It started with a broken-down car and an offhand joke.
After five years in Edmonton, Benoit Gendreau-Berthiaume and Magali Moffatt planned a months-long road trip home to Montreal, indulging their love of rock climbing as they toured throughout North America. Then their old Mazda 5 went into the shop for $4,000 in repairs, and the next breakdown just seemed like a matter of time.
“Magali said very nonchalantly, ‘Maybe we should just paddle back to Montreal,’” Benoit recalls, “and I said, how would that even be possible? So I quickly went on Google maps.”
Every Canadian knows it’s possible to cross the continent by canoe—the fur-traders did it for centuries, on routes the first nations used for millennia. The question Benoit needed to answer is whether he and Magali could make the trip with their 5-year-old son, Mali.
The first thing Google maps tells you about the trip from Edmonton to Montreal is that its 2,223 miles via the Trans-Canada highway. Even if your car doesn’t break down it’s a 38-hour haul.
By canoe, with a five-year-old? More like four months, according to Benoit’s initial calculations. But the route was clear as day. They’d start down the North Saskatchewan River, into Manitoba, along several massive lakes and the traditional Voyageur routes through southern Ontario and the Boundary Waters, then on to Montreal.
Our philosophy with kids has always been you can bring them on any journey. You just have to adapt the pace of your journey.
“It does sound kind of epic,” Benoit concedes. “But the route itself is not a crazy canoe route. It doesn’t have tons of rapids. The most challenging parts were the huge lakes that we had to cross.”
Mali was no stranger to outdoor adventure. Benoit and Magali took him everywhere they went, from cross-country ski trips in the winter to climbing missions and backcountry cottages in the summer. When Mali was three and a half, Benoit brought him on a seven-day backpacking trip near Mt. Robson on the border of Alberta and British Columbia. The youngster walked almost the whole 37-mile loop himself.
“Our philosophy with kids has always been you can bring them on any journey. You just have to adapt the pace of your journey.” Benoit looked at the pace adult canoe trippers maintained on the route, and figured it would take them three times as long. Even then, they fell behind schedule.
“After the first month we were already one week behind,” he says, but soon enough the rhythm of the journey took over, and they stopped worrying about making miles. “At one point we realized that we’re going to make it. We didn’t have any firm commitments in the fall. We started fishing along the way, so we had enough food. And so we just started to relax a bit more.” Benoit had just finished his Ph.D. in forest ecology and Magali, a former climbing instructor, hadn’t committed to a new job yet, so they had time. The trip ultimately took five months, not four.
They did worry about how a rambunctious toddler would cope with long days in the canoe. To find out, they did a 10-day shakedown cruise the summer before their big trip. “We asked him if he would like to do this for a whole summer, and he looked at us and said: ‘Not for a summer. I want to do this for the rest of my life,’” Benoit says.
Mali’s days fell into a comfortable rhythm. When he wasn’t napping in the canoe he had the undivided attention of mom and dad. He had a small bag of toys and a small slate on which he spent hours drawing, playing tic-tac-toe, and developing his love of numbers. His parents were constantly talking about kilometers, and Mali learned to add and subtract distances. On shore, the toys were forgotten and his imagination took over. He’d help Benoit with the fire, play with sticks, build makeshift obstacle courses or look for beetles.
“Every night we camped somewhere new, so there was always something new to do. We’d go for our little hike and just explore,” Benoit says. “I really cherished those moments because I’m an ecologist myself. I enjoy being in the forest and looking at different plants, so sharing that with him and seeing that he had this curiosity and passion for exploring was fun for me.”
Mali would stay up late with his parents and sleep in the canoe during the day. Sometimes he put them to bed.
“Mali doesn’t paddle much, so at the end of the day he’s fresh and we’re tired from the wind, rain, and cold,” Magali told Canoe & Kayak during the early stages of the journey. “He’s no different from any 5-year-old. He has a lot of energy and the challenge is to keep him entertained.”
“We asked our son how he would like to do this for a whole summer, and he looked at us and said, ‘Not for a summer. I want to do this for the rest of my life’” — Benoit Gendreau-Berthiaume
The trip did have its scary moments. The lakes felt particularly exposed, especially early in the season when capsizing carried the risk of hypothermia. The family stayed close to shore, monitored weather reports studiously and, as much as possible, avoided paddling in high winds. As the trip went on and the water warmed, Benoit’s confidence increased. Magali never achieved the same level of comfort, which led to some tense moments.
At the end of a beautiful day on Lake Nipassing in eastern Ontario, Benoit pressed on paddling looking for a good spot to land as the wind started to build. Rolling waves rocked the 17-foot canoe. The waves were large but they weren’t breaking. “It was a roller-coaster ride but it was manageable,” Benoit says. Besides that, there was nowhere to get out before the campground and portage trail they were aiming for, so they kept going.
“Magali had a real scare, but funny enough Mali was unfazed. When we got to shore one of the first things he said to a stranger playing with his daughter in the park was ‘We were just on the lake and my mom cried in the canoe,’” Benoit says.
Magali was no fan of portages either. While Benoit approached them as a sort of masochistic athletic challenge, Magali recognized them for the bug-bitten suffer-fests they are.
Four miles into the Grand Portage, a historic 9-mile carry from the Pigeon River to Lake Superior, Magali was again at the brink. She’d been staggering under a heavy pack for hours as flies and mosquitoes swirled around her legs. Benoit was at rock-bottom too.
“So many things went wrong and we were both really discouraged,” Benoit says. “And then our son just walked up to my wife and he said, ‘Mom, I’m really proud of you. I know you can do it.’”
The family portaged 14 hours that day, and Mali did his part to keep the pain in perspective. “It’s hard to complain when this little guy is just tagging along and carrying his own weight and never whining, so you can’t feel too bad for yourself,” Benoit says. “You just right the ship together and go.”
Portions of the trip were harder than anything Magali or Benoit had ever done, but in the end, they agreed the experience was worth every blister and bug-bite. “Just spending that amount of time as a family going through those challenges is something we all really appreciated,” Benoit said. “We grew as individuals, and we grew as a couple.”
The highlight was spending so much quality time with their son, Benoit says, “seeing him evolve and change within a summer, seeing all the things he learned and watching his personality evolve and his confidence build as the trip went on.”
The family were on the trail 147 days, finishing in late September, 2015. They traveled approximately 2,600 miles on 13 rivers, 60-plus lakes, and more than 75 portages. Benoit and Magali kept detailed blogs, he in English and she in French, and later made a 42-minute film of the adventure. They haven’t released it yet, in part because the film festivals wanted shorter cuts and they couldn’t find a way to fit such a grand adventure into a 15-minute film.
All photos courtesy Benoit Gendreau-Berthiaume and Magali Moffatt.