Paddling into the mists of time

Latest stop for local guide, Shetland Islands, home of the Vikings

Latest stop of Spirit Dancer was Shetland Islands

Step on to the wind-worn shores of the wild North Atlantic and it’s easy to imagine ships looming out of the mists and Vikings jumping on to Britain’s shores to plunder and pillage.

It’s a past that still lives a millennium afterwards, in the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland, Chris Cooper discovered this summer.

“They actually call themselves Shetlanders. There’s more of a connection to Norway than Scotland.”

Cooper, a Pitt Meadows adventurer, has led a four-year canoeing voyage around the British Isles. It started in May 2008 on England’s south coast, where the Canadian team, many from First Nations, brought their 42-foot Montreal voyageur canoe, Spirit Dancer, to the coast and charmed the locals.

Steadily, different crews, including the locals, worked their way around Land’s End and up the west coast to Scotland and as of last July, reached the Shetland Islands, 475 kilometres north of Scotland.

The crew likes to paddle as much as possible, but had to skip the stretch from the Orkney Islands to the Shetlands.

“You’re taking a chance doing that,” he said.

Based on the sound advice of the coast guard, they loaded their canoe on to a ship.

“We did not cross. We were warned by the coast guard.”

Their arrival in the Shetlands in the middle of a tall ships festival wasn’t a disappointment.

“Low and behold, I met about 25 Vikings, all dressed in full regalia, with armour and spears and shields. So they came out in the canoe with me. And that was my first day.”

Cooper spent July and August there and made some connections that will result in a youth cultural/educational exchange between Shetlanders and First Nations bands in B.C. The first will take place this coming July when members of the Kwantlen, Cowichan and Penticton First Nations spend the month there.

Some time this fall, a dozen Shetlanders will visit Penticton.

Asked what Shetlanders have in common with First Nations people and Cooper quickly responded. “Isolation – is the key word.

“Shetland Island is very isolated and so are many of our communities on the coast of B.C.

“They’ve very enthusiastic. I guess maybe part of that, is they are isolated and they look forward to doing things.

“You’ve just got to watch yourself in the streets of Lerwick because you never know when a Viking will step out in front of you.”

He doesn’t know if the Norwegians, just across the stretch of water, go to the same extent of extolling their past.

“All I know is these guys take it very seriously.”

Cooper agreed that he’d like to get bands in more remote B.C. places, such as Bella Bella or Hartley Bay involved in future exchanges.

While most in the U.K. didn’t recognize a  voyageur canoe (it carried furs from northern Ontario to Montreal) “it’s absolutely breathtaking to see the response from people.

“Shetland itself has been a marvellous experience.

“You’d love to take everybody. It does have a big impact – on anybody that goes.”

Cooper, who was born in the U.K., originally planned to circumnavigate Britain. But he’s been making his way around for four years now and only managed to reach Scotland and doubts he’ll continue down the east coast.

“That five seasons in Britain, is enough.”

After this summer, Cooper likely will pursue a more hospitable location, in Costa Rica where he’s already received an invitation to bring down the big Spirit Dancer.

• More pictures are at: spiritdancercanoejourneys.ca.

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