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Paddlers use Bowron Lakes as Centennial tune-up

Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser, the great explorers who came to Prince George for the fur trade in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, would be proud of their legacy.

Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser, the great explorers who came to Prince George for the fur trade in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, would be proud of their legacy.

If not for them and the First Nations people who showed them the way, the Northern Hardware Centennial Canoe Race this Sunday would likely not exist.

That would be a real downer for the 100 or so paddlers entered in the two-pronged race, which starts Sunday at 9 a.m. at Isle Pierre (for the 67.5-kilometre Alexander Mackenzie route) and at 10:30 a.m. (for the 35-km Simon Fraser route).

The idea is to have the long-distance and shorter-distance racers arrive close to the same time at the finish at Lheidli T'enneh Memorial Park near the Hudson's Bay wetlands.

Race organizer Pat Turner, 54, is entered in the Mackenzie class with Greg Blackburn, 42. They were on the Nechako last weekend running through the two sets of rapids and were back out on the river Friday night showing the route to a couple paddlers from Saskatchewan.

But they got much more of a marathon-like tune-up for Sunday's race June 29 when Turner and Blackburn circumnavigated the 116-kilometre Bowron Lakes loop, a series of seven lakes connected by 10 kilometres of portage trails. Turner and Blackburn completed the route in their canoe in an astounding 11 hours, 47 minutes and 58 seconds, where most paddlers require between three and five days.

The night they began, Turner had just finished his 12-hour shift at UHNBC, where he works as an emergency doctor. They arrived at Bowron at 11 p.m. and put their canoe in the water at 12:04 a.m. By 11:51 a.m., they were back where they started and drove back to Prince George, where Turner worked another shift that night in the hospital.

"We were pretty tired, it was just one of those perfect opportunities you had to take," said Turner. "The weather was just ideal, it was 15 C, not a puff of wind, no bugs, half a moon, just perfect. I had never done it before but it is absolutely stunning territory. We had loons, a mommy moose and a baby moose - it was incredible."

The Centennial race is a reenactment of the Northern Hardware race contested from 1960-84, which was an offshoot of the original Northwest Brigade canoe race from Fort St. James to Prince George offered annually from 1956-59.

As of Friday, 30 boats and 60 paddlers had entered the Mackenzie class and about there were about 30 boats were entered in the Fraser class.

Turner figures the winning boat in the longer race will take between 3 1/2 and four hours to finish, and with former national-level swimmer Blackburn as his paddling partner, they're not prepared to settle for second-best.

"We're after it to win it, for sure, but we know there are some strong and fast paddlers and some very good whitewater paddlers as well," said Turner, who helped Canada win Olympic gold in eights rowing in 1984. "It's not going to be all fitness and brute force, it's going to be surviving the two sections of rapids at Isle Pierre and Whitemud."

"There is really only one side to go through on the (Isle Pierre) rapids and that's river left, so everyone will probably go single-file through there and if they behave themselves everyone will stay afloat."

The Foothills, Hart, and Cameron Street bridges offer good vantage points for spectators and the boaters will be visible along the banks of the Nechako and Fraser rivers.

Wilkins Park in Miworth, Wilson Park, Cottonwood Island Park and Lheidli T'enneh Memorial Park will also offer unobstructed views of the race. Most of the rapids sections involve bushwhacking for spectators.

Most types of watercraft, including standup paddleboards, and kayaks and various types of canoes are allowed for the Fraser route but inflatable tubes and inflatable rubber dinghies are prohibited. The Mackenzie route is restricted to only 16-foot and 18-1/2-foot stock canoes. Pro racing boats are not allowed.

Race packages will be available for pickup today between 4 and 6 p.m. at Stride & Glide Sports, 1655A 15th Ave.

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