Navigating the Rapids of Research for a Canadian Canoe Race Connection
An astute and admired horological journalist once mildly popularized the Instagram hashtag “alwaysreadthecaseback”. This was after completing an in-depth historical profile on a few of the many personalized and engraved watches of World War I. As a strong proponent of exploring the hidden tales behind a piece, I am constantly on the lookout for engravings that indicate experiences out of the ordinary. Fortunately for me, fellow collectors often send me interesting caseback engravings that they stumble upon. There is no one more helpful in this endeavor than my twin brother. He located the SEALAB Aquastar I wrote up in my last entry. Just last week he sent me another intriguing vintage watch in the form of a 1960’s Wittnauer Geneve with a caseback reading “Centennial Canoe Pagent, 3,283 miles to Expo ’67, Rocky Mt House Alberta”. No doubt, there is a lot to wade through, but if this isn’t a promising caseback, I don’t know what is.
Step one, as always, is to ask the seller if they know any history on the specific timepiece. In this particular case, the short answer was “no”. The seller communicated that it came from a well-known watchmaker’s estate which was liquidated in Montreal. I have seen instances, even with watches as personalized as this, where a client drops it off for repair and never picks it back up for some reason or another. In these instances, watches tend to languish for years waiting for a reunion that never comes. Sad as it is, I suspect this may be the case with the Wittnauer. My next move is a quick entry of the text into the old Google-machine. This is where I started to gain momentum, so I just kept paddling on.
In 1967, Canada celebrated the 100 year anniversary of the Canadian Confederation. Just two years after the adoption of the Canadian maple leaf flag, this year-long commemoration drew upon the extensive history and culture of Canada. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned musician Gordon Lightfoot to prepare a song for debut January 1st, 1967. Lightfoot delivered with “Canadian Railroad Trilogy, now considered a folk classic. The World’s Fair, “Expo ‘67”, was held in Montreal from April to October. Meanwhile, a monumental feat of endurance and strength was taking place; the greatest canoe race that the world has ever seen. The Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant paid homage to the original settlers, fur-bearers, and trappers, who called Canada home. Ten teams competed in the exhibition, represented by eight provinces and two territories. Each team consisted of ten men, while the canoes were operated in six man shifts.
On Wednesday, May 24th, 1967, the race began in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta Canada. Each contending team was fueled by the prospect of floating away with a handsome prize, but moreso they were propelled by Canadian pride. Every man to complete the race received $1000. The first-place team earned an additional $1500 for each member. Given the rate of inflation, this would be equivalent to the winning team receiving a total of almost $20,000 today. There were also miniature competitions throughout the journey, such as sprints (short high speed races through the water), that provided opportunities for additional prizes ranging from money to Muk-Luks. Although the desire for financial gain likely factored in (considering the almost four month commitment of each competitor) the Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant proved to be a great source of patriotic rivalry and a display of peak Canadian athleticism. This is part of what made the race such a fascinating snapshot of an unforgettable event in Canada’s legacy.
To understand the scope of the race, at least fundamentally, we need look no further than the aforementioned caseback. Over the course of 104 grueling days, the teams covered an astounding 3,283 miles of rugged terrain and rough waters through paddling and portage. For those unfamiliar with canoe-speak, “portage” consists of carrying the canoe from one body of water to another. The canoes utilized in the race were created by Moise Cadorette of St. Jean de Pils. The original prototypes were made by Chestnut Canoe Company in a traditional (wood and canvas) style. After extensive testing, it was determined that fiberglass would be ideal for the race given the durability and resilience of the material. When the Chestnut Canoe Company was unable to accommodate creating the rugged fiberglass hulls necessary for the brutality of the race, Moise Cadorette stepped in. The end result was 10 extremely capable, albeit heavy, canoes. Throughout the race, each team covered a remarkable 68 miles of portages across unforgiving terrain. In addition to this titanic terrestrial triumph, an astounding 3,215 miles of river and lake were bested by grit-powered paddles.
Given that the watch had no identifying inscription related to the owner, or even what team the owner was on, I was unable to dig further into anything more specific. The Wittnauer most likely belonged to one of 100 competitors who took part in the race in 1967, beyond that, who knows. Not to be entirely deterred, I was able to locate a roster of the winning team representing Manitoba. After finding the names of the 10 contenders, I was able to search out Norm Crerar, who captained the victorious team aboard the canoe called “The Radisson”. Each vessel was named after a famed explorer or settler, in this case, fur-trader Pierre Esprit Radisson. Norm was glad to respond, and confirmed right off the bat that he did, in fact, receive a watch after completing the race, which he still has in his possession. Additionally, he sent me a video of the final sprint of the race and his team’s inevitable win.
The video was thought-provoking to me for many reasons. The water looked extremely rough in parts. Where I had pictured smooth sailing, there were choppy rapids and tumultuous waves. It also showed the teams pull across the finish line, all trailing behind Manitoba. Norm was able to find and share his watch, which was a Longines model, different from the watch in my possession. To me, this was unsurprising, as Wittnauer was a subsidiary of Longines. Referring back to the video, as Manitoba passed the finish line, there is clearly a large Longines banner behind the competitors, leading me to believe that they were potentially involved as a sponsor of the race, or Expo ’67 itself.
As if that wasn’t enough evidence, the end of the video featured each competitor being congratulated onstage. As each of them shook hands with the presenter and received their due recognition from the cheering crowd, they were gifted a watch marked “Expo ‘67”. My working theory, at this point, is that the winning team likely received Longines watches while the other competitors received the more budget-friendly Wittnauer. Norm’s caseback simply reads “Expo ‘67”, indicating that whoever owned the watch had the rest of his text added after the race. Given the two different engraving texts on the caseback (along with the misspelling of pageant), this comes as no surprise. Perhaps the original owner came from the Quebec team, given where the watchmaker estate was located.
Despite the sheer intensity of the race, the 1967 Centennial Canoe Pageant remains largely unknown. Whoever this piece belonged to accomplished a feat few could manage, and I suspect he was quite proud of this. I am fortunate to have become acquainted with this watch, and hope it serves as a beacon to shine light upon this superhuman competition held over half a century ago. A far cry from the float trips of my childhood, canoeing has a serious history in Canada and those involved in the Centennial race trained and competed with Olympian level athleticism and coordination. So, the next time you take to the water, throw that canoe on your flannel-clad shoulders, hoof it to the nearest lake, and raise a toast to the men of the ’67 Centennial Pageant.
What do you think? Are you up for a 3,000+ mile canoe race over the course of the next 104 days? Me neither. Nevertheless, the story is fascinating. I appreciate Norm's willingness to indulge my curiosity and if you would like to read more about this amazing event, check out the CBC archives here, along with the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Museum of History.