Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Paddling, building; Bill was unique

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I was first introduced to Bill Brigden about 12 years ago when a climbing buddy came to load up the canoe in my garage for our trip to the Experimental Lakes Area. "Catherine, that's a Brigden," he said.

I've been in awe of the man since. After the initial shock of his death, it took me a few minutes to grasp the fact, that indeed this canoeing legend was 88, as the obituary noted.

Bill was a good friend to my husband Phil, and helped make seaworthy the baidarka Phil used to circumnavigate Lake Winnipeg in 1995. The first time Bill came up the path to my house, he was bent, as though leaning into a beefy stroke, and unsteady on the legs. Next to him was his wife Marion, salt of the earth and all smiles, lighting his way.

He had such presence! Bill would walk into a room and hold it rapt, which is strange because he never said much, and I don't think I once heard him speak of himself.

His accomplishments spoke for themselves, to people who never met him -- the numerous Canadian canoe and kayak competitions he won, his Olympic kayak competition at Helsinki in 1952, the tutelage he offered young paddlers who grew into their own on the water.

His long-time companion Don Starkell, who canoed to the Amazon in a beefed-up Brigden, said people have always been in awe of Bill Brigden, the guy who swept competitions during Canada's post-war canoeing heyday. It was a time when Winnipeg boasted three canoe clubs, with annual regattas of fierce competition. Don paddled for the Kildonan club in 1950 and Bill, for the Winnipeg Canoe Club.

"Bill was so strong and so cool," Don recalled yesterday, when my call interrupted the writing of the address for his friend's funeral tomorrow. "He had such a physique, he didn't have a (spare) ounce. He had wide shoulders and a small waist. We hated him.

"He was from the Winnipeg Canoe Club and going in all these damned races; it didn't matter which one -- single, tandem, four-man -- he used to win them all."

The two of them teamed up, at Bill's suggestion, for the 1954 Canadian canoe championship in Ottawa, and then Flin Flon's Canoe Derby in 1955.

"Every time we'd go out to train, he'd weigh me," Don said. "He was so experienced, he never criticized. We just trained and trained and trained." Don was 21, and Bill, 38 in the 1954 tandem kayak competition. "That's well beyond his prime." Bill was at the stern. To Don's recollection, at least three of Bill's teammates from the '52 Olympics were there, too.

"We go in this race and the siren goes off and we're in last place. I said, 'Bill, what should I do?' He yells, 'Just keep paddling!'|" The race was a triple loop, 10,000-metre run and the turns proved to be their advantage, where they'd pass kayak after kayak with some guy barking in a megaphone "Manitoba! You will be disqualified!" -- Don said he never knew why. They placed second, paddling six and a quarter miles in 47 minutes. "We pushed that winning team to a Canadian record that I think still stands."

The '55 Flin Flon race, worth $1,000, included 20 portages, some two miles long and through muskeg, over a course longer than 100 miles. The pair put in 1,000 miles of training, he said. From Bill's house on Garfield, "we used to run with the canoe up to Portage Avenue and back down to the river and paddle out to the Canoe Club and back."

City boys, they were taunted and heckled by the northern locals, but they won. "They didn't know Bill." And they won again in '56.

Bill built his first fibreglass canoe for the '55 race. It was cutting-edge technology then, lighter and sleeker than the canvas-covered sort. It was also controversial and when they entered for the third time in 1957, they were told not to bring their fancy boat. They used a canvas canoe -- repaired with fibreglass after being cut in half by a motor boat during a training run on the Red -- and placed third.

And so Bill began his vocation building canoes, moulding fibreglass and resin and glues and screws. His riverfront property in St. Vital was a convenient launch site. He continued canoeing into his 80s, showing up at club paddles and socials.

The numbered Brigden in my backyard is not mine, but it feels like it's a part of the family. Like its maker, it has a storied past. It was built in 1979 and, I'm told, was cracked across the gut after meeting some rocks. Bill repaired it and it was sold again to my neighbours and stored in my garage.

It's looking its age, faded and scratched and patched. But it's sturdy and true; it has shown a series of toddlers the joy of gliding on water, dragging fingers in the ripples of a paddle's wake. We bought a new canoe last year. It's sleek and pretty and resilient to rocks.

Still, its provenance is no match for a boat built by the hands of a man who paddled a thousand miles and more.

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 20, 2005 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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