The Hard Way to the Big Easy
Inside Dominique Liboiron’s inspired 3,300-mile, cross-continental epic
By Conor Mihell
Last June, Canadian Dominique Liboiron launched his canoe in the waters of the Frenchman River in Eastend, Saskatchewan. Eight months later, Liboiron became the first person to paddle from Saskatchewan to New Orleans via the Frenchman, Milk, Missouri and Mississippi rivers. But it wasn’t the lure of pioneering a new 3,270-mile cross-continental route that inspired him to make the expedition. Rather, it was the memory of his favorite uncle Michel Hamon, who died of a heart attack in 2010 at the age of only 42.
Back in 1992, Uncle Mitch made his own journey to New Orleans, spending a few days in the Big Easy and falling in love with Cajun culture. Mitch returned to Canada, says Liboiron, but his spirit never came back. In a small town in Saskatchewan, Mitch started a Cajun catering company and hosted a radio program called “Mardi Gras Mambo.” When he passed away, Liboiron decided the best way to honor his uncle would be to make a canoe trip south with a vial of Mitch’s ashes.
On January 28, 2013, Liboiron met his family on the dock at Jackson Square. Two days later, they spread Mitch’s remains in the Mississippi. “Then we washed the ashes off our hands with the river’s water,” blogged Liboiron. “The overtones were of baptism and of entering a church.”
CanoeKayak.com: Tell us a bit about what Uncle Mitch meant to you.
Dominique Liboiron: My uncle Mitch was my hero. He had a profound influence on me because he taught me how to be a better person and how to live life well.
Why did you decide to do a canoe trip in his honor?
There were several reasons. I wanted to remember his life and carrying his ashes to New Orleans was an excellent way to do that because Mitch loved New Orleans. My uncle died of a heart attack in 2010 when he was only 42 and so I wanted to raise awareness about heart disease. I thought that a canoe trip nobody had ever been done before would attract attention to the cause. Also, I had dreamed of canoeing from Saskatchewan to New Orleans for over 10 years. After my uncle died, I knew I would never have a better reason to make my dream come true.
Why the Mississippi? Is there a connection between your French Canadian roots and Southern Cajun country?
My uncle visited New Orleans and South Louisiana in 1992. He loved it. Being French Canadian, he found that Cajun culture was similar to his own, especially with its appreciation of food, music and parties. After his trip, he returned to Canada and started his own Cajun catering company, he also hosted a Cajun music show on the radio. The trip left a lasting impression on him and he talked about it often and always with great passion. I felt that my uncle’s ashes belonged in a place he loved so much.
You’ve had some diverse experiences, from traveling around the world to living in a canvas tent. How did the trip on the Mississippi compare?
It was the most profound experience of my life. It evolved the way I live in ways I never imagined. I think this is because the trip was so many things at once, a wilderness adventure, a pilgrimage and a lofty goal that took many months of hard work to achieve.
What are some of your favorite memories of the trip?
I often think about the exhilaration I felt when I canoed through the Chain of Rocks rapids in St. Louis. It was the biggest rush of the entire journey. Successfully canoeing through Lake Oahe felt great. That lake is 230 miles long and I canoed half of it at night under the full moon. It was crazy. I also enjoyed being challenged by the weather, the wind, the current. I like that they brought the best out in me.
What were the people like along the way?
The people I met along the way were outstanding. One lady in South Dakota gave me the keys to her car so I could get groceries. There are lots of other people who went way above and beyond to help me. I made lots of friends and keep in touch with them.
What did if feel like to reach New Orleans and spread your uncle’s ashes?
I felt a range of emotions. My family and I went to Lafayette Park and held a ceremony there. It was sad to be reminded that my uncle was no longer alive, but we also felt a deep appreciation for how he made our lives better. I felt a mixture of sadness and gratitude. I also felt satisfied I had thanked him for everything he did for me and that I had honored his life.
Click HERE to watch more scenes (like the one below) from Liboiron’s canoe trip to New Orleans, or HERE to check out the CBS News segment below, shot upon his arrival in the Big Easy. Liboiron’s expedition recently earned him a nomination for the Canoe & Kayak Awards‘ 2013 Spirit of Adventure Award. Click HERE to vote and see the rest of the nominees.