North

Going with the current, Fort Smith's Slave River Paddlefest called off due to COVID-19

N.W.T. public health protection orders, along with Canoe Kayak Canada’s guidelines for safe paddling during the pandemic, make running a normal festival this year pretty much impossible, say organizers.

'We took a-wait-and-see approach,' said president of the Fort Smith Paddling Club

In normal times, the August festival brings canoeists, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders of all ages and skill levels to the Slave River for a long weekend of races, workshops and games. (Slave River Paddlefest/Facebook)

As COVID-19 forced the cancellation of festivals across the nation and the globe, the Northwest Territories' beloved Slave River Paddlefest was among the final holdouts.

But now, the annual paddling festival in Fort Smith, N.W.T., too, has been called off this year. 

"We kind of had an idea this is going to happen, but we took a-wait-and-see approach to see if it was possible to kind of salvage some kind of event," said John Blythe, president of the Fort Smith Paddling Club. 

Blythe said the territory's public health protection orders, along with Canoe Kayak Canada's guidelines for safe paddling during the pandemic, make running a normal festival this year pretty much impossible.

"We took the unfortunate decision to cancel it, but all is not lost," said Blythe. "The river is still there and we still intend to run some programming locally for our core membership."

Festival promotes safety on whitewater

In normal times, the August festival brings canoeists, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders of all ages and skill levels to the Slave River for a long weekend of races, workshops and games. The festival encourages people not to fear whitewater and shows them how to safely tackle rapids, said Blythe.

Naturally, he said, cancelling "sucked because part of our mandate is to promote people going on the river safely and we've been working toward that goal here since I've been involved, so for about 12 years."

The Slave River near Fort Smith on July 5, 2018. John Blythe, president of the Fort Smith Paddling Club, said Paddlefest encourages people not to fear the river. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

But with the current ban on outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people, physical distancing guidelines, and rules around sharing vehicles and disinfecting, helping a kayaker who capsized and other kinds of beginner, whitewater instruction are tough to do. 

The goal now is to shift the focus to activities that can be done safely while keeping a distance, said Blythe, like flat water canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding. 

"People can self-rescue in a SUP (stand-up paddleboard) much easier. You just flip it over and jump back on," he said. "If you tend to choose conservative outings you kind of minimize the associated risks where you're less likely to have to go into first aid-type situations." 

There will be that loss, but it's not like a deal breaker for us.- John Blythe, Fort Smith Paddling Club president

One cancelled festival is unlikely to have a major impact, said Blythe. "There will be that loss, but it's not like a deal breaker for us." Plus, Paddlefest has fewer up-front costs than a music festival like Folk on the Rocks.

"You don't have to book the river," he said.

Of course, Blythe added, it's unfortunate the Town of Fort Smith won't get the chance this year to showcase what it has to offer.

Despite there being no Paddlefest this August, Blythe is still encouraging people to get out and safely enjoy the river. 

"I think we can kind of move forward with the spirit of the festival even though we aren't actually doing it."

Written by Sidney Cohen based on an interview by Avery Zingel

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