Perhaps it is the pride of returning to his ancestral Metis roots, or possibly a decades-long labour of love, but for Garth Wallbridge of Yellowknife, his passion for restoring and rebuilding canoes is one that gives him immense enjoyment – only surpassed when he is actually paddling one on a lake or river.
“I think that one thing that really appeals to me about canoes is that…a canoe offers a lot of freedom,” Wallbridge, whose day job is a corporate lawyer, said.
“If I set my mind to it or if anybody set their mind to it, starting now in mid-May, you could pack up your gear in a canoe and you could go from here to Coppermine (Kugluktuk) or Montreal,” he said. “A canoe is arguably the most versatile mode of transportation beyond just the human ambulating along, and it has the added benefit that you can cross water.”
“Unless you can swim across the Mackenzie (River) you want a canoe,” he laughed.
Enduring tradition on display
Wallbridge’s interest in repairing canoes — he said he has significantly repaired four or five over the last 20 years, as well as his discovery that seven of his Metis forefathers worked for the Hudson Bay Company as canoe men, which led him to becoming a board member of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Ontario.
“The biggest thing that the board is doing at the moment is overseeing the construction of a $40-million project building a new museum near the Trent River in Peterborough, Ontario. The museum is in its 26th year,” Wallbridge said of the new location, which will have 600 watercraft, including canoes and kayaks from Canada and around the world on display, including the three canoes that musician Gordon Lightfoot owned during his lifetime.
Wallbridge said he plans on hosting a fundraising event on behalf of the museum on June 13 in Yellowknife to raise awareness about how, over generations, canoeing has remained significant and has shaped travel through barren landscapes.
As someone who enjoys his own company, Wallbridge said he has plans to canoe solo around the entire 3,000-kilometre perimeter of Great Slave Lake this summer, an adventure he expects to take about eight weeks to accomplish.
Leaving Yellowknife in his freighter canoe along with about 1,500 pounds of gear, he said he will head counter-clockwise towards Behchoko, paddle down to Hay River, around and up to Fort Reliance where he will go visit friends nearby at Hoarfrost River, then continue onward back to Yellowknife.
Wallbridge said he is not daunted by the long, solitary journey and he looks forward to it and of being in nature.
“I am an ex-firefighter, so I have lots of safety equipment, including communications systems and whatnot,” he said. “I travelled on Hudson’s Bay by myself with a dog team, I’ve hiked in the mountains west of Norman Wells along the Canol Trail by myself. I really like my own company and I like being by myself and I just decided that this was a good time to circumnavigate the big lake.”
Wallbridge said he also enjoys the many long hours he devotes to meticulously restoring and repairing canoes first built generations ago. And he is not deterred by the fact that he could probably build a canoe by scratch faster than what it takes him to remove interior and exterior coatings of old paint, then rebuild it by adding epoxy, spar varnish, fibreglass and carbon fibre.
“So, 100 to 200 years after my forefathers might have been paddling a traditional birch bark canoe or a rough York boat, here I am rebuilding a canoe, using among other things, carbon fibre, which is lightweight and stronger than steel,” he said.
“I have always been a woodworker and carpenter and although I am a practicing lawyer, many of my friends tease me that I should challenge the exam to get my red seal certification as a carpenter.”
But don’t ask Wallbridge if he has a favourite of those canoes he has rebuilt or has travelled in far and wide over the years.
“My favorite canoe is always the one that I am working on, or the one that I am paddling today,” he laughed.