About Four Winds Brigade

original-logo-revised-for-website-ovalIn This Section:

Four Winds Brigade Concept and Philosophy

The four Sacred Directions

The Voyageur Sash  (Ceinture flécheé)

The Omamiwinini

Life of the Voyageurs 

Indigenous Women & the Fur Trade




The Four Winds Brigade: the Concept

The concept is simple: Four brigades, one from the west, one from the north, one from the east, and one from the South, each with Victoria Island (Asinabke)
in the Ottawa River at the foot of the parliament buildings as its final destination. The date of arrival:  July 1, Canada Day

Traditionally, voyageur canoes carried cargo of furs and trade goods. But these canoes will carry a different kind of payload – ideas, hopes and dreams.  Our mission is to draw attention to the need for everyone, from citizen advocacy to the highest political echelons to the spirit of reconciliation – we want to see a Canada where all cultures can work and live together in peace and harmony and justice, and to also highlight reconciliation with the ecosystems that support us.

To symbolize this idea, we will bring bottles of water from the beginnings of the journey of each brigade, with the canoe as a symbol of how people, water, and nature combine and work together to animate peace, healing, and understanding.

The brigades will end at Victoria Island, at the foot of Parliament Hill in Ottawa We have picked the Ottawa site because of its 5,000 year-long tradition in Algonquin history as a place of political evolution and cultural convergence that continued with the choice of Ottawa by Queen Victoria as the capital of Canada.


Draw attention to

  • the spirit of reconciliation with Indigenous people
  • the spirit of reconciliation with the ecosystems along these waterways that support the life of all living creatures.


  • Draw attention to the historic role of the voyageur canoe and Canada’s rivers in the founding of our nation
  • Celebrate the historical and ecological significance of rivers like the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau that connect our communities, our ecosystems, and our people through time and geography and, at the same time, draw attention to the need to protect them
  • Celebrate the canoe as an icon of the Canadian values of cultural cooperation, international trade and respect for the environment

The long term goal is to restore these rivers as the world’s cleanest, most ecologically healthy rivers to flow through a national capital city.

Philosophical Positions:

The Four winds Brigade is a disposable plastics-free event! No disposable water bottles and a focus on  reduced plastic packaging! Plastics are forever, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, but they never disappear. they become incorporated into living organisms (including us) , and the biological effects  are now being studied. But they are so ubiquitous, that ecological effects are inevitable. See http://www.ottawariverkeeper.ca/study-confirms-microplastic-pollution-in-the-ottawa-river-watershed/. Studies show that micro-plastic pollution is also significant in the Rideau. No one has looked in the Gatineau River yet.

Manadjitoda kina kego! Let us esteem all things (in nature)

The Four Winds Brigade acknowledges the work of Grandfather William Commanda, the late Algonquin Elder and Wampum Belt Carrier of the Ottawa River Watershed. An Indigenous activist, political leader and student of history, William Commanda, after a serious illness and profound spiritual awakening, commenced his project of reconciliation and peace building with an international gathering in Eganville, Ontario, fifty years ago, on Canada’s 100th birthday.   Consistent with the laws of nature, he created the Circle of All Nations, to advance an integrated approach to respect for Mother Earth, Indigenous wisdom, social justice and racial harmony. He was presented with two honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Ottawa and l’universite de Quebec en l’Outaouais, appointed Officer of the Order of Canada, and was recipient of a Bill Mason Award for River Conservation, a Wolf Project Award for Racial Harmony and Peace Building, and a National Aboriginal Achievement Award; he also served as honorary chair of the Ottawa Heritage River Designation Team, and hosted the inspirational Waterlife workshop in Ottawa in 2006.. A master craftsman, he animated the birch bark canoe-making heritage of his ancestors, and increasingly canoe building is also being celebrated as a living Indigenous art practice. Grandfather inspired water stewardship efforts aligned with the spirit of peace building across social and racial divides with annual Paddle for Peace events and gatherings.

William Commanda also articulated a fully inclusive Indigenous legacy vision, presently under challenge, for global eco-peace and healing at the Asinabka Sacred Chaudiere Site, within which Victoria Island sits. It is recognized that many people are passionately committed to this work, particularly in these times of increasing awareness of Indigenous strength and struggle, escalating global environmental and climate change, and wars, violence and suffering everywhere. Check http://www.circleofallnations.ca and http://www.asinabka.com to learn more about his work.


Ginawaydaganuc, All is Connected.


The Four Sacred Directions

The Four Cardinal points on the Medicine Wheel are the Four Sacred Directions, represented by the colours yellow, red, black & white. Blue represents Father Sky in the upper realm, Green represents Mother Earth below, & purple represents the self, that spirit that journeys in this physical world, at the centre of the wheel.

The Seven Stages of Life are also found on this Medicine Wheel. They begin in the east & move across the Wheel to the West. The Seven Stages of Life are: The Good Life, The Fast Life, The Wandering Life, the stages of Truth, Planning, & Doing, & The Elder Life.

The Seven Grandfather Teachings are also located on this Medicine Wheel. They begin in the Northern direction & move down to the centre of the Wheel. These gifts are the teachings of Honesty, Humility, Courage, Wisdom, Respect, Generosity & Love.

The Teachings of the Medicine Wheel are vast. There are seven teachings within each direction on the wheel, & all these have sub-teachings to them, such as where all the medicines like sweetgrass came from, & what they mean.

The four directions of the Medicine Wheel remind us of many things, such as the need for balance in the world, & the balance we must strive for everyday within ourselves.

Image result for the four directions medicine wheel

 For more information visit http://www.the fourdirections.com. 

The Voyageur Sash

The ceinture fléchée or voyageur sash is a finger woven belt made of brightly coloured wool &/or plant fibres approximately three metres long. It is a traditional piece of French Canadian clothing dating back to the 1770s when it was used to tie winter coats &, thereby, maximize heat retention.  

 The finger-weaving technique was firmly established in eastern woodland Indigeneous traditions when the settlers arrived. They used the technique to create tumplines, garters & other useful household articles & items of clothing from plant fibres & natural dyes. According to Dorothy K. Burnham, the residents of New France learned this type of finger weaving from the Indigenous women.

Image result for ceinture flechee

Sashes seem to have been introduced to the fur trade around 1797. The voyageurs’ finger-woven wool sash was also called a ceinture, ceinture flechée, or a belt (usually a ‘worsted belt’ or ‘Canadian belt’).

Sashes also prevented injuries & hernias for voyageurs as they acted as ergonomic back belts. They were also used as tumplines (a rope worn over the head to pull or carry heavy objects) & ropes. Though useful, there is no doubt that they were a valued status symbol – a badge of honour for voyageurs.

The sash was worn by eastern woodland Indians as a sign of office in the 19th century, & French Canadians wore it during the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837. It is still considered to be an important part of traditional dress for both these groups. For the Métis, the sash is a symbol of nationhood & cultural distinction.

The Omamiwinini

 By Paula Sherman, Excerpts from the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation website

Overview of Omàmìwininì History

Omàmìwininì history dates back for thousands of years. Many believe that after our creation as people we lived on the eastern seaboard in the Gaspe Peninsula & that over a long period of time we migrated west following the giant Megis shell that appeared along the way. This migration came as part of a prophesy called the Seven Fires. Elder William Commanda held the wampum belt which recounted this history & the seven stopping places where Anishinàbe people camped & rested & many stayed. Thus Anishinàbe homelands cover a vast amount of land in North America.

For Omàmìwininì this journey ended in the valley of the Kiji Sìbì (Ottawa River) & its tributaries. Over thousands of years, Omàmìwininì people established an intimate relationship with our homeland & developed particular knowledge about how to live & survive in an ecologically sustainable way. We came to know & understand the land, water, & other beings as relatives & through this process we developed a philosophical way of seeing the world which is called Pimàdiziwin. In the language this term refers to living a good life, in a good wayAs Omàmìwininì people continued to grow & develop over this period we created a system of organization that allowed our people to maintain our relationships & responsibilities.

Omàmìwininì communities in the past were largely organized around extended families who engaged with the natural world around them in annual cyclical patterns. In the winter, extended families lived together in close proximity on the tributaries off of the Kiji Sìbì where they trapped & hunted. During this long, cold period, many sacred narratives would be shared, including those of Creation & also of Wisakedjak. In the spring extended families would travel to the sugar bush to tap trees & process maple sugar, they would also travel to areas where pickerel come to spawn & would spear & dry fish as well. In the summer they would travel back down to the headwaters on the Kiji Sìbì where they would come together with other extended families. It is at this time that Grand Councils were held.
Beaver Trap

Before Europeans came to North America, trapping was an integral part of the Algonquin way of life, providing food, clothing, & shelter.

Image result for algonquin style beaver trap

Artwork by Gordon J. Miller. Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia © 2011, Historica-Dominion.

At the time of Champlain’s arrival in the Ottawa Valley, he noted several communities living along the river that he recorded in his journals. One issue (yes, there are many) with Champlain’s writings is his creation of the term “Algonquin”, as a marker of identity for us as people. Obviously it seems to have stuck since many of us refer to ourselves by this term today. At some point after Champlain’s arrival our ancestors ceased being Omàmìwininì in recorded history & became Algonquin. Every community today in Quebec & Ontario uses this as a maker of identity despite the fact that it isn’t an Omàmìwininì term. There are around 10,000 people who self-identify as Algonquin who make up many different communities. Some are status under the Indian Act, with Canada defining who is a member, & some are historic communities who continue to organize themselves around the extended family model wherein they determine their own membership. As a community, Ardoch Algonquin First Nation is in the second category. We are struggling to maintain our relationships & responsibilities in our homeland in a respectful way that promotes Pimàdiziwin (living a good life, in a good way.)

In many respects, we are only here today because of the determination of our ancestors who fought to maintain what they could of a distinct ontology that carries forward the history of our relationships with the Natural World & other peoples. Elder Harold Perry said at one time that in his youth, his parents were just struggling to survive they didn’t have the luxury of contemplating history or have the time to vision & dream a way forward. He said that they didn’t have any way of doing this but that we do & that it is our generations that have to make this happen & to create the future that we want. That generation of visioning & dreaming is now ours, just as it will be in the future for our children & grandchildren. It is now our responsibility to create the future that we want.


Traditional governance was achieved through consensus based decision-making among extended families.

Prior to French & English colonialism, Pimàdiziwin was achieved through an extended family system wherein one or two people held the responsibilities for protection of families & also the management of lands & resources. Extended families worked together on broad issues or decisions about the larger Omàmìwininì homeland. Many historians have asserted that only men held this role in Omàmìwininì communities but this isn’t true as there are several cases of women who served in this capacity.

This system developed over thousands of years as Omàmìwininì people developed relationships with the natural world around them. They observed natural democracy at work among animals & other beings & they adopted this system for themselves.

They also learned about traditional ways of relating as people form Wisakedjak narratives wherein he travelled the world & interacted with all of Creation. In these interactions he interacts with each & every being as a relative. Even the smallest creature is seen as a relative & thus decision-making must take into account how a small insect might be impacted or benefit from decisions.

After 1800, & particularly after the War of 1812, the continual migration of settlers from the south & from Europe, forced Omàmìwininì to the backlands of the territory as their lands were surveyed & carved off into townships. Lands & watersheds that had been held in common & managed collectively under a consensus system were sold off & occupied by settlers who began clearing away trees. This had the result of driving away animals & destroying sugar bushes. The development of navigation on the waterways caused huge flooding of more lands & Omàmìwininì people lost the ability to harvest many plants as well. Their ability to manage development & to maintain Pimàdiziwin was eliminated in many respects & people hung on to small scraps of land attached to marshes & other areas that were designated as unworthy of English settlement.

As a result of the process Omàmìwininì people lost the ability to relate to the land & water & spiritual beings in the same way our ancestors had done. After Confederation & the development of legislation & policy in the Indian Act, Omàmìwininì people were forced to organize themselves under the auspices of a chief & council who were often controlled by Indian agents & the government. Consensus based decision making was eliminated in most cases & more lands & resources were lost.

Over the 140 years since the Indian Act was implemented, Omàmìwininì people struggled to survive, banned from practicing traditional governance, ceremonies & social gatherings. Parents were forced to surrender their children to officials for residential schools, & many left the schools with unresolved grief & trauma as a result of the physical, mental & sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of priests & staff. This negative history & legacy continues to impact our abilities to come together to envision a sustainable future.

Strengthening Culture & Language Capacity

Omàmìwininì people are working throughout our homeland to restore culture & language competency as a mechanism to develop positive self-worth & self-esteem as human beings. For most Omàmìwininì people it has been a struggle to develop positive identity when most of our lives we have been socialized to think our culture & language is something we should let go of in order to better ourselves & our communities. In spite of those colonial efforts to strip away our intellectual traditions, we have not lost ourselves completely. The fact that we have continually challenged colonial policies over the past thirty-five years about resource extractions illustrates the fact that we have also maintained at least a semblance of our relationships with our homeland. It may not be the same level of participation as our ancestors, but we have done the best that we could do given the circumstances & that fact that until 1959, we couldn’t even hire a lawyer according to Canadian law. Under the Indian Act ceremonies & cultural practices & gatherings were also banned, so we are all playing catch up now, dreaming & visioning ways to restore culture, language, & our intellectual traditions as people.

Anishinaabemowin                          English

Kwey                                                                                      Hi!

Megwetch                                                                            thank you
Pijashig                                                                                Welcome
Madjashin                                                                            Goodbye
Sigwan                                                                                 spring
Nibin                                                                                     summer
Tagwagi                                                                              autumn
Pibon                                                                                    winter

Manadjitoda kina kego                                                  let us esteem all things

Pimàdiziwin                                                                      term meaning ‘living the good life’

Life of the Voyageurs

*see also voyageurbrigade.org/resources/resource index/other files -note the files on music!

 Taken primarily from the Hudson Bay Company Heritage website

 The demand for furs in Europe stimulated the growth of trade & exploration in Canada. The French were the first to establish fur trade routes into & beyond the Great Lakes. In 1670 the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was formed & set up a series of fur trading posts along the shores of Hudson Bay, where the First Nations would bring furs to trade.

The North West Company, formed in 1779, took over the French routes & extended them. They took a proactive approach to the trade, sending out brigades of canoes, manned by voyageurs, from Montreal to an important inland base at Lake Superior. This group was called Montreal Men or pork-eaters (mangeurs de lard). They would pass the trade goods to a second group of voyageurs called the North Men (hivernants – literally, “winterers”) who departed from the northern meeting point to go further west of Lake Superior into the interior through a network of rivers & lakes. The Montreal Men would then load their canoes with bundles of beaver pelts & start the trip back to Montreal while the North Men would paddle further west & spend the winter there.

In 1821, the HBC & the North West Company merged under the name of the HBC.

Voyageur canoe.jpg

Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall, 1869, oil painting by Frances Anne Hopkins. The Wheel-star symbol favored by the Mohawks is on the bow. Hopkins’ paintings of voyageur canoes are both evocative & accurate. Hopkins often travelled to the interior with her husband Edward Hopkins, personal secretary to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Sir George Simpson. Note: Hopkins & her husband are in the middle of the canoe. Library & Archives Canada.

In the fur trade period, there were few roads in what is now Canada. The highways were the waterways & the vehicle was the canoe, designed & perfected by the First Nations. The voyageurs made these long & difficult journeys to deliver the cargoes to the posts & to return with vessels laden with furs.

Who were the Voyageurs? Most voyageurs were French Canadian, recruited from villages towns, like Sorel, Trois-Rivières, Quebec &   Montreal.

Voyageurs could be identified by their distinctive clothing. They often wore a red toque & a sash (woven belt) around their waist. The white cotton shirt was protection from the sun & mosquitoes. They also wore breeches with leggings & moccasins.  In colder weather, they kept warm with a capote (a long wool cloak or coat with a hood).

 Could You Be a Voyageur? Voyageurs had to be short, approximately 5’ 4” (1.63 m), as the space in the canoe was needed for cargo. They were strong & healthy men who could withstand harsh weather conditions & maintain a very fast paddling pace.

The route from Montreal to Lake Superior & back would take 12 to 16 weeks. The men paddled from sunrise to sunset, heaving back-breaking packs of trade goods & furs over grueling portages. There were many risks: many men drowned, suffered broken limbs, twisted spines, hernias, & rheumatism.

The Voyageur Diet The voyageurs needed food that was high in calories & would not spoil as they travelled. They ate two large meals a day – breakfast & dinner. The men began paddling before sunrise, stopping just before 8:00 a.m. after a 3-hour paddle for a meal of pork, beans, & biscuit that was pre-cooked the night before. Biscuits were made from water & flour.

The voyageurs ate a mid-day snack of pemmican & biscuit around 2:00 p.m., while paddling. At night, they settled by the firelight to enjoy a meal of pemmican, dried peas, or cornmeal. Cornmeal was made into hominy, a type of thick white porridge combined with bacon fat or bear grease for added taste. Sometimes they would have meat or fish that had either been caught or traded for during the day. Voyageurs became known as pork eaters because of the amount of pork fat added to their meals.

Pemmican This lightweight & nutritious food was the staple of the voyageur diet, providing some 5,000 calories a day if needed. The dried meat could be preserved almost indefinitely, which was a perfect meal for long trips into the wilderness. Reportedly tasting “like cold beef mixed with rancid fat & hair,” a voyageur typically consumed about one & half pounds of pemmican a day.

Pemmican comes from the Cree language – pemmi meaning meat & kon meaning fat. It was made from buffalo or caribou meat cut into thin slices & placed on a large wooden grate over a slow fire or exposed to the sun. Once dried, the meat was pounded between two stones & mixed with melted fat.

Pemmican was very versatile & could be eaten raw, fried, or cooked up into a rubbaboo, a kind of stew, consisting of flour, water, maple syrup, & chunks of pemmican.

Canoe Brigades The spring brigades of canoes left Montreal around May 1st arriving at the west end of Lake Superior by mid-June carrying trade goods, supplies, & passengers to the forts & posts. The large canoes called canots du maître, travelled in brigades of five canoes. Each canoe included a bowman or avant who guided the canoe, the middlemen or milieux who had the least experience & paddled in the middle of the boat, & a steersman or gouvernail who would stand or sit at the back & steer on instructions from the bowman.

The canots du nord that were used to go further west of Lake Superior were smaller canoes with five man teams.

Frances Anne Hopkins, Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869, Glenbow Museum, Calgary

Canoe in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869, Oil painting by Frances Ann Hopkins  Glenbow Musem

The Inland Meeting Point Grand Portage was the meeting point of the Montreal voyageurs & the wintering North Men. After the U.S./British North America border was determined in 1802, the meeting point was moved to Fort William because Grand Portage was now located in U.S. territory.

When the canoes from Montreal & the Interior met, there was a celebration with foods the voyageurs did not have on the trip. Their meeting every summer was known as the Great Rendezvous. Then, the North Men prepared for their trip back to the Interior with trade goods for the First Nations peoples, while the Montreal Men packed their canoes full of furs for the return journey to Montreal.

Each voyageur carried two or more packs & walked at least ½ mile (.8 km) over a trail. If the portage was longer, they would put the bundles down half way & go back for another load. Each man had to carry from six to eight bundles on each portage. Sometimes they would walk 3 miles a day (5 km) as well as paddling long distances.

Image result for Hudson Bay company's employee at the portage

The Portage A Portages were walking trails that connected bodies of water or bypassed a section of water that voyageurs could not paddle through because of obstacles. Voyageurs had to carry, on foot, all the cargo from the canoe as well as the canoe itself.

How Much Did the Voyageur Carry? The canoe carried 65 bundles of goods to trade as well as food for the trip, their personal belongings, an axe, a kettle, & material to repair the canoe. The canoe itself weighed 300 lbs (136 kg) adding to the weight the voyageurs carried over a portage.

Each bundle weighed 40 kg (90 lbs.). Voyageurs used a tumpline to carry the bundles. They wore this leather sling across their forehead & attached to the first bundle that hung low on their back. A second bundle was placed on top of this bundle. In order to carry the load, the voyageur walked half-bent over for at least a 1/2 mile (.8 km).

Image result for Shooting the rapids, oil painting by frances anne hopkins

Shooting the Rapids 1879. Oil painting by Frances Anne Hopkins, Library & Archives Canada. My opinion is that this is an express canoe en route to Montreal and the raids are the Deschenes Rapids on the Ottawa River. The ‘Avant’ is executing a cross-bow draw. Note the slim long-bladed paddles used.

A Killing Pace Voyageurs were renowned for their strength, endurance &, incredible speed in paddling a canoe. Setting out before sunrise, they maintained a rhythm of approximately 45 strokes a minute. That’s 6.5 miles/hr (11km/hr)! At that rate, a crew covered up to about 100 miles a day (160 km). To keep a rhythm for their paddling, voyageurs sang a variety of songs.

Every hour there was a scheduled rest stop when the men could smoke a pipe. These breaks were critical in order to maintain the pace. Distances came to be measured in terms of pipes. A three-pipe lake – 12-15 miles (19-25 Km) long – was equal to three hours’ travel, the distance usually covered before breakfast.

The Voyageur Camp At the end of the day, there was much for the voyageurs to do even though it was between 8:00 p.m. & 10:00 p.m. at night. After their meal, they would make repairs to their equipment or canoe & prepare the peas & pork strips for the next day’s breakfast when they added corn biscuits. When they were finished all of the work, the voyageurs told stories & sang songs until it was time to sleep.

The End of the Day Shelter for the night was an overturned canoe, a bed of moss, & a blanket or furs for warmth. If the weather was bad, they erected a tarp as cover. They got up at 3:00 a.m. to start their day all over again.

Songs of the Voyageurs Taken from www.rendezvousvoyageurs.ca

The voyageurs sang centuries-old songs for pleasure, to describe their world or to give rhythm to their work. Many were highly poetic & inspirational. Voyageur songs were not just about every-day routines. They also sang of their duties, leaving their loved ones, & even of food. Songs were repetitive & the rhythms followed the strokes of the canoe paddles. The songs fell into three categories:

  • Laments telling the story of tragic events tied to the fur trade
  • French ballads of New France adapted to the realities of the Voyageurs
  • Work songs of the French-Canadian labourers.

Each song tells a story; e.g.

  • En roulant ma boule describes the adventures of a prince going off to hunt
  • À la claire fontaine is about lost love between a young man & a young woman
  • C’est l’aviron tells the story of a man who meets three young ladies on his journey

*see also voyageurbrigade.org/resources/resource index/other files -note the files on music!


Indigenous Women & the Fur Trade Source: the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

Women played an integral part in the North American fur trade from its inception. Yet the role of women, especially indigenous women, has often been ignored in fur trade history. Contrary to the notion that the fur trade was a male-dominated activity, it actually depended upon the participation & labor of Indigenous women for its very survival & economic success. Indigenous women acted as essential producers in the fur trade of the Canadian & American Plains.

Indigenous women married employees of the fur companies. As wives & daughters, Indigenous & Métis women acted in such important fur trade roles as producers, translators, traders, & guides. Women were, in fact, the primary producers of the fur trade: they trapped the smaller marten for its fur, & they made the moccasins, snowshoes, canoes, & other equipment necessary for travel on winter hunts. For food they hunted small animals, fished, & made pemmican. Most importantly, Indigenous women prepared, or dressed, the bison robes & the beaver & otter pelts for their ultimate use as hats & clothing.

Marriage between white men & Indian women encouraged political, social, & economic alliances within the fur trade systems. Marriage à la façon du pays, or “according to the custom of the country,” served as a unifying bond between European Canadian fur traders & Indigenous tribes, In spite of cultural differences & the economic motivations, many mixed marriages were stable, loving, & long-lasting.


see also http://www.voyageurbrigade.org/resources/resourceindex

How to roll Boona, the 29′ North Canoe, By Ted Bentley

This is a description of how Boona, the world’s most famous 29′ Langley North Canoe, was rolled and got back underway with +12” of freeboard in less than 2m:30s.

This is being written so that north canoe crews can consider how to be prepared for one of the worst possible scenarios: tipping far from shore, while paddling.

The context: we were working on our safety processes for a planned paddle of Boona from Prince Rupert to Rose Spit, Haida Gwaii.  Safety was very important, so we practiced rolling Boona.

The Process:

The big thing is to think about beforehand is what you will do in a tip, roll over or sinking scenario.   With that planned, all you have to do is practice,  test your plan, correct your plan, test the plan again until you are sure you have done well enough.   Then, if bad things happen, you have the best chance.

The biggest danger:  After capsizing, holding a discussion between 6 to 10 people in cold water during a stressful and likely life-threatening time is very dangerous and can be avoided.  Group discussions do not work well under those conditions. Too many people will want to be heard and they will loudly advocate for too many ideas too long.

Personal interaction plan comes first:

Assigned roles: Pick a captain.   In fact, order the whole crew with specific assigned jobs in advance.

  • Captain, the leader and the only one giving commands or talking unless someone else is asked for comment or information.
  • Lieutenant, the person that leads if the captain is unable. A possible additional taskfor the lieutenant is control of all electronic communication via marine radio, SPOT, InReach, or cell phone.  Our captain and lieutenant sat in the back two seats.  All the electronics, including the GPS were tied in the safety pail between their seats.
  • Lightest person, the first one back into the canoe so they can bail without re-sinking the canoe.
    • As soon as the boat is upright, this person boards and bails. The flotation should be sufficient to allow this.  Counter balancing by folks on the other side will be needed.
  • Second, third, fourth, … up to heavy person.  This determines the sequence in which people get back in.
    • Two of these folks are preassigned to be the ones to pull the roll over ropes to right the canoe. They have designated backups or assistants. Roll the canoe away from approaching waves.


The canoe and it fittings:

  • Flotation: Boona had all the flotation built in by Clipper in place. This helps a great deal to give some initial free-board when the canoe is righted.   Re-entry of the first person and their use of the 5 gallon bail bucket right away is key to fast recovery.
  • Rolling the canoe: At two points on each side, tied to the thwarts. are ropes long enough to go all the way across the bottom of the hull to the opposite gunwale so two people can pull them and roll the canoe upright. This is the first step to recovery after checking that all crew are present and OK.
  • Re-entering the canoe: As part of the roll ropes the first 2 1/2 feet are a loop tied to the thwart. The loop is rope or webbing.  These are re-boarding loops. These allow all sizes of people to easily stand in the loop and get in the boat. It is like using a stirrup to mount a horse.
  • Mark the outside of the hull with the location of re-boarding loops/roll-over ropes with a stripe of reflective tape. This is a must since when the canoe is upside down and unmarked, the sides do not give an exact location to search at.  Seaching can cost considerable time.
  • Bailers 1: Every seat has a 4L plastic jug with the bottom cut out, cap on and cord to tie it to the seat.  This means that as soon as the boat is righted every one can bail some water.  8 * 4L every 2-3 s gets rid of 600L of water in a minute.  More than the weight of a person in 10 s.
  • Bailers 2: 2 * 5 gallon (20L) pails are tied in near or under the front and back seats. As soon as possible the lightest and second lightest person re-entered which gave ~16L*2 every 3 s of bailing so 600 L of water a minute.  One more person worth of buoyancy in less than 10 s.

The process:

  • Before you get on the water:
    • Identify roles and people.
    • Get the boat fitted out.
  • Paddle off shore, start the timer, roll the canoe.
  • Then:
    • Captain takes a poll to see that everyone is accounted for.
    • Everyone else has work to do:
      • Roll the canoe right side up.
      • Commence bailing with jugs.
    • Lightest person is now entering the canoe and bailing with 20L pail.
    • One or two at a time: #2, #3, …, #8 get in.  All resume bailing.  #2 has taken the second 20L pail. #3 to #8 are using jugs.
    • After 4 people are in, 2 people get in the front and back seats and re-establish directional control, likely into the wind or start steering/paddling the boat. Others keep bailing.
      • This helps prevent the boat from re-swamping due to broadside waves.
    • By the time that #8 is in the boat, there will be at least 12” of free-board and you paddle off. Half the crew bailing, half the crew paddling.

Topics to work on if you are really doing a long deep-water crossing:

  • Personal Equipment: each person must have on them at all times:
    • Approved life jacket
      • With highly reflective stripes or tape or something that will reflect light at night if someone is searching for survivors with a light.
      • With pockets sufficient to hold or attach the following:
    • Personal safety items:
      • Whistle
      • 1-person bivy sack (about $20 at Totem or MEC) – hypothermia protection.
      • Two ways to start fire (e.g. matches and BIC) and fire starter.
      • Knife or multi-tool. Not too big because it is negatively buoyant.
      • Options: SPOT or InReach and / or GPS and/or cell phone, short length of orange flagging, blinking diode light about the size of a whistle (Totem or MEC again), ziplock baggies for your cell phone, (the GPS, maps and calling 911 work a surprising number of  places off shore.)
    • Paddle: Coach everyone to hold onto their paddle.  Some people have been known to let go when they hit the water.   A paddle is a buoyant assist in addition to being essential when you get back in.
    • Rain pants, rain coats, canoe boots: For roll practice we also wore our rain pants, rain coats, canoe boots.
  • In-boat equipment:
    • 4 Re-boarding loops each of which are 6′ of 1” wide strap tied as a loop, then tied around a thwart. Put a strip of reflective tape vertically on the side of the canoe where the straps are. 2 straps to a side.
    • 4 Roll-over ropes which are 5’extensions of the re-boarding loops. These are thrown across the hull to the other side so the canoe can be rolled.  With no straps, the hull is too smooth to grip and roll.  Attach the straps to the underside of the thwarts with shock cord so they are easy to access but out of the way.
    • Individual bailers: at each seat (8 places) a 4-L plastic jug with the cap on, bottom cut out and a cord attaching it to the seat.

All the above equipment and skills are just practice and everyday good sense.

What if you are going for real? In the ocean or a great lake.

For the most serious crossings more safety is an excellent thing to have.  SO:

  • Radar reflector on a 10′ pole. This is X,Y,Z direction circles of reflective metal foil on foam backing available at marine supply stores. It is does not need to be powered. They work very well.
  • Flare gun and flares.
  • Marine radio.
  • Lights for night running Red/Green on the bow left and right.  White on the back.
  • Lights on each person. Petzels are good.  Blinking helps people see just like well like bicycles on a dark road.
  • Over the life jacket a very light high visibility reflective safety vest such as construction workers wear so that they are obvious. This is an additional bit of visibility if boats are approaching at night or if a search is on.  Or ,have a life jacket with considerable reflective tape already sewn on.
  • Life raft, deflated and put under a seat.
  • 12v electric pump and car battery mounted towards the back.
  • All gear tied in.
  • Nautical charts laminated in plastic so they are not damaged by water.  Paper charts do not rely on batteries to work.
  • More than one GPS, hopefully of the same brand with spare batteries.
  • Reflective tape the length of the canoe just below the gunwales.
  • Food and camping gear as appropriate.
  • Spare paddles.

If it is  a crossing longer than 6 hours:

  • Avoid wet suits. The retained moisture causes chaffing that is very irritating and somewhat disabling.   Gortex moisture shedding dry suits, jackets and pants are a lot better.
  • Have a time cycle from front to back person for taking time about every 45 minutes to an hour for food, drink, … Make every one eat and drink starting no more than 45 minutes from launch.
  • Within the crews, rotate the stern person about every 2 hours so steering stays sharp.

Does it work?

We did paddle across to from Rupert to Rose Spit in a total time of 20 hours.  120 km in 16 hours of paddling and 4 hours of slacking on the west shore of Stephen Island June30 -> July 2012.  🙂

We did not take on any water.  So we have no idea if the roll over would have worked 30Km from shore.  Likely it would.

What did work very well were the lights and radar reflector.  Especially at 2:00 a.m. when the 900′ long, 10 story high cruise liner came within 300m and then blinked its bridge lights for us twice.   We had just cleared ahead of its path, which it had slightly deflected to pass to our stern.    Never did get to use the flare gun.

BIG CANOE STROKES  by Max Finkelstein


Forward Stroke

paddle vertical

R-e-a-c-h forward with ‘gunwales’ side of body,

arms extended, elbows almost locked, top hand shoulder level

bend forward from waist, top hand pushes down, like a clamshell closing

bury paddle blade completely under water

end stroke at front of hip aand repeat about a million times until you get it right

Goon Stroke

The goon stroke is essentially a forward stroke followed by a short, sharp stationary l  stern pry (see below). This is the basic steering stroke for Big Canoes.

Stationary Stern Pry

The stern pry is used by the stern paddler to turn the bow of the canoe toward the paddler’s onside.

In this stroke the paddle is immersed vertically at the side of the canoe and the paddle shaft is pried off the gunwale, moving the blade outward.

Face your paddle (shoulder parallel to keel line)

Paddle shaft angled towards the stern of the canoe…the further back toward the stern, the greater the turning power, but ensure blade is still completely immersed.

Lower hand locks paddle shaft to gunwale.

Thumb is pointed up!

Top hand shoulder height.

Lean into the canoe. the more your lean, the sharper the turn.

Do not turn this into a braking stroke by twisting the paddle blade so it is perpendicular to the keel line. Keep it almost parallel to the keel line, like a fish’s tail.


Active Stern pry

Sink paddle until blade is completely immersed.

Paddle shaft vertical or even slightly angled with blade under the hull and the grip over the water  (more than 90 degrees)

Lower hand locks paddle shaft to gunwale.

Lean out over the side of the canoe and lever the shaft using the gunwale and  pulling with your top hand  towards the inside of the canoe. Lean your body intothe same direction – towards the inside of the canoe.

Thumb is pointed up!

To hand moves across your chest from the “waterside” shoulder to “inside the canoe” shoulder.

Exit; move top hand forward and down until blade pops out.

Stationary Draw

In the stern, used to point the bow away from the paddle side.

Plant paddle vertically in the water as far away from the canoe as possible and still remain vertical .

Turn shoulder so they are parallel with keel line of canoe and ‘talk’ to your paddle shaft.

Angle front of blade slightly away from the keel line

Sink paddle blade completely

Adjust water pressure on blade by slight change in blade angle to control sharpness of turn

Active Draw

Plant paddle vertically in the water as far away from the canoe as possible and still remain vertical.

Turn shoulder so they are parallel with keel line of canoe and ‘talk’ to your paddle shaft

Lean over your paddle by pushing  down with top hand and think of ‘pulling” the stern of the canoe to your paddle blade..

Exit: Turn thumb ‘out’ and slice blade back to start position.

Alternative exit: push top hand forward towards gunwale until blade pops out and return to start position.

Stationary Cross Bow Draw

used by bow paddlers to help turn the canoe toward their ‘off” side.

The paddle is swung over to the bow paddler’s offside.  Hand positions do not change.

Twist body towards gunwale on the opposite (off) side of canoe

Face your paddle shaft and submerge blade. Paddle shaft is vertical (parallel to the side of the canoe) but angled forward about 45 degrees. Top hand shoulder height.

Hook feet under seat!!!! this is a powerfull stroke when the canoe is under power!

Active Cross Bow Draw:

used by bow paddlers to help turn the canoe toward their ‘off” side.

The paddle is swung over to the bow paddler’s offside.  Hand positions do not change.

Twist body towards gunwale on the opposite (off) side of canoe

Face your paddle shaft and submerge blade. Paddle shaft is vertical (parallel to the side of the canoe) but angled forward about 45 degrees.

Atop hand shoulder height.

Shovel water under the hull. Keep blade deep.

Lower top hand towards stern until blade pops out and repeat!

Reverse Stroke:

Used for moving the canoe backwards

Immersed paddle blade completely at the back of your hip, shaft vertical  (parallel to side of the canoe) and angled slightly towards the back of the canoe.

Sit vertical or slightly leaning forward

Top hand should height and eighteen inches or so forward of waterside shoulder.

Lean back as blade moves towards the front of the canoe, top hand moves back to almost touch shoulder.

End stroke at the front of your hip

Exit: lift paddle vertically out of the water.


Drop Skeg:

Used to stabilizing canoe when stationary

Sink blade completely, shaft vertical

Top hand shoulder height

Lower hand locks paddle shaft to gunwale.

Try to keep paddle vertical as canoe rocks side to side.

Low Brace;

Used to stabilize canoe.

Paddle blade parallel to water surface.

Knuckles face UP!

Grip hand at your belly button

Lean out over water, elbows bent in push-up position.

Push down against the water surface.

If canoe is stationary, scull your paddle back and forth to keep it at the surface.

As the canoe tips farther to your paddle side, adjust the blade to keep pushing down against the water surface.

Analogy: you are standing with a hockey stick and someone pushes you towards your stick side and you push the stick against the ground to avoid falling. its the same idea.

Do a push-up over your paddle.



 Big Canoe Video to Watch:


Dave Woolrdige – paddling big canoe – stern, maneuvers, swamped canoe)

or google Ridge Wilderness adventures big canoe video on U tube….

Great video to share with your paddling teams

Priscilla Haskins – swamped canoe drill .. this is good!

(Priscilla is a Paddle Canada Big Canoe Instructor Trainer)

Watch this NFB film: The Voyageurs
Produced by: Bernard Devlin
1964, 19 min 50 s