“The greatest bladesman Canada ever produced.”
“A legend in his own lifetime.”
He won the Canadian Single and Double Blade championships four years in a row.
He could right a tipped canoe in three seconds flat without shipping a drop of water.
He would arrive at the finish line without even being out of breath.
And, at the beginning, he was a Muskoka pioneer.
The Mackenzies were one of the first pioneering families of the Muskoka area, moving from Burlington to Lake Joseph in 1895. Norman and his eldest son Louis explored the area in 1889 and named their plot of land in the very appropriate fashion of their ancestors, “Staney Brae”. The family home near Foot’s bay became a hub of activity and trade in the area. When Norman Mackenzie was killed felling a tree, 17 year old Louis became the head of the family. He already ran a post office out of the boat house. Aware that his mother was working hard, caring for the large family and growing numbers of travelers coming to the area, Louis thought that she should be getting paid for it. With the help of his kid brother Alister, he added on to the Staney Brae homestead a guest house with accommodation for twenty people and a large meeting room with a grand fireplace. This meeting house was used to host many guests, as well as Presbyterian church services, for other devout Scots. The brothers continued a small building business together, constructing many houses, boathouses and docks in the area. They were hired to build a new Presbyterian church, completed in 1903. While working on the building of the church, the Mackenzies paddled to and from the worksite across Lake Joseph every day. This likely contributed to Alister’s later success as a canoeing champion. Alister was coached in canoe racing by his brother Louis and they competed together in local regattas on the Muskoka Lakes between 1906 and 1911, having much success and winning the Commodore’s over-all championship at Port Carling in 1909.
In 1909 Alister began studies in Forestry at the University of Toronto. During his years at the University he had much athletic success; he won First Swimming Colours, was the Canadian Intercollegiate wrestling champion and the leader of the waterpolo team champions. Alister became a legend when he joined the Toronto canoe club; he was the single and double blade champion from 1911-1914. But it took him a while to get the credit he really deserved: the Dean Canoe Company advertised their Sunnyside model as the reason for his easy win in 1911, although they still would not give him a discount on a new canoe. So over the winter he designed and built his own canoe with his brother Louis. Though it met the C.C.A. regulations (not over 16” long, not less than 32” wide, not less than 12” deep) the canoe had a revolutionary V-shaped design. It was light and fast, and Alister had an easy win in 1912. The C.C.A. quickly changed its specs to outlaw the canoe, saying that a canoe had to be able to sit upright in the water unaided: MacKenzie’s canoe was very tippy and could not do so. This did not deter him though, and over the next winter he and Louis built another canoe, of similar design but wider in the middle so that it could sit upright. Alister went on to win the next two years with this canoe.
Word spread of his skill and he was invited to the Chicago World’s Fair, along with his partner Orville Elliot who shared the single blade tandem champion title with Mackenzie from 1911-1914. The pair had their expenses paid to go demonstrate canoe racing, as well as their adept skill of righting a tipped canoe during a race. Alister could do it in 3 seconds flat, without retaining a single drop of water, and continue with his race.
He became a legend in his own lifetime. People marveled how at the end of a long race he would arrive, lengths ahead of everyone else, and appear not even to be out of breath.
Perhaps his sporting career would have led him to even greater fame and acclaim, but World War I put a damper on sporting events nationwide. Wanting to do his duty, in 1915 Alister enlisted in the war as part of a unit with his class and team mates.
Later that same year, his elder brother Louis enlisted as well, and the two brothers got to see each other one last time. While in the trenches in France, Alister penned a few poems about the war. Though he did not call himself a poet, the verses give a vivid picture of what he and his fellow soldiers lived through, and show how much courage the young man had.
Yet, spite of all the noise and danger
and the lack of comfortable beds,
And the waste of time and money,
and the blood your country sheds,
Merely the chance of coming through it,
and of winning in the end,
Makes you feel it’s worth the risk,
and ready to meet what fate shall send.
Tragically, Alister Mackenzie was killed by a direct bomb hit at St. Eloi, Belgium, (Flanders) in April 1916.
His Legacy Lived On
Twelve years after his death, Alister’s nephew, Louis’ son Alexander, took up his uncle’s torch. Using Alistair’s last canoe, he competed in the International Double Blade single race at the Toronto Canoe Club Fall Regatta in 1928. He won the race by many lengths.
When he was given the trophy, he found that Alister’s name was on the same one already, four times.
Today even the most modern racing canoes, sleeker and shallower than those of bygone days, are modeled after Alister’s revolutionary design.
Addendum – both of Alister’s unique canoes are on display in the Marine room of the museum. In August of 2016 Alister’s double-bladed paddle – carefully preserved and restored — was donated to the museum by long-time Foot’s Bay cottagers David & Beverley Little, and is now on display alongside Alister’s canoes.
Be sure to come in to see this display during our 2017 season.
Thank you to Huntington Christie for the photos of Alister MacKenzie, and to former summer student Sarah Wardroper for writing the Alister MacKenzie article.