Sign indicating Athabasca Pass, Alberta, Canada

In The Wake Of The Mighty Thompson

Tracing the grueling steps of Canadian fur trader proves exhilarating for life-long outdoorsman.

A few months shy of his 60th birthday, Steve Flawith set out on a once-in-a-lifetime trip through the Canadian wilderness. He would join nearly 200 people who would follow in the footsteps, or should I say the path of the paddle, of famed early Canadian fur trader and geographer, David Thompson.

The 2008 David Thompson Brigade, as the group was known, began their journey at Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. They would canoe their way to Thunder Bay, Ontario where Old Fort William once stood. People from Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia took part, knowing that, even in modern times, the trip would be grueling.

Sixteen canoes with six paddlers each and their support teams set out on May 12, surrounded by freshly fallen snow, its appearance surprising but not overly daunting. It would be just over two and a half months before they’d see the end of their colossal voyage.

For Flawith, an explorer-at-heart, this kind of adventure was in his blood. An avid outdoorsman, he has hiked, skied, and canoed for most of his life. He and his wife Wendie took up canoeing in the 80s, and often went on trips into B.C.’s back-of-beyond to see nature at its finest. Flawith absolutely relishes the open air, the pristine, lush landscape of the high country – and a challenge.

The Thompson Brigade Path / image credit: Manitoba Historical Society

Inexperienced at first, they learned how to expertly paddle a canoe, navigate rivers, pack gear, adjust to weather changes, attend to injuries, create makeshift campsites, and develop contingency plans should emergencies arise. Planning a trip right down to the smallest detail is critical. Nothing can be overlooked or half-done or it can compromise a life.

After stopping their travels for a few years to raise their kids, the couple, who are residents of Courtenay, B.C., joined a local paddling club. Over the last 10 years, along with friends, they have hiked and canoed some of the most rugged terrain in the province. This time though, due to his wife’s work obligations, Flawith would make this trip without his constant companion of 35 years.

Naturally, he’d heard about the Brigade through the paddle club, and had read about the plans the year before, wondering fleetingly if he’d be able to get the time off work. A few Brigade mentions came up over the ensuing months but he didn’t give them much attention. Then a few weeks ahead of the start date, he heard one of the teams was short on paddlers. It wasn’t long before the call came to join them. He couldn’t sleep for thinking of it, talked it over with Wendie who said, “You have to go,” got the okay from his boss, and began preparing himself for the Mt. Everest of canoe trips.

With only six weeks to get ready for such an undertaking, he immediately started extra physical training. He rode his bike 12 kilometers every day, lifted weights, and, of course, spent every moment he could, training in his canoe. He prepared his staff at work to operate without him for almost three months and meticulously planned trip details with the help of his paddle club friends.

He learned he would be on team Paddle Canada, in the second canoe called Paddle Canada 2. When he arrived at Rocky Mountain House, not only would an incredible outdoor adventure begin, but he would soon be swept up in a myriad of logistics as the Brigade force came together for the very first time. Teamwork was paramount; he would need to rely on his own skills and ingenuity, as well as that of people he’d never met.

The protocol called for the canoeing teams to set off each day at 6:00 a.m., arriving at the next destination anywhere between 2 and 4 p.m., depending on the schedule. Canoeists would paddle three days, then have a day off. Meanwhile, non-paddling team members would take care of striking the campsites, organizing food, gear, and other supplies into vehicles, then drive on to rendezvous with the canoe teams for another night camping in the outdoors.

Each canoe was about 24 feet long, and weighed 350 pounds. There was a steersman, one bowman, and four center paddlers. A caller (one of the paddlers) would keep a mental count and yell to switch sides every 50 strokes. The teams paddled 60 to 100 kilometers a day.

The Brigade encountered a slew of weather conditions along the way, from snow, torrential downpours with gale-force winds, and thunderstorms to sweltering heat and everything in between. Luckily, there were no major incidents except near the beginning when one of the canoes overturned. There were a few medical injuries to contend with, and some people found they couldn’t keep up with the ongoing physical pounding, so they had to drop out. At one point, Flawith pulled a muscle in his chest on a paddle-day, and badly sprained his ankle walking through a field on another. However, neither was enough to make him want to stop. “I would have kept going, even if I’d only had half a hand to paddle with,” he says.

The voyage was punctuated by the warm welcome of hundreds of well-wishers who came out to see the intrepid explorers. There were countless ceremonies, musical events, fireworks, speeches, banquets, and more. As well, the canoe teams would dress in period garb for added effect and announce their arrival by gun while presenting a coordinated paddle parade. By the end of the expedition, the group had paddled approximately 56 days, and covered about 3200 kilometers as they traversed four Canadian provinces in celebration of the bi-centennial crossing Thompson had made.

Looking back, Flawith beams: “This was an out-of-this-world experience. The teamwork, community spirit, unbelievable scenery, and the incredible people were amazing. I had always wanted to see Canada this way. I wanted to feel what it was like back then, to feel it from the ground, one paddle-stroke at a time. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

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Jill believes that life just keeps getting better as she gets older. She believes everyone can live a full life of endless possibilities, with the right mindset, a healthy diet and with exercise.

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