Golden Lake – The Golden Lake Crew is turning heads and making the small hamlet in the Ottawa Valley they call home a name on the international stage after the tandem canoe team recently won the Yukon River Quest, a grueling 715-kilometre paddle.

“It is a good conversation starter,” Seb Courville said of the team name. “People ask us about Golden Lake or tell us they have been there. It is good to put Golden Lake on the map.”

For the husband and wife team of Seb and Jen, Golden Lake is not only home, but they train on the lake and the Bonnechere River. They love the area and love to tell other people about it as they race.

“We are from Golden Lake,” he said. “The first time we used the name we were in Huntsville and they asked us for our team name, so we came up with the Golden Lake Crew and that has been our name.”

That was in 2017 and since then Golden Lake Crew has made quite a name for themselves in the paddling community. This June they brought their paddling prowess to the forefront again, as well as bringing in some publicity for Golden Lake as they won the Yukon River Quest, known to those in the paddling community as YRQ.  As one of the longest paddling races in the world – there is only one longer in Alabama, and it only appeared on the scene recently — this is no small feat and the Golden Lake Crew not only won, but they finished 30 minutes ahead of the next team. It took them 46 hours, 17 minutes and 12 seconds to finish the multi-day race, which included time on a river and a lake. They were not only the mixed tandem canoe champs, but also the overall tandem canoe champs and the overall winners of all the categories, beating 55 teams.

At their home, nestled on a beautiful rural property outside the hamlet of Golden Lake, Jen and Seb were happy and relaxed after coming back from the Yukon and they are also looking forward to the next challenge in their joint and separate racing adventures. He is originally from Quebec and she is from Manitoba. With Seb in the military and Jen working in a military support role, they were posted to Petawawa in 2004, purchased their property shortly after and built their home. It is their forever home as well with access to nature and water.

“Golden Lake is home,” she said.

Both have been paddling since they were kids, going on canoe trips and fishing trips. Before they began racing, they did a lot of paddling in Algonquin Park. They started racing together as a couple in 2017 and did a lot of races at the beginning, but when COVID hit things changed a bit. Jen took a break and Seb continued racing with other teams. In fact, last year he was part of a four-person team who won the Yukon River Quest and beat the record as well. 

The Golden Lake Crew of Seb and Jen Courville are off and paddling to start the Yukon River Quest (YQR). The race is a challenging 715 kilometres and the Golden Lake couple came in first, beating competitors in all the vessels. To start the race, the competitors all run to the shore and take off into the water as fast as possible. Whitehorse Star photo by Vince Fedoroff

“We broke the record by 30 minutes,” he said. “It was the record from 2008.”

This year, although Jen and Seb didn’t set the record, they beat all the teams, including those in the much bigger boats. The weather conditions were also very challenging this year. The water flow in the river was not as fast, meaning more work for the paddlers, and then the lake was windy making for tough paddling again. It was also hot – 30C – in the Yukon and Jen had a stomach issue which she normally does not have when paddling.

A lot of training goes into the preparation for a race like that and perhaps a touch of good fortune if weather conditions cooperate. Jen also has a reason to be proud as only the second woman to win the YRQ.  The woman who preceded her win is known as “the best of the best” in the paddling world. Now Jen is joining those elite ranks.

“They won in 2003 so it has been 20 years since a woman won the race,” she noted.

Being a husband-wife team has been an advantage for the Golden Lake Crew, they feel.

“We can support each other better because we know each other way more,” he said.

“We don’t bicker or fight at all,” she added. “I don’t question Seb’s judgement. He has a better sense of the river.”

The YRQ is a very special race for those in the paddling community and the Courvilles say it just has something very unique about it.

“For sure the location,” Seb said. “It is a remote race. You have to be able to support yourself.”

“It is pre-race, post race, the camaraderie among the paddlers,” Jen said.

Support Crew

In fact, although they were a two-person team, they also had a three-person support team with them. Their son, William, and their good friends, Mike and Julie Crouzat, were the support team which helped them on the journey, including meeting them during the half-way mark where a mandatory 10-hour break gives paddlers a chance to refresh.

“Your support crew is there to make sure you are okay and prep your boat,” she said. “They put you to bed and make sure you are up when it is time to go.”

Racing at this level of intensity, a paddler is both exhausted and full of adrenaline, she said. Therefore, having the support crew is important because they can make sure all the details are in place for the next leg of the race.

Jen said there is so much excitement leading to the start of the race it is almost a relief when the canoe launches from shore.

“The race is not just about two days,” she said. “It is the journey and the ending. You feel such a sense of accomplishment. This tests your limits.”

It is an international competition which attracts people from around the world and until very recently was the longest race in the world. Jen has competed in this race three times and Seb four times.

“We have made good friends in the Yukon because of this,” he said.

For Seb and Jen there are many more races to come.

“The race just finished, and we are talking about the next one,” he said.

Seb is set to do the Meanest Link in Algonquin Park, which is not a race as much as a course. It is 440 kilometres with 100 portages.

“You have to do a link around Algonquin Park,” he explained.

Paddlers are timed and he is trying to beat the record with his friend. The current record is a bit over 99 hours. Before that, Seb was one of the people who had the record.

“You have a tracker you turn on and people can follow you live,” he said. “In four days, you get about five hours of sleep.”

Then they are both doing the Muskoka River X, a 132-kilometre race, but this time Jen is going solo and Seb will be with another crew.

One thing is for sure, they will do the YRQ again. They left their canoe in the Yukon with friends ready for the next race.

But those on Golden Lake or the Bonnechere River will see them paddling by – quite rapidly – as they continue to train. They usually put in either at the Golden Lake bridge right across from Pikwakanagan or at the Deacon Boat Launch.

“Those are our favourite spots to go,” Seb said. “It is not the Yukon River, but we can replicate things here.”

The lake can be windy, and the river currents are similar to what they encounter in other races. At the YRQ they go on a river, then Lake Lebarge and another river.  On the river their speed is about 15 to 18 kilometres per hour. On the lake, it is about nine to 10 kilometres per hour.

“We are always trying to get 9.5,” Jen said. “Our strokes are 60 to 65 strokes a minute.”

Along with the speed, the Courville’s are distinctive on the water because of the black race canoes and the black carbon paddles. The canoes are light and the paddles feather light.

The parents of teenagers Gabrielle, 16, and William, 14, active living is part of their lifestyle year-round. When the water is frozen there are other activities to keep in shape, including running, skiing, lifting weights and chopping wood. As soon as the ice is off the Bonnechere River they are back in the canoe on the water.

For those interested in pursuing the sport, Seb is a coach, and his information can be found at the Ontario Marathon Canoe and Kayak Racing Association website.

“It is a high intensity but low impact sport,” he said. “There are people in their 60s who are paddling.”

Jen Courville of the Golden Lake Crew is seen paddling at the start of the race. Her husband Seb is behind her.
Whitehorse Star photo by Vince Fedoroff