Ottawa to Washington by Canoe
A group of determined paddlers, with support from environmental groups, have achieved their goal of travelling 1800 kilometres by voyageur canoe from Ottawa to Washington, D.C. The 42-day Capital to Capitol by Canoe trip aimed to raise awareness of the need to protect and restore the health of waterways.
Max Finkelstein, an Ottawa resident and long-distance canoeist, had the idea to canoe between the two national capitals, but the initiative grew as friends, fellow paddlers and organizations came on board. Launched September 5 and finishing October 17, the journey engaged hundreds of people on both sides of the border.
The Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) offered materials and other support, and the Ottawa Riverkeeper provided contacts with Waterkeepers along the route. Both organizations worked with Finkelstein and his team to plan the trip and promote the message.
"The purpose of the trip was really to strengthen connections among environmental groups whose purpose is to take care of our waters, because we realized that rivers have no boundaries," explains Finkelstein.
Dot Bonnenfant, one of the trip organizers, says that in Canada and the U.S. "there are so many groups doing amazing work in the face of sometimes devastating challenges to the watersheds. There is hope and there's really a need for people to work together on all levels."
The 36-foot voyageur canoe was just one of the factors that made the trip unusual. The route was not straightforward, and the paddlers followed rivers, canals and lakes, even passing through New York City. Five of the paddlers made the entire trip, but the canoe required at least eight, so others from Ottawa and the U.S. joined along the way. "We had to juggle paddlers," says Finkelstein. "But that's also been the strength of it; we had some wonderful people join us, some quite spontaneously."
Paddlers Clive Doucet, Max Finkelstein, and Christine Kelly unveil the Capital to Capital by Canoe flag at the Ottawa launch. Photo: Denise Deby.
Finkelstein says the physical demands of the trip and the close relationships required for the paddlers to work as a team made the trip intense. "It's been a hard trip, physically and mentally. The distances are long, the winds were usually in our face, some of the water bodies are extremely large, and there's a lot of uncertainty." Still, the paddlers say they found inspiration, fun and good humour along the way, mainly in the people they met.
For Finkelstein and fellow paddler Clive Doucet, the trip was an extension of what they've been trying to achieve for many years, Finkelstein in river conservation and Doucet as a municipal politician. Doucet says, "the only way we're going to get a sustainable world is to have a really large cultural change, a change in the way people think about what's important. And what better way than to start thinking about water, because we all depend on water."
Ottawa Riverkeeper's Meredith Brown, says the trip underscores the cultural and historical significance of the Ottawa River, as well as the need to protect its health. "If we're connected by these waterways, we're all impacting each other. We're all downstream. And everybody has to do a little bit of something. You don't have to be anybody special. You just have to have a little bit of knowledge and understanding."
Capital to Capital by Canoe starts its first leg on the Ottawa River, 20 September. Photo: Denise Deby.
Christine Kelly, CWF's Education Development Manager, says, "The hope is that one day you'll be able to swim in these waterways, fish in them, drink from them."
Capital to Capitol by Canoe plans to continue the effort through speaking engagements, possible future trips, and a campaign to establish a program of sister rivers to strengthen connections between groups. Doucet says people can help out by writing to the City of Ottawa to ask for a sister river program, starting with the Ottawa and Potomac Rivers. People can also get involved with the Ottawa Riverkeeper and CWF, and encourage municipal and federal governments to protect river health.
For more information:
Capital to Capitol by Canoe: https://sites.google.com/site/capital2capitol/
Ottawa Riverkeeper: http://ottawariverkeeper.ca/
Denise Deby writes on environmental and social justice issues.