‘OCN’ is Opaskwayak Cree Nation, the reserve on the bank of the Saskatchewan River opposite the Pas in Manitoba (South of Flin Flon for those who feel disoriented.) A 6-hour drive from Saskatoon, just getting to the Pas is a northern adventure. I have heard about the canoe races there for years and always wanted to go. This year was the 50th anniversary of Treaty Days festival so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Treaty days are an amazing array of sport and cultural events: pow wow and jig dancing, trapper competitions, archery, axe throwing, running, biking, talent competitions, and… canoeing, of course!
The canoe race is about 2 hours of racing every day for 3 days, and placing is by sum of times over all the days. The course on days 1 and 3 is 4 laps around bouys on the river in front of the community centre. On day 3 there is one lap then a looooong slog upstream followed by a portage over to a lake and a finish on the lake beach.
The community is small but super friendly and involved in the events. People watched from all along the river bank, cheering and commenting on the action particularly at the bouy turns where a lot of jostling and re-positioning happens. As the first boat down the river containing a woman, we got some ‘you go girl!’ and ‘canoe-girl!’ (and in more romantic gestures I also got invited to the post-race party from what I like to think of as a feminist female-athlete admiring sports fan).
My racing partner Alex and I weren’t sure how things would go, since I don’t have a lot of experience in this type of boat, nor steering the boat from the stern (he has done this race at least 8 times over the years). We trained together in Saskatoon for the last 5 weeks or so, trying our best to train with faster teams. We are lucky in that some of North America’s fastest mixed teams paddle in Saskatoon, so we got beat down and passed and washed out many MANY times. It was a bit discouraging at the time and I certainly wasn’t feeling like a ‘big fish’.
However, I think the experience really honed our skills and fitness, and prepared us to hold on to a peleton of faster boats. We needed all those skills and experiences, and used them to hold onto some really strong men’s teams. At one point we did a strong pull and were in 3rd position, but our overall placing was 5th overall and first in the mixed division. In happy news, the band office kicks in prize money so there was a ‘winners envelope’ for being the first mixed boat, the 5th overall boat, and the 3rd boat from Saskatchewan. Yeeha!