- Winnipeg Free Press, May 11, 2008 -


EDMONTON -- Two hundred people departed on a voyage of discovery to honour explorer David Thompson and re-enact his epic 1808 canoe trek along the rivers of Western Canada to the Great Lakes.

Lavern Thompson, one of the modern-day explorers has a personal stake in the 63-day, 3,600-kilometre journey in which a brigade of 16 replica fur-trade canoes will paddle from Rocky Mountain House in central Alberta to Thunder Bay, Ont. The group is scheduled to arrive in The Pas on May 31, through Portage la Prairie on June 7, Winnipeg on June 11 and Lower Fort Garry the next day before arriving in Old Fort William in Thunder Bay on July 12.


A Thompson brigade canoe casts off from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., Saturday.

Thompson, a 46-year-old apartment superintendent, is a direct descendant of the famous map-maker and his M Štis wife, Charlotte Small-Thompson. Ottawa has just recognized her officially as a person of national historical significance.

"This is a fantastic opportunity to rediscover stuff about my family and Canadian history because I know more about American history than Canadian history, I am ashamed to say," said Thompson.

He has been reading up on his distant relatives in preparation for the long canoe trip, which began Saturday.

Thompson said he is particularly interested in Small-Thompson, the daughter of a North West Company trader and a Cree mother. Small-Thompson married David Thompson when she was 13 years old and bore him 16 children -- seven sons and six daughters survived.

The couple travelled more than 25,000 kilometres together on expeditions. Small-Thompson helped the British explorer understand the languages and cultures of the aboriginal people they encountered. She also supported him as he mapped immense areas of what was to become Canada and the United States.

David Thompson: explorer of the West.

"My lovely wife is of the blood of these (Cree) people, speaking their language, and well-educated in the English language, which gives me a great advantage," the explorer once wrote.

The present-day Thompson said the gruelling 2008 Thompson Brigade expedition will help him gain insight into his ancestors and help him appreciate the love and devotion they had for each other.

"I find their relationship extraordinary. She was so strong. He must have gotten a lot of inspiration from her," Thompson said as he packed his gear at the home of some friends in Edmonton.

"David Thompson embraced native ways and married a M Štis woman. It was one of the reasons that he was so successful."

The Canadian Press has learned that the federal government plans to unveil a plaque in Small-Thompson's honour next year in Jasper National Park.

The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recommended her in part because "she is representative of the many aboriginal women who formed significant partnerships with fur traders during the 18th and 19th centuries, contributing to trade and exploration through language and survival skills as well as cultural liaison."

Canoe and history enthusiasts from across Canada plan to paddle hard each day and stop at small communities such as Elk Point, Alta., Cumberland House, Sask., Pointe du Bois, Man., and Fort Frances, Ont., along their route. After stretching tired muscles, brigade members will dress up during their visits in period clothing and hold living history lessons with residents.

To keep their spirits up as they paddle their eight-metre-long Canot du Nord, the crews plan to sing rousing historical songs such as En roulant ma boule and Vive la canadienne -- just as the hardy voyageurs did 200 years ago.

Andy Korsos, a professional cartographer, avid canoeist and David Thompson buff, is the driving force behind the expedition, the final details of which were hammered out with colleagues over pints of beer in an Edmonton pub three years ago.

The lure of adventure attracted people from across the country to sign up, he said. The group includes canoeheads, university professors and others from all walks of life who share a love of history. Some are taking two months off work to complete the entire trek, while others will do one or two stages.

They are all expecting plenty of aches and pains in the first few weeks until their bodies get used to paddling up to 160 kilometres a day.

"Most of the people who are going on this haven't paddled for a full season," Korsos said. "It is going to take them a week or two to get back into the swing of things. We do have some rookies along, but they will be mixed in with experienced people."

Participants have ponied up an entry fee to finance the trek. There are also some sponsorships from small businesses, Paddle Canada, the National Geographic Society and the Alberta government.

Korsos and his brigade fellows can't wait to cut the water of the historic rivers with their paddles and immerse themselves in a bygone era.

"Rivers connect Canadians. We have the Trans-Canada Highway today. In the 19th and 18th centuries it was the North Saskatchewan River and rivers like it. The voyageur canoe then was the semi-trailer of today.

"There is a sense of who we are through the rivers. This is an adventure. You can't get more Canadian than this."

-- The Canadian Press