'Extreme' canoe race down the Mackenzie remembered as N.W.T. gears up for Race the Peel

As the territory gears up for another days-long canoe race this summer, N.W.T. MP Michael McLeod shares his story of hardship and triumph in a 1989 race down the Mackenzie River.

'We had guys clipping the skin off their blisters and pouring aftershave on it so they could paddle'

From left to right, Clifford Vandell, Al Larocque, Michael McLeod, Colin Duff, Rocky Elleze, Roger Sanderson, Gilbert Bouvier Jr. and Bruce Sanderson. (Pearl Leishman)

The hamlet of Aklavik is hosting the Race the Peel, a canoe race from Fort McPherson to Aklavik scheduled for June 28. The race is supported by $49,500 in federal money out of the Canada 150 fund.

As the territory gears up for the two day event, N.W.T. MP Michael McLeod shares his story of hardships and triumph.

McLeod and his team paddled from Fort Providence to Inuvik, N.W.T. in a 1989 race down the Mackenzie River he calls the "opportunity of a lifetime."

The Race the Peel is supported by Canada 150 funding and is being organized by the hamlet of Aklavik in part to raise awareness of threats to the Peel Watershed. (Submitted by CPAWS)

Prepared for months

With his knuckles banging on the edge of his canoe, hands and legs covered in blisters, McLeod was making memories he'll never forget.

"We had guys clipping the skin off their blisters and pouring aftershave on it so they could paddle the next day," recalled McLeod, who was on the Fort Providence team.

"It was extreme."

McLeod said the team of eight prepared for months, but it wasn't long into the race before he realized just how tough it was.

"I remember waking up after a 13 hour paddle, and I couldn't move my arms," he said. "We just took it one day a time."

Then, they lost a teammate. He "packed up and said 'that's it'" at Norman Wells and hopped on the next plane home, said McLeod. 

They ended up beating us. But we all became friends.- Michael McLeod

An injury took one more man down.

When the team decided to take a shortcut between Tulita and Norman Wells, the water levels hit rock bottom forcing the team to carry their canoe on foot for about three hours.

"That pretty much sealed our fate," he said.

'Tanned, sunburnt, but top-shape'

There was a point, however, when the team had a chance to beat the competition.

"One of the teams from the Delta busted their canoe," said McLeod. The team didn't know how to fix the large gash, and McLeod's team debated on whether or not to help them out.

Posted to the 'Aklavik events' Facebook page earlier this month, this poster outlines details of the "Canada 150 Canoe Race", or as it's become know, the Race the Peel. (Facebook)

"But we ended up helping them… and they ended up beating us," he said, chuckling. "But we all became friends."

They also made friends in the communities along the way where residents would open up their homes to the teams, wash their clothes and cook for them.

McLeod said it was one of the most challenging things he's ever done, but there's no regrets. 

"It's the fittest I've ever been in my life. I was totally tanned, sunburnt, but top shape."

McLeod's team ended up taking 4th place in the race.

With files from Loren McGinnis and Joanne Stassen


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