Back when he worked as a canoe guide in his native Quebec, one of Pierre Pépin’s most popular courses that he offered was called "paddling without getting a divorce." Now as Pépin and his wife, Jennifer Gosselin, prepare to wrap up a four-year, 8,800-mile canoeing odyssey across North America, the genial guide has surely achieved master's status.
The couple made headlines when they sold their all their possessions in 2014 and embarked on a 15-month canoe trip around eastern North America. That journey was promptly followed up with the second phase of their NorAm Odyssey, which started on the frozen surface of Lake Winnipeg last spring and traced the fur trade route west to northern Saskatchewan and Alberta. They wrapped up 2016 when winter caught up with them in October in northern British Columbia. Earlier this year they attempted to get a head start on the season, only to encounter massive snowfall in the Pacific Northwest.
Things have gone smoothly this summer, Pépin says, while they've paddled an eastbound course across the Canadian prairies and into Ontario, the heart of Canadian canoe country. By mid-October, the couple will re-enter the "real world" in Quebec City, with the goal of securing work to fund their next adventure. "That could be our greatest challenge," laughs Pépin.
A well-honed routine, anchored by steady 10-hour days and a rapid-fire, 60- to 70-stroke-per-minute paddling cadence, is the root of their success on the water. But that strictly physical reality will fade away back in the city. Pépin emphasizes that good communication, a sense of trust and mutual respect are the core of any paddling relationship—and a good recipe for success off the water too.
Living in a small space: "When you have a fight at home, it's too easy to go outside and mow the lawn or move to another room," says Pépin. "On a canoe trip, there's no lawn to mow. We made a promise to one another that we will deal with any disagreement immediately. Our rule is, we don't go into the tent until we've solved our problems together."
Communicate so you don't have to talk: It's all about finding a routine that works for both partners, and to do this you'll have to talk. But once Pépin and Gosselin found their groove, "We didn't have to talk or wait for one another," says Pépin. "I don't step on her feet and she doesn't step on mine. My job is to do the navigation and set up camp, she makes the tent and does the media stuff." With huge loads to carry over the portages, this type of orchestration is essential, Pépin emphasizes. "We make it go like clockwork."
However … Respect your differences: Initially, Pépin admits he was a bit miffed by the amount of time Gosselin took in setting up the tent. "Everything had to be just right," he says. "But up north, there were bears around. I had to reach for my rifle and it was right there, just where it needed to be."
Little tricks, part 1: As a former Olympic biathlon coach, efficiency is a big deal to Pépin. The couple swear by short, lightweight bent-shaft paddles. These paddles work best with a rapid stroke rate. "We easily cover 50 to 80 kilometers (30 to 50 miles) in a day," he says.
Little tricks, part 2: Pépin and Gosselin discovered early on that removing their canoe's spray deck for each portage was a huge waste of time. Instead, the pile "miscellaneous items" — maps, paddles and other small items—inside and carry the canoe in tandem, right-side up.
Dream big: "We talk to a lot about dreaming," says Pépin. "Right now, most people are living through their phones. Anything you want, you can get it right now. But that's not the real world. People are forgetting about what it means to have a passion and act on it. Put aside your little toys and think about what you really want to do. Your life is great—you don't need to live it through a computer."