>> BY Cassidy Randall
When I grow up, I want to be like Bill Pollock. He paddles whitewater on little-known Canadian rivers and guides canoe and cross-country ski trips. Last year, he spearheaded the founding of the Revelstoke Paddlesport Association (RPA) to bring the dispersed paddling community together, and organized the first-ever David Thompson Paddlesport Classic on Lake Revelstoke.
Oh yeah, and he’s 82 years old. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what the word “old” means.
I first met Pollock at the launch of the Revelstoke Paddlesport Association last June at Martha Creek, where I learned that he’s something of a canoe legend. The compact, white-haired man took up residence on a log on the shore between leading canoe clinics, gracing the long line of people who came to share his company with the merry light from his bright blue eyes.
He invited me out to boat with him at the end of the afternoon. Between practicing the speed-paddling tips he tossed me from the stern of his lightweight racing canoe, I started to learn a little about what makes him tick.
A YOUNG CANOEIST
Pollock grew up with a paddle in his hands. Canoe trips on Lac Brule, north of Montreal, were a central part of his upbringing. He spent his first stint in a canoe in his mother’s arms on the water. “My family was very outdoorsy, between fishing, hunting, and boating.”
Bill met his wife Diane when he was 10. Her father worked for the Pollock’s next door neighbor on his property. “I would pull her around on a wagon. She was only three years old. She’d fall off and run to her mother, and I thought I was so funny. But, of course, I wasn’t.” Pollock went off to boarding school and eventually university. One year, when he came home, she made the first move and invited him to her staff Christmas party for Bell Telephone.
They’re still married all these years later, and have raised two children in canoes, exploring waters all over the country on both short jaunts and multi-day adventures. “There was another family or two that would always come with us, and we’d go paddling for two weeks during our vacation time. We used to put all the kids in one tent and let them do whatever they wanted. If there were rapids we’d have them portage, depending on how old they were.”
Then he got a glimpse of speed, and a taste for competition. In 1987, a long-time paddling friend asked him to compete with her in the Raisin River Race near Ottawa in Ontario. Without even training, they came in seventh out of 50 boats. Pollock bought a faster canoe and lightweight paddles, and dove headfirst into a lifelong affair with paddle racing.
After seeing an ad for the famous Adirondack Canoe Classic, a three-day 140km race in New York State, he became enamored with the vision of adventure in the rolling mountains the eastern US. He convinced a friend to join him, entering solely for the joy of the journey. They spent the first day of the race taking in scenery, stopping now and then to cool down in the clear water. They were astonished when the results posted the morning of Day Two showed them in first place in their class. They dialed it up, and won with a 15-minute lead over the other boats.
All in all, he would race the Adirondack Canoe Classic twenty times, placing in class fourteen of those years, along with racing the Raisin River, Jock River, and the General Clinton, and paddling dozens of rivers all over North America.
BIG BEND IN THE RIVER OF LIFE
He relocated to Revelstoke in 2015 to be closer to his daughter and her family here—and because he hates cities. “They cut you off from nature’s sights and sounds,” he says. “Cities isolate people from their biological and evolutionary home, and we deteriorate when we lose touch with planet Earth.”
Revelstoke was the antithesis of a big city. It helps keep him connected to his beloved outdoors, so much so, that and upon moving here, he saw the opportunity to pay homage to the race that had shaped his passion for the magic formula of canoeing, adventure and community.
A RACE THROUGH TIME
Bill spent his first summer here paddling the length of Lake Revelstoke, floored by the landscape with its towering glacial peaks, waterfalls, and the sublime solitude. He was particularly intrigued by the crumbling vestiges of the old Big Bend Highway punctuating the shoreline—the original Trans-Canada route that was flooded along with this expanse of the Columbia River.
Those glimpses of road, rising from the waters for brief stretches before plunging back into their frigid depths, sparked an idea in his mind.
“I started to wonder if it was feasible to do a canoe race along the length of the lake using the old roads as portages. I looked at maps, and I had paddled the whole of it—and realized it was a possibility. I developed it from there, and modeled it after the Adirondack.”
The result: The David Thompson Paddlesport Classic—a 125-kilometer paddle from Mica Creek to Revelstoke Dam. Six portages. Three days. The longest paddle race in British Columbia. A feat of logistics, organizing, wrangling, and marketing ensued for the 82-year-old, until, eventually, there was no more to do but head into the day of reckoning at the inaugural race launch last August, with the hope that it would all go without a hitch.
Pollock invited me to participate, lending me his beloved racing canoe. Early the first morning, my partner Nathanael and I paddled out to join a loosely arrayed start line of 14 other racing boats just below Mica Creek. The first wave of recreational boats and SUPs had launched a half-hour earlier and were dots on the horizon.
Pollock stood onshore, his white hair haloed by the late summer sun. He’d been awake since long before dawn, driving from Revelstoke, organizing the final details at the start line and greeting participants. People came from Manitoba and Washington D.C., mingling with locals from Kelowna and Golden. Bill’s dream had been realized. The teams that showed up were now poised to race his course.
He blew his whistle into the quiet morning air and boats jumped through the water. We paddled our hearts out, just like Pollock and his crew had all those years ago on the Adirondack. We sprinted the portages on the old stretches of highway, and took flying leaps into our boats on the other side to the cheers of the small army of volunteers supporting the event. We gathered at the finish line each day for congratulations and commiseration on sore shoulders. Many of us camped along the course, sharing meals, beer and communal dives into the cold lake. The sun set and rose on glaciated mountains like sentinels of our progress.
At the end, it became clear that it was as much about the adventure and the people as it was about the competition. Which, really, was Bill’s intention all along.
It’s a legacy fit for a canoe legend.
Bill is by no measure the oldest in town. Compared to 98-year-old John Augustyn, whom Reved profiled last issue, he’s practically a kitten. However, he’s full of wisdom beyond his years. If you know someone who is the oldest and/or wisest person in your life, and should be featured in this section, please contact email@example.com.