Seeing wildlife in its most natural surroundings is one of the side benefits of competing in the Northern Hardware Prince George Canoe Race on the Nechako and Fraser rivers.
When paddlers begin stroking their way to Lheidli T'enneh Memorial Park for the annual race on Saturday, July 6, they're liable to see an assorted collection on animals - bear, elk, moose, lynx, beaver, otter, eagles, and maybe even a 10-foot long freshwater whale.
Like the huge sturgeon Nikki Kassel spotted a few years ago while practicing for the Northern Hardware race.
"Paddling in the big open expanse where the Fraser meets the Nechako, I had one surface beside my canoe," wrote Kassel, in her Facebook post.
"It rolled over just as a whale would surface. Amazing."
Race organizer Pat Turner can't guarantee a similar big-fish encounter for those who enter the race, the fifth annual since its revival in 2015. But he's paddled the Nechako enough times to know it's never boring when nature comes out of the woodwork to take a peek at the paddlers.
"When you get out of Cottonwood Island Park, the amount of wildlife and birdlife is just incredible," said Turner. "These types of events really open people's eyes to the water resource we have. We drive by it and maybe run by it but the rivers are right here, accessible, and with a bit of training you can be out there.
"The voyageurs used to go up river to Stuart Lake to Fort St. James, loaded with pelts. We're going the other way, down river. The Nechako is kind of undiscovered, not many people live on it and it is just a beautiful river and the water is very clear. We know there are tons of canoes and kayaks in the community, we see them on cars. If they really want to have a fun day, a float from Miworth to the park is a great way to spend half a Saturday."
The Canoe Kayak BC-sanctioned race starts at 9 a.m. on July 6 with the Alexander Mackenzie class race, a 67.5 kilometre canoe float from Isle Pierre to Lheidli T'enneh Memorial Park (formerly known as Fort George Park). The 25 km Simon Fraser route is geared towards recreational paddlers in two-person canoes, voyageur canoes, kayaks and standup paddle boards. That class starts at Miworth at Wilkins Provincial Park and ends at the park.
Safety of participants is a priority and the route is well-patrolled by volunteers from the Prince George Jet Boat Association and Prince George Search and Rescue, overseen by race director/ safety co-ordinator Sheldon Clare.
"Our safety team is unparalleled in any canoe race in North America," said Turner. "We've had situations in the rapids where the boats go over and they pluck the paddlers out of the water and drain the canoe and they're back in the boat.
"The SAR techs love it because they get live training."
On Sunday, June 30, the host Two Rivers Canoe Club will haul a trailerload of boats to Isle Pierre to give paddlers a chance for a practice run.
Last year's race drew 14 Mackenzie route entrees and 40 were part of the Fraser class. Fraser route racers will be on the lookout for 10 treasure hunt buoys marked with numbered flags along the Nechako and can claim one of the 10 prizes from local sponsors attached to the buoys. An ultralight Clipper Whitewater II canoe will be raffled off to paddlers and volunteers. Crossroads Brewing is sponsoring the post-race barbecue and awards banquet and there will be a birthday cake to celebrate Northern Hardware's 100th. Race volunteer Dave Mothus plans to shoot video of the race using a camera mounted on a drone.
The inaugural Northern Hardware race, organized by the Northwest Brigade Canoe, happened in 1955 and it was an annual event from 1960-1984. The original route started in Fort St. James and ended in Prince George. To attract more participants the route was shortened in 1960, the year Northern Hardware came on board. In 2015, the Two Rivers Canoe Club revived the race as part of the city's 100th birthday celebrations.
2019 is the 100th birthday of Northern Hardware, the title sponsor of the race since 1960. The race happens the weekend after the conclusion of the 715 km Yukon River Quest, a paddling race from Whitehorse to Dawson City. Five of the Yukon Quest boats are entered in the Northern Hardware race.
Turner, 58, will be part of the Mackenzie open age class event with Kevin Taylor. He says the masters class will be hotly contested with the likes of 1983 winners Harry James/Tom Blackburn, and Bob Vincent of Regina and his paddling partner. Bob, the father of 2015/2017 Northern Hardware champion Mike Vincent, is one of the most experienced marathon paddlers in Canada.
"That's really exciting, that's kind of a sign the reputation is spreading that this as a fun but competitive event," said Turner.
Turner is trying to get more voyageur canoes involved. An all-female entry from Pitt Meadows is already entered, as is the Carrier-Sekani boat headed by steersman Rudy Kamstra. He's also trying to encourage community entries from Vanderhoof, Prince Rupert and Quesnel, where he knows there are voyageur boats.
The deadline to enter is Wednesday, June 28. The cost to enter is $120 (Mackenzie class) and $60 (Fraser class). Registration is available online at strideandglide.ca or on the race website, northernhardwardpgcanoerace.ca. Race packages will be available to pick up the day before the race at Stride and Glide.
A group of local paddlers will be heading south this weekend for the provincial marathon canoe championships. Enderby will host the solo event on Saturday and Kamloops has the tandem race on Sunday.