PEI

Historic voyage: Island students to paddle voyageur canoes on the St. John River

Some P.E.I. students will be taking a trip back in time starting this weekend on the St. John River. They will be paddling two 20-foot wooden voyageur canoes they've built as part of the Canada 150 celebrations.

Students built 2 canoes and made their own paddles

The students got to try out the first canoe on the Hillsborough River in June. (Submitted by Philip Pierlot)

Some P.E.I. students will be taking a trip back in time starting this weekend on the St. John River.

They will be paddling two 20-foot wooden voyageur canoes they've built as part of the Canada 150 celebrations.

"They're large canoes that hold ten paddlers," explained Philip Pierlot, one of the teachers leading the project. 

"These would be reminiscent of the canoes that would have been used by voyageurs back in the early, early days of settlement."

The voyageur canoes cost about $3,000 each to build. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

2 year project

The canoes have taken almost two years to build. One canoe was completed in December 2016, while Pierlot has just put the finishing touches on the second one.

"This one in particular would be similar in shape, it's meant to be reminiscent of the early Mi'kmaq canoes here in the Maritimes," he said.

The students and teachers from Charlottetown Rural High School are part of a Canada-wide event organized by the Canadian Voyageur Brigade Society. 

Groups across the country are paddling rivers in each province.

"Their heritage goes way back to opening up Canada through its river systems which is the whole idea of doing this as a Canada 150 event."

The two canoes will eventually be used as part of the paddling program at Charlottetown Rural High School. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Strait crossing

The Island group will join what's called the Saint John Brigade.

They'll travel 250 kilometres by river from Florenceville, N.B., to Saint John with 12 other crews from across Canada.

Half of them will then paddle the canoes across the Northumberland Strait, where the students will be replaced by volunteer paddlers.

The voyage continues as the group will travel together along two of P.E.I.'s most historic rivers.

The first leg will go from Bonshaw, P.E.I., to Charlottetown, where a public event will be held to show off the voyageur canoes.

The canoes will then travel up the Hillsborough River to Mount Stewart, P.E.I.

Philip Pierlot is putting the finishing touches on the second canoe that is reminiscent of the early Mi'kmaq canoes here in the Maritimes. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Souvenir paddle

The project was not for class credit but was an extra-curricular activity for the students.

"The idea that you can take a bunch of students and say, 'Yeah, let's do it,' and they dove in and they built these canoes," said Pierlot.

"Of course we're directing and showing them how but they were right on board and they've been engaged all the way."

Besides the canoes, students are also making their own paddles. They will keep the paddles as a memento of the event.

The second canoe will be going in the water for the first time just before the voyage begins, but the first canoe is getting rave reviews from paddlers.

Besides the canoes, students are also making their own paddles that they will keep as a memento of the event. (Submitted by Philip Pierlot)

"We've had it out for practice runs and it's just beautiful," said Pierlot.

"There's a whole system of learning how to paddle together in unison and the methods for turning the canoe, and handling it in various ways, involve a lot of people so there's a lot of communication."

The canoes are also impressive for their speed.

"They go quite fast, when you really put your effort into it so it's not hard to bring them up to ten kilometres an hour or more," he said.

Charlottetown Rural has had a paddling program for 30 years of paddling and students will now have a chance to learn to paddle the voyageur canoes as well.

"We haven't ruled out building a third, it's on the possible horizon," said Pierlot.