Ice jams on the Ganaraska Ri ver and a sudden, record rainfall of 68 millimetres sent torrents of freezing water swirling through picturesque Port Hope, Ont., on March 21, 1980. The next day, The Globe and Mail’s front page reported that Port Hope’s downtown had been under nearly two metres of water and the provincial government soon declared the town a disaster area.
Andrea Patterson, the tourism coordinator in Port Hope, which is about 100 kilometres east of Toronto, remembers watching cars from the local dealership wash down the road as she joined other residents stacking sandbags, desperate to save heritage buildings and businesses. Several Victorian-era buildings near the river were washed away and the 130-yearold fire hall, a prominent landmark, had to be condemned and razed.
Every year since then, on a Saturday morning in late March or early April, contestants have defiantly tackled the spring runoff in the Float Your Fanny Down the Ganny festivities. Be it a balmy 20°C or a bleak 2°C — you never know at that time of year — several thousand spectators line the shores of the Ganaraska to watch dozens of kayakers and canoeists race from the hamlet of Canton, 10 kilometres upstream, to the finish line near Lake Ontario.
In addition to these sleek vessels, a flotilla of homemade and often colourfully themed (and aptly named) “crazy crafts,” some manned by as many as 30 brave deck-hands, start about two kilometres closer to the river’s mouth. Barry Adamson, co-chair of the event committee, is proud of his ingenious 350 pop bottle-based craft, while others have attempted to navigate the river in satellite dishes and hot tubs. Alas, like those unfortunate heritage buildings in 1980, many crazy crafts prove less than seaworthy.
The most entertaining part of the route is arguably the fish ladder, a dam just south of Highway 401, two kilometres from the race’s end. Paddlers must exit the water and portage around the barrier, hoisting canoes and kayaks overhead or hauling their flimsy and unwieldy boats. Firefighters, police officers and other volunteers assist the racers as they leave the frigid water and rapids at the finish line. Post-race, everybody can join in the kids’ activities and enjoy live music or recuperate at one of the town’s many fine pubs and bistros.
Within two years of the 1980 flood, Port Hope’s celebrated charm had been restored. The town has about 300 heritage homes and buildings, more per capita than anywhere else in Canada, and claims the “best preserved main street in Ontario.” Between 1983 and 1985, the Ganaraska was dynamited (carefully), even through the downtown core, to make the waterway both deeper and wider. Today flood danger is minimal, but locals and visitors will be floating their fannies down the Ganny for years to come.
This year’s Float Your Fanny event takes place on March 31. For more information, go to www.floatyourfanny.ca.