CITY OF RIVERS: Borealis Canoe Club

Big Spirit Magazine: summer/fall 2012

This piece first appeared in Big Spirit Magazine: Summer/Fall 2012, commissioned by Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

Written by: Natalie Abriel

For a region that seems distant from the rest of Canada, it nonetheless has a bigger and stronger natural connection with the rest of the country than most realize. Wood Buffalo sparkles with the spectacular beauty of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers1 that reach their confluence at Fort McMurray. And it is these rivers that can convey travellers anywhere in the nation; they are faster than foot, they have much less traffic than highways and they flow along without security checkpoints. All that’s needed are a canoe, paddles and skills like those of Darin Zandee, Borealis Canoe Club President.


Darin and his family are avid paddlers and he is enthusiastic about teaching anyone that wishes to become one as well. In addition to volunteering on behalf of the canoe club, Darin works as a Project Manager with Suncor and he also owns and operates his own business – Nature’s Window Adventures – on the city’s rivers.

“I wasn’t born in a canoe but I might as well have been,” Darin says. He learned about canoes before he learned to walk, where he grew up, on lakes in British Columbia. When he moved to Fort McMurray in 2003, Darin met local paddlers who showed him the city’s rivers and together they created the Borealis Canoe Club. To meet requests from citizens who were not club members, Darin and his wife Jennifer started their business, which offers a canoe rental service, lessons and safety education. The Athabasca and the Clearwater rivers are more than just a network of expansive waterways: In 1778, these rivers led explorer Peter Pond to the area now known as the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

According to Darin, the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers connect the past with the present and the future and they are a pride of nature that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“These rivers and riverbanks are virtually the same now as they were 200-plus years ago,” he explains. “We are looking at the same view from a canoe that early explorers and fur traders would have seen in the 1770s. They are known around the world for that reason.”

Darin sees more than most when he travels the rivers. He sees the region’s rich history and its untapped recreational potential. The Muskeg River, a tributary of the Athabasca River, is Darin’s favourite local journey. It is roughly 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray and he describes it as a ‘hidden gem.’

“It’s spectacular,” he says with a look of awe. “There is a limestone canyon, rapids and waterfalls. And you are on the river all by yourself. Canoeing gives you the perfect opportunity to just see and appreciate nature.”

Darin wants more residents and guests of Fort McMurray to explore its rivers and do so safely. In an effort to educate and involve local citizens in canoeing, he arranged to take 10 local youth on a weeklong wilderness trip in July/August. When Alberta stepped forward to be part of this Canadian Canoe Foundation-sponsored program, the foundation offered the opportunity to Wood Buffalo. “This has been happening in many provinces around Canada, but this is the first time for it to happen in Alberta and we are quite fortunate that it is in our region,” says Darin. “The kids will learn paddling, camping, leadership skills and how to get along as a team.”

Designed to educate Canadian youth on the immense value and interconnectedness of the nation’s rivers, one youth from each region’s wilderness venture will be selected to give a presentation to a national gathering of participants from all provinces.

“The opportunity is just so cool and sounds amazing,” he explains. “It will introduce youth from across Canada to one another and educate them on our wonderful [network] of rivers. When you move on the river, you’re moving at the same speed of Nature – that’s a feeling everyone should experience, especially in today’s fast-paced world.” Darin’s zest for sharing adventure finds many outlets. In September 2012, the Borealis Canoe Club and the Fort McKay Band Council are hosting a canoe race of paddlers of all ages that will go from Fort McMurray to Fort McKay. The hope is that the race will become an annual event, one that celebrates the rivers and increases the popularity of canoeing.

Further, as a director for the 2017 Canadian Voyageur Brigades, Darin is making plans to get more than a hundred big voyageur canoes on all the river networks in the nation along with thousands of other paddlers from across the country in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday.