Northern Hardware Centennial Canoe Race bringing out the best paddlers

There's no trail guide for the Nechako River to map out the fastest paddling route from Isle Pierre to Prince George, but the subtle signs are always there along the waterway.

Just follow the bubbles, says Bruce Hawkenson, a four-time winner of the Northern Hardware Canoe Race, an epic 67.5-kilometre journey which will be resurrected this Sunday after a 31-year absence in honour of the city's 100th birthday.

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"Bubbles are smart, they always follow the fastest current," said the 74-year-old Hawkenson.

"You try to read the currents by looking ahead and if you see at the side of the river where the ground is washed away you know the current is fast there. If you see snaking action on top of the river you know the water is accumulating there and that's where you want to be."

Despite his experience with paddling, river racing is unpredictable and mistakes are made.

Like the time in 1979 when Hawkenson and canoe partner Harry James thought they had a lock on the Northern Hardware title not far from the finish.

"There were two guys from Montana (Paul Sullins and Shawn McAdams) and they went what we thought was the wrong way," said Hawkenson.

"They came out of there 15 canoe lengths ahead of us and we didn't have time to make it up and finished second."

Hawkenson's former paddling partner is Ron Williams, a six-time Northern Hardware Canoe Race champion who shared first-place honours with Hawkenson in the 1977 and 1978 race. Williams left Prince George for Vancouver Island in 1989 and trains three days a week as a paddler throughout the winter months in Victoria. Just two months shy of his 75th birthday, Williams is considered a solid bet to make it to the medal podium Sunday.

In anticipation of the Centennial race, they've each been training 20 hours a week. When he and Hawkenson were in their prime, the Prince George race always happened a day after the 130 km Hayak canoe race from 70 Mile House to Vancouver. They'd drive back that night and race the next day.

On Sunday, Hawkenson will team up with local fishing guide Don Williams in the Alexander Mackenzie Class for Sunday's race. Hawkenson races mostly for fun with the Two Rivers Canoe Club and doesn't expect them to be among the first finishers at Lhiedli T'enneh Memorial Park.

"I haven't been in competitive boat racing since the '70s," he said.

Hawkenson's national success as a paddler led to a fourth-place finish at the 1977 International Canoe Classic in Shawinigan, Que., and he was inducted into the Prince George Sports Hall of Fame. The former parole officer first took up canoe racing in 1971, shortly after he started Camp Trapping, a wilderness camp for young male offenders.

Hawkenson won the Northern Hardware race for the first time in 1973, and he and Merl Gordon were repeat champions in 1974.

Ron Williams, a former national team downhill skier, also won it in 1978 (with John Buckley), 1981 (with Serge Corbin), and in 1983 and 1984 (both with Al Rundquist). Williams left no doubt he's still got what it takes to paddle fast when he and his partner placed 11th out of 380 canoes to help their team finish fifth overall in the Ski to Sea relay race May 24 in Bellingham, Wash.

For the Centennial race, he's hooked up with Jim Bauer of Spokane, Wash.

Together, they form a world-class team, even though they're both into their seventh decade. Bauer, 70, won the Nootsack Challenge canoe race last weekend in Bellingham, Wash., while Williams was second.

In April, at the Snow to Surf relay, Williams and his canoe were among six boats which were swamped and capsized by metre-high waves in Comox Bay.

The coast guard shut down the course and ordered the race halted due to the dangerous conditions.

There won't be ocean waves to deal with Sunday but there are three sets of rapids on the Nechako, which will add to the difficulty of the Centennial race. At least two sections of rapids are on the longer route - one at Isle Pierre and the other at Mud River (White Mud rapids) - are ranked Class 2 and Class 3 (intermediate) on the international whitewater difficulty scale. The rapids are not difficult but Williams anticipates several inches of water collecting at the feet of paddlers, who are required to bring something to bail the water out.

"To get through the rapids you try to follow the best team in front of you but not get too close," said Williams. "The race can only be lost in the rapids, it's never won in the rapids. If you watch everybody in front of you you're going to get through it pretty fast, unless you're out in front and making mistakes."

Hawkenson says if he does get dumped into the drink, it won't be the end of the world.

"If you're going to tip over in a river, the Nechako River is the place to do it, it's one of the nicest rivers I've ever swum in -- it's clean, warm water," Hawkenson said.

"The lower Isle Pierre rapids are not that vicious but you can take an alternate route on the other side of an island and it's as smooth as a baby's bottom, and a lot of people do that for safety's sake, but I'm not. It's too slow going through that way."

It pays to know the course, and on Wednesday afternoon Williams and Hawkenson went out with their canoes to Isle Pierre for a refresher course.

Williams and Bauer will likely be paddling 70 strokes per minute, which means, over the course of a four-hour race, they'll have completed 16,000 paddle strokes to reach the finish. The 18-foot fibreglass canoe they'll be piloting is lighter and more durable than the cedar canvas-covered Chestnut Leader canoes that were mandatory in the days of the Northern Hardware race, from 1960-1984.

The rules have changed slightly to now allow three brands of stock canoes but pro-style boats are prohibited on the Alexander route, as are solo water craft or kayaks.

For boaters who prefer a shorter race, the Centennial race offers a 35 km Simon Fraser Class, which is open to any type of paddle-driven water craft such as kayaks, standup paddleboards and voyageur canoes.

Pat Turner and Greg Blackburn are one of the teams to watch.

Turner, a eights rowing Olympic champion in 1984, forms a formidable tandem with Blackburn, a former national-level swimmer. This past weekend they canoed the 116-kilometre Bowron Lakes loop in a record time of 11 hours 47 minutes 58 seconds.

"This is basically a strong paddlers course and that's why Pat and Greg have a pretty good chance," said Hawkenson.

Hawkenson says Blackburn can keep up with anyone in North America as a solo canoeist.

James, a two-time Northern Hardware champion will team up with Chris Cupp and they could also push for the title. Another frontrunner is Mike Vincent of Regina and his wife Theona, who trains RCMP officers for a living.

The Alexander race from Isle Pierre starts Sunday at 9 a.m. while the Simon Fraser race from Miworth gets underway once the longer route racers pass at about 11 a.m.

Close to 100 paddlers are entered.

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