A cross-country canoe trip is a rite of passage for many Canadian paddlers, made possible by the country’s geography of interconnected lakes and rivers. Centuries ago, explorers adopted the native canoe to penetrate Canada’s interior. Voyageurs accessed resource-rich northern hinterlands and brought back bales of furry spoils by canoe. Today, a new generation is relying on these historic water trails and age-old, portable vessels to explore some of the largest expanses of wilderness in the world.
Eight friends from Quebec — Jeremie Belair, Valerie Jolicoeur, Frédéric Dufresne, Martin Trahan, Julien Bilodeau, Simon Nadeau, Penelope Germain-Chartrand and Annik Shamlian — garnered the support of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society to launch a cross-Canada expedition of their own, to rediscover Canadian legends. The six-month, 4,500-mile journey ended in late October on the frozen shores of the Mackenzie River, near Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories.
We caught up with Shamlian to learn more about the trip.
CanoeKayak.com: Where did you come up with the name, the Blue Gold Paths?
Annik Shamlian: The principal and most precious resource we have in Canada is our water. It‘s worth gold when you think about it, since we cannot survive without it. As our trip was taking us on a liquid path across Canada, the name came naturally — we would be navigating the blue gold paths.
How long did it take to plan the trip?
Two years. Martin came up with the idea and pulled a team together through social media groups, universities, camps, outdoor organizations and word of mouth. It was quite difficult to find people ready to drop everything for six months, but eventually one person led to another and a team formed. We didn’t know each other before the whole process started, which made things all the more interesting! Once the team was found, there was the search for sponsors and other sources of income, dehydrating our food, preparing our resupply network, working on the maps, finding our gear, and so on. It was a lengthy process — a lot of e-mails, phone calls, visits to people in order to generate interest in our project.
What were some highlights of the route?
We visited many interesting places, but a few stand out. The Churchill River is a labyrinth of water. There’s a whole whitewater section on the Churchill that we didn’t have time to explore. It would be great to go back there with playboats. The Mackenzie River with its tributaries like the Nahanni and the Keele is also a renowned place to paddle.
How did you come up with a menu?
The menu was put together from the camps we have worked at as well as several outdoor cookbooks. Some of the salads we had were taken from Ricardo’s cookbook, which is well-known in Quebec. We had to look at the calorie intake of our meals, the weight and practicality of them, as well as taste. No more boring GORP! One of our favorite meals was a cold lunch salad with couscous, cranberries, oranges, almonds and smoked trout, topped with a vinaigrette.
We had the great opportunity to have Happy Yak as a sponsor, providing us with freeze-dried food, of which a shrimp-curried rice was our favorite. Most of our food we had dehydrated or baked for the first three months of our trip, and we used Happy Yak for the last portion of the expedition. The advantage of the freeze-dried food was that it was quick to make, perfect for the portion of the trip where the days were getting shorter.
Finally, the champion food of our days off resupplying in towns was the hamburger! For me, the best burger hands-down is served at the Trail Center, near Gunflint Lake in Minnesota.
What three pieces of gear did you find most essential?
Our Kevlar Souris River canoes were the center of our universe and our most precious piece of gear. They were our babies and we took great care of them, because they’re more delicate than the usual Royalex models we were all used to. At 55 pounds they were the way to go with 117 portages to do. They also tracked very nicely, which helped us put in the kilometers.
Fred’s guitar, albeit not the most useful piece was certainly the most appreciated! It’s a must-have around the campfire! It even has a fiberglass repair. That makes it truly a tripping guitar!
Third, we all agreed our Exped sleeping pads were a great buy. Not only did they have a R8 insulation value, but also thick enough to take the lumps out of the ground, fantastic for tired bodies needing as much quality sleep as possible.
What was it like to paddle into Inuvik?
We dreamed about Inuvik for so long but we actually didn’t make it! We had to stop paddling about 60 miles upstream because the river was frozen. We arrived by truck in Inuvik. There were many emotions: elation, tears, huge smiles and deep breaths.
What’s it feel like to return to the “real” world?
It’s been different for each of us. There’s intense nostalgia, a lack of motivation and procrastination. Simple things like taking the subway or going to Costco need some readjustment. We have to re-adapt our routine, keep moving, but at a different pace. It also helps to take a day and go somewhere on a day-trip, pack a bag and change scenery, plan some activities and reconnect with friends. Integrating things like some of the foods we used during our trip into our daily life has also helped. Some of us also wear our old (but now clean) expedition clothes at home or while doing some outdoor activity; we like the comfort of our well-used garments. There is no secret recipe to deal with such an extensive change in one’s life, take one day at a time, get outside, walk, stop and breathe.
— Visit Les Chemins de l’Or Bleu on Facebook to view a neat series of before and after portraits of the paddlers.
Read about other inspiring cross-Canada canoe adventures: