Canoe Racing in British Columbia

Our canoe cuts through the glassy water, and I lose my count of paddle strokes in drooling over the fairy-tale waterfall we glide past. Glaciated mountains stand sentinel over the crumbling vestiges of the old Big Bend Highway that punctuate the shoreline along this sublime stretch of the Columbia River between Mica Creek and Revelstoke Dam.

It almost makes me forget that my shoulders are on fire from paddling frantically, I’m sick of counting to ten over and over, and I’m thirstier than I’ve ever been in my life while also desperately needing to pee.

I decided at the last minute to participate in the first-ever David Thompson Paddlesport Classic. Organized by canoe legend Bill Pollock, it’s the longest paddle event in British Columbia at 125 kilometers with six portages over three days.

There were just two hitches: 1) I’d only known my teammate for 72 hours, and 2) I’d never raced a canoe.

To sort out the first hitch, my pinch paddle partner Nathanael and I met for beers to make sure we wouldn’t kill each other in a canoe for three days. He’d been thinking about entering the race, and when Pollock sent out feelers for a partner for me, he jumped on the opportunity.

I asked him about his paddling experience, and he admitted to being a proficient whitewater kayaker and raft guide. The next day I watched him run a series of big drop class IV rapids at the Jordan River Fest. If anything, he was over-qualified for flatwater canoeing.

I’d been paddling packrafts and rowing fully-loaded rafts on whitewater myself for years in the Pacific Northwest. I also used to guide student trips down the Lower Colorado River in aluminum canoes. Between our combined boating experience and the added bonus of the fact that Pollock himself has lent us his lightweight racing boat, Nathanael and I developed a bit of well-intentioned cockiness. How hard can flatwater canoeing be? we joked. Actually… what if we could WIN this thing?

Until we showed up to the put-in at Mica Creek the morning of Day One. There were only six canoe racing teams, and all of them actually had racing experience—some with upwards of 20 years of it under their belts. We watched the first wave of SUPs and recreational boats take off, and mentally took stock of our formidable competition left in the race wave. Our cockiness ebbed a little.

We lined up loosely on the water at the start line for the second wave, waiting nervously for Pollock to blow his whistle.

At 83, Pollock is a venerated whitewater and flatwater guide and decorated racer. He’s paddled the Adirondack Canoe Classic 20 times, placing in class 14 of those, along with racing the Raisin River, Jock River, and the General Clinton. Earlier in 2017, he’d founded the Revelstoke Paddlesports Association to bring the dispersed paddling community here together. He masterminded the David Thompson, from conceiving of the idea and designing the course to leading the behemoth logistical effort to make it go.

In short, he’s something of a legend in the paddling world, and we were somewhat intimidated to be racing his boat.

Pollock blew his whistle to signal the start, and Nathanael and I took off in a burst of mediocrity. We were immediately left in the wake of the real racers, confused as to why our effortful paddle strokes weren’t yielding more distance, while sort-of-politely and definitely-unsuccessfully offering each other totally uninformed advice for troubleshooting.

Our second mistake was not treating this as a race. I’ve done my fair share of long races, from adventure races to bike races to running relays, and I should have known to treat hydration and food seriously.

We learned that in canoe racing, there’s no time to scratch your nose, let alone root around for the water bottle that slid somewhere just out of reach, screw it open, pour it desperately into your mouth (missing most of it), screw it closed again, and toss it somewhere in the bottom of the boat—just out of reach for the next time, obviously. And unwrap a granola bar and eat it? Forget it. We longed enviously for the real racers’ sophisticated hydration systems with long tubes that went straight to their mouths, filled with powdered calories. Our assumption that flatwater canoeing “wasn’t that hard” was quickly coming back to bite us.

But then we hit the first portage. Nathanael hoisted the canoe over his head, I gathered our paddles and gear, and we ran. Turns out portages were our strength, and the only time we actually passed other racing teams. We became scarily adept at unwrapping granola bars one-handed and shoving them in our mouths as we sprinted, miraculously avoiding aspirating on crumbs.

The obvious question arises, “Why would you need to portage on a lake?” First, any excuse to get out of the boat on a 125km race is totally welcome (for me, anyway). Second, Pollock designed the course to follow the submerged Columbia River, with its twists and turns before it was flooded with the twin dams we were paddling between. The Big Bend Highway was flooded along with the river, the original Trans-Canada before the iconic route through Rogers Pass was built. The portages ran on ruined stretches of the old highway, rising from the waters for brief stretches for our mad dashes before plunging into their glacial depths again, where we’d take flying leaps into our canoe and resume our less-than-impressive paddling.

Finally, on Day Three, Nathanael and I hit our stride. We’d finally learned to paddle correctly by gratefully accepting tips from the real racers. But the biggest advantage? We were locals, and we knew this last stretch of lake close to town like it was our backyard. We passed Martha Creek like it was a religious sign, and sprinted all-out for the finish at the boat launch. We even beat two teams that day (to everyone’s shock, including our own).

So, the moral of the story is that if you’re new to canoe racing, always let your paddle partner carry the boat on portages. And make sure to practice eating several granola bars while sprinting. That’s all you need to know. Really.

In all seriousness, the David Thompson Canoe Classic is an epic adventure well worth the entry. Check it out at www.paddlerevelstoke.ca.