Thompson brigade brought to life

A documentary chronicling the 2011 David Thompson Columbia brigade's paddle from Invermere to Astoria, Oregon will show this weekend.

The 2011 David Thompson Columbia brigade ceremoniously anoints their paddles before launching into the Kootenay River at Canal Flats.

The 2011 David Thompson Columbia brigade ceremoniously anoints their paddles before launching into the Kootenay River at Canal Flats.

The chance to re-live a legendary journey by explorer David Thompson is taking place later this week in Radium Hot Springs.

The award-winning documentary ‘Tracing the Columbia’ will be screened on Friday, May 31st, just after the non-profit society Friends of Kootenay’s annual general meeting at the Prestige Inn in Radium.

The film follows the journey of the 2011 David Thompson Columbia brigade as it paddles from Invermere, following David Thompson’s journey down the Kootenay, Clark Fork, Pend Oreille and Columbia Rivers, eventually arriving at Astoria, Oregon exactly 200 years to the day after the legendary explorer.

“We basically retraced Thompson’s route as much as it was possible by boat,” said  David Thompson Bicentennial co-chair and 2011 brigade organizer Ross MacDonald.

The brigade involved 200 paddlers, dressed in fur trade-era costumes and split into 10 or 11 teams, who spent 42 days powering fibreglass voyageur canoes along the 1,600-kilometre route, usually at 40 or 50 paddle strokes a minute.

“That’s the fur trade pace,” saidMacDonald.

Paddling that fast gets the canoe up to planing speed, at which point momentum becomes relatively easy to maintain. The eight-metre long canoes typically moved about five to eight kilometers an hour faster than the river current, according to MacDonald. The brigade paddled an average of 50 kilometres a day, six days a week.

The group stopped in 38 communities along the way, visiting schools and community centres to do educational interpretive work and put up commemorative plaques.

Although David Thompson is well-known in British Columbia, the brigade found much less awareness about the explorer in Montana, Idaho, Washington state and Oregon.

“David Thompson is largely an unknown down there,” MacDonald said.

At one point, near the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers, the Thompson brigade ended up being completely overshadowed by loud July 4th celebrations.

They retaliated tongue-in-cheek by putting up a wooden plaque, claiming the spot for Britain, just as Thompson had done there.

For the most part, the trip was relatively easygoing. The large number of dams on the Columbia River resulted in a lot of paddling across reservoirs, MacDonald said. He spent three years organizing the event.

“The brigade exceeded everybody’s expectations in terms of success,” he said, adding the group really bonded together.

Just south of Trail, the brigade passed through a First Nations reservation, MacDonald recalled.

“They brought out First Nations drummers and performers. We were invited to actually join in the drumming and some of our crew brought out their bagpipes,” he said. “It was something I’ve never seen before, a kind of merger of cultures. It was a fur trade jam session.”

When the group finally paddled into Astoria in absolutely pouring rain, they were all loudly singing Stan Rogers’ ‘Northwest Passage,’ said MacDonald.

“People had a hard time keeping the tears away,” he said. “It was highly emotional.”

The brigade was one of many projects that marked the David Thompson Bicentennial. There were three other David Thompson-related voyageur canoe brigades (involving a total of 483 paddlers) from 2008 to 2011 and there have since been at least two non-Thompson related brigades since, one on the Rideau Canal in Ontario and one on the Fraser River here in B.C.

“The David Thompson project has led to a rebirth of interest in big canoe brigade projects in Canada,” said MacDonald.

‘Tracing the Columbia’ won the award for best canoe documentary at the international 2012 Reel Paddling Film Festival and the best documentary award at Canada’s 2012 Waterwalker Film Festival.

The film starts at 7:30 p.m. and entry is by donation.