By Conor Mihell

It was snowing, the temperature well below freezing and the Arctic waterways turning to ice when six friends finished a cross-Canada canoe journey on October 14 in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, on the Mackenzie River. Karine Houde, Katya Saulnier-Jutras, Xavier Giroux-Bougard, Ellorie McKnight, Dalal Hanna and Nicolas Desrochers, all college or university students ranging in age from 22 to 24, and Yebo, a husky-lab mutt, started their expedition nearly six months earlier in Ottawa, and paddled over 4,300 miles across four Canadian provinces and one territory. In the end, they were spurred on to reach their final destination by the rapid onset of winter.

“The cold is a very good motivator,” laughed Giroux-Bougard in a telephone interview from his home in Quebec. “We knew that winter was looming and we were going to cut it pretty close.”

Team Trans CanEAUda (a play on words in French and English meaning “across Canada by water”) spent over a year planning their summer-long odyssey across Canada in name of watershed and wilderness preservation and in support of the nongovernmental environmental organizations Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Ottawa Riverkeeper. In the beginning, Giroux-Bougard said the small town of Inuvik, their ultimate destination, seemed very far away. “We weren’t really thinking about making it to the final destination,” he says. “We always knew that it was only an uncertain possibility.”

Then, with about six weeks to go, the team pored over the maps and realized they had a real chance to make it. They upped their already grueling eight- to nine-hour paddling days by a few additional hours and pushed aside the hardships of bone-chilling cold temperatures, waning daylight hours and “four cumulative months of exhaustion.” They woke at 5 a.m. and often didn’t pull off the water until 7 p.m., well after the fall of darkness. With the assistance of the Mackenzie’s steady current, they put in regular 55- to 70-mile days. “We were all happy. The novelty of paddling in snow was fascinating after four or five months of spruce trees,” says Giroux-Bougard. “But we all spent the last two weeks yearning for a warm fireplace. No one really regretted getting off the water.”

Alexandre Bevington and Louis-Phillipe Robillard also paddled with the group for much of the journey, which began on the Ottawa River and followed the historic voyageur route to Great Lakes Huron and Superior via the Mattawa and French rivers. From there the group completed the eight-mile Grand Portage to the Boundary Waters, before crossing into the province of Manitoba. Rather than risk the notoriously unpredictable weather of Lake Winnipeg, Team TransCanEAUda hopped a train to northern Manitoba, where they ascended the North Saskatchewan, Sturgeon-Weir and Churchill rivers. The 14-mile Methye Portage was their longest overland leg, but well worth the effort because it led them into the Arctic watershed and long, downstream finish on the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie rivers.

Bevington and Robillard left he group at Fort MacMurray, Alberta, to head back to school and work. Meanwhile, the rest of the group continued through Ground Zero of Canada’s lucrative Tarsands, witnessing the rampant environmental degradation of one of the world’s richest oil reserves. The experience galvanized the team’s environmental message. Here, massive dams separated the Athabasca River from the sprawling tailings ponds and a “complete wasteland,” recalls Giroux-Bougard. “We paddled through the on-site refinery where they’re removing the oil. There were big complexes with hundreds of smokestacks…at one point we paddled through two hours of haze.

“The north is a huge frontier for resource development, and a lot of pristine environments are suffering because of it,” he adds. “Our message isn’t to stop everything. But we want to remind everyone that these are things of beauty and ecological importance and our decisions as citizens will affect them in the long term.”

Highlights for Giroux-Bougard included “seeing Canada chronologically, just like our ancestors would have when they arrived here years ago,” tracing the rugged north shore of Lake Superior, fishing, berry-picking and enjoying classic rockbound canoe-country on Saskatchewan’s Churchill River, and witnessing the road-less, mountainous landscape that fringes the Mackenzie.

Besides the environmental values of water protection and wilderness conservation, Karine Houde says the Trans CanEAUda route should be recognized for its historical significance. “It’s important that people realize that we’re lucky as Canadians to have these surroundings and to be able to enjoy the beauty of our country from the water,” she says. “There are some places where this might not be possible in a few years from now. This is the voyageur route, the way the explorers traveled over 300 years ago. We’re definitely not trailblazers, but we want people to recognize this long history. For its historical aspects alone it should be protected.”

While the race against freeze-up to Inuvik might have marked the physical end of the journey, Houde says the friends’ adventure lives on. “For me I have a big feeling that this trip isn’t over,” she says. “All the people are still in my life, and we have a lot of projects and things we’d like to do that are related to the expedition,” like preparing a documentary film, doing presentations to school groups and adults, and fundraising for conservation initiatives. “We want to keep our journey alive.”