Five-year-old Raphael Palerme might well go down in history as the youngest participant in the Northern Hardware Canoe Race.
He certainly has the modern-era record locked up after he joined his mom Nikki Kassel and his grandmother Carolyn Kassel in Saturday’s race. Raphael sat in the middle of the canoe to form a three-generation family team and they set off on a 25-kilometre journey on the Nechako and Fraser rivers from Miworth to the entrance to the Hudson Bay Wetlands at Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park.
Not only did they finish, they won the Simon Fraser route women’s tandem category, covering the course in one hour 27 minutes 28 seconds.
“Raphael’s job was to sit still and not lean out, and he was amazing,” said Nikki Kassel, 44. “I was actually quite worried, I had a babysitter for him, I was not going to bring him into the boat and last night he said, ‘Mommy, I really want to do the canoe race, I want to be with you.’ It was awesome.
“I had (Carolyn) doing intervals a couple weeks ago and I know she can go. I sit in the back so I know if she loses focus I have words for her.”
Nikki tuned her racing engine at the Harvey Fraser Marathon Canoe Classic in Kamloops a few weeks ago but this was the first race of the year for the 71-year-old Carolyn.
“It was very hard work but it was great,” said Carolyn.
“We’ve been out paddling a lot, early in the year. It was fairly high water and that made it faster. It got really choppy when all the safety boats went past in a row. It created so many waves that you had to turn away from them a bit.”
Nikki sat in the stern and Carolyn was in the bow and they managed to stay out of trouble to protect their precious cargo in the middle of the boat.
“I loved having my grandson there, he’s my hero,” said Carolyn. “He sat very still and he was very brave. It was really fun with him.”
The water on the Nechako was considered high, as Greg Blackburn and Graham Smith were reminded about 10 minutes into the 76.5km Alexander Mackenzie race from Isle Pierre. A trip through the treacherous Isle Pierre rapids left their canoe half-filled with water and they spent the next 40 minutes in bail-out mode.
Eventually, with the help of a battery-powered bailer, they got their boat emptied without having lost much ground on Pat Turner and Kevin Taylor and it turned into a two-boat race the rest of the way.
“We took on a lot of water in the canoe in the first set of rapids and it took us a long time to bail out the boat so once we got to Whitemud we’d already decided to take a more conservative line,” said Smith, 41, who lives in Saskatoon.
“The boat handles a lot differently when there’s extra water in it – steering’s a challenge. They are very unstable with water in them and very hard to control. Luckily, Pat and Kevin didn’t take off on us too far and we were able to sit on their stern wave for long time and conserve some energy.”
Most of the water was pooling in the front of the boat where Blackburn sat and Smith had to untie the bailer from the stern and hand it to Blackburn as they floated on the river.
“If we didn’t have that bailer the race would have been over for us,” said Blackburn.
Blackburn won the race with Turner in 2016 and was in the hunt for the title last year when he and paddling partner Bob Woodman got submerged in the Whitemud rapids. On Saturday, Blackburn/Smith took the long way around to avoid some of the roiling water and that move paid off.
“Last year I went swimming in the whitewater so we played it safe to save our energy for the end,” said Blackburn. “It’s another 10 or 15 seconds longer but it’s safer to go that way. Nobody went that way last year.”
The two canoes traded the lead several times and were neck and neck heading into Cottonwood Island Park when Turner/Taylor hit a shallow area which slowed their progress long enough for Blackburn/Smith to slingshot ahead. They made the turn into the confluence of the two rivers and held the lead all the way to the finish buoy, winning in 3:48:03, 12 seconds ahead of Turner/Taylor.
“It was really fun tactics all the way along, figuring out what side of the islands to go along, it was a very tactical race,” said the 58-year-old Turner.
Taylor, 58, took part in the old Northern Hardware race during the time it was an annual event from 1960-84 and he’s been part of it ever since it was revived in 2015. He enjoyed having Turner’s paddle on his side. Turner won the race in 2017 with Mike Vincent.
“It was a lot of fun, I got to sit in the back and steer,” said Taylor. “The river’s cooking right now.
“We just made a little mistake at the shallows, one wrong move and that’s all she wrote.”
Harry James and Tom Blackburn were third in the Mackenzie race in 3:49:31
A total of 80 paddlers on 42 boats entered the fourth annual Northern Hardware race. Nine boats entered in the Alexander Mackenzie race and 33 completed the Simon Fraser route and none of them tipped over, in sharp contrast to the 2017 race in which seven boats capsized in the Whitemud rapids section of the longer Mackenzie route.
Chris Cupp was the first to the finish on the 25km Simon Fraser course (1:23:36) competing as a solo paddler.
“We spend a lot of time practicing on the Fraser, which is like a moving lake, and you get on the Nechako and it’s pretty twitchy with all the currents,” said Cupp. “I wanted to push hard and I did, and it felt good.”
Cupp, 58, is in tremendous shape physically and has been training hard all spring and summer for two big races coming up later this month in Michigan. He’s entered in the C-1 category in the AuSable (River) Marathon, a 120-mile race from Grayling to Oscada which starts July 28. The winning time last year was about 14 1/2 hours.
“You line up on a road and run down to the river and it’s a 9 p.m. start and you go through the night and hopefully finish by noon the next day,” said Cupp.
Cupp will also compete in the Spike’s Challenge in Grayling, Mich., a 3 1/2-hour race, on July 21. Last year he finished sixth overall in the pro class at the General Clinton Canoe Regatta in New York.
Craig Evanoff won the standup paddleboard class for the third straight year, finishing in 1:37:5, and he was relieved he didn’t have to go swimming.
“I think the whole key to this race is being able to stay upright,” said Evanoff, 58. “If you go over it takes a lot out of you climbing back on the board.
“It was a nice length – two hours – you didn’t have to do a lot of training. It was nice that the rain held off and the wind wasn’t too bad. Sometimes it was behind us until you hit the Fraser there.”
In other Simon Fraser results, Bruce Hawkenson and Simon Perreault captured the men’s tandem canoe class. They finished in 1:27:11. Richard and Lynn Blok were first in the mixed tandem canoe class (1:33:11).
In the voyageur canoe category seven paddlers drove a big yellow boat across the line first (1:33:01). The winning team included Katie Stein Sather, Betty McLeod, Alix Ahmed, Deirdre Way, Ruth Ross, Lucie Harcus and Freda Franson.