Paddling the waterways to Washington, D.C.

By Clive Doucet

Photo 1 - Paddling

The 34-foot voyageur canoe laden with equipment and powered by paddlers heads out into the waves on Lake Champlain.
Photo: Selby Turner

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of three articles offering readers a glimpse of the journey of a lifetime – paddling a voyageur canoe from Ottawa to Washington, D.C. along historic waterways, getting up close and personal with the rivers and canals. Local participants in the adventure that launched on September 5, 2012 from Turtle Island and wrapped up in the U.S. capital on October 17 included several people with Glebe connections among the Ottawa paddlers: Liz Elton, John Horvath and author Clive Doucet, who travelled the entire distance, as well as Carol MacLeod and J.B. McMahon, each of whom joined the crew as paddlers for a section of the 42-day journey.

There were five of us who paddled from Ottawa to Washington. Five paddlers, no matter how strong, cannot move a 34-foot voyageur canoe weighing 450 pounds empty, and about a ton with equipment, 1,800 kilometres. It’s simply too heavy and the distance too great: at 45 paddle strokes a minute, travelling 50 kilometres a day for 40 days, at least eight paddlers are needed to get the boat from dawn to dusk, town to town. Fortunately, most days we had them.

Photo 2 - Paddling

Training some new recruits from the tall ships at the Tall Ship Festival at Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia
Photo: Courtesy of www.capital2capitol.ca

It started out as a trip about twinning the Ottawa and Potomac Rivers and making friends, as a way of celebrating and promoting cleaner water on both sides of the border. This is the way it started and ended, but somewhere in the middle, for the original five travellers, it turned into just surviving. Judging by the amount of Ibuprofen the original five consumed each day, big pharma should have sponsored our trip, not the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

No one had ever paddled a freighter canoe from Ottawa to Washington before. We had Max Finkelstein, one of Canada’s foremost wilderness canoeists, leading the expedition, but Montreal, New York City and Philadelphia are not exactly wilderness areas, and no one knew quite what to expect. Would it be possible to camp? How dirty would the water be? Could we swim or drink the water? Would it be ugly? These were not easy questions to answer because no one travels by canoe on these waters anymore. On urban waterways, people travel in versions of motor homes equipped with toilets, fresh water supplies, kitchens, sleeping areas. In an open canoe, you have none of these things. Would camping even be possible or would we have to stay in hotels?

With the exception of the Richelieu River south of Montreal, where it was like paddling through one long suburb, the rivers were surprisingly wild, surprisingly lush, filled with interest and wildlife. Even in the post-apocalypse landscape of New Jersey just south of Manhattan, the banks of the rivers were verdant, the foliage dense and vibrant, plants and trees pushing up amongst the abandoned factories. I went swimming on the Delaware, a day’s paddle from Philadelphia, and a beaver quietly surfaced, unafraid and curious at my unexpected presence. Great bald eagles are back all along the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. They soared above us every day, sometimes so close you could feel the power of their wing strokes and pick out the outlines of their pinion feathers framed against the sky. Fish jumped at our bow, sometimes so large, they seemed to breach like whales.

The 1972 American Clean Water Act has made a tremendous difference along the rivers. We saw the cleanup projects on many sites contaminated by polyclorinated biphenyl compounds (PCBs). All of these were funded by the U.S. federal government. Everyone we talked to said the quality of the water had improved since the passage of the Clean Water Act. American rivers and lakes were cleaner, wildlife was back, fish and fishermen were back. This was all good to hear, but to keep things in perspective, nowhere could we risk drinking the river water. We had to search out a faucet somewhere and carry our own drinking water in the boat. Only at the ocean end of Chesapeake Bay did we see people catching fish to eat, rather than catching and releasing. Here, we were able to join in and dine on pan-fried fish just pulled from the water.

Entering Manhattan or Montreal is a very different thing in a canoe than a car. Manhattan’s skyline appears at the mouth of the Hudson, as impressive as the Rocky Mountains rising from the prairie, but the buildings are not your focus. Your focus is the Hudson River, wide and tremendously powerful with standing waves and dangerous currents. When the view is from a canoe, even a great city is no more than a backdrop, its many bridges decorative rather than useful. Your entire attention is on what it always has been – the water and the canoe.

Photo 3 - Paddling

Like so many travellers since 1886, paddlers arriving in New York City are greeted by the sight of the Statue of Liberty
Photo: Bill Schultz, Raritan Riverkeeper

The great six-lane bridge that crosses Lac des Deux Montagnes carrying a river of vehicles each day between the cities of Ottawa and Montreal appears entirely different from a canoe. From the canoe, you cannot see or hear the vehicles pouring across it. All you hear is the rushing water beside and under you. The bridge with its six lanes appears and disappears remarkably quickly, and you are back in a different world. This is a world largely forgotten by the modern one, for the cities have all moved to the edges of the highways, and the rivers, except for the summer efflorescence of recreational boaters, are silent as a church at midnight.

I still can’t tell you how to drive to Washington from Ottawa, but I can tell you how to canoe. You take the Ottawa to the Lachine Canal, to the St. Laurent, to the Richelieu, to Lake Champlain, to the Hudson Canal, to the Hudson River, to New York Harbour, to the Raritan River, to the Delaware, to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, to Chesapeake Bay, to the Potomac, to Washington – and add 800,000 paddle strokes.

And I can tell you that there is a great will out there on both sides of the border to have our rivers return to the condition Europeans found them in when they first arrived – rivers from which you can drink the water, catch and eat the fish, and swim.

To be continued.

Clive Doucet is a poet, author, former Capital Ward councillor and paddler extraordinaire.

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