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Paddling Across North America

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Dr. Rust and friend Dr. Rust and friend

466 Miles of Man and Oars

Dr. Bob Rust, Sandpoint family physician, paddled his kayak solo from Nipawin (Saskatchewan, Canada), on the Saskatchewan River to Norway House (Manitoba, Canada), on the Nelson River as it drains Lake Winnipeg to Hudson’s Bay. The journey started July 25 and he reached Norway House August 6, covering 466 miles.

Leaving Nipawin, Tobin Lake’s 37 miles were covered quickly, as good weather and minimal waves allowed a straight course, instead of following the lake’s edge, where uncut trees and debris could make landing in a storm very dangerous, if not impossible. Tree removal wasn’t done when Manitoba Hydro’s Gebhardt Dam was built in the late ‘60s.

Putting in below the dam, Rust made another 23 miles before finding a campsite. He reports pulling the boat 4 feet above the waterline. It was just enough, as water release from the dam raised the river 3 feet that night.

The trip’s highlight was receiving a boat visit the next morning with coffee and cookies offered by Rene Cariere and daughter, just after passing their home and cabins at Big Eddy on the Saskatchewan River. Husband Solomon Cariere is a world-renowned canoe racer and hunting guide, currently preparing for the Iditarod dog race next year. Big Eddy is their year-round home, isolated in ice for over six months. At the end of the day, Rust’s friends and drivers, Howard Petschel and Patrick Tormey, were waiting at Cumberland House with a hot meal and soft bed. In each section they would drive ahead, waiting for the tired paddler. Communication was excellent, facilitated by two satellite phones.

Next morning’s tour of the small Cree Indian town was a disappointment, as far as historical sites. A small cairn is all that remains of the historic site of Hudson’s Bay Company’s first inland trading post erected in 1775 by Samuel Hearn to compete with Montreal based traders who were diverting the flow of furs from the edge of the bay. David Thompson, fur trader and cartographer, broke his leg at Manchester House on the Saskatchewan River, visited by Rust and Tormey on their 600 mile journey down the river from Edmonton to Nipawin in 2006. From there Thompson was transported by canoe to Cumberland House and nursed back to health by Chief Factor Wm. Tomlinson. During his recovery, Phillip Turner, trained him in navigation with sextant, which allowed him to map Canada and walls continue the northeastern top of the lake. A man made two-mile channel just past the granite saves travelers another 60 miles to get to the natural entrance to Playgreen Lake. The goal for this day was to get to the end of the spit, but fatigue and a beautiful camp spot on a ledge above a sandy beach was too attractive. The evening was quiet and scenic, leaving the paddler to commune with nature.

Nature intervened again the next day. It was cloudy, but just swells and no whitecaps, so the paddler ventured forth into two- and three-foot swells. A west wind brought tricky swells from behind and whitecaps and dumped the paddler. The weight had got away from the remaining pontoon and it flipped, but helped stabilize for reentry to the boat. The waves kept filling the boat, pumping was futile, and there was still a bit of beach left. This time the Pelican case leaked, ruining his wife’s favorite camera. Luckily, the satellite phone still worked, as it was in a plastic bag. The bag may have got into the edge, keeping the case from sealing properly. With camp set up and the weather calming, it still wasn’t a good time to leave. The trip to the two-mile channel was 28 miles, and making it at night with nowhere to land except on the granite rock walls where the waves were crashing, didn’t seem like a good option. Progress would have to wait.

Monday, August 4 was cloudy. There were swells of two to three feet, but no whitecaps. Twenty-eight miles, and no stopping this time. The banks and granite walls curved steadily around the top of the lake, making the scenery pretty monotonous. The paddling was anything but. A steady increase in waves and wind from the west scared up a few whitecaps, worrying the paddler. Managing the following waves with one pontoon was tricky. Waves washed over the boat as it got sideways. Prayers followed and the winds calmed. With the wind and waves at the back, the safety of the channel was reached in five-and-a-half hours. With much relief.

A two-hour break for a hot meal was just what the doctor ordered after nearly six straight hours of paddling. Refreshed, he decided to go on to Norway House, another 32 miles. A little squall on Playgreen Lake was going on, but without the big swells, wasn’t nearly as challenging as Lake Winnipeg. An absolutely gorgeous sunset with quiet paddling capped the day of paddling through the pelican- and seagull-covered islands of Playgreen Lake. The camper was visible at dusk, perched high on a bluff overlooking the lake. Home sweet home!

Norway House is a town of 5,000. Fishing and the Canadian government are the main sources of income. Once a year York Boat Days are celebrated, commemorating the fur trade vessels that transported trade goods from York Factory on Hudson’s Bay up the Hayes River and the Saskatchewan River, and furs back to the bay and via ship to England’s top hat makers. On the 2007 canoe trip down the Hayes River there was a lot of evidence of logs used to portage a York boat that was part of a CBC documentary eight years ago.

Now the races are the Cree Nation’s Olympics. Prizes are up to $25,000 for the top professional boats, which consist of a steersman, coxswain, and eight oarsmen. There are divisions for teens, men, women, and co-ed. Canoes, including 28-foot voyageur canoes, are also raced. Rust’s trip was scheduled so as to enjoy the celebration, including a local parade.

The drivers had been waiting a couple of days and were anxious to leave. They had picked up last year’s canoes that had been shipped to Thompson, then driven back to Norway House. After a final celebratory steak dinner, the camper was pointed west. One final paddle was done on Abraham Lake, just east of the Rockies, which had been skipped on the trip Rust and his wife made from Saskatchewan Crossing to Edmonton in 2004 with the Spokane Kayak Club. This completed the last few miles of Rust’s journey from the Pacific Coast to York factory from 2000-2008.

I introduced my husband, Bob, to kayaking in 1998. We paddled with Pat Harbine, guru paddler and David Thompson history buff, and the Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club on our round trip “David Thompson Expedition-2000” from Bonner’s Ferry to Kootenai Lake and to the Columbia River and upstream to its source at Columbia Lake, then back down the Columbia to Bonners Ferry again.

The group’s next trip was from Sacajawea Park in Tri-Cities, where the Snake River enters the Columbia, to Astoria, Ore., following Thompson’s 1811 route down that river, and return trip to his winter quarters in Thompson Falls, Montana (Salish House). After a few two-day to five-day trips on the Columbia, the entire 1,375 mile route had been traveled, and Rust and friends also hiked the Rocky Mountain passes - Howse and Athabaska - that David Thompson used. Athabaska Pass was the main east-west fur trade route until the 1860s.

was the Spokane Club’s last trip was in 2004. Rust and one of the club’s members, Ted Lowe took a year off in 2005 to paddle the Yukon River Quest, a three-day, 470-mile race from Whitehorse to Dawson. Setting his sights on following Thompson’s route across North America, Rust did from Edmonton to Nipawin in ’06, Norway House to York Factory in ’07, and completed the voyage this year. “I enjoy seeing new country. After getting as far as Edmonton, the challenge to finish was one that couldn’t be ignored.”

And what’s next? “I would enjoy completing the Northwest Fur Company’s route to Montreal, but maybe a little more relaxed, less intense version. Andy Denholm, who paddled with us down the Hayes River, did it from Rocky Mountain House in one summer. I’d like to see more animals, too. Seeing wolves on the Saskatchewan River was a special treat. The Grassy River route to Churchill on Hudson’s Bay is supposed to have caribou and good fishing. Thompson covered 80,000 miles in his time, and my twenty-nine hundred across the continent doesn’t seem like much in comparison.”

“Anyone interested?” he added with a smile.

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