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A paddle down memory lane

The Reminder is making its archives back to 2003 available on our website. Please note that, due to technical limitations, archive articles are presented without the usual formatting. This past Saturday, Nov.

The Reminder is making its archives back to 2003 available on our website. Please note that, due to technical limitations, archive articles are presented without the usual formatting.

This past Saturday, Nov. 6, the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame welcomed the 1966-67 Manitoba Centennial Canoe Team. Perhaps not surprisingly, eight of the 10 members of this national championship team were from Northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. From Flin Flon were Jim Rheahme, Norm Crerar, John Norman, Wayne Soltys, Gib McEachern and David Wells. From Cranberry Portage was Roger Carriere, and from Sturgeon Landing, Sask., was Joe Michelle. Joining them from Winnipeg were Don Starkell and Blair Harvey. In 2007, Crerar, the former Flin Flonner who now lives in B.C., wrote a book about the canoeing adventures of he and close friend McEachern. In honour of the team's Hall of Fame induction, The Reminder is pleased to republish a 2008 article on the book, written by Jonathon Naylor. * * * Norm Crerar and Gib McEachern spent a half-dozen years enlightening their coffee bar buddies about the good old days of canoe racing. When their ever-patient chums finally suggested they write a book, Crerar was more than happy to oblige. Journals of the New Voyageurs chronicles the Flin Flon duo's rise from skinny teens paddling the chilly spring waters of Phantom Lake to their famed victory in the 1967 Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant. "I really go back and tell the whole story of Gib and I and growing up in Flin Flon and all our racing days," says Crerar, who, like McEachern, now calls Vernon, B.C., home. While Crerar and his paddling pal are best known for their '67 glory, the pair had been celebrated in the community long before that. It all started on Lake Athapap. The friends, both born in 1940, were at Camp Whitney together on a Boy Scout trip when McEachern invited his friend to go for a paddle. Their shared love of the sport was clear, and when McEachern asked Crerar the following winter whether he wanted to enter the 1956 Flin Flon Trout Festival Gold Rush Canoe Derby, he didn't have to think twice. Practicing As soon as the ice left the shores of Phantom Lake, the pair began practicing, gliding across two miles of water before school each morning, with longer runs on the weekends. "As we paddled up and down Phantom Lake that spring, people began to take notice of us," writes Crerar in his 278-page trip down memory lane. The duo had the will and, increasingly, the skill to succeed, but when the gun sounded to start that first race, they were firmly entrenched as the underdogs. "I can remember lining up that first day with all the big guys," writes Crerar. "Man, we seemed small compared to them. To compound the feeling of being dwarfed by the magnitude of it all, we were in the heaviest canoe, had the skinniest paddles, skinniest arms, skinniest asses, thinnest t-shirts, the whole thing." When David and Goliath stories are recanted years later, David is usually the winner. That wasn't the case this time. The teens finished last but still won the hearts of residents. "The fact that we were these skinny youthful apparitions standing with the teams of men was not lost on us or the folks of Flin Flon," writes Crerar. That still held true in 1967. Now strong young men of 27, Crerar and McEachern had come a long way. They had gone on to win the Gold Rush Canoe Derby seven straight years and paddle their way to success in other races in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and the U.S. Naturals They were naturals for Manitoba's entry in the Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant, a grueling, 3,300-mile trek stretching from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, to Montreal. Crerar would captain a roster that included McEachern and fellow Flin Flonners Jim Rheaume, Wayne Soltys and David Wells. Also on board were John Norman of Creighton, Joseph Carriere of Cranberry Portage, Joe Michelle of Sturgeon Landing, and Winnipeg's Blair Harvey and Donald Starkell. The historic race began in earnest May 24, and the nation was captivated with 10 provinces and territories represented. Only Newfoundland and P.E.I. were left out. "Start of the race. What a day!" writes Crerar, quoting from a journal he kept of the event. The Manitoba team distinguished itself early on, accelerating through Alberta in nine days and earning a small lead derived from picking up parts of minutes in sprints. Next it was on to Saskatchewan, where Crerar, already a national news item along with his teammates, began to appreciate the enormity of it all. "We were still the hard-core professionals and our one and only goal was still to win the race," he writes. "Now, however, we were part of the bigger national event that was capturing the attention of the whole country." Crerar's crew held the lead as the pageant passed through The Pas, where a number of Flin Flonners gathered to show their appreciation for the local heroes. But the tide was about to turn. A wrong turn en route from Winnipegosis to Crane River put B.C. in the lead for the first time. It was a bitter episode, but one that only served to pour gasoline on the competitive fire burning inside each Manitoba competitor. There seemed to be no stopping them. Victorious On September 4, 104 days after they began, the Manitoba team paddled into Montreal's Expo victorious. The men were on a high. Flin Flon was ecstatic. But the end of the race brought mixed emotions. See 'Touch...' on pg. Continued from pg. "It was a touching, difficult, happy, sad time," writes Crerar of the day after the race. "What do you say to people with whom you have lived for the whole summer, shared adventures, laughed with, swore at, loved, hated? People who many of us would probably not see again? There was lots of hand shaking, thank you's, see you's, hugs and more hand shakes." Forty-one years later, Crerar still has his paddle in hand. A retired ski resort owner, he's currently taking part in the 2008 David Thompson Brigade, named after the famed explorer, stretching from Rocky Mountain House to Thunder Bay, Ontario. And with McEachern along for the ride, it's just like old times. "Gib and I have given our paddles 55,000 miles together," says Crerar. "It's something we do and we do it really well and getting in these canoes again, going down the river, honest to God, it feels just like it did in '67." Even with their 70th birthdays knocking on the door, Crerar can't imagine he and his old friend hanging up the paddles. "We'll be paddling here until we drop and fall out of the canoe," he says without laughing.