Celebrating his high school graduation wasn't reason enough for Canadian Alex Martin to embark on a 1,100-mile sea kayak expedition around the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world. The 18-year-old Manitoba resident is concerned about the health of his beloved Lake Winnipeg, the immense hourglass-shaped body of water where he discovered the joy of paddlesports as a youngster. To raise awareness of threats to the lake, which range from agricultural runoff to invasive species, Martin dreamed up an impressive expedition that combined adventure with an emphatic message to the public to work together to save the Canadian Prairies' greatest lake.
For five weeks Martin immersed himself in the diversity of his favorite body of water, experiencing the sheer wilderness of the lake's remote "northern basin" and visiting several First Nations communities along the way. We caught up with the young adventure/activist to learn more about his experiences and expectations.
Related: Cross-Canada voyageur Mike Ranta runs into wind on Lake Winnipeg
CanoeKayak.com: Why did you decide to paddle around Lake Winnipeg? What is it that draws you to this lake?
Alex Martin: My goal was to raise awareness for water stewardship. I consider Lake Winnipeg to be my home waters; it's where I not only learned all of my watersports, but where I trained and improved them as well. Lake Winnipeg has faced a number of environmental impacts in the last decade, and I found that these issues were driving people away from the waters. I wanted to promote water stewardship as well as promote outdoor recreation on the lake.
One of the reasons I've always liked Lake Winnipeg is because of the diversity. You can go from cottage country to wilderness in a few kilometers. One of the islands I frequently paddle around takes me out of cell service and is completely exposed to the lake without a cottage in sight, yet it's only a half-hour paddle from cottage country. I absolutely love that.
The north basin is an even better representation of the diversity. In the same day you can be paddling along a long sand beach then limestone cliff walls and then long island chains. It's incredibly beautiful. That's some of the experiences that many people don't get to have, and I was happy to be able to share these memorable opportunities. That was a big part of this trip-rekindling people's admiration for the lake.
Why was the summer of 2018 the right time to do a circumnavigation?
First and foremost, being 18 years old and having just graduated high school made this an ideal summer to kayak the lake on a trip that had been planned to take two months. I had no commitments and didn't have to worry about vacation days from work or school. It also worked that I could do presentations about the trip at my high school before setting off.
The second thing is Lake Winnipeg continues to deteriorate environmentally. We've come to a point where water quality has begun to drive people away from visiting the lake. This trip was just as much about encouraging recreation on the lake as it was about water stewardship, and the summer of 2018 presented itself as what may become a turning point for this lake. Zebra mussels are increasing in numbers along the beaches and algae continues to act to dissuade people from going to the lake. Naturally, I had issues with these environmental impacts, but was still able to enjoy the lake by kayak. I hope that the take away from this trip is that enjoyment on the lake is still readily available and that working toward long-time sustainability should be a goal.
What did you think would be your biggest challenge on the trip?
Lake Winnipeg is infamous for unpredictable weather patterns and bad storms. One of my biggest challenges was paddling sections of exposed shoreline with little knowledge on certain areas. The north basin features a large amount of shoreline that isn't frequently traveled--let alone mapped out or surveyed. Local beta only extends so far, so most of my remote locations were surveyed using Google Earth and my topo maps. That worked great for places with limestone cliffs and rocky shorelines where I would use satellite images to find sandy campsites. However, the top of the north basin is a large 80-kilometer-long (50-mile-long) mud and sand beach, where erosion has wreaked havoc on the shoreline. High water in recent years has resulted in an unstable shoreline which changes come high water and waves. My run over the north basin had to be made quickly because of the exposure. I did have one day that was rather precarious, but I actually preferred waves and wind always to flat conditions. The toughest days were the boring, calm days. Flat water is tough on the mind, especially for hours on end.
What sort of message did you want to share about Lake Winnipeg?
I think that there were a lot of messages that my trip promoted--water stewardship, outdoor recreation, promoting volunteerism for youth. I didn't really want to try and drive home a certain message, I wanted people to find their own connection to my trip. I still try and promote water stewardship in every interview I do, but I don't want people to say "I've never been to Lake Winnipeg so I don't care." That's why I try to keep it general. If you're from around Lake Winnipeg or its watershed, great! Connect with my trip and the lake directly. If you're from a paddling group in Taiwan, connect with the joy of paddling. I wanted my message to reach outside of the shorelines of the lake. I hope people hear about my trip and try to help their home waters or adventure out and go on the trip of a lifetime.
Did the trip live up to your expectations? What was your favorite part?
Definitely! I sometimes wish it had lasted longer, but I'm happy to be back and focusing in on trips for this fall and another big trip next summer. I went into this trip with an open mind, and I feel that really paid off. Every day was a wonderful experience. It's an absolute thrill to have lived out my dream and there's no other way I would have wanted to spend my summer.
My favorite part was definitely visiting Asatiwisipe Aki (Poplar River First Nation). I had the pleasure of visiting Asatiwisipe Aki during the summer of 2017, and returning to the community was one of the best parts of my trip. In January of 2018, I had reached out to the Chief and Council to ask permission to visit the community and they responded with an enthusiastic welcome into the community. I was incredibly touched to be able to visit and spend time in the community. Asatiwisipe Aki is incredibly welcoming and I was overjoyed to be able to visit again. During my trip, Pimachiowin Aki, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was inscribed. Poplar River is one of the communities that worked to make this happen, and I'm so happy to have been able to visit Pimachiowin Aki, it's a beautiful part of Canada and one of my favorite places to paddle.
What pieces of gear were critical for your success?
Garmin inReach device was definitely a key component to the trip. The trip was really driven on a strong social media presence so it was nice to be able to post to Facebook and MapShare. There were a lot of people who were following along on the map which was cool to have as a live feed through the inReach. Having no reception on the lake also meant that it was my go-to device to stay in contact with my parents. I organized food drops and communicated about weather patterns with them through the device-the ability to do so was substantial. It also allowed people to reach out to me. Many people offered places to stay, food to eat, or warm, friendly messages.
I used the MSR Guardian Purifier as my water filtration system for the trip, which was one of my best gear choices. I had a few days with very poor water conditions in remote locations; it was nice to rely on the Guardian to guarantee my ongoing health. Falling ill on my trip would have been a massive issue which, thankfully, didn't happen.
I carried a Record Single Shot Launcher, blanks, and bear bangers and screamers. One of the most frequent questions I received was "Are you concerned about wildlife?" (Or, more accurately, "WHAT ABOUT THE BEARS?!"). I had reached out to a lot of companies looking for suggestions. I couldn't resort to talking loudly to myself for the duration of the trip, nor did I want to carry a gun. I have never been a fan of pepper spray, and certainly not for most of the lake where I would potentially be spraying into a side-shore wind on a ten-foot wide stretch of beach. I wanted something that would be effective at both short and long range. I wanted to find a bear banger that would be more reliable and durable than a pen-style launcher, but not as large as a 9 mm handgun. The Record Single Shot Launcher with 200 blanks, 50 bangers, and 50 screamers, fit into a waterproof case that was the same size as a can of pepper spray. I cut down the blanks, bangers, and screamers to a fifth of what I had ordered and was able to pack it all into a waterproof container that fit into my lifejacket. I ended up using the bangers on three occasions. All this said, I suppose I should list my voice as an essential piece of gear. I saw nine black bears and wolves almost every day in the north basin, but my off-key rendition of certain Stan Rogers songs seems to have done the trick at keeping the wildlife well into the bush!
I think one of the strangest items I brought along was an old iPod Nano. There were some days that I wouldn't hear a single voice or see anyone, not even a plane. That's all fine and good for a day or two, but after a while you start to question your sanity. It was nice to have a way to play music and listen to the sounds of people's voices. Critical for my success? No. Critical for my wellbeing? I'd say so, yeah.
What’s next? Are you going to post-secondary school and/or what are your career aspirations?
I was accepted into an undergraduate program at a university in western Canada for fall of 2018, but I deferred to the 2019 school year. When I was 16, I completed a university training and licensing program for arborists. I've turned that previously part-time job into a full time job this fall until I take off for overseas travel in the winter which, rest assured, will include a more than healthy amount of kayaking. I'm currently a certified arborist and a tree climber, but my goal is to work as an urban gorester in a government role working to promote the continued appreciation of green spaces within the urban landscape.
Read more stories about Paddling for the Environment at CanoeKayak.com:
-- Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
-- Paddlers on the front lines of the Dakota Access pipeline
-- Check out the Paddling with Purpose award at the Canoe & Kayak Awards