Following the voyageurs

Cumberland House captain John Laliberte (standing, in white) disembarks at the Third Avenue East boat launch as Team Hatchet Lake arrives at the shore. (Josef Jacobson/Daily Herald)

P.A. paddler leads Cumberland House team to first place as three-province race nears the finish line

On Saturday morning the six canoe teams woke up in Fort Carlton and once again set out into the cool morning air, their bows pointed to the east and the sun in their eyes.

The paddlers left from Rocky Mountain House, Alta. on July 1 for the 23-day, 1,600-kilometre Voyageur Rendezvous, a race on the North Saskatchewan River to the The Pas, Man. that commemorates the route historically travelled by fur traders and land surveyors. Canoe teams include 12 people, but as the vessels only accommodate six at a time, teams regularly swap paddlers.

The atmosphere was festive on the Prince Albert riverbank in the afternoon as crowds of spectators gathered to wave flags, bang drums and cheer on their favourite teams as they arrived on the shore.

Prince Albert resident John Laliberte captained Team Cumberland House to a narrow first-place finish in P.A., making landfall at the Third Avenue East boat launch minutes before the team from Hatchet Lake.

“Today was an exciting finish,” Laliberte said.

“We didn’t expect to be first, we just take it as it comes. We’re just hanging in there, battling it out with those guys. They’re very good paddlers, all the teams, and we’re just fortunate to be in the lead right now.”

The trek was not an easy one. By the time the teams reached P.A., 88 km and several hours from Fort Carlton, the temperature reached an oppressive 27 C.

“It was brutal. Hot. Everybody was burning up and you’ve got to drink lots of fluids, lots of water and just keep paddling,” Laliberte said.

“We had to pull out a few people along the way (due to) dehydration.”

Another complication for the rowers was the presence of sandbars, stopping canoes in their path and forcing the rowers to get out and push.

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