunch at Kings Park.

And thanks to Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, whose quote, “only a dead fish follows the river,” inspired the name of this adventure.

And thanks, Jim, for the hat.