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In Canada, ice canoeing season kicks off on a frozen river

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What's a winter's day without some good old-fashioned ice canoeing? I know you're all wondering. Well, it could be relatively relaxing, for one thing. From Quebec City in Canada, reporter Emma Jacobs brings us this look at a particularly demanding winter sport, competitive ice canoeing.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Joannie Ferland and Caroline Boyaud have both participated in ice canoeing on the St. Lawrence River for the past 20 years.

JOANNIE FERLAND: It's something super unique. It's not just about the race. It's about being in the water, on the icy water, being with friends.

CAROLINE BOYAUD: Yeah, I mean, it's - every time that we go out, it's a different adventure.

(CROSSTALK)

JACOBS: For this race, the teams make laps across the St. Lawrence from Quebec City. They alternate between pushing their canoes across patches of floating ice and rowing in open water.

(CROSSTALK)

JACOBS: The first race here took place in 1894, but French settlers picked up ice canoeing from Indigenous Canadians back in the 1600s as a practical mode of transportation.

RICHARD LAVOIE: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: Ethnologist Richard Lavoie calls the 19th century the golden age of ice canoeing as a profession. More than 200 ice canoers ferried people, mail and other goods between Quebec and the river's south shore. Ice canoeing remained the way to reach islands further north, where Joannie Ferland grew up, through the early 1960s.

FERLAND: But it comes - ice comes as well later.

JACOBS: These days, Ferland and her teammate Boyaud say the racing season gets underway later than when they started, and the river ice can seem different.

BOYAUD: Do you remember the first seasons that I was out there? We've had...

FERLAND: Walls of ice.

BOYAUD: ...Absolutely crazy ice covers with lots of huge blocks, and these conditions seems to be few and far in between nowadays.

TOM BIRIEN: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: Tom Birien says he gets a little knot in his stomach when he looks out on the river from Rimouski, Quebec, where he's been part of the local team for the past 10 years. Rimouski is located further towards the coast in the saltwater estuary, where it takes colder temperatures for ice to form.

BIRIEN: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: "Conditions are mixed," Birien says. He's an environmental scientist and pulled temperature measurements from the past 50 years. They show a strong warming trend. "What future does this sport have?" he asks. "What I see today, I would have imagined to be more of an issue 20, 30 years out. So it's certainly worrying to see the pace at which it's happening."

(CROSSTALK)

JACOBS: For today, upriver in Quebec City, conditions are excellent. Yves Gilbert, 72, rows on a team with his older brother, Guy.

YVES GILBERT: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: "Some people don't like winter, but I love winter," Gilbert says.

GILBERT: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: "It's beautiful on the river - the landscape, the current, the ice, the wind, the sun like today. It's marvelous."

(CROSSTALK)

JACOBS: By the end of the day, the women's team finished first in their category for the second year in a row.

FERLAND: It was super fast, super fun, a great day for everybody. And we're super proud to have again the first position for women.

JACOBS: They made two laps of the river in 59 minutes and 20 seconds.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Quebec City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emma Jacobs