Words by Conor Mihell // Photography by David Jackson
Cross-Canada paddler Mike Ranta takes a passive approach to canoe trip planning. That was photojournalist David Jackson's first impression last April as he prepared to join Ranta on an epic hike across the Canadian Rocky Mountains, with canoes in tow. "I told him, 'You know we're looking at an 800-kilometer [500-mile] portage, right?'" recalls Jackson, a C&K contributing photographer based in the Ottawa Valley. "He replied, 'No way, it's 400 K tops.' Then I guess he looked at the maps. A day later called me back and said, 'That first portage is gonna be a dirty one!' I remember thinking, how didn't he know that?"
So began what Jackson remembers as a "completely ridiculous" 30-day walk on the hinterland highways of northern British Columbia. "I don't look ahead. I just pick a route and go," admits Ranta. "I call it 'explorer's surprise.' I love that."
Jackson was also shocked by Ranta's expedition training regime, which consists primarily of "eating and fattening up." Ranta, the charismatic Canadian who has paddled across the continent three times, "goes against all logic you'd read in a health magazine," notes Jackson. "He doesn't take rest days. He smokes and drinks. He pushes hard" and, most impressively, "he doesn't give up."
Freak snowstorms and bitter cold, sub-zero temperatures set the tone for the trip. Jackson chuckles at the memories of campsites where Ranta kindled bone-warming bonfires in highway ditches. "You're pretty much always edging the line between camping and homelessness," he says. The pair routinely put in 25-mile days, though Jackson walked much farther in setting up photographs to document the suffering. "My toenails were dying and my whole body hurt," says Jackson.
Ranta developed agonizing shin splints after a week of hauling his canoe up and down the long, steep grades. "It was brutal," he says. "I've pulled a muscle here and there but nothing like that. [But] you gotta suck it up, princess. You can't afford to take a couple of days off.
"You get a fire going in the morning to warm up and away you go."
Finally, Ranta and Jackson reached Kinbasket Lake, a reservoir in the Columbia River watershed, near the Continental Divide. Upon reaching this milestone they were pinned down for four days by wind—an ominous sign of things to come. Eventually they got moving. For Jackson, these were "idyllic days." He remembers the big fires Ranta would light, torching the stumps of trees that died when the valley was flooded. Then came a final 75-mile walk, and they were into Alberta on Day 47."The mountains were our testing grounds," says Jackson. "You want to revel in the moment and be nostalgic about walking across mountains, but instead we were looking ahead. The trip was just getting started."
- Follow David Jackson on Instagram and see more of his work for C&K.
- Keep track of Mike Ranta's winter adventures on Facebook
- Read all of CanoeKayak.com's exclusive dispatches from Ranta's 2017 expedition, presented by COBRA ELECTRONICS: Across British Columbia; the Canadian Prairies; windy Lake Winnipeg; onto Lake Superior; and calling it quits