Riding the river

How mild was our winter this year?

It was so warm and ice-free that canoe paddlers hoping to get the jump on training for the Northern Hardware Prince George Canoe Race have been plying the waters of the Nechako River since late January. In a typical winter, a January river float would have required an icebreaker.

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The buzz and positive feedback created by last year's revival of the Northern Hardware race to commemorate the city's 100th birthday made it a no-brainer for organizers to bring it back for another year. This year's edition is set for Sunday, July 10.

"The word's out and we're hoping for at least 150 competitors," said race organizer Pat Turner, a member of the Two Rivers Canoe Club.

The 67.5-kilometre Alexander Mackenzie race will begin at Isle Pierre, while boats on the 35 km Simon Fraser route start 90 minutes later at the Wilkins Park boat launch in Miworth. Both routes end at Lheidli T'enneh Memorial Park near the entrance to the Hudson's Bay wetlands.

Turner and his paddling partner Greg Blackburn finished second in the Mackenzie class last year, 20 seconds behind winners Fiona and Mike Vincent of Regina, who covered the course in a record time of three hours 39 minutes 43 seconds. They were among 28 boats entered in the long course.

"It was tough," said Turner. "The winners of last year's race were a mixed team, they knew the river, and they knew how to paddle, how to draft and how to conserve energy and that matters in the last kilometre. They made their move at the right time and showed their experience.

"Reading the river currents and knowing how to maximize the draft on your opponents, either on the side wake or in behind, are key elements in the strategy."

The race is a revival of what used to be an annual event, from 1960-1984. Last year, the shorter, 35 km Simon Fraser route drew 31 boats. Dozens of other solo paddlers raced the same route the day before. In total, the 2015 race attracted 120 participants, ranging in age from 12 to 73.

"(The race) is exposing people to the beauty of the rivers that are so accessible to us," said Turner.

"When I first came here the rivers were pretty intimidating. I thought, 'That's a big river, I'm not going down there.'

"But there are some beautiful nuances to the river when you get down to water level and see all the wildlife. There is a safe way to paddle these rivers. Once the warmer weather comes, then the more recreational paddlers can get out on the Nechako without too much trouble."

The Simon Fraser route is free of any rapid sections and is open to any type of paddle-driven water craft such as kayaks, standup paddleboards and voyageur canoes.

Last year, an all-women crew from Carrier-Sekani Family Services entered the voyageur class.

"We want the standup paddlers to come out of the woodwork, we know some guys up here are doing whitewater on a standup paddleboard," said Turner.

"We're hoping we can get three or four voyageur boats."

The two most challenging rapids sections of the race, rated Class 2 and Class 3 (intermediate) on the international whitewater difficulty scale, are on the longer route - one at Isle Pierre and the other at Mud River (White Mud rapids).

Last year, the water level on the Nechako was unusually high, which led to a bit of a disaster for Edith Palumbo and her son Sean when their canoe hit against a huge submerged boulder sideways and broke apart in the Mud River rapids.

They weren't in the water long before a rescue boat got to them, one of eight capsized boat rescues made during the race by volunteers from the Prince George Jet Boat Association and Prince George Search and Rescue. All but the Palumbos got back in their canoes and finished the race. The rescue boats will be back this year, equipped with VHF radios to fill in gaps where there is no cell phone coverage.

"The P.G. Jet Boat Society and PGSAR are really enthusiastic and we know, after last year, our race would not be run without them," said Turner. "There were eight rescues last year and no one got hurt. They were busy and they enjoy it because they get practice. They know the river and they have the right equipment and it's a pleasure to work with them.

"The Nechako is not as big as the Fraser and maybe not as powerful but there are spots that are very tricky. There are sweepers (overhanging trees) and there are things you've really got to know about and we go through that with the club. We go around those things and people still get into trouble."

Northern Hardware, the title sponsor, is putting up $7,500 in prizes for the race. The cash prizes are distributed equally among the top men's, women's, mixed and masters teams. All participants, racers and volunteers will be eligible to win a draw for a $3,300 Clipper Whitewater ultralight canoe, sponsored by Clipper and P.G. Motorsports. Some of the proceeds from this year's race will go to Camp Trapping, a behaviour-modification program for young offenders started by Bruce Hawkenson, a longtime marathon canoe racer.

Turner, 55, is gearing up for the Northern Hardware race by undertaking a real marathon a few weeks before, the Yukon River Quest, a 715 km (444 miles) race from Whitehorse to Dawson City, June 29 to July 3.

He'll team up with his brother Tim, 57, who lives in the Ivory Coast on the west coast of Africa. They anticipate more than 50 hours of paddling over two days, with a mandatory eight-hour rest stop.

Blackburn is entered in the Rushton Memorial pro solo canoe class race in Canton, N.Y., May 6-7, an event which attracts the world's top paddlers.

Online race entry forms are available at strideandglide.ca... The Vincents will be in Prince George to conduct a paddling skills clinic, May 6-8. The cost is $50 per person... Turner encourages new paddlers to show up with their life jackets and paddles to club practices on the Nechako River at the Cottonwood Island boat launch at 5:45 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Go to northernhardwarepgcanoerace.weebly.com for more information.

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