Paddler Daryl Sexsmith tells Saskatchewan stories from a canoe’s-eye view

Michelle Berg/Saskatoon StarPhoenix When he’s not paddling solo, Daryl Sexsmith travels with various canoeing groups — including some friends from his university days.

by Julia Peterson

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

When Daryl Sexsmith was six years old, he heard about an extraordinary adventure — the Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant. Paddlers would spend months traversing Canada from the Rocky Mountains to Montreal, making it the longest canoeing race in history.

“I heard on the news that they were racing across Canada to celebrate Canada’s centennial — all the provinces and territories were racing each other, in the big six-person canoes,” Sexsmith recalled. “And I thought, if they ever do that again, I want to do that.”

Decades later, Sexsmith made good on his goal. When a group got together to repeat the first half of the iconic multi-month race in 2008, “I was there, along with some of the paddlers from 1967,” he said.

Sexsmith’s childhood ambition has grown into a lifetime’s love for travelling the lakes, rivers and waterways of the great outdoors, wherever his canoe might take him.

Growing up in Prince Albert, Sask., Sexsmith read every book and magazine article he could find about canoeing and quickly got involved with the local paddling community.

“Because Prince Albert is close to the north, lots of people see that opportunity,” he said. “Northern Saskatchewan is known worldwide for being world-class wilderness paddling.”

From the start, Sexsmith was eager to test his skills and independence and get to know this part of the province from his own boat’s-eye view.

“It’s about the natural world and all the wonders of that, and it’s also about travelling at the right speed to absorb it all and not just pass it by,” said Sexsmith. “But it’s also about meeting the people that live in the north, learning about their culture and how it was always connected to the canoe as well.”

When he’s not paddling solo, Sexsmith travels with various canoeing groups — including some friends from his university days.

“There were 12 of us on that first trip in 1981, and we talked around the campfire about having a lifetime of trips,” he said. “And four of us from that 12, we’re still paddling together. We’ve added other people, but that group has remained paddling together for over 40 years.”

Randy Friesen has been paddling with Sexsmith since the ’80s, and considers him “a bit of a legend when it comes to canoeing,” in Saskatchewan and beyond.

“He’s an extremely adventurous guy,” said Friesen. “He’s been to many places where 99 per cent of us wouldn’t dare to go, whether it’s some remote river or a site somewhere in the country that is extremely difficult to access and has many attendant risks. And you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who’s paddled a greater number of rivers in so many different parts of the country.”

Friesen has been a part of many of those trips, including one particularly memorable 1997 paddle down a remote stretch of the Foster River in northern Saskatchewan. It was a tricky trip, with dangerous waterfalls along the route.

“Daryl, always being cautious, is keeping everyone in the group aware of where the next hazard in the river will be,” recalled Friesen. “I remember the thrill and the excitement, and portaging all our gear and canoes past this raging waterfall. There’s an absolutely thunderous roar from the waterfall, the ground is vibrating slightly, there’s the spray of mist in the air.

“And here’s Daryl, Mr. Cautious Guy, and he’s just loving it. He’s looking at the falls, soaking up the spray and the mist and the thundering noise, and he’s got this look of awe and wonder on his face. He’s just in his glory.”

A ‘canoe trip enclycopedia’

Along with his northern travels, Sexsmith is also active in the Saskatoon Canoe Club and the local marathon canoeing community, where he has become a mentor to many up-and-coming paddlers.

“He’s just an encyclopedia of knowledge about canoe trips, because there’s hardly anything he hasn’t paddled,” said fellow canoeist Lori Mack. “One of my most favourite ways to spend an afternoon is marathon paddling with Daryl in a boat and listening to all his stories about his trips. It’s wonderful, in the paddling community, to have him as a resource.

“He’s been committed to a life of learning everything about paddling, and he’s just as committed to teaching other people, too.”

When anyone comes to him with questions about a river he once travelled, no matter how long ago, Sexsmith has insights — notes jotted down on maps or penned in trip journals, photographs, photocopies of articles from now-defunct canoeing magazines, stories of bear encounters and sandy beach campsites, memories of milestones and hazards along the route

“It seems most people that paddle will keep a journal, even if it will never be published or looked at by anybody else,” said Sexsmith. “There’s something about the canoe journey that makes people want to write it down when it’s happening at the end of the day, to journal each night. It certainly is a wonderful place to draw or paint or take photos or write.”

Across the breadth of Canadian art and literature, Sexsmith says it’s no surprise that so much of it has been created by paddlers taking inspiration from their journeys — to him, canoeing has always been a fundamentally spiritual, creative experience.

When Sexsmith was a United Church minister, he used to find sermon inspirations and life lessons around each river bend and portage trail.

“Canoeists will look at a rapid, and if there’s a big wave and a hole behind it, they’ll say it’s ‘smiling,’ and if it’s smiling, it’s not dangerous,” he said. “But if it’s ‘frowning’ at you, then you should stay away and be cautious; if it’s ‘frowning,’ you’ll get caught in there.

“I found that was very interesting as a sermon illustration, because we often look at life to see if life is smiling at us or frowning at us.”

Earlier this year, Sexsmith made his own addition to the Canadian paddling canon. His memoir, Always Another River, gathers decades of canoeing stories and warm memories of trips and friendships. Looking back on his own admiration for the Centennial Voyageur racers and the daring paddlers he read about in books, writing the memoir felt like a full-circle moment for Sexsmith — a chance to share his lifetime of travelling tales with the next generation of nature-lovers and would-be adventurers.

And the stories aren’t over yet. While Sexsmith says he completed his “last real ‘bucket list’” trip in 2015 — he has now paddled at least one river in every area he wanted to visit and canoe in — he quickly found a new ambition.

“What I’m working on now is getting to all the national parks in Canada,” he said. “For some of those, the best way of visiting those national parks is by paddling trips.”

After all this time, Sexsmith knows his passion for canoeing means so much more than accomplishing a goal or ticking the boxes on a list. There will always be another river for him.