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Continental Flow

Sun., Nov. 16, 2008

Sandpoint paddler leaves wake across North America

Adventure has been a long-term investment for Bob Rust.

Working as a family physician in Sandpoint, the 65-year-old kayaking enthusiast hasn’t been able to devote a full summer to the long-distance expeditions he craves. But that didn’t stop him from paddling across North America.

This summer, Rust solo paddled 466 miles over 13 days in Canada to complete the final stretch of an eight-year, 2,900-mile quest to link the Columbia, Saskatchewan, Nelson and other rivers and reservoirs from the Pacific Ocean to Hudson Bay.

This latest journey delivered the challenges and rewards Rust had come to expect. For example, he:

•Paddled as much as 60 miles a day when weather and current cooperated.

•Capsized twice in high winds on Lake Winnipeg.

•Learned to be at peace with swarms of mosquitoes.

•Took a 24-hour layover at The Pas to rest tired muscles, heal abrasions and revel in the history of the fur trade while enjoying a museum and party boat tour of historical sites.

•Used GPS to navigate the complicated braids of the Saskatchewan River delta as it drains into Cedar Lake.

•Met native fishermen and a few other river dwellers, but no other paddlers on the route.

•Absorbed the peacefulness of sunsets at campsites on lonesome roadless shorelines, and savored wildlife encounters ranging from wolves to clouds of gulls and pelicans.

This year’s segment required paddling from Nipawin, starting July 25 on the Saskatchewan River, to Norway House, on the Nelson River as it drains Lake Winnipeg to Hudson’s Bay.

Rust didn’t dawdle. He started by paddling the length of Tobin Lake, taking advantage of good weather to blitz a direct course down the middle for 37 miles rather than taking the rough-weather option of hugging the winding shoreline.

Then he portaged around Manitoba Hydro’s Gebhardt Dam and paddled another 23 miles before finding a campsite on the rugged shoreline.

Wise to the whims of regulated rivers, he pulled his kayak up the bank about 4 feet in elevation above the river. Indeed, water releases from the dam brought the river up 3 feet during the night.

“The longest days weren’t necessarily the toughest days,” Rust recalled. “The hardest part was the three days it took to go across Lake Winnipeg.”

Battling wind and passing cliffs that left few options for going to shore for any reason, the ordeal had good helpings of exhaustion and danger.

A day that started warm and sunny was sullied abruptly after 10 miles by high winds that capsized his kayak. Prudently, he had been traveling close to shore. and luckily he had only a hundred yards of tall grass to navigate into the safety of a small lagoon.

“My gear was wet but intact, everything always being tied down,” he said.

“Some crashes are timely. In less than a mile, I would have been entering a four-mile crossing with no protection or shore. But after 6 hours the wind and waves subsided, and the crossing was easy.”

The next day, he waited on shore most of the morning before trying a test run into the open waters, where the winds and swells of the big lake beat him back to camp.

Later he launched fully loaded, but eventually overwhelmed by whitecaps and three-foot swells. Soon, he was swimming again.

One of the two pontoons he’d rigged on the boat after leaving the Saskatchewan River for the big lake crossings had broken off. At least the remaining pontoon helped stabilize the boat for reentry, but the waves were coming with such force, he couldn’t pump water out of the cockpit. He had to slog to shore half submerged.

“This time the Pelican case leaked, ruining his wife’s favorite camera,” he said.

The situation wasn’t as desperate as it could have been, since the summertime water temperatures in the shallow Canadian waters were around 72 degrees.

Nevertheless, the last day involved more white-knuckle paddling and a lot of prayers, he said.

“For three days in a row, I made non-stop six-hour stints where I couldn’t get out of the boat,” he said.

Rust wasn’t totally isolated on the trip. He rendezvoused with his wife, Marian, or friend and shuttle car drivers Patrick Tormey and Howard Petschel every four days or so. He carried a satellite phone to communicate with his team. He passed small towns along the rivers and portaged past hydro dams.

“But it gets your heart rate up a little to be soloing through whitecaps and swells where there’s no easy access to shore,” he said.

Rust timed his trip to conclude with the York Boat Days, a sort of Olympic Games for the Cree Nation in big row boats with eight oarsmen. Being a spectator is a fine conclusion to such a rigorous trip.

Rust’s wife introduced him to kayaking in 1998. He joined the Spokane Canoe & Kayak Club and hooked up with local paddling guru and history buff Pat Harbine, who was planning trips totaling 1,375 miles to trace the early 1800s routes of David Thompson, fur trader for the Hudson’s Bay Co.

In 2005, Rust took a year off from his cross-continent goal to join Ted Lowe of Spokane in a tandem kayak to complete the Yukon River Quest, a three-day, 470-mile race from Whitehorse to Dawson.

Setting his sights on following Thompson’s route across North America, Rust paddled with his son and other companions as he could find them to link his route.

“I enjoy seeing new country,” he said. “After getting as far as Edmonton, the challenge to finish was one that couldn’t be ignored.”

He also hiked over Howse and Athabaska passes, the routes Thompson used to cross the Rocky Mountains.

After a decade, his thirst for river adventure hasn’t been quenched.

“Thompson covered 80,000 miles in his time, and my 2,900 miles across the continent doesn’t seem like much in comparison,” he said.

The next quest promised to be more relaxed, as said, noting that he’s looking for potential paddling partners to follow the Northwest Fur Company’s route to Montreal.

“The Grassy River route to Churchill on Hudson’s Bay is supposed to have caribou and good fishing,” he said.

Second in a series about local adventurers who launched outstanding summer trips.


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