Our route took us on a complicated system of rivers and highways, the arteries and capillary networks of waterways that stretch across Canada. From the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, we paddled on historic voyageur routes and portaged hundreds of kilometres to connect the waterways. We did not have the assistance of a support vehicle following us. Our gear enabled us to camp along the shoreline, and we had prepared dehydrated food in advance to be shipped to us along our route. We were completely self-sufficient, allowing us to paddle for many weeks at a time. Except for our designated route across Canada, we never had a daily plan in place. We had the freedom to get up when we wanted, eat when we became hungry and paddle where the waters flowed. We would go to bed each night, driven by the excitement of adventure that awaited us the next day!
We decided to start at the nation’s capital and head east. We would complete that portion the first year, return home, then travel west to initiate the voyage back to the nation’s capital to finish. This is our route:
Year 1: August 12, 2017, to October 18, 2017 – Ottawa, Ontario to Sydney, Nova Scotia
Launching from Petrie Island on the Ottawa River marked the first day of our journey. Paddling through large cities such as Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City brought challenges of an ‘urban’ kind as we passed under freeways, camped in city parks and paddled alongside recreational boaters. We navigated down the Saint Lawrence River manoeuvring tidal currents, dodging freighters and, much to our embarrassment, becoming stranded on a mudflat at low tide! Once we reached the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, we portaged inland on a converted rail trail through Quebec to the headwaters of the Saint John River. Following the waterways to the Northumberland Strait, we entered the ocean waters with fear and anticipation. Awestruck by the beauty of the splendid maritime coastline, we paddled past white sandy beaches, stunning coastal cliffs and were entertained by pods of curious seals. High winds challenged and greeted us as we raced with the waves down the east coast of Canada. Cape Breton Island’s spectacular fall colours marked our finish in Sydney, Nova Scotia, on the Atlantic Ocean.
Year 2: May 5, 2018, to September 29, 2018 – Vancouver, British Columbia to Fort Frances, Ontario
The second stage began in Vancouver, British Columbia. Right from the start was a challenge as the Rocky Mountains were standing in our way. From the Pacific coast, our next primary water source was twelve hundred kilometres away—in Alberta. We came up with a plan. We would cycle along converted rail trails through picturesque towns, railway tunnels and trestle bridges over the Coastal and Cascades Mountain ranges. Paddle the lakes and rivers of the Kootenay Mountains, and walk with our canoe on a canoe cart over the Rocky Mountains. With fierce determination, we pushed and pulled our canoe, laden down with gear, four hundred kilometres all the way to the top of Crowsnest Pass, over the Great Divide, and down into the plains of Alberta.
Ecstatic to have crossed the mountains on our own power, we entered the swift silty waters of the Oldman River. Great diversity met us as we paddled through majestic river valleys of canyons, badlands, and coulees, rarely seeing the prairies’ flatlands above. The Saskatchewan River led us to the largest freshwater delta in North America, where the reeded islands, rivers and bogs are traditional territories of the Cumberland House Cree Nation.
Temperamental Lake Winnipeg presented us with unique challenges of extreme remoteness, high winds and waves while camping on isolated beaches. Bears visiting our campsites and paddling past a pack of wolves was an exciting yet humbling experience. Capsizing our canoe on this colossal lake only made us more cautious about the dangers that could still lie ahead. Once off the big lake, we pointed the canoe upstream to paddle against the current of the Winnipeg River and headed towards Lake of the Woods. Rainy River met us with snow and sleet—a sign that winter was fast approaching!
Year 3: June 6, 2019, to September 19, 2019 – Fort Frances, Ontario to Kingston, Ontario
The third and final stage commenced in Fort Frances, Ontario. The majestic old-growth pine forests and grey granite rocky shores of the Canadian Shield welcomed us as we paddled into Quetico Provincial Park and through the Boundary Waters bordering the United States. In this vast maze of lakes and rivers, we paddled past ancient pictographs on colourful towering cliffs and camped on secluded islands. We portaged on trails that were worn down from thousands of years of use by those before us. Trails littered with rock debris and boulders deposited by ancient glaciers did not make for easy portaging.
We put our little canoe into the turquoise and crystal clear waters of Lake Superior. As we paddled one thousand kilometres of Lake Superior’s northern coastline, we were in awe of the vastness of the largest freshwater lake in the world. We camped at the base of Sleeping Giant, our tent dwarfed by the magnitude of this natural rock peninsula. We paddled through banks of fog and manoeuvred reflective and oscillating waves that caused our heads to spin! Ever cautious of capsizing, we knew that our chance of survival would be slim in the unforgiving ice-cold waters of the lake that had already taken so many lives.
We continued further east past the awe-inspiring geological marvels of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. We pitched our tent on smooth granite rock islands under windswept pines. We enjoyed every sunrise, sunset and gazed at the heavens star-studded dark skies. We traversed through the maze of smooth whale-back islands until we came to the mouth of the French River. Paddling down the French, Mattawa and Ottawa Canadian Heritage Rivers brought us to the nation’s capital.
It was a sweet moment when we arrived in Ottawa, where we began our cross-Canada paddle adventure three years earlier! With our slightly beaten-up canoe and two wooden paddles, we continued the rest of the way home to Kingston, Ontario, to a grand welcome home!