US & Canada

Meet the family canoeing across Canada


A Canadian family is about to set off on a cross-country journey from Edmonton to Montreal with their five-year-old - but they are making the journey by canoe.

Last summer, after he and his family canoed 450km down the North Saskatchewan River, five-year-old Mali Berthiaume declared he wanted to canoe for the rest of his life

For his parents, Magali Moffatt and Benoit Gendreau-Berthiaume, that was the go-ahead for a much bigger cross-country adventure.

On 2 May, the family will push off from their canoe in Edmonton, Alberta, on a four-month journey to Montreal, Quebec.

The trip will cover more than 5,000km through rivers and lakes, including portaging - carrying the canoe when waterways don't link up.

"People ask Ben - 'How did you convince your wife to go on a trip like that?' and I'm like, no, that's not the way it happened," Ms Moffatt says.

Image caption The family and their canoe

The family had planned a road trip home to Quebec after Mr Gendreau-Berthiaume completed his doctorate in Forest Ecology at the University of Alberta.

But when the car showed signs of trouble, Ms Moffatt's adventurous imagination took charge.

Fellow Quebecois Mylene Paquette had recently paddled across the Atlantic to France and Ms Moffatt, who works at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), an outdoor gear shop, says she was inspired.

"I didn't want to do something crazy like that, but it popped in my mind, and I said to Ben - 'What if we paddled back to Montreal?'"

As they searched for a route on the internet, Mr Gendreau-Berthiaume remembered meeting a man who canoed from the Rocky Mountains to the Hudson Bay with a three-year-old.

"That was always in the back of my mind," he said. "He did it with a three-year-old and our son is five, so we should be fine."

Not everyone understands such a challenge, including their family, who were initially not fond of the idea.

"But they've seen all the work we've put into it, and now they're actually proud and excited for us," he said.

Mr Gendreau-Berthiaume recalls when he told the other adults at his son's daycare, some were confused and concerned, suggesting they could chip in to help pay for the family's airfare.

"I said, 'No, that's not the point.'"

Starting on the North Saskatchewan river, the family will make their way to Cedar Lake, portage to several more lakes and rivers, including paddling upstream on the Winnipeg and French rivers, until they finally arrive in Montreal on the Ottawa river.

These modern-day adventurers will follow some of the same routs as Canada's historic voyageurs, who travelled across the country via canoe during the fur trade.

"There are a few key places we're travelling through that have historical importance," said Mr Gendreau-Berthiaume.

Just west of Lake Superior, along the border in the United States, is Grand Portage, where the Ojibwe tribe provided fur traders with pelts and food, and also taught the French and British how to make canoes in the 18th Century.

But unlike the days of the voyageurs, this expedition will require child-friend entertainment.

While Mali will try his hand at fishing with a stick, twine and raisins, his parents will tell stories.

"He turns around and wants story after story," Mr Gendreau-Berthiaume says, but adds his son's interest is an opportunity.

"Telling stories about things that happen in the natural world is a way for me to make it entertaining for him, but at the same time sharing my passion and knowledge about the forests."

And Ms Moffett says their training trips have prepared them for the slower life of canoeing.

"You get up, you eat, you paddle all day, you talk with your family," she says.

"There's long moments of silence. It feels to me like it's a kind of meditation and it's just the best family time ever."

Ms Moffatt says she fully expects to be miserable some days when the family is tired, cold and wet.

But part of her job is to encourage Canadians to enjoy the outdoors - and the couple hopes the trip will show other families how attainable adventure can be.

"I hear a lot of people, the moment they have kids, say they don't do a lot of things because they have a child," said Ms Moffatt.

"I agree it's not as easy, but it's so much fun - the memories, and children are just comfortable outside."

The family will camp, taking every couple of days off to rest. They've arranged for supplies to be dropped at specific points so that they only need to carry basic equipment and two or three weeks of food.

The longest any of them have paddled before is two weeks.

"By the end of [the last canoe trip], I was not fed up at all - I was actually sad," said Mr Gendreau-Berthiaume.

"You actually start getting in the rhythm and really being at peace in your trip, after a week. Same thing happened when we did our practice trip last spring - after 10 days, we just wanted to keep going. We were on a roll."

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