Slave River Episode 7: Paddlefest

This year the yearly Paddlefest was held from the 3rd to the 6th of August. The Paddlefest was spontaneously invented a few years ago by a small group of kayakers (in particular our host John Blyth) and since then is held every year at the first long weekend in August.
As we´ve been in Fort Smith since mid July, i.e. living at the Yellow House and therefore at the center of kayaking in Fort Smith, we help out at the preparations for the paddlefest and also with cleaning after the event. Naturally we still go paddling every day. At the weekend before the start of the paddlefest the first participants of the event arrive. In the week before the official start of the paddlefest there are multiple free kayak-courses (like for example a course for juveniles or one for total newbies etc.) and trekking/walking tours to the different rapids organized by Parks Canada. The pre-week goes by in no time and already it is “Flatwater-Friday” with the opening events which are especially catered for canoeist and therefore are really family friendly! The whole thing starts with canoe-picknick on a island near the “Rapids of the Drowned”. For sure we had to make a small detour on our way there to check out a wave-hole called “Brown City”.
On the afternoon it is time for the flatwater canoe-race with huge Voyageur Canoes which hold between 8-9 persons! What a blast! We compete in the Team “Fort Smith Paddel Club” which shows some discipline, i.e. everybody is not just paddling along but Natalie is setting the speed with a loud “Hepp” and everybody else chants in between her pacemaking with counting until 10 together… Not really creative but it was fast and effective! :-) Natalie sits in the front, after her Maria and myself, behind us Leif and Gord, a local massive raftguide, behind them Ben and Matthieu and John at the back, trying to steer our canoe. As we are rather light in the front and heavier in the back and paddling like mad, we nearly take off and John has a hell of a job, keeping us straight. In roughly seven minutes we reach the other shore, grab the according flag, change our positions with the person sitting next to us, in order to use mainly other muscles on the way back, all this taking place in a few seconds and already we are on our way back. But it seems that the prospect of getting closer to our goal with every paddle-stroke got us overmotivated, as we went so fast that we nearly capsized as we hit some sideway waves. Gord rescues our canoe with a huge sweepstroke, nearly breaking his wooden paddle doing so! That would have been quite a funny sensation, if the Fort Smith Paddle Club canoe team would have capsized the canoe and would have needed the rescue of the present Police rescue-motor-jetboat. After that incident we slowed down a tiny bit and managed to reach the finish with the winning time (under 13 minutes), beating the slowest time by 7 minutes. All in all, everybody had a fun time and it was a great race! In the evening there was a huge barbecue at the local campsite where everybody met and ate together. Additionally there was a huge raffle and at the end people were introduced to traditional Dendeh-games, i.e. games of the aboriginal people, which were a lot of fun indeed!

Saturday kicks off with a kayak youth introduction course and after that 3 big teams of kayakers are randomly put together for the Beach Ball Team Race. Each of the three teams gets a huge inflated beach-ball and the aim of the game is to bring that beach ball kayak-polo like out of one big eddy into the current and then into the next big eddy to the beach. What makes the whole endeavor quite difficult is the fact that the other teams split up in defense and offense. The defense defending the own ball and trying to bring it to the goal and the offense trying to steal the beach ball of the other two teams or at least to hinder them in getting their beach ball downstream. It was really an intense battle between the teams and it took the winning team over half an hour to reach the beach in the next eddy. What a struggle, but sooo much fun!
After that the freestyle competition was held in the hole. First up was the advanced class, which Maria could win and after that the expert/pro-class was up. I was lucky and won marginally in front of Leif Anderson and in third place came John Blyth. Team Germany rocked and the trophy for each victory was in individually designed Flip-Flop :-)

Shortly after it was time for the “Canoe Surf and Rescue” event, at which one canoe goes into the hole and rides it as long as possible. When it finally capsizes another canoe goes after it to perform a open-water rescue. The judging is done by two factors, first the surf-time in the hole (the longer the better) and secondly the time until the canoeist is rescued and back in his canoe (obviously the shorter the better).
Next up was a downriver-swimrace, which had nearly the same course as the beach-ball race, i.e. right through the playground hole and it started as a mass-start. My tactic was to go fast so I won`t get anybody’s feet in the face (as I`ve heard that is what happens in a lot of Triathlon swim-mass-starts). And it worked, I did not get kicked and it also earned me the second place. Swimming without bootie-beer, good times! Last but not least it was time for a beginners-downriver-kayak-race. The wavetrain claimed a few swimmers but everybody fought and paddled hard and most importantly they had a lot of fun!
In the evening everybody met in a huge log-cabin building of the municipale for the big party. What happens at the cabin, stays at the cabin…

On Sunday morning most of the paddlers meet at the Yellow House and together they drive to the put-in for the Mountain Portage Rapids to hold the advanced downriver-kayak-race. Unfortunately I couldn`t participate as I´ve pulled a muscle or something the day before in the freestyle-comp while doing a Felix. I guess the older you get the more important a proper warm-up becomes… ;-)
The contestants first surfed a couple of rides on sweet-spot and then head on to the next rapid, Avalanche, the start of the race. Just before the entrance into the rapid all contestants built a long line next to each other and holding each others hands. At the same time they let go and the race is on! After Avalanche the race-course went into the next rapid Land of the Giants which features really big whirlpools. In the middle of the rapid Maria was paddling in a promising 4th place but as she entered the eddy-line to the final eddy with the finishing-island she was sucked down by a huge whirlpool which took her back into the main current and she couldn´t even reach the eddy anymore… bummer. In the end Leif took first place, Natalie second and Rebecca third.
As the downriver-racers arrived at the Playground, we straight started the beginners freestyle-comp in the hole. The goal of this comp is once again to surf the longest time possible in the hole. As many of the contestants sat in a kayak for the first time on that weekend, I have to say „Respect“! Besides I have not often seen people having more fun and enjoying themselves.
During the festival people could also get Duo-Kayak rides down the playground-rapid with either Leif or myself steering the kayak or with Gord in his oar-raft. Especially the kids had a lot of fun doing so!
The Sunday ended with another great dinner for everybody at the campground. And after eating, Sean Allen from Jasper, a Kokatat representative, showed everybody how to most efficiently replace a latex neck-gasket of a dry-jacket.
Monday morning the festival ends with a classic pancake-breakfast in the garden of the local museum. We even win one more prize, i.e. the prize for the farthest trip to the festival :-)

All in all a superb festival! And we`ll be back for sure! Here you can check out the whole schedule of this year’s Paddlefest.

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