The Great South Wind Saga

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that the coming of the South Wind Brigade to North Grenville would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. What no-one could have predicted was that their arrival would take place during some of the worst rainy weather we’ve known in any June of any year. What took place over about twenty-four hours was classic North Grenville, and perhaps an appropriate way to mark Canada 150.

The fifteen Voyageur-style canoes, crewed by around 140 individuals, arrived safely in Merrickville on Wednesday, June 28, in lovely sunshine and welcomed by a good crowd of residents. The next morning was wet, rain falling on the canoes as they made their way through the many locks between Merrickville and Burritt’s Rapids. By the time they reached that village, they were soaked through and ready for lunch. The community opened the Community Hall for them, so they could get dry and have a meal in relative comfort, for which they were very grateful indeed.

The actual journey down the Rideau and up the South Branch to Curry Park was relatively uneventful, showers of rain on and off, until one canoe had a problem at Bridge Street and capsized. The paddlers regained their canoe, thoroughly soaked now, and managed to land with the rest at the park. That is when things began to get serious.

The rain became much heavier, the ground was getting muddy and heavy, and some of the paddlers were close to getting hypothermia, wet through and extremely tired. Many were in their sixties, they had been paddling since the previous Friday, and were feeling the strain. Mayor David Gordon, who had travelled with them from Burritt’s on Councillor Donovan Arnaud’s boat, The Nugget, saw that there was a real need for proper shelter, a chance to change into dry clothes, and a meal. He and Pat Jessop of the Times set off for the Municipal centre to see what could be done. Between them, Councillors Arnaud and Jim Bertram, and some quick phone calls by the municipality’s CAO, Brian Carré and his staff, shelter was found for the night. In the meantime, the mayor’s wife, Pamela Gordon, took in some on the verge of hypothermia and gave them tea and a warm place in which to recover.

Transport became an issue. Canoes are fine on the water, but, once ashore, the Brigade needed to be moved to their overnight shelter. Their support vehicles were full of tents, sleeping bags, and other equipment, so a number of local residents taxied them to where they could get dry. The Kemptville Rotary Club had volunteered to set up a BBQ at Curry Park to feed the Brigade when they arrived, and they were fantastic. They moved their entire operation to the site where the Brigade were staying overnight, and fed them there. Quite simply, without them, people would have gone hungry. Without North Grenville residents, they would have stayed wet, miserable and cold all night.

One of the big obstacles facing us was that fire regulations would not allow churches, or the Municipal centre, for example, to be used as an emergency shelter. There were fears that the next day’s weather would be just as bad, and, around 9 that night, the call came in to the Times that the Brigade needed to stay a second night, and their canoes would have to be moved to their next staging point at Hartwell’s Locks beside Carleton University. Mike McIntosh, of Total Move Management, was contacted around 10pm and he agreed to pick up the 36-foot long canoes at 8.30 the next morning and drive them to Hartwell’s himself. This he did at no cost.

The Times helped supply breakfast on Thursday morning, and discovered that the accommodation used on Wednesday was not available for the second night. The word went out on our Facebook page that people needed a place to stay, and, in the first 45 minutes or so, we had found beds for 16 of them. The office became a clearing house of information as Maggie worked the phones. The Christian Reformed Church in Kemptville opened their doors to the homeless Brigade for the day, giving them a warm and dry place to meet and make decisions. Getting them there, to what they called their daycare in church, required more volunteer drivers, and residents like Alicia and her children came by with minivans and trailers without even being asked. It was finally decided to charter buses to transport the Brigade to Ottawa that evening, so none of the local volunteers were called on to put them up after all. Valley Bus Lines got them to Hartwell’s, along with some private vehicles, and the South Wind Brigade’s adventure in North Grenville was over.

What a place this is! So many locals stepped forward to help out visitors in need. One couple, living at Curry Park, stored much of the Brigade’s equipment overnight in their garage. The 100+ people went away from here with a wonderful memory of a community that rallied round in record time and took them in, cared for them, fed them, and sent them on their way. What better way to mark Canada Day?

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