You wouldn’t expect ten men from the Peace Country to make much of a splash at a World’s Fair, but just such a ripple spread all the way across the country to Expo ’67. Sometimes the journey is more important than the arrival.
It all began at a cafe in Hudson’s Hope back in March of 1967. At least, that’s where it came together. Jon P. van Tamelen, a writer, world traveller and avid paddler met with René Frigon, a French-Canadian trapper known as Tarzan of the North. They were discussing the long-formulating plan of a third man, Adolf Ikert of Pouce Coupe.
The idea was a cross-Canada canoe trip, from the B.C. Peace all the way to Quebec. Canada’s centennial year seemed like the time to do it, especially since the journey could end at Expo ’67. What better way to represent and celebrate Canada’s history than to follow in the wake of the great Alexander MacKenzie, then continue on their own route to the east? In short, the three were in complete agreement – the voyage had to be made.
Three were in, but it would take a ten man crew to paddle a 25 foot canoe 5200 miles. Those men would have to be willing and able to give up their jobs and family life for about six months. They would have to be dedicated to the project no matter how tough the going got. They would be unpaid, often entirely self-sufficient, and stuck with each other through good times and bad.
A crew was found: Adolf Ikert (Chief) – Pouce Coupe; Guy Randall, Grande Prairie, co-organizer of the expedition; Ken Brownes, Chetwynd; Bill Frost, Pouce Coupe; Walter Luka, Jr., Hines Creek; Bobby Poitras, Dawson Creek; Hilt Fraser, Sarnia, (came aboard during last portion of the venture); Jim Burbee, Dawson Creek; Rick Fairbairn, Vancouver; René Frigon (Tarzan), Hudson’s Hope; and van Tamelen, Hudson’s Hope. There had to be a dog along, of course, to represent MacKenzie’s famous Our Dog: Tarzan had a half German Shepherd, half wolf named Lobo.
Other teams of paddlers were going to Expo as well. There was to be a cross-country race, sponsored by the Federal Centennial Committee, with canoes to represent each province and territory. Those crews of eight men were to be paid, with regular days of rest, and they could take part in competitions and win prizes. They were to start from Rocky Mountain House.
The crew from the Peace Country would paddle their own canoe, if you’ll excuse the expression. Ikert was building a birch bark canoe, but if they were to launch in time they would need something sooner. A canoe was commissioned, delivered, and custom painted. She was christened the Explorer Mackenzie.
The crew was to travel in costume. There were several trappers in the group and, with some help from Pouce Coupe locals, buckskin shirts, mukluks and beaver hats were made. Ikert would would take the starring role as Alexander Mackenzie and Brownes would represent Mackenzie’s lieutenant Alexander Mackay, so they were honoured to wear more elaborate costumes made by Ikert’s mother.
A crew consisting mainly of men from the Peace Country could not drive down to Rocky to start their journey. They would launch in Ft. St. John and begin with the most important leg, the Peace River route taken by Alexander Mackenzie more than 170 years earlier.
The crew of the Explorer Mackenzie slipped into the waters of the Peace River on the afternoon of May 13, 1967, when the water was still high and the banks still edged with ice.
By the time of the launch, the men were already getting used to crowds of well-wishers and fans seeking autographs and photographs. This was heartening, especially since the costs of the voyage were to be covered largely by the sale of souvenirs along the route. There were miniature paddles and a historical paper, the Explorer, which included tales from the journey. Ikert took on researching and writing the articles. A ground crew (in a bus with a radio and a loudspeaker) would announce the crew’s arrival and muster a crowd at each town along the route.
The crew encountered plenty of hospitality as they travelled, but still there were a lot of campfires, mosquitoes and bannock and beans. Spring weather was as unreliable then as it is now, and Alberta mud isn’t famous for nothing. Lesser Slave Lake’s frozen surface spoiled the plan to make up some time and long portages were unavoidable.
Still, the crew of the Explorer Mackenzie made it to Rocky Mountain House on time to connect with the Centennial racers and joined the Centennial Canoe Pageant. The other paddlers were celebrating the start of their voyage; the Peace Country crew were already well-seasoned after nearly two weeks in the water.
Their Mackenzie leg complete, the men launched into the North Saskatchewan River on their own route to Montreal. By the 6th of June maple trees were marking their eastward progress.
On August 31st, the Explorer Mackenzie – escorted by a motorboat and a noisy crowd – arrived in Montreal. The crew saw the islands in the St. Lawrence River that were newly made to host Expo ’67, the most successful World’s Fair, and they knew they had made a great success of their own journey to celebrate our vast and beautiful nation.
They made the Montreal Gazette the very next day.
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