Ice-canoe racers battle strong currents and heavy snowfall

Photo: Cassandra Kerwin

And they’re off! Teams start on the frozen surface of Louise Basin before entering the treacherous St. Lawrence River.

On February 5, some 350 racers crouched by their canoes at the Old Port, wiping away wet snow, waiting for Bonhomme to signal the start of the Winter Carnival Ice-Canoe Race. Crowds gathered at Louise Basin, on the docks along Quebec City’s Old Port and across that river in Lévis.
Heavy snow and relentless river currents did not intimidate the international-level ice-canoe racers. Once Bonhomme waved the chequered flag, racers pushed their canoes out of Louise Basin to the open waters of the St. Lawrence River on their way to Lévis. Rules do not forgive dawdlers. For the first time, elite teams had to complete each round trip within a maximum of 50 minutes to avoid being disqualified. The 10 teams in the elite-men’s category had to complete three laps, while the 11 canoes registered in the elite-women’s category had to complete two. The mixed-sports category racers had only one lap to complete.  
Teams often collide with each other as they seek to improve their position. Coxes try to best direct the canoes while the rowers push their way through the frigid water from one ice block to the next. 
 The moment the teams left the firm ice of the Basin, they had to adjust to constant change in their course due to the strong currents and the chunks of floating ice. While pushing their boat through the ice, the few racers who fell into the freezing waters were dragged out by their teammates as they sought more stable ice to run on. It is a miracle no one succumbed to hypothermia. One racer brushed off the risk, saying it is simply part of the sport.  
 As they approached the turn-around point at the entrance to Louise Basin, teams often bumped into each other or into the sides of the cement quays. The coxes redirected the boats, often with great difficulty as they tried to take advantage of spaces between constantly moving ice floes. This only raised the competition between the teams.   
 The rush to the finish line was intense. First place in the elite-men’s category went to La Capitale Groupe Financier, who completed the race in 1:26:00. Team Château Frontenac/Le Soleil came in second in 1:26:41 (talk about close!), followed by Team Volvo, who arrived three seconds later. Team Volvo caught the crowd’s attention as its lead oarsman did not row, but rather used a speed-racing kayak paddle with blades resembling giant spoons. If this gave them an advantage, it only brought them to a third-place finish.
 The elite-women’s Hôtel Château Laurier/George-V team crossed the finish line first in 1:12:17. Just two seconds later, team Archibald/Le Coureur Nordique finished the race, followed by the Groupe Voyages Québec two seconds after.
 The 37 mixed-sport teams left the starting line in two waves to avoid unsafe crowding. Teams raced against each other and against the clock. Team Emergensys/RBC Banque Royale won the day with a time of 00:56:55. Second- and third-place winners fought to the finish. Team Gestion NITROF/Ferme J. Marois/Normandin came in four seconds ahead of La Chasse-Galerie team.
It was an exhilarating afternoon both for the racers and the spectators!  
Here is a perfect example of a team making its way across the ice-packed St. Lawrence River in the Winter Carnival Ice-Canoe Race.