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Voyageurs on the Columbia River

By on September 27, 2017 in Articles with 0 Comments

Hugh Owen in the bow and Larry Tobiska in the stern demonstrate to students how the power of many propels a voyager canoe up the Columbia River.

By Susan Rae Sampson

It’s spring or it’s fall, and once again, the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center is sending school kids to the Confluence State Park for a field day under the “Youth on the Columbia” program.

For most kids, the highlight of the day is a ride on the Columbia in a canoe, courtesy of the Wenatchee Row and Paddle Club. About 2,000 kids get a canoe ride each year.

Penny and Larry Tobiska and others from a cadre of 26 volunteers from the Wenatchee Row and Paddle Club are on hand to brief kids on safety, to bundle them in life vests, to show them how to grip and use a paddle, and to launch them in boats.

For absolutely every voyage, volunteer Bob Derry, who is in his 90s, escorts the excursion in his pontoon boat as a safety back-up.

On this day, Penny, who is a retired educator, and Larry, who is a retired lawyer, have been warned that a boy in the mohawk might be inattentive and problematic.

However, as soon as Larry starts the briefing, the boy snaps to attention. He absorbs every detail of the briefing, and paddles like a natural. A different little monster thinks it’s fun to splash Larry with his paddle.

Each canoe, about 25 feet or 26 feet long, holds two adult guides and eight students. As they float down the river, the guides point out a few unnatural occurrences — a supposed “alligator alley,” and the Golf Ball Tree. So many golf balls wash down the river that kayakers retrieve them and post them in trees on the bank.

The canoes are Voyageur canoes, fiberglass vessels modeled after birch-bark canoes first designed by the Ojibwa people, developed by the Algonquin peoples, then adopted by French fur traders in the 1700s.

Their Canoes du Nord, or Canoes of the North, were 18 feet to 22 feet long, and paddled by anywhere from two to six voyageurs carrying goods to trade for fur pelts: Tobacco, rifles, lead for bullets, gunpowder, iron goods, and flour, plus 90 gallons of wine for the voyageurs and their 40 pound personal packs. The total weight of an outbound canoe was about 1.5 tons.

The voyageurs lifted and carried the loaded canoes, portaging where waterways were impassible.

In 2011, the David Thompson Brigade floated down the Columbia River in Voyageur canoes.

The Brigade was a organized by group of land surveyors from Canada and the United States, celebrating the 1811 voyage of the great map-maker, David Thompson. Thompson navigated and mapped the Columbia River all the way from British Columbia to its outlet into the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon.

No doubt, Thompson’s voyage was inspired in part by the Voyage of Discovery led by Lewis and Clark eight years earlier, since at the time, both the USA and Great Britain were vying for ownership of the Pacific Northwest.

When the David Thompson Brigade came down the Columbia, it stopped at historically correct sites such as Entiat and Rock Island, but also made a convenient stop at Walla Walla Park in Wenatchee for a picnic organized by the Wenatchee Row and Paddle Club.

Voyageurs fired a musket that sounded like a cannon, then came ashore to celebrate with several hundred greeters, and to eat some barbecue.

When the Brigade’s voyage was over, the Wenatchee Row and Paddle Club bought two of the Voyageurs’ canoes, the Koo Koo Sint and the Paddle Song.

The Koo Koo Sint, named for the Indian name for Thompson, “Stargazer,” has since been retired, but then the Club purchased Aguila, Spanish for eagle.

It is decorated with logos of some of the organizations that have helped fund the venture: The Community Foundation helped pay for the purchase of the canoe — Confluence Health pays $5 per child, which the Club pays to the School District to pay for the buses that bring kids to the river and Weinstein & Schwab provides accounting services to the club for free.

When the kids paddle downstream in canoes, then reverse direction and paddle against the current back to Confluence Park, Larry spurs them on with a cadence similar to those he heard during his U.S. Army marching days: “One, two, three, four/ We would like to paddle some more…”

Penny and Larry towed the Paddle Song and the Koo Koo Sint to a five-year reunion of the Brigade at Thompson Falls, Montana, in 2016.

There, re-enactors explained the voyageurs’ garb, their full-cut smocks with leather belts. The garments allowed free movement of the voyageurs’ powerful shoulders — overdeveloped from paddling, lifting and carrying — and belts to restrain hernias from lifting 90 pound bundles.

Penny has kept a scrapbook of the notes the Row and Paddle Club has received from children who have ridden in their canoes. All of the notes are treasured, but one intrigues them. It says “Thank you old man for canoeing.”

The child has a point. As with many local service organizations, the Club’s canoeing activities are staffed by volunteers mostly in their 60s and 70s. Young blood is needed to carry on the volunteer activities.

Penny calls the program “No child left inside.”

The Wenatchee Row and Paddle Club is a 100 percent volunteer-operated. It teaches beginners how to paddle and row, and offers storage and rental of kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, outriggers, racing sculls, and more. Its website is www.WenatcheePaddle.org. To learn about joining, or to volunteer, please contact either Penny or Larry Tobiska at ptobiska@nwi.net or ltobiska@nwi.net.

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