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Paddling towards good times

Cross Lake group's trek stretches limits, smiles

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It wasn't a breeze -- the strong headwinds made sure of that -- but members of the Ininiwi Aski Quest say it was worth it.

The Cross Lake group guided their warrior canoe into The Forks to the sound of beating drums and delighted cheers Friday afternoon.

It was a warm welcome for the paddlers, who arrived in Winnipeg after an 18-day, 890-kilometre canoe journey through mighty headwinds, some inclement weather and a broken boat.

Upon docking, the emotions came on as fast as the current they battled so hard against to get to Winnipeg.

"This is special, this is really something else," a humbled Nelson McKay said moments after stepping out of the large canoe and on to the concrete platform that hugs the Assiniboine River. "The arms and shoulders feel good, though. I could keep going."

So could Andrina Blacksmith. At 81 years young, the Cross Lake resident was the oldest member of the 14-member crew and said while she had to take a break during Thursday's portion of the trek, she felt great.

"My arms are a little tired, but not too bad," she said among the hordes of hugs and hellos. "The wind was a little tough and we had two big thunderstorms along the way. That (made me) a little nervous."

The youngest on the trip was Chloe Beardy, who is just 10 years old.

The goal of the arduous paddle that started at Cross Lake (Pimicikamak Cree Nation), down south along the east side of Lake Winnipeg and onto the Red River, was to inspire the youth in the northern Manitoba community to connect to their environment. It was also designed to bring attention to the needs of Lake Winnipeg, which environmental groups have distinguished as one of the most threatened lakes in the world.

The group was to leave on July 7 but the weather in Cross Lake, which is south of Thompson, wouldn't co-operate, so the launch was pushed back to the next day. They made it to Norway House the first day on the water, but were forced to wait again because of high winds. That stiff breeze became an unwanted companion.

"We made Lake Winnipeg on the second day and there were two days when the lake was flat and calm," said Nathan Beardy, clutching his four-year-old daughter Kamara. "The rest of the time... it was an experience, I tell you. It took everything we had.

"It was so tough mentally, physically... emotionally."

Around Grand Beach, the crew found the relentless winds too strong to deal with. They couldn't afford to get behind schedule anymore, though, so they decided to make the seven-hour, 28-kilometre walk to the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation reserve, dragging the canoe on a trailer.

Beardy said people started picking up litter they found along Highway 59 and tossing it into the boat. "We had that canoe full of garbage halfway to Brokenhead," he laughed.

The weather wasn't the only thing they had to contend with. At one point, early in the trip, the group had to fetch another canoe from Cross Lake as the first vessel cracked due to the stress of the large crew and choppy waters.

Organizers of the trip reported no injuries during the 18-day journey.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 B1

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