This story featured in the 2012 July issue.
By Dan Blessing
Marc and I were leading 22-day Outward Bound expeditions when we started talking about an outlandishly longer expedition—from Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean. Two years later, Marc built the birch-bark canoe to carry us the 4,000 miles across North America.
Marc forged hand tools and harvested bark, roots, and timber for this masterpiece of traditional boat building. He stretched birch bark over cedar gunwales and lashed it with spruce roots. Meanwhile, I gardened, hunted, dehydrated vegetables and venison, and gathered dried goods and recycled gear. By spring, we were equipped with a half-ton load that would allow us to travel 2,100 miles, more than halfway to the ocean, without resupply.
We launched in May Grand Portage, Lake Superior with seven packs, each over 100 pounds. Every mile forward required nine miles of strenuous shuttling. We were inching toward the Pacific, learning quickly how to care for our vessel. Each morning of the expedition we reheated a sealant compound of bear fat, tree sap, and ash to manipulate into fresh cracks in the hull.
In early June, we reached Lake Winnipeg, where our craft handled the notoriously big and violent waters well, covering 30-plus miles in a day without unloading the canoe. However, finishing the downright luxurious, portage-free lake crossing meant the start of a grueling 1,400-mile, three-month upstream trudge toward the Continental Divide.
We spent much of July wading as we ascended the Saskatchewan, Sturgeon-Weir, Churchill, and La Loche rivers, crossed the 13-mile Methy Portage, and reached the crux of our route—677 miles up the Athabasca River from Fort McMurray to Jasper. We waded, swam, portaged, and lined. August became September, only paddling 10 of 55 days, and not once for the first 100 miles.
We thought we were following the footsteps of fur-trading legend David Thompson. It turns out that no traders (or anyone else that we can determine) had canoed upstream between Fort McMurray and Athabasca Landing, opting for a southern route that bypasses the first 100-mile stretch of rapids. We hadn’t done our research. We missed our turn by hundreds of miles. And unknowingly we embarked on the most rigorous, yet rewarding detour of our lives.
One of us towed the boat from a 100-foot bowline, struggling to make progress against 12 mph current while the other played ropes like a puppeteer, manipulating the bow and stern around obstacles. Together we inched the boat up the Athabasca at 1 mph.
In October, we left the river’s glacially fed waters, and climbed toward Athabasca Pass on feet riddled with cold injuries. I was elated. The pass signified success. Freeze-up was no longer a threat. For the first time since conceiving this trip, we knew we could make it.
We bushwhacked down the western side of the Rockies and met the Columbia River. Only 1,000 miles and 13 dams to the sea. Crossing the final dam, a sea lion surfaced. We paddled in the shadows of sterns reading Panama and Hong Kong. We rode and fought the tides. And on November 26, seven months later, we reached the sea at Cape Disappointment, touching birch bark to saltwater.
— In 2010 Dan Blessing and Marc VanGrinsven, both 31, paddled from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean in a birch-bark canoe. Visit Paddleforsustainability.org for more photos, video, and stories from the expedition.