Athabasca River Brigade honours history, environment and cultural connections of Canada’s cross-continental waterway
More than 170 adventurers have a new appreciation for the challenges—and connections—early settlers and fur traders would have experienced after a six day, 333 km trip on the Athabasca River.
Jailin Bertolin was one of more than 14 dozen paddlers who retraced the strokes of Alberta’s forefathers during a bi-centennial canoe brigade from Jasper to Fort Assiniboine. The Hinton resident said being on the river for almost a week was an incredible way to get a sense of Canada’s history.
“These were Canada’s highways,” Bertolin said. “Rivers are a really good way of bringing people together.”
Not only were bonds formed between those who shared a boat, but Bertolin said the brigade made connections with communities they visited along the way. At certain stopping points, the brigade took part in special “right to land” rituals. The group reenacted permission to land ceremonies, requesting access to the shore from First Nations groups.
“It was a really powerful experience and a really touching way of being greeted,” Bertolin said about the ceremonies.
Bernie Kreiner was one of the Athabasca River Brigade’s lead organizers. He said being on remote parts of the historic river gave him renewed appreciation for the hardships incurred by early pioneers.
“A lot of the paddlers contemplated what people 200 years ago would have felt and experienced,” he said. “And of course not having infrastructure support would have been that much more difficult.”
Fifteen large (22 to 36 foot long) canoes replicated the boats used by Voyageurs in the original fur trade. Bertolin said paddling while eagles soared overhead and the songs from the brigade echoed along the riverbank is something she won’t soon forget.
For Kreiner, the memory he’ll hold dearest is that of the brigade landing at Fort Assiniboine. In 1823, Fort Assiniboine was built by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The fort became a key trans-shipment point in a new, faster, less-dangerous continental transportation system linking the Saskatchewan and Athabasca river systems. When the 2017 Athabasca River Brigade pulled up to the bank, they were greeted by Alberta’s Lieutenant Governor, local elected officials and about 1,000 residents cheering them on. Nineteenth Century muskets boomed as the Edmonton House Black Powder Brigade gave them a traditional peaceful welcome.
“The amount of people greeting the paddlers on the bank, the singing and the amazing energy that came from the crowd and the paddlers as they finished their journey in a pretty historic part of the Columbia Express route from Churchill to Fort Vancouver was emotional,” Kreiner said. “It was spine-tingling.”
Parts of the journey were also bone-chilling. The weather in Jasper National Park was sunny and warm, but the last three days of the trip were wet and cold. Kreiner said it was another opportunity to reflect on how the Voyageurs of yesteryear would have had to work to keep their crews moving.
“I think the biggest difficulty for a lot of us was getting enough sleep,” Kreiner laughed. “We enjoyed socializing in the evening.”
While the brigade was promoting an appreciation for Canadian history, environmental stewardship and cultural cooperation, Kreiner said the new friends made while celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary will have the most lasting impact.
“There’s a lot of fond memories of people working together,” Kreiner said.
Bertolin agreed, adding that she hopes the event inspires others to explore Alberta’s rivers.
“This was a chance to connect with nature and our past in a different way,” she said.