One aspect of the Manawatu’s environmental history which I completely neglected in my book Ravaged Beauty: an environmental history of the Manawatu, was recreational canoeing on the Manawatu River. Yet I have since discovered that it had a most illustrious history, according to Murray Fyfe’s history of recreational canoeing in New Zealand, published in 1972.
Indeed, Fyfe describes the Palmerston North canoe club as “the strongest racing club in New Zealand”, and traces its foundation to 1906, when a 16 year old enthusiast, the lyrically named Davie Dilks, organised a canoe race from the Fitzherbert Bridge to the sea at Foxton. Three crews competed in the race, completing the 55 mile course in just over six hours. And in case anyone suggests this was an easy course, Fyfe reassures us that it was a “good test of seamanship as well as endurance” and “included almost all types of hazards including rapids, shingle banks, logs, snagsand long stretches of open water on the five miles which is usually chopped up badly by onshore head winds.”
The race did not become an annual event until 16 years later, from 1922, and then ceased with the outbreak of the Second World War. However, it was revived again by Davies after the war, and in 1947 Davies founded the Palmerston North Canoe Club, with the Palmerston to Foxton race its most celebrated event. Club activities continued to be centred on the Manawatu River until 1954, when the Club was granted the use of an old army hut on the Centennial (Hokowhitu) Lagoon, a lagoon once prized by Rangitane for its eels and waterfowl. When the club moved in, it immediately set about clearing the raupo from around the lagoon and setting up a 200 metre course. (Both Fyfe and Ian Matheson describe the lagoon and the surrounding land as a “neglected wilderness”, when, in the 1940s, the city council bought the lagoon. To facilitate boating, the council set about geligniting waterlogged stumps, presumably of ancient swamp forest, out of the water.)
The club headquarters remains on the Lagoon today, where it continues to flourish. Not so, its races on the river itself though – I suspect that there have been few canoe races or events on the river for many years. It would be interesting to discover why – and whether the deteriorating quality of its waters was a factor. Disappointingly, I was not able to find a historical photograph of canoeing on the river – or indeed the lagoon – but I did find this charming photograph of a lady boating on the Karere lagoon in about 1905, around the time that Davie Dilks was organising the Manawatu’s first river race.