9 Jun 2010
La Course en Canots--The Quebec Winter Carnival Ice Canoe Race
In eighteen years of competing in the Quebec Winter Carnival’s Ice Canoe Race Jacques Anderson remembers the 1993 race as the sweetest. Anderson and his Chateau Frontenac team were one of only two crews to finish the race that year. “We were up at the Chateau Frontenac terrace looking down over the river and we could see the other crews trying to finish.” Ice conditions on the kilometre-wide St. Lawrence River were brutal and when the tide turned two dozen crews were swept up river, unable to make headway over the moving carpet of jumbled and jagged ice. So while most of the crews had made it across to the Levis shore and back to the Quebec City side of the river they were unable to reach the finish line at the Basin Louise.
The desperate crews kept out of the moving ice by tucking in behind piers and indentations along the Quebec side of the river. There they waited for either open water or level ice that would enable them to move quickly enough to move against the five-knot tidal current. The break never came and three hours after the start the officials stopped the race. Meanwhile, Anderson and his crew relaxed, beers in hand, in the regal splendour of the Chateau Frontenac hotel, enjoyed the hospitality of their sponsor and accepted congratulations from friends. “It was a very memorable race,” says Anderson. I have to agree with him because I was part of one of the crews down on the river, waiting for the conditions to change and all the while trying to ward off hypothermia. By all accounts when this year’s edition of La Course en Canots goes on February 4, Chateau Frontenac will again be the team to beat. And Jacques Anderson will be there.
Ice canoeing involves racing lightweight fibreglass boats that are not canoes but rather 30-foot long rowboats and weighing about 230 pounds. Each crew consists of four oarsmen with a fifth crewman in the stern with a canoe paddle to steer. On the ice the crew scooters, inside knees on the seats and outside legs over the sides kicking at the ice to propel the boat forward. Clothing generally matches what a cross-country skier would wear in the same temperatures with the exception of the footwear. Thick neoprene knee-length socks keep feet dry and warm while protecting against bumps to the ice and boat itself. Crampons with inch-long snowmobile spikes allow for sure footing on the ice. Despite the danger of falling in the water, and there is an element of danger, few competitors wear lifejackets—they are too cumbersome.
Ice canoeing is a sport born of a particular set of geographical and cultural factors. It roots go back to the First Nations and the settlement of New France when the only way to cross the St. Lawrence River in winter was by boat or even birch bark canoe—the powerful tides and currents prevent the formation of solid ice. Ideally, open water assured a crew of a swift crossing but if the ice closed in, the crew and sometimes the passengers would climb out and manhandle the boat to the next stretch of open water. Until recently ice canoes continued to be used in certain communities on the lower St. Lawrence. When the Quebec Winter Carnival was established in 1948 an ice canoe race was suggested as an appropriate way to celebrate life on the river.
With this background, an air of cultural commemoration pervades the sport but Anderson downplays that aspect. “We don’t like to focus on legend and folklore,” says Anderson, “not when we designed our last boat with a computer and can spend $150 to test a new wax for a single outing.”
The top teams train year round. Chateau Frontenac’s trainer emphasizes endurance and interval training on land, snow, ice and water. The crew trains on the same rowing machines used by national rowing teams and every three or four weeks each crew member is tested on the rowing machine. Anderson and his crew regularly run up the 400 steps from river level up to the Plains of Abraham or practice scootering their boat across the snow fields of the Plains. Out on the St. Lawrence they perfect their rowing technique and practice bone-jarring scootering amongst expanses of broken ice.
“One of my goals is to pull good athletes from other sports, especially mountain bikers and tri-athletes,” says Anderson, “and it gives me pleasure to transmit my knowledge to newer athletes to ice canoeing.” There will be at least four all-female crews at this year’s race and one of them DMR Consell, consists of athletes who race mountain bikes, run cross country and race kayaks. “In the summer we pursue our individual sports,” says Corinne Bottollier of the DMR team, “but we start training in the ice canoe by the beginning of November.” This is DMR’s third season. “The first year we finished third in most of the races, the second year we were second,” says Bottolier, “and this year we hope to do even better.”
Race organizer Patrick Gagne expects about 25 teams for the 2001 edition of the Carnival race but there will be only one team from outside of Quebec—the Calgary Ice Canoe Team. The city of Calgary has sponsored a crew since 1969, making it the oldest continuously active team. “I would like to see more teams from outside Quebec,” says Gagne, “but I know that it is not easy for crews outside of the area.” In years past teams from the Toronto and Windsor, Ontario, areas had shown up for several years in a row.
It is also expensive to participate.
The cost of equipping a team with a boat, oars, trailer and other associated gear can easily run up to $10,000 in addition to the expense of travelling to the races. That is why most crews try to find a sponsor to cover some of the costs.
The Ice Canoe Race is a great spectacle. If you are in Quebec City on February 4, 2001, make your way down to the harbour and check it out.
I originally wrote this article for the February 2001 issue of Coast magazine.