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Slave River Paddlefest

Written By: Leif Anderson

Slave Paddlefest is the biggest event you've never heard of. Slave Paddlefest is held on the first weekend of August. The 2019 Slave River Paddlefest is from August 3-5 2019. The Slave River is a huge volume river (3000-7000 cms, 100,000-250,000 cfs) that flows North into the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Near the town of Fort Smith NWT, where the Slave crosses the border between Alberta and the NWT, there are a series of four rapids, each of which branches into many smaller channels. These rapids are mostly formed by smooth granite, and offer a staggering number of great freestyle features and fun big-water rapids in warm water.

With this world class whitewater, you would think that the Slave would be packed with the world's best playboaters. In the early 2000s, there were several pilgrimages to film segments for the big kayak movies of the day. However, now there are rarely more than a handful of pro paddlers on the river. Instead, the Slave River Paddlefest is attended by a huge crowd of beginners and non-paddlers, mostly from the North. As it grows, the festival has shifted from semi-serious competitions to more and more instructional clinics and zany fun competitions. Last year there were about 150 registrants, and the majority of them were beginners and intermediate paddlers.

The festival started as a way to raise awareness of the rapids on the Slave. There are constant threats of a dam, which would destroy a really incredible gift to the world. Not only are the rapids amazing, but they also host a unique colony of American White Pelicans. This colony is the farthest North in the world, and also the only colony that nests on islands in a river, instead of on a lake. Both the rapids and the pelicans are a little inaccessible to locals. The smallest set of rapids is visible from town, but the larger ones require a little more skill and caution to explore. Also, although the town is in the Northwest Territories, the rapids are actually mostly on the southern side of the border in Alberta. This means that when companies like Atco start stirring up trouble and making moves to destroy the river, there's not the immediate explosion of resistance that you might expect. The dam would be in a different providence than the town, and few residents have actually been out there and really experienced the magic and majesty of the rapids, or seen the Pelican colony. Thus, the paddlers of Fort Smith started Paddlefest. The goal was to expose more people to the rapids, so that everyone would start to realize how incredible these rapids are. 


Of course, the festival has been a huge success. The rapids do all the work. All you have to do is show people the place, and they will fall in love. This year, we are planning a lot of fun stuff. There are the usual assortment of clinics, including a mandatory basic safety orientation and a couple free rolling clinics, and more advanced options. Then there are some chill races, for canoes and kayaks in flatwater and in rapids. Then there are the rodeos, the most exciting of which is the beginner rodeo, intended for the graduates of the rolling clinic held earlier that day. The winner is the person who can stay in the hole in their boat for the longest time. Then there's the non-paddling events, which are really fun. There is a swim race through some class II, a pool toy race through the same section, SUP jousting, the team beach call race, and more that I can't even remember. And almost in the background are events for the elite paddlers, like a giant slalom, a big wave freestyle, and a hole rodeo. Most of this takes place right at the bank, on smooth rocks and sandy beaches, with kids and grandparents enjoying the free lunch while they cheer for the competitors.


There is so much to say about Paddlefest. This is just the minimum introduction to all the amazingness of the weekend. Check out the website and the Facebook page for more information, at http://slaveriverpaddlefest.ca/ and http://facebook.com/slavepaddlefest/ and hopefully we'll see you there some day!


P.S. There are a lot of bugs.

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