On a snowy February day in Toronto, I’m feeling inadequate standing at the podium in a high-school auditorium—not because of the 500 people in the audience, but for one larger than life man in the front row. Retired physicist George Luste founded the Wilderness Canoe Symposium 30 years ago as a way for paddlers to share stories of their northern expeditions and to inspire new trips. The event has the feel of a latter-day Beaver Club—the exclusive gang of fur-traders who explored and mapped Canada in the 18th and 19th century and gathered to chat about it in wintery Montreal.
Following in the paddle strokes of explorers David Thompson, Alexander Mackenzie and Samuel Hearne, Luste spent 55 summers traveling Canada’s far north. He immigrated to Canada from Latvia in 1948 and made his first canoe trip in 1963, a solo journey on Ontario’s Abitibi River. He completed a Ph. D. at Johns Hopkins University before returning to Canada in 1971 for a professorship at the University of Toronto.
Canoeing was Luste’s passion. He paddled Canada’s iconic wilderness rivers—the Missinaibi, Rupert, Eastmain, Kazan, Nahanni, Coppermine, Stikine, and George—often in the company of his wife, Linda, and their children. What’s more, he was part of a group that made the first complete descent of the Dubawnt River in the Canadian barrenlands, pioneered many other multi-watershed routes, and was amongst the last to paddle Labrador’s Grand River before a massive hydroelectric project was completed at Churchill Falls.
Described as a “pillar” of the Toronto-based Wilderness Canoe Association, Luste fought for free-flowing rivers and environmental values across Canada’s canoe country. Over the years, he amassed a huge collection of historic and contemporary books focused on northern travel, which he displayed and sold at the annual symposium. And so Luste’s legend grew as he inspired the canoe-tripping dreams of multiple generations. He struggled with a terminal illness for three years, but it didn’t soften the blow of his passing on March 21 for the community he helped develop.
It seems fitting that I first met George and Linda at Cascade Falls in Pukaskwa National Park, the most remote place on the north shore of Lake Superior. While I stood at the mike, speaking about my most recent canoe expedition in Quebec, I’m not sure Luste remembers that brief encounter. He nods as I flip slides and smiles at my jokes as I share the sort of wilderness experiences he knows oh so well. Finally, I feel privileged when Luste shakes my hand and offers me a bundle of titles from his wilderness library as a gift. But mostly I feel fortunate to have met him, welcomed in his community, and committed to keeping his dreams alive.
Watch George Luste speak about the Wilderness Canoe Symposium below.